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Suppressing Religion
A Wise Policy?

by Dr. Nick Begich

In the last several months there have been a number of articles regarding religious freedom and the advancement of "foreign and outside" ideas. The fear of "ideas" is a fear which has historically led to revolutions, war, division and strife. It is on the one hand understandable why the introduction of religious ideas might be resisted given the history of many groups and their impact on the political dynamics in various regions of the world. Particularly, of concern to many in the developing democracies is the huge influx of information in areas where information was not previously available. Concern that the rapid influx of new ideas will add destabilizing factors to these areas can certainly be understood by those of us on the outside looking in. However, freedom of thought and the development of belief systems which govern our individual lives must be permitted. The goal of freedom of religion has to remain a long term goal in furthering the cause of peace in the world and in these new countries.

Russian Laws - Protection or Suppression?

Late last year a law was passed in Russia which was reported to have limited religious freedom. The law was also reported to have been "hotly debated" according to an Associated Press article.1 What was interesting was that the bill passed 137-0. Where then was the debate? The debate had more to do with western influences being concerned about the limits placed on relatively new religious organizations entering the Russian religious scene and had less to do with divisions in the Parliament. The emphasis of the law, from the report, establishes the Russian Orthodox Church as the predominant religion of Russia. The fact of the matter is that it is the predominant religion of the region.

The new law does recognize the positions of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity in Russian society, but critics assert that it violates the Russian constitution, which provides for equal treatment of all religions in Russia.2

The law requires groups to be present in Russia for fifteen years before they are allowed to publish or distribute religious literature or invite foreigners for preaching activities. These groups are not allowed to hold services in hospitals, senior citizens' homes, schools, orphanages or prisons. They are also not permitted to form educational establishments, create newspapers or magazines and their clergy is not exempt from military service.3

It is easy in the west to condemn this law but it has to be considered in the context of the society in which it was enacted. It should also be remembered that there was not a single dissenting vote in the Russian Parliament. The Russian government has withstood tremendous change in the last ten years. Significant portions of the country have become independent. This would be like states, in the United States, breaking away from the rest of the country. The entire economic system of the country has been turned upside down. Every kind of social, commercial, criminal, political, religious and economic organization has rushed into the country since 1989 in order to establish a foothold of influence. At the same time, historic Russian institutions are being pushed onto the sidelines of Russian life. These historic institutions do not have the same wealth of resources of outside organizations and are disadvantaged in many other ways. Why the Parliament would seek to stop the wave of outside philosophical influences and support its internal organizations should be obvious. They see the need to stabilize what has already happened rather than complicate the social changes with additional factors.

It is easy to see the injustice of religious suppression from western eyes, but we must ask ourselves what would we do if so much change were thrust upon us? Would we cling to our historic roots in order to feel some sense of stability in our lives? Would we most particularly fall back towards our most deeply held religious beliefs and try to protect our children from belief systems which we do not understand? I think that this is exactly what we would do and history has demonstrated this to us all. At the same time history has shown that when freedom is suppressed it eventually finds an outlet. Usually that outlet is violence.

The theme of this issue of Flashpoints has been the idea that individuals should be empowered to chart their own course. Self-determination, within regional governmental structures, should be the norm. When people find commonality of ideas and form governments, religions or other structures, they have an absolute right to define their institutions in their own way.

We have had a few hundred years to evolve our institutions in the west. As a result, a good deal of change has taken place in the "free world". For instance, about three hundred years ago we quit burning witches because they did not follow the religion of the majority in the United States. A little over a hundred years ago we fought a civil war to end slavery in the country. About eighty years ago we decided that women should be entitled to vote in elections. Less than thirty years ago we decided that blacks and other minorities should be entitled to the same civil considerations as whites. Less than twenty five years ago we decided that pregnant teachers should be allowed to teach in public schools. Why should we expect the Russian people to jump through what required the rest of us three hundred years to discover?

Now is a time for mutual support and understanding and not condemnation. We can voice our concerns, we can express our distaste for suppression, but should we interfere in the internal politics of sovereign countries? China recently decided to do this in the United States and began to funnel support to politicians it favored. Did we get mad, did we scream in complaint...your darn right we did. So, are we in a better position to decide a vote of 137-0 in the Russian Parliament? Let's give the Russian people time to chart their own direction so that lasting change might be possible. These were popular decisions and not forced through by some minority faction of the government. Our government expressed its concern and will likely continue to do so, which is appropriate in the context of international relations.

Turkey

Recent articles appeared in the western press which dealt with the the suppression of Muslims in Turkey. Turkey's highest court dissolved the Islamic-oriented Welfare Party in early January, 1998, and banned six of its leaders from politics.4 The decision was made because the court believed that the activities of the party were undermining the country's tradition of secular rule. Earlier in the year the army-led secularist elite forced Necmettin Erbakan, the Welfare Party leader and prime minister, to resign. This was the largest political party in the country. Elected leaders, who were members of the party, were forced from public office even though they were duly elected by the population and they were banned from serving in pubic office for five years. The party's assets were also seized by the government.

This is the third time that the Party has been outlawed. The first time was in 1971 and then again in 1980. Erbakan believes that this latest attempt will backfire on the military and that they will emerge stronger and more powerful as the population polarizes around the recent events.

The military indicated they would continue to pursue their agenda of eliminating their version of extremism from the civilian government. The current Prime Minister suggested that the military stay out of civilian affairs and stick to its own area of national defense. This exchange should sound alarms for Turks and the rest of the world, considering that since 1960 there have been three coups which have toppled the government when the military and civilian governments were at odds over domestic policies.5

In the fall, the government closed hundreds of private Islamic schools across the country, claiming that teenagers were being "brainwashed". The current Prime Minister, Mesut Yilmaz, who succeeded Erbakan with the support of the military, was quoted as saying, "Whenever a party is closed in a democracy, it is an occasion for sorrow,"6 yet the new Prime Minister rolled back all of the modest reforms which allowed for religious expression in political parties.

The dissolution of a political party, by other than party members, within a government purporting to be democratic, is more than an occasion for "sorrow". It is an occasion that should make clear to all observers that what is operating as a government is far from democratic. It is a military government with a sham democracy. The issue of self-determination is the root of all democratic states. It is the idea that governments exist with the consent of the people and not by consent of the military. The only role of the military is to carry out the wishes of the population through their elected leadership. Could you image the same kind of suppression happening to Christians in the United States when Reagan was elected with support from Christians?

This is much different than the earlier portion of this article dealing with Russia's decision regarding religious freedom. That decision was made in the context of a political process, yet the United States was quick to condemn the actions in Russia. On the other hand, in the instance of Turkey, which is a NATO ally straddling the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus, all of the press reports were silent in terms of American condemnation.

In the same way that the United States has created governments favorable to our foreign policy by interfering in domestic politics in those countries, we continue to interfere in the politics of Turks. This is what brought about the fall of the Shah of Iran and his replacement with an Islamic government. While we condemn the Iraqis for killing Kurdish rebels we look the other way when Turkey does the same thing. While we illegally sell guns to Iran we sell biological agents with White House approval to Iraq7 in the hope that the regional dispute will keep the Islamic faith from expanding its influence.

I think back to the day in Turkey when rocks were being thrown at my bus as our group of outsiders attempted to help solve some of the ecological problems of the area. Could I blame them? I could understand why they would dislike the idea of westerners again coming into their country. I could also see why Muslims would be suppressed by the military. Again these are complicated issues in which we continue interfere creating new adversaries and perhaps, unwittingly, weakening our allies.

One of the things which most impressed me about Turkey was that for hundreds of years Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Jews have all peacefully co-existed. Religious tolerance has, in the past, been a stabilizing factor which is now being undermined by western interference through the Turkish domestic military leadership.

This series of events in Turkey is another blow to what is otherwise a flimsy form of democracy and was not lost on Europeans. "European Union nations, which last month cited Turkey's poor human rights record in shelving its membership application, were quick to condemn the Ban."8 British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook was quoted as saying, "We are concerned at the implications for democratic pluralism and freedom of expression and will be discussing this urgently with our European partners."9

Crush Your Politics then Your Business

The Turkish government did not stop with just eliminating a political party, they changed the rules for Muslims with respect to their private business lives as well. In another press report a few weeks later it was disclosed that a series of laws were passed which tightened controls on Muslim owned businesses, businesses purported to be responsible for giving about $250 million to their political allies each year. In addition, the new laws require that these businesses diversify their investments into businesses which are not owned by Muslims.

Strict Islamic law maintains that interest paid and collected is morally wrong. Special lending institutions have been set up by Muslims to support each other and avoid violations of their religious teachings in this area. In addition, Muslims try to support the enterprises of their fellow believers in the same way that other church and synagogue attendees do - they vote their dollars by spending their money with like minded people, another basic right of free people.10

Military leaders in Turkey told the new Prime Minister that the civilian government must curb the spread of "religious extremism" and gave him a list of restrictions they wanted imposed. They also demanded that the bureaucracy be purged of "pro-Islamic figures" which they have asserted have "infiltrated" the government. The military said that they would take whatever steps were necessary to keep religion out of politics and would not compromise with anyone that they, the military, considered "subversive".11

Religious leaders in the Turkey might well ask themselves: Which religion will be attacked and suppressed next? In the spirit of tolerance there is a great opportunity present in Turkey, an opportunity to create a coalition, in the spirit of religious freedom between all faiths of the region. The history of the country for those not now targets of the military is what has provided a safe haven for Jews and Christians when expelled from other countries in the past.

All of the major religions in the area have some common threads which are rooted in love, compassion, tolerance and the idea of only one God. I think also that this one God is tolerant enough to allow individuals to follow their own "free will" in seeking the truth. All of these religions say that it is God who will judge our actions in the end. Suppression, violence and fear are not the path to enlightenment in any religion - yet again we are walking along that path.

This article is intended to stimulate some thought. I hope it has....

  1. "Russia Religion Bill Wins Final Parliamentary Approval", by Dave Carpenter, Associated Press, Anchorage Daily News, September 25, 1997, page A-9.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. "Turkey's High Court Dissolves, Seizes Assets of Islamic Party", by Amberin Zaman, Los Angeles Times, Anchorage Daily News, January 17, 1998.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Bringing the War Home, by William Thomas, Earthpulse Press, 1998.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. "Turkey Draws Bead on Muslim Business", by Selcan Hacaoglu, Associated Press, printed in the Anchorage Daily News, February 1998.
  11. "Hem in Fundamentalists, Turkish Generals Demand", by Stephen Kinzer, The New York Times, printed in the Anchorage Daily News, March 28, 1998.
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