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Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue Congress, Bilbao-2005

@ Charanjit AjitSingh
Conflicts among traditions and reasons behind them

In this paper, Charanjit AjitSingh, from her perspective as a Sikh, examines how our views and perceptions about the other could be the factors that may cause conflict amongst individuals and groupings within religious and other traditions. The presentation also includes exploration of changing attitudes for improving our understanding of the other by improving our own awareness of reasons behind conflicts.

It is indeed a great privilege for me to attend this conference and to have this opportunity of sharing my thoughts with you.

Those of you who may have had the opportunity to attend any of the conflict resolution or management courses would know that their starting point is that conflict is inevitable. There are bound to be different points of view among individuals and as organisations and communities are made up of individuals, differences may be there. Conflict, in the context of traditions, may not only be the opposition between ideas but also incompatible wishes or impulses, leading to emotional tension and antagonism.

As I try to think further about the issue of conflict among traditions and the reasons behind them, the newspapers I usually read have recent headline news about the Al-Qaeda calling the Queen in the United Kingdom as the enemy of Islam and the many cities and towns in France have been put under curfew due to the rioting and burning of vehicles by some young Muslims who may feel disenfranchised and having concerns about racism and inequality. The Church of England has endorsed the shoot-to-kill policy being operated by the Metropolitan police against suspected suicide bombers. A respected Sunday paper carried the title’ Thou shalt Kill: church backs shooting bombers,’ because of their concern for safety after the 7/7 terrorist bombings in London. It just begs the question, how terrorist activities are changing the doctrine of the church that we are prepared to tinker with or give up the key principles on which Christianity was established because of pressure from the police and other authorities.

At the same time we are more aware that ordinary people want to go about their everyday business in relative peace and security. The world’s longing for peace is getting more intense, as we encounter more conflicts because of our increasing access to and the use of new communications devices, which are also being used by those who create and sustain conflicts. The use of cyber technology, mobile phones, Emails, websites and other faster means are being used both by the proponents of peace and the propagators of conflict to sustain their efforts. Yet as a student of history, I have studied that conflict is not new, neither is our yearning for peace.

I am immediately reminded of the writings of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith whose birthday was celebrated in mid-November by the Sikhs worldwide with tremendous devotion because he instilled in people the love of the divine and the love of humanity, encouraging people to respect each other by overcoming the barriers of race, colour, creed, gender and social status, over five hundred years ago. What is particularly significant is that he saw what an invader could do to the town he was staying in. The devastation was heavy, the town razed to the ground, thousands massacred, women humiliated and enslaved and carried as booty along with cartable riches such as gold, silver and diamonds. Guru Nanak went as far as challenging God about His compassion. He says:

(Babar the Mughal)Took Khorasan and struck terror in Hindustan(India)
O, Creator of all things, why you take no blame?
You sent Yama, the messenger of death in the guise of the Mughal
Terrible was the slaughter, loud the cries of the terrorised
Did you not feel pity, O Lord?

You are the Creator of all
If a strong one attacks an equally strong
Then how can there be a grievance?
But when a fierce lion preys upon the helpless cattle
Then the shepherd must explain.

The kingdom that was a priceless jewel
Has been laid waste and no one attends to the dead
Praise be to God, who joins and who divides!

The person who calls himself big
And revels in pleasures to his heart’s desire
In the eyes of the Lord is the same as the insect who feeds on corn.
One who learns to let go the ego and prays, receives the divine.
(GGSp 360)

In another hymn Guru Nanak describes vividly how women who led their lives in palaces have been mistreated, what to say of the ordinary folk who had little protection:

Those beauties who adorned gilded sofas
Are now dragged away with ropes round their necks
Their necklaces are snapped and their pearls scattered
Their assets of beauty and wealth have turned their enemies
Barbarous soldiers have taken them prisoner and disgraced them….
Desecration and desolation follow in the footsteps of the Mughal
No one in Hindustan can eat food in peace.
GGS p 417

One wonders if people have learnt any lessons since those hymns were written. In our newspapers and on our television sets, any reporting of conflict shows devastation, desecration and denial of dignity and decency to human beings from both sides. The scale, however, is much greater and covers huge areas and numbers and the pain suffered intensified and longer-lasting because of the types of weapons used. The situation described by Guru Nanak was the invasion of a Muslim on another Muslim, whose Hindu and Muslim subjects were persecuted; one tradition of Islam conquering the area of another.

In our present world, particularly in the metropolitan areas in the west and in Europe people belonging to different ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural traditions live side by side and generally peacefully but on the promotion of racial justice and reducing inequalities there may be different viewpoints and sensitivities, which can sometime erupt in conflict. A report produced by the Runnymede Trust in 2000 on ‘The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain’, promoted a vision of a pluralist Britain. It gives a very detailed airing to the sort of Britain we may all aspire to. However, in pluralistic communities and for that matter in any community, how we view the other has a deep effect on community relations, development and cohesion.

Our perceptions and in many ways our historical memories makes us react in a particular way. A recent study of the ‘Jewish holocaust’ victims and their descendents show that over a period that memory becomes part of our genetic memory too and the retelling of those stories may perpetuate that memory. Many of you would remember the recent commemorations of the two World Wars of the 20th century on 11th November. We were recently told that there are 37000 war memorials in Britain and countless worldwide and in Europe. How can we deal with new challenges without analysing what is it that causes conflict. Here, I am not taking causes of wars or other conflict situations of a particular period but I would like to dwell on some of the key factors which affect our view of the other and which may cause conflict. Using the Parekh Report, it can be described as a restricted or closed view of the other . Some of its key features are the following:

  1. Monolithic/ Intractable View of the other
    The other is seen as a single monolithic block, static and unresponsive to new realities. From my own religious tradition for example, the Sikh history is full of examples of rulers who were Muslim who committed horrible atrocities on the Sikhs and particularly in the 18th century two holocausts happened, prices were put upon their heads, men tortured most inhumanely when caught, women and children were massacred in large numbers, women had to do hard labour while pieces of their butchered children were forced into their mouths. Similarly under the British rule, conquest of Punjab, the area where my family has roots,was achieved not through the accepted rules of warfare but through nefarious and devious means . The infant Sikh ruler became a prisoner and was brought to Britain after converting him to Christianity. The most recent 1984 attack on the sacred-most shrine of the Sikhs by the Indian army had huge effect on the Sikhs. There was hardly a Sikh household in Punjab which was not affected or in Delhi and other places where the Sikhs were subjected to killings and atrocities. In a situation like this it is very difficult to see things as individual acts of people but as many Sikhs would describe ‘state sponsored terrorism.’ Many Sikhs would also cite examples of their Hindu friends saving them but the broadly shared view is very much a monolithic and undifferentiated view of the other, rather than that there may be people in those groups and communities who do not subscribe to what was done in the name of Islam, Christianity or secularism. The other are usually not seen as diverse and progressive, with internal differences, debates and developments.
  2. The other as Separate
    The other is seen as separate and not having any aims or values which are in common with one’s own. The other leads a separate existence and is not affected by or influencing each others’ values. Here the other is in no way seen as interacting, having certain shared values and aims, or having a sense of interdependence or an attitude that one may feel enriched by the other. In general where there are individuals and communities interacting with each, there develops a sense of sharing as social beings and in closer relationships, valued dependence on the other.
  3. The other as Inferior
    The other is seen as inferior to one’s own self. It was quite interesting to see a study of adjectives for good and bad in the English language. There are almost three times as many words to describe somebody as inferior. Words such as barbaric, irrational, heartless, inhuman, monstrous, crude, ignorant, uncivilised, savage, vulgar and more recently ‘fundamentalist ‘are used to put those down who are not the same as oneself. Who would have thought thirty years ago that the word ‘fundamentalist’ will over a period of time become associated with the tyranny of the Teliban and now increasingly with the ‘terrorist?’ The capacity to see the other as different is only in the context of denigrating the other rather than the other being of equal worth and value.
  4. The other as Enemy
    The other is considered as an adversary who is aggressive and violent , somebody who could be threatening to oneself and therefore, an appropriate action is to defeat and better still to dominate the rival. In this view the other cannot figure as somebody with whom cooperation can be envisaged with a view to developing potential partnerships and as a way of finding solutions to shared problems.
  5. The other as Manipulative
    The other is seen as deceitful, crafty, fraudulent, hypocritical and sneaky who is always looking for and working towards own advantage. The advantage could be strategic or material. The other may be sincere in their belief but is viewed as two-faced.
  6. View of the Other’s criticism of self
    It is rejected outright without thinking that there may be something worth consideration. Oneself is considered as close to perfection as possible. There fore, there is no question of looking at one’s own inadequacies or doing a review of own actions in the light of the other’s appraisal as a way of learning. In this view opportunities may be lost for self-improvement.
  7. Defending discrimination towards the other
    Others are excluded through discriminatory practices which are justified by the mainstream society as appropriate. Efforts by the other to combat such practices and exclusion are blocked or brickwalled as a danger to the main stream society. It is quite interesting that the Hijab debate in France has not only effected Muslim women but anybody who wears religious symbols as part of their identity. What has happened as a result is that Sikh boys cannot wear their turbans, the Jews their skull caps and the Christians their crosses and in this process plurality has been dealt a big blow in the name of equality, fraternity and democratic values. There seems to be some confusion about the interpretation of these principles in a country like France which is becoming increasingly racially, culturally and linguistically diverse. The French government does not seem to see it as an element of cultural racism in their agenda for assimilation, which has caused such disturbances there. There is a possibility that debating areas of disagreement with the other may have led to less polarisation of the situation.
  8. The view that fear and hostility towards the other is natural
    This view encourages people to sustain the state of apprehensiveness and fear of the other is used as an alarm mechanism to make individuals cautious and hostile. This is considered quite natural and normal to human behaviour of ‘fright or flight’ and thus the inculcation of hostility to help us overcome the situation. In this regard the critique of our view about others is not undertaken in case we may have to modify our views which may prove to be inaccurate and unfair.
  9. View of the supremacy of Christianity in Europe
    This view denies the wider range of cultural identities that exist in the 21st century. It maintains a strong link, whether real or symbolic with major denominations of Christianity such as Anglicans, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Presbyterians in institutions governing public life. It excludes other denominations, atheists, agnostics and adherents of other world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism and their denominations. At present, legislation to prohibit direct and indirect discrimination on grounds of faith or belief is being considered in the UK as well as the implementation of human rights directive because the anti-discrimination laws covered only ethnic minorities and racial groups which covered Jews and Sikhs but the centuries old structures take a long time to open up established ways of dealing with the other.
  10. View of perspectives of national history
    Most national histories are built around the nationalistic perspective. The war films which are shown quite regularly in Britain rarely show a balanced perspective. Britain as a land of heroes with all their grittiness of the strength of character, ability to take risks, courageous in dire situations and always coming on top helps create amongst the white British a great feeling of self esteem but the sacrifices and contributions of other races such as people from India ,Africa and the Caribbean are rarely acknowledged. I am sure that the French, the Germans, the Spanish and other Europeans would have their own nationalistic perspectives. The celebration of Trafalgar Day, victory over France two hundred years ago is a case in point which was done with pomp and fireworks displays hopefully did not create the us and then scenario because of what happened later in relation to the liberation of France in the Second World War. However, the Orange order parades in Northern Ireland, celebrating the success of the protestant William of Orange over the Roman Catholic local people still creates a very tense situation during the parading season.

    To conclude, it is important that we study these factors carefully as people belonging to different religious traditions so that we can overcome those factors and learn from them to enable us to move towards improving inter-religious relations. We need the involvement of public bodies to strengthen legislation against discrimination in all its shapes and forms especially on grounds of religion and belief and to develop a culture of equality of opportunity based on the accommodation and respect of difference and for fostering community cohesion through educational programmes for an interfaith/belief future.

    I end with a hymn in the Sikh scripture about inter-religious future:

    There is a place called ‘City-of-no-sorrows
    There is no grieving, no one suffers there
    No tax collectors, no one demands tribute
    There is no worrying or sin or fear or death.
    My friends, I have found myself a great place
    Where everything is good and everyone is happy.
    Where the sovereignty of the Lord is forever
    There are all equal, none second or third.
    It is a populous and famous city
    The citizens are prosperous
    They move as freely as they please
    No state official stops them
    Says Ravidas, the emancipated cobbler
    ‘My fellow citizen is my friend.’
    GGS, p345

    Charanjit AjitSingh

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