THE POLITICS OF RELIGION
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The recent fiasco involving the threat to burn copies of the Koran by a little known Grouping of followers led by Pastor Jones in the United States hit the headlines and sparked a number of protest actions in several countries, in particular the Muslim-dominated countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia which incidentally has the largest Muslim population in the world. Were it not for the serious repercussions which the incident generated in the Muslim world, the entire episode could have been regarded as a prank and the work of a demented mind.

The incident somehow brings back memories of our own Jonestown led by the notorious Jim Jones who manipulated his band of followers which eventually led to the deaths of nearly a thousand souls, all in the name of religion.

What made the story even more intriguing is the fact that the threat to burn the Koran was made by a little known pastor Jones whose membership is no more that a few dozen followers and are therefore statistically insignificant. One would have thought that the best way of dealing with the threat was to ignore it and let it pass as the work of a crazy if not sick mind. This incidentally was the view of no less a person than the daughter of Pastor Jones himself who in an interview with a German newspaper said that her father displayed streaks of insanity and was deserted by followers when in Germany where he headed a small following of church members.

It is clear that the Pastor, crazy as he may be, had achieved his objective with the help of the media and facilitated by an army of politicians who were more bent on scoring political points on the issue rather than acting out of any real concern for the feelings and sensitivities of the Muslim community.

The fact that the President of the United States and the Pope along with other world leaders saw it fit to condemn the threat may have perhaps unwittingly played into the hands of the Pastor. He had, after much theatrics and drama, agreed not to press ahead with the burning but only after he was able to get some assurance from the relevant authorities that the proposed construction of an Islamic Cultural Centre and Mosque near the site of the destroyed Twin Towers would no longer be proceeded with. The fact that there was denial by the authorities of any such discussion or agreement with the Pastor is of little consequence. The Pastor had already made his point which was to promote and propagate a cultural storm bordering on religious bigotry and intolerance. The fact that a number of Korans were in fact burnt on September 11 by some religious fringe elements failed to attract any attention or condemnation since Pastor Jones had already stole the limelight.

The interesting thing about this all is that the US authorities appeared powerless to stop the Pastor from carrying out his threats on the grounds that the Constitution protect individuals or groups from any barriers to freedom of expression. It is therefore permissible in law for anyone to burn copies of the US Constitution or burn the Flag of the United States in public or the effigy of the US President. The Constitution protects individuals from all of these actions regardless how objectionable these may be.

While I am all  for freedom of expression such freedoms cannot be unqualified especially when there is potential for chaos and disorder as happened in the recent case involving Pastor Jones. There are far too many conflicts in the world today which are rooted in religion and religious hegemony. The international community need to come up with a mechanism to resolve such situations rather than allowing them to fester and assume deadly proportions as in the case of the Middle East.

The fact is that religion can be exploited for political purposes as happened in the case of the recent storm over the proposed plan to build a mosque in New York near to the site of the Twin Towers in New York. The issue of whether or not to have the mosque constructed has divided the opinions of Americans along political lines with the majority of those who oppose the move coming from the Republicans and the Christian Right. This is why the Obama administration was forced to walk a tight rope on the issue since open and full support could be seen as selling out to Muslim extremists who allegedly were involved in the destruction of the Twin Towers. On the other hand, taking a stance against the construction of the building could be seen as a betrayal of the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of worship.

The United States, like Guyana, is a secular state which means that there is full separation between the state and religion, Consistent with this approach, the practice of religion is left to the home, family and religious organizations. It is essentially a private matter and the state should not play any role in the promotion of religion. The education system should provide a scientific world view as opposed to religion which provides an outlook that is more idealistic or faith based. The role of the state should be one of promoting religious tolerance and appreciation of cultural diversity.

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