When Muslims call followers of other religions Kafirs; it hurts. Similarly when the rest of the world typecasts anybody wearing the veneer of a Muslim, I am sure it must hurt too. These clichés need to be discarded. There should be no impulse to pull each other down. Each way of life has its own place and should be respected. Equally, there is no point in crying about mistreatment at the hands of the others when we ourselves have little tolerance. We cannot expect that our traditions would be accepted even as we refuse to make space for others. There must be mutual respect for the way each community conducts itself. If women are required to veil, and want to do so willingly, we are no one to jeer. Similarly, if women want to sunbathe on the coasts of California, it is no one’s business. The idea of liberalism cannot be defined in Washington or Jeddah. Every culture and society has its own standards and definitions. As far as thinking is concerned, a veiled woman can be equally “liberated”. We can be open to others’ ideas and yet be rooted in our mores.
I would like to cite the much hyped case of the head scarf /public display of religious symbols ban in France, which kicked off a great furore in the Muslim world, as well as among “liberals” in the West. Muslims genuinely felt that this was an open attack on their freedom of religious expression. I agree. However, Muslims have a reason to muse too. I would like to ask here about why non-Muslim women are forced to don the veil when in Saudi Arabia or Iran. If a Muslim woman should be allowed to wear the Hijab in France, then a Western woman should be allowed not to wear one when she visits Mid-East. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If Indian Sikhs are asking for a right to wear a turban, it is because they give the French the freedom to dress the way they feel like when they visit India. There must be mutual respect for each other’s culture. This must be a relationship of equals. Major diplomatic rows have broken out between Iran and some European countries like Spain and France during visits of President Mohammed Khatami. Iran had insisted that it would not tolerate the serving of wine during official banquets, while the Western countries insisted that this was traditional European protocol. A meager goblet of wine threatened relations between civilized countries and brought them close to breaking point. The fact is that no one in Paris or Madrid was forcing the Iranian President to consume the ‘poison’; they merely wanted to drink it themselves. Neither were they expecting the potion to be served to them when they visited the Muslim country. When European countries don’t mind not being served wine on official tours to the Arabic world, delegates from the Muslim world should also not mind it being a part of the menu in Europe, as absolutely nobody is forcing it down their throats. Conversely, a large number of Indian delegates, who are sworn vegetarians, never object to any kind of meat being served during their trips abroad. They only expect some vegetarian dishes to also be on the table. It was because of this accommodative approach that Iceland, for the first time in its history and that too completely on its own accord, served a pure vegetarian banquet to former President A P J Abdul Kalam as a mark of respect for him. Forbearance at one end undoubtedly yields openness at the other end. The moment one falls into the trap of trying to out do the other, it becomes a vicious cycle which will inevitably be laced with odium. It should not be a race of one upmanship or show of superiority. A casual browse through Islamic websites shows them taking pot shots at the Hindu Manu Smriti or about ill treatment of women at the hands of the old Christian world. While Muslims have a reason to cheer about past glory, other communities have moved on. Nobody in India or Nepal, countries with Hindu majority populations, consults Manu Smriti to dispense justice. Majority of the Hindus are not even aware of the contents of its text. It is because the Hindus have evolved a code of justice that is set in current times. Though far from perfect, it does not include ancient systems when tackling women’s issues or in fact any other matter. The Indian Constitution is considered one of the finest and enshrining greatest levels of equality. The fact of the matter is that in Hindu societies practices like Sati and untouchability have been pronounced as crime, widow remarriage is no longer taboo, and Manu Smriti no longer a citation. The West has abolished slavery, has given Blacks equal rights(one is on the verge of becoming a President) and brought in reforms to their civil code, allowing divorce and remarriage. It is the thought of equality that will eventually lead to more sublime thought of unity. According to Gandhi, in nature there is fundamental unity running through all the diversity we see about us. Religions are given to mankind so as to accelerate the process of realization of fundamental unity. Certainly a thought to chew over….