There can be no doubt that we are wading through an uncertain era of religious atavism. But let us also not ignore another by-product of this apparent iodine deficiency — cultural cretinism. It is steadily shrinking our life skills, including the ability to bond with people from different branches of the tree we share.
The tragedy of the Bamiyan Buddhas and of a mediaeval mosque in Ayodhya, the sacking of Palmyra in Syria, the gunning down of a loved qawwal in Pakistan, the growing assaults on Bauls in Bangladesh, who sing Tagore, Nazrul and Ginsberg, the forced deplaning of a honeymooning couple by an airhostess after she heard the man saying “Allah”, the rise of Donald Trump, the assault on Muslims and Dalits in India for eating beef, the routine beating up of Africans and Manipuris in Delhi are interconnected by a global enterprise. It uses religion to destroy great, living cultures with hate and fear.
The Bamiyan Buddhas were ensconced since whenever in Afghanistan, including several centuries under Muslim watch. They were either admired or accepted like any habit by those that lived under their majestic shadow. Then one day the great work of art was blown up, with artillery, by marauders who were raised in a joint enterprise by America and its allies as the ‘sword arm’ of Islam.
Someone asked Zbigniew Brzezinski, president Carter&’s security adviser, why he had created them. He said it was more important to bring down the Soviet empire than to worry about “a few stirred-up Muslims”. That&’s what we mean by cultural cretinism. Brzezinski had no clue what he was getting into. The airhostess in the plane was similarly ignorant that many Muslims by habit will call out to God, as would Jews and Gentiles, if the air conditioning was malfunctioning in their plane. Who doesn’t fight off a yawn by calling out to God? That&’s not religion, that&’s culture. Eating beef is not religion; it&’s culture. Not eating beef or pork can be religion, if it is not also part of a doctor&’s advice against cholesterol. In India, people eat dog, frog, snake and mice, apart from the more popular meats. The Maoist (and non-Maoist) tribes of Chhattisgarh savour a delicacy made with red ants. It gives them calories to fight the Indian army. It&’s their culture, not religion. The late Prof Moonis Raza who set up the Jawaharlal Nehru University would say that two meats were frowned upon by orthodox Hindus, and by Jews and Muslims. He was as much a cultural Muslim as his brother Rahi Masoom Raza who wrote the Mahabharat serial. It is another matter that Rahi&’s televised story from a Hindu epic helped Hindutva gain a leg over his own liberal moorings. One of the characters from the serial is the controversial head of the state-run Poona film institute, which was once headed by Shyam Benegal and Saeed Mirza.
Palmyra in Syria changed hands on a number of occasions between different empires before becoming a subject of the Roman Empire in the first century AD. The city was reduced to ruins recently by men who set out to unseat the Syrian regime but couldn’t. They turned their wrath on an ancient relic of an amazing civilisation.
This is par for the course for cultural disruptions elsewhere. Mirza Ghalib&’s house in Delhi was retrieved from a coal stall. Mir Taqi Mir&’s grave in Lucknow disappeared under British-built railway tracks. Wali Gujarati, the 18th-century Urdu poet was a cultural Muslim who wrote paeans to Hindu icons. Prime Minister Narendra Modi&’s followers dug up his grave in Ahmedabad, while his bureaucracy built a spanking new road over it. It was bad enough that Genghis Khan (who was not Muslim) and the East India Company looted and plundered cultures they were unfamiliar with. However, Trump and Modi have been thrown up by their chest-thumping democracies, while Abu Bakr Baghdadi had to usurp power. The missing quantity of cultural iodine in democracies is perhaps more worrying. Mr Modi was agitated for two consecutive days by the recent surge in anti-Dalit violence. His Hindutva cowboys, directing their poison at Muslims so far, had turned on the Dalits for gathering cattle hide. The Dalits responded by refusing to remove dead animals anymore. “You can kill me but do not attack the Dalit brothers,” the prime minister reportedly pleaded with the gangs of enthusiasts he had himself unleashed.
Mr Modi needs Dalit votes urgently, but he can’t deny that he passed the Gujarat Animal Protection (Amendment) Act, 2011, which makes “transport of animals for slaughter” a punishable offence while the original act banned only cow slaughter. Mr Modi slammed Hindutva busybodies for “running shops” in the name of cow care but didn’t spell out who the authorised agents were. Was the mob in Ayodhya, which he whipped up, carrying the licence to demolish an ordinary mosque? As it turned out, Brzezinski wanted to finish off the Soviet Union and Modi wanted to become prime minister. Both harnessed religion to undermine the life skills of culture.
It is thus a fact that prejudice, whether ultra nationalist or religious, is grounded in simplistic gibberish. Culture ushers a complex togetherness even if such proximity will not always bring abundance of milk and honey. Still it is the only way we know.
The most searing examples of people robbed of their cultural moorings and handed religion as a defining identity are Palestinians and Kashmiris. Palestine was about a shared culture of Jews, Muslims and Christians living together. Today, Palestine has been contrived to look like a Muslim quest. It is the same with a culturally abundant Jammu and Kashmir. Powerful agents of intolerance are at work on both sides of the imbroglio, plundering a living culture with the more profitable religious atavism.