Saturday, 22 December 2007

Religion In Politics

A RATHER interesting, and I’m sure totally strange (at least to most Filipinos) phenomenon, happened in British politics last week.

The newly elected leader of the Liberal Democrats – the third largest party in Parliament after Labour and the Conservatives – openly declared on national radio that he did not believe in God.

I could almost hear the gasps among you who are reading this part of the article. What an outrage, you say. A man who does not have any religious faith? That’s just plainly unacceptable, isn’t it? And especially coming from someone who aspires to lead one of the most powerful nations on earth?

How would he govern then, if he were elected? Would he have a firm moral foundation on which his values would be based? What will guide his actions, and make him distinguish right and wrong?

Needless to say, to the Filipino electorate, a local version of Nick Clegg would never be acceptable. Any politician who aspires to be elected to public office must profess to be a man of faith.

Any mainstream religious faith would normally suffice, but usually it is the faith of the majority, in order to ensure the majority’s vote. Openly atheist aspirants to public office just would not stand a chance at all.

And yet in the West, just the opposite is true.

Tony Blair, as it is now known, is a firmly committed Christian – a secret Catholic in the land of the Anglican communion. While it is now accepted that he will eventually embrace the Catholic faith, none of his religious convictions were publicly expressed during his long reign as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. To have done so would have spelled disaster for him and his party.

For in the land of St. George, the land where the Protestant reformation first sprung, and the land that now professes to embrace people of all faiths within an open and secular society – any talk of the religious is considered out of bounds in politics.

Many people in post-modern Britain do not have any religious conviction. Thus, they regard anyone who holds any religious conviction – especially those who do so with great fervor and devotion – with a great deal of suspicion and mistrust.

While I personally do not agree with the strident, almost militant view against all religion that a lot of people here hold, it is difficult to argue vehemently against them either. Without their politicians openly professing their faith in God, and sprinkling their rhetoric with “Praise the Lord” with every turn of phrase, their society has not disintegrated, as we would assume in our local context.

Contrast this to the scene back home.

Almost to a man (and woman), all of our public servants profess to be adherents of a religious faith. More than that, many of them openly declare, and in fact advertise, their adherence to such faith. And yet, what do we get as a consequence?

It would not be fair to draw direct comparisons. After all, our society is totally different to the UK’s, and religious faith is just one of the many facets that make up our individual societies. But it would also be unfair not to make any attempt at a connection.

The Most Reverend Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, when asked what he thought of Nick Clegg’s declared atheism, replied that he considers it less of an issue, than he would Mr. Clegg’s stand on secular matters such as law and order, social justice and foreign policy.

In a society where openly religious politicians are routinely discovered to be engaging in acts of corruption, isn’t it perhaps time that we took a more secular approach to our choice of public officials?


Published in The Sun Star Daily, Saturday, December 22, 2007

Saturday, 15 December 2007

The Christmas Message

FUEL prices at their highest level ever. An imminent credit crunch that threatens to plunge the world’s economies into a major slowdown.

The mortgage market in the United States in the worst possible shape, dragging down those in other parts of the world along with it. Unprecedented climate change that has already taken its toll with severe flooding in parts of the Indian subcontinent. And especially for England, the prospect of a summer without a team in the European Football Championships!

Surely, events and occurrences to dampen the spirits of even the most resilient of men?

2007 surely was a testing year. And on all fronts at that. The economy, global security, and for the first time in decades – a natural phenomenon that seems to be spiraling out of our control.

We had always assumed that with globalization would come increased tolerance, understanding and integration among the world’s communities.

With all of us surfing the net, visiting the same websites, and playing identical video games, the thought was that we would all eventually “get” one another.

And yet, in some ways there has never been the opportunity for more misunderstanding, at any other time than today.

While most of the simmering anti-Western tension in the Islamic world is politically motivated, a part of it is not. There is certainly a strong undercurrent of resentment against what they see as the decay and moral decadence of Western civilization. All this just adds to their already strong conviction that when they attack targets in the West, they are not only redressing political imbalances imposed by their governments, but also “cleansing” the world of evil, vice and sin.

Back in the days when communities were isolated from one another, we were blissfully ignorant of others’ ways, and were therefore more tolerant of one another by default. For how else could we dislike something we had no idea about?

Today, however, the image of Paris Hilton coming out of a New York night club drunk, half-dressed and with a coterie of drooling men in tow could as easily be viewed in Los Angeles as in Islamabad. This kind of image, when superimposed on an ultra-conservative religious template, is enough to spark revulsion, hate and contempt for everything Western. And certainly, it is more than enough to convince those already armed with a political agenda that they are in the right, and the communities they set out to damage are in the wrong.

Time to reflect perhaps, if ever there was a better time to do so, on the message of that first-ever Christmas, when a child was born among the simple folk of Bethlehem, with a powerful message for all the world.

While we think our world today is a great deal more fractious and strife-torn, it wasn’t all that different in Christ’s time. The Romans were in town, and their way of governing would probably make today’s worst dictator look decidedly benevolent. In short, life was hard —much harder than the situation most of us are faced with today.

And yet it was in those very difficult of times that he chose to come among us, to give us hope.

Christ gave himself to mankind, by being born among them. This is the message of Christmas – the message of joyous giving, just as He joyously gave himself to the world, to save it from sin.

What better message for us to take, as we go forward in these rather difficult times? If we can give joyously of our understanding, our tolerance, our appreciation for one another, and our concern for the world we live in, then perhaps we could make a difference, just as He did on that first Christmas Day.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, December 15, 2007

Saturday, 8 December 2007

The Blaspheming Teddy Bear

IT has probably reached Philippine ears by now, this strange, strange saga of a Liverpool schoolteacher in Sudan, who has been threatened with 40 lashes of a cane, for having allowed the children in her class to name their teddy bear Muhammad.

Sudan practices Islamic Shariah Law, where the crime of blasphemy to the Prophet Muhammad is punished rather severely. Unfortunately, naming a bear, albeit a teddy one, after the prophet is a grievous transgression – the rationale being that the bear is a “wild animal” (though a teddy bear surely isn’t, but the Sudanese don’t know that), and something “wild” is surely not in the prophet’s character.

To the West, none of this makes sense. In a society where secular humanism rules, and all religion is considered “superstition” and basically frowned upon, there is just no logic behind the Sudanese action.

Unfortunately, in the Sudanese world view, there is perhaps nothing wrong with what they have done, as far as they are concerned. After all, they are merely upholding their beliefs and traditions, and administering punishment to a Westerner who has broken their laws, just as if she was one of their own.

Echoes of Rudyard Kipling perhaps? East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet?

In more ways than we can measure the length of a twain with – yes.

Globalization has forced a convergence of sorts among different cultures and societies. Western consumerism — the new Socialism –- has conquered the world with the speed of the Internet. Trends like business process outsourcing (BPO) have allowed people of erstwhile different backgrounds to work and interact harmoniously and productively, enhancing social integration at a pace that would never have been possible previously.

Having said this, it has also emphasized certain key differences among our societies, and forced us to confront those realities that still separate us.Religion is one of those realities.

With the exception perhaps of the USA, most of Western society has shunned anything religious. Secular humanism rules all aspects of life -– from government, to education and the consequent social institutions they give rise to. Christians and Muslims alike are treated similarly –- as superstitious individuals who are not capable of rational behavior.

Not surprisingly, individuals have lost respect for all aspects religious.

The wearing of religious symbols of any kind is frowned upon in Britain, so much so that even small Christian crosses that are common ornaments for us cannot be worn to the office, at the risk of serious consequences. Even the celebration of religious festivities is downplayed. As we mentioned in this space before, holidays like Christmas have been renamed to strip away their religious connotations, and make them inclusive for everyone.

It is within this greater context that the “teddy bear” furor takes on more significance.

On the one hand, we in the West need to be more sensitive to those beliefs and values that people in other places hold dear. Our “rational” secular humanist values may make sense of the world for us, but they do not necessarily govern the world view of people elsewhere.

And for those of us in societies where the spiritual holds more sway over the temporal, perhaps we need a sense of moderation in our beliefs, especially when it comes to imposing punishment for transgressions that are more accidental than intentional, as this one surely was.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, December 08, 2007