Tag Archives: Swastika

No Take Backs

By Steven Philp

There are times when “reclaiming”—politically redefining a word or symbol—goes a little too far. On Sunday, July 3 members of a small, but growing, religious sect called the International Raelian Movement (IRM) set up shop at Pride Toronto 2011 to raise awareness about their organization, featuring a rather curious juxtaposition in their official logo: a star of David intertwined with a swastika. This is not the first time that their chosen symbol has caused controversy; as detailed in an article from Trinity College, over its 35-year history the IRM has faced criticism from both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations for resurrecting the swastika. After a brief hiatus from incorporating the swastika in to their symbolism—supposedly out of concern for its negative association with the National Socialist German Worker’s (Nazi) Party—in 2007 the leader of IRM announced that they would permanently revive the original logo. Over the past four years IRM has engaged in a campaign to “take it back.” According to an article posted by the Toronto Sun, when IRM was denied a position in the Pride Toronto parade—which serves as a celebration of the Canadian LGBTQ community—it set up a booth near the festivities, to “remove the negativity attached to [the swastika].”

“For religions like Jainism and Buddhism, the swastika represented luck, well-being, harmony and peace,” explained Diane Brisebois, a spokesperson for IRM, to the Toronto Sun. “When people think of the swastika, they immediately think of the Nazis and we want to change that.” Although she was disappointed that the organization was not allowed to participate in the parade—understandable, considering the Nazi position toward the LGBTQ community—she mentioned plans for a rival parade next year that would reclaim the swastika. According to an article in the Ottawa Citizen, spokesperson Brigitte Boisselier claimed that its historical origin in “many peaceful religious groups, especially in Asia” gives historical reason to reclaim the symbol. Indeed the swastika is still used among practitioners of several Eastern faith traditions, including Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Its earliest archaeological records date it to 2500 B.C.E. in the Indus Valley, before it spread across South and East Asia. Using the symbol may be tone-deaf in the West, but an argument can be made that in some places it is regarded as an auspicious symbol.

Yet why the Star of David? Apparently the IRM is not only fond of borrowing symbols from the Jewish tradition, but several words as well. The organization—whose non-theist faith Raelism has been compared to Scientology—was founded in 1974 after French-born Claude Vorilhon (now called Rael) encountered a being named Yahweh while walking in the woods. Through conversations with Yahweh, Vorilhon learned that human beings are the end result of scientific experiments conducted by extraterrestrial beings called Elohim. Small in stature, individuals from this species have been mistaken for angels, cherubim or divine spirits by human eyes. Over time the Elohim have contacted select human beings to carry their messages; these include people like Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and other faith leaders. This, he claims, has created a succession of religions, starting with older traditions like Judaism. Vorilhon was given their final message through Yahweh, to pacify the earth so that we may be welcomed in to the fold of the Elohim. This includes establishing a global government, formed around a meritocracy of intellect and the tenets of voluntarism; this is to say, the intelligent rule, while adherents conduct themselves as they see fit.

Over the years, the IRM endorsed attention-getting practices such as human cloning, their liberal consideration of sexuality, and—of course—their logo. Yet concerning the latter, the group says intertwining two opposing symbols was not done to step on toes, but rather speak to their core beliefs. As Boisselier explained, by combining juxtaposed elements the logo speaks to “the infinity of time.” Their claim to borrowing from preceding traditions to build the “ultimate faith,” seems circumspect, considering they do not incorporate iconography from any other religious group.

Their attempt to “take back” the swastika does raise interesting questions concerning what cultural signifiers—visual or verbal—can be reclaimed, and by whom. Instances of minority groups reappropriating symbols used by the Nazi Party are few and far between. Perhaps the only prominent example of such a shift is the use of the pink triangle by the LGBTQ community, now a prominent symbol at pride parades, on gay-friendly businesses, or LGBTQ monuments. The pink triangle, or rosa winkel, marked prisoners detained for suspected or confirmed homosexuality; it was part of a larger system of triangular badges used to identify concentration camp victims, of which the Star of David (two interposed yellow triangles) was part.  Yet in the case of the pink triangle, it was the minority community in question that “reclaimed” the symbol. The fact that the swastika has maintained its negative symbolism through modern Neo-Nazi organizations makes it especially inappropriate for an organization with no connection to reclaim it. Although we can acknowledge the positive sentiment behind the desire to redefine the swastika for Western audiences, it seems that—for some symbols—there are no take backs.

The De-Militarized Zone: Politics and Religion in the Middle East

By Samantha Sisskind

AMMAN, JORDAN – The swastika and anti-Israel graffiti spray-painted on the wall of a church parking lot I pass on the way to my school in central Amman reminds me daily of the blurred line between religious and political beliefs, particularly here in the Middle East. In fact, while referring to it as a “line” is familiar terminology, it’s woefully insufficient to suitably explain the relationship between these two facets of human identity. The inevitable overlap between politics and religion more aptly resembles a mine-laden de-militarized zone: a volatile and uncertain area separating two realms that have more in common than either is willing to admit.

In a presentation given to foreign students at Jordan University, Father Nabil Haddad, a Greek Melkite Catholic Priest and Executive Director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, advocated that Jordan is the paradigm of religious cooperation and tolerance in the Middle East. He argued that Jordanian Muslims live in harmony with the Christian minority. In addition, he claimed Jordanians, the majority of whom identify with some faith, respect other religious people and are tolerant of the faiths of their fellow countrymen.  Thus, Jordan lacks religiously motivated internal violence that plagues its geographical neighbors, such as Lebanon or Egypt.  Though his sweeping generalizations ignored salient points, I decided to pick a big juicy bone with his argument. I asked in Arabic, “If Jews made up a large portion of the population here today, would there be such inter-religious cooperation in Jordan?”

His answer was revealing, yet ultimately unsatisfying. He told me that any Muslim or Christian in Jordan who respects his or her faith must respect Jews. He said that Muslims, in particular, get caught in the trap wherein they mistake political issues for religious ones, and direct their frustration with political problems toward the Jewish people. However, religion has nothing to do with conflicts between political entities. Jewish, Christian and Muslim people need to resolve their issues with each other, learn to cooperate as fellow People of the Book, and separate their political views from their religious beliefs before any political resolution can be achieved.

Easier said than done.

Despite the prevalence of extreme political Islamic parties, such as Hamas, Palestinian secularist movements for statehood still retain significant support today. However, in my opinion, the infusion of Islam into the dialogue surrounding Palestinian nationalist goals has carried over to the interpersonal level wherein many Palestinians attach their Muslim faith to their national Palestinian identities. Thus, the issue of Palestinian statehood becomes an affirmation of their Muslim identity instead of a political debate aimed at achieving peace, and further adds to the relevance of faith in politics.

As for Israel, it’s identity as “the Jewish state” ties outside perceptions of its politics to perceptions of its religion. The Knesset is not unified regarding the issue of Palestinian statehood, and it is impossible to say that there is a collective Jewish will–political or religious.  Yet, by disempowering Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza, the actions of the Israeli army and government are perceived as enacting the will of the Jewish people. From an outside perspective, the Jewish faith is responsible for the Gaza siege, Israeli occupation, etc. thereby politicizing the role of religion.

Both Judaism and Islam have religious claims to land in the region, notably Jerusalem, and these matters of faith play a role in the present political conflict over borders and land rights.  Though politicians are writing the proposals and representing each side, we have to ask ourselves where their motivations are rooted. The source of conflict not only resides in the antagonistic political history between Palestinians and Israelis, but within the Scriptures and religious histories of Islam and Judaism, which hallowed the land in Jerusalem making both parties want to administer it.

Unfortunately, the faith of the “other” has become symbolic of the adversary in this conflict from both perspectives in each society.  Animosity and blame aren’t only directed toward Israel or Hamas, but toward ethnic and religious identity, such as the Arab Muslim or the Jew. Political agreements have failed to achieve coexistence between believers of both faiths. Conflict resolution through interfaith dialogue or cooperation is part and parcel of political compromise and reconciliation.

As for the priest, while I appreciate his candor, idealism, and incredible achievements to increase interfaith cooperation in Jordan, his views were unrealistic, and fell short of identifying a cure to reduce the ill will between Arab Muslims and Jews. Unfortunately, like the swastika at the church in Amman, the discord among religions in the Middle East will not be erased until we recognize that faith is intimately connected to the politics.