Religion & Society: Religious Persecution
Persecution in the name of religion has occurred throughout history and continues around the globe. Expressions of persecution may be subtle and individual, such as the teasing of an Islamic child for wearing a head covering, to acute and global, such as terrorist attacks and war. The study of religious persecution is more than the study of an interesting phenomenon: It is the study of a violation of human rights. Sociologists can add to the understanding of religious persecution and aid in its reduction or elimination by helping to develop better definitions of religious persecution, investigating and articulating its antecedents, and by devising ways to neutralize religious persecution in an effort to promote world-wide human rights.
Keywords Abuse; Adiaphora; Bullying; Fundamentalism; Harassment; Heresy; Human Rights Movement; Monotheism; Orthodoxy; Pogrom; Religion; Religiosity; Religious Persecution; Validity; Xenophobia
Sociology of Religion: Religion
The paths of many religions are stained with the blood of martyrs. The Jewish prophet Isaiah, for example, is reported to have been sawn in half. The early history of the Christian Church is full of stories of people being executed in Roman arenas or burned alive for their beliefs. The Shi'ite sect of Islam follows the teachings of a martyred leader. Such examples of being persecuted for one's religion, of course, are not only extreme, but relatively rare. More recent — and perhaps more chilling — are persecutions that have turned systematic such as the Crusades of Christians against the Muslim world or the Holocaust in which Hitler tried to systematically wipe everyone of Jewish extraction off the face of the planet.
Persecution in the name of religion occurs not only in history, but also today around the globe. The harassment of an Islamic girl for wearing a hijab (traditional head covering for observant Islamic women) or of an orthodox Jewish boy for wearing a yarmulke (skull cap worn by observant Jewish males, particular of the Orthodox and Conservative sects) are contemporary examples of religious persecution on a small scale as is the prejudice shown toward a Christian in the workplace who actively tries to proselytize. All are behaving according to the tenets of their respective religions and are being mistreated because of it. Persecution of individuals and groups on the basis of religious beliefs or demonstrations of religiosity is still alive on a large scale, as the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in India, the Chinese government persecution of the Falun Gong sect, or the religious persecution of Christians in Pakistan reflect.
Religious persecution is the systematic act or practice of oppressing or harassing an individual or group by mistreating them based on their religious affiliation or practices. Individuals or groups are persecuted on the basis of their religious beliefs and practices for a number of reasons. Perhaps most obvious of these is persecution on the basis of religious ideology, doctrine, or belief. Examples of this kind of religious persecution include the persecution of Hindus by Muslims in India or the terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic extremists on the World Trade Center, the London Underground, and the U.S.S. Cole. However, intolerance and religious persecution is not only perpetrated by adherents of Islam. The Crusades are an example of religious persecution of the severest type, and was perpetrated by Christians against the Muslim world. Although some religions such as Hinduism teach tolerance and are open to the teachings of other religions, others do not. Some religions teach that there is only one way to know and please God. When groups have mutually exclusive perspectives on how this is done, conflict in the form of religious persecution is a frequent result. This particularly becomes a problem when fundamentalist sects perceive that members of another religion with opposing and mutually exclusive views are threatening their own quality of life, recognized position of being right, or even their very survival. For example, it was a fundamentalist sect of Islam that perpetrated the terrorist attacks in the West. Religious persecution not only occurs between members of different religions, it also occurs within a single religion between people holding different beliefs. Issues of orthodoxy and heresy have long been matters of great dispute within religions, as is evidenced by such examples as the Spanish Inquisition or the persecution of the Huguenots by the Catholics in France during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This type of religious persecution is often particularly confusing and disturbing to outside observers who do not understand the differences in belief for the sects or why such differences should matter.
Sometimes, however, religious persecution occurs for reasons less overtly religious. For example, sometimes religious persecution is directed toward a religious group not particularly because of its religion, but because of its ethnicity. An example of religious persecution being performed in the furtherance of xenophobia can be seen in the Holocaust and the systematic attempt at eradicating the Jews, Gypsies, and other groups considered undesirable by Hitler and many of the Nazis. In addition, persecution of religious groups can occur when the religion is seen as competition for a political system. The persecution of Christians in the former Soviet Union is one example of this kind of religious persecution. Other examples include the persecution of the Falun Gong sect in China and the persecution of Christians and Muslims in Myanmar.
The Study of Religious Persecution
Although from a scientific perspective it could be said that the study of religious persecution is of interest in its own right, the goal of such study should be not to gain understanding, but more importantly to gain understanding in order to prevent further religious persecution. The study of religious persecution is more than the study of an interesting phenomenon: It is the study of a violation of human rights. In an example of this, Martin discussed the nature of the world's three monotheistic religions in a high-level investigation of the phenomena of religious persecution and human rights (2005). Although, perhaps, to some extent it may be understandable that a religious persecution arises between groups whose belief systems are vastly different and mutually exclusive, religious persecution historically has arisen between the three major religions for as long as they have been in existence.
Historically, Judaism was the first of these religions to arise. Among other beliefs, Jews hold that Moses was the chief of all God's prophets and that religious law has not changed, and God will never pass down any other law. Originally, Christianity arose as a sect of Judaism that believed that Jesus of Nazareth was not only the long-expected Jewish Messiah, but the Son of God. The two religions soon parted ways not only on these issues, but also on the issue of the addition of other books to the canon of scripture. When Islam arose several centuries later, it departed from Christianity not only by superseding Jesus by another prophet, but by demoting him from Son of God to lesser prophet. Despite these theological differences, however, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all claim similar systems of morality, including concepts of human dignity, equality, and social justice (Martin, 2005). However, as history shows, these commonalities have been insufficient to bind the three together and much of the religious persecution of the world in the past two millennia arises out of conflicts between these three religions.
As the history of religious persecution amply demonstrates, religion can not only be a source of reconciliation and healing, but a source of prejudice and discrimination as well (Martin, 2005). As the differences between the three major monotheistic religions of the world suggests, despite their commonalities of monotheism and a belief that God communicates with humans and influences their lives and history, the differences are substantial. Religions inform not only one's spiritual belief systems, but one's moral convictions, social identity, and support systems as well. These differences range from differences in the interpretation of scripture and what constitutes the entirety of the scriptural canon to...
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