In September 2020, Charlie Hebdo, a French Magazine, published a cartoon caricature on Prophet Muhammad (Sm) that expectedly caused immediate protests across countries. Of course, subsequent events, especially the killing of the school teacher who presented the caricature as an example of freedom of expression, are well-known. Not only these, but there are also in fact thousands of events, ranging from hate speech to conflicts, that indicate a significant presence of inter-and intra-religious intolerance across countries. Though inter-and intra-religious harmony –– peaceful coexistence of diverse religions and sects –– is rendered as crucial for any society, it is not present as desired. This raises a pertinent question: is harmony among adherents to diverse religions and non-adherents possible in the world?

Of course, not only states but also religions –– revealed and non-revealed –– seek harmony among religious adherents and non-adherents for peaceful living. In fact, all religions, including Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism, say of benevolence and compassion and promote inter and intra-religious harmony instead of hate speech, religious intolerance, insults, or conflicts. For instance, Islam teaches, “…It’s being selfless, do good with universal love for all”, Christianity says, ”Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another”, and Zoroastrianism teaches, “One should love others as oneself…” These clearly indicate that harmony among adherents to diverse religions or religious sects as well as non-adherents is possible, even if there are fundamental differences among religions.

Complete religious harmony may, nonetheless, be unrealizable on the grounds. Indeed, religious harmony and individual rights, including freedom of expression, are in conceptual contradiction. As is argued, full religious harmony requires subordination of some individual interests and rights to wider social and/or religious interests. On some occasions, one’s pursuance of some reasonable interests may put a hindrance to the religious rights of others. Liberal countries usually put more emphasis on individual rights over anything else, although religious rights are given emphasis too; non-liberal or communitarian countries, on the other hand, that emphasize non-individualistic law, ethics and politics put more emphasis on community cohesiveness and harmony than individual rights. As it appears, contradiction on this ground is more visible in liberal societies compared to non-liberal ones.

Diverse economic, political, cultural, and religious causes such as solidified mental frame based on religious beliefs or non-beliefs, differing rules in daily life, significant cultural differences among religions, acting on the belief of the supremacy of one’s religion over others, state suppression of one religion over another and political provocations based on religions –– more importantly –– make full religious harmony difficult on the grounds. Some religion based cultural practices including eating beef, which Muslims consider permitted but Hindus do not as they consider the cow sacred, sometimes cause religious tensions. Of course, diverse causes do not lessen the chance of harmony similarly among adherents and non-adherents across countries; some may have a more tolerant attitude, while others may not.

On the contrary, religious disharmony –– expressed in a range of forms including religious hatred, hate speech, religion-based negative stereotyping and stigmatization, religious insults or religion-based conflicts –– that leads to the loss of numerous lives, disturbs the peace in the society, puts individual and national security at risks, and results in many other negative effects in many countries cannot be desired. In actual fact, both inter and intra-religious disharmony –– perhaps, avoidable with effective measures on most occasions –– not only brought out immeasurable negative consequences in the past decades but also brings so at the present time. Not less significant is the fact that religious intolerance puts barriers to religious practices, not only for Muslims but also for adherents to other religions.

Though diverse socio-political religious and other obstacles may decrease the chance of actual religious harmony as desired, improvement of inter and intra-religious harmony to the extent needed for peaceful living at an acceptable level is possible on the grounds. As it appears, harmonious relations among adherents and non-adherents exist in different Muslim countries, countries dominated by other religious faiths, and religiously diversified countries in Asia, Europe, America, and other continents with variations. One of the most commonly cited countries is Singapore, where Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others live in a peaceful manner. These clearly signify that the harmonious relationship among religions and religious sects is, of course, realizable at least at an acceptable level.

Without any doubt, global and national efforts for the improvement of religious harmony are promising. Along with some remarkable UN efforts including the 1981 UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, there are legal and policy arrangements, religious and inter-religious organizations, inter-faith networks or alliances, and a wide variety of community-based programs in different countries to foster inter and intra-religious harmony. Yet, little political will exists to make the 1981 UN Declaration as a binding legal instrument, and other global and national efforts, which have country-wise variations, are inadequate and/or inadequately implemented compared to the extent of religious disharmony and its dimensions across countries.

In fact, global and national efforts have not effectively focused on wide-ranging causes of religious intolerance as needed. Even if good prospects remain on the grounds for further improvement, it is, in my opinion, unclear whether and what extent global and national efforts can bring out desired outcomes in reality without putting significant emphasis on not only personal, family/relational, community, and wider social causes within national boundaries but also trans-boundary causes of religious intolerance. As is rightly criticized by analysts of religious conflicts, religious intolerance in one country especially in rigorous forms such as religion-based conflicts –– and suppression of adherents of one religion by adherents of another –– can also lead to religious disharmony in other countries.

Under such circumstances, global and national efforts should be made more effective with the reflection of religious intolerance from a broad viewpoint. But hate speech and religious insults –– including insults against religions and Prophets –– need to be discouraged across countries. Simultaneously, discouragement of killings based on religions and dissemination of religious texts related to religious tolerance need to be emphasized and, obviously, religious leaders should play crucial roles to bring out some significant impacts on the grounds. Genuinely creditable roles from political leaders are also desired.

© The Eastern Herald
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Amir Sayem
Studied Masters of Population Sciences from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Writing about issues including social, political, public health, environmental, and international relations. Contributor to The Eastern Herald from Bangladesh.