Tag Archives: Wahhabism

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

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

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Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

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

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

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

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

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

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Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Religion and Belief in the UK, with an emphasis on the North-East of England town of Darlington.

Now let’s engage with some realities about religion and belief in contemporary Britain. Without engaging with such realities, posts on the blog run the risk of being no better than much of the nonsense about religion and belief that currently clogs up the internet.

According to the 2011 UK census, 67.2% of British citizens have a religious commitment, 25.7% do not subscribe to a religion and 7.1% did not state whether they had a religion or not. The same census suggests that 59.5% of UK citizens are Christian, 4.5% are Muslim, 1.3% are Hindu, 0.7% are Sikh, 0.4% are Jewish and 0.4% are Buddhist. 0.4% subscribe to “other religion”, but a breakdown by faith for this group does not exist (however, we can assume that the number of people subscribing to each faith in this group is very small). This means that about 37.5 million UK citizens are meant to be Christian, 2.7 million are meant to be Muslim, 835,000 are meant to be Hindu, 432,000 are meant to be Sikh, 269,000 are meant to be Jewish and 261,000 are meant to be Buddhist. I say are “meant to be” Christian, etc. because statistics about religious affiliation are known to be extremely unreliable. As a general rule, such statistics significantly exaggerate the true level of faith commitment.

The discrepancy between the level of religious affiliation as revealed in censuses (and in smaller surveys not national in scope) on the one hand and the reality about religious affiliation on the other is perhaps most obvious in terms of how many UK citizens engage in regular attendance at a house of worship (not that attendance at a house of worship, regular or otherwise, is the only way to measure commitment to religious belief, although statisticians and academics accept that it is one of the more reliable such measures). Every week, about 5 million Christians attend a church, about 2 million Muslims attend a mosque, about half a million Hindus attend a mandir, about 300,000 Sikhs attend a gurdwara, about 150,000 Jews attend a synagogue and about 150,000 Buddhists attend a temple, a monastery or a centre where devotional practices can be undertaken. But what of the other faith groups in the UK, small though they are numerically? For example, what of the Bahais or people who subscribe to faiths such as Chinese Religion (a complex fusion of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism which is sometimes called Buddhism for the sake of simplicity), Rastafarianism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism or Animism (which assumes many forms, especially in parts of Africa and Asia)? And what of people who subscribe to the various forms of faith known collectively as Paganism? In fact, the North-East has a number of well-known Pagan “centres” such as Allenheads and north Northumberland. Note, also, that a leading follower of Paganism lives in Newton Aycliffe. She has campaigned to have Paganism taught alongside the other religions which maintained schools in England and Wales must teach to pupils and students (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism).

Surveys and censuses suggest that religious commitment is higher than attendance at houses of worship because:

  • attendance at houses of worship is not the only way that commitment to religion manifests itself;
  • many people say that they have a religious commitment because they have been baptised in a church or married in a house of worship, or because they occasionally attend an act of worship, perhaps during a major festival such as Easter, Christmas, Wesak, Divali, Eid-ul-Fitr, Pesach or Baisakhi;
  • although most people seem to retain a belief in God/gods/supernatural forces creating/shaping the cosmos, etc., they may not feel that organised religion shares the same idea that they have about the divine/spiritual, or that organised religion pays homage to the divine/spiritual in an appropriate manner;
  • many people lie about their religious affiliation.

Surveys and censuses may exaggerate the true level of religious commitment in the UK – we are said to be among the most godless of societies, but still some way behind our Scandinavian neighbours who are acknowledged to be among the most atheistic peoples on the planet (North Korea, which is even more godless than the Scandinavian nation states, is a special case, of course, in that it is technically an atheist state in which religion is discouraged, sometimes brutally. There is evidence that a very small number of courageous North Koreans subscribe to Korean Shamanism, Chondoism, Buddhism and Christianity, but the great majority of North Koreans define themselves as atheist or agnostic. Only Chondoism has official status in the nation state) – but religion is still a potent force in the nation state. Note, for example, that:

  • the Anglican Church is still the established church;
  • the monarch must be a practising member of the Anglican Church;
  • legislation passed through the houses of parliament a few years ago making it unlawful to discriminate against people on the grounds of their religion or belief;
  • it still counts in many parts of the UK if you have a faith commitment (c.f. the persistence of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, western Scotland, Glasgow, Liverpool and even some parts of the North-East. Thankfully, sectarianism is less of a problem now than it was even ten years ago);
  • there are approximately 7000 faith schools in the UK (out of a total of nearly 21000);
  • a third of all maintained schools are faith schools (the vast majority of such schools are Anglican or Roman Catholic, but a small number are Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Greek Orthodox, Seventh Day Adventist or belong to the Religious Society of Friends/the Quakers, etc.);
  • about 600 faith schools are secondary schools (again, almost all such schools are Anglican or Roman Catholic);
  • of all the academies now open, a third have a faith designation;
  • when a moral or ethical issue is debated, the opinion is always sought of those who have a faith commitment;
  • some faith groups are very competent when campaigning for causes dear to their hearts and know how to ensure that their points of view are listened to/heard;
  • in some schools across the country, creationism is taught as fact;
  • in maintained schools, RE must be offered to all pupils and students from Reception to age 16 or 18 (but parents can withdraw their children from RE);
  • in maintained schools, a daily act of collective worship must be provided to all pupils and students. According to the law, the act of collective worship must be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character” (parents can withdraw their children from acts of collective worship, as can sixth form students. But, according to the law, schools should provide withdrawn children with an alternative act of collective worship which isn’t “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”).

Earlier, we learned that there are many different religions represented in the UK today. However, it is important to realise that, within each religion, there may be divisions/schisms/denominations that should be acknowledged. Take, for example, Christianity. Even in Darlington, a borough of about only 100,000 people, we have:

Anglicans, Assembly of God Pentecostalists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Eastern Orthodox Christians (c.f. St. Cedd’s Eastern Orthodox Chapel, West Auckland Road), the Religious Society of Friends/the Quakers, Methodists, Plymouth Brethren, Roman Catholics, Salvationists, United Reformed Christians, etc.

But on the margins of Christianity we also have:

Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints (the latter two in numbers that are statistically significant locally).

Darlington

Darlington, United Kingdom

If we were discussing Newcastle-upon-Tyne we would also draw attention to Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian/Coptic Christian, Seventh Day Adventist and Lutheran communities.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Within some denominations there are divisions that make co-operation problematic. There is a world of difference, especially in terms of practice, between, say, services in St. Cuthbert’s in Darlington’s town centre (a traditional “mainstream” Anglican church. Such churches are sometimes dubbed the home of the “frozen chosen”), St. James the Great (a Forward in Faith church more Roman Catholic than the Roman Catholic Church) and an Anglican church where charismatic elements of worship prevail (such churches are sometimes dubbed the home of the “happy clappers”). A few years ago, the congregation at St. James the Great split (relatively amicably) and about half the congregation eventually relocated to a church in Gainford as part of the Personal Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham, which was established in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI to allow Anglicans to enter full communion with the Roman Catholic Church while retaining much of their heritage and many of their traditions (the Ordinariate has appealed to Anglicans, but in numbers smaller than originally anticipated, worried that the Church of England would eventually ordain women as bishops, which it eventually did, of course). But differences in belief persist, even among the remaining Anglicans. For example, some Anglican congregations remain opposed to the ordination of women (because of biblical example and/or tradition) and to homosexuality (because of how they interpret scripture), while other Anglican congregations are energetically supportive of the former and cannot understand why there is such a fuss about the latter.

Similar divisions/schisms/schools may exist in other faiths. Thus:

within Judaism there are Haredi Jews (sometimes called Ultra-Orthodox Jews. C.f. Gateshead), Hassidic Jews (Hassidism is a product of Jewish mysticism dating back to the medieval period, but, today, in their belief and practice, Hassidic Jews are not far removed from Haredi Jews), Modern Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews and Liberal Jews, and

within Islam there are Sunni, Shia, Sufi and Ishmaeli Muslims.

Especially in Islam, you encounter within some sects/schisms a range of views/approaches to life not dissimilar to the range of views/approaches to life within a Christian denomination. Sunni Islam is a good example of this. The great majority of Sunni Muslims incline toward a pragmatic live and let live outlook on life in general, which means that they are not dogmatic and tolerate diversity. But a minority of Sunni Muslims have been influenced by the austere Wahhabi ideology of Saudi Arabia with its inflexible outlook on life shaped by a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an. Wahhabism has strongly influenced groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we all know what Taliban rule did for individual and civil rights generally, and women’s rights more specifically, when the movement held power in most of Afghanistan.

Jewish Burial Plot, Carmel Road North Cemetery, Darlington

Jewish Burial Plot, Carmel Road North Cemetery, Darlington, United Kingdom

Darlington may be a fairly small town, but its population is ethnically mixed and, as a result, its faith diversity is perhaps greater than many people imagine. Beside having a multiplicity of Christian denominations, and various groups on the fringes of Christianity which increasingly prefer to be defined as distinct religions (this is especially so of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints), we have Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and followers of various manifestations of Paganism (c.f. in particular Druidry). The Atisha Buddhist Centre, the Sikh gurdwara and the mosque all welcome visits from groups/individuals in the wider community and regularly engage in events designed to foster mutual understanding. Sadly, our synagogue on Bloomfield Road very rarely opens – the Jewish community is in terminal decline – but a visit to the beautiful cemetery on Carmel Road North reveals not one but two burial plots for the town’s Jewish dead, thereby confirming that Darlington once had a significant Jewish presence. All the town’s small number of Hindu families have a shrine in the home in front of which they can engage in ritual worship/puja twice a day, but, if they wish to worship in a mandir assisted by a pandit, they must travel to Middlesbrough or Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

By the way: an interesting statistic from across the UK. Today, well over 2000 churches have predominantly black or non-white congregations. Yes: Christianity, the religion intimately associated with the UK for the last 1400 years, is increasingly sustained by people who originate from nation states in Africa, Asia or the Caribbean. White people in growing numbers are turning their backs on organised religion or joining one of the religions which have been brought into the UK by migrant communities. Sheffield has been identified as the city where whites are most likely to convert to Islam, and a group such as ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness, perhaps better known as the Hare Krishna Group) is almost wholly dependent on white converts to sustain its membership/public profile. Moreover, although the Bahai faith has its origins in modern Iran and reached our shores in significant numbers only in the early 1980s when persecuted Iranian Bahais fled their homeland following the Islamic revolution led by Khomeini, the great majority of UK Bahais are white converts. The North-East of England has emerged as an important area for the Bahai faith nationally.

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

P.S. If anyone wishes to write about the rich diversity of religion and belief that exists in their home town/locality/region/nation state, by all means do so and send me the result: it may be worth uploading to the blog. Alternatively, if someone wishes to write a post devoted to explaining what their religion or belief is all about (perhaps in terms of beliefs, practices, approaches to moral decision-making, sources of authority, etc., etc.), by all means do so! Such posts will, if nothing else, contribute to mutual understanding – but, where appropriate, please support what you say with reference to scripture, key texts, reputable research, historical evidence, etc., etc.

P.P.S. Yes, I know we are lucky to have a lively humanist presence in the North-East of England. My links with the humanists are mostly via North-East Humanists itself, but I also know some members of the British Humanist Association. A post about humanism would be welcome at some point! It’s a belief system which does not get the exposure it deserves (but humanists frequently engage with interfaith endeavours in a highly constructive manner).