Dec 7, 2010

Avoiding the Path of Intolerance

Here is my latest piece from Kuensel on Religious Intolerance:

In an attempt to protect people, systems may fall prey to prejudice
PERSPECTIVES 5 December, 2010 - Sometime early this month the Pakistani justice system sentenced to death a Pakistani woman for blaspheming the prophet Muhammed. Aasia Bibi, who is a mother of five children, also happens to be Christian.

Aasia Bibi, however, denied having said anything to condemn the prophet.

According to the article, she claimed that she was being persecuted for her beliefs, in a country where prejudicial behaviour against Christians is not unheard of. “She was tried under duress without legal representation or the ability to represent herself. Upon sentencing, along with the cost of her alleged life, she was fined Rs 300,000.”

Global Voices – a platform for which I happen to write for – reported that, while the Pakistani justice system passed this sentence, the citizens were “ taken aback” by such a verdict. According to that article, it appears that, while it was extreme, it was also of a similar nature to the case of another Pakistani woman, who was studying in the US, but mysteriously disappeared with her children while she was visiting Pakistan. She later resurfaced as a prisoner in the hands of US forces and was sentenced by the US justice system to 86 years in prison, not for terrorism, but for snatching a US warrant officer’s rifle, while in custody; a weapon she never fired.

The thrust of this story is that, while we may be quick to pass judgment on certain governments (like Pakistan), we should understand that (as the Global Voices report points out) “inequality, injustice and unfair rule” of society, including its justice system, can be found everywhere from Pakistan to the US.

And it should be noted that, just as the US justice system’s actions are not supported by all Americans, neither does the Pakistani government’s/justice system’s action reflect the sentiments of all Pakistanis. One Pakistani journalist’s appeal (Mahtab Bashir is not only relevant to Pakistanis alone but to people in all societies.

“[Pakistanis] must be made to realise that religious zeal that condones murder and indifference towards the faith and beliefs of others will relegate us to the Dark Ages if we do not reverse these terrifying trends.” (More can be found on this site)

That is in Pakistan. But let’s also see how this relates to Bhutan.

About a month ago, we too had a case in which a Christian man was arrested and sentenced to 3 years in prison for showing Christian movies. To put things in perspective: first of all, the man “did” something and his sentence was also not as harsh as that of the Pakistani case. But should we compare ourselves with Pakistan? (Not to say that Pakistan is worse off as a country, but their laws on religious tolerance seem to be – blasphemy can fetch death). Are countries like these going to be the yardstick for our progress?

According to Bhutan’s Constitution, article 7 says: A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.

So how did Prem Singh Gurung, who was simply showing Christian movies to a group of Hindus, get arrested and sentenced to 3 years in prison, if Bhutan’s Constitution says that it allows freedom of religion?

According to reports, Prem Singh Gurung was showing movies to a group of Hindus, who had objected to his actions (tricking them into viewing the movies by lying to them about the contents). Despite them having told him that they did not want to watch the movies when they realised what it was, he continued to trick them into viewing them – by telling them he was going to show something else and then eventually reverting to the Christian movies. The people, who were upset by his actions, had reported this to the authorities, upon which Prem S. Gurung was arrested.

He was convicted on two offences. According to official documents he violated:

The Bhutan information, communications and media act 2006, which requires all films for public exhibition to be cleared with a certification by the authority. Failure to do this is an offense and a court may dispense justice in accordance with the gravity of the crime, which could be a fee of up to 500 days of the minimum wage.

Article 7 (4) of the Constitution of Bhutan states, “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

In relation to the first conviction, BICMA’s violation only warrants a fee (500 days of minimum wage) and perhaps confiscation of the movies. Has there ever been a case where a person has been penalised with 3 years of prison sentence on these violations? It doesn’t seem like it. He was not incarcerated for breaking BICMA rules.

According to reports from Christian sites on the Internet, Kuenlay Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s parliament and the chairperson of its legislative council said that a new section in the penal code (463) where a “defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytisation if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” was the reason.

This falls into the misdemeanour category, which is punishable by one to three years in prison. Apparently the new section is consonant to article 7 (4) of the Constitution, and this amendment bill will be passed during the next session of parliament after the national assembly meets this session. The penal code has yet to be updated on this.

This leaves no room for argument then, because Prem Singh Gurung has clearly broken the law, (as would have Aasia Bibi, according to the context of Pakistani law – if she did condemn the prophet.) Does this make it right? [No] Not really.

In many respects, Bhutan taking a strong stand against proselytisation can be blamed on nobody but the Christian proselytisers themselves. In many respects, their agenda to convert cultures through monetary rewards and coercion is a story as old as the hills. Throughout the world’s history, they have sought to convert cultures slowly through social work or by outright political and economic colonisation, even though these cultures had their own belief systems. These conversions have often been aggressively pursued, targeting the most vulnerable and poor. While they/Christians may complain of persecution now, they are not entirely innocent of not being persecutors themselves either – the colonisation and Christianisation of the Americas, the Spanish inquisition, Crusades – and this practice is not restricted to history. Even today, there are reports of how Christian evangelists go to countries and stir up political and social turmoil. A New York Times report (Jan 3, 2010) covered a story about 3 Christian evangelists, who went to Uganda to influence Ugandan politicians and lawmakers about “the threat homosexuals posed to Bible-based values and the traditional African family.” What resulted from this was an anti-homosexuality bill of 2009 in Uganda, which would hang any homosexual. The violence and crime that ensued was nobody’s fault but that of the Christians. While the US government demanded that Uganda retract the bill, the Ugandan government was torn between American groups (Christian rights and gay activists), who poured in support and money. We have seen instances like these in Bhutan too, where a woman was killed by some Christians in an attempt to exorcise the devil, an unheard of practice in Bhutan.

[So what would have been right then? Looking at the case the penalty seems disproportionate to the gravity of the crime. The problem here is that our laws also have to be more specific and define what “coercion” means.]

Let us be cautious about these influences but, meanwhile, let us also remember that penalising people, who have little understanding of the history of Christianity, or the politics of such a religion, will not save our people from it. Instead, let us educate our people on these trends and help them understand.

As 20th Century poet WBYeats said:

“Once you attempt legislation upon religious grounds, you open the way for every kind of intolerance and religious persecution”

Contributed by Sonam Ongmo

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