Before coming to stay at his host’s home in Montecito, Iftikhar Bazmi’s application for a visa to visit the United States was sent through the Visa Viper process, an elaborate security test to check visitors for connections to terrorists. When contrasted against what motivated him to travel, however, the fact that the U.S. would be apprehensive toward allowing him onto American soil might seem somewhat ironic.
Nine citizens of Kashmir, the hotly contested region between India and Pakistan, came to Santa Barbara. Their purpose was twofold: First, to train from October 9-11 in faith-based reconciliation with Father Brian Cox, the creator of the National Reconciliation Seminar program, which has been implemented in areas of conflict like the Sudan, Syria, and Kashmir, and second, to give a reconciliation seminar as part of that training on healing relations between Muslims and Christians. The seminar consisted of presentation on the core values of faith-based reconciliation - listening skills and negotiation skills, for example - as well as group discussions and lectures given by various groups, including Cox’s church, the Friendship Missionary Baptist church, and the Kashmiris themselves.
The Kashmiris’ visit was arranged by Cox, who is also rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara and senior vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Religion and Diplomacy.
Along with the Kashmiris was Bazmi - who had also been cleared by the Department of Homeland Security - as well as a diverse group of religious leaders from all three regions of Kashmir, including Muslims, Hindus, a Christian, and a Buddhist. Bazmi’s file had been passed from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India, to Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. Cox said such a scenario was likely, because Bazmi, who practices law in the High Court of Kashmir, has an Iranian passport stamp; and, with the United States’ tense relationship with Iran, the agencies were being careful. It probably had nothing to do with the fact he was a Muslim, Cox noted.
According to Dr. Dauood Iqbal Baba, a professor of history at University of Jammu in Kashmir, “The [American] general public feels that Muslims are their enemies and every Muslim is a militant; a terrorist. It’s not true. So by meeting us, they understand it’s not true. It’s a negative picture which some people have projected about Muslims here and vice versa.”
“What Osama bin Laden did on 9/11 was his own act,” Bazmi said, motioning in the air with a jeweled hand. “It was not an act of Islam. It was his own.” However, many Americans are still skeptical of Bazmi’s sentiment - including Cox, who is a peacemaker but also a rationalist.
“There are two major forces shaping the world today,” Cox claimed. “One is what you’d call American primacy, the idea that America should share its values with the world.” The other is Global Jihad, he says, echoing political scientist Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, which claims that clashing cultural and religious identities between the Islamic and Western worlds will one day cause a major global conflict, and eventually eradicate one side.
The world is littered with the collision of governments and religion, few as complicated as the conflict in Kashmir - as the Kashmiri visitors would be quick to remind us.
When asked what the conflict in Kashmir is really about, Bazmi started from its earliest origins: “First, it begins in 1846, when the Maharaja sold Kashmir for an inferior sum.” In 1947, the British left, he continued, dividing Pakistan and India. According to a United Nations resolution, “The Kashmiris were supposed to be given the chance to choose what they want because of 1947,” explained Dr. Hamid Naseem Rafiabadi, author of several books, including Saints and Saviors of Islam, “but they were never asked.”
And, according to Bazmi, the people of Kashmir don’t want to ally themselves with anyone. “They don’t want to go with India. They don’t want to go with Pakistan. They want their separate state,” he explained. Consequently, the region has become the victim of a political tug-of-war between the two nuclear powers ever since.
Faith-based reconciliation may be part of the solution to ending Kashmir’s woes as it brings people together on the basis of common religious concepts including justice and forgiveness. While most politicians skirt religion for its capacity to create division, Cox and the Kashmiri leaders see it as means to heal centuries’ worth of wounds.
Before faith-based reconciliation was introduced by Cox in 2002, the relationship between Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Hindus ranged from unawareness of each other’s existence to fear.
“There was no communication,” says Rafiabadi. “On what terms could we talk? If we talked about the political situation, Hindus had opinions, Muslims had their opinions. No one agreed.” Faith-based reconciliation changed that, Rafiabadi said, providing a framework for communication.
“It was a framework and we lacked that,” Rafidabadi said. “We find that it is the best way to achieve at least understanding with our friends who have become estranged from us because of politics. It is not because of faith but because of politics.”
“Kashmiris have become more serious about their religious traditions,” said Cox, but as someone who has worked on disputes involving other faith traditions for 20 years, “because our goal with them was not conversion but transformation.”
In Santa Barbara, Baba says they have been transformed.
Although he has participated in faith-based reconciliation seminars from the beginning in 2002, Dr. Baba says, “The way I’ve been transformed this time is altogether different because it gives me a reason to love Americans and Christians. What the media is doing is totally playing a very negative role for the world. It is only portraying a negative picture of the world. Ninety percent of people in my area know that America - the people of America - hate Muslims, but when we attended the seminar; it’s totally different. The way the people have treated us, the way they have loved us, it’s totally different.”