Hazel McHaffie

Muslims

The price of fanaticism

Following on from Educated (which I reviewed three weeks ago), I was recommended to read Unfollow which tracks the life of Megan Phelps-Roper, the third of eleven children, brought up in the infamous  Westboro Baptist Church, raised to uphold extreme religious views, and take part in public condemnation of everyone outside their community. Though they’re a family of well-educated lawyers, they become ‘the most hated family in America’, but the more vilified and persecuted by the world they are, the better pleased they become: it just demonstrates that they’re indeed chosen by God as his beloved. They and they alone are right; other churches are misguided ‘social clubs’ destined for perdition.

Reading it was not a good experience! I had to force myself to persevere.

The echoes of Tara’s experience in Educated soon began to ring ominously. Saturated in the doctrines of exclusivity and condemnation … terror that the evil within would bar them from God and his people for ever … re-writing history to suit the family’s image … a public show of piety and extreme zeal for God; a different story behind the scenes … an obsessive concern to show a united front within the fold; ready to cast to the dogs anyone who dared to leave it … accountable to no one outside their fences … Uncomfortable reading indeed. And I think, the more so because this family are educated intelligent men and women.

This text, they believe, was made for them and them alone:
But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged on no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.

Watching this young girl, fortified by direct Biblical quotes, glorying in condemning all homosexuals, Jews, Mother Theresa, Princess Diana, the Swedish royal family, and her own deserting brother; revelling in the collapse of the Twin Towers and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in the 2004 tsunami; organising picketing at the funerals of young soldiers; chilled me to the bone. But she’s implacably set for the defence of the gospel, believing utterly in her myopic picture of a murderous and cruel and wrathful God, who’s bent on humiliation and punishment.

Clearly, the whole world was deceived – but we weren’t. How lucky we were to have the favor of God.

But the brutal elements of their way of life tell a different story, and Megan starts to connect the violence of her mother and grandfather with the church’s attitude to the suffering of outsiders. They actually rejoice at the demise of those people, their total destruction. And violence was how you taught obedience.

Then a lawsuit is filed against them for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, arising from one of many funerals they picketed (a Marine in Maryland). Their response? To pray for the Lord to kill the father of that dead Marine and the lawyers filing the complaint! You couldn’t make it up, could you? Megan herself has her first serious wobble, questioning the behaviour she’s called to support. She’s twenty years old. But the multimillion-dollar judgement against them is eventually overturned at appeal, and they head in a ‘spirit of triumphalism and invulnerability’, for the United States Supreme Court – the highest in the land. It’s now 2010.

The level of insensitivity and obscene ridicule of others’ finer feelings, beggars belief, and yet Megan says she loved it, so confident was she that she was doing the Lord’s work. She travelled far and wide propagating the church’s message against gays, Jews, schools, Muslims, the Grammys, the Oscars … the list goes on and on.

But gradually, gradually she begins to feel sadness in response to the very tragedies her family celebrates. Her alienation is accelerated when self-appointed arrogant elders take over control of the church, making implacable demands for unquestioning obedience, showing a pernicious need for superiority and control, imposing draconian rules, punishing viciously former stalwarts and linchpins. And when her own relatives become the hapless victims, feeling their pain, she at last recognises, with horrifying clarity, that they had all been behaving in this way to outsiders. In humility and shame she realises their church, far from hand selected by God, are completely deluded and fallible people.

Doubts multiply, troublesome questions besiege her. She faces a terrible choice. But, after a lifetime in the protective embrace of family and church, how could she wrench herself away and face the hostile world she has consistently vilified? Whether she leaves or stays her prospects are bleak.

But increasingly she sees the arrogance and incomprehensibility of her former position:
the Bible was written thousands of years ago in languages no one speaks anymore … and somehow, Westboro alone has figured out its one true meaning?… Coming face-to-face with my arrogance, aggressive in its misplaced certainty, was a special sort of shame.

When she issues a public statement decrying her former life and affiliation to Westboro, and later, when she actually meets those she decried, she’s staggered by the generosity of spirit that forgives her and reaches out in friendship and compassion.

It wasn’t the desire for an easy life that led me to leave (my family). Losing them was the price of honesty. A shredded heart for a quiet conscience.

A searingly honest account of the price of fanaticism. And a sobering reflection given what such obsessive arrogance is wreaking in the world today. The redeeming feature is that Megan has made it her mission since to do all she can to be a vocal and empathic advocate for the very people she was taught to despise.

 

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Hell on earth

Evin prison in Tehran has a worse reputation than Alcatraz, and it was this nightmarish place I was reading about when I sent last week’s post. Coincidentally, it came up in the news only a couple of days ago, in an interview with a dual national, Kurdish/British, academic, an anthropologist, who recently escaped while out on bail from Evin, trekking on foot through the mountains, and has now taken refuge in Britain. He had already undergone three months of psychological torture, and couldn’t face another 10 years.

Built during the reign of the Shah of Iran, this notorious compound, Evin prison, was originally intended to hold opponents to his regime. Since his fall from power in 1979, it’s been used for political prisoners, solitary confinement, and torture of those deemed to be enemies of the Islamic state. It has an horrific record in serious human rights abuses. Originally designed to house 320 inmates — 20 in solitary cells and 300 in two large communal blocks — by 1977 it had expanded to hold more than 1,500 prisoners, including 100 solitary cells for political prisoners. It has its own execution yard and courtroom on site, which probably says a lot.

And yet, two Iranian women, Marziyeh Amarizadeh and Maryam Rostampour, found it easier to experience God’s presence and peace there, and for their Christian faith to thrive, than in the outside world. Why?

Because inside this dark hell they turned on the light for so many others, and saw the amazing opportunities for witness that incarceration offered. In the deepest recesses of the most feared ward in the most notorious prison in one of the most oppressed nations in the world they could pray with and for their fellow prisoners and their captors openly and courageously.
… how easy it was to witness behind bars compared to the work we had done on the outside. [We] didn’t have to look for prospects or sneak New Testaments into their mailboxes. We could talk to them openly rather than hiding behind closed doors or in basements. Our fellow prisoners were hungry for the truth. Desperate for it.

And they used every opportunity they could. As Anne Graham Lotz says in her foreword:
Their love for the least, their kindness to the meanest, their gentleness to the roughest, their willingness to serve in the dirtiest place imaginable is truly a stunningly clear reflection of the Jesus they love, as well as evidence of His presence inside those walls,
and they (with John Perry) have recounted what life was like in that hell hole in Captive in Iran.

Marziyeh Amarizadeh and Maryam Rostampour were both born into Muslim families in Iran. They became Christians in 1998, and met while studying Christian theology in Turkey in 2005. They extended their ministry to India, S Korea and Turkey. When they returned to Iran, they began spreading the gospel message to anyone who would listen, handing out 20,000 New Testaments, and starting two house churches in their apartment in Tehran – one for young people, one for prostitutes. But after three years, in March 2009, they were arrested and imprisoned for 259 days in Evin Prison on charges of apostasy, anti-government activity and blasphemy. There was ample evidence of their activities.

Technically it’s not illegal to be a Christian in Iran, but converting from Islam to another faith, as well as evangelising on behalf of that faith, are considered crimes of apostasy punishable by death. Accordingly the threat of execution hung over these two young women throughout their detention in Evin. But in spite of it, and in defiance of the squalor, the stench, the overcrowding, the terrible food, the incompetent medical care, the punitive routines, they continued to share their deep faith and hope, and found responsive hearts and minds amongst the drug addicts, the murderers, the political rebels, the staunch Muslims, the abused, even amongst some of the guards.
Never in our lives would we form friendships as deep and rich as the ones God had blessed us with behind the high and foreboding walls of Evin Prison.
To their surprise, they found a common bond: they were united by their fierce opposition to the injustice and brutality of the prevailing oppressive regime, that has destroyed the body and soul of the Iranian people.

And outside, a growing movement was publicising their plight and seeking justice. Thousands around the world prayed for their freedom. International pressure was brought to bear on their behalf. Amnesty International, the United Nations and the Vatican all got involved. But even when it was clear the charges against them could not be upheld, somehow a way needed to be found that allowed the authorities to release them without losing face. After many false starts, it was eventually found.

After their release they faced a new and real danger. Not only would they be constantly observed for any infringement of the law, no matter how slight, but anyone they met or fraternised with was in jeopardy. They were torn.
Despite what the government did to us, we continue to love our country very much and pray for the freedom of our fellow Iranians …
They so much wanted to help everyone to find freedom in faith, but the prospect of being instrumental in the death or imprisonment of their fellow Iranians was too much for them. In the end they elected to emigrate to the USA.

Captive in Iran is at one a damning indictment of a harsh and punitive regime, and a triumph of good over evil. Would I have had the courage to see incarceration in this prison hell as a God-given opportunity? I very much doubt it.

 

 

 

 

 

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