Sunday, January 4, 2009

Am I an islamophobe?

Some of my favourite people in the world are Muslim. In my early teens, as an aspiring cricketer, my greatest source of inspiration was the fiery power of Imran Khan. In those days, I did not begrudge Pakistan its victories over India, as long as my hero had done well. There were times I wished I were Muslim, in the hope that a shared faith might result in shared ability. Since then, I’ve sought and found both warmth and love amongst Muslims, some of whom I count amongst my dearest friends. And yet...

It was a rare day this autumn in New York. Bright sunshine and Bach accompanied me to Journal Square, where I boarded a train for what is still called ‘The World Trade Center’. I was distressed. The Jolie-Pitts were shooting for ‘A Mighty Heart’ in Pune, and I was too far away to honour whatever press invitations might’ve come my way (and you better believe there were some). More disturbingly, I had stayed up all of the previous night watching a documentary about the abduction and murder of Daniel Pearl, and some of the footage was so distressing that I couldn’t sleep. I’ve always taken pride in being a liberal pacifist, and yet, the collage of bearded faces creased with hate, the rising crescendo of “Allahu Akbar,” praise of the Lord demonised into a war chant, churned deep dark thoughts. In that bigoted moment, it was so easy to believe that every Muslim was a fire-breathing kafir slayer and so difficult to imagine any of them as loving fathers, doting husbands, dutiful sons or remotely human beings. I tossed and turned in my sleep, struggling with the images and my convictions to the contrary.

The train started moving, and away from the darkness, in the buzz and bustle of the world’s busiest city, the thoughts seemed to fade away. But soon there was to be a test – a test I was to fail. At the next station, a young Arab entered the car. He had a heavy satchel across his shoulder and a book with Arabic inscriptions in his hand. Pairs of hitherto drowsy eyes watched, some with curiosity, others with disdain, even loathing, and I with interest that changed imperceptibly into apprehension, fear and worse. Thoughts of the previous night came screaming back. Memories of 9/11, 7/7 and the the man’s religious fervour, all seemed to suggest to my fevered brain that the man might’ve anointed us all for mass martyrdom. I got up, admonishing little voices in my head that tried to remind me that I was committing the very sins I’d condemned, and got off the train at the very next stop.

“Better be guilty and safe than sorry and dead,” I told the voices but they grew louder still, driving me to shame and admiration. Shame, because I could not bear the thought of having betrayed my own beliefs and in many ways, the faith of my friends. And admiration for the millions of peaceful Muslims in the world, who repeatedly forgive the rest of the world for chaining them to the crimes of a deviant few, without compromising on their values as Muslims, and more significantly, as human beings. I owe that unknown Arab, and every such Muslim, an apology, as I do to Pakistani New Yorkers like Tariq, who’ve welcomed me into their hearts, blind to the momentary prejudice that had wrought havoc with my beliefs. Students and friends, apologies, for having forsaken, albeit for a moment, all that I’d preached. Steadfast faith in the divine essence of every faith can truly make angels, if not gods, of human beings, for it cultivates forgiveness. Like in the grieving Amish, who forgave the very man who killed their daughters, by including the killer and his family in their prayers. To hate is not human, but to forgive surely divine; and may whatever powers that be give us the courage to forgive and douse the fire of hate in an ocean of unconditional forgiveness. Christ said it, Gandhi repeated it; and for the sake of ourselves, let’s live it.

Epilogue: I was brought up to believe that terrorists aim to terrorise, but over the last few months I’ve grown to realise that the current brand of terrorism in our country only aims to polarise. I wrote the above column two years ago, believing that the world could only get better… But it has been a protracted illness. Our hate and fear has only grown. As for my own, I confess, they return every time I see a person I’m glad I didn’t know being carried like a sack on the streets, his/her innards disembowelled by a faceless bomb, in the name of an orphaned and disowned (by the very people the bomb claims to represent) faith.

But amidst the din of bombs and bullets, political rhetoric from both sides of the border, saffron bigotry and Antulayan antics,even if for some moments, an act of violence forces me to react like a Hindu because it pigeonholes and reduces me to being only that – a Hindu, I always try and remind my self that my religion is only about my relationship with God, not my relationship with man, be he Hindu, Muslim or Jewish. And I remind myself that my destiny, just like yours, is intertwined, across communities and borders, for cleaved halves we may be, but we are one whole, waiting to unite through all that divides us. And this isn’t misty eyed sentimentality speaking… just look back on the last few centuries and you’ll know…


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