Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Problem With Islam Today Isn't Misinterpretation, It's Contradiction

Let's cut to the chase. I believe there are two fundamental problems with Islam:

1. The Sunnis and the Shias are not evenly matched
2. There is no New Testament in Islam

I'm not being facetious. Christianity's journey from its infamous mediaeval intolerance to the modern secular-democratic Western societies it has given rise to are because of (1) its unique history, in which the stalemated Catholic-Protestant wars led to the separation of church from state, reducing the temporal power of the church, and (2) the existence of a markedly more peaceful book (the New Testament) that devout Christians could adopt in preference to the violent Old Testament without sacrificing their faith altogether. Islam today cannot follow the same trajectory as mediaeval Christianity because these two unique elements do not exist within it. There's a rocky road ahead for all of us as a result.

Who am I to utter these impertinent pronouncements? I believe my background (as a Hindu-turned-atheist who grew up in a country with a significant Muslim minority and who spent five early years studying in a Catholic school) gives me unique insights that many others may not have, and in addition, as one who steers clear of all "isms" except humanism, I have the freethinking licence to say things that many probably don't dare let themselves think!

Scarcely 15 years ago, the West was largely ignorant about Islam. In Western minds, confusion reigned supreme about the various religions of the East. Buddhism was probably the one eastern religion that was somewhat understood. In contrast, Islam and Hinduism were often confused with each other. A British comic I read in my childhood showed a Hindu character exclaiming, "By the beard of the prophet!" I have watched an American TV show (It may have been "She's Baaack!", an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch) that showed women in an Arabic setting, dressed in belly dancer outfits and transparent veils, dancing with hands folded in a Hindu "namaste". The most embarrassing gaffe, in my opinion, was Star Trek's iconic villain Khan. His full name? Khan Noonien Singh! In addition to "Noonien" being a nonsense word that means nothing in any eastern language, can a Muslim surname like Khan coexist with a Hindu/Sikh surname like Singh? Only in the Western imagination, because the differences didn't really matter. Until very recently.

After September 11, 2001, Islam very rudely broke upon the consciousness of the Western world, and there is now a great deal more knowledge about Islam in the West than ever before. To be sure, a lot of it is misinformation (such as the belief that female genital mutilation is an Islamic problem rather than a Central African problem), but it is important to recognise that not everything that Westerners now believe about Islam is misinformation. A lot of it is in fact true, and from the perspective of Muslims, uncomfortably true.

For a while now, every time there has been a terror attack by Islamists, there are protests from other Muslims and from liberals that the people behind the attack are not true Muslims, because Islam is a religion of peace that does not condone the killing of innocents. But bizarrely, the claim from the Islamists who engage in acts of violence and terror is that they are doing no more than their sacred duty as they are obliged to by their faith.

Whom to believe? Surely both groups cannot simultaneously be right.

Well-spoken Muslim academics in the West who attempt the difficult job of interlocution between their religious compatriots and the public in their host countries don't manage to clear the air at all. One of the foremost such spokespersons in Australia is Walid Aly, a lecturer at Monash University, who usually pussyfoots around difficult issues concerning Islam and the West, and gives right-wing columnists plenty of ammunition. On the rare occasion that Walid Aly tangentially criticises his compatriots, a fellow Muslim academic immediately tears him down. The debate within Muslim intellectual circles thus appears to be highly circumscribed, and none of them dares approach the true heart of the issue without being called out as a traitor to the cause.

In recent times, the question of where Western Muslims stand with regard to the increasing rift between the Western and Islamic worlds has been posed in stark terms to local Muslim spokesmen (they are usually all men), and the response tends to be much dodging and weaving, with a litany of Muslim complaints being offered in lieu of a response.

Wassim Doureihi, spokesman of the Australian Muslim organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir, was interviewed by ABC TV's Lateline recently and specifically asked if he condemned the atrocities of ISIS. The transcript is here, and it's very enlightening both for the things he said and for the one thing he refused to say!

Wassim Doureihi of Hizb-ut-Tahrir doing a masterful eel act on Lateline

More recently, an article by Fareed Zakaria appeared in the Washington Post. It was provocatively titled, "Let's be honest, Islam has a problem right now". But while Zakaria began promisingly enough, the actual piece was another apologistic exercise that neither asked the right questions nor answered them. I suspect that as a Muslim himself, Zakaria had no real leeway to do either. The comments section of the article, however, contained some brutally honest feedback that pulled no punches. To me, it signalled that a long overdue conversation was commencing, and that the elephant in the room was gradually beginning to be acknowledged.

The core question we need to answer is whether the extremists who kill and spread mayhem are being true to their faith (as they themselves claim) or are acting contrary to the tenets of their faith (as liberals and "moderate" Muslims claim).

Obviously, there is a simple way to answer this question - by analysing what is said in the Quran, which every believing Muslim accepts as the literal word of God - perfect, unalterable and valid for all time. Does the Quran sanction violence of the kind we see nowadays, or does it not? What do (or what should) "moderate" Muslims think? And perhaps more importantly, what does this mean for the rest of us who are not Muslims?

[I won't talk here about aspects of Islam that are often criticised, such as its treatment of women. I will restrict my comments to Islam's attitude towards violence, to its attitude towards those who are not characterised as "the faithful" - i.e., unbelievers, polytheists, idolators and apostates.]

To non-Muslims and non-practising Muslims, it's very important (especially in these days of seemingly increasing conflict) to know what the Quran says about us. Is it tolerant of our existence, or is it not? Indeed, the term "tolerance" itself may be deeply flawed and insulting in its condescension, as Rajiv Malhotra brilliantly argues in his article "Tolerance isn't good enough - The need for mutual respect in inter-faith relations".

To digress a bit, Hinduism is a religion that is externally accepting even as it is internally oppressive. That is, Hinduism treats many of its own followers (women and the so-called "lower" castes) much worse than it treats people of other faiths! But in spite of these internal evils, Hinduism genuinely considers every other religion as an equally valid path to salvation. It does not claim a monopoly on the truth, which is remarkable. In contrast, whether they are violent or not, the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are unremittingly intolerant of other faiths, especially those they view as polytheistic and/or idolatrous.

This episode related by Rajiv Malhotra is illustrative:

My experiments in proposing mutual respect have also involved liberal Muslims. Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, in a radio interview in Dallas, I explained why mutual respect among religions is better than tolerance. One caller, identified as a local Pakistani community leader, congratulated me and expressed complete agreement. For her benefit, I elaborated that in Hinduism we frequently worship images [idols] of the divine, may view the divine as feminine, and that we believe in reincarnation. I felt glad that she had agreed to respect all this, and I clarified that "mutual respect" merely means that I am respected for my faith, with no requirement for others to adopt or practice [sic] it. I wanted to make sure she knew what she had agreed to respect and wasn't merely being politically correct. The woman hung up.

It seems impossible for a devout follower of an Abrahamic religion to "respect" another faith and yet claim to be a true believer of their own, because intolerance towards other faiths is a necessary component of these belief systems. Other faiths cannot be granted any semblance of legitimacy.

Western society is gradually becoming less rigidly Abrahamic in terms of intolerance, a phenomenon referred to by Lisa Miller in her article "We are all Hindus now". Hardline Christians reject this view, as this pastor does, blatantly arguing against tolerance. However, there are other, less doctrinaire, Christian denominations that seem to be more accepting of faith diversity.

Some Muslim strains are syncretic too, for example, the Sufis. However, fundamentalist Muslims typically are not. Fundamentalism implies a return to the fundamentals enshrined in the Quran, and the Quran is an intolerant document in the true mould of Abrahamic scripture.

Many translated verses from the Quran have been widely quoted. These are acutely embarrassing to Muslims and to Muslim apologists, who claim that the translations are either incorrect or taken out of context. However, the glare of the spotlight is only increasing. There are far too many independent translations available to us today, many of them by Muslim scholars, so it is getting harder to make the case that these verses have been mistranslated. Besides, the messages are repeated in multiple different ways, so there is very little scope for ambiguity overall. The messages in the Quran that need serious discussion include the following:

1. Exhortation to kill unbelievers (4:89)
2. Exhortation to kill polytheists (9:5)
3. Assurance that deviations from the faith are worse than killing (2:191)
4. Exhortation for unremitting violence until unbelievers submit (2:193)
5. Exhortation to be harsh to unbelievers (9:123)
6. Exhortation to engage in violent jihad even if a believer finds it distasteful (2:216)

These are just a sample. There are many, many more passages in the Quran that are filled with violent condemnation of unbelievers. The passionate vitriol in these verses is quite unnerving for an unbeliever to read!

To be fair, the Old Testament is also filled with violent and intolerant passages. But many Christians today implicitly reject the Old Testament, preferring to align their faith with the much less violent New Testament (even though Jesus did not repudiate the Old Testament but reaffirmed its validity). This has given devout Christians an easy way to distance themselves from their own religion's violent intolerance to unbelievers, a way that is not available to devout Muslims.

The Quran is a single book with no equivalent to the New Testament, so "moderate" Muslims are caught in a bind. That the Quran is saying some pretty awful things about unbelievers is increasingly hard to deny on grounds of mistranslation. We cannot be fooled by such denials anymore. Next, if the Quran is taken to be the literal word of God, these verses cannot reasonably be challenged by a believer. A Muslim who is genuinely tolerant of people of other faiths can neither reject such verses without being a heretic, nor accept them without giving up tolerance! This basic contradiction poses an ethical dilemma to well-meaning Muslims. However, I don't believe we are doing anyone any favours by being polite and refraining from forcing the issue. The issue needs to be forced.

We cannot forever pretend that Islamic terror is carried out by people who are un-Islamic. There is a deeper problem, and it is the inherent intolerance of the Quran towards non-Muslims that makes terrorists truer to their faith than the moderates.

There is hatred and violence in the Quran that is aimed at non-believers, and I don't think modern world society can ever make progress until these passages are explicitly repudiated by the majority of practising Muslims.

Non-Muslims who believe in equal rights for all (including Muslims) are justified in demanding a reciprocal sentiment from Muslims. However, this seemingly reasonable demand is a hard one for Muslims to accede to because of the basic contradiction we talked about. It is hard for a person to be both a true believer in a religion that recommends violence towards unbelievers, and a good citizen of a secular democracy that demands respecting the rights and private beliefs of all. One or the other set of beliefs will have to yield to the other, and publicly too.

If the Sunnis and the Shias were equally matched in every Muslim country, the standoff might have been able to force a separation of mosque and state in Islamic society, much like what happened in Christendom centuries ago. But this is an unlikely scenario. Sunni Islam is the dominant strain in the Muslim world, and fundamentalist denominations of Sunni Islam are responsible for most acts of terror and intimidation in the world today. Besides, Islam is very much a political manifesto with definite opinions on the running of a state, so it is not likely to retreat into a monastery, metaphorically speaking.

And so, the question of where Muslims stand on the issue of violence against unbelievers will not go away. The question will continue to be asked, and increasingly loudly. It will need to be answered convincingly, not with counter-complaints and not with weasel words. The only answer that will satisfy us ("unbelievers" of all stripes) is an unequivocal repudiation by Muslims of those sections of the Quran that express hatred and incite violence against the rest of us, for the mere crime of being unbelievers.

What this partial repudiation of their holy book would mean for their faith is for Muslims to work out. The elephant in the room cannot continue to be ignored.
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