Keeping an eye on religion-infused intolerance in Chechnya, Myanmar and the U.S.A.

Here’s yet another ripped-from-the-headlines example of political oppression girded by cultural norms rooted in religious beliefs. This time it's from the Russian republic of Chechnya -- the Putin-aligned, North Caucasus dictatorship that numerous reports say ruthlessly persecutes homosexuals.

In defense, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov argues, in essence, that because Chechnya is devoid of gays there simply is no way they can be persecuted, so it's case dismissed.

As I said, numerous reports contradict Kadyrov, a hardline Sunni Muslim and the son of an assassinated former president. Kadyrov also backs honor killings and polygamy.

Here’s one such report from The New Yorker. Here’s another from Toronto’s The Globe & Mail detailing how Canada has given asylum to gays who've escaped Chechnya.

Why bring this up? As a warning of the havoc that theocracies can cause when possessing unchallenged authority. It's religion’s shadow side that Godbeat reporters and other scribes should keep in mind. Pollyannaish coverage is no better than censorship, whether imposed or self-generated.

Because homosexuality offends Kadyrov’s Muslim beliefs does not mean that heterosexuals are necessarily safe from his oppressive hand.

His latest move is to force divorced heterosexual couples -- some long divorced -- to get back together “for the sake of the children” and his idea of family values. It's a story receiving broad international coverage. Here’s the top of a New York Times piece on the development.

MOSCOW -- Authorities in Russia’s Chechnya Republic are claiming success in an unconventional, sweeping campaign to compel people who have divorced to reunite, for the sake of the children -- and, they say, to help in the fight against terrorism.
Through the summer, local television has been reporting on the lives of divorced couples now living together again under the watchful eye of members of a government commission. It’s reality television, Chechen style.
The commission, known as the Council for Harmonizing Marriage and Family Relations, says it has over the past two months brought back together 948 couples, some after years of separation. Under the program, the council can ask the police to visit divorced people to encourage them to patch up their differences.
The broadcasts show formerly divorced people going about their lives in a now common home, mostly avoiding one another but also spending time with the children. One mother helped with homework; another was shown putting a hat on a child’s head as he played in the sun.
“This happy reunion became possible because of a program of the region’s leader,” a television reporter said, referring to Ramzan A. Kadyrov. “Despite mutual antagonism, hundreds of divorced couples are responding to the call.”
However farcical on the surface, the program, as with all social policy in Chechnya, is lethally serious. Failure to comply with demands of the regional leadership can have severe consequences, far worse than living with a despised former partner.

But what if the divorced man remarried, you may ask?

No problem. As I also said above, Kadyrov’s OK with polygamy.

This Daily Mail piece explains that the former wife simply becomes an additional wife. A Chechen official is quoted as saying, “After our commission's work, a man got his first wife back, and now lives with two wives, because under Islam a man can have four wives.”

What’s happening in Chechnya is indicative of a certain type of story -- the adequately or even well covered international story that despite its exposure gains relatively little traction beyond the global media elite. Many such stories have a religion angle at their core.

However, the average American news consumer just doesn't care enough about global trends of this kind for them to generate consistent strong play.

Another example of this is the bloody Buddhist-Muslim conflict in Myanmar. Click here, or click here for the details.

A particularly striking part of the Myanmar story is the role played by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Sun Kyi, the nation’s de facto leader. Once the personification of the non-violent Buddhist leader, she’s now heavily criticized by the international community for refusing to end her nation’s harsh treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority.

Look, I get it. Hurricane Harvey’s devastation of Houston is a story of far greater interest and consequence for Americans.

Ditto for the growing concern over North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapon technology, President Donald Trump’s unpredictability, and the contentious policy debates over immigration, health care and tax reform.

Additionally, readers are generally aware that religious persecution is an ageless and ongoing form of intolerance that remains widespread today in the Muslim world -- Saudi Arabia and Pakistan being two prime examples. In short, what's happening in Chechnya is not exactly surprising news to most Americans.

Nor is this intolerance unknown today in pockets of the Jewish world (witness the ultra-Orthodox in Israel). In the Christian world, persecution and intolerance likewise may be seen in the Russian Orthodox Church’s hostility toward Jehovah's Witnesses and some other new religious movements. And also in the rhetoric of some self-styled white Christian nationalists in the U.S. (let's not forget Charlottesville).

For all these reasons and more, fellow journalists, keep an eye on religious intolerance. Not just in Chechnya but in the non-Muslim world as well -- including in the United States. It's a dangerous trend.

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