Posted on 13-03-2013
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Religion) by Rashtrakut

In a fairly quick conclave resulting from the surprising resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic church elected a new pope.  The choice was somewhat a surprise.  A pope who was 78 at the time of his election and who resigned for ill health was replaced by a 76 year old.  Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the first pope from Latin America, the first pope since 741 AD not born in Europe, the first Jesuit to become pope and the first Pope Francis.

Elderly popes are generally chosen as transitory popes (though that logic backfired once rather spectacularly).  Yet Pope Francis inherits a church in turmoil.  The priest sex abuse scandal continues to sap the legitimacy and credibility of the Catholic Church.  Just before the conclave the United Kingdom’s most senior cleric (and notorious homophobe) resigned after allegations surfaced publicly that the cardinal had inappropriate relations with seminarians decades ago.  The Curia itself is rife with feuds which may have encouraged Benedict to resign.  The traditional heartlands of the Catholic Church no longer heed its teachings and the sex scandals have sapped the institution’s credibility.  The heart of the Church is in the southern hemisphere and here it faces aggressive competition from evangelical protestants.

The challenges facing Pope Francis are daunting.  His name may pay homage to either St. Francis of Assisi founder of the Franciscan Order (historically the rival of the Jesuits) or the Jesuit St. Francis Xavier (or both).  The new Pope has a history of humility and working with the poor.  Like Benedict he does not subscribe to the doctrine of government austerity indulged by the American religious right.  Yet he is doctrinally conservative.  Don’t expect too many changes in church policies regarding women and homosexuals.

The election of Pope Francis has already shone the light on the Catholic Church’s equivocal attitude to the atrocities committed by the Latin American military juntas in the 70s.  Francis has previously apologized for the the Church’s failure to speak out on the subject.  The record on his own activities during the period appears mixed.

The Catholic Church desperately needs a reformer who can clear out the muck that has accumulated over the past decades.  It remains to be seen whether the (likely brief) papacy of Pope Francis will achieve that result.

Some lighthearted irreverence below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted on 14-09-2012
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Religion) by Rashtrakut

Free speech has been in the news a lot lately.  From the blasphemy set up of an underage Pakistani Christian child with Downs syndrome, to a cartoonist who hurt the tender sensibilities of India’s ruling class and in the last few days the Islam bashing cheap production that predictably has drawn mobs out all over the Muslim world.  Two questions are raised by these brouhahas.  First, is violence, particularly mob violence, an appropriate response to speech – however insulting?  Second, what is the culpability of the person uttering the offensive speech?

On the first issue, I cannot think of any justification for the type of rioting taking place in Egypt and now Yemen and other places (Libya may have been a terrorist hit on the anniversary of 9/11).  On a personal level I suppose I can make a case for self defense in the event of imminent bodily harm.  The penalization of fighting words varies across the globe – though typically is a prosecutable offense in certain jurisdictions and not a license to fisticuffs.  But in the final reckoning, the primary blame should fall on the person who responds to words with violence.

A few years ago I had a discussion with a hyper-religious neighbor who was loudly asserting that free speech was not a license to say whatever you wanted.  The comment was ironical given that he did not understand that his previous statement informing me of my ultimate fate in hellfire for my choice of deity was extremely offensive even if it was a core belief for him.

Freedom of speech implies the freedom to offend – otherwise it would not be a freedom that needed codifying.  The obvious question is how far can you offend and what can you make offensive statements about.  On this issue there is wide divergence.  Countries prone to ethnic or religious violence are very sensitive about statements intended to incite, and they prohibit such statements.  Others like some European countries have tried to erase a history of discrimination and prohibit racist of bigoted statements in a surfeit of political correctness.  And then you get countries like Pakistan, where the practitioners of the whose majority religion are so insecure in their faith that they penalize blasphemy with the death penalty.

The problem with these restrictions is that they infantalize public dialogue to the level of the most thin skinned cry baby in the community.  Blasphemy laws are even worse because they can be misused.  For lightening the mood of this discussion Monty Python’s mockery of blasphemy laws in a Life of Brian is posted below:

 

 

In my opinion the American rule of free speech is something that should be a desirable goal.  It requires maturity on the part of society to take to heart the old nursery rhyme on Sticks and Stones.  But while I disagree with criminal liability for the speaker, I do not wish to absolve them of any criticism.  It is one thing to toss out a provocative hypothesis to advance a discussion.  It is another to throw a match on gasoline in the form of taunts, abuses and other offensive statements just to get a rise out of someone.  Most human beings engage in self-censorship from time to time as a basic element of good manners or the understanding that rights do not exist in a vacuum.  They co-exist with responsibility in creating the obligations of citizenship.  The American constitution (in contrast to the Indian constitution) does not explicitly spell them out, but they are implied in the desire to form a more perfect union.  By leaving it to implication they are relying on the judgment of the citizenry in deciding the narrow line between advancing public debate and tossing the match.

In my opinion the producers of the Islam bashing film and for that matter the Islamophobes who infest the right-wing commentariat do the latter.  So while the rest of us protect the rights of these bigots to speak, we should be free to condemn as harshly as possible the content and intent of the speech.

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Posted on 09-09-2012
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Religion) by Rashtrakut

Fall is here and soon Christmas will be upon us.  That means the Faux News annual crusade to make Americans aware of the non-existent war on Christians and Christmas will soon be upon us.  If the past years are any guide it will be be led by head clown master Bill O’Reilly.  The sufferings of Christians in this country will come as news to people like poor Rimsa Masih in Pakistan.  But why should facts interfere with a Faux News meme?  I would be tempted to laugh at the stupidity of some of these people if they did not hold positions of power.  Example:  Rep. Valerie Hodges of Louisiana

Which is also why I was delighted to see this helpful quiz posted by the Rev. Emily Heath that walks Messers Bill O’Reilly and others through a checklist of what constitutes religious oppression.  Rev. Heath’s quiz is below

“How to Determine if Your Religious Liberty Is Being Threatened in Just 10 Quick Questions.” Just pick “A” or “B” for each question.

1. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to go to a religious service of my own choosing.
B) Others are allowed to go to religious services of their own choosing.

2. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to marry the person I love legally, even though my religious community blesses my marriage.
B) Some states refuse to enforce my own particular religious beliefs on marriage on those two guys in line down at the courthouse.

3. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am being forced to use birth control.
B) I am unable to force others to not use birth control.

4. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to pray privately.
B) I am not allowed to force others to pray the prayers of my faith publicly.

5. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) Being a member of my faith means that I can be bullied without legal recourse.
B) I am no longer allowed to use my faith to bully gay kids with impunity.

6. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to purchase, read or possess religious books or material.
B) Others are allowed to have access books, movies and websites that I do not like.

7. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) My religious group is not allowed equal protection under the establishment clause.
B) My religious group is not allowed to use public funds, buildings and resources as we would like, for whatever purposes we might like.

8. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) Another religious group has been declared the official faith of my country.
B) My own religious group is not given status as the official faith of my country.

9. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) My religious community is not allowed to build a house of worship in my community.
B) A religious community I do not like wants to build a house of worship in my community.

10. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to teach my children the creation stories of our faith at home.
B) Public school science classes are teaching science.

Scoring key:

If you answered “A” to any question, then perhaps your religious liberty is indeed at stake. You and your faith group have every right to now advocate for equal protection under the law. But just remember this one little, constitutional, concept: this means you can fight for your equality — not your superiority.

If you answered “B” to any question, then not only is your religious liberty not at stake, but there is a strong chance that you are oppressing the religious liberties of others. This is the point where I would invite you to refer back to the tenets of your faith, especially the ones about your neighbors.

Thank you for compiling this Rev. Heath.

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Posted on 08-07-2011
Filed Under (Religion) by Rashtrakut

In the last couple of days Michele Bachman and Rick Santorum became the first Republican candidates to sign “The Marriage Vow – A Declaration of Dependence Upon Marriage and Family” that calls for among other things a “Vigorous opposition to any redefinition of the Institution of Marriage – faithful monogamy between one man and one woman – through statutory-, bureaucratic-, or court-imposed recognition of intimate unions which are bigamous, polygamous, polyandrous, same-sex, etc.”

The pledge also calls for an unconstitutional blanket ban on pornography and a “[r]ejection of Sharia Islam and all other anti-woman, anti-human rights forms of totalitarian control.”   The oddly phrased reference to Sharia Islam (which is not a particular school of Islam but appears to be a blanket rejection of the entire religion itself) is the latest islamophobic attack for the non-existent Sharia Law threat ginned up by the right.

It is a pity that these wannabe theocrats don’t take a closer book at what their own holy books have to say about “intimate unions which are bigamous, polygamous, polyandrous” and for that matter women’s rights in the institution.

Via Andrew Sullivan quoting an earlier Bruce Bawer post on marriage in the Bible:

“Lamech [Noah’s father] married two women, one named Adah, the other Zillah.” (Genesis 4)

“Sarai brought her slave-girl, Hagar the Egyptian, to her husband and gave her to Abram as a a wife.” (Genesis 16)

“When [Rachel] gave [her husband Jacob] her slave-girl Bilhah as a wife, Jacob lay with her, and she conceived and bore him a son.” (Genesis 30)

“Esau took Canaanite women in marriage: Adah daughter of Elon the Hittite and Oholibamah daughter of Anah son of Zibeon the Horite, and Basemath, Ishmael’s daughter, sister of Nebaioth.”  (Genesis 26)

“When a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, if they both bear him sons, and the son of the unloved wife is the elder, then, when the day comes for him to divide his property among his sons, he must not treat the sons of the loved wife as his firstborn in preference to his true firstborn, the son of the unloved wife.” (Deuteronomy 21)

“If, on the other hand, the accusation [by a newlywed man that his bride is not a virgin] turns out to be true…then they must bring her out to the door of her father’s house and the men of her town will stone her to death.” (Deuteronomy 22)

“When a virgin is pledged in marriage to a man, and another man encounters her in the town and lies with her, bring both of them out to the gate of that town and stone them to death; the girl because, although she was in the town, she did not cry out for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife: you must rid yourself of this wickedness.” (Deuteronomy 22)

“When brothers live together and one of them dies without leaving a son, his widow is not to marry outside the family.  Her husband’s brother is to have intercourse with her; he should take her in marriage and do his duty by her as her husband’s brother.” (Deuteronomy 25)

“David’s two wives, Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail widow of Nabal of Carmel, were among the captives.” (1 Samuel 30)

“Sons were born to David at Hebron.  His eldest was Amnon, whose mother was Ahinoam from Jezreel; his second Cileab, whose mother was Abigail widow of Nabal from Carmel; the third Absalom, whose mother was Maacah daughter of Talmai king of Geshur; the fourth Adonihah, whose mother was Haggith; the fifth Shephatiah, whose mother was Abital; and the sixth Ithream, whose mother was David’s wife Eglah.”  (2 Samuel 3)

And that’s just a scattering of items from the first quarter of the Bible; we haven’t even gotten around to Bathsheba yet, or to King Solomon’s 700 wives and 300 concubines….

To help matters Boston Bravery came up with a helpful graphical representation of marriage in the Bible:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The reality is that most religious texts say things that look ridiculous or even offensive to today’s social mores.  Yet the people Andrew Sullivan refers to as Christianists want it both ways.   They pick on other religions (notably Islam) by highlighting offensive or misogynistic lines in their holy books yet blithely ignore similar language in their own texts.  They also ignore that the reason we do not groan under the type of theocratic tyranny of Iran and Saudi Arabia is the secularization of Western Society after the “Age of Enlightenment” in the 18th century.  As late as the late 17th century, Catholics in England and Protestants in France were not permitted to freely practice their faith.

Unlike the world view of the Taliban (or for that matter originalist readers of the Constitution), our society has evolved and is more tolerant of minorities (racial, religious, sexual) and other points of view.  Yet our wannabe theocrats cling to their version of the Bible, except when as quoted above it does not suit them.

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Posted on 21-10-2010
Filed Under (Politics, Religion) by Rashtrakut

This is just embarrassing.  President Obama during his visit to India will be skipping a trip to the Golden Temple in Amritsar.  The Sikh shrine is a common stop for visiting dignitaries.  Unfortunately it requires visitors to cover their heads.  Sikhs have already been targeted by ignorant bigots in the past who confuse their turbans with the headgear worn by Osama Bin Laden, and evidently in this country any such covering is Islamic.

Singed by a previous controversy during the presidential primaries when pictures of him wearing traditional garb during a trip to Africa surfaced, the Obama administration is shying clear of any repeat performance.  The underlying politics are simple.  With increasing numbers of Republicans convinced that he is a Muslim and significant numbers doubting his citizenship, the administration wants to avoid adding grist to the nutjob’s mills.

While discretion may sometimes be the better part of valor, I am disappointed with this decision.  In an atmosphere of anti-Islamic bigotry ginned up over the summer by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin (and more recently with Islamophobic statements uttered by prominent Fox “News” personalities and bigots like Marty Peretz with no repercussions), the administration could have taken a bold stand for tolerance and common sense.

But instead we have an American President afraid to go into a Sikh shrine because ignorant bigots in his country will use it as further evidence that he is a Muslim – and thereby also lending credence to the viewpoint that somehow it is wrong to be a Muslim in American public life.  Here’s hoping that it is not too late to reverse this decision.

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Posted on 30-09-2010
Filed Under (Politics, Religion) by Rashtrakut

Christine O’Donnell is the gift that keeps on giving.  I am still puzzled by how she became a media personality.  It is probably the result of having an attractive visage that spouts outrageous stuff (click here for an entertaining and disturbing compendium). She does not seem to have any career accomplishments that would justify make her the latest loopy darling of the tea party.  Her employment the last few years was being a professional (losing) candidate in Delaware with recent mortgage troubles.

She is also the latest sanctimonious politician who does not live up to the morals she repeatedly and vehmently insists that she espouses.  A decade ago she went on Bill Maher’s show to give an extended performance on the need for morals and truth in public life and how “telling the truth is always the right thing to do.”  This applied even if the Nazis were at the door hunting for Jews because “God would provide a way to do the right thing righteously.”

Pity that the O’Donnell moral code does not seem to apply to her, or perhaps there is a “resume exception” to moral absolutes.

As a quick overview, she appears to have

  • misrepresented being a college graduate.  She finally received her degree in past month after settling outstanding tuition and taking an additional course.
  • sued an employer for lost income for (along with other harassment claims) preventing her from pursuing a graduate degree at Princeton, even though she appears to only have audited some undergraduate courses.
  • lied about attending Oxford University when she only attended a Phoenix Institute course at space rented from Oxford.
  • lied about attending Claremont Graduate University (would have been difficult without her college degree), but instead attended a conservative think tank, the Claremont Institute.  It does not appear to have been “graduate” course work either.
  • tried to weasel out after being caught by blaming unidentified opponents for posting the fake LinkedIn profile from which the information above was retrieved .  Given that she included Oxford University on another online resume (which was verified by her), this appears to be another lie.  She also lied about Oxford in her application to the Claremont Institute.  It must be noted that this is not the first paranoid claim about unidentified opponents.

Sounds like she needs to get back on Hannity to whitewash these claims or perhaps claim in Palinesque fashion that catching her lying infringes on her first amendment rights.  As Ben Adler notes with some amusement, it may be time for right wing blowhards like Rush Limbaugh whose attacked Barack Obama and Elena Kagan as elitists because they (legitimately) attended Ivy League schools to attack her for being an out of touch coastal cosmopolitan.  Its a shame that this unaccomplished insecure fibber has a punchers chance of becoming the United States Senator from Delaware.

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Posted on 30-09-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs, History, India, Religion) by Rashtrakut

One Hundred and Forty Seven years after the dispute began, the Allahabad High Court rendered a Solomonic verdict designed to end a dispute that rocked and changed Indian politics over the last 25 years.  The court appears to have formalized the solution implemented by the British when riots first broke out over the controversial Babri Masjid.

The mosque was built on the orders of the first Mughal Emperor Babur on the site of either an old or existing Hindu temple that Hindus believed marked the birthplace of one of their prominent deities Ram.  The original British solution was to give both sides access to the site for worship.  Ninety years after the first attempt at a Solomonic compromise the issue flared up again in 1949 when idols were smuggled into the mosque  resulting in Indian government sealing the site.  The dispute picked up steam in 1984 and burst into Indian national consciousness when the Bharatiya Janata Party seized the issue to highlight simmering grievances of the Hindu majority.  The mosque was destroyed by a mob in 1992 resulting in riots across India.

Today’s decision split the site among three litigants (2 Hindu and 1 Muslim) and dismissed a couple of other cases.  The Sunni Waqf Board (which recieved the Muslim portion) has indicated it will appeal.  Given the political consensus rallying around this verdict it is likely that the Indian Supreme Court will uphold the decision.  With the troubled Commonwealth Games about to start, the Indian government must be breathing a sigh of relief at the calm that has greeted the verdict.  Oddly enough the street protests are occurring in neighboring Pakistan whose militants will add this to their litany of perceived grievances at the hands of India.

I am not surprised by the verdict.  It was the only way to resolve an intractable dispute.  But splitting the baby is not the solution for all such disputes in India in the future.  The Babri Masjid was not the only mosque built on the ruins of a Hindu temple.  However, the length of the dispute, the fact that the rights of Hindus to worship on the site had essentially been conceded in 1859, and the mosque being unused since 1949 were all special circumstances that made this verdict possible.  This will not be the case in other disputes.  At some point there has to be a statute of limitations for resolving medieval wrongs.  Hopefully with this verdict the statute has now run out.

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Posted on 01-04-2010
Filed Under (Religion) by Rashtrakut

On Friday, Saudi Arabia is scheduled to execute Lebanese TV host Ali Hussain Sibat for sorcery.  See link.  Sibat’s “crime” was hosting a TV show based in Lebanon where he claimed to be able to read the future.  He was arrested by Saudi religious police when he visited the Kingdom for a religious pilgrimage.  None of the acts of the supposed crime took place on Saudi soil, the accused is not a Saudi national. Yet Saudi Arabia has arrogated to itself the right to judge a case of apostasy for a foreign Muslim merely because the acts were broadcast into the country (and even more so because the unfortunate Mr. Sibat was conveniently on Saudi soil).  This is similar to what would have happened to Salaman Rushdie if the fatwa against him was meaningfully carried out.  The slippery slopes of this logic are endless.  Muslims world wide, particularly those whose jobs get them on TV, now face potential charges for violation of Saudi Arabia’s archaic laws the next time they visit there for any reason.

This is obscene.

In the interest of fairness one must note that making a living as a fortune teller was (and in many states is still) illegal in the United States.  However, these are not capital offenses.  Apart from the lack of proportionality for the alleged offense (which to me should not be illegal), my rant is headed in a different direction.  The Saudis are not the first country to assert Universal Jurisdiction for crimes unconnected or fairly lightly connected to their country.

A few years Belgium ticked off many of its allies by granting its courts legal jurisdiction to hear human rights complaints from any corner of the world even if no Belgian national or Belgian interests were involved.  Just why Belgium smugly decided it had the right to sit in judgment over the world is not clear.  It is not as if the Belgian nation in its rickety 180 years of existence has been particularly pure, particularly in the Congo.  It was at the same time Spain asserted its right to overrule the political agreement in Chile whereby Augusto Pinochet stepped down and permitted the restoration of democracy in exchange for immunity, by trying to arrest the former dictator.  This conveniently ignored a similar amnesty Spain instituted for the Falange after the death of Franco.  Human rights groups like Amnesty International have cheered on these attempts for national courts to enforce Universal Jurisdiction.  I disagree.

National sovereignty is no longer an absolute protection for human rights violations.  But the ugly reality of international law is that human rights cases are enforced only against the weak.  The other ugly reality is that they are often a sword used to justify political ends and harass opponents.  Also arrogating the power to try a bunch of human rights cases to a bunch of former colonial powers reeks of neo-colonialism.  Decisions by these courts are unlikely to hold much moral water in the countries being targeted.

A spin-off of the claims of universal jurisdiction for the type of cases cited above are “crimes” performed in another country that are broadcast around the world by the internet or satellite television.  Many of the cases (particularly in Europe) have involved lawsuits against the instruments of broadcast like Google or YouTube.  For example see here.

While Amnesty has criticized the horrendous Saudi case on free speech grounds it has not acknowledged the harm of letting the universal jurisdiction genie out.  In a world where cultural norms vary and where a large portion of the world does not follow the Western devotion to individual human rights, this is a double edge sword.  So we are creating an odd situation where the sovereign shield may not protect its own subjects but can be used as a sword against unconnected foreigners.  Also, cases like the claims against Google will strike at the roots of global commerce and chill free speech on the web.  The burden should shift to countries to institute filters on what cannot be shown in their country rather than gratuitously striking at foreign entities.  Of course this reeks of the censorship practiced by China and Iran so the Europeans prefer to strike back in home courts.

Federalism in the United States has struggled to adapt to changing technology and improvements in communication technology.  Needless to say the burdens are far higher at the international level where different social, legal, religious and cultural norms collide with another.  More cases like the unfortunate Mr. Sibat are likely to arise unless the concept of universal legal jurisdiction is reined in.  For Mr. Sibat his best hope is to pray for King Abdullah who has shown clemency for similar judicial excesses in the past to step in.

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Posted on 26-01-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Religion) by Rashtrakut

France is moving closer to a partial ban on the burqa in certain public places.  Like the previous ban on head scarves in schools, I find it disturbing when a government steps into religious practice that does not pose a threat to its practitioners.  It is correct that the Quran does not explicitly mandate the veil.  The language requiring modest dress in inherently subjective and open to interpretation on cultural norms.  However, that interpretation should rely on the practitioner and not the state.  This is in some ways the other side of the coin of the Taliban and Saudi Arabia mandating the burqa and Iran mandating the head scarves.  They are both wrong and an infringement on religious liberty.

Separation of church and state is a trick subject for Islam since its founders and early leaders combined secular and religious powers in the same individual.  However, after the fragmentation of the Abbasid Caliphate even Islam saw a bifurcation of these functions.  To the extent Sultans exercised religious authority, it was not different than Christian monarchs proclaiming themselves god’s vice-regents on earth.

I had an interesting conversation with someone who supported the proposed French policy today.  However, I cannot help but wonder whether the support would have remained in place if a similar ban was targeted at that person’s religion rather than at what is currently an unpopular religious minority.  A ban of this nature would not be constitutional in the United States.  While I have no fondness for religious fundamentalism and am generally unmoved by overt public religious displays, I will take the liberty granted by the American constitution to the type of secularism (and cultural xenophobia) rammed down people’s throats in France.

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Posted on 24-01-2010
Filed Under (Religion) by Rashtrakut

This is an update of a previous post regarding Wendy Doniger’s new book about Hinduism (See link).  Personally, I am way behind in my reading of the book but a lot more has transpired since the original post.  The New York Times published a review by Pankaj Mishra that cheerfully embraced the tactic noted in my previous post – blame any critique of Doniger’s scholarship on the evil Hindu nationalists.  See link.  The choice of an reviewer noted for his diatribes against the alleged lack of modernity of Hinduism and not particularly noted for significant academic scholarship is a curious one.  It all but guaranteed that The Grey Lady endorsed Doniger’s book with the type of intellectually incestuous affirmation referred to in my initial post.

Worth reading for a different perspective is a blog sent to me by a family friend that demolishes the New York Times hypocritical standards in reviewing Doniger’s book and publishing Mishra’s review and highlights Doniger’s peculiar obsessions and biases in her scholarly work.  See link.

More on this issue will follow one I have finished reading the book.

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Posted on 17-01-2010
Filed Under (Religion) by Rashtrakut

I linked this slide show in my twitter feed on Friday, but thought I would make a quick mention of this here.  It describes the approximately 1,000 year old Jain temples on Shatrunjay Hill in Gujarat, which I had not heard of before.  With historical antecedents dating shortly before the emergence of Buddhism (though its mythology argues for considerably older antecedents), Jainism was one of the faiths that arose in the intellectual tumult in India around 700-600 B.C and during the so called Axial Age.  As the article notes, the prosperity of the practitioners of the austere faith has contributed to the beautiful and elaborate temples pictured in the slide show.  The date of the temples noted in the slide show also roughly corresponds to the date of the Jain component of the majestic Ellora Caves (which I have been fortunate enough to visit).

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Posted on 10-01-2010
Filed Under (Politics, Religion) by Rashtrakut

On December 32, 2009 a Malaysian court overturned a government ban of usage of the word Allah to denote the Christian god.  Since then hell has broken loose with Churches in the moderate Muslim majority country being firebombed and vandalized.  Accusations have been made that the ruling party whose hold on power is weakening is using the issue to consolidate support among the majority Malay (and Muslim) community.  If so that would be a tragedy.  Before the Saudis found oil and exported their blinkered view of Islam globally, Malaysia (and neighboring Indonesia) were shining examples of how Islam can peacefully coexist with other religions.  Now that is being put at risk by a rather silly dispute on terminology.

Islam acknowledges that God sent prophets to other peoples before the arrival of Muhammad.  This list specifically includes Jesus and Christians are deemed “people of the book” to whom god made a divine revelation and provided a book of prayer.  It naturally follows in Islamic theology that the God of the Christians (setting aside the concept the trinity and the divinity of Jesus which Muslims do not accept and is not at issue here) is the same divine entity.  Indeed under the monotheism inherent in Islam a different interpretation cannot hold.  Yet for some reason Malaysia banned Christians from using the word Allah to denote God in the Malay tongue.  Evidently the alternative words available to be used in native dialects did not measure up to a representation of the divine and Christians asked that the ban be rescinded.  Now fanatics with a limited grasp on their own theology have resorted to violence.

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“[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  Article VI of the United States Constitution

The text of the constitution does not help with the realities of Republican Party politics today, as Alabama Republican gubernatorial candidate Bradley Byrne found out.  In a desperate kowtow to the faithful and to stop attacks by his opponents, Mr. Byrne clarified the following “heretical” quote: “”I believe there are parts of the Bible that are meant to be literally true and parts that are not.”

Also submitting to the wrath of the faithful was grocery chain Piggly Wiggly, which felt the backlash from anonymous Internet posters like the following quote in the article linked above: “”Just got a call from a person at my Church letting me know about this.  My family will not be shopping at Ragland Piggly Wiggly stores anymore or anything else they own…. I don’t shop at places that think it is OK to stand next to people who don’t believe the Bible is all true.”

As noted earlier, this is another example of the just how far the theocrats control the conservative movement and the Republican Party.  This does not happen merely in Alabama.  For all the complaints about the assault on Christianity by people like Britt Hume, can you even imagine the furore if a President today emulated John Quincy Adams and took his oath of office on a book of American laws?

The theology is suspect too.  See previous post on the three kings of the nativity here as an example.

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Britt Hume of Fox News insults the faith of about five hundred million people by suggesting that Tiger Wood’s Buddhist faith will not be up to the job of his redemption and he needs to convert to Christianity.  The video of the Fox News anchor turning his media position into a sectarian bully pulpit is below:

The relevant quote from the video above:

“The extent to which he can recover seems to me depends on his faith,” Hume said. “He is said to be a Buddhist. I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. My message to Tiger would, ‘Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.”

The pomposity of a TV anchor (who ignores the recent rash of C Street conservatives (John Ensign, Chip Pickering and Mark Sanford) whose overt religiosity did not prevent their inclinations to adultery) is one matter.

But this is yet another example of how the right wing cannot resist injecting religion into debate.  Hume is hardly alone on Fox News.  Bill O’Reilly is on record bemoaning attempts to weaken the “White, Christian, male power structure” in this country.  Fox News regularly features Ann Coulter who infamously in the aftermath of 9/11 said we should “invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”  Shortly before Christmas the otherwise highly regarded Indiana governor Mitch Daniels went off on an amazingly ignorant screed about the evils of secularism.

This is not new.  But coupled with the attacks on Barack Obama allegedly being a Muslim (not helped by Obama’s politically calculated response to treat the accusation as if it were a slur – previous blog here) they seem to be rising to a crescendo. Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted on 04-12-2009
Filed Under (Religion) by Rashtrakut

Previous post here.  Now Jon Stewart’s turn to engage in mockery with an amusing sequence at the end regarding Swiss neutrality.

UPDATE: Particularly amusing is the portion when Oliver raises the issue of Nazi gold to be met with stony silence.  The ambassador is a good sport though on the litmus test.  Meanwhile a Swiss politician puts his foot in his mouth raising the hackles of the Jewish community as well.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Oliver’s Travels – Switzerland
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
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Posted on 30-11-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Religion) by Rashtrakut

Displaying the flaws in holding fundamental freedoms hostage to the caprices of public referendums, Swiss voters in a distressing result voted to ban the construction of minarets.  One can understand the unease in countries that historically have not faced waves of immigrants from alien cultures (or from a religion with whom there has been an inherent sense of hostility for about 1,400 years) as they struggle to absorb these new immigrants while preserving a sense of national identity and shared cultural values. But as they complain about the refusal to immigrants to look outside their ethnic ghettos, one wonders why people think a vote like this would help the assimilation process (the same goes for the equally idiotic French decision to ban head scarves in schools).  As previously posted on this blog, integration is a complicated issue but rank fear based bigotry does not help matters.

It is tempting to point to the United States as an example, but this country has acquired experience absorbing immigrants since its inception.  Even here the process has been hard, from Benjamin Franklin complaining about the effect of rising German immigration on the use of English and the resulting political threat (sound familiar Mr. Dobbs?) to concerns a 100 years ago that Italian immigrants were importing their brand of seditious anarchism.  But this country survived and the original English culture grew richer by the addition.  It is not an easy lesson to transfer to the inherently more culturally conservative and homogeneous old world.

It will be interesting to observe whether the vote this weekend leads to a financial backlash.  The usual bunch of xenophobes in Denmark and The Netherlands have already piped up to call for similar referendums.  Just how far this spreads remains to be seen.  However, it is still unclear whether this referendum will be upheld by Swiss courts.

One final point in this imbroglio should be made.  While Muslim immigrant groups in Europe should speak up to combat discrimination, it is hard to extend the same latitude to the howls of outrage emanating from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, etc.  While some of these countries are all to willing to cast stones at Europe, they have been singularly unwilling to grant similar freedoms to religious minorities at home.   And the religious minorities in many cases are not foreign immigrants but locals.  As the old saying goes, people in glass houses should not toss stones.

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Posted on 10-11-2009
Filed Under (Religion) by Rashtrakut

By demanding the return of Mother Teresa’s remains to the land of her ancestry, Albania has ruffled some feathers in the city where the diminutive nun conducted her mission.  Not surprisingly the request has been summarily rebuffed.  But it raises a question of national identity and ethnic pride.

To what extent should one bask in the accomplishments of ethnic kin that were almost entirely achieved in another country?

2009 Chemistry Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan caused some heartburn in India when he publicly wondered why so many people in India kept contacting him to offer congratulations.  Most such emigres do not share Dr. Ramakrishnan’s humility and are only too eager to soak up all the adulation they can get.  Likewise the people granting the adulation often merely seek to bask in the reflected glory from their ethnic kin.  A more positive use would be to use the ready made role model to inspire and encourage future accomplishments on the home front.

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Posted on 10-11-2009
Filed Under (Religion) by Rashtrakut

The Vatican reaffirmed today that the attempt to reel in disaffected married Anglican clergy will not ease the ban on married clergy within the Catholic church itself.  As someone watching from outside, it seems difficult to see how long the Vatican can just ignore this contradiction.  Then there is the failure to effectively enforce the ban in Africa and Latin America, the most notorious recent example being the current President of Paraguay who fathered at least one child when he was still a bishop.  It is yet another example in church history where political expediency causes headaches in matters of religious doctrine.

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Posted on 05-11-2009
Filed Under (Religion) by Rashtrakut

Looks like Italians are outraged about a European court ruling that crucifixes in classrooms of state run secular schools violate the principles of secular education.  Its an extension of the battle not uncommon in the United States, and a symptom of how modern Europe still struggles to integrate immigrants (this claim was brought by a Finnish woman with Italian citizenship).  However, for all the concerns about the assault on cultural heritage only about 23 percent of Italians regularly attend church.  What meaningful purpose the crucifix serves in classrooms is not very clear.

However, this amusing bumper sticker I have seen brings home the futility of any attempt to eliminate prayer from schools:  “So long as there are exams, there will always be prayers in schools.”

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Posted on 28-10-2009
Filed Under (India, Religion) by Rashtrakut

A close family friend forwarded me the latest offering from Wendy Doniger on Hinduism.  I first became aware about the controversy surrounding the good professor during the dispute a few years ago regarding Professor Courtright’s book about Ganesha.  For a discussion of the academic analysis behind that particularly book see here.  The revelations of the incestuous peer review process in humanities academia (which is something I previously noticed in my education)  have soured my perceptions of humanities and social science academia.  There is already a critique of Doniger’s book by Aditi Banerjee on line. See here.

Doniger and her cohorts have the tedious tendency to dismiss all her critics as Hindutva fundamentalists.  However, the controversy surrounding their scholarship does raise some questions: (a) how appropriate is it to apply the social mores of today in reviewing books written thousands of years back rather than the cultural context of the time? (b) how effective is a peer review process when most of the reviewers are not practitioners of that religion, and (c) who gets to define a religion, its practitioners or academic scholars who openly admit they are not practitioners.

These are not straight forward questions and the answers in my opinion can come tinged in gray.  Research into Hinduism and provocative theories and research into Hinduism should be encouraged and the perspective of someone raised outside a cultural milieu can provide valuable insight or provide a thought provoking moment for practitioners.  The problem is that Hinduism academia in the United States is largely filled by non-practitioners and non-Indians.  Even with the best of intentions it very easy to miss cultural contexts in this isolated academic ivory tower.

However, the 1000 lb gorilla in the room is whether the mis-characterization of Hindu texts and beliefs (even if unintentional) will be used for propaganda purposes.  Post 9/11 we have already seen how selectively quoting verses from the Quran can be used to demonize a whole faith.  It will be naive to assume that the works of Doniger and Courtright are not been eagerly lapped up for aggressive missionary work in India.

Doniger’s book by its title indicates that it should not be used as an introduction to Hinduism.  An “alternative history” suggests a book written to advance a view-point or an agenda. However, Doniger’s high profile presence in American academia suggests that it will be used exactly for that purpose.   And that creates the risk that a work by an admitted non-practitioner whose scholarship has been questioned could become part of the academic curriculum in the United States.

Doniger’s book will generate the inevitable firestorm.  One hopes that the critiques and reviews that come steer clear of ad hominem attacks and focus instead on the substance of her book.  This will require a dispassionate reading of ancient texts which may lead to some unsettling conclusions.  However, this will generate a genuine exchange of ideas and opinions that ultimately will serve the cause of American scholarship on Hinduism.

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Posted on 27-10-2009
Filed Under (Religion) by Rashtrakut

Kudos to the Obama administration for clarifying that they oppose the ridiculous UN motion regarding defamation of religion.  It is understandable that Muslims are upset about the assaults to their faith by prominent western politicians and the infamous Danish cartoon controversy.  But this resolution undercuts at the very essence of free speech and the exchange of ideas, even obnoxious ones.  What makes this resolution even more offensive is that it is being sponsored by countries like Saudi Arabia which do not permit free exercise of religion, prevent the importation of religious texts of other countries and insult other faiths in their academic curriculum.  Many of these states also have blasphemy laws that are often used to abuse religious minorities.  Even with some of the offensive comments made regarding Islam in the last decade and the documented cases of discrimination against Muslims, the West does not have any reason to feel defensive about their record on respecting religious freedom (particularly given the track record of some of the accusers).  People have noted that while the Saudis have funded the construction of a mosque in Rome, they are unlikely to permit the construction of a church in Saudi Arabia.  Freedom should work both ways.

This brings up a conversation I had with an extremely religious neighbor a few years back that free speech should not allow people to offend.  Actually it should…otherwise the speech is not truly free.  The assault on free speech is not unique to any ideologies, but it should be pointed out that free speech also does not  prevent others from calling out bigoted or hateful comments.  There is some unintended irony in the attempt by Muslim countries to pass such a resolution.  All of the founders of the Abrahamic faiths (including Islam) would have likely violated this resolution by “defaming” the religious practices of their neighbors.  But then this is not really intended to be an ecumenical resolution.

The Canadian representative at the United Nations this March got it right, “Individuals have rights, not religions.”  The OIC would be better off in assisting the victims of discrimination, cooperating with the West in combating incidences of bigotry and cleaning up their own acts at home.

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Posted on 25-10-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Religion) by Rashtrakut

An interesting article by Time on the appearance by British National Party chief Nick Griffin on a BBC show last week.  An economic downturn combined with rising immigration seem to bring an upswing in the fortunes of parties like the BNP.

When mainstream parties latch on to this fervor it can backfire.  In the United States the California Governor Pete Wilson latched on to anti-immigrant fervor to win re-election in 1994.  When the fervor died down it emerged that he had driven Hispanic voters into the Democratic column for the foreseeable future.  Egged on by CNN commentator Lou Dobbs and Republican congressmen like Tom Tancredo, certain sections of the Republican party adopted a similar tack dooming the Presidential ticket in the Southwest and scaring off white middle class voters in the 2008 election.

But the Time article does raise a valid issue of how these concerns are to be addressed.   This issue has affected many other European countries like France, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary etc.  The fundamental problem in Europe has been that as non-immigrant societies they have struggled to integrate their immigrants.  Even though the United States has had nativist outbreaks dating back to Benjamin Franklin grumbling about German immigration, the immigrant populations have generally integrated into American society.

The burden does fall both ways.  While immigrants should have a right to have their religious and cultural traditions respected, they must also understand that their is a reason why they left their homelands to settle down far away and the inhabitants of the country can feel unsettled by a sudden influx of people who look, dress, eat, worship and talk differently.  A healthy dialogue of communities is essential to prevent repeats of stories like this one from last month.  For the follow up click here.

Ultimately a lot of the BNP’s support appears rooted in economic malaise.  Immigrants are likelier to compete for jobs with people at the lower rungs of the economic ladder.  The added competition in a shrinking job market provides a simple breeding ground for the type of emotions the BNP feeds on.  And job creation is not an easy task in the current economic climate.

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Posted on 21-10-2009
Filed Under (Religion) by Rashtrakut

Over the last 15 years the Anglican communion has been rocked by the divisive issues of ordaining women priests and (even more controversially) ordaining gay priests and recognizing gay marriage.  There is a major cultural schism between the more liberal English church and the conservative African parishes.  The dispute has split the Episcopalian church in the United States with some dioceses switching allegiance to the African Church.

Now the Catholic church has decided to fish for believers in troubled Anglican waters.  With Catholics set to surpass the number of Anglicans in England, Pope Benedict XVI announced yesterday that the Catholic Church would make it easier for Anglicans to join the Catholic communion.  What this does for the ecumenical dialogue initiated by Pope John Paul II and the reception that Pope Benedict will receive when he visits the United Kingdom next year remains to be seen.  However, the Catholic Church’s eagerness to integrate disaffected Anglicans could have unwanted side effects by rehashing a theological dispute Rome considers resolved.  If married Anglican priests can be ordained Catholic clergy (even if they cannot become Bishops) just like the married clergy in Eastern Rite churches in communion with Rome, why is a similar approach not possible for regular Catholics?  Similar pragmatism could help stem the severe shortage of priests in American and European dioceses and bring clergy who can relate culturally with their flock, instead of the imported priests from India, Africa and the Philippines.  Rome’s justification for this contradiction will be interesting to watch.

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Posted on 19-10-2009
Filed Under (History, Religion) by Rashtrakut

Kudos to Andrew Sullivan for managing to make an off the cuff reference to Girolamo Savonarola in a random blog.  Never thought I would run into a reference to the 15th century fanatical homophobic Florentine priest who ended up burned at the stake for his opposition to the notorious Alexander VI in a reference to a conservative flack.  Savonarola’s most famous contribution to pop culture is the phrase Bonfire of the Vanities.  I wonder how many people caught the reference.  In a country where a period drama set in Italy a 100 years later has its title changed from “Courtesan” to “Dangerous Beauty” because 95% of the country did not know what courtesan meant, the number cannot be high.

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Posted on 14-10-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Religion) by Rashtrakut

This story and the comments by the anonymous Internet warriors is disgusting. A bunch of Republican congressmen felt it incumbent upon themselves to have the House Sergeant at Arms investigate the “infiltration” of Congress through Muslim staffers and interns. Oh the horror!!!

This post brings up the question from General Powell quoted in a previous blog. “Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?” The bigotry spewed from the right wing now reaches such proportions that Republican congressmen (albeit from the extreme fringe of an already fringe party) seek to initiate a McCarthyesque search for “infiltration” of Congress by the practitioners of a religion with over a billion practitioners world wide.

In this world view Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban and Wahhabi inspired fundamentalist preachers somehow represent the religious spectrum of an entire faith in a way that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell could never do so for Christianity. While lashing out at the bloody history of radicalized Islam, they conveniently forget the violence wreaked elsewhere by other religions.

This must stop. Substitute Arab or Islam in these screeds with any other race or religion and even the supine Republican leadership that kowtows to these purveyors of hate would have to step in. The Republican Party attempted to re-brand itself with a new website this week, only to find that all its civil rights heroes dated before the Civil Rights Act or back to the Civil War and that baseball hero Jackie Robinson was an independent who turned against the Republican Party after the 1964 convention that nominated Barry Goldwater. The Republican Party lost its moral high ground on race when it embraced the Southern strategy. It is time it rediscovered its civil rights roots and displayed the moral fortitude to stand up to the rank bigotry some of its congressmen displayed today.

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