Sunday, May 22, 2016

Religious freedom, but...

Two deeply reported stories about religion and the state seem to be ironically paired in today's New York Times.

In China, Ian Johnson reports, authorities have cut off the crosses topping 1700 churches in a heavily Christian district, Zhejiang. That's the bleeding edge of a general tightening of the screws on religious organizations. In a recent speech, President Xi Jinping

urged the ruling Communist Party to “resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means,” and he warned that religions in China must “Sinicize,” or become Chinese. The instructions reflect the government’s longstanding fear that Christianity could undermine the party’s authority. Many human rights lawyers in China are Christians, and many dissidents have said they are influenced by the idea that rights are God-given....

While the government is unlikely to begin tearing down crosses across China, the sources say, local authorities are expected to begin scrutinizing the finances and foreign ties of churches and other spiritual institutions as part of an effort to limit the influence of religions the party considers a threat, especially Christianity. 
Is it paranoid to assert that religion could be a vehicle for foreign governments to implant alien values? That brings us to story 2. In a front-pager, Carlotta Gall chronicles the government of Kosovo's failure to prevent a flood of Saudi money and proselytizing from capturing much of the country's religious establishment in support of viciously intolerant, Jihad-friendly Wahhabism:
Kosovo now has over 800 mosques, 240 of them built since the war and blamed for helping indoctrinate a new generation in Wahhabism. They are part of what moderate imams and officials here describe as a deliberate, long-term strategy by Saudi Arabia to reshape Islam in its image, not only in Kosovo but around the world.

Saudi diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2015 reveal a system of funding for mosques, Islamic centers and Saudi-trained clerics that spans Asia, Africa and Europe. In New Delhi alone, 140 Muslim preachers are listed as on the Saudi Consulate’s payroll.

All around Kosovo, families are grappling with the aftermath of years of proselytizing by Saudi-trained preachers. Some daughters refuse to shake hands with or talk to male relatives. Some sons have gone off to jihad. Religious vigilantes have threatened — or committed — violence against academics, journalists and politicians.
The authorities have at times moved against violent extremists and "charities" financing them. But out the outset, resistance was reportedly inhibited:
Why the Kosovar authorities — and American and United Nations overseers — did not act sooner to forestall the spread of extremism is a question being intensely debated.

As early as 2004, the prime minister at the time, Bajram Rexhepi, tried to introduce a law to ban extremist sects. But, he said in a recent interview at his home in northern Kosovo, European officials told him that it would violate freedom of religion.

“It was not in their interest, they did not want to irritate some Islamic countries,” Mr. Rexhepi said. “They simply did not do anything.”
This is not to equate a rights-respecting government's authority to shut down groups with documented links to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups with paranoid authoritarians' determination to control all religious expression. But determining where religious freedom ends and support of lawlessness begins is not necessarily easy.

If there were no international terrorism, the infiltration of Wahhabism in historically tolerant Kosovo, where the more liberal Hanafi Islam has been dominant for centuries, would still be toxic. Since the Wahhabists work largely by intimidation, such as death threats and beatings for those who oppose them, there would at times be grounds other than support of terror to curb them. But when religious extremists are savvy enough to stay within the law, resistance has to come from sources other than government authority.

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