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Human Rights and Religion

by Rev. R. W. Timm, CSC

One of the main phenomena we have observed in the past several years is the rise of fundamentalism, accompanied by gross violations of human rights, in several countries of Asia. The term religious fundamentalism originally was applied to Christians who interpreted the Bible literally, e.g., who believed that God created everything in six days and that Jonah actually spent three days in the belly of a great fish. When I was young, we were all fundamentalists in this sense. The literal interpretation of the Bible began to be replaced by literary form criticism in the late 19th century by Protestant scholars, who were regarded with great skepticism. This means that every book of the Bible is written in a particular literary form, such as history (Exodus), poetry (Psalms), prophecy (Isaiah), fable or parable (Jonah) or apocalyptic literature (Book of Revelations). The author’s aim is revealed through the literary form that he uses.

It was as late as 1964 that the Catholic Church formally accepted the literary form criticism of the Bible. Before that, in the transition period, the majority of believers were religious fundamentalists. When I studied Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame in the early 1940s we learned that human evolution is impossible because no form of life can raise itself to a higher form of life through its own power. At the same time, I was learning in Zoology class that there are abundant proofs for human evolution, enough to force a reconsideration of the creation account in the book of Genesis. Most Christians of Bangladesh have remained fundamentalist simply because they never had the literary form theory of interpretation explained to them.

Islam, on the contrary, has never modernised its interpretation of the Quran. One reason is that the madrassas, which are the religious schools where the imams of the mosques are taught, do not teach any modern physical, biological or social sciences and the religious teaching is straight out of the 7th century. Since there is no central authority in Islam to give an authentic and binding religious interpretation, the sects with the greatest power and influence can impose their views on the majority, who are in danger unless they comply. The Taliban in Afghanistan and the ulemas in Pakistan, who enforce a rigorist interpretation of Sharia Law, are two current examples of fundamentalism imposed by law. The Organisation of Islamic Countries, a mini-UN for Islamic nations of which Bangladesh is a member, has as one of its activities “to face, combat and defeat” Christian missionary activities in member countries. They had decided to eliminate all Christian missionaries from member countries by the year 2000.

Only 25 years ago there was a far more tolerant situation in our Asian countries, perhaps because of a lingering legacy of colonialism. In Bangladesh the four main religions lived together in peace and harmony. They had attained independence and set up a secular government and the minorities were no longer second-class citizens. But Bangladesh began a turn toward fundamentalism with the adoption of the 8th amendment to the Constitution in 1988, which established Islam as the state religion. However, political fundamentalism was rejected at the polls because the war of independence was fought against it and because of barbaric displays of conduct by fundamentalists in attacking women through fatwa and attacking NG0s which promoted the empowerment of women to escape the clutches of a medieval feudal society. However, in the coming election two fundamentalist Islamic parties are allied with the BNP and they want to make Bangladesh an Islamic Republic like Pakistan. They physically attacked and desecrated churches, missionaries and their homes during the Middle East war and on other occasions. In 1994 the Bangladesh Anti-Christian Organisation was begun in Dhaka by Islamic fundamentalist activists to counter the activities of Christian social workers. Though political fundamentalism has not been successful so far, yet there is a creeping social fundamentalism which can have a subtle influence without being detected, as in the early days of advancing fundamentalism in Pakistan.

Fortunately for us the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is strongly antifundamentalist. It gives a strictly universalistic interpretation of human rights. Human rights apply to all people of every culture, religion or race. It is also fortunate that civil society has arisen against the religious fundamentalists. This year the United Citizens Movement has collected two core signatures in a campaign to press the political parties not to nominate fundamentalists and razakars (collaborators with the Pakistan Army in 1971). Though political fundamentalism is not in danger of succeeding in the near future in Bangladesh, creeping fundamentalism is moving ahead all the time.

In India the revival of Hindu fundamentalism has cast aside the traditional tolerance and accommodation of the Hindu religion in favour of an all-out attack against Christians for making so many converts and against Dalits for daring to assert their common humanity with caste Hindus.

In Indonesia 25 years ago one could scarcely distinguish between Muslims, Hindus and Christians. They employed the same dress, names and customs, e.g., in the marriage ceremony. Outsiders influenced them to become “true Muslims” by stressing their unique Muslim identity at the expense of their tolerant national culture.

In Malaysia, in order to strengthen national unity in the struggle against Communism, government emphasized the bumiputra policy to bring up the Malays economically, followed by the one-culture policy, which meant Muslim culture. One would scarcely imagine that Muslims are only little more than one-half the population, judging by their predominance in government and society.

Except the Taliban in Afghanistan, the worst manifestation of fundamentalism in recent years has been in Pakistan. Currently a Christian stands condemned to death for blasphemy and the decision has been upheld by the High Court, with crowds of fundamentalists present at the judgment and shouting threats against the court if the man was released. In a previous case when the Judge ruled two Christians innocent of blasphemy he was shot to death and one of the Christians was shot right outside the court. The condemned man was accused by only one person, who had seized his land, and this person shot at him in open court without any action against him. A well-known Pakistani doctor and outstanding peace advocate has been in jail since last year, accused of blasphemy by persons who were not even witnesses to the supposed act. The courts and lawyers are so threatened that they cannot give impartial judgment and have condemned the doctor to death.

After all this pessimism over fundamentalism, let me inject a ray of light. In our own subcontinent we have long ago had two outstanding practitioners of tolerance—Ashoka and Akbar the Great (1556-1605), the Mughal Emperor. He tolerated various kinds of human rights and social and religious behaviour, including the right to worship. “No man should be interfered with on account of religion and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion he pleased.” (Quoted in Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, 2000; Sen also notes that Akbar was showing such magnanimity the Inquisition was going on in Christian Europe).

Besides fundamentalism, which attacks minorities, there are many other major violations of human rights which discriminate against minorities and harm them indirectly. There is a law in Bangladesh called the Vested Property Act. It began as the Enemy Property Act during the first war between India and Pakistan in 1965. Properties and businesses of Hindus who fled to India were taken over by government. After independence the name was changed in 1974 but the act was not repealed. No new names were to be added to the vested properties list but in 2000 a professor of Dhaka University published a book in which he states that 21 lakh acres, mostly taken from Hindus, were illegally seized, largely by influential persons of the leading political parties. The last government, supposedly favourable to the minorities, repealed the Vested Property Act in such a way that few people could make claims to get their property back.

There have also been many attacks and acts of discrimination against Christians, but we do not want to emphasise the negative side too much. The Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Council published three books on atrocities against minorities. One of them was confiscated by the Special Branch of police and when a written petition was brought to the High Court it was never heard. Isaac Baroi, who was editor of a popular ecumenical Christian monthly called Shorgamorta and who gathered into book form (two editions) many incidents of atrocities and discrimination, had to seek political asylum abroad because of threats against him. Four years ago the most serious incident occurred when Muslims who run a mosque in Luxmi Bazar next to the St. Francis Xavier School and Convent claimed part of their land. Even though defeated in a court case, they raised cries one day on the loudspeaker that the Christian-Jews were attacking the mosque. A mob quickly gathered and did much damage, including destruction of a statue of Jesus and at least one Bible. They also did damage at the Anglican church and Baptist center nearby.

Publication of deliberately false information about other religions indicates pure malice but many of the discriminatory actions have been through pure ignorance. For example, a history book was published by the Bangla Academy, in which it was written that Buddha was born first, then Jesus and lastly Mohammed. In Narayanganj the Catholic church was attacked because of this alleged insult to the prophet. The Academy had to withdraw the book.

Dr. Chandra Muzzafer, Director of the International Movement for a Just World, with headquarters in Malaysia, has written: “The first and most important task confronting individuals and groups committed to dialogue between religious civilisations in the midst of religious conflicts is to analyse these conflicts to show that religion may not be the sole or even the most significant factor in a certain conflict. Our next task is to address the other causes behind a conflict—be they political, economic or social—and propose appropriate remedies.... Only after we have come to grips with the real issues behind a conflict should we draw out the universal values and ideals in each and every religion and try to initiate inter-religious communication on the basis of these values and ideals.” (Commentary 1:8, Aug. 2001)

Muslims and Human Rights

While there are several Christian organisations dedicated to human rights in Bangladesh, there are no religion-based Muslim NG0s working in the field of human rights. Human rights is one of the many subjects lacking in the training of imams for mosques. However, we find a great sympathy for the cause of human rights among Muslims, and ecumenism with Muslims can take place most easily in this area. In a practical manual Working for Justice and Human Rights I included an appendix on the teachings of the four main religions of Bangladesh on justice, peace and human rights and dignity. We attempt to advance Kingdom values or Gospel values as universal human values, embraced by all religions (this, of course, ignores the claims of fundamentalism to a strict or inhuman interpretation of religion). The appendix also included quotations from the Organisation of Islamic Countries from their Declaration of Islamic Rights.

I also took part in a training for the imams of mosques with Professor Mizanur Rahrnan of the Dhaka University Law School. I took the position that justice is concerned with morality and that love and justice are the two main virtues of religion. The imams were fascinated to hear about human rights and the duties which are necessarily attendant on them. They stated that the imams of all mosques should have the chance of such a training.

Professor Rahinan also conducted an annual training in human rights for young lawyers at BARD in Comilia and I was one of the resource persons for this training. Most of these lawyers were Muslim, so it was a good opportunity for people of different religions to live together and learn together about the meaning of human rights.

Occasionally important events bring together the representatives of various religions, especially on their main festivals, to celebrate in common and to bring out the common universal features of the various religions. Recently I was on the stage with Hindu and Buddhist monks and a Muslim scholar to celebrate the 155th birthday of a local Hindu saint. Since religious tolerance was one of his outstanding virtues, it gave us the opportunity to contrast him with present-day attitudes, even of some so-called religious leaders. Next month on October 29th a symposium will be held at Dhaka University on the occasion of the visit of Fr. David Burrell, CSC, who occupies the Hesburgh Chair of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is an outstanding Islamic scholar and helps to bridge the gap between Islam and Christianity because of his acceptability by all Islamic scholars.

The areas in which the Islamite differ from us in the interpretation of human rights pertain particularly to women and children, who are not considered as mature enough to make decisions for themselves. The UN Conventions on Child Rights and on Women Rights both have restrictions put on them by government, in keeping with common Islamic interpretation of limitations of human rights, e.g., although the UN considers below 18 as the age of a child and also considers that children have the right of freedom of thought conscience and religion, this right is not accepted in Bangladesh, as well as the right adoption.

Solidarity is another part of the theme of this workshop. If advocacy of human rights means supporting victims of injustice and oppression, its predominant virtue is solidarity—oneness with the oppressed and with each other in the support group. “Solidarity helps us to see the ‘other’—whether a person, people or nation—not just as some kind of instrument, with a weak capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our ‘neighbour’, a ‘helper’ (cf. Gen: 18-20); (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1987, Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul 11).

(This article is the keynote presentation for the Human rights and Solidarity Workshop 2001 of the WSCF AP which was held in Bangladesh on September 17-23, 2001.)