Recently I had a fierce argument with a few of my good friends who are generally identified as "liberals" in the modern Indian context. And as they usually do, they started out with the "terrorism-has-no-religion" argument and went on to say that it's wrong to connect terrorism to any religion because "it's all politics". It was merely a coincidence that the Paris attacks happened immediately after our argument had simmered.
When I suggested that we can no longer ignore the connection between the foundational texts of Islam and the actions carried out by the jihadists, I was immediately countered with the argument that there are also Hindu terrorists in India and Buddhist terrorists in Myanmar. I asked them to provide me with a single line from any Hindu or Buddhist scripture that - even remotely - advocates the killing of people who don't share the same faith as you (and I offered to give them references from the Quran and the Hadith for the exact same point). Instead of giving me a direct response, they said that religious texts rely heavily on interpretation and it completely depends on how you interpret it. When I mentioned that interpretation of a religious text doesn't happen in a vacuum and that there is a whole tradition of interpretation in every faith, their response was far from nuanced. They said that I could say all this because I was privileged - being an educated, Hindu, male. They accused me of being racist and offensive. I didn't ask them for any more data or references (at any rate, they had provided me none through the entire course of the discussion!)
At this point, instead of getting angry, I grew sympathetic. I've been a student of religion and philosophy for more than 15 years. Clearly, my insights are very different from the average "liberal" (or the average "conservative"), who reads a couple of newspaper articles and thinks she knows enough about Hinduism or Islam to give her verdict. Funnily, nobody feels the same way about physics or anthropology or medicine or law - people don't read an op-ed piece on law and try to debate legalities with a barrister.
The worst thing we can do to counter religious fanaticism is to be ignorant about it. In the name of offending people and offering "safe spaces", if we even refuse to have an open discussion about the rise of radical Islam, we will continue to remain ignorant. We can never find a solution. And the biggest victims of radical Islam are Muslims. There is the occasional attack on Mumbai, on Paris, on Sydney, and that is what the world hears about. But there is a daily assault on several Muslims in the Islamic world that goes unnoticed (for example, a good friend of mine who is a Shi'a was mentioning about the systemic attack on Shi'a mosques in Pakistan by the Sunni majority.)
In one of my previous articles, I had written about how every religion has a contextual part, which needs to be upgraded over time. Now, this upgradation has to happen from within the community or faith. An external imposition will not be sustainable, and in fact, it seems unreasonable to even try. However, governments and policymakers must have open discussions with religious leaders from the Islamic community, given that we are living in a multicultural society today and radical Islam affects everyone.
While some might disagree with me, I think we as a people have taken the first step towards finding a solution - with the several Muslim voices that are coming out sharply against ISIS and such organisations. The problem however is that we have been stuck at this step for way too long. While the Muslim voices condemn the ISIS, the typical chant is that ISIS is un-Islamic. That their interpretation of the Quran is wrong. That no religion advocates violence. On the other hand, the ISIS and such organisations claim that they are anything but un-Islamic and if anything, they are truly Islamic.
One thing that is often forgotten is that we're dealing with a text that is nearly 1,400 years old. The circumstances under which Islam was born warranted strict measures. Violence was a part of the daily life in the desert. In the wink of an eye, a neighbouring tribe could attack and loot and kill. The code of conduct of that era cannot be mimicked today. And herein lies the dissonance in understanding. It is the average Muslim who has come out of the traditional text and moulded his life based on secular values. And it is the extremist Muslim who is blindly clinging on to the letter of the Quran instead of the spirit. By claiming that there is nothing wrong with the texts, we are actually propagating a falsehood. Every religious text has contextual bits that are outdated. Recognising them and purging them is the task of internal critics. Of course, there will be an initial resistance to change, but if the proposed changes lead to a better quality of life and better inclusion into the mainstream, they will be accepted within a generation.
With the advent of the internet, it's almost impossible to hide information. It is easy to access pertinent websites and immediately verify the veracity of a claim. The old strategy of withholding data will no longer work.
Unless the discourse changes from simply employing the usual hashtags - be it #TerrorHasNoReligion or #JeSuisCharlie - to a meaningful and sustained (and uncomfortable) discussion with Islamic religious leaders, we will not have taken the second step.
I know that in matters of faith, it's difficult to critically examine data and read through books that don't share our point of view. But given that any one of us could be the victim of violence caused in the name of religion, it is our responsibility to be more aware of what is causing this violence, if not anything else.