Here’s SBY’s bedside read
|Attack on Ahmadiyah compound (International Crisis Group)|
What sort of liberty must a good society give to members of minorities whose religion the majority finds incorrect, or even sinful and bad? What limits could a decent society impose on religious behavior?
These questions, articulated by American philosopher Martha Nussbaum in The New Religious Intolerance, confronted settlers in the United States in the 17th century. Many were escapees from mainstream religious persecution in the Old World, determined to fashion a fresh social order.
The issues surfaced again in 1945 when Soekarno rejected hardliners seeking to impose Sharia law. He needed the minority Christians, Hindus and Buddhists on board to launch the new nation in a world tired of religious conflict, praying for an example of accord.
The questions remain valid today as the Presidential Palace ponders the right response to attacks on churchgoers in Bogor and Bekasi. Then there’s persecution of Shiites and Ahmadiyahs trying to sustain their belief in Chapter XI of the Constitution - the section guaranteeing religious freedom for all.
In seeking solutions to these questions President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his advisers could enrich their decision-making by reading this book and mull over its central idea – that fear drives hate, and little will change till this is understood and confronted.
What sort of fear? Professor Nussbaum (she teaches law and ethics at the University of Chicago) includes primitive anxieties about the unknown, and threats of difference driven by ignorance.
Heading the list is Islamophobia, the black death of reason and respect, infecting the West in ways that lead voters and legislators to react irrationally.
In Switzerland, a nation famed for its prosperity and independence, a referendum resulted in a ban on mosque minarets. Only five per cent of the population is Islamic. The restriction was opposed by the Parliament, Jewish communities and Catholic bishops, but 57 per cent of the population, stoked by agitators using cartoons that made the minarets look like missiles, voted to prohibit.
France and Italy (centers of world fashion) have banned burkas even though only a wisp of women choose this dress – one estimate is under 3,000.
In the US and Britain the media immediately assumed that last year’s massacre in Norway that took 76 lives was the work of Al Qaeda. Later we learned the gunman was a psychopath hating Muslims.
In the US there are too many stories to list here of travellers with Islamic names and ‘Middle-Eastern appearance’ being targeted by zealous immigration officials.
Then there’s the case of Park 51, the Islamic proposal to build a multi-faith community center close to Ground Zero, the site of the twin towers destroyed in 2001.
It wasn’t a mosque, though it did include prayer space. The controversy features heavily in this book as an example of the need for informed leadership, to comment with care and to never let such debates get hijacked by demagogues.
At first people supported the center and saw no harm. Then a campaign of hate and lies began and what the author calls the ‘cascade’ of hostility, with people rushing to join others who claim to know the truth.
The proposers weren’t faultless. Comments Professor Nussbaum: “Park 51 was a set of good ideas too hastily put forward with too little clarification of goals and concepts, and much too little consultation with the local community.”
At the start of the 2010 Ramadhan President Barack Obama, a skilled orator and wordsmith, said “… I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country.”
However a day later he “clarified” his position saying he was only commenting on the constitutional question, not “the wisdom of making the decision to build a mosque there.” Presidential prevarication isn’t exclusive to Indonesia.
Two stand-outs make this book valuable. The author writes with clarity, rare for an academic. She’s also a moderate, pragmatic about the need for tough security measures but arguing these must be based on the unbiased presentation of facts.
Till recently the FBI taught recruits about Islam using writings varying from the questionable to the grossly bigoted. Simplistic clichés smothered truths. The difference between Sunni and Shiite was misrepresented or ignored. So was the fact that Indonesia and India have the world’s largest populations of Muslims.
The author concludes “that the suspicion and mistrust of academic scholarship by the FBI that began during the McCarthy era have never really ended.”
In the interfaith business it’s easy to get depressed. Just when imams and bishops shake hands the warped ones decide that hate is better than harmony. All the fine words are blasted apart and it’s start-over time again.
The fearmongers move in with disguised agendas, their half-truths and untruths fill the hole left by the ditherers, and the rat is off and running. There’s no rest for the righteous.
The Greek philosopher Socrates advocated the ‘examined life’ with a democracy “thoughtful rather than impetuous, deliberative rather than unthinkingly adversarial.”
Sounds good, but there’s a catch, as the author reveals:
“The insight that Socrates lacked was that politics and government have no business telling people what God is or how to find the meaning of life.
“Even if governments don’t coerce people, the very announcement that a given religion (or anti-religion) is a preferred view is a kind of insult to people who in all conscience cannot share this view.
“That’s a point that Socrates and many philosophers after him, have utterly failed to understand.”
The New Religious Intolerance
Martha C Nussbaum
Harvard University Press 2012
(First published in The Sunday Post, 22 September 2012)