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Dealing with the siege mentality among Muslims

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Today as we face the reality of political religion (be it Islam, Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism) a nuanced, intelligent understanding of religion and religiosity is required, says Farish Noor.

This is a rather personal note about how I often have to deal with rather silly and sometimes offensive comments whenever I post or write any column on normative Islam in the contemporary world. I do not hide the fact that I am and have always been against the death penalty, corporal/physical punishment, torture, detention without trial and all manner of human rights abuses, be they carried out in the name of civil/secular or religious laws and customs.

But whenever it comes to writing about Hudud punishments in the modern Muslim world, I often get the same backlash from conservatives who offer some of the most trivial justifications they can think of. They tend to come in the following categories:

1. The death penalty/torture/physical punishments are religiously-sanctioned and cannot be questioned;
2. You dont know anything about Islam;
3. You are not a Muslim (even worse);
4. You dont understand Islam, if you did you will see how these punishments are like a bed of roses, etc, etc.

Now frankly all these arguments or pseudo-arguments are just a pile of tosh and they dont really amount to anything. It is pathetic and self-defeating for Muslims to claim that Muslim society and normative standards of sociability have not evolved over the past 1,400 years. It is equally silly to claim that there is no need to interpret law in the modern context (when even secular civil law is constantly being revised). And it is nonsense to claim that only ‘experts’ and ‘moral guardians’ can talk about faith and religious normativity.

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For we are discussing norms of social behaviour here, which are contingent, historic and variable factors that require social analysis, not sanctimonious sermonising.

Allow me to illustrate this point with an aside:

Some years ago I got into a rather stupid, heated and prolonged debate with some Hindu fundamentalists who did not like the fact that I supported the work of the Hindu scholar Professor Arvind Sharma who was based at McGill University. Prof Sharma’s work on caste and the meaning of the caste system in the modern context was illuminating for me, as he had offered his own interpretation of caste as states of mind, rather than social classes that were hierarchical and exclusive.

In his opinion, the caste system was to be understood as various complementary states of existence and being; and that one could be a Brahmin, Ksatriya, Vaisha all at the same time, depending on one’s mode of relating with the world. This revolutionised the concept of caste and was meant to be a modern way of deconstructing the social barriers of caste in conservative societies such as we find in many parts of India today.

For his efforts, Prof Sharma was denounced as a ‘traitor’ to Hinduism by conservative Hindu fundamentalists, who like their other religious counterparts claimed that Hinduism was perfect and did not need to be reformed; that Hindu society had not evolved in 4,000 years; and that only ‘experts’ could speak and write about Hinduism.

For supporting the work of Prof Sharma, I was denounced by some Hindu fundamentalists as being a Hindu-hater and other nasty things too.

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The point I am trying to make here is that understanding the real significance of religion and faith in the modern world requires going beyond scripture and textuality and looking at the lived social realities of the times. This implies taking a sociological-anthropological approach that also combines historical, political, psychological and economic analyses as well. It is only then that we can understand the meaning and import of faith in the modern world; and when we recognise that religion can be a lived reality for millions of people.

But this also means accepting that there is human agency as well as history at work, and that religion is not just about doctrine and texts or laws and rules, but also about the interaction of variable human subjectivities. Failure to do so means that we are left with little else save empty rituals and meaningless rules that do not explain who and what we are, and why we do the things we do in our faith practice. Ali Shariati, in his writing on the pilgrimage (Hajj) explained this when he described the hajj as a personal quest for salvation and self-reconstruction.

Today as we face the reality of political religion (be it Islam, Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism) such a nuanced and intelligent understanding of religion and religiosity is required more than ever. The duty of the academic is to bring to the debate the tools of sociological, antropological and historical analyses he/she has at his/her disposal; and to expand the space of debate and understanding even further. To this end the academic has to help expand the space of public discourse on religion, rather than close it. In the process of doing so, however, we cannot allow the debate to be closed by close-minded people who can only rant about some ‘glorious age’ of the past that never existed, or worse still who wish to deny the primacy of human reason by claiming that individuals have no right to speak or comment. That road leads to intolerance, and religious fanaticism. Take that path and you’ll soon end up in Taliban-land, in the middle ages…

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