Bad results come when concepts obscure reality. It is individuals who decide what corporations and nations will do, and it is not Arab, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim or other aggregate entities but individuals who act in the name of race and religion.
Power-seeking leaders use our delusion that religious and other institutions make decisions to trigger our fears about “other” groups. It is all too easy to persuade us to fear people we do not know, and fear sparks hatred. The massacre when India was partitioned is a chilling illustration.
When its ownership changed in 1947, what had been British India was reconfigured into three territories operating as two nations, (1) India, (2) East Pakistan which later became today’s Pakistan, and (3) West Pakistan, which became today’s Bangladesh.
British India was a collection of 565 semi-sovereign principalities. Those directly governed by the British are shaded pink in the map below. The yellow shaded ones were subject only to British control over their relations with each other. You’ll notice the British considered Nepal part of their empire. Nepal’s kings did not. They kept Nepal closed even after India became independent.
Arab and Persian Muslims began coming to the Indian subcontinent almost immediately after Mohammed’s death in 632. There were military expeditions and trading, and some soldiers and traders married local women, but it was not until the 13th-14th centuries that Islam became an important force in India.
Many principalities became tributary to Islamic sultanates and then, from the early 16th to the mid-18th centuries, almost the whole subcontinent was ruled in prosperity and religious harmony by a Muslim administration, the Turco-Mongol Mughal Empire.
Next came a Hindu warrior regime, the Maratha Empire from southern India. At that time, Hindu just meant people in India who were not Turks or Muslims.
The mix of Hindus and Muslims varied. The highest concentration of Muslims was in the West close to Persia and the Ocean route to Arabia, and in the East close to Calcutta, Britain’s primary ocean port.
You might expect a Shia Muslim majority since the greatest number of Muslims is closest to Persia, but 70% – 75% of Muslims in India and 80% – 90% in Pakistan are Sunni. That’s because the Mughal emperors happened to be from the Sunni tradition.
In the late 19th century, many people on the Indian subcontinent were starting to think of themselves more as Indian than as members of one of the local kingdoms. The British, who followed the Marathas, had begun allowing them into the administration of the continent as a whole.
The 565 semi-sovereign kingdoms still existed when British rule ended in 1947 and there were starkly different views about whether they should be unified into one or two nations. Gandhi, who was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist the following year, was relentlessly against violence and for a single nation with Hindus, Muslims, and Christians in unity.
But Hindu leader Savarkar had written in 1923: “We Hindus are … a nation” and by 1937 he was saying: “Indian Hindus and Muslims are two distinct nations, regardless of ethnic or other commonalities.” Then in 1940, Muslim leader Jinnah told cheering crowds: “[We Muslims] are not a minority (but) a nation.”
So, driven by their leaders’ quest for power, India and Pakistan became separate nations. Appalling riots broke out. As many as two million people were killed and over fourteen million fled for their lives, half of them Muslims from India to Pakistan, the others Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan to India.
The Indian subcontinent’s highly diverse population — the 2001 census found 122 major languages and 1599 other languages in India alone — had suddenly been conceptualized as two nations, India with a secular government, Pakistan as an Islamic Republic.
Individuals pursuing power had aligned race and religion with nationalism. Tellingly, Hindu leader Savarkar was an atheist and Muslim leader Jinnah did no Muslim practice. It was too late when in 1947, Jinnah called for a secular and inclusive Pakistan. He had gotten himself a nation by inflaming religious hatred. Then he could not bring the hatred to an end.
Power-seeking individuals are using the same dark tactics today. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi melded the ideas of nation and religion into the Islamic State. In response, US Presidential candidates Trump, Cruz and others exhort us to condemn every Muslim as a potential terrorist.
We don’t have to fall for these spurious calls for mass hatred.