President Barack Obama repeated his criticism of India on religious intolerance on Thursday, just days after the White House insisted his recent remarks on the same issue had been misconstrued .
Only this time, the President left no room for misinterpretation because his criticism was starker, direct and, in many ways, much stronger than his earlier comments.
To put these comments in perspective, the President was equally unsparing of his own religion, Christianity — for the crusades and the inquisition, and his country’s history of slavery.
“In past years,” the President said at the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event, “religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.”
Invoking Gandhi made his comments sharper than the last, delivered from Siri Fort on January 27: “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith -- so long as it's not splintered along any lines.”
The White House pushed back on Thursday, using Gandhi’s name. “Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy is one we look to for inspiration in dealing with intolerance in the United States and around the world,” said Mark Stroh, National Security Council spokesperson.
“As the President made clear during his trip, India is a close friend and partner, “ Stroh said, adding, “In India and at the National Prayer Breakfast, the President’s message was that freedom of religion is a fundamental freedom, and that every nation is stronger when people of all faiths are free to practice their religion free of persecution and fear and discrimination.”
And, the president was clear this was not unique to “one group, nation or religion”.
President Obama, indeed, had equally scorching words for his own religion, Christianity, and country. “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” he said, referring to a period in the historical middle ages, stretching over two centuries, when Christians and Muslims fought for control of Holy Land.
And the Inquisition, an ecclesiastical tribunal instituted by the Vatican to root out any opposition to the church, dreaded for its intolerance of dissent. “In our home country,” the president said, “slavery and Jim Crow (a set of government-sanctioned racial oppression and segregation, laws) that all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
In fact, conservative news publications, such as Breitbart News, picked on the president for his remarks on Christianity, leading with this heading: “People committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ”.
He also spoke of Islam and its perversion by those perpetrating violence in the name of religion.
But his criticism of India’s recent record on religious intolerance will confuse, and stun, Indians, who only heard earlier in the week from a White House aide Philip Reiner, that the president’s comments from Siri Fort, only spoke to shared values, which were misconstrued as criticism.It was anything but, it seems, now, irrespective of what he had to say about other religions, including his own, and slavery in the US.