Differentiate

Differentiate

If you asked me to tell you in one word; only one word, the secret of success, I would say, “Differentiate.”

Let me begin with a question; “What do you ask for when you go to the corner store to buy toothpaste?” Do you say to the attendant, “Please give me toothpaste?” If you did, what would happen? Maybe you should try this out the next time you go shopping. What would happen is that the store attendant would ask you, “Which brand would you like?” You will face the same situation if you went to buy almost anything in the market, unless it was buying mangoes from a street vendor. Products are known, recognized and bought by their brand.

I teach career management in global corporations and have been doing that since 1994. You can see my presentation on career management on my YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/YawarBaigAssociates . The link to the presentation is Careers in Global Corporations http://bit.ly/2ZY3KW5 . I’ve taught this course in GE, Motorola, IBM, Microsoft, National Semiconductor and many other corporations in America, India and elsewhere. But more importantly this is what I practice myself, in my lifelong effort to add value to others and thereby to myself. That is how I define my career. That is my differentiation. Adding value to others.

What is differentiation?

Differentiation is to stand out. Not blend in. Incidentally that is also how I define leadership. Let me give you another example; how do you introduce yourself? More than likely you say, “I am an IT professional or engineer, doctor, teacher, whatnot.” Well, so are a million other people in the world. You are one in a million in the wrong sense. You need to become one in a million in the sense of that proverb. That is differentiation.

Why Differentiate?

Because Differentiation creates Brand

Brand inspires Loyalty

Loyalty enables Influence

Without differentiating you are one grain of rice in a sack. You are still rice, but one grain in a sack. Nobody knows you exist. Nobody cares. Nobody understands this better than Apple. Or Coke for that matter. And that is why these brands inspire loyalty that seems extreme and even absurd to others. But it is neither. It translates into a totally loyal customer base which is money in the bank and make Apple and Coke the most valuable brands in the world.

In the podcast that goes with this article, I will tell you a story about brand that happened with me in 1996 and has stayed with me all these years and is one of the most powerful illustrations of the power of brand. Don’t miss that podcast. Please subscribe to our channel and you will be alerted every week with a new episode.

How can I differentiate, you ask? Let me tell you a story from my life. But first, the principle; you differentiate by doing what the rest of the world is not doing and doing it in a way that is graceful, dignified and beneficial to all concerned. Differentiation is not about being freaky. It is about standing out in a way that inspires respect and the desire to emulate in those who see you.

It was 1989 and I was a Manager in the tea plantation industry in South India. I had been in the industry since 1983 and had developed a reputation for high productivity and excellent labor relations. A very big advantage in a highly labor-intensive industry with a militant unionized workforce. I was ambitious, high-energy and looked forward to a fast-track career. At that time, I was transferred to our company’s garden in Assam. The job was at the same level as I was at but came with better perquisites and a slightly bigger span of responsibility. What it also came with was the ‘opportunity’ to be as far away from the company headquarters as is geographically possible, when your company HQ is in Chennai. For some this may have looked like a good thing. To me, it didn’t. In the corporate world, ‘out of sight is out of mind’. So, I declined the transfer. This was not easy for me or my bosses. This was a trying period because suddenly I had no specific job. I had to leave my job as the Manager on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate because that job had already been assigned to another colleague. That left me literally homeless as there were no bungalows in the Anamallais where I could live. It is a measure of my reputation with the company and the understanding of my superiors that I was not simply sent home for refusing to accept the transfer. I was sent off to Mango Range until the management could decide what to do with me. We stayed there for six months. I was getting my salary, but I had no work. No office, no superiors to report to. No assignment. Nothing to do.

I was assigned a bungalow in a forest thicket, which was in a dilapidated condition. The location of the bungalow was lovely, and it was a joy to wake up to bird calls every morning. However, the house itself looked like it would collapse on our heads at any time.  Of particular concern were the walls, which were so waterlogged that they had fungus growing on them in huge patches. My wife is an amazing homemaker and all her talents were put to test in this place. Out of this dilapidated house she created a lovely home which we enjoyed living in.

Now, this is where differentiation comes in. Anyone else in my position would have done one of two things. Either they would have resigned and tried to find another job. Or they would have considered this period as a paid holiday and enjoyed it. I enjoyed it alright, but not as a paid holiday and I didn’t leave or even try to find another job. I loved my job in the plantations and had no intention of leaving until someone kicked me out. So, I wanted to ensure that didn’t happen. Since I had no regular job, I decided on doing two things:

For a long time, I had been talking about the need for systematic training of new assistant managers. The current system in the plantations was that a new assistant would be put under a manager and what he learnt or didn’t depended on the capability, interest, and energy of himself and his manager and field or factory officers. If the assistant was lucky and got some people who were both knowledgeable and interested in teaching, then he learnt a great deal. If not, he remained guessing. This is a highly undesirable system, which is very time and energy intensive and does not give standard results. I had been advocating for several years the need for a standard textbook on tea plantation management, which could be used to provide standardized training. Any additional inputs that the young man’s manager and staff could give him would only add to this, but he would not be deficient in the basics.

During my stay in Mango Range, I decided to write this book and in 6 months, I produced a 200-page Manual of Tea Plantation Management. Remember, this was before we had access to computers. The best we could get was a 386 desktop and DOS-OS. So, I wrote the book on an ordinary typewriter and then re-entered it all on a 386 at the head office when it was done. No copy paste, no cut and paste, no auto-correct or spell check. Windows were in the wall and what sat in your lap couldn’t be typed upon. At the time of its publication there was no such book on the market, and it was a source of great satisfaction for me. My company published it as an internal training book and though it was never a commercial publication, it did get fairly wide publicity and was used by many new managers. The biggest lesson for me was about the power of the written word and its high credibility in making your customer base aware of what you have to offer. I never forgot that lesson and today, I have just published my 35th book. After that book there was no way that I could be ignored, not that I feared that. I had a lot of people who I had dealt with over the years rooting for me in the company.

The second thing I did was to spend a lot of time in Mango Range factory and hone my expertise in CTC manufacture of tea. I was very fortunate in that Mr. T.V. Verghese, who had retired as a General Manager in Tata Tea and was consulting with our company on CTC manufacture, was a regular visitor and we became good friends. He shared his knowledge freely and I learnt a great deal. He was a practical teacher, which meant that I got to spend a lot of time on my back on the floor meshing CTC rollers with grease anywhere on my face and body that grease would stick. I learnt all aspects of manufacture hands-on, further reinforcing my belief that learning comes from doing – not from talking about doing. In Murugalli Estate, I’d had a lot of experience in Orthodox manufacture, and even though I had built Mayura Factory, the premier CTC factory in South India, I was moved as soon as the construction was over – thanks to a motorcycle accident. Consequently, my knowledge of CTC manufacture was weak. In Mango Range, as a student of Mr. T. V. Verghese and thanks to his willingness to teach, I rectified that deficiency. It was ironic that thereafter I went to Ambadi, which was a rubber plantation and never really used this knowledge, but it did come in use for writing a paper comparing Orthodox and CTC methods, which I presented at the UPASI Annual Conference in 1989.

Mango Range was an interlude in my career. I was marking time and waiting for some positive change to happen, and in the meanwhile, I enjoyed myself. It has long been my philosophy to live one day at a time and to try to create as much happiness for myself and around me as possible. I have learnt that the two are the same. You can only be happy if those around you are happy. This is true whether you are an individual, an organization, or a country. Imagine what a wonderful world we would have if instead of competing, we collaborated and shared resources. We would all be wealthier, happier, and healthier. I have always held that the secret of happiness is to be thankful for and enjoy the small things in life. There are far many more of them than the big events. If we can enjoy the small things, then we can be happy all the time. The key to enjoyment is to appreciate them and be thankful for them. An attitude of gratitude. The key to contentment is not amassing material but in being thankful for what one has. The happiest people are those who are content. Content people are those who are thankful. Material wealth has nothing to do with it. 

One of the things that I was very appreciative of and thankful for was the leisure that I had in Mango Range. I had no specific work except what I decided to do for myself. And I was still getting my salary. So, I decided to learn golf. I got a caddy from Ooty Golf Club to come and stay with me in the estate for three weeks. His name was Frank Augustine (I used to call him Frankenstein) and he looked like a dried prawn. When he swung the club though, he always hit the ball with that sweet phut that all golfers love to hear. And the ball would travel straight like a bullet down the freeway. Whereas my club would come up with a good measure of earth and top the ball to boot. Shows that technique and not strength of the arm is what works in golf. As it does in many other things in life. Frankenstein believed in hard work – meaning, making me work hard. He set up a practice net, produced a set of one hundred used golf balls and we were good to go. I would hit the ball into the net until I felt my arms would drop off. All the while, Frankenstein would sit on his haunches under the Champa tree that was to one side and watch me and make clucking noises. The effect of all this clucking and my swinging at the ball became clear when one day about midway in our training Frankenstein suggested that we should go and play a round at the club. So off we went on the three-hour drive to Ooty. After a cup of tea and a sandwich, I teed off and that is where all the practice paid off. Ooty Golf Club has very narrow freeways bordered by spiky gorse. If you didn’t hit your ball straight, you would send it into the gorse and then you may as well forget about it –  or pay to get the ball back by leaving your blood on the gorse and acquiring gorse thorn furrows in your hide. As Frankenstein continued his mother hen act, I could see the distinct improvement in my style and capability.

Differentiation creates Brand. I got noticed and appreciated and was rewarded with one of the toughest jobs in the company. I was sent to New Ambadi Estate as its Manager. Two estates, two factories in Kulasekharam, Kanyakumari District of Tamilnadu, which is geographically in Tamilnadu and spiritually in Kerala. Highly militant, unionized, communist unions with a history of violence. And to top it all, I didn’t know the first thing about rubber estate management. I had not even seen a rubber tree in my life until then. That is another story of great friends, like Arun, who taught me all about rubber. I successfully faced the tough unions and not only won but made lifelong friends with the union leaders, so that when I was leaving Ambadi three years later, the General Secretary of the CITU, came to my farewell party, unannounced and delivered such a speech that he had us all in tears. But as I said, that is another story.

Leadership is a Personal Choice – Introduction

My name is Yawar Baig. Mirza Yawar Baig.

My motto is, “I will not allow what is not in my control to prevent me from doing what is, in my control.’

My mission is, “Opening the world, one mind at a time.”

Welcome to our channel, “Leadership is a Personal Choice.” Because it is.

I speak to audiences around the world and I can tell you that if I asked anyone from any country, of any race or religion, at any economic and educational level to tell me in one word, the biggest problem we face, they will say, “Leadership.”

So, what is the solution?

It is to understand and accept that “Leadership is a Personal Choice.”

Leadership is not about status, designation, salary, perquisites, rank or power. It is about accepting responsibility for action. It is about saying to yourself, “This is my job and I am going to do it.” And then to find ways to create impact, no matter how small or limited it may seem. It is really as simple as that.

It is my hope that over the coming weeks, months and years, as you listen to these podcasts and watch the videos, you will stop and ask yourself only one question and that is; “How can I make a difference?” And then that you will do what you can do, where you live, in your circle of influence, using your resources, to make a positive difference in your world.

Please note, I am not talking about you telling others what to do. I am talking about you doing what you can do.

I am doing what I can. I am inviting you to do what you can. And if you need my help, you only need to ask.

The thought that drives me is: If not now, then when? If not me, then who?

Learning from Life – Morsi

Democracy and what happens in its name

June 17, 2019…the saddest day in recent memory. The day when Dr. Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected President of Egypt, died in a Kangaroo Court defending himself against ridiculous trumped up charges. He was not granted a public funeral, a mark of the fear that even the dead body of a man of truth, inspires in the cowardly hearts of those who manage to kill him. That is because humans can be killed but what they stood for, lives on and continues to inspire others, long after they are gone. May Allahﷻ grant this pious man the best of rewards in Jannah. May the Qur’an become his Hafiz in the Aakhira, as   he was its Hafiz in this life. His death underlines the fact that what is important is not whether we live or die, because everyone dies. What is important is how we die and what we die for. Morsi left his mark in history. I was in Egypt in 2014 and wrote this piece. https://yawarbaig.com/wherearetheleaders/if-i-were-president-of-egypt/

All humans make mistakes and all mistakes are opportunities to learn from. That is their only use. When we learn from them, we don’t make the same mistakes again. When we don’t, we are destined to make the same mistakes over and over until we learn. ‘Nations (people) that don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.’ Morsi was human and I am sure if he were alive, he would have been very happy to analyze what happened and what should be done differently the next time around.

This is my attempt at trying to learn some lessons from history. Let me warn you in advance that if any analysis is to make meaning or prove useful, it must be divorced from emotion. I know that many of my readers, indeed I myself, can think of many excuses for what Morsi did and explain each action away by seeking refuge behind ‘good intentions’, ‘commitment to Islam’, ‘personal piety of Morsi’ and so on. That would be totally counterproductive. The issue here is not how the supporters of Morsi see his decisions or the actions of his party, but how others did and do. It was that which brought about the tragic events leading to the reinstatement of dictatorship and the death of Morsi and hundreds of his followers. Surely, that is a sacrifice which should be enough for us to ask some tough questions and face some unpleasant facts.

Let us see how things were when Morsi and his party won the election in Egypt. Egypt is an African country but since its conquest by Amr ibn Al A’as ® and Abu Ubaida ® in the time of Omar ibn Al Khattab ®, it has been Arab. Arabic became its language and over the centuries it was the seat of several powerful Muslim Empires, including the Mamluks who in the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 defeated the army of Hulegu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. The first time that a Mongol army had been defeated by anyone. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Ain_Jalut

In more recent times, thanks to its size, population, education, the Arab film industry, Al Azhar University and the global fame in recitation of the Qur’an, Egypt is the leader of the Arab world. Though it is an African country, it is more than likely that anyone who is asked to list the top three most significant countries in Africa and the Arab world, will list Egypt in the Arab world and not in Africa. So, what happens in Egypt has repercussions in the world in general but very particularly and powerfully in the Arab world. Egypt, apart from this is the only country in the Arab world which is not a hereditary monarchy and has had elected leaders, even if all of them, excluding Morsi were elected in sham elections and were really dictators. Yet they were never called ‘King’ or any of its variations and were always ‘President’. This is another reason why Egypt is important because it is a major departure from the norm of rulers and the ruled, in the region. When the so-called Arab Spring happened in Egypt, with the fall of the reigning dictator Hosni Mubarak and the election of Dr. Mohamed Morsi, it was a watershed. It was a marker in history that a new era was about to be ushered in.

The popularity of Morsi and his party was unquestioned. The symbolism of people in Tahrir Square, the energy they displayed, Muslims praying, with Christians standing around them guarding them from any would-be mischief makers, myriad images on TV, social media and print media of the events leading to the final removal of Mubarak and the swearing-in of Morsi, all signaled that the destiny, not only of Egypt, but of the Arab world, was about to change. Very heady stuff or very alarming stuff, depending on who was watching. All went well in the beginning. Morsi was welcomed at home. He met the Coptic Pope and assured him that his government would safeguard the interest of the Christian minority; which though a minority, is very significant and powerful in Egypt and has international support. He was invited by King Abdulla bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia to visit and was accorded full honors as Head of State and promised to help him with financial aid. The fact that he was a Hafiz of the Qur’an was mentioned with almost every mention of him as a person. His humility, piety, clean politics, innocence even, was the talk of the town, as it were. He was welcomed and applauded in all Arab countries and practically everywhere else.

Back home however, expectations were high; in keeping with domestic problems, the chief of them being employment. No matter who the President may be, people need jobs and food on the table. The burden that popularly elected leaders get to bear is to deal with high, most of the time unreasonably high, expectations of those who elected them. Part of the reason is the election campaigns themselves where leaders must promise to pave the streets with gold, in order to win elections. Nobody in today’s world will vote for a leader who speaks the truth and says, ‘After you elect me, you will still have to go to work and work very hard to feed your family. I will promise you a clean government, law and order, safety and security, an education system that will create skilled people over the years, a working medical and health care system and clean and safe cities. But you are responsible for yourselves and your families and you must pay taxes to enable the government to give you all of what I promised you.’ That is perhaps the best speech, which though totally truthful, is guaranteed never to get you elected. So, leaders promise to put not merely bread, but Biryani or Lahm Mandi on every table for every meal at the expense of the state. I am saying this figuratively but the idea in any election campaign is to make the alternative to status quo look so attractive that people will be inspired to do whatever it takes to bring in the new regime. This is the system followed all over the world with its consequences clearly visible to anyone who chooses to see. Most choose not to. Ditto Egypt.

Wikipedia has this to say about the events of the time:

As president, Morsi issued a temporary constitutional declaration in November 2012 that in effect granted him unlimited powers and the power to legislate without judicial oversight or review of his acts as a pre-emptive move against the expected dissolution of the second constituent assembly by the Mubarak-era judges. The new constitution that was then hastily finalized by the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly, presented to the president, and scheduled for a referendum before the Supreme Constitutional Court could rule on the constitutionality of the assembly, was described by independent press agencies not aligned with the regime as an “Islamist coup”. These issues, along with complaints of prosecutions of journalists and attacks on nonviolent demonstrators, led to the 2012 protests. As part of a compromise, Morsi rescinded the decrees. In the referendum on the new constitution, it was approved by approximately two-thirds of voters.

On 30 June 2013, protests erupted across Egypt, in which protesters called for the president’s resignation. In response to the events, Morsi was given a 48-hour ultimatum by Egypt’s military to meet their demands and to resolve political differences, or else they would intervene by “implementing their own road map” for the country. He was unseated on 3 July by a military coup council consisting of Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb, and Coptic Pope Tawadros II. The military suspended the constitution and appointed the President of the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt, Adly Mansour, as the interim president. The Muslim Brotherhood protested against the military coup, but the pro-Morsi protests were crushed in the August 2013 Rabaa massacre in which at least 817 civilians were killed. Opposition leader ElBaradei quit in protest at the massacre.

In simple terms what are we seeing here (what did the people see)?

  1. Someone who promised to be democratic, showing that inside the façade lives a dictator who didn’t take long to have himself declared, “granted him unlimited powers and the power to legislate without judicial oversight or review of his acts”. {Public perception: Alarm, chagrin, rage!!! Did we go through all this to get another Mubarak?}
  2. And then he does something that no leader must EVER do. He, “As part of a compromise, Morsi rescinded the decrees.”  {Opposition’s reaction: Ah!Gotcha!! He is weak. Bring him down. Get rid of him. We respect strength. Nothing else.} The rest is history.

Sisi took over; arrested Morsi, slaughtered protestors and the Arab Spring turned into a wet squib.

Morsi (and his party and government) made four cardinal mistakes, which proved suicidal.

  1. Instead of focusing on economic development, they got bogged down in ideology. Various statements were made, including by Morsi himself, praising democratic elections and thereby directly and indirectly criticizing (Arab) monarchies.
  2. Instead of focusing on building on the goodwill of the minority Christian and Jewish population and bringing them all together on one Egyptian identity, Morsi and his party raised the boogie of the Shari’ah and played right into the hands of their opposition as well as raising the alarm with others. The attempt at trying to get ‘unlimited powers and to legislate without judicial oversight’ were grist to the mill; a Godsend for anyone planning to bring Morsi and his party down. The tragedy is that the only people who seem to have been blind to this was Morsi & Co.
  3. Instead of focusing on internal issues of employment, hunger, health care, education and others, it appeared that there was more focus on external issues, be it the condition of Palestinians or giving aid to disaster affected people in Indonesia. This coming from a country which almost literally was living off aid from America and other Arab countries.
  4. Perhaps the most lethal of them; imagining that personal piety and incorruptibility is a substitute for political sagacity and wisdom.

It bears to note that Sisi was Morsi’s Army Commander, reporting to him as the President and at least in the beginning, at his command and mercy, even to retain his job. Yet Morsi failed to control, let alone neutralize him. Morsi’s death is tragic. But not surprising. His fate was sealed when he displayed weakness.

What could he and his party have done? Here’s my two-cents worth as a rank outsider who by virtue of that, perhaps has a clearer view than those involved. Objectivity and perspective are a function of distance.

  1. Homework. What seems to be clear is that the entire turn of events, winning the election, overwhelming support of all people including those normally opposed, culminating in being able to form a government, came as a big surprise to Morsi and his party. I don’t believe they really believed that they could win. So, they were not prepared to move from their position of at best being in opposition, to being the ruling party. Their reactions seem to me to be just that, reactions, and therefore unplanned. They were acting in the moment without a clear (or any) view of why they were doing what they were doing or what the likely consequences of that may turn out to be. Everything seems to have been a surprise; some pleasant and some shocking. Clearly for all aspiring leaders, homework is critical to success. The Shadow Cabinet in the British Parliament is a brilliant example of preparation. Nothing like simulation to understand the complexity of leadership and how to prepare for it. But then, only those who expect to win, prepare for it. And sadly, those who don’t prepare, squander the gains.
  2. Celebrating is for others. Keep your head squarely on your shoulders and forget about celebrating. Let others do it. You, the leader, must understand that when the celebration is over, it is you to whom everyone is going to look for the future. So, what do you have to show them? Can you deliver on what you promised? If yes, then when? If no, then what is your plan to mitigate the inevitable disappointment? Once again it comes down to preparation, anticipation and the ability to deliver on your promises. People expect a change in status quo. That is what they voted for. They didn’t vote for everything to be the same except the name of the leader. No matter how ‘unreasonable’ that may seem to you, the leader, that is what people expect and you must give it to them. Maybe not everything, but enough to keep their hopes high. If you don’t, then the disappointment after an unexpected victory is proportionate to the joy.  
  3. Focus. For any leader, even more for the head of a major nation like Egypt, there are a million demands on his attention; a million causes all clamoring for him to deal with them. Focus in the art of ignoring fluff. What is fluff in this case? It is everything that didn’t get you elected. Other countries didn’t get you elected, neither did their rulers. Neither did anything except the hopes of your own people. So, deal with them before you do anything else. People elected Morsi not only because they loved him (many didn’t) but because he represented a change from the horrible dictatorship of Mubarak. If that change is not clearly visible, then it raises anxiety. By definition, that anxiety will be disproportionate especially with those who were perhaps anxious in the first place and elected Morsi because they had no alternative. That means the Christians and Liberals. They need reassurance. Constant reassurance that their decision was not wrong and that they picked the right leader who will deliver on his promises and safeguard their interests.

In such situations, people’s patience, tolerance and the willingness to take pain, are always in very short supply. In Morsi and his party’s case, they bore the burden of the negative image of Islam and his party which was created by the global Islamophobia industry that all Muslims are the target of, but at a much higher level. Fears arising out of that, no matter how illogical they may have seemed to Morsi and his supporters, had to be allayed. Perception is reality, even when it is erroneous. You can’t run away from it. You must face it and lay it to rest through your visible actions. As they say about justice, “Not only must it be done, but it must appear to be done.” This holds true even more in this situation. Solution? Communicate, communicate, communicate. Morsi didn’t. On the other hand, his government’s actions fanned the flames and enhanced those fears. The resultant protests and all that followed was certainly not unexpected, except to those who refused to see the writing on the wall.

  • Economic Development. Generate employment. Infrastructure projects, service projects, education and tourism. I have mentioned these in detail in my other article quoted above so won’t repeat that here. But basically, give people something to think about other than politics. Get them off the street and out of the tea shops and into the workplace where they can earn some money. This was all doable provided there had been a focus on it. Apart from the aid from other countries, I have mentioned in my article different ways in which a government can access funds and resources to generate employment and boost the economy. Egypt is a resource rich country with a highly capable population. To make it economically strong is not a difficult task. What has drained is decades of dictatorship and the corruption that generates. A democratically elected, clean government was just what the doctor ordered for Egypt. Sadly, it never took off.
  • Act with decisiveness. A wrong decision pushed through does less damage than a right decision that you are tentative and hesitant in implementing. Morsi’s hardest task was to deal with a military that has gotten used to ruling. Like Pakistan, where the army runs the show behind the scenes and political leaders dance to their tune. This was probably the hardest task that Morsi had; a legacy not to his liking or of his creation, but his responsibility, nevertheless. What should he have done? I don’t think any elaboration is necessary. The supremacy of civilian rule needed to be established and institutionalized in a hostile environment. That needed a level of wisdom, diplomacy and ruthlessness, which Morsi was not capable of. Like major life saving surgery, it would have been painful and messy but needed to be done with decisiveness and speed. That didn’t happen. Maybe Morsi was too decent a human being for that. Whatever be the reason, the result was the resurrection of dictatorship.

All that remains is to mourn the passing of a good man and of the chance of a change of destiny for Egypt. May his memory be honored, and may others learn lessons so that what he wanted to achieve may one day be achieved by others. For men die. Not ideas or dreams. Dreams live on in the hearts of people, to one day emerge and usher in a world that others, like Morsi died for.

The Great Slide

The Great Slide

“So, how did things get so bad?” I am sure you must have heard, asked or thought about this yourself. So have I. Many times, over the years whenever I saw a badly-behaved child being fed with the help of an iPad, a spaced-out teenager who seems lost in his electronic world where Facebook friends are more real to her than real human ones or when I read reports of rapes and murders being filmed on smart phones by stupid people. And my instant reaction is, “It was not like this 40 years ago. What went wrong?” And there would rest the case; until the next episode. This is 2019 and so when I say, ‘40 years’ we are talking about two generations; that is the 1980’s. It is not to say that everything was hunky-dory until 1980 and suddenly in 1981 it all collapsed. But it is a live demo of the truth of the ‘Boiled Frog Syndrome’.

For the uninitiated, this has nothing to do with cuisine, but with gradual social change which suddenly becomes starkly visible, having been unperceived for a long time before that. The parable is that if you put a frog into a pot of hot water, it will jump out. But if you put the frog into a pot of water at room temperature and allow it to get comfortable in it; then you light a fire under the pot and gradually heat the water, the frog doesn’t register that the water is getting hotter. It continues to feel comfortable in the water which is getting hotter and hotter until it reaches a point when it does register that things are not the same but by then it is too late, and the frog gets boiled. That is what happens to people and to societies. That is what I believe has happened to us in India.

Let me do a flashback to the time that I was growing up, which was in the 60’s and 70’s. We (me Muslim) lived in a multi-religious society, as we do now, but with a big difference. Nobody had TV’s or smart phones (we didn’t even have stupid phones), so our social life was with our friends. We played football and cricket; yes, really! I mean in the maidan (open field) near our house. We went to their homes and they came to ours. We participated in their festivals; not the religious ceremonies, but the fun and games, eats and sweets. And they did the same with ours. We knew them and their culture and religion, respected it, understood their boundaries and adhered to them, took an interest in their culture and they did the same with ours. We spoke about all this because there was no football or cricket  to speak of and as far as I can recall, (cricket was a 5-day Test Match – a test of patience for everyone), politics was a given (Panditji was alive after all) and so there was hardly any discussion about that. We needed people and they needed us. So, we appreciated each other.

We lived in joint families, referred to our elders by our relationship with them or an honorific in keeping with their age. So, it was Dadaji, Amma, Baba, Mataji, Dadiji, Chachi, Chacha and so on. Hardly anyone was ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunty’. There were some but not too many. It was the job of all elders to discipline us, teach us, tell us stories, guide us in our religious or cultural norms, customs and practices and when they were doing that, if any of our friends was around, they would get the benefit of this teaching, no matter which religion they came from. They listened with respect and so did we. Our culture was distinct from that of others, but I don’t remember anyone in my family ever referring to the culture of others in any even remotely derogatory term. I don’t believe that my family or elders were unique. They were ordinary people of the time. We learnt our cultural norms, manners, taboos, customs and practices from our environment and those around us and since we lived in joint families, there were plenty of those. It didn’t matter that Dad was away at work, Mom was always home and even if she went anywhere, one or both grandparents, an uncle or aunt or two were always around to ensure that we ate, slept, were safe, studied, went out and played and when it was time, prayed. Mom and Dad didn’t need to do these things exclusively.

We never ate out because it was considered uncultured to eat in a restaurant. People asked you, ‘Don’t you have a home?’ If you took a friend out to a restaurant it meant that he was not close to you or that you didn’t really respect him. Otherwise you would have brought him home. It was normal to eat at each other’s homes, no matter that in some cases the food laws are very different and rigid. But Brahmins, Marwaris, Kayasth and Reddy friends all ate regularly at our place. When those we knew to be particular about their food laws were coming, strictly vegetarian food would be cooked. Those that ate meat at our house did that because they wished to. Nobody forced of even suggested it to them. Once again, this was not unique. This was the norm. I recall dropping in at the home of my good friend from school, Gurcharan Singh. I said, “Sat Sri Akal” to his mother (Mummy), Dad (Dadji), Grandmother (Mataji) and “Hi” to his sister and brothers and him. They all said, “Come and eat”, as they were having lunch. His mother said, with a big smile on her face, “Aaloo paratha bana hai. Tujhe pasand hai na!” because she knew how much I loved it. As I sat down, Guru’s father pointed to a covered dish and said, “Usay utthay rakh do.” (Put that there; signing to the sideboard); meaning, take that dish away from the table. Guru jokingly said, “Dadji koi problem nahin hai. Yawar yahan kha lega.” His father was distinctly not amused. He said, “Khana hai tho kahin aur ja kar khaye. Ithey nahin.” (If he wants to eat, let him go and eat somewhere else. Not here.) What they were talking about was pork vindaloo. I would not have eaten it anyway, but for them it was not a joking matter. We respected each other’s traditions and unless someone volunteered to break his own tradition, it was not broken for him. Some Muslims went to their Hindu and Christian friends to drink alcohol, but nobody forced them to do it. If they chose to do it, that was their choice, just as it was the choice of vegetarian Hindus to eat meat in their Muslim friend’s homes, if they wished. Needless to say, many Hindus are not vegetarian and eat meat and fish.

Manners were a very big thing. You never addressed an elder by name. Or even as Mr. So-and-so. You either called him Uncle So-and-so or just Uncle. Same thing for the Aunties. If a boy whistled at a girl, anyone older around would simply thrash him right then and there. You asked permission, said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. The role models you looked up to or who were mentioned to you were people who were known for their honesty, integrity, hard work, compassion; always for their values. What people owned was not the subject of discussion firstly because most people owned similar things, drove similar cars (if they drove a car at all) and lived in similar houses. The differences were not major and it was considered crass and highly uncivilized to mention money or the price of anything. If someone asked you how you were, you replied, “Very well Uncle/Aunty. Thank you.” You didn’t say, “I’m good”, because that is first of all, not the right answer because the person was not asking about your moral condition but your physical well-being and secondly because we thought it was their job to tell us if we were good or bad. Not ours to announce.

Money was in short supply though we never wanted for anything. We wore each other’s handed down clothes. We wore shoes until they became holey. Our clothes were hand-made to measure because that was the cheapest option. Readymade clothes were expensive and jeans you only saw in pictures. Pocket money was unheard of. You got money for the bus fare to school and that was it. Whatever else you needed had to have a reason behind it, and “I want it” was not a reason. We lived in bungalows on large plots of land because our parents had inherited them from their parents. We didn’t go on holidays and looked very enviously at those very few who went to Ooty for two weeks every summer so that they could return to Hyderabad’s heat and appreciate it better. But then, at that time you wore a sweater from November to February and the swimming pool (Public Swimming Pool in Fateh Maidan – does it even exist anymore – where Jeelani Pairak was the coach) only opened its doors in the middle of March because it was too cold to swim before that.

There were all of four career choices, medicine, engineering (mechanical or civil), Civil Service or Army. You picked one or if you didn’t, it was thrust upon you for all kinds of reasons out of your control and then you studied for the exams. When you got 80% you got presents and gave a party. If you got 90% people thought that you had cheated. Life was simple, uncomplicated and moved on at its own pace.

Then came the 80’s. TV came on the scene with its soaps, serials and news. The world suddenly opened. Education changed. Multiple disciplines became available to study leading to hitherto unheard-of career options. The Middle East opened up for jobs, so did America and Canada. Young people left to make their fortunes. In some cases, the wives and children remained behind. In most other cases, it was only the elderly parents who saw off their children at the airport to return to empty houses and loneliness. All in the name of money. Thanks to repatriation of funds and the effect of the TV, suddenly money was easy and material things, appliances, clothes, cars, motorcycles, all became affordable. Rapidly these became not only nice to have but grounds for competition with neighbors, friends and strangers. Suddenly we discovered that our neighbor’s name was Jones and we had to compete with them (Keeping up with the Joneses).

The 80’s sound like ancient history today in 2019 going on the magic number 2020. What do we have today? Hatred. We hate each other and that sells, that gets you elected, that gets you followers, it is chic, it is fashionable, and it works. It is most preferable to hate Muslims, but anyone else will also do, if there are no Muslims around. As long as you hate. That is the only thing that counts. So, our world has shrunk. We meet people like ourselves, who talk like we do, eat what we eat, like what we like and dislike what we dislike. We hate the same people and in each other’s rhetoric,  we find solace. We live in our echo chamber and that has become our world. There are those among us who were born in this echo chamber. They don’t know anything else. But there are those who were born and lived in a world that was very different from this one. A world where there were no echo chambers, like there were no mobile phones, laptops, social media and even television. A world that was real. Today in our echo chamber, we sometimes ask ourselves this question, “What happened to that world?” Then we correct ourselves and ask, “What did we do to it?”

Nations and Forest Fires

Nations and Forest Fires

It was 1984. The second and last formal employment of my career was in the tea plantations in the Anamallai Hills in Coimbatore District of Tamilnadu. I worked there for seven years, one of the most enjoyable and instructive periods of my life. Fires and estates are companions. Not surprising given the combination of people who smoke and don’t always bother to put out their cigarettes, and forests with semi deciduous trees that regularly carpet the floor with their leaves every summer. A forest fire is easy to start. One cigarette butt is enough. But if it catches, then it can’t be put out until there’s nothing left to burn. In the end, all that is left is ash. We used to take a lot of preventive steps including clearing fire boundaries where we would clear a wide swathe of ground of all undergrowth and leaves and keep it swept clean so that even if a fire started it could be contained. We had also constructed water tanks and dammed streams to create small reservoirs, which would be useful if we needed water in a hurry to put out a fire. These reservoirs were also very useful as watering holes for wildlife in the summer and a source of endless delight for me to watch animals as they came down to drink.

One day late in the afternoon someone came running to the office (days without mobile phones or walky-talky radios) and said that a fire had started in the Murugalli coffee area. In the plantations, emergencies were everyone’s affair. News would go to all those who could be informed, and they all rushed to the aid of the estate which had the problem. All who could go would go, regardless of whose estate it was.

As soon as the runner caught his breath, I put him on the back of my motorcycle to guide me and we were off. When I reached the place, I realized that this was a fairly large forest fire. There were about thirty of our workers and two supervisors who had been working in the area. I marshaled them all and got them to clear a belt and start a counter fire. The idea was to burn an area across the direction of the fire and clear it of all inflammable material so that when the main fire reached this place it would simply starve to death. We started the counter fires and once the dry stuff was burnt, we beat out the flames with green leafy branches that we had previously cut and kept at hand. The main fire was moving very fast as it was being pushed by a tail wind. As it came up to us it was our task to ensure that it did not jump the cleared boundary. Every time a flame jumped the fire boundary, we beat it to death. There was no water available where we were, otherwise, we would have also wet as much area as possible as a preventive measure. The story didn’t end here but for this article, this is enough.

The whole logic of fighting forest fires is about preventing them from starting. And if they do start, then trying to prevent them from growing. If this is not done, then once a fire grows beyond a certain size, nothing can put it out until everything that can burn has been burnt. The fire will die only when everyone and everything is dead. And all that is left is ash.

Today, as I reflect on global politics as well as its local reflection in my country, I am reminded of forest fires and my own experience of fighting one in the Anamallais. It appears that none of the leaders either on the global stage or the even more critical local ones, has ever seen or fought a forest fire. That is why they so blithely ignite and stoke the fires of hatred. Racial hatred, communal hatred and religious hatred. They know not what they do but regardless, we, every single one of us, will burn if we allow this to go on unchallenged and unanswered. Fire can’t be fought with fire. It must be fought with something that is cool and which is not inflammable. So also, hatred can’t be fought with hatred, but with love. Loving someone who hates you is not easy. It seems impossible. But the alternative is to burn in the same fire.

In human relations terms, ignorance is combustible. It is the substance that is used to ignite the fire of hatred and to stoke it by demonizing the object of hate. The real purpose is to sow discord and terror, so that we are all reduced to the same level, joined only in our fear of one another rooted in ignorance. Then we become malleable and controllable through fear. This is done by first focusing on the differences in our diversity and then teaching us that these differences are things to hate. In a society like ours which is based on caste differences that discriminate against other people based on their ethnicity (race), to get people to hate someone for something as ridiculous as what they eat, drink, wear or worship is very easy. We already live in a society where we are taught that some of us are superior to others for no fault of ours or theirs. It is just that we were born into this or that caste and so that not only makes us superior, but it means that we get to look down on others and consider them to be dirty, sub-human, unworthy of associating with and to always be treated with contempt. Since this entire edifice is built on an accident of birth, it means that it is permanent and there is nothing that anyone can do to change that. That leads to the logical progression of despising and hating the person and the entire group that he/she belongs to, because that makes me feel superior and good, once again free of cost.

To continue to feel good, all I need to do is to perpetuate this lie from generation to generation and ensure that the hatred and contempt stays alive. For this there are some requirements; deny anything good that the target population may have done, no matter how clear and substantial the evidence. Mock and disparage their identity, beliefs, culture and customs and demonize them by interpreting them in negative ways. Re-write history in a way that removes all evidence of their contribution to the nation and world and replace that with cherry-picked or manufactured stories of their ‘sins’. Pick a time period that is ancient enough to ensure that nobody from the time is alive to defend themselves and do all this so aggressively that those who are alive today, are intimidated enough to remain silent and watch their heritage being trashed. The idea is to eventually have a situation where even the memory of the contributions of those people is lost and all sense of self-esteem is taken from them. It is an age-old tactic, the only thing remarkable about which is that it still works.

Once again, what is the solution? For a solution we must find and implement if we are not all to be consumed in the forest fire that we lighted or allowed to be lighted while we watched. The first part of the solution is to reject every ideology that teaches that you are either superior or inferior because of the accident of birth. All such ideologies of being the ‘chosen of god’, are an insult to humanity and God. All such ideologies are false, dangerous and destructive and must be trashed. For the record as far as my own religion, Islam is concerned, let me quote from the sermon of the Prophet Muhammad(S) during his last Hajj where he said, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. A white (person) has no superiority over a black, nor does a black (person) have any superiority over a white; except by piety and good action.”  Now that is clear enough and needs no elaboration. We are all equal in our humanity and the only measure of goodness is the goodness we spread around us.

The second part of the solution is to give names and faces to the labels that we are confronted with. Labels seeking to create the ‘Other’ in our minds. Labels that if we don’t question and see them for what they are, make it possible for us to reject others. Labels are distant, disembodied and impersonal. That makes it possible to hate those to whom they apply. Names are known and personal; faces are recognizable. They make us stop to consider what we think, say or do about those people. Let me illustrate with my own example, how a name changes the complexion of a label.

I am Muslim. But when I hear the label ‘Agnostic/Atheist’, I see Aunty Mohini and Uncle Rama’s faces. The two people who were my mentors in childhood and youth and role models, lifelong. They enabled me to discover myself and opened my heart and mind to appreciate others. When I hear the label Sikh, I see the faces of Gurcharan, Gurveen Kaur, Anup and Sandy. When I hear the label Hindu, I see the faces of AMM Arunachalam, Renuka & Aditya Mishra, Purba & Sanjoy Sanyal, Nikoo Rawlley, Arun Menon and Gudducha (Jaikant Chaturvedi). When I hear the label Christian, I see the faces of Berty & Jenny Suares, Thambi Kurien, Ranjan Solomon, Norman & Lorraine Wood. When I hear the label Buddhist, I see the faces of Rose, Ivo and Alvito Baretto. When I hear the label Jew, I see the faces of Kathy, Dennis Goodman, David and Jeffrey Solomon. When I hear the label Christian Missionary, I see the faces of David and Miriam Ramse and Thurston Riehl. When I hear the label Parsi, I see the faces of Jehangir Ghadiali, Naushi and Mehru Tarapore. When I think of communal riots, I think of Uncle Raman Kumar who came with a police escort through the curfew to give us food grains. I think of Norman Lindie in Guyana who shielded me with his own body from a man who had come to attack me with a knife. I think of Peter Ramsingh, who was my constant companion in our innumerable camping trips through the rain forests, up and down the Berbice River. These are by no means the only people I know under these ‘categories’. There are many, many more. This is only to make my point that when you have a face to a label, it becomes personal. With each of them, I have many pleasant memories associated. Of happy times, helping one another, just being with one another and enjoying each other’s company and difference. So, deal with people, not labels.

The benefit of becoming personal is that I have a frame of reference when I hear or read something hateful about the ‘category’ which in my mind and life experience is represented by a name and face of a friend. I find it impossible to hate anyone, but even if this were not the case, I would have cause to stop and reflect, if I have a frame of reference against which to compare what I am being asked to believe. Without that and given the unique human tendency to believe the negative more easily than the positive, rumor becomes real and the lie becomes the truth. Today the problem is that thanks to our highly urbanized and apparently self-sufficient (but really isolationist) way of life, we manage to live in the same apartment building for decades without even knowing the name of our neighbor, let alone anything more. Our civic spaces are disappearing.  Hence civilized interaction and dialogue. Even schools are ‘segregated’. Not officially but children don’t seem to have friends, except among their own kind. Racist language is rampant and normal. Discrimination seems to be the order of the day. Even the question of a child going to the home of a friend, not from his/her religion or ethnicity, to spend an overnight or weekend with their family, doesn’t arise. Our conversation mentions other people, their religion and culture, but always in disparaging words. Never with respect and appreciation. Our world view has become totally color blind – black and white. We don’t even see the racist overtone in the term, Black & White. We have lost our frame of reference. We are blind, waiting to be led down the road of someone else’s choosing.

This must change. This is the fire-break that we must build. The essential fire prevention strategy if we want to protect ourselves from annihilation. We must open our eyes and ears, homes and hearts, to others. We must stop ‘Othering’ each other. We must learn to observe with respect and without being judgmental. We must learn to appreciate difference and not reduce all difference to good (like me) and bad (different from me). It is variety that adds color to the scenery. Variety is another name for difference. We must consciously examine the assumptions that we have become used to and treat as ‘The Truth’. We must face the fact that they are baseless assumptions, rooted in bigotry. As Reza Aslan put it very aptly, ‘Religion doesn’t make people bigots. People are bigots and they use religion to justify their ideology.’ The question each one of us needs to ask is, ‘Am I a bigot?’ I can imagine that in today’s world, the answer may well be, ‘Yes’, in all cases with a difference only in degree. As a starting point, I would say that it is enough to ask this question and then ask another one, even more painful. ‘Am I willing to do anything to change this?’ That is when we can start thinking of what we must do.

So, what must we do?

Monitor conversations. At home, in the workplace, especially in our schools and in public. It is ‘domestic legends’ which shape our worldview from a very early age. We need to reflect on how we were conditioned and become conscious of how we are conditioning our children. Most conditioning is unconscious and extremely powerful and very difficult to undo, unless we make a serious effort. Monitoring conversations will give us diagnostic evidence of the degree of change we need to make. It is important to do this objectively with a no-praise-no-blame mindset. The idea is to see how serious the terminal disease which afflicts us is and see what we need to do, to cure it. For terminal it is. Hatred is fire. All fires burn and the result is always ash.

Then we need to create civic spaces to meet in and practice being civilized. We need to develop the skills to speak about each other, our beliefs, culture, customs and traditions with respect. We must visit each other, participate in each other’s lives and do it with respect and without being judgmental. We must ask questions, respectfully and strongly oppose all mockery of people different from us, even if and especially when it is done in the name of ‘humor’. Laughing at someone is not humorous. Reject outright anyone who preaches hatred or mocks others; whether that is your priest or preacher, teacher or political leader, uncle or mother. We need to become open-minded enough to try to understand the reason why other people do things differently from us and not only accept that but appreciate it as another way of life which has an equal right to exist. We must deal with the fear that if we do this, we will need to ‘convert’ to their way. We won’t. What will happen though is that our minds and hearts will expand, which is a very good thing for all minds and hearts. Even ours. We will become more understanding, accepting, respectful and impervious to manipulation by those who wish to fill our hearts with hatred for others, so that we become tools in their hands to achieve their own ends.

It was a very hot day in May, 1991. Very dry, at the peak of summer with the monsoon another month away. I was driving through Thirunelveli District on my way back from Madurai where I had gone to attend a Labour Court hearing. These were the days before car air-conditioning in India, so the car was a moving oven. Suddenly the moving oven stopped moving. A tyre was punctured. My driver Santiago pulled over to the side. I got out of the car as it was simply too hot to sit inside. Santiago didn’t need any help, he said, so I looked around. I saw that we had stopped by some fields which in the monsoon would be planted with rice, but which at this time were simply baked, dry clay fractured into pieces according to whatever natural law was at work. There was not a blade of grass or anything green in sight. Except that is, for two small Neem trees, which had been planted by the roadside. Beside the trees, with its back to them and facing the field was a mud hut. It must have been about twenty feet long and had a grass thatch roof. Between the trees, which were at either end of the hut, the ground had been swept clean and sprinkled with sand. Under each tree, in the scant shade was a stone bench. It was really a stone fence post laid flat on two short raisers about two feet in height. I was intrigued to say the least about how this whole thing was obviously planned and prepared. Who would bother to make this seating arrangement and why?

I sat on one of the benches to see what would happen. In a little while a young boy came out of the hut with a brass water pot and a steel tumbler and poured me a tumbler full of tepid water. I had many thoughts about the origin of the water and its hygiene but didn’t want to interfere with whatever was at work here. So, I accepted the water and drank it. The boy went to Santiago and poured some water for him also. Then he set the pot down and sat with Santiago to provide him with moral support in changing the tyre of the car. A couple of minutes later, his mother called him. He took his pot and departed, only to emerge with two glass tumblers of tea. His mother came out as he finished giving the tea to me and Santiago, with a plate of Murku – the twisted savory snack that is very popular all over Tamilnadu and South India. I thanked her and took one, thinking all the time that the mystery had been solved. We had been fortunate enough to break down near a tea-shop and so we were now being served.

We finished our tea and the tyre was changed. I got up and asked the boy how much money I owed them for the tea and snack. He looked at me in surprise and said, ‘Onnum illayingay.’ (Nothing, Sir.) He used the respectful form of address which given the difference in our ages, our mutual social positions and the culture of Thirunelveli was natural. I thanked him but told him to ask his mother. He went into the hut and the lady came out, her head covered with the tail of her sari (pallu) and said, ‘This is not a shop Sir. Your car broke down, so I thought that maybe you would like a cup of tea and made it for you. That is all. There is nothing to pay. You are our guest.’ I didn’t know what to say. There was nothing in my experience to handle this, except unless I went back almost 30 years earlier to my time with Gond tribals in Adilabad, where I also encountered such generosity of spirit from people who had nothing. In this case, it was Diwali next day. So, I took out Rs. 100 and folded the note and put it in the pocket of the youngster and said, ‘This is for Diwali sweets for you.’ His mother tried to object but I said to her, ‘I am like his elder brother. Please allow me to give him a gift for Diwali.’ She smiled and nodded. And we left. This happened in 1991. This is 2019. The memory is alive.

Our education and sophistication seem to build walls and teach us to despise one another. These people were among the poorest in the world, deprived, discriminated against, so-called lower caste. Yet their hearts were full of compassion, generosity and abundance. What is the secret? It is to see another human being as a human being. Shorn of our titles and labels. Just another human being. This is what we need to learn and teach. This is the secret of putting out fires and of survival. This is our lifeline.

It’s not about Sri Lanka

It’s not about Sri Lanka

It’s about me.

This is such a time

My mind is numb, my heart is heavy, the tears have dried,

Yet the day dawns and life must be lived,

Unanswered, unanswerable questions,

Actions, reactions, a vicious cycle that must be broken.

As I sit down to write this, my biggest struggle is with myself, ‘Should I write this or not? What use is it? Surely the next planner or executor of the next atrocity is hardly going to ask – Let me see what Yawar Baig has to say before I do this. So why write?’ It is easier to simply do nothing. Withdraw into my shell and hope that one day what happened in Sri Lanka yesterday, doesn’t happen to my own loved ones. How then did I break out of this stupor of grief? By reminding myself of one thing: Those who were killed in Sri Lanka were my dear ones, because anyone who is killed because of his/her religion, race or nationality is my dear one. So, I will speak. I will raise my voice. And I will do it, even if I am alone. Especially if I am alone.

In my view the real purpose behind these actions is not the elimination of any population. That in today’s world is literally impossible. The real purpose is to sow discord and hatred, so that we are all reduced to the same level as the perpetrators of these crimes. Then we become malleable and controllable and are controlled through fear. Fear of our own neighbors, brothers and sisters, fear of our own family members in the global family of humans. This is done by first focusing on the differences in our diversity and then teaching us that these differences are things to hate. That leads to the logical conclusion of hating the person and the entire group that he/she belongs to. It is an age-old tactic, the only thing remarkable about which is that it still works. This is what was used against the Jewish people for centuries in Europe and Russia which led to their ghettoizing and eventually to Hitler’s infamous Final Solution, which educated, moral and (presumably) kind people, watched in silence. Today Muslims seem to be in that boat. It is salutary to note that Hitler’s gas chambers were built by highly educated engineers and scientists. So, for those who think that large scale violence amounting to genocide is something that is left to Attila the Hun, it may be shocking to see that education as we know it is not the solution to our problem. Because our problems are moral and ethical. Problems of our humanity. Not problems of not knowing enough math and science. There are lessons in history and one of the most powerful ones lies in the Jewish Holocaust. It is essential to learn the lessons because nations that don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

As I mentioned earlier, the main purpose of hate attacks is to cause chaos and disruption of society and turn one person against another. This creates a smoke screen which hides real issues. When people are immersed in grief and anger and are looking to hit back, they are not thinking clearly and all they need is a target. That is provided by implying that anyone from the community, religion, ethnicity, race or nationality of the criminal is like him and so can be made a victim in ‘retaliation’. That allows people to vent their anger on innocent people, creates an atmosphere of terror and buys time for those who want in reality to draw the curtains over their own faults and deficiencies i.e. the failure of leadership to solve people’s real problems of hunger, unemployment, lack of access to public health and education, lack of clean drinking water and housing. The issues vary from nation to nation, but it is always a mix of these. Don’t solve real problems, divert people’s attention to hating others, allow them to vent their anger on those who are helpless, and you buy some more time. Those who should really be held to account, voted out, removed from leadership and made to pay, are let off free to plan the next episode in this macabre horror drama called ‘Life in the Modern World’.

But all this will happen, only if we allow it to happen. That is the key and the reason we must ask ourselves, “Do I want this cycle to continue?”

Given that this is a no-brainer, what is the solution? Let me tell you about a unique experience I had just two days ago, on Saturday, April 20, 2019. I was invited to a Passover Seder dinner by some very dear Jewish friends. This was the first time that I was going to a Passover Seder and so I was very interested in what I would see and experience. To accommodate my inability to participate in a meal during which wine would be served, in a completely unprecedented and totally gracious gesture (very pleasant surprise for me), this family made the meal completely alcohol free and drank pomegranate juice instead of wine. This they did despite the fact that drinking four cups of wine is a part of the Passover Seder ritual. What amazed me even more was that the Rabbi who led the proceedings, also accepted this accommodation. Truly a most gracious gesture which left me feeling so very valued and appreciated.

The Passover Seder is about the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, which is a story that as a Muslim, I grew up with. The story of Musa (Moses) and how he liberated the Jews from the slavery of Pharaoh, is familiar to every Muslim child. It is one of the major stories in the Qur’an as Musa (Moses) is one of the major prophets of Islam, believing in whom is a part of our creed. But what was new to me was the whole Seder meal and what is read during it. The overall theme of the readings was thankfulness. Thankfulness for all the bounties of God that He gave the Jews and of course all of us. What struck me the most was the song of fifteen stanzas each line of which ends with the word, Dayenu (meaning ‘it would have been enough’), but He gave more. This struck me because this is precisely the Muslim understanding of God (Allahﷻ) and His Grace, Mercy and Generosity, that He gives without counting. The overall and overwhelming sense that I came away with that night was that of belonging, not of difference. Strange thing perhaps to hear from a Muslim talking about a Jewish household and ceremony in today’s times. But that is how I felt, the warm glow of which remains with me.

Why is this important and why am I mentioning this here?

It is because in this lies the seed of the solution to hatred. Hatred comes from not knowing about each other, which leads to the situation among most people of being able to believe the worst about them. This is the way stereotypes are formed and strengthened until they become ‘THE TRUTH’, to be believed unquestioningly. On the other hand, when we take the time to learn about each other, we are often faced with some startling facts, which lead us to question our blind beliefs and stereotypes and hopefully allow us to change our stances. I recall my childhood where I grew up among Marwari Hindus as neighbors and went initially to a Christian (Anglican) Missionary school and began my day singing the Lord’s Prayer in the Chapel. I come from a family of practicing Muslims and so my own religion was always familiar. As a result of this eclectic upbringing, I didn’t convert to either Christianity or Hinduism but grew up learning a lot about both religions and communities, by living with them. We lived in each other’s homes, ate together (keeping to our own food laws strictly), celebrated each other’s festivals and didn’t feel that our own religion was threatened by this mutual understanding. I have written about this in detail in my book, ‘It’s my Life’ and so won’t repeat it here. Please read the book. You’ll enjoy it.

I am speaking of this here because the one big thing that happened thanks to this upbringing is that today, when someone tries to tell me about how bad and vicious Hinduism or Christianity are, I have the frame of reference of both from my own life experience against which to check what I am hearing. I reject these messages because I didn’t experience these religions or those who follow them, in that way at all. Ditto Judaism, from my experience which I described above. Therefore, the first and most important thing to do is to ensure that we get to know one another, personally, experientially and closely.

I am therefore able to distinguish and differentiate between the action of someone who professes to belong to a particular religion but does things that are prohibited in that religion. That, in my opinion, places that individual, outside his religion. He is not a representative of his religion and his actions are the result of his rejecting his religion, not of practicing it. So, I reject that individual and his actions, not his religion. In my view, in the case of those who are responsible for the mass murder in Sri Lanka that happened on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019; those people are criminals and must be treated as such. They must be caught and punished to the full extent of the law. On no account must we accept their professed logic of representing this or that religion and on that account buy into the negative, toxic philosophy of hating that religion or its adherents, who are our neighbors and family. We must do this because we must defeat this hate-filled thinking that is sought to be imposed on us. We can only do this if we reject it. Not if we buy into it.

If not me, then who? If not now, then when?

 I am reminded of a story I heard in 1997, about the man who used to stand before the White House every night holding a candle, in his struggle to have the UN sanctions against Iraq, lifted. One night, it was cold and wet and windy. But the man was there in his place, holding an umbrella and trying to protect his candle from the rain.

The guard at the gate, who used to see him every day, came out to him and said, “Tell me why do you do this? Do you really think you can change them?”

The man replied, “I don’t do this to change them. I do it so that they won’t be able to change me.”

It is very important that we speak out. The time for silence is over. The time for action is here.