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Rabbi Arthur Schneier and anti-Semitism

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Prof. Giancarlo Elia Valori and Rabbi Arthur Schneier

A few days ago, Rabbi Arthur Schneier -the Vienna-born Holocaust survivor, who has been leaving and operating for many years in New York -gave the keynote address to the Austrian Parliament on the 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, the terrible “Night of Broken Glass” when the shards of broken glass littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed.

It is also referred to as Reichs pogrom and November pogrome, two terms that always use the word “pogrom” (meaning “devastation” or “riot” in Russian) to indicate the attack of small well-manipulated groups against Jews and their property.

Many pogroms were carried out in Russia, a country of ancient and profound anti-Semitism.

What are its roots? The traditional anti-Semitism of the Orthodox Church, as well as the easy manipulation of the apparata, and the obsession with identity, spurred on by the Tsarist regime.

The Nazis, in particular, imitated this terrible political practice, as early as the Kristallnacht of November 1938, to actually start the Jews’ physical elimination until the “Final Solution”, which began in 1940-1941.

During that night over 1,400 synagogues were destroyed and 1,500 people were killed in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

At that time, as many as 30,000 Jews were deported to the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.

Before the Kristallnacht, in 1933 there had been a call – or, indeed, an obligation -for a boycott of Jewish shops, businesses and professionals and later, in 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were promulgated.

Rabbi Schneier thought that, after the Holocaust, there would be no resurgence of anti-Semitism – a virus that has characterized modern history from late antiquity until today.

As a Kantian rationalist, Rabbi Schneier thought that – after the evidence of facts – there would be no persecution against Jews in the bright enlightened future of the twentieth century.

Instead monsters remain alive, after visible history putting them temporarily to rest.

But, as Rabbi Schneier said, now – in 2018 – the cancer of anti-Semitism is back and has metastasized in Europe and in the United States.

Ii should be recalled that anti-Semitism has always been present in North America.

Suffice it to recall Leo Frank’s affair of 1915. That American Jewish citizen was at first sentenced to death, but later his sentence was commuted from capital punishment to life imprisonment. Two years later, in response to the commutation of his sentence, he was taken from prison by a band of vigilantes, lynched by an angry mob and hanged from a tree. Today the consensus of researchers on the subject holds that Frank was wrongly convicted.

In 1958, even after the Shoah and the Nazi atrocities against the Jews becoming publicly known, the oldest synagogue in Atlanta was blown up and damaged extensively by a dynamite-fuelled explosion.

Myths and preconceived ideas, especially those based on hatred, do not need confirmation or denial. They exist and that is just the way it is.

Two years later, there was also the shooting attack by a “white supremacist” against a synagogue in St. Louis, with the killing of some Jews leaving that place of worship.

Alan Berg, an anti-racist intellectual, was killed in 1984, because in some of his radio talk shows he had defended black people and Jews.

There is no rational argument that can defeat anti-Semitism, racism, ethnic or even personal hatred.

Over seven major cases of violent anti-Semitism were reported in in the USA between 1990 and 2010, but there were countless actions on a smaller scale.

Anti-Semitism is still alive and is even increasing in terms of quantity and virulence. Just think of the attack against the Pittsburgh synagogue last October.

As Rabbi Schneier maintains, certainly the periods of social, cultural and economic turbulence are always fatal for the Jews – as the whole Western history demonstrates. Hence, unfortunately, with the crisis of Europe and the different, but concurrent crisis of the USA, the increase in anti-Semitism is predictable.

Shortly after the end of the Holocaust, Hanna Arendt rejected the theory of anti-Semitism as the development of the Jewish “scapegoat” theory and she often elaborated on the Rathenau case. Rathenau was the great Jewish industrialist and diplomat, who was Foreign Minister in Germany’s Weimar Republic and was murdered by right-wing extremists.

Elias Canetti reminded us that the idea for his extraordinary “Crowds and Power” sprang to his mind while seeing the many Social-Democratic workers following Rathenau’s coffin during the mourning service.

What is the essence of Arendt’s thesis on the Foreign Minister of Germany’s Weimar Republic?

The essence is that – by traditional position and role – the Jews were the “avant-garde of modernity” – hence all those who hate the values of Modernity are, ipso facto, anti-Semitic.

It is partly true, but Arendt forgets to say that anti-Semitism is widespread even in ancient societies (or in archaic societies, such as the Tsarist Russia of pogroms) and that many critics of the eighteenth-century revolutions are far from being anti-Semitic.

As noted by both Leo Strauss and the Marxist philosopher Lukacs, the modern world is also the symbolic and social organization that has been most opposed during its development, which has probably not ended yet.

The West of technology and of the calculating mind is not yet over, but its death depends on its excess of current and probably future anti-Semitism, which is incredible after the Shoah.

That is an excess of memory of its archaic and anti-modern past, even though modernity itself was somehow anti-Semitic.

Here Rabbi Schneieris very clear: the future of Europe is directly linked to the end of anti-Semitism and of today’s particular hatred against the Jews, i.e. that of anti-Zionism.

The future of Europe, but not only of the European Jews or of the complex world of North American Judaism.

We can certainly criticize Israel and its government – as we can   disagree with the government of Turkey or Finland – but it is certainly nothing new that the polemic against the Jewish State is linked more to the adjective “Jewish” than to the noun “State”.

In the crowds’ minds, the history of Israel is now linked to the assumption – completely ungrounded – that it took away from the Palestinians the lands that originally belonged to them.

Zionism was linked – quite rationally – to the reaction of the French people to the Dreyfus trial that divided French society between those who supported Dreyfus, the so-called “Dreyfusards”, and those who condemned him, namely the “anti-Dreyfusards”. That year also marked the beginning of the unfortunate caste of intellectuals, that is fortunately irrelevant today.

In Theodor Herzl’s mind, the end of the rational and civil relationship between Europe and the Jewish world was evident.

Everything could collapse in an instant for European Judaism. The combined forces of the reaction to 1789 and of the worst 1789 had come together.

Living without history and in the here and now – like the animals described by Nietzsche in his second essay of the Untimely Meditations- is currently the form and the way in which the West thinks of itself. The history of our civilization seems to have finished and, hence, it is no longer necessary to know history, which is the basis of endless manipulations that today still float in the crowds’ minds. This is the worst forgetfulness and neglect of ourselves.

Furthermore, Rabbi Schneier focuses his attention on a fact that few people – who are not tunnel-visioned and narrow-minded as a result of apolitically correct approach or mere interest in the number of votes gained in elections – currently consider: immigration, especially from the Middle East or Africa, where there is a strong presence of Islam, will certainly increase the insecurity of European Jews and, in many respects, of all EU citizens.

In the European and American liberal culture, integration implies acceptance of the other and the kind request that the other adapts to our laws, regulations, customs, habits and practices.

However, there are not only explicit and written rules, at least for us who are the heirs of Roman law.

Hence the other needs to accept the substratum of our civilization, which is not only the trite, idle, frivolous and enlightened “tolerance” – the mechanism in which, as Adorno and Horkheimer maintained, everything is false.

Something more profound is here needed, which can never be written and regulated.

Politics is a metaphysics where the unspeakable is what matters and shapes all the rest.

Obviously this also applies to the citizens of the host countries, who must understand the alterity of the other, in the profound meaning of this concept, and hence respect him / her in his / her becoming other – just to use philosophical jargon.

Hence, although a share of immigrants is – to some extents – inevitable and, however, this has already materialized, we should recall that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are not the enemies of Jews alone, but of our civilization as a whole.

This held true also for Nazism: it was in fact a political theory – but we should rather say a mere practice – linked to caste ideas typical of Asia where, indeed, the Third Reich also found military, economic and ideological support.

From Tibet to Indian Hinduism, from the Islamic sects of Central Asia to the peripheral Russian cultures of anti-Semitism, such as the Cossacks, while developing the aforementioned myths, Nazism aimed at the annihilation of Europe and hence at its “Asianization”.

Hence Nazi anti-Semitism as a struggle against Europe and its millennia-old civilizations, not less ancient than Asia’s.

Also the economy should be considered: as demonstrated by the most recent historians studying the Third Reich, the Nazi leaders thought to solve their economic and financial crisis with the “Jewish gold”.

Still today, whoever fights against anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is like one of the 300 Spartans holding the line in Thermopylae, who rescued the unique Greek knowledge and wisdom from a great Asian Empire that would have equated the maritime civilization of the Mediterranean to the steppes of the Persian Empire, without any culture other than the exaltation of the God-Emperor – or the sad repetition of the “ancients”.

An imperial wisdom that was also typical of the Roman Empire, but with the plurality of gods that already foreshadowed the Weberian “polytheism of values”.

Certainly, as Rabbi Schneier maintained, European leaders are very careful about the resurgence of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, but the issue does not lie in leaders, but rather in crowds, who seem to be ever more seduced by hatred, which is more complex than love but – like the devil -is a very powerful seducer.

But what is really anti-Semitism today?

A mass phenomenon, of course. And this is worrying because preconceived ideas are harder to eradicate than rational beliefs.

In the United States currently the Jews account for 5.5%.

Needless to say, it is not a race, but a set of different ethnic groups, united by the same creed.

Furthermore, between 11% and 20% of North American Jews are “coloured people” – hence not only blacks.

The Jews, however, live in 70% of current nations, ranging from the Jewish communities of Kaifeng in China to the Indian Jews of various Middle East origins, up to the Jewish majority areas in various parts of Latin America.

Nor should we accept the anti-Semitic myth whereby Jews are the “rich” who dominate the world.

According to the most reliable statistics, currently over 50% of the richest people in the world are of Christian faith, while there is a higher number of rich Hindus and Muslims than Jews.

The 2015 data shows that out of the 13.1 million people defined as “rich” globally, 56.2% are Christians, 6.5% Muslims, 3.9% Hindus and 1.7% Jews.

Certainly pathological thinking – a real mental illness, which currently defines anti-Semitism as a “conspiracy theory” – could maintain that this data is “rigged”.

This is not true. Indeed, it is real data taken from the tax returns of the countries recording significant GDP rates in the world.

In the United States, however, Jews are the ethnic-religious group that earns higher wages than any other similar group.

And there are still many poor people – poor like the Jews who arrived in New York two or three generations ago.

Currently 45% of New York’s Jewish children live just below the poverty line, while in the United States the poor Jews account for 26.4% as against an absolute average of 30.8%.

Between 1991 and 2011 the number of poor Jews in the United States increased by 22%.

Hence, as we already knew, the myth of the rich Jews who secretly organize economic crises or the spoliation and dispossession of the goyim peoples is completely unfounded.

But where did anti-Semitism historically originate? Probably in Europe and, above all, in the area of popular Christianity.

There is no difference here between Protestant and Catholic anti-Jewish hatred.

In his treatise On the Jews and Their Lies Luther used terminology and arguments that seemed to be copied from one of Goebbels’ leaflets.

Probably everything began formally with the Spanish laws on limpieza de sangre(blood purity) in the seventieth century and beyond, also after the great pogrom of the Reconquista, which occurred at the same time as the discovery of America.

At that time the Jews escaped –  along with the Muslims – from the “purified” Spain of Isabella of Castile heading to the East, especially to the Ottoman Empire.

The sultan of the time wrote an ironic letter to the Spanish Catholic Kings: “I thank you for bringing me here all these doctors, merchants, scholars and mathematicians, whom I needed”.

Furthermore, in addition to the specific Catholic anti-Semitism –  from which the Pope, St. Paul VI, but above all another Pope, St. John Paul II, definitively freed us – there was a secularist anti-Semitism linked to the scientist, positivist and rationalist ideologies developed as from the French Revolution of 1789.

A revolution which soon led to a resurgence of irrationalist and antiscientific attitudes: just think of Gracchus Babeuf’s Arcadian refusal of technology and factory work and his “Conspiracy of the Equals” or o fRobespierrism, when Lavoisier, the founder of modern chemistry, was guillotined by the revolutionaries under the slogan: “The Republic has no need of scientists or chemists; the course of justice cannot be delayed!”

Here other myths – apparently more “rational” – are already at work.

Darwinian racism, eugenics, the American anti-Communism – where Communism is basically the practice of fraternal help – as well as phrenology or physical anthropology.

This was the “scientific” basis of Hitler’s anti-Semitism and, from the beginning, the “Führer” was a loyal subscriber to the publications of New York’s “Observatory on Race and Eugenics”, which also set the yearly quotas of immigrants accepted by the US government.

Certainly confining the Jews to ghettos is also an excellent practice to eliminate dangerous competitors in trade, business or professions.

This is just what happened in Italy after the racial laws of 1938.

When the West thrived, Jews’ freedom was revived. Just think of the Florentine Republic of the Medici, as well as the Renaissance, the Italian Risorgimento, in which many Jews participated, and finally the German unification.

It should also be noted that, before the Western colonization, the Jews of the Middle East lived without particular restrictions or threats.

However, the number of the sporadic anti-Jewish actions were more or less the same as in Europe.

It is therefore appropriate to say that it was precisely the European anti-Semitism, imported into the French or British colonies, to stimulate the latent and silent anti-Semitism of the local population.

Currently, throughout the Middle East, the avowed anti-Semitism account for 98% on average.

A major cultural and political problem.

In fact, if a powerful Islamic militant group like Hamas, that is currently considered “terrorist” by both the EU and the USA – a group which is also an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood -states in its founding Charter it believes in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, this means that there is a problem of communication between the worst Europe and the most fanatical Middle East, which concerns both us and the Islamists of the Gaza Strip.

The “Protocols” are, in fact, a key example of the new and old anti-Semitism.

From 1880 to 1921, the anti-Semitic pressure in Russia was one of the major mechanisms that favoured the Jewish migration to the United States.

Moreover, the early twentieth century was a phase of extreme weakness for the Russian tsarist system, that the anti-Semitic myth greatly contributed to blocking and stabilizing, until the German operation that favoured the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk and hence Germany’s initial support for Bolshevik Russia.

On the one hand, the tsarist regime accused the Jews of plotting against the Russian Empire, on the other, the Jews were accused not only of the severe economic crisis, but also of the anti-tsarist propaganda, both the revolutionary and the bourgeois and pro-Western one.

Hence the anti-Semitic and the anti-Zionist propaganda are closely interwoven. They develop the same traditional style features and turn them into new slogans. They create the same mechanism of fallacious identity inside and of exclusion outside for Jews and Zionists, but today they are targeted above all against the policies of the State of Israel that we must defend.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Muslim-Evangelical alliance strives to create religious and political middle ground

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A recent unprecedented alliance between Muslims and Evangelicals takes on added significance in a world in which human rights are on the defensive, religious groups tend to forge political as well as ideational partnerships, and the role of the clergy in multiple Muslim-majority countries has come under scrutiny.

The alliance potentially could create a platform for voices in the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East, in which significant segments of the youth who constitute a majority of the population, increasingly reject state-controlled, ritualistic forms of religion and distrust clerics subservient to the government.

It could also offer a middle ground on which elements of the secular centre-right and centre-left could meet based on shared faith-based values in deeply polarised parts of the world, particularly in the West.

International affairs and inter-faith scholar Michael Driessen suggested in an email to this writer that the recently forged alliance between Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), one, if not the world’s largest Muslim civil society organization, and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), fits a pattern of partnerships between diverse religious groups that goes beyond seeking to protect minorities to promotion of social cohesion and fraternity.

Speaking at a virtual meeting of the Interfaith Forum of the Group of 20 or G20 that brings together the world’s largest economies, Tunisian Islam scholar Nejia Al-Ourimi seemed to anticipate the alliance when she argued that reform of Islam would have to be bottom-up and originate in civil society rather than top-down and directed and controlled by autocratic rulers who see it as a way of branding themselves and their nations as well as and one way of ensuring survival.

Ms. Al-Ourimi reasoned further that genuine inclusivity was precluded in much of the Middle East because most Arab constitutions assume that the state has a religion. She went on to say that “what we need to do is reframe the traditional approaches of linking religion to legislation. We must find leaders who are willing to withdraw from the traditional way of participating in the public sphere—through the legal and legislative dimensions—and return from a ‘values’ perspective to guide ethical efforts.”

In a contribution to a recently published report on Human Fraternity and Inclusive Citizenship issued by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and the Beirut-based Foundation for Diversity, Solidarity and Human Dignity (Adyan), Ms. Al-Oumiri points to a series of lofty, lovey-dovey inter-faith statements issued in the past decade by different combinations of Arab Muslim and non-Muslim clerics, religious and secular intellectuals, and politicians.

The statements constituted attempts by Muslim religious authorities and autocratic governments to keep ahead of the curb of youth aspirations and project themselves as voices of moderation by emphasizing religious freedom, religious pluralism, and inclusive citizenship irrespective of religious belief.

The statements include the 2012 Statement on Basic Freedoms issued by Al Azhar, Islam’s Cairo-based oldest institution of Islamic learning that has long been swayed by Saudi and United Arab Emirates financial support, the 2016 Marrakech Declaration that called for the development of a jurisprudence of that enshrines the concept of inclusive citizenship, and the Document on Human Fraternity signed in the UAE in 2019 by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.

Referring to the 2012 Al Azhar statement, Ms. Al-Oumiri highlighted the fact that the statement was issued in the wake of popular revolts that in 2011 toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Saudi and UAE manoeuvres helped roll back the revolts’ achievements in all of the countries except for Tunisia.

The manoeuvres did not roll back what Ms. Al-Oumiri described as a “new awareness” among “all the components that participated in the protest movement, secularists, liberals, Christians, Muslims and others, (that) became aware of the fact that the bilateral polarization and exclusionary relations prevailing at that time were the main reason for the dispersion of forces capable of inducing positive change and extricating Arab society from its chronic crisis.” It is an awareness that expresses itself today among others in changing youth attitudes towards religiosity.

Ms. Al-Oumiri’s ‘new awareness’ is one factor that hampers autocratic efforts to shape a moderate form of Islam that serves the needs of social change and economic diversification without conceding democratic freedoms, projects autocrats as religious moderates as part of their nation branding and furthers their quest for religious soft power.

The ‘new awareness’ is borne out by research and opinion polls that consistently show that the gap between the religious aspirations of youth and state-imposed interpretations of Islam is widening. The polls and research suggest that youth are increasingly sceptical towards religious and worldly authority. They aspire to more individual, more spiritual experiences of religion.

As a result, Nahdlatul Ulama’s opportunity to turn its alliance with the WEA into a vehicle of change in both the Muslim world and the West is enhanced by the fact that religious reform in rival contenders for religious soft power like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Egypt is top-down by decree or changes in common or civil rather than, more sustainably, bottom-up and anchored in religious law and jurisprudence.

The point was highlighted when Nahdlatul Ulama’s religious leaders took the first step towards reform of religious law and/or jurisprudence in 2019 by replacing the notion of the kafir or infidel with the concept of muwathinun or citizens to emphasize that Muslims and non-Muslims were equal before the law.

Leaders of the group say that they intend to tackle other outdated, intolerant, or supremacist concepts such as the dhimmi or People of the Book, and slavey that remain reference points even if large numbers of Muslims do not heed them in their daily life, as well as eventually blasphemy and apostasy.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s opportunity is further both bolstered and complicated by the fact that autocratic Muslim rulers wittingly or unwittingly reinforce Islamophobic tendencies in multiple ways by their often brutal abuse of human rights at home and their support of policies in various parts of the globe that encourage negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims.

These policies include the blurring in countries like France and Austria of the lines between political Islam and piety as well as autocratic Muslim acquiescence, if not endorsement of the crackdown on Turkic Muslims and Islam in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang.

Nahdlatul Ulama, despite its tangible adherence to principles of democracy, human rights, and tolerance, has yet to clearly distinguish itself from autocratic religious soft power rivals when it comes to its shared rejection of political Islam and identity politics. In other words, how it handles Islamophobia is likely to be a litmus test for Nahdlatul Ulama as well as its alliance with the Evangelicals.

Making that distinction clear is likely to also enhance the Nahdlatul Ulama-WEA alliance’s ability to bring together elements of the centre-right and centre-left could meet based on shared faith-based advocacy of human rights, democratic freedoms, and tolerance at a time that democracy is on the defence.

The linkage between the Nahdlatul Ulama-WEA alliance’s opportunity to serve as a bridge in both the religious and political domain is evident not only when it comes to countering religious supremacism but also far-right extremism. It is that linkage that adds a geopolitical dimension to the alliance’s potential.

Germany, where ultra-nationalist supremacists, despite recent electoral setbacks for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), have infiltrated the security and armed forces, spotlights the importance of creating a religious and political centre that is driven as much by shared values as it is by interests.

Security services recorded more than 1,400 cases of suspected far-right extremism among soldiers, police officers and intelligence agents in recent years. The German defence ministry last year disbanded a whole company of special forces after explosives, a machine gun, and memorabilia of the Nazi’s SS were found on the property of a sergeant major.

The geopolitical significance of developments in Germany is enhanced by the fact that some German ultra-nationalists and members of the far-right are believed to have links to Russia and /or far-right Russian nationalists.

In the latest German incident, prosecutors are investigating an official of Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, suspected of helping plan the assassination of a Chechen dissident as part of a campaign across Europe that targets critics of Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the Russian republic of Chechnya. Mr. Kadyrov is widely viewed as an associate of President Vladimir Putin and maintains close ties to Middle Eastern autocrats.

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Defining moderate Islam: Muslims and Evangelicals forge an alliance

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A major Muslim and Evangelical organization joined forces this week to significantly advance hitherto state-backed ceremonial inter-faith dialogues that seldom go beyond platitudes and lofty statements.

This week’s launch at a Washington DC mosque of an inter-faith alliance and a book published by the Institute for Humanitarian Islam and the Germany-based World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) as well as the Center for Shared Civilizational Values constitutes an Evangelical endorsement of Humanitarian Islam.

It also amounts to a rare Muslim celebration of an Evangelical authority, WEA secretary general Archbishop Thomas Schirrmacher, who played a key role in building a relationship between the Evangelical group and Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, one, if not the world’s largest Muslim movement.

“Dr. Schirrmacher’s decision to engage with the Humanitarian Islam movement may prove to be singularly consequential, and perhaps even historic, in its ramifications for the relationship between Christians and Muslims,” the editors of the book, Thomas K. Johnson and C. Holland Taylor said in their introduction.

Entitled ‘God Needs No Defense: Reimagining Muslim – Christian Relations in the 21st Century,’ the book is an anthology of essays written by preeminent Muslim and Christian scholars.

Based in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, the Institute for Humanitarian Islam was established by Nahdlatul Ulama to advance globally its humanitarian interpretation of the faith.

Nahdlatul Ulama sees the concept as an alternative to state-backed less developed and less tolerant and pluralistic notions of a moderate Islam as propagated by countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well expressions of political Islam represented by Turkey, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Nahdlatul Ulama was founded almost a century ago in opposition to Wahhabism, the austere interpretation of Islam propagated for decades by Saudi Arabia until the rise in 2015 of King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Indonesian group positions Humanitarian Islam as advocating genuine religious reform rather than self-serving social and rhetorical change advocated by rulers eager to implement long-overdue economic and social reform and project themselves as genuine religious moderates in a global battle for Muslim religious soft power and the soul of Islam.

The differences between Nahdlatul Ulama’s Humanitarian Islam and the interpretations of the faith put forward by its conservative monarchical and republican Islamist soft power rivals are stark and raise fundamental questions about what constitutes genuine reform and how it can sustainably be achieved.

The differences pitch an independent civil society group, albeit one with close ties to the state, against states themselves.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s independence has allowed it to start a process of real change rooted in religious law and jurisprudence rather than a ruler’s decree or opinion issued by subservient clergymen.

The group challenges outdated, intolerant, or supremacist concepts such as the kafir or infidel, the dhimmi or People of the Book, and slavey that remain reference points even if large numbers of Muslims do not heed them in their daily life, as well as eventually blasphemy and apostasy.

The group’s religious leaders took the first step in 2019 by replacing the term kafir with the word muwathinun or citizen to emphasize that Muslims and non-Muslims were equal before the law. “The word ‘kafir’ hurts some non-Muslims and is perceived to be theologically violent,” Nahdlatul Ulama cleric Abdul Moqsith Ghazali said at the time.

Independence also enabled Nahdlatul Ulama to embrace the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, parts of which are exempted by its religious soft power rivals. That is not to say that liberals may not take issue with some of the interpretations of the declaration by Nahdlatul Ulama, a socially conservative movement.

The differences raise questions about Nahdlatul Ulama’s ability to succeed beyond the significant inroads that the group has made among political and religious elites in the United States, Europe, the Vatican, and parts of Africa and Asia.

The launch in Washington of the unprecedented alliance and the book is together with Nahdlatul Ulama’s association with the Centrist Democrat International (CDI), the world’s largest grouping of political parties, the most publicly visible evidence of its success among elites.

The alliance puts flesh on the skeleton of recent inter-faith dialogue by bringing together two of Islam and Christianity‘s major groups. Nahdlatul Ulama has tens of millions of followers while the World Evangelical Alliance says it represents 600 million Protestants and national evangelical alliances in 140 countries. The alliance with Nahdlatul Ulama casts a different light on Evangelicals as opposed to Evangelists, who particularly, in the United States have often come to be identified with Christian nationalism and Islamophobia.

The alliance aims “to prevent the political weaponization of identity; curtail the spread of communal hatred; promote solidarity and respect among the diverse people, cultures and nations of the world; and foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being,” the Institute for Humanitarian Islam and the  Nation’s Mosque in Washington, said in a press release.

With the creation of the Center for Shared Civilizational Values, the alliance also constitutes an effort to create a platform for a dialogue that moves beyond elites to nurture a grassroots movement in favour of religious reform across major religions that emphasizes inclusivity, pluralism, tolerance, and common values rather than exclusivism and supremacy fueled by identity politics. (In the spirit of transparency, this writer has been invited to be a member of the centre’s advisory board).

In doing so, the Center hopes to build on Nahdlatul Ulama’s substantial popular base in Indonesia, the WEA’s reach across the globe and a range of contacts and interactions with Catholic, Jewish, and Hindu groups and personalities.

The choice of Masjid Mohamed, the Nation’s Mosque, as the venue of the launch, suggests an outside-in strategy in trying to garner grassroots support in the Muslim world. Located in Washington’s historic African-American Shaw district, Masjid Muhammad is the first mosque in the United States built by descendants of slaves.

As such, the launch constitutes an outreach to a minority Muslim community in a Western democracy that despite upheaval in the United States as the country struggles to come to grips with its history of racism is likely to be more accessible and perhaps more open to Humanitarian Islam’s message than significant segments of the population in Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan or the Middle East where many see what has long become a global faith through the lens of its Arab origins.

The alliance takes on added significance in a Western world that despite the electoral defeat of former US President Donald J. Trump and setbacks in Europe suffered by populists and ultra-nationalists has in recent years increasingly mainstreamed prejudice, bias, and authoritarianism.

“Rather than the world becoming more like the United States, as so many of us expected after the Cold War, the United States has become more like the rest of the world—in particular, its authoritarians,” noted foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook, debunking the projection of the US as a beacon of liberty and freedom.

In a twist of irony, Nahdlatul Ulama’s book publication coincided with a more narrowly focused and transactional Saudi-backed launch in Lebanon of a book, ‘The relationship between the Maronite patriarchate and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’ Written by Maronite Father Antoine Daw, Saudi support for the book and outreach to the Maronites was part of the kingdom’s effort to counter Iran’s regional influence and engage the Islamic republic in direct and indirect issue-oriented dialogues.

The launch in Bkirki, the Maronite patriarchate’s episcopal see, followed a call by Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi, Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric, for a meeting with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world.

The patriarch urged Hezbollah, one of Lebanon’s most powerful groups that played a key role in Iranian support for the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad to move towards a position of neutrality in a bid to salvage Lebanon that is teetering on the brink of economic and political collapse.

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Sedition law: Hand-maiden of the Modi’s government

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Sedition laws have become a handmaid of India’s government under Narendra Modi to stifle dissent, incarcerate political opponents or persecute minorities. Shouting  a slogan, wall chalking, social post “azadi” (liberty), wearing a prayer cap, or offering prayer on adjoining roads when a mosque is overcrowded could attract sedition charges. Even interfaith marriages or cow related offences could be tried as sedition. The Hindu-monk chief minister of Uttar Pradesh had directed his administration to try cow related offences under the National Security Act. Some states have passed love-jihad laws to prevent interfaith marriages. The over-ebullient Hindu extremists haul up even such people to the police stations who are happily married long before enactment of the law banning inter-faith marriages.

Apathy of India’s Supreme Court

Till recently, the Supreme Court had looked the other way in cases where there was blatant misapplication of the sedition law. Some verdicts smacked of communal bias. India being a secular country, the Supreme Court should have avoided dabbling into religious matters of different communities particularly of the largest minority, the Muslim. But, in vain. The Supreme Court pronounced that a mosque was not essential to Muslim way of worship. It allowed demolition of the ancient Babri Mosque. Thus it accepted the fictitious contention that Ram god was born at the site of the mosque millennia ago.

In marked contrast to its “Islamic” judgments, the Supreme Court had a benign attitude toward the Hindu religion. It admitted that a temple was necessary to the Hindu mode of worship. It allowed menstruating women to visit Sabarimala temple.

Supreme Court’s awakening

The plethora of sedition cases awakened the SC from its slumber. While quashing the sedition case against journalist Vinod Dua, the Supreme Court expressed ennui on slapping sedition charges to gag journalists. A  Bench of the Supreme Court led by Justice UU Lalit upheld “ the right of every journalist to criticise, even brutally, measures of the government with a view to improving or altering them through legal means”.The case against the journalist had been filed by the ruling BJP and was fervently defended by the Himachal Pradesh state government. The journalist was accused of “criticising the prime minister and the Union government for mishandling of the migrant crisis during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic”. The court drew attention to the 1962 Nath case judgment. That judgment took the sting out of the sedition cases filed under Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code. In the aforementioned case, the Supreme Court had ruled that Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code can be used only when someone’s word actually leads to violence or generates an inclination for violence. The Section 124A describes sedition as punishable with imprisonment from three years to life, a fine or both.

Among journalists facing sedition cases is Siddique Kappan based in Kerala. He was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police while on his way to Hathras to cover a rape case last year and had been denied bail. Kappan and 21 other journalists covering the Hathras rape case were charged under Section 124A.

Similarly, several prominent journalists were charged under the sedition law for their coverage of the farmers’ tractor rally in Delhi on Republic Day. The Supreme Court stayed the arrest of all of them. The Court observed that the Constitution has varying criteria for permissible restrictions on freedom of speech and expression and draws a boundary between serious and aggravated forms of public disorder which are calculated to endanger the security of the State and the relatively minor breaches of the peace of purely local significance.

 India’s Supreme Court had earlier observed in its 1950 judgment on Romesh Thapar versus State of Madras. “Only a higher degree of threat pertaining to endangerment of the foundations of the State could justify curtailment of the rights to freedom of speech and expression,” Thapar was editing a weekly journal called Cross Roads which was constantly at loggerheads with the Congress government of the day.

Disregarding the guidance in this judgment, the successive governments continued to mis-apply the sedition law.

Birth of the sedition law

When the Indian Penal Code was enacted in 1860, the sedition law was not included in it.  It took another 10 years for Section 124A to be included. Mahatma Gandhi was tried under this law in 1922. He told the court that the law had malafide intent. It was tailor-made to suppress the liberty of the citizen.

Concluding remark

India’s Law Commission issued a directive in 2018 that cautioned that a simple expression of a thought inconsistent with the government’s policy did not qualify as “sedition”. One has to be circumspect while invoking the sedition law. Yet, the Commission’s voice has proved to be a voice in the wilderness. Sedition law is a handy tool to stifle dissent. It is hoped that India’s Supreme Court will define the contour of the law more stringently to preclude its misuse by the fanatic Modi government.  

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