God is back

BY A J Philip| IN Opinion | 16/05/2009
A journalism that ignores or dismisses the role of religion in our common life misses the greatest stories of our time.
A.J. PHILIP rues the fact that most editors are wary of touching religion.

                  Reprinted from Indian Currents, May 11-17 issue

TWENTY years ago when I was transferred to New Delhi from Patna, I went to meet my editor H.K. Dua. I knew that he wanted me as an editorial writer. He asked me what kind of subjects I would like to handle. I knew the Hindustan Times had veteran editorial writers like the late P. Tharyan and D. Sen who handled such subjects as politics, economics and foreign policy. I thought of mentioning a non-competitive subject like religion.


"Religion!" The editor was shocked to hear the word. Of course, he clarified, "I believe religion is in the personal domain. It has caused more problems than it has solved. I would rather ignore religious issues than comment on them". I knew it was pointless to persist when he was dead against the idea of a religious writer on the rolls of the HT.


Soon I began writing on issues like militancy in Punjab and caste wars in Bihar. A few months later, I got an opportunity to test the editor¿s aversion for religious subjects. The Paramacharya of Kanchi had attained Samadhi. When I volunteered to write an edit on the Swamiji, he was dismissive of the suggestion.


It was obvious that Dua did not know much about him. When I told him that it was the Paramacharya who had come to the rescue of a mosque in front of the Kanchi Shankaracharya¿s abode when Hindu zealots wanted to demolish it, I could see a change in his attitude. Finally, he relented and HT became the only paper, at least in North India, to pay such a tribute to the savant.


Why blame Dua? Most editors are wary of touching religion. They are so scared of offending religious sensibilities that they prefer to ignore subjects they think have religious connotations. In doing so, they prove unequal to the task of providing enlightened opinion on many subjects which have religious undertones.


Take the case of Mother Teresa. When she died, most newspapers paid eloquent tributes to her. They all praised her as a great social worker who cared for the poor, the destitute and the forlorn. It is a different matter that her services to humanity make no sense if they are divested of their religious content. As she herself said, she saw in the dying destitute the image of the dying Jesus on the cross. So when she served man, she actually served God.


A journalism that ignores or dismisses the role of religion in our common life misses the greatest stories of our time. The more sophisticated our knowledge of religion, the more sophisticated is our knowledge of the world. G.K. Chesterton once called secularism "a taboo of tact or convention, whereby we are free to say that a man does this or that because of his nationality or his profession, or his place of residence, or his hobby, but not because of his creed about the very cosmos in which he lives".


Thus when Baba Seechewal of Punjab motivates his followers to clean a dirty drain, it is not his sense of cleanliness that is at work. It is an expression of his religiosity. History is replete with instances of men and women attempting great things for God, to quote William Carey. It was in service of his heavenly master that this cobbler from Britain came to India, learnt languages like Sanskrit, Bengali and Assamese and wrote pioneering books in those languages.


It was Quakerism which motivated early abolitionism. Again, it was 19th century evangelicalism that continued and completed that fight. William Wilberforce, known as God¿s politician, was able to drum up support for abolition of slavery in the British Parliament only because he believed slavery was against the very concept of equality that Jesus preached.


When Mahatma Gandhi visualised Ram Rajya as his ultimate aim, he used an idiom which is similar to the Biblical ¿Kingdom of God¿. Few politicians understood the appeal of religion as the Father of the Nation who used it with telling effect in his campaign against the British rule. India is one of the most religious nations. Temples, mosques and churches attract millions of people every day. How much of this religious activity is reported in the media?


Because of editors with secular blinders, journalists who have an aptitude for religious writing are seldom recruited or encouraged to write. Renuka Narayanan of the Hindustan Times who can give a lecture at Vidya Jyoti, a think tank of the Jesuits, and get away unscathed, is an exception. Most newspapers are happy to publish an article on Christmas on the Christmas day and greet the readers on Id and Diwali. They think that is how religion ought to be covered. There is need for greater understanding of religion to understand even contemporary political issues.


The recent developments in Pakistan cannot be understood without understanding the significance of Sharia and what the Taliban stand for. Nearer home, why did lakhs of Muslims come out on the streets to protest against the Danish cartoonist who drew cartoons of the Prophet? Or, can the clashes that regularly occur in Lucknow between Shias and Sunnis be understood without knowing about the earliest schism in Islam?


Ignorance of religion is not peculiar to the Indian media. The secular Press in the West is as dismissive of religion as the Indian media. Journalists there are as ill-equipped as Indian journalists are. A New York Times correspondent made a gaffe while reporting what he thought was a gaffe on the part of then President George Bush. The President made an off-the-cuff statement that "we ought to take the log out of our own eye before calling attention to the speck in the eye of our neighbour".


The reporter mentioned it as a gaffe and termed it as "an interesting variation on the saying about the pot and the kettle" calling each other black. Neither the reporter nor his editors knew that it was derived from the Bible. The ignorance was shameful as the reference is contained in the Sermon on the Mount.


The NYT¿s rival Washington Post exposed its ignorance when it quoted an onstage exclamation from one of the religious broadcasters: "Let¿s pray God will slay everyone in the Capitol". Without an explanation, the reader would get the impression that the preacher prayed for the death of all the US Senators and House Representatives. The journalists who handled the story did not know that Pentacostal Christians routinely refer to being "slain in the Holy Spirit". What they mean is that they are transformed by a surge of God¿s power.


Sociologist Christian Smith is reported to have said that he is tired of calls from journalists who don¿t know that Episcopalians are not "Episcopals" or who confuse Evangelicals with "Evangelists" or even, God forbid, "evangelicalists". How many journalists know that the Shankara of Kaladi set up only four Peeths, though there are more than five holy men calling themselves Shankaracharyas?


The word ¿Jihad¿ has different connotations. There are two types of jihad, the superior and the inferior as M.J. Akbar explains in his book The Shade of Swords: Jihad and the Conflict between Islam and Christianity. The war against non-believers comes in the latter category while a person¿s war against the evil in his mind belongs to the former. The "Ram Ram" with which a pious Hindu villager greets another is different from the "Jai Sri Ram" heard from the BJP platforms.


Roberta Green Ahmanson is a writer and philanthropist whose qualities of head and heart I personally know of. She and her husband Howard Ahmanson founded Fieldstead and Company, a private philanthropy, in 1979. She was a Religion Reporter at ¿Orange County Register¿ when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards in 1984. Her assignment that day was to talk to the Indian community leaders, understand what prompted the killers and explain the assassination to the readers.


Most American newspapers reported that it was an act of political vengeance. Ahamanson was better equipped to do the story because she knew about Sikhism. Besides, she also talked to a number of Sikhs and Hindus in Orange County, California. She got the story when one of those whom she contacted blurted out: "I would have been surprised if no assassination attempt was made within the next few months. Indira Gandhi was a bad politician. She was like Hitler".


Ahamanson concluded that "the story was that Indira Gandhi had died for her faith: not her Hindu faith, for she had little, if any. Certainly not her Sikh faith, for she had none. Instead, she died for her faith in the necessity and healing power of secularism". Unlike her, most American reporters covered it as a political story. "But it did not explain why so many Sikhs actually thought they needed to be at war with Indira Gandhi, nor why she was in a war with Sikhism, a faith that proved stronger than her guards¿ loyalty to secular tradition".


Having covered the Sikh soldiers¿ mutiny at Ramgarh in undivided Bihar in protest against the Army¿s assault on the Golden Temple, known in military parlance as Operation Bluestar, I can state that Ahamanson¿s conclusion could not have been more correct. She has narrated how she got the assassination story right in a new book ¿Blind Spot: When Journalists Don¿t Get Religion¿ (Oxford University Press) she co-edited with Paul Marshall and Lela Gilbert.


This anthology argues the need for greater journalistic awareness of religion in the modern-day world which is increasingly influenced by religion. In retrospect, we can say how wrong Indian diplomat and historian K. M. Panikkar was when he predicted in 1952 that "Christianity throughout Asia and Africa would collapse once the coercive pressures of Western colonialism were removed". Today Africa has more Anglicans than Britain and the US have. As the mid-sixties marked the apex of secularism¿s dominance over modern world affairs, American newsweekly Time carried a cover story entitled "Is God Dead?"


A series of events since then leave one with the inescapable conclusion that God is far from dead and He is indeed controlling world politics. Within a year of the Time story, the leader of secular Arab nationalism, Gamal Abdel Nasser, suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Israeli Army during the Six-Day War. "By the end of the 1970s, Iran¿s Ayatollah Khomeini, born again US President Jimmy Carter, television evangelist Jerry Falwell and Pope John Paul II had dramatically demonstrated the increasing political clout of religious movements and their leaders".


In India, Nehru¿s death in 1964 "brought a spurt of challenge to the hegemony of the secularist Congress Party, including from Hindu-nationalist elements. (A proposal to create a new militant Hindu organisation was floated only three months after Nehru¿s death, and by 1966 it had taken shape as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)".


A defining moment was the victory of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian election. One of its first acts was to replace the PLO flag flying over the Palestinian Parliament with its emerald-green banner heralding, "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet". Earlier, Osama bin Laden of al Qaeda had left nobody in doubt when following 9/11, he declared that "this war is fundamentally religious. Under no circumstances should we forget this enmity between us and the infidels. For, the enmity is based on creed".


Osama bin Laden can never be accused of ambiguity. He has a list of grievances against the Western world. The starting point is not the creation of Israel or the invasion of Afghanistan by the erstwhile Soviet Union. In his own words: "Following World War 1, which ended more than 83 years ago, the whole Islamic world fell under the Crusader banner". Here, Gandhi and Osama are on one side, for Gandhi had launched the Khilafat movement, mainly to win the sympathy of the Muslims for his cause.


Today, Ataturk¿s secularism is under increasing attack in Turkey. The spectre of the Taliban haunts Pakistan while the imminent defeat of the Tamil Tigers raises fears of Buddhist Sinhala dominance in Sri Lanka. In India, the splintering of the so-called secular parties to the advantage of the BJP is something that cannot be ruled out in the ongoing general election. It would, therefore, be appropriate for Time to do a sequel to the cover story mentioned. It could be titled "God is back".


The writer can be reached at ajphilip@gmail.com


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