Jewish World Review Nov. 12, 2002/ 7 Kislev, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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A counterfeit assault
on human dignity | Some of our Indian friends are making sawdust, to trace the revival route to glory. A mighty revival is heading toward the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India, and Billy Graham hasn't been anywhere in the neighborhood.

Low-caste Hindus, according to a dispatch in The Washington Times, are threatening to become Christians, Buddhists or Muslims just to protest a new law that says they have to remain Hindus, like it or not.

Some revival. Some conversions.

The new law, enacted only last month, penalizes anyone who converts to anything other than Hindu with a fine and prison. Members of the Dalits, one of the untouchable castes, rightly see this as an attempt by the government to keep them in line by telling them what to believe, and vow to defy the law. Hence the threat of wholesale embrace of the old-time religion, any old-time religion, so long as it isn't Hindu.

One group of Dalits in Chennai, the state capital formerly known as Madras, says it has 10,000 Hindus lined up to convert on Dec. 6 if the law is not revoked, and another group of resistant Dalits say they have 25,000 formerly faithful ready to become "Christians" to protest "this unjustified decree."

Says one Dalit, who has already taken the Christian name Emmanuel: "The upper class has been torturing Dalits for centuries, and now by passing this bill the government has decided to shackle us in a society where we are denied even our basic democratic rights." The director of the Roman Catholic diocese of New Delhi correctly sees the law as "an assault as much on civil rights as on human dignity."

Like so much religion in the nether regions of the Third World, this is "religion" that has nothing to do with faith and very little to do with conscience. It's all about politics, and how better to exact political control than to harness man's oldest instinct, the yearning to be at one with his Creator. This attempt in India to stifle conscience is a stark illustration of the different ways Western man and his unenlightened cousins regard faith. Western man understands that true faith is a matter between man and G-d, not subject to mortal whim, and the state might as well try to tell the wind not to blow, the storm not to anger the sea, a lover not to seek his beloved's caress, or a mother to renounce her dearest affections for her child. Governments have no power to regulate the rhythms of the human heart seeking to be in tune with its maker.

Political control is another matter, of course. Winning hearts and minds is important, as the GIs used to say in Vietnam, but if you get a good grip on the right parts of a man's anatomy, his heart and mind will promptly follow. Despots, the enemy of genuine faith, long ago discovered how to manipulate the forms of religion. Saddam Hussein, a recent convert to fanatic Islam, understands.

In fact, though the fanatic Hindu government in power in Chennai (or Madras) looks upon anyone abandoning the Hindu faith as a traitor, it's the threat of militant Islam that lies behind the enactment of the new law. The Hindu nationalist party BJP, the key element of the ruling coalition, says the law is "most necessary" because "lots of money is coming into the country from Islamic organizations to aid conversions."

Conversions to other faiths always pain the abandoned faithful. My mother winced (but said nothing) when she learned that her Baptist son was about to marry a Methodist girl, fearing (needlessly, as it turned out) that under the influence of fevered young love he would abandon the faith of his father for the faith of his bride (and, ironically, the faith of his grandfather). A close acquaintance of mine on the other side of the bayou dealt with an unusual dilemma by first telling his daddy that he had become engaged to a Catholic girl, and then, to soothe his father's anger, explained that she was actually Jewish and had only adopted the Catholic faith in her native Germany to avoid Auschwitz. "Ah," he father said, "that's not so bad." That was a long time ago, and they have lived happily ever after. We can be thankful that our children and grandchildren can hardly imagine such religious intolerance in America.

The notion that governments have a right to have a say in what anyone should hold dear in the secret places of the heart - or whether anyone should believe anything at all - is at the bottom of the West's confrontation with the Islamic satrapies of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is only the worst of the bad lot, with its executioners waiting to relieve Christian converts of their heads.

Authentic Islam may be, as its followers say it is, a religion of peace, but militant Islamism, like the militant Hindu religion in southern India, is less a religion than a political movement. The religious police in Saudi Arabia, Iran and other redoubts of intolerance are no less brutal in their enforcement of correct belief than the commissars of Stalin's Russia. Once we understand that state-enforced religion is a political order, not a religious one, everything comes clear.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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