On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Don’t use religion to further Man’s cause

Religious zealots who claim they are carrying out God's orders are not confined to Muslims, although the Western media has given extensive coverage to this group of people.

In the 1980s, there was a group of Christian fanatics who stockpiled firearms and cyanide with the aim of poisoning major city water supplies in the United States. Their targets were homosexuals, blacks and Jews. Ten years later, there was another group which plotted to bomb the Oklahoma City Federal Building.

In both instances, these fanatics also talked about bringing down the "Zionist-occupied" government and multilateral institutions and replacing them with Christian ones.

Strangely, the al-Qaeda also used the Zionist conspiracy theory to win support while their sympathisers see a Jewish hand behind every decision made by the Western powers.

In her book, Terror in The Name of God, Harvard University terrorism expert Jessica Stern spoke to Christian, Islamic and Jewish extremists to find out why religious militants killed.

The author wanted to know why people, who spend all their time reading religious books which emphasise love, peace and forgiveness, could end up becoming evil people who kill in the name of their faith.

These are supposed to be do-gooders who know their religious books better than many of us and live a morally upright way of life but yet they end up as devils.

There seems to be some common pattern, even if their faiths differ. All want to get rid of the world's secularism, humanism, materialism, the Jews, the blacks, gays and liberals. Their logic is simple – get rid of them and there will be peace. If necessary, use force.

People who do not subscribe to their interpretations of their religions are either infidels or sinners. In their eyes, their faiths are being threatened and their actions are justified to purify the world of these corrupting influences.

In the case of the Christian terrorists, Stern spoke to a former terrorist who has been released from prison and who now lives in a trailer park. He spends a lot of time in meditation and prayer.

He is an accomplished student of the Scriptures and is obsessed with good and evil. But he once was involved in a shoot-out with federal agents in a rural compound in Arkansas.

In the case of the Muslim terrorists, she found that these terrorists argued that they found the US-led new world order "humiliating" to Muslims and that their faith was under attack.

One Hezbollah militant told Stern that America's way of life was motivated by evil and overly materialistic.

The use of religion, however, is not confined to terrorists but also politicians to win votes and, in many ways, to prevent themselves from being criticised by voters and supporters.

I remember attending a ceramah of an opposition party in a small village in Terengganu some years back and the fiery speaker told his listeners that they would go to hell if they gave their vote to the other side.

Intimidation and pressure in the name of religion and even race are used by these zealots to exert their influence. Not many of us are prepared to face these threats, let alone speak up against them.

For minorities, it is even more difficult when their voices are not heard or, worse, denied.

Religion is such a potent force that many prefer to conform and, in a democracy, few politicians dare to take up those in religious clothing for fear that they would lose votes. While some prefer to keep silent, some try to outdo their opponents religiously, which is even worse.

When US president George Bush attacked Iraq and Afghanistan, he, too, reportedly claimed he was asked by God to do so. In a new BBC documentary, Bush reportedly told Palestinian leaders in 2003 that God told him to end the tyranny in Iraq.

Although the White House subsequently denied that Bush ever made such a claim, there is no denying that the president's support base includes the Christian Right, especially those in the Midwest and southern states.

Playing the religious card has helped his political career.

I remember, at the height of the attack against Iraq, a preacher appeared on CNN and quoted verses from the Bible to justify the US invasion. A black Methodist pastor who took a different line ended up in trouble, it was reported.

Quoting verses from holy books in a distorted way to suit one's political or religious agenda is not confined to any faith. The overall context is often ignored and not many dare to rise to the occasion to challenge because of our inadequacies.

But as Stern found out in her extensive research, while religion is used as a front, what is often not talked about is human greed and political power.

Take away the cloak of morality, the terrorists, too, want to keep their power of leadership.

The point is that all of us have to watch out for the religious zealots who attempt to impose their version of the faith on us. They need not be in religious clothes, as in the case of Azahari who never wore a skull cap or jubah, but who made bombs to kill people.

In a democracy, everyone is free to choose, and their rights, as stated in the Constitution, must be respected. The religious and cultural rights of everyone should be protected.

In Malaysia, the leadership's emphasis on moderation has been a key success in governing our plural society. The police, in particular, must be praised for their constant vigilance for political and religious extremists.

The fear of God, rather than the fear of men, should be our constant reminder.