Photograph of Anil Chawla

Author - Anil Chawla

An article about organized religions as instruments of power and the role of clergy.

After 11th September there has been a renewed interest in Islam. On the one extreme are groups who tend to equate Islam with barbarism quoting extensively from scriptures and life of Prophet and on the other extreme are people who regard terrorists as persons who are maligning the name of a great religion that stands for peace and development. Both sides have their arguments, historical facts and quotations from scriptures. It is not unlikely that both the sides are correct inspite of holding contradictory views. The reasons for this difference in opinion are not difficult to understand.

Every religion which has been around for more than a thousand years becomes like a big river which has a good amount of water, all types of fishes, some crocodiles and various other creatures. One can go to the river and have water to quench one's thirst. This will make one love and possibly worship the river. But one's emotions will not be the same if while drinking water, one is caught by a crocodile. Every religion of the world has its share of crocodiles.

Let us go down the history lane. Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross and talked of love. Lord Jesus never set up a church, did not acquire property, ruled no kingdom, did not write a Bible, refused to incite his followers to violence against his crucification, did not even curse his tormentors. Yet, the very people who claimed to have faith in Jesus Christ did everything that He did not do. The issue today when we talk of religions is whether the life, sayings and principle of Lord Jesus Christ are Christianity or on the other hand does Christianity include all that has been said or done in the name of Jesus for centuries.

Asia and Africa have seen Christianity used as a cover for imperialist march of the white man. Asia and Africa were won over by a gun in one hand and a book in the other. Both were instruments used for fulfilling the greed of some. It has never occurred to the missionaries that the Lord talked of love and never used either of the instruments. Is Christianity ready to apologize to the conquered people of Asia, Africa and America? Not to be left behind will be the people of Europe who may ask uncomfortable questions about their pre-Christianity religions.

It is a history that Christianity does not want to be reminded of. But when it quotes VS Naipaul and says that Islam has destroyed the original culture of every land where it went, let Christians remember their own history of inquisitions. Concise Oxford Dictionary defines "the Inquisition" as "an ecclesiastical tribune established c.1232 for the suppression of heresy, notorious for its use of torture". The spread of Christianity across the world has been possible because of the extensive use of torture on all non-believers. At a time the systematic killing and torture by Christians of women accused of pagan practices and witchcraft had reached such proportions that more than two third of the women of some regions of Europe had been raped and killed in the most brutal manner possible.

This painful history of Christianity is often brushed under the carpet by terming it as a product of the dark ages. However, the Roman Catholic Church has never condemned or apologized for these practices. Conversion by all means fair or foul, by deceit or force continues to be the practice followed by various Church groups across the world. Wherever, the process of conversion or in other words destruction of the native or pagan religion and culture is not complete (as in Europe and America), Church is seen as an instrument of power used by some against some others. It is no surprise that the religion of love is hated by large populations across the world.

The paradox of Christianity is that it began as a religion of selfless love and was transformed into an instrument of power. This paradox affects almost every organized religion of the world in some way or the other. Islam has this paradox from the days of the Prophet who was a worldly man. Unlike Jesus Christ, Prophet did not die on the cross. He fought wars, led armies, entered into treaties and acted as a ruler. Prophet was as much a person who yielded power as he was a preacher. Koran, as revealed to the Prophet, is a reflection of both the aspects of Prophet's personality. On the one hand, Koran is a religious book that deals with Allah and the sacred issues. On the other hand Koran tends to lay down laws for believers and punishments for all those who disobey the laws. This has provided the essential basis of use of Islam as an instrument of power. It should come as no surprise that immediately after the passing away of the Prophet, there was a struggle for control of the Islamic world. The persons who fought to become the Caliph had no spiritual aspirations; their aims were worldly. Islam for them was just a tool for getting personal power. To this day that is the way Islam has been used by rulers of Islamic nations and by Islamic leaders.

Using religion for power is not confined to just Islam and Christianity, though it has affected them most severely. Hinduism and its co-religions like Buddhism and Jainism have also had their own share of this affliction. It is not unlikely that Buddhism vanished from India due to the power that the monasteries had started yielding much to the discomfort of kings. Jains are a very small religious community but that has not prevented them from developing a knack of getting into a cozy relationship with ruling powers to enjoy the benefits of power.

Hinduism is one of the most non-organized religions of the world. Yet, it created a structure of 'varna' which is identical to the vocations of protestant Christianity. This structure degenerated over a few thousand years into a caste system. Untouchability and caste system were unknown in ancient India. There can be no greater proof of this than the fact that the both the greatest epics of Hinduism (Ramayana and Mahabharata) are not written by brahmins but are written by men who were born from either a 'shudra' mother or father. It may also be pointed out that Hanuman, the God with an ape like body, who is most widely worshipped across India is also a 'shudra'. Inspite of such traditions, the functional division of varna was converted into caste based on one's birth. The class of powerful people who misused well intentioned social systems for satisfying their own desire for power were just acting on the normal human weakness to acquire power by any means, fair or foul.

The same story has been repeated with some modifications in every major religion across the world. Religion ought to be the link between the sacred and the worldly. The act of linking the two extremes creates the basic paradox. Ideally the sacred should influence the worldly, but in practice the opposite happens a bit too often. Worldly considerations force a distortion in man's view of the sacred to an extent that the original conception of sacred gets lost. This phenomenon is more pronounced in organized religions where the vested interests of the clergy take predominance over everything else. The clergy are like bureaucrats whose primary interest is not anything spiritual or Godly or even sacred. Their primary interest lies in self sustenance, in rituals that strengthen their powers, in systems that work to their advantage. Their self-interest becomes the interest of the religion.

The other problem faced by a clergy or bureaucracy is that it cannot act creatively in terms of looking at the basic assumptions or questioning the paradigm that is propounded by the founder. A clergy acts on the assumption that the fundamental issues have been solved by the founder and their job is just to implement. Any member of the clergy who tends to take an innovative view or adopts a creative approach is perceived to be a danger to the system and is thrown out almost immediately and unceremoniously. Over a period the killing of descent and innovation leads to the clergy becoming intellectually bankrupt. This combines with the insecurity that each member of the clergy has. Any individual who joins the clergy very soon becomes useless for everything else. This forces him to toe the line of the organization at the cost of his own intellect and conscience under all circumstances for his own survival.

In such a situation, the primary purpose of religion gets lost and secondary purposes imposed by the clergy become all important. This is the foundation of the paradox that afflicts all organized religions. It can almost be made into a law " The level of paradox between the ideals and practice in any religious community is directly proportional to the importance of the clergy in the community". In other words, "The extent of use of any particular religion as cover for power play is directly proportional to the degree of churchification of the religion". The above law is a universal law that seems to hold true across the world.

Understanding of Islam and Muslims will be much better if the above law is understood well. Christians grew out of the clutches of its clergy about two centuries ago. The growth of knowledge in Europe and America over the past two centuries has been possible due to the liberty from the tentacles of clergy. The problem with Muslims is that as a community they have yet to grow out of the clergy. It is not that there are no progressive Muslims. It is just that such progressives are a small minority who are currently walking a lonely path. The western world faced with the fanatic fundamentalist side of Islam forgets its own history of dark ages. It does not understand that the true problem of Islam is not individuals like Osama bin Laden. The real problem of the Muslim world is the absence or weakness of authors like Voltaire.

The massive military strength that USA and Europe are using to track and kill Osama bin Laden is actually aiding the cause of the fundamentalists. Muslim clergy would like to avoid the onset of renaissance in their communities. They are well aware that any contact with the west may aid this process. An open animosity with the west serves their own needs. The killing of poor Muslims by the west helps them create a persecution complex which binds the community together and helps the clergy emerge as its natural leaders. USA may catch Osama bin Laden and hang him by an electric pole in New York. But that will only help him grow in stature and will immortalize him.

Instead of running after shadows, the western world should have invested to build institutions and persons who could have led the Muslim world out of the iron-like grip of its clergy as well as invested in education of the poor under-developed countries. Even if half the money that USA and Europe are currently pouring into the so-called war against terror, had been so invested during the past few decades, there would have been no need for the present war.

Surprisingly, the problem is not understood even now by the powers that are fighting against the likes of Osama. There is talk of calling a Loya Jirga in Afghanistan to install a new government. The Loya Jirga will involve participation by all the traditional chiefs of various tribes. Does it sound like the twenty first century or the fifteen century? It seems that USA is using its military might to herald a new dark age in Afghanistan hoping that the darkness will remain confined to that poor country. The progressive elements of the Afghan society have been conveniently branded as communists and left to their own fate.

The falling into disgrace of Communism has not just strengthened capitalism. It has also strengthened the forces of organized religion. It has strengthened the hands of clergy. There can be no greater proof of this than the call given by President George W Bush immediately after WTC attacks - to visit a Church, Mosque or Synagogue and pray. This was a unique event in history. It should be noted that the President did not call for people to pray privately at home. The call was to visit a centre of organized religion and be serviced by a member of the clergy. Even during the Second World War at no point had any leader given such a call. At that time there was almost an unspoken convention that religion was a private affair and political leaders ought to maintain a reasonable distance from it. This was a fall-out of the European renaissance which had led to the State and the Church being separated. Apparently, the renaissance and dark ages are no longer in public memory.

It is said that a nation that forgets its history is condemned to repeat it. The western world has forgotten the dark ages of Europe. As a result, on the one hand it fails to understand Islam and on the other it is ready to welcome the elements that were responsible for the dark ages. Instead of following the post-renaissance tradition of treating religion as a private experience, the western world is now treating it as a public-political reality. This is the point when the paradox of religion takes over - the sacred gets lost and the worldly devils dominate. Let us pray (privately) that the world is saved from one more dark age.


26 October 2001

Please write to me your comments about the above article.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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