Persecution

Prison Without Walls

11 PRISON WITHOUT WALLS (Prof. Terence P. Day, Department of Religion University of Manitoba) For more than fourteen centuries, Islam has kept alive the Prophet Muhammad’s noble cause for the world which he called the jihad, the Islamic holy war. He showed his countrymen that there is sometimes ‘the litle holy war’ against the external enemies of Islam; there is always the big holy war in the human heart against arrogance, prejudice, disbelief, hatred, cruelty and all the negative forces that generate, fuel and sustain man’s inhumanity to man. For half a century Amnesty International has fought a holy war for human rights, international justice and moral compassion against forces of oppression, instruments of barbarism against the denial of civil rights, the suppression of human moral and religious freedom, and against the cruel and unjust exploitation of human beings but above all against the tyrannies which have led to imprisonments without trial followed by torture and other maltreatment of tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience. Amnesty International has become the modern world’s conscience, its ever vigilant watchman and guardian of human dignity in an era of global unrest and striving for freedom. Amnesty International’s self sustaining inspiration has been grounded in the spiritual faith and essential ethical assumption that mankind is one people, one community, one human race sharing a common human identity, having the same essential human needs, and emerging in the world as one complex but integrated human society. Its members have kept their faith in the goodness of mankind in the face of the unspeakable cruelties, untold human tragedy and oceanic misery of at least 200 wars presently being fought in different parts of the world and a thousand times more of political upheavals and civilian uprisings, especially in the Communist world. Against the blood red dungeons of blind fanaticism, violent unreason and cruel malevolence, Amnesty International has quietly and persistently pressed its reasonable and compassionate case for humanity and has tried to win national and public leaders in every nation into the ranks of .ethical cause for humankind. So much of the human and social injustice in the contemporary world 12 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS is politically motivated, but, there are thousands of prisoners of conscience who are in jails and are denied natural justice and personal liberty on religious grounds. It is their religious beliefs that are being denied and their right not only to share what they believe with others but even to practise their beliefs privately. It is not that their beliefs are contrary to just laws and true morality but only that they are different from normative creeds which have become accepted by uncritical and unquestioning majorities. Men, women and children are being persecuted, oppressed, imprisoned without charge, tortured and murdered, sometimes at dead of night they are attacked and murdered in their homes, and they are otherwise subjected to continuous harassments and injuries for no other fault or crime than their faith in God and their desire to worship and organize themselves differently from the majority of their countrymen. For the prisoners of conscience in Pakistan and Iran, there are prisons with walls and bars for the Ahmadis and for the Bahais. But, for two decades, at least, Pakistan and Iran have become nationwide prisons without walls within which those religious minorities are forcibly confined through severe restrictions against leaving the country as refugees from religious oppression and persecution. Ahmadis are denied the right to declare themselves Muslims or even to identify their religion as Islam. They are prevented from acquiring passports and exit visas; they face daily dangers and threats of physical assaults, of sudden arrests, confiscations of their property, closures of their places of worship and other threats which have been sanctioned by unjustly arbitrary and discriminatory legislation which have been politically designed to please orthodox Muslim factions. Both in Iran and Pakistan are the strange plights of sincerely devout and self dedicated Muslims who have been made prisoners of conscience by their own Muslim countrymen! While fundamentalist factions fight and destroy each other their minorities suffer for choosing to be Muslims or to espouse forms of Islam which are not approved by state institutions. Most of the religious persecution and oppression in the world has been racially, politically and sometimes socially motivated. Indeed, whenever the history of religion in our century gets written we should not be surprised to notice that it has only two sections. Its first and smaller section will describe how secular instruments such as politics and economics were’used for furthering religious causes. But, its second and larger section will describe sundry misuses of religion for nationalistic, communalistic and sectarian purposes including using of religion REVIEW OF RELIGIONS 13 to sanction the oppression and persecution and annihilation of social minorities. Even so, this century’s story of religious persecution will not be new although we have grounds for hope that this century will prove to be its concluding episode. But, the story so far is long and mostly focused in the western world. For, unlike the oriental world of where religious tolerance reigned within syncretistic Hinduism and Buddhism for more than 25 centuries,only since the seventeenth century have liberalism, humanism and secularism closed the western worlds’s era of religious persecution and inaugurated its century of religious toleration. Even so, the rise of Amnesty International with its mountainous volume of work indicate that our modern world has far to go in the matter of religious toleration. This is because, the United Nations’ Charter of Human Rights and the Assembly’s cause for world wide personal and civil liberties including the right to believe without restriction and oppression on racial, religious, political or any other grounds have barely moved beyond the legislative chambers and the occasional conferences, meetings and commissions on human rights by the United Nations and related agencies. The instinctive fears, prejudices, envies, jealousies and power interests which fuelled and sustained the momentum of religious persecution throughout the centuries are real and alive also today especially in developing societies in the third world which have large sectarian religions which have not out grown a medieval and backward religious outlook but have even adopted a retrogressive religious thinking and behaviour. Even at the present time when Islam seems ready to offer a morally and spiritually confused western world its viable ethical and religious alternatives, its image is being sadly tarnished, marred and scarred by a persecuting zeal of religious majorities against their minorities. The gracious practice of religious tolerance by spiritually enlightened Muslim leaders and the practical tolerance of millions of average Muslims, have not prevented nor stopped this persecution. While mournful anniversar- ies recall the genocidal massacre of Coptic Christians in Egypt, of Maronite Roman Catholics by the Druzes of Lebanon in. 1860, and also of Old Catholics, Nestorian Christians, and Jacobite and Armenian Christians by Turkish Muslims in 18 9 5 and 1915 there continues, almost unnoticed by the rest of the world, the seemingly endless social and economic oppression of Christians in the Southern Sudan by the predominantly Muslim Northern Sudan, and the repressive inequalities and indignities suffered by Christian minorities in Malaysia, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya. Elsewhere, Hindus and Christians are suffering the 14 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS inequalities of being religious minorities in Buddhist Sri Lanka and Burma. Atheistic Communism has sanctioned the persecution and imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists in Russia and the Communist bloc countries of Europe and of Buddhists in Tibet and Vietnam. The innocent suffer despite their noble values and positive services to their respective societies and nations. But, it has become historically apparent that the worst kinds of religious persecution have occurred within religious communities between groups sharing the same religion and not from external oppression. This has been so throughout the history of our era beginning with the widespread harassment and persecution of Jewish Christians by orthodox Jews during the first and the second centuries followed by the Catholic Church’s persecution and suppression of heretics and heretical groups within its own communities. The Church’s suppression of pagan minorities, next of heretical and reforming Christian sects and also of Ashkenazik and Sephardic Jews throughout the early and later Christian medieval period, repeatedly exposed the conflict of principle with practice and the enormous gap between Christianity’s formal ideal of Christian peace and love its persecuting zeal throughout the Christian centuries. More recently, however, a special burden of religious persecution has been felt by Muslim minorities in the contemporary Muslim world. Historic suppressions of Shi’ite minorities by Sunni’ite majorities have engraved funeral tones of martyrdom and mourning upon the conscience of Shi’it Islam. But, the recent extermination of 10,000 Sunni’te Muslims by an Alawite faction supported by Syria’s President Asad, the oppression of Muslim, mountain dwelling Kurds and the genocide of urbane Bahais in post revolutionary Iran are evidences of the sorrowful plight of Muslim minorities in majority Muslim lands There are indications of easements in the persecution of Bahais in Iran. But, daily from Pakistan come fresh stories of harassmems, repressions, oppression and murders of Ahmadi Muslims by orthodox mullahs and the national judiciary. The persecution is sanctioned by religious complaints that the Ahmadis are corrupting the true Islam by misinterpreting the Koran. Although Ahmadis affirm Islam, practise Islam, revere Islam and propagate Islam their right to be Muslims is denied by a Muslim majority which is not more devout and dedicated to Islam than the Ahmadis. Yet, the irony of the persecution of Muslims by Muslims is that Islam is REVIEW OF RELIGIONS 15 called the religion of peace. Moreover, not only Islam, but all the major religions claim to be religions of peace. Then why have they been so constantly engaged in religious persecution? Part of the answer lies in political aspirations and motivations which have caused nations in a transitional stage of social development to connect religious affliction with national loyalty, to harness the pent up religious emotions of the masses against foreign powers mainly from the West and to exploit fear of imaginary enemies within their societies. The current genocide of the Bahais in Iran and the Ahmadis in Pakistan is not an Islamic holy war against real enemies of Islam but the reaction by culturally backward and economically disadvantaged majorities to the enlightened and progressive and even westernized minorities in their midst. The contributions of the minorities to social emancipation have been read as threats to Islam andas portents of sweeping changes which are to come to all societies and nations which are on the threshold of the global technological and economic revolution. On the other hand, religious persecution has been also rooted in jealousy instead of fear in the envious coveting of the material wealth, social advantages and political power which have been earned by enterprising minority groups. Outwardly, the charge against Ahmadis in Pakistan is that they are heretics and of Bahais in Iran that they a stooges of a foreign power the United States of America. Secretly, their prosperity is coveted by others who claim to represent the interests of a captive and under privileged many. In this light, it can be argued that, it is not the religion of Islam that is at fault but human ambitions, avarice and greed. Nevertheless, even because it is the religion of peace, Islam has imposed a special obligation on its religious leaders to be the lights and instruments of its peace. Moreover, just because that peace should properly begin at home, the leaders are bound to secure the true peace of religious freedom for the minorities as well as the majorities in Islam. Its leaders must develop and expand their tolerance of the variations and differences of religious understanding and practice which religious freedom generates even because they must be intolerant of narrow bigotry in the guise of false piety. They must not be cowed or persuaded to aid and abet the political, the economic and other materialistic pretexts of religious persecution and oppression against minorities. Together with their reformist scholars, theologians, jurisprudents and statesmen, they must expunge any theological and other distinctions which sanction religious intolerance and persecution; and they must translate into realistic practical terms the religion’s ideas and ideals of human dignity and personal freedom. But, (continued on page 46)