Tag Archives: Buddhism

The BJP in India: how religion and politics create a toxic mix.

The last two posts can be interpreted as an examination of the disadvantages of monotheism and the advantages of polytheism. However, in recent years Hinduism, a religion often thought to be polytheistic, has assumed some unpleasant characteristics on the back of the BJP’s rise to political power in India. What follows are quotes from an excellent “London Review of Books” article by Amit Chaudhuri (the article appeared in the 17.12.15 edition of the “Review”). On the basis of the quotes below, I am inclined to conclude that religion must be completely divorced from politics. Why? Because, when political parties shaped by religion secure political power, almost everyone suffers, even those who subscribe to the religion wielding the political power.

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Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

India always had, and still has, a huge amount going for it… For me, in many ways, India is the most exciting and stimulating country to be in. But the BJP… seems to be bad for whatever it is that makes this country so attractive… For the first time since independence, India feels unlivable in, not just for minorities under assault but for large swathes of the population.

The BJP is a deeply polarising party… The BJP thrives (as does any right-wing group) on division. The BJP polarises not only Hindus and Muslims (and Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists); it also polarises Hindus.

Many of us have forgotten… what Hinduism meant even forty years ago. But even those of us who aren’t religious are often products of that amorphous older definition. Despite the disgraceful legacies and realities of Hindu society, such as the caste system, there was once an open-ended confusion about the matter of what constitutes it as a religion. Hinduism had no central book, it was reiterated; you could be a Hindu even if you were an atheist or had never stepped into a temple; you could absorb the stories of Hindu mythology without believing in them literally. This definition of Hinduism arose from an awareness in modern Hindus of the aspects privileged by other world religions, in response to which they seemed to have decided to make a case for Hinduism’s anomalousness, to turn the fact that it wasn’t a “proper” religion into a kind of legitimacy… But it made for an oddly Indian interpretation of religion, in which it served as a sort of figurative language, a non-assertive truth, and there was a strange, occasional overlap, for the Indian, between everyday living and religious experience.

Anyone who was once exposed to even a residue of that ethos will feel alienated by the BJP’s project of salvaging Hinduism from its provisionality and making it a “proper” religion. It’s doing this through minatory edicts and actions, and by eliminating grey areas. “Intolerance” is the Indian press’s term for the regime of threats and violence toward beef-eaters, writers, “foreigners”, “foreign” organisations (like Greenpeace) and minorities; though, as Arundhati Roy pointed out recently, “intolerance” is “the wrong word to use for the lynching, shooting, burning and mass murder of fellow human beings”. The BJP insists on a form of Hinduism that is wholly new: it accords a deep respect to science and the verifiable and is tone deaf to figurative language…

(The BJP has been shaped by) the Renaissance and Enlightenment… (but) in a weirdly distorted form… (and) its secretive cultural-militant wing, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

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Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The BJP’s violence toward Islam emanates from ignorance, but so does its violence toward Hinduism. It has ignored or glossed over Hinduism’s, and India’s, many anti-Brahminical, anti-absolutist spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism and the bhakti movement…

A central part of the (Bhagavad) Gita is its wariness of mere scriptural observance, as it lays out its scepticism of its precursor text, the Vedas… Perhaps the Gita should be made compulsory reading – not for the nation but for the BJP and its fringe groups…

(During his 2015 visit to the UK, Prime Minister and BJP leader Narendra Modi) made one direct reference to Islam: “Had Islam embraced Sufism, it would not have had to resort to the gun.” (In one of the chilling coincidences that now seem to make up our world, Muslim gunmen in Paris were shooting down people out for the night at around the same time Modi said these words.) It was a stunning statement: the BJP has been busily suppressing Hindu pluralism – the legacy of the bhakti movement – just as Wahhabi Islam has suppressed heterodox forms such as Sufism. You could call the BJP’s project a kind of Wahhabi Hinduism: it is intent on defining a single power centre, where before there was none, and one interpretation, where before there were many. It took a few decades of funding and support from Saudi Arabia for Wahhabi Islam to become the minatory force it is today, and something similar could plausibly be achieved with Hinduism. At the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, women were recently denied entry unless they were wearing that “ancient” Hindu apparel, the sari – a sign that the BJP’s influence might turn a secular form of dress into a religious one, like the hijab. The party has already appropriated the colour of renunciation, saffron, as a ubiquitous political signifier.

On 30th August (2015), the literary scholar M. M. Kalburgi was shot by two young men pretending to be students, after he had allegedly made offensive remarks about idol worship. Men like his killers are now in abundant supply in India. They manufacture abuse on social media against anyone faintly critical of Modi; they instruct those who disagree with them to migrate to Pakistan; they issue death threats; they kill.

Modi is a man who makes careful use of silence… Though he is identified with speechmaking, he’s silent on key issues. His silence is interpreted as a green light by those who commit violence in his name. When the soft-spoken, mumbling Prime Minister Manomohan Singh kept resolutely quite about his Congress government’s rampant corruption, Modi’s deputy, Amit Shah, mocked him for being a mauni baba – a holy man who’s taken a vow of silence. Yet Modi has been practising being a mauni baba in a much more invidious way.

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Shrine, Hindu-run business, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

(In the 19th century, intellectuals in India were working toward a position in which) Hindu iconography and mythology… would be the creative property of all – Hindus, Muslims, non-believers, atheists… and not just of (Hindu) devotees. It is the BJP’s intent that all this be removed from the secular domain…

I believe that the intimidation Indians face almost daily now, to do with free speech, can only be addressed in the long run by clarity about our constitutional guarantees. Perhaps the Indian constitution, unlike the American one, puts certain limits on free speech, but I can’t believe those limits necessitated the pulping last year of all the copies in India of Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: an alternative history” and yet protect the hate speech of various BJP ministers or far right parties like the Shiv Sena and the Mahanirman Sena…

The erosion of free speech in India began long ago, under the Congress, with the banning of “The Satanic Verses” in 1988, an action, extraordinarily, still unchallenged in court. That the BJP won’t lift this ban, despite the fact that it never loses a chance to undermine Muslims, is a sign of its own investment in the culture and ethos of prohibition. The erosion I’m talking about isn’t only to do with religion and literature: its primary aim is the suppression of political dissent…

You see this in West Bengal… which boasts… an exemplary tolerance of minorities, though it’s fiercely punitive toward any form of free speech that is considers oppositional… In 2007, the… government expelled the Bangladeshi writer, exile and critic of Islam Taslima Nasreen from Calcutta, where she lived, after she came under attack from orthodox Muslims.

Are state and central authorities in India actually constitutionally empowered to do what they are doing? If we don’t know the answer now, when will we?

Reflections on whether God exists, etc.

Via email for the last few weeks, about a dozen people with and without faith commitments have discussed whether God exists and, if God exists, what is God “like”, or how can God be described? As you can imagine, many of the contributions to the discussion have been wishful thinking unsupported by much (anything?) that qualifies as convincing evidence. But there were two contributions I found most enlightening/stimulating, even though I do not agree with everything said.

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Here is the first contribution:

The Abrahamic religions are in awe of an all-powerful, all-seeing, all-hearing, all-knowing and all-everything god, even though this god, in common with religion itself, is a human invention (and a human invention of increasingly doubtful benefit, all things considered). This dire and dreadful invention of the human imagination from long ago is believed by followers of the Abrahamic religions to be admirable and therefore worthy of worship, when in reality a god of this nature should be taken down a peg or two, resisted, challenged at every opportunity to confirm his/her/its merits, or, perhaps best of all, completely rejected, and rejected as a matter of urgency to make it far more likely that we can all live with one another in peace.

Muslims are encouraged to submit totally to their version of the invented god (Muslims call him/her/it “Allah” and encounter knowledge and understanding about Allah in the Qur’an) and, as a consequence, must accept without question the values, aims, objectives, demands and laws attributed to him/her/it (many of the demands and laws are foolish or abhorrent in the extreme). And the result of such total/unquestioning submission to the will of the invented god? There are millions of obedient and unreflective people devoid of empathic understanding for anyone but those who share their beliefs about what this god is said to require of humankind. Thus, in many Muslim lands you run up against censorship/the suppression of free speech, the denial of basic human rights, forced conversion, the enslavement and sexual exploitation of women, authoritarianism, persecution, terrorism, attempted genocide and warfare with death and destruction on an almost inconceivable scale, all of which result in a world less safe, secure and pleasant to live in than at any time since perhaps the end of the second world war.

Since long ago, the Jewish people have been encouraged to critically engage with their most sacred scripture, the Torah, which is an outlook in marked contrast with that of Muslims who are encouraged to accept everything the Qur’an contains because of the impossible-to-sustain idea that it is the uncorrupted word of the invented god of the people of Abraham. In fairness to the Jewish people, such critical engagement has been notable both past and present, among many but not all pious Jews at least. This said, I am not sure to what extent this has ensured that Orthodox and Hassidic Jews resist or challenge the invented god. They certainly do not reject this god, although, for very obvious/understandable reasons, many Jewish people find it impossible to believe in a god in any shape or form following the Shoah/Holocaust.

Early Christians, perhaps aware that their concept of God the Father must necessarily be indistinguishable from the god of Judaism and the god of yet-to-emerge Islam, with all that this implies in terms of grumpiness, impatience, jealousy, anger, destructive inclination and genocidal intent (is there anywhere a god who manifests such indiscriminate wrath and arbitrary destructive force? Is there anywhere a god who manifests such contempt for humankind, even though humankind is meant to be this god’s supreme creation?), split the god of Abraham into three parts so that more benign aspects of the invented god can be celebrated in the person of the Galilean Jew called Jesus and the Holy Ghost or the Holy Spirit, whatever the latter may be (an invisible force somehow part of/an extension of the invented god that mysteriously inspires people to act in morally/ethically uplifting ways and/or in ways deemed worthwhile by the imagined god?). This departure from strict Jewish monotheism helped to make Christianity distinctive, but it does not look/sound like monotheism at all to many people who subscribe to religions other than Christianity, whether Abrahamic or otherwise. However, you are perfectly entitled to say that it does not matter one jot, given that the god that gave rise to the trinitarian god of Christianity is itself an invention! But the crazy thing is that it DOES matter. It matters because Jews, Christians and Muslims have too frequently fought each other – and they have too frequently fought the followers of other religions and beliefs, and their co-religionists when their co-religionists described the imagined god in a different way – merely to uphold or impose on others their understanding of the invented god. Thus has the dire and dreadful god of the people of Abraham caused humankind endless death and destruction for nearly 3,000 years.

I would therefore argue that, for the wellbeing of humankind and the long-term prospects of the planet itself, it is time we disposed of the invented god of the Abrahamic religions. I am confident that other versions of god are much more benign in character than the god of the people of Abraham, but why transfer allegiance from one god to another when they are all human inventions? Moreover, can we say with utter confidence that any of the gods of the other religions have not themselves been the cause of dire consequences for humankind? Of course not. Therefore we should consign all the gods to the dustbin and, with luck, inter- and intra-religious rivalry will soon be a thing of the past. Moreover, concepts such as spirituality and disciplines such as philosophy will benefit immensely from being freed from the constraints of unsustainable belief in a god or gods. Everyone will very definitely be a winner!

Anglican Church, North Yorkshire

Anglican Church, North Yorkshire

Here is the second contribution:

Ah, ha: the big one – God! 

In relation to the concept of God, should we define ourselves as theists/believers in God/gods, agnostics or atheists?

If God exists at all, which of the following is correct: monotheism, dualism, polytheism or monism (monism is what Sikhism most consistently subscribes to, in my estimation at least)? 

If God exists at all (just as organised religion is a human invention, as everyone concedes, is it not likely that God is also a human invention?), is God transcendent or immanent or both, or something else altogether that we cannot yet imagine and/or explain in words? 

Does God have one form, two forms, three forms or hundreds or thousands of forms? Or does God have millions of forms?

But back to theism/belief in God/gods, which, with a little wriggle room, can be subdivided into monotheism, dualism, polytheism, pantheism, panentheism, deism and autotheism (for many people even this quite long list is incomplete. C.f. monism – unless monism is synonymous with/more or less the same as pantheism). There is even the concept of value-judgement theisms such as eutheism, dystheism and misotheism. Dare I share a personal view? To me, the concepts of dystheism and misotheism are more convincing than many of the “isms” just listed! Why? The evidence is everywhere!

Mind you: deism may have something useful to offer, in so far as those who subscribe to the concept insist deism is knowledge of God based on the application of our reason on the designs and/or laws found throughout “nature”. As a general rule, deists also believe God created the world but God has since remained indifferent to it (it is God’s supposed indifference to the world that may explain why the planet is in the mess it is, and why humankind seems incapable of caring properly for all the life forms on it. Of course, given humankind can’t even care properly for itself, often because of the hatred religions generate for fellow humans, why should we expect humankind to care for other, non-human, life forms?). I also quite like the deist assertion that “God gave us reason, not religion.” In fact, the more you think about this, the more the sentence makes sense. Religion blights our lives, reason will save us. To combat the detrimental effects of the “post-truth world” in which we are said to live (the EU referendum campaign and Trump’s US presidential campaign have much to answer for), we definitely need more reason and less superstition and misinformation!

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Annual “Discover Islam Exhibition”, University of Newcastle

 An interesting fact drawn from archaeology. The oldest known site where people engaged in organised/structured religious practices dates back only 11/12 thousand years (Gobekli Tepe in south-east Turkey). No one suggests that this was the first place or time people engaged in religious practices because, for a settled religious centre to emerge at Gobekli Tepe, people must have engaged in religious activity, perhaps of a less organised/structured variety (e.g. shamanism among nomads?), for a long time before religion could evolve into the relatively sophisticated form that must have been in evidence at this important archaeological site near the city of Urfa. But the point I am making is this: for hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps for millions of years, humankind survived and evolved without religion (animals indistinguishable from modern humans emerged about 2.5 million years ago. Animals very similar to us existed much earlier than this but are now extinct). Religion emerged only as the brain gained in size and sophistication, but when our knowledge and understanding of the world/universe was nonetheless so limited that we had to invent explanations for the inexplicable. Moreover, organised religion as we know it today, with all its conflicting understandings of God, has existed for only a very short period of time compared with human history as a whole (it was 6 million years ago when humans and chimpanzees had the last common grandmother). Additionally, it is doubtful that ANY manifestation of religion today is in the least bit like the religion or religions that existed at Gobekli Tepe only 11/12 thousand years ago, Even Hinduism, perhaps the religion with the longest pedigree on planet Earth today, has its origins about only 4 or 5 thousand years ago, according to some contemporary but reputable scholars.

But why do I share the above? Partly to suggest that there is very little chance that anyone has had the time to get God “right”, if God exists at all.  

God might be called our flexible friend (or our flexible enemy, if you subscribe to some of the “isms” above) in so far as we can make of God whatever we want. Moreover, scripture (even in each distinct religion) is often so confused about what God is that it frequently provides the very means for the many interpretations that exist. Pick and chose from scripture and you will find the God you want!

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

I have a grudging admiration for Buddhism which, in its “purest” form, says that belief in God/gods is not necessary to be a Buddhist. Thus, you can be a Buddhist who believes in God/gods or a Buddhist who does not believe in God/gods. I wonder if Siddharta Gotama and the early Buddhists rumbled to two important things. First, if God/gods exist, God/gods are unknowable. Second, whether God/gods exist isn’t that important.  

“Religious Freedom in the World” by Aid to the Church in Need, a Roman Catholic organisation.

What follows is a companion piece to the preceding post in that it provides yet more evidence that very large numbers of Muslims, most of whom are Sunni, are doing immense harm around the globe. In the process, such Muslims are denying to millions of people the basic human right to express their religion or belief in ways that no people of sound mind could object to. Of course, if Muslims were the victims of the discrimination and persecution they impose on others, they would be the first to say that their human rights were being infringed, and rightly so.

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

This “Religious Freedom in the World” report finds that, within the period under review (June 2014 to June 2016), religious liberty has declined in 11 – nearly half – of the 23 worst-offending countries. In seven other countries in this category, the problems were already so bad they could hardly get any worse. Our analysis also shows that, of the 38 countries with significant religious freedom violations, 55% remained stable regarding religious freedom and in only 8% – namely Bhutan, Egypt and Qatar – the situation improved.

The report confounds the popular view that governments are mostly to blame for persecution. Non-state actors (that is, fundamentalist or militant organisations) are responsible for persecution in 12 of the 23 worst-offending countries.

The period under review has seen the emergence of a new phenomenon of religiously motivated violence which can be described as Islamist hyper-extremism, a process of heightened radicalization, unprecedented in its violent expression. Its characteristics are:

a) an extremist creed and a radical system of law and government;

b) systematic attempts to annihilate or drive out all groups who do not conform to its outlook, including co-religionists, moderates and those of different traditions;

c) cruel treatment of victims;

d) use of the latest social media, notably to recruit followers and to intimidate opponents by parading extreme violence;

e) a global impact – enabled by affiliate extremist groups and well-resourced support networks.

This new phenomenon has had a toxic impact on religious liberty around the world:

a) since mid-2014, violent Islamist attacks have taken place in one in five countries around the world – from Sweden to Australia and including 17 African nations;

b) in parts of the Middle East, including Syria and Iraq, Islamist hyper-extremism is eliminating all forms of religious diversity and is threatening to do so in parts of Africa and the Asian sub-continent. The intention is to replace pluralism with a religious monoculture;

c) Islamist extremism and hyper-extremism, observed in countries including Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria, have been a key driver in the sudden explosion of refugees which, according to United Nations figures for the year 2015, went up by 5.8 million to a new high of 65.3 million;

d) in Central Asia, hyper-extremist violence is being used by authoritarian regimes as a pretext for a disproportionate crackdown on religious minorities, curtailing civil liberties of all kinds, including religious freedom;

e) in the West, hyper-extremism is at risk of destabilizing the socio-religious fabric, with countries sporadically targeted by fanatics and under pressure to receive unprecedented numbers of refugees mostly of a different faith to the indigenous communities. Manifest ripple effects include the rise of right-wing and populist groups; restrictions on free movement; discrimination and violence against minority faiths; and a decline of social cohesion, including in state schools.

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

There has been an upsurge of anti-Semitic attacks, notably in parts of Europe.

Mainstream Islamic groups are now beginning to counter the hyper-extremist phenomenon through public pronouncements and other initiatives through which they condemn the violence and those behind it.

In countries such as India, Pakistan and Myanmar, where one particular religion is identified with the nation state, steps have been to taken to defend the rights of that faith as opposed to the rights of individual believers of all backgrounds. This has resulted in more stringent religious freedom restrictions on minority faith groups, increasing obstacles for conversion and the imposition of greater sanctions for blasphemy.

In the worst-offending countries, including North Korea and Eritrea, the ongoing penalty for religious expression is the complete denial of rights and liberties – such as long-term incarceration without fair trial, rape and murder.

There has been a renewed crackdown on religious groups that refuse to follow the party line under authoritarian regimes such as those in China and Turkmenistan. For example, in China more than 2,000 churches have had their crosses demolished in Zheijang and nearby provinces.

By defining a new phenomenon of Islamist hyper-extremism, the report supports widespread claims that, in targeting Christians, Yazidis, Mandeans and other minorities, Daesh (ISIS) and other fundamentalist groups are in breach of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Anglican Church, North Yorkshire

Anglican Church, North Yorkshire

They showed us videos of beheadings, killings and ISIS battles. [My instructor] said, “You have to kill kuffars [unbelievers] even if they are your fathers and brothers, because they belong to the wrong religion and they don’t worship God.”

The above is an excerpt from a Yazidi boy’s account of what happened to him when he was captured by Daesh (ISIS) aged 12 and trained for jihad in Syria. It is one of 45 interviews with survivors, religious leaders, journalists and others describing atrocities committed by Daesh which form the basis of a landmark report issued in June 2016 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Citing evidence to show that an ongoing genocide has been taking place against Yazidis, the 40-page report makes clear that Daesh has sought to “destroy” Yazidis since 2014 and that religious hatred was a core motivation. This point is underlined in a case study which tells the story of teenage Yazidi girl Ekhlas, who describes how the militants killed her father and brother for their faith. She herself watched helplessly as Yazidi women were repeatedly raped, including a girl of nine who was so badly sexually abused that she died.

Ekhlas’s experience, and that of so many others like her, demonstrates the importance of religious freedom as a core human right. Increasing media coverage of violence perpetrated in the name of religion – be it by Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in Kenya or the Taliban in Afghanistan – reflects a growing recognition about how for too long religious liberty has been “an orphaned right”. Aided by the work of political activists and NGOs, a tipping point has been reached concerning public awareness about religiously motivated crimes and oppression, prompting a fresh debate about the place of religion in society. The frequency and intensity of atrocities against Yazidis, Christians, Bahais, Jews and Ahmaddiyya Muslims is on the rise, and is reflected in the volume of reporting on extremist violence against religious minorities.

In the face of such crimes, it is arguably more important than ever to arrive at a clear and workable definition of religious freedom and its ramifications for government and the judiciary. This report acknowledges the core tenets of religious liberty as contained in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief; and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship or observance.

The focus of this report is concerned with state and non-state actors (militant or fundamentalist organisations) who restrict and deny religious expression, be it in public or in private, and who do so without due respect for others or for the rule of law.

Outside the old Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Outside the old Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Examining the two-year period up to June 2016, this report assesses the religious situation of every country in the world. In total, 196 nations were examined with a special focus in each case on the place of religious freedom in constitutional and other statutory documents, incidents of note and finally a projection of likely trends. Consideration was given to recognized religious groups regardless of their numerical size or perceived influence in any given country. Each report was then evaluated, with a view to creating a table of countries where there are significant violations of religious freedom. In contrast to the 2014 “Religious Freedom in the World” report which categorized every country in the world, the table on pages 32-35 and the corresponding map on pages 30- 31 focus on 38 countries where violations against religious freedom go beyond comparatively mild forms of intolerance to represent a fundamental breach of human rights.

The countries where these grave violations occur have been placed into two categories – “Discrimination” and “Persecution”. (For a full definition of both categories, visit http://www.religion-freedom-report.org). In these cases of discrimination and persecution, the victims typically have little or no recourse to law.

In essence, “discrimination” ordinarily involves an institutionalization of intolerance, normally carried out by the state or its representatives at different levels, with legal and other regulations entrenching mistreatment of individual groups, including faith-based communities. Examples would include no access to – or severe restrictions regarding – jobs, elected office, funding, the media, education or religious instruction, prohibition of worship outside churches, mosques, etc, and restrictions on missionary endeavour including anti-conversion legislation.

Whereas the “discrimination” category usually identifies the state as the oppressor, the “persecution” alternative also includes terrorist groups and non-state actors, as the focus here is on active campaigns of violence and subjugation, including murder, false detention and forced exile, as well as damage to and expropriation of property. Indeed, the state itself can often be a victim, as seen for example in Nigeria. From this definition, it is clear that “persecution” is a worse-offending category, as the religious freedom violations in question are more serious, and by their nature also tend to include forms of discrimination as a by-product. Of course, many, if not most, of the countries not categorized as falling under “persecution” or “discrimination” are subject to forms of religious freedom violations. Indeed, many of them can be described as countries in which one or more religious groups experience intolerance. However, based on the evidence provided in the country reports reviewed, nearly all of these violations were still illegal according to the authorities, with the victim having recourse to law. None of these violations – many of them by definition low level – was considered serious enough to warrant description as significant or extreme, the two watchwords in our system of categorization. On this basis, for the purposes of this report they are listed as “unclassified”.

Of the 196 countries reported on, 38 showed unmistakable evidence of significant religious freedom violations. Within this group, 23 were placed in the top level “persecution” category, and the remaining 15 in the “discrimination” category. Since the last report was released two years ago, the situation regarding religious freedom had clearly worsened in the case of 14 countries (37%), with 21 (55%) showing no signs of obvious change. Only in three countries (8%) had the situation clearly improved – Bhutan, Egypt and Qatar. Of the “persecution” countries, 11 – just under half – were assessed as places where access to religious freedom was in marked decline. Among the “persecution” countries showing no discernible signs of improvement, seven were characterized by extreme scenarios (Afghanistan, Iraq, [northern] Nigeria, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Syria) where the situation was already so bad it could scarcely get any worse. This means there is a growing gulf between an expanding group of countries with extreme levels of religious freedom abuse and those where the problems are less flagrant, for example Algeria, Azerbaijan and Vietnam.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

A virulent and extremist form of Islam emerged as the number one threat to religious freedom and was revealed as the primary cause of “persecution” in many of the worst cases. Of the 11 countries shown to have worsening persecution, 9 were under extreme pressure from Islamist violence (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya, Libya, Niger, Pakistan, Sudan, Tanzania and Yemen). Of the 11 countries with consistent levels of persecution, 7 faced huge problems relating to Islamism – both non-state actor aggression and state-sponsored oppression (Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Syria).

Assessing underlying themes relating to this, it emerged that a massive upsurge in violence and instability linked to Islamism had played a significant role in creating an explosion in the number of refugees. A core finding of the report is the global threat posed by religious hyper-extremism, which to Western eyes appears to be a death cult with a genocidal intent. This new phenomenon of hyper-extremism is characterized by the radical methods by which it seeks its objectives, which go beyond suicide bomb attacks – namely mass killing including horrific forms of execution, rape, extreme torture such as burning people alive, crucifixions and throwing people off tall buildings. One hallmark of hyper-extremism is the evident glorying in the brutality inflicted on its victims, which is paraded on social media.

As witnessed by the evidence of Yazidis reported above, the violence perpetrated by militant groups such as Daesh was indicative of a complete denial of religious freedom. The atrocities committed by these aggressive Islamist groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and by their affiliates elsewhere, have arguably been one of the greatest setbacks for religious freedom since the second world war. What has properly been described as genocide, according to a UN convention which uses the term, is a phenomenon of religious extremism almost beyond compare. The aggressive acts in question include widespread killings, mental and physical torture, detention, enslavement and in some extreme cases “the imposition of measures to prevent children from being born”. In addition, there has been land grabbing, destruction of religious buildings and all traces of religious and cultural heritage, and the subjection of people under a system which insults almost every tenet of human rights.

A core finding of the report, the threat of militant Islam, could be felt in a significant proportion of the 196 countries reviewed: a little over 20% of countries – at least 1 in 5 – experienced one or more incidents of violent activity, inspired by extremist Islamic ideology, including at least 5 countries in Western Europe and 17 African nations.

One key objective of Islamist hyper-extremism is to trigger the complete elimination of religious communities from their ancient homelands, a process of induced mass exodus. As a result of the migration, this phenomenon of hyper-extremism has been a main driver in the fundamental de-stabilization of the socio-religious fabric of entire continents, absorbing – or under pressure to absorb – millions of people.

According to UN figures, there were an estimated 65.3 million refugees by the end of 2015 – which is the highest figure on record, and a rise of more than 9% compared to the previous year. At the time of writing, the most recent figures equate to, on average, 24 people being displaced from their homes every minute of every day during 2015. Although economic factors played a major part, the countries which largely accounted for the increase in refugees were centres of religious extremism – Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. There were many people who were fleeing specifically because of religious persecution, but for the most part people fled because of the violence, breakdown of government and acute poverty of which religious extremism has been cause, symptom or consequence or all three simultaneously. To this extent, extremism has been a key factor in the migrant explosion. Religious extremism has played a dominant role in the creation of terror states which are being emptied of people.

Evidence reveals that in the Middle East and parts of Africa and the Asian sub-continent, people of all faiths were leaving, but disproportionate levels of migration among Christians, Yazidis and other minority groups were raising the possibility – or even probability – of their extinction from within a region.

Ruined Armenian monastery near Mus, eastern Turkey

Ruined Armenian monastery near Mus, eastern Turkey

Few, if any, religious groups were neither victims nor perpetrators of persecution. This report found that among Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu communities, a growing threat came from non-mainstream but vocal groups, many of them linking faith with patriotism to create a form of religious nationalism that looks on minorities as outcasts. In Myanmar, reports emerged that on 1st July 2014, 40 Buddhist monks and 450 lay people massed on the streets in Chan Aye Thar brandishing knives and sticks and laid siege to a Muslim tea shop. In Israel, at a time of numerous religiously motivated attacks, the state’s Roman Catholic bishops made a formal complaint in December 2015 about Rabbi Benzi Gopstein. Gopstein made a statement on an ultra-Orthodox website stating, “Christmas has no place in the Holy Land” and calling for the destruction of all churches in Israel. He added, “Let us remove the vampires before they once again drink our blood.” In India, “the world’s largest democracy”, respect for minority rights has come under increasing threat from extremist Hindu groups. “Pro-Hinduisation” organisations are a source of major concern because they create a climate which leads Hindu extremists to physically attack religious minorities with relative impunity. Such a threat was demonstrated in September 2015 when Hindu extremists were reported to have brutally murdered Akhlaq Ahmed, a Muslim man who was accused of marking Eid by killing a cow and eating beef.

As can be seen, tumultuous world events during the period under review have had a deep and far-reaching impact regarding religious freedom in many countries around the world. Forces of change were dominated by the rise of Islamist hyper-extremism which has destroyed religious freedom in parts of the Middle East and is threatening to do the same in other parts of the world. Increased awareness about the threat to religious minorities has been reflected in the actions of politicians, parties and even some parliaments who are doing more than ever before to speak up and act on behalf of persecuted individuals and communities. One ray of hope is the willingness of some Islamic leaders to mount a coordinated response to this toxic creed. Activities of the security services will never be able to challenge the ideology behind this threat. Only religious leaders themselves can take on that challenge. One over-riding conclusion is the need to find new and coordinated ways so that religious plurality can return to those parts of the world where minority groups are being “threatened in their very existence”.

The list of “persecution” states:

Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Eritrea, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Myanmar, Niger, Nigeria, North Korea, Palestinian Territories, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Yemen.

The list of “discrimination” states:

Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Brunei, Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan, Laos, Maldives, Mauritania, Qatar, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine, Vietnam.

Where religious freedom has worsened over the last two years:

Bangladesh, Brunei, China, Eritrea, Indonesia, Kenya, Libya, Mauritania, Niger, Pakistan, Sudan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Yemen.

Temple, Salt lake City, Utah

Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah

I agree with a lot of the conclusions contained in the sections of the report quoted above, including the conclusion that Muslims in many parts of the world aspire to create monocultural environments in which followers of non-Muslim expressions of religion and belief no longer exist (for many Sunni Muslims, they additionally aspire to create environments in which only the Sunni manifestation of Islam exists. In other words, Shia, Sufi, Alevi and Ahmadiyya Muslims are as unwelcome as people subscribing to religions such as Christianity, Judaism or Yazidism). I also find quite helpful the concept of hyper-extremism as a way of identifying manifestations of religious extremism that lead to the active persecution of groups identified as the despised other.

What we can say with confidence is that, today, extremism manifests itself in almost every expression of religion, mainstream or otherwise, but, thankfully, not all religious extremists engage in the sort of persecution alluded to in the report, persecution that includes the destruction of homes and religious buildings, torture, rape, expulsion, massacre and/or genocide. Most religious extremists confine their hatred to rhetoric alone. Such hatred is, of course, bad enough, but it is when such hatred morphs into action that we need to worry the most.

It is right that most attention is given in the report to the dire consequences of what it calls Islamist hyper-extremism, but if I had just one concern about the report’s content it would be that it largely overlooks that hyper-extremism exists in other expressions of religion, albeit involving far fewer people and thus having far more restricted detrimental consequences. I would argue, for example, that some Buddhists in Myanmar, some Christians in the United States, some Hindus in India, some Jews in Israel and some Sikhs in the Punjab manifest hyper-extremism which sometimes leads to persecution against the despised other comparable to that which derives from Muslim hyper-extremists. Don’t misunderstand me, however. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Sikh hyper-extremists do not pose anything like the same threat that Muslim hyper-extremists pose, and I very much doubt that they ever will. But exist they do and the report could have done more to expose what I regard as a worrying trend in all the world’s major expressions of religious belief.

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Of course, the other thing the report might have discussed productively is what sustains such extremism. It has long been my contention that religious extremism is above all predicated on one or more of the following: literal understandings of scripture long past its best-by date; misleading knowledge of the lives and teachings of authority figures within each faith, especially authority figures so long dead that very little can be said about them with any degree of certainty; and the self-evidently daft idea that any religion might be the only source of truth, wisdom, knowledge and/or understanding. As we know, all religions are human inventions and most religions discourage critical analysis and informed debate based on hard evidence, and it is because of these realities that most expressions of religion find themselves susceptible to manipulation by extremists. Thus, how refreshing it would have been had the report admitted that extremism exists in the Roman Catholic Church itself and that, as a consequence, the Church must reform itself to make it less likely for extremism in any shape or form to prosper.

These points apart, the report has much to commend it, which is why I quote so extensively from it.

Understanding God/gods (and other things).

Just as it is necessary to engage with the terms “dyophysite/diaphysite” and “miaphysite” if we wish to understand how Christians are encouraged to interpret the nature of Jesus, to understand the concept or character or nature of God, it is necessary to engage with “cataphatic” and “apophatic” theology.

Cataphatic theology seeks to characterise God positively, while its apophatic counterpart chooses the via negativa, approaching knowledge of God by understanding what God is not.

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

It is perhaps in Buddhism that apophatic interpretation is most often encountered in a so-called world religion, but such interpretation is not applied to the concept of God, of course. The Buddhist concept most often subject to apophatic interpretation is probably that of Nirvana (liberation), which Buddhists regularly define in ways that explain what it is definitely not (it is not Heaven or Paradise. Nor is it somewhere where the body and the soul will reunite and where those who attain Nirvana will secure all the material “rewards” they may have been denied during life on planet Earth. Nor is it somewhere where God or gods will be encountered, etc.). This said, it might be argued that the very thing Buddhists are encouraged to believe will transfer from one life form to another when the first life form dies, or that will escape from the potentially endless cycle of birth, life and rebirth because it has achieved enlightenment and thereby enters Nirvana, is itself subject to apophatic interpretation in so far as Buddhists are encouraged to call the thing “anatta” or “anatman”, terms often translated to mean “not the atman or soul”. The term “atman” is well-known to Hindus, among others, and the term “soul” to Jewish people, Christians and Muslims, among others. The terms “anatta” and “anatman” are also translated to mean “the absence of self” or “not-self” or “the absence of a self or essence”.

Who can say for certainty what form the divine assumes (if the divine exists at all, of course)?

Who can say for certainty what form the divine assumes (if the divine exists at all, of course)?

Apophatic theology works in this way. Subtract from discussion or definitions everything that does not do justice to a concept until what remains says it all. But do such reductive methods lead to understandings of such a modest or mundane or generalised nature that you are left wondering what all the fuss is about? However, perhaps this is not a bad thing. Reason and rationality may have more chance of thriving than mystery and misinformation!

There is another thing worth considering. Even where apophatic interpretation, as in Buddhism, plays a key role in reaching conclusions about genuinely or seemingly important matters, satisfactory answers to questions do not always (ever?) emerge. For example, do Buddhists broadly agree what Nirvana or anatta/anatman are? Most emphatically not.

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?