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.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Conversion not a personal matter

The Pioneer
by Sandhya Jain

Defying conventional wisdom, I find myself in sympathy with the rage of Afghanistan's orthodox clergy at the Karzai regime's succumbing to Western pressure and literally smuggling a Christian convert out of the country, when he was supposed to be under investigation for apostasy. Coming as this does soon after the Dutch cartoons lampooning Prophet Mohammad, the incident must have enhanced the psychological unease in the Islamic world about the motivations of the Christian West.

The matter has serious implications for Islam and other non-Christian civilisations, and deserves dispassionate analysis. The accused, Abdul Rahman, converted to Christianity 16 years ago while employed by an international Christian agency helping Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan. This means that as in tsunami-hit Indonesia, Christian missionaries disguised as aid workers are active even in 'friendly' Islamic countries.

Rahman worked for four years in Pakistan, before moving to Germany, where he lived for nine years. On returning to Afghanistan in 2002, he tried to secure custody of his two teenage daughters from his own parents, who refused on account of his changed religion and called the police, resulting in the recent prosecution. Significantly, just before the Taliban regime fell in 2001, it had imprisoned eight Western aid workers for trying to convert Afghans. The concerned NGOs vehemently denied the accusations, but after the workers were rescued by US troops, many admitted the proselytisation charge.

Rahman's prosecution under the post-Taliban constitution brought the wrath of the supposedly secular Christian world upon the government of President Hamid Karzai, proving my contention that secularism is a twin-god of Christianity, a mask to promote the Christian agenda while denying similar freedom to other faiths. So, led by the Vatican and the United States, howls of protest arose from France, Italy, Germany, Britain, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Austria, even NATO (a Western military bloc) and the West-dominated United Nations. Surely the separation of religion and State calls for restraint in promoting the cause of conversion, especially as this entails a nasty determination to eliminate other faiths and impose dominion on other peoples.

But such niceties from never inhibited the West from actively funding conversions with a clear political agenda. Conversion, as East Timor proves, superimposes the economic and political goals of the proselytising nation upon the interests and aspirations of the converted. East Timor's secession from Indonesia gave Australia a free run of the formers' oil reserves; the Afghan narcotics trade currently stands at $2.8 billion.

To return to Rahman, the Karzai regime crumbled quickly. At first the prosecution was halted on the ground that the accused was mentally unstable; he was released for medical scrutiny, and hastily smuggled to Italy, where he received political asylum. The Afghan ulema's impotent rage is symptomatic of modern Islam's sterility in facing the West's imperialistic designs on its terrain. Islam would do well to put its house in order and denounce the jihadi mercenaries serving the geo-strategic goals of the West.

The Indian view on conversions is akin to that of Islam (minus the death penalty for apostasy). As per the lived experience of human societies all over the world, dharma or religion has never been a matter of individual choice. Dharma is primarily and intrinsically integral to family, clan, social and cultural inheritance. All human beings are born into a spiritual tradition and initiated into its customs, philosophy, tenets and taboos from an early age, just as they are given appropriate education or skills by their natal families.

Normally, a person does not choose his dharma in the manner in which he chooses a political party or association on reaching adulthood. Like family name or clan (jati, gotra) identity, the spiritual and cultural heritage is a natal legacy. It can be renounced, like material wealth; but the norm is to pass it on to future generations as a birthright. Every individual, family and social group has the right and duty to revere and protect this legacy and demand it be respected by other human beings and groups. This is a foundational right of society, and the Supreme Court's decision upholding conversion by one spouse to another faith as a legitimate ground for divorce, affirms it. This is logical, because far from being a personal matter, dharma permeates all aspects of life intimately.

Western propaganda that religion is a matter of individual choice is actually a legal subterfuge to checkmate opposition as Christianity undermines rival faiths and "harvests souls" in order to takeover targetted communities and nations. That is why the issue of freedom of religion is couched mainly in pro-missionary terms, as a one-sided right to force the Bible down the throats of pre-selected human targets. To my mind, proselytisation is a grotesque form of psychological and spiritual (often even physical) violence and an abuse of human rights because it denies the targetted community or individual the agency to uphold as meritorious and intrinsically valuable an extant civilisational ethos, with its accompanying gods, morals, ethics, culture and traditions that have been practiced for centuries.

In a world order that claims to be post-colonial, there can be no justification for such invasive appropriation of the ethical agency of other peoples. Evangelism violates the basic premise of equality of all religions, and the United Nations would do well to consider the critical question whether all religions have a right to exist, particularly in the core homelands in which they were born, and in lands where they are currently the principal creed.

Linked to this is the question whether a particular monotheistic faith, one that alone is represented at the United Nations as a State power, enjoys special immunity to insult and annihilate other faiths in their own space. Far from siding with the Christian West, should not the United Nations take action to protect other faiths and cultures from the terrible depredations of this imperialistic political culture?

Evangelical traditions cannot be allowed the license to deny respect and honour to the god(s) and spiritual eminences of a community being targetted for conversion. Indeed, this cussed approach to proselytisation must be viewed as a form of totalitarianism, of mental and psychological subversion of the individual and community. The utterly vulgar call for "harvesting souls" should be designated as a form of immoral human trafficking because the moral autonomy of the community and individual is denied; both are degraded, and hence a crime committed against humanity. Muslim scholars and activists opposed to organised religious conversion, as distinct from an individual personally seeking out another faith, may find the Global Congress on "World Religions after September 11" (Montreal, September 11-15, 2006) an appropriate forum to debate these issues.

A post-colonial world order cannot justify such invasive appropriation of the ethical agency of others, unless we are now witnessing a new imperial order. Non-Christian nations would do well to join hands and petition the United Nations General Assembly for sanctions against organised evangelism in vulnerable communities.

Several member-States have experienced the misuse of charity and aid for promoting conversions, and now even developed societies like Japan are realising the damage done to the native ethos and national culture by mindless imitation of Western mores and adoption of Christian ritual and symbols in their wedding ceremonies. Maybe it is time to demand reparations for the social, psychological and cultural harm done by evangelical imperialists.


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