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November 3, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Rajeev Srinivasan

Americans as protectors of religion: a fox guarding the hen-house?

I was amused to find a news report that an obscure American official, one Robert Seiple, US ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, was lecturing India on religious tolerance. I was even more amused when Anand from Fremont, California wrote that this Seiple person used to be the head of World Vision, a gigantic Christian missionary (and, to be fair, disaster relief) organization that according to its own data gets 18 per cent of its funding from the US government! Rather a lot like the proverbial fox in the hen-house.

The right kind of ambassador-at-large would be a disinterested observer, perhaps a secular humanist like Noam Chomsky, who would be equally sceptical about all religions, but would play no favorites. An American ex-missionary complaining about tolerance calls for true chutzpah, especially it has only been a few weeks since there has been considerable evidence of American intolerance.

First, there are far more instances of religious intolerance in the US than in India. Second, it is no business of America's what India does to Indian Christians (or Australians for that matter). Third, America has no locus standi in matters religious -- as, say, the Pope might. Fourth, the Americans are curiously silent about certain cases of religious oppression. Fifth, their definition of religious tolerance is, shall we say, quirky?

As I have said before in my column Death of a Missionary, instead of hanging its head, the Indian government should demand explanations for the various acts of violence against ethnic and religious minorities in the US. We should respond to sanctimonious posturing and finger-wagging by Americans with the Chinese tactic of shouting from the rooftops about their sins.

Let us forget ethnic minorities for the moment -- non-whites continue to be brutalized on a regular basis in the US. Consider just religious minorities -- there are various and sundry cults in the US, which usually preach some bizarre form of Christianity. More about the bizarreness of cults in a moment, but for now let us look at violence against these cults.

Let us compare acts of religious terror. It is indeed true that in India a foreign missionary has been torched by persons unknown, but certainly not by the government. But, in the US, how about the fact that a hundred Americans were torched, and that too, by the US government? Shouldn't there be a global outcry? Shouldn't India lead this outcry and wag fingers at the US?

I mean the Waco affair. As I have hinted darkly before, there is more than meets the eye in the 'unfortunate suicide by fire' of a lot of Branch Davidians (including children) in their fortified encampment in Waco, Texas, which was under siege by various arms of the US government, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and so forth.

It turns out, according to recent reports in The Economist, that some Special Services officers were also included as 'observers' in the fray. It may be noted that the US army is expressly forbidden from any role in internal matters, yet they were apparently involved in the planning in Waco. The Texas National Guard has brought out a damning investigative report.

All signs point to the following: federal government agencies lobbed, with malice aforethought, 'pyrotechnic' tear-gas shells into the encampment. With the full knowledge that these would catch fire and burn the Waco folks to death! Also, the exhaust gases from tanks used to attack barricades -- at a temperature of 1400 degrees Fahrenheit -- ignited anything in the vicinity, as the FBI well knew. A virtual tapestry of lies, denials and distortions of the truth has been recorded by investigators -- and the Clinton administration is highly embarrassed.

And what do the Clintonites do in response? They go out and publish a litany of alleged religious oppression of minorities in other parts of the world! I guess they too are following the excellent diversionary tactic of shouting about others' sins in the hope that their own will be forgotten.

The US has been an intolerant country for almost all of its existence. After all, the white settlers, the Puritans, had been kicked out of England for being unbending fundamentalists. They have continued in this vein, from the Salem witch-hunts of the 17th century to the McCarthy hearings in the 20th century. A D W Griffith film, appropriately named Intolerance,,, goes into detail on what bigoted Americans (and others in the Semitic traditions) have wrought in the name of religion.

Compare this to what has happened in India in terms of religious tolerance. Forget the fact that those oppressed in the name of their religion have always found a welcome in India: Jews fleeing from Roman terror circa 72 CE and whose magnificent 600-year-old synagogue still stands in Fort Cochin; Zoroastrians fleeing from Muslim terror circa 900 CE; Tibetans fleeing Maoist terror circa 1959.

Persecuted Christians arrived peacefully in India by 500 CE (there was a Syrian settlement led by Thomas of Canaan in Kerala around that time). Unfortunately, the tale of the arrival of St Thomas the Apostle in 52 CE, fondly believed by many Indian Christians, seems to be a pure myth. Apparently, Thomas never came to India, according to the Vatican's records; nor did he die in Madras -- he died in Spain. See Ishwar Sharan, The Myth of Thomas in India (Voice of India).

Similarly, Arab Muslims came to Kodungallur and Kozhikode on the Malabar coast before 1000 CE, and there is evidence that a local king, Cheraman Perumal, converted to Islam, abdicated, and went to Mecca. There was no religious violence in Malabar about this at the time.

So, for a thousand years, Christians and Muslims have been able to live in India unmolested by Hindus. Alas, the opposite is not true. Just consider what has happened in the Indian subcontinent with the intrusions by Semitic religions:

Number of Hindu and Buddhist temples destroyed by Muslims, 1000 CE to 1992 200,000 - 500,000
Number of Muslim mosques destroyed by Hindus, 1000 CE to 1992 0
Number of Muslim mosques/structures destroyed by Hindus, 1992 to today 1
Number of Hindu temples destroyed by Muslims, 1992 to today (eg in Kashmir, Bangladesh, Pakistan in response to the Ayodhya affair) 100
Number of Muslim mosques built in India alone, 1947 to today 5,000
Number of Hindu temples destroyed by Christians (eg in Goa, Kerala by Portuguese conquerors), 500 CE to today 500
Number of Christian churches destroyed by Hindus, 500 CE to today 0
Number of Christian churches built in India, 1947 to today 2,000

These numbers are not exact, I admit -- they are more or less order-of-magnitude guesses. But the zeros are the most significant data. Incidentally, it was alleged that a couple of Christians set fire to the famous Sabarimala temple in the 1950s as part of forest-encroachment activity. Yet, nobody went on a rampage torching churches in retaliation -- and Christians, a minority at 20 per cent of the population in Kerala, would have been vulnerable. No, tolerance is not an American monopoly.

On the contrary, consider what the Americans have done: as recently as 1939, a shipful of Jewish refugees, arriving at New York harbor, was forced to turn around and go back to Nazi Germany, to certain death; no humanitarian considerations there -- after all, Jews were considered inferior human beings by Christians at the time.

The Americans also practiced genocide themselves: they massacred, hunted down like vermin, and deliberately infected the Native American with alien diseases they had no resistance to. And in the process extinguished the native religions, which were, like aboriginal religions elsewhere, deeply spiritual and in tune with nature. Today the only traces left are the pale shadows trotted out for tourist cameras in the sacred Black Hills of the Dakotas. Read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for a poignant account of the holocaust inflicted upon the Red Man.

And consider also religion as practiced in the US -- it is full of humbugs and charlatans and con artists and hustlers. Admittedly this is true of all religions in the US, not just the fundamentalist Christians. Americans lap up religion by the bushelful and the boatload, regardless of how primitive or stupid it is.

For instance, there's a Southern Christian preacher named Oral Roberts. A few years ago, it seems God spoke to Oral. Spake He, allegedly: "Oral, you must raise $ 10 million in the next one month, or I shall call you home to heaven." One would think Oral would like to go "home". But no, his followers did pony up the $10 million! I tell you, I am awfully tempted to become a preacher!

Then there are eminently forgettable people like the Bakkes, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson etc. Some of them, despite their fire-and-brimstone utterances from the pulpit, seem mighty interested in frequenting prostitutes; some have been caught in flagrante delicto and have brazened it out, tearfully, on television, swearing never to do it again. Pathetic people, these. Others are in it strictly to make money from the gullible.

And the cults of America -- dangerous and irresponsible. Some will remember the Jonestown tragedy in Guyana, when some 300 Americans of the Jim Jones cult committed ritual suicide by drinking arsenic-laced Gatorade. Or the Heaven's Gate cult, who committed suicide at the time of the comet in 1997.

And what is the result of this kind of religion on the American people? According to a tongue-in-cheek report in The Economist:

The Kansas Board of Education revealed that evolution is being taught in schools… Steve Forbes [a presidential candidate] calls evolution 'a massive fraud'… Al Gore [vice-president] says "localities should be free to teach creationism as well"… Gallup polls say that 10 % of Americans believe in evolution, while 44% believe in strict biblical creationism. Four million people also believe they have been abducted by aliens.

And these are the people who will sit in judgement on others' religions? Laughable, indeed. For those who do not know what 'creationism' is, it teaches that God created the universe at 10 am on April 25th, 4004 BCE. What about the fossil record that shows evolution is a fact, did you say? Of course, God had the foresight to create the entire fossil record at 10am, April 25th, 4004 BCE, at the same time as He created everything else! What a clever person God must be!

Furthermore, the American worry about the oppression of religious minorities is confined only to conveniently bulliable countries. Why, I wonder, do they not make much noise about Chinese oppression of Tibetan Buddhists and the gross violation of basic human rights? Or about the fact that their pals the Saudi Arabians will not give employment visas to Indian Hindus, only to Indian Muslims and Christians?

Or that, according to the conservative Islamic Khilafah Magazine, February 1999, "the public practice of other religions is forbidden and apostasing from Islam is punishable by death" in Saudi Arabia? I also suspect the fuss the West made about East Timor had a lot to do with the fact that Timorese are largely Christian, having been converted by the Portuguese (who are themselves not celebrated for their great tolerance).

Moving closer to home, Seiple is concerned that Hindus are putting obstacles in the path of Christian missionaries! Personally I'd say this is a good thing. Why does Seiple not shed tears about the obstacles faced by Rajneeshis, who were hounded out of the US by tax authorities and by irate locals in Antelope, Oregon, where they had set up shop? Similarly with the Hare Krishnas. So it's okay for the US public/government to oppose a foreign cult, but not for the Indian public/government to the same to foreign cults?

Hindus have never, in their millennia-old history, been an evangelizing/converting group. Hindus never went overseas to convert people. Any sect that came to India was allowed to practice their faith unmolested. But this tolerance is being sorely tested by irresponsible Christian missionaries.

Where is Seiple's humanitarian concern for the Reang tribals, 45,000 of whom have apparently been ethnically cleansed from Mizoram with the active connivance of foreign (American?) missionaries for the crime of not wanting to convert in a state that has become mostly Christian in less than two decades? (See The Observer, February 8, 1999).

Although the 'secular' and 'progressive' Indian media refuses to report about the Reangs, they have been forced to flee Mizoram -- they talk of rape, murder, and other atrocities -- and are living in stinking refugee camps in Tripura. According to The Indian Express, April 9, 1998, 170 Reang women were raped, 28 of their villages burned, and 50 people murdered. It is true that there are inter-tribal animosities as well -- the Buddhist Chakmas were also attacked by Christian Mizos.

Reangs have also been -- irony of ironies at this time of the celebration of democracy -- disenfranchised, as the Mizoram chief minister claim that the Reangs are "illegal refugees"; they are not part of the electoral rolls in Mizoram.

Apparently, it is dangerous to be a Hindu or Buddhist in Mizoram -- the Christian Taliban will come for you.

As I said in my column, The value of a human life, it appears as though Christians -- in the eyes of the Indian media -- are children of some greater god. For instance, there is the recent case of a nun allegedly stripped and forced to drink urine in Bihar. If this happened, it is a violation of her human rights, and the press is right to make plenty of noise. But why in God's name does it condone the oppression of Hindus such as the Reangs through a conspiracy of silence?

Having said all this, I would like to make a disclaimer: I am not against Indian Christians, I just don't like bigoted foreign Christians who think Indians are so much brown cannon fodder for their conversion machinery. I know a lot of Indian Christians, and they are just plain people -- some are good, some are bad, you cannot stereotype them as anything. They are just like all other Indians.

And Indian Christians deserve -- and we should all give them -- exactly as much respect as any other Indian. I have said before, in my column A case for pragmatism that in the interest of enlightened self-interest, it is important to ensure that all Indians, of whatever faith, work together for India, not against it.

In truth, if Seiple were an objective observer, he would find that Hindus are the oppressed ones in India on account of their religion. Nehruvian Stalinist laws (Nehru himself, it appears, hated Hinduism) force government control on Hindu shrines. Thus the wealth of Hindu temples -- generally comprising many small offerings from the faithful poor -- disappears into government coffers. However, Christian or Muslim shrines also receive money (including large sums from overseas sources like Pat Robertson and the Saudis), and they are not even forced to reveal their sources or audit their books, much less have their wealth transferred to the government.

Furthermore, Hindu institutions are not allowed to run their own educational institutions -- not only is education an extremely profitable business, but it is a way of propagating values too. Thus you have the startling spectacle of the Ramakrishna Mission, the entity set up by Swami Vivekananda, certainly one of the most articulate interpreters of Hinduism in several centuries, having the Indian Supreme Court declare them a non-Hindu organization, just to survive! Only in India!

Finally, it has only been a few weeks since a vegetarian Hindu couple in the US had their lawsuit against Taco Bell thrown out of court. They had asked for the small sum of $ 2,000 to be able to travel to India and cleanse themselves in the Ganges after having been served rice with beef in it, despite expressly asking for vegetarian rice. No gigantic claims for mental distress, you will notice. They should appeal and ask for a billion dollars for aggravation and mental distress. That would get them some attention and respect.

The judge in the suit rejected their petition on the grounds that the food served was "suitable for human consumption." Quite true, but how would Madame Judge react if she were offered a roasted dog, which is considered 'suitable for human consumption' in certain quarters? With horror, of course. Also, can you imagine the fuss if a Muslim or Jew had been served pork, which is also 'suitable for human consumption'? No, Hindus are meek and their religious sentiments can be violated with impunity, and dismissed with lofty arrogance.

The Indian government erred in not making a big deal about this case. And also in the case of the wholly unsuitable use of the shloka from the Bhagavad Gita in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. The meek don't inherit the earth, they get sent to concentration camps. Hindus, and the Indian Government, need to learn to push back and fuss against unreasonable harassment. Then people like this Seiple person wouldn't come out of the woodwork, pontificating.

Postscript. A few readers objected to my calling Hitler, Mao, etc. "Semitic". According to the traditional meaning, "Semitic" is a so-called 'race' of people with their origin in West Asia, including Jews and Arabs. In fact, there is no such 'race' -- Arabs and Jews are white. I quite consciously use "Semitic" as shorthand for "person subscribing to the norms of Semitic beliefs, such are Islam, Christianity, and Marxism." My definition of "Semitic religion" is no worse than the illusory "Semitic race".

Interestingly, "Semitic" comes from the biblical reference to the "Sons of Shem, who shall rule over the Sons of Ham". This was used, for instance, in the American South to justify slavery and by the Dutch Reformed Church to justify apartheid in South Africa, under the pretext that black people were, obviously, the "Sons of Ham"!

Rajeev Srinivasan

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