Category Archives: Buddhism

Singapore’s future is secular

Singapore’s prime minister recently reaffirmed the city-state’s secularism in his National Day speech. Lee Hsien Loong said that “aggressive preaching” by religious groups and evangelising threaten the Singapore’s stability.

Mr Lee said: “The most visceral and dangerous fault line (in Singapore) is race and religion. Christians can’t expect this to be a Christian society. Muslims can’t expect this to be a Muslim society, ditto with the Buddhists, the Hindus and the other groups.” He reminded citizens that Singapore’s authority and laws “don’t come from a sacred book” and that the Government must remain steadfastly secular.

He commented that the recent upsurge in religious fervour around the world was dangerous – and cited America as a country that claims to be secular but was heavily under the influence of religion. In the most recent census in 2000, 43 percent of Singaporeans said they were Buddhist, 15 percent Muslim, 15 percent Christian, 8.5 percent Taoist and 4 percent Hindu.


Parents choose religion over their child’s life

OREGON CITY, Oregon (AP) – An Oregon judge has rejected defense claims of selective and vindictive prosecution in the manslaughter trial of a couple whose 15-month-old daughter died of pneumonia while they prayed for her recovery.

Clackamas County Judge Steven Maurer told lawyers for Carl and Raylene Worthington that the couple had a duty to seek medical care for their daughter, Ava, despite their religious beliefs. A state medical examiner has said the toddler, who died in March 2008, could have been treated with antibiotics.

The Worthingtons are members of the Followers of Christ — a small Oregon City church that advocates spiritual healing instead of medical care.

If convicted, the couple faces up to 10 years in prison.


Watch out – that engineer could be a terrorist!

WHO becomes a terrorist? An MI5 report leaked to London newspaper The Guardian in August 2008 concluded that there is no easy way to identify those who become involved in terrorism in the UK because there is “no single pathway to violent extremism” and that “it is not possible to draw up a typical profile of the ‘British terrorist‘ as most are ‘demographically unremarkable'”.

The extraordinary lengths the German authorities went to after 9/11 to track down potential terrorists are a stark example of how useless profiling can be. They collected and analysed data on over 8 million individuals living in Germany. These people were categorised by demographic characteristics: male, aged 18 to 40; current or former student; Muslim; legally resident in Germany; and originating from one of 26 Islamic countries. Then they were sorted into three further categories: potential to carry out a terrorist attack (such as a pilot’s licence); familiarity with locations that could be targets (such as working in airports, nuclear power plants, chemical plants, the rail service, labs and other research institutes); and studying the German language at the Goethe Institute.

With the help of these categories authorities whittled the 8 million down to just 1689 individuals, who were then investigated, one by one. Giovanni Capoccia, an Oxford-based political scientist who analysed this case, reported that not one of them turned out to be a threat. All the real Islamic terrorists arrested in Germany through other investigations were not on the official “shortlist” and did not fit the profile.

Does it follow, as some scholars now think, that anyone, given the right conditions and the wrong friendships, can end up joining a terrorist group? Not entirely. We found that engineers are three to four times as likely as other graduates to be present among the members of violent Islamic groups in the Muslim world since the 1970s. Using a sample of 404 Islamic militants worldwide (with a median birth date in 1966), we tracked down the education of 284. Of these, 26 had less than secondary education, 62 completed secondary education (including madrasas), and 196 had higher education, whether completed or not. Even if none of the cases where we lack data had higher education, the share of those with higher education would be a hefty 48.5 per cent.

The next move was to find out what they had studied – and we tracked down 178 of our 196 cases. The largest single group were engineers, with 78 out of 178, followed by 34 taking Islamic studies, 14 studying medicine, 12 economics and business studies, and 7 natural sciences. The over-representation of engineers applies to all 13 militant groups in the sample and to all 17 nationalities, with the exception of Saudi Arabia.

Our finding holds up quite well in another sample of 259 Islamic extremists who are citizens or residents of 14 western, mostly European, countries, and who have recently come to the attention of the authorities for carrying out or plotting a terrorist attack in the west. Although this sample contains far fewer people with higher education than the older members of the first group, nearly 6 out of 10 of those with higher education are engineers.

We also collected data on non-Muslim extremists. We found that engineers are almost completely absent from violent left-wing groups, while they are present among violent right-wing groups in different countries. Out of seven right-wing leaders in the US whose degrees we were able to establish, four were engineers: for example, Richard Butler, the founder of the neo-Nazi group Aryan Nations, was an aeronautical engineer, and Wilhelm Schmitt, leader of the right-wing, extreme anti-government, pro-localism group known as the Sheriff’s Posse Comitatus, was an engineer with Lockheed Martin. Among the total membership of the Islamic groups, however, the over-representation is still much higher.

This could be a coincidence: if the group founders are engineers they would also be more likely to recruit other engineers via their educational or professional networks. This explanation only works up to a point. It does not explain why engineers are over-represented in groups in which the founders were not engineers, or why the founders of groups that were not in contact with each other were often engineers.

Why engineers? Everybody’s first reaction is that they are recruited for their technical proficiency in bomb-making and communications technology, but there is no evidence for this. A tiny elite tends to do the technical work in these groups, and jihadist recruitment manuals focus on a personality profile rather than technical skills.

So we are left with two hypotheses: either certain social conditions impinge more on engineers than on other graduates, or engineers are more likely to have certain personality traits that make radical Islamism more attractive to them. Our best guess is that the phenomenon derives from a combination of these two factors.

With engineers in the Middle East we have very intelligent, ambitious students who have found it difficult to find professional satisfaction, both individually and collectively in their desire to help their countries develop. Graduates of very selective degree programmes, they may have endured relatively greater frustration in a stagnant and authoritarian environment.

The fact that engineers are not over-represented in Saudi Arabia offers some support for this, for, alone among the countries of origin of terrorists, Saudi Arabia has had a shortage of engineers and has thus offered better employment opportunities. However, even in western countries and south-east Asia, where labour market opportunities are better for all graduates, engineers appear relatively more attracted to violent Islamist groups than other graduates. Why is this?

We reckon that something else is going on, something at the individual level, that is, relating to cognitive traits. According to polling data, engineering professors in the US are seven times as likely to be right-wing and religious as other academics, and similar biases apply to students. In 16 other countries we investigated, engineers seem to be no more right-wing or religious than the rest of the population, but the number of engineers combining both traits is unusually high. A lot of piecemeal evidence suggests that characteristics such as greater intolerance of ambiguity, a belief that society can be made to work like clockwork, and dislike of democratic politics which involves compromise, are more common among engineers.

So the bottom line is that while the probability of a Muslim engineer becoming a violent Islamist is minuscule, it is still be between three and four times that for other graduates.


Girls raped by Catholic priest told to stop ‘dwelling on old wounds’

A father who wants to confront the Pope about the rape of his daughters by a Catholic priest has reacted angrily to claims by a senior Australian bishop that he was dwelling crankily on old wounds.

Anthony Foster, who is flying from Britain to Sydney, is demanding that Benedict XVI and Australia’s senior Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, beg for forgiveness over the repeated rape of his daughters by the priest at a Melbourne primary school between 1988 and 1993.

Mr Foster said that his daughters had been devastated by the attacks. The elder, Emma, committed suicide this year, aged 26. Her younger sister, Katie, who became a heavy drinker, was hit by a car, aged 15, and now needs 24-hour care.

The Pope, who begins his official duties today at World Youth Day celebrations attended by an estimated 225,000 people, has promised to issue an apology this week to young people sexually abused by priests.

But when asked yesterday about an Australian Broadcasting Commission report on the Fosters’ complaints, the Church’s World Youth Day spokesman, Bishop Anthony Fisher, sounded dismissive. He said that he had not seen the report because he had been at the celebrations. “Happily, I think most of Australia was enjoying, delighting in the beauty and goodness of these young people,” he said, “rather than dwelling crankily, as a few people are doing, on old wounds.”

In an interview with an Australian website at Tokyo airport, Mr Foster rejected the comments and said that they showed “a complete lack of understanding of the victims, that there are so many people out there that really do have open wounds”. His wife, Christine, said that she was also deeply hurt: “There are no old wounds for victims. It is always current.”

The bishop’s comments forced Cardinal Pell — who was Archbishop of Melbourne at the time of the attacks — to try to repair the damage by making a public statement in which he said that he had been “very saddened” by Emma’s story.

She had endured “one of the worst things that can happen to a young woman”, he said. Cardinal Pell repeated his earlier apology to the family.

He did not say that he would meet Mr Foster, who insists that he will only accept the pontiff’s planned apology “if the Pope will embrace the notion of begging forgiveness from victims, and supporting them in every way possible and putting the resources of the Church behind that support”.

In his case Mr Foster said that it had taken eight years to win a financial settlement. He said that Cardinal Pell had introduced a system that imposed a A$50,000 (£24,000) cap on compensation. “It wasn’t just,” he said. Others had been offered as little as A$2,000. Emma and Katie’s attacker, Father Kevin O’Donnell, was convicted in 1996 of the abuse of 11 boys and a girl, aged 8 to 14, between 1946 and 1977.


Christianity ‘could die out within a century’

The Telegraph says that Christianity could die out in the UK within a century

More than half of Britons think Christianity is likely to have disappeared from the country within a century, according to a survey.

Research by the Orthodox Jewish organisation Aish found that just over a third of people thought religions like Christianity and Judaism would still be practiced in Britain in 100 years’ time.

Although four in 10 people said they would choose to be a member of the Christian religion, almost the same number said they would rather practice no religion at all.

Buddhism however, proved more attractive than both Islam and Judaism, and was chosen by nine per cent of those questioned.

Aish UK’s executive director Rabbi Naftali Schiff said the results of the YouGov poll of 2,000 people were alarming.

“It clearly demonstrates that religion, including Judaism, is becoming unattractive to the British public.

“At Aish we know that Judaism provides real meaning and enrichment to one’s life. Whilst we have attracted many disinterested Jews back to Jewish identity it is clear there is much work to be done.”

Research published earlier this year suggested that church attendance is declining so fast that the number of regular churchgoers will be fewer than those attending mosques within a generation.

According to Religious Trends, an analysis of religious practice in Britain, the huge drop off in attendance means that the Church of England, Catholicism and other denominations will become financially non-viable.

In contrast, the number of actively religious Muslims is predicted to increase from about one million today to 1.96 million in 2035.


Religion (for entertainment purposes only)

NEW consumer protection laws that came into force last week covering stuff like clairvoyancy and fortune-telling has set the internet buzzing with speculation as to whether religions ought to be covered by the new regulations.

According to a Times report:

Fortune-tellers and astrologists will be bracketed with double-glazing salesman under the new Consumer Protection Regulations. Fortune-tellers will have to tell customers that what they offer is ‘for entertainment only’ and not ‘experimentally proven’. This means that a fortune-teller who sets up a tent at a funfair will have to put up a disclaimer on a board outside.

Similar disclaimers will need to be posted on the websites of faith healers, spiritualists or mediums where appropriate, as well as on invoices and at the top of any printed terms and conditions.

Andy Millmore, a partner at the law firm Harbottle & Lewis in London, is quoted as saying:

What is significant is the sweeping nature of the regulations. They will effectively criminalise actions that might in the past have escaped legal censure, even if they may perhaps have been covered by industry voluntary codes. Personalised services may also come under scrutiny. A tarot pack reader, for instance, cannot just pick one of several templates – it would have to be a proper reading designed for that person.

Claims to secure good fortune, contact the dead or heal through the laying-on of hands are all services that will also have to carry disclaimers, other lawyers say.

Said one:

You could argue that this is no different from promises given by the Church of Eternal Life, which people pay for, in the sense that they feel obliged to give to the collection. It’s no more proven.

The Spiritualist Workers’ Association attacked the changes, saying on its website:

We do not believe we are conducting a scientific experiment. To have to stand up and say so is a denial of our beliefs. It is also sending out a message that we do not believe what we are saying and doing.

Lyn Guest de Swarte, a clairvoyant, said:

It’s like trying to regulate God.

Commenting on the new regulations, Times columnist and atheist Matthew Parris said:

Another example of careless jurisprudence this week: on Monday a new law came into force requiring fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, astrologers and mediums to stipulate explicitly that their services are for ‘entertainment only’.

Well, trades descriptions legislation is anciently established; but in the realms of the spirit, prophecy, invisible worlds, ghosts and human souls, it has generally been felt that the whole thing is too cloudy for law … By deeming in law – for that is what this measure does – that claims about worlds undreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio, are false, Parliament has taken a serious step in principle, even if the measure itself is trivial and most clairvoyants are only jokers anyway.

What, for instance, about the “faith” community? Perhaps it’s there in the legislative small print already. There will have to be an exception in law for ‘religions’. Whereupon clairvoyants will presumably rename themselves spiritualists. And spiritualists will presumably claim the status of a religion. Whereupon lawmakers will stipulate that a ‘religion’ has to centre around a deity. Whereupon Buddhism will cease to be a ‘religion’; and …

Here is a selection of amusing readers’ comments that followed the original Times report:

• Does this mean that placards should be placed at the entrance to all places of worship saying, ‘all who enter here don’t believe all you see and hear.

• I trust that every Bible and other such book will carry an appropriate disclaimer regarding the reliability of its content and promises. And that preachers will similarly preface every sermon with ‘for entertainment only’.

• Coming soon to a church near you….. A huge great ‘not experimentally proven’sign. If you’re going to discriminate against one form of spiritual activity (be it questionable or not) at least discriminate against them all.

• Will this stop religions obtaining money from the Government, particularly in education, on the basis of their predictions of life after death, the claimed existence of God and the validity of their doctrine which they may believe, but cannot prove?

• Does this mean that people who promise salvation or 42 virgins if you do what they tell you can be done under the new regulations ? This looks like a good way to get rid of religions

• We should also get Trading Standards to target religious establishments. After all they too invoke the supernatural and superstition, in order to give their customers some sort of reassurance about the future. Despite holding huge financial assets they also continually ask the public for money.

• The difference is that religion doesn’t charge you for the service they provide, any money they receive is purely voluntary. Astrologers, psychic healers, mediums etc charge you for a service that is claimed to do a lot of things that are scientifically unproven. I agree with the change.

• Religion not charging? Islam makes a big deal about the faithful paying the “religious tax” and even imposes punitive taxes on non-muslims to permit them to follow their own faith. Look up zakat and jizyah. These are not voluntary, though perhaps they cannot be enforced in the courts here.

• Hmm, religion doesn’t charge … money from the government, collections at the church/mosque/synagogue/temple, purchase of the Qu’ran, Bible, Torah, Vedas, etc, ‘donations’ to the church to obtain that date for your special day. We all pay for religion even if it’s just through taxes. It’s a farce.


Islamic vote marks the end of Universal Human Rights

For the past eleven years the organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), representing the 57 Islamic States, has been tightening its grip on the throat of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yesterday, 28 March 2008, they finally killed it.

With the support of their allies including China, Russia and Cuba (none well-known for their defence of human rights) the Islamic States succeeded in forcing through an amendment to a resolution on Freedom of Expression that has turned the entire concept on its head. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression will now be required to report on the “abuse” of this most cherished freedom by anyone who, for example, dares speak out against Sharia laws that require women to be stoned to death for adultery or young men to be hanged for being gay, or against the marriage of girls as young as nine, as in Iran.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan saw the writing on the wall three years ago when he spoke of the old Commission on Human Rights having “become too selective and too political in its work”. Piecemeal reform would not be enough. The old system needed to be swept away and replaced by something better. The Human Rights Council was supposed to be that new start, a Council whose members genuinely supported, and were prepared to defend, the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Yet since its inception in June 2006, the Human Rights Council has failed to condemn the most egregious examples of human rights abuse in the Sudan, Byelorussia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and elsewhere, whilst repeatedly condemning Israel and Israel alone.

Three years later Annan’s dream lies shattered, and the Human Rights Council stands exposed as incapable of fulfilling its central role: the promotion and protection of human rights. The Council died yesterday in Geneva, and with it the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whose 60th anniversary we were actually celebrating this year.

There has been a seismic shift in the balance of power in the UN system. For over a decade the Islamic States have been flexing their muscles. Yesterday they struck. There can no longer be any pretence that the Human Rights Council can defend human rights. The moral leadership of the UN system has moved from the States who created the UN in the aftermath of the Second World War, committed to the concepts of equality, individual freedom and the rule of law, to the Islamic States, whose allegiance is to a narrow, medieval worldview defined exclusively in terms of man’s duties towards Allah, and to their fellow-travellers, the States who see their future economic and political interests as being best served by their alliances with the Islamic States.

Yesterday’s attack by the Islamists, led by Pakistan, had the subtlety of a thin-bladed knife slipped silently under the ribs of the Human Rights Council. At first reading the amendment to the resolution to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression might seem reasonable. It requires the Special Rapporteur:

“To report on instances in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination …”

For Canada, who had fought long and hard as main sponsor of this resolution to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, this was too much. The internationally agreed limits to Freedom of Expression are detailed in article 19 of the legally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and are already referred to in the preamble to the resolution. If abuse of freedom of expression infringed anyone’s freedom of religion, for example, it would fall within the scope of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion. To add it here was unnecessary duplication, and “Requesting the Special Rapporteur to report on abuses of [this right] would turn the mandate on its head. Instead of promoting freedom of expression the Special Rapporteur would be policing its exercise … If this amendment is adopted, Canada will withdraw its sponsorship from the main resolution.”

Canada’s position was echoed by several delegations including India, who objected to the change of focus from protecting to limiting freedom of expression. The European Union, the United Kingdom (speaking for Australia and the United States), India, Brazil, Bolivia, Guatemala and Switzerland all withdrew their sponsorship of the main resolution when the amendment was passed. In total, more than 20 of the original 53 co-sponsors of the resolution withdrew their support.

On the vote, the amendment was adopted by 27 votes to 15 against, with three abstentions.
The Sri Lankan delegate explained clearly his reasons for supporting the amendment:
“.. if we regulate certain things ‘minimally’ we may be able to prevent them from being enacted violently on the streets of our towns and cities.”

In other words: Don’t exercise your right to freedom of expression because your opponents may become violent. For the first time in the 60 year history of UN Human Rights bodies, a fundamental human right has been limited simply because of the possible violent reaction by the enemies of human rights.

The violence we have seen played out in reaction to the Danish cartoons is thus excused by the Council – it was the cartoonists whose freedom of expression needed to be regulated. And Theo van Gogh can be deemed responsible for his own death.

Freedom of expression is that right which – uniquely – enables us to expose, communicate and condemn abuse of all our other rights. Without freedom of expression and freedom of the press we give the green light to tyranny and make it impossible to expose corruption, incompetence, injustice and oppression.

But however important freedom of expression may be for us who live in the West, its overwhelming importance for those who live under the tyranny of Islamic law was highlighted by a courageous group of 21 NGOs from the Islamic States who issued a statement yesterday appealing to delegations to oppose the amendment. See http://www.article19.org/pdfs/press/petition-hrc.pdf

Incredibly, following the vote on the amendment, the Council descended even further into chaos. At the very last moment, Cuba introduced an oral amendment – clearly against the rules of procedure. When Canada objected they were overruled by the President. When Slovenia – on behalf of the European Union – tried to intervene on a point of order and ask for a ten-minute adjournment, they were ignored. When they tried to protest in another point of order their right to do so was challenged by Egypt, and the Egyptian objection was upheld.

The main resolution was then put to the vote and was adopted by 32 votes in favour, none against, with 15 abstentions.

The NGO community now needs to think carefully about what purpose can any longer be served by continuing our engagement with the Human Rights Council, and by fighting for values that are no longer accepted within the UN system. I have personally been involved with the Human Rights Commission and Council for the past five years and can see little benefit in continuing. Our well-argued position papers are ignored, our speeches are interrupted with repeated and irrelevant points of order, and we are not even supported in our efforts by the western delegations who, shockingly, did not even vote against today’s travesty, but abstained.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights died yesterday. Who knows when, or if, it can ever be revived.

I used to wonder what States who felt it necessary to kill people because they change their religion thought they were doing in the Human Rights Council. Now I know.

The wafer-thin sham of an international consensus on the promotion and protection of human rights has finally been exposed for what it was – a sham. The fragmentation of human rights now appears inevitable. The proposed Islamic Charter on Human Rights (read “Duties towards Allah”) will certainly go ahead, as will the creation of a parallel Islamic Council on Human Rights. But the OIC will nevertheless continue to attend and dominate the UN Human Rights Council, thereby ensuring its continuing emasculation and descent into total irrelevance.

Just five months before he and more than 20 of his colleagues were killed by a terrorist bomb in Baghdad, the then High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello, wrote:

“Membership of the Commission on Human Rights must carry responsibilities. I therefore wonder whether the time has not come for the Commission itself to develop a code of guidelines for access to membership of the Commission and a code of conduct for members while they serve on the Commission. After all the Commission on Human Rights has a duty to humanity and the members of the Commission must themselves set the example of adherence to the international human rights norms – in practice as well as in law…”

States who are genuinely concerned with human rights should immediately withdraw from the Council until such time as all member states as well as those offering themselves for election agree to honour their pledges, and undertake to expel any member state which, having been put on notice regarding its human rights record, fails to put its house in order within a reasonable timescale. Failing this, what better tribute to Sergio de Mello could there be than to create an alternative organisation – Kofi Annan’s organisation of the willing – whose members agree to adopt Sergio de Mello’s guidelines and code of conduct – and are actually held to account.

Roy W Brown
Geneva, 29 March 2008