The Storyteller of Peace

Basit Jamal, is a peace activist and storyteller from New Delhi, India. Through a powerful storytelling platform, Jamal has created a space within conservative Muslim circles to promote a non-violent and inclusive interpretation of the Quran. He has reached more than 10,000 youth so far and has enabled each one of them to become ambassadors of change, peace, and love, within their communities. The following is his story, as told to Sourya Banerjee. 

For those who work with religion as a means to advocate for peace, for them reality is not that religion creates problems in the road to peace, but that the active and willing misinterpretation of religiondoes.

Those of us who work with religion as a basis for peace understand that religion is in itself a very potent tool. If I try to fight what individuals or a community stand for with something else and try to break down the very essence of what they are, the community in which I try to bring about a positive change will become more negative, more ghettoized, and more radicalized.

They would say, “Dekho! Dekho! Humara religion change karne aya hai!” (Look! Look! They’ve come to change our religion!). The extremists already live with a conspiracy theory running on their minds to the effect that everyone is out to get them - and that’s true for all extremists of all religions’.

I am not denying that there are hardcore extremists in each religion, but we should not generalize lest we end up pushing the non-radical ones right into the hands of the radical ones. Even if one percent of our population, which would be close to one million –and that’s a huge number- becomes radicalized, it does not mean that every individual within that group is out to kill another. There are always more religious people than religious fanatics.

Thus, the problem is not inherent with religion but rather in those that view religion through the lens of supremacy and politics, and use religion as a tool for their own gains.

With supremacists and extremists, the problem always starts with an arrogant attitude about “me” - I am better; my colony is better; my city is better; my sect is better; my religion is better; my country is better… If we ever found another planet with life on it, they might just sayarrogantlyEarth is better. So the problem is in the individual’s arrogance, which they subsequently pass on not only to their religion but to everything else, too. Whereas religion is meant to bring about a sense of commonness among people and to keep them together.

A lot of people may say, “Religious ban rahe ho, per pehle insaan toh bano” (Before becoming religious, become a human). But this statement is a bit contradictory for me, and for people like me, who advocate peace and love through religion. We believe that it is through religion, by accepting love and advocating mercy, and by acceptance and togetherness, that we truly become humans. I know this is debatable, but this is what I truly believe in. Logic can get you to peace, but not to love. Only faith can provide love. Thus, I try to share my own discovery of religion as a tool to spread love among people who misuse religion for hatred.

Truth be told, I started researching religion only when I was nineteen or twenty years old. Till then, religion was a part of my life as a ritual and not as an ideology. When I was doing my BA, in the first and second years, my concept of religion was that it talked about justice.Someone once convinced me that religion talked aboutgetting justice for wrongs done against people, even through fighting and killing. At that age, one is not mature enough to realize that our logic is broken. That ‘justice’ achieved through killing and fighting is not justice but senseless revenge and vendetta. When 9/11 happened, I was in school, and didn’t care much about it back then. When I reached college, I reached such a point that I looked back at 9/11 and thought that it was good and just. I believed that they had killed people and had been killed in return. That, to me, back then, was justiceirrespective of who died, as long as blood was shed on either side. This is what all terrorist organizations beat their trumpets about: they equate justice with revenge.

But I eventually began to do more research.That was when I realized that religion does not stop at justice, itintroduces the concept of justice and then advocates the choice to love, forgive, be patient and be merciful.   There is a verse in the Quran, which talks about taking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, advocating revenge-based justice. But the very next paragraph says that if someone chooses to forgive instead of seeking justice, God himself will pay for his sins and debts on the Judgment Day. In Islam, we believe that on Judgment Day, everyone will have to account for their sins, and everyone has committed some or the other sin. What that paragraph tells us is that yes, you can choose to act violently against those who acted violently against you, or you can choose to forgive, and God willchoose to forgive all your sins on Judgment Day.

This is what the people of radical ideology do not want their followers to see or know: that religion is not asking you to go after ‘justice’, it gives you the option of doing wrong and doing right. It is for people to read the whole thing and understand what is right and good for them. This is what religious fundamentalists are most scared of - people actually reading the Quran themselves.

The problem is that most people don’t read the Quran.Only if they read the translations, they can question the claims of extremists. What the extremists do is to keep insisting that only their Religious Scholars should read the Quran and that only their Religious Scholar is fit to interpret these texts. They make people follow them blindly like a flock of sheep devoid of the knowledge to take power. I was also a sheep once, but critical thinking set me free.

A common misconception is that children are radicalized at home. One should understand that it is rare for parents to radicalize.Parents do not want you to die or live a violent life. It’s only after when you go outside your safe circle, in college or other places do individuals get radicalized by the stories you are told. For example, there are religious scholars who may say that if you are a Muslim, who is living in India and you don’t try to topple the Government, everything you do in your life is haram (sin). But in the Quran, there is a beautiful story of Prophet Yousuf (Joseph), one of our greatest prophets, who used to work with and helped grow and strengthen the empire of a non-Muslim King. So the question that automatically comes up here is, was the life of one of our greatest Prophets also haram? When you hear conflicting opinions from a scholar and what a story in the Quran tells you, the choice is clear for you – the Quran is always superior to the opinion of any scholar of today.

The radical mind is radical because it chooses to avoid these stories in the Quran for personal or political gains, or does not even know about the existence of such stories. So my workshop format does not engage in debate or discussions. I don’t bring up statistics - a radical fanatic believes that everyone is an enemy. I work at the base of the same thing that has radicalized them - our faith. I do not challenge their faith.

A mistake that a lot of others, including de-radicalization programs in Europe etc, make while dealing with religious extremism is that they try to hit at the faith, belief, or religion. You cannot change the foundation of an individual.If you try to do so, you will only push him away further. What I do instead, is to build on their foundation and on their faith. I read out stories from the Quran, I tell them about the stories which talk about violence, and also the stories which say that the merciful receive the grace of God. I share stories that tell us that we have enemies, and also the stories that implore us to try to reach out and talk to our enemies and be friends through peace and love.

When they hear these stories, it's like a dam breaks inside them. I do not tell them that they are wrong or that anything is right or wrong. I just show and read to them what the Quran says and use their very faith which may have radicalized them, to pull them towards love. The more radicalized a person is towards violence, the more passionate he eventually becomes for peace once he realizes what the Quran wants him to do. The interesting thing about this is that I use the same tool that radical extremist use - they say the Quran cannot be challenged - I just use the Quran to highlight how they were only seeing half the truth till date. No believer is able to challenge me, because it is in the Quran! They are caught in a moral dilemma to either live in a life of violence knowing that it is against the Quran or to change towards peace and love. 

The entire game is centered on their belief and true faith. I merely use the stories that are already present in the Quran to build on their belief. People do not seek out violence in general. Some believe that the Quran wants them to be violent, so I merely readjust their understanding that Quran wants them to love. The rest, they do on their own. That is how I describe myself and my work – I simply tell stories of love. For me Quran is a book of Love.