Monday, 20 October 2008

Convert or die

A week after the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain held a conference on apostasy, there's  a reminder that denying people the right to choose their beliefs is not confined to Islam. According to the Observer: 'Hundreds of Christians in the Indian state of Orissa have been forced to renounce their religion and become Hindus after lynch mobs issued them with a stark ultimatum: convert or die.' The report carries a telling quote from a local representative of Vishwa Hindu Pariashad (the World Hindu Council): 'This is a Hindu community. Everyone can stay here, as long as they are part of that community'.

This kind of lethal religious intolerance may seem a long way from the current state of affairs in Britain, but it's the logical endpoint of a communalism that persists in viewing religion as a fixed aspect of a person's identity rather than as a matter of private belief, that believes each community should be governed by its own religious laws, and maintains that particular geographical areas can be identified with particular faiths.

Meanwhile, if you've got a couple of hours to spare, the video footage of the apostasy conference is well worth a browse -  speakers included the fearless and heroic Maryam Namazie, Mina Ahadi and Ibn Warraq, as well as A.C.Grayling and Richard Dawkins. Incidentally, making it possible for a wider audience to share in events of this kind is surely one of the great cultural successes of the Web, and a riposte to the pessimists who claim that the internet is dumbing down the culture. (The Democratiya channel at Youtube is another great source of intellectual stimulation for those of us who don't get out much).

Shuggy makes some good points about religion and secularism, in response to a topsy-turvy piece by Andrew Brown on the Ex-Muslims' conference mentioned above. Brown insists on treating religious belief and secularism as if they're the same kind of thing, insisting that just as believers shouldn't impose their faith on the rest of us, nor should secularists. As often happens in these pieces defending a privileged role for religion in public life, Brown's article shows a complete misunderstanding of what secularism is. It's not a separate belief system: it's the belief that in a free and plural society, private belief and public politics should be kept well apart. 

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