Pakistani Hindus: Hopeless, Homeless, Stateless

By Raafiya Ali Khan
Staff Writer

The rise of Hindu nationalism in India has not failed to create headlines in the global community. Presently, the largest political proponent of Hindu nationalism is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP was founded in 1951 by a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a far-right Hindu supremacist organization. As the principal political wing of the RSS, the BJP acts in accordance with its principles, striving toward the RSS’s ultimate goal: the recreation of India as a strictly Hindu nation. With the BJP currently in power, the rise of Hindu nationalism has become a source of much contention between Hindus and other religious minorities in India. The BJP’s divisive rhetoric has led to increased Hindu nationalism in the country, which has sparked violence against the country’s minorities. Mob lynchings of minorities, particularly Muslims, for consuming or even transporting beef—sacred to Hindus—has skyrocketed since the BJP has gained power. Instead of quelling citizens’ fears and denouncing these horrendous acts, the BJP has welcomed these violent symbols of support, throwing celebrations and garlanding those committing these acts of terror. Bolstered by acts such as these, the BJP has continued its efforts to homogenize India, framing the country as a haven and homeland for Hinduism and its followers, strikingly similar to Israel’s self-proclamation as a Jewish homeland.

Continue reading “Pakistani Hindus: Hopeless, Homeless, Stateless”

ÁSATRÚARFÉLAGIÐ: A NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENT IN ICELAND

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By Omkar Mahajan
Editor-in-Chief

I’ve always been fascinated with Vikings since I was little. It was the Norse mythology and religion that piqued my curiosity. The Norse polytheistic religion was widespread throughout Scandinavia and Northern Europe from the 8th to 11th centuries. Afterwards, the religion died out and was replaced by Christianity. Recently, the Norse religion has abruptly seen a resurgence in Iceland. This is due to the efforts of the organization Ásatrúarfélagið, which promotes Asatru, or Norse pantheism.

A Brief History
Of course, it’s essential to ascertain some context and discuss a brief saga of the Vikings and their religion. The Norse religion was a polytheistic religion with numerous deities and the vikings were a seafaring people who lived in what is now modern day Scandinavia. There are stories of gods such as Thor and Odin who fought battles with demons and monsters and legendary heroes like Ragnar Lodbrok and Bjorn Ironside who conquered neighboring kingdoms. The Sagas illuminate the history of the creation of the Norse kingdoms.

While it is debatable whether heroes like Ragnar Lodbrok and Bjorn Ironside actually existed, no one can deny the ferocity of the myths and legends that portrayed them. Later Sagas extrapolate the exploits of real life individuals such as explorers Erik the Red and Leif Eriksson who were were the first Europeans to venture to the Americas. Erik the Red founded the first Norse Settlement on the American continent by establishing a colony on modern-day Greenland. His son, Leif Eriksson, reached as far south as Canada and established minor settlements there although none of them were permanent. The Vikings were efficacious seafaring voyagers.

However, it wasn’t until modern times that history books finally attributed Leif Eriksson with the distinction of the first European to reach the Americas. Until then, most people believed that it was Christopher Columbus who traversed to the Americas before any other European. Nonetheless, religion and mythology played a huge defining rule in the culture of the Vikings. In fact, the decline of the Norse religion is generally considered to be the end of the Viking era as that was when the Scandinavian kingdoms formally adopted Christianity. Despite this, I was astounded and intrigued to learn that recently in Iceland, there has been a sudden revival in the Norse religion coupled with a marked decline in Christianity.

Ásatrúarfélagið Today
Iceland, for the first time in centuries, is now officially worshipping Norse gods again. The last time Norse gods such as Odin, Thor and Frigg were worshipped was 973 years ago when Iceland formally converted to Christianity. Ásatrúarfélagið, an Icelandic religious organization promoting faith and belief in the Norse gods, is the association behind the sudden rise in worship of these deities. It’s high priest, Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, was able to raise sufficient funds and permission from the Icelandic government to construct the first Norse worshipping temple in over a 1000 years. As many people in Iceland are turning away from organized religions such as Christianity and are instead approaching atheism or embracing non-Abrahamic faiths such as Buddhism, the Norse religion is expected to see a rise in membership as people leave the Christian church.

I’ve often wondered what the early interactions between the polytheistic Vikings and the monotheistic Christians were. Movies, literature, and media forms have regularly illustrated such interactions between the two groups as violent and gory based on differences in principle. While we can only speculate what exactly occurred during their encounters, some professors believe that misunderstandings and confusions were common and rather the root cause of conflict instead of simply a difference in belief being the catalyst for violence. Indeed, it’s likely that early Christian missionaries and officials who first confronted the Norse religion aptly interpreted the Norse gods as demonic beings and deemed the Vikings as people that needed to be saved.

Professor of Theology from Emory University, Luke Timothy Johnson, highlighted his viewpoints regarding relations between Christians and the Vikings in a statement to the news forum, Big Think.

Christian mission has always positioned itself as a rescue operation, that people were in desperate straits, were indeed under the influence of demons. … It is impossible to read the reflections of Marcus Aurelius … and not recognize a profound mode of religious expression. … It is impossible … not to recognize that [paganism] is the furthest thing possible from the demonic. It is indeed a form of religious expression from which we can learn much, and at the very least we need to respect,” Johnson argued.

Although there is some credence to his argument, I respectfully disagree with some of his points. First, I don’t necessarily agree that Christian mission was always a rescue operation. If you don’t believe me, you can easily flip through a standardized history textbook and discover numerous instances of Christian conquerors forcibly mass converting thousands of native peoples, such as the Native Americans, to Christianity under the pretense that they were being saved. However, I do agree that the Norse religion, or paganism as he refers to it, was not demonic. If we are to believe his statements, it makes sense that some people who witnessed another group of people practicing an ideology that they thought was morally wrong, would try to save them, even though their idea of saving them is drastically and divergently different from our definition today.

Skeptical Viewpoints and Criticism Regarding Ásatrúarfélagið
Of course, as I heard more about this rise of this Norse religion in Iceland, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was an actual religion actually being reestablished or if this was just a publicity stunt. I even wondered if it could have been something even worse, such as a cult. My suspicions were later put to rest when I further read that the Norse temple that was completed a few months ago, actually hosts wedding ceremonies and funerals. Additionally, Ásatrúarfélagið has been in existence since the 1970s. If you want more proof, then consider the fact that membership has tripled since its founding and now numbers a few thousand. While that may sound small, keep in mind that Iceland only has a population around 330,000. Furthermore, Ásatrúarfélagið is also a member of the European Congress of Ethnic Religions.[1]

Despite this, there have been sharp criticisms of this new religious movement. First, the religion lacks a fixed theology and dogma and many of the priests and religious officials active in the movement have adopted a pantheistic worldview. Moreover, there is no head religious official and members are not expected to follow any religious authority. Also, it has a checkered history. In the 1970s, some members held white supremacist beliefs and tried to incorporate elements of Nazism into this developing religious movement. One such member, Þorsteinn Guðjónsson, attempted to incorporate his beliefs of racial superiority and advance platforms of antiabortion and immigration reduction into the organization.[2] Additionally, literary folk scholar and Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Chicago, Stefanie von Schnurbein, characterized the group as a “mix of individualistic anarchists, atheistic church opponents, and racist spiritualists.”[3] Thus, one can lucidly see abundant negativities to this program.

Ásatrúarfélagið: A Progressive Movement?
In response to these criticisms, many members describe the organization as a movement with more of a spiritual focus than religious and that it doesn’t necessarily dispute other religious beliefs. The leader of the organization, Hilmarsson, explained in a statement to Reuters how the movement isn’t necessarily religious but rather focuses more on the elements of nature and the human mind instead.“I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet. We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology,” Hilmarsson said.

Furthermore, in regards to racist individuals being present in this movement, I later found that Þorsteinn Guðjónsson and others like him were actually a minority in this organization and were unable to advance their racial theories and political beliefs in the movement so they subsequently left and formed reactionary far-rightwing fringe parties.[4] Finally, Icelandic anthropologist, María Erlendsdóttir, disputed and called into question Schnurbein’s claims by arguing that Schnurbein’s sample size was too small to reach any conclusion. According to Erlendsdóttir, Schnurbein only interviewed two members of this movement.[5] In her own book about Norse beliefs, she criticized Schnurbein’s conclusions arguing that “the heavy accusations of von Schnurbein contradict certain clues that Ásatrúarfélagið has an open mind to people of other cultures and races.”[6]

Erlendsdóttir does have a point about Ásatrúarfélagið being open minded. In fact, in a drastic contrast to most other organized forms of religion,  Ásatrúarfélagið has often supported and promoted progressive political issues. It has been instrumental in environmentalist protection clauses, has fought for same-sex marriage, and has argued for the separation of church and state. For instance, when Sigurjón Þórðarson, a member of this organization, was elected to the parliament in 2003, he stated his views that religion and state must be kept separate from each other.[7] Evidently, this movement is indeed openminded and progressive which makes it unique when contrasted with other religions.

Conclusion
After reading up on this religious movement, I’ve come to the conclusion that Ásatrúarfélagið carries more of a spiritual focus with a pantheistic worldview that honors the Norse gods rather than utilizing an organized doctrine and theology. Nevertheless, it is very enthralling since its membership increased in recent years, it has promoted progressive causes, has an interesting history, and renewed interest in the Viking sagas. While it is still early to tell whether this will be a lasting religious movement for a long time or just a loosely collected organization that will last only a few decades, it will be fascinating to see its course and progress in the future. Regardless of what path it takes, it has ensured that Norse mythology and Vikings will continue to live in our imaginations.

Photo by Artiom P

[1] Judith Schlehe and Evamaria Sandkuhler, Religion, Tradition and the Popular: Transcultural Views from Asia and Europe (Bielefeld: Verlag, 2014), 270.
[2] Pétur Pétursson, Asasamfundet på Island och massmedia. (Religionssociologiska institutet, 1985), 27.
[3] Stefanie von Schnurbein, Religion als Kulturkritik: Neugermanisches Heidentum im 20. (Jahrhundert: Winter, 1992), 181.
[4] Pétursson, Asasamfundet, 27
[5] María Erlendsdóttir. Pagan Beliefs in Modern Iceland. (University of Edinburgh, 2001), 27
[6] Erlendsdóttir, Pagan, 28
[7] Michael Strmiska, Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives (Religion in Contemporary Cultures), (ABC-CLIO, 2003), 170.

FREEDOM OF RELIGION: FAR FROM FREE

By Lauren Lam
Staff Writer

For most of us in the western world, we are fortunate enough to enjoy freedom of religion. Nonetheless, even in western countries where the ability to practice one’s religion is supposedly a fundamental “freedom”, individuals’ experiences in these countries suggest otherwise. In Canada, a country with a history of respecting religious freedom, as stated in the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, one can still find contemporary examples of individuals facing religious discrimination. Last November alone saw the end of a lengthy court battle between Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani immigrant living in Ontario, and the Canadian federal government over her right to wear a niqab while taking the Canadian citizenship oath. Meanwhile, in France, where there is an official state policy of complete state secularism, or laïcité, different religious groups still tend to have different experiences when it comes to practising their religion. Under laïcité, all religious education is banned in public schools, and following the Charlie Hebdo killings, the French government issued a decree restating this ban. However, many argue that this decree disproportionately targets schools in Muslim-dominated suburbs.

Both of these examples involve injustices towards Muslim individuals. These injustices occur in the context of a series of recent radical Islamic terrorist attacks, such as those orchestrated by the Islamic State in Brussels, Paris, and San Bernardino, leading towards a greater trend of Islamophobia. A key question hence becomes: are these injustices a direct result of Islamophobia, or do they reflect a genuine and legitimate fear of compromising security for the sake of freedom of religion? Even further, if freedom of religion inherently conflicts with state security, how can these two ideals be effectively balanced?

Canada’s national identity largely rests on its multiculturalism and the idea of a cultural mosaic, as opposed to the American cultural “melting pot.” In 2011, Canada had a foreign-born population of approximately 6,775,800 people, or 20.6% of the total population, which is the highest proportion of foreign-born of all the G-8 countries. Additionally, 19.1% of the total Canadian population identified as a visible minority according to the 2011 census. With such a high proportion of the population born in foreign countries and/or representing minority groups, it would seem natural that the Canadian government and Canadian citizens would have a great deal of respect for different cultures, languages, ethnicities, and religions.

So how can the Canadian government’s 2011 ban on wearing niqabs in citizenship ceremonies be explained? Such headscarves are worn by Muslim women around the world as a display of modesty and a representation of their faith. The individual involved in the court case against the federal government, Ms. Ishaq, willingly unveiled in front of the official administering the citizenship test she wrote and passed back in 2013. She took issue however when she was told she needed to unveil publicly for the ceremony. When Ishaq brought a lawsuit against the former Conservative federal government, she not only won in Federal Court, but again in the Federal Court of Appeal, before the government brought the case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in an attempt to reinstate the ban. According to Attorney Colin R. Singer, the ban on niqabs was unnecessary and only came about “simply because the niqab did not please the [former Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney]”.

It is understandable that headscarves such as niqabs, which cover all of the face except the eyes, come with related security concerns. It may be difficult to verify the identity of individuals wearing them. However, this would be more of a concern for places such as airports, and even then there are alternative solutions. Many have proposed that women wearing niqabs and other headscarves could unveil in a private room with a female officer rather than in public as to best respect their religious beliefs. This alternative would also be possible for citizenship. Nonetheless, the Conservative government insisted that niqabs inhibited judges from recognising people taking the citizenship oath and still refused to consider holding separate ceremonies with female judges for women wearing niqabs. A common sentiment among Muslim women is that it is acceptable and reasonable to ask women to unveil to verify their identity, but it should not be expected in ceremonies because there is no inherent risk. When Zunera Ishaq was finally able to take the citizenship oath on Oct. 9, 2015, she unveiled for an official prior to the ceremony to confirm her identity.

Headscarves that cover individuals’ faces do pose unique security challenges. However, accommodations can be made which mitigate these security challenges, and the security threat is often overstated by those who are less open to different religions and cultures. The previous Conservative administration under Stephen Harper was much stricter in regards to religious freedom, while the new Liberal Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould withdrew the government’s appeal shortly after coming into office. Hopefully this marks a new period of better balancing state security with religious freedom in Canada.

France is another country with a long history of religious equality. However, official and unofficial policy regarding religion in France is very different from that in Canada and cannot truly be called “religious freedom”. Whereas the Canadian government tends to favour openness to all religions, the French government tries to treat all religions equally by placing quite serious restrictions on the practice of all religions. This concept of laïcité has a long history dating as far back as the French Revolution and the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man. According to laïcité there is a complete separation of church and state, which means that French citizens cannot be educated about religion or wear “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools.

In 2004 a French bill was passed which banned conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. However, it has been clarified that this does not prevent individuals from wearing headscarves and other religious symbols in public places, universities, and private schools. The argument behind this bill is that France is a neutral society where people of many different religions must coexist, making integration a key issue. This becomes even more difficult considering France has the largest Muslim minority in Europe in addition to the world’s second largest Jewish minority. Eliminating such religious symbols is intended to aid individuals who are members of minority groups in assimilating into French society.

Two key concerns arise from this. First and foremost, is a policy of complete neutrality desirable if it inhibits the freedom of individuals to practice their religion? Secondly, is this law applied evenly for all religions?

According to Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, laïcité is about allowing individuals to have whatever beliefs, or lack of beliefs, they want, and public institutions should be completely neutral to them as a result. However, it is difficult to comprehend how this policy leads to religious openness when there are cases such as June 2014, when a top appeals court ruled that a private nursery was reasonable in firing an employee who refused to remove her Muslim headscarf in the workplace.

A second problem with this policy is its uneven application. Even if such a policy were to be beneficial for French society in theory, it is not beneficial when it disproportionately affects various religious groups. For example, Ascension, a Catholic holiday, still remains public despite the official separation of church and state. There have also been several reported instances where mothers of schoolchildren are prevented from participating in school trips because they choose to wear a hijab, yet other mothers wearing visible crosses are allowed to participate in the same outings. Furthermore, in April 2011, another law was passed which prohibited headscarves which cover the face in public. It appears that while the French government maintains an official policy of state neutrality, it unfairly targets Muslim women wearing headscarves.

The French policy of laïcité is well-intentioned; integration and security are important. Nonetheless, the policy has been manipulated by people in all aspects of French society to unfairly target Muslims. Like in Canada, the French government should revisit its stance on religious symbols and garments such as the niqab and hijab. After all, freedom of religion is one of the most fundamental human rights and must be protected for everyone, not just a select few.

Photo by tamara_cox1