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120 Years Ago Today…

I thought I would bring something a little different to the table. Today is a very sad day for a large amount of people, and by all means we should remember those that perished over a decade ago now. But I thought it would be worth sharing something interesting that I learnt earlier on this year that took everyone I told by surprise. September 11 was a significant date before the atrocities of 2001 ever took place. It happened 120 years ago.

120 years ago, Chicago hosted one of the most important parliaments in the history of the world, but I guarantee you that 90% of you will have no idea about it. The First Parliament of World Religions in 1893 saw the largest congregation of religious officials of the time to see the first integration of western and eastern spiritual philosophy. Members as remote as Tibet and as hallowed as Vatican City made their way to that Mid-Eastern American town to discuss how they could work together to tackle some of the big problems of the time.

Needless to say, the attitude towards these religions is different today, but that is part of my point. On one day, with a gap of 120 years between them we can see the difference between religious cohesion and destruction. The veneer of this momentous conference will be drowned in history by the actions of a small group of organised religious extremists. This is a reminder that this is not merely coincidence, but acts as a poignant mirror of the effects of the changing beliefs of our society.

But we digress. The real hero of this story is Narendra Nath Datta – more famously known as Swami Vivekananda. Or not so famously for some of you. 120 years ago, on this very day, he brought eastern spirituality to western philosophy in only 30 minutes. He began his speech, with “Sisters and Brothers of America,” which received a standing ovation for 10 minutes alone. He showed that these individuals, these delegates, these human beings had a spiritual bond that transcended their mere religious label. He even began by addressing his “sisters” which was ironic considering there were no women delegates at this time…an insight into Western vs. Eastern thinking.

His exploits in America and Europe is probably the reason that many millions practice yoga around the world. And in the same way that Hinduism and the Vedanta way of thinking is revered by those who have religious beliefs, and interestingly, those that do not. Therefore on this day especially, on the anniversary of the speech that changed the world, we should celebrate how it was brought together, rather than how it was nearly torn apart.

It is his 150th birthday this year. I usually have an aversion to ‘inspirational figures’ but I would definitely urge anyone to learn more about the impact that he had in the short 39 years of his life. There is a global exhibition where young people from around the world are going to be talking and sharing the thoughts of Vivekananda to commemorate his birth. There is going to be one near you, wherever you are. Please, if you can, go. You won’t regret it.

Exceptions – Woolwich

I am not about to wade in with a half-measured opinion about the harrowing events of this week. Instead, I am more interested in opening a real discussion about the deeper issues that go past the mere description of the actions of two sociopathic individuals. What I really want to understand is not what happened, but the wider reaction to it from normal people – because that is where the debate and ignorance really lies.

The most important question that I want to answer is why we equate terrorism with religion? It seems that more and more, as attacks and horrible events occur, we seem to jump to the conclusion that it must be down to a religious fanatic? And we tend to place the blame on more monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam – as if those who hold these beliefs are collectively at fault for the actions of a select few. I am not saying that we all harbour extreme prejudice, but I will argue, that for a split second, even if it is just an instinct, when we hear the word ‘terrorist’, do we not think of ‘(religious) extremist’?

I am no conspiracy theorist, but there seems to be serious issues with the way in which these incidents are reported. One of things that infuriated me was the way in which Nick Robinson, political editor on the BBC, referred to the perpetrators as of “Muslim descendant” based on hearsay in Whitehall, rather than actual evidence which was accumulated hours later. It was bad journalism, and by all accounts, he should have known better. There was absolutely no reason to further perpetuate the stereotype, even if he claimed that it was based on a reliable source – it was wrong.

But does that open up the real prejudices that lie just beneath the surface? It seems like we don’t even know what terrorism is anymore. Terrorism is the use of violence or intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. The fact that we look to dive into the religious motivations of these idiots may be what they want us to do, but we should ignore it. We shouldn’t give them the satisfaction. When they tell us how the actions of our governments have made their lives and the lives of their ‘brothers and sisters’ intolerable, remind yourself that these people are isolated. When they tell us that we are killing innocent women and children, remember that you don’t have blood on your hands like they claim. When they tell us that they are killing in the name of their God, know that no God would condone murder in his/her name. Don’t buy into the theories of madness.

See them for who they truly are – disillusioned, violent, ignorant, stupid and most importantly, alone. They act alone and we should treat them as exceptions to the rule. Religious people are not in any way associated with terrorists, so don’t act out against them, otherwise you will be proving the excuses of the idiots that conduct these massacres. Violence begets more violence, hate begets more hate and death begets more death. Let’s stop making the same mistakes and start learning.