I work just two blocks from the United Nations building in New York. While out to grab my lunch yesterday I was engulfed in a peaceful, if vocal demonstration. Many people were standing along Third Avenue with a perplexed look, myself included, I suppose, when a protestor from a great, surging throng thrust a paper into my hand. Headlined “Bring Justice to Guinea,” the paper outlined the brutalities being perpetrated against the Fulani in Guinea. I have to confess to being ignorant of most of the world’s trouble spots. In a society that is relatively free, we’ve been struggling to attain any real form of social equity without success for over two and a half centuries. When I read of the atrocities against the Fulani outlined on the flier, I wondered why I’d not heard of them before. I didn’t have to wonder long, however, because many of us have not received any real education beyond what has happened in the developed world. I decided to learn what I could in the brief moments after the commute home and before bed time. I discovered that the Fulani were once an empire in West Africa. Today in Guinea, according to the information at hand, they are subject to truly horrific treatment. The flier asks, “Would you stop a genocide if you saw it coming?”
I honestly cannot know what lies behind the suffering of the Fulani in Guinea, but historically genocides have either been about, or excused as being about, proper religious belief. One of the saddest commentaries on religion is that even in varieties of religion that claim peaceable teachings and human welfare, violence frequently breaks out. The distrust of the other runs very deep, and if the clearest dividing line is religion, so be it. The very nature of our brains causes us to divide the world about us into categories. The problem with categories is that they are often mental constructs that do not correlate to the reality they attempt to describe. Take people, for example. Does anyone really ever stick to a category or a label in all ways and at all times? Are we not prone to inconsistency and evolution? To use a label as an excuse to harm another is rightly called a hate crime today. Unfortunately, hate crimes are very common, if illegal in some places.
Difference may be perceived at least two ways—we might respond to it negatively or positively. As a culture, all but the extremist groups seem to have accepted that people are people and deserve equal treatment. On the religious front, however, we lag far behind. Religions often make universal claims, and if a universal claim is truly universal no variation can be accepted. Our deep-seated distrust of those different from ourselves often finds its release in the guise of religion. No other human institution claims a divine prerogative for abusing others. Some people would admit that their animosity stems from basic human motives. If they act upon it, they wind up imprisoned. If, on the other hand, it becomes a crusade with divine standards proudly waving, the perpetrator is more likely to run for public office than to be sequestered in jail. Religion thrives on double standards. Until we find an objective way to assess them (those who have ears, let them hear) we will find ourselves dealing with unreasonable religious demands until our genocidal distrust spreads to the entire remainder of the world.