Daily Archives: 21 March 2004

The Revenge of the Ridiculed

It is hard to say how many Christians there are in China, since most of them do not belong to officially registered “patriotic” churches. People all over the country gather in private homes, or “house churches,” to pray and preach and generally share in various hybrid forms of folk Christianity. Like Falun Gong, these are often classified as “evil cults” by the government, and believers are regularly arrested. A friend from Beijing once told me that clandestine Christians were the toughest dissidents, because of their willingness to die for their faith. I wanted to meet some of them, but this was not simple to arrange.

Nevertheless, Ian Buruma finally managed, through a network of relatives, to arrange a trip into the farther reaches of Sichuan Province to interview a “house church” leader in a tiny rural village.

After we had gotten back from the village, Cindy and Aunt entertained Uncle with stories of Cindy’s mother and her beliefs. The three of them were shrieking with laughter. Cindy mimicked her mother’s voice and imitated her Christian pieties. Tears of mirth moistened Uncle’s small, red eyes. I asked him why his sister-in-law shouldn’t believe in Jesus if it made her feel happy. Still chortling at the stupidity of his rural relations, he slapped a damp hand on my leg and explained that “Marxism is based on a materialist philosophy and all religion is mere superstition.”

I was aware of the danger of feeling superior to the half-educated ways of Uncle and Aunt, and yet could not help detesting them. There was so much anxiety and shame in their ridicule of the village life they had barely left behind. Hearing their laughter, I could understand the powerful attraction of egalitarian beliefs to people who felt the contempt of the educated classes, and it hardly mattered whether the peasant messiah was called Jesus Christ or Mao Zedong.

Uncle’s faith in political dogma made him feel superior to his village relatives, not only because mastering some of the Marxist jargon marked him as an educated man, just as reciting Confucian texts had for previous generations. but because it sounded scientific and modern, like his giant karaoke machine; and to be “scientific” was to be out of the village, with its age-old superstitions. Perhaps the increasing popularity of many faiths in China is a kind of revenge, against the oppressive dogmas of a morally and politically bankrupt state, but also against the little mandarins who are paid to impose them. It is a case of village China hitting back.

SOURCE: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage, 2001), pp. 285, 298

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Malaysia’s Islamic Party Loses Ground in Elections

Jane Perlez reports in the New York Times:

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, March 21 — The major Islamic party in Malaysia lost significant ground in parliamentary and state elections here today as the governing coalition of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi coasted to victory.

The Islamic party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia, lost the state legislatures in the oil rich northern state of Terengganu and in the neighboring state of Kalantan. In a humiliating loss, the leader of the party, Ulama Hadi Awang, lost his federal parliamentary seat.

The fortunes of the Islamic party, which won control of the Terengganu state legislature four years ago, were being closely watched as a barometer of militant Islam in Southeast Asia. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, holds parliamentary elections early next month.

Since taking control in Terengganu, the Islamic party, popularly known as PAS, has imposed religious laws, including bans on alcohol and gambling.

“If this election says one thing it says that Malaysia is rejecting the Islamization policies of PAS,” said Bridget Welsh, assistant professor of Southeast Asia studies at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, who is visiting here. “PAS has been decimated.”

Mr. Abdullah, 64, who inherited the prime minister’s job in November from the longstanding incumbent, Mahathir Mohamad, ran on an anti-corruption platform. He presented a more benign tone than his brittle predecessor, and as a descendant of Muslim scholars, the new prime minister appealed to voters who support a moderate version of Islam.

That approach stymied the efforts of the Parti Islam SeMalaysia to build on its gains in the Malay heartland, in the northern part of the country.

Among the lessons to be drawn here, it seems to me, is that the best way to keep any one religious faction from dominating government is to clean up government while also allowing all religious groups to participate in the political process. Targeting particular (nonviolent) religious groups–whether the Islamic Party in Turkey, the Falun Gong in China, or the Christian Coalition in the U.S.– as in some sense “enemies of the state” seems only to backfire when the governing party itself loses credibility.

UPDATE: Head Heeb has more.

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