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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

THE CASE FOR AN INTELLECTUAL DISCOURSE ON ISLAM

THE CASE FOR AN INTELLECTUAL DISCOURSE ON ISLAM
Maryam Sakeenah
The righteous rage that boils over into lynchings, mobs, suspicions and allegations of blasphemy shows a loss of balance and rationality in our social behaviour. This is a disturbing truth that needs a serious collective introspection. Among other things, a lot of this (self) righteous rage is because of an inability and unwillingness to intellectually confront and address diversity, difference and dissenting opinions.
The religious discourse in our society is largely anti intellectual to the extent that even an intellectual approach to religion is sneered at as deviant, threatening and disrespectful. This simplistic, anti intellectual discourse is asserted by wielding power and instilling fear by religious leaders, and the use of threat and violence by those who lack the privilege of religious authority.
The decadence of religious discourse in this part of the world is rooted in the colonial past when the prestigious madrassah was systematically  marginalized and disempowered as part of the colonial education policy of ‘schooling the world.’ The cornered madrassah took refuge behind a defensive, protectionist, insecure religious discourse, trying to hold on in a rapidly changing milieu. In an attempt at self preservation, this defensive discourse refused to engage and became airtight and obscurantist. This still characterizes the madrassah and those who emerge from the system: a stubborn refusal to intellectually engage with alternative discourses that the modern world is teeming with. But we cannot insulate our youth from the tide of intellectual assault from modern ideas and new patterns of thinking. There will be questions raised, and our refusal to engage or even bother with articulating responses will alienate thinking minds.
It is already happening at an ever-increasing rate. As a teacher on Islam, I have observed an incremental trend over the years, of skepticism among young people exposed to the kind of heavily Westernized  modern education we have at private urban educational institutions. There are lots of questions as they encounter diverse patterns of thought. Unfortunately, answers through religion are most often not available, and even asking is often put down as impertinent. This produces a disenchantment with a faith that is unable to address critical and vital questions of the day. It is these disenchanted bright minds that possess social and cultural capital to make up the pool that supplies the academia, the media and the bureaucracy with fresh human resource. Hence this early skepticism which hardens into a strident secularism, filters into institutions of state and society, to be systematically wielded and exerted with power.
At the other end, this systematic empowerment of the secularized, socially privileged lot breeds frustrated rage in the conservative mind. The conservative mind is fiercely anti intellectual. This anti intellectualism takes any intellectual challenge as an audacious affront, a ‘conspiracy against Islam’- hence violence becomes the only ‘language’ to respond with.
These developments are ominous, and the cracks and gashes are already appearing, cutting across society, letting the red hot lava boil over. Unfortunately, few are cognizant of this and even fewer conscious of our responsibility to stem the process in our capacities. Any calls for a progressive Islamic discourse are put down with suspicion of hidden agendas. The truth is, developing a modern intellectual and philosophical Islamic discourse and mainstreaming it is nobody’s agenda but Islam’s own need. In fact, Islam has had progressive thinkers throughout its history. Being progressive is not deviance; it is an approach which makes human beings throughout time sift through all the narratives and reveal the essence in a way that is most relevant and applicable for their times.
In more open societies in the West, Muslim communities have no option but to engage and adapt, hence one sees an increasing realization of the need to come up with an intellectually robust spirituality that does not cave in or go berserk on encounter with difference. Thinkers and scholars like Tariq Ramadan, Yasir Qadhi, Omar Suleiman and Hamza Yusuf among others are rising up to the intellectual challenge Islam is faced with. Their fidelity to Islamic fundamentals and tradition makes their progressive voices credible and authentic.
An intellectual discourse on Islam should not be polemical but dialectical. It should be guided by Islamic tradition yet fully cognizant of influential modern and postmodern ideas. It should reflect an awareness of and respect for the diversity and pluralism within Islam and outside of Islam. It should be equipped with tools and methods for credible research and aim to mediate between ideas, creating common grounds. It should engage in a modern ijtehad with the traditional tools of Muslim jurisprudence, to address contemporary issues like homosexuality and the reconstruction of gender, new atheism, militant Islamism etc. Such a project must use the language, approach, style and tools most familiar to the modern mind. This will bring two great benefits: firstly, rescuing the skeptical modern Muslim mind from disenchantment by addressing critical questions. Secondly, mainstreaming an intellectual religious discourse which respects diversity and demonstrates to the mass Muslim mind that difference can be lived with and engaged with intellectually.

Religious scholars and intellectuals here need to realize the need to develop a new religious discourse that arms itself with reason, not fear and violence.

Friday, April 21, 2017

OF MOB LYNCHINGS AND OTHER RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE


ROOTS OF RAGE

Maryam Sakeenah

How does one move on with all this deep, searing pain over the mob lynching of a body that bore a beautiful heart and a precious mind? And with our senses still reeling, we hear of at least two more horror stories of blasphemy related violence. Grueling as it is, one has to navigate a path out of the all-consuming despair, shock and horror.

Self righteous anger over suspicions of irreligion are all too familiar here. But the roots of the rage go deep; into histories, ideologies, politics and lawmaking. The roots are hard to extricate, but understanding can prevent us from consciously or unconsciously watering and nurturing this poison tree with our words and actions. And so, with this terrible burden of shame to bear as a Pakistani and Muslim, I attempt an understanding.

It is unquestionable that a number of violent crimes are driven by religious zealotry. Desperate attempts to deny that, supposing that this would ‘save’ Islam’s image are pathetically delusional.  In doing what the students of Mardan university did in the name of religion, they lynched their own professed faith; and when we take the bait and draw all the wrong conclusions- either haplessly proving that ‘religion has nothing to do with it’, or directly blaming faith and religious doctrine itself for the atrocity, we fuel the blind hate further, becoming the lynch mobsters sinning against a faith that has equal potential for beauty, peace and healing.

While the mobsters let themselves be swayed and drunken by righteous anger, deep within somewhere, there was an uncomfortable knowledge that this was a sacrilege, an atrocity that no religion, no god, no prophet can condone. But mobs don’t pause and reflect; they veer into madness. While the zeal was religiously driven, it was not inspired or guided in any direct way by religious doctrine. That distinction is important to make.

But equally important is the need to address why our mass behavior descends into mob zealotry and fanatical violence driven by and in the name of religion? The reasons go very deep.

While allegations of blasphemy in the Mashal Khan case are far from proven, it is clear that he professed progressive views, a critical and questioning mind. The local mass religious mindset, however, does not allow questions and cannot withstand intellectual challenge. This is in large part because the religious discourse in our society is largely anti intellectual to the extent that even an intellectual approach to religion is sneered at as deviant, threatening and disrespectful. This simplistic, anti intellectual discourse is asserted by wielding power and instilling fear by religious leaders, and the use of threat and violence by those who lack the privilege of authority.

This decadence of religious discourse in this part of the world is rooted in the colonial past when the prestigious madrassah was systematically  marginalized and disempowered as part of the colonial education policy of ‘schooling the world.’ The cornered madrassah took refuge behind a defensive, protectionist, insecure religious discourse, trying to hold on in a rapidly changing milieu. In an attempt at self preservation, this defensive discourse refused to engage and became airtight and obscurantist. This still characterizes the madrassah and those who emerge from the system: a stubborn refusal to intellectually engage with alternative discourses that the modern world is teeming with. But we cannot insulate our youth from the tide of intellectual assault from modern ideas and new patterns of thinking. There will be questions raised, and our refusal to engage or even bother with articulating responses will alienate thinking minds.

 At the other end of the spectrum, this anti intellectualism teaches conservative minds to take an intellectual challenge as an audacious affront- hence violence becomes the only ‘language’ to respond with.

In more open societies in the West, Muslim communities have no option but to engage and adapt, hence one sees an increasing realization of the need to come up with an intellectually robust spirituality that does not cave in or go berserk on encounter with difference.

Religious scholars as well as secular voices need to realize that this is not just about having or not having the blasphemy law. It is about the need to develop a new religious discourse that addresses and accommodates the genuine questions that the modern mind is full of- a discourse that arms itself with reason, not fear and violence.

The many passionate condemnations of the incident by religious leaders and action against hate speech as well as public demonstrations in solidarity with the victim family are welcome developments that help to restore one's faith in ourselves despite this awareness of the terrible darkness engulfing us. But a deeper and more farsighted approach for religious leaders and educators would be to guide a new discourse on religion that contends with alternative perspectives and intellectual challenges with maturity, wisdom and openness; a discourse that accommodates diversity and makes respectful space for difference.

Another more personal lesson for me is to remind myself that while self righteous consciousness of professed faith charges mobs to blind rage, a deeper rooted faith also inspires some like Ibn Ali Miller- or closer to home, that nameless Imam from Chitral- to stand in the midst of the storm of hate and violence to save, make peace and heal. It is up to us to make the choice. In our capacities and within our spheres, those who still value faith must  resolve to passionately impart compassion, empathy, tolerance and respect for difference as part of and through faith- otherwise, our proclaimed belief cannot prevent us from committing excesses and injustices in religion’s name. 





Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Women's Protection Law

 A MELEE OVER A WOMEN’S LAW

Maryam Sakeenah

That the clerics have handled the women protection bill very clumsily is there for all to see. In fact, some of their comments have been indefensibly misogynistic and chauvinistic. The damage goes deep- it conveys the outrageously false notion that Islam does not side with the victim of domestic violence, nor does it call for any measures to protect women from it. This clumsy handling by the clerics as well as their reckless, dimwitted and insensitive comments on the issue has created an outpouring of sympathy and support for those advocating the implementation of the bill as it is. Secondly, it has completely eclipsed any element of validity that may be there in the criticism coming from those opposing the bill or calling for its reform.

In fact, the narrative emerging from the ongoing melee implies that whoever views the law critically is a woman-hating chauvinist. This is inaccurate at best, and grossly unfortunate and unfair.
For one, the law is highly needful and vital, and noble in its intent. Few actually question its need and importance- and those who do, deserve not to be taken seriously. From the Islamic lens, any instance of violence to a woman is unequivocally reprehensible, hence any law to deter men from it, and punish those who commit it can in no way be called un Islamic. Those who term the law un Islamic for the simple reason that it criminalizes domestic violence do not represent Islam in its true essence.
However, having said that, the law- like any human endeavour to legislate- is not perfect. The refusal to listen to any call for reforming it or improving it and terming any such criticism as misogynistic is regrettable. It closes the door to discussion, constructive genuine debate and finding ways to improve the law in order to make it fulfill its purpose better. This state of affairs reflects the intensity of the polarization in this society between the liberals and the conservatives. It reflects closed mindedness, prejudices, unwillingness to engage the other, stubborn fixity and insecurities on both sides. Both sides have taken entrenched positions: the liberals dub their conservative counterparts as evil misogynists whereas the conservatives consider feminists to be working on a foreign agenda to ‘Westernise’ the society. In the midst of the clamour, any voice of reason drowns unheard.

To a large extent, this ridiculous melee has resulted due to the government’s reckless indifference and bypassing of the rules of procedure for enacting a law. The law seems to have been passed in indecent haste, without enough discussion around it. In a conservative Muslim society that espouses Islam as the official religion, to pass a law without consultation with the Islamic Advisory Council is unforgivable and bound to stoke up anger. Not surprisingly, the religious feel ignored, dispensable, marginalized and voiceless.  A lot of the anger reflected in their rhetoric emerges from this sense of disempowerment.

The reason why domestic violence should not be tolerated is not only because it violates the rights of a vulnerable human being, but also because the family should not be an oppressive institution. The welfare of individuals depends on the smooth functioning of the families that engender and nurture them, and this understanding is fundamental to the communitarian vision of Islam.  Hence for the law to truly achieve its purpose, it must be family-friendly as much as it is woman-friendly. In any instance of domestic violence, while the very real possibility of punishment ought to stand as an effective deterrent, the potential for reconciliation should not be ignored. The law does refer to the reconciliatory role of the Family Committees to be established, but somewhat inadequately and secondarily. This needs to be reviewed. In the first instance after a complaint is filed- except in cases of serious violence-  there should be warning, and the potential for reconciliation explored through mediation and counseling. Only after that fails should punishment be enacted. Regular and relentless domestic violence in which there is no possibility of reform, however, should definitely be a criminal offence. Victim women should have the right to seek help whether it is a one off instance or habitual. However, it should not be reported to the police as a crime-for that stirs up a vengeance closing all doors to reconciliation- rather, it ought to be reported to a family friendly facility  which will examine the situation listening to both sides and either ending an abusive marriage and enacting punishment, or warning and reconciling. Rather than immediately taking criminal action through a corrupt police system, a phased strategy should be laid down. This has been very clearly laid down in the Quran in any situation of marital discord. The need for the law is for the deterrent effect of making domestic violence a punishable crime; but at the same time, the law must prevent couples from acting in impulsive haste to permanently end what can be saved for their own long term benefit.

The current discourse from both sides on the issue is highly reactionary. The government needs to play its role as a mediator and explore the possibilities of achieving a consensus through exhaustive debate. It is a hallmark of a civilized society, an ideal worth striving for, and in no way impossible if there is a sincere willingness to reach such a consensus. Sameen Sadaf, a commentator on women’s issues through the Islamic perspective writes, ‘We also have a very genuine lack of tolerant discourse amongst the religious and secular factions of the society. The fact that the bill was passed before being sent to the Council of Islamic Ideology for discussion and then the complete rejection of it by the council are both quite representative of the lack of dialogue and communication between the two. It is quite evident that the sensible of both factions are for the protection of women and in consequence, the family and society. Both sides can come up with recommendations for improving the law and discuss their insecurities to reach a consensus. Consensus is an inevitable consequence of intelligent and conscientious discourse. The very inability of both the factions to reach one is alarming and not at all a good sign for a society or state.’