The Failure of Forced Conversions: Islamic Extremists Ignore Historic Lessons

In addition to slaughtering those that do not subscribe to their warped religious vision, Islamic extremist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram have attempted to forcibly convert populations on mass. It is true that the Prophet Muhammad was an advocate of converting the ‘heathens’ by force, if necessary, but what such endeavours are expected to achieve is unclear. The extremists certainly do not seem to have learnt from history.

ISIS has shown increasing willingness to execute those not willing to convert to Islam Source: Daily Sabah
ISIS has shown increasing willingness to execute those not willing to convert to Islam
Source: Daily Sabah

The desire to convert groups of people to a particular religious or belief system is as old as time. Since the general move away from polytheism centuries ago, a religious competition has been fought between disparate groups in an attempt to elevate their own god above any other.

From the Christian military orders attempting to convert the pagans of Europe, to the Islamic armies’ prosletyzing marches across the Middle East, there has existed an obsession with overhauling the belief systems of alien peoples. Perhaps the most noticeable example of this is the Catholic missionaries’ efforts to convert the indigenous populations of the New World after Columbus’ voyage of 1492.

As soon as the first Franciscan friars arrived in the Caribbean after Columbus’ voyage, in Mesoamerica after the conquests of the Aztec and Mayan empires, and in South America after the overthrow of the Inca, the process of eradicating heresy began. Mass baptisms took place simultaneously with the destruction of temples and pre-contact icons, Christian churches were built and instruction in the scriptures took place.

The Spanish justified their conquest of the Americas through converting the natives
The Spanish justified their conquest of the Americas through converting the natives

Of course this was not a process that could take place overnight. Language barriers and the refusal of the Amerindians to discard their traditional beliefs led to severe problems for the ruling Spanish. Many of the indigenous people simply interpreted Christianity in their own way, making deities out of saints and relating Bible stories to their own banished religions.

Others converted simply out of fear. Whilst they attended mass and placed crosses above their doors, in private they continued to worship the same gods of their childhood, carrying small sacred objects (Illas) that defied the zealous friars. Christian burials were introduced and yet the natives would often sneak back at night and retrieve the bodies of their loved ones for a traditional funeral practices.

The corruption of some priests – who engaged in secular activities aimed at material gain – further restricted the ‘spiritual conquest’ of Spanish America, preventing the Europeans from ever really exerting a complete hold on the population. With approximately one priest to every 10,000 natives the task of conversion was hard enough and cutting corners as a means of justifying their conquest in the eyes of god had a limited effect.

Ironically, the Spaniards had already encountered such problems at home during the infamous early days of the Inquisition. The Catholic monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, expelled all those Jews and Muslims from their country who were unwilling to convert. Those that stayed and adopted Christianity (conversos), however, often continued to pursue their own forms of worship in private. The occasional brutality of the Inquisition only bred resentment and resistance.

The brutal methods employed by the Spanish Inquisition to convert 'heretics' travelled to the New World
The brutal methods employed by the Spanish Inquisition to convert ‘heretics’ travelled to the New World

The terror tactics of ISIS, Boko Haram and others are likely to be similarly ineffective. Whilst in theory they might increase the number of converts to extreme Islam, in reality their murderous and dictatorial methods are likely to strengthen the resolve of their opponents, even creating alliances between opposing religious and ethnic groups that would otherwise steer clear of one another.

In the New World, the Spanish failure to achieve the spiritual conquest of the continent was not terminal, thanks to their overwhelming military superiority and the influx of European diseases that ravaged the native population.

Today’s brutal converters do not have the same power on their side; rather, they are gradually encouraging a coalition of enemies whose mutual desire to destroy such evil outweighs their own quarrels and disagreements.

A Repeat of 1934? Nepal’s Earthquake Vulnerabilities and the Challenge of Survival

The death toll from the devastating Nepal earthquake has passed 4,000 and looks set to rise as rescue efforts struggle to locate survivors and account for the dead. At the moment, it is the worst earthquake to hit the country since 1934 when more than 10,000 people died across the Nepalese-Indian border after a magnitude 8.4 earthquake struck near Mount Everest, the site of 17 deaths in this latest disaster.

Rescue efforts are hampered by the extensive destruction Source: BBC
Rescue efforts are hampered by the extensive destruction
Source: BBC

The severity of the 1934 earthquake was such that the walls and facings of many buildings in Calcutta – some 400 miles away – cracked, whilst others collapsed. In the settlements surrounding the epicentre, meanwhile, almost every structure sustained serious damage. The violent shaking of the initial earthquake caused many buildings to crumble, with subsequent fissures in the ground forcing thousands of others to tilt or subside. Similar patterns of damage have been witnessed in the past couple of days.

For many people living in Nepal and the northern Indian state of Bihar during the 1930s, their dwellings consisted of little more than mud huts which succumbed easily to the violent force of the tremors. Despite the warnings of past events, few people in Nepal are able to afford more substantial houses even today, hence the level of destruction.

Another consequence of the earthquake in 1934 was the ejection of huge quantities of sand from the fissures, causing thousands of acres of fertile farmland to be buried, a fatal repercussion for the survivors who relied on this land for their day-to-day survival. The silting up of rivers and lakes provided its own challenge to the regional water supply.

The damage caused by the great earthquake of 1934 is reminiscent of today - as are its causes and repercussions Source: Today Top Trends
The damage caused by the great earthquake of 1934 is reminiscent of today – as are its causes and repercussions
Source: Today Top Trends

As with last weekend’s earthquake, the 1934 event resulted in the destruction of historic sites, ancient temples and municipal buildings. Not only was the human cost vast but the cultural and religious cost also, providing an added demoralisation to those living in its midst.

Most of the buildings in Kathmandu were destroyed or damaged beyond repair, large cracks appearing in the roadways, swallowing all in their way. Amazingly, the sacred 5th century Pashupatinath Temple at the city’s heart survived relatively undamaged in 1934, just as it has today. The apparent indestructibility of the Guardian Deity of Nepal offers hope to all.

The survival of the Pashupatinath Temple is one of the few positive news stories in recent days Source: Wikipedia
The survival of the Pashupatinath Temple is one of the few positive news stories in recent days
Source: Wikipedia

Writing shortly after the 1934 earthquake, Nobuji Nasu made the following observations about how to ensure the region was better prepared for similar events in the future:

1) Use only good quality mortar and bricks;

2) Ensure buildings are monolithic;

3) Avoid loose beams and joists in the upper floors and roofs of dwellings;

4) Increase the strength of the walls.

Nasu wrote that adopting such procedures after the 1923 Tokyo Earthquake had put Japan in a better position to resist the devastating impacts of earthquakes. Yet at the same time he noted that:

The unfortunate part of it however is the inability of the average Indian householder to afford to use high-grade building materials.

However much we learn from the disasters of the past, simple economics will always play a key role in deciding whether these lessons can be actioned. The devastation in Nepal over the weekend goes further to prove the heightened vulnerability of impoverished and overpopulated communities in resisting natural disasters, something that even developed countries find challenging enough.

Source

Nasu, N., ‘The Great Indian Earthquake of January 15, 1934’, Earthquake Research Institute (1935)

Uzbekistan, Torture and the Hypocrisy of the West: from Silk Road Marvel to Repressed State

Amnesty International’s recent report on the systematic use of torture in the judicial process of Uzbekistan is both timely and concerning. With human rights abuses flagged up frequently in various parts of the globe, it is interesting how, in some countries, such violations are allowed to continue without serious censure.

Political prisoners in Uzbekistan are subjected to Spartan conditions Source: RT
Political prisoners in Uzbekistan are subjected to Spartan conditions
Source: RT

Uzbekistan is ruled by Islam Karimov, a dictator in all but name. He has led the Central Asian state since independence in 1991 and was, indeed, the General Secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Karimov does not make any serious attempts to hide the gross injustices of the political and judicial systems that he has helped forge. Confessions of ‘anti-state’ and ‘terrorist’ activity proliferate, often drawn from brutal interrogations meted out to opponents of the regime. These forced testimonies are typically accepted by pro-Karimov judges without question, the battered and bruised bodies of the accused simply ignored in court.

Karimov was born in Samarkand, a city historically associated with the Silk Road. In the Middle Ages it became, along with the current Uzbek capital Tashkent, a vibrant centre of commerce, scholarship and religious debate. Even the Mongols – hardly renowned for their patronage of culture – accepted the freedom of thought and expression that had taken root in these great cities.

Gur-e-Amir - the mausoleum of Mongol leader Timur (Tamerlane) in Samarkand Source: Get In Travel
Gur-e-Amir – the mausoleum of Mongol leader Timur (Tamerlane) in Samarkand
Source: Get In Travel

Today, despite retaining vestiges of its glorious past, Uzbekistan is one of the most repressed societies in the world. Yet, as both Amnesty and other charities have been eager to point out, it has become a crucial ally to the West. As such, it is immune to the criticisms so frequently directed by the United States and its allies towards ‘less important’ states who are engaged in similar abuses of human, social and political rights.

Having made his country an indispensable supply route for the coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan, and taken a strong stance against Islamic extremists, Karimov can wield disproportionate influence for a leader of a country with limited means. That Uzbekistan is also well within the Russian orbit further restricts the desire of the West to alienate its president with demands for political reform.

Global politics is inherently hypocritical and the case of Uzbekistan and the West is a perfect example. Just as disappointing, though, is how a country with settlements that once stood at the forefront of human civilization can have been reduced to serving one man and his cronies,

When the Afghan adventure finally ends, the US and its allies need to consider what Uzbekistan really has to offer them and whether they would not be better placed agitating for greater freedoms for the country’s industrious people. Otherwise it will be left to China to fill the void, a role President Xi Jinping is rather hoping it will seize.

Xi's 'One Belt, One Road', plans to create a modern Silk Road with China at its heart
Xi’s ‘One Belt, One Road’, plans to create a modern Silk Road with China at its heart