BOB LEVIN January 18 1988


BOB LEVIN January 18 1988




ESSAY .......-

Religion ... is the opium of the people.

—Karl Marx

In the Moslem holy city of Mecca, at the height of the annual hajj, or pilgrimage, thousands of white-robed pilgrims chanted “Allahu-Akhbar” (God is great). They were drowned out by Iranian militants linking their praise of God and his prophet with cries of “Death to America”—and provoking a clash with Saudi police in which 402 people were killed. In Jerusalem, UltraOrthodox Jews in black hats and side curls torched bus shelters that advertised bikinis and rioted to close movie houses on the sabbath. In the United States, Christian Fundamentalists battled to ban abortion, banish books that they considered lewd and bring back school prayer, while organizing for political candidates who championed their causes. One television Evangelist, Pat Robertson, even launched his own campaign for president.

Those recent events provide compelling evidence that religion, rather than drugging the masses into a narcotic passivity, as Marx suggested, is as vital a force as ever. Near the end of the second millennium—in an age of awesome high-tech gadgetry and rampant consumerism—oldtime orthodox and fundamentalist religion is resurgent in many countries, often in its most militant forms.

On one level, back-to-basics religion offers simple, certain answers in an uncertain time; on another, it represents a deep-seated universal yearning for spirituality. Religion may also be an affirmation of national identity. Whatever the reasons—and they are as diverse as the nations and faiths that have spawned them—one thing is clear: far from being dead, as commentators were speculating just two decades ago, God is alive and well—and has gone into politics and out on the battlefield. The result has been deep cultural clashes within the affected societies, fiery conflicts between modernism and traditionalism, and in the case of Islam widespread fear in the Western world.

Religion and politics have always been intertwined. Jesus Christ has been variously described by politicians

of different ideologies as an early democrat, a social reformer or a primitive communist. Similar claims have been made for Buddha and Mohammed. And from the beginning of history, opposing armies have marched into battle with the assurance that God, under whatever name, was on their side.

There is currently a striking resurgence of Christian, Jewish and Islamic orthodoxy and fundamentalism—terms between which there is a decided distinction. According to Webster’s, orthodoxy is “marked by a conformity to doctrine or practice,” while fundamentalism is “a militantly conservative movement” that emphasizes “the literal interpretation” and absolute truth of the Scriptures. In no religion has such fundamentalist thinking found more militant expression than

in Islam, which boasts 850 million faithful in some 70 countries around the world.

In a sense, the current Islamic resurgence grew out of centuries of colonization and dominance by foreign powers. Searching for ways to rid themselves of a variety of outside influences—including Israel, the United States and the Soviet Union—Moslems in many nations found a shining example in the 1979 Iranian revolution that drove the pro-Western Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi off the Peacock throne and brought the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power.

A leader of Shia Islam—a sect that broke off from the orthodox Sunni majority in the seventh century—Khomeini returned from his Paris exile preaching

striet governmental adherence to the message of Mohammed as written in the Koran. He has abolished all distinctions between mosque and state in an effort to create a fully Islamic society. And a grim society it is, at least to Western eyes. The images, flashed on television screens around the world, are by now chillingly familiar: women veiled headto-toe in the traditional chador; bearded mullahs in turbans, with AK-47 rifles raised, chanting Koranic verses and the perpetual hymn of hatred against the “satanic” West. Meanwhile, the brutal war with Iraq grinds on endlessly, the body count rising, the maimed and disfigured limping home.

A harsh fundamentalism also rules across the gulf in predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia, although its rulers follow a pro-Western foreign policy. Under the Saudis’ interpretation of the Islamic code, there have been gruesome public

beheadings and amputations for theft, while foreigners have been jailed— sometimes for months—for offences considered minor by Westerners, such as drinking alcohol. In Egypt, fundamentalism has been on the march.since extremists—angered by vast economic inequities and their country’s peace treaty with Israel—shot President Anwar Sadat in 1981. The government of new President Hosni Mubarak executed five army marksmen for the assassination and rounded up hundreds of other fundamentalists. But with an Islamic revival increasingly apparent among the populace, the Moslem Brotherhood has become the main opposition voice in the 448-member Egyptian parliament, holding 37 of the 95 opposition seats.

ilitant Moslems are even more entrenched in chaotic Lebanon, where Tehran-trained terrorists of such factions as the Hizbollah (Party of God) aim to create a full-fledged Islamic republic. In Pakistan, an overwhelmingly Moslem nation that broke away from Hindu-dominated India in 1947, the government of Gen. Zia ul-Haq has gradually been implementing an “Islamization” program, bringing the nation’s laws more in line with Islamic law, or shariah—including a controversial provision calling for the stoning of adulterers (page 20). Even in distant Malaysia, a multiracial g Asian nation whose Moslem I Malays enjoy a slight majority over Buddhist Chinese and “ Hindu Indians, Moslem extremists have pressured state governments into passing repressive laws, including one that mandates flogging for khalwat, or “close proximity” between the sexes.

At the same time, the nemesis of Mideast Moslems, the state of Israel, is undergoing a fundamentalist revival of its own (page 18). The upsurge was spurred by Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War of 1967, which restored the Jews’ biblical boundaries. In response, religious nationalists have poured onto the West Bank, building hilltop settlements and swelling the population to some 767,000 by last year. Local Arabs have their own ancient claims to the territory, and Israel’s troubled military occupation—the source of wrenching debate within Israel and of fervent Arab resistance throughout the Mideast—is a classic case of what can happen when two

powerful faiths share the same Holy Land. Within Israel itself, the increased militancy of black-hatted UltraOrthodox Jews has alarmed secular Israelis, who sometimes compare the ultra-Orthodox rabbis to their mortal enemies, the bearded ayatollahs of Iran.

In the United States, despite its constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, Fundamentalist Christians have become more politically active (page 22). Many preachers have long voiced a hard line on personal salvation—“Get right with God or burn in hell”—but only in the past decade have the nation’s 70 million Evangelical Protestants become a formidable political force nationwide. Galvanized by television Evangelists, such as the Virginia-based Rev. Jerry Falwell, the religious right wing has registered voters, raised funds—and helped elect Ronald Reagan and a number of conservative senators and congressmen. Their glittery image was tarnished by last year’s headline-grabbing unholy war among televangelists that broke out after Rev. Jim Bakker of North Carolina admitted to having an extramarital encounter with a church secretary. But the soap operastyle scandal did not deter TV preacher Pat Robertson from his bid for the presidency.

Around the world, there are countless other examples of political activism among religions of assorted stripes. The Catholic church in Ireland has for centuries been woven into the very fabric of political life, and its influence today is as pervasive as ever, as the results of recent referendums on abortion and divorce clearly showed (page 24). In Poland, the Catholic church is inextricably linked with the ongoing nationalist struggle against Communist rule. And Buddhist monks in Tibet were at the forefront of demonstrations—which led to rioting—against Chinese domination last September.

In succeeding pages, Maclean's has focused on the religious ferment in four very different countries: Israel, the United States, Pakistan and Ireland. It is a necessarily limited sampling. But it illustrates the impact of the resurgent role of religion in affairs of state around the world. In fact, religion is showing up in the unlikeliest places. At the start of the superpower summit in Washington last month, one leader, voicing a hope that the meeting would go well, intoned, “May God help us.” The leader was not Ronald Reagan. He was Mikhail Gorbachev, head of the adamantly atheist Soviet Union.