You do not have to go far to understand the interfaith gap amongst us. More or less, we are exposed to statements which depicts the hidden hatred. Not long ago, one of my associates said "malu ka baccha kabhi nahi accha" about a colleague of a different religion than his.
In schools, many boys and girls are bullied for having friendships with Hindu, Christian and Buddhist children. The parents often warn their children to keep distance from "non-believers" as their faith states that everyone apart from their religion will go to hell.
People with other religions are regarded as bad influences. I have seen boys getting discriminated against on the playing fields on the grounds of religious belief - "Do not make the Hindu boy an opening batsman," they said about him.
Two years ago, in pre-Covid time, we visited a slum in Dhaka as a part of Peace and Harmony Week. We asked the children whether they are friends with non-Muslims.
Almost everyone responded yes, yet one girl said - it is not right to be friends with people of other religions. She was 10/11 years old at that time. We understood she said it but it was not coming from her tongue. Thus we asked her again, why she thought like that. Her answer is very important to understand this communal disparity and discriminatory dynamics.
"My father had a lot of Hindu friends. My father was called by local influential religious people one day, and they advised him not to mingle with them as it contaminates the belief as well as practices. After this, everyone from our family avoids the people and children of other religions".
We have to consider the motive behind this statement, which is "the preservation of ethnic purity". The exact violent form of this belief is – ethnic cleansing.
Every ethnic cleansing starts with ethnocentrism. In our case, it might be religio-centrism - the belief in the extreme superiority of one's own religion and culture while demeaning others.
When we look at the recent incidents of communal attacks in Bangladesh, we find a common variable – the social media.
Social media and religio-centrism!
In 2012, more than a dozen of Buddhist temples were destroyed by Muslim mobs in Cox's Bazar after a rumor circulated in a Facebook post that a Buddhist had desecrated the Quran. In 2016, incident of communal violence in Nasirnagar also was sparked by a fake Facebook post alleging an insult to Islam by a Hindu.
And now, the October 2021 attacks which started at Cumilla from the last day of Durga Puja has also started from a photo posted in Facebook.
Is "the ignorance on proper use of social media" - the only variable behind these communal attacks? Many people will stick to the answer yes, as social media is very new to our people and we have become technologically equipped before becoming technologically educated.
Well, this answer can be taken as partially correct. But taking religious sentiments and transform it into communal hatred intense enough to kill people and burn houses requires more than just misunderstanding through social media.
Majority of the perpetrators of such heinous acts hate the fact that non-Muslims are residing in their lands. Many of them want completely separate countries for people of different religions. They fail to accept the values of intercultural and interfaith harmony in this era of globalisation.
These incidents of burning and killing are intended to scare the rest of the minority groups and compel them to leave. This is surely the worst form of religio-centrism and it is happening right here in Bangladesh.
Why, how, what of minority persecution
Conspiracy theory might relate the involvement of neighboring countries in our recent incident of communal violence. Minority persecution is an unfortunate yet common phenomenon of the world.
According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2020 report, Christians in Burma, China, Eritrea, India, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Vietnam are persecuted. Whereas USA is a country where Islamophobia is prevailing heavily.
Hamid Dabashi , professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University once mentioned about Muslim persecution in an article at Al Jazeera, "In China they have concentration camps, in Myanmar they are doing mass slaughtering, in India Muslims have been the targets of systematic pogroms, in Israel along with Christian Palestinians, Muslim people are mowed down on a daily basis, in Europe and the United States Muslims are subject to increasing persecution."
Somewhere Hindus are a minority and are subjected to communal rage, somewhere else, the same is true for Muslims or Jews. The world is divided into the preferred and non-preferred zones of ethnicity and religions.
The communal violence is deeper than the political motives. No matter what their motives are, the thing about communal attack is - they are all capitalised on a lack of interfaith harmony and acceptance of diversity.
The path to interfaith harmony
The communal violence in the country reflects a significant rise in intolerance. It is high time we made a proper plan to educate the masses on the proper use of social media.
If necessary, primary and higher education should introduce a separate and mandatory subject of digital media literacy so that children can grow recognising what is fake news and what is real, what not to comment and what not to share.
Education system also must include the notions of interfaith harmony through the chapters in the social science textbooks. Misinterpretation of religious verses on social media can be prevented by strict government regulations.
There should be Government funded big budget movies which will spread the theme of diversity and solidarity, which has the ability to influence people. The local celebrities, influencers, teachers and even religious leaders have to be vocal on interfaith harmony.
Educational institutions may organise sessions for parents on "cultural competency" in order to create awareness towards respecting other beliefs, building an attitude that reflects tolerance and acquiring knowledge to enhance solidarity.
The youth has the most significant role to play. They have to take an active role in preventing themselves and others from any kind of extremism. From Facebook to Tiktok and every other platform, users must have regular exposure to engaging content in all formats that educates and builds such awareness.
There is no faith that does not preach harmony. Nothing is stronger than tolerance. Nothing is more beautiful than diversity.
Ishrat Binte Rouf is the communication manager of Gen Lab, a CSO working in the field of Peace and Interfaith Harmony.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.