The violence of religious intolerance
By Rt. Rev. Samuel Azariah

Perhaps today more than ever before, religious symbols and idioms are being manipulated to promote hatred, intolerance and violence In this article I have focussed on the issue of religious violence with particular reference to Pakistan - its causes, the present state of affairs and what remedial measures can be adopted to build a culture of peace and tolerance. However, before I do this, let me briefly review the history of religious intolerance and violence.

Incidence of religious intolerance and the violence that often accompanies it is not a new phenomenon. It has been with us for centuries. The rise of nationalism in Europe was accompanied by state actions that led to persecution and evictions of religious communities that did not subscribe to established religions. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the British drove the Protestant minorities to the Americas. In the 19th century religious minorities throughout Eastern and Central Europe - Bulgarians, Greek, Jews, Turks, Hungarians, Serbs and Macedonians - were driven out of their homes.

In many ways, what we witness today in parts of Africa, Asia and Europe is a re-enactment of a similar tide of religious violence that once swept across Europe when the emotional power of religion was aroused and manipulated to intimidate, harass and persecute the people. Despite the enlightenment that education and modernisation has brought, it is unfortunate that we witness yet again the negative impact of religion on our societies. Perhaps today more than ever before, religious symbols and idioms are being manipulated to promote hatred, intolerance and violence.

It is therefore not surprising that the UN Special Rapporteur, Abdelfattah Amor concludes his Year 2000 report to the 56th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights by speaking about the forms of extremism. He says: "These forms of extremism very often originate with non-governmental bodies, sometimes with a group acting out of pure fanaticism related to ignorance and obscurantism, sometimes with extremist communities deliberately aiming to use politics in order to impose their religious views on society, but also and above all with ‘professionals’ of extremism exploiting religion for political ends. It is worth remaining aware and vigilant, however, regarding the passive or active complicity of state entities in most of those cases." A cursory glance at contemporary conflicts in Sudan, Nigeria and Indonesia reveals not only the role of extremists, for example, in the form of private actors like the holy warriors from Java to the Malukus region in Indonesia in perpetuating violence, but also the inability of the state to control violence and restore law and order. In all three countries, extreme religious forces have manipulated and used religion to promote their respective political and economic interests. This has resulted in havoc and bloodshed. In face of this onslaught, the governments have either been afraid to take stringent action or have connived with the culprits in order to promote and protect their own personal political and economic interests. It is perhaps this lack of political will on part of the governments to control religious violence that has given credence to the notion of the "clash of cultures" debate which divides the world along religious lines.

Photo: J.J. Ray / Aga Khan Foundation, WCC
It is a well-known fact that in the post cold-war period, religion has come to play a dominant role. It is also a major factor in undermining the plural basis of our societies. So much so that even a country like India with its long-standing commitment to secularism and strong tradition of liberal democratic institutions is unable to escape the winds of intolerance. In fact, leaders of the religious majority in India have recently used the emotional appeal of religion to galvanize political power amongst the people. This has encouraged extremist religious forces in the country to create an environment of hostility, hatred and fear vis-à-vis the religious minorities.

According to the Human Rights Watch, World Report 2000, "The Hindu nationalist Indian Peoples Party (Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP) which led India’s coalition government during the year, appeared to condone the activities of right-wing Hindu groups responsible for attacks on religious minorities and people at the bottom of, or outside, India’s caste system, including members of tribal groups. These attacks increased significantly in the months proceeding national parliamentary elections in September and October. In Bihar a series of caste clashes and massacres between January and April once again reveal the unwillingness of the state authorities to protect the rights of those born in lower caste."

For decades, Dalits in India have suffered abuses, name-calling and humiliation at the hands of dominant caste groups - separate feasts, separate cemeteries even separately assigned seats in some churches are not uncommon. The treatment meted out to Dalits has received international attention. Some churches and related groups have taken the issue of atrocities and discrimination against the Dalits to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. They have campaigned for the appointment of a Special Rapporteur to document the human rights violations against the Dalit community as a result of intolerance and discrimination.

Anti-Christian violence, incited by religious extremists, has taken the form of killing of Christians and burning of churches in the tribal regions of Gujrat, Madhya Pardesh and Orissa. The burning of an Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two children in Orissa was one in the series of incidents of religious violence that have, of late, afflic-ted the Indian society. The government has done little to bring these hate crimes under control. This has badly tarnished India’s Gandhian image of non-violence.

In Sri Lanka the ethnic conflict is now in its eighteenth year. It has taken a toll of thousands of lives on both sides of the ethnic divide. The conflict escalated in June 1983 when the rising tide of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism spearheaded wanton attacks on Tamils living in Colombo. The collective Sinhalese onslaught led by minister-of-parliament, Cyril Mathew had the characteristics of a religious ritual. Apart from the intransigence of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), a major obstacle today to a negotiated settlement are the forces of Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism that have convinced large sections of the people living in the South that a military solution is the answer to the conflict. Little do these forces realise that this approach is a drain on the country’s much-needed resources.

Religious violence is not new to the sub-continent. The Partition of India and Pakistan was accompanied by a blood-bath of horrifying proportions. In the aftermath of the massacre that followed Partition, trainloads of dead bodies of Hindus and Muslims were sent across the lines of division between the two countries. Religious hatred was whipped to a frenzy by extremist forces on both sides, leaving wounds and scars that have yet to heal.

At that time, the founder of the Muslim movement for independence, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, promised that Pakistan would be a democratic state where people belonging to different religions would be free to practise their religion and have equal rights. Islamic party leaders who wanted Pakistan to be a theocratic state soon challenged him. The main challenge came from the Jamaat-e-Islami party led by the late Maulana Abul Ala Maudoodi, an Islamic scholar of repute. The first-known incidence of incitement to intolerance and hatred against religious minorities was directed by the Jamaat-e-Islami against the Ahmediya community - a Muslim group that does not subscribe to the finality of Prophet Mohammed. Hundreds of Ahmedis were killed and their worship places attacked in the campaign that was launched in 1954. The government declared martial law to bring the situation under control. For his part in the campaign, the court sentenced Maulana Maudoodi to death, but on the appeal of Saudi Arabia, he was granted clemency.

In the name of religion, cadres of holy warriors were raised from Pakistan and the Afghan refugee camps to unleash violence of unprecedented intensity Again in 1971, religion played a significant role in the massacre preceding the break-up of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. Islamic vigilante groups created by Jamaat-e-Islami played an active role in the killings. Their task was to draw-up the list of people - intellectuals, academics, lawyers, journalists, trade union leaders, peasant and student leaders - who subscribed to secularism and were thus considered a threat to Islam. They were either killed or handed over to the Pakistani army for annihilation. Robert Payne in his book Massacre says: "Muslim soldiers sent out to kill Muslims - went about their work mechanically and efficiently until killing defenceless people became a habit like smoking cigarettes or drinking wine. Before they had finished, they had killed three million people." These atrocities took place in defence of Islamic ideology and were actively supported by Islamic forces in the country using the military as an instrument to carry out their objectives.

In 1977, the late General Zia ousted the elected government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto was subsequently sentenced to death by a court in what many termed "judicial murder". General Zia ruled the country for over a decade during which the name of Islam was used to legitimise the army’s brutal rule. On the pretext of introducing Nizam-e-Mustafa, the rule of the Prophet, discriminatory practices and policies against women and religious minorities were introduced. In the name of Islamising the social and judicial system, harsh and brutal punishments were introduced, including stoning to death and lashes for adultery, cutting of hands for theft and dacoity, public lashing for drinking and a mandatory death sentence for blasphemy. The regime incorporated a system of separate electorates into the constitution. This system discriminates against the minorities and reduces them to the status of second-class citizens. These laws have contributed towards the creation of an environment of hatred, intolerance and violence against women and religious minorities.

Also during the eleven years of General Zia’s rule the army, backed and encouraged by Islamic parties and supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia, actively participated in the Afghan war. In this war, religion was used to fuel hatred against the Russian-backed communist government. In the name of religion, cadres of holy warriors were raised from Pakistan and the Afghan refugee camps to unleash violence of unprecedented intensity. The present rulers of Afghanistan, the Talebans, are a product of that period. Known for their harsh and brutal punishments meted out in the name of Islam and their disdain for women, this group is nurtured and supported by the Islamic parties and the military in Pakistan, and by the US and Saudi Arabia.

Religious intolerance and violence have created havoc not only in Asia but in other regions as well. The church has a tremendous responsibility to build a culture of non-violence that accepts plurality and diversity. In this age of globalisation and inter-dependence, religions and beliefs must recognise and accept each other. They must work together for peace on the basis of common values that can provide a moral and legal framework for realisation of human rights and respect for the human dignity of all people, a culture of global accountability and tolerance that accepts diversity of beliefs and religious practices.

Rt. Rev. Samuel Azariah is Bishop of the Church of Pakistan, Riawind Diocese and member of the World Council of Churches’ Central Committee.

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