Real dangers in India, Indonesia and Brazil as the religious pendulum swings way right

Human history may be explained as a pendulum that swings, uninterrupted, between religious and political extremes that have profound consequences for those affected. Our limited time here is no different.

This metaphor for perpetual change is currently swinging to the right in much of the world. A prime reason why, is that the most recent political and religious pull to the left failed to deliver on its promises of economic justice, political equality, and, perhaps most importantly, the sense of inner security and calm craved by all.

Impatient and needy creatures that we are, such failures inevitably shift the gravitational pull that sets the pendulum in motion. When liberal (pluralistic in outlook, government and rationalism viewed as essentially positive forces) views fail us, large numbers inevitably swing to the right. A similar dynamic occurs when right-leaning ideas (top-down tribalism, traditionalist “cures” for society's ills) leave us dissatisfied and feeling threatened.

The hope is always the same, of course; finding a quick, earthly salvation that gets us through the day.

In recent days, several elite media stories about events in India, Indonesia and Brazil have illustrated the problematic impacts of the current global shift to the right. (I’m covering lots of ground here so rather than use wordy block quotes, please click on the links provided to better understand my point.)

All concern religious freedom issues. All illustrate how religious, and ethnic, minorities have been treated miserably by majorities who use religious and political dominance to trample the rights of the powerless.


You could argue that none of this is new, that it’s just more of the pendulum at play. And you’d be correct.

But I cite them here not because they're new under the sun, but simply as a reminder that the human desire to dominate those who are different -- religiously or otherwise -- continues to wreak havoc on the weakest among us. And also as a reminder that the news media, at its best, is our primary tool for pointing out this human shortcoming In real time.

As a Jew, both ethnically and religiously (though liberal in my practice), and as a journalist, I find such reminders of utmost importance. Anti-Semitism is ever present, ever a danger for me and must be reported. However, anti-Semitism is by no means the only model for the oppression that religious minorities suffer.

Of the stories cited in this post, those out of India are arguably the most horrific.

There, a girl -- a mere child of 8 -- was raped repeatedly and then murdered in an alleged attempt to intimidate her nomadic Muslim tribe into evacuating an area that right-wing Hindu nationalists want all for themselves.

Here’s how one New York Times news piece reported the situation; it's an unsettling read.

A second Times story noted how members of India’s ruling, hardline-nationalist (read populist?) Hindu party has apparently sought to minimize the crime and even stop its prosecution.

(It should be noted that India has about 172 million Muslims, a far from insignificant number. But Hindus account for about 80 percent of the population, or about a billion people. Stories of right-wing Hindu nationalists taking advantage of their overwhelming political power are legion. The Indian conflict with Muslim Pakistan, of course, inflames the situation, as does the current uptick in global Islamic terrorism.)

(Also not to be overlooked is how Hinduism’s patriarchal social structure has devalued India’s women to the point today where rape is rampant, even of pre-adolescents, and even without political motivations. This, despite Indian women having served in the nation’s highest political offices and the value ascribed to the female creative force -- the ability to give birth -- in Hindu theology.)

A second Indian storyline in recent days was covered by The Atlantic, which has so upped its coverage of international religion issues that, I think, it's now a must-read for religion-concerned journalists and news consumers.

This piece is about India’s Dalits, as low-class Hindus, formerly known as Untouchables, are now called. It centers on what Dalits have done for many decades: leave Hinduism for another faith to escape their religiously proscribed place at the bottom of Indian Hindu society.

It's why some have become Christians, and why others have become Buddhists, though not all of them traditional Buddhists, in the religious sense. Please read the story to learn how these conversions are more about gaining greater social and political standing than traditional Buddhist religious beliefs.

Granted, this is an intra-religious problem. However that does not disqualify this story from being another example of religious discrimination against the powerless. It's akin to the example of antebellum white Southerners converting their black slaves to Christianity, and then denying them equal worship and legal rights.

My Indonesian story is also courtesy of the New York Times. This one’s about how Indonesia’s increasingly intolerant Muslim majority -- the nation has the world’s largest Muslim population -- fails to back the religious and political freedoms of one of its smallest religious minorities, those who still follow the archipelago’s pre-Islamic and indigenous tribal belief systems. This despite a high court ruling to the contrary.

Indonesia’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government recognizes only six faiths -- Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism and Confucianism. Note that they all came to Indonesia from abroad, which means they have powerful constituencies elsewhere, unlike the indigenous faiths

In November, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court affirmed the rights of followers of the traditional belief systems, of which there are hundreds. They're generally lumped together as “aliran kepercayaan,” and combine indigenous animist beliefs with added aspects adopted over time from Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

The government has, to date, simply ignored the court ruling because of opposition to it from hardline Muslims. Aliran kepercayaan believers have faced decades of unofficial discrimination that makes it difficult for them to get permits to open gathering places, obtain marriage licenses, and get access to public services like health care and education. It also complicates efforts to get military, police or civil service jobs, or even burial plots.

My last example, from Brazil, concerns a story that my GetReligion colleague Julia Duin, posted about just yesterday. Her post ran under the headline: “WSJ pins Brazil's swing to right on evangelicals, but the truth may be more complex

More complex? Yes indeed, including Brazil’s recent history of colossal left-wing political corruption, wasted wealth, out-of-control crime, and other such factors that get the old pendulum moving.

So who’s a possible political savior? According to the Wall Street Journal piece Julia dissected, it's the politically and religiously conservative front runner in the nation’s upcoming presidential election.

He's a self-styled evangelical who spouts traditional family values while having had three wives, talks admiringly of Brazil’s brutal 1964-1985 military junta, dismisses the rights of Brazil's many indigenous tribes in support of further exploiting the Amazon rain forest, and has backers, such as one quoted by the Journal, who favor curtailing  “human rights nonsense.” (Does this candidate remind you of anyone?)

Candidate Jair Messias Bolsonaro (his middle name translates as “ messiah") has also been criminally charged with “racism” by his nation’s top prosecutor. If convicted, he could face a three-year term.

I’ll stop now.

Finally, you may be thinking.

Except for reiterating my hope that you’ll read the stories I’ve linked to for a fuller understanding of my argument here, which may be summed up as, be careful what you wish for. Always.

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