| by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Imagine a garden with a hundred kinds of trees, a thousand kinds of flowers, a hundred kinds of fruit and vegetables. Suppose, then, that the gardener….knew no other distinction than between edible and inedible, nine tenth of this garden would be useless to him. He would pull up the most enchanting flowers and hew down the noblest trees and even regard them with a loathing and envious eye”. - Hermann Hesse (Steppenwolf)
( August 01, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The discovery of the Higgs boson was a watershed event in the journey of science1. In the pantheon of scientists who paved the way for that momentous moment Abdus Salam occupies a pre-eminent position. Prof. Salam was Pakistan’s only Nobel Laureate. India rejoiced in his towering achievements (he was born in pre-Partition Punjab) but Pakistan did not. The local police inspector was the highest state official present at his funeral.
Prof. Salam was an Ahmadi-Muslim. In 1974, Pakistan introduced a constitutional amendment decreeing the Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. Prof. Salam was a theoretical physicist of global renown, but for Pakistan he was nothing more than a pariah, a heretic.
The persecutory-marginalisation of Prof. Salam is symbolic of how religious fundamentalism warps the national mind and debilitates the national will.
Pakistan’s founder did not try to decree who is/is not a Muslim. Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s Foreign Minister was an Ahamadi-Muslim as were many of the new country’s top military and civilian officials. But as the influence of Wahabism began to permeate Pakistani society, the country became more intolerant not just towards Christians/Hindus but also towards Muslims deemed the ‘wrong sort’2. Politicians started to pander to religious extremists to gain popularity and legitimacy. Prime Minister Bhutto introduced the first anti-Ahmadi law; Gen, Zia Ul Haq followed with more extreme measures (he also introduced the Sharia law in Pakistan, with the full backing of his American patrons).
Pakistan’s descent towards the cauldron of religious extremism is a lesson we would do well to ponder as the Rajapaksas step up their incendiary use of Sinhala-Buddhist fanatics.
Attacks on churches, mosques and kovils continue unabated; the latest outrage is the multiple attacks on the Mahiyangana mosque. The saffron-thugs seem to enjoy the same sort of impunity as the White-vanners. Efforts are underway to get the top monks to issue a ‘Buddhist fatwah’ against the 13th Amendment. The BBS is reportedly planning to re-launch the anti-Halal campaign. .
All religions have ‘split personalities’. Every religion has its own share of Dr. Jekylls and its Mr. Hydes. The effect a religion has on a society depends on the relative power/influence of these antipodal elements. When the Mr. Hydes of a religion gain the upper hand over the Dr. Jekyells, that religion becomes a source of societal violence and brutal unfreedom.
The triumph of religious extremism over religious moderation is rarely a spontaneous phenomenon. More often than not, it is a top-down process, driven by megalomanic politicians who see in religious extremism an ideal tool to achieve/safeguard power by controlling the masses.
In Egypt, another country suffering from an excess of religion, Islamisation commenced under President Nassar, after the Six Day War, and reached new lows during the (pro-American) presidencies of Sadat and Mubarak.
In countries with strong constitutional traditions and functioning institutions, the damage religious extremists can do is minimised. Take, for instance, the American evangelical preacher Pastor John Hagee, who decries Rock and Roll as “Satanic Cyanide” and condemns Harry Potter books for “opening the gates of your mind to the Prince of Darkness”3. Pastor Hagee can scream to his heart’s content, but he cannot impose his insane ideas on his fellow citizens. He can enjoy his rights but cannot infringe upon the rights of others.
There is no need to ban or imprison religious-Jekylls. They should be allowed to have their say but never to have their way. The multi-pronged and many-layered battle against religious extremism of every type is not a digression from the struggle for democracy, peace and humane development but an essential component of it.
The Real Civilisational Divide
In ‘The Evolution of God’, Robert Wright argues that the human perception of God changed for the better over time. While this is largely true of Christianity, a regression from tolerance to intolerance is clearly visible in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam.
Heinrich Heine wrote his prophetic words, “A prelude only, that. When men burn books, they will burn people in the end” in ‘Almansor’. In Heine’s poetical drama, as in real history, Granada (the last outpost of Al Andalusia, the once vast Islamic empire in Europe) represent the values of learning, progress and tolerance. In this twilight-land of openness, floundering in an overwhelmingly theocratic Europe, Christians of every denomination, Jews and non-believers lived, worked and worshipped side by side with Muslims. Almansor depicts the horror and the tragedy which ensued when theocratic Spain defeated Granada. Libraries were burnt, non-Catholics expelled and the Inquisition reigned supreme. Granada, the home of such marvels as Alhambra, regressed into obscurantism, bigotry and underdevelopment.
The ‘Clash of Civilisations’ is real but its battle-lines were never constant. The ideological descendents of theocratic Spain will find themselves at home not in the secular Spain of today but in Islamic theocracies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran – and amongst Evangelical Christians who fantasise about turning the US and Europe into Biblical states, Jewish Zealots who believe Old Testament should decide modern Israel’s borders, Hindu fanatics who dream of Ram Raj and Buddhist extremists who are intent on ethno-religious cleansing.
Malala Yousafzai and the man who shot her are both Sunni Muslims. As Ms. Yousafzai pointed out, her assailant thinks that “God is a tiny little conservative being who would point guns at people’s heads just for going to school”4. The Buddha of the JHU/BBS/Sinhala Ravaya types is a Sinhala-fanatic who hates the 13th Amendment, despises Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Mahayana-Buddhists and loves the Rajapaksas.
The fundamentalists of different religions have far more in common with each other than with their moderate co-religionists. Wahabis regard their retrogressive and joyless creed as the only Islam, as do BBS/JHU/Sinhala Ravaya-types (plus other Islamophobes). Islamic fanatics are at one with Buddhist/Hindu/Christian fanatics in not acknowledging the seminal historical contributions made by Islamic civilisations or in ignoring the rich diversity in present-day Islamic world5.
Sinhala-Buddhist extremists believe that if they have a fault, it is over-tolerance, an excessive love of justice and a surfeit of generosity. Not really. Egypt, in the last several months, imposed tough jail sentences on two extremely popular Islamic preachers for insulting a Coptic Christian actress and for burning the Bible6. In Sri Lanka, Sinhala-Buddhist fanatics are allowed to insult/attack religious minorities at will. Even in the quintessentially intolerant Saudi Arabia, non-Wahabi Muslims do exist. In Sri Lanka, Mahayana Buddhism was/is accorded below-Zero tolerance7.
Under Rajapaksa rule, Sri Lanka seems to be following the well-worn and blood soaked path of religious-extremism. Impeding that lethal journey is the task not just of Rajapaksa-opponents or non-Buddhists but of all Lankans who do not to want a bunch of ignorant and warped clerics (of whatever religion) telling them how to run their country and to live their lives.
1 Since then scientists at CERN have confirmed that the elementary particle was indeed the elusive Higgs. Incidentally, the World Wide Web was invented at CERN and was given free to the world.
2 In 1983, Sudan’s Khartoum University decided to bestow an honorary PHD on Prof. Salam, with the acquiescence of the country’s military ruler, General Nameri. “On 7th January the Saudi Ambassador met Nameri and asked him to cancel the university’s special convocation”. The Vice Chancellor and the university academics unanimously decided to resist Saudi-pressure and, to his credit, Gen. Nameri agreed. http://www.mujahidkamran.com/articles.php?id=44
5 Those Sinhala-Buddhists who sincerely believe that the Arab-world of the BBS depiction is the real thing should watch the Arab Idol, especially the performances of the superlatively popular Muslim Emirati singer, Ahlam Al Shamsi (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWt_MciMX4U) and the equally beloved Lebanese Christian singer Nancy Ajram (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r53MZYhDkJw). Both women are superstars in the Middle East and even the most extremist preachers avoid launching frontal assaults on them.
6 Popular Islamic preacher Abdallah Badr got a five year prison-sentence for insulting Egyptian actress Elham Shahin. http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/74850/Egypt/Politics-/Egyptian-TV-preacher-gets--years-for-insulting-act.aspx. Another popular preacher, Abu Islam, got a 11 year jail sentence for Bible-burning etc. http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/06/16/abu-islam-sentenced-to-11-years-hard-labour/
7 Lanka followed a policy of absolute intolerance towards other Buddhist sects, since the victory of Theravada Mahavihara over the Mahayana/Vajrayana Abhayagiriya. Abhaygiriya was an internationally renowned centre of Buddhist learning, on par with Thakxila and Nalanda. This great Buddhist university was destroyed not by Hindus, Muslims or Christians but by the Theravada monks of the Mahavihara. A purpose of the myth of Buddha’s final bequest was to ensure the elimination of non-Theravada traditions from Lanka.