When I heard that Osama Bin Laden was killed, I had many mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was relieved that this man was no longer around to mastermind terrorist acts that would kill more innocent people. I hope Bin Laden’s death put closure for the family and friends of all the people that Bin Laden had a hand in killing. On the other hand, I felt uncomfortable celebrating the killing of a human being, no matter how evil that person has been. In many ways, the way people are acting now is probably similar to the way previous generations reacted to the death of Adolph Hitler or Jospeh Stalin.
Osama Bin Laden represents to me the type of extremism that is at the heart of so much terrorism. Because of Bin Laden, Al Queda and the Iranian revolution, most Americans tend to associate religious extremism with Islam, but all religions are plagued with examples of extremism. The three Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam have had sad episodes of religious extremism where its partisans have used their religion to harass and kill those who do not hold their religious tenets.
In Pakistan, Muslim Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, and Christian Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister of minorities, were both killed for speaking out against the country’s blasphemy laws. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws punishes people for speaking out against the prophet Muhammad and it has been used by Islamist extremists to harass Muslims, Christians and other people who are not as extremist. According to an article by Shabhano Taseer, from 1986 to 2009, 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus, and 10 others have been charged with blasphemy, according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, an advocacy group set up by Pakistan’s Catholic bishops. Many of them were killed by Islamist vigilante groups.
The Christian minority in Pakistan has been especially harassed by the blasphemy laws. In one infamous case, Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, is awaiting a death sentence for blaspheming the prophet Muhammad. In the summer of 2009, some women workers pressured Aasia to renounce her Christian faith and accept Islam. Aasia resisted them and she asked what Muhammad had done for them. Salman Taseer was speaking out for the release of Aasia Bibi and for the rejection of the blasphemy laws in the country. Taseer was killed for speaking out.
Shabhano Taseer notes that eight days after her father Salman Taseer was killed, a court in Punjab sentenced a Muslim prayer leader and his son to life in jail for blasphemy. They were found guilty of tearing down a poster of a gathering to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws is a danger to all free thinking people. Taseer wrote:
The biggest danger faced by Islam comes from those who claim to serve it. Its first victims are its own adherents. But our fight against these forces of darkness—forces that seek to snuff out the voices they disagree with—must begin with the strengthening of basic law and order. The extremists are a small minority, but they’re raucously vocal, well armed, and well funded. They operate by instilling fear in those they oppose. This intimidation works all too well.
Some Christians in this country hear news like this and want to stereotype all Muslims as being extremists. Christianity, though, has its own sad history of religious extremism. From Torquemada and the Inquisition to the Salem Witch Trails to various Russian pogroms against Jews in the 19th and early 20th century, Christians have also had episodes where a group of extremists have persecuted Jews, Muslims and other minorities.
In Uganda, Evangelical Christians have been preaching anti-gay messages, which have been feeding into the homophobic prejudices that were already a part of the country’s culture. After American evangelicals held a series of workshops and rallies in Uganda against homosexuality in April 2009, Uganda legislator David Bahati introduced the anti-gay bill which strengthens the criminalisation of homosexuality in Uganda. Originally the bill imposed the death penalty for people who have engaged in homosexual acts, but after international pressure, the death penalty was dropped and life imprisonment was substituted for those people caught in homosexual acts. Furthermore, if passed, the bill will require anyone who is aware of an offense or an offender, including individuals, companies, media organisations, or non-governmental organisations who support LGBT rights, to report the offender within 24 hours. If an individual does not do so he or she is also considered an offender and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding 250 “currency points” or imprisonment up to three years.
Many Christian groups in Uganda have pushed to have the Uganda Parliament to pass the anti-gay laws. Pastor Martin Ssempa, a charismatic and vocal opponent of homosexuality in Uganda, and Pastor Julius Oyet lead the Inter-Religious Taskforce Against Homosexuality. During the session with Speaker Kiwanuka, the Task Force presented a portion of over 2 million signatures it gathered from around Uganda in support of the bill.
Jeffrey Gettleman wrote in the January 27, 2011 edition of the New York Times
Many Africans view homosexuality as an immoral Western import, and the continent is full of harsh homophobic laws. In northern Nigeria, gay men can face death by stoning. In Kenya, which is considered one of the more Westernized nations in Africa, gay people can be sentenced to years in prison.
But Uganda seems to be on the front lines of this battle. Conservative Christian groups that espouse antigay beliefs have made great headway in this country and wield considerable influence. Uganda’s minister of ethics and integrity, James Nsaba Buturo, who describes himself as a devout Christian, has said, “Homosexuals can forget about human rights.”
At the same time, American groups that defend gay rights have also poured money into Uganda to help the beleaguered gay community.
In October, a Ugandan newspaper called Rolling Stone (with a circulation of roughly 2,000 and no connection to the American magazine) published an article that included photos and the whereabouts of gay men and lesbians, including several well-known activists like Mr. Kato.
The Mr. Kato referred to in this quote is David Kato, one of Uganda’s most outspoken gay rights activists. After an anti-gay newspaper published photos of Kato with other prominent Ugandan gays and lesbians with the words “Hang Them”, David Kato was beaten to death on January 26.
Extremism is not just the province of religion. There are many instances of secular extremism in history, from the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, the purges of Joseph Stalin to the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s and early 1970s.
All extremism, whether it is religious or secular, is bad. Barry Goldwater was wrong when he said that that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. I remember reading somewhere that a good idea taken to an extreme is no longer a good idea. I think all people are capable of good and bad. Nice people are capable of doing cruel things. Bad people are capable of surprising acts of kindness. Our human nature makes all people capable of great good and great evil. That was one of the reasons that the Founding Fathers of this country set up a series of checks and balances to allow a government of the people while offsetting a tyranny of the minority and a tyranny of the majority. I appreciate the checks and balances of the United States because it allows for the rule of the majority and the protection of the rights of the minority. It has produced the American melting pot where a toleration of different cultures and religions and races is valued. Thomas Jefferson wrote about the American freedom of religion from his Notes on the State of Virginia:
The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. If it be said his testimony in a court of justice cannot be relied on, reject it then, and be the stigma on him. Constraint may make him worse by making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man.
…Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitor? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then; and , as there is a danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size by lopping the former and stretching the latter.
Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand different systems of religion; that ours is but one of that thousand; that if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the nine hundred and ninety-nine wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free inquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves?
But every state , says an inquisitor, has established some religion. No two, say I have established the same. Is this a proof of the infallibility of establishments? Our sister States of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any establishment at all. The experiment was new and doubtful when they made it. It has answered beyond conception. They flourished infinitely. Religion is well supported; of various kinds, indeed, but all good enough; all sufficiently to preserve peace and order; or if a sect arises whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors without suffering the state to be troubled with it.
They do not hang more malefactors than we do. They are not more disturbed with religious dissensions. On the contrary, their harmony is unparalleled and can be ascribed to nothing but their unbounded tolerance, because there is no other circumstance in which they differ from every nation on earth. They have made the happy discovery that the way to silence religious disputes is to take no notice of them. Let us too give this experiment fair play and get rid, while we may, of those tyrannical laws.
It is true we are as yet secured against them by the spirit of the times. I doubt whether the people of this country would suffer an execution for heresy, or a three years’ imprisonment for not comprehending the mysteries of the Trinity. But is the spirit of the people an infallible, a permanent reliance? Is it government? Is this the kind of protection we receive in return for the rights we give up? Besides, the spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless. A single zealot may commence persecutor, and better men be his victims. It can never be too often repeated that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest and ourselves united. From the conclusion of this war we shall be going downhill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war will remain on long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.