Tag Archives: Sikhs

Ban? What ban? The European Court of Justice and religious artefacts, etc.

Here are some comments about an important ruling recently made by the European Court of Justice:

The ruling by the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ) that employers with justifiable rules on “dress neutrality” can ban workers from wearing any political, philosophical or religious symbols at work is deeply disturbing.

The ECJ ruling is deeply worrying for Sikhs living in mainland Europe because they are already vulnerable to widespread discrimination at work.

The Church of England has attacked the ruling. It has condemned the ruling on the grounds that the judgement would allow employers to ban workers from wearing crucifixes. The Church said the “decision would prevent Christians from exercising their religious freedom”. Islamic groups have also condemned the decision and consider that “the decision would legitimise attacks on Muslims”. The Jewish community would also be unhappy as it could forbid Jews from wearing a yamulka in public (a yamulka is especially popular with Orthodox Jewish men).

Sikh organisations will find it difficult to reverse the ruling on their own. Chances of success will be greater if we worked closely with Christians and Jews. I have nothing against Muslims, but the ruling against the wearing of Islamic headscarves could be because of fear of Islamists. However, forcing everyone to “dress neutrally” because you are alarmed by one minority group is plainly wrong.

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Elazig, Turkey

I have sympathy with some aspects of the above, but I also think that a lot of the above is based on sloppy thinking, as is a lot of other comment that the ruling has so far provoked. What follows is not by any means the final word on the ruling (for one thing, I do not agree with everything said), but it engages in a more considered, inclusive and challenging manner with the ruling’s implications than most comment has so far managed.

Yes: the only way to fight the ruling (which many firms/organisations will NOT invoke, of course, because of their respect for/commitment to individual/human/religious, etc. rights) with hope of success is to unite across religious/sectarian divides. Ideally, therefore, Muslims SHOULD be embraced to fight the potential “ban” – if only to get across the message to Muslims that it’s just as wrong that Muslims deny to non-Muslims the right to wear religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. in overwhelmingly Muslim lands, as it is that all religious people might be banned from wearing religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. in allegedly secular/ predominantly secular nation states. To make an obvious point: if banning the hijab, the niqab or the burka is wrong, then it is equally wrong for Muslims to ban turbans, crucifixes, kippahs/yamulkas, Stars of David, etc.

The point that follows is too important to ignore: at present around the globe, nation states in which religion overtly or covertly shapes all/most aspects of life, the political included, are more likely to ban the wearing of religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. than overwhelmingly secular nation states (and such bans are most likely to occur in overwhelmingly Muslim nation states). Moreover, in India under the Hindu BJP, it is more dangerous for non-Hindus to wear religious artefacts, etc. than before the BJP rose to power – but, thankfully, the situation in India is not nearly as bad (yet?) as in neighbouring Pakistan or Bangladesh where even minority Muslims, let alone Hindus, Sikhs and Christians, are murdered by members of the Sunni Muslim majority because of what they wear, do or believe as a consequence of their religious affiliation. The point I make is this: as a general rule, it’s religious people and not secularists who find other people’s religious artefacts, etc. unacceptable, and unacceptable to such a degree that a common outcome is the murder of those who display such artefacts, etc.   

But we have to be careful here. Will it be possible to distinguish between what most people of sound mind regard as acceptable/non-controversial religious artefacts/ symbols/items of clothing, etc. (which surely include the chador, the hijab, the turban and the kara), and things such as the niqab and the burka, which, for all sorts of reasons whether persuasive or not, cause concern to vast numbers of people (and which have more of a cultural than a religious basis, and which women are often compelled to wear by males so that males can deny women the same opportunities as men)? 

Two positive things about the Sikh 5Ks and Christian crucifixes are that they are recognised by the vast majority of people of sound mind to be acceptable/non-controversial religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc., and they are worn by men AND women without distinction!!!! 

What I am getting at is this: when are religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. indicators of gender inequality and markers of the weak/disenfranchised/ oppressed? Perhaps it is the indicators of gender inequality and the markers of weakness/disenfranchisement/oppression that bans ought to/should/must apply. After all, we do not question that oppressive/regressive practices such as forced marriage, FGM, honour-based violence and slavery, the latter sometimes for sexual exploitation, are wrong, and wrong in each and every instance. 

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

But there is another question that needs addressing: is the right to wear religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. so much more important than, say, 15 million people living as slaves in India, or 20 million people facing famine in 6/7 African and Middle Eastern countries, or the continued existence of the caste system in the Hindu world, or the destruction of large regions/whole countries by militant/extremist Islamists (with the latter leading to perhaps 20 million additional refugees than would otherwise be the case)? Add to this the harm that commitment to religion is causing in so many other parts of the globe and you have to wonder whether human beings can assess the problems that confront them with any sense of perspective and/or proportion. Last, of what consequence is the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. compared with the problems of climate change and uncontrolled population growth, the latter on a planet with rapidly depleting natural resources? People of faith get very upset about a possible threat to the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. when they should be devoting far more attention to other matters, not least climate change and uncontrolled population growth. People of faith have done nothing of real/lasting substance to combat either of these long-standing global problems. Furthermore, Roman Catholicism and Islam are themselves major CAUSES of uncontrolled population growth (and thus of climate change) because of their increasingly eccentric views about human fertility/women’s rights and responsibilities.

I would gladly impose a ban on the wearing of all religious artefacts, etc. in exchange for ending forever slavery in India, or overcoming the threat of famine in parts of Africa and the Middle East, or consigning to history the Hindu caste system, or liberating the world from militant/extremist Islam. Moreover, I am confident that the vast majority of religious people of sound mind would agree with me – if only because the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. is of far less importance than ending the brutal obscenities of slavery, famine, the caste system and Islamic militancy/extremism. Put another way, the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. is of far less importance than providing fellow human beings with the liberty and the life chances that I take for granted on a daily basis.

As a good Buddhist friend said in relation to the controversy, “So much unnecessary fuss is made about religious symbols when that is all that they really are, symbols. Would any person of sane mind, religious or otherwise, argue that a symbol should be put before the life or the liberty of a fellow human being? If such a person exists, then they have not understood what religion (or life itself, perhaps) is truly about: spiritual growth, knowledge and understanding, ethical conduct, compassion and forgiveness, and the provision here and now of enhanced opportunity for everyone.”     

But back to the ECJ “ban”: it must be remembered that it applies equally to political and philosophical as well as religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. If we condemn the “ban” on religious artefacts, etc., it is illogical not to also condemn the “ban” on political and philosophical symbols, etc. This confronts us with a challenge of considerable gravity. If we insist that it’s okay to wear religious symbols, then it must be equally okay to wear symbols such as the Nazi swastika. How many Jewish people will support the right to display the Nazi swastika in exchange for the right to wear the kippah/yamulka? I’m not Jewish, but even I cannot bring myself to support the right to display the Nazi swastika.  

The ECJ “ban” may yet inspire some sensible/considered/thoughtful/beneficial outcomes – but at present people are still primarily concerned with their narrow sectarian/confessional worries instead of looking at the bigger picture.

Which brings me to my penultimate point: perhaps we have got ourselves into the current mess about religious artefacts, etc. only because we never in our own minds had a clear understanding about which were acceptable/non-controversial and which were unacceptable/controversial. Outcome? In a sometimes misguided attempt to “respect” cultural diversity, even when cultural diversity results in enforced segregation, gender inequality and the denial of rights and opportunities to the weakest within many communities, whether such communities are minority or otherwise, we conceded ground to the militants, the extremists and those who seek to sustain regressive practices. As usual, it is mostly men who are the militants, the extremists and those who seek to sustain regressive practices – and their first victims are the women and children in their own communities.

My view in relation to the controversy? There ARE some religious artefacts, etc. (and some political and philosophical symbols) that most definitely do NOT deserve to be banned, but others that SHOULD be banned (as should some political and philosophical symbols). But if it is impossible for society as a whole to agree on what to ban, I would happily ban the lot because the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. is of far less importance than many other matters humankind urgently needs to engage with. Compare the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. with climate change, uncontrolled population growth, slavery, famine, the Hindu caste system and/or Islamic militancy/extremism, and you have the difference between an issue largely devoid of significance and issues of inescapable global consequence. As my Buddhist friend suggests, religious symbols are just that, symbols. What is the point worrying about mere symbols when confronted with the consequences of climate change, uncontrolled population growth, slavery, famine, the Hindu caste system and/or Islamic militancy/extremism?

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Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The above provoked the following seven thoughtful responses from people with and without faith commitments:

One. Much has been made of the fact that the ECJ ruling has been welcomed by far right political groups in parts of Europe, but much less attention has been given to the support it has secured from organisations such as the UK’s British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society, organisations whose commitments to liberalism, inclusivity and cultural pluralism are impossible to dispute. That the ruling has secured support from such diverse interest groups who rarely agree on anything confirms in my mind that the ruling is far more subtle/nuanced/complex/even-handed than many allow. Moreover, I welcome the ruling because it will at last provoke some serious thought about matters of considerable concern in pluralist societies, societies that have to balance respect for cultural diversity with ensuring that none of their citizens suffer disadvantage, discrimination and/or the denial of basic human rights. Needless to say, where respect for cultural diversity results in people suffering disadvantage, discrimination and/or the denial of basic human rights, the aspects of cultural diversity that lead to such intolerable circumstances must be challenged, and challenged as a prelude to, in many cases, outlawing them altogether. We could therefore do a lot worse than agree about the religious artefacts, etc. that are indicators of gender inequality and the markers of the weak/disenfranchised/ oppressed and decide what to do about them. My instinctive reaction to such religious artefacts, etc. is that they SHOULD be banned.

Two. I agree with a lot of what is said above, but offer a few words of warning or caution. Even if broad agreement is reached about the religious artefacts, etc. that are contemptible/indicators of gender inequality/markers of the weak/disenfranchised/ oppressed and thereafter it is decided to ban them, will the ban be the thin end of the wedge leading to a ban on all religious artefacts, etc.? Personally, I think the problem is not insurmountable – but “thus far and no further” guarantees will have to be considered to ensure that, for example, gender inclusive/non-controversial artefacts, etc. are never considered worthy of a ban.

Three. For me, the key issue is that you cannot say bans on religious symbols are wrong while saying that bans on political and philosophical symbols are right. If bans on religious symbols are wrong, it is equally wrong to ban political and philosophical symbols.

Four. Self-evidently, many religious, political and philosophical artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. ARE uncontroversial, but others are less so.

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Montilla, Spain

Five. Since we already have in the UK laws that forbid things such as the incitement of murder and racial hatred, I imagine that some political, etc. symbols are already banned. Perhaps we simply need to look again at our laws to first identify what we regard as just as bad as the incitement of murder and racial hatred (e.g. homophobia, slavery, denying girls and women the same rights and opportunities as boys and men, denying people with disabilities/special needs/learning difficulties the same rights and opportunities as everyone else, etc.) and then consider outlawing everything that contributes to/sustains such disadvantage and discrimination, religious, political and/or philosophical symbols included.

Six. Many religious symbols are not only indicators of gender inequality and/or the markers of weakness/disenfranchisement/oppression; they are a way of exaggerating differences between people when humankind needs to emphasise all that unites rather than divides it. Note also that the merits (or otherwise) of a specific religious symbol are very definitely in the eye of the beholder. I observe above that crucifixes (and, by implication, Christian crosses more generally) are thought to qualify as acceptable/non-controversial religious artefacts, etc. But consider this:

“In truth, countless Jews of our world will never be able to distinguish the cross from the swastika, nor ought they be expected to do so. It was after the Holocaust that a Jewish woman, catching sight of a huge cross displayed in New York City each year at Christmastime, said to her walking companion, Father Edward H. Flannery, ‘That cross makes me shudder. It is like an evil presence.’ It was in and through the Endlosung (the final solution of the question of the Jews) that the symbol of the cross became ultimately corrupted by devilishness. When asked by two bishops in 1933 what he was going to do about the Jews, Adolf Hitler replied that he would do to them exactly what the Christian church had been advocating and practicing for almost two thousand years” (Roy and Alice Eckhardt, “Long Night’s Journey into Day: life and faith after the Holocaust”, Wayne State University Press, 1982, pp. 99-100).

Thus, one person’s treasured religious artefact is another person’s reminder of discrimination, persecution and mass murder/genocide. In responding sensibly to the ECJ ruling, this must not be forgotten.

Seven. As an anarchist with marked libertarian inclinations, I am reluctant to ever advocate banning anything – but I note with considerable interest that for the last two to three thousand years people of faith have engaged in banning things with a frequency that even authoritarian/totalitarian political regimes have rarely emulated (such bans are usually predicated on frankly ludicrous ideas associated with “heresy”). Nonetheless, I see exactly what is meant in relation to a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable religious artefacts, etc. However, perhaps the thing to do is not to ban unacceptable religious artefacts, etc., but engage in a process of education/discussion/debate to “prove” that they are unacceptable. Once the process has been completed, people will dispense with the unacceptable artefacts, etc. in precisely the same way that no people of sane mind (to use a phrase from above) today tolerate slavery, famine, the caste system, the denial of equal rights and opportunities for particular groups or individuals, and/or the torture or murder of suspected witches. In other words, through a process of education/discussion/debate we become what we purport to be, a civilised society.

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Diyarbakir, Turkey

P.S. The above was uploaded to the blog not long after a terrorist incident in Westminster in London that resulted in the death of four innocent people, one a police officer on duty outside the Houses of Parliament (the terrorist was shot dead by the police), and not long after a similar terrorist incident in Antwerp in Belgium that might easily have resulted in far more fatalities than in London. But none of the people who wrote to express concern about how the ECJ ruling might somehow compromise the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. thought the latest terrorist incidents in London and Antwerp worthy of comment. Clearly, many people struggle to distinguish between what is truly important and what is far less important.

P.P.S. It is time to draw this post to a conclusion, partly because it has generated more interest (e.g. see the comments) than any other post on the blog. Thus, my thanks to people of different faiths and none (e.g. a Roman Catholic, two Muslims, a Buddhist, three Sikhs, a Druid, an atheist and an anarchist), whether male or female (in one way or another, almost as many females as males have contributed to the post). But my greatest thanks go to Rawda Kemal, a Syrian woman who arrived in Darlington a few years ago. Rawda self-declares as a Shafi Sunni Muslim. Many of the insights in the long contribution above (the one beginning, “Yes: the only way to fight the ruling…”) are hers (the contribution is a joint effort written by Rawda and one other person). Rawda is likely to contribute to the blog again in the not-too-distant future.

P.P.P.S. A fifth innocent person, a young Romanian woman on holiday with her boyfriend, has died (6.4.17) as a consequence of the terrorist incident in Westminster. To date (7.4.17), no individual anywhere in the EU has been banned from wearing religious artefacts, etc. in the workplace because of the ECJ ruling.                               

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 people still behaving badly (and far, far worse), four.

One.

A halal abattoir at the centre of horrific animal cruelty allegations has gone into administration, six months after covert footage of practices in the slaughterhouse were revealed. The move came as the UK’s Food Standards Agency announced it was close to concluding an enquiry into how animals were treated, an enquiry which will be handed to the Crown Prosecution Service to consider launching criminal charges.

An international furore erupted and protests were held outside the abattoir in Thirsk after film obtained by Animal Aid was released showing a worker hacking and sawing at animals’ throats, in direct contravention of Islamic practice. It took workers up to five attempts to sever blood vessels. Other film included sheep being kicked in the face; lifted by their ears, fleeces or legs; thrown into solid structures; and a worker standing on the neck of a conscious sheep and jumping up and down. Also, staff are shown laughing while a sheep was bleeding to death with green spectacles painted around its eyes.

The film drew widespread condemnation because the law requires abattoirs to stun animals before slaughter to prevent unnecessary suffering, although there are exemptions for meat producers supplying the Jewish and the Muslim markets. Under the halal code of practice, animals are supposed to be killed quickly with a single sweep of a surgically sharp knife.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Two.

The Sikh Federation UK, said by some to be the leading Sikh lobbying organisation in Britain, has so far failed to condemn the actions of a group of Sikhs who disrupted a wedding between a Sikh and a non-Sikh in a gurdwara in Southall, west London.

A group of about twenty Sikhs arrived at the gurdwara on Friday 9th August while final preparations were taking place for the wedding of a Sikh woman and a white, non-Sikh man. The couple were forced to cancel their wedding after the gang stormed into the gurdwara.

Sohan Singh Sumra, vice-president of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, told a leading UK newspaper that the men “were all thugs” who objected to the ceremony simply because it was a “mixed marriage”. Mr. Sumra said the group wanted to “intimidate” the bride and groom and that the police had to be called.

The journalist Sunny Hundal later confronted the Sikh Federation UK on Twitter about the incident and asked it to condemn the actions of the gang, but representatives of the federation refused, stating only that what happened at the gurdwara “should be avoided”. A representative of the federation said that those who “understand” and “respect” the Anand Karaj (the Sikh marriage ceremony) will “realise it is more important” than the couples’ “‘big day'”.

Mr. Hundal warned that “gang-mentality puritanism” would lead to a “Sikh version of the Taliban”. He also posted comments made against him by “fundamentalist Sikhs” who objected to his criticism of the Sikh Federation UK. He went on to allege that instances of “hypocritical and fanatical thugs” arriving to disrupt “interfaith weddings” are becoming more common.

When asked by Sunny Hundal if they “support or condemn these thugs going around disrupting interfaith marriages at Gurdwaras?”, a representative of the Sikh Federation UK replied obliquely that they “stand by and defend” the tenets of the “Sikh faith”.

A letter published in “The Times” newspaper on 21 July warned of a “recently placed” ban on gurdwaras “solemnising marriages between Sikh and non-Sikh”. Moreover, advice from 2007 stipulates that the Anand Karaj should only be between two Sikhs.

Guidelines published by the Sikh Council UK in October 2014 state that “Any person wishing to exercise the choice to marry in a Gurdwara Sahib through the Anand Karaj ceremony must sign a declaration” that “he or she is a Sikh, believes in the tenets of the Sikh faith and owes no allegiance to another faith”. Such people must also pledge to “endeavour to bring up any children from his or her marriage as Sikhs”.

National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson said, “This kind of fundamentalism is very dangerous. It may amount only to bullying at the moment, but as fanaticism increases it can escalate to frightening levels of violence. The government should stamp down on this now before it gets out of control. They must learn from the experience with Islamism that ignoring the problem on grounds of political correctness will only allow it to fester and get worse.”

P.S. This is not a new problem. The BBC website has an article dated 11th March 2013 about the disruption of “interfaith” marriages at gurdwaras. The article concludes by mentioning that a documentary called “The Sikh Wedding Crashers” could be heard on the BBC Asian Network on Monday 11th March 2013 at 5.00pm, or listened to thereafter on BBC iPlayer.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Three.

Despite the growing popularity of secularism and Protestantism in recent decades, the Roman Catholic Church is still a major social influence in Latin America, so much so that the Vatican’s hostility to abortion is enshrined in the legislation of most Latin American nation states. Chile is said to have the legislation that is most hostile to abortion in that it is presently illegal without exception. The Chilean abortion law is therefore considered one of the most restrictive in the world.

However, this dire situation for women may at last be about to change, and it may be about to change because of what follows, a case of sexual abuse that came to light in 2013:

The case of a pregnant girl aged eleven who was raped in Chile by her mother’s partner set off a national debate about abortion in one of the most socially conservative countries in Latin America. Chileans were outraged after state TV reported that the child is fourteen  weeks pregnant and was raped repeatedly over two years. Police in the remote southern city of Puerto Montt arrested her mother’s partner, who reportedly confessed to abusing the girl. The case was brought to their attention by the pregnant child’s maternal grandmother.

Doctors say the girl’s life and that of the foetus are at high risk. But in Chile ending the pregnancy is not an option.

Chile allowed abortions for medical reasons until they were outlawed in 1973 by General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The current government of conservative President Sebastian Pinera has opposed any loosening of the prohibition.

Many Chileans vented their outrage on social media. Some started an online campaign to demand legalisation of abortion in cases of rape or health risks for the mother. “When I heard about this little girl my first reaction was to support abortion because I think it’s the best option in this case,” said Eduardo Hernandez, a web designer aged thirty. “It’s the first online petition I’ve signed in my life, but I think this case really deserves it,” Mr. Hernandez said. “We should have a change of law. I hope this case serves as a precedent to have a serious discussion about abortion.” The Chilean Senate rejected three bills in 2012 that would have eased the absolute ban on abortions.

“Chile is a country that has modernised when it comes to its economy, but when it comes to its social and political culture, it has become stagnant and this is seen with the abortion issue,” said Marta Lagos, head of the Santiago-based pollster Mori. “It’s a country that is opposed to change, that panics with any change, which is seen as a threat,” Lagos said. “The weight of Catholicism is still a major issue and we also have an indigenous culture that always lived alienated from the rest of world.”

The Roman Catholic Church retains a strong influence over society, although it has lost credibility since 2010 when four men alleged that they were abused by one of Chile’s most revered priests when they were between fourteen and seventeen years-old.

Former president Michelle Bachelet, the frontrunner in the November 2013 presidential election, favours legalising abortion in cases of rape or risks to the health of the mother or the child. She has spent the past two years heading the UN agency for women.

Her opponent, former Economy Minister Pablo Longueira, was close to Pinochet. He opposes the legalisation of abortion and the morning-after pill.

The following is part of a recent article in “The Guardian” newspaper:

The debate about abortion comes as Chile, one of Latin America’s most socially conservative countries, grapples with shifting views on once-taboo issues. The mostly Roman Catholic country began to allow divorce in 2004. This year, Congress recognised civil unions for gay couples and, recently, a pilot programme in Santiago harvested the country’s first legal medical marijuana.

The changing attitudes mark a generational shift as young people born after the 1973-1990 military dictatorship come of age. The trend has accelerated since a wave of student protests demanding educational reform began in 2011 in the wake of Catholic priest sex abuse scandals that have provoked questioning of Church doctrine.

A recent discussion on abortion at Santiago’s Diego Portales University drew a packed audience with many students forced to sit on the floor.

“As a country we are behind,” said Fernanda Saavedra, a student who attended. “We need to evolve and think more about women.”

Chile legalised abortion for medical reasons in 1931, eighteen years before it allowed women to vote. But during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, abortion was banned under all circumstances. Today, women found guilty of having abortions face prison terms of up to five years.

Still, an estimated 120,000 illegal abortions are performed every year, according to the Miles Group. Most women use the drug misoprostol, buying it on the black market, to end first-trimester pregnancies. Others undergo conventional abortions in secret. Those who can afford to travel seek abortions in neighbouring Argentina or beyond.

And this suggests that change for the better is not far off:

Chileans online are engaging in heated debate over abortion, twenty-six years after the procedure was completely banned in the country. In August 2015, the Chamber of Deputies’ health commission is set to vote on a new bill that will decriminalise abortion under three circumstances: in a case of rape, when a mother’s life is at risk, or when a foetus will not survive the pregnancy. The proposed law is backed by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

Montilla, Spain

Montilla, Spain

Four.

Evidence grows suggesting that the Islamic State has used chemical weapons (mustard gas, in all likelihood) against the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Chemical weapons have already been used by the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar Al-Assad that clings to power in parts of Syria. Inevitably, the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds reminds those of us with long memories about how Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime used such weapons against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988 killing about 5,000 men, women and children.

Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

A Kurdish family, Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

Five.

In August 2015, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Scotland, Philip Tartaglia, said to the victims of historic child sexual abuse, “The bishops of Scotland are shamed and pained for what you have suffered. We say sorry. We ask for forgiveness. We apologise to those who have found Church reaction slow, unsympathetic or uncaring and we reach out to them as we take up the recommendations of the McLellan Commission.”

Published in August 2015, the report by the McLellan Commission makes for harrowing reading, this despite the fact that It is merely the latest such report to confirm how widespread child sexual abuse has been within the Roman Catholic Church and how inadequate the response of the Church has been when such abuse is confirmed.

Dr. Andrew McLellan was commissioned in November 2013 to undertake a review of all aspects of safeguarding policy, procedures and practice within the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland. 2013 had been a difficult year for Scottish Roman Catholics. Early in 2013, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, had sent shock waves through Scottish congregations when he resigned following inappropriate sexual conduct toward his own priests. A few months later, allegations of historic child sexual abuse were made involving Fort Augustus Abbey School, an exclusive Roman Catholic boarding school in the Scottish Highlands.

Catherine Deveney is one of the many people who provided evidence to the McLellan Commission. In late August 2015 she wrote in the following manner in a national UK newspaper:

What did I tell McLellan? As much as possible, while protecting my sources. The decades of abuse; of cover-up; of moral and financial corruption. The enormous gulf between what the Church said publicly and what it did privately. Its ruthless dismissal of victims and of criticism. The fact that it failed to have coherent, consistent policies because each bishop was deemed autonomous in his own diocese. McLellan had produced reports on the Scottish prison service in the past and was neither delicate nor faint-hearted. “I am shocked,” he told me. “And I am not easily shocked.”

 In the same article Deveney refers to:

Father Patrick Lawson, an Ayrshire priest who had been speaking out against abuse for almost twenty years after exposing a fellow priest, Father Paul Moore, for sexually assaulting him and abusing two altar boys. Father Lawson, who was forcibly removed from his parish and is now involved in an industrial tribunal against the Church, also appeared before the commission and the final report recommends a policy protecting whistleblowers.

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

 Six.

Palmyra in Syria is one of the Middle East’s most remarkable ruined ancient cities, partly for the magnificent ruins that survive, and partly for the magnificent artefacts kept in the nearby museum. However, the Islamic State now (mid-2015) controls the region around Palmyra. In August 2015, Islamic State militants beheaded a renowned antiquities scholar and hung his mutilated body on a column in one of Palmyra’s main squares because the scholar refused to reveal where valuable artefacts had been moved for safekeeping.

The brutal murder of Khaled Al-Asaad – he was aged eighty-two – is the latest atrocity perpetrated by the Islamic State, which has captured a third of Syria and neighbouring Iraq and declared a caliphate on the territory it controls. The atrocity has also highlighted the Islamic State’s habit of looting and selling antiquities to fund its activities or destroying them.

Al-Asaad, who had worked at Palmyra for fifty years, had been held for more than a month before being murdered. Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said he had learned from a Syrian source that the archaeologist had been interrogated by Islamic State militants about the location of treasures from Palmyra and had been executed when he refused to cooperate.

The Islamic State captured Palmyra from government forces in May, but is not known to have damaged its monumental Roman-era ruins despite a reputation for destroying artefacts it views as idolatrous. This said, it is very likely that damage will now be done to the ruins.

Palmyra is one of Syria’s six UNESCO world heritage sites, but five of them have been severely damaged by the war because of airstrikes, mortar attacks and extensive looting. The old city of Aleppo (once, along with the old city in Cairo, the most beautiful and intriguing old city anywhere in the Middle East) is largely in ruins. Only the old city of Damascus has been spared, but fierce fighting rages not far beyond its walls and mortar shells occasionally fall within them. Government airstrikes have turned many of Damascus’s suburbs, once a short minibus ride from the old city’s Roman-era eastern gate, into rubble.

P.S. Just prior to publishing this post, news broke that Islamic State militants have destroyed part or all of the magnificent Baal Shamin Temple at Palmyra, which dates from 17 CE. The reason for destroying the temple? One or more of the following would seem to provide an explanation. Baal Shamin Temple is pre- or non-Islamic. It is a product of Pagan piety. It is where people once engaged in practices that mainstream Muslims define as idolatrous. It provides humankind with a view of the divine that conflicts with the view of the divine thought by mainstream Muslims to be true. Its destruction enrages public opinion globally. But if any or all of these are reasons for the temple’s destruction they are pathetic and contemptible reasons. Recent events at Palmyra confirm that the Islamic State must be resisted wherever it seeks to gain a foothold.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

Seven. 

Ayoub El-Khazzani, a Moroccan national, had his August 2015 plan to murder passengers on an Amsterdam to Paris high speed train thwarted by the intervention of two American servicemen, their American civilian friend and a UK businessman. El-Khazzani, known to the authorities for links with jihadi groups, is believed to have travelled through Europe to Turkey between May and July 2015, from where he may have crossed the border to spend time with Islamic State militants. He may also have links with Sid Ahmed Ghlam, an Algerian student who was arrested in April 2015. Sid Ahmed Ghlam is charged with planning to attack churches and other targets in Paris.

But…

The nuclear deal framework with Iran dating from April 2015 has resulted in the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations between the Islamic Republic on the one hand and nation states such as the US and the UK on the other. Jaw-jaw is always preferable to war-war. How sad, therefore, that those who are most vocal in their opposition to the deal are Israel, Saudi Arabia and a majority of Republicans in the US. As unholy alliances go, the one that (sort of) exists between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US Republicans takes some beating. I wonder to what degree religion has influenced Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US Republicans to oppose and/or regret the deal with Iran?

Part of the Republican heartland, Texas, the USA

Part of the Republican heartland, Texas, the USA

A Muslim, a Sikh and an atheist engage in an email discussion about Islam in the contemporary world.

28.6.15.

The Muslim. As I  write, the news bulletins are still preoccupied with the beheading of a man in south-east France, the murder of almost forty tourists in Sousse in Tunisia, and the suicide bomber who murdered almost thirty Shia Muslims during midday prayers in Kuwait, all of which happened on 26th June. It is now known that the individuals who have committed these dreadful crimes are Sunni Muslims in sympathy with, or members of, the Islamic State. In Kenya on the same day, Al-Shabaab murdered “dozens of African Union troops at a base in Somalia”. Al-Shabaab is not affiliated to the Islamic State in any known way, but is a brutally oppressive and violent Sunni Muslim group already responsible for many crimes against humanity involving even greater casualties than those at the African Union base. Meanwhile, unknown are the number of deaths on 26th June that are the responsibility of Sunni Muslims in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and other overwhelmingly Muslim nation states (also unknown are the number of deaths that are the responsibility of mainstream Shia Muslims in overwhelmingly Muslim nation states, but the figure will be much smaller), but I think we can assume that Sunni Muslims murdered at least three to four hundred people that day alone.

26th June 2015 was just over a week into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan during which, if sharia is complied with properly, all war and conflict should cease so Muslims can engage peacefully with the fast and their routine religious obligations. But what has the Islamic State demanded of its militants and sympathisers? That death and destruction be directed against Shia Muslims and all those associated in any way with nation states that are part of the US-led alliance trying to defeat the tyrannical regime. Because Sunni Muslims are among those seeking to defeat the Islamic State in the US-led alliance, Islamic State militants are also trying to kill Sunni Muslims.

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

28.6.15.

The Sikh. Evidence from security agencies around the globe suggests that French nationals make up the largest group of Europeans who have gone to fight for/support the Islamic State (the figure may be as high as 1,200), Tunisians make up the largest group of North Africans (the figure would appear to exceed 2,000), and significant numbers have also gone from Germany, the UK, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Most such supporters of the Islamic State are young males, a small number of whom are converts to Islam. Refugees fleeing the Islamic State confirm that the regime operates in such a way as to penalise and persecute girls, women, Shia Muslims, Sufi Muslims, non-Muslims such as Christians and Yazidis, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those devoid of a faith commitment. Sunni Muslims not sufficiently orthodox in how they give expression to their commitment to Islam are also subject to persecution. In other words, the Islamic State is organised in such a way as to meet the needs and aspirations of only a totally unrepresentative Sunni Muslim male segment of the total population.

30.6.15.

The Muslim. In the eyes of mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims (I say this in recognition/acknowledgement of the fact that most Ahmaddiya, Alevi, Sufi and Bektashi Muslims do not/would not subscribe to what follows), Sikhs are doubly damned (as a result, your situation as Sikhs is even more hopeless than that of people of the book such as Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. You are as suspect in mainstream Muslims eyes as Hindus – who are thought of as idolatrous polytheists – and Yazidis – who are described as pagan devil-worshippers). In the Islamic scheme of things, not only are Sikhs NOT people of the book, despite the centrality of the Guru Granth Sahib (GGS) within the faith, the human gurus are described in Muslim literature as “false prophets or messengers” (of God). The human gurus are “false prophets or messengers” because, in mainstream Sunni and Shia literature, Muhammad is identified as the “seal of the prophets/messengers”, which means that no prophets/messengers have emerged, or will or can emerge, after Muhammad (this, of course, also puts at great risk people such as the Mormons, Bahais and Ahmadiyya Muslims whose messengers/prophets came to public notice in the 19th and 20th centuries, long after Muhammad’s death). Muhammad is defined as the last/final prophet/messenger, and, additionally, as the only one whose “perfect” message from God remains uncorrupted by human additions, deletions or amendments.

I have also heard some mainstream Muslims allege that Sikhs are guilty of idolatry (which is punishable by death, according to some verses of the Qur’an, and, in the eyes of many Muslims, the worst crime of all. It is utterly ludicrous that idolatry should be regarded by anyone as the worst crime of all, but there you go. Worse than killing an innocent person such as a child? Worse than denying to girls and women the same opportunities granted to boys and men? Worse than trying to wipe out a whole people? Worse than destroying vast areas of a nation state such as Syria, killing about 200,000 people and displacing from their homes millions more?) in so far as such Muslims believe Sikhs worship a book rather than God.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

You can tell from what I write above that half the problem with Muslims of a mainstream variety is that they know little or nothing about the expressions of religion (Sikhism, Hinduism, Yazidism, etc.) they so enthusiastically condemn, and no amount of education seems to impact beneficially on the misconceptions that those with authority, religious or otherwise, perpetuate.

By the way: to be people of the book, the scripture of the faith group must have originally come directly from God. Even if we accept that the whole of the GGS is/could be divinely inspired, not even Sikhs, as a general rule, suggest that it derives directly from God. The GGS has been assembled from diverse sources and contains within it the wisdom, etc. of many people, Sikh as well as non-Sikh. It is the factual knowledge we have of the GGS’s derivation that precludes it from being God-given in the same way Muslims believe (quite incorrectly, of course) that, e.g., the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospels and the Qur’an are God-given.

It is very sad to see so many young Muslims, male and female, expressing publicly their “delight” that ISIS militants/sympathisers are spilling innocent blood, Muslim and non-Muslim, so readily and so frequently. I hate to say this, but there is something fundamentally “wrong” with a religion, my religion, that can so easily inspire its followers to kill and destroy on the scale we are currently witnessing. And the root of the problem, the root of what is “ wrong” with the religion, in my opinion at least?  The scripture itself and the myths/fabrications which sustain the notion that it is God-given and “perfect”.

I wrote recently to David Cameron, the UK’s prime minister, with the following proposal about challenging Islamist extremism (I would propose a similar requirement of all extremists, whether they are religious or political): require leaders within the Muslim community to confirm that the Qur’an and the Hadith are fully in accord with fundamental “British” values such as democracy, individual liberty, the rule of secular law, freedom of speech/expression and equality of opportunity for all people, no matter their age, ability/disability, ethnicity, gender, religion, belief, sexuality, marital status, etc., etc. I suggested that this be done knowing that most leaders within the Muslim community will find the task impossible to fulfil. Why? Because the scripture is NOT in sympathy with such values. In fact, in countless respects the scripture is fundamentally at odds with such values.

30. 6.15.

The atheist. I have some concerns about the “British” values we are being urged to take more seriously than ever before (our first-past-the-post electoral system disenfranchises millions of people who cast their vote; individual liberty must, in some respects, be limited to protect society from excesses that would be detrimental to the well-being of some or all of the nation’s citizens; we should respect the rule of law only to the extent that the law is not an ass; etc.), but they provide a starting-point for living in a civilised society in which everyone can expect to be respected and treated with dignity and justice. If, at the very least, followers of Islam cannot sign up to such values, despite the shortcomings and/or reservations we may have about some of them, the religion is not one that deserves our unqualified respect. Moreover, if it cannot sign up to such values it is confirming that, at its heart, it is an intolerant religion, and I am therefore quite glad that Cameron recently said, as many of us have said for many years, that we must be intolerant of intolerance.

I live in the hope that Muslim leaders begin very soon to critically evaluate their own faith and face some home truths about how it is predicated on myths, misconceptions and fabrications that modern scholarship has shown to be completely unfounded. We used to speak/write about so-called “modernist” Muslims who combined the fundamentals of Islam with the truths revealed by modern scholarship, and such Muslims were, as a general rule, excellent people with whom to spend time. If a minority community, “modernist” Muslims wanted to integrate with the dominant ethnic/faith group and contribute constructively to society. They valued democracy, individual liberty and freedom of expression, and girls and women were encouraged to partake fully in the opportunities that civilised societies provide for all their citizens. Such Muslims are encountered much more rarely today, and not least among the younger generation. So sad.

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

1.7.15.

The Muslim. You (the Sikh) ask whether Muslims can critically evaluate their religion. If you lack time to read all that follows, nip straight to the P.S. – but you will miss some good stuff!

Let me put it this way. There were many occasions, especially during the medieval period, when Muslims in many parts of the predominantly Islamic world were encouraged to look critically at ALL aspects of knowledge and understanding that prevailed at the time, which helps explain why/how parts of the Muslim world were at the forefront of scientific, medical, technical, etc. discovery, invention and innovation. That climate of critical awareness also led to the emergence within Islam of many manifestations of the faith that regarded the ever-hardening attitude to orthodoxy among Sunni Muslims with increasing concern – hence the proliferation of Sufi groups all over the place from at least as early as the 11th or 12th century. This said, the 13th century seems to be the time when such “unorthodox” Muslim groups emerged with greatest frequency, two of the best-known being the Bektashis and the Mevlevis (the latter are known as the Whirling Dervishes in most of the West). Some of the “unorthodox” Muslim groups moved so far from what Sunni Muslims deemed acceptable that persecution inevitably followed (because of using music, dance, song, chanting/mantras, hashish and/or alcohol and bread in ritual practices; because of “compromising” fundamental beliefs about monotheism by seeming to have a trinity of Allah, Muhammad and Ali, all of whom appeared to be worshipped; and/or because of co-opting beliefs or practices from other religions if other religions were deemed to have worthwhile beliefs or practices. In relation to the latter, Twelver Shias spoke/speak about the hidden imam who will return at some point in the future like the Jewish and Christian messiah, and Bektashis used/use bread and wine for ritual purposes in imitation of how Christians use bread and wine in the eucharist).

Furthermore, and perhaps this is the real clincher, since all scripture is at best difficult to comprehend and often downright ambiguous or contradictory or incomplete in terms of what it has to tell humankind about, e.g., what God is like, what humans should do to “win” God’s approval, what is ethical/moral, etc., Muslims from very early on were encouraged to engage in one of the following to sort out “confusions/new situations”: ijma, qiyas or ijtihad.

Ijma occurs when learned persons within the Muslim community, invariably male and collectively known as the ulema, apply their understanding of the law contained in the Qur’an and the Hadith to the confusion/new situation that has arisen. Basically, they hammer out a response through debate leading to consensus. “Ijma” means “consensus”.

Analogical reasoning – qiyas – is another response to confusing/new situations. Once again it is the ulema that undertakes the reasoning. Drawing on their intimate knowledge of the law, but adding to the equation precedents drawn from similar particular applications of the law, they are able to expose what Allah would have said about the confusion/new situation had He had the chance.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Ijtihad, however, is the really interesting approach to such matters and more obviously answers your question (although you can see that even the above must lead to some critical evaluation of the faith). In the case of ijtihad, ordinary people/believers have the chance to express their own opinions about questions of ethics and law. It is true to say that totally free interpretation is not admissible in so far as solutions to new problems, etc. must be consistent with “divine law”, but, given that four schools of jurisprudence exist in Sunni Islam alone, Shia Islam has its own system of jurisprudence and every Sufi group has its past figures similar to the human gurus in Sikhism who have helped shape what is deemed ethical/moral, you begin to realise that a lot of latitude exists in relation to what can be defined as “divine law”!!!! Furthermore, the very ambiguity of what the Qur’an says means you have to be pretty dim-witted not to find at least one verse that will support your train of thought, no matter how wacky that train of thought might be.

Sorry: you are probably asleep by now, but seemingly simple questions rarely have simple/short answers. I hope this helps. And I am available to help Muslims sort out the mess in which they currently find themselves, but fear that most will either execute me immediately or allege, incorrectly, that room for manoeuvre about beliefs, etc. does not exist. Islam, as is the case with all religions, has very few beliefs that are really of critical importance/fundamental to their character/identity, but it has lots of traditions. As we know, traditions are founded on human interpretations/understandings of what might be deemed right or proper (by God, by the exercise of logical thought, by what some might define as insight or divine inspiration, etc.) and are therefore merely provisional. As a consequence, traditions are susceptible to change or rejection. Islam, as is the case with Roman Catholicism, is burdened with lots of ludicrous traditions that have no or only very limited support in scripture, which is why critical evaluation of both the scripture and the traditions is urgently required.

P.S. The short answer to your question? Muslims are not encouraged to critically examine their faith by those who, especially in Sunni Islam, project themselves as the spiritual authority figures (but they ARE allowed to engage in such critical examination, as the well-established concept of ijtihad confirms). However, because Sunni Islam should be bereft of such authority figures (in Sunni Islam, one’s relationship with Allah should be a direct one devoid of intermediaries. This applies as much to interpretation of scripture as to how religious rituals such as prayer are conducted), these arbiters of right and wrong should be stripped of their power to dictate to others. In short, they should not exist. But they do exist and, as I hope the above makes clear, they are telling those gullible enough to listen to them porkies of a very substantial size! I quite like these few last sentences!

Yavuzlar, Turkey

Yavuzlar, Turkey

3.7.15.

The atheist. A small point of clarification: think of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as the Abrahamic religions (because for all three religions Abraham is of considerable importance). The Abrahamic religions are three of the religions accepted by Muslims as people of the book religions. But Zoroastrianism is also a people of the book religion although it is neither a Semitic nor an Abrahamic faith. It is unashamedly Persian and, additionally, very much distinct from the Abrahamic religions in not thinking Abraham important, in not utilising a Semitic language (e.g. Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic) for its scripture or in its liturgy, and for being dualistic rather than monotheistic. There is at least one other religion thought by most Muslims to be a people of the book religion, that of the Sabians, but no one can say with certainty what religion Sabianism was/is! This said, many people living under Muslim rule in the past said to those with authority that they were Sabians in the hope that they might therefore suffer less discrimination, but rarely to good effect other than for a very short time.

4.7.15.

The Muslim. It is interesting that the verse you quote in the Qur’an says that all people of faith “need have no fear nor sorrow”, but the end of the quote reveals that it is only those people of faith who believe in God AND the day of judgement that “need have no fear nor sorrow” – which, if my knowledge of the “Indian” religions is reliable, precludes Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism and, indeed, many other non-Indian expressions of religion that do not require belief in one God (e.g. Shintoism), or do not subscribe to the idea of a day of judgement (which is very much an idea confined largely to the Abrahamic faiths). Also, a careful reading of the verse (which is translated in the email differently to the version I have in my translation of the Qur’an) would seem to suggest that those millions of people (perhaps 2 billion people?) who have no (religious) faith HAVE reason to fear and feel sorrow!

A little confusion prevails about the term “seal” as it applies to Muhammad. A seal closes a letter once and for all. When used in relation to Muhammad, the term tells us that Muhammad brings to an end the line of prophets/messengers that Muslims believe begins with Adam. Any religion founded following Muhammad’s death must therefore be a “false” religion (and, as history reveals all too frequently, “false” religions are liable to persecution by Muslims, persecution that is sometimes of a genocidal character).

As for 9:5 in the Qur’an: it would be wonderful if this were the only verse that suggests what it does about “idolators”. Even Muslims have assembled long lists of qur’anic verses about idolators/non-believers/unbelievers/people of the book, etc. in which death is deemed suitable punishment for failing to recognise that Islam is the only “true” religion. Muslims have also produced lengthy lists of qur’anic verses sanctioning differential treatment for girls and women vis-a-vis boys and men, and many pious Muslims invoke such verses to justify segregation of the sexes and the denial of rights and opportunities for females up to and including education and access to healthcare. Some qur’anic verses are also used to justify brutal punishments for women who are believed to have engaged in what Islam defines as sexually inappropriate behaviour. Thus, women who are believed to have committed adultery can be stoned to death (but men who commit adultery are “merely” lashed, but not to a degree that will necessarily lead to death).

5.7.15.

The atheist. I am privileged to know Ahmaddiya, Alevi, Sufi and Bektashi Muslims who defy all the worst excesses of some manifestations of Islam, but it is interesting to note that all the groups I have just mentioned are themselves the victims of persecution by mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims, often for the very reason that they reach out to non-Muslims as equals and admire/utilise aspects of religions other than Islam.

Yes, the first verse of sura 9 sounds so encouraging, but, as a good Sunni friend of mine, a wonderfully liberal and pious Muslim of unlimited charitable intent toward everyone, says, “Sadly, the number of verses in scripture condemning unbelievers and conflicting with the idea that there is no compulsion in religion far outnumber those that offer unbelievers protection and do not require commitment to Islam alone. Do not forget: apostasy is in many cases punishable by death. Some Muslims believe apostasy is always punishable by death.”

We do listen (and patiently) to pious Muslims, but pious Muslims of the mainstream variety too often speak only in terms of platitudes that rarely engage with substantive matters of concern to Muslims and non-Muslims alike: the prevalence of Islamist terrorism in so many nation states; the targeting of innocent people, children included, by suicide bombers; segregation of the sexes; gender inequality; female genital mutilation; forced marriage; the enslavement of girls and women for male sexual gratification; the radicalisation of growing numbers of young Sunni Muslims; threats of genocide against particular faith groups such as the Yazidis; disproportionately high Muslim engagement in domestic violence and child sexual exploitation; why so many Muslim-dominated nation states are afflicted with sectarian violence so extreme that millions of Muslims have been displaced from their homes; and why well over half of the seventy or so wars/conflicts currently taking place are taking place in predominantly Muslim nation states (where Muslims are invariably at war with fellow Muslims), or involve Muslims fighting on at least one side. Put more simply, why do so many Muslims glorify in death, destruction, persecution and the victimisation of those who differ from themselves, and why do so many pious Muslims fail to address these matters in a substantive way?

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Diyarbakir, Turkey

6.7.15.

The Sikh. Moderate Muslims have been playing a very dangerous game in which their silence is as dangerous as the extremism of radicalised youth joining the Islamic State.

Of course, those few brave and principled Muslims of liberal/moderate/modernist/integrationist inclination who have spoken about the need for the Muslim community to subject both itself and its scripture to critical evaluation live in fear of being murdered by the extremists. What is really required is a mass movement among such sensible Muslims that involves peaceful demonstrations to confirm that the extremists do not speak or act in their name. The extremists need to see that thousands – no, millions – of ordinary Muslims abhor what the extremists stand for. But can such rallies/demonstrations/peaceful expressions of abhorrence be organised? Given the sectarian differences that prevail in Islam past and present, probably not at this time. Also, such liberal, etc. Muslims know that among them are many illiberal, etc. Muslims who might/will seek revenge on those who “collaborate” with the “infidels”.

7.7.15.

The Muslim. It is insane that, at the beginning of the 21st century of the common era, ordinary and well-intentioned people must live in fear of death merely because of what they believe, say or do. Education, travel, the celebration of multiethnic societies, national and international law and UN conventions were meant to make killing people because of their religion or belief a thing of the past. Although we must acknowledge that the vast majority of people globally are sane enough not to kill for reasons of religion or belief, I still feel compelled to ask the following. Why is such killing so popular in one religion above all others?

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

A letter to “The Times” newspaper about the sexual grooming of children and young women.

Sir,

For many years political correctness has led to the identity of the community most obviously involved in the sexual grooming of children and young women in the UK being described as Asian rather than Muslim. We are consequently encouraged to hear the prime minister’s assertion that “a warped sense of political correctness” will not stifle attempts to fight these crimes – which he now classes as a “national threat”.

The Sikh and Hindu communities have for decades been at the receiving end of predatory grooming by members of the Muslim community and have for some time campaigned in the UK for it to be recognised that this is so, as recent high profile sexual grooming cases involving Muslim gangs confirm. The emerging evidence clearly highlights that most of the gangs originate from within the Pakistani Muslim community and that their victims are almost always of a white, Sikh or Hindu background.

We urge the prime minister to tackle head-on why so many young Muslims in the UK have this disrespectful attitude toward women in non-Muslim communities, and we urge him to urgently engage with the leaders of the Muslim community to find answers to a problem that demeans women, that does incalculable damage to interfaith harmony and that has a detrimental effect on the public’s perception of the Muslim community generally.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon, the Network of Sikh Organisations (UK).

Anil Bhanot, the Hindu Council (UK).

Ashish Joshi, the Sikh Media Monitoring Group (UK).

Mohan Singh, the Khalsa Sikh Awareness Society (UK).

Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Sadly, there is considerable evidence to confirm that the thrust of the letter is accurate in all or most of what it says (thus, a good Sikh friend of mine in Newcastle provides shelter, food and education in safe houses around the city to the Sikh and Hindu victims of Pakistani Muslim gangs who operate in Leeds and Bradford). But is this an appropriate task for the prime minister to engage with? This is a problem that must be addressed by the men of a very particular religion and ethnicity.  And such men must begin by asking whether a statistically significant number of Pakistani Muslim males engage in such sexual grooming because of how they perceive and engage with females within their own community. Next, and perhaps most troubling of all, they must ask whether such sexual grooming is an inevitable outcome of a religion that exaggerates the differences between male and female, that accords to girls and women far fewer rights and opportunities than it grants to boys and men, and that sees girls and women as both threats to male well-being and legitimate targets for sexual exploitation.

Anyway: the letter above provoked from a friend of mine, someone very knowledgable about the world of Islam, the following reflection, a reflection which demands from individuals within the Muslim community to confirm that gender inequality and the sexual exploitation of girls and women are not inevitable facets of a religion which, at times during the medieval period in particular, had much of which it could be proud:

I support just about everything in the letter to “The Times” except the idea that the prime minister should “tackle head-on why so many young Muslims in the UK, etc.” The prime minister could use his considerable influence to ensure Muslim leaders “find answers to a problem that demeans women, etc.”, but this is a problem that is most apparent among Pakistani Muslim men in particular (note the evidence from Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and Newcastle, for example) and, perhaps, Muslim men more generally (Muslim males of non-Pakistani origin have also been charged with sexual grooming of girls and young women, but in numbers far smaller than those from within the Pakistani community itself). It is time that the Pakistani and/or Muslim community took full responsibility for a problem that is self-evidently of its own making. The Pakistani and/or Muslim community needs to get its own house in order and should not – does not – require anyone outside the community, least of all the prime minister, to steer it toward doing what is no more than the right thing.

My worry is that the root of the problem lies with scripture itself and not “merely” the culture associated with Pakistani Muslim men. There are simply so many statements in the Qur’an and the Hadith that point to the inferiority of girls and women; that state how girls and women should be denied the rights and opportunities granted to boys and men (e.g. in relation to dress, education, employment, marriage and inheritance); and that conclusively stack the cards against girls and women being treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. Moreover, look at how, in the Muslim world generally, the honour of the family is fundamentally shaped by the behaviour of female relatives (in particular, such honour is shaped by how female relatives behave in the company of males who are not relatives), but men can commit the most dreadful crimes against humanity without bringing obvious shame on themselves or their family (they can also drink, take drugs and engage in sexual practices forbidden to women, presumably because boys will be boys!).

The challenge for Muslim leaders, whether Pakistani or otherwise, is that they need to find within their scripture theological justification for treating males and females equally, for providing males and females with the same rights and opportunities, and for according to girls and women precisely the same respect and dignity that should be accorded to boys and men. My Muslim friends frequently tell me that justice, equity, equality and respect for human rights lie at the heart of the Islamic faith. If this is so, I urge Muslim leaders to get to work to confirm it, in the first instance in relation to gender alone (then, perhaps, a theology of equality can be elaborated in relation to sexuality, disability, non-Muslims with or without a faith commitment, etc.) . The victims of misogynistic Muslim male attitudes and behaviour need to be confronted with that theology of gender equality now.

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Wow: I hear what is said and agree with much of the content. But can such a theology of gender equality be extracted from scripture? I believe it exists, but only if Muslim leaders ignore the much more compelling/detailed/problematic theology of gender inequality. Here is a tip for those honourable Muslim leaders, Pakistani or otherwise, who are determined to get their own house in order. Rely less on scripture to identify a theology of gender equality and examine Muslim history and tradition instead (in particular, examine how some Shia and Sufi groups have given expression to gender equality in the past and continue to do so today). But, for perhaps an even more obvious source for a theology of gender equality, engage with the many brilliant Muslim feminists (most of whom remain alive, thankfully, despite repeated death threats from males hostile to gender equality) who have done all the groundwork for the Muslim leaders already. Yes: confirm a commitment to gender equality simply by taking seriously what Muslim women really want and act upon their demands. As the meerkat says, “Simples.”

Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

P.S. Even before this post was published, a Muslim friend who kindly examined the draft pointed out, “And do not forget ijtihad, which allows for individual interpretation of scripture where scripture is not wholly explicit or unambiguous about what should be the case. Also, you are correct. While Islamic scripture appears to provide people with a theology of gender inequality, a very careful selection of statements from the Qur’an and the Hadith allows for a theology of gender equality. I am confident that Muslims will rise to the challenge this post provides for them to express such a theology of gender equality.”

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey