Religion, spirituality, and belief are words often associated with tolerance, compassion, and unity. All the major religions have an inherent concept of peace and compassion. For instance, in Islam Allah is described as the God of peace and mercy throughout the Quran. It’s impossible for a God who is described in such a way to not expect his people to propagate the same teachings. Places of worship are the spaces we use to express our love for our religion. We go to these places to find inner peace and some would also say to somehow bring back happiness.
Reality is, however, far from what worship spaces such as mosques should be like. After 9/11, in particular, a huge influx of hate and intolerance filled places of worship, infecting others’ minds with toxicity to fuel geopolitical wars. With the war on terror, in particular, mosques in Pakistan have become a hub for religious zealots to propagate an extremist version of a peaceful religion. Instead of spreading the word of peace, hate rhetoric spews out of mosques on the daily. Within the Muslim community, sectarianism has further divided our mosques. Forbidden are Shias from entering a Sunni mosque and vice versa. When interestingly, every believing Muslim inarguably bows down to the same God. So, praying together really shouldn’t be a problem.
So, what could possibly explain this rising intolerance?
It is human nature to feel part of something, a group, society, country, or even a religion. This is what extremist religious beliefs are exploiting in our worship spaces. By paying allegiance to a sub-sect Islamic group, Muslims in Pakistan are somewhat able to feel that sense of community in an otherwise segregated society. To counter this exploitation, the Pakistani government started an initiative to regulate weekly sermons. This decision comes after local clerics were found promoting violence by encouraging people to go abroad to fight the ‘Islamic’ war and ‘do their duty’. This intolerance in mosques in Pakistan comes from people feeling the need to perform their perceived duties for a group they follow. They essentially take the law into their own hands when they feel like it.
Who does this effect?
Acts of religious intolerance have huge impacts on people following the religion itself and also on people looking in. For example, a religious activist in Malaysia conducted a debate on whether Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative influence was affecting religion in Malaysia too much. He was kidnapped later and is missing since. Acts like this are developing an unsafe and uncomfortable environment. Simple discussion and debate can now get people in trouble because it hurts someone else’s feelings. The hate speech coming out of mosques in Pakistan, for example, has distracted from the overall message of unity that Islam propagates. Sometimes, allegiance to a specific religious leader in a particular mohalla also overrides Islam’s message of living together peacefully.
We must address the situation and come up with possible solutions.
Who can we look to for inspiration?
Two examples of religious tolerance and inclusivity are Turkey and Singapore.
Specifically, in Turkey, it’s important to appreciate the beauty and unity that Hagia Sophia represents. The centuries-old structure has gone through periods of being a church, mosque, and now a beautiful museum. It is one of a kind museum that features Islamic calligraphy and art as well as Christian symbols. Yes, it is true that Hagia Sophia is not an active place of worship. But, the fact that the space now holds both symbols shows how it is possible to remove the idea of political-religious conquests from a worship space. The lesson this one building teaches, therefore, is one we all could learn from.
Interestingly, Singapore is not even a Muslim majority nation. However, Singapore has created this multicultural and diverse community within itself, which promotes unity, equality, and peace. They regulate sermons, speeches, and events held by religious groups and buildings. Very recently Singapore refused entry to a Muslim religious cleric because they claimed that he has views on sensitive topics that do not align with Singapore’s as a nation. The government’s drastic steps stop hate propagation in the society. Such measures allow for peaceful living amongst all citizens, which a country like Pakistan so badly needs.
Islamic art and history are among the worlds most beautiful and rich. The rest of the world for their spirituality and their beauty looks upon Islamic traditions and histories. We should display an expression and appreciation of our rich culture through mosques. Instead of promoting the beauty we so proudly stand for; our mosques instigate hate and violence. Let’s reflect on these points presented and demand more peaceful places of worship in the shape of our mosques in the country.