Friday, April 29, 2011

democracy, religion and violence

Holy places: Unholy rows | The Economist: "For all the rhetoric of ancient hatred, religious rows have grown worse in modern times. Across the Ottoman empire, from the Balkans to Anatolia to Palestine, Christians and Muslims mingled peaceably at shared sacred places.

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In Bangladesh, Muslims and Hindus lived peaceably until the election of 2001. The Hindus tend to vote for the Awami League, as Muslims in India tend to vote for the Congress Party. In 2001, the League lost, and a coalition of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and an Islamist Party won.

Immediately, an anti-Hindu pogrom swept the land: there was arson, looting, raping...the nation was stunned.

Clearly, religion had nothing to do with it: it was politicians stirring up hatred, and, of course, greed for the spoils of victory, which seems to include women.

Interestingly, the parties went on to persecute a heretical Muslim sect, the Aḥmadīyahs, with almost equal ferocity. Again, secular observers blamed it on religion.

Not so.

Consider the following extract from the Britanica:

"In their theology, the Ismāʿīlīs have absorbed the most extreme elements and heterodox ideas. The universe is viewed as a cyclic process, and the unfolding of each cycle is marked by the advent of seven “speakers”—messengers of God with Scriptures—each of whom is succeeded by seven “silents”—messengers without revealed scriptures; the last speaker (the Prophet Muḥammad) is followed by seven imāms who interpret the Will of God to man and are, in a sense, higher than the Prophet because they draw their knowledge directly from God and not from the Angel of Revelation. During the 10th century, certain Ismāʿīlī intellectuals formed a secret society called the Brethren of Purity, which issued a philosophical encyclopaedia, The Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, aiming at the liquidation of positive religions in favour of a universalist spirituality.

The late Aga Khan III (1887–1957) had taken several measures to bring his followers closer to the main body of the Muslims. The Ismāʿīlīs, however, still have not mosques but jamāʿat khānahs (“gathering houses”), and their mode of worship bears little resemblance to that of the Muslims generally."

You can't get more heretical than this! Yet the Aga Khanis - as the Ismailis are known in Bangladesh - are some of the richest people here. Their location is highly conspicuous (many live in flats near Bailey Road, Dhaka across from one of the best schools in Dhaka) and their mode of worship is strikingly different. They have a jamaat khanah, where they gather every evening, and regular Muslims are not allowed in there. Naturally, weird stories proliferate about the goings-on in the jamaat khanah. When I set up a poultry farm, some of my best customers were Aga Khanis: they are extremely rich, as I said.

Their influence is international.

When General Ershad arrested Aziz Mohammed Bhai, probably the richest Aga Khani in Bangladesh, Prince Aga Khan himself came down to secure his release.

All this influence and wealth explain why the pogrom never extended to these people: it wasn't a religious pogrom at all.

The fuse was democracy, and the politicians vented their anger on the weakest members of society: as happens in India during anti-Muslim pogroms.

The spread of democracy throughout the world will bring disaster for religious minorities: in Egypt, Christians are already worried - as they well should be.

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