Mumbai, India—A few nights ago, I had the opportunity to speak about the Middle East at an interfaith forum in Chennai. India is not without its sectarian problems and periodic spasms of terrible religion-inspired violence, but the country’s well-deserved reputation for spirituality seems to take the edge off on a daily basis. For that reason, I was looking forward to the interfaith dialogue. This is a country of six major religions, and though 80 percent are Hindus, departments of Religious Studies at Indian universities teach about Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. That’s not all, of course. Another almost 7 million people adhere to a variety of other religions. The interfaith forum provided an opportunity for me to see how the Indians make it all work. I was imagining a lot of Namaste (a hard to translate expression of reverence and respect). The rangoli—a symbolic offering to Hindu gods—just outside the building where the dialogue was taking place only heightened my expectations about how the evening would unfold. The event started off well-enough with the director of the center giving a “Moon is in the 7th House—all religions teach love—peace is our destiny” oration that in a previous era inspired a generation of hippies.
I decided to ditch my standard U.S. policy talk and go with the general vibe in the room with remarks about the theological commonalities of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism; inspirational moments of inter-faith cooperation in the Middle East; and the way in which political groups have often hijacked religion to pursue malevolent agendas. I was feeling pretty good about all this and then the questions began. Just twenty minutes earlier we were all brothers and sisters seeking a meaningful life and then suddenly we weren’t. The combination of the Obama administration’s brief flirtation with military operations against Syria and the Palestinian issue put me directly in the crosshairs of some folks who quite clearly overlooked the good fellowship and brother/sisterhood of the earlier proceedings.
For most of the remainder of the evening, I parried question after question about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Many of the questions began with Syria, raised doubts about U.S. claims regarding the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, and ended by demanding to know “Why the United States is attacking Syria, but does nothing about Israel?” I did my best to disentangle the issues, remind folks that the United States has chosen not to use force in Syria, clarify the American position on Israel and Palestine, and readily acknowledge critiques of U.S. policy. I am afraid I failed to expand too many minds. By the end of the evening one woman informed me that the United States is responsible for violence around the world (to applause) and an older gentleman offered that I was nothing more than an American propagandist (also to applause).
The interfaith meeting in Chennai was not the first time this happened over the last week. In New Delhi, an Urdu-language television journalist began an interview by asking questions about Syria, but quickly shifted into browbeating me on Palestine. At a far more pleasant dinner encounter with community leaders in Lucknow, I was repeatedly told that the U.S. position on Syria was invalid because of Washington’s support for Israel. If it is any consolation, the people who were so eager to express their outrage over Israel seemed equally hostile to Saudi Arabia and Washington’s relationship with Riyadh. In the most bizarre moment of the last week, two journalists in Lucknow asked me why Hillary Clinton supports Wahabbism. When I asked them wherever they got this idea, they looked at me like I was crazy and said, “It’s on YouTube.”
It is easy to dismiss these sentiments as the idle chatter of the press, the ill-informed, intellectuals who are in general predisposed to be hostile toward the United States, and assorted others without much in the way of influence. After all, despite these complaints, relations between Washington and New Delhi are improving and the ties between India and Israel have developed markedly over the last decade. Still, it is interesting (and a bit distressing) that in a country that is so inward looking and where the leading newspapers pay scant (if any) attention to world affairs some seem to view the United States through only the prism of Palestine. I got the sense that the people most exercised about military intervention in Syria and Palestine do not actually care all that much about Syrians or Palestinians, but rather saw both issues as an opportunity to express a deep seated anger at Washington. This is not to suggest that the anger is not rational. The United States has made plenty of mistakes in the Muslim world, but it is hard to argue that this resentment is a function of Muslim solidarity with fellow Muslims in distress. In the Syrian case, at least, Muslims are killing Muslims with Russian help.
My friends at the American embassy and its consulates, good diplomats that they are, argue that my experience is more reason to continue to “engage” with the broadest sections of Indian society. I suppose so, but they have a very long, steep hill to climb with some sections of the Indian public. I wish them luck.
In the meantime, Santi (peace).