The 24 men and women arrived late on Saturday, 1 April, at a Sufi shrine in a village in central Pakistan. As so often in the past, they were there to perform rituals in order, they hoped and believed, to gain some spiritual guidance. On such occasions they would sometimes undress, to have their ‘sins’ literally washed from them. This time was different. Instead of delivering prayers and peace, the custodian of the shrine gave them something to drink that knocked them out. Then he, and a couple of helpers, took sticks and knives and beat and slashed them; 20 died and the other four were seriously injured. The dead were Muslims of the Barelvi sect, who revere people they deem to be saints and mystics. The reasons for this crime may never be known; the custodian has told police he did it because he thought the small congregation was plotting to poison him. So it might well have been a personal, as opposed to a sectarian, crime.
But for a naive bystander such as myself, it’s bewildering trying to follow who’s in, who’s out, in the multifarious – and astonishingly fractious – Muslim world. Are the Barelvis true Muslims or not? You only have to take a glance at some sites to realise that us atheists really haven’t a clue about how seriously all this factionalism is taken by some Muslims. The level of mutual Muslim abuse makes Katie Hopkins look like a mealy-mouthed sweetiepie by comparison. One wants to say – ‘come on now guys, really. You all basically believe the same thing. Ok, you have divergent opinions about some matters. But why not live and let live? Is it actually worth doing violence against someone because they possibly said or did something centuries ago that someone today thinks incorrect?’
Believe whatever you like but don’t try to impose it on me or anyone else
When we wring our hands and shrug our shoulders at the latest ghastly episode in the ongoing nightmare that is ISIS – which effectively is a Muslim civil war that overspills into other peoples – we do well to recall that all religions like to indulge in frenzied orgies of violence from time to time. Buddhists persecute Muslims in Burma; Hindu extremists persecute Christians and Muslims in India – often over the supposed sanctity of a cow – a cow, for heaven’s sake! In 1971 the Bangladesh Liberation War saw around three million dead, mostly Hindus slaughtered by the muslim-majority Pakistan army, who adopted a device used by the religious nutcases better known as the Nazis; they painted a yellow H on the houses of their intended victims.
Just go away and fiddle with your scrolls and books and icons and stupid paraphenalia and leave the rest of us in peace
The trouble is that the big dogs of power will insist on invoking God, or Allah, or some divine authority, to justify their actions. President G. W. Bush told a friend while he was governor of Texas that he thought “God wants me to run for President” and then, once President, proceeded to launch his “crusade, this war on terrorism” in the Middle East. He got what he asked for; we now have ISIS, which apparently wants to see a Caliphate imposed everywhere, although even Shias and Sunnis can’t agree about who might get to choose the Caliph.
I’d love to be able to tell you how many people have, over the centuries, been killed in the name of some religion but there’s no reliable data. Personally I’m fed up with all religious talk and warfare over beliefs that by definition ought to be personal and a matter of indifference to others. Believe whatever you like and have done with it but don’t try to impose it on me or anyone else who isn’t interested in your quaint eccentricities.
The world has probably always been populated by people who get irrationally incensed over which end of the boiled egg should be attacked
As so often, Jonathan Swift got it right. In Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver visits the imaginary island of Lilliput, ruled by the wonderfully named emperor Golbasto Momarem Evlame Gurdilo Shefin Mully Ully Gue. From time to time, violent quarrels break out among the Lilliputians over which end their boiled eggs should be broken, the big or the small. Such was the vitriol generated over this trivial matter that the Big-Enders were forced to flee to the nearby island of Blefuscu, where they snipe at the Little-Enders remaining in power on Lilliput.
The world has probably always been populated by people who get irrationally incensed over which end of the boiled egg should be attacked. That doesn’t look like changing any time soon. And meanwhile the rest of us just look on this with complete astonishment, occasionally caught up in the absurd and murderous consequences. Just go away and fiddle with your scrolls and books and icons and stupid paraphenalia and leave the rest of us in peace. We’ll all die soon enough, anyway.