By Saqib Akber
What is prejudice?
It is very difficult to define prejudice. One problem in describing the exact meaning of prejudice is that according to many scholars it may be positive or negative. I have also observed that those who strive against prejudice and exhaust their energies to eliminate its ill effects from the society, sometimes themselves become very biased, especially, when it comes to their viewpoint regarding ‘impartiality’ or ‘unbiased approach’.
In order to understand the reality of the prejudice and make the issue clear, we must start from what the negative prejudice is. The negative prejudice is to insist on one’s opinion in such a manner that other’s different viewpoint on the same subject is not tolerated in any way. Some people form a group on the basis of their perception and try to get rid of those having different views. Sometimes things get worse and they go to the extent of practically eliminating others. The existence of Kharjites in the past was a reflection of the extreme form of this prejudice and bigotry. It becomes evident from this that there also are many different levels of negative prejudice.
It is possible that an argument, idea or belief is, partially or wholly, based on truth. It is due to the firm belief that someone may have about the authenticity of his opinion or faith that he becomes ‘partial’ towards it. Therefore, the real issue in the debate of prejudice is not the veracity or non-veracity of a perspective or belief, but the ways it is demonstrated and how those are treated who hold opposing ideology or belief.
Now we make an endeavour to find out what the positive prejudice is. If someone firmly believes in the truthfulness of a belief, then he should also stick to it with the likelihood that his point of view or belief is surely in accordance with reality because truthfulness is justified to be adopted wholeheartedly. In short, unflinchingly adhering to a thought or an idea can be called ‘positive prejudice.’ Although, the holder of this idea is entitled to remain firmly adhered to his stance, present his point of view in front of others with reasoning and call others in a positive way towards it, but he should not attempt to force others to adopt his set of beliefs because it is at this critical point that prejudices become negative.
The distinctive feature of most of the human beings who have accomplished great achievements in the world is that they have not capitulated to the negative prejudice.
Hasad (envy) and Rashk (envy that is free from ill-will)
At times prejudice is manifested in the form of Hasad. Sometimes a person or a group of men becomes upset on seeing the progress made by his rivals and he wishes evil for them. The way to get rid of this spiritual and emotional sickness is that instead of developing ill-will for others, one should try to develop the virtues and good qualities which have been the basis of rise and progress of others. In this way an environment of competition will be created and it can be called a positive competitiveness. In Urdu literature, the word Rashk is used in a positive manner as compared to Hasad.
Aql (intellect) is the real trait of human being
Superficial persons, by and large, have emotional attachment with their thoughts and beliefs. Being emotionally attached to someone or something is a precursor of negative prejudice. We can remain safe and unaffected, to a large extent, from the intensity and mischief of the negative prejudice in case we are able to promote rational behaviors and make people believe that the real characteristic of human being is his intellect and wisdom. It is important for us to understand that it is only the Aql which draws a distinction between the humans and all other creatures so far that this Aql alone is the real attribute of man when compared to angels. So, man is deprived of the real human status when he ceases to act in a rational and logical way and does not make Aql the basis of his thoughts and actions.
History and prejudice
Beliefs generally have more evolved in the wake of important personalities and events that have appeared in history than after careful thought and reflection. Thus, as religion and history cannot be separated, in the same way prejudices that have emerged as a result of historical events and personalities cannot be stamped out entirely. Nevertheless, I would like to say that a distinction needs to be drawn between history and religion. Religion or faith is surely linked to historical events and personalities, but still history is history and faith is faith. It is difficult but not impossible for human intellect to comprehend abstract realities. Faith is an abstract thing. It is required not to remain constrained to events and personalities for perceiving this intangible matter; rather one should rise above these things to discern it. It is regrettable that most religious leaders do not allow their followers to adopt such an approach. It is this behavior of religious leaders that gives rise to negative prejudice.
A misfortune with regard to history is that we sometimes wish to change it. Due to our conviction and emotional conditions, we forget that history cannot be altered and this desire is beyond the bounds of possibility. It is possible to change the future but not the past. The past serves as a warning and it is not a storage place of our wishes and aspirations.
Many difficulties have surfaced by presenting historical events and personalities to ones liking. Firstly, the historians have not penned down the whole truths, and secondly, their ideas and beliefs have played their part while giving a description of historical events and personalities. In this background it is itself a difficult task to look at history as history and figure out the facts from it. Because of this, it is said that Darayat (external evaluation) is also needed to comprehend a tradition (Riwayat). Many of our prejudices come to light due to the fabrications of history.
Customs and beliefs
Some customs and practices have religious background. People perform different types of rituals and conventional acts to express their beliefs. The geneses of some of the rites go to the founders of religions, but there are some customs that people themselves have adopted in due course of time to express their beliefs, love and devotion. For example, the method of Namaz (prayer) has reached us directly through Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), but Urs (ceremony marking the death anniversary of a saint), Eid-e-Milad and ceremonies relating to it are assumed by Muslims themselves in order to demonstrate their love and affection to the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and other revered personalities. There are different ways and methods of expressing one’s love and allegiance. Sometimes we show such an attachment with these approaches that they ultimately turn into manifestations and expressions of prejudices. We should think about these manifestations when they become sources of causing harm and torment to others. However, it is one thing to cause harm to others, but showing of malice and hostility by a particular group towards the customs and traditions of another group on account of the prejudices is a totally a different thing. Balancing the illustrations depicting freedom of belief and freedom of expression and the typical cases in which these illustrations cause harm to others is a very difficult task, but it is vital to maintain this balance or else a conflict will take place in due course and it is not desired in any situation.
Identity, liking and prejudice
Man consists of various identities. With respect to each and every identity, he experiences a feeling of closeness with those having the same identity as he is gifted with. This affinity is a positive thing up to a certain point, but it may turn into negative when crossing that particular point. Let us try to explain my point with the help of an example. If the mother tongue of someone is Punjabi, then it is natural that such a person feels a kind of oneness with those speaking Punjabi and to this extent there is no harm in this identity and feeling of nearness, but this identity will turn into negative thing when such a person starts hating those speaking language other than Punjabi. The same situation is experienced with regard to having affinity with nations, tribes, regions, colours, creeds and countries. Great wars have been fought on the basis of taking pride in and becoming haughty and arrogant for belonging to a particular nation or race and millions of people have gone into the jaws of death due to these wars. Anyway, these differences and divergences exist in the world and will continue to remain so, but they need to be kept to the extent of identifying and recognizing each other. These identities and recognitions should not be a source of creating enmity and ill-will towards others. This hatred and ill feeling is called negative prejudice. Perhaps, it is for this reason that Allama Iqbal says:
غبار آلودہ رنگ و نسب ہیں بال و پَر تیرے
تو اے مرغِ حرم اُڑنے سے پہلے پَر فشاں ہو جا
(Your wings and your plumage are polluted with the dust of colour and race;
You, the bird of the holy shrine, shake your wings before you start to fly.)
Negative prejudice deprives one of wisdom
The Holy Prophet (PBUH) has said:
الْحِكْمَةُ ضَالَّةُ الْمُؤْمِنِ فَحَيْثُ وَجَدَهَا فَهُوَ أَحَقُّ بِهَا
(Wisdom is the lost treasure of the believer; wherever he finds it he has a greater right to it.)
There is also a saying of Imam Ali in which he has made the same point though in a different style.
Besides shedding light on several aspects, this Hadith also elucidates the point that wisdom is not confined to a particular group. If a person is so much attached to his party or group that he starts to think that others are divested of any part of the wisdom, then he will not be able to take advantage of the wisdom and understanding that others possess. Though he will be under the impression that his knowledge and sagacity is absolute, but in reality his learning and discernment will be of a limited nature. Such an approach cannot lead to a real success.
Difference of names and terms
It is not hidden from the men having deep insight that at times various names and terms are used to describe a particular reality. Those speaking different languages use various words and different letters of the alphabet to define the same reality. For example, there are different words in different languages used for what in English is called ‘brother’. In Urdu ‘Bhai’ is used instead of ‘brother’. Similarly, those speaking Persian say ‘Baradar’ and those speaking Arabic say ‘Akh’ in place of ‘brother’. Nowadays, in our country, some people feel enraged and they do not hesitate to express their hate on seeing word ‘Khuda’ (God) written somewhere or spoken by someone. They insist that ‘Khuda’ is not the proper word and ‘Allah’ should be used in its place. In this regard they try to connect remote links of linguistics to prove their point. However, the same concept and understanding as that of an Arab Muslim come into the minds of non-Arab Muslims when they use vogue words of their languages instead of using ‘Allah’. This battle of words and terminologies has created a wide gulf among nations as well as among followers of different religions. Otherwise, when someone by saying ‘Eshwar’ infers the same concept and meaning that other deduces by saying ‘Allah’, then this should have been a source of nearness and proximity not estrangement and rift. This is an unfortunate and sad example of negative prejudice present in the Muslim societies.
Respecting others’ sanctities
For eliminating negative prejudices, the first thing that those preaching religion have to do is to give due respect to the sanctities of others. This is the minimum requirement to get rid of prejudices. Religious leaders have to instruct people in this regard. They have to take the lead to ensure due regard is given to others’ sanctities. It should not be preached just in conferences, meetings and discussions where followers of other religions and sects are present, but it is more important that a religious leader preaches it in those gatherings where his followers are present.
Some intellectuals are of the view that major powers of the world are playing their role in promoting prejudices so that their own interests are served. They also cite examples where negative prejudices are encouraged by individuals for their personal interests. The business of spreading hatred is a very dangerous trend and it does not matter whether this dirty business is done at the global or regional or individual level. There are some people, who by terming it a conspiracy theory, take no notice of it while others do not bother to look at it from a different angle except recognizing it as a conspiracy theory only. Both these behaviors are far from what the truth is. Playing with the emotions of others for one’s own interests is, in anyway, going on in this world. Its remedy is nothing other than raising the level of human awareness.
Who is responsible?
Prejudice is a vast subject and important as well. The requirement is to talk more about it. It is also imperative to adopt different strategies to deal with its harmful effects. Some are of the opinion that the civil society has to play the actual role in this connection while others believe that it is the responsibility of the government to spearhead the campaign against ill effects of the prejudice. In my view everyone has to play his part to such an extent that is within his domain.