Don't preach hate in the name of God

The enemies of religion are not secular forces, but the most ardent followers of named faiths
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The Independent Online

I have come to faith quite late in life and, unlike others who turn down that road unexpectedly or those who convert, I can't truthfully say I find the journey effortless or that religion has miraculously cleansed me and made me a shining example to others. I ask too many questions to be that; refuse injunctions which make no sense, and am ever more convinced that all religions have to be understood within history, not outside it.

I have come to faith quite late in life and, unlike others who turn down that road unexpectedly or those who convert, I can't truthfully say I find the journey effortless or that religion has miraculously cleansed me and made me a shining example to others. I ask too many questions to be that; refuse injunctions which make no sense, and am ever more convinced that all religions have to be understood within history, not outside it.

Erudite people I admire enormously - the broadcaster Laurie Taylor, the philosopher Anthony Grayling, the scientist Richard Dawkins - cannot understand how an independent thinker like me can be drawn to embrace religion. All I know is that when I pray and fast (when I can) I feel a combination of humility and peace; that as my mother grows older and more frail, I feel a sense of duty to reassure her that I will go to mosque (again when I am able) and carry on that tradition; that I am frightfully agitated about materialism becoming the meaning of life for so many, stamping out the human spirit and its need for an internal life.

We are entering the months when major religions celebrate and reaffirm themselves, often through excessive consumption it has to be said. Ramadan will soon end with Eid. Diwali, the Hindu festival of light symbolising deliverance, is next week. Hanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, arrives in December and then the weeks of cheer and prayer leading to Christmas.

But this year religion itself feels blighted. Joy and ceremonies - at this time? When so many people around the world violate the most basic tenets of their own creeds? We live in perplexing, terrifying, pessimistic times and my nascent religious commitment feels ever harder. Religious conviction is burning the global landscape, inflaming populations, sending forth armies and killer squads, creating state and group terror for the helpless. To confess that you are a believer today is to invite unprecedented contempt, repulsion and suspicion. Reviling Islam had become internationally acceptable after the Iranian revolution and then the Satanic Verses furore. Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, brutish Islamicists have succeeded in validating this global horror of my faith. Christianity also appears arrogant, heartless, and vindictive. Together with millions around the world, I shudder to think what Bush will now do and what Blair and his fervent fellow Christians in Cabinet are doing to Britain.

My misgivings have nothing in common with knee-jerk liberal fanatics who believe that all worship is inherently backward and dangerous and responsible for the worst evils in the world. These vociferous sceptics are wrong. Fascism, Stalinism, most of the demonic dictators through history have been driven by political power and greed. Ethnic and racial strife has caused untold misery too. Religion gets co-opted, of course, for cynical purposes and we witnessed this in Bosnia and Kosovo, but battles over religion, terrible though they are, have produced fewer victims than wars for domination.

But that may all change in the next decade if the neo-cons go for their project - to keep up perpetual violence in the name of God's own country - and if Bin Laden and other Islamicist militants do the same and for the same reasons.

For worshippers it is already the worst of times. Some of the Christians who gave Bush his victory have squalid, possibly insane beliefs. In the born-again churches they had videos of him, the anointed one, who would take them to glory by defeating infidels. Bush and his conservative Christians want to protect a few thousand cells of an embryo in a Petri dish, but feel nothing for the thousands of real humans the Americans are slaughtering in Iraq. Meanwhile, Sharon and ultra-Zionist rabbis refuse to let Arafat be buried in Jerusalem when the Palestinian leader dies. Hindi fundamentalists encourage their flocks to destroy mosques and Muslims in order to earn better reincarnations. Catholic and Anglican priests all around the world freely incite hatred against gays and threaten to split the faithful. Imams are even more full of bile against homosexuals. During our holiest month, Muslims terrorise, humiliate, then cut the throats of blameless people and display the severed heads on television.

Oh yes, today the enemies of religion are not secular forces, but the most ardent followers of named faiths. The terrible irony repeatedly pierces the eyes. Bush and Blair shed endless blood in revenge for the planes which took the lives of more than 3,000 Americans. Is this what the son of God wants them to do? Blair ejects mothers and infants, passes laws which ensure the starvation of refuge seekers, is this what he thinks gentle Jesus will applaud? A reader, an Englishwoman volunteer with a refugee project, tells me that we are about to deport a young mother with two children back to the killing fields of Congo. One of the children, only three years old, has contracted viral encephalitis and is now in a wheelchair, blind and prone to epilepsy. Given time and the right drugs he will get better, but not if he is packed off to his homeland where aspirin is a luxury.

Muslims who stoke up virulent hatred against Jews, Christians, Hindus and others are also breaking the words of Allah: "O Mankind, we have created you from male and female and made you into nations and tribes that you may get to know one another". Jewish believers too should feel shame and guilt that so many of their leaders freely express racism against Arabs and want to deny them humanity.

Religion tests us in the small things of life as well as the big. You can't use it as a cover, an excuse. Faith is not an accessory like a Prada handbag (or in the case of sanctimonious Muslims, defiant beards and burkas). The Koran warns: "Woe to those who pray, but are heedless in their prayer, who make a show of piety". Such a show of piety comes very easily, for example, to Cristina Odone, departing deputy editor of the New Statesman. A very good Catholic, she happily got together with a divorcé and needlessly assails people, without apparently feeling guilt. This week she turned on my colleague Johann Hari and the esteemed political pundit Jackie Ashley. She once ran a merciless profile of me and then told me it was to satisfy her Muslim contacts who claimed I was not a proper Muslim. We hacks bitch, but most of us don't believe God wants us to.

David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham, once wrote these very wise words: "Religious stories should only be accepted insofar as they help us to find a meaning in our lives which will help improve our behaviour towards ourselves, our world and all those we share it with". And there are an infinite number of such stories, many of which appear in a book just published - Transcending Terror by Ian Hackett - a book about the nine most influential religious leaders through history. Not one of them can lay total claim to God's truth, but all have contributed essential verities, eased the eternal human quest for transcendence, as has science.

So yes, for me, this troubling toddle towards spiritual awakening is worth the angst and doubt but perhaps I have to walk alone, avoiding all-knowing travellers, the chosen ones marching onwards with certainty, pumped up with pride and blind zeal.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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