Terrorism, Religion and Humanism

  • post Type / Media
  • Date / 17 January 2003

IHEU at the Inauguration of the Radical Humanist Centre, Inkolle, Andhra Pradesh, India; 17 January ’03 Speech by Levi Fragell, President of IHEU: “Terrorism, religion and Humanism”

In so-called politically correct circles it is politically incorrect to say that the growth of terrorism is due to conflicts between religions. In those circles it may be admitted that terrorism sometimes can be caused by cultural differences, but if religion is part of that culture – it is always explained as evil misuse of the “real” or “true” religion, and a deviation from the deeper meaning of the holy texts.

Among these well meaning people – and they are often our best friends – it is looked upon as improper to point at religions as a reason for any kind of misbehaviour and violent conduct connected to social tensions. This is partly because they are afraid to create and foster cultural discrimination and hatred between etnic groups, and partly because they in a Marxist influenced tradition want to see all social conflicts as part of a struggle between rich and poor, those who have and those who have not.

All my life I have rebelled against the unjust division of goods and privileges. I am coming from a labour background, I had to pay my education by working at nights and weekends, and on the first of May I put on my best suit and demonstrate for social justice. But I think it is a major and dangerous mistake to explain the September 11th tragedy and similar well organised and spectacular terror actions as poor people’s war against the rich world. Of course there are elements of social revolt in this kind of violence, as it was among Hitler’s followers and Stalin’s soldiers, but the worst terror through the history has been based upon irrational beliefs and emotional dedication to dogmas – political, philosophical or religious. These forces are often interrelated, as in Nazism.

Today there is a special reason to focus on the influence of religion on terrorism. The hatred between religions has caused regional wars and occupation of land of enemies as long as religions have existed. But today’s globalisation means that the infrastructure of the world religions not any more is limited to regions, countries or continents. There are more Christian churches in Nigeria than in Germany; in every city in Great Britain there is a mosque; in the streets of Moscow the followers of Krishna are shouting their message. All over the world there are religious networks that can be mobilized for any cause, good or bad. And the “holy” wars are ususally not any more intended to occupy the enemy`s territory, they are meant to destroy it.

Osama bin Laden did not need to invade the US, his network was there. He did not want to occupy. He just wanted to terrorise the ungodly people and mock the national symbols of the Satanic Americans. Today`s migration, new technology and new strategies will make it impossible to protect any metropole in the world from destructive actions. It is probably only a question of time before London, Tel Aviv or Delhi will be hit by spectacular terrorist attacks, may be even more disastrous than the one on Manhattan.

The German author G�nther Grass gave an interview recently to the Indian weekly magazine Outlook, where he, like so many others, says that the reason for terrorist actions is the rage and hatred the third world feels because of the first world`s wealth and affluence. It is no doubt that the first world`s ugly exposure of financial superiority has caused violent reactions. But facing today`s world image we must take seriously the fact that no fatwa has ever been submitted against people for being richer than others.

Salman Rushdi did not hide himself in London for years because he earned a lot of money from writing books, but because of what he wrote about the Prophet and his family. The author Taslima Nasrin, had to flee from Bangadesh because of remarks about religion, not beacuse she was rich, what her friends know she never was. Thousands of Pakistanis live very affluent lives, in peace and harmony with their rather poor society. But a simple, local doctor, Younis Shaikh was the one who was attacked by the mob in Islamabad, brought to jail and sentenced to death – not because he charged undecent payments from his patients, which he did not, but because he uttered a few words about religion the believers did not like.

I have recently come back from Nigeria, where 200 Christians and Muslims where killed in riots because a magazine wrote as a joke that the prophet might have married a few of the female beauties in an international beauty-contest if he had been still around. I guess that similar attrocities could have been caused in Northern Ireland if a protestant newspaper had written that The Virgin Mary might have gone to bed with a beautiful popsinger if she had had the opportunity. Very silly and respectless words, of course, but not in any civilised culture will they qualify for capital punishment. The fact is, however, that such remarks in large part of the world are more dangerous than the most provocative remarks about class, fortunes and distribution of wealth – and may cause riots and killing.

I do not mean to defend the present economic order of the world. On the contrary, I want all decent people in North and South, East and West to struggle for radical changes in the distribution of the world`s resources. As president of the IHEU I was happy that the International Humanist Award was given last summer to the Indian Economist and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, whose theories about international equality according to the UN secretary general Kofi Annan will revolutionize our world. My deepest wish is that he is right. But in my view religious intolerance does not automatically vanish with higher standards of living.

Religious intolerance loses its dangerous power only where secularism developes. We must be aware that even if there is a correlation between economic growth and secularism, it is not automatic or selfevident. Some Arabic countries have a very high standard of living, even for so-called “ordinary people”, but at the same time the tolerance level is among the lowest in the world when it comes to other people`s beliefs and lifestyles. And even in urbanised and open societies in the West, you can be sure that when you find individuals or groups with the most extremist views on society, it will be among religious people. The killing of doctors who perform abortions in the USA, is one example.

The Norwegian scholar Torkel Brekke, with a Phd in religion from Oxford University, has in his book ‘Religion and violence’, warned strongly against the indifference with which politicians and social scientists handle the violent ideas in all world religions – including those who are looked upon as the most peaceful ones, hinduism and buddhism. He proves that the holy books of even of these traditions glorify the warriors, the weapons, the wars, the slaying of enemies. The Biblical and Koranic texts about how to deal with heathens and infidelity are even more grotesque; no punishment is too cruel for those who do not submit to the one and only god, and in the end you will be condemned to the eternal flames of hell. When this kind of ideas can be looked upon as “holy”, there will under certain circumstances be no limit to the cruelty of actions in the name of religion.

This does not mean that most believers are cruel people. On the contrary, most believers are nice and friendly, some of them are among the best people I have ever met. But in the analysis of the social function of religion, commentators and writers make two fatal mistakes, both of them due to subjective generalisation: if they have a personal experience that religious people are nice, they conclude that religion cannot be harmful. And if they have a personal perception of religion as good, the believers cannot be bad.

Since religion and theology often are sheltered against ordinary scientific and critical studies, and have become a field of knowledge for higly respected bishops, priests and gurus, most political scientists – as well as journalists and writers – will either stay away from this area or handle it with superficial awe. Social antropolgists` relativism and tendency to defend any peculiarity they find in any culture, harmful or not, is not very helpful either – in our struggle for a common and universal ethics.

The editor of the Indian journal The Secularist, V.K. Sinha, wrote a year ago an important editorial on terrorism. He clearly puts the responsibility for the growing international terrorism on the religions – as he at the same time asks the Humanists: What can Humanism offer and what can Humanists do in this crisis for our civilisation?

I quote from his article:
“Terrorism in its varied forms is fueled largely, if not wholly, by religion. Be it Islam or Hinduism, Christianity or Buddhism, terrorists receive sustenance, encouragement and promises from the fundamentalists spawnwed by these religions. The pious and the moderates may bemoan the perverse abuse of their religions, but the hard truth is that each of these major religions has given birth to groups which have little regard for for human life and dignity, little compunction in destroying innocents – all in the name of religion.”

The challenge to the world Humanist movement in this threatening situation, is just as important as clarifying the roots of the evil. What can we Humanists do?

Mr. Sinha says in his editorial:
“Today, perhaps as never before, we need to affirm – and go beyond into practise – the principles of humanism.
We need to affirm the primacy of Reason as an instrument of evaluatiing all beliefs and practices.
We need to affirm the value of Tolerance�.
We need to affirm the prinsicples of Compassion�
We need to affirm Human Rights�
We need to affirm Separation of Religion from Politics�”

These recommendations from the editor of the Indian journals The Secularist, are exactly the programme of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

I cannot see another way out of the scaring realities that are facing us. There does not exist one single religion that is not burdened and endangered by its own violent and intolerant tradition, even if individual believers have an impressive will and ability to select the good parts of their doctrines and often stand for a lifestance of the the most honourable values.

But they will never be able to neutralise the evil forces, connected to the dark history of the religions – where fighting, killing, revenge and inhuman punishment where godsanctioned actions – even performed after the god`s command and rewarded with heavenly blessings. These parts of the religious scriptures are just as much the “word of God” as those parts who contain the beautiful ideas about peace and love. Honest fundamentalist believers are just as sure that they have the right understanding of the Lord`s Will as the more liberal theologians. And I must admit that they often seem to be more serious and even firmer in their positions than their less fundamentalist brothers and sisters in the same church, temple or mosque.

As humanists we hope the humane forces in the religions will win, but we doubt that it will happen soon enough to avoid new apocalyptic catastrophies. We cannot see any other way out of darkness than a global revival of the basic humanist ideas, as qouted from Mr. Sinha and laid down in the various humanist declarations – all draftet and redraftet in our own time for our own time. Principles that have no other source than the human being herself/himself, and therefore always should be revised according to the world`s real problems.

The last declaration of this kind was launched last summer in the Netherlands, called the Amsterdam declaration, not given to us engraved in stone – but written on paper only, hopefully to be rewritten in not too many years.

I shall conclude my speech by reading a few lines from the Amsterdam Declaration:

Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion. The world’s major religions claim to be based on revelations fixed for all time, and many seek to impose their world-views on all of humanity. Humanism recognises that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a continuing process. of observation, evaluation and revision.

Humanism is a lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living and offers an ethical and rational means of addressing the challenges of our times. Humanism can be a way of life for everyone everywhere.

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