Friday, September 21, 2007

Religion and politics today


In the Ancient Civilizations this week we talked about the close relationship between religion and politics in the earliest records of the Middle East. Someone quite rightly pointed out that religion and politics often go together now. So of course for the next few days religion and politics met my eye every time I looked at the Web. Here are two recent news items and a slightly older one I hadn't got around to.

According to this BBC story, Pope Benedict has refused to receive US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in person because, among other things, she was the point person who publicly rejected Pope John Paul's concerns about US policy on Iraq in 2003. A few well-informed commentators recalled to mind an occasion when Joseph Stalin brushed off papal concerns with the scornful question, "How many divisions does he have?" The point being of course that Stalin and his Soviet Union are gone, while the papacy is still here.

Then there is the piece that a friend of mine alerted me to last month, about continuing Chinese efforts to suppress Tibetan identity. The Dalai Lama in exile is the heart and soul of Tibetan resistance so (according to Newsweek):

In one of history's more absurd acts of totalitarianism, China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which goes into effect next month and strictly stipulates the procedures by which one is to reincarnate, is "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation." By barring any Buddhist monk living outside China from seeking reincarnation, the law effectively gives Chinese authorities the power to choose the next Dalai Lama, whose soul, by tradition, is reborn as a new human to continue the work of relieving suffering.
"Absurd?" "Traditional" might be a better word. When you're talking about "absurd" and "history," you've got a lot to choose from -- especially when the subject is official reasons why you should shut up and do what you are told. The raising and toppling of monuments to former god-kings doesn't seem so far out by comparison, does it?

This last item, about the "House of Wisdom," gives me the creeps:

The U.S. military has introduced "religious enlightenment" and other education programs for Iraqi detainees, some of whom are as young as 11, Marine Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, the commander of U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, said yesterday.

Stone said such efforts, aimed mainly at Iraqis who have been held for more than a year, are intended to "bend them back to our will" and are part of waging war in what he called "the battlefield of the mind." Most of the younger detainees are held in a facility that the military calls the "House of Wisdom."

The religious courses are led by Muslim clerics who "teach out of a moderate doctrine," Stone said, according to the transcript of a conference call he held from Baghdad with a group of defense bloggers. Such schooling "tears apart" the arguments of al-Qaeda, such as "Let's kill innocents," and helps to "bring some of the edge off" the detainees, he said.

Now normally I'd be happy to hear that Muslim moderates were engaging with young jihadis to talk some sense into them, and once upon a time the idea of a school for that purpose might have struck me as a positive development. That was before the setting up of the prison at Guantanamo and before the US military took over Saddam Hussein's torture chambers at Abu Ghraib. I have to be deeply suspicious of an institution meant to "bend them back to our will," (whose will, exactly?) and which has appropriated the name of a long-ago Baghdadi religious school to do so. What does this "battlefield of the mind" look like, anyway? What will we know about it in 20 years that we don't know now?

What do you think?

"We're busting them down, we're making whole moderate compounds that didn't exist before."

Stone described a sort of religious insurgency that occurred at one detention facility on Sept. 2. "We had a compound of moderates for the first time overtake . . . extremists. It's never happened before. Found them, identified them, threw them up against the fence and shaved their frickin' beards off of them. . . . I mean, that is historic."

Gotta love that "religious enlightenment."

Image: A poster for the movie 300. I feel an inexorable pressure to see this flick.

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