world interfaith harmony week

Written by Sidra Azeem 10:48 am

World Interfaith Harmony Week: Celebrating Differences

Religious, ethnic, and cultural intolerance has become a common occurrence. Each passing year sees a greater need for interfaith harmony and tolerance.

World Interfaith Harmony Week

Harmony and peace towards every religion and culture are an eminent part of every progressive organization or state. Unfortunately, in some countries, it is not practiced which eventually gives rise to religious intolerance. 

However, steps can be taken to create awareness among the masses to mitigate interfaith conflicts and to spread the message that people from different communities can peacefully coexist even if they have diverging ideas.

For this reason, the first week of February every year, since 2011, has been termed “World Interfaith Harmony Week.”  Interfaith harmony in simple terms is the peaceful co-existence between ethno-religious groups and the followers of various religious beliefs. It has become a major concern for the contemporary developing world.

Interfaith harmony is not a utopian idea, in fact, it is a plausible one aimed to eradicate racism, religious fanaticism, and enmity among people. Interfaith harmony then paves way for a global level of understanding that all religions, faiths, and beliefs are equally acceptable. Justice to all gains precedence in societies where interfaith harmony is encouraged.

However, a collective mindset of deeming some religions above the other religions has developed in some, if not most, societies, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Significantly, many studies have been conducted on this collective mindset and many theories have been put forth by social scientists. Interestingly, most of these theories deal with conflicts and one can rarely find a theory on harmony.

However, psychology literature surprises us in this regard and presents a wide range of theories on the harmony of interfaith or intergroup relations. Some of these intriguing theories include the inter-group contact theory, the cross-cutting category theory, and common in-group identity model theory, etc.

The Inter-group Contact Theory

The most important and applicable theory on harmony is the contact theory, proposed by Allport in 1954. It states that a positive interaction between members of different groups is very necessary to eliminate prejudices, bigotry, and hatred. It further elaborates the human psychology and its tendency towards empathy and sympathy.

It argues how at the very core human beings are tender in nature. This tenderness comes from healthy contact and self-disclosure. Each member from different backgrounds will develop an understanding and eventually become more acceptable and tolerant towards others.

Secularism: A Contemporary Approach

Many analysts have presented their views on interfaith harmony and contemplated whether or not it’s achievable. The most common, famous, and applied school of thought is having a “secular” or “open” society. Many propose that the only way to prosperity for nations with conservative ideologies is to have secularism. 

This point is true to some extent; nations with conservative and narrow ideologies provide fuel to ignite extremism, which eventually results in religious intolerance. It further divides the people into more groups i.e. sectarianism. The conflicts that result in such cases are conceptualized in two ways i.e. Issue-based conceptualization—when the religious conflict is not on solid grounds and the reasons for conflict are vague—and identity-based conceptualization—when the religious conflict revolves around a major or genuine religious issue.

These scenarios have widely been witnessed in developing countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India. In Iran, the Iranian Revolution stemmed from conservative ideology; Afghanistan, despite being a multi-ethnic, culturally rich, and very diverse country, has in-fighting. Pakistan has the famous Shia-Sunni division; Sri Lanka is filled with conflicts between the minority and majority communities, and India, likewise, has conflicts between Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims.

Looking back and forth, the analysts argue that the major challenge that makes interfaith harmony unachievable is not having a secular form of government which results in religious intolerance. The state plays a vital role in manipulating the people by playing religious cards.

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Secularism simply means the separation of religion from state matters. As a result, religion does not overpower politics. Holyoake presented a deep argument on the political philosophy of secularism; he very clearly wrote that secularism does not oppose religion, it simply is an independent philosophical term that does not encourage religion to indulge in state affairs.

For example, in France, the roots of French secularism can be traced back to the French revolution. The French had revolted to overthrow the monarchy and to eliminate the control of the church. In those times, the church influenced state matters a lot but it did nothing for the oppressed masses and peasants.

The only ones benefiting from the church rule and the monarchy were the elites; religion was used to inculcate fear and to control the helpless citizens. Enlightenment played a huge role and spread awareness. People started recognizing the need for individual rights and liberty. Moreover, the success of the American Revolution paved way for more revolutions. France, however, remained secular after the revolution, till now.

Hurdles in Promoting Interfaith Harmony

There are multiple obstacles in promoting interfaith harmony. The significant impediment, however, is either religious intolerance or religious fanatics promoting and committing atrocities to terrorize people. This can be seen in ISIS activities in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Moreover, ISIS has also accepted that it has conducted terror activities, like massacres, genocide, tortures, and the worst of all, creating child soldiers and using them in suicide bombings, in more than 20 countries.

In some areas of the world, minorities are forced to convert to the dominant religion or faith. For example in China, around 1 million Uighur Muslims are forced into detention; persecution of Muslim minority groups, and re-educating the minority Muslims have become common practices.

The same is happening in India, the country imposed a lock-down on the autonomous Kashmir state and revoked article 35A—a non-citizen cannot buy property in Kashmir to prevent outsiders from settling in Kashmir—and 370, removing Kashmir’s autonomy and special status.

Another example is the forceful occupation of Jews in Palestine, aimed at the ethnic cleansing of Arab Muslims in Palestine. The origin of the conflict dates back to WW1 when the Ottoman Empire was disintegrated and Palestine was handed over to Jews, which was unacceptable to Arabs.

However, the UN proposed a resolution and divided the state into two—Israel & Palestine. Furthermore, the UN granted Jerusalem a special status. This resolution did not work and a civil war began. Israel, backed up by the US, started flexing its muscle in 1967 and annexed the rest of the Arab territory, violated human rights. It has come to the point where it now occupies almost all of the former Palestinian territory. 

Misuse of religion is also an obstacle. For instance take ISIS, the same example as above. It creates hatred among people who hear about its atrocities through media. Automatically fear and enmity towards a specific faith are created among the masses, like Islamophobia.

Illiteracy and lack of awareness is another major and often-ignored hurdle. In underdeveloped nations, education is either not easily accessible to many or is very expensive. It calls for costly books, uniforms, and additional accessories. Eventually, it results in a huge number of kids dropping out of school and looking for ways to earn money. 

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For instance, the illiteracy rate in Afghanistan is 71.9%,  in Ethiopia, it’s 61%, and in Somalia, it’s 62%. On the other hand, Norway, a very tolerant country towards all faiths, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, offer free higher education.

Lack of awareness is an extensive issue. Due to it, the citizens aren’t even aware of the features of their country’s constitution nor do they know about the principles of their religion. Unfortunately, this extends to the literate population of states too.

For example, India’s constitution is one of the lengthiest constitutions, with 448 articles, and it clearly states that India is a secular state; no ecclesiastic department of state should exist—yet the RSS has never been evicted and it still exists. It condemns religious intolerance and discrimination and promotes equality before the law but in practical life, none of this has ever been witnessed.

The citizens aren’t even aware of their constitution and religion. Therefore, such citizens very easily become victims of malicious activities, the propaganda of politicians, and hatred is easily infused in them against other communities.

They believe their officials and don’t bother to carry out some research and have no will to educate themselves. India has always been a theocratic state. Its officials promote Hinduism—like the Hindutva movement under BJP headed by President Modi which has intensified with time.

Despairingly, such issues are a major hurdle in achieving interfaith harmony as they create animosity, hatred, and detestation in common people’s hearts against a whole community. The only solution to this at the global level lies in the UN’s hand. Peace talks and interfaith debates should be encouraged and strong actions need to be taken towards those who violate human rights and misrepresent a faith or community.

Analysis

Interfaith harmony can only be made achievable by discouraging extremism, staying neutral, and not spreading false rumors and propaganda. The most famous victim of this propaganda has always been Islam. It doesn’t matter if it’s a state, city, or country, the most targeted religion is always Islam. It gives rise to Islamophobia.

It is very easy for analysts who aren’t Muslims to focus on one small community and their extremist actions and term each and every Muslim across the globe as an extremist or radical. What they fail to understand is that countable demented radicals do not represent a whole religion followed by millions. However, if interfaith harmony is more encouraged, rather than the propaganda, then it might minimize or eliminate this radical mindset.

Interfaith Conflicts and Their Impacts on a Country

Interfaith conflicts also impact the reputation of a country and tarnish its image. Even on global media, the image of the targeted country is portrayed very negatively. Such countries then have to face severe repercussions like getting blacklisted or sanctioned which directly affect the trade and economy of a country.

Moreover, a country going through interfaith grievances can easily become a battleground for enemies. The divided groups are very easily used as pawns to eliminate each other while, the enemy enjoys the show. A major example is religious conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and North Africa.

These regions are under the direct influence of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other radical groups that are rapidly spreading and creating more branches.  Even though religion is usually only one side of this issue, the core conflict is usually ethnic or over gaining power and resources.

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Adopting Neutrality and Encouraging Equality to Promote Interfaith Harmony

The developing nations should understand the necessity of adopting a neutral attitude and that equality and individual rights shouldn’t be limited to the constitution; they should also be granted to all. In developed nations, equality among all is the first priority. Even though they have a terrible history filled with discrimination and inter-communal violence.

As soon as these countries realized the importance of equality they shaped their constitutions accordingly. For example “The Magna Carta” in the UK was published back in the 1200s. The “Bill of Rights” was added to the US constitution to ensure equality among all. Above all this, the first constitution that ensured equality was “The Charter of Medina”.

The Medina charter not only provided equality but also gave freedom to practice any religion people desired. It was one of the most effective constitutions introduced to resolve conflicts. Unfortunately, it now exists only in theory and books.

Way Forward

Harmony can be achievable if awareness is created among the masses on a global level. The caste system and racism should be discouraged by every individual in every society. Proper legislation can be carried out in underdeveloped nations and reforms should be introduced to safeguard the rights of all communities and their respective members.

Minorities should be given extra attention to ensure their safety, as they are the ones usually getting targeted. For this, the media will have to play a constructive and major role. Instead of focusing on bloodshed and negative issues, it should host a program encouraging the interaction of people from different backgrounds in a positive way.

Instead of being biased, a message of neutrality should be spread. Religious literacy should be increased; interfaith dialogues should be encouraged. The theory of cooperative competitiveness should be practically applied. It encourages mutual co-operation, understanding, and healthy competition to gain mutual prosperity and success; it strongly condemns misunderstanding, rigidness, and ignorance.

Conclusion

It can be safely stated that interfaith harmony is conceivable. It can help in stabilizing a nation or a specific region and can spread peace and prosperity across the globe. The essence of the whole debate points toward promoting an egalitarian society where equality, justice, and impartiality prevail. If elaborated in simpler terms, it urges towards a dignified, fair, loving, and caring behavior towards all, by considering everyone as equally human as we ourselves are.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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About the Author(s)

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Sidra Azeem is a third-year student of Internation Relations at the National University of Modern Languages. She can be reached at [email protected]

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