Des Moines Register 05-25-07 Basu: Religious, secular camps square off around globe

Des Moines Register
Basu: Religious, secular camps square off around globe
Some new church-state controversies, including one brewing at Iowa State
University, suggest we're gearing up for a fresh wave of battles between
religious fundamentalism and secular institutions. And not just Christian
The cases, though across the globe, have much in common. They begin with
members of the majority religion claiming liberties that are then challenged by
civil libertarians. That, in turn, draws counter-claims by the fundamentalists that
their religion is under attack. But what might really be under attack is the right to
worship, or even interpret religion, differently than the majority.
Ninety-six ISU faculty members have signed a petition opposing the
appointment of a chaplain for the football team, saying, students are "best served
by their own clergy" and should be free not to believe or participate in any
religious practices to play sports. That, they say, would violate the establishment
clause of the First Amendment, since ISU is a publicly funded institution.
The petition was sent to the Register by Religion Professor Hector Avalos, who
was also behind a 2005 petition against teaching Intelligent Design as science.
That one was in response to the appointment of astronomy professor Guillermo
Gonzalez, an Intelligent Design proponent, who is appealing his tenure denial.
It seems that fundamentalist leaders have made a calculated decision to step up
activities that wouldn't have been contemplated in the past. Earlier this month,
the Register reported on charges by a Navy veteran, an Orthodox Jew, that
fundamentalist Christian chaplains and staff at the VA Medical Center in Iowa
City repeatedly tried to convert him while treating him. And consider the parallels
even 10,000 miles away, in India, where the majority religion is Hinduism. Earlier
this month, an art student at a state university in India's Gujarat state was
arrested and imprisoned on charges of "deliberately offending religious
sentiments." That was because of his final project, which depicted a many-armed
woman (like a Hindu goddess) holding weapons and giving birth. It was hanging
in the art school's library.
Police were called to the university by an offended lawyer affiliated with the
Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power in that state.
Taking their cue from the lawyer, university officials urged police to arrest their
In response, other students then put together an exhibit showing that ancient
Indian art is rich in eroticism. The university closed down the exhibit, sealed the
art history archives and suspended the acting dean of the art school.
A few things worth noting: India, like the United States, is a secular democracy —
the world's largest. It has a thriving free press and a booming, educated
consumer class. Though 82 percent of the country is Hindu, at least six other
major religions are practiced.
But Hindu fundamentalists, with political representation in the BJP, have been
fighting back against what they claim is their second-class citizenship. One group
vocal in the United States claims Hindus are being oppressed because, among
other things, too many Christian and Muslim government officials have been
appointed. As with Christian and Muslim fundamentalism, their campaign is
buoyed by claims that society is getting too immoral. In India, they raised a
recent flap over Richard Gere kissing an Indian actress at an award ceremony,
leading to a warrant for Gere's arrest.
In the United States, Christian fundamentalists are objecting to birth control and
sex education. Muslim fundamentalist leaders in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan
went to the extreme of barring women from appearing in public unless veiled and
with male escorts.
In all these cases, though they're the ones launching incursions against longestablished church-state separations, the groups are claiming their values are
under attack. One of India's most heavily visited tourist destinations is a 1,000year-old Hindu temple in Khajuraho, whose stone carvings graphically depict
sexual acts. Obviously Hinduism hasn't always been so anti-sex.
In a pluralist democracy, everyone must be free to worship as they choose, or
not to worship. The only way to preserve everyone's freedom of religion including that of the most orthodox - is to resist growing encroachments on the
(sacred) line separating voluntary from coercive.
REKHA BASU can be reached at [email protected] or (515) 284-8584.