Opinion: Suppressing religion is about power, not faith | Opinion | DW | 06.05.2019
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Opinion: Suppressing religion is about power, not faith

Those who prevent believers from practicing their faith and destroy places of worship are usually concerned with something quite different than merely the fight against a religion, writes Alexander Görlach.

When the Chinese Communist Party leadership hasold temples and mosques in Tibet and Xinjiang destroyed and orders churches across the country to be blown up, we are witness to frightening new examples of the way in which people's identities are attacked and, in the end, crushed. Those who torch temples and mosques, or rather cultural monuments, are unlikely to shy away from torching the people who are praying within.

Places of worship are cultural symbols

Such violence is not primarily about preventing the practice of religion, but rather about suppressing the identities associated with religious cultures. The argument is that if these cultural imprints are destroyed, those who have been humbled will learn to live with another, supposedly superior culture, which in China is the dominant Han Chinese culture, propagated by President Xi Jinping. Immense injustice is being done to these disenfranchised peoples. They are not only affected as individuals, but collectively as well. This devastation strikes at the heart of the individual, and the group as a whole.

Read more: UN strengthens resolve against destruction of cultural heritage

DW columnist Prof. Alexander Görlach (Harvard University/D. Elmes)

Academic and DW columnist Alexander Görlach

We were able to experience this under different circumstances in the week before Easter, when Paris' Notre Dame cathedral went up in flames. Although the cause here was different, the effect was the same. Those who saw the blazing flames consuming the church's ancient timberwork were prepared for the worst: That the stone would crack apart under the heat and the whole church would collapse. What a loss that would have been! Although the structure came through mostly intact, some commentators nevertheless already agreed that the collapsing church was a portent of the decline of Western, Christian culture.

A predictable slippery slope

The destruction of cultural monuments, as in China, is preceded by certain steps. The first step is to make those who are different, invisible. When a church is built in the Arab world, it is often better if it is not recognizable as a church from the outside. The authoritarian leaders of these Islamic countries want to maintain the impression that the societies they rule are homogeneous blocks that clearly separate "us" and "them." 

Using the fear of an external enemy, mostly Western and therefore Christian, these autocratic rulers incite fear in the population, which has a devastating effect on different identities' cohabitation within the country. Al-Qaida and the "Islamic State" have been the most pernicious, with the demolition of the Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan and the destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra serving as sad testimonies to this ideological delusion of superiority.

More than just religious practice

Freedom of religion today must, in fact, be translated as freedom of identity. It is about a way of life that is not directly connected with religious practice. The figures in Europe reflect this. Last year, the Washington-based Pew Institute produced a study in which 90 percent of Europeans surveyed stated that they had been baptized, 70 percent emphasized that they live their lives according to Christian values, but less than 20 percent regularly attend church. From this you can correctly conclude that religious affiliation means, above all, cultural affiliation and identity and cannot be related exclusively to religious practice.

A crime scene official inspects the site of a bomb blast inside a church in Negombo (Reuters/Stringer)

A crime scene official inspects the site of a bomb blast inside a church in Negombo

In this context, Singapore appears to be the more tolerant version of China, if you will. The country is not a democracy, but it allows freedom of religion. This means that, in this small state, you are welcome with your own identity, culture and language — everything that is usually closely associated with religion when you go abroad and live and work there. Many people today, however, have to live in states that cultivate and play out the rhetoric of a majority against minorities. The consequences result in Christians being murdered on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, or Muslims being persecuted in India. Where a policy is imposed that dictates only one acceptable system of beliefs, which feeds on the degradation of others and deprives them of their freedoms, violence and murder are not far behind. It is not only in China that you can see where such fanaticism leads.

Alexander Görlach is a senior research associate at the Institute on Religion and International Studies at the University of Cambridge as well as senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and honorary professor for ethics and theology at the University of Lüneburg. He has also held a number of scholarly and advisory positions at Harvard University. He holds PhDs in comparative religion and linguistics and is a guest columnist for several publications including Deutsche Welle, The New York Times, Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung and business magazine Wirtschaftswoche.

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