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Practical lesson from Melbourne Convention: God, men and pluralism

Anand Krishna

The Jakarta Post | Mon, 12/21/2009 3:14 PM | Opinion



"You are lucky. A good hotel location, the city mosque is not far from your hotel, just walking distance," Hassen, the maxi (not a taxi, because it could take six of us) driver greeted me as I was struggling to put on my seat belt.

Melbourne 2009 - and it was the second day of December.

What a change! I was in the city more than 20 years ago.

Then, as a businessman, and I do not remember being driven by a Hassen who would for the next half an hour brief me on the geography of the city, highlighting only such places related to the "religion of God".

Hmm, "So, other religions are not *of' God?"

Hassen interpreted my question as a confirmation of what he had said earlier. With an additional zeal, he repeated himself, "Yes, yes, only one religion of God."

Does God follow any particular religion? Does he follow the religion of His own creation, or ...?

Anyway, Hassen told me there was a "Biryani House" two or three blocks from my hotel.

"Very good halal food, other places not sure." Period.

Earlier he had asked me how many days I planned to spend in the city. And I said almost 10. So, he expected me to visit the recommended Biryani House every day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Excellent!

I could understand Hassen better when he told me he came from Jeddah. Of course, I should have guessed earlier.

For the Arabs of the desert, uniformity is a virtue. With the lowest level of biodiversity, and a similar geographical terrain, the Middle East is one shining example of uniformity.

It should not surprise us, therefore, that they can live with two colors, white for men and black for women.

"When did you come here?" I asked Hassen.

"Year 2000," his answer surprised me. I had to continue our conversation, and ask him, "Why should a Saudi Hassen come to Australia to work, while the Saudi sheiks and emirs employ people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia?"

He showed displeasure at my remark, "I am not Saudi. I live in Saudi Arabia. I am Arab." Politics. Yes, yes, yes, it was stupid of me to refer to him as a Saudi. Not all Arabs living in Saudi Arabia (the Arabia "belonging" to the family of Saud) were Saudis, or belonged to the Bedouin tribe.

(Not unusual, indeed, very universal - it happens everywhere, including in my country.)

"But, I am happy here. I can guide *our people' who come here, just like you, and get blessings from God." Oh yes, sure.

God, the Supreme Guide blesses us all, what to say of guides then - professional solidarity.

Hassen's sense of division between "our" people and "others" was very Arabic, and was interestingly similar to the stance of former US President Bush: "If you are not with us, then you are with them."

"But, why are you here?" Hassen must have guessed that I was certainly not on a business trip with 11 others, and dressed rather too casually for business travelers.

"We are here to attend the Parliament of World's Religions Convention," I answered.

"Oh, religions," he did not approve of the word "religions" - particularly the "s" attached to the word. He shrugged his shoulders, "well, you see, they have all kinds of conferences here.

"Like, next year, they have the conference of atheists. All of them are the same. They do not follow the religion of God."

Okay, Hassen. I agree and disagree with you. Or, perhaps I do not see things the way you do, my dear Hassen.

It does not make sense to me if God has a religion. It makes more sense to me if the various religions are made (by whoever) to guide humankind to God.

Anyway, I must leave you, Hassen, with your understanding of God and religion. Your understanding is as good to you, as my understanding to me.

But, the conference of atheists he mentioned sounded interesting! So, I did some quick Internet research. Indeed so, Melbourne is to host the Global Atheist Convention in March 2010.

I salute your broadmindedness, Australia! After all "atheism" is an "ism" too. We can accept all other "isms", so why not athe-"ism"? After all, atheists have a belief system too, as we, who consider ourselves as theists, do. We believe in God, they believe in no God.

My research also revealed another interesting fact. Ever since the Australian census introduced the instruction "if no religion, write none" in 1971, the number of Australians stating they had no religion has increased seven fold. The 2006 census showed 3,700,000 (19 percent) belonging to this category.

A further 11 percent failed to state whether they followed any religion (Source: Herald Sun).

That however does not make Australians less human. I was rather amused to find newspaper ads like the following:

"There are no pockets in heaven. Give now." It was a call for donations to support a 24/7 telephone counseling service for the seriously ill and those who care for them.

But what truly impressed me was that the paper had supported the color advertisement (The Age, Dec. 2, 2009).

I wondered how many papers in my country would run such complimentary ads as part of their social responsibility programs.

And, how many of our clergies would be courageous enough to "openly" agree and defend such ads? In our country, ads like "donate here, get the benefit there" are more common.

One such ad I saw on my way to Soekarno-Hatta airport a day earlier in fact stipulated the benefit, as also the cause for donation, "Build a House for God here, and Reserve a Mansion in Heaven". Great!

The second ad, "Give good karma this Christmas", was equally impressive, and also supported by the paper. This was a call to donate for "Mosquito Nets for Africa", "Glasses for a Child," and "Save Orangutan Habitat".

Karma and Christmas rhyme as do Krishna and Christ, or Ram and Rahim. But, the question is, how many men of religion in my country would be willing to speak on Karma and Christmas with equal appreciation?

Melbourne, and the Parliament of World's Religions, where humankind meets - right place for the right cause.

But, wait, what is it on the television. Gang rape, three boys caught, seven others are still at large. Melbourne, O Melbourne, you are but like all other cities.

And, I hear someone whispering, "This is why conventions are still needed. But, don't you stop at that. Resolutions must be realized, not merely recorded!" Indeed, Amen.

The writer is a spiritual activist, and an Ambassador for the 2009 Parliament, presently attending the convention in Melbourne to deliver his speech on the Indonesian Motto of "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika" as a solution to combat religious fanaticism, radicalism, and terrorism. (www.anandkrishna.org)