The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Inter-faith dialogue a beaten track

By Sandhya Jain

At a time when it is fashionable to repose confidence in inter-faith dialogue, it is not easy to prick the feel-good factor this evokes and question the utility of such an enterprise. Peaceful coexistence between different faiths, howsoever large or small the number of their adherents may be, can never be a national or world reality until hitherto unaccommodating creeds incorporate mutual respect for other traditions as part of their cultural norms.

In the absence of such a fundamental reform, inter-faith dialogue becomes a fruitless exercise for non-monotheistic traditions. It raises false hopes of equal respect and equal treatment, but actually facilitates expansionist creeds in their attempts to tilt the scales against non-converting faiths.

To this day, for instance, Saudi Arabia treats any religious practice other than Islam as ‘illegal’, even in the private domain. Last month, Saudi religious police discovered an improvised Hindu temple in a room in old Riyadh, while raiding some flats suspected of manufacturing alcohol and distributing pornographic videos. Three Indian men were offering puja in that private apartment. Yet the police destroyed the temple (may we call this iconoclasm?) and deported the devotees. Since Islam is a trans-national faith and Saudi Arabia its fountainhead, what can inter-faith dialogue yield anywhere in the world if it does not begin on a basic premise of tolerance?

Matters hardly improve when we turn towards Christianity, the faith that took the lead in initiating the ‘dialogue’. Far from proposing a ‘ceasefire’ in the matter of poaching upon other faiths, Cardinal T.P. Toppo, President, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), has given a clarion call to Indian churches to make evangelisation the cornerstone of their activities. Welcoming the speed of conversions in southern India, he laments that north India is lagging behind.

The Christian impetus for conversion is also an international phenomenon. Last month, the Australian government decided to reopen the cases of 30 immigration detainees (all Muslims) who had converted to Christianity since their arrival (Sydney Morning Herald, March 21, 2005). These rejected asylum-seekers may now be allowed to stay, thanks to hectic lobbying for Christian converts by the Family First party, which controls a key vote in the Australian Senate.

Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone admits that the only reason for reconsidering the 30 cases is their new religion. It is argued that the men – who have apostatized from Islam – may be persecuted if returned to their home countries, especially Iran, which is a theocratic State. That may be so, yet I view conversion to another faith while in detention – to win the right to stay – as tantamount to force or unnatural pressure. And if conversion is the only reason why Australia will permit Muslims from other nations to settle on its soil, one may legitimately ask if it is a Christian theocracy? Isn’t it religious discrimination to deny domiciliary rights to Muslims, but bestow them upon those who convert?

Matters hardly improve when we turn towards Christianity, the faith that took the lead in initiating the ‘dialogue’.

Yet both Islam and Christianity press their respective agendas, even on each others’ territory. Saudi Arabia deals with religious diversity on its soil in the manner described above, and audaciously pushes Wahhabi Islam abroad via local Muslim communities. Recently, Freedom House’s Centre for Religious Freedom, New York, published a report on a survey of over a dozen major mosques and Islamic centres in America. The study also scrutinised 200 of their books and publications, 90 per cent of which were in Arabic. All this literature was in some way linked with the Saudi regime, as several mosques received funds or were staffed by the Saudi government (The Friday Times, Lahore, March 25 - 31, 2005).

Most of the literature, collected from 2003 up to November 2004, preached hatred for other religions and cultures. One typical tract called America the ‘abode of the infidel’, the Christian and the Jew. It warned: “Be dissociated from the infidels, hate them for their religion, leave them, never rely on them for support, do not admire them, and always oppose them in every way according to Islamic law. There is consensus in this matter that whoever helps unbelievers against Muslims, regardless of what type of support he lends to them, he is an unbeliever himself.”

The report has triggered a debate within Pakistan about how Islam is perceived by other cultures, especially since some of the material is from a book titled: Greetings from the Cultural Department of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, Washington. Pakistani journalists question why Saudi authorities promote the view that the world is divided into the faithful and the infidel, and instigate Muslims in so-called infidel societies to behave as if they are on a mission behind enemy lines (a sort of fifth column in their native countries).

Freedom House found the literature distributed by the Saudis to be ‘replete with condemnations of Christians and their beliefs’. One publication said that churches and synagogues were not houses of God and whoever lets these places remain open is an infidel. Another added: “It is basic Islam to believe that everyone who does not embrace Islam is an unbeliever, and must be called an unbeliever, and that they are enemies of Allah, his Prophet and believers.”

The Saudi embassy had also issued fatwas to guide Muslims; one said a Muslim cannot become the citizen of a country governed by infidels. Freedom House concluded: “We have confirmed that as of December 2004, the retrograde, unreformed editions of Saudi textbooks and state-sponsored, hate-filled fatwa collection remain widespread and plentiful in many important American mosques.”

However, despite such loud warning bells, the regime that rushed to deny Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi a visa to attend an NRI function, has tread cautiously in the matter of preaching the virtues of religious freedom and tolerance to Saudi Arabia. Obviously, the wheels of international morality can be greased (pun intended).

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