Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for June 2009

In a letter to U.S President George W. Bush in May 2006, the Iranian President Ahmedinejad invited him to a dialogue on international issues. He urged that they begin their conversation by expressing their mutual respect for the prophets and their message of justice. Then he raised this astonishing question: “ Will we be given a role to play in the promised world where justice will become universal and Jesus Christ (Peace Be Upon Him) will be present? Will they [the prophets] even accept us?”

The goal of the Iranian revolution of 1979 was to put into place a political order that emulated that of Muhammad in Medina before his triumphant return to Mecca. The beloved leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, fled the rule of the infidels in Iran under the Shah’s regime, just as Mohammed fled the infidelity of the Meccans. Then, like Muhammad, in due course the Imam returned to Iran, victorious over those who had opposed him. Under his leadership, all areas of society have been brought under the demands of justice in anticipation of the return of the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi (Saviour) who will extend the peace of Islam to the whole world. He will return with Jesus who will defer to his leadership as they work together to usher in a universal rule of peace and justice.

The Iranian Revolution is predictably unravelling, and its “just society” claim was falsified decades before the current post-election agitation. Ahmedinajad himself will soon join Bush in history’s growing list of “wannabe saviours” , and both will be long forgotten when the true messiah comes. But the note of anxiety, even uncertainty, that has crept into his language contrasts with the self-assured rhetoric of most American presidents. This is ironic, since it is dictators who are normally considered to be dogmatic and unyielding, not leaders of democracies. And the way this Shi’ite Muslim seamlessly blends universal political justice with Jesus Christ must embarrass many American Christians (who never talk of Jesus and justice in the same breath!) as well as American secularist politicians (who also exclude Jesus from any discussion of what constitutes justice!).

President Obama took it upon himself to address “the Muslim world” in a speech at Cairo University recently. The speech was hailed in some sections of the Western media as epoch-making, the dawn of a new relationship. In truth, there was nothing that he said that Bush had not already said; and no political proposals that went significantly beyond what Bush had himself proposed. But what few commentators picked up was the sheer oddity of an American president, the elected spokesman of a clearly defined nation-state, trying to engage in dialogue with an amorphous “Muslim world”. If by the latter term is meant nation-states in which Muslims form a majority, these number over 50 states and represent a diversity of cultures and political systems. If the “Muslim world” includes all who profess to follow Islam, then it includes around 5 million American citizens and 10 million Europeans. Who was Obama addressing? And whose response is taken as representing “what Muslims think”?

Muslim heads of state are happy to dialogue with US and European heads of state. But never with Muslims within their own nation who oppose their policies, let alone the minority Christian and other communities. Ahmedinejad writes to Bush, and his Mahdi clerics invite American scholars to formal theological dialogues, but never will any of them invite Iranian Christians to such conversations. This is a dialogue of the powerful, and it reinforces their sense of power. It does little to break down prejudices, caricatures and stereotypes between peoples. While diplomacy between states obviously requires dialogue and meetings of heads of states are necessary, they do not represent the “dialogue of civilizations” that truly makes for lasting peace.

In the course of our daily lives we interact and collaborate with Muslims and others on projects of various kinds, from a housing committee to a parent-teacher association. This is the normal context in which opportunities for dialogue emerge.  Personal friendships matter far more than formal debates. We should be promoting informal gatherings of Christians with people of other faiths to discuss issues that affect our common life in society. It is often in the course of such discussions that questions can be raised that take the discussion onto a more searching, personal level, where peoples’ worldviews are disclosed and the basic assumptions on which they conduct their lives opened up to loving and searching critique.

We do not know what we really believe, let alone how far our lives match up to  what we claim to believe, until we engage in serious dialogue with others, especially those who are profoundly different to us. We need the “other”, including the critique of the “other”, to discover ourselves.

What, then, can each of us do to promote this dialogue of the relatively powerless?

On a visit to Delhi one recent winter, I watched construction workers as they erected an office tower that would house one of the famous companies in the global computer industry. The workers were inadequately clothed and their accommodation took the form of flimsy canvas tents. I found myself musing: what will this company to do for these workers most of whom have been drawn as casual labour from surrounding villages? Will they slap copyright laws on their software products so that the children of these workers, even if fortunate enough to go to school, could never afford them? And what justice is there in the concept of “intellectual property rights” when it is the general public (both in the rich world and the poor) whose taxes are subsidizing these corporations and their global operations?

Learning to look at events and economic theories “from the underside of history” (in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous phrase) is what should distinguish Christians in any society. For in a world that is obsessed with celebrities and biased towards the rich and the powerful, the God of the Biblical revelation displays a counter-bias towards the poor and the marginalized. Nobody who worships a crucified Saviour, one who suffered the penalty reserved for “terrorists” against the state, can ever be co-opted in to the “wars against terror” waged by nation-states today. As suggested in my last blog post, in any war, the killings and disappearances of innocent civilians cannot be masked by the triumphant rhetoric of military “victory”. Both states and anti-state forces are accountable to the forgotten victims whose memory God and the people of God keep alive. Thus, when nations gloat in their military prowess, Christians can only weep.

The Western media is besotted with the so-called “new India” of glamour and wealth. Local Indian media follow suit, with TV channels reporting around-the-clock on how the Mumbai stock exchange is faring, despite the fact that less than 5 per cent of Indians own stocks. The media largely fail to report stories of the brutal suppression of peaceful protest by India’s poor in the capital, or the forcible annexation of rural lands by a state hand-in-glove with wealthy corporations.

India’s tiny elite (sometimes called “first-world Indians”) aggressively promote the triumphalist myth of a “superpower India” that is the lynch-pin for order and security for the South Asian region. Pakistan is the great bogey man, fanning Islamist militancy within Indian’s borders. Most well-to-do Indians are either ignorant or unconcerned about the routine use of torture by the police and armed forces (especially against dalits and Muslim youth), their covert military involvement in neighbouring countries, and their government’s violation of UN sanctions by selling weapons to the Burmese junta in exchange for oil and natural gas.

The Indian electoral machinery is awesome, and quite properly deserves the world’s admiration every five years. But for India’s millions, democracy means very little beside voting. When two-thirds of women are illiterate, and grinding poverty so pervasive, politicians with empty promises buy block votes (e.g. an entire slum or a particular caste group).  The private wealth of some parliamentarians outweighs the budgets of many states.

But it is not only the poor who expose the limitations of Indian democracy (and indeed of all neighbouring South Asian nations). Take Gujarat, for instance, one of the most prosperous and better-educated of Indian states. In February 2002, an estimated 2000 Muslims were killed, 400 Muslim women raped, 563 places of religious worship were damaged and 250,000 Muslims directly displaced by marauding mobs. The BJP state government, directly responsible for the carnage, enjoys an absolute majority in the legislative assembly and was voted back into power three times. The Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, was banned by the US government from entry to the US. But he is actively wooed by many Indian corporations, including the mega-corporation Tata.

Today, seven years later, the situation has not changed for the Muslims living in Gujarat. More than 150,000 people are living in relief colonies set up by Muslim organizations which receive no help from the state government. Under draconian laws selectively targeting Muslims, many Muslim young men languish in jails without charges being levelled against them.

Where are the Christian journalists, artists, filmmakers or novelists who draw our gaze to such  “forgotten people” and help us to view the world from the underside?



June 2009