Vol. 2    Issue 21   01-15 March 2008
About Us
Back Issues
Forthcoming Issues
Print Edition
Contact Us
IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Bill Gate
Single Parent Family

Kosovo: Birth of a nation

Kosovo, a province of Serbia which has been under the United Nations administration since 1999, declared its independence on Sunday, March 17. Kosovo’s parliament unanimously passed a resolution declaring that Kosovo was now a free, democratic country. Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said that Kosovo would be a democratic country and that the rights of all ethnic communities in the country would be protected and respected. The streets of Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, were filled with cheering and shouting crowds. The Albanian black eagle on a red field was flying everywhere. An incredible 80 tons of fireworks were brought in and distributed all over the country to celebrate the much-awaited event.

Kosovo’s decision to separate from Serbia is backed by most members of the 27-nation European Union as well as the United States. The US, Britain, Germany, France, Austria, Italy and Turkey have already recognized the new state following the declaration of independence. The move is bitterly opposed by Serbia and its traditional ally and protector, Russia. Serbians regard Kosovo as their religious and cultural heartland. The Serbian government has recalled its ambassadors from the US, France and Turkey in protest at their recognition of Kosovo’s independence. On February 21 Serbian protesters attacked and set fire to the US embassy in Belgrade. British, Croatian and Turkish embassies were also attacked.

Serbia is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, it is eager to join the European Union and, on the other, it adamantly refuses to accept Kosovo’s independence. Serbia’s intransigence might lead to its complete isolation in the Balkans where all independent states have lined up to join the EU, which would prove disastrous for the country. The EU has told Serbia that talks on Serbia’s membership would remained suspended unless the violence and vandalism against foreign embassies in Belgrade came to an end.

At a meeting of the UN Security Council, Russia said Kosovo’s independence should be declared null and void. Russia is likely to block the move in the Security Council but without success, because three permanent members of the Security Council with a veto—the US, France and Britain—have already endorsed Kosovo’s independence.

Kosovo’s troubled history

Kosovo was the centre of the powerful Serbian Empire and the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church until the mid-14th century. The Battle of Kosovo, in which the Serbian empire and the Ottoman Empire fought each other, resulted in the defeat of Serb forces in 1389 and subsequently Kosovo became a part of the Ottoman Empire. However, the Ottoman rulers guaranteed the protection of Serb churches and monasteries as well the Serbian language and cultural traditions.

After the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 Turkish rule came to an end in the Balkan Peninsula. Serbia regained control of Kosovo in 1913. Following the end of Ottoman rule, the Muslim population in the Balkans began to be persecuted by the Serbs. Many mosques were seized by the Serbian authorities while some were demolished and others were converted into warehouses and gymnasiums. Waqf properties endowed by the Ottomans were forcibly taken away by the government. Thousands of Muslims were imprisoned on trumped-up charges or executed. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was established in 1929 and lasted until World War II. The postwar Federal Republic of Yugoslavia included Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia.

Socialist Yugoslavia continued the policy of repression of Muslims. Islamic instruction in government schools was proscribed and Sufi hospices and local Islamic courts were closed down. Muslims came under intense pressure to abandon their religious identity and cultural traditions. Kosovo was the least developed region in the former Yugoslavia. A students’ uprising in 1981 seeking that Kosovo become a republic within Yugoslavia was brutally crushed by the communist government.

Kosovo was an autonomous region within Yugoslavia until 1989. In that year Slobodan Milosevic became president of Serbia and strengthened his grip on power by repressive measures and by control of the mass media. He abrogated the constitutional autonomy of Kosovo and Serbian forces took control of the region’s administration. In 1989, a few miles away from Pristina, Milosevic made a fiery speech before a million-strong rally of Serbs and told them that they were surrounded on all sides by blood-thirsty enemies. He promised them a mighty Greater Serbia which would subjugate all its enemies (Muslims and Croats). Milosevic’s highly inflammatory utterances fueled secessionist movements in Kosovo, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia.

The Albanian Muslims of Kosovo launched a movement of nonviolent resistance, with civil disobedience and the boycott of elections and state institutions. They established separate Albanian schools. In response to continued Serb atrocities, an armed guerilla movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), was launched. In 1992 Kosovo voted to secede from Yugoslavia, but Serbia responded to this move by unleashing repression and terror. Hundreds of thousands of Albanian Muslims were forcibly driven out of their homes and thousands were massacred. The sinister campaign of ethnic cleansing against Muslims in Kosovo was directed and supervised by Milosevic. Serbian forces tried to wipe out Albanian Muslim traditions and heritage sites. Of the 500 mosques that existed prior to the war, 200 were completely destroyed or vandalized. Museums, two old Ottoman bridges and a Roman Catholic Church were razed by Serb militias. Milosevic supported Serb militias targeting Muslims but later signed a peace treaty on behalf of Bosnian Serbs.

Milosevic’s high-handedness and brutal use of force against his opponents created widespread resentment even among Serbs. In spite of his boasts, Serbian territories shrank and the dream of Serbian hegemony was shattered. In 2000 he was defeated in national elections. In 2001 he was arrested and brought to The Hague, the Netherlands to stand trial for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was called the “Butcher of the Balkans” because of the carnage that was perpetrated in Yugoslavia under his direction. He was found dead in his cell on March 11, 2006.

The Contact Group, comprising the US, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Russia, which was monitoring the situation in Kosovo, demanded a cease-fire, the unconditional withdrawal of Serbian forces, the return of refugees and unhampered access for international monitors. Milosevic ostensibly agreed to meet most of the demands but continued with the brutal offensive against Albanian Muslims. Frustrated at his intransigence, NATO began launching air strikes against Serbian targets which extended to Belgrade. The relentless bombing brought Milosevic to his knees and NATO and Serbia signed an agreement in June 1999 outlining Serbian troop withdrawal and the return of nearly 1000,000 Albanian Muslim refugees as well as 500,000 displaced persons within the province.

Prospects and challenges

The landlocked region of Kosovo borders Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia. It has a population of just two million people, comprising Albanian Muslims (90%) and smaller populations of Serbs, Bosniaks and Romanic people (10%). Pristina is the capital and the largest city. Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy. Kosovo is rich in mineral resources, including silver, coal, lead, zinc and chromium. It has the second largest deposits of brown coal or ignite and has the potential to export power to the rest of Europe.

Kosovo will perhaps be the poorest nation of Europe. Unemployment stands at 44% and basic amenities such as power and hot water are far from adequate. The situation is worse in the countryside. Kosovo’s economic reconstruction will be heavily dependent on aid from the European Union (more than 1.6 billion euros to date).

Kosovo’s Albanian Muslims belong to the Sunni sect. Though a large number of mosques, madrasas and Sufi shrines were destroyed or vandalized by the Serbian militias, the landscape is still dotted by mosques with Turkish-style minarets. Kosovo has been the headquarters of the Bektashi Sufi order for several decades.

There are at present a 16,000-strong NATO force in Kosovo and nearly 2,000 police, judges and prosecutors from the European Union. The UN plan on the independence of Kosovo entails certain limitations, including supervision by an international presence, limited armed forces, strong provisions for the protection of the Serb minority, and commitment to multiethnic democracy. Kosovo will not be allowed to join any other country. The EU mission in Kosovo will have the right to veto the elected government if it deviates from the reform package that has been agreed upon in Brussels.

Some misgivings and apprehensions are being voiced about the shadow of the European Union that is likely to hang over the fledgling nation for quite some time. One hopes that the process of nation-building will be without any major stumbling blocks and that Kosovo will be able to strike a balance between its Islamic and European identity. The task is undoubtedly difficult but not impossible.

Racism and xenophobia in Europe

Racist sentiments and ideologies and intolerance of immigrants and foreigners are widespread across large parts of Europe. This is reflected in the growing popularity of far-right political parties, in the discrimination against minority groups, and in racist attacks on foreigners and immigrants spearheaded by neo-Nazis and other extremist groups.

The 2004 annual report of the Vienna-based European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia pointed out that the record of most European countries in combating racism and xenophobia is at best mixed. The report says that some European countries are either too slow to enact anti-racism legislation or take measures which in effect curtail the rights of immigrants. The report reveals that the British police received nearly 53,000 complaints of racist attacks on immigrants and foreigners in 2004, followed by Germany with 6,474 complaints. Ethnic and religious minorities face discrimination and exclusion in many different forms, from inadequate access to education and meager employment opportunities to poor housing and ghettoization and stigmatization (http://www.eume.eu.int).

A recent report of the Commission for Racial Equality in Britain has pointed out that racial discrimination is still a reality in the country and that Britain continues to be racially divided. The report notes that Britain remains a place of “inequality, exclusion and isolation”. The report points an accusing finger at health, education, home and foreign offices of the government and says that they have failed to meet their own obligations in tackling discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. The report warns that continuing discrimination and marginalization might lead some people from the minority communities to follow the path of religious and political extremism.

Nick Johnson, director of the Commission, candidly pointed out that “the simple fact is, despite the progress that has been made, if you are an ethnic minority Britain, you are still more likely to be stopped by the police, be excluded from school, suffer poorer health treatment and live in poor housing”.

Race and intelligence

An indication of how deep-seated racist sentiments run in European societies was provided by a controversial statement of the 79-year old Nobel Prize-winning geneticist James Watson in October 2007. In an interview in The Sunday Times, Watson, who had won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for discovering the structure of the DNA, was quoted as saying he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa because all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really”. He was further quoted as saying that his hope was that everyone was equal but that “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true”. Faced with worldwide criticism of his racist remarks, Watson later apologized for his statement.

Watson has courted controversy in the past. He has been reported in the past saying that a woman should have the right to abort her unborn child if tests could determine it would be homosexual.

Far-right political parties in Europe

There are a number of far-right political parties in European countries which are openly against immigrants and foreigners. These include the British National Party, The National Front in France, Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Swiss People’s Party, Vlaas Belang in Belgium, the Austrian Freedom Party and the Greater Romanian Party.

The far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) emerged as the largest group in the Swiss parliament in the October 2007 elections, scooping nearly 29% of the vote. The party’s campaign had focused almost entirely on the issue of immigration. It had displayed a controversial poster during the campaign, which showed three white sheep kicking a black sheep out of Switzerland, which drew sharp criticism from the United National special rapporteur on racism, Doudou Diene. A video, prepared by the SVP, showed, on the one side, Swiss families enjoying a holiday in the Alps—which was portrayed as “heaven”—and, on the other side, veiled Muslim women, immigrant teenagers attacking Swiss girls and black men standing idly in the street—which was depicted as “hell”.

Last year, the Swiss People’s Party had started a campaign to ban minarets on the country’s mosques. It argued that minarets symbolize Islamic law, which has no place in Switzerland’s legal system. At present only two mosques in Switzerland—one in Geneva and the other in Zurich—have minarets, but they are not allowed to use them for calling the faithful to prayers.

The Swiss People’s Party withdrew in December 2007 from the coalition government in protest at parliament’s refusal to reelect its controversial leader, Christoph Blocker, to the cabinet because of his strident anti-immigration stand.

Of Switzerland’s population of 7.5 million, nearly 1.5 million are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, whose presence is vital to the health and sustainability of Swiss economy. If all the immigrants and foreigners were to be thrown out of the country, the economy would collapse.

A new political group in the European Parliament, consisting of far-right political parties and known as “Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty” (ITS), was formed in 2007. Far-right political parties from four EU nations (France, Austria, Belgium and Bulgaria) have recently unveiled plans to form a pan-European “patriotic” party, aimed at defending Europe against “Islamisation” and immigrants.

Tirade against the Quran in the Netherlands

In her speech during the last Christmas celebrations, the Dutch Queen Beatrix pleaded for tolerance and respect for the country’s minorities. Queen Beatrix pointed out that the right to freedom of expression did not automatically mean the right to offend the religious sensibilities of minorities or other sections of the population.

Geert Wilders, leader of the Netherlands’ far-right party (which has nine seats in the Dutch parliament), condemned the Queen’s speech as “multicultural rubbish” and audaciously demanded that she be stripped of her constitutional role as head of the government.

Wilders has made no secret of his hatred for immigrants, especially Muslims. He has carried out a vicious campaign against the Quran, comparing it to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, claiming that the Quran is incompatible with Dutch values, and telling the Dutch Muslims that if they wish to stay on in the country, they should tear up half of their holy book. He has in fact demanded a ban on the Quran in the Netherlands. Wilders says that Europe is in danger of being “Islamised” and that there will soon be more mosques than churches in the country.

Wilders has produced a 10-minute provocative film—which is yet to be released—denouncing the Quran and Islam. He said his film will show how the Quran is “an inspiration for intolerance, murder and terror”. He has said he would screen the film on the Internet if he cannot find a willing broadcaster.

The Dutch government has taken a tough stand against Wilders’ film. The Dutch Prime Minister Jan Balkenende said there were “major concerns at home and abroad that the film could be offensive and could lead to reactions that endanger public order, security and economy”. He added that “the Netherlands has a tradition of freedom of speech, religion and lifestyle, but it also has a tradition of respect, tolerance and responsibility. Offending certain groups does not belong here”. National Counterterrorism Coordinator, Tjibbe Joustra, has warned Wilders that he might have to leave the country if he releases the film.

The Iranian justice minister, Gholam Hussein Elham, wrote to his Dutch counterpart, Ernst Hirsch Ballin, asking him not to allow the release of Wilders’ film. He said in his letter that freedom of speech should not be used as a cover for attacking moral and religious values.

Alaeddin Boroujerd, head of Iran’s Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, has called on the Dutch government to prevent the release of the film. “Otherwise, the Majlis deputies will call on the Iranian government to review its relations with the Netherlands,” he told the Iranian news agency IRNA.

Undercurrents of Islamophobia

In the first week of February, all the major Danish newspapers reprinted one of the 12 derogatory cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (which were published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 and subsequently republished by several newspapers in 22 European countries in February 2006). The republication of the cartoon (in which the Prophet is shown wearing a bomb-shaped turban) was a said to be gesture of solidarity, following the arrest of three Muslims by the police in Denmark, who were allegedly plotting to kill one of the cartoonists.

The republication of the cartoons has led to large-scale protests by the Muslims in Denmark. There have been sporadic incidents of violence.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: A legacy of opportunism and fraud

Somali-born former Dutch MP, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who caught worldwide attention for her outbursts against Islam and Muslims in 2004, has appealed to the European Union to create a fund to protect people like her ilk. Speaking in the European Parliament in Brussels in early February, she said that her life was in danger because the Dutch government had stopped paying for her security. She has been living under police protection since the murder of the Dutch film maker Theo van Gough in 2004. She now works for a right-wing think-tank in the US and the Dutch government has said there is no longer any justification for paying for her security.

Several members of the European Parliament, including its President, Hans-Gert Poettering, have supported the call for the creation of such a fund. In order to become official, a petition to this effect is required to be backed by at least half of the parliament’s 785 members.

Born in 1967 in Mogadishu (Somalia), Ayaan Hirsi Ali arrived in the Netherlands as a refugee in 1992 and, under a false name and age, sought political asylum. She was granted political asylum and in 1997 she became a Dutch citizen. Soon after graduating in political science she joined the far-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. In 2003 she was elected to the Dutch parliament. Soon she became famous for her radical views and damning statements about Islam and the Muslim community in the Netherlands. She described herself as a “dissident of Islam” and publicly declared that she was no longer a Muslim or a believer and argued that the “major aspects of Islamic doctrine and tradition are incompatible with an open society and with women’s emancipation”. In one of her interviews she said that she considered the Islam of the Quran and of the Prophet as a threat to life.

Ali was enthusiastically lapped up by the Dutch media and the far-right politicians. Time magazine named her as one of the most influential thinkers of our time. Following the worldwide protests by Muslims over the publication of the slanderous cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen and the Iranian rebel writer Chahla Chafiq issued a statement which condemned the protests and said that “after having overcome fascism, Nazism and Stalinism, the world now faces a new global threat: Islamism”.

A Dutch film maker Theo van Gough made a film called Submission, which was aired on Dutch television in the summer of 2004. The script of the film was written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The film opens with a prayer and then presents, through Hirsi Ali’s voice-over, the stories of four Muslim women telling God about the abuse (including incestuous rape) they have suffered at the hands of men. The film shows semi-nude images of women with verses from the Quran inscribed on their naked bodies. The film quite explicitly conveys the message that Islam denigrates and enslaves women and that the abuse and humiliation of women is legitimized by the Quran. The film created a great deal of anger and resentment among Muslims in the Netherlands. On November 2, 2004, a Muslim youth of Moroccan origin stabbed Theo van Gough to death. After the murder of her mentor, Hirsi Ali went into hiding. She received death threats.

In May 2006 the Dutch authorities found that Hirsi Ali had told lies about her name and age and had given a fabricated story to justify her application for asylum in the Netherlands in 1992. She admitted her guilt in several media interviews since 2002. Members of her family, who were interviewed in a documentary, repudiated her statement that she had fled a forced marriage in Somalia before she sought asylum in the Netherlands. On May 16, 2006 her Dutch citizenship was cancelled, following which she had to resign from parliament. In June, a court ordered her to leave her apartment on the complaint of neighbours who feared for their own safety. The cancellation of her citizenship by the Dutch Immigration Minister, Rita Verdonk, created a furore in the country, following which the minister retracted her decision.

In early February this year, Hirsi Ali announced that she was seeking French citizenship and claimed that the campaign for her French citizenship was supported by a group of French intellectuals and political leaders. An eminent French philosopher, Bernard Henri Levi, has supported her application, saying that “Europe needs to defend her because she has defended Europe”.

Combating racism and xenophobia

It is gratifying to note that racist ideologies and outbursts in Europe have not gone unchallenged. In spite of making determined efforts to capture political power by inciting primordial passions, the far-right parties in Europe have not made much headway. By and large, they have been rejected by the electorate. The European Parliament’s far-right bloc collapsed last November after five Romanian MEPs resigned over an Italian colleague’s “xenophobic” remarks. The resignations take the bloc’s membership below the minimum required for a grouping in the European Parliament.

During the recently-held municipal elections in Graz (Austria), Susanne Winter, a candidate of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, launched a vituperative attack against immigrants, especially Muslims. However, she and her party were repudiated by the wider society, which expressed solidarity with the Muslims. When the results were announced, the Austrian Freedom Party ended up with the lowest percentage of votes.

The Nobel-Laureate James Watson’s racist remarks made last year were widely condemned across Europe and the US. He was immediately suspended by his research institution, the Gold Spring Harbour Laboratory in the US. Watson was scheduled to give a lecture at the Science Museum in London on October 19, 2007, but the museum cancelled the event. The Bristol Festival of Ideas also cancelled an appearance by Watson.

Refuting Watson’s remarks, Dr. Craig Venter, the scientist who led the project to decode the human genome, pointed out that “there is no basis in scientific fact or in the human genetic code for the notion that skin colour will be predictive of intelligence”. Venter and his team pointed to the fact that people from different racial groups could be more genetically similar than individuals within the same group. Genetic studies show that there is more variability in the gene pool in Africa than outside it.

There are several watchdog institutions in Europe, such as the Vienna-based European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, which regularly keep a watch on incidents of racial discrimination and stigmatization and on racist attacks on immigrants and foreigners. Similarly, there are organizations which monitor the display of racist behaviour in sports. Football Against Racism in Europe, for example, is an organization that keeps a tab on the display of racist flags and chants during football matches across Europe. Show Racism The Red Card (SRTRC), a Newcastle-based organization, is at the forefront of initiatives to combat racism in football throughout Europe.

Australia’s dehumanized Aborigines

Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rud made a formal apology on February 12, 2008 for the past wrongs caused by successive white governments in the country on the indigenous Aboriginal population. He apologized in parliament for all Aboriginal laws and policies that “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss”. Mr Rud said he apologized especially to the Stolen Generations of young Aboriginal children who were taken from their parents in a policy of assimilation.

Loss of inheritance and identity

Australian Aborigines have been living in the country for thousands of years. They have a rich cultural and artistic heritage which is now on the verge of extinction. The large influx of white settlers and colonisers in the 18th century rapidly changed the profile and ethnic composition of Australia. The British founded the first settlement in 1788. Many of the first settlers were convicts. Other settlers began arriving in increasing numbers after the discovery of gold in the mid-19th century. The colonization of Australia resulted in the exploitation of its rich natural and mineral resources and the marginalization and pauperization of its indigenous population. In the course of two centuries of discrimination and dispossession, the indigenous population drastically declined. They were forcibly evicted from forests and shunted to far-flung areas, causing them immense hardships and loss of identity. Before the arrival of European settlers, there used to be hundreds of Aboriginal languages but they gradually died out because the Aborigines were not allowed to speak their native languages. The greatest damage inflicted on the Aborigines by successive white governments was a policy of their forced assimilation into white cultural mainstream. This was part of the overarching “civilizing mission” espoused by the European colonizers.

Stolen Generations

Bring Them Home, a landmark study published in 1997, found that at least 100,000 Aboriginal children in Australia had been taken from their parents and placed in the care of white foster parents or Christian missions. The project was aimed at the assimilation of the native population, which was launched in the beginning of the 20th century and lasted until the late 1960s. Ironically, many British intellectuals supported the policy of taking away Aboriginal children from their parents so as to “civilize” them and to inculcate them with European values. The policy has been described by the historian Robert Manne as “the most shameful act of 20th century Australia”.

Several heart-rending stories of such unfortunate children and their families have come to light in recent months. One such story is that of 50 year-old Bruce Trevorrow. On Christmas Day 1957, 13-month old Bruce was suffering from stomach pain and his father, a poor Aborigine, asked his neighbours to take him to hospital. Soon after Bruce was admitted to the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, the hospital recorded that he had no parents and that he appeared to be neglected and malnourished. Joseph Trevorrow, Bruce’s father, died eight years later and could never see his son again.

Around the same time, a white Australian woman, Martha Davis, saw an announcement in the local newspaper which solicited white foster parents for Aboriginal babies. She and her husband visited the children’s hospital and decided to bring Bruce home. Meanwhile, Bruce’s mother thought that he was still in hospital and kept inquiring about him with the local Aboriginal Protection Board. But the Board chose not to disclose the fact to Bruce’s mother that her child was being raised by his new white foster parents. Instead they informed her that he was making good progress but needed to remain in the hospital for further treatment.

As Bruce grew up in the midst of white siblings, he became increasingly conscious of his skin colour. When he asked his foster parents (whom he took for real parents) for an explanation, they said they had some dark relatives. In school Bruce had a traumatic experience as he was the only boy with a dark skin colour. In 1967, when Bruce was 10 years old, he was united with his mother, but this happiness proved to be short-lived. After 14 months he was admitted to different institutions.

When Bruce came of age and realized that he had been cheated, he was overtaken by feelings of depression and worthlessness. He became an alcoholic and lost interest in his job. Significantly, his other three siblings, who had stayed with the parents, were happy and successful in life.

In June 1998, Bruce filed a legal case against the government of South Australia, arguing that all his problems, including his alcoholism and the loss of personal identity, stemmed from the fact that he was “stolen” from his parents in childhood. The judge accepted his argument and awarded him a compensation of A$ 525,000 (US$447,000). This is the first case of its kind in Australia’s legal history. The ruling could pave the way for hundreds of such cases. However, most of the records pertaining to such children, which could be used as crucial evidence, have been destroyed.

Frank Byrne was just five when he was taken away from his mother by the government. Traumatized by the separation, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental asylum in Perth. She passed away when Frank was 12.

A blighted legacy

Australian Aborigines continue to remain excluded and marginalized in their ancestral land. They make up less than 2% of the population. They have a high infant mortality rate and their life expectancy is 17 years lower than the national average. Their unemployment rate is three times higher. They are dogged by high imprisonment rate, alcoholism and drug abuse.

Many Aborigines say that Prime Minister Rud’s apology (which was refused by the former premier John Howard over a decade) should have been accompanied with compensation for their suffering.

The Bible and the Quran: Competing for ascendancy

Since the early 20th century, social scientists and assorted intellectuals in the West have been confidently predicting the demise of religion in the face of forces unleashed by modernity. This prognostication came to be known as the secularization thesis. An eminent American sociologist, Peter Berger, in an interview in The New York Times in 1968, confidently asserted that “by the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture”. This prophecy of doom was belied by the tidal wave of ethnic and religious resurgence that began to sweep across large parts of the world from the 1980s and which has continued apace to this day. This development has taken the protagonists of the secularization thesis by surprise. Peter Berger has recently confessed that the secularization thesis has been falsified by the revival of ethnic and religious consciousness in many countries, including the United States. He concedes that the project of secularization has been successful only in one small corner of the world, namely, Western Europe. The rest of the world, he says, continues to be as fervently religious as before.

The Economist (December 2007) has given an interesting picture of the increasing interest in the publication and dissemination of Christian and Muslim scriptures. The Bible and the Quran are central to Christians and Muslims. While the Bible is composed of some 800,000 words, the Quran is about four-fifths of the length of the New Testament. Over 100 million copies of the Bible are sold or given away every year. Annual Bible sales in the US are worth between $ 425 million and $ 650 million. Gideon’s International gives away a Bible every second. The Bible is available all or in part in 2,426 languages, covering 95% of the world’s population. There are some 900 English translations of the Bible as well as translations in Inupiat and Gullah languages that are spoken by only a few hundred people.

The biggest Bible publishing houses are located in Brazil and South Korea. An interlinked global network of 140 national or regional Bible Societies pools resources to reach its collective goal of placing a Bible in the hands of every human being on the planet. The American Bible Society, the largest Bible society across the world, has published more than 50 million Bibles in China alone.

America, the world’s richest and most powerful country, has some 80 million Evangelicals. The US supports more missionaries, more Bible broadcasting organizations and more global Bible publishers than any other country.

Christians and Muslims both have utilized modern information and communication technologies for the dissemination of their holy scriptures—printing, CD-ROM, Internet, mobile phone. MP3 players, iPods, television. And then there are the spin-offs. A “fully posable” Jesus doll recites famous passages of the Bible. There are Bible quiz books, stuffed with crosswords, and Bible bingo games. There are Bible colouring books, sticker books and floor puzzles. There is even a Bible-based juke box that plays one’s favourite biblical passages.

Saudi Arabia gives away some 30 million copies of the Quran every year. One can get a free copy of the Quran through FreeKoran.com

Belief and knowledge

The Economist points out that Americans buy more than 20 million new Bibles every year to add to the four that the average American has at home. Yet the state of knowledge about the Bible among Americans is abysmal. A Gallup survey found that less than half of Americans can name the first book of the Bible (Genesis), only a third know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and a quarter do not know what is celebrated at Easter (the resurrection of Jesus Christ, according to Christian belief). Sixty percent cannot name half the Ten Commandments; 12% think Noah was married to Joan of Arc. George Gallup, a leading Evangelical as well as a premier pollster, describes America as “a nation of biblical illiterates”.

The Economist also presents a comparative perspective on the growth rate and global distribution of Christian and Muslim populations. At the beginning of the 21st century, there are two billion Christians in the world compared with 1.5 billion Muslims. During the 20th century, the world’s Muslim population grew from 200 million in 1900 to around 1.5 billion in 2000, while Christianity has shriveled in Christendom’s European heart. In 1900, 80% of the world’s Christians lived in Europe. Today 60% live in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Islam is resurgent across Africa and many Christian scholars predict that Islam will overtake Christianity as the world’s largest religion by 2050.

A rejoinder

The Economist report needs to be supplemented with a rejoinder. First, while the Bible is undoubtedly the world’s most widely—and freely—distributed and disseminated book in the world, the Quran has an edge over the Bible in being the most widely, most frequently and most intensively read, studied and researched scripture.

Second, the original language of the Bible—Aramaic—has been lost. In fact, no Aramaic versions of the New Testament texts are extant. What we have are Greek translations of the Aramaic texts (known as Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus), which date from the fourth century AD. Across the world, Christians read the text of the Bible only in translations. On the other hand, the Arabic text of the Quran has been preserved from the time of the Prophet. Muslims across the world, regardless of the great diversity in their native languages, read the Quran in Arabic. This marks an unbroken tradition in the Islamic world over the past fourteen centuries.

Third, there has been a phenomenal global interest in the Quran, in spite of the wide prevalence of Islamophobia across large parts of the Western world. Alarmed by this spurt of interest in the Quran, some groups which consider this a threat to their religion, have sought to circulate counterfeit Qurans in order to plant doubts in the minds of Muslims and others (such dubious sites include thequran.com, aboutislam.com and answering-islam.com).

Fourth, there are hundreds of thousands of people—men, women and adolescents—across the Muslim world (as well as in Europe and North America) who have memorized the text of the Quran. It is extremely rare if not impossible to find a Christian who has memorized the entire text of the New Testament or even the canonical four gospels.

Finally, the Christian population in much of Europe is steadily declining on account of three factors: rapidly declining fertility and voluntary childlessness, secularization, and conversion to Islam. In the Netherlands there has been a ten-fold increase in the number of white converts after 9/11. In Paris alone, there are more than a hundred thousand converts, mainly women.

Confucius schools in China

A growing number of Chinese children aged three to six years are now attending Confucius schools. Dozens of such schools have been opened across the country. Before the start of each lesson, the children put their hands together ad bow before a large portrait of the Chinese sage. They are taught to recite the sayings of Confucius, which extol the virtues of humility, harmony, justice, sincerity, courtesy to others, kindness and self-discipline.

In earlier times, China’s communist regime, especially during the Cultural Revolution, reviled Confucius and pejoratively described him as a feudal figure. Now something like a revival of Confucius seems to be underway in the country. A book of Confucian thought, presented in the modern idiom, has become a best-seller in China, selling about four million copies. According to the Confucius Genealogy Compilation Committee, more than two million people have registered as descendants of the sage.

Confucius’s teachings

The teachings of Confucius, who lived around the 6th century BC and has been revered by the Chinese people as the Great Master, are found in the Analects of Confucius, a collection of brief aphoristic fragments, which were compiled many years after his death. His teachings are often couched in allusions and pithy adages and are imbued with deep humanism. Confucius placed the greatest emphasis on learning and acquiring knowledge and on self-cultivation. He is reported to have said: “Learning without thought is labour lost. And thought without learning is perilous”. He said: “When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them”. One of his disciples, Kung, asked the Master, “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?” The Master replied: “How about ‘shu’: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?” This insightful observation bears a striking similarity with a saying of Prophet Muhammad: “A believer cannot be a (true) believer unless he likes for his brother what he likes for himself”.

Confucius believed that one should lead a simple, contented life and should not clamour for worldly fame and riches. He said: “With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my crooked arm for a pillow—is not joy to be found here? Riches and honours acquired through unrighteous means are to me like floating clouds”.

The moral challenge of globalization

China is in the cusp of a whirlwind of change, unleashed by the forces of globalization. A quarter century ago, over 600 million people in the country—two-thirds of the population—were living in extreme poverty (on less than $ 1 a day). Now, the number of people on $ 1 a day has been reduced to nearly one-third (180 million). According to the IMF projection, in 2008 China and India will be the largest contributors to global growth.

Globalisation has brought about, in addition to material well-being and a measure of prosperity for increasing numbers of people in the country, large-scale migrations, extensive urbanization, cultural dislocation and existential disorientation. The fear of being swept off one’s feet in the face of a rapidly changing world has begun to haunt many people in China. A return to the country’s perennial springs of wisdom may provide an anchorage, a sense of rootedness in a runaway world.

Home About Us Announcement Forthcoming Features Feed Back Contact Us
Copyright © 2007 All rights reserved.