Intolerance is a Two-way Street

Underground and secretly maintained Krishna temples in Iran? Yes. And I’ll tell you why I am beginning this column on the raging global debate on the recent Swiss ban on the construction of new minarets by recalling a stunning personal experience in Iran.

Dec 12, NEW DELHI, INDIA (INDIAN EXPRESS) — Underground and secretly maintained Krishna temples in Iran? Yes. And I’ll tell you why I am beginning this column on the raging global debate on the recent Swiss ban on the construction of new minarets by recalling a stunning personal experience in Iran.

When I first visited Iran a decade after the Khomeini revolution, an Indian friend working for an Indian company in the country said to me, “Let me take you to a vegetarian restaurant in Tehran that serves Indian food.” I enjoyed the meal and complimented the restaurant’s owner, who happened to be a highly placed scientist in a university. My friend then said to the owner, “Why don’t you show him the special place in your restaurant?” The owner led us to the basement, and then to an underground room with narrow steps whose entrance was concealed. The room was filled with the aroma of agarbatti, sandalwood paste and flowers, kept in front of an icon of Krishna and Radha.

The music system was playing, at a barely audible volume, the rhythmic chant ‘Rama Rama Hare Hare, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare’. The owner told me that he and a small group of Krishna devotees (all of them Iranians) use the place as a temple for daily prayers. I didn’t ask him why his group prayed at a clandestine temple. It’s stupid to ask questions whose answers you know.

During a subsequent visit to Iran, this time as a member of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s delegation, I discovered that one of the interpreters, an educated woman in black chador, was a devotee of Sai Baba. “We have several devotees in Iran,” she said, “Also of Ramana Maharshi. We have secret congregations. I go to Puttaparthi whenever I visit India.”

Surprised? You can read an entire chapter devoted to the secret followers of “Krishnaism” in Iran, and how they are routinely persecuted by the authorities, in Aatish Taseer’s wonderfully written Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands.

The global outcry against the Swiss referendum prompts me to ask myself a troubling question which is hardly debated in the Indian media: “The ban is wrong and condemnable, but why is there no protest against, and not even a discussion on, the near-total denial of religious freedom for non-Muslims in most Muslim countries?” Saudi Arabia prohibits the construction of any non-Muslim place of worship on its soil. A non-Muslim cannot even enter Mecca and Medina. Most Gulf countries disallow building of churches and synagogues. Hindu temples, of course, are a no-no.

A friend who worked in Saudi Arabia once told me that he was not allowed to carry even pictures of Hindu deities to be used for worship at home. “The immigration staff at the airport found the pictures in my bag and simply threw them aside.” Non-Muslim employees cannot celebrate their festivals in public. This, in spite of the fact that millions of non-Muslim immigrants have been working in these countries for many years, contributing immensely to their economic prosperity and social wellbeing.

In the debate on the Swiss ban, here is a European blogger’s comment on the Net:

“Muslims are allowed to do dawa, build/repair mosques, and openly practice their faith in the West. Yet, in the Islamic world, these activities for Christians are severely restricted if not outright prohibited. Muslims can convert us, but the other way around is viewed as a provocation. Only one demographic group in Europe has created literally hundreds of no-go areas. You don’t hear about Hindus, Buddhists, or any other faith group creating these kinds of areas. I want to see the gap bridged between the two civilisations, but it takes two to dance.”

There are also other asymmetries. The US, Canada and almost all European countries accept Muslim immigrants from around the world and even grant them citizenship. This accounts for the rapid rise in the Muslim population in the West. On the contrary, very few Muslim countries grant citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants if they refuse to embrace Islam. Indeed, even the population of native religious minorities in the Islamic world is shrinking each year, largely due to official and unofficial persecution. In Sadanand Dhume’s extremely readable debut book, My Friend The Fanatic, which describes the steady Arabisation of Indonesia, he says this about neighbouring Malaysia, another Muslim majority country:

“A Yemeni or a Pakistani might show up today and his children would be considered sons of the soil and given preferences in everything from college admissions to business contracts. The children of a Buddhist or Christian Chinese or of a Hindu Tamil who had lived there a hundred years remained foreign.”

Yes, the Swiss move on minarets is unjustified. Yet, many liberals who oppose the ban are alarmed by the illiberal voices that have emanated from the Muslim world. They especially refer to the words of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey who heads an Islamist party in a country that is still secular: “The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks and the faithful our army.”

Clearly, Muslims around the world need to do some self-reflection on inter-religious relations in our globalised world. If secularism, pluralism and tolerance are necessary in Muslim-minority countries, they are equally necessary in Muslim-majority countries. Double standards won’t do.

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