When Calls To Prayer Turn To Declarations Of War

Invoking religion against one's enemies is a sure way to perpetuate resentment and war. It stretches from the Crusades to the internet where you are reading right now.

ISIS militant in Syria
ISIS militant in Syria
Eduardo Barajas Sandoval

When calling the faithful to prayers begins to sound like calling up your reservists, war — of the most utterly useless kind — is often not far behind.

The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), as well as a resilient al-Qaeda and the fertile ground for other armed gangs around the idea of a "holy war" and a militaristic reading of the notion of Jihad, continue to threaten peace in our world. The mutation of the call to fortify your faith into a destructive political concept has found adepts among those who feel angry and excluded when different worlds come into contact.

Factors outside religion, like European imperialism, colonial exploitation of Third World nations, racial discrimination and increasing gaps in wealth around the world, have helped breed resentment that expresses itself in acts of savagery against ordinary people and the recruitment of "fighters' for a "final" confrontation with Western civilization in the name of Islam.

Wars fought for religious motives — whichever creed might be fomenting them for its own domination — aim to defeat the enemy in battle but ultimately strengthen conflicting convictions on all sides in the process. Such convictions reside in mental recesses that no army can penetrate — and entire peoples have survived for decades (or even centuries) under the domination of an imposed dogma, only to emerge with their hidden beliefs intact.

"Your violent god will never convince me," a Canadian Indian once told a French missionary. "He threatens me with hellfire and uses your weapons to try to make me abandon my god who is peaceful and benevolent." The frustrated missionary felt obliged to threaten him further, with punishments barely comprehensible to the native within his culture and spiritual beliefs. Private faith is a magical, mysterious place where brute force ultimately has little persuasive sway.

The Crusades raised the banner of Christendom's defense against the "aggression" of Islamic armies that had occupied Christian holy places, even though the Muslims followed a faith that shared Christianity's Biblical roots. Yet in the end, these holy wars became nothing more than adventures in the pursuit of power with the deaths of so many innocent victims.

The seeds of resentment sowed are still being reaped in conflicts that have yet to run out of steam or eager participants. Self-appointed defenders of the faith pick up the historical baton and strike at passers-by on a promenade in the south of France or Christmas market in Berlin.

A Republican president of the United States made the error in 2003 of qualifying his calamitous attack on Iraq as a "crusade." That adventure deepened not just political divisions, but those between the Christian and Islamic views of history. Nobody knows how the next U.S. president will meet the challenge of al-Qaeda, ISIS and other groups fighting in the Middle East and beyond. He might soon be teaming up with Russia's Vladimir Putin, the self-styled imposer of "peace" in Syria.

But to avoid a disastrous deviation by this trans-Atlantic duo, we should certainly look harder at how disparate civilizations and socio-political models might be able to help defuse the spirit of confrontation many insist on attributing to religion. We've seen how online social networking, which transcends borders and brings us together at the most day-to-day level, can deepen the existing conflicts. It can also be used to defuse them.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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