The world has never been so interconnected and interdependent as at present times, thanks to the constant movement and flow of information, people, capital, technology, ideas, cultural patterns and lifestyle. Modern information and communication technologies, which are the lifeline of globalisation, have broken the barriers of time and space and have thereby transformed the global scenario. They have facilitated extensive interaction and exchange among people from different national, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Before the invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition forces, millions of people across large parts of the world, especially in Europe and North America, held huge protest rallies and demonstrations against the war. One of the important factors that helped mobilise such an unprecedented surge of humanity was the extensive use of emails and mobile phone messages.
Some commentators argue that the Internet is generating “social capital”—in the form of networks, norms and social trust that facilitate cooperation and coordination among citizens who share common social concerns and commitments. There are more than 5000 transnational NGOs, most of whom coordinate their activities and programmes through the Internet. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) has electronically joined hands with non-governmental organisations working for the ban on landmines. By 1999 the ICBL became a coalition of more than 1300 NGOs that was able to put pressure on 89 countries to ratify the Land Mine Treaty. It won the Nobel Prize for its sustained efforts.
Technology as a handmaiden of hate
Unfortunately, modern information and communication technologies are being increasingly used to spread a message of hate and demonisation. These technologies, especially web 2.0 features such as blogs, social networks, websites and instant messaging, are being used by racist and neo-Nazis groups in Western countries to spread anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism and xenophobia. Social network sites such as MySpace and Facebook and the video-sharing site YouTube are being used by extremist groups to spread a message of hate against minorities and immigrants. On YouTube there are thousands of hate videos that are uploaded with messages of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and intolerance towards minority groups. In a sense, the abuse of modern information and communication technologies is creating a virtual community of hate.
“MySpace, Facebook and YouTube are the “killer apps” of the Internet today, and they are used by millions, but the virus of hate certainly has infected these technologies”, Christopher Wolf, chair of the International Network Against Cyber-Hate (INACH), told the Global Summit on Internet Hate Speech, hosted by the French embassy in Washington, DC on November 17-18,2008.
Information technology and Islamophobia
Modern information and communication technologies, including the Internet, videos and films, are being increasingly used to disseminate hate against Islam and Muslims.
A Dutch film maker, Theo van Gogh, made a film called Submission, which was aired on Dutch television in the summer of 2004. The film opens with a prayer and then presents the stories of four Muslim women telling God about the abuse (including incestuous rape) they have suffered at the hands of Muslim men. The film shows semi-nude images of women with verses from the Quran inscribed on their naked bodies. The film quite explicitly conveys the message that Islam has nothing positive to offer to women, that their abuse and humiliation is legitimised by the Quran. Understandably, the film created a great deal of anger and resentment among Muslims in the Netherlands. Despite their protests, there was no move to ban the film. On November 2, 2004, a Dutch Muslim of Moroccan origin stabbed Theo van Gogh to death.
The far-right Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands has persistently demanded a halt to all immigration in the country, a ban on the building of mosques and Islamic schools and on veils worn by Muslim women. Geert Wilders, a leader of the party, has called Islam “the ideology of a retarded culture” and the “enemy of freedom”. He has carried out a vicious campaign against the Quran, comparing it to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and demanding a ban on it in the Netherlands. He said in an article in a Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant: “I’ve had enough of the Quran in the Netherlands: Ban that fascist book”. Wilders has said that if Muslims wish to stay on in the country they should tear up half of their holy book. He says Europe is in danger of being “Islamised” and that there would soon be more mosques than churches in the country. Wilders argues that the Quran is “an inspiration for intolerance, murder and terror” and that the “Islamic ideology has as its utmost goal that destruction of what is most dear to us, our freedom”. YouTube is currently running an interview with Wilders, in which he persistently refers to the Qu’ran as “this fascist book” and to Islam as “the wrong ideology”.
Wilders made a short film “Fitna” in March 2008, which shows certain verses from the Quran, interspersed with media clips and newspaper clippings showing acts of violence and terrorism by Muslims. The film also reproduces a caricature of the Prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban (published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2006) and footage of the September 11 attacks on the US, the Madrid train bombing and the terrorist attack on London. The film conveys the message that Islam encourages acts of violence and terrorism, anti-Semitism and violence against women. Wilders described the film as “a call to shake off the creeping tyranny of Islamisation”. As Robert Fisk has observed, “the film is crass in its presentation, crude and vulgar in its message” (The Guardian, February 11, 2009).
All mainstream television channels in the Netherlands refused to air the film. On March 27 Fitna was released on the video-sharing website Liveleak in Dutch and English versions. The next day, Liveleak removed the film from their servers, citing serious threats to their staff. It can be seen on the Internet on the sister channel to Wikipedia, Wikileak.
Islam: What the West Needs to Know is a documentary film premiered at the American Film Renaissance Festival in Hollywood on January 15, 2006 and was also distributed on the web. The film argues that Islam is a violent religion and that Islamic violence is enshrined in the teachings of the Prophet and that the Quran sanctions and prescribes violence against non-Muslims.
Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West
A controversial hate film Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West was made by the New York-based Clarion Fund in 2006. An unnamed Canadian Jewish businessman provided nearly 80 per cent of the film’s $400,000 budget. The film portrays Islam as posing a threat to Western civilization and compares the Islamic threat with that of Nazism before World War II. The film features scenes of Muslim children being urged to become suicide bombers, interspersed with incendiary and demonising commentary on Islam.
The film was initially promoted via the Internet and later through screenings at various university campuses in the US. It was also distributed at Jewish synagogues and Christian churches across the country. Parts of the movie were shown on CNN and Fox News. Some newspapers, including the New York Times, distributed nearly 145,000 DVDs of the film. About 28 million DVDs of the film were freely distributed by direct mail and through more than 70 American newspapers in 10 key electoral swing states just before the 2008 presidential elections.
A US Muslim advocacy group, the Council for American-Islamic Relations, has sought an investigation by the Federal Election Commission about the Clarion Fund that distributed the DVDs of the film. The Council said the Clarion Fund could be a front for an Israel-based group, which sought to help John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate. The Patriot News of Harrisburg reported that the Clarion Fund’s website ran a pro-McCain article before it attracted notice and was taken down. The Council has asked the Federal Election Commission to investigate whether the Clarion Fund violated election rules governing the contributions of charitable organisations and foreign nationals to a presidential campaign.
The Clarion Fund’s website (www.radicalislam.org) explicitly backed the Republican presidential candidate John McCain and said: “McCain’s policies seek to confront radical Islamic extremism and terrorism and roll it back, while Obama’s, although intending to do the same, could in fact make the situation facing the West even worse”.
|‘War on terror’ was a mistake
The so-called “war on terror”, launched by the Bush administration in the wake of the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, has failed to stem terrorist attacks around the world and has in fact increased the threat of global terrorism. A survey carried out by the BBC Radio in 2006 revealed that most people in 33 out of 35 countries around the world believed that the American-led war in Iraq has increased the threat of global terrorism.
The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, wrote an article in the Guardian on January 15, 2009, saying the use of the phrase “war on terror” as a Western rallying cry since the September 11 attacks on the US has been a mistake and that it has caused “more harm than good”. Miliband said the war on terror was misconceived and misleading and that the West cannot “kill its way out of the threat it faces”. “The whole strategy has been dangerously counterproductive, helping otherwise disparate groups find common cause against the West”, Mr Miliband wrote.
British officials quietly stopped using the term “war on terror” in 2006, but this is the first time it has been comprehensively denounced and discarded by a British minister. Mr Miliband argued that “the war on terror implied a belief that the correct response to the terrorist threat was primarily a military one—to track down and kill a hardcore of terrorists”. But he quotes an American commander, General David Petraeus, saying the Western coalition in Iraq “could not kill its way out of the problems of insurgency and civil strife”. He goes on to say that “democracies must respond to terrorism by championing the rule of law, not subordinating”. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009jan/15/war-on-terror-miliband).
Since Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI four years ago, he has been embroiled in one controversy after another. In many ways, he has moved away from the path of reform and inter-faith dialogue and reconciliation initiated by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65), initially convened by Pope John XXIII and carried forward by Pope John Paul II, has come to symbolize the Catholic Church’s openness to the modern world. The 16 documents enacted at the Council include the greater involvement of laypersons in church affairs, the use of vernacular languages in the Mass in place of Latin, the desirability of dialogue with other faiths, especially with Judaism and Christianity, and the absolution of Jews from the collective guilt of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. The Council issued a document “Nostra Aetate”, which repudiated, for the first time, the long-held belief that Jews collectively bear the guilt for killing Jesus Christ.
In his autobiographical “Milestones”, Cardinal Ratzinger criticised the Second Vatican Council. In 1964 Pope John Paul II established the Office for Non-Christian Affairs at the Vatican to study diverse religious traditions, provide resources and promote inter-religious dialogue through education. Unlike Pope John, who was a great supporter of inter-faith dialogue (and was the first pope to step into a mosque in 2000 years), Pope Benedict does not think much of inter-faith dialogue. In 2006 Benedict downgraded the Vatican’s Council for Interreligious Dialogue, which dealt mainly with the Muslim world.
In July 2007, Pope Benedict authorised a document which stated that Protestants did not form “churches in the real sense”, which caused a good deal of resentment among Protestant churches. Official relations between the Vatican and Protestant churches have been frosty since Benedict took over the papacy.
During the past four years, there has been a continuous decline in the numbers of pilgrims appearing on St Peter’s Square. Last year, 2.2 million people attended the pope’s Wednesday audiences, one million less than in the previous two years.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel wrote in an article on February 5, 2009 that a conservative and sycophantic lobby has formed around Pope Benedict, with considerable influence to manipulate policy. The lobby includes members of groups like Opus Dei, the Legion of Christ, the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter and the Society of St Pius X. When it comes to rapprochement with other religions, this lobby delays pending decisions.
Wolfgang Thierse, a Catholic German politician, thinks Benedict’s gaffes come from his isolation. “The pope’s faux pas and blunders show that he takes decisions on his own. In theological terms, he lives in a separate world, the world of old church fathers who shaped him. This is why he barely notices the historical and political context (http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,druck-605542,00.html).
Pope Benedict’s Islamophobic speech
One of the first signs of Pope Benedict’s departure from the reconciliatory approach of Pope John Paul II was the removal from office, at his instance, of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who was heading a Vatican department that promoted dialogue with other religions. A distinguished scholar on Arab and Muslim affairs, Fitzgerald was an acknowledged expert on the Islamic world and on Christian-Muslim relations. The decision by Benedict to remove Fitzgerald from his post and to send him to Egypt as papal nuncio was widely seen as a demotion.
In his speech on September 12, 2006 at the University of Regensburg in southern Germany, where he had once taught, Pope Bebedict quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos, as saying (to a Muslim scholar): Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.
The pope’s controversial remarks, which were immediately flashed on television screens across the world by the Western media, created a huge uproar in the Muslim world. Muslim leaders and Islamic organisations denounced the pope and accused him of slandering Islam and the Prophet and attempting to rekindle the fires of the crusades. Morocco withdrew its ambassador to the Vatican, calling the pope’s comments offensive. The New York Times wrote in an editorial on September 17, 2006 that Pope Benedict must issue a “deep and persuasive apology” for the quote in his speech. “The world listens carefully to the words of any pope. And it is tragic and dangerous when one sows pain, either deliberately or carelessly”, the paper wrote.
Rev Daniel A. Madigan, Rector of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said: “You clearly take a risk using an example like that. Certainly the pope closes the door to an idea which was very dear to Pope John Paul II—the idea that Christians, Jews and Muslims have the same God and have to pray together to the same God”.
Pope Benedict quoted the Byzantine emperor’s statement from a doctoral thesis written by a Catholic theologian, Theodore Khoury, in 1966. A couple of weeks after the incident, Khoury got a letter from the Vatican, saying the pope had not expected such a vehement reaction. Khoury, who has translated the Quran and has been working with Islamic scholars for decades, said, “Benedict could have done without the quote. It would have been better”.
Faced with worldwide protests from Muslims, Pope Benedict tendered a personal—albeit half-hearted—apology for his remarks on September 17.
Pope Benedict again offended the sentiments of Muslims by publicly baptising a Muslim during the Easter vigil Mass in St Peter’s Basilica in 2008, which was shown on television across the world and became a source of serious consternation in the Islamic world.
Christianity and anti-Semitism
Anti-Semitism permeates the history of Christianity. The Apostle Paul wrote about the Jews “who killed Lord Jesus and the prophets, who have persecuted us, and who please neither God nor any group of people”. In the late 11th century, Pope Urban II urged Christians to liberate the Holy Land, which prompted thousands of people from France and Germany to join the crusading expedition. But instead of travelling to Jerusalem to free the Holy Land from the infidel (Muslims), the crusaders descended on the Jews living in the German city of Mainz. Christian mobs, chanting “Let us avenge the blood of the Christ crucified”, killed the city’s entire Jewish community of about 1,000 people. By the end of the 15th century, Jewish populations in western and southern Europe were almost entirely wiped out.
Martin Luther, the reformer, recommended to his followers: “First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed”.
Pope Pius XII, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, has long been regarded by conservative Catholics as one of the greatest of popes. Pope Benedict is an ardent admirer of Pope Pius XII.
In the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Pope Pius XII is included among the “Unjust”, those responsible, directly or indirectly, for the Holocaust. He is castigated on a large panel in the museum for his “failure to leave his palace, with crucifix high, to witness one day of pogrom. When reports of the massacre of Jews reached the Vatican, he did not react with written or verbal protests. In 1942, he did not associate himself with the condemnation of the killing of the Jews issued by the Allies. When they were deported from Rome to Auschwitz, Pius XII did not intervene”.
Society of St Pius X
In the 1960s, a group of Catholic priests, led by a French archbishop, Marcel-Francois Lefebvre, rebelled against the Vatican. During the Second World War, Lefebvre supported the Vichy government that ruled France on behalf of Nazi Germany. Lefebvre and nearly 500 priests founded their own traditionalist organisation, the Society of St Pius X in 1970. It was a revolt against the substantial reforms that the Second Vatican Council had carried through in the 1960s. The traditionalist priests were opposed to the Catholic Church’s increasing openness to other faiths, especially Judaism and Islam, and continued to regard Jews as “the enemy of Christ”.
In 1987 Lefebvre announced his intention to consecrate a successor. In 1987, Cardinal Ratzinger, who was then the chief theologian at the Vatican, tried to bring the traditionalists back into the fold of the Catholic Church. It was agreed in 1988 that one bishop from Lefebvre’s group could be consecrated in return for certain concessions on matters of faith. However, in 1988 Lefebvre suddenly ordained four of his followers as bishops, one of them the Englishman Richard Williamson, without taking the Vatican’s approval. For this act of defiance, Lefebvre and his bishops were excommunicated by Pope John Paul II in 1988.
The Society of St Pius X consists of some 500 priests worldwide. In Germany it has about 10,000 members. The worldwide membership of the society is estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000, distributed across 30 countries around the world.
Bishop Richard Williamson has been known for his ultra-conservative views and for his denial of the Holocaust. He has also claimed that the US itself had planned the September 11 attacks on the country. During a visit to Germany in January 2009, the 68-year-old Williamson told Swedish television that he disputed that six million Jews had been killed by the Nazis and added, “Not a single Jew died in a gas chamber”.
On January 21, 2009, Pope Benedict officially revoked the excommunication of the four bishops, including Williamson. The pope’s decision caused astonishment and outrage outside and inside the Vatican. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate promptly cut off its inter-faith dialogue with the Vatican. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly criticised the pope and asked for a clear rejection of Holocaust deniers. Dismayed by the pope’s decision, some German Catholics are set to leave the Church. A growing number of people inside and outside the Catholic Church feel that Pope Benedict has lost touch with the outside world.
Faced with widespread resentment and protests, the Vatican stated that Williamson’s Holocaust denial was “unknown to the Holy Father at the time of lifting the excommunication”. In other words, the pope did not know what he was doing. On February 5, Pope Benedict ordered Williams to recant his Holocaust denials. On February 9, Williamson was removed from his post as head of a seminary in Argentina, which is run by the Latin American Chapter of the Society of St Pius X.
In an attempt to mend fences with Jews, Pope Benedict met with a delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations on February 12. He said the Roman Catholic Church was “profoundly and irrevocably committed to rejecting anti-Semitism” and that Holocaust denial was a “crime against God and humanity”.
Holocaust denial and the rhetoric of freedom of expression
The controversy and uproar following Pope Benedict’s revocation of Richard Williamson’s excommunication raises three important issues. First, the Catholic Church has elements which continue to harbour anti-Semitic sentiments and are not favourably inclined towards the decisions of the Second Vatican Council.
Second, the outrage over the pope’s decision betrays a glaring hypocrisy in the West about the rhetoric of freedom of expression. On the one hand, politicians, intellectuals and the media in the West persistently extol the value and sanctity of freedom of expression and, on the other, turn a blind eye to laws and conventions which violate this principle. In Denmark and Britain (which have established religions), there is an anti-blasphemy law in respect of Christianity (which, ironically, does not apply to other religions). In Denmark, both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party have opposed a parliamentary move to abolish the anti-blasphemy law.
In 1967, the French cartoonist Sine published Massacre, full of blasphemous anti-Christ cartoons, which offended the religious susceptibilities of large numbers of people as well as booksellers. The publisher, Penguin, had to burn the stock.
A Spanish court in November 2007 convicted Manel Fontdevila, cartoon editor of the popular satirical weekly magazine El Jueves, and the cartoonist “Guillermo” on charges of “damaging the prestige of the crown.” The journalists, who were fined 3,000 euros, had published a cartoon in July 2007 which made fun of Prince Filipe, heir to the Spanish crown, and of the government’s scheme to encourage women to have more babies. Within a few hours of the cartoons’ appearance, the court ordered the confiscation of all copies of the magazine.
Most if not all Western countries have placed restrictions on freedom of expression through legislation. A recently released survey of media freedom in 20 European countries entitled Goodbye to Freedom?, published by the independent Association of European Journalists, found that within the past year alone, journalists in 18 out of 20 European countries have faced criminal prosecution, or been jailed for breaking various laws involving libel or secrecy.
Eleven European countries, including Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Canada, Belgium and Poland, have laws which make the public denial or repudiation of the Holocaust a punishable offence. The world’s best-known Holocaust denier, Ernst Zundel, was deported from Canada on charges of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial and faces 14 charges in Germany. The British historian David Irving, author of 30 books on World War II, was jailed for three years by an Austrian court in 2006 for denying the Holocaust and the existence of gas chambers in Auschwitz in a speech he had given in Austria in 1989. Irving has been debarred from setting foot in Germany, Austria, Italy and Canada because of his views.
On February 10, 2009, Rowan Laxton, a senior British diplomat and head of the Foreign Office’s South Asia desk, was arrested for criticising Israel’s conduct during the Gaza war at a gym at the London Business School in January. He was charged with inciting religious hatred, an offence that carries a maximum jail term of seven years.
Islamophobia and freedom of expression
The ardent supporters of freedom of expression in the West scarcely raise their voice against anti-blasphemy laws in Denmark and the UK and against legislation outlawing Holocaust denial in about a dozen European countries. When the issue of banning racially-motivated attacks against Muslims is raised, they raise a hue and cry about freedom of expression. In 2005, Luxembourg tried to use its EU presidency to push through Europe-wide anti-racism legislation, but it was blocked by the centre-right government then in power in Italy on the grounds that it threatened freedom of speech.
On 30 September 2005, Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, published a series of 12 highly derogatory cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. In one of them he was shown wearing a bomb-shaped turban, portraying him as a terrorist. It is interesting to note that Jyllands-Posten had earlier refused to print cartoons of Jesus Christ because it involved the risk of hurting the religious sentiments of Christians.
In early February 2006, several newspapers in 22 European countries, republished some or all of the cartoons. The publication of these cartoons generated an enormous amount of anger and resentment among Muslims across the world and led to massive protests in several Muslim countries. Danish embassies in Iran, Beirut, Syria and Libya were attacked and vandalised. By and large, European writers and intellectuals and the media justified the publication of these cartoons in the name of freedom of expression. The Economist wrote that “freedom of expression, including the freedom to poke fun at religion, is not just a hard-won human right but the defining feature of liberal societies”.
Some intellectuals, writers and journalists in the West often attack Islam and Muslims without inviting prosecution. Martin Amis, one of Britain’s best-known writers, said in September 2006: “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan. Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children”.
The Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, who often portrays Islam as bloodthirsty, hate-filled and opposed to civilized values, has brazenly said, “I am an Islamophobe and proud of it”.
Prominent leaders of the Christian Right in the US often indulge in anti-Islamic rhetoric. Franklin Graham, the Rev Billy Graham’s son and successor, while speaking on BBC News in late 2001, described Islam as a “very evil and very wicked religion”. In September 2002, televangelist and founder of the Christian Coalition, the Rev Pat Robertson, called the Prophet Muhammad “an absolute wild-eyed fanatic….a robber and brigand….a killer”. In the US, under the First Amendment, newspapers and magazines have the freedom to write derogatory or hateful things about any community or religion without any fear of prosecution.
Muslims accuse Western nations of having double standards, arguing that they protect established Christian religions from slander and outlaw anti-Semitism while doing nothing to protect Muslims from racist and slanderous attacks.
No country, including those of Europe, allows complete, unfettered freedom of expression. Freedom of expression in nearly all countries is restricted by prohibitions against defamation, libel, blasphemy, obscenity, national security, incitement to hatred, and judicial and parliamentary privilege. The European Convention on Human Rights, while recognizing that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, allows European nations to impose restrictions “in interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others.”
A report of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia points out that freedom of expression is not an absolute right. International law and the legal order of EU Member States lay down certain limits that democratic societies consider important and necessary in order to protect other fundamental rights. The report adds that freedom of expression and the protection against racist and xenophobic language can, and have to, go hand-in-hand.
Lately, some European countries have realised that the right to freedom of expression needs to be tempered with social responsibility and sensitivity towards the beliefs and sentiments of others. An unbridled right to freedom of expression is fraught with socially disruptive consequences.
The Dutch government dissociated itself from Geert Wilders’ film. The Dutch prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, said: “We believe the film serves no purpose but to cause offence. The Netherlands has a tradition of freedom of speech, religion and lifestyle, but it also has a tradition of respect, tolerance and responsibility. Offending certain groups does not belong here”. In her speech during the Christmas celebrations in 2007, the Dutch Queen Beatrix pointed out that the right to freedom of expression does not automatically mean the right to offend the religious sensibilities of minorities or other sections of the population.
The Amsterdam Appeals Court on January 20, 2009 ordered prosecutors to put Geert Wilders on trial for making the anti-Islam film Fitna. The court called Wilders’ statements in his film, newspaper articles and media interviews “one-sided generalisations ….which can amount to inciting hatred”. The court’s ruling reversed a decision in 2008 by the public prosecutor’s office, which had said that Wilders’ film and interviews were painful to Muslims but not criminal. The three judges of the Amsterdam Appeals Court said they had weighed Wilders’ anti-Islamic rhetoric against his right to free speech and ruled he had even gone beyond the normal leeway given to politicians. “The court considers this so insulting that it is in the public interest to prosecute Wilders”, a summary of the court’s decision said.
Geert Wilders was invited by Lord Pearson to show his controversial film Fitna in the House of Lords in the UK in February. However, he received a letter from the British Embassy in the Netherlands telling him he would not be allowed into the UK. The Home Office said there was a blanket ban on Mr Wilders entering the UK under EU laws enabling member states to exclude someone whose presence could threaten public security. The order issued by the Secretary of State to Geert Wilders read: “The Secretary of State is of the view that your presence in the UK would pose a genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society. The Secretary of State is satisfied that your statements about Muslims and their beliefs, as expressed in your film Fitna and elsewhere would threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the UK”.
David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, said the film made by Wilders was “full of hate” and therefore fell foul of British laws.
|Muslim population in the UK rising
The Time reported on January 30, 2009 that the Muslim population in Britain has grown by more than 500,000 to 2.4 million in 2009. The country’s Muslim population has multiplied ten times faster than the rest of society, according to the Office for National Statistics. In the same period, the number of Christians in the UK fell by more than 2 million. There are more than 42.6 million Christians in Britain Experts say the increase in the Muslim population in Britain is due to immigration, a higher birth rate among Muslims, and conversions to Islam. The increase in the Muslim population also suggests a growing consciousness among Muslims to identify with their faith and to register as Muslims.
Ceri Peach, Professor of Social Geography at Manchester University, said the high number of Muslims in Britain under the age of 4—301,000 as of September 2008—would benefit Britain’s future labour market through taxes that would subsequently contribute to sustaining the country’s ageing population. He added, though, that it would also put pressure on housing and create a growing demand for schools.
|Dementia, personality and sociability
Dementia is emerging as an increasingly worrisome ailment in large parts of the world, especially in Western countries and in China. It affects four million people in the United States and involves a staggering health care cost of $ 100 billion annually. In the US, approximately 10 percent of all persons over the age of 70 experience significant memory loss, and in more than half of the cases the cause is Alzheimer’s disease. There are 700,000 people with dementia in the UK. That number is expected to rise to over one million by 2025 and 1.7 million by 2051. In the US, the annual cost of caring for a single Alzheimer’s patient in an advanced age of the disease is estimated at $50,000. In India about 3 percent of people in the age-group of 65-75 suffer from dementia.
Dementia is defined as an acquired deterioration in cognitive abilities that impairs the successful performance of daily activities. Loss of memory is the most common cognitive dysfunction in dementia. In addition to memory, other mental faculties, such as language, calculation, visuospatial ability, judgement and problem solving, are also affected. The most common causes of dementia include Alzheimer’s disease (especially in Western countries where more than half of demented patients suffer from AD), vascular disease, Parkinson’s disease, and chronic intoxication resulting from alcohol and prescription drugs.
Recent medical research has shown that social and behavioural factors, such as loneliness, temperament and personality have a significant bearing on dementia. Several studies in recent years have suggested that social isolation and loneliness are often linked to dementia. A recent study of more than 800 elderly patients in the US, who were followed over a four-year period, has suggested that people who lead lonely lives are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
The leader of the study, Professor Robert Wilson, Professor of Neuropsychology at Rush University Medical Centre in the US, points out that loneliness may affect systems in the brain dealing with cognition and memory, making lonely people more vulnerable to the effects of age-related decline in neural pathways. Professor Wilson adds that we need to be aware that loneliness has not only an emotional impact on old people but also a physical impact.
The National Institute on Aging at the University of Chicago sponsored a study in 2006, which found that men and women between 50 and 68 years of age who scored the highest on measures of loneliness also had high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease, the number one killer in the US. Lonely people, according to the study, are also susceptible to depression, alcoholism, weak immune system, impaired sleep and suicidal tendencies.
In China, six million people suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, a third of all Alzheimer’s patients in the world, and the number of diagnosed cases is rising. The increase in the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in China is linked to the erosion of the country’s traditional support networks. Residential patterns in large cities in China, as in other cities around the world, are undergoing a radical transformation. Living in high-rise buildings and apartment houses breeds individualism and social isolation. This new urban ecology affects old people the most, and results in loneliness and depression. And depression is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.
The findings of a research in Sweden, published in the journal Neurology in January 2009, show that people who stay calm are less likely to develop dementia in old age. Five hundred healthy elderly people were asked to fill out questionnaires about their personalities. During the period of the study, 144 persons developed dementia. Those who were calm and relaxed had a 50 per cent lower risk of developing dementia during the six years of the study. Experts said the study showed “compelling evidence” of the need to be “socially active throughout life”.
Dr Hui-Wang of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, who led the research, said: “In the past studies have shown that chronic distress can affect parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus, possibly leading to dementia. But our findings suggest that having a calm and outgoing personality in combination with a socially active lifestyle may decrease the risk of developing dementia even further. The good news is, lifestyle factors can be modified as opposed to genetic factors which cannot be controlled”.
Dr Susanne Sorensen, head of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Doctors have always believed that personality traits are linked to the risk of dementia. This compelling new evidence suggests people who are easily distressed or are not very outgoing should make every effort to reduce the risk of this devastating condition”.
Warm human relationships and social support have a positive bearing on health. Social networks, participation in social and cultural activities and social support networks greatly mitigate the effects of stress. Experiments with rats in the laboratory have shown that if the mother rat licks her young, the gene that produces the stress hormone cortisol is switched off in the baby. An unlicked rat will have an active stress-producing gene resulting in higher levels of cortisol and will remain timid and insecure its whole life. Scientists believe that the same could apply to humans.
In his book Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality (1996), Richard Wilkinson argues that the healthiest societies in the world are not the richest countries but those in which income is distributed most evenly and levels of social integration are highest. He notes a clear relationship between mortality rates and patterns of income distribution. Wilkinson points out that the inhabitants of Japan and Sweden, which are regarded among the most egalitarian societies in the world, enjoy better standards of health than do citizens of countries where the gap between the rich and the poor is more pronounced, such as the US. He argues that social factors—the strength of social contacts, ties within communities, availability of social support, a sense of security—are the main determinants of the health of a society.
The normal aging process is associated with some mild cognitive losses and slowing of physical and mental functions, especially memory. However, cognitive decline is neither inevitable nor universal. The brain consists of millions of neurons, which are interconnected in highly complex and dynamic networks and patterns. These interconnections— called synaptic connections--are in an unending process of activation throughout one’s life. They may be activated or deactivated through the kind of mental activities we choose to follow. People who lead a physically, mentally and socially active life may not experience cognitive decline in old age. Furthermore, cognitive decline may be arrested or reduced by certain brain exercises—called brain gymnastics--such as solving puzzles, memorising lists and using the left hand.
Islam greatly emphasises community solidarity and social support networks based on mutual concern, sharing and fellow-feeling. The Prophet is reported to have said: “You will find believers (in respect of mutual kindness and compassion) like the organism. If one part of the organism is in pain, all other organs will be affected by it”. The Prophet also said: “A Muslim who lives in the midst of other Muslims and suffers their torments is better than the one who lives in isolation from other Muslims and has no patience to bear with their torment”. The Prophet said: “All of mankind is (like) God’s family, and the dearest of them in the sight of God is the one who is the most kind to His family”.
Sociability, community solidarity and mutual concern mitigate the insidious effects of stress in one’s personal life and act as a buffer to diseases like dementia.
|Churches in the UK on the decline
According to a report published in The Times, thousands of churches in the UK face demolition or conversion in the next decade. In some parts of the country, churches are being turned into centres of worship for other faiths, including mosques and temples. A disused Methodist chapel in Clitheroe on the edge of Yorkshire Dales is set to be converted into a mosque for the town’s 300 Muslims. Churches which have become redundant tend to be developed into houses, offices or restaurants. In Chettenham, a 19th century St James’s church is now an Italian restaurant.
In 1961 there were 55,000 Christian churches in the UK. By 2005 the number of churches had fallen to 47,600. According to the organisation Christian Research, another 4,000 are likely to disappear in the next 15 years.
There are more than 47,000 churches in Britain today. More than 70 per cent of Britain’s population of 42.6 million people consider themselves to be Christian. But in reality there has been a steady decline in the country’s established religion. Only one-tenth of the nation’s Christians attend church. If current trends continue, practising Muslims will soon outnumber practising Christians in the country. There are already more than 1,600 mosques in the country.