Rescuing RELIGION


November 4, 2018

DIVERSITY

Rescuing RELIGION

I would urge every person of faith (in this room) to take personal responsibility to move religion back to where it should be, on the side of right, and on the side of the rights of people.

There are many inspiring stories around the world. In Philadelphia, where I’m now on sabbatical, I visited the leading human rights group that stands in defence of Muslims in in the US, the Council on American Islamic Relations.

CAIR in Philadelphia is headed by a white Jewish American, its legal officer is an African-American Christian, and a Muslim is its education officer (main photo). So its three full time employees are a white Jew, a black Christian, and a Muslim immigrant. And they are fighting for Muslims’ human rights. This is what religion is capable of. It is capable of coming together in interfaith struggles to pursue social justice.”Singapore’s Public Intellectual George Cherian

An extract from the Q&A after my talk at the IPS Diversities conference.

Q: To what extent do you think a civic impulse is workable only insofar that we have don’t have religious groups that are seeking to expand?

A: We can tell how open this IPS dialogue is, when we can actually talk about religion, which is a third rail in many societies.

I still think that, despite the worrying rise in aggressively exclusive religious groups around the world that have also inspired groups in Singapore, politically it is not as serious a problem here as it is elsewhere. I study intolerance and hate around the world, so relative to the stuff that is going on in other parts of the world, we are in pretty good shape.

And I’m convinced that one reason why is that no matter how worrying some of these trends are within any one faith group — or more accurately within sub-groups within major religions — there’s a limit to how much damage will be caused as long as those force are not aligned with party political forces. That’s when it becomes very potent elsewhere, when it becomes in the interest of a political party to court and partner with some of these exclusive and intolerant religious movements. And that makes sense in countries with a dominant religion, whether it’s India or Indonesia or Myanmar or the US or most of Europe.

It simply does not make sense in Singapore. A political party could try it, but it would not succeed, because even if you court the 40% Buddhist population out there, you’re going to alienate the 60% that make up everyone else. The same applies to other religions. And that does give us some assurance that there is a limit to how much religious divides can translate into electoral advantage.

Of course politics is more than elections. So religious forces can influence how debates are handled. And yes, in that sense we are in a worrying phase globally as well as in Singapore. For whatever mix of reasons, which sociologists of religion will be better equipped to explain, the centre of gravity in many of the world’s religions is at the more intolerant and exclusive ends of the spectrum.

It’s important to realise that this wasn’t always the case. I’m convinced this moment will pass. It is up to us collectively to make sure this moment passes. It is especially up to those who are the most devout in your respective communities to make sure this moment passes.

It was not too long ago that religious groups were at the forefront of progressive change around the world. Think of the major successes in human rights and democracy over the last 200 years. Most of them were fronted by religious organisations. The Quakers in Britain helped to get rid of slavery. Think of the church’s role in the Philippines’ People Power movement or the American civil rights movement. Think of religion’s role in Indian nationalism, which we benefited from as well. So there is a strong history of religion being on the side of tolerance and expanding human rights.

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It is depressing to see how this strong tradition of religions standing up for the rights of others, including the rights of other faiths, has somehow been relegated, and instead the wind is at the backs of those who are more exclusive. I would urge every person of faith in this room to take personal responsibility to move religion back to where it should be, on the side of right, and on the side of the rights of people.

There are many inspiring stories around the world. In Philadelphia, where I’m now on sabbatical, I visited the leading human rights group that stands in defence of Muslims in in the US, the Council on American Islamic Relations. CAIR in Philadelphia is headed by a white Jewish American, its legal officer is an African-American Christian, and a Muslim is its education officer (main photo). So its three full time employees are a white Jew, a black Christian, and a Muslim immigrant. And they are fighting for Muslims’ human rights. This is what religion is capable of. It is capable of coming together in interfaith struggles to pursue social justice.

One of the proudest achievements of Singapore is to host the world’s oldest interfaith organisation, the Inter Religious Organisation. This is one of the resources we have. Sadly, though, that’s not where the action is, so to speak, in public life. Sadly, the agenda has been seized by a minority of leaders and members within the world’s great faith groups, that are pushing intolerance and exclusivity. That needs to change.

FULL Q&A – VIDEO

 

Jamal Khashoggi’s Final Words—for Other Journalists Like Him


October 20, 2018

Jamal Khashoggi’s Final Words—for Other Journalists Like Him

On October 3rd, the day after Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, the Washington Post received a final column left behind with his assistant when he went off to Turkey to get married. It was, in seven hundred words, poignant and personal and epically appropriate, considering his fate. “The Arab world was ripe with hope during the spring of 2011. Journalists, academics and the general population were brimming with expectations of a bright and free Arab society within their respective countries,” he opined. “They expected to be emancipated from the hegemony of their governments and the consistent interventions and censorship of information.” Instead, rulers grew ever more repressive after the short-lived Arab Spring.

Today, hundreds of millions of people across the Middle East “are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives,” Khashoggi wrote. They are either “uninformed or misinformed” by draconian censorship and fake state narratives. As the headline of his last published words asserted, “What the Arab world needs most is free expression.”

In his death, Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and former government supporter who became a vocal and fearless critic of the current Saudi crown prince, has galvanized global attention far more than he was able to do during his life. The horrific details of his murder and dismemberment have had an effect he would never have imagined—putting into serious question the fate of a Saudi leader, the state of U.S.-Saudi relations, American foreign-policy goals in the world’s most volatile region, and even policies that have kept dictators in power. The repercussions are only beginning.

But Khashoggi was hardly a lone voice decrying political repression in the Middle East, as he acknowledged in his final Post column. Saudi Arabia may be the most cruel and ruthless government in the region, but it uses tactics embraced by dictators, sheikhs, and Presidents across twenty-two countries.

In 2014, Egypt’s military-dominated government seized all print copies of the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, whose name means “The Egyptian Today.” Al-Masry Al-Youm is that rare private newspaper in the Arab world where young reporters once dared to question government policies in hard-hitting editorials and groundbreaking journalism. “The Egyptian government’s seizure of the entire print run of a newspaper, al-Masry al Youm, did not enrage or provoke a reaction from colleagues. These actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community,” Khashoggi wrote. “Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence.”

The world, particularly the West, is partly culpable for looking the other way, he wrote. It is a tragic irony that the world is paying attention to Khashoggi’s death, yet still not making an issue of a sweeping problem that could determine the future of a region of twenty-two countries and four hundred million people. On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, announced that he would not attend the Saudi investment conference known as “Davos in the Desert,” which is pivotal to the crown prince’s plans to modernize the kingdom’s oil-reliant economy. The British trade minister, the French and Dutch finance ministers, and the president of the International Monetary Fund also backed out after Khashoggi’s disappearance. But no foreign government is addressing the broader political practices in any other country, or any other case, in the region.

In his column, Khashoggi drew attention to imprisoned colleagues who receive no coverage. “My dear friend, the prominent Saudi writer Saleh al-Shehi, wrote one of the most famous columns ever published in the Saudi press,” Khashoggi noted. “He unfortunately is now serving an unwarranted five-year prison sentence for supposed comments contrary to the Saudi establishment.” Shehi, who had more than a million followers on Twitter, was charged with “insulting the royal court” for his statements about widespread government corruption in his columns for the newspaper Al Watan and on a local television program.

 Image result for Michael Abramowitz, the President of Freedom House

Michael Abramowitz, the President of Freedom House and a former national editor at the Washington Post, told me that Khashoggi rightly identified the broader stakes. “Khashoggi’s final column accurately pinpointed the appalling lack of political rights and civil liberties in much of the Arab world, especially the right to freely express oneself,” he said. Khashoggi began his last piece by citing Freedom House’s 2018 report—and the fact that only one Arab country, Tunisia, is ranked as “free.” Abramowitz told me, “What is especially sad is that, while we are properly focussed on the outrageous actions by the Saudi government to silence one critic, we must also remember that countless other bloggers, journalists, and writers have been jailed, censored, physically threatened, and even murdered—with little notice from the rest of the world. And, in some cases, notably Egypt, conditions have deteriorated.”

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In the Gulf states, Human Rights Watch chronicled a hundred and forty cases—a number chosen based on the original character limit on Twitter, though there are actually many, many more—where governments have silenced peaceful critics simply for their online activism. Among the most famous is Raif Badawi, a young Saudi blogger who ran a Web site called the Saudi Liberal Network that dared to discuss the country’s rigid Islamic restrictions on culture. One post mocked the prohibition against observing Valentine’s Day, which, like all non-Muslim holidays, is banned in Saudi Arabia. In 2014, he was sentenced to ten years in prison, a thousand lashes, and a fine that exceeded a quarter million dollars. (I wrote about his case in 2015.)

Badawi’s sister Samar—who received the 2012 International Women of Courage Award at a White House ceremony hosted by Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—was arrested in July. When the Canadian Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland, tweeted her concern about the Badawi siblings, in August, the kingdom responded by expelling the Canadian Ambassador, recalling its envoy, freezing all new trade and investment, suspending flights by the state airline to Toronto, and ordering thousands of Saudi students to leave Canada. (I wrote about the episode that month.)

In Bahrain, Nabeel Rajab, one of the Arab world’s most prominent human-rights advocates, is languishing in jail after being sentenced to five years for tweeting about torture in the tiny sheikhdom and criticizing Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. In the United Arab Emirates, Ahmed Mansoor, who ran a Web site focused on reforms, was sentenced to ten years for social-media comments calling for reform.

“The Arab people are desperate for real news and information, and Arab governments are desperately trying to make sure they never get that,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, told me. “Uncensored communication on social media promised journalists and writers in the Middle East the greatest hope to freely exchange ideas and information, but it’s also why Arab governments, so terrified of the voices of their own citizens, rushed to pass laws criminalizing online communications and jailing writers and activists for mere tweets.”

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The wider world bought into the Saudi narrative that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and de-facto ruler, was intent on opening up the kingdom. Perhaps tellingly, it is the free press elsewhere in the world that first asked questions about Khashoggi’s October 2nd disappearance, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he had gone to get papers so he could marry. “The world should take note that it is the free press, not the Saudi government or the White House, that has doggedly searched for the truth about what happened to Mr. Khashoggi,” the Democratic senator Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, said in a statement. “It reminds us, once again, that a free press is an essential check against tyranny, dishonesty, and impunity.”

 

“Compassion or Toleration? Two Approaches to Pluralism”


October 198, 2018

“Compassion or Toleration? Two Approaches to Pluralism”

On October 4th, 2018, Karen Armstrong, writer and religious historian, delivered the sixth Annual Pluralism Lecture titled “Compassion or Toleration? Two Approaches to Pluralism”.

Please to listen to Karen’s lecture and reflect. Egoism is our problem. God is always Great.  –Din Merican