Interfaith advocates in India and the United States are rallying around a Muslim peace activist who has been jailed by Indian authorities after praying at a Hindu temple.
Supporters of Faisal Khan say he visited the temple in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in late October to encourage communal harmony during a period of heightened inter-religious tension. They also contend that, after a cordial exchange, the temple’s priest invited Khan to pray at the back of the temple complex.
Days later, after a photo of Khan and an associate praying in the temple went viral online, the same priest filed a complaint with local police accusing Khan of a slew of charges ― including promoting enmity between religious groups and defiling a place of worship.
Khan was arrested on Nov. 2 and remains jailed without bail in the city of Mathura.
Sunita Viswanath, a New Yorker and progressive Hindu who has been raising awareness about the arrest, describes Khan as an activist whose devotion to nonviolence and interfaith unity follows in the footsteps of Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi. Khan’s arrest is another example of how Hindutva ― an ideology that underpins Hindu nationalism ― has produced a “version of Hinduism that I neither recognize nor accept,” she told HuffPost.
“As a Hindu, I cannot accept that there is any problem if someone, anyone, prays inside a temple,” Viswanath said in an email, pointing to a verse from the Bhagavad Gita where the Hindu deity Lord Krishna says he accepts offerings given by those with love and devotion in their hearts.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Faisal Khan’s arrest was due to the fact that a person who is Muslim, who devotes [his efforts] to an India which sees no difference between different communities, is not welcome in today’s Hindutva India,” Viswanath added.
Khan is an activist from Uttar Pradesh who is seeking to revive the Khudai Khidmatgars, a nonviolent, anti-colonialist resistance movement that arose in the 1930s and had close ties to Gandhi. Its modern-day counterpart, which launched in 2011, addresses social and educational inequalities in India and has reportedly attracted people from diverse religious traditions.
“[Khan] is interested in love and unity rather than politics. He sees no difference in the God of the Muslims and the God of the Hindus,” Viswanath said.
Khan also sits on the advisory board of Hindus for Human Rights, a U.S.-based advocacy organization that Viswanath co-founded to promote religious pluralism in America and India.
Haimanti Roy, a historian at the University of Dayton, is cautious about comparing Khan to Gandhi and the Khudai Khidmatgars, given their completely different historical context. But when it comes to Hindu-Muslim relations, Roy said in an email that Khan is “very Gandhian in his approach,” seeking communal harmony and thinking of secularism as Gandhi would have ― with an eye toward the equality of all religions.
Roy said she believes Khan’s imprisonment is the result of growing right-wing and anti-Muslim sentiment in Uttar Pradesh. State authorities have been targeting Muslims with “superficial and unfounded” charges of eating beef and forcing people to convert to Islam, Roy said. Last month, state legislators approved a law aimed at curbing interfaith marriage.
Khan’s arrest is “an unjust detainment and yet another example of the Indian state aggressively pursuing something that is at best nothing and at worst a local matter,” Roy said.
“The squashing of dissent in any form, even as innocuous (in my view) as offering prayers, is deeply concerning,” she added.
Khan visited Mathura’s Nand Baba Temple on Oct. 29, as part of a pilgrimage to several Hindu temples. Video captured by Khan’s supporters shows the activist engaging in interfaith dialogue with the priest, quoting Hindu scriptures and finding commonalities between Hindu and Muslim theology on love. The video also shows the priest inviting Khan to eat at the temple.
When Khan realized it was time for Islam’s daily prayers, he offered to go outside, but the priest told Khan that was not necessary and that he could pray at the back of the temple complex, Khan’s supporters say.
But days later, the priest filed a complaint with local police. He told the Times of India that he wasn’t aware the activist had offered prayers inside the temple compound.
“I feel convinced that the priest was genuinely moved by Faisal Khan, and saw no need for him to go outside to pray,” Viswanath said. “However, he must have been pressured by opponents of inclusivity, people aligned with Hindutva, to the extent that he himself filed the FIR (police complaint).”
The Indian American Muslim Council, Amnesty International-USA, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Indian Catholic interfaith activist Rev. Anand Mathew, and Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, have also spoken up in Khan’s defense.
Khan’s critics have argued that Hindu worshippers may be barred from praying in Indian mosques. But for Viswanath, that’s beside the point.
“Even if not a single mosque in the world would allow aarti [Hindu worship], I would still ask that Hindu temples remain open to all,” she wrote.
The debate around Khan’s arrest is part of a broader, ongoing struggle over what it means to be a Hindu, according to Anantanand Rambachan, a religion professor at Minnesota’s St. Olaf College. In reportedly inviting Khan to pray in the temple complex, Rambachan said, the priest at Nand Baba Temple was drawing on ancient Hindu insight about the oneness of God, even though God is known by many names.
“These are acts of great religious [inclusivity] that deserve to be celebrated and not to be punished,” Rambachan said at a press conference about Khan’s case on Thursday.
Hindus’ deepest commitment should not be to a nation but to the “values of non-injury, truth and compassion that are the heart of the Hindu tradition,” he argued.
“We must speak without fear for a Hindu tradition that is not narrowly identified with the toxic ideology of hate and nationalism,” Rambachan said, “but which speaks with compassion for the well-being of all human beings.”