A small massacre

Last weekend saw a minor massacre in central Pakistan. 20 Islamic worshippers murdered at a shrine, killed for goodness' knows what motive. There is so much slaughter these days, that the savage deaths of another handful passes us by with scarcely a nod. Our indifference comes from a sense of helplessness, weariness. There are only so many tears.

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

As so often in history, religion is being put to the service of power, the yearning to control how an individual may choose to live, in order to achieve irreligious things: money, esteem, authority, land and its resources. Domination over others. All religions have done it; I’m just glad, for example, that I wasn’t born in the age of the Roman Catholic Church’s Inquisition. But for an accident of timing, I might have been a Huguenot in August 1572, one of (as many as) 30,000 slaughtered by Catholic mobs in the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

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

Nor does the Russian Orthodox church have clean hands. In the Middle Ages and beyond, ‘Old Believers’ were tortured and killed, even if they renounced their beliefs and were baptised into the church. Not until 1971 did the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox church revoke the anathemas imposed on Old Believers in the 1600s. And what was the difference between the Old Believers and the Orthodox church? Too many to list here, but one involves the use of fingers when making the sign of the Cross; Old Believers use two fingers while the Orthodox use three. Cows, fingers, interpretations of ancient texts that were probably incorrectly transcribed…on and on it goes; the hatred fuelled by religious differences is seemingly unquenchable. The Baha’is, the Christians, the Jews, the Muslims, the Serers…add anything I have missed. There’s bound to be some.

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

Mind you, people don’t like atheists, either. Atheism scratches a scab, as the most famous atheist, Baruch Spinoza, found out in 1656. Born into an orthodox Jewish family, Spinoza spent most of his life mildly grinding away at lenses and thinking about philosophical matters. In 1656 the Talmud Torah congregation of Amsterdam excommunicated Spinoza after they got wind of his atheist beliefs. They branded him a heretic – which merely means not believing what your accusers want you to believe – and issued a condemnation which said (in part): “We order that no one should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favour, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells [about 30 inches] of him, or read anything composed or written by him.” Religious fanatics – probably a tautology – just won’t leave you alone. In the worst case they will take a weapon to persuade you.

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.