Q: What was the most important religion story of 2009?
We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth….[we] believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
Thus spoke President Barack Obama at his inauguration in January 2009, as he heralded a new presidency and the ultimate year of this decade. And with those words, bracketing Christians with Hindus and Muslims with nonbelievers, did the president set an epochal tone of inclusiveness. Every religious tradition and those without faith could join together and share in a “common humanity.” Just as the Nobel Prize was awarded preemptively to the this President based on words and hope, his inauguration speech contained words that alone make it the most important religion news story of 2009. Hope is Obama’s calling card, but was the call answered? Inspirational words, or a phantasmic call ignored and forgotten?
An inauguration is not the most political of all speeches. It is the moment, fresh in the afterglow of an election, to own the stage, aspire to transcendent ideas and lofty aspirations. Grant the president, for a moment at least, his sincerity as he dreamed of “common humanity” to overcome divisions.
But the success of a presidency will be measured, in part, at least, against a realization of those very aspirations. Let’s reexamine those words Obama uttered, see where we are and understand what it will take to pass this executive order of faith.
We are indeed a nation of diverse faiths and a faith in nothing at all. Hindus, now numbering two million may have been included in this context for the first time, but the presidential intention is clear: our majority Christian nation is not A Christian Nation; no religion occupies place of privilege; in a nation where professing no religion at all is the fastest growing demographic, a president must lead expansively.
In 2005, the Hindu American Foundation was repulsed by Shirley Dobson’s National Day of Prayer Task Force, when it sought to join celebrations throughout the country. This same task force joined the likes of Focus on Family and others, that enjoyed official status and the aura of government sanction. Obama implied in his speech that the crass narcissism of these organizations was on the outs, and he came through this year. Ours is certainly a religious country, and this year, the National Day of Prayer belonged to all faiths, and so many of the most important days for every major religious tradition were celebrated by a sitting president for the first time–from Ramadan to Diwali. A major religion story in its own right.
The president eloquently called out for the “old hatreds” to pass. Words more urgent and more relevant to the dialogue today scarcely have been heard before. Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land; Christians and Buddhists in Sri Lanka; Hindus and Muslims in India’s Kashmir, conflicts and conflagrations abound. How can we get the hate to pass?
Interfaith councils, interfaith meetings, interfaith prayers have been proposed and countless have gone forth. Certainly, religious leaders meet, say prayers in their holy tongues, and inspiring pictures are taken. But I’ve often felt that these become exercises in nothing more than spiritually uplifting futility. For what is the fundamental basis of the meeting?
If religious leaders gather with the mindset that only they have the direct line to God, what is left to share? If a mullah or evangelical pastor comes together with a Sikh at an interfaith forum with the Qur’anic or Biblical certainty that the person is an infidel or heathen doomed to hell, will the Sikh truly have an opportunity to share the greatness of Sikhism with a receptive partner? Understanding and tolerance are important, but are hollow concepts without the critical element of pluralism–defined as Hindu sages extolled a few millenia ago in the Vedas: Truth is One, the wise know It by many names. Without the pluralism that we have in the United States, one will build superficially tolerant countries such as Malaysia or Indonesia, where unrest simmers just below a contrived surface of happy tolerance in otherwise avowedly Muslim countries.
I cannot presume to ask an evangelical Christian or devout Muslim to ignore the precept of their faith that theirs is the only way and others are doomed to purgatory, hell or another unpleasant fate. But recent Hindu and Jewish dialogue presents a concrete example of true theological synergy and sharing without compromising any principles.
The Acharya Dharma Sabha, an apex unifying body comprised of revered leaders of Hinduism’s oldest and most known sampradayas (traditions) met over the last two years with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in Jerusalem, New Delhi, and this summer, New York and Washington, D.C. Out of this dialogue came a declaration both eloquent and meaningful. Jews understood that Hindus worshipping One God in various manifestations are not “idol worshippers”; both realized their shared value for the sanctity of life as paramount with an emphasis on non-violence; both religions seek to embrace modernity so that it serves the highest callings of their spiritual traditions–rather than yearning for some perfect bygone era. And this critical point that should be the goal and common denominator for every sincere interfaith effort anywhere:
…recognize that all religions are sacred and valid for their respective peoples. We believe that there is no inherent right embedded in any religion to denigrate or interfere with any other religion or with its practitioners.
Finally, take the call to let “old hatreds pass” with the urging that “lines of tribe” dissolve. I have argued before that the president should not have, in Cairo earlier this year, framed an important speech on the conflagration sweeping much of the Middle East and Asia as an address to the “Muslim world.” Muslims are citizens of countries throughout the world with hopes and aspirations for peace and prosperity wherever they live. Their concerns in democracies such as the United States and India are entirely local first and foremost. The strictures of Sharia do not enjoin their lives, and they put in their lot with their fellow citizens. Of course, the human rights of their co-religionists anywhere matters, but seeing global politics as affecting a Muslim world is the terminology of Islamic extremism and should not be given credibility by our president. Framing a war in Afghanistan or Iraq as a “war against Islam” should be left to the loonies at al-Qaeda.
Ft. Hood showed that extremist Islam lives in our midst and the airplane surrounded by security on a Detroit runway on Christmas Day shows us that the same extremism knows no national borders. When violent extremists raise their voice within a tradition, I believe they should be denounced forcefully. Islam’s leading voices should reject the tribal mentality that claims a war against terrorists in Pakistan’s border regions is a war against all Muslims.
Obama issued a brave call for reconciliation nearly a year ago, and events over the last year assert again their utter relevance. Perhaps a Christian president of Muslim parentage is steeped in understanding that informed a presidency that has been truly pluralistic this year. This is his carrot to America while he wields a stick in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Ft. Hood, Texas, for that matter. Letting “old hatreds pass,” asking “lines of tribe” to dissolve and building an inclusive, pluralistic America–realize all of this and we will usher in, no doubt, a “new era of peace.”
Views expressed here are the personal views of Dr. Aseem Shukla, and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Minnesota or Hindu American Foundation.