Religious Authorities Almost Always End Up Using Spiritual Opinion To Gain Political Power

By Donald A. Collins | 2 March 2020
Church and State

US Vice President Mike Pence. (Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

The January 28, 2020 book review in the New York Times by David D. Kirkpatrick entitled “The Unraveling of the Muslim World” presents all religions with a common theme.

Two powerful opposing forces in the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia fell into conflict as the controversial Salmon Rushdie 1988 book Satanic Verses was published. As Kirkpatrick tells us,

Ayatollah Khomeini raised no objection when Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” was translated into Farsi and first sold in Iran — not until Saudi Arabia started to campaign against it. The Saudis, jealous of their claim as guardians of Islam, caught wind of the allegations of blasphemy in the novel soon after its publication. The Saudi Embassy in London organized a push to ban the book. Muslims demonstrated in Bolton and Bradford. Then a Pakistani Islamist group staged a copycat protest in Islamabad, where security forces killed five and injured 80.

That is when Ayatollah Khomeini heard the news and one-upped the Saudis. The ayatollah did not just call for a ban. He ordered Muslims everywhere to execute Rushdie or anyone else involved in the book’s publication. The Japanese translator was assassinated as the ayatollah had instructed, and attempts were made on the lives of the Turkish translator and Norwegian publisher.

How did the Saudis respond? Beaten to the fatwa, Saudi religious authorities could object only to the process. They proclaimed that Saudi religious courts should have been the ones to try and sentence Rushdie for blasphemy in absentia — not some upstart Persian pretender.

The holier-than-thou intolerance race that produced the Rushdie fatwa is one of many deadly episodes recounted by Kim Ghattas, a Lebanese-born journalist and scholar, in her sweeping and authoritative history, “Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East.” Although Rushdie survived, Ghattas argues that his death sentence was a milestone on a dark road to the killing of other intellectuals as apostates — from the liberal Egyptian thinker Farag Foda in 1992 to the liberal Pakistani politician Salman Taseer in 2011. “Death by blasphemy had now been introduced to the Muslim world,” Ghattas writes, “by a strange twist in the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia to position themselves as the standard-bearer of global Islam.”

Ghattas has set herself an ambitious task. She wants to explain much of the chaos that has convulsed the Middle East and Southeast Asia for the last four decades — the Iran-Iraq war, the upheavals in Afghanistan, the assassinations in Pakistan and the civil wars in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. She argues convincingly that these conflicts are all in some ways fallout from the fierce competition between two parallel “Islamic revolutions” in the annus horribilis of 1979.

Americans remember the revolution in Tehran, which brought to power the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic, turned back decades of social liberalization in Iranian society and triggered the capture of more than 50 hostages in the United States Embassy in Tehran. Ghattas, though, gives equal weight to a more obscure uprising that unfolded just a few months later across the Persian Gulf in Mecca, when a band of Saudi militants seized the Grand Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites.

Faced with a devastating challenge to its credibility as the divinely sanctioned custodian of Mecca’s holy places, the Saudi royal family was forced to rely on a team of French commandos to recapture the mosque. Dozens died in a blood bath. Then, to try to restore its authority while at the same time papering over the embarrassment of the French intervention, the royal family redoubled its historic reliance on the kingdom’s puritanical religious establishment as the source of its legitimacy.

Religious apologists for all faiths always cite the wonders of acknowledging the possibility of a benign higher power but how come real choice often gets lethally attacked if we don’t agree?

Remember the Christian song “Yes, Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so”?

Has early indoctrination made public fealty to religion mandatory for any serious US Presidential candidate?

So it seems and thus are we only one step up the violence ladder from the Ayatollahs? Obvious example came when Ted Cruz said I am a Christian first and a citizen second! Read Tom Jefferson, Senator!

The bottom line for religious intolerance is its primary use to gain greater political power! Of course that ranks religious authoritarianism alongside any temporal power seeking authoritarian state from China to Russia or North Korea. And constant watchfulness of our own status always remains an urgent priority for the preservation of our democracy!

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.

From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013

By Donald A. Collins
Publisher: Church and State Press (July 30, 2014)
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‘Black Wave’ Looks At Iran, Saudi Arabia’s Fractured Relationship | Morning Joe | MSNBC

New Rule: Church and Destroy | Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO)

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