`HOLY WARS': THE OMINOUS SIDE OF RELIGION IN POLITICS
AIR-INDIA Flight 182, carrying 329 from Toronto to Bombay, simply disappeared from Irish radar screens monitoring the Atlantic on June 23, 1985. It had exploded in midair. Last June, New Delhi witnessed its worst violence in two years when gunmen separately opened fire at a children's birthday party and at late-night strollers; 12 were killed and 20 injured. Three weeks later, 72 Hindus were hauled off two rural buses and gunned to death.Skip to next paragraph
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The incidents, for which Sikh extremists were held responsible, reflect the most ominous side of religion in politics. As David Rapoport, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said: ``The most striking development in terrorist movements in recent years is the reemergence of theological concepts.''
The relationship between religion and violence is not new. History is littered with holy wars and inquisitions. The words ``assassin,'' ``zealot,'' and ``thug'' derive from fanatic groups that thrived centuries ago within Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism.
But violence inspired by or linked to religious movements, a constant in 1980s headlines, has historically been limited to regional issues and impact. Today, it has global impact.
A series of suicide bombings by Shiite Muslim extremists in Lebanon and Kuwait led to the erection of concrete barriers 8,000 miles away - around the White House. The United States, Canada, Britain, and West Germany have all witnessed protests by Sikh militants, who were also linked to an assassination plot against Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during his 1985 visit to the US.
The emergence of Sikh militancy reflects three characteristics about the relationship between religion and violence:
Minorities, either within a nation or a religion, are more susceptible to mobilization because of perceived threats to their identity or survival. Sikhism, a monotheistic faith that grew out of Hinduism in the 16th century, constitutes only 2 percent of India's 800 million people. Sikhs have long feared absorption by the dominant Hindus.
Elsewhere, Lebanon's Maronite Christian minority has balked at giving up its edge in government - a key Muslim demand to end the 12-year civil war. Iran's Shia are a majority domestically, but represent only 10 percent of Islam, and the minority sense of persecution has been a dominant Shia theme for 13 centuries.
Increased religious militancy within one sect can heighten consciousness and militancy in others, creating a cycle difficult to break. Sikh and Muslim militancy in India has led to new Hindu activism, evident during cross-country marches in 1983 to ``save Hinduism.''
Sikh violence led to a 1984 Army raid on the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' holiest shrine, in which more than 1,000 people were killed. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated four months later by her Sikh bodyguards. That in turn triggered a Hindu massacre of 2,500 Sikhs.
Last May, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi dissolved the moderate Sikh state government and imposed President's rule (federal rule), which was extended Monday for six months by Parliament. But over the past several months the killings, now a fact of daily life in Punjab, have already exceeded all those in 1986.