Presidential Address
By
Former President of India, Hon'ble Shri K. R. Narayanan
In
National Inter Faith Harmony Conference

I have great pleasure in associating myself with the function being organized by the Inter Faith Harmony Foundation of India to initiate dialogue with all religions and promote better and correct understanding among them. It is all the more heartening to know that the Foundation while promoting inter faith harmony is keen to clear misperceptions about the role and teachings of Islam in our own time and dispel the wrong notion that it is spreading terrorism, hatred and bigotry in the world.

All the religions of the world have more in common than what divides them. An understanding and appreciation of the commonalities of the diverse faiths constitute the enduring foundation of inter faith harmony. Widespread misrepresentation of Islam and distortion of its role in determining human consciousness and action has been the bane of our time. There are several factors responsible for it. While rest of the world has failed to comprehend Islam as a religion and as a way of life in correct perspective, the enlightened leaders of the Islamic faith have failed to come forward to project the positive aspects of Islam and arrest the spread of distorted versions of this great religion which have been wrongly seen and understood as the source of terrorism, bigotry and intolerance. In spite of violence and bloodshed attributed to the noble name of religion, the seminal contributions of the major faiths of the world shaping the destiny of mankind is noteworthy. We owe a debt of gratitude to Islam, one of the major religions of the world, for enriching human civilization and profoundly infusing it with the ideals of compassion, equality and brotherhood. Distortion of Islamic teachings constitutes a distortion of these ideals and is indicative of the negative interpretation of its noble legacy. Education the children and youth that Islam always has had positively influenced the evolution of mankind and immensely contributed to the refinement and deepening of our humanistic and spiritual heritage will go long way to remove misconstruction about it and strengthening the culture of inter faith dialogue. If we peep into our own history we learn that Swami Vivekananda, one of the outstanding philosopher and great Hindu monks, who advocated the unity of all religions, taught the world that the Islam came as a salvation to the downtrodden and poorer section of society. He forcefully stated, "It would be the height of madness to think that it was all the work of sword and fire". Mahatma Gandhi in correctly outlining the constructive role played by all religions including Islam wrote, "I do regard Islam to be a religion of peace in the same sense as Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism are. No doubt, there are differences in degree, but the object of these religions is peace". Again he said, "I dear say with all emphasis that I can command that although the sword has been wielded in the history of Islam, Islam was not founded by the sword nor was it spread due to it". By interpreting all religions including Islam in a creative manner our leaders have shown the example of promoting understanding and harmony among different faiths.

Such a fine approach is the product of our age old tolerant culture which combine with the modern secular values enshrined in our constitution has fostered inter faith harmony and effectively contained the communal forces to redefine Indian identity on the basis of a particular creed. It is a tribute to our composite culture and the constitution that neither the communalism of the majority and minority variety has been able to overwhelm us. The Indian approach to religion based on accommodation and understanding, the Indian approach to democratic nation building and even the Indian variety of Islam are being counted as major forces to defeat religious fundamentalism and terrorism. It is in this context that I recall the observation of a counter terrorist expert of Israel who had said that the Islamic tradition prevailing in India could be effective antidote to the rising menace of terrorism. People across the world has been surprised to note that not a single Indian citizen professing Islamic faith has joined the dreaded Al Quaida terrorist outfit where-as even white converts to Islam has been found to have been its members.

Our world view based on the coexistence of diverse faiths and the modern ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity enshrined in our constitution affirms inter faith harmony and negated divisive and destructive tendencies as suggested by the old fashioned bigots and the modern theorists of clash of civilization. Most of our citizens of which the Muslims constitute 12% have this world view and lead a life style which is governed by the shared heritage of all religions.

While celebrating the culture of tolerance and accommodation we painfully note the consolidation of a counter culture of bigotry and intolerance in the name of religion and jihad. Youth from different countries are being drawn to this kind of teaching which breeds among them a cult of violence. It is not specific to Islam alone. The upsurge of all kinds of religious fundamentalism in different parts of the world testifies to the emergence of a virulent mindset, which is dangerous and contrary to all religious and spiritual traditions. No religion gives sanction to killings of fellow human beings. It is all the more agonizing to learn that religion is invoked to commit terrorism and mass murder. It is proved beyond doubt that such sinister phenomenon is a result of the willful distortion of the teachings of religion, which get easily spread through the modern media. I was taken aback to read in the London Economist of 16 July that the misguided youth in London who resorted to terrorism were drawn to hatred and militancy by the fabricated information about Islam available in the internet. Mahatma Gandhi had said, "An outrage committed in the name of religion is an outrage on religion". Howsoever distorted their religious nations may be, repeated views of religion particularly the name of Islam to perpetuate terrorist killings across the globe would bring a bad name to the faith. A major challenge before the leading religious leaders, particularly of Islam is to remain in the forefront to spread the positive and constructive aspect of this great religion so as to defeat such mindset.

It is well known that Mahatma Gandhi creatively interpreted all religions to mobilize people belonging to different faiths for fighting against justice and oppression and for bringing about positive social change and moral degeneration. While doing so he dedicated himself to eradicate many social evils perpetuated in the name of religion and cautioned that tendencies to make religion exclusive would cause narrowness of outlook and attitude. He campaigned against untouchability and said that without its eradication Hinduism would die. About Islam he wrote, "Religion binds man to God and man to man, Does Islam bind Muslim only to Muslim and antagonize the Hindu? Was the message of the Prophet peace only for and between Muslims? Are Muslims to be fed with this, which I can only describe as poison? Those who are instilling this poison into the Muslim mind are rendering the greatest disservice to Islam". By removing misunderstanding about Islam we will do a great service to Islam and promote the cause of mankind for peace and inter faith harmony.

Let me conclude by referring to one of the remarkable coincidences of history concerning inter faith harmony. We all know that 9/11 evokes in the world awe and fair of the attack on the USA by the terrorist elements in the name of religion. Let us recall 9/11 of 1893 when Swami Vivekananda while addressing the world parliament of religions, held the unity of religions and the unity of mankind and hope that the bell tolled for the commencement of the parliament would be the death knell for fanaticism and bigotry which has drenched the earth with the blood of the innocent. Let me refer to the 9/11 of 1906 when Mahatma Gandhi started the first Satyagraha in South Africa to put an end to the racial discrimination imposed on Indians by the then British regime. He launched the first ever non-violent struggle on the strength and support of the Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Parsis and even on the willing participation and suffering of some the British and German nationals. The year 2006 will mark the centenary of that historic struggle. It was a struggle at the heart, which remained the ideals of inter faith harmony and inclusive society. Gandhi Ji recalling that event, during the time when two-nation theory was being stridently advocated, wrote that the practice of truth and non-violence melted religious differences and made them see beauty in each religion. Let us be inspired by the consciousness, the practical vision and the nobility of approach associated with the 9/11 of 1893 and the 9/11 of 1906 to promote inter faith harmony and defeat, eschewing all rancor, the mindset that gave rise to 9/11 of 2001. All concerned irrespective of the faith we profess must come forward to achieve the goal. That would constitute the triumph of inter faith harmony.

I wish the Inter Faith Harmony Foundation all success.