Religious Intolerance

What to Do?

Saral Sarkar

Islamist militants have in the past not only reacted with violence to Mohammed cartoons. They reacted to Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses (1988) and to some texts and statements of Taslima Nasreen (Bangladeshi writer) (1994) with Fatwas and calls for killing them. It cannot go on like this. It is not acceptable that the one minority again and again insults and provokes and the other minority reacts with murder and death threats. But one cannot also always exercise self-censorship in the interest of social peace, especially since not every criticism is an insult or provocation. How should leftists, progressives or simply secular-minded people—behave in such cases?

Unfortunately, "God delusion", continues to exist in the world. Most people in the world practice, seriously or not so seriously, one or another religion. The aggression of militant Islamists against infidels and people of other faiths, or their aggressive response to certain acts of the latter, has parallels in other religious communities. Among Christians, the days of the belligerent/murderous version of aggressive religiosity, are, thank God, largely over. The conflicts in Northern Ireland and Nagorno-Karabach are two exceptions, which, however, are also cases of territorial disputes. Unfortunately, in two other major religious communities—the Hindus and the Buddhists—that is not the case yet. In India, mutual violent aggression between Hindus and Muslims do not belong to past history yet. Of late, even Buddhists, namely Burmese and Sri Lankan Buddhists, are persecuting their Muslim compatriots—citing the Buddhist identity of their country. In addition to actions of the police and security forces against violent fundamentalists, as they are required by law, any sensible person should, in the sense of civil society activities, fight against such aggressive religiosity. But how can one bring the militant fundamentalists of any religion to their senses?

One thing can probably be regarded as indisputable: One cannot get any positive results through  insults and provocations. On the contrary, they only stir up hatred and violence. It was observed in the last 25 years. With this method one can only start a new conflict again and is true even if the victim of insult is not a religion. Not all people react to an insult by going to a court. Even among non-religious people. That is the reality.

It is also not possible for the security forces to finally win the fight against religiously motivated violence and terrorism. After every single success in this fight, they are and they will be confronted with new acts of violence and new threats from new militant groups. This too is a part of international experience of the last 25 years. Militant jihadists, who are not afraid to die, who are even prepared to blow themselves up in order to kill the enemy—the usual threats of punishment have little effect on such people. In such situations, the security forces of the world are at a loss.

It is a fact that most people are religious—that is, roughly speaking, they believe in the existence of one or several more or less powerful supernatural beings/agents (God, gods, goddesses, spirits, ancestors etc). According to scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Pascal Boyer, this is rooted in the phylogenetic inheritance of the human species. The proof of this assertion is the fact that religion in its broadest sense is a universal phenomenon. So atheists and leftists cannot hope that the phenomenon religion will one day cease to exist all by itself. Moreover, experience shows that, generally, when a person is born into a religious community, this religion has become, at least to some extent, an integral part of the identity of this person, which can be extremely difficult to strip away. This explains why, for example, recently the Yezidis in northern Syria refused to be converted to Islam and accepted to be killed by IS fighters.

So concerned people must then work in the long term to at least contain the influence of the radical-fundamentalist versions of the big religions. One should not criticize this or that religion, not Allah, Jehovah, Jesus or Shiva. One should try to reduce, actually question, the relevance of religion per se—especially in practical life. In this respect one can quote the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. He is reported to have said:
"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"

This is a very difficult job. For all religions are interpretable and applicable in a fundamentalist way. As Klaus Kienzler, scholar of comparative theology, writes on the major religions:
"We have seen that a number of indispensable fundaments belong to the essence of religion: inter alia the religious sources such as scripture and tradition, orthodoxy and orthopraxy,... [So] it can also be said here that all religions are in danger of being turned in a fundamentalist manner. ...."

It is especially so, because it is claimed (except in Buddhism) that the scriptures or at least the more important parts of them were directly revealed, even dictated (the Qur'an) or handed over (the Ten Commandments) by God. Of course, modern Christian theology does not understand revelation in the scriptures in this way. But "in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy of 1978 it is stated...: "We profess that the scriptures as a whole and in all their parts up to the individual words of the original writings were inspired by God." With such understandings of the respective scriptures, a person with a militant character, whose main identity is his religion, may not find it difficult to persecute non-believers or even to kill them, or to blow up an abortion clinic with a bomb. One must bear in mind that, of course, the spectacular attacks are perpetrated by individual culprits or small groups of militant fundamentalists, but they draw their inspiration and courage from a large field of hundreds of thousands of fundamentalists. That is why it is not enough that security authorities monitor potential assassins and render them harmless. The problem must also be dealt with broadly, i.e. macro-psychologically.

Believers know that all their holy books were finally written down by humans. All prophets, also Prophet Muhammad, were humans, fallible like any other. The texts of "God's words" are far from clear. That's why there are so many places in the holy books that are in need of interpretation and have also been variously interpreted. Fundamentalist interpretations and moderate/liberal interpretations stand opposite to each other. Here is an example. Asghar Ali Engineer, a devout Muslim and an Islam scholar, writes about the term Kafir (infidel, heretic):
"The Qur'an ... created a category of Ahl al-kitab (people of the book). All those to whom Allah sent His messenger and the book were called people of the book. The Qur'an mentions Christians, Jews and Sabaens in this category. However, it does not exclude those who have not been mentioned in this category by the Qur'an. Many others like Zoroastrians were included in this [second] category. The Sufi saints like Mazhar Jan-i-Janan included the Hindus in this [second] category, arguing that how can Allah forget to send His messengers to India as He had promised to send His messengers to all the nations. He accepts the Vedas [of Hinduism] as revealed scriptures. He also felt that Hindus were monotheists as they believe in God who is nirgun and nirakar (i.e. without attributes and shape) which is the highest form of tawhid (monotheism).''

This shows that Islam too is amenable to reform and liberal interpretations. That is the reason why there are in Islam, just as in Christianity, so many movements and sects.

However, to be able and allowed to say that to believers and persons of other faiths presupposes that people have and care about maintaining regular social contacts with them. Only through such contacts can atheists, secularists, and leftists—succeed in promoting the values of Enlightenment, tolerance, and a minimum of mutual respect. Only thus can one overcome the existing mental barriers. It is counterproductive to promote or accept a multicultural society. That would mean to promote and accept the separate existence of parallel societies. The people of other faiths must instead be included in the social life of the majority community.

Given the present state of affairs to take up and maintain regular contact with established radical and militant fundamentalists is simply not possible. But the vast majority of people in any religious community, including the Islamic one, is anything but having a fundamentalist mindset. They believe in the principle live and let live and they do not comply with all the commandments of their scriptures. More-over, there are in the world, even in Muslim majority countries, many liberal, modern, progressive and even leftist Muslims. They are culturally Muslims, even though they may not pray five times a day. In Egypt and Tunisia, recently, several million Muslim citizens ended the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. By working with such people one may be able to create an atmosphere in which all devout Muslims would react to an insult to Islam or the Prophet with the sentence: "That leaves me cold."

What would help even more is that liberal-Muslim Islam scholars, who also practice their religion, dare to publish historical-critical works on the scriptures of their religion. If in real life and in a given situation it is too dangerous, such works could be published anonymously. There is no sense in attracting the wrath of murderous fanatics. In political movements it is (has been) common practice to publish anonymous pamphlets. A few days ago a French Muslim academic has given a call for reform of Islam on TV news. He has also called for a historical-critical study of his religion. Also Islam scholars of the famous Al-Azhar University of Cairo spoke of the need to reform Islamic education.

One thing one cannot do is to mitigate the hatred of all kinds of Muslims for the Euro-American imperialists and Israeli colonialists, who have since long been subjugating and humiliating Muslim peoples politically and economically. A byproduct of this is that most, if not all, Westerners are generally suspected of being enemies and haters of Islam and the Muslim world. History also gives enough reason for this suspicion. Just think of the Crusades, the second Iraq war of 2003, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the treatment of the Palestinians, etc. Clearly, Muslims cannot maintain any friendly contact with actual Islam-haters among Westerners. That is why it is extremely important that Westerners who are willing to establish friendly contacts with Muslims demonstrate anti-imperialist sentiments.

But mere anti-imperialist politics is not sufficient. What is needed is a great cause, a positive one, to which young people may feel inspired to commit themselves. Their hatred for the imperialists led thousands of young Muslims into the camp of Al Qaeda and ISIS, where their great cause is an Islamic "state of God". The energetic Muslim youth who stomped the Arab Spring out of the ground with as much vigor, need a great cause for which they could engage themselves again.

Vol. 48, No. 3, July 26 - Aug 1, 2015