"I'm not saying that every Muslim is a terrorist, but I am saying that every terrorist is a Muslim!"
These words of a young leader of the fundamentalist Hindutva movement brought cheers from the angry mob gathered in an open field in the Indian state of Gujarat. It was February 2002 and the local Hindutva leaders were feeling powerful and invincible. Their call to drive all non-Hindus out of the state were bringing in large crowds and local political leaders often acted in open support of them.
Ahmadabad, capital of Gujarat, was home to large mixed communities of Hindus and Muslims who had been living together in relative peace for generations. They shared the same streets, the same markets and mingled happily during festivals. They were neighbors who knew each other by name, exchanged local gossip and felt comfortable in their ecumenical communities. That all came to an abrupt end during the early months of 2002. The rallies organized by the Hindutva fundamentalists grew in size and hostility. As the poorer members of the Hindu communities were agitated into a frenzy, they were also given money to do the dirty work of the leaders. A short time later the violence began. Mobs tore through the narrow streets of the communities looking for Muslin homes and businesses. Fires burned everywhere, people ran in panic and blood flowed. Within a few days, more than 2,000 people, including many pregnant women and small children, had been killed. Almost all of the dead were Muslims. The survivors gathered in makeshift camps in safe areas and waited. Many of them are still waiting - waiting for a sense of security and waiting for the government to investigate the rampage, provide compensation and make certain such violence does not happen again.
In March of this year I traveled to Gujarat with a small group of young Asians representing different countries and different religions. We went to Gujarat to meet with survivors of the massacre to learn from them what lessons they could share with us about justice and peace. We were worried. How would they receive those of us who were Buddhist, Christian and Hindu? Would vengeance be on their minds and would they direct their anger against us?
Perhaps our fears were too influenced by what we would expect from our own societies, or perhaps we did not deeply believe that amidst so much terror and death we could find the seeds of forgiveness, compassion and hope. We were kindly invited into the small temporary rooms of the Muslim survivors, given the most comfortable places to sit and graciously offered tea and snacks. Their stories were shared quietly, but always with deep emotion. They had lost so much in the riots. Homes and businesses were burnt, but most of all they mourned the loss of their family members. Homes and businesses, they said, can be replaced but the loss of a husband, wife, mother or child can never be given back.
As they shared of their losses tears filled their eyes, but there was no anger in their voices. "They were our neighbors," our new friends would say. "We knew them and we used to eat together and laugh together. Suddenly they turned on us. We don't know what happened to them."
The highlight of our brief sojourn with these people, who refuse to feel like victims, came during a chat with a young 17-year-old Muslim boy. He was only eleven when the mobs destroyed his house and killed his father. Now he lives in a tiny two-room house with the remaining members of his family, dreaming of one day becoming an airline pilot.
"What do you think of the Hindu people now?" we asked. "They killed your father so brutally and left you alone to care for your mother and siblings. Don't you really hate them?"
His answer came without a moment's hesitation. "Don't say that Hindus killed my father. It wasn't Hindus who did this but evil persons. When someone in your religion does something bad do you say it was the religion that did it?" Then he repeated again, "Don't say it was Hindus who did the violence. It was evil persons."
And thus healing and reconciliation becomes possible through the words of wisdom of a young man who knows the reality and pain of violence. His response is reminiscent of the story in Matthew 8 where the Roman captain comes to Jesus seeking healing for his servant and notes that Jesus need not make the journey to see the young servant but can heal him simply with a word. Jesus is astonished and responds to those around him, "I've yet to come across this kind of simple trust in Israel, the very people who are supposed to know all about God and how God works."
Would Jesus respond to the words of this young Muslim man in a similar way now by saying, "I've yet to come across this kind of simple trust in Christian communities, the very people who are supposed to know all about God and how God works." We need to listen to God's wisdom coming to us from strange places. Perhaps then we could also become stronger disciples of God's forgiveness, compassion and hope in a world so filled with words of vengeance and anger. Perhaps then we would not be so easily swayed to support war by the agitated shouts of angry leaders.