Opinion

Religious bullying is a problem around the world

Vigilante enforcement of theocratic codes can crop up when a minority group doesn't conform.

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A friend, a Pakistani journalist, recently came out of the troubled Swat valley in northwest Pakistan and told a chilling tale. He said, "It is now halal [religiously sanctioned] to kill journalists."

The tribal Muslim clerics in Swat, he said, have declared open season on reporters whose writings they disapprove of. My friend, a brave and devout Sunni Muslim, seemed quite shaken, having spent two weeks reporting under threat in Swat, an area once called the Switzerland of Pakistan. Several journalists have already been murdered for a perceived breach of theocratic codes.

Such violence is religious "correctness" in the extreme, but vigilante enforcement of theocratic codes can crop up whenever and wherever an individual or minority does not conform to the religious tenets of the majority.

In the United States, when Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison (D) of Minnesota asked to be sworn in using the Koran, the personal attacks on him from the Christian right were just short of poisonous.

In areas such as the Balkans and Iraq, religious intimidation has taken the form of ethnic cleansing, forcibly coercing religious minorities to emigrate.

In the West Bank a decade ago, I witnessed Hamas activists taunting Christian women for wearing crosses around their necks. Though Palestinian officials deny religious coercion, the exodus of Christian Arabs from the West Bank suggests otherwise.

Another form of religious intimidation worms its way through US high schools. Teenagers complain of being verbally assaulted by "God squads," whose members roam corridors demanding to know if their fellow students share their messianic religious visions – and if not, why not?

Religious bullying is "a great concern," says Deborah Lauter of the Anti-Defamation League. "It does happen a lot … we believe it's a pervasive problem." Daniel Mach of the American Civil Liberties Union agrees: "It's clear this problem is not going to go away soon."

The ACLU is representing a group of anonymous students in Santa Rosa County, Fla., who allege that school officials created a coercive environment in promoting their personal religious beliefs in school and at school events. "The students are proceeding anonymously to avoid intimidation and threats of violence…," Mr. Mach said. Indeed, the list of complaints from those who are unwilling to go forward for fear of intimidation and possible violence "is far longer [than] the list of cases filed," according to Art Spitzer, another ACLU attorney. He said it is easier to win these cases in the courts, but religionist partisans win in the schools because "there are no judges in the principals' offices."

A friend in a northern Virginia high school said religious hectoring by students is "very aggressive and sometimes involves physical threats." He told of a young Jewish friend who is frequently told by other students that her religion is "wrong because you don't believe in God."

Judaism can be no less bullying, however, when it finds itself in the majority. Walk through Mea Shearim, an Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. If you are a nonobservant Jew, or worse, a gentile, you risk being cursed or stoned. I was spat upon eight years ago for merely walking through the area once (no, it wasn't a Jewish holiday or Sabbath).

These incidents are rarely discussed because we fear giving offense. It's disingenuous, however, to pretend they do not occur. Intimidation is intimidation, whether it's found in Pakistan, Jerusalem, Florida, or northern Virginia.

Western civilization has become far too tolerant of religious intolerance that masquerades as freedom of religion. Young people today are taught not to be "judgmental," but without making critical judgments, how can we curtail threats to individual liberty? And amid such intellectual tapioca learning itself becomes irrelevant.

Zoe Oldenburg, a scholar of a most horrific outbreak of religious violence, the Roman Catholic Church's Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars of the 13th century, wrote, "the essential value of any faith must be judged by the effect it produces in the lives of its devotees.…"

Religion should have a humanizing effect on its adherents. Civilizing barbarians was an original aim of Islam. Christianity is supposed to cultivate charity for all mankind. The original idea of loving thy neighbor as thyself was first articulated in Jewish Scripture. Yet when religion loses sight of its potential civilizing leaven, it risks merely becoming tyranny in subtler guise.

Thomas Jefferson swore "eternal hostility toward every tyranny over the mind of man." Today, however, political and religious leaders tend to snooze their way through the various manifestations of religious coercion and intimidation reminiscent of a darker medieval world.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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