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December 2008 - January 2009
by Satjit Singh
Not in my name
Religious extremism is not new; through centuries, religious groups have practiced their faith on the basis that ‘theirs’ was best’ and that others needed to ‘see the light’. This predictably led to ‘ghettoism’ and consequently, violence. For a long time, this was regarded by the middle classes as something the uneducated classes i.e. the ‘great unwashed’ or the power-hungry clergy indulged in. Growing up in multi-religious India (secularism in India is defined differently from elsewhere, where it means, ‘no state religion’), I was pretty much brought up to believe that being overtly religious was not for ‘people like us’. Religion was personal and whilst one may take pride in one’s own, it was never to impinge on others.
We have today, a competitive market in religious following. This market has flourished for centuries with missionary conversions; a process largely, but not entirely peaceful. That is now changing on two fronts: some religions have been aggressive to the point of violence in propagating their faith, whilst others have responded violently to acts of conversion – even when not violently practiced.
Taking the first point, the obvious though not exclusive, example is that of Islam. These past few years have seen a surge in Islamic radicalisation which have manifested themselves in extremist attacks, some ghastly high profile ones e.g. 9/11, Madrid, Bali etc., others, no less ghastly, but a series of killings in crowded market places in towns and cities in South Asia. On a more mundane level, but equally effectively, radical groups have forced over 65% of British universities to serve Halal meat. (Source: The Sunday Times). The issue is not about Halal meat, but about being forced to have it when in the UK, it represents the religious preference of a tiny, if highly vocal, minority.
Islam of course is not the only radical show in town. Mainly Buddhist Sinhalese and largely Hindu Tamils have been killing each other for decades in Ceylon; the Sikh problem in India only died down just over a decade ago and, the Catholic versus Protestant problem in Northern Ireland is always simmering below the surface. Whilst Islamist violence currently occupies the headlines, we have all had our moments!
Secondly, the attacks on Christian missionaries in India, perpetrated mainly by fringe extremist Hindus, risks tarring a largely tolerant Hindu religion with the extremist brush. I would like to think that the strong anti-Christian views were those of a tiny uneducated radicalised minority. Sadly, this is not the case and that more than any other trend in this saga, is the most worrying.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that both the issues highlighted above, are being propagated and sometimes even funded, by an articulate, educated middle class; in short, people like us. If there was ever a need for us to pull together as one, this was it. Sadly, the response has been the reverse. The problem is I believe is that an increasing number of us have begun to view all issues through the ‘filter of religion’. Secondly, even those of us who do not participate in these activities or even subscribe to them, are happy to stay silent. A combination of these two elements has meant that there is no effective voice against the radicals and extremists. Clergy have issued edicts and supported violent acts in our name. We have not only been silently acquiescing in the violence but for even the religious amongst us, we have allowed our priests and radicals to take over our faiths.
The message to our respective clergies and radicals needs to be: “This religion is as much mine as yours, so you do not have the right to hijack it as your own”. Also, “you do not speak in my name”.
We also need to understand that we have a lot more in common than we realise. Differences are largely in rituals and semantics, not substance. I will share with you an example of when I had an interview to join a Christian organisation. At the interview, I was asked if I was a practising Sikh. I replied in the affirmative. I was then asked how I would feel joining a strongly Christian organisation with church services etc. I replied “Christ is as much mine as yours”. Surprised, they asked me to explain. I replied “You believe in one God and so do I. If there is only one God, how can there be a Christian God and a separate Sikh God. So if that is the case, I believe in Christ (I did not really get into the Son-of-God bit as it might have taken too long!) as He is just another name for the same God”.
I was admitted to that organisation and I am pleased to say that not only did I fit in easily within that organisation, but that its Chairman, whilst distributing Bibles to school children (the organisation runs a number of well-known independent schools in the UK), decided to begin his sermon began by quoting from the Guru Granth Sahib (the Holy Book of the Sikhs). His Punjabi accent left a lot to be desired though! However, the moral of the story is that we have less that divides us than we think. We need to listen to the sane voices within us that we have so often silenced.
I write this note with a degree of sadness that we are not doing enough in our own ranks to condemn and curb this extremism. It is important to remember that extremism is not the preserve of any one community; it is born out of a sense of (perceived or otherwise) injustice and to paraphrase Tony Blair, we need to “be tough on extremism and tough on the causes of extremism!’. I would just like to remind you that 'all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.
Amen to that.
The credit crunch - another view
The credit crunch with its attendant financial problems has been affecting so many of us. Much has been written and debated about the actions of those greedy bankers who indulged in financially risky practices so as to inflate the Banks’ profits and their own rather ‘obscene’ bonuses. The various governments and regulatory bodies will, no doubt, be taking appropriate action to try and prevent a recurrence. What has been less in the news is our own part in this sorry state of affairs.
We have enjoyed great economic prosperity these past ten years or so. Economies across the world have grown despite high oil prices, the Iraq and Afghan wars and indeed the general environment of terrorism following September 11th. Our standards of living have improved and we take for granted, more and more, formerly classed as luxuries, as the norm. This is understandable because we live in aspirational societies - a good thing because that is what drives progress. However, this has also led to other problems. Examples include:
So many of my generation, born to middle-class families, grew up wearing hand-me-downs from siblings, cousins and even, friends. There was no social stigma attached to this and mothers were adept as altering clothes to fit their children’s requirements. Tears on shirts and trousers were darned (a word that many teenagers today only know as a ‘swear word’). Today’s children will not even dream of it, partly I may add, because of the way their parents have brought them up. Wearing clothes belonging to others is regarded as a sign of economic weakness, rather than promoting a culture of ‘waste not, want not’. Children are not born with these ideas, they learn from their environment. Earlier this year, I had some house guests from India. Their son who accompanied them had been given this holiday for having agreed to study for his exams. A year earlier, in return for studying for his exams, his parents had given him a holiday in Dubai with generous spending money; in between the trip to Dubai and London was a month’s holiday to Australia. The whole relationship was based on bribery, not an understanding that the young lad needed to do well to set himself up in life. Of course, parents have always ‘bribed’ children; it is just that the financial value of that bribe has been more indexed to the inflation rate in Zimbabwe than anywhere else I know.
During that trip, the young man gorged himself on £250 Gucci shoes amongst other things. When I let him know that my shoes were £60 from Clarks, I could have sworn that he looked at me with great pity. He could be forgiven for such indulgence when his mother was buying expensive cosmetics, clothes, shoes and other goodies for herself. I suggested to his father that he might buy his son some classics to read or similar items; the father thought that getting his son to appreciate this could be hard work and he and his wife did not have the time and patience for these. Buying goodies and throwing in a first class trip to Paris would be better appreciated by the son and easier to manage for the parents. It is increasingly becoming the norm that parents are 'buying peace' by throwing money at the problem. It is so much easier than actually addressing the problem which requires time and patience - scare commodities in today's world.
We have all mortgaged ourselves beyond what we can afford, based on the premise that the increase in property values would take care of the problem. Somewhere the bubble will burst but we always thought that it would not happen to us. We have an increasing amount of conspicuous consumption. TVs are being changed much sooner than previously with the latest Plasma or LCD (preferably 50 inches of bigger) a ‘must have’. No one treats a car any longer as a means of transport; it is a lifestyle statement. We are eating out more and buying more takeaway food; both are dearer and unhealthy. Consequently, we are putting more pressure on health services which struggle to keep pace with ever increasing demand. We have also with this, an accompanying culture of instant gratification; we want our hips and knees treated now! Our parents lived with certain old age afflictions, we, on the other hand at 60, want to have the bodies of 25 year olds! Our desire for all things beautiful makes us use chemicals on our faces, hair and other parts of our body which lead to an increase in cancers, putting even more pressure on the hard pressed health services. Monies spent on treating these self-inflicted health problems takes away from education, roads, public transport, social services, sanitation etc.
Another consequence is the rise in crime. Wanting everything and wanting it now means that those unable to afford them have turned to crime. I do not need to labour the point about the increase in the crime rate to prove this.
The examples above are but a tip of the iceberg. However what is clear is that if we continue to consume more, we put extra pressure on ourselves which in turn leads us to participate in financially risky transactions. Willing bankers for the reasons cited at the start of this note, are not shy to profit from this. The impact is not financial alone; the stresses of taking on these burdens means that our health will be affected; already cardiovascular diseases and cancers, both linked strongly to stress, are the two biggest killers and are the fastest growing of all medical afflictions. Further, our children are never going to learn the value of money. We are all trying to leave them property; where will they learn to save for deposits and service mortgages through economising on things that they would otherwise have bought?
I suggest that we have contributed willingly and enthusiastically to the present problem and we need to take responsibility for it. However, it is not only the economic consequences, but the health and social consequences that we will have to live with. That should be food for thought.