Tag Archives: Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Concluding reflections on whether God exists, etc.

As you can imagine, discussions about God/gods (and whether it or they exist) have continued since the last post was uploaded, but, as is so often the case when the topic is discussed, very little has been said that is either novel or convincing. However, the two contributions below offer some worthwhile reflection, although, as with the last post devoted to the subject, I am not in agreement with everything written. The first contribution derives from someone who engaged with the debate from quite early on and the second contribution derives from a historian with an unusually perceptive understanding of things to do with religion and belief.

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

Morning, S. I hope the confusion about atheists and agnostics has been resolved!!!!

Below, I offer comment on your most recent email. You have certainly posed some important questions about what God/the Divine/the Supreme Being is, and what powers/influence God, etc. has (if any). 

S: the quote from the Guru Granth Sahib (“God created Nature and pervades it”) interests/concerns me. If by “Nature” the Guru Granth Sahib means the universe and everything within it, there is no problem with the idea that God created it in so far as the idea is found in most expressions of religion (God the creator of everything, etc.). But if God also “pervades it” (“Nature”. In other words, God is present in every sentient and insentient thing in the universe. By the way: based on the content of the Guru Granth Sahib and chats with Sikhs, this is exactly how I understand the Sikh “vision” of God – God is present in every sentient and insentient thing in the universe), is God passive or active? Deists insist God created the universe, then became indifferent to its future development/evolution. As a general rule, theists subscribe to the idea that God, having created the universe, remains active as it develops/evolves, or as time unfolds. 

One quote in the email (“He/God remains in a stable state and observes Nature with delight”) suggests that God is passive (not only is God “stable”, but God merely “observes Nature with delight”) – which, combined with the idea that humankind has free will, may explain all the problems that confront planet Earth when the problems are the result of human action/inaction (climate change, environmental degradation, famine, crime, religious intolerance, persecution, racism, war, genocide, etc.). But I imagine that Sikhs are encouraged to believe that God is somehow active as the universe develops/evolves, or that God is somehow active as time unfolds (e.g. as when you said to me some time ago that God saved you when you were a younger man in two life-threatening situations) – and, if this is so, God must therefore take responsibility not only for the good things that happen but also for the bad (the idea that God is present in every sentient and insentient thing reinforces the idea that God, if active at all, is at least partly responsible for everything that happens, whether good or bad). Add to this that you make the case for God being responsible for all the “natural laws” that explain so much about existence, then logic dictates that God must ALSO assume responsibility for the natural disasters that befall our planet (floods, earthquakes, volcanic activity, meteors that wipe out hundreds of animal species, etc.) in so far as such things are a direct result of the “natural laws” God is said to have created.

I quite like how you say at one point that the natural phenomena function on their own “without much interference from the Creator”. This implies God remains active as time unfolds, but that God restricts the degree to which God interferes/shapes things. You therefore clearly agree with the idea of a God still active in how time unfolds, but assign to God a role far inferior to that assigned to God in, say, the Abrahamic religions. Fair enough. If God exists at all, we may be dealing with a God who has powers that God choses not to fully exercise (the existence of human free will may be an aspect of God not exercising God’s powers to the full).

In the email I hear a case being made NOT for a fully passive nor fully active God as time unfolds, but a case for a God who acts only occasionally/sometimes/in certain circumstances. If this is the reality, it may explain why bad as well as good things happen all the time – but it also means that we cannot possibly know with any degree of certainty when a good or a bad outcome is due to God’s intervention. 

Many (most?) people agree that God is either all-powerful and therefore responsible for everything that happens in the universe, whether good or bad, or God is powerless to affect what happens in the universe (perhaps/probably because God does not exist). If the latter (God is powerless to affect what happens in the universe), we can no longer turn to God as an explanation for what happens. Instead, explanations for what happens might be that humankind exercises free will either responsibly or irresponsibly; natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic activity are the result of immutable laws of nature; and sentient creatures and insentient things behave in only particular/certain ways, and they behave in only particular/certain ways, not because of God (or, for humans at least, not because of ethical standards subscribed to for intuitive or intellectual reasons), but because of physics, chemistry and/or human and animal DNA. However, the idea suggested in your email, that God has limited powers/God chooses to exercise God’s powers in a limited way, may offer a compromise position that to some extent is supported by the evidence (there is no rhyme nor reason for many of the things that happen in the universe because there is no rhyme nor reason about whether God will be active or passive. Nor is there any rhyme or reason about whether God will act ethically or unethically on those occasions God is – or appears to be – active).

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ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

I agree completely with the suggestion that “humans have to assume responsibility for their own actions, actions which might lead to wars, which cause destruction and the loss of human life. To put it bluntly, humans are responsible for persecution, bombs and wars”, because I believe 100% that we have free will and can exercise free will either wisely or unwisely. But this nonetheless throws up a problem with what we have discussed above, the Sikh idea that God exists within everything in the universe and must therefore be present in every human being. If God is present in every human being and, as many people allege, God is capable only of good things, why does God not stop humans doing bad things? Yes, the free will argument might explain bad actions, but this must therefore mean that God lacks the power/influence so often claimed for God. Perhaps God lacks the power/influence for the reason suggested above: God limits the extent to which God interferes. But such an understanding of God leaves wide open the opportunity for people to assert that God therefore acts in inconsistent/arbitrary ways which at times have amoral or immoral consequences. Or, to put it another way, God sometimes acts with mercy and sometimes without mercy. There is no question that thousands of people who say they are inspired by the concept of God act in ways utterly devoid of mercy and/or in ways that most people deem ethically abhorrent (e.g. Muslims belonging to a vast number of extremist groups/organisations, Boko Haram and ISIS included). Some such people even believe that the murder of vast numbers of innocent people is “willed” by God and/or that God derives “pleasure” from such carnage. Of course, God is not responsible for such crimes against humanity. But God is invoked to justify them. 

Holding those to account for crimes against humanity is only right and proper, of course, because we cannot blame God for such crimes (but we can blame some/many human interpretations of God for inspiring the crimes). More problematic is the matter of natural disasters such as meteors, floods, earthquakes and volcanic activity. With the exception of some floods, none of these are the responsibility of humans. Therefore, “responsibility” must lie elsewhere. Scientists, mathematicians and atheists are among those who argue that such things can be explained by the laws of nature, many of which (most of which?) have already been discovered (scientists, etc. would also insist that the laws of nature are not a product of God but an integral and inevitable part of physics). The Guru Granth Sahib seems also to say that natural disasters are a product of “natural laws”, but that such laws were devised by God. Therefore, if God devised the laws that make natural disasters at some point inevitable, God must be responsible for them. Natural disasters affect the innocent at least as much as the guilty and often strike without rhyme or reason. Consequently, God has created a universe in which unpredictability, injustice, unfairness and a lack of mercy are as likely to prevail as predictability, justice, fairness and mercy. There are therefore limits to the extent to which God can be deemed ethically responsible/the source of all that is good/unquestionably worthwhile.

People of faith have a tendency to ascribe every good outcome to God and every bad outcome to some other factor. As I’ve tried to indicate above, this is a wholly unreasonable/illogical position to assume, unless God is somehow far less the influence/power that most religious people allege. It makes much more sense to ascribe all good and all bad things to God, or none of the good and none of the bad things to God – but the idea above, that God interferes as little as possible/infrequently in God’s creation, offers a sort of half-way house between the two positions just summarised. However, the half-way house opens the way for people to question the merits of such a God, a God who will inevitably appear inconsistent/arbitrary/amoral/immoral.

You are aware that we have been scrabbling round the edges of one of theology’s most hot topics, that of theodicy (the issue of evil in light of the existence of God. If God is good and just/forgiving/compassionate, how do evil and misery exist?). Perhaps history’s most famous statement on the problem of evil comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing. Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?

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Jesus in Malaga, Spain

To conclude these reflections about God and what God is like, if God exists at all, I share some wisdom deriving from Yuval Noah Harari. Harari is the author of “Sapiens: a brief history of humankind”, one of the most interesting history books I have read in recent years. He says things below that make more sense than many theologians and religious studies scholars addressing the same matters:

As far as we know, only homo sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled. Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, “Careful! A lion!” Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, “The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.” The ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of homo sapiens language…

Most scholars agree that animist beliefs were common among ancient foragers. Animism (from “anima”, “soul” or “spirit“ in Latin) is the belief that almost every place, every animal, every plant and every natural phenomenon has awareness and feelings and can communicate directly with humans… In the animist world, objects and living things are not the only animated beings. There are also immaterial entities – the spirits of the dead, and friendly and malevolent beings, the kind that we today call demons, fairies and angels… (For animists, gods) are not universal gods… (that are) all-powerful (and) run the world as they wish… (they) are local beings…

Theism (from “theos”, “god” in Greek) is the view that the universal order is based on a hierarchical relationship between humans and a small group of ethereal entities called gods… (Each theistic group) viewed the others’ beliefs as weird and heretical…

Two thousand years of monotheistic brainwashing have caused most westerners to see polytheism as ignorant and childish idolatry. This is an unjust stereotype…

Polytheism does not necessarily dispute the existence of a single power or law governing the entire universe. In fact, most polytheist and even animist religions recognised such a supreme power that stands behind all the different gods, demons and holy rocks…

The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans. It’s pointless to ask this power for victory in war, for health or for rain, because from its all-encompassing vantage point it makes no difference whether a particular kingdom wins or loses, whether a particular city prospers or withers, whether a particular person recuperates or dies. The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate and Hindus built no temples to Atman.

The only reason to approach the supreme power of the universe would be to renounce all desires and embrace the bad along with the good – to embrace every defeat, poverty, sickness and death. Thus some Hindus known as Sadhus or Sannyasis devote their lives to uniting with Atman, thereby achieving enlightenment…

Most Hindus, however, are not Sadhus. They are sunk deep in the morass of mundane concerns, where Atman is not much help. For assistance in such matters, Hindus approach the gods with their partial powers. Precisely because their powers are partial rather than all-encompassing, gods such as Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati have interests and biases. Humans can therefore make deals with these partial powers…

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

The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance. Since polytheists believe, on the one hand, in one supreme and completely disinterested power, and on the other hand in many partial and biased powers, there is no difficulty for the devotees of one god to accept the existence and efficacy of other gods. Polytheism is inherently open-minded and rarely persecutes “heretics” and “infidels”…

The polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion…         

With time, some followers of polytheistic gods became so fond of their particular patron that they drifted away from the basic polytheistic insight. They began to believe that their god was the only god and that He was in fact the supreme power of the universe. Yet at the same time they continued to view Him as possessing interests and biases and believed that they could strike deals with Him. Thus were born monotheist religions whose followers beseech the supreme power of the universe to help them recover from illness, win the lottery and gain victory in war…

Judaism, for example, argued that the supreme power of the universe has interests and biases, yet His chief interest is in the tiny Jewish nation and in the obscure land of Israel…

(Judaism is an example) of “local monotheism”…, (Christianity and Islam are examples of monotheist religions that have an impact) throughout the world…

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Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognises the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth. Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions. Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition.

It worked… Today most people outside East Asia adhere to one monotheist religion or another and the global political order is built on monotheistic foundations.  

Polytheism gave birth not merely to monotheist religions, but also to dualist ones. Dualist religions espouse the existence of two opposing powers: good and evil. Unlike monotheism, dualism believes that evil is an independent power, neither created by the good God, nor subordinate to it. Dualism explains that the entire universe is a battleground between these two forces, and that everything that happens in the world is part of the struggle.

Dualism is a very attractive world view because it has a short and simple answer to the famous problem of evil, one of the fundamental concerns of human thought. “Why is there evil in the world? Why is there suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people?” Monotheists have to practice intellectual gymnastics to explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good God allows so much suffering in the world… What’s undeniable is that monotheists have a hard time dealing with the problem of evil.

For dualists, it’s easy to explain evil. Bad things happen even to good people because the world is not governed single-handedly by a good God. There is an independent evil power loose in the world. The evil power does bad things.

Dualism has its own drawbacks. While solving the problem of evil it is unnerved by the problem of order…

So, monotheism explains order but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.

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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.  

Boris Johnson’s recent comments about Saudi Arabia.

Boris Johnson has done only two really worthwhile things during his political career, sustain a decent public transport system in London and tell some truths about Saudi Arabia, so I cannot understand why he has been “slapped down” for recent comments made about that dire Middle Eastern nation state with whom we should sever all relations for as long as the place is ruled by Wahhabi Muslims. As it is, Boris Johnson only said what everyone knows, that Saudi Arabia engages in overt and covert warfare in many parts of the Middle East, largely to murder vast numbers of Shia Muslims. There is a growing body of evidence to confirm that Wahhabi Muslims want to exterminate Shia Muslims.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

Just be grateful Boris Johnson did not say a lot more about what a dreadful nation state Saudi Arabia is (Saudi Arabia is such a rubbish nation state it makes even the Disunited Kingdom look reasonably civilised). Think of how Saudi Arabia funds mosques all around the globe that spread the dire Wahhabi message, a message which so often morphs into extremism claiming the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Think of how sharia law in Saudi Arabia disadvantages women, non-Muslims and Shia and Sufi Muslims, and how it leads to the public beheading, lashing and stoning of people who have rarely done anything that other nation states regard as seriously wrong. Think of how the Saudi regime persecutes its own Shia and Sufi minorities. Think of how people who say they are atheist or humanist risk being killed because the authorities do not provide such courageous individuals with the protection they require. Think of how even Sunni Muslim women are denied the most basic rights that women enjoy in almost every other nation state on the planet. Think of how there is not one church, synagogue, mandir, gurdwara or Buddhist temple anywhere in the country, and how non-Muslims cannot engage in worship on Saudi soil, other than in the most exceptional or rarest of occasions. Think of how a Muslim converting to a religion other than Islam is considered an apostate and that apostasy is a crime punishable by death. And think of how all non-Muslims are banned from visiting Makkah. Add to all this that Saudi Arabian support for extremist/jihadist/salafist groups around the globe has caused death and destruction on a scale that no other religious group currently engages in, and you have to ask the following. Is any nation state on the planet responsible for more terrorism, conflict, war and/or attempted genocide than Saudi Arabia? Is any nation state on the planet more contemptible? Is any nation state (with the possible exception of North Korea) more worthy of complete isolation within the international community? I would answer “No” to each of the questions just posed.

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

There is, of course, yet another reason why we should distance ourselves from Saudi Arabia. Other than in its commitment to the rule of law (but most of the laws that Saudi Arabia commits to so slavishly are as terrible as they are contemptible and should be overturned tomorrow), the Wahhabi regime has absolutely no time for the so-called “British” values of democracy, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for people with different religions and beliefs. Nor does it have any time for what are slowly emerging as equally important “British” values, equality, social justice and freedom of expression. We fall short in relation to all the values just identified, but at least we commit to them rhetorically. Saudi Arabia has nothing but contempt for them all.

So: don’t knock Boris Johnson for what he recently said about Saudi Arabia. Encourage him to speak with even more frankness about a nation state that is the antithesis of everything we should stand for.

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.

Did Guru Nanak travel to Rome and meet a pope?

Although lots of people are trying without success to make sense of the latest Islamic State truck bomb to claim many innocent lives (on 24th November 2016, at least eighty Iranian and Iraqi Shia Muslims were murdered in Shomali in Iraq when returning from the Arbaeen ceremony in Kerbala), it is right to turn our attention from such Sunni-sourced prejudice and blood-lust, for now at least.

The post that follows is purely for light relief. For about three years, a growing number of Sikhs have got excited because evidence is said to exist to prove that Guru Nanak travelled all the way to Rome where he had a fruitful encounter with a pope. Below is the text of an email I sent to a good Sikh friend whose wishful thinking may be getting the better of him.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

All this speculation about whether Guru Nanak visited Rome and had an encounter with one of the popes is very interesting, but I am not sure how seriously we should take it. Also, based on Sikh sites devoted to the matter, I am getting confused: is it being suggested Guru Nanak actually met with Pope Paul III? Most Sikh sites/articles devoted to the matter suggest the visit to Rome took place in 1520 (or 1518).

Paul III was on the papal throne from 1534 to 1549. Guru Nanak died in 1539. This means that overlap in their lives when Paul III occupied the highest office in the Roman Catholic (RC) Church was only 5 years’ maximum. It is possible they met, but not probable. I say this partly because of Guru Nanak’s age at the time when the meeting could have taken place (1534 to 1539). He would have been very old and, even if unusually fit and healthy for someone of such advanced age in the early 16th century, unlikely to undertake long, dangerous and expensive journeys far from home. 

Although some Sikhs suggest Guru Nanak may have travelled as far as Italy, is this really likely? If he undertook such a journey, where is the evidence for the visit in Sikh/Indian records? It is unlikely he got even as far as Istanbul/Constantinople (another place some Sikhs believe he may have visited) in Ottoman Turkey (where in all likelihood he would have encountered an extremely hostile reaction. In fact, his religious message would have been thought so bizarre that, if not murdered for his beliefs, he would probably have been imprisoned), but to have travelled so much further to Italy/Rome seems inconceivable. Surely, if travelling so far, Sikh/Indian records will indicate a time when he was absent from Punjabi/Indian soil for a great length of time. Two to three years? Five years? Perhaps even longer? Moreover, in all probability the same records will confirm, or at least speculate about, where he went.

Even if Guru Nanak had travelled to Italy, what common language would he and members of the papacy have shared/spoken so that he could express his thoughts?

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Stories about Nanak’s highly improbable visit to Italy have engaged a growing number of Sikhs since 2013 or 2014, when text in an old book was unearthed purporting to confirm Nanak had visited Rome (and other towns in Italy?), but, in most descriptions of the text, this is said to have happened in 1520 (or 1518). On the internet I find no confirmation of the visit from RC sources, whether in 1520 or any other year, which surprises me. If Guru Nanak is described in positive terms by one/more popes, why is there no evidence for this in papal records? The RC Church has in recent years tried to confirm its commitment to interfaith dialogue; a visit to Rome by Guru Nanak would be something to shout about/celebrate.

Note that Paul III was one of the popes whose condemnation of heresy was unequivocal. He set up bodies to suppress people who subscribed to beliefs which did not conform with RC orthodoxy. Would such a person (or any earlier pope, for that matter) have celebrated Guru Nanak in the way being suggested? In all probability he would have regarded Guru Nanak with much the same distrust that Guru Nanak might have encountered in Ottoman Turkey. Pope Paul III established the Inquisition in Italy, imposed censorship, commissioned the infamous Index of forbidden books and approved the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), all of which were designed to suppress heresy, so it is very unlikely he would have looked kindly on Guru Nanak, someone the Church would probably have dismissed as a pagan. Earlier popes would have had very similar attitudes toward manifestations of faith diverging from RC orthodoxy. At the time, the Church was vehemently opposed to Protestants (who emerged on the scene from 1517), Jews and Muslims, all of whom were Abrahamic in common with the RC Church, so why suddenly be so accommodating about/sympathetic toward a strange person from a distant land subscribing to a religion so alien to Roman Catholicism in its beliefs and practices because of its Indian origins? 

I tracked down an interesting document released by the Vatican to celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak in November 2014, but totally absent from the text is any suggestion that Guru Nanak visited/may have visited Rome in 1520 or any other year. This would have been the ideal opportunity for the Vatican to offer confirmation about the story, but it fails to do so. 

We must not forget that the founders of a number of religions are said to have engaged in long journeys from home to suggest, among other things, that a particular expression of faith might have universal applications/relevance (note the Buddha, for example). My guess is that many of these stories about long distance travel are fabrications/wishful thinking dating from long after the founder’s death. That Guru Nanak might have got even as far as Ottoman Turkey (and survived) is in itself incredible, but to have got so much further to Rome (whether by sea or overland) almost impossible to envisage. Travel in the early 16th century was slow and very dangerous, especially for those far from home without knowledge of the local language and originating from a land about which people in the West knew very little (such people from distant and largely unknown lands were often regarded as threats by the people said to be their hosts). Also, how would Guru Nanak have funded such an expedition? The cost would have been prohibitively high.

Anyway: one Sikh source about the matter cannot agree whether it is 1520 or 1518 when Guru Nanak visited Rome. And when I typed “The Vatican confirms that Guru Nanak visited Rome” into my search engine, not one RC source came up (as indicated above). All the links listed were to Sikh sources. I also typed the name of the archbishop (Dom José Ronaldo Rebeiro) said in some Sikh sources to have confirmed the visit, but, again, nothing of substance came up relating to the story.

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

An early inspiration for the story derives from an article dated 23.11.13 in the “Jakarta Times” in Indonesia (of all places). At least the article is written with clarity, but no reference is made to a text or document to support the story (although the name Dom José Ronaldo Rebeiro crops up again).

The fact that the actual words of the archbishop said to confirm the visit appear in NONE of the many Sikh, etc. sources for the story, and the fact that such evidence cannot be gleaned on the internet, worries me immensely. But even more worrying is the apparent silence from the Vatican itself. Surely at least one person associated with the Vatican must have spoken about this to confirm that the text/story has some substance.

In the text meant to confirm the visit, Nanac’s (as the name is spelled) religion is not identified. Thus, he is described as neither a Hindu nor a Sikh. Nor is he called a guru. There appears to be no indication of the land from which he came, but surely this, at least, would have been recorded, no doubt to considerable wonder. In other words, there is simply nothing in the text to suggest Nanac is Guru Nanak! There is not even the suggestion that he wore a turban or had a long beard, things which one might expect to be mentioned because both would have been deemed oddities in Rome in the early 16th century.

A general point. While claims are made for the Buddha, Muhammad and Guru Nanak (and, to some extent, Abraham and Moses) undertaking journeys of epic proportions (note Muhammad and his “miraculous night journey” to heaven/paradise), it is interesting that, as a general rule at least, no such claims are made on behalf of Jesus (whose wanderings were confined more or less to modern-day Israel, a very small nation state. Yes, I know all about the claims made on his behalf about visits to Glastonbury, but let’s get real, shall we?). But which founder today has the most followers globally? Yes, Jesus. And Hinduism, a religion devoid of a known founder (no doubt because the religion is so old and has evolved/changed so much over time), has the third largest number of followers globally. Founders travelling vast distances do not guarantee a religion’s numerical popularity. Or, to put this another way, does it matter whether a founder has travelled far from home or not?

Another point. The text accompanying the photos in the last email you sent me say Nanac “had more human qualities than any Christian can think of”. This does not necessarily mean Nanac is not a Christian (and it definitely does NOT confirm that Nanac was either a Hindu or a Sikh); it could mean he is a Christian manifesting more human qualities than Christians can identify. And what exactly is the “part of Sikh doctrine” said to be painted on the dome of St. Peter’s? If it is known about/so easy to see, why are we not told what it is? I cannot find evidence for it in any Sikh, etc. source.

Oh yes: as far as I can see, only one Sikh source identifies some documents said to “prove” the story: shabad.co.uk In one such document, reference is made to “Sanctus Nanacus Di Indi”, which, far from being a reference to Guru Nanak, may refer to a highly respected Christian of Indian origin (perhaps even to a Christian saint of Indian origin). Could Sanctus Nanacus be a member of one of the ancient Christian churches in India considering affiliation/unity with the RC Church, perhaps because the ancient Indian church feels vulnerable in an overwhelmingly non-Christian environment? Such a situation would justify/explain a visit to Rome so Sanctus Nanacus could discuss the matter with the head of the RC Church.

Anyway, this is all interesting stuff! My conclusion? Possible, but not probable. And the evidence for the visit is so far extremely weak.

St. Mary's RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

St. Mary’s RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

P.S. One somewhat confused and confusing Sikh source about the story implies that Guru Nanak told a pope that no person has the right to enslave another person, and that this rather unexceptional bit of advice (even by the standards of the early 16th century when slavery was a common practice in most parts of the globe) was in some way enlightening for the pope who heard it. This got me thinking about all the time Guru Nanak spent, or might have spent, on his travels to distant lands (some Sikhs now make a case for him travelling as far as West Africa). If he had spent extra time in the Punjab/India, perhaps he could have done more to rid his homeland of slavery. I do not know how many slaves existed in what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh when Guru Nanak was alive (the number of enslaved people will no doubt have been very large), but today in India alone there are 18 million slaves. Needless to say, no other nation state has such a large population of slaves.

How depressing that India, a nation state with one of the highest levels of commitment to religious faith, is also the nation state with the most people living in slavery. Is this further evidence that religion is often a barrier to people securing the basic human rights that everyone ought to enjoy (please examine the previous post for more information about how the basic human right to express your religion and belief is denied to countless millions of people)?       

“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.

“It’s not Islam that’s the problem; it’s Sunni Islam.” Discuss.

It is a very sobering time of the year. In France and many other nation states, thousands of people have gathered to remember the anniversary of the Paris terror attacks that killed 130 innocent men, women and children last November (2015). In Iraq, Islamic State suicide bombers are slowing the advance of Iraqi and Kurdish forces into Mosul. Also in Iraq, a mass grave has been found near Mosul containing the bodies of about a hundred people, children included, murdered by the Islamic State. And in Baluchistan in Pakistan, a suicide bomber said to have links with the Islamic State has killed at least fifty people at a Sufi shrine. What did the perpetrators of these acts, criminal or otherwise, have in common? They were Sunni Muslims.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

Iraqi government armed forces, Iraqi Shia militia and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, backed by American airstrikes, have for about three weeks been moving in on the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, where it is estimated that 1.5 million civilians remain, most, presumably, against their will. Yesterday we learned that Syrian Kurdish armed groups have started an assault on the Islamic State “capital” of Raqqa with American, French and British air support.

Despite the involvement in recent years of some non-Muslim nation states in the wars that engulf Iraq and Syria, most of the death and destruction in both nation states are directly attributable to the failure of Sunni and Shia Muslims to live in peace with one another (although people such as Christians and Yazidis, who have nothing to do with the Sunni and Shia struggle for supremacy/survival, have themselves been targeted for expulsion, murder and/or genocide, more often than not by Sunni Muslims). Yemen is also a nation state where war, death and destruction are directly attributable to Sunni and Shia rivalry, and in Pakistan such rivalry leads to the loss of innocent life on a regular basis, with Shia Muslims the most frequent victims. Tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims remain high, but at present rarely result in deaths, in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Turkey (in Turkey, the Muslims most often considered Shia are the Alevis and the Bektashis). Sunni and Shia tensions cannot be blamed for the conflicts/wars in Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia or Sudan, or for the communal tensions that exist, and the bloody violence that occasionally erupts, in Nigeria, Egypt, Mali or Bangladesh, but in the nation states just listed Muslims are largely responsible for all the death and destruction (in these cases, Sunni rather than Shia Muslims are usually the guilty party, with their victims being Christians, Animists, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs and/or self-confessed atheists or humanists). This is not to say that wars, death and destruction are the responsibility of Muslims alone (note, for example, how non-Muslims such as Christians are destroying South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and how Russia and Ukraine are at war over eastern Ukraine) or that Muslims are not sometimes the innocent victims of death and destruction deriving from non-Muslims (note, for example, the persecution of Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmur), but globally Muslims are the cause of more wars, death and destruction than any other group of people that can be identified because of their religion or belief. However, I have yet to list the nation states where worries about Islamist extremism and radicalisation remain a real threat, or where Islamist groups with violent agendas remain in place and occasionally engage in acts of terrorism. Such nation states include Algeria, Chad, Mauritania, Tunisia, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, France and the UK.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

I mention all this to give what follows a context: there are worrying signs that Indonesia and, even more obviously, Bangladesh are subject to changes that will lead inevitably to more hardline and intolerant attitudes toward minority groups. Indonesia, the nation state with the largest Muslim population on the planet, first. Note the following:

One, Archipelago Islam or Islam Nusantara, traditionally noted for its moderation, tolerance of diversity and protection of minority rights, has been under threat ever since the Bali bombings of 2002.

Two, a higher proportion of males and females, some of the latter from a very young age, wear overtly Muslim dress than they did in the past.

Three, once-popular transvestite beauty contests are now rarely if ever held.

Four, some Muslim groups apply pressure on the government to legislate about issues of morality that have in the past been matters of personal conscience.

Five, hardline Hizb-ut-Tahrir has had a presence in the country for some years and its influence is growing.

Six, polls suggest growing numbers of Muslims want a caliphate in Indonesia and the imposition of sharia law.

Seven, the government is considering legislation to ban alcohol, gambling and prostitution.

Eight, in recent years, members of religious minorities have suffered assault by their Muslim neighbours, and the government has backed the demolition of churches, mandirs and temples.

Last, Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Purnama, is currently under attack from Muslims because he told voters they should not allow themselves to be fooled by the common interpretation of a qur’anic verse instructing them not to vote for non-Muslim leaders such as himself (Purnama, an ethnic Chinese, is Christian). For being so “outspoken”, Purnama may face blasphemy charges.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

I will now spotlight Bangladesh.

One, Islamists have murdered, often openly in the streets of large urban centres, an educationalist who was assumed by his assailants to be secular/humanist even though he never said in public that he was, Hindus, Christians, a Buddhist monk, members of the gay community and openly secular/humanist bloggers.

Two, rather than the government protecting secularists/humanists and confirming their right to express their opinions, it has urged such people not to “attack” Islam or cause offence to conventionally pious Muslims, and to respect the sentiments of the Muslim majority.

Three, in July this year, 22 people, most of whom were non-Muslim foreigners, died when a bomb exploded in a bakery or cafe in a prosperous part of Dhaka.

Four, extremist groups said by group members themselves to have links with Al-Qaeda and/or the Islamic State have grown in number and popularity in recent years.

Five, Bangladesh is experiencing a process called Arabisation, which, among other things, has led to Persian-origin words and phrases being replaced by Arabic words and phrases, and women dressing in ways more resonant of the Arab Middle East than the Indian sub-continent.

Six, in recent decades, Bangladesh has witnessed the opening of a growing number of madrasas, or religious schools, funded by Saudi Arabia and, inevitably, the madrasas reflect the oppressive and intolerant version of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism.

Last, in recent weeks, more than a hundred Hindu homes and seventeen mandirs have been looted and vandalised by groups of Muslim men, simply because of an unproven allegation that a Hindu youth shared a Facebook post that some said denigrated the Masjid al-Haram, Islam’s holiest site in Makkah because it encloses the Ka’aba.

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Bangladesh has in the past been celebrated as a Muslim-majority nation state in which respect for diversity and a live-and-let-live attitude prevail. This is clearly no longer the case, just as it is no longer the case in Indonesia. But one is inevitably compelled to ask the following: If conditions are so dire for non-Muslims in Indonesia and Bangladesh, how much worse are they for non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia or Pakistan, or in those parts of Nigeria, Syria or Iraq terrorised by groups such as Boko Haram or the Islamic State?

Turkey is sometimes held up as an example of how government by an Islamist party need not pose a threat to democracy or to the individual or collective rights of members of minority groups, but I know from first-hand experience that the reality is not as many people wish to believe. Consider the following.

First, all Turkey’s Christian, Yazidi and Jewish communities are substantially smaller than they were fifty or a hundred years ago, discriminatory legislation, Muslim antipathy for non-Muslims, pogroms, massacres and genocide all playing their part in such declines in population.

Second, the AKP government’s determination to enhance the influence of orthodox Sunni Islam, an agenda supported by influential Naqshbandi Sufis who are probably the least Sufi-like Sufis on the planet, means that Alevi, Shia and most Sufi Muslims feel that, as in the past, the state no longer respects the rights of all Turkey’s citizens.

Third, because the AKP monopolises power in Ankara, billions of Turkish liras have been spent on the construction of Sunni mosques; Sunni Islam is taught in many/all the nation’s schools; non-Sunni manifestations of Islam and/or Alevism are excluded from the classroom; and only in recent years has some money been channelled to the Alevis so they can build themselves cemevis for social, cultural and/or religious purposes.

Fourth, the recent failed coup has been used by the government as an excuse to purge the armed forces, the judiciary, the civil service, the school system and the universities of individuals whose loyalty toward the AKP and its Islamist programme is questionable, and to close down newspapers, publishing houses and TV and radio stations deemed unreliable allies of the existing regime.

Last, in recent years the AKP has sounded increasingly like a party that subscribes to Turkish nationalism, albeit not in the ludicrously triumphalist and murderous form subscribed to by some groups on the far right, but this has inevitably done much to alienate even further those small Greek, Armenian, Georgian and Arab communities that remain in the republic, and the 20 million Kurds who once again feel as if their rights and lives are under threat from the state because of the president’s misguided decision to resume the war against the PKK.

In other words, for millions of citizens of the Turkish Republic who are not Sunni Muslims, Naqshbandis and/or ethnic Turks, life stinks. And life stinks because the political scene is dominated by the Islamist AKP, which has scant regard for anyone who is not Turkish and/or in sympathy with increasingly inflexible and intolerant Sunni Islam.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool. The mosque belongs to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community

P.S. I recently attended a National Interfaith Week event at St. Nicholas Church of England Cathedral in Newcastle-upon-Tyne where, in a welcome departure from convention, speakers from the Ahmadiyya rather than the Sunni Muslim community were given an opportunity to reflect on the themes of peace, justice and reconciliation. Formalities over, everyone chatted around a spread of food and non-alcoholic drinks. I learned that the two Ahmadiyya Muslims present were husband and wife, and that they had fled from the Punjab in Pakistan earlier in the year because of death threats directed toward them by their Sunni Muslim neighbours. The husband had taught for thirty years in a college near Lahore; his wife had engaged in many charitable endeavours to help disadvantaged Pakistani citizens, no matter their religion or belief. The couple were still delighting in the fact that in the UK, as a general rule at least, people with different religions and beliefs, in this case Christians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and atheists, meet, mix and mingle as equals and as friends.

Because Ahmadiyya Muslims had been given the chance to represent the Muslim community at the event in the cathedral, no one attended from the region’s large Sunni community.