Religion-inspired violence not just a Muslim problem

July 18, 2014

World Religions. Map via Wikimedia, Creative Commons

It is not just fanatical believers in an intolerant, violent, evangelical and racist brand of Islam that are spreading a shameful stain on the pages of human history in the 21st century.

All major religions have in recent decades spawned similar factions of puritanical hatred that are distorting and perverting the route and progress of public affairs, even in secular democracies. In several cases religious fanatics have gained political power and influence through the acquiescence of misguided liberals, who have failed to appreciate the corrosive nature of excessive tolerance.

There is good reason to question, for example, whether Israeli troops would be trying to root out the Palestinian radical group Hamas in Gaza today, after days of bombardment from both sides, were it not for the ascendancy of ultra-rightwing Jewish parties in Jerusalem.

For decades Israel has faced a choice posed by demographics of whether it is going to be a democracy or a Jewish state. Among Israel’s population of just over eight million people about 75 per cent are categorized as Jews, 21 per cent are Arabs and about four per cent are not defined. But the population growth rate among mainstream Jews is only 1.2 per cent a year, while among Orthodox Jews, who make up 12 per cent of Israel’s total population, it is five per cent and among Arabs it is 2.2 per cent.

The trajectory of those lines say that Israel’s future is not as a multi-ethnic democracy, but as a Jewish state with an Arab underclass. This trend has been exacerbated since the 1970s by successive governments – plagued by winning only a minority of seats in parliament and the need to win support from small right-wing parties – buying off religious extremists. This has usually taken the form of aiding and abetting the establishment of settlements in the occupied territory of the West Bank. But it has also involved responding to terrorism or vigilantism by radical Jewish groups with less than full-hearted application of the rule of law.

The result is an ever-growing and disproportionate influence of Israel’s religious hard right, not only on government, but also, according to several well-regarded analysts, on the military. Some Israeli army units are reported to have refused to follow orders from their officers to demolish illegal settlements when instructed not to by radical rabbis.

The tit-for-tat kidnapping and killing of Jewish and Palestinian teenagers that led to the current bombardments and incursion into Gaza are appalling by any standards. But there has been clear influence by Israeli religious right-wing politicians and activists to raise the temperature and promote a military response. Without the ear-shattering demands for revenge, Israeli public opinion and political leaders would probably have more calmly measured the long-term implications of their response.

This, together with the determination of Hamas to make itself the dominant political and military force among Palestinians, means that any prospect of a negotiated settlement in that region is non-existent for the foreseeable future.

Few parts of the world have avoided the destructive influence of social dislocation – if not always of violence — inspired by religious extremism, based often on racial ultra-nationalism.

In the United States the Republican radical fringe group, the Tea Party, which is dominated by white women who describe themselves as “born-again Christians,” has managed to exert such negative influence on Congress that Washington has, at times become legislatively dysfunctional. It is becoming conceivable that this movement will distort the entire future of the U.S. in coming years.

In Canada, the Reform movement, which staged an internal coup on the Progressive Conservative Party to form the Alliance in 2000, has its roots in William “Bible Bill” Aberhart’s Prophetic Bible Institute in Calgary. The first Alliance leader, Stockwell Day, held such strong socially-conservative Christian views that he became a liability and was replaced by Stephen Harper in 2002. But the suspicion among many Canadians has never quite disappeared that the new Conservative Party follows a puritanical Christian social agenda.

The regressive religious trend beyond Islam is most evident in Asia. Outside the Muslim world, violence inspired by religion can be found in India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the face of Asian Islam has changed radically. Puritanical imams in previously easy-going societies such as Malaysia and Indonesia have successfully waged pulpit-thumping campaigns demanding that women in particular observe ultra-conservative interpretations of codes of dress and decorum.

In Malaysia the fundamentalist revolution has led to such dangerous silliness as the High Court recently upholding a government ban on Christians using the word “Allah.”

In India the coming to power in New Delhi of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the head of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has rung alarm bells. The BJP has a long history of anti-Muslim violence and racial fanaticism stemming from admiration of Germany’s Nazi party. Modi himself, as first minister of Gujarat state, played a controversial and still largely unexplained role in the anti-Muslim riots in that province in 2002 in which up to 2,000 people were killed.

It’s not just Muslims who are the targets of Hindu nationalist violence. An Indian newspaper editor acquaintance of mine had over 100 of his reporters and other employees murdered over five years because of the strongly anti-Hindu nationalist line he took in editorials.

In the western world, Buddhism has managed to acquire a reputation for being the most peaceable and non-violent religion. This is bunk.

In Sri Lanka the majority Sinhalese Thervada Buddhists, after winning a 30-year civil war against the northern Tamil Hindu separatists, have begun a campaign against the country’s Muslims, who make up nearly 10 per cent of the population. Sri Lankan Muslims are mostly the descendants of Arab traders who settled on the island, but they include Malay immigrants and some Tamils. Many Muslims have been killed and hundreds injured in recent months by mobs fired up by Buddhist leaders who have been called “fascists in saffron robes.”

The violence by Buddhist fanatics is even more serious in Burma, where in recent months at least 300 Muslims from the Rohingya ethnic minority in the north have been killed and 150,000 displaced. The Burmese Buddhist nationalist emotions behind this attempt at ethnic cleansing are so strong than even the saintly Aung San Suu Kyi has been unable to be as vocal in condemning the violence as she would doubtless wish to be.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014


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