Can religion and God be blamed for the violence that has become rampant in different parts of the world? Why do scores of youngsters take to violence, leading to the death of hundreds of innocent people on a regular basis? Who started the ISIS? Diplomat, scholar and former Vice-President Hamid Ansari takes on a variety of inter-related questions in a conversation with Pranay Sharma. Excerpts:
Much of the violence in the world is being committed in the name of God or religion. Is God the problem?
No, absolutely not. The question to be asked is, why a person decides on a course of action that involves violence. One is that the person commits himself to the instrumentalities of violence that once upon a time used to be a lathi or a single-barrel gun. World War I was kicked off, as we know, by a single individual firing one shot from an old-fashioned revolver. Today technology has given us so much more.... The old instruments of violence have not gone away but all these instrumentalities that technology has given us—ostensibly for valid purposes, like national defence or fighting the enemy etc—are now available to all. So what has happened is that a person who decides on a course of violence can easily empower himself with these instrumentalities of violence.
Is that enough?
No, that is not sufficient. Any reading of world history, of any period, would show that you need to empower the soldier—when he is attacking or defending—with some form of motivation. The instruction given to a soldier is, ‘You are defending your land or you are defending your country’. Similarly, when an attack is taking place, it is done in the name of achieving something that is high, mighty and noble. Now, the same thing happens when you resort to what I would call “illegal, impermissible” violence. The motivation might be political, sectarian or...any other term where the means of empowerment that are sought have to go beyond the physical.
What kind of action are you talking about?
There can be two categories. You can have politically relevant religious action or you can have religiously relevant political action. Most situations can be categorised between those two. But we are talking of situation or action when you have to bring in faith into it. There are many actions where you may not bring in faith. For example, a demonstration in the streets for a valid reason—a student demonstration or a trade union demonstration or a political one...they are not using religious slogans. They are all using political slogans, being engaged vis-a-vis a political objective. Then why do some people want to go beyond and bring faith into it? That’s because they feel a political slogan or an economic slogan is insufficient for the purpose....
Before we go further, I wanted to draw your attention to what Richard Dawkins observes in The God Delusion. He says, “Only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people”. Do you agree with that view?
It is a generalisation. You can agree or you can disagree.
What is your view? Do you agree?
No. You can have a very strong patriotic impulse unrelated to religion. You can also have a very strong, absolutely local impulse bringing out such strong responses. For example, when I am playing a match for my college and those who support me or those who are on the opposing side supporting my opponent, or say during football matches when supporters of the contending teams get sufficiently excited. None of them are religiously motivated. They were just motivated by a factor. So I don’t think it is correct to say only religion can bring out such strong response in humans. God or religion is an intensely personal matter.
Marx is often quoted as having said, “Religion is the opium of the masses.” But no one quotes him fully. In his entire remark, he goes on to say, “It is the sigh of the oppressed, it is the heart of the heartless and soul of the soulless condition”. Which of the two do you think is more relevant today?
I am very reluctant to use such generalisations. It is a question in the human mind. If you read about the earlier stages of human society, you will find that anything that was physically not in control of man was attributed to a higher power. That was really the beginning of God or religion. Or say, faith. I have faith in my capability that I can do certain things with my two hands and certain things that I cannot. So I needed something that is supernatural.
The way the concept of ‘religion’ is used in the West and the way it is used here, say as ‘dharma’ in Hinduism or ‘deen’ in Islam in a more encompassing, wider sense...does it show a difference in their emphasis?
Any system of faith has two aspects—I am not saying it is ‘this or that’, but a broad categorisation is possible. One is a simple system of ethics, which a society, through its own experience, comes to develop. Doing this is good and doing that is bad. Because human individuals cannot live in isolation, they come together to live in a community and accept a set of rules that work. Otherwise, it leads to chaos. Therefore, when people live in a society, they have a certain set of rules mutually agreed upon to such an extent that you don’t have to specifically mention it. Say, things like telling the truth or killing somebody without any reason and so on and so forth—the moral code will be more or less the same for most. Then comes my specific system of faith, which is a product of human history. In the earlier system, anything that was beyond the natural capability was considered to be supernatural and attributed to some higher force. Some may call it the sun, some the system, some the entity or some may call it God. This is a historical evolution that has taken place in different stages of human history. But if you look through it all, there is a certain uniformity of human experience and human perception through all of which a moral code runs across, as also a super being.
Is violence inherent in religious conflict or any conflict fought in the name of God or religion? Do people think God is on their side and, therefore, it can justify cruelty and violence or whatever else they do to win that conflict?
Again, it is a means to self-empowerment. Why am I doing it? My physical prowess may give me the power to do that but supposing I want to empower myself with something even stronger, then I resort to fighting in the name of God or religion. Some years ago, when at a seminar on West Asia, a security expert kept using the term ‘jehadi violence’. I told him, let us try and find out what makes a man call himself a ‘jehadi’ or a ‘crusader’ or any other equivalent term. I think it is done mainly to get legitimacy and empowerment, both with the self and with what the person considers to be his support group. If the support group thinks he is using violence for a purpose which is for a higher cause, so much the better. This is what a sociologist will call ‘politically relevant’ and it will be considered to be legit (within that sphere). It may be totally illegitimate, but if it is politically relevant, it will be used.
Will you say the lack of separation of religion from political action is what we see in West Asia and the basis for the “clash of civilisation” between the Islamic world and the West?
No, I have a totally different view. I will give you a simple example, from 20th century history. In the post-WW II scenario, the world got divided for better or worse into the US-led Western bloc and the Soviet-led Eastern bloc. Both sides wanted to seek empowerment beyond what they had in terms of physical assets. The Eastern bloc wanted to pro-mote the image of an equal world...the classic slogans of socialism and Communism...a version of the just society. On the other side, for the Western bloc, the motivating slogan coming out of Washington was that this (the Soviet bloc) is an evil force that must be resisted. It was seeking allies in this battle. It was beyond the physical battle...it was an ideological battle. Look at the whole system of western alliances—on one side, NATO was formed, which had a clear-cut military strategy and political strategy to stop the westward expansion of the Soviet Union and the lines were clearly drawn. But it was seeking support elsewhere too, outside Europe, with countries like Iran, Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan. Here the argument to motivate them was to highlight that these (the Soviets) are godless people. This happened specifically in Afghanistan when the US tried to build up an alliance against the Soviets—”this is a godless force that needs to be resisted”. This argument was also used elsewhere. This continued till the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan remained and finally made to withdraw. But when things changed, all the arguments get reversed. After 9/11, the whole argument got reversed. Religion was good at one point for a political purpose but then it became bad at another point of time.
So is this entire argument about a ‘just war’?
What is the concept of a just war if you are a pacifist? Every war is then unjust. But if you are a representative of a state machinery, you will argue that there are wars that are just and then there are wars that are not. This is a whole business of semantics, of definitions. What I call aggression, you may not call it aggression...and vice versa.
Is the so-called clash of civilisation then more a political conflict?
Virtually always, it is political action for which religious justification or legitimacy is sought.
But how do we explain what is happening in West Asia, which has been on the boil for a while and where a number of forces are active?
It is all geopolitics and nothing else. Why do you starve a child to death? What is her fault? What is the justification for it? You may say this is a consequential act, but of unintended consequences. But you have to realise that the consequence is death.
Where do you put an organisation like the ISIS, which has perhaps killed more Muslims than anyone else?
There is a point of view that it is the creation of the very people who want to fight it in the name of fighting ISIS. How is it that these things suddenly emerge out of nowhere? There is a very well-respected publication which comes out of the National Intelligence Agency, which is a public document, in which a scenario of what the world will be like in 2025 or 2030 was predicted. In this, it talks about an imaginary letter written by Osama bin Laden in 2003-2004 where he talks about the Islamic Caliphate, headquartered in Mosul, which has been established. While inaugurating a seminar where a lot of geostrategists from within and outside the country were present, I asked two questions: one, who could think of an Islamic Caliphate in 2003-2004 since that particular area in Iraq was under the control of the American forces. Two, why was the concept of Caliphate brought in at that point of time? If you go through the Islamic literature, the last time anyone talked about a Caliphate was in Egypt in 1925. After that, there have been a lot of other things and if you go through the Muslim Brotherhood’s literature or that of other groups, there is no mention of a Caliphate. I know people’s imagination is limitless, but whoever wrote it must have been really brilliant.
So the ISIS was a creation of some vested interests?
Yes, first you create an imaginary monster and then this monster has to be fought. It is like one of those computer games, you shoot down a monster, then the monster emerges again. You put it down again, and it emerges again and changes its shape.
What about the large number of youngsters who in the western world are today joining the ISIS or resorting to violence and terrorist acts within European societies?
We in India have some knowledge of Britain and British society and we used to think people who go from the subcontinent will sooner or later integrate in British society. This was less so in Europe, where the French were more puritanical...you had to become French, which in turn meant you had to do things the French way, starting with the language. But then suddenly you start reading in the newspapers that there are some youngsters who want to travel to Syria and fight with the ISIS. What connects that youngster who is freshly out of school from Manchester or some other place in the UK to the ISIS? There must be a degree of alienation that has taken place to motivate somebody to look for something that is far beyond his or her living experience. I may not be totally alienated in my society or my own surroundings. But I can go to the computer and start looking for strange destinations. Yes, there is a lot of evil there. Starting from pornography to all kinds of violence...all are available at the tap of a button. But there must be something more to it. Why do such things happen? Somewhere there must have been some failure. Why is it that a 16- or 18-year-old youngster in school suddenly feels so alienated as to do something totally outrageous?
Karen Armstrong refers to a protest in the Iran of 1920s where wearing a veil became more of a protest against a dress code than a religious symbol, arguing that whenever there is an attempt to impose something, wearing something like the veil becomes a form of protest. Do you agree?
Yes, it is because you look for symbols of protests. I have somewhere a cutting of a Tehran newspaper of 1979 with an eight-column headline saying ‘Shah Left’ and there is a picture in the middle of the page that shows a young man atop a jeep wearing a tee shirt and jeans and there is a girl dressed the same way. There is no head cover, nothing. The business of dress can often have an element of protest. So the more you force me to become like this, I will not to do it.
What was your experience when you were ambassador there?
When I was ambassador in Iran in 1991-92, it was interesting to see how the protests took shape. As part of the dress code, every woman had to wear the head dress, but the younger lot would initially have a head scarf and then slowly it would start falling back. Then, instead of a black or white scarf, you will see colourful ones. It would reach a point where the police would crack down and then it would all go back. It was an ongoing exercise and everybody knew what was happening. So these are all distorted symbolisms which are reflective of some form of protest. They are not religiously motivated, except that religion is being used as a very convenient symbol.