Tag Archives: Israel

Orthodox Judaism and the ordination of women rabbis.

Here is one interpretation of a development of considerable importance:

On 22nd March 2009, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox synagogue in the USA, held a formal ceremony officially giving Ms. Sara Hurwitz the title “Maharat – Manhigah Halakhtit Ruchanit Toranit”. However, some Orthodox leaders, such as the Rabbinical Council of America and the Agudath Israel of America, opposed this move and said it was not in keeping with Orthodoxy; in any case, Hurwitz was not given the title “rabbi”. However, in June 2015, Lila Kagedan was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat and, in keeping with newer policies, was given the freedom to choose her own title, and she chose to be addressed as “rabbi”.

June 2015 was historic for Jewish women. Orthodox women in both Israel and New York were ordained as clergy – although with a variety of titles from maharat to rabba to rabbi, but effectively all as rabbis. While Yeshivat Maharat is now the veteran institution with a few years of experience at this, Yeshivat Har’el appears more liberal in calling women “rabbi” or “rabba”. Israeli Orthodoxy thus effectively caught up with and then surpassed American Orthodoxy, creating a bizarre and beautiful historic twist in which organisations seem to be racing against one another to demonstrate the greatest commitment to women’s advancement in religious Judaism.

The advancement of Orthodox women is part of a historical narrative around women’s leadership in the Jewish world. All the denominations have roots in the conception of Jewish leadership as exclusive men’s clubs. The fight for women’s inclusion in the rabbinate began in earnest with the feminist movement of the 1960s – although in reality it began much earlier. The first Reform woman rabbi, Sally Preisand, was ordained in 1972. The first woman Reconstructionist rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, was ordained in 1974. The first Conservative woman rabbi, Amy Ellberg, was ordained in 1985. The first woman rabbi in Israel, Naamah Kelman, was ordained in 1992. Three women received private ordination from Orthodox rabbis before Yeshivat Maharat opened: Mimi Feigelson in 1994, Evelyn Goodman-Tau in 2000 and Haviva Ner-David in 2004.

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Here is a second interpretation of the same historically significant development:

On 16th June 2015, three Jewish women were ordained as Orthodox members of the clergy in the inaugural graduation ceremony of Yeshivat Maharat, which bills itself on its website as “the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities”. But even though Yeshivat Maharat also claims to be “actualising the potential of Orthodox women as rabbinic leaders”, its female graduates will not be granted the title of “rabbi”. Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold and Abby Brown Scheier will instead be ordained with the title of “maharat”, a Hebrew acronym for “manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit toranit”, or “female leader of Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah”.

While the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements of Judaism have been ordaining women since 1972, 1974 and 1985 respectively, the Orthodox community has resisted this development, except in a few unofficial cases in Israel. Orthodox women have completed courses of study in Torah and Jewish learning, but they have typically been granted non-clerical titles, such as “yoetzet halakha” or “halakhic adviser”.

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

I remember reading many years ago in a book devoted to feminist appraisals of religion around the globe that, once Orthodox Judaism opens its doors to women studying the Torah just as men do, it will be impossible to resist the pressure to ensure that women in Orthodox Jewish communities eventually became rabbis. This is fascinating stuff. Let us hope this has a beneficial effect on other expressions of religion still far too patriarchal in their outlook.

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“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 radicalisation, 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 destabilising 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 recognised 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 institutionalisation 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 categorised 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 categorisation. 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 characterised 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 characterised 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-stabilisation 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, USA

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 interpretations of scripture long past its best-by date; misleading information about the lives and teachings of religious authority figures, especially religious 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 from it so extensively.

Islamist Extremism: does the problem lie with the Qur’an or with Muslim ignorance about reality itself?

Muslim and non-Muslim scholars agree that the Qur’an contains over a hundred verses that urge Muslims to engage in war with non-believers/infidels, etc. for the sake of Islamic rule, or that examine what those who engage in such war (the lesser jihad, the violent jihad against real or imagined enemies) can expect once dead (however, some Muslim scholars insist that over 160 qur’anic verses relate to jihad alone, but the verses address the greater as well as the lesser jihad, the former relating to the perfection of the individual through the suppression of immoral thoughts and actions and the cultivation of moral thoughts and actions). Some of the verses are quite graphic, with commands to chop off limbs and heads and kill non-believers, etc. wherever they hide. Muslims who do not join the war are called “hypocrites” and warned that Allah will send them to Hell if they do not assist with the massacres.

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Unlike nearly all the Torah/Old Testament verses about violence, many verses about violence in the Qur’an are open-ended, which means that their relevance is not confined to the time that inspired them. They are part of the eternal, unchanging word and expectation of Allah.

However, some of the violent passages are more ambiguous than might be expected of a so-called perfect book deriving from a god defined as compassionate and forgiving. Such ambiguity allows many Muslims the opportunity to decide for themselves whether the passages will be obeyed or ignored.

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Unfortunately, there are very few qur’anic verses about peace or respect and tolerance for diversity to abrogate or balance out the many verses that call for non-believers, etc. to be fought and subdued until they accept humiliation, convert to Islam or are killed (even Muslims struggle to identify more than about twenty such verses. Moreover, most such verses relate to peace existing where Islam prevails as the sole or dominant religion rather than to, say, unconditional tolerance and respect for people subscribing to “other” religions and beliefs no matter where such people live). Muhammad’s own martial legacy and that of his companions, combined with the emphasis in the Qur’an on obedience and the use of force and violence, have produced “a trail of blood and tears across world history”, to quote from just one study about this matter deriving from a Muslim source.

Based on the content of the recent (November 2015) Channel 4 documentary entitled “ISIS: the British women supporters unveiled”, and reports deriving from Muslims and non-Muslims alike after attending meetings led by Muslims of a moderate disposition, debate and discussion among Muslims at the present time generally takes one of two forms. On the one hand, Muslims of a moderate/peaceful disposition allege that those who engage in terror and/or the indiscriminate murder of innocent people are not “true” or “real” Muslims (they ARE “true” or “real” Muslims, of course, but Muslims that most Muslims would prefer to distance themselves from) and/or that Islam is really a religion of peace and the terrorists do not understand their religion properly (Islam is NOT at heart a religion of peace, but a religion of submission to the will of a god called Allah, who in all probability does not exist, and the terrorists and those who back them know only too well a highly selective interpretation of what Islamic scripture requires of its followers). Alternatively, Muslim extremists engage in loose thinking of another kind that also cannot be sustained once a little critical evaluation is applied to the statements, statements which invariably relate to despised non-Muslims or equally despised fellow Muslims who are not part of their confessional group.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Thus, in the documentary identified above, a British Muslim woman, who was once a significant player in now-banned Al-Muhajiroun, describes how “filthy Jews” are responsible for the murder of Muslims/ Palestinians while ignoring that far more Muslims/Palestinians have been murdered by Muslims than by Israelis and/or Jewish people (and no one in her audience corrects her. As for other examples of Muslims murdering Muslims on an almost inconceivable scale, look no further than Syria, where, in the last five years, the vast majority of the 250,000 Syrians who have lost their lives have done so at the hands of Sunnis and Alawites, or look no further than Iraq where Sunnis and Shias have fought each other for over a decade in a brutal cycle of revenge killing. Some examples of revenge killing have claimed victims in their hundreds). The woman is also heard condemning the “Crusader armies” of the West that “invade” Muslim lands although Muslims themselves often demand that the West intervenes to stop one group of Muslims butchering another, or Western intervention is right and proper to safeguard non-Muslims (e.g. the Yazidis) from genocide at the hands of their Muslim neighbours (the Yazidis had to be safeguarded from genocide by Sunni Muslims). Moreover, the “Crusader armies” of the West never demand of local Muslims or others that they convert to Christianity, but Muslims frequently demand that non-Muslims (e.g. the Yazidis) convert to Islam if they want to avoid death.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

None of the distasteful drivel that the woman above shared with her audience was questioned by those present, even though just about everything she said manifested a complete disregard for what any sensible or informed person knows to be the case. Moreover, she shared her sometimes racist diatribe while children and young people of impressionable age played and walked around. Nor did anyone in the audience point out the patently obvious when she began to celebrate the benefits of living in the Islamic State where sharia prevails: the great majority of people in any nation state that has its legal code shaped by sharia will encounter intolerable levels of disadvantage and discrimination. You don’t believe me? Think Saudi Arabia, think Qatar, think Iran, think Sudan, and think what life was like when the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan. Now consider how dire things are – or, in the case of Afghanistan under the Taliban, were – in each of the nation states just listed for girls and women, for non-Muslims and for Muslims who do not subscribe to the same beliefs and practices as the dominant confessional group. Imperfect though they may sometimes be, legal codes predicated on humankind’s exercise of open-ended discussion, informed debate, trial and error and choice through the ballot box will always be superior to legal codes predicated on statements attributed to a god who in all likelihood does not exist.

Is religion a force for good in the world?

On 26th November 2010, Christopher Hitchens, the well-known atheist, and Tony Blair, the one-time British prime minister and Roman Catholic, took part in the Munk Debate addressing the question, “Is religion a force for good in the world?” The debate resulted in a Black Swan book entitled “Hitchens vs. Blair” published in 2011.

Sadly, Tony Blair’s contribution to the debate amounted to little more than a lot of hot air and wishful thinking, so much so that, below, I do not quote from his contributions (those of you keen to find out what he said will have to access the Black Swan book itself). Instead, I quote from Hitchens who had far more compelling things to share with the audience.

What is twisted and immoral in the faith mentality… is… its consideration of the human being as raw material and its fantasy of purity. Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes humans objects in a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well. I’ll repeat that: created sick and then ordered to be well. And a celestial dictatorship is installed over us to supervise this, a kind of divine North Korea. Greedy and exigent. Greedy for uncritical praise from dawn to dusk and swift to punish the original sins with which it so tenderly gifted us in the very first place. However, let no one say there is no cure. Salvation is offered. Redemption, indeed, is offered at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties…

Religion… makes extraordinary claims. Though I would maintain that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, rather daringly religion provides not even ordinary evidence for its extraordinary supernatural claims. Therefore we might begin by asking… is it good for the world to appeal to our credulity and not to our scepticism? Is it good for the world to worship a deity that takes sides in wars and human affairs, and to appeal to our terror of death? To preach guilt and shame about the sexual act and the sexual relationship – is it good for the world?… (Should religion) terrify children with the image of hell and eternal punishment, not just for themselves, but for their parents and those they love? Perhaps worst of all, to consider women an inferior creation – is that good for the world?…

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Religion forces nice people to do unkind things and also makes intelligent people say stupid things. Handed a small baby for the first time, is it your first reaction to think, “Beautiful, almost perfect. Now please hand me the sharp stone for its genitalia that I may do the work of the Lord.” As the great American physicist Steven Weinberg has very aptly put it, in the ordinary moral universe the good will do the best they can, the worst will do the worst they can, but if you want to make good people do wicked things, you’ll need religion… 

The Middle East is the birthplace of monotheism, so you might think it was filled with refulgence and love and peace. Everyone is roughly agreed… that there should be enough room for two states (Israel and Palestine), for two people (Jews and Arabs) in the same land… Why can’t we get it? We can’t get it because the parties of God have a veto on it and everybody knows that this is true. Because of the divine promises made about this territory there will never be peace, there will never be compromise. There will instead be misery, shame and tyranny, and people will kill each other’s children for ancient books and caves and relics, and who is going to say that this is good for the world?… 

No one was arguing that religion should or will die out of the world. All I’m arguing is that it would be better of there was a great deal more by the way of an outbreak of secularism… 

Name me one religion that stands for the empowerment of women or ever has. Wherever you look in the world and you try to remove the shackles of ignorance and disease and stupidity for women, it is invariably the clerisy that stands in the way…

I would hope (Roman) Catholic charities are doing a lot of work in Africa. If I was a member of a church that had preached that HIV/Aids was not as bad as condoms, I’d be putting some conscience money into Africa… 

The injunction not to do to another what would be repulsive if done to yourself (an injunction so often thought to lie at the heart of the monotheistic religions of the Middle East) is found in the analects of Confucius… But that truth is found in the heart of every person in this room. Everybody knows that much. We don’t require divine permission to know right from wrong…

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

Could religion sometimes be a good thing after all?… What would religion have to do to get that far?… It would have to give up all supernatural claims… the threat of the reward of heaven or the terror of punishment in hell… miracles… the idea of an eternal, unalterable authority figure who was judge, jury and executioner, against whom there could be no appeal and who wasn’t finished with you even when you died. 

There’s something about religion that is, very often in its original monotheistic, Judaistic form, actually an expression of exclusivism. “This is our God. This is a God who has made a covenant with our tribe.” You’ll find it all over the place… It’s always struck me as slightly absurd for there to be a special church for the English people. It strikes me as positively sinister that Pope Benedict should want to restore the (Roman) Catholic Church to the claim it used to make, which is that it is the one true church and that all other forms of Christianity are, as he still puts it, defective and inadequate. How this idea helps to build your future world of co-operation and understanding is not known to me.

Religion… is a surrender of reason in favour of faith. It’s a fantastic force multiplier, a tremendous intensifier of all things that are in fact divisive rather than inclusive, and that’s why its history is so stained with blood – and not just with crimes against humanity, but with crimes against womanhood, crimes against reason and science, or attacks upon medicine and enlightenment.

Four hundred years and more people (in Northern Ireland)… have been killing each other’s children based on what kind of Christian they were and sending each other’s children, in rhetoric, to hell… Northern Ireland… the most remarkable place in Northern Europe for unemployment, for ignorance, for poverty and for, I would say, stupidity too…

Rwanda is the most Christian country in Africa… Genocide was actually preached from the pulpits of the (Roman) Catholic Church. Many of the people we are still looking for, who were involved in that genocide, are hiding in the Vatican along with a number of other people who should be given up to international justice right away.

The United States has a unique constitution that forbids the government to take sides in any religious matter or to sponsor the church or adopt any form of faith itself… Thomas Jefferson wrote… “Rest assured that there will ever be a wall of separation between the church and the state in this country.” The maintenance of that wall, which people like me have to defend every day against those who want garbage taught in schools and pseudo-science in the name of Christ… is the guarantee of democracy…

Christus statue, North Visitor Centre, Salt Lake City, Utah

Christus statue, North Visitor Centre, Salt Lake City, Utah

 (We can all get along fine) as long as you don’t want your religion taught to my children in school, given a government subsidy or imposed on me by violence… They say it (religion) is the way to happiness. Why doesn’t it make the religious happy?… Because they won’t be happy until you believe it (their religion) too. And why is that? Because that’s what their holy books tell them… Do these texts say that until every knee bows in the name of Jesus there will be no happiness? Of course it’s what these texts say. It isn’t only a private belief.  It is, and always has been, a threat to the idea of a peaceful community and very often, as now, a palpable one…  

The Methodist Church of the United States adamantly opposed the liberation of Iraq, and the Vatican adamantly opposed the liberation of Iraq, as it had the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. It wasn’t the first time that a sort of sickly Christian passivity has been preached in the face of fascist dictatorship… Given the number of Muslims put to the sword by Saddam Hussein’s regime, it’s quite extraordinary to see the extent to which Muslim fundamentalists flocked to his defence… It’s those who would have kept a cannibal and a Caligula and a professional sadist in power who have the explaining to do (about the second Iraq war)…

(The Israeli and Palestinian problem is so complicated because of) the idea that God intervenes in real estate and territorial disputes… This is what I mean when I say that religion is a real danger to the survival of civilisation, and that it makes this banal regional and national dispute, which, if reduced to its proportions, is a nothingness. (Religion) makes that (problem) not just lethally insoluble, but is drawing in other contending parties who openly wish for an apocalyptic conclusion to it, as also bodied forth in the same scriptural texts – in other words, that it will be the death of us all, the end of humanity, the end of the whole suffering veil of tears, which is what they secretly want. This is a failure of the parties of God, and it’s not something that happens because people misinterpret the texts. It happens because they believe them, that’s the problem…

If we give up religion we discover what we know already, whether we are religious or not, which is that we are somewhat imperfectly evolved primates on a very small planet in a very unimportant suburb of the solar system that is itself a negligible part of a very rapidly expanding and blowing apart cosmic phenomenon. These conclusions… are a great deal more awe-inspiring than what’s contained in any burning bush or horse that flies overnight to Jerusalem or any of that. It’s a great deal more awe-inspiring, as is any look through the Hubble telescope…

Awe and wonder do not depend on superstition or the supernatural

Awe and wonder do not depend on superstition or the supernatural

The question is how to keep the numinous, the transcendent, I’ll go so far as the ecstatic, in art and in our own emotions and in our finer feelings, and to distinguish it precisely from superstition and the supernatural, which are designed to make us fearful and afraid and servile, and which sometimes succeed only to well… 

(Why is it that many renowned people embraced and then rejected communism – André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, etc. – despite its admirable aspirations?) Because it’s not worth the sacrifice of freedom that it implies. It implies that great things can only be done if you’ll place yourself under an infallible leadership, and once a decision has been made you are bound by it. You might conceivably notice where I’m going here… It (communism, and the same can be said about religion) wasn’t worth the sacrifice of mental, intellectual and moral freedom…

I don’t think someone is religious unless they have faith in what St. Paul calls the evidence of things not seen – in other words, the supernatural  or supervising deity, presence, force, who requires and expects certain kinds of propitiation.

A religious person… (has) special permission… to talk nonsense.

Mother Teresa… her teachings and entire lifetime of work were exerted to make sure that women could not get hold of the means of family planning, so that the effect she had on prolonging and entrenching and deepening poverty and disease hugely outweighed any good she might have done if she’d spent the money she raised on charity – which, as it turns out, she did not do anyway… And then you simply have to ask anyone if they know of a religion – and not just a monotheistic one – that does not, according to the texts, consider women to be an inferior creation.

What one has to avoid is certainty. The Socratic principle is that you’re only educated to the extent that you understand how little you know.

What I think would be nice is if people realised, for example, that a lot of devotional music is written by non-believers. I suppose Verdi is the best example.

There’s no doubt that Judaism is much nearer to being philosophy than religion, or rather much nearer to that claim than Christianity or Islam are, and that it is attractive for that reason.

I think part of having being a marxist meant I could not help noticing how many thinkers and writers of the left were Jews. And I also used to find any hint of anti-Semitism absolutely repulsive… My attitude toward Zionism had always been… that I very much doubt it to be the liberation of the Jewish people.

Auschwitz, Poland

Auschwitz, Poland

The reason for (anti-Semitism’s) virulence is religious… If the events (leading up to Jesus’ execution) as described took place at all – and I think that something like that did, that some charismatic rabbi was executed for blasphemy – then the Romans did it, but it was the Jews who thought, “Here’s another false claimant (saying they are the messiah).” They were the only ones who knew him, really, and they spat on him and turned away and for that they’re not going to be forgiven. That’s why it took the (Roman Catholic) Church until 1964 to stop saying that all Jews were personally responsible (for Jesus’ execution)… It’s the same with the Muslims. The first people who meet Muhammad are the Jews, and at first some of them are excited, thinking maybe this is the messiah. But he is not, they decide. Private time with the prophet is something that every Muslim in the world would give their all for… and this privilege was granted to a group who turned their backs.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

2,700 people listened to the debate. The pre-debate vote was 25% in favour of the resolution and 55% against, with 20% undecided. The final vote was 32% in favour of the resolution and 68% against, with no one undecided.

Sadly, Christopher Hitchens is now dead. His memory and work live on in many books and countless articles. Perhaps his most accessible (and controversial and entertaining) work is “God is not Great”, which dates from 2007.

I do not agree with everything Hitchens says in “Hitchens vs. Blair” – if he were alive today and knew I agreed with everything he said, Hitchens would have nothing but contempt for me – but most of what he says “is right on the money”, as our friends across the pond would say.     

Religious people behaving badly (and far, far worse), three.

One.

At last, attention of a popular as well as a scholarly kind is being given to the innocuous-sounding World Congress Of Families (WCF), an Illinois-based alliance of conservative religious groups (to date, most such groups exist within the embrace of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Why is the WCF a manifestation of religious people behaving badly? Because it leads a global legislative and public relations campaign against LGBTQ and reproductive rights. It is listened to far too readily in Africa and Russia, two parts of the globe where LGBTQ and reproductive rights are already most under threat. For anyone who wants confirmation that the activities of the WCF must be challenged, type “World Congress of Families” into your search engine and, if short of time, examine articles only by Political Research Associates, Right Wing Watch and the Human Rights Campaign. You will get the full picture very quickly.

Two.

It is almost certain (even the Israeli government believes that what follows is true) that the fatal arson attack on 31st July 2015 that left eighteen-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsheh dead in his family’s West Bank home was carried out by Jewish settler extremists (whether Hassidic or Haredi settler extremists we cannot, at this point, tell, but, if I were pushed to hazard a guess, I would say responsibility lay with Haredi settlers).

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

Three.

A devout Jewish protester armed with a knife ran amok during Jerusalem’s Gay Pride March stabbing six people – one woman seriously – in the worst incident of homophobic violence in the city for a decade.

According to eyewitnesses, the attacker, named by a police spokesperson as Yishai Schlissel, had hidden in a supermarket and waited for the march to arrive. Witnesses described seeing Schlissel, “an ultra-Orthodox Jewish male” who had been released from prison three weeks earlier after serving a sentence for stabbing several people at a gay pride parade in 2005, run screaming through the crowd in a central Jerusalem street stabbing people at random before being overpowered by police.

A few days after the stabbings, Shira Banki, aged sixteen, died of the wounds inflicted by Yishai Schlissel.

Four.

Leaders in the Methodist Church in the UK have apologised for failing to protect children and adults following nearly two thousand reports of physical and sexual abuse dating back to the 1950s.

When people feel that members of a religious group behave in a reprehensible manner (e.g. priests in the Roman Catholic Church sexually abuse children and young people), expressions of outrage can be violent. Malaga, Spain

When people feel that members of a religious group behave in a reprehensible manner (e.g. priests in the Roman Catholic Church sexually abuse children and young people), expressions of outrage can be violent. Malaga, Spain

Five. 

A former minister who held one of the most senior roles in the North-East Anglican Church is facing trial for a string of serious sex offences dating back to the 1970s. The Venerable Granville Gibson, aged seventy-nine, former Archdeacon of Auckland, County Durham, has appeared at Newton Aycliffe Magistrates Court charged with eight offences in total relating to two alleged victims, both of whom were teenagers at the time.

Six.

The Islamic State continues to deny Muslim women under its control the same rights as Muslim men and exploits non-Muslim women as sex slaves. Moreover, Yazidis who have escaped from territory ruled by Islamic State militants confirm that Yazidi males have been murdered in substantial numbers. Despite the brutality of the regime, considerable numbers of men and smaller numbers of women travel from Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia to lend their support to the Islamic State. Worries about the Islamic State and religious groups almost as extreme are so acute in the UK that David Cameron, the prime minister, announced a five-year plan designed to combat extremism and radicalisation.

Seven. 

Mohammed Fakhri Al-Khabass of Middlesbrough is believed to have persuaded at least sixteen medical students to travel from Sudan to Syria to join the Islamic State.

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Eight.

Matthew Syed, a Muslim, has written in a passionate but informed manner about the need for Muslims to address the misogyny that exists in some expressions of Islam, misogyny that makes scandals such as the sexual abuse of children and young women in Rotherham more likely to occur.

But…

Sajda Mughal, the only known Muslim survivor of the 2005 7/7 terrorist attacks in London, is given an OBE for services to community cohesion and interfaith dialogue.

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

The “Holocaust” in India perpetrated against Hindus by Muslims over a very extended period of time.

In recent years, growing space has been given in publications in India and the Indian diaspora to what is sometimes called the “Holocaust” directed against Hindus by Muslims during and following the Muslim conquest of large parts of India.

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

What can be said with certainty is that a vast number of Hindus, at least a few million, were murdered by Muslims when they invaded the Indian sub-continent, colonised vast swathes of the fragmented region, sought to impose their will on the conquered people, and tyrannised non-Muslims into converting to Islam, especially if they were not “people of the book” such as Jews or Christians. Beside the millions of Hindus who were murdered, sometimes in horrifically imaginative ways, Hindu houses of worship were destroyed, thousands of Hindu women and children were raped, and thousands of Hindu women and children were kidnapped. Kidnapped Hindu women were forcibly married to Muslims or exploited as sex slaves, and kidnapped Hindu children were raised as Muslims. Contemporary or near-contemporary accounts tell of whole towns and cities where their inhabitants were slaughtered and of thousands of prisoners of war put to the sword, and Muslims boasted in writing of times when the blood of “infidels” flowed so freely that rivers and streams turned red. There is no escaping the fact that Hindu suffering under Muslim rule was often of the most bestial kind imaginable, so much so that Muslim rule amounted to one long crime against humanity for most of the time Muslims dominated large parts of the Indian sub-continent.

But it was not only Hindus who suffered when Muslim rule extended over large parts of modern-day India; Sikhs suffered regular persecution and massacre at the hands of Muslims, so much so that it became necessary for Guru Gobind Singh to encourage Sikhs to develop their martial skills to a very high level, skills they refined to such a degree that they soon became known as warrior-saints.

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The Sikhs speak of two ghallughara in particular, the Lesser Ghallughara of 1746 and the Greater Ghallughara of 1762. The term “ghallughara” is usually translated to mean “massacre or holocaust”. The 1746 events appear to have led to the death of a few thousand Sikhs, but the 1762 events led to the murder of about 30,000 men, women and children. These figures seem quite small when set against the murder of Hindus over a much greater length of time, but it is estimated that, in the 1750s, there were about only 100,000 Sikhs altogether, so almost a third of all Sikhs may have lost their lives in 1762.

It would be fair to say that, long after the events described above, Hindus and Sikhs co-opted the Greek word “holocaust” to describe the dreadful crimes against humanity that their forebears suffered. They probably co-opted the word to ensure that people in the West understood that they suffered mass murders in the past not dissimilar to that suffered by the Jewish people during world war two. However, the term “holocaust” has, for perfectly understandable reasons, become inextricably linked with the attempted destruction of the Jewish people during world war two and it is therefore correct to look for an alternative term to describe what happened to the Hindus and Sikhs under Muslim rule. Myself, I would incline toward the term “genocide” even though the term was not applied to the mass murder of people for ethnic or religious reasons until Raphael Lemkin first used it in 1944 in a book that helped to shape the content of the Genocide Convention of 1948. Genocide has a very precise meaning in international law and, based on its meaning, an excellent case can be made that Muslim persecution of Hindus and Sikhs in India amounted to the attempted destruction of the whole or part of a people, this being an essential “component” of genocide.

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

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

I am aware that there are some Hindu and Sikh writers who, like me, are reluctant to use the term “holocaust” to describe these terrible events, even though they, like me, realise that a vast number of people were murdered, in the case of the Hindus, over a very long period of time. Some of their reluctance derives from the fact that among the people most enthusiastic about publicising the so-called “Hindu Holocaust” are Hindu nationalists. Many Hindu nationalists are keen to foster hostility between Hindus and Muslims. They are also convinced that non-Indian/non-Hindu influences on the sub-continent are detrimental to the well-being of the Hindu masses. With the BJP now in power in Delhi, the Hindu nationalists feel that their time has come. Some Hindu nationalists have already directed their hatred of non-Indian/non-Hindu influences against India’s very peaceful Christian minority.

This is how I signed off a long exchange of emails with two Sikhs about the matters above:

Very wise words, Nirmal. As you know, I share your concern when the term “holocaust” is applied to the persecution and massacre of Hindus by Muslims in the past, although there can be little doubt that, over a very long period of time, millions died. A focus on the “Hindu Holocaust” can easily be exploited to fuel Hindu nationalism, which has already shown itself to be worryingly intolerant of non-Hindus of many persuasions. Research about mass murders in the past is important and necessary (and mass murders perpetrated by Muslims in the past probably reinforce the notion that there has always been something deeply troubling about mainstream Islam, especially mainstream Sunni Islam, since it burst out of Arabia in the 7th century CE. Note, for example, how quickly Christian communities in North Africa fell into decline and then, with the exception of the Copts in Egypt, disappeared altogether, and how the same rapid “disappearance” afflicted Christian communities in vast swathes of central Asia), but such knowledge and understanding can be used by those who have bad intentions to persecute people today, even though people today have nothing to do with the crimes of the past.

However, what you say confirms in my mind  that, until we address the crimes of the past, we cannot hope to avoid similar crimes in the present or future. This is more than merely remembering the crimes of the past; this is facing history and ourselves and admitting that our forebears often committed shameful crimes against humanity. Stalemates and mutual incomprehension prevail when we bury our heads in the sand, and, by failing to face history and ourselves, we risk re-enacting the mistakes of the past. Witness, for example, the endless cycle of tragic but futile violence in the Middle East, violence that has effectively destroyed for at least a generation one of the region’s most interesting and beautiful nation states, Syria, and the tragic but futile violence that makes it increasingly difficult for the Israelis and the Palestinians to come to an agreement acceptable to everyone concerned. For Palestinians, the situation in 2015 is, if anything, worse than it was when their problems began with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. But everyone associated with the conflict has lost sight of the problems that existed in 1948, problems that have led to sixty-seven years of regional instability, conflict and needless suffering.

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

God/the Divine/the Supreme Being is great? Not so, otherwise He/She/It would have brought people to their senses many years ago. Correction. He/she/it would have brought people to their senses many millennia ago.

Religious people behaving badly (and far, far worse), two.

I must begin with an apology. I have not uploaded a post to this blog for quite a long time because of a fortnight’s trip to parts of Spain rarely visited by foreign tourists; because of starting a new blog entitled “Hey: you started it!”, which reflects sometimes very angrily on the propaganda that passes as debate leading up to the forthcoming May general election in the United Kingdom; and because the last few weeks have been dominated by lots of religious people behaving very badly (and such very bad behaviour can be extremely depressing, so much so that one’s will to write is compromised). But time marches on and, to ensure we do not forget forever some of that very bad behaviour, the briefest and most select update of where we have got in recent weeks.

Jesus

One.

Men claiming allegiance to the Islamic State beheaded twenty-one Coptic Christian Egyptian nationals in Libya. The Coptic Christians had gone to Libya seeking work.

Two.

Sunni Muslim “suicide bombers” murdered over a hundred Shia Muslims in mosques in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, during Friday midday prayers.

Three.

Gunmen said later by others to support the Islamic State murdered over twenty people, most of whom are foreign tourists, when they visited one of Tunis city’s most renowned museums.

Four.

Benjamin Netanyahu resorted to “racist” scaremongering, according to his Zionist Union rival, Isaac Herzog, to encourage voters in Israel to support his right-wing Likud party. Likud emerged as the largest single party in the Knesset but is dependent on extremist religious parties to form a government.

Five. 

Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq have threatened to destroy world heritage sites and museum artefacts of civilisations that are not Islamic. Evidence suggests that artefacts in Mosul Museum have been broken up and parts of the ancient cities of Nimrud, Hatra and Khorsabad bulldozed. Islamic State allies in Libya say that they will destroy “unIslamic” heritage sites in the parts of North Africa where they seize control. Libya possesses some remarkable ruined Roman cities which, for obvious reasons, have not been accessible to foreign tourists for many years and are therefore not as widely known as other less impressive Roman cities in other nation states.

Six.

Christians in India report that, since the BJP, the Hindu Nationalist Party, came to power in Delhi, the number of attacks on Christians and Christian property has risen alarmingly. A nun aged seventy was raped in Bengal only a week or two ago.

DSC00170

Seven.

In recent years, Burma has witnessed the emergence of Buddhist nationalists, many of whom take their inspiration from Ashin Wirathu, a monk in Mandalay. The nationalists have targeted the minority Muslim community because they are regarded as a corrupting foreign influence. The nationalists warn that the Muslims will take over the country if given the chance and that they are already raping women. They conveniently ignore that many Muslim Rohingyas in the west of the country have never been granted citizenship and have been the victims of persecution for decades. Many Rohingyas have lived in camps since communal violence in 2012 destroyed their towns and villages. The camps themselves have been attacked by Buddhist nationalists and hundreds of Muslims killed. There has also been violence against Muslims in Mandalay and other large population centres.

Eight.

The following began life as an article in the excellent National Secular Society Newsletter. I have amended and edited it ever so slightly.

As the full scale of the British establishment’s cover-up of child sexual abuse becomes increasingly apparent, is it not time that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) made public its reasons for dropping the investigation into Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor twelve years ago?
It is hard to know where to begin when discussing the issue of child sexual abuse in Britain. As Home Secretary Theresa May said recently, the abuse is “woven, covertly, into the fabric of British society”. She warned that “what the country doesn’t yet appreciate is the true scale of that abuse”.
The almost daily revelations suggest collusion between the different arms of the establishment to protect the great and the good from investigation, either for abuse or for covering it up – police, priests, politicians and performers are all implicated one way or another. Beyond the police, the CPS is another branch of law enforcement that has some questions to answer. Firstly, in the light of all that has been revealed in the intervening twelve years, why did it instruct Sussex police to drop a 2003 investigation into the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK? Secondly, why did the CPS decide that its reasons remain “confidential”?
This case related to decisions made by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor when he was the bishop in the Roman Catholic diocese of Arundel and Brighton between 1977 and 2000, and centred on how he handled allegations of child rape by priests, including child rape by the notorious Father Michael Hill. At the time, the chairperson of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, which was dealing with a number of claims against various orders of the Roman Catholic Church, called Murphy-O’Connor’s role in the case “indefensible” and demanded his resignation. According to a “Catholic Herald” report at the time, a CPS spokesman advised that the details of the advice given to Sussex police to abandon the case against the cardinal were “confidential”. The article also claims that the cardinal was never formally contacted by the police during their investigation, although the police had contacted the CPS at least twice for formal advice on how to proceed.
Here, therefore, was a situation in which a high profile figure implicated in a child abuse scandal was never contacted by detectives over several months, during which the police asked the CPS for guidance on how to proceed. Eventually the CPS instructed the police to drop the case and declared their reasons for this decision not open to public scrutiny.
By any measure this cannot now be a tenable position, given all the subsequent revelations of child rape on a sometimes industrial scale in religious institutions both Anglican and Roman Catholic, and what is now being exposed by way of an establishment cover-up. There is also the related matter of a number of Sussex police officers being investigated for gross misconduct over investigations into a complaint about an assault by Jimmy Savile in the early 1970s. It may or may not be relevant that Savile was a devout Roman Catholic, but it would be no surprise to discover that such a public media figure had easy access to Roman Catholic institutions in Sussex as elsewhere. Publicity pictures of Savile with leading cardinals and clerics are widely available to lend support to this view.

SONY DSC

But…

St. John’s Church of England Primary School in Darlington is taking part in Stonewall’s Primary School Champions programme, which educates children about gay rights and the harmful effects of homophobia, and the Church of England has a female bishop (although the latter is old news now, I guess. But old news is often better than new news, sadly).

Yes: there is much to be grateful for, don’t you think?