Sacred Spaces and Conflict: The Babri Masjid Mosque
by Shawn Kerry
November 21, 2019
Sacred spaces are a fundamental facet of spiritual observance in any religious tradition. Whether they be churches, mosques, temples, burial grounds, or otherwise, physical places are often a major pillar of a religious adherent’s experience with her spiritual identity. Recognizing a rise in attacks against religious observers at holy sites, international stakeholders have recently emphasized the need for policies and legislation that protect sacred spaced and the observers who frequent them.
While urging governments to enact greater legislation to protect places of worship and other sacred sites may seem straightforward, such a push may neglect the fundamental question of what “sacred space” actually means. What makes something spiritually important to a community, and how can we possibly codify that sacredness in laws and policies? Enacting laws to protect a church, for example, is straightforward if there is a common understanding that churches are sacred to Christians. But what about when multiple religious groups claim the same place as sacred, or some members of the community fail to recognize a religious group’s right to a space they consider sacred? What about when historical memory of the sacredness of space is imagined and reimagined over time? In short, ideas of the sacred are often complex and overlapping. Treating the sacred as a static characteristic understood and accepted by all, rather than seeking to critically understand the diverse ways in which communities understand sacredness, will be the biggest obstacle to ensuring the effective protection of sacred spaces and religious observers in the future.
To put this idea into perspective, we can look at an example that has been at the heart of India’s social consciousness for decades: a mosque, destroyed by riots in the 1990s, that was simultaneously believed to be the birthplace of a Hindu deity. In the northern Indian town of Ayodhya, the Babri Masjid mosque had stood since its construction in the early 1500s. For centuries, the site remained relatively peaceful, and actively functioned as a place of worship for the town’s Muslims. Yet by the mid-20th century, when geopolitical tensions between Pakistan and India contributed to a backslide in relations between Hindu and Muslim communities, a narrative advanced the notion that the mosque had been built on top of a temple dedicated to the birth of Ram, one of the most important deities in the Hindu pantheon. In 1992, after years of campaigns against the mosque’s presence in Ayodhya, crowds scaled the mosque’s walls and demolished it from the top down in a matter of hours. Faced with a communal crisis over conflicting claims to sacred space, the government of India seized control of the Babri Masjid site, as it stands to date. Hindu organizations continue to campaign for a Ram temple to be built on the site, while Muslim organizations believe a mosque should rightfully be rebuilt where the Babri Masjid was destroyed. Both faith groups hold the site as sacred, and both groups seek exclusive ownership of the site in order to practice their faith.
At the time of writing, the Supreme Court of India has just begun a 9-month case to decide, after nearly three decades, whether Hindus or Muslims can lay claim to the 2.77 acre site. If in the past the Babri Masjid had been recognized only as a mosque or only as a Hindu temple, then such a legal codification of its sacredness would not be an issue. But in reality, the sacredness of the site is not so simple, and overlapping conceptions of the site’s holiness are deeply entrenched in the public memories of the subcontinent’s many religious groups. Failing to understand how the site is sacred to multiple faith communities at the same time and in different ways will inevitably fail to address tensions over competing claims to it. When the Supreme Court finally declares early next year whether a mosque or a temple may be built upon the Babri Masjid site, it will be solving a legal issue of sacredness, but it will leave untouched the many social wounds and divisions that have opened in the community over many decades. Such a legal settlement will not put an end to violence, any may unfortunately only increase it.
Overcoming violence against sacred sites thus demands more than simply legal action and protective legislation. In the case of competing claims to sacred space, it requires us to simultaneously seek healing and reconciliation between various groups in the community, which further demands a critical understanding of the diverse ways in which groups come to understand sacredness. Perhaps differing conceptions of the sacred are not competing at all, and multiple religious groups can utilize the same space for their own needs. Perhaps greater understanding of one another’s beliefs can lead to further intergroup dialogue and cooperation to ensure that all members of the community have opportunities to practice their faith. In any case, in order to ensure sustainable rights and protection both for sacred spaces and for religious observers who frequent them, the international community must prioritize a more nuanced understanding of the sacred. Court cases and legal settlements will never be enough.
The views, thoughts, and opinions in this blog belong solely to the author and are not representative of an official position or endorsement by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD).