I practice Islam, but what I believe, perhaps you could call it humanism, even beyond humanity. I feel that everyone is here to spread love, peace and all those things. It’s not only human beings; every creature is here for the ultimate purpose to spread peace, love, happiness. This is what I believe. It is more spiritual than religious, maybe.
A few days ago, I was very fascinated by the flowers. Humanity should learn from the flowers: they grow, die, and breed to spread aroma, happiness, peace in the lives of people. They serve to spread happiness. And I think that most of the religions across the world also teach the same thing.
I grew up in a conflict area, in Jammu and Kashmir. Life was terrible there. I stayed until I was 25, I studied until my MBA in my home town. It’s the Line of Control area between the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir and the Pakistani side of Jammu and Kashmir. And it was highly affected by armed conflict. The war between India and Pakistan is happening every day, cross-border fighting, bombs, all these things. When we grew up, there were attacks in our home place. So we had to migrate from that place, we were refugees, and shifted from our home villages to the city. We settled there, but our life growing up was still difficult. We were not allowed to go outside our house after 5pm. There was a state government curfew. I still remember my cousin, he went outside his house after 5pm and he was killed by the Indian army. They just killed him. And on the other side, too, there were rebellion militant groups, who were looking for youth to recruit for their movement. So we were afraid of both the government and the rebellion groups. My parents were very scared for us, they sent my brothers to other places, universities in New Delhi or elsewhere. I didn’t realise at that time how difficult it was, now I do.
For example, when I was in my class ten, I wanted to study until late in the night, but I wasn’t able to do so because we had to shut off the light of our house before 8pm. If your light is on after 8pm, the army will come and search your house. They will have doubts that the insurgent groups are having dinner in your house. So it was quite restricted. But it was normal. In my teens, there was demilitarisation, and these restrictions were removed to some extent.
But when I came to Delhi, for the Civil Services Examination, I realised that people can also move outside their houses after 6pm! And then I shifted to Mumbai and Mumbai was even more open, you can also roam around in the night. People have freedom, they can do anything, they don’t have fear! It’s not like when the army is going in front of your bike you cannot ask them to let you pass. Because they will stop you and they will beat you. Because they have the power in your place. I started realising how things are in my place, how people are still feeling it’s a normal thing. When I go home, I now see that when I enter my home town, there are army forces, it’s a war zone. Just because now I’m staying outside in a peaceful place; when I was there I was not realising that. Then I started reading about conflict, I did my second Master’s degree, and researched about my area, the conflict area.
There is a mountain in front of my house, we can see it from the window, and it’s the border. On this side it’s India, on the other side it’s Pakistan. Every evening you can see birds going back to the other side. And every morning you can see the birds coming towards this side. And there are no restrictions on the birds. Noticing these things I realised everyone has this purpose – these birds are also spreading a message, it’s not only humanity. The birds also have stories, they tell: ‘see, we are borderless, we are spreading love on both sides of the conflict’.
In such places, people are more insecure, and more religious. But when you come to places, for example The Hague, it’s very peaceful, nobody talks much about religion. They talk about their lives, they talk about happiness. So it depends upon the setting. People in a conflict scene, they think more about god, and they practice more religion. They feel that [Tablighi] Jamaat can offer something like pleasure, they have diverted their alienation towards religion, they don’t see any other hope. This is happening in my place, too. The state machinery is more powerful there, they have the power of oppression, so the people don’t see any person that can help them and religion becomes a very important thing for them.
I do identify myself with Islam, but I don’t practice every day, I just go to the Mosque on Friday. To be honest, I’m just trying to understand what are the features of Islam that I should follow. I have been spending time with people of different religions over the last years, and I found many things in common. But, the total image of Islam across the world, the Islamophobia that has been created, and current anti-Muslim politics in India, killing Muslims on the basis of their food habits…I am just realising that we have never been taught extremism in Islamic teaching. We have never been taught, go and kill someone. This is all about politics. I used to have an emotional attachment to religion, hearing everyday they are killing Muslims. But, I thought, should I become a similar kind of person like those who oppose our religion? A fundamentalist? They’re killing us and spreading the hatred among their community groups – should I become like that and share the stories of oppression of the Muslims, so that for example my Facebook friends read it and also become violent, extremists maybe? I have started to restrict myself. I believe that Islam does not teach us to spread hatred. So, you have to handle the oppression in a very non-violent way.
I never thought about fighting, but I did argue with them, because my roommate was a Hindu extremist, part of the RSS [militant wing of Hindu nationalist party]. He’s the chief of the RSS university groups in India. We used to have arguments, but then I realised there is no fun in having hatred. So instead of having an argument, these feelings of ‘they are oppressing us’, I thought, let’s take in another way, let’s have politics of love and peace. This is my belief: I should not become a tool for the politicians, for those hatemongers who are trying to divide humanity. We have to be smart enough to understand what is happening and how we can handle it in a peaceful way. It didn’t entirely work with the RSS roommate because he had been socialised in that manner but to some extent I have changed the perception of that person. Initially when I was talking about Kashmir in my previous college, they [the RSS] would approach us in a very aggressive manner, and they were trying to stop the seminars, debates, etc. Then I started to share literature with them, and my own life history, my own stories. Telling him: ‘You have grown up in Mumbai and Delhi, so you have not seen the place where I have grown up’. Through those stories he has started to accept some things, like that the army is an oppression in Kashmir. He was only thinking about it as a Hindu – Muslim conflict, not as a political conflict. The RSS people have been taught in that way, that Muslims want this and that. I have achieved at least that now he realises that there is some kind of politics going on.
After one year, we got an option to change rooms, but I didn’t change. So I stayed with him for two years, and after two years we were having food together, I was having meat in front of him – vegetarian RSS person – and he was comfortable with that. We are still friends. We don’t talk much, but we have a very good relationship. Many people within my community, who are activists, were always criticising me for being friends with this anti-Muslim RSS guy. But I choose another path, and it was working to some extent.
I am not well read about Islam, I don’t know anything apart from the prayer and the Arabic version of Quran, I don’t even know the meaning. But whatever I have been taught in mosques, from parents or peer groups, it was always stories of the Prophet, about how he was dealing with people who were against him not with the sword but with compassion. There is one very interesting story about a lady who deeply hated the prophet. Every time he went down the street past her house, she threw the dustbin at him. He never did anything back to here. One day she wasn’t there throwing the bin at him. So he thought something was wrong and went to look for her. She was ill, so he took her to the doctor. She then accepted Islam. These kinds of stories are not about hate, they are about respecting people’s perspective, that is more important, and this is what I have learned from Islam and what I practice. I don’t call myself a perfect Muslim, or a Muslim even. These days I have become very introspective, as to what extent I am believing in Islam or not, but these are the things I want to practice: compassion, love. And that’s not only Islam, I think most of the religions are saying the same things.
Practicing Islam has become more challenging for me since I have come to The Hague. In India I was in an similar environment to the Muslim culture where I grew up, and I had friends who were practicing Islam like me. But here, there are so many new things. I have found friends here who also have a Muslim background, but they are doing those things that are prohibited in Islam. For example, they’re drink alcohol, they’re going to bars. But very recently, a good friend of mine, was kind of joking, but you can call it teasing, bullying, that I can’t drink and calling me out, ‘you’re a cola person’. So I started to reflect on what kind of food habits I’m having. I never thought about those things. In India I was also joining my friends to bars, they would have alcohol, I would have soft drinks, and nobody ever says anything about that. But here this friend, she was continuously making these jokes.
And I started thinking about whether I am Muslim or not: I believe in Allah and I go to the mosque on Friday, that’s it. My RSS roommate knew more than I do! But, I also realised that not drinking is also a practice of Islam, this is also a practice of my religion. But I have taken my position: I have tasted alcohol, but I don’t like the taste, so I’m not drinking it. But I don’t think that if I would choose to drink, I would no longer be a Muslim.
You asked me what I believe; now I’ve got the answer. I believe that it’s about the relationship between you and whatever supernatural power you believe in. Whatever you are doing, and whatever you want to do, people’s judgements don’t matter – what matters is your relationship with your spiritual god. So if I’m drinking but on the other hand I have very good faith in my god….it’s like a love affair: if the person I’m loving very much is doing something wrong, it doesn’t mean that I will punish that person, my beloved. Maybe god will become angry, if I drink for instance, but it doesn’t mean that god will reject me as a Muslim. These food habits are also cultural. Like marihuana is a very normal thing here, whereas it’s a very extreme thing in my place. And my friends here told me in the Quran it doesn’t say anything about marihuana, so I tried it. Maybe after four years of doing my PhD here in The Hague I will become an alcoholic and smoking weed! But I don’t think those things matter. I’ve done many things that are prohibited in Islam, I’ve had a love affair, I’ve had physical relations with my girlfriend, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not Muslim. These practices are not necessarily disconnecting you from god, and god has always said that he will forgive us. And with alcohol for example, it’s not actually about the intake of alcohol, it’s about the things people may do when they drink too much alcohol. Alcohol in itself is not bad, but alcohol may make you inhuman. So these are just rules and norms to becoming a good human being. Maybe you’re an Islamic jihadi, having a beard and praying five times a day, but you’re killing innocent people so that is un-Islamic. That is worse than having alcohol!
In India, because there are anti-state rebellion groups in Kashmir, they look upon Kashmiris as terrorists, even when if Kashmir would become independent they would be freedom fighters! But now, because we are Muslims, and from Kashmir, people perceive you as a terrorist. In Delhi, I rented as house, paid the rent and brought my things in, but as soon as they found out that I was a Kashmiri Muslim, as was asked to vacate the house.
But, like the RSS roommate, many people also change their perception. Like during Ramadan, we were organising Iftar [the breaking of the fast] on the university campus. It was open to everyone, and we invited everyone to the Iftar party. Many of my friends came and two very awesome friends, who are Hindus, started fasting with us the next year. They found it very fascinating and they enjoyed it, and I know one Hindu friend who is still fasting every year. So, these are the stories that show that compassion and love can make change.
Here in The Hague, nobody asks me anything about my religion. Nobody is judging me. I went with my female friends to the Red Light district in Amsterdam. She wasn’t judging me, I wasn’t judging her. I was telling my parents: this is an amazing place because people don’t care about each other. Whatever you want to do or be, your life is yours. This is what we call peace, this is what society should be like.