I was sitting in my second class of the day; flipping through unfinished homework, chatting with friends, and slowly settling into a new school year. After 10 years in the United States – practically my entire life – this was my normalcy, if not quite the glamour I had predicted for my budding high school career.
It was much to my chagrin then, when that tranquil was broken by my name harshly piercing the silence as I was beckoned by the main office. Like any normal 13 year old, I could only cringe at the possible reasons for which I had been summoned. Little did I realize that within a few minutes the entire student body would be notified on that thus uneventful September 11, that one of the most heinous terrorist attacks in the nation’s history had been perpetrated just north of us in New York City.
It took me some time to fully appreciate the foresight the administrative staff had shown in plucking me from class before that fateful 9/11 announcement was made. It was a well-thought measure, to ensure that a child with an already much maligned surname did not have to bear any misdirected anger. All for a crime which was wholly unrelated to me, but would bring an unmerited condemnation upon myself, and nearly one-quarter of the world’s population.
Certainly, that was an impactful moment in my still-young life. A moment which began my early theological maturity, and likewise, my early religious detachment. It was beyond my grasp then, as it remains today, how in the name of religion, any faction could commit such a treacherous act. To my eyes, 9/11 was not only a targeted and sadistic assault against humanity, the United States, and the western world, but also a devastating slap in the face of the very religion those terrorists claimed to be championing the cause of.
At the time, I asked my school’s staff a question, out of naivety, as to why they felt it necessary to pull me out of class. The very idea behind their now-obvious answer resonated with me then, and still does. Why did they feel I might be chastised by my peers? I was among friends, I thought. And I was, but we were at an age where religion was being transformed into something more complicated than it had any right to be. It was then I began to realize that religion without a true acceptance of the values it preached, and without a true understanding of those ideals was an ineffectual concept, and more importantly, a dangerous reality.
As most children are taught by a world which views them as innocents, religion is a spiritual abstraction of culture, intangibly binding them to their fellow man and eliciting a divine morality from their actions. Children have no knowledge of the fundamental differences between themselves and their peers of other religions, and rightfully so, as there are and should be none. It is only as these children grow up in a tainted religious landscape, that they are introduced to the theological perversions of human interpretation. Any distortion is surely human, as none of the basic scriptures of the religions which I have encountered in my lifetime have such shameless bigotry or violence inherent in anything but the most adulterated possible translations.
My views were shaped, as most children’s are, by those of my parents and grandparents. Views shaped by those who knew they bore the responsibility of readying me for a world unfortunately defined by many challenges, including our very own, and tragically human, self imposed partitions. Partitions called race, religion, class, ideology, and the other labels humans have fashioned to stroke the native human, but certainly not humane, instinct which shuns that which is different. Curricula teach cooperation, religions preach acceptance, and yet despite the best efforts of the greater human conscience, these ideals remain but utopian fantasies in our all too partisan world.
It was not long after 9/11 that I had to confront another crisis, which might have occurred much farther from me, but hit much closer to home. It was the following February, when my grandfather, ex-MP Ahsan Jafri, was one of the many who were brutally murdered in the infamous 2002 Gujarat riots which were themselves the appalling aftermath of the equally inexcusable Godhra train burning incident. While the ensuing investigations into the incidents have been murky at best, what has always been crystal clear is the caricature of communal religious dogma which led to such a combustive situation.
The past violence and dormant tension which still exists in Gujarat is sadly but a microcosm of the religious experience worldwide, and indicative of a growing religious disparity in a world that is making fast progress towards becoming very connected in so many other ways. This is not to say that religious friction is a novel concept, as in fact, the religious groups have been at each other’s throats as far back as my elementary history books cared to document human interaction. It just would seem elemental for us now, in a day and age of such strides in communication, diplomatic advancement, and obligatory global interaction, to realize that coexistence, both internally and internationally, is no longer as simple as maintenance of peace, but is now an absolutely irrefutable requisite for any kind of national or cultural advancement.
It shames me, as it should all humane individuals, irrespective of religion or lack thereof, that there are those radicals who have found the audacity to terrorize those they know nothing about, in the name of those who they have forsaken. It frightens me that efforts to promote bigotry among the ignorant have been much more successful than the ability to spur the enlightened from their complacency. It pains me to see that so many of the progressive world’s youth are now rapidly abandoning religion, not because they spurn its myriad virtues, but because they feel the need to disconnect from its perceived refusal to place values and the human kindred spirit ahead of its reprobate desire to be an identifier of its followers.
Despite concerns of the present and fears for the future, there remains much reason for optimism. We can change our stance so that instead of defining our actions by our religion, we work to define our religion through our actions. A new perspective is needed, so that what becomes most salient is a human conscience, with our divine confidence being only a reaffirmation of the direction in which our moral compass is already pointing.
As Thomas Jefferson said:
“I never told my religion, nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another's creed. I have judged others' religions by their lives, for it is from our lives and not our words that our religions must be read.”