On the night of March 19, 2003, the U.S. (and its 'coalition of the willing') began its bombardment of Baghdad, Iraq. At the very moment when the green-blob rockets began crossing the night skies on TV, I was emailing with a young Iraqi with whom I had had previous contact on the topic of Buddhism. "It has begun," M wrote. "The bombs are falling. Pray for us." And that was the last contact I had with him.
Today there was a note from him on this blog. It indicated that he had made it to Toronto, was applying for asylum, and wanted me to support his application, which he based on persecution he had felt from fellow Iraqis due to his interest in Buddhism. He asked me to delete his comments on this blog because he feared retribution, even in Toronto.
I have no documentation to support his claim, but I am certainly willing to do what I can. I don't know for a fact that he suffered more than the discomforts any 19-year-old might sustain in a religious environment that did not take kindly to apostate interlopers like Buddhism. But I do have some sense that Muslims, like Christians, can be pretty hostile -- and hostile in a beat-you-to-a-pulp sense -- when other 'religions' are mentioned or introduced.
The situation made me realize how little I know of the cultures that populate the planet I live on. And more, the casual assumptions I make about the freedoms I enjoy. To me, spiritual life is your business as long as you don't take it out on someone else in violent ways. But I have been in groups (the smaller version of cultures) where the slightest deviation from the norm is treated as inimical and worthy of being shut down ... hard. So, based on that (think military, rabid political groups, sports-fan gatherings, etc.) I can imagine a bit of what it might be like to live where the doors a closed and locked with a vengeance, where social order will not tolerate ... well, anything it does not tolerate.
My ignorance expresses itself, in part, in a wide-eyed surprise: Why in the world would anyone deny another the right to do what s/he does naturally ... think about things, nibble at the smorgasbord of life? It simply doesn't make any sense in my naively shuttered and sometimes self-servingly outraged mind. "That's awful!" my white-whine mind whines.
But awful or not, there are the facts, and facts deserve respect if you don't want them to come around and bite you on the ass. Other persuasions may strike me as foolish, unkind and a variety of other things, and still -- they are FACTS. It's time to grow up and stop primping and grooming in the comfort of my own, well-appointed home.
In the United States, spiritual life is more often than not an arm-chair occupation. On Buddhist bulletin boards, internet participants fret about "rebirth" and "compassion" and whether "study without a teacher." There are blips of fire when the Ku Klux Klan spouts its version of Christianity or some sex cult is uncovered ... but basically, spiritual life is pretty laissez-faire.
It is hard to envision a place where social and mental handcuffs are applied in the name of religion. It really doesn't matter whether it makes sense or not, is unkind or not. What matters is whether it is a fact or not ... and as far as I can figure out, it is a fact that some places indulge in the religion of the rack.