Namaste. Salam Alaikum.
Aloha. Thank you for inviting me to be with you as we all come together from different faiths and spiritual paths to stand in solidarity for freedom and peace.
Sadly, as we look around us at the chaos in the world today, we see people who are inflicting violence and terror upon others in the name of religion and identity.
On January 29, six people were killed and nineteen wounded as they were fired upon while they prayed in a Quebec City mosque.
On February 16, an ISIS-affiliated suicide bomber killed at least seventy-five people while they worshipped at a shrine to the Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Pakistan — a place that was tragically targeted for embracing worshippers of all faiths and sects side by side.
Since the beginning of 2017, hundreds of tombstones have been toppled at Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and St. Louis and nearly 100 bomb threats have been called into Jewish schools and community centers across our nation.
In February of last year, ISIS beheaded a senior Hindu priest named Jogeswar Roy at a temple in northern Bangladesh, and injured two others. Just a few months before this, ISIS conducted attacks on Shia mosques and shrines in Bangladesh killing and injuring worshippers.
The perpetrators of these horrific actions have no connection with the spiritual love that lies at the heart of all religions — the love that has the power to overcome differences and bring people together.
No matter where you’re from, no matter what religion you practice, your ethnicity, race, or anything else — what is it that can bring us together as people? It is, what we call in Hawaii, aloha… sincere, deep love and respect for other people as children of God.
The sectarian spirit that fuels enmity and violence between members of different religions has been described by the great saint Bhaktivinode Thakur as “the greatest enemy of mankind.”
When a person thinks, I am a Christian, this other person is a Muslim, therefore he is my enemy, or I am a Muslim, this other person is a Hindu, therefore she is my enemy, they reveal their own lack of spiritual depth. No religion teaches this, and any understanding of any religion that adopts this divisive attitude proves itself false by doing so.
As a Vaishnava Hindu, a devotee of Sri Krishna, I recognize and respect both Jesus Christ and the Prophet Mohammed as messengers of God, messengers of love, peace, and universal brotherhood. Prophet Mohammed warned against any maltreatment of people of other faiths, saying:
“Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I (Prophet Muhammad) will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.” (Abu Dawud)
I was raised in Hawaii in what I call a “faith-inclusive” family. I never felt I had to choose loyalty to the New Testament over the Bhagavad Gita. It really wasn’t until my late teens that I became aware of the ugly concept of sectarianism.
According to Vaishnava Hinduism, there is only one Supreme Being, but He has many beautiful and wonderful names. God is one, no matter what name we call Him, and it is the loving exchange that each of us has with God that is true spirituality.
The Hindu scripture, the Brahma Samhita, states, “The soul is eternal and is for eternity without a beginning, joined to the Supreme Lord by tie of an eternal kinship. The soul is transcendental spiritual potency.” (Brahma Samhita 5.21)
When we are tasting such love for God, we are able to see beyond our external differences and designations, and recognize that we are all relatives in the deepest sense.
By embracing this truth, which is a core message of all scriptures of the world, we can achieve real peace and harmony with others, no matter the different backgrounds we come from. Such tolerance, respect, and love for others, regardless of religion or any other external differences, is taught by Sri Krishna Chaitanya in His prayer:
“One should chant the Holy Name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, feeling oneself to be lower than the straw in the street; one should be more tolerant than the tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige, and ready to offer all respects to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the Holy Name of the Lord constantly.” (Sri Siksastakam)
The Quran states, “Humanity is but a single brotherhood. So make peace with your brethren.” (Quran 49:10)
The Sri Isopanishad, a Hindu scripture, states, “That person who sees everything in relation to the Supreme Lord, who sees all living entities as parts and parcels of the Lord, and who sees the Supreme Lord within everything, never hates anyone nor any being.” (Sri Isopanishad, Mantra 6)
The Bible states, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (Bible, John 4:8)
The essence of God is love, and central to love is freedom.
Our country’s Founding Fathers invoked our inalienable God-given right to life and liberty, and enshrined that right of freedom of religion in our US constitution, recognizing that everyone must be free to follow his or her conscience without fear of persecution. This right is something that comes from God, bestowed on every one of us, no matter who we are or where we are from, and which no one has the right or ability to take away.
It is truly wonderful that embedded in the very bedrock of our nation is this recognition of free will; of this intrinsic right of every individual to worship God as one chooses, or to not worship God; to adhere to any spiritual path or to no spiritual path. No one can make that decision for another person. It is our duty to guard and protect the right of all people to worship or not worship according to their conscience. This is the nature of love. Every person has the freedom to choose to give their heart and give their life to God or not. You can’t force someone to love God, or to love anyone.
As stated in the Quran: “To you be your religion, to me be mine.” (Quran 109:6)
By cultivating the understanding that each individual has the intrinsic right to follow a particular spiritual or religious path, or no path at all, and by recognizing that this right is given by God, not by man or government, we can maintain a pluralistic, peaceful society. Without this understanding, and a commitment to respect and uphold this right, there is no foundation for peace in the world.
The terror that we see perpetrated in the name of God today is in fact a refusal to honor the inherent freedom of all people that is given by God. So-called “religious terrorism” is born of an exclusivist ideology that says, my faith is the only legitimate faith, and that everyone who does not believe as I believe is inferior and must be converted, enslaved, raped, or killed.
Such acts of terror are also an admission of insecurity and doubt. Those who are confident in their own faith have no reason to attack the faith of others. It is only those who are fearful and devoid of love for God who believe that forcing their view on the rest of the world could ever be the will of God.
Groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram all share this divisive ideology in common, and it is also at the heart of the Wahhabi Salafist ideology sponsored and propagated by countries like Saudi Arabia. This exclusivist ideology is the opposite of real religion because it denies the inherent freedom of every individual to choose whether and how they want to love God or not, and it is the enemy of peace for all of humanity.
Therefore, in order to defeat this enemy, we not only need to defeat these terrorist groups militarily, we need to defeat them ideologically. Otherwise, those terrorists we kill on the battlefield will simply be replaced by others who have been indoctrinated into a perverse and violent understanding of religion.
How do we defeat this exclusivist ideology? We must confront this exclusivist, hateful ideology head-to-head, and defeat it with an inclusive ideology of love — a consciousness of love. Inclusiveness is born out of wisdom and love, knowing that every single person is a child of God, and we should love others as our brethren. We should appreciate and respect that every individual has the right to choose the spiritual path that they want.
Ultimately, the only way we can defeat terrorism is by wielding a superior truth. To defeat terrorism, every imam, priest, reverend, rabbi, guru, and spiritual teacher must articulate this central truth — that real religion is love, and love must be freely given, it cannot be forced. A loving relationship with God can only be initiated out of an individual’s free choice. When this truth is heard, understood, and accepted in all corners of the globe, then we will have peace.
This ideology of inclusivism, of aloha, of love and respect for others, needs to be promoted around the world in every mosque, temple, and church. Only this inclusive ideology of aloha can defeat the exclusive ideology of terrorism.
When a society fails to cultivate this love, and fails to respect individuals’ freedom of choice, such societies inevitably end up in great darkness and suffering.
Unfortunately, there are billions of people in the world who have been forced to live in societies where individual freedom of conscience and religion do not exist, where people who are followers of the “wrong religion” or of no religion are treated as lesser human beings, discriminated against, oppressed, forced to pay extra taxes, forced from their land, or worse yet, imprisoned, tortured, raped, or killed.
These examples may seem very extreme as we sit here in this nice, safe hall in New Jersey, under the protective umbrella of religious freedom.
But we must remember that there is not one place — not even our own nation — that is immune to the poison of religious bigotry.
Abraham Lincoln was attacked with accusations that he was not a Christian.
When John F. Kennedy ran for President, his political opponents tried to foment religious bigotry against his Catholicism.
When Barack Obama ran for president in 2007, people accused him of being Muslim, as if that would somehow disqualify him from becoming president.
When I first ran for Congress, my Republican opponent stated in a CNN interview that I shouldn’t be allowed to serve in Congress because my Hindu religion “doesn’t align with the constitutional foundation of the US government.” Last year, my Republican opponent stated that, “a vote for Tulsi is a vote for the devil,” because of my Hindu faith.
The message in each of these situations was simple: you will be punished politically for being of the “wrong religion.”
Nothing could be more un-American than this.
The only way to defeat this dark cloud of religious bigotry and hatred is when we stand together in the light of love.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
We must stand with people of all religions who are committed to pluralism and individual free choice. People like:
Mahmoud Al ‘Asali who was assassinated for courageously speaking out against ISIS’ brutal treatment of Christians in Mosul;
Khurram Zaki, a prominent Pakistani journalist and human rights activist who was assassinated because he was one of many Muslims courageously advocating for a pluralistic, tolerant, secular Pakistan;
Kenyan Muslims who shielded Christians from the attack of terrorists;
Jewish and Christian leaders in Victoria, Texas who opened their synagogue and churches to the Muslim community whose mosque burned down.
There are countless examples of such love and courage by individuals and communities who embrace and live by the true spiritual principles of peace, love, mercy, and tolerance; who are building coalitions of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, secularists, and more; who are risking their lives, bravely crying out for a peaceful, pluralistic society built on the bedrock of religious freedom.
So the challenge for each and every one of us here is — will we elevate and empower these champions of peace and a pluralistic society? Will we do what is necessary to defeat the destructive exclusivist ideology with one of love, aloha, and inclusiveness?
Or will we stand by, shake our heads, and do nothing?
We must act. For the sake of our families, our communities, our country, and all of humanity, we must stand with these brave souls, these warriors for peace.
Let us stand proudly as Americans, as defenders of our constitution, as defenders of freedom, as defenders of peace, as beacons of love.
Let us be brave and forceful in standing up for each other’s rights to live and worship freely and let us not be afraid to say that whoever threatens that right for any one of us will have to face all of us together.
Let us be inspired by the vision put forward by our nation’s founders, and challenge those fomenting religious bigotry to do the same.
Rather than pour fuel on the fire of darkness, divisiveness, and hatred, let us bring the light found in the aloha spirit to our lives, our country, and the world.
Let us be inspired as we join hands, working toward the day when everyone — whether they are Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, or atheist — can live in peace and free from fear.
Let us confront hatred with love. Confront bigotry with aloha. Confront fear with courage.
Let us truly live aloha in our actions, in our words, and in our hearts.