Trust is at a breaking point. Trust in national institutions. Trust among states. Trust in the rules-based global order. Within countries, people are losing faith in political establishments, polarization is on the rise and populism is on the march.
Yet, it takes global collective action, and hence trust, to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons, address climate change and uphold human rights. It takes trust across political parties and across generations to create a durable consensus to reduce economic inequality and poverty.
Surveys of people’s trust in politicians and governments generally show a long-term decline, especially in the United States which has surveys dating back to 1958. As President Trump thrives on distrust, this trend is unlikely to reverse anytime soon.
Decline of trust is not uniform in all democracies, but, if you ask people whether they trust politicians, the answer is likely to be negative, even in countries like Norway. Furthermore, voter turnouts are in decline – another symptom of distrust. But, if we lack political trust, then we lack the foundation on which to negotiate collectively any sustainable solutions to the world’s most urgent problems.
In western political thought, trust is traditionally seen in two closely related dimensions. In John Locke’s version, trust is a gift from the people to those who rule, conditional upon powers being used for the people’s security and safety. In John Stuart Mill’s version, the elected representative is regarded as a trustee who acts on voters’ behalf rather than a delegate acting only at our behest.
Room for scepticism
In general, people who vote are more likely to express higher levels of trust in politicians and in government. But some may vote in order to defeat a candidate or party regarded as untrustworthy (on an “anyone but” basis) while others may not bother voting because they are highly, if not naively, trusting.
In any political system, it is not prudent to trust completely, however. We have constitutional checks and balances precisely because we trust no one at all with absolute and unaccountable powers. In a democracy, whether one votes or not, we have little choice but to entrust a relatively small number of representatives with powers to pass laws and to govern, but we are not called on to abandon scepticism or to have blind faith.
The big issue, though, is how to develop greater trustworthiness in the individuals whom we do elect, and how to build greater popular trust in decision-making systems, even when we disagree openly and strongly over particular concerns.
Trust in politics
Trust is not a thing that one can literally build, break and then rebuild. Political leaders cannot simply approve a policy and a budget to rebuild trust in the way that we rebuild worn-out infrastructure.
If we demand trust from people, they are likely to react with scepticism. Sledge Hammer’s famous “Trust me, I know what I’m doing” was funny for good reason.
Political and economic systems that are “rigged” (when they produce unfair outcomes or are downright corrupt) are unlikely to be trusted, moreover. Many people in affluent countries are finding that hard work for long hours is not providing a standard of living sufficient to achieve reasonable life goals.
Electoral systems often deliver disproportionate results. Politicians attack one another for short-term gain rather than work for the good of the country. Reducing economic inequality and reforming electoral systems or campaign finance laws may help to address the problem of political trust.
But there is a deeper “bootstraps” problem, as it takes political trust to gain the consensus to take the actions needed for such significant reforms. It takes trust to build trust. It would be morally unacceptable, however, to give up on the project of restoring political trust on the grounds that it’s too hard.
We need first to understand clearly the kinds of actions entailed in trustworthy conduct – for example, abstaining from taking advantage of the vulnerable, paying heed to people’s complaints, promising no more than one can deliver. If we adopt these characteristics in our own behaviour, then we are in a much better position to expect them of others.
Beyond individual conduct, we need to examine carefully our economic and political systems. The world will never be perceived by all as completely fair. But the difficult task of restoring political trust is inextricably entwined with the tasks of critically reflecting on our own behaviour as leaders in our communities and then working for significant reforms to social and economic policies and electoral systems.
This piece is republished with permission from Perils of Populism, the 57th edition of Griffith Review. Articles are a little longer than most published on The Conversation, presenting an in-depth analysis of the rise of populism across the world.
… the closer integration of the countries and peoples of the world which has been brought about by the enormous reduction of costs of transportation and communication, and the breaking down of artificial barriers to the flows of goods, services, capital, knowledge and (to a lesser extent) people across borders.
While the global economy has continued to expand, Stiglitz could not foresee the extent to which the movement of people would become a toxic political issue, as refugee flows and draconian measures to prevent them have increased.
Stiglitz was primarily concerned with the impact of globalisation on the world’s poorest countries. But he also acknowledged its impact on democratic institutions.
Contrary to the neoliberal belief that economic globalisation would ensure the triumph of Western-style democracies, it appears that democratic institutions everywhere have been weakened by their inability to satisfy an increasing number of voters. This was remarkably prescient, given Stiglitz was writing before the catalyst of the global financial crisis.
It is not difficult to find evidence for this claim. Despite some small gains in the past decade in a few African countries, liberal democracy has been on the retreat in several countries: Russia, Turkey, Thailand, Hungary.
In established democracies, major political parties have either been taken over by populist forces, as is the case for the US Republicans, or lost ground to them, as in France.
The apparent failure of globalisation seems to have energised the right to a greater degree than it has the left. In several countries, social democratic parties have lost much of their traditional support, with some of it even having swung to nationalistic and socially conservative movements.
The term “populism” is now so widely used that it seems equivalent with any political position not shared by the speaker. One of Australia’s more distinguished political commentators, Paul Kelly, consistently attacks Bill Shorten for “populism” when he is really pointing to a mixture of opportunism and cautious appeals for greater equity by an opposition leader who is strongly committed to the processes of liberal democracy.
In contemporary usage, “populism” is generally understood to mean political movements and individuals who channel widespread alienation and frustration by claiming to speak for “the people” against forces that are said to be destroying cherished ways of life. “The people” in Western societies are, for the most part, implicitly understood to be white and Christian, blurring the line between race and religion.
In particular, attacks on Muslims are a hallmark of contemporary populism. There are versions of left-wing populism – as in Venezuela or Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, where racism is not an ingredient – but they are less relevant to the Australian experience.
The essential difference between populism and democracy is that democracy entails more than majority rule. Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning of the “tyranny of the majority” remains relevant today. The protection of political freedoms and minority rights is an essential test of democracy.
Majority support for slavery, racial discrimination or denial of equal rights to women does not make any of these things democratic. Populism feeds on a heady dose of philosophical nihilism, which sometimes seems to echo critiques of globalisation made by the left.
In an article on the rise of an alt-right movement straddling the Atlantic, Jane Goodall quotes one of its central figures, Reza Jorjani. She said:
Tensions and disagreements were to be anticipated.
But they were clear in what they stood united against:
The alternative right unequivocally rejects liberal democracy.
Populism and identity politics
Populist leaders not only attack the institutions of global capital, they also disregard the checks and balances of institutional democracy.
Vladimir Putin’s imprisonment of opponents, Donald Trump’s attacks on the media, Viktor Orbán’s attacks on immigrants and NGOs, Nicolás Maduro’s recourse to military courts and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s assaults on journalists and secular opponents are all justified in the name of protecting “the people”, and are legitimised by popular election.
This creates a dichotomy between “the people” and the (largely unspecified) “ruling elites”, despite the reality that populist leaders themselves are clearly part of the latter.
No matter. Their ability to channel anger and frustration at the status quo, and to promise easy solutions, seemingly grants them immunity from being attacked for their own exploitation of the system. Trump, Putin and Erdoğan are all notable for the extent to which they have profited personally from their control of state institutions.
As national economies are increasingly subject to the flows of international capital, the ability of governments to control them declines. This has resulted in increased economic inequality in wealthy countries and led to greater voter dissatisfaction – and a search for political scapegoats. An emphasis on nationalism is one manifestation of this search.
Nationalism is often assumed to emerge spontaneously from “the people” rather than, as is often the case, to have been carefully cultivated by political leaders. Commentators have stressed hostility to immigrants in fuelling the vote for Brexit in England (though not all of Britain) last year. But had several leading Tories, above all Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, not campaigned for withdrawal, it is unlikely that the referendum would have ended as it did.
While Trump won over a considerable number of white working-class Americans, his victory was equally due to the support of traditional Republican elites. And his administration is staffed by wealthy conservatives rather than the working men and women to whom his rhetoric appealed.
Such populists both denigrate the state and turn to it to repress those they see as “enemies of the people” – the phrase used by Trump against the media. They distrust the intermediaries of liberal democracy – parties, pressure groups, media – preferring to resort to rallies and direct contact between leaders and mass audiences. They scorn the idea that politics is an elaborate system of building consensus through persuasion and mutual respect.
Hungary, whose leader proclaims he seeks an “illiberal democracy”, has perhaps the best current example of this form of populism in power: an elected government is attacking independent media and NGOs, while whipping up support through systematic scapegoating of refugees and, to a lesser extent, Jews and homosexuals.
Responding to a question about gay rights, Orbán summed up the language of contemporary populism more eloquently than either Trump or Pauline Hanson ever could:
Tolerance, however, does not mean that we would apply the same rules for people whose lifestyle is different from our own. We differentiate between them and us.
Populist attacks on “political correctness” have become shorthand for resentment against a whole set of social changes that unsettle people who feel what was once taken for granted is now under attack.
Trump constantly invoked the idea of political correctness gone mad in his campaign. And his victory was based on the collapse of old-style blue-collar jobs, and on Hillary Clinton’s failure to win over the educated white Republican women whom she assumed could not abide Trump, but who disliked her more.
In both the Trump and the Brexit vote, there was a deep undercurrent of racial resentment that was expressed through attacks on “political correctness”. But this was deeply entangled with basic economic concerns.
In the aftermath of Trump’s win, some commentators claimed the Democrats had become a party of special interests, unable to speak to the majority. One of Clinton’s supporters, historian Mark Lilla, wrote:
Some years ago I was invited to a union convention in Florida to speak on a panel about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms speech of 1941. The hall was full of representatives from local chapters – men, women, blacks, whites, Latinos.
As I looked out into the crowd, and saw the array of different faces, I was struck by how focused they were on what they shared. And listening to Roosevelt’s stirring voice as he invoked the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear – freedoms that Roosevelt demanded for ‘everyone in the world’ – I was reminded of what the real foundations of modern American liberalism are.
Lilla is only half-right. When Roosevelt made his demands they effectively excluded more than half the population: African, Latino and Native Americans, homosexuals – even women were in part excluded from the freedoms of the New Deal.
Too often, attacks on political correctness and identity politics assume a world in which rights and freedoms are equally available to all. In reality it is those who experience discrimination and disadvantage who most need to assert their identity.
Lamenting what he sees as a decline in Christian-based values, Kelly wrote recently that:
Politics is intruding into private and family life. Value judgements are being made in a way inconceivable two decades ago.
But to argue this is to overlook the ways in which value judgements and state power have always shaped “private and family life” – abortion, adoption, adultery – and to overlook the position of privilege from which so much of the denunciation of identity politics stems. The women’s and gay movements emerged precisely because of the need to struggle against state-supported discrimination.
Identity politics can be both individual and collective. We assert ourselves – as women, as Indigenous, as queer – to emphasise both our particularities and our sense of belonging.
In so doing, identity politics implicitly breaks with the Enlightenment tradition of claiming us all as equal citizens committed to liberté, égalité, fraternité (though, in practice, the universal citizen of Enlightenment thought was a white male with property).
Asserting difference through the creation of social movements based on specific identities of race, language, gender and sexuality was a necessary step toward expanding citizenship to become genuinely universal and not, as social conservatives argue, a retreat from these values.
Yes, there are versions of identity politics that assert difference to justify prejudice and persecution. But that does not deny the need to build a sense of community and self-acceptance among people who are not fully included in dominant power structures.
In the contemporary world, the most obvious examples of the identity politics of hate come from extreme white nationalist groups, who claim an identity that is defined by superiority to all others.
It is ironic that many of the attacks on “identity politics” come from people who wish to privilege another form of identity – namely, the national. To assert “Australian values” is, after all, to declare a particular form of identity that carries with it specific entitlements.
Nationalism has been the model for certain forms of identity politics, and contains the same tensions between liberatory and repressive possibilities. Arguments for “national identity” too quickly become arguments for exclusion, with unpopular views denounced as unpatriotic. Tony Abbott wrote of attending an Anzac Day dawn service at which:
… the padre denounced political correctness as shutting the mouth, twisting the mind and warping the soul.
But is the demand to adhere to “Australian”, as distinct from universal, values not just another form of political correctness?
It’s worth recalling American critical theorist Nancy Fraser’s assertion that both redistribution and recognition are essential for a just polity. Equality of access and opportunity depends upon both redistributive policies and a genuine acceptance of diversity.
Perhaps a third category needs to be added to Fraser’s terms: sustainability. The dismal failure to control carbon emissions over the past decade illustrates just how problematic this dimension has become.
Fraser argues that “struggles for recognition [can] be integrated with struggles for redistribution”, rather than portrayed as single-issue demands which have no bearing on economic structures.
As “identity politics” becomes increasingly understood as the politics of victimhood rather than empowerment, it is essential to remember that no one movement has a single identity, nor can it achieve liberation without larger social and political change.
The enthusiastic support of many corporations for same-sex marriage is a case study of embracing equality through recognition while failing to discuss the inequities of distribution or to think globally.
Qantas might well parade its support for marriage equality in Australia. But this does not prevent its close alliance with Emirates, the official airline of a state that criminalises homosexuality, nor does it guarantee decent conditions for all its employees.
The current language of “equality” centres almost entirely on civic and political rights, not on social and economic equality. In human rights language, these are first- and second-generation rights. To people struggling to survive in a rapidly changing economy, this emphasis on “rights” can sound dismissive and elitist – one of the standard complaints about identity politics.
We need a politics of shared values rather than one based on separate identities. To speak personally: I am deeply committed to a struggle for queer rights. But that does not mean I feel a political bond with the many right-wing homosexuals who support groups such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National or Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom.
The danger, as Fraser points out, is that:
… struggles for recognition simultaneously displace struggles for economic justice and promote repressive forms of communitarianism.
What populism means for political parties
It has become commonplace to claim that the collapse of “rusted-on” support for the major political parties is due to a new form of cultural politics, pitting inner-city cosmopolitan “elites” against rural and outer suburbanites.
Liberal assistant minister Angus Taylor reportedly claims that cultural identity and political correctness are can explain Trump, Brexit and Hanson’s resurgence:
Political correctness, above all, is the thing I hear from people.
This is a neat rhetorical device to avoid the role of growing inequality and resentment at rapid social change that the economic policies of his government do little to moderate.
In a similar vein, the columnists of the Murdoch press are obsessed with questions such as Safe Schools, same-sex marriage and hate speech, while insisting that most voters have little interest in these issues.
Reflecting on the 2016 federal election, former Liberal Party leader John Hewson wrote:
The whole political process over the past several decades has been an unsavoury race to the bottom, delivering little real/effective government … The last election … clearly revealed voters’ dissatisfaction.
In his judicious Quarterly Essay on Hanson, David Marr quotes political scientist Ian McAllister as saying that respect for the political class has fallen to its lowest level in recent history.
It is not surprising, nor necessarily troubling, that party loyalties are declining. The development of a multi-party system is not itself evidence of populism. The largest minor party in Australia remains the Greens, which, despite the fulminations of the Murdoch press, is committed to parliamentary processes and does not meet most definitions of populism.
When she governed with their support, Julia Gillard faced far more problems from within her own ranks – Kevin Rudd, Craig Thomson – than she did from the Greens.
Our political institutions are products of the 19th century. Our major parties were shaped in the 20th. But Australia today is a very different country, largely because of globalisation.
The opening up of the economy to global pressures, and a subsequent change in its nature, has meant greater affluence but also greater inequality. In the past three decades, the manufacturing industry has declined and whole communities have been destroyed as factories and assembly plants have given way to apartment blocks and shopping malls.
The mining boom created a sudden surge of wealth in some areas, but much of that growth has slowed. And while some new jobs have been created in the meantime, they are more dependent on educational qualifications.
With these shifts has come a decline in blue-collar trade unions, and a rise in self-employment. In the past two decades union membership has fallen from about 40% of the workforce to well under 20%.
Meanwhile, the rapid development of the virtual economy and our dependence on electronic media continue to erode traditional jobs and change the very ways in which we organise our lives. Traditional divides between “work” and “leisure” are disappearing with the ability to remain hooked into the internet wherever we are.
Australia today has 10 million more people than it did in 1980 – a staggering growth that has made house prices and urban congestion major political issues in the capital cities.
Our population has become much more diverse, with a very high proportion having been born overseas. The subsequent emphasis upon diversity – not only of race and ethnicity, but also of sexuality and gender – is often the basis for bitter political divisions.
The collective impact of these changes has been to undermine the assumptions of mainstream politics, which are based upon structures and institutions that have little changed during the past century. Relatively few people retain deep loyalties to the major parties, which explains the rapid turnover in governments and the attraction of minor parties.
There are currently nine members of the Senate who are from parties named after individuals: Hanson, Nick Xenophon, Jacqui Lambie, Derryn Hinch. When I asked Hinch in a pre-election radio interview about the potential hubris of an eponymous party name he agreed, but said that were he to campaign for the Justice Party he’d poll far fewer votes.
This being said, it is easy to overstate the decline of votes for the major parties. One assumes most voters have some understanding of preferential voting, and are using their first preference to send a signal while still making an effective choice between a Coalition and a Labor government. Minor parties poll better for the Senate than the lower house because voters understand it is the latter that determines which party will form government.
More troubling is the hollowing out of the major parties, as fewer people join and participate, leaving them open to manipulation and branch-stacking. Approximately 100,000 people “belong” to political parties in Australia. In most cases this means no more than paper membership, often to support a particular faction or candidate.
Labor Party membership has increased since the decision in 2013 to give members a role in the choice of the parliamentary leader. Currently, it’s at more than 50,000 paid-up members. The Liberals have roughly 40,000, while the Greens membership is about 10,000.
Exact figures are very hard to find, but none of Australia’s political parties have a membership as large as that of the most popular AFL teams.
Increasingly, politicians are those who have worked their way up through the party machinery, often with little experience or knowledge outside their immediate political base. This in turn creates greater cynicism among voters, who are exposed to stories of corruption, self-interest and endless point-scoring.
The tendency of politicians on both sides to constantly denigrate and belittle their opponents is a major contributor to the corrosion of liberal democracy.
Growing cynicism about politics is also, in part, the product of neoliberal attacks on the state, which depict governments as disconnected from real lives and bent on taking away our money and our freedoms.
The past few decades have seen a systematic delegitimisation of the idea that the state exists to provide collectively what we cannot provide as individuals. This leads to declining commitment from more and more people to maintaining public services, and increases inequality.
For instance, as more parents want private schooling for their kids, the political and financial support available to the state system decreases, which widens the gap between school outcomes and, in turn, employment opportunities.
And the more universities position themselves as corporate enterprises, the more state support for higher education dwindles, despite political rhetoric about the need for greater knowledge and innovation.
The neoliberal economy has broken down many of the thick networks of voluntary associations that were fundamental to a liberal political culture. Not only have unions declined, so too have middle-class business and social associations that often provided the base for the conservative parties.
As church attendance has decreased, the influence of fundamentalist minorities across all faiths has increased, which is closely associated with the rightward shifts within the Liberal Party.
Yes, new forms of social and political networking have flourished this century, but they are often realised by little more than a Facebook like or signing an electronic petition. It’s unwise to over-romanticise the associative life of an earlier period, but there is a real difference between face-to-face interaction and “electronic activism”.
As the disciplines of meeting procedures and building acceptable compromises are sacrificed to instant tweets and ticks, politics becomes indistinguishable from other aspects of consumerism.
In a similar effect, where online media demand instantaneous coverage, commentary has come to replace genuine reporting – and with this comes a decline of civility in public debates.
2GB broadcaster Alan Jones’ appalling comments on Gillard (that her father “died of shame”) followed a tendency in the media to address her as “Ju-liar”, rather than prime minister.
However, the left can be equally guilty of shutting out debate – about gay marriage, transgenderism, Islam – by branding anyone who expresses unease as bigots.
Instead of rational discussion, the media feed on crude polarisation. This is the basic presumption of the ABC’s Q&A program, which seeks out guests with dramatically opposing views, regardless of how absurd they will appear.
Too often, there is a lack of generosity from those seeking change who misread unease with the pace of change as bigotry and hostility. Where the left sees sexism, racism and homophobia, the right yells that its freedom of speech has been infringed upon. As writer Christos Tsiolkas noted:
There is a symbiosis that links the outraged liberal to the furious conservative, the radical activist to the enraged reactionary. It is the subtext that seems to define the contemporary moment: my rage is grievous and justifiable, and yours is ignorant and selfish.
What for Australia?
Liberal democracy in Australia, with its particular federalist inflections – a powerful upper house, a complex set of electoral systems, compulsory voting and tight party discipline – has manifold imperfections, but it also has certain strengths worth defending.
That governments are held accountable through free and fair elections and that freedom of speech and association are protected are important assumptions, even when there are clear failures to meet them.
Equally important are the institutional arrangements that ensure the workings of the system. It’s unprovable, but if the US had an independent electoral commission to set electoral boundaries and/or compulsory and preferential voting, the results of both the 2000 and the 2016 presidential elections might have been very different.
Despite its imperfections, Australia’s electoral systems mean a closer fit between voters’ intent and electoral outcomes than is true in other English-speaking democracies – with the exception of New Zealand, where a system of proportional representation has enabled good government since its adoption in 1996.
Interestingly, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Australia in the highest sector for democracy, above both the US and the UK.
It’s important both to defend the institutions of liberal democracy and to question how they might be improved. For some theorists, the possibilities of the electronic age and the decline in traditional party membership open up a path towards forms of more direct democracy.
The political philosopher Simon Tormey has written of the increasing tendency to bypass representative institutions in favour of direct action of various sorts:
The perception, increasingly, is that citizens don’t need representatives and politicians to make themselves heard or to act. They can do it for themselves in the expectation that others will want to join in or support their efforts …
There are interesting moments of “deliberative democracy” being used to help resolve contentious issues by bringing together groups of interested citizens, such as South Australia’s appointment of “citizens’ juries” to consider the question of nuclear waste.
But, at some point, direct action needs to be translated into legislative and bureaucratic responses. And while new forms of consultation and participation might supplement representative government, they are unlikely to replace it.
When the federal government sought to resolve same-sex marriage through a referendum there was strong opposition from many of those most affected, who insisted on the primacy of parliament.
In the aftermath of the student and anti-war movements of the 1960s (more accurately the early 1970s), several radicals turned their attention to the “long slow march through institutions”. Tom Hayden, one of the authors of the Port Huron Statement, became a state legislator. Danny Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the May 1968 Paris movement, became a European parliamentarian.
What Donald Horne termed “the time of hope” in Australia (1966–72) was a period marked both by the emergence of the new left and new social movements and by Gough Whitlam’s reshaping of the Labor Party to offer a real alternative to the legacy of the Menzies decades.
The anti-Vietnam movement included several leading figures within the Labor Party, which came to power with a commitment to ideals that had been inspired by the anti-war, Indigenous, feminist and environmental movements.
In the following decade, Bob Brown went from leading protests against environmental destruction to become the leader of the Greens, and many of his parliamentary colleagues have followed similar trajectories.
We need strong social movements to keep pressure on governments, but we also need good people in government to develop and enact progressive policies. Many of my friends on the left have lost faith in the Labor Party, viewing it as corrupt and unable to either take on big business interests or defend human rights unambiguously.
Yet when I attended Labor’s national conference in 2015, I was struck by the size and energy of two groups: the environmental activists and the refugee advocates. Their presence in the party reminds us that a Labor government is pressured from the left, a Coalition government from the right.
The rise of populism has created new rifts in the body politic – sometimes, as in France, displacing the major parties; sometimes, as in the case of Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, unseating dominant party elites.
Neither has happened in Australia. My hunch is that the dominance of the existing major parties will persist in the medium term, while the Greens seem unlikely to break through and become much more than a minor party with limited reach. The best prospect for countering a toxic mix of bigotry and rising inequality is a Labor government constantly pressured from “the left” by the Greens and significant social movements.
But nothing is inevitable in politics. Faced with the potential growth of populist right-wing parties – whether led by Hanson, Cory Bernardi, or someone yet to emerge – mainstream politicians need to recognise the cynicism of the electorate, and rebuild trust in the political system.
In a recent Lowy Institute poll, nearly one-quarter of Australians said that “in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable”. It’s not clear what respondents understand by either “non-democratic” or “some circumstances”. But I suspect the response suggests ignorance rather than antipathy.
Despite well-meaning attempts to introduce civics into school curricula, there is a disconnect between the minority who follow politics in detail and the bulk of people who dutifully turn up to vote (the latter being an important protection against the triumph of demagoguery).
Populists thrive on a mix of passion and ignorance, and they need to be countered on both levels. The deep distrust between those who seek to effect change through mainstream institutions and those who work outside of them (through movements such as GetUp!) needs to be resolved, as both are important.
If politics is the art of the possible then what is possible is itself determined by political choices, and requires debate and coalition building. The greatest challenge for our political leaders is to demonstrate that politics matters, that while in some respects the state might take away from individuals, when managed properly it can ensure a richer life for us all.
There’s a New Yorker cartoon, published just after Trump’s inauguration, of two corporate dudes in an office, one of whom says:
Part of me is going to miss liberal democracy.
Australia is not yet at that point. Our challenge is to simultaneously strengthen the institutions of democracy and re-imagine the role of government in a rapidly changing global environment.
Thanks to Robert Manne and Sean Scalmer for their comments in writing this essay.
You can read other essays from Griffith Review’s latest edition here.
Muslim militants of Boko Haram blamed for killings in Borno state.
JOS, Nigeria, June 10 (CDN) — Muslim extremists from the Boko Haram sect on Tuesday (June 7) shot and killed a Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) pastor and his church secretary in Maiduguri, in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state.
The Rev. David Usman, 45, and church secretary Hamman Andrew were the latest casualties in an upsurge of Islamic militancy that has engulfed northern Nigeria this year, resulting in the destruction of church buildings and the killing and maiming of Christians.
The Rev. Titus Dama Pona, pastor with the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) in Maiduguri, told Compass that Pastor Usman was shot and killed by the members of the Boko Haram near an area of Maiduguri called the Railway Quarters, where the slain pastor’s church is located.
Pona said Christians in Maiduguri have become full of dread over the violence of Boko Haram, which seeks to impose sharia (Islamic law) on northern Nigeria.
“Christians have become the targets of these Muslim militants – we no longer feel free moving around the city, and most churches no longer carry out worship service for fear of becoming targets of these unprovoked attacks,” Pona said.
Officials at COCIN’s national headquarters in Jos, Plateau state, confirmed the killing of Pastor Usman. The Rev. Logan Gongchi of a COCIN congregation in Kerang, Jos, told Compass that area Christians were shocked at the news.
Gongchi said he attended Gindiri Theological College with Pastor Usman beginning in August 2003, and that both of them were ordained into pastoral ministry on Nov. 27, 2009.
“We knew him to be very gentle, an introvert, who was always silent in the class and only spoke while answering questions from our teachers,” Gongchi said. “He had a simple lifestyle and was easygoing with other students. He was very accommodating and ready at all times to withstand life’s pressures – this is in addition to being very jovial.”
Gongchi described Usman as “a pastor to the core because of his humility. I remember he once told me that he was not used to working with peasant farmers’ working tools, like the hoe. But with time he adapted to the reality of working with these tools on the farm in the school.”
Pastor Usman was excellent at counseling Christians and others while they were at the COCIN theological college, Gongchi said, adding that the pastor greatly encouraged him when he was suffering a long illness from 2005 to 2007.
“His encouraging words kept my faith alive, and the Lord saw me overcoming my ill health,” he said. “So when I heard the news about his murder, I cried.”
The late pastor had once complained about the activities of Boko Haram, saying that unless the Nigerian government faced up to the challenge of its attacks, the extremist group would consume the lives of innocent persons, according to Gongchi.
“Pastor Usman once commented on the activities of the Boko Haram, which he said has undermined the church not only in Maiduguri, but in Borno state,” Gongchi said. “At the time, he urged us to pray for them, as they did not know how the problem will end.”
Gongchi advised the Nigerian government to find a lasting solution to Boko Haram’s violence, which has also claimed the lives of moderate Muslim leaders and police.
The Railway Quarters area in Maiduguri housed the seat of Boko Haram until 2009, when Nigerian security agencies and the military demolished its headquarters and captured and killed the sect’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and some of his followers.
The killing of Pastor Usman marked the second attack on his church premises by the Muslim militants. The first attack came on July 29, 2009, when Boko Haram militants burned the church building and killed some members of his congregation.
On Monday (June 6), the militants had bombed the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, along with other areas in Maiduguri, killing three people. In all, 14 people were killed in three explosions at the church and police stations, and authorities have arrested 14 people.
The Boko Haram name is interpreted figuratively as “against Western education,” but some say it can also refer to the forbidding of the Judeo-Christian faith. They say the word “Boko” is a corruption in Hausa language for the English word “Book,” referring to the Islamic scripture’s description of Jews and Christians as “people of the Book,” while “Haram” is a Hausa word derived from Arabic meaning, “forbidding.”
Boko Haram leaders have openly declared that they want to establish an Islamic theocratic state in Nigeria, and they reject democratic institutions, which they associate with Christianity. Their bombings and suspected involvement in April’s post-election violence in Nigeria were aimed at stifling democracy, which they see as a system of government built on the foundation of Christian scripture.
Christians as well as Muslims suffered many casualties after supporters of Muslim presidential candidate Muhammudu Buhari lost the April 16 federal election to Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian. Primarily Muslim rioters claimed vote fraud, although international observers praised the polls as the fairest since 1999.
Nigeria’s population of more than 158.2 million is almost evenly divided between Christians, who make up 51.3 percent of the population and live mainly in the south, and Muslims, who account for 45 percent of the population and live mainly in the north. The percentages may be less, however, as those practicing indigenous religions may be as high as 10 percent of the total population, according to Operation World.
Christian falsely accused of ‘blasphemy’ taken into custody, released – and detained again.
LAHORE, Pakistan, April 18 (CDN) — A Christian illegally detained in Faisalabad on false blasphemy charges was freed last night, while two other Christians in Gujranwala arrested on similar charges on Friday (April 15) were also released – until pressure from irate mullahs led police to detain them anew, sources said.
Masih and his family have relocated to a safe area, but just 10 days after he was falsely accused of desecrating the Quran in Faisalabad district of Punjab Province on April 5, in Gujranwala Mushtaq Gill and his son Farrukh Mushtaq were taken into “protective custody” on charges that the younger man had desecrated Islam’s holy book and blasphemed the religion’s prophet, Muhammad. A police official told Compass the charges were false.
Gill, an administrative employee of the Christian Technical Training Centre (CTTC) in Gujranwala in his late 60s, was resting when a Muslim mob gathered outside his home in Aziz Colony, Jinnah Road, Gujranwala, and began shouting slogans against the family. They accused his son, a business graduate working in the National Bank of Pakistan as a welfare officer and father of a little girl, of desecrating the Quran and blaspheming Muhammad.
The purported evidence against Farrukh were some burnt pages of the Quran and a handwritten note, allegedly in Farrukh’s handwriting, claiming that he had desecrated Islam’s holy book and used derogatory language against Muhammad. A Muslim youth allegedly found the pages and note outside the Gills’ residence.
Inspector Muhammad Nadeem Maalik, station house officer of the Jinnah Road police station, admitted that the charges against the accused were baseless.
“The initial investigation of the incident shows Mr. Gill and his son Farrukh are innocent,” he told Compass.
The two were kept at a safe-house, instead of the police station, out of fear that Islamist extremists might attack them; their subsequent release led to Islamic protests that compelled police to detain them anew today, sources said.
Despite police admitting that the two Christians were not guilty, a First Information Report (No. 171/2011) was registered against them under Sections 295-B and C in Jinnah Road Police Station early on Saturday (April 16).
“Yes, we have registered an FIR of the incident, yet we have sealed it until the completion of the investigation,” Inspector Maalik said, adding that the police had yet to formally arrest Gill and his son. “We registered the FIR for their own safety, otherwise the mob would have become extremely violent and things could have gone out of control.”
The police official said that after the Muslim youth made the accusation, he gathered area Muslims together.
“It seems to be a well thought-out scheme, because the perpetrators chose the time of the Friday prayers for carrying out their plan,” Maalik said. “They were sure that this news would spread quickly, and within no time people would come out of the mosques and react to the situation.”
He added that police were now inquiring of the Gills why they might suspect anyone of wanting to harm them.
“We are also looking for any signs of jealousy or old enmity,” Maalik said.
Soon after the Muslim youth found the alleged pages, announcements blared from the area’s mosques informing Muslims about the incident and asking them to gather at the “crime scene,” sources said.
There are about 300 Christian families residing in Aziz Colony, and news of the alleged desecration spread like jungle fire. Announcements from mosques sparked fear in the already shaken Christian families, and they started packing their things to leave the area, fearing the kind of carnage that ravaged Gojra on Aug. 1, 2009, killing at least seven Christians.
“It’s true…the news of the accusations against Gill and his son and the announcements being made from the mosque calling on Muslims to avenge the desecration sent shivers down our spines,” said Pastor Philip Dutt, who has known the Gill family for several years and lives in the same neighborhood. “The charges are completely baseless. I’m sure no person in his right frame of mind would even think of committing such a vile act. Someone has clearly conspired against the Gill family.”
He added that most of the area’s Christians had left their homes overnight, fearing an attack by Muslims.
Dutt said that a large police contingent arrived in time and took Gill and his son into custody after assuring the enraged mob that a case under the blasphemy laws would be registered against the two men. Police remained stationed in the area to provide protection to area Christians, but the atmosphere was tense.
According to some reports, a group of angry Muslims wanted to torch Gill’s house, but timely police intervention thwarted their plan.
At the same time, a group of Muslim extremists stormed into the house of Anwar Masih, a Christian factory owner in Aziz Colony, and started beating him and his son, sources said. The family managed to save themselves by calling the police and now they too are in “protective custody.”
The Rev. Arif Siraj, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan, which also oversees the functioning of the Christian Technical Training Centre in Gujranwala, said the accusations against Farrukh were yet another example of how the country’s blasphemy laws are misused against innocent people.
“We have been engaged with the police and local Muslim leaders throughout the day to resolve this issue amicably,” Siraj said. “An eight-member committee comprising six Muslims and two Christian pastors has been formed to probe the incident, and they will make a report on Friday.”
The names of the Christians of the eight-member committee are Pastor Sharif Alam of Presbyterian Church Ghakarmandi and the Rev. Joseph Julius.
A large number of Muslims, including members of religious parties and banned outfits, came out to the roads of Gujranwala on Saturday (April 16) to protest the alleged desecration of the Quran and pressure police to take action against Gill and his son. The protestors reportedly gelled into one large demonstration on Church Road and headed towards the CTTC. Siraj said that some participants threw stones at a church on the road, but that Muslim elders immediately halted the stone-throwing.
“The district administration and Muslim leaders have now assured us that no one will target Christian churches and institutions,” he said, adding that both communities were now waiting for the committee’s report.
Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry expressed concern over the accusations.
“This case is a classic example of how Christians and Muslims continue to be charged with blasphemy on false accusations,” he said. “Isn’t it ridiculous that the accuser is claiming that Farrukh has confessed to burning the Quran in his note and thrown the burnt pages in front of his house – what sane person would even think of saying anything against prophet Muhammad in a country where passions run so deep?”
Arif Masih, the falsely accused Christian released last night, has reportedly been relocated along with this family to a safe location.
The original blasphemy law, introduced in British India in 1860, imposed a prison term of up to two years for any damage to a place of worship or sacred object carried out “with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion…”
The current provision in the Pakistan Penal Code, as amended in 1986, introduces both the death penalty for insulting Muhammad and drops the concept of intent. According to Section 295-C of the Penal Code, “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life and shall also
be liable to fine.”
The laws have drawn condemnation across the world, and two senior government officials – Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, a liberal Muslim, and Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, have been assassinated this year for demanding a review of the legislation.
Christians call for agency to probe anti-Muslim terrorism ties to Orissa-Karnataka attacks.
NEW DELHI, March 25 (CDN) — Right-wing terrorists played a key role in attacking and killing Christians in Orissa and Karnataka states in 2008, one of the Hindu extremist suspects in anti-Muslim bomb blasts has told investigators, leading to renewed demands for a probe by India’s anti-terror agency.
Pragya Singh Thakur, arrested for planning 2008 bombings targeting Muslims in west India, told the National Investigation Agency (NIA) that Lt. Col. Prasad Srikant Purohit had “masterminded” the 2008 anti-Christian violence in Orissa and Karnataka, The Indian Express daily reported on Wednesday (March 23). Purohit is accused along with Thakur for the 2008 bombings of Muslims.
Thakur had met with Purohit after the August 2008 Kandhamal attacks against Christians began and told her “he was into big things like blasts, etc., and had masterminded the Orissa and Karnataka ‘disturbances,’” the national daily reported.
The NIA, a recently formed agency to prevent, probe and prosecute terrorism-related incidents on a national scale, is investigating several cases involving right-wing terrorism aimed at the Muslim minority in retaliation for Islamist attacks. Both Thakur, formerly a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, and Purohit, who was serving in the Indian Army when he was arrested for his role in blasts in Malegaon city in western Maharashtra state, were part of the Hindu extremist Abhinav Bharat.
Thakur’s statement to the NIA came soon after a Directorate of Military Intelligence report said Purohit had confessed to having killed at least two Christians in Kandhamal and playing a role in violence in Karnataka and other states.
The revelation by Thakur was not surprising, said John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council.
“We have held that the military precision of the Kandhamal riots, which spread fast and raged for months, could not be a work of mere common people, and that higher brains were at work to ‘teach the Christians a lesson’ while sending out signals of their power lust to the entire nation,” Dayal told Compass.
The violence in Kandhamal began following the assassination of a Hindu extremist leader Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008. Though Maoists claimed responsibility for the murder, Hindu extremists blamed Christians for it. The violence began after the arrival of Indresh Kumar, an executive committee member of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and a suspect in blast cases, said Kandhamal activist Ajay Singh. Local media reports said Kumar was part of Saraswati’s funeral procession, which was designed to trigger the attacks, Singh added.
The RSS denies having played any role in terrorism. On March 12, Ram Madhav, an RSS national executive committee member, called the allegation against Kumar “a concerted political campaign.” Those who were dragging the RSS leader into blast cases “will stand thoroughly exposed,” The Times of India daily quoted him as saying.
Dayal and another Christian leader, Joseph Dias, said they had separately written to India’s prime minister and home minister seeking inclusion of the anti-Christian attacks in an ongoing NIA investigation. Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) said he had petitioned the president for the same.
Dias, general secretary of the Catholic-Christian Social Forum, a Maharashtra-based rights group, recalled that violence in Kandhamal spread across 13 other districts of Orissa.
“In Kandhamal alone, more than 6,600 homes were destroyed, 56,000 people rendered homeless, thousands injured, and about 100 men and women [were] burned alive or hacked to death,” Dias said. “Among the women raped was a Catholic nun.”
In September 2008, as the violence continued in Kandhamal, a series of attacks on Christians and their property rocked Mangalore city in Karnataka state.
“In Karnataka, it was hundreds of churches that were desecrated, Christians brutally beaten up, over 350 false cases foisted on them, property held by the community taken over, and no relief to date [has been] received,” Dias said.
While the government of Orissa downplayed the violence as “ethnic tensions,” Karnataka officials blamed it on Christian conversions.
The RSS and outfits linked to it such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, which claims to work for tribal welfare, facilitated the Kandhamal attacks together with alleged Hindu nationalist terrorists, Dayal said.
“We want the truth about Hindu groups’ anti-national terror activities against minority Christians to come out,” said George, whose GCIC is based in Karnataka.
Dias warned that that the latest statement by Thakur must not to be seen in isolation, as the Military Intelligence report revealed that the Abhinav Bharat had targeted Christians in several states, including Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
The “game plan” is to “cripple Christian religious places, property and institutions, besides eliminating its nascent community leadership at the grassroots,” Dias added.
The Abhinav Bharat was formed in 2007 by a few right-wing Hindus allegedly disillusioned with the leaders of the Hindu nationalist movement, whom they thought were too timid to make India a Hindu nation, rather than one based on religious pluralism.
BJP assemblyman convicted in two murders in 2008 violence says he’s innocent.
NEW DELHI, January 28 (CDN) — India’s Supreme Court on Tuesday (Jan. 25) rejected the bail granted to Hindu nationalist Orissa state legislator Manoj Pradhan following his conviction in the murder of a Christian, Parikhita Nayak.
Pradhan, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was convicted on June 29, 2010 of “causing grievous hurt” and “rioting” and sentenced to seven years of prison in the murder of Nayak, of Budedi village, who died on Aug. 27, 2008. In its decision, the Supreme Court ordered the High Court to reconsider its decision to grant him bail.
Pradhan had been granted bail by the High Court on July 6 on grounds having won the April 2009 state assembly election. Contesting the election from jail, he had become a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) representing Kandhamal’s G. Udayagiri constituency. On Sept. 9, 2010 he was convicted in the murder of Bikram Nayak of Budedipada, for which he was sentenced to six years of rigorous imprisonment (see http://www.compassdirect.org, “Court in India Convicts Legislator in Second Murder Case,”
Sept. 10, 2010). He received bail within 40 days of that conviction.
Parikhita Nayak’s widow, Kanaka Rekha Nayak, had challenged the granting of bail before the Supreme Court. She pointed out in her petition that there were seven other murder cases against Pradhan, including the second conviction.
“Being an MLA was not grounds for granting of bail,” she told Compass.
Nayak’s petition also argued that, because of his position, Pradhan intimidated witnesses outside of jail. She told Compass that, after receiving bail in spite of their convictions, Pradhan and an accomplice continued to roam the area, often intimidating her.
In the Supreme Court decision, Justice B. Sudarshan Reddy and Justice S.S. Nijjaron wrote that the High Court should have taken into consideration the findings of the trial court and the alleged involvement of the respondent in more than one case.
“The [bail] order clearly reflects that the High Court was mainly impressed by the fact that the respondent is a sitting MLA,” they wrote. “In the circumstances, we find it difficult to sustain the order.”
Pradhan was accused of stopping Parikhita Nayak and then calling together a large group of persons armed with axes and other weapons, who then hacked Nayak to death; afterward they sought to dispose of the body by burning it.
Pradhan denied all charges against him, telling Compass by telephone that they were “baseless.”
“I have full faith in the judiciary system, and justice will be done,” Pradhan said, adding that he and other “innocent people” have been arrested due to political pressure and that the real culprits are at large.
On his next move, he said he would surrender himself to police custody if necessary and then file another application for bail.
Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, told Compass that he was pleased.
“Pradhan deserves to be behind bars in more than one case, and it was a travesty of justice that he was roaming around terrorizing people,” Dayal said. “He was not involved in every single act of violence, but he was the ring leader. He planned the violence; he led some of the gangs.”
Dibakar Parichha of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese told Compass that police records showed that Pradhan was a “field commander of Hindu extremists sent to kill Christians.”
The state government’s standing counsel, Suresh Tripathy, supported this week’s cancellation of bail.
Cases against Legislator
Pradhan told Compass that a total of 289 complaints were registered against him in various police stations during the August-September 2008 attacks on Christians in Kandhamal district, Orissa, out of which charge sheets were filed in only 13 cases.
Of the 13, he has been acquitted in seven and convicted in two murder cases, with six more cases pending against him – “Three in Lower Court, two in the High Court and One in the Supreme Court,” Pradhan told Compass.
Of the 13 cases, seven involved murder; of those murder cases, he has been acquitted in three.
Cases have been filed against Pradhan for rioting, rioting with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly, causing disappearance of evidence of offense, murder, wrongfully restraining someone, wrongful confinement, mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy houses, voluntarily causing grievous hurt and voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means.
Pradhan was also accused of setting fire to houses of people belonging to the minority Christian community.
The Times of India reported Pradhan as “one of the close disciples” of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) leader Swami Laxamananda Saraswati, whose assassination on Aug. 23, 2008, touched off the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal and other parts of Orissa.
Status of Trials
Expressing complete dissatisfaction in the trial system, Dayal told Compass that the two Fast Track courts are “meting out injustice at speed.”
“One of the main reasons,” he said, “is lack of police investigation, the inadequacy of the department of projections to find competent public prosecutors, and the inadequacy of the victim community to find a place in the justice process.”
As a result, he said, victims are not appropriately represented and killers are not appropriately prosecuted.
“Therefore, the two courts find enough reason to let people off,” Dayal said.
Complaints filed at a police station in Kandhamal after the violence of 2008 totaled 3,232, and the number of cases registered was 831.
The government of Orissa set up two Fast Track courts to try cases related to the violence that spread to more than a dozen districts of Orissa. The attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.
The number of violent cases in the Fast Track courts is 231 (non-violent cases numbered 46, with total cases thus reaching 277). Of the violent cases, 128 have resulted in acquittals and 59 in convictions; 44 are pending.
Of the 722 people facing trial, 183 have been convicted, while 639 have been acquitted.
Bomb explodes as Christians leave New Year’s Eve Mass.
LOS ANGELES, January 3 (CDN) — At least 21 people were killed and scores were wounded on Saturday (Jan. 1) when a bomb outside a church in Alexandria, Egypt exploded as congregants were leaving a New Year’s Eve Mass celebration.
The explosion ripped through the crowd shortly after midnight, killing instantly most of those who died, and leaving the entrance-way to the Church of the Two Saints, a Coptic Orthodox congregation, covered with blood and severed body parts.
The blast overturned at least one car, set several others on fire and shattered windows throughout the block on which the church is located.
Egyptian authorities reportedly said 20 of the victims have been identified. At least 90 other people were injured in the blast, 10 seriously. Among the injured were eight Muslims. Many of the injured received treatment at St. Mark’s Hospital.
Burial services for some of the victims started Sunday (Jan. 2) in Alexandria, located in northern Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea.
Witnesses reportedly said a driver parked a car at the entrance of the church and then ran away seconds before it exploded. Government officials have claimed they found remnants of the bomb, filled with nails and other make-shift shrapnel, at the site; they suspect an unidentified suicide bomber, rather than a car bombing.
No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the attack comes two months after an Islamic group known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) issued a threat stating that, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [Muslim fighters] wherever they can reach them.”
Claiming they would open “rivers of blood” upon Christians, the group specifically threatened Egyptian Christians based an unsubstantiated rumor that two Coptic women, both wives of Orthodox clergy, were being held against their will after converting to Islam. The statement came after ISI claimed responsibility for an attack on a Baghdad church during mass in which 58 people were killed.
The Egyptian government continues to suspect foreign elements mounted the Alexandria attack, but an unconfirmed report by The Associated Press, citing anonymous government sources, said an Egyptian Islamic group is being investigated.
Bishop Mouneer Anis, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Egypt, said in a written statement that he thinks the attack was linked to the Iraqi threats. He added that his church has taken greater security measures at its downtown Cairo location.
“We pray with all the people of Egypt, Christians and Muslims, [that they] would unite against this new wave of religious fanaticism and terrorism,” he said.
For weeks before the ISI issued its threat, Alexandria was the site of massive protests against the Orthodox Church and its spiritual leader, Pope Shenouda III. Immediately after Friday prayers, Muslims would stream out into the streets surrounding mosques, chant slogans against the church and demand the “return” of the two women. Before that, as early as June, clerics from at least one central Alexandria mosque could be heard broadcasting anti-Christian vitriol from minaret loudspeakers during prayers, instructing Muslims to separate themselves entirely from their Christian countrymen.
The Alexandria bombing comes almost a year after a shooting in Nag Hammadi, Egypt left six Christians and one Muslim security guard dead. In the Jan. 6, 2010 attack, a group of men drove by St. John’s Church, 455 kilometers (282 miles) south of Cairo, and sprayed with gunfire a crowd leaving a Coptic Christmas Eve service.
Three men were eventually charged with the shootings, but the case has yet to be resolved.
Egypt wasn’t the only place in the Middle East plagued with anti-Christian violence over the holiday season.
The day before bombers struck the Alexandria church, an elderly Christian couple in Baghdad was killed when terrorists placed a bomb outside of their home, rang the doorbell and walked away, according to media and human rights reports. The bombing happened at the same time other Christian-owned homes and neighborhoods throughout Baghdad were being attacked.
Estimates of the number of people wounded in the attacks in Iraq range from nine to more than 13.
Hindu nationalists were often politically motivated in their attacks.
NEW DELHI, December 30 (CDN) — Christians in India faced a spike in attacks in the past decade, suffering more than 130 assaults a year since 2001, with figures far surpassing that in 2007 and 2008.
This year Christians suffered at least 149 violent attacks, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI). Most of the incidents took place in just four states: two adjacent states in south India, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and two neighboring states in north-central India, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, noted EFI in its report, “Religion, Politics and Violence: A Report of the Hostility and Intimidation Faced by Christians in India in 2010.”
Of India’s 23 million Christians, 2.7 million live in the four states seen as the hub of Christian persecution. While north-central parts of the country have been tense for a decade, the escalation of attacks in southern India began last year.
This year Karnataka recorded at least 56 attacks – most of them initially reported by the Global Council of Indian Christians, which is based in the state capital, Bengaluru. Chhattisgarh witnessed 18 attacks, followed by Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh with 15 and 13 attacks respectively.
Christians are not stray incidents but are part of a systematic campaign by influential [Hindu nationalist] organizations capable of flouting law and enjoying impunity,” the EFI report said.
In 2009 there were more than 152 attacks across India, and the same four states topped the list of violent incidents, according to the EFI: 48 in Karnataka, 29 in Andhra Pradesh, 15 in Madhya Pradesh and 14 in Chhattisgarh.
Three of the four states – Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh – are ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the EFI noted that the high number of attacks on Christians in those states was no coincidence.
“While it cannot be said that the ruling party had a direct role in the attacks on Christians, its complicity cannot be ruled out either,” the report stated.
In Andhra Pradesh, ruled by centrist Indian National Congress (commonly known as the Congress Party), most attacks are believed to be led by Hindu nationalist groups.
EFI remarked that “although in 2007 and 2008 two major incidents of violence occurred in eastern Orissa state’s Kandhamal district and hit headlines in the national as well as international media, little efforts have been taken by authorities in India to tackle the root causes of communal tensions, namely divisive propaganda and activities by powerful right-wing Hindu groups, who do not represent the tolerant Hindu community.”
The violence in Kandhamal district during Christmas week of 2007 killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches, according to the All India Christian Council (AICC). These attacks were preceded by around 200 incidents of anti-Christian attacks in other parts of the country.
Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal district in August 2008, killing more than 100 people and resulting in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to the AICC.
Soon the violence spread to other states. In Karnataka, at least 28 attacks were recorded in August and September 2008, according to a report by People’s Union of Civil Liberties, “The Ugly Face of Sangh Parivar,” released in March 2009.
Before the two most violent years of 2007 and 2008, incidents of persecution of Christians had dipped to the lowest in the decade. In 2006 there were at least 130 incidents – more than two a week on average – according to the Christian Legal Association of India.
At least 165 anti-Christian attacks were reported in 2005. But from 2001 to 2004, at least 200 incidents were reported each year, according to John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC.
In 1998, Christians were targeted by the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS –India’s chief Hindu nationalist conglomerate and the BJP’s ideological mentor – when Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, Catholic by descent, became the president of India’s Congress Party. Gandhi, the wife of former Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, was seen as a major threat to the BJP, which had come to power for the first time at the federal level the same year. The Gandhi family has been popular since the Independence of India in 1947.
But Christian persecution – murder, beating, rape, false accusation, ostracism, and destruction of property – had begun spreading across the country in 2001, especially in tribal-inhabited states in central India. The attacks on Christians were apparently aimed at coaxing Sonia Gandhi to speak on behalf of Christians so that she could be branded as a leader of the Christian minority, as opposed to the BJP’s claimed leadership of the Hindu majority. Observers say it is therefore not surprising that Gandhi has never spoken directly against Christian persecution in India.
Change in Political Atmosphere
After Hindu nationalist groups were linked with bombings in late 2008, the RSS and the BJP distanced themselves from those charged with the terrorist violence. The BJP also adopted a relatively moderate ideological stand in campaigns during state and federal elections.
The BJP, mainly the national leadership, has become more moderate also because it has faced embarrassing defeats in the last two consecutive general elections, in 2004 and 2009, which it fought on a mixed plank of Hindu nationalism and development. The voters in the two elections clearly indicated that they were more interested in development than divisive issues related to identity – thanks to the process of economic liberalization which began in India in 1991.
The incidence of Christian persecution, however, remains high because not all in the BJP and the RSS leadership seem willing to “dilute” their commitment to Hindu nationalism. Especially some in the lower rungs and in the regional leadership remain hardliners.
How this ideological rift within the Hindu nationalist family will play out next year and in the coming decade is yet to be seen. There is speculation, however, that more individuals and outfits formerly connected with the RSS will part ways and form their own splinter groups.
Although politicians are increasingly realizing that religion-related conflicts are no longer politically beneficial, it is perhaps too early to expect a change on the ground. This is why none of the “anti-conversion” laws has been repealed.
Four Indian states – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh – had introduced legislation to regulate religious conversion, known as “anti-conversion” laws, before 2001, and since then three more states – Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh – brought in such laws, while two states sought to make existing laws stricter.
Anti-conversion laws are yet to be implemented, however, in Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. The anti-conversion amendment bills in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have also faced political hurdles.
Although the anti-conversion laws claim to ban conversions undertaken by force or allurement – terms that have not been defined adequately – they are commonly used to jail or otherwise harass Christians who are simply following Christ’s mandate to help the poor and make disciples. The laws also require all conversions to be reported to the authorities, failing which both convert and relevant clergy can be fined and imprisoned.
Some of these laws also require a prospective convert to obtain prior permission before conversion.
Concerns in 2011
Hard-line Hindu nationalists are seeking to create more fodder for communal conflicts and violence.
In April 2010, Hindu nationalists declared their plan to hold a rally of 2 million Hindus in Madhya Pradesh state’s Mandla district in February 2011, with the aim of converting Christians back to Hinduism and driving away pastors, evangelists and foreign aid workers from the district.
Several spates of violence have been linked to past rallies. India’s first large-scale, indiscriminate attack on Christians took place in Dangs district of Gujarat state in December 1998 after local Hindu nationalist groups organized such a rally. The violence led to mass destruction of property belonging to local Christians and Christian organizations.
Law and order is generally a responsibility of the states, but how the federal government and other agencies respond to the call for the rally in Madhya Pradesh may indicate what to expect in the coming months and years in India.
Hindu nationalists continue to oppress Christians in Kandhamal district, report says.
NEW DELHI, November 11 (CDN) — More than two years after losing relatives and property in anti-Christian violence, there is no sense of relief among survivors in India’s Orissa state, as many are still ostracized and pressured to “return” to Hinduism, according to a private investigation.
“Despite the state administration’s claim of normalcy,” the preliminary report of a fact-finding team states, “a state of lawlessness and utter fear and sense of insecurity” prevails among Christians of Kandhamal district, which saw a major anti-Christian bloodbath in 2008.
The team, consisting of local attorney Nicholas Barla and another identified only as Brother Marcus, along with rights activists Jugal Kishore Ranjit and Ajay Kumar Singh, visited four villages in three blocks of Kandhamal on Nov. 5.
In Bodimunda village in Tikabali, the team met a pastor who said he has been closely watched since Hindu extremists forced him to become a Hindu. The pastor, whose name the report withheld for security reasons, said he had to convert to Hinduism in 2008 “to save his old mother, who could not have escaped the violence as she was not in a position to walk.”
He is still closely watched in an effort to prevent him from returning to Christianity. While the attorneys and activists were still at the pastor’s house, a man who identified himself as from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, India’s most influential Hindu nationalist conglomerate) came to inquire about his visitors. The pastor felt compelled to tell them that they were “bank officials.”
In the same village, Hindu nationalists have also imposed a de facto ban on any private or public vehicle to ferry Christians or their belongings, said the report.
The team met the family of a paralyzed Christian, Bamadev Pradhan, whom auto-rickshaw drivers refused to take to a hospital when he recently ran a high fever. Eventually a Christian driver took him to the only hospital in Tikabali, around eight kilometers (nearly five miles) from his village of Bodimunda, but as the Christian was driving back, some local men confiscated his vehicle.
With the help of the auto-rickshaw union, the driver (unnamed in the report) got the vehicle released after paying a fine of 1,051 (US$24) rupees and promising that he would not transport any Christians in the future.
Another Christian said area Hindus extremists prohibited Christians from procuring basic necessities.
“We are not allowed to bring housing materials or food provisions or medicines, and nor are we allowed to buy anything from local shops,” he said. “We do not have any shop of our own. Here, we are struggling to live as human beings.”
The team also met a Hindu who had to pay 5,000 rupees (US$112) to get his tractor returned to him, as he had transported housing material for the construction of the house of a Christian.
In the house of a Christian in Keredi village in Phulbani Block, the team found a picture of a Hindu god. The resident, who was not identified in the report, explained that he had to display it in order to protect his family from harm.
The team found pictures of Hindu gods also in the house of a Christian in Gandapadar village in the Minia area, Phiringia Block. A woman in the house told the team that local Hindu nationalists had given her pictures of Hindu gods for worship.
“We have kept them, as they often come to check whether we have reconverted to Christianity,” she said.
Almost all Christians the team met complained that the local administration had done little to protect them and suspected that officials colluded with area Hindu nationalists.
Released on Nov. 8, the report asserts that Christians have been barred from taking water from a government well in Dakanaju village, under G. Udayagiri police jurisdiction in Tikabali Block. The village head, Sachindra Pradhan, has promised to take action “at the earliest,” it added.
Violence in Kandhamal and some other districts of Orissa state followed the assassination of Hindu nationalist leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008. The rampage killed over 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to estimates by human rights groups.
The spate of attacks began a day after Saraswati’s killing when Hindu nationalist groups blamed Christians for his murder, although Maoists (extreme Marxists) active in the district claimed responsibility for it.
John Dayal, a Christian activist in Delhi, told Compass that “the apparatus of 2008 remains undisturbed.” The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was part of the ruling state alliance with the regional Biju Janata Dal (BJD) party at the time of the violence. Although the BJD broke up with the BJP in 2009, blaming it for the violence, the former cannot be excused, said Dayal.
“While the BJP is mainly to be blamed, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is not entirely innocent,” Dayal said. “Not just that he allowed the BJP and RSS cadres to run amok when they were part of his government, turning a blind eye to their very visible anti-Christian activities, but he was his own home [interior] minister and cannot really shirk command responsibility for the carnage together with his BJP ministerial colleagues and senior officers.”
Kandhamal district Magistrate Krishan Kumar, who was on a tour at press time, could not be contacted for comment despite repeated attempts.
Of the 648,201 people in Kandhamal district, 117,950 are Christian, mostly Dalit (formerly “untouchables” in the caste hierarchy in Hindu societies), according to the 2001 Census. Hindus, mainly tribal people and numbering 527,757, form the majority.
Country’s religious regulatory authority expected to consider recognition before year’s end.
NEW DELHI, November 4 (CDN) — For the first time in Bhutan’s history, the Buddhist nation’s government seems ready to grant much-awaited official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.
The authority that regulates religious organizations will discuss in its next meeting – to be held by the end of December – how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, agency secretary Dorji Tshering told Compass by phone.
Thus far only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered by the authority, locally known as Chhoedey Lhentshog. As a result, only these two communities have the right to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.
Asked if Christians were likely to get the same rights soon, Tshering replied, “Absolutely” – an apparent paradigm shift in policy given that Bhutan’s National Assembly had banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions by passing resolutions in 1969 and in 1979.
“The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions,” he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one of the faiths of its citizens.
The former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned democracy in the country in 2006 – after the rule of an absolute monarchy for over a century. The first elections were held in 2008, and since then the government has gradually given rights that accompany democracy to its people.
The government’s move to legalize Christianity seems to have the consent of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is respected by almost all people and communities in the country. In his early thirties, the king studied in universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley is also believed to have agreed in principle to recognition of other faiths.
According to source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan – which would call for Christian unity in the country.
All Hindus, who constitute around 22 percent of Bhutan’s less than 700,000 people, are also represented by one legal entity, the Hindu Dharma Samudaya (Hindu Religion Community) of Bhutan, which was registered with the Chhoedey Lhentshog authority along with Buddhist organizations a year ago.
Tshering said the planned discussion at the December meeting is meant to look at technicalities in the Religious Organizations Act of 2007, which provides for registration and regulation of religious groups with intent to protect and promote the country’s spiritual heritage. The government began to enforce the Act only in November 2009, a year after the advent of democracy.
Asked what some of the government’s concerns are over allowing Christianity in the country, Tshering said “conversion must not be forced, because it causes social tensions which Bhutan cannot afford to have. However, the constitution says that no one should be forced to believe in a religion, and that aspect will be taken care of. We will ensure that no one is forced to convert.”
The government’s willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. This is why it is evoking mixed response among the country’s Christians, who number around 6,000 according to rough estimates.
Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years of prison for screening films on Christianity – which was criticized by Christian organizations around the world. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ,” Oct. 18.)
The government is in the process of introducing a clause banning conversions by force or allurement in the country’s penal code.
Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between two Asian giants, India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by not allowing social tensions or unrest.
In the 1980s, when the king sought to strengthen the nation’s cultural unity, ethnic Nepalese citizens, who are mainly Hindu and from south Bhutan, rebelled against it. But a military crackdown forced over 100,000 of them – some of them secret Christians – to either flee to or voluntarily leave the country for neighboring Nepal.
Tshering said that while some individual Christians had approached the authority with queries, no organization had formally filed papers for registration.
After the December meeting, if members of the regulatory authority feel that Chhoedey Lhentshog’s mandate does not include registering a Christian organization, Christians will then be registered by another authority, the source said.
After official recognition, Christians would require permission from local authorities to hold public meetings. Receiving foreign aid or inviting foreign speakers would be subject to special permission from the home ministry, added the source.
Bhutan’s first contact with Christians came in the 17th century when Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist leader and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state, hosted the first two foreigners, who were Jesuits. Much later, Catholics were invited to provide education in Bhutan; the Jesuits came to Bhutan in 1963 and the Salesians in 1982 to run schools. The Salesians, however, were expelled in 1982 on accusations of proselytizing, and the Jesuits left the country in 1988.
“As Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government,” writes David M. Malone, Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, in the March 2008 edition of Literary Review of Canada.
After a Christian organization is registered, Christian institutions may also be allowed once again in the country, given the government’s stress on educating young Bhutanese.
A local Christian requesting anonymity said the community respects Bhutan’s political and religious leaders, especially the king and the prime minister, will help preserve the country’s unique culture and seeks to contribute to the building of the nation.