Friday, March 27, 2009

Religious Fundamentalism Spreads... Beyond Islam

In the same week that Hindu fundamentalists obliterated plans to build a Charlie Chaplin statue, on the grounds that Chaplin was a Christian who made no contribution to India, video clips of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Varun Gandhi surfaced online, showing him glorifyingly speaking of "cutting the throats" of Muslims, and mocking their "scary" names.

Meanwhile, the Hindu nationalist group Sri Ram Sena vowed to continue its attacks on women drinking in bars and couples courting in public -- expanding their target population to include female British tourists in the city of Goa.

In the Varun Gandhi videos, Hindu extremist groups like the Taliban-inspired anti-statue, anti-woman Sri Ram Sena may feel as if they've found a high-profile voice: Varun is the grandson of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, a declared secularist and atheist who couldn't have been more removed from his descendant's crazed religion-fueled nationalist diatribes.

It isn't just the Hindus. Mere days after ending the controversy over his lifting of the excommunication of Holocaust denier and 9/11 conpiracy theorist Bishop Richard Williamson, Pope Benedict XVI decided to elaborate further on his view that abstinence works 100% of the time as a birth control method (right, ask The Virgin Mary how well that worked for her) by declaring that the use of condoms aggravates the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Now, the Pope has publicly pulled several other Ahmedinejads in the past. He has written that homosexuality is an "intrinsic moral evil" and an "objective disorder". He has also claimed that non-Catholics are in a "gravely deficient situation", without the "fullness of the means of salvation". Most recently, the Vatican declared its support for the Brazilian Church's decision to excommunicate a group of doctors who performed an abortion on a 9-year old girl -- pregnant with twins -- as a result of being raped by her stepfather.

The Pope's homophobia and bigoted statements about non-Catholics who don't necessarily think Jesus is their savior aren't all that different from Varun Gandhi's Muslim-bashing -- which, in turn, isn't all that different from the sentiments that fuel the ideology of the Taliban. There are millions of people in the world who think that way.

However, these two examples are unique: one of these men is the most significant spiritual and religious leader in the world, and the other belongs to a family that gave the world's largest democracy three of its most legendary prime ministers, including its first.

So, is Talibanization going mainstream? To religions beyond Islam?

Well, we know that the Catholic authorities aren't throwing acid on teenage girls' faces like the Taliban do. That, actually, is something that Jerusalem's Jewish Haredi Modesty Patrol did to a 14 year old girl last year. Her crime? Wearing pants. In the same week as the Pope's condom controversy and Varun's inflammatory videos made news, a member of the Modesty Patrol was sentenced to four years in prison in a separate incident -- a sexual gang assault on a divorced woman.

Although it's tempting to dismiss these incidents as aberrations, religious extremism and bigotry do seem to be going mainstream in Israel. On the same day that the Modesty Patrol mercenary was sentenced, news broke that Avigdor Lieberman, the right-wing hardliner whose Israel Beiteinu party had a strong showing in Israel's recent elections, is in consideration as Israel's next foreign minister.

Lieberman is a man who has, among other things, openly advocated the expulsion of Israeli Arabs from the Promised Land, and offered to provide buses to transport Palestinian prisoners to the Dead Sea, where he has recommended drowning them.

More disturbingly, Lieberman suggested in 2006 that Israel should conduct itself in Gaza like Russia did in Chechnya, that is, without any concern for civilian deaths. This moves the issue beyond the realm of aberrant extremist ideology, not only because Lieberman is now a prominent leader in the Knesset possibly destined to become Israel's foreign minister, but because his suggestion was put into practice in a significant way during Israel's recent offensive in Gaza.

In last week's investigation into the Israel-Gaza conflict, IDF soldiers talked about how they were encouraged to kill Palestinian civilians. They also described how the assault was framed as a religious war by military rabbis, who distributed literature to the troops saying among other things that this was a holy war, that "we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land" and that they needed to "fight to expel the Gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land." Somehow, Israeli authorities appear to be drawing inspiration -- like Hamas -- from the likes of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Taliban.

Meantime, the Adiv fabric-printing shop in south Tel Aviv sold hundreds of T-shirts, caps, and other items of clothing custom-made for Israel soldiers, featuring pictures of dead children and bombed mosques. Included was one of a dead baby clutching his teddy bear, his mother weeping at his side, bearing the inscription, "Better Use Durex".

In Canada, a different aspect of religious fundamentalism surfaced last week, when Federal Science and Technology Minister Gary Goodyear, a central figure in the controversy over the science funding crunch in the country, was asked whether he believed in evolution. He refused to answer. "I'm not going to answer that question," he said. "I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate." The Pope, I'm guessing, would have been a little more unequivocal in his response.

These events, most of which occurred in the span of one week, are reflective of a dangerous resurgence of religious fundamentalism in non-Islamic countries. The most perplexing part of it is that it isn't just limited to a few seemingly random incidents fueled by fringe extremist groups. The characters in these stories -- the Pope, a member of India's Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, a powerful Knesset leader, and a Canadian federal minister -- are influential, mainstream figures whose ideas and decisions impact the lives of billions of people every day.

In the early days after 9/11, a lot of false dichotomies were created in an attempt to place the attacks in some sort of context. It was said that terrorism has no place in Islam. That it is not religion, but the "cultural distortion" and "misinterpretation" of it that's the problem. That Zionism has nothing to do with Judaism. That Sharia law has nothing to do with Islam. That all religions preach love and peace.

Unfortunately for the apologists, people who couldn't reconcile these assertions with the events they were witnessing around the world found it easier to see through them than ever before.

The Torah, Bible, Quran, and other ancient religious scriptures are easily available online in their entirety, complete with translations in multiple languages, by multiple translators, supplemented with commentary. Easy -- and searchable -- access to these these texts has opened them up to intense scrutiny, and the anonymity-driven confrontation-friendly forum provided by the internet has resulted in unprecedented, taboo-shattering, critical discussions on their contents.

One consequence of this is that religious people who believe that the scripture of their respective faith is truly the word of God -- the majority of whom only selectively familiar with it -- have found reinforcement for their beliefs.

For example, it isn't difficult to sell the idea of a holy war to Israeli soldiers when passages from the Torah such as Shmot 23:31-33 instruct them to drive non-Jewish inhabitants out of the land promised to them by God himself (described in detail as "from the Red Sea even unto the sea of the Philistines"), and to "make no covenant with them." This gives some hefty, divine weight to Avigdor Lieberman's arguments, and shatters the misconception that Zionism is merely the "politicization" of Judaism.

While the religious Jewish community has remained adherent to these scriptural accounts of the Promised Land, it has, for the most part, been quick to brush aside other passages from the Torah that advocate, for instance, death by stoning for everything from not being a virgin on your wedding night (Devarim 22:20-21) to blasphemy (Vayikra 24:16). Interestingly, stoning people to death is a practice associated more widely with Islamic law, probably because it is still practiced widely in many parts of the Muslim world. This is not without reason: while not explicitly mentioned in the Quran, stoning is widely accepted as punishment for sins such as adultery in the hadith (traditions of the prophet Muhammad).

Also, even though the majority of Muslims are horrified by the idea of child marriage or domestic violence, both of these practices have strong footing in Islamic history and scripture, and it would be naive to dismiss them simply as "cultural distortions". By almost all accounts, Muhammad did take a nine year old bride as his eleventh wife; and beating your wife if you "fear disobedience" is permitted in Islamic scripture (Quran, verse 4:34). Other concepts like armed jihad against infidels (9:5) and resistance against Christians and Jews (5:51) are also present in the Quran.

The Christian Bible, which recognizes the five books of the Torah as the Old Testament, forms the basis for the beliefs of Pope Benedict XVI and evangelists like Pat Robertson about issues like homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13). And the aggression against women practiced by Indian extremist groups such as Sri Ram Sena has its roots in the sacred Hindu text Manu Smriti, which purportedly contains the word of Brahma, the god of creation, and allows men to have virtually complete, unfettered authority over women.

While this renewed interest in scripture has affirmed the beliefs of many, giving legitimacy to their extremist leanings and possibly even radicalizing them, it has also allowed skeptics, rationalists, and even some moderately religious people to question that which was previously unquestionable. Many who believed that it wasn't religion at fault but the people who "misinterpret" it, are beginning to ask whether it might actually be the other way around. And they're speaking out. How do you condemn the occupation of Palestinian lands and still defend the Bible or Torah -- which command it explicitly as an instruction from God -- as sacred books? Can you denounce a 47 year old Yemeni man's marriage to an 8 year old girl while you defend the prophet Muhammad's child marriage with an even wider age difference? If you speak out against the Torah/Old Testament-endorsed execution of gay men and stoning of non-virginal single women, does that make you anti-Semitic? Or a "Christophobe"?

Questions like this, which would easily have made one an outcast in the recent past -- or worse, invited a death fatwa -- are now being asked more frequently and more loudly. Most of the response to these completely legitimate and important questions has come in the form of ad hominem accusations of religious bigotry directed at the questioners, taking offense, and hurt feelings. Flawed terms like "Islamophobia" and "Christophobia" have emerged, and accusations of anti-Semitism are being flung around so loosely that the phrase is in danger of losing its deserved significance.

And this is where a fundamental distinction needs to be made.

Hating Jews, Muslims, or Christians for what they believe is clearly wrong. Criticizing the belief systems themselves, however, is not. Human beings have rights. Cultures, religions, and ideological belief systems do not.

This basic concept was sadly lost on the United Nations when it passed a non-binding anti-blasphemy resolution last year, curtailing any criticism of religious belief. The resolution, brought forth by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), is a massive impediment in the fight against human rights abuses carried out under systems such as Islamic Sharia law. Rational, reasonable people worldwide are rightly outraged by this move to put ideology before human beings.

There is now a push by the OIC, a group of 57 Muslim countries, to make the resolution a binding one. But this isn't a one way street. Will Arab and Muslim countries still be able to criticize the Torah-supported Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory under the same legislation?

Or is Islam finally losing its long-held monopoly on fundamentalism?

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Peek Into America's Possible Future Pakistan Policy

Four days after 9/11, Pakistani-British writer and political activist Tariq Ali wrote about an encounter he had with a Pakistani army general whom he asked about Islamist militants in the region.

Why had they been so receptive to American financing and weapon support during the Cold War, only to turn against the US overnight?

"Pakistan was the condom the Americans needed to enter Afghanistan," replied the general. "We've served our purpose and they think we can be just flushed down the toilet."

"The old condom is being fished out for use once again," wrote Ali at the time. "But will it work?"

He may have had a point.

Seven years later, the United States is quagmired in a violent insurgency in Afghanistan, while Pakistan, having surrendered part of its territory to Islamist militant control under a "peace deal", is on the verge of becoming a failed state. Triggered by the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore last week, Ali reiterated his contention about Pakistan in The Guardian: "The appalling terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers in Pakistan had one aim: to demonstrate to Washington that the country is ungovernable."

Americans have been paying more attention to Tariq Ali -- the man who in 1968 inspired the Rolling Stones song "Street Fighting Man" -- since he published his book, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, last fall.

One of them is Bruce Riedel, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution who previously served as a CIA official for almost thirty years.

Riedel, known for his harsh criticism of the Bush administration's policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, was tapped as a foreign policy advisor by Barack Obama during his presidential campaign. Last month, Riedel was appointed by the Obama administration to head a White House review committee on policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, an overhaul of which is to be completed before April's NATO summit.

In a glowing review of Tariq Ali's book, Riedel acknowledges Ali's assertion that the US has had a significant role in the peril that Pakistan faces today:

"Ali rightly notes that the United States has consistently chosen to back Pakistan's military dictators when they seized power from elected governments. Eisenhower and Kennedy backed the first dictator, Ayub Khan; JFK even gave him a state dinner at Mount Vernon and took him to Newport, R.I. Nixon famously tilted toward Yahya Khan during Pakistan's brutal attempt to crush Bangladesh. Carter and Reagan backed Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq to help defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, inadvertently giving birth to the modern jihadist movement. And George W. Bush backed Pervez Musharraf in return for help fighting al-Qaeda, even through the general perverted election after election to stay in power. Blind U.S. support for these military strongmen has eroded Pakistan's civil institutions and rule of law, along with America's claim to support freedom and democracy in the Islamic world."
Riedel points out the part that both of his employers -- the CIA and the Brookings Institution -- have played in the genesis of Pakistan's current state, and also agrees with Ali's criticism of Barack Obama's pledge to unilaterally strike Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan in the presence of actionable intelligence and absence of cooperation from the Pakistani government. In an interview with Dubai-based Pakistani news channel ARY One World, Riedel, while acknowledging the success of recent US strikes in Pakistan near the Afghan border, noted that there was a "counterproductive element" to them, as they alienate the Pakistani people away from the United States.

While he calls many of Ali's policy suggestions "useful", Riedel is also cautious about his underestimation of the threat of Al Qaeda both to Pakistan and the United States, and warns of a possible sanctuary in Pakistan for terrorists who may bring about another world-changing event with dangerous consequences.

In contrast to the policy of the Bush administration, however, Riedel proposes an approach that is beyond just militaristic. "The Duel makes a strong case that the United States should back Pakistan's civilian leadership, flawed as it is, in an effort to build a modern Islamic democracy," he writes. "That will require much more economic aid, creative diplomacy to ease tensions with Afghanistan and India, straight talk about ending Pakistan's ties to terrorism, and patience. It will take time to recover from the Bush-Musharraf legacy, but we cannot afford a failed state in Pakistan, especially one that bears the label Made in the U.S.A."

Favoring a multi-pronged approach to the problems facing and arising from Pakistan, Riedel has stressed the need to look at them in a regional context. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing the influence that Pakistan's concerns about India has had on how it handles Afghanistan.

He also understands that all of this will need to be balanced delicately with a strategy to deal with the distrust that citizens in all of these countries have developed towards the United States in the last few decades. The people in the region still remember Ronald Reagan famously calling the Afghan Mujahideen (which literally means "those involved in a jihad") the "moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers" when they were helping the United States fight the Soviet Union -- and then turning on them as they became Taliban terrorists. As Tariq Ali points out in The Duel, if America once turned on the allies that helped it defeat the Soviets, many Pakistanis feel, what would stop it from turning on Pakistan?

"You... have to deal with [these problems] with a great degree of subtlety and sophistication," Riedel told ARY One World in January. "Because there are decades-old fears among all the parties about American intentions."

You can't effectively treat a condition without a diagnosis, and only time will tell if the new administration's management strategy will be effective. But in Bruce Riedel, the United States finally has a skilled diagnostician.

This is a positive start -- and it might serve as a good opportunity to do away with the need for more future used-condom analogies.