Monday, January 4, 2010

Nigeria and the Pew Forum's Blatant Double Standard on "Religious Restrictions"

On Christmans Day 2009 a Nigerian Jihadist came unthinkably close to blowing up Northwest Flight 253 in mid-air. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be-suicide-bomber, was motivated by religious hatred. He had grown up in a nation where religious freedom is in theory guaranteed by law, but where religious violence has become a normal and pervasive feature of society.

In 1999 predominantly Muslim states in northern Nigeria began officially instituting Islamic Courts to impose Sharia Law. Protests by non-Muslims were met with violence, and in one city alone, Kaduna, at least 2,000 people, mostly Christians, died.

In the fall of 2002 religious riots erupted in Nigeria in protest against the Miss World contest, which was scheduled to be held in Abuja. The contest was moved to London because of the violence, which claimed as many as 200 lives. According to one BBC story, "hundreds of Muslim youths have gone on a rampage in Nigeria's capital, Abuja ... people armed with sticks, daggers and knives set fires to vehicles and attacked anyone suspected of being Christian."

In 2004, 900 people were massacred in clashes between Muslims and Christians in northern and central Nigeria. Human Rights Watch released a 75 page report critical of the Nigerian government for it's failure to prosecute "those responsible for this cycle of violence". The title of that 2005 report was simply "Revenge in the Name of Religion".

In December of 2008, Time Magazine ran an article under the title "Religious Violence Rages in Nigeria". The article was written just one week after "violent clashes left at least 300 people dead" in the Nigerian city of Jos.

When the Pew Forum released its report on "Global Restrictions on Religion" in December of 2009, Nigeria was given a score of just below 6 on a scale (going up to 10) measuring religious "social hostilities". Incredibly, the same "study" ranked the nation of India as being fully 50% worse than Nigeria on the same scale. In fact, India was ranked as among the absolute worst places on earth in terms of religious "social hostilities".

The Pew Forum and others (especially American based right-wing evangelical Christians, many of whom have close ties with Pew) have decided to wage a propaganda campaign against the nation of India and the Hindu religion. The signature feature of this campaign is the cynical misuse of the issue of religious tolerance as a club with which to beat Hindus and Indians over the head. But as the near tragedy on Flight 253 makes clear, properly understanding and assessing religious tolerance and religious violence isn't just a matter of fairness, it is a matter of life and death.

The combined death toll due to religious violence in Nigeria since the year 2000, according to a "timeline" of religious violence in Nigeria published by Reuters is well over 5,000. The number of people who have died in religious violence in India during the same period is much smaller, despite the fact that India's population is almost 10 times that of Nigeria. In fact, while Nigeria is the the most populous nation in Africa, India's population is larger than that of the entire African continent.

This is not to say that there has been no religious violence in India. There has. There is also religious violence in the United States and in every other nation. There have been two significant outbreaks of religious violence in India since 2000: in Gujarat in 2002, and in Orissa in 2008. Even the most wildly inflated estimates for these (and all other, much smaller-scale incidents during the same period) do not add up to even half the death toll in Nigeria during the same period. And in both Gujarat and Orissa the outbreaks began with unprovoked murders of Hindus. In Gujarat a train car full of Hindu religious pilgrims were burned alive, and in Orissa an 80 year old Hindu holy man and four of his devotees were gunned down in cold blood.

Religious tolerance is too important to be treated as merely yet another political football in the culture wars being waged by right-wing Christians. These religious bigots, whose aggressive and massive missionary activities in Asia, Africa and Latin America are in large part funded by a significant portion of the US foreign aid budget*, have so far been extremely (and alarmingly) successful in their smear campaign against India and Hinduism. But perhaps the near tragedy on Christmas Day, which came just a few weeks after Pew's India-bashing "report", will finally inspire more people to look below the surface and to question the crude anti-Hindu propaganda being peddled by the Pew Forum and it's right-wing fundamentalist allies.

*[For more on how US tax dollars go to fund right-wing Christian "missionary" activities abroad, see this post and links and references contained therein. See, especially, the 2006 Boston Globe four part series on "Exporting Faith".]

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