By Gwynne Dyer
The gods are thin-skinned, both the many gods of the classical pantheons (Greek, Roman, Hindu) and the jealous single gods of the monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). Criticise them in any way, and they will punish you severely – or at least their earthly followers will.
But these earthly followers also use their gods for their own purposes. The cycle is insult; outrage and counter-insult; repeat as necessary. As, for example, in India now.
The ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party – Indian People’s Party) is a Hindu nationalist party whose goal is to turn India into a Hindu-ruled country where all the religious minorities are second-class citizens. The principal target is India’s Muslims, who are 15% of the population – almost 200 million people.
Muslims are an easy target because their Mughal ancestors conquered India and ruled it for many centuries. India is therefore a ‘wounded civilisation’ in the view of Hindu radicals, and the Muslim infection must be purged in order to restore the health of a truly Hindu civilisation.
Hatred and fear of the Muslims is what brought the BJP to power, and to keep their supporters energised they must constantly find new Muslim outrages to exploit. The latest was the ‘discovery’ that an historic mosque in the sacred city of Varanasi was built on the ruins of a Hindu temple.
How do they know? Because the mosque’s pool contains a fountain that can, when viewed in the right light with your eyes half-closed, be interpreted as embodying a ‘Shivling’ or Shiva Linga: a carved stone that symbolises the ineffable essence of the Lord Shiva.
Why Muslims of long ago would have incorporated such a symbol in the mosque’s pool remains unexplained, but this immediately became the BJP’s claim. Other mosques have been destroyed by Hindu mobs on similarly flimsy grounds, so various Muslims immediately leapt to its defence.
One of them, debating on-air with the BJP’s national spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, allegedly said harsh things about Shiva. Ms Sharma replied by casting aspersions upon the prophet Mohammed. I shall not repeat them, but they concerned the age of the prophet’s youngest wife Aisha. It’s in the Quran.
More outrage, now by Muslims, and this time it went international. So Nupur Sharma was suddenly demoted from national spokesperson to a “fringe element”, suspended from the BJP at least for a while. Is the BJP turning over a new leaf?
Not at all. It is frantically back-pedaling to assuage the anger of the oil-rich Muslim counties of the Gulf, which provide most of India’s oil and employ millions of its workers. The BJP’s war on Islam is for domestic purposes only.
Similarly, the Gulf states will happily carry on ignoring the Indian government’s behaviour at home in return for a sham apology, just as they ignore China’s oppression of the Muslims in Xinjiang and keep on selling Beijing their oil. The scale of the hypocrisy is breath-taking – but it is also drearily familiar.
And none of it proves that rival religions are incompatible. Multi-religious societies have thrived peacefully both in the past and in the present. A little politeness goes a long way.
A sense of humour helps, too. “Mughal architecture is amazing! They always built an ancient Hindu temple in the basement first,” tweeted an Indian Muslim, undermining the BJP’s story-line without a single angry word. But it is getting bad in India: religion is being weaponised in ways that have already led to massacre, and could lead to genocide.