"Hopes for the Next Century: Religious Tolerance" by Kavya Deshpande
3rd Prize High School Category, Essay Contest 2014
February 4, 2015
Kavya Deshpande (age 15 at time of essay contest) is a student at the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore. She enjoys writing and debating, and she is also passionate about politics and literature.
Twenty-one thousand is a large number. So is forty thousand, and I think that everyone would agree that six million is simply mammoth. But never have these strings of digits been more terrifying than when they are used to count the number of people who have lost their lives in religious conflicts. The first encompasses the total casualties to date of the age-old Israeli-Palestinian war. The second, an initial estimate of the number of Yazidis driven under threat of death to the peak of Mount Sinjai. And the third, the most infamous of them all, represents the number of Jews slaughtered during the Second World War. These are not just tallies that flash across our television screens. These are symbols of intolerance. They are indelible scars left behind by humanity's greatest failure where one of humanity's greatest achievements is concerned. After all, religion and theology are the product of our most powerful possession: the mind. Faith is a testament to our ability to think, to discern, to believe.
This is why it is crucial—no, incontrovertible—that we see a new burgeoning of tolerance begin in the 21st century. Religious pluralism demands the peaceful co-existence of faiths, and lends itself to solving conflicts that wreak havoc from the arid plains of Kobani to the sultry jungles of Mindinao. Today, co-existence is the tourniquet we need to staunch some of the world’s most horrific bloodsheds—all the more harrowing because they are done in the name of God.
A question remains begging an answer: Where to begin? In my opinion, a target for reigniting religious pluralism should be in the nursery of the three most populous faiths in the world, that cradle of monotheism, and now a hotbed of violence: Jerusalem.
In light of the divisions that now trifurcate the ancient city, it is often forgotten that there were moments in history when Jerusalem was a place of peaceful religious co-existence. With the signing of the covenant of Omar in 637 CE, the Islamic caliph of the time allowed Jews to resettle in the city after an epoch of Romans barring them from entering. Similarly, in 1967, Israel displayed tolerance by acknowledging the Islamic Waqf's jurisdiction over the al-Aqsa mosque in the heart of Jerusalem.
Today, the only factors that undermine these glorious moments of harmony are the deepening rifts in the religious landscape. Incessant reports of synagogue attacks and Muslim-targeted murders sprawl over newspapers. Pope Francis' message of peaceful plurality during his visit to the holy city was drowned in a wave of controversy, when rumours arose that he planned to hold mass in the Cenacle, widely believed to be the site of Jesus' last supper and King David's tomb. A young protester’s sign read, "Pope! Stay in Rome! King David's tomb belongs to the Jewish people!" This is proof that belligerence emanates from all three camps, each of which shows an insatiable avarice for the possession of sacred halls.
All in all, Jerusalem is in dire need of religious plurality. Once the desire for buttressing fortresses is quelled, a tolerant Jerusalem could set a precedent for solving conflicts across the world; a message from the fountainhead to lay down their arms. This would be a powerful initiative to take this century, at a time when risk and opportunity are both clear and present.
Only 400 miles away, ambitions for the Holy City are already reflected in Syria. It is ironic that even in the turmoil of civil war, glimpses of the past can still be found within pockets of religious co-existence. Ma'loula is a village of perfect balance between Christianity and Islam. The adhans that echo from the spires of mosques do not dim the glow of the Holy Cross, and vice versa. It is astonishing that no one yet has used this bucolic setting to demystify the workings of religious plurality.
The secret, implies Syrian Archbishop Joseph Absi, is for faiths to adopt a less orthodox modus operandi—or, in other words, to modernise themselves. "[It] is good for us as a minority and we do not have to speak as a minority or majority." According to him, extreme traditionalism opens the door to radicalism, which is the scourge of peace. Modernising religion rids a faith of this plague; the concept is not ground-breaking. It has already been practiced by leaders such as the Dalai Lama and, more recently, the Pope. The former once stated that he would "accept the findings of science" if they disproved religious claims. The latter, on a visit to Ankara, warned against "fanaticism and fundamentalism, as well as irrational fears that foster misunderstanding and discrimination." Modernising religion also counters an impasse in the concept of plurality: how can one be tolerant of aspects of another's faith that are liable to cause serious harm? With a faith that is more suited to contemporary thought, trimmed of contentious, obsolete traditions, this question dies.
Secondly, it is an irrefutable truth that politicians have a profound role to play in fostering religious tolerance. Likewise, religious conflict can be ignited by the vociferation of statesmen. In 1992, a 400-year-old mosque was razed to the ground in India. Hundreds of people died in the religious riots that ensued in all corners of the country. This was a shameful event in the history of a religiously diverse nation, one that was precipitated by the cacophony of claims and counterclaims made by political leaders across the spectrum. Meanwhile, the Rohingya community of Myanmar, a Muslim minority, have been at the receiving end of systematic prejudice for years. This discrimination stretches as far as to disallow them from recording their ethnicity as part of an official population census. These examples demonstrate that tolerance cannot be fostered unless governments implement policies that bolster pluralism. By doing so, political leaders can extricate their local communities from the wrangle of cross-religious warfare.
The third and final element that is key to achieving universal religious tolerance is interfaith dialogue. A truly impactful platform for such dialogue to occur would be a body composed of prominent religious leaders, meeting on a regular basis. Through discussion and mutual understanding, such interaction has the potential to break down barriers and enrich them all. A good example for how this requisite can nurture an amicable and cohesive society is found in the Mughal reign of India. For 300 years, a largely Hindu society was ruled by a Muslim dynasty—and the prosperity of their empire was substantially due to their emphasis on pluralism. In the 16th century, the Emperor Akbar set up a debating house known as the Ibadat Khana for various spiritual leaders to use for ratiocination on theology. It is high time humanity built upon such historical precedents. Though there have been several similar attempts at interfaith dialogue in the 21st century, overarching success is noticeably absent.
In conclusion, I believe that it is vital that humanity seizes the 21st century to establish liberalism in the field of faith. There is still a long and arduous path ahead, but it is undeniable that religious tolerance will make the world a better place. With pluralism, humanity becomes a more cohesive group, one that does not go to war over schools of thought. And with the collapse of these divisions, we can channel our resources and combined efforts into advancing human progress. I see us as developing into a global society that accepts, acknowledges, and respects various faiths, monuments to the fact that we, as a race, have the power to question and ponder and believe.