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Why we must not tolerate intolerance

Rohingya Refugees who fled Burma. Credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Rohingya Refugees who fled Burma. Credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

October 2, 2018   7 mins

You read about antisemitism, Islamophobia and racism in the newspapers almost every day at the moment. Intolerance is on the rise throughout the world and it would seem Western democracies are not immune from such hatreds. As the former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks said in a debate in the House of Lords last month:

“Antisemitism, or any hate, become dangerous when three things happen. First: when it moves from the fringes of politics to a mainstream party and its leadership. Second: when the party sees that its popularity with the general public is not harmed thereby. And three: when those who stand up and protest are vilified and abused for doing so.”

He concluded:

“All three factors exist in Britain now. I never thought I would see this in my lifetime. That is why I cannot stay silent. For it is not only Jews who are at risk. So too is our humanity.”

He’s right about the rising tide of religious and racial intolerance, fuelled by populism from the far-Right and the far-Left. It’s driven by a mix of factors and manifests itself in the form of identity politics, religious nationalism and extremism. The result is discrimination and persecution.

The intolerance is widespread. Few places are untouched. Here is an illustrative but by no means exhaustive run through:

In Burma, mainstream democratic politicians pander to militant Buddhist nationalists, resulting in a genocide of Muslims. In Indonesia, moderate Muslim politicians play the religion card and flirt with ultra-conservative clerics. India is led by a Hindu nationalist with a record of stoking hatred of religious minorities.

In Pakistan, where the notorious blasphemy laws have been a source of grave injustice for four decades, the new prime minister Imran Khan, on first appearance no extremist, is bolstering his religious credentials in ways which do not counter intolerance. On 7 July this year, at a rally of Muslim leaders, he promised to defend the blasphemy laws.

In Sudan, religious leaders continue to face criminal charges for resisting illegal but officially sanctioned seizures of church property. And in parts of the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Egypt, Iran and of course Iraq and Syria, religious minorities continue to suffer.

Such intolerance is on the rise not only in countries where extremists from the majority religion have influence, but in countries which are officially atheist. In China, Xi Jinping’s regime has launched a crackdown on religion that has fallen upon Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Daoists and practitioners of the spiritual movement known as Falun Gong. Churches have been closed or demolished, hundreds of crosses torn down, bibles confiscated or destroyed, and children under the age of 18 banned from going to religious services.

In some parts of the country, Christians have been forced to take down paintings of Jesus Christ and replace them with portraits of Xi. In China’s western region of Xinjiang, it is reported that one million Muslims are now in ‘re-education camps’, taken away without warning simply for reading the Qu’ran, praying, abstaining from pork or alcohol, or wearing ‘Islamic’ dress.

So bad is the repression that Human Rights Watch published a detailed report – Eradicating Ideological Viruses: China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims – and the United Nations has spoken out.

Vietnam’s Communist regime is also pursuing a campaign of persecution against its minorities, pressurising them to recant their faith, forcing eviction, denying access to public services; there is arbitrary detention, imprisonment, beatings, torture and sexual abuse. Defenders of religious freedom, such as Pastor Nguyen Trung Ton and the Hoa Hao Buddhist and legal expert Nguyen Bac Truyen, are in prison, and there are reports of deaths from torture and ill-treatment in custody.

In North Korea there is absolutely no freedom of religion or belief at all. Anyone who fails to demonstrate anything other than absolute, unwavering loyalty to the ruling Kim dynasty is punished severely; Christians face a lifetime in prison camp and in some cases execution.

In some countries, intolerance is driven by the government, while in others it is primarily non-state actors, but often with government complicity. In Indonesia, for example, the current president, Joko Widodo, is widely regarded as a defender of pluralism and a friend of minorities. Yet faced with re-election next year and an opponent, former General Prabowo Subianto, who is expected to play the religion card, President Widodo has chosen as his running mate a 75-year-old ultra-conservative Islamic cleric and head of the Indonesian Ulama Council, Ma’ruf Amin.

Human rights defenders are appalled at the choice, for Amin was responsible for the fatwa which landed the former governor of Jakarta, in jail on blasphemy charges. For Mr Widodo to pick for his vice-presidential candidate a man who was not only responsible for jailing the popular Christian governor, thereby delivering a hammer-blow to Indonesia’s reputation for pluralism, but one who also authored edicts restricting the construction of places of worship and the activities of Ahmadiyyas (a sect of Islam widely accused of heresy and persecuted by other Muslims), advocating the criminalisation of homosexuality, supporting female genital mutilation and promoting shari’a by-laws, is something of a setback for moderates in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

Mr Widodo’s defenders will argue that his choice has neutralised the religion question. Nonetheless it is a sign of the times that he felt the need to bolster his religious credentials rather than stick to his true instincts as a pluralist.

Indonesia’s reputation for religious pluralism has been increasingly threatened over the past two decades. The Ahmadiyya have faced periodic violence and restrictions throughout the country, and on the island of Lombok hundreds of Ahmadis are living in displacement camps because their homes were destroyed in violence.

On 13 May this year, three Christian churches in Surabaya were attacked by islamic suicide bombers within minutes of each other. Shockingly the bombers all belonged to one family: the parents had strapped explosives to their daughters, aged six and eight, and their teenage sons. At least 13 people were killed, and dozens injured. Against this backdrop, blasphemy laws continue to be misused, most recently in the case of a Buddhist woman in North Sumatra, jailed for 18 months simply for asking a mosque to turn down the volume on its loudspeakers.

Religious intolerance and violent extremism are not the same, but as the Wahid Foundation’s Alamsyah M Dja’far told me, “if intolerance increases, the threat of radicalism increases, and that will change the face of Indonesia”. It’s happening already. I was told this month of a Muslim man who asked his 12 year-old son what he had learned at school that day. “We learned about ‘kafir’ [‘infidel’],” his son replied. When his father asked what they had learned about infidels, his son replied simply: “We learned that they must be killed.”

Such anecdotes are reinforced by footage showing marching children at a kindergarten in east Java, dressed in black robes and niqabs, wielding assault rifle replicas, with the theme “Fight with the Messenger of Allah to Increase Faith and Piety”. As Reverend Gomar Gultom, General Secretary of the Communion of Churches of Indonesia, told me, “the seed of radicalisation has spread throughout Indonesia”.

At its most extreme, intolerance leads to ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and genocide, as we have seen in Burma. When I visited the refugee camps on the Bangladesh-Burma border in March almost everyone I talked to had seen loved ones raped or killed and villages burned.

I met Rohingyas whose eyes had been shot out and limbs blown off. “The Burma army was trying to drive us out of our land,” said Saiful, a young student from Maungdaw who escaped over the mountains. “They made it impossible for us to stay – how could we survive?” My abiding memory, though, is of 16-year-old Khalida, lying paralysed on the floor of her bamboo hut.  She had been shot multiple times in her leg, and was unable even to sit up.

“More than 300 Rohingyas in my village were killed by the Burma army in their attack,” she told me. “My father, two sisters and one brother were killed. My mother was also shot but survived.” Her 18 year-old brother, Mohamed Rafiq, fled their village before the military attacked, and discovered her among hundreds of bodies when he returned. They managed to flee to Bangladesh, where she could receive medical treatment.

It’s not only believers who are persecuted. Freedom of religion or belief, as detailed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a fundamental human right for everyone, of every belief and none, and it protects the freedom to not believe as much as the right to believe. Alexander Aan is an atheist jailed for his beliefs. After writing on Facebook that he did not believe in God, he ended up in jail. There are similar cases in many parts of the world, as the annual report of the International Humanist and Ethical Union details.

In our divided world, intolerance comes from every quarter – from religious extremists towards perceived heretics in their own religion, adherents of other religions, secularists, woman, the LGBT community and others; and from militant secularists and atheists, either in authoritarian regimes or within society, towards those of other beliefs. It comes from all directions – theological, ideological, political and socio-economic. Sometimes it is out of genuine, if narrow-minded, conviction, but more often it is mixed with political motivations, perhaps tied with conflicts over land, natural resources and influence. It tears families, nations and the world apart.

To counter it, we need to promote freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere, and strengthen the mechanisms we have available for this. The United Nations has a Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed; the European Union has a Special Envoy, Jan Figel; the United States has an Ambassador-at-Large, Sam Brownback; Britain has recently appointed the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Lord Ahmad, as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on the issue; and countries such as Norway and Denmark have equivalent representatives.

Their roles must be supported, their influence strengthened. And we must strengthen initiatives to counter intolerance and extremism and promote dialogue wherever possible. There are various plans available already – agreed at gatherings at Rabat, Marrakech and Beirut for example – and they should be more widely implemented.

All hope is not lost. There is still humanity amid the monstrosity. Within hours of the attacks on Surabaya, people of all faiths came to the churches to offer condolences and help clear up the wreckage. Such gestures took place across the nation. In Jakarta, two young Muslim women handed out roses to the congregation during mass at the Cathedral. It’s an important part of town. Jakarta’s Cathedral stands across the street from Indonesia’s largest Muslim place of worship, the Istiqlal Mosque: it’s symbolic of Indonesia’s pluralism.

In our world today, divided by political and religious tensions, we need to support those who will go to the place of worship of another faith with roses, not bombs. In so doing, we can overcome the hatreds of every stripe that are sweeping our globe. We need to open our doors to our neighbours. The titles of Jonathan Sacks’ books give us a nudge in the right direction: The Dignity of Difference; The Home We Build Together; To Heal A Fractured World. We should heed his hints.

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. As East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, he specialises in Burma, Indonesia, China and North Korea.


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