Amidst the grief, the bewilderment, the anger and the sense of loss that lingers after the brutal killings in a gay night-club in Orlando in the United States on the night of June 12, 2016, the Parliament of the World’s Religions issued a luminous statement – a moving, reflective, startlingly self-critical open letter to leaders and people of faith the world over.
The statement made a staggering acknowledgement. It declared that the religions of the world were ultimately complicit in the mass murder in Orlando. The people were killed not just by the solitary gunman. They were killed because religions had too long stoked the fires of hate and discrimination against sexual minorities.
There is, however, no evidence of any such introspection among religious leaders in India, a country which is home to almost every major religious tradition in the world.
There is only one occasion that I can recall when leaders of almost every major religion were present on the same Indian television screen (during one of those many over-heated television discussions that pass for debate or entertainment, I am not sure which). And they were all, for once, in passionate agreement with one another.
Such a consensus between leaders of all major faiths in India should have been a memorable moment in our public discourse (even if it was on a national television debate). A moment when spokespersons of all India’s major faiths were at last in public concord about a public issue. But leaders of every major faith in India had not gathered uniquely that evening in a popular and noisy television discussion to announce their agreement and shared resolve to fight any of the afflictions that disfigure our world today.
They were not concurring about the need for harmony and goodwill among people of diverse faiths. They had not gathered together in a television studio to protest the killing of people because of their religious identity or caste or food preferences. They did not announce an accord between people of diverse faiths to fight caste discrimination and untouchability, which has permeated every religious tradition in India. They had not decided to fight shoulder to shoulder to end hunger, or child work, or bonded labour, or impoverishment, or the killing of girl children in the womb, or violence against women, or infant deaths due to malnutrition and fouled drinking water, or people dying because they could not afford health care, or persisting illiteracy and crumbling public education for the children of the poor, or homelessness, or drugs, or the oppression of workers, or the destruction of forests, or climate change.
Their rare display of unity was instead to oppose a court ruling by two enlightened judges of Delhi’s High Court in 2009 to end the criminalisation of consensual homosexual relations between adults, and support – all in the name of religion – the reversal of this order by India’s Supreme Court in the winter of 2013.
'Immeasurable degree of homophobia'
“There is ultra-violent homophobia existing in the world”, the Parliament of the World’s Religions observed in its open letter. “Brutal, senseless murder speaks loudly. But when the tumult quiets, it is easy to go on treating what happened in Orlando as an isolated, aberrant example of homophobia. The reality,” however, they admit:
“is that an immeasurable degree of homophobia consists of subtle actions and words that are so ingrained in society that they escape notice, accepted in our neighbourhoods and protected by our laws, our institutions, and our religions”.
It is well-known that Section 377 was introduced into the Indian Penal Code in 1860, to criminalise sexual activities deemed to be “against the order of nature”. This includes many sexual acts including heterosexual oral and anal sex, but it has been deployed almost exclusively to render into crimes homosexual acts especially between men, offences punishable by 10 years and even a lifetime in jail. It is true that very few persons have been punished under this section of law, but the fact that homosexual sex is illegal is used as a tool of harassment and extortion against people engaged in homosexual relations. But it is not just the law which criminalises gay sex. The violence and discrimination that they face is fostered by a much more widely sanctioned homophobia, of stigma, revulsion and hatred against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer persons – and the most powerful source of this loathing is the teachings by leaders of various religious faiths.
When in December 2013, the Supreme Court in India over-turned the writing down of Section 377, The Daily News and Analysis noted that once again this was met with
“the univocal unity of religious leaders… decrying homosexuality and expressing their solidarity with the judgment.”
The article quoted many of these religious leaders. Influential yoga guru Baba Ramdev described homosexuality as “a bad addiction”, which he could “cure” through yoga. In a parting shot to sceptical journalists, he advised them not to “turn homosexual”.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s vice-president Om Prakash Singhal declared:
“Homosexuality is against Indian culture, against nature and against science. We are regressing, going back to when we were almost like animals”.
Maulana Madni of the sometimes relatively progressive Jamiat Ulema also agreed:
“Homosexuality is a crime according to scriptures and is unnatural. People cannot consider themselves to be exclusive of a society... In a society, a family is made up of a man and a woman, not a woman and a woman, or a man and a man.”
The same article quoted Rabbi Ezekiel Issac Malekar, honorary secretary of the Judah Hyam Synagogue, as declaring:
“In Judaism, our scriptures do not permit homosexuality.”
Reverend Paul Swarup of the Cathedral Church of the Redemption in Delhi also pronounced that homosexuality was against nature:
“Spiritually, human sexual relations are identified as those shared by a man and a woman”.
Even the recent hate killings of LGBTQ people in Orlando have not initiated any introspection among these religious leaders about the consequences of hate, violence, and loneliness that arise from their claims of what respective religions prescribe about intimate same-sex relations. There is no evidence of any discussions among them – much less agonising – in the way that members of the Parliament of the World’s Religions have engaged, about whether their public claims of religious beliefs about homosexuality have served to actually foster bigotry, marginalisation, oppression and violence against religious minorities. They have not paid heed to the words of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, when they declare that
“no people, no state, no race, no religion has the right to hate, to discriminate against, to ‘cleanse,’ to exile, much less to liquidate a ‘foreign’ minority which is different in behaviour or holds different beliefs”.
No faith community, they further add, is exempt from the crime of sowing seeds of hate:
“You may not have held the gun that extinguished 49 lives from the earth on Sunday morning…But collectively, we have all allowed hate to permeate our faith traditions, and the price that we pay is a world where acts of evil frequently erupt. When we, the peaceful majority, stay silent, we clear the ideologue’s path to extremist violence. Our inaction has made us culpable”.
They have also warned against allowing two marginalised minority groups to be pitted against one another.
"Take notice and share in the efforts of the Muslim community as they rush to give blood, to provide aid, to denounce these crimes and the ideology behind them…Listen to the members of the LGBTQI community who have used this unwelcome spotlight to speak against hate of all sorts, especially Islamophobia. Remember that, no matter where you come from or what community you belong to, hate is hate”.
Bigotry and hatred
I am not a person of faith, yet I have learnt to respect and not judge the religious faith of others. I have seen people to whom religion has been a source of compassion and service, and a smaller number whom it has led to battles against injustice. Some derive from faith solace and healing in moments of personal tragedy, and who am I to say that they are wrong? But for too many, religion legitimises, even produces and reproduces bigotry and hatred for “other” people because of their faith, gender, caste and sexuality. This is a culpability that religious leaders in India have failed to recognise or acknowledge, much less atone for.
They would do well therefore to heed the counsel of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, when they affirm that they are “heartened by the outpouring of support from religious leaders and authorities who, in the wake of this mass murder, have committed to take action against the homophobia present in the world and within their own communities. New bonds of solidarity and love have been formed” in this hour of tragedy. But these bonds still elude the faith communities in India, which remain blind to the everyday fear and violence with which sexual minorities are forced to live in India today, in contravention of the promises of equality in the Indian Constitution.
On behalf of the religions of the world, the Parliament of the World’s Religions apologises for
“the existence of the homophobia that you experience every day…We are sorry for the slow-burning hate that smoulders at the heart of our most venerated traditions. We are sorry for our complicity in allowing homophobia to persist as an ‘acceptable’ form of discrimination, even as we champion justice”.
All of us, those who are bound by religious faith and those who reject faith, would do well to heed the remarkably humane call of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, in the wake of this senseless tragedy in Orlando. “Please”, they say simply, starkly, “please love each other”.