Posts Tagged ‘The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions’

Jama’at-i Islami – The Pakistani Islamic Party Pushing for Theocracy

November 25, 2020

Pakistan was founded as an explicitly Muslim country. It’s a democracy, but there is a section of its parliament, if I remember correctly, that’s made up of Muslim clergy, who scrutinise legislation passed by the lower house to make sure it accords with Islamic law. Since the 1970s and the regime of the dictator, Zia al-Haqq, Islam has become increasingly powerful in Pakistani politics. I believe the current president, Imran Khan, is the leader of an Islamic party. Pakistan was one of the nations that experienced protests against France over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and there have been official denunciations of the cartoons and President Macron’s attempts to combat Muslim radicalism.

The force behind the growth of political Islam in Pakistan appears to be the Jama’at-i Islami, whose name translates as ‘The Islamic Society.’ The article about them in The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions runs as follows

A highly disciplined and well-organised Muslim political party, founded in 1941 by Abul al-A’la Mawdudi. it aims at establishing an observant Islamic state in Pakistan. The Jam’at’s political platform offers an alternative to teh secularists and modernists, and in this lies its appeal (especially since 1977). The Ja’amat advocates that Pakistan should be a theocratic state, ruled by a single man whose tenure of office and power are limited only by his faithfulness to Islam. The ruler should be assisted by a shura (advisory council), with no political parties and no provision for an opposition. General Zia al-Haqq, the military leader after the overthrow of Z. Bhutto (1977)., used the Jama’at as a political prop for his ‘back to Islam’ campaign. The Jama’at has influence among the military, the middle classes, and the college and university students. It publishes a monthly magazine, Tarjuman al-Quran, in Lahore that has a high circulation. On the international level, the Jama’at was on good terms with Imam Khumayni and the oil rich Arab states; the Saudis have supported the movement since the early 1970s. (p. 489).

This looks like an attempt to create a kind of caliphate, and the Dictionary notes that there is considerable support for its return in Pakistan. I also wonder about the movement’s influence in British Islam, as there has been a problem with fire-breathing radicals immigrating to Britain to supply the shortage of imams for British mosques. Which is why moderate Muslims in this country have demanded government assistance in training Muslim Brits, who have grown up in our ostensibly democratic culture, as imams and community leaders.

I’m not a secularist, and believe that people of faith have a right to have their voices heard in politics and parliament, but this is just a movement for religious tyranny. In Pakistan as it is there’s persecution, including violence and pogroms against religious minorities. We’ve seen Christians murdered and imprisoned following accusations of blasphemy. There have also been riots and murders of the Ahmadiyya. Apparently even pious Muslims have been murdered because of comments they have made, which have been interpreted by others as blasphemous. There are 200 people on Pakistan’s Death Row accused of blasphemy. Many of these accusations are spurious, cynically levelled because of other disputes between the parties concerned. If a theocracy was established in Pakistan, it would only cause more oppression and violence.

I also believe that it wouldn’t be good for Islam either. Atheist sites on the web have reported that there has been a massive increase in atheism in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. Six years or so ago Saudi news reported that a large number of Qurans had been found thrown into a sewer. A few days ago Iranian media reported that this had also happened in their country. A poll conducted of 50,000 Iranians found that 38 per cent of the population is either atheist or has no religion. If this is true, then it’s probably the result of people becoming fed up of the repression they are experiencing from their theocratic governments. The religious violence of the Islamist extremists, al-Qaeda and Daesh, are undoubtedly another factor. A few years ago I read a book by a French anthropologist, who came to the conclusion that the Islamist movements were the response of Muslim societies as the experienced the transition to modernity. This was comparable to the way radical, militant Christian movements had appeared in Europe in the 17th century, such as those in the British Civil War. Now Islam was experiencing the same.

My guess is that if the Jama’at ever succeeded in creating a theocracy in Pakistan, it would be massively unstable as the various sects excluded from the regime’s view of what was properly Islamic were oppressed and rebelled. I don’t believe that the Jama’at and other extreme, theocratic movements have anything to offer Muslims or anyone else anything except more oppression and violence.

Would Jewish Emancipation Activist David Friedlaender Be Considered an Anti-Semite Under the I.H.R.A. Definition

November 23, 2020

David Friedlaender is one of the major figures of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. This was a movement of the 18th and 19th centuries in which Jews strove to reconcile their religion and ethnicity with contemporary western culture in order to take their place alongside their gentile fellow countrymen as full and equal citizens. According to the entry on him in John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford: OUP 1997) Friedlaender (1750-1834) was

A forerunner of Reform Judaism. Through his marriage he became part of a distinguished Prussian family of Court Jews and he was one of Moses Mendelssohn’s circle. He believed the Jews were ‘destined from time immemorial to guard and teach by example the pure doctrine of unity and sanctity of God, unknown to other people.’ He argued that prayers for friends and country should be substituted for the messianic hope, and that secular law should be studied rather than Talmud. He also was tireless in his efforts for Jewish political and civil rights in Prussia. (p. 359.

Reform Judaism is a particularly radical reformulation of Judaism, which took over some features of Protestant Christian worship. In contrast to more traditional forms of Jewish worship, such as Orthodox Judaism, prayers are held in the vernacular rather than Hebrew and include choirs. The movement originally believed strongly that Jews should work to become full members of the countries in which they lived, and rejected Zionism. Reform Judaism’s essential doctrines in the US were stated in 1885 in Pittsburgh, when the rabbis there declared

We recognise in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect the approach of the realisation of Israel’s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace among all men … We recognise in Judaism a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason … We accept as binding only the moral laws and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilisation.

This suggests that instead of viewing the Messianic hope as the appearance of a Messiah to redeem Israel, they saw it as the inauguration of the new era of peace and justice throughout humanity. Their views on tradition and mdoern culture were modified at a meeting in Columbus and 1937, and the movement has since discarded its anti-Zionism. In Germany the movement accepted changes in the liturgy while remaining theologically conservative.

The article on them in The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions also says

Reform congregations are united in the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and rabbis are trained at the Hebrew Union College in the USA and Leo Baeck College in the UK. Reform Judaism has no official status in Israel (though it has a few congregations and kibbutzim), because only Orthodox rabbis are recognised; and the Orthodox repudiate such Reform organisations as the ordination (semikhah) of women as rabbis. (p. 809.

This hostility undoubtedly explains why the late Jonathan Sacks, when he was Chief Rabbi, declared that Reform Jews were ‘enemies of the faith’. This was the language of religious bigotry, the type of statement made by the fanatically intolerant before beginning their persecution and violence against their religious enemies.

As for the ordination of women, one American Jewish community made the news last year through their ground-breaking step of ordaining a Black woman as rabbi. Which should be a riposte to the racists out there who claimed that Jackie Walker, one of the peeps smeared as an anti-Semite by the fanatics in the Israel lobby, couldn’t be a Jew because of her skin colour.

The I.H.R.C. definition of anti-Semitism permits reasonable criticism of Israel, but claims that denying Jews their national right to a homeland is anti-Semitic. This is highly questionable for a number of reasons. There are a number of other nations, who at the moment don’t have their own state despite their aspirations. These include the Basques and Catalans in Spain, and the Scots in Britain. Yet there is no international declaration that states that refusal to recognise their aspirations for a homeland constitutes a form of racism.

There have also been different movements in Judaism, that rejected Zionism. On the one hand there are the ultra-traditional Haredi, who reject Israel on the theological grounds that it can only be founded by divine action through the Messiah. On the other there were Reform Jews and their predecessors, who rejected Zionism because the saw the Jews’ real homelands as the current countries in which the lived. Jewish anti-Zionist bloggers such as David Rosenberg and Tony Greenstein have pointed out that Zionism was very much a minority position amongst European Jewry before the horrors of the Second World War. In America there was little interest in Israel among Jews until the late 1960s and the emergency of Neo-Conservatism. Greenstein and the Israeli historian and critic of his country’s barbarous maltreatment of the Palestinians, Ilan Pappe have shown that rather than being pro-Jewish, Zionism has been itself tinged with anti-Semitism. Many gentile Zionists supported the movement as a way of removing Jews from their countries. It’s why Hitler initially signed the Ha’avara agreement with the Zionist leaders to permit and encourage Jewish emigration to Palestine. Pappe in his book Ten Myths About Israel includes an episode that clearly demonstrates this link between anti-Semitism and Zionism. In the 1920s Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, approached a German nobleman for his support. He noted that the man had taken an interest in it, and asked him why he didn’t support it. The aristo replied that he hadn’t, because he didn’t want people to think he was an anti-Semite.

And many of the opponents of Israel’s persecution and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, both Torah-observant and secular, are self-respecting Jews. But they’re smeared as self-hating and anti-Semitic by the country’s fiercely intolerant defenders.

But the example of David Friedlaender shows that if denial of Jewish nationalism is defined as anti-Semitic, then some of Jewry’s most ardent and tireless workers for emancipation, dignity and equality, who believed passionately in their religion and their people’s destiny and witness to the God of their ancestors, are Jew-haters. Which is ridiculous and absurd, or so it seems to my non-Jewish eyes.

I’m sure that some criticism of Israel is undoubtedly anti-Semitic. That of real Nazis, for example. Their hatred of Israel is part of a general, virulent, genocidal hatred of Jews. But the rejection or just simple criticism of Zionism by self-respecting Jews and their gentile allies, who genuinely despise anti-Semitism along with other forms of racism and Fascism, is clearly very different.

It strikes me that the inclusion of anti-Zionism in the I.H.R.A.’s definition of anti-Semitism is simply sectarian bigotry. Some Jews are supporters of Israel, others, who may be no less Jewish, aren’t. Just as some of the gentile critics and opponents of Zionism may the Jews’ most committed defenders and supporters.

A far better definition of anti-Semitism, and one that needs no examples to clarify it, is the simplest. It’s hatred of Jews as Jews, regardless of religion or ideology. That was definition used by the man who coined the term ‘anti-Semitism’, Wilhelm Marr, founder of the Bund Antisemiten in 19th century Germany.

The Board of Deputies, Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, Chief Rabbinate and other Zionist organisations have no business trying to foist such a partisan and highly discriminatory definition on the Labour Party or anyone, whether Jew or gentile.

A 17th Century Anglican Plea for Religious Toleration

November 21, 2020

Jeremy Taylor was the chaplain of King Charles I and the rector of Uppingham. After the royalists were defeated in the British Civil War, he fled to Carmarthenshire in Wales, where he wrote his book arguing for religious freedom, The Liberty of Prophesying. After the Restoration he was appointed bishop of Down and Connor. He was also the author of a number of devotional works and sermons, but it’s his defence of religious freedom that I find particularly interesting. He said ‘they were excellent words which St. Ambrose said in attestation of this great truth, that the civil authority has no right to interdict the liberty of speaking, nor the sacerdotal to prevent speaking what you think.’

See the article on him in John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford: OUP 1997) 958.

I’m very much aware that throughout Christian history there has been very little freedom of religion and conscience, and that the Anglican church’s toleration of Dissenters was very limited until the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in the 19th century. Until then Protestant nonconformists were excluded from the grammar schools, universities and government, and could only hold their services five miles away from towns. Atheism and Roman Catholicism were illegal again until the 19th century. But it was clergymen like Taylor and his fellows in the Nonconformist churches, like the Quaker William Penn and a number of Presbyterian ministers, who laid the foundations for the British and American tradition of religious tolerance. The most famous of the works calling for religious freedom from this period is Milton’s Areopagitica.

Despite the passage of the centuries, their message is still acutely relevant. Many countries still don’t have freedom of conscious or religious liberty in the 20th century. The Communists attempted to destroy religious and viciously persecuted people of faith, while the Nazis, apart from trying to exterminate the Jews, also sent their other religious opponents, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses, to the concentration camps.

We have recently seen a French teacher murdered for showing schoolchildren the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed in a class about free speech, and mass demonstrations against France for permitting the cartoons in Muslim countries. To many people, their calls for legislation against such disrespect seem like demands for Muslim blasphemy laws. Christians and members of other religious minorities, such as Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslims have been murdered in Pakistan as well as orthodox Sunni Muslims because of supposed blasphemy. This is banned in Pakistan and punishable with the death penalty. The only permitted religion in Saudi Arabia is Wahhabi Islam, and a few years ago the Saudis declared that atheism was terrorism. This was just atheist unbelief itself, regardless of any act of genuine terror, such as killing people or destroying property.

I’m sympathetic to Muslims regarding the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. I don’t like the way Christianity and Christ are mocked by certain sections of the media and the entertainment business either. I’ve also heard the argument that Charlie Hebdo is a nasty rag. It’s not left-wing, but right, apparently, and its targets also include Roman Catholicism and immigrants.

But there’s a greater principle of free speech and the sanctity of human life here. All religions and ideologies, including atheism, should be up for debate, with people free to choose as they will. They’re fundamental human rights, the violation of which either leads or is part of tyranny.

Oscar Romero, El Salvador’s Martyr against Fascism

October 27, 2018

I noticed in an article in the I newspaper a couple of weeks ago that the current Pope, Francis, has canonized two saints recently. One of these was Oscar Romero, an archbishop of El Salvador, who was martyred in 1980s by gunmen for the Fascist government. The entry for him in The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, ed. John Bowker, (Oxford: OUP 1997) runs

Romero, Oscar Arnulfo (1917-80), Christian archbishop of El Salvador, assassinated in 1980. He studied theology in Rome, 1937-43, became a parish priest and bishop of Santiago de Maria in 1974. Thought to be a conservative bishop (not least because of his support of Opus Dei), he was appointed archbishop in Feb. 1977, in the expectation that he would not disturb the political status quo. Three weeks later, the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, together with two others was gunned down in his jeep. The even was, for Romero, a conversion. He began a ministry of outspoken commitment to those who had no voice of their own. Paul VI gave him encouragement, but the accession of John Paul II, with its cult of the pope and movement away from the vision of Vatican II, led to an increasing campaign against Romero in Rome. The details of this are disputed. It appears that John Paul asked him not to deal with specifics but to talk only of general principles; Romero tried to explain that specific murders in El Salvador were not adequately dealt with by stating general principles. The Vatican response was to appoint an apostolic administrator to oversee his work, but Romero was killed before this could be put into effect. He returned from his last visit to Rome to the slogan painted on walls, ‘Be a patriot, kill a priest.’ He was killed as he said mass in the chapel of the Divine Providence Hospital where he lived. (p. 823).

Pope Francis has supported a range of broadly left-wing initiatives, like refusing to condemn Gays and making the Church more supportive of the global poor. Mike and I went to an Anglican church school, and we were told about the martyrdom of Romero as part of the way totalitarian regimes, Fascist and Communist, were persecuting Christians. The Fascist regimes in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala were given considerable support by Reagan’s government, including his statement that the Contras in Nicaragua were ‘the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers’. And elements of the Tory party under Thatcher were very friendly towards the Central and South American dictators. The Libertarians of the Freedom Association had one of the leaders of one of El Salvadorean dictator Rios Montt’s death squads come over as their guest of honour at one of their annual dinners. This was when Paul Staines, of the Guido Fawkes blog, was a member.

These Fascist regimes have been supported by Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic and promoted to their peoples as protecting and supporting Christianity and religion generally against godless Communism. The Communist bloc has indeed ferociously persecuted Christians and other peoples of faith, including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Taoists. But as the martyrdom of Archbishop Romero shows, and those of many other Christian clergy, monks, nuns and laypeople by the Fascist regimes in Latin America show, these regimes don’t automatically respect religious beliefs. They tolerate religion only in so far as it agrees with their political ideas. The moment people of faith speak out against poverty, injustice and oppression, they will kill them as readily as they will murder, maim and torture anyone else.

Pope Francis’ canonization of Romero is a great, praiseworthy act, which I hope will be applauded by all Christians concerned with preserving human rights, freedom, and dignity from persecution and oppression.