The Lessons of Ayodhya

October 1, 2010 Topic: DemographyHistoryReligion Region: IsraelIndiaPalestinian territories Blog Brand: Paul Pillar Tags: MosqueZionism

The Lessons of Ayodhya

A land dispute between Hindus and Muslims in India suggests a better path for Jews and Muslims in the Middle East.

The verdict by an Indian court concerning disputed land in Ayodhya that was the site of both a 16th century mosque and, Hindus say, the birth of the Hindu god Ram was an earnest effort to recognize the claims and religious sensitivities of both sides.  The core of the ruling was that the land should be divided between Hindus and Muslims. The ruling had long been awaited with anxiety that was understandable, given the bloody background to the dispute. In 1992, amid a campaign by Hindu hardliners to erect a new temple to Ram, a Hindu mob destroyed the mosque. Among the violent reverberations was a spate of retaliatory bombings in Mumbai the following spring that killed 257 and injured 700. Today hardliners on both sides are expressing varying degrees of dissatisfaction with the ruling, and there continues to be well-founded worry about whether the strong religious feelings might erupt in destructive form anew. But at least for the time being, Indian political leaders and parties to the case seem committed to resolving any remaining differences through the appeal process in the courts and subsequent negotiations, and to do what is necessary to make a compromise solution work.

This rare encouraging news about a bitter, long-standing, religiously infused dispute invites comparisons with less encouraging news about similar conflicts elsewhere. The one that particularly comes to mind is that between Jews and the predominantly Muslim Arabs of Palestine. Some of the parallels are striking. In Ayodhya Muslims built a mosque on top of the ruins of an earlier Hindu temple dedicated to Ram. At the place in Jerusalem that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary, Muslims built the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque on top of ruins of earlier Jewish temples.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority supposedly are both committed to resolving this and other issues that divide them through the negotiations that the Obama administration is struggling to get off the ground. The current Israeli prime minister, however, coupled his grudging acceptance of negotiations for a two-state solution with conditions, which differ from those imposed by previous Israeli leaders, that call into question the seriousness of his commitment. The conditions also recognize the legitimacy of the claims of only one, not both, of the religious communities involved. Mr. Netanyahu stated that the Palestinians must explicitly recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that all of Jerusalem—including East Jerusalem, which Israeli forces seized in the 1967 war and which includes the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary—must be under Israeli sovereignty. The spirit of compromise exhibited by the Indian court ruling and most reactions to it is missing in this other dispute. (For a good description of where compromises are and are not being made in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, see Henry Siegman's latest commentary on the subject.)

There is a tendency among Israelis (and some of their supporters) to see their situation as unique. Every conflict has certain distinctive characteristics, of course, but with respect to other frequently cited attributes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict such as past suffering of an ethnic or religious community it is hardly unique, as the conflict between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia demonstrates. Certainly there has been no shortage of bloodshed and suffering in the South Asian conflict. At the time of the partition of South Asia in 1947, hundreds of thousands, and perhaps as many as a million, people lost their lives. India, notwithstanding its remarkable resilience in other respects, has since then been afflicted by periodic Hindu-Muslim violence, some of which is best described as pogroms and counter-pogroms, that has caused untold additional suffering to Hindus and Muslims alike.

Take more specifically the perspective of Hindus, who constitute the majority in India just as Jews do in Israel. Hindus were conquered by foreign Muslims beginning in the 13th century and became oppressed subjects in their own homeland. And India is the only place that, notwithstanding substantial Hindu communities in other countries, could ever be considered the homeland of Hindus. Some on the Indian political right have wanted to run with that concept and turn India into something closer to Hindustan, the land of the Hindus. Given the Hindus' difficult history, it would be very easy to sympathize with that idea. But the dominant political ethos since independence—still voiced by the Congress Party, the principal governing party at present—sees India instead as a multi-confessional and multi-ethnic commonwealth, one in which Muslims become Bollywood film stars or even the president of India. And this is the case even though Hindus are an even larger majority in India (81 percent) than Jews are in Israel (76 percent), with Muslims being proportionately a smaller minority in India than in Israel.

There are several reasons that the Jews of Israel and the Hindus of India have taken such different paths, despite both having their versions of miserable and bloody histories. Leadership surely is one; there has been no Israeli equivalent of Mohandas Gandhi, whose approach to pursuing a cause was the antithesis of might-makes-right.  While Gandhi was shaking off British rule in South Asia through mass marches and other nonviolent tactics, future Israeli prime minister and Likud Party leader Menachem Begin was shaking off British rule in Palestine through terrorist violence such as blowing up the King David Hotel.  Another reason is the talent and resourcefulness of the Israeli people, who have had the skill not only to make the desert bloom but also to develop (with American help) the military power that makes it possible to achieve goals not through compromise but through force. Whatever the combination of reasons, the flicker of hope from the court ruling about Ayodhya and most Indian responses to it suggests that there is a better path. It is a path on which the most important step is recognition that claims to security or sovereignty, based on past historical suffering, do not all reside on one side of a dispute.