April 27, 2007
Boris Yeltsin's funeral and burial in Moscow were remarkable and historic
in many profound senses. Yeltsin was the first democratically-elected
president of the Russian Federation, which was built on the ruins of
the Soviet Empire. He was also the first Russian leader not to be killed
or die in office, but to leave office voluntarily and prematurely and
live a fairly peaceful and unremarkable retirement as an ordinary citizen.
In the case of nearly all previous Soviet leaders (and of course Russian
tsars), they were carried out of the Kremlin in their coffins and, in
the case of Soviet leaders, were buried by the walls of the Kremlin
next to Lenin's mausoleum.
Nikita Khrushchev, who also led a failed
campaign to humanise communism, provided the only exception to that
rule. Although his reformist movement proved rather premature, he too
was a reformer that has to stand next to Mikhail Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
Another remarkable contrast with previous
Soviet leaders was that the whole life of the country did not come to
a standstill at his death, and his coffin was not carried on the shoulders
of grim-faced communist leaders, lacking any warmth and sincere emotions.
In the case of Yeltsin, although there was a great deal of frustration
with his failed economic policies that created a dozen oligarchs and
billionaires at the cost of the poverty of millions of ordinary citizens,
there was a genuine sense of grief among some Russians who were happy
to be free. The funeral lacked either any sense of false hero worship
or strong resentment. The Russians treated their deceased leader as
an ordinary citizen, attributing to him many strong points, but also
However, to me the most remarkable
aspect of Yeltsin's funeral was that for the first time since 1903,
the funeral of a Russian leader was held in the city's main cathedral,
which had been destroyed by the communists in 1931and was rebuilt on
Yeltsin's orders in the 1990s. It was very apt that he should be mourned
in a cathedral that he had rebuilt, although he was not a devout Christian.
The Russian Orthodox patriarchs who were proudly conducting the funeral
of a Russian leader for the first time in over a century seemed to proclaim
a vindication of the resurrection of Christianity after 70 years of
Vladimir Putin, brought up under communism,
looked ill at ease at the endless chanting of prayers and the burning
of incense, but there he was in a rebuilt Christian cathedral paying
homage to the triumph of Christianity.
One of the regular programmes on the
nation-wide Russian Radio during the Soviet era celebrated the merits
of "scientific atheism". The programme went out of its way
to ridicule religious beliefs, describing them as pre-scientific superstitions,
and celebrating the inevitable triumph of scientific atheism. The programme
equally dealt with the backwardness of Christian beliefs, medieval practices,
the otherworldly and anti-social views and practices of monks and nuns,
as well as with the obscurantist views of Muslim clerics.
Religious clerics were described as
cheats and charlatans who were uttering mumbo jumbo in order to dull
the minds of their followers. On the other hand, scientific atheism
had freed man from addiction to "the opium of the masses"
and was moving them towards a communist utopia. Yet the communist system
did not produce the promised utopia. It did not result in human happiness,
freedom, enlightenment and salvation. It enslaved millions of people
and sent an untold number of thinkers, writers and artists into gulags.
Just like Nazism and Maoism, it was responsible for some of the most
barbaric slaughters that history has ever known.
This article is not about the merits
or demerits of religion versus communism. It simply aims to point out
that with the fall of the Soviet Union there has been a religious revival
in nearly all the countries formerly ruled by Moscow. A few generations
of Russian children were brought up completely alien to Christianity
and strangers to the churches and cathedrals. Yet no sooner did communism
fall than they flocked back to the Churches.
The same thing happened in Central
Asian countries and in the Caucasus where the end of communism witnessed
a return to Islam with a vengeance. Iran's seventy-year experiment with
secularism from the dawn of the Constitutional Revolution (1905-11)
and fifty-year rule of the Pahlavis came to an end as the result of
a popular religious revolution led by an exiled cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah
Stalin contemptuously asked how many
divisions the Pope had, yet those seemingly powerless people had the
last laugh. Poland, the first country to mount an anti-Soviet challenge,
did so in the name of Christianity, led by a Polish-born bishop who
later became Pope. Jean Paul's papacy exerted perhaps a greater influence
on the collapse of communism than any other factor. He offered an alternative
to communism, which was familiar, age-old, enduring, and with a spiritual
message that was lacking in godless communism.
Pope John Paul II's funeral provided
an amazing sign of his popularity not only among former communists,
but among 'secular' Europeans. It was called the greatest funeral in
history. No one could have predicted the extraordinary way in which
his funeral dominated the attention of the whole world. Not only did
millions of the Catholic faithful – including many young men and
women – pour through St Peter’s Square, but billions watched
it globally on television. Over 200 of the world’s leading statesmen,
including George W Bush and two former American presidents, dropped
everything to attend the Pope’s internment. Prince Charles altered
his wedding date in deference to the leader of the Catholic Church.
The same was true about Ayatollah Khomeini's
funeral in Tehran in 1989, when an estimated five million people filled
the streets of Tehran to take part in that historic event. Khomeini
had presided over a devastating revolution, purges and an eight-year
war with Iraq that killed and wounded close to a million people. Yet,
despite all that and contrary to all expectations that his death would
sound the death-knell of the Islamic Republic, this event produced an
outpouring of grief unprecedented in Iranian history.
It seems that there has been a revival
of religion world-wide. Even in the United States where religion and
politics are supposed to be separate, the religious right exerts a great
influence over politics. In secular Turkey that has been militantly
secular since the establishment of the state 75 years ago, there is
a popular Islamic government in power and there are more worrying tensions
beneath the surface. Israel has been founded on the basis of a biblical
promise to Abraham and to 'the Chosen People'.
Many earlier Enlightenment scholars
must be turning in their graves at what is happening in the world. After
all, many European intellectuals had proclaimed the 'death of God' and
the end of religion. Rather like the communists, the famous nineteenth
century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was very contemptuous of Christianity.
Even more strongly than the great British historian Edward Gibbon, the
author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Nietzsche
associated Christianity with barbarism. He argued that "Christianity
did everything possible to orientalise the Occident." To him, Orientalism
was the antithesis of Greek rationalism and synonymous with ignorance
and backwardness. He went into some eloquence in denouncing Asia and
Christianity in the same breath: "Christianity wants to destroy,
shatter, stun, intoxicate; there is only one thing it does not want:
moderation, and for this reason, it is in its deepest meaning barbaric,
Asiatic, ignoble, un-Greek."
However, maybe the reason for religion's
longevity, despite all the criticisms of its detractors, lies in what
Nietzsche wrote about man's worthlessness. This great enemy of God and
religion had a pretty low opinion of man's life. He wrote: “How
poor is man after all, how ugly, how wheezing, how full of hidden shame!”
Is it not because of this hedonistic and materialistic view of man that
religion seems attractive by lifting man's gaze towards the heavens,
raising man above the angels and teaching about immortality and eternity?
Religion seems to provide answers to
some questions that science is incapable of answering. In the words
of Germany's greatest philosopher Immanuel Kant, religion deals with
'transcendental' issues, ideas and concepts that 'transcend' man's rational
faculties. At the beginning of his “Critique of Pure Reason”
Kant made the following statement:
"Human reason, in one sphere of
its cognition, is called upon to consider questions, which it cannot
decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot
answer, as they transcend every faculty of the mind… It thus falls
into confusion and contradictions, from which it conjectures the presence
of latent errors, which, however, it is unable to discover, because
the principles it employs, transcending the limits of experience, cannot
be tested by that criterion. The arena of these endless contests is
The contemporary world suffers from
two forms of 'fundamentalisms', religious fundamentalism and secular
fundamentalism. Secular fundamentalism is as dangerous and misguided
as religious fundamentalism. While the West is relaxed with the resurgence
of Christianity, it is very uncomfortable with the rise of Islam among
the Muslims, associating Islam with the antics of the terrorists. We
have conveniently forgotten that many of today's fundamentalists and
terrorists were of our own creation. Their rise to power had everything
to do with politics and little with religion.
At the end of 1979 Soviet forces invaded
Afghanistan. The event was described in cataclysmic terms, as a major
threat to the West. It seemed that the whole of the Middle East was
about to slip out of Western control. President Jimmy Carter issued
his famous 'Carter Doctrine', proclaiming that the Persian Gulf constituted
a major area of vital US national interest and that the US would defend
it by all means necessary. However, what is not often realised is what
brought the Soviet forces to Afghanistan in the first place. According
to some major Western players, Afghanistan was a trap laid for the Soviet
Union to do to it what Vietnam had done to America.
The United States provided massive
military and financial assistance to the religious fanatics, the Mujahedin
(the Holy Warriors), in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the help of Saudi
money and military assistance from the Islamist government of General
Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan who had toppled the democratically elected government
of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The war in Afghanistan lasted for ten years
with some 30,000 Soviet forces killed and tens of thousands wounded.
Over two million Afghans were killed and another five million became
refugees in Iran and Pakistan and many others were made homeless inside
Afghanistan, and the country was devastated.
Yet, subsequently, we learned that
there was more to that invasion than meets the eye. Zbigniew Brzesinksi,
national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, in a 1998 interview
with Le Nouvel Observateur openly admitted that the official story that
the US gave military aid to the Afghan opposition only after the Soviet
invasion in 1979 was false. The truth was, he said, that the US began
aiding the Islamic fundamentalist Mojahedin six months before the Russians
made their move because, in his words, "this aid was going to induce
a Soviet military intervention."
Brzesinksi was asked if he regretted
this decision: "Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent
idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap
and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed
the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity
of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War. Indeed, for almost ten years,
Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict
that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the
After the Soviet invasion, Brzezinski
wrote to President Carter: "This will require a review of our policy
toward Pakistan, more guarantees to it, more arms aid, and, alas, a
decision that our security policy towards Pakistan cannot be dictated
by our non-proliferation policy." Later, Brzezinski offered the
explanation: "The question here was whether it was morally acceptable
that, in order to keep the Soviets off balance, which was the reason
for the operation, it was permissible to use other lives for our geopolitical
Clearly, it was 'morally acceptable'
to sacrifice millions of Afghans for the United States' geopolitical
Robert Gates, the present defence secretary
and the then director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, wrote in
a State Department report in 1979, months before the Soviets rolled
across the border to support the Taraki-Amin regime: "Beginning
early in 1979, the United States government began considering providing
covert support to the potential opposition in the mujahideen in Afghanistan
and, beginning in July, actually the president authorised the kind of
support…. The United States' larger interest… would be served
by the demise of the [pro-Soviet] Taraki-Amin regime, despite whatever
setbacks this might mean for future social and economic reforms in Afghanistan."
President Najibullah, the last Afghan
president before the Mujahedin came to power, made the following prophetic
statement to reporters: "If fundamentalism comes to Afghanistan,
war will continue for many years. Afghanistan will turn into a centre
of world smuggling for narcotic drugs. Afghanistan will be turned into
a centre for terrorism." His prediction proved all too accurate.
On September 26, 1996, the Taliban conquered Kabul. The first thing
they did was to drag President Najibullah and his brother from the UN
compound where he had taken refuge and hanged them in public. The next
day they expelled 8,000 female undergraduates from Kabul University
and fired a similar number of women schoolteachers.
May be the lesson that we should learn
from all this is that we should review our 'war on terror'. Trying to
fight against a religion with military means is futile and only results
in greater fanaticism and militancy. The present 'war on terror', far
from isolating and defeating the terrorists, has isolated moderate Muslims
and strengthened the extremists and the terrorists. We need to change
We need the help of moderate Muslims
in order to defeat Islamic extremism, but this cannot be achieved so
long as we lump them all together, attack their countries and ridicule
their beliefs. In the same way that moderate Christianity provides some
answers to the needs of millions of Christians, moderate Islam can play
the same role for Muslims. We should not fear Islam, but we should fear
Islamic and secular fundamentalism.
In the words of Justice Louis D. Brandeis,
"The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment
by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding."
Farhang Jahanpour is a former professor
and dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan. He
has taught at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, as well as teaching
online courses for Oxford, Yale and Stanford. He spent a year as a Senior
Fulbright Research Scholar at Harvard. Dr Jahanpour also spent many
years as Editor for Middle East and North Africa at the BBC Monitoring
Service. For the past 20 years he has been a part-time tutor at the
Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford.