Tuesday, June 30, 2015

On the Legalization of Homosexual Marriage in the United States


Maryam Sakeenah

An interesting clash ensued in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing homosexual marriage. While the supporters of the cause celebrated having finally broken free from the bondage to regressive conservatism, there was on the other end of the spectrum, anger and bitterness over the mainstreaming of what is seen as a violation of God’s law and the ‘natural’ order of things.

Pakistan’s vibrant social media also reflected these divergent trends with a furious melee between those sporting rainbow coloured profiles and those invoking the wrath of God over the supporters of the new law.

The anger on both sides is quite misplaced and irrational. The clash between secular liberalism and conservative religion is inevitable and there to stay. The verdict coming from secular USA which prides itself in its liberal values is not surprising or outrageous. It is also understandable that those who subscribe to traditional religious faith would have a different opinion. It is all a matter of what one believes and how one looks at society and the wider world.

The problem, however, is with the attitude of moral superiority by the secular liberals. The twitter hashtag ‘#Lovewins’ for the sexual equality movement reeks of it, among other things. As if those who hold a different opinion do so out of hate; as if believing in traditional values and holding on to religious convictions is anti-love and against all that is humane and compassionate and egalitarian.

This presumption of moral superiority by the secular liberals at home and abroad is based on the idea that the conservative dissenters merely hold on with blind and ignorant stubbornness to outmoded and archaic religious convictions that pull humanity back from its path to progress laid out by the liberal reformist programme. This presumption is based on the widespread inability (even among Muslims) to understand the rationality of religious sexual ethics.

Parallels with the animal kingdom in which sporadic homosexual behaviour can be observed is often invoked to prove that homosexuality occurs in nature hence the religious idea that it is a violation of God’s order is incorrect. This comparison with the animal kingdom fails to understand the fundamental premise of religion: that human existence has a Divinely ordained purpose and goal, and that human civilization is to be ordered on values and principles to facilitate the individual and collective pursuit of the purpose of human life. A number of patterns exist in the animal kingdom which, if mainstreamed in human society on the pretext that they are ‘natural’ in the jungle, can lead to chaos and perhaps extermination of human civilization.

According to the religious understanding, man has been endowed with the sexual instinct for several purposes- the most obvious is of course procreation and the continuation of the human race. However, it is also the sexual instinct that forms the most basic of human relationships which is the foundation of the human family. The family unit is the fundamental building block of human society, the oldest and most universal pattern of the human community; it is a means to engender and socialize individuals, a support system and a natural means to provide a number of vital social functions. Daniel Haqiqatjou writes, “Before modernity, family organization was the primary communal structure upon which people relied. Everything went through the extended family, e.g., business and one’s livelihood, education, health care, dispute mediation, and much more. Today, all these areas of life fall under the purview of the nation state and its corporate extensions, so we lose this sense of the importance of family cohesion and, correspondingly, how dangerous and disruptive a violation of it really is and was for past societies.” 

The human family is sustained on the concept of masculine and feminine complementarity. This means that the individual characteristics, roles and responsibilities of the male and the female gel together the marital bond and become the basis for the family to flourish. As parents, both men and women have clearly defined roles and responsibilities and the children they give birth to, benefit from both in specific ways.

Homosexuality and adulterous heterosexuality do not fulfil any of these purposes why Allah has created the sexual impulse in human beings. This leaves only a single purpose behind such sexual behaviours: sexual expression, indulgence and adventurism. Islam does not recognize this as an unconditional human right to be freely carried out in society, because human beings are capable of functioning on a level higher than a mere pursuit of the carnal drives. Even heterosexuals cannot express their sexual instinct except in a relationship of marriage with all the responsibilities it entails. Islam envisions an ordered society in which moral behaviour is regulated for the well being of all. Homosexuality and all other sexual behaviour which does not fulfill the purpose why Allah has put the sexual instinct in us is therefore discouraged.

The problem with legalizing homosexual relationships is that such recognition and acceptance of this sexual practice facilitates and encourages it. The soaring rates of homosexuality in some societies are largely because social acceptance of this incites many to experiment with it and indulge in it.

If a human being is put in a trial by Allah through an abnormal sexual orientation or through absence of opportunity to establish a legitimate sexual relationship, they are required to be patient through finding strength in faith. Self restraint and self control of our animal drives is something Islam requires from all Muslims. Some people are tested harder with this, and homosexuals fall in that category. A believer who is faced with this must direct his focus to other aspects of human life and develop himself spiritually and otherwise to live a fulfilling, productive life. In order to make this easy for them, psychological counselling, rehabilitation and support should be provided in Islamic societies. However, those who refuse to restrain themselves and pursue their carnal instincts (hetero or homo sexual) go against the spirit and teachings of Islam. If such behaviour is indulged in openly and shamelessly without restraint, then it is punishable by Islamic law as well.

The ethics of sexuality in Islam prescribe limits even for heterosexual relationships within marriage. Not only do these conform to Islamic standards of hygiene, health, safety and physical well being, but also uphold human dignity and a minimal standard of modesty. As homosexuality is not the typical sexual behaviour for which the human body is designed, it often involves methods and means which fall short of Islamic sexual ethics and regulations. It is scientifically proven that homosexuality (just as promiscuity) is a primary cause of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Homosexuality being a natural urge to someone is no justification in Islam for permitting it. Sadism can be natural to some people; so can serial killing or kleptomania, and these urges can only be recognized as a basic human right to the detriment of human society.

True freedom entails mutual respect of divergent views, which is quite ironically, absent in the sneering condescension with which secular liberals view the religious position on homosexuality. Believers in religion in this day and age are challenged with holding on to their convictions in a secular milieu which betrays its own ideals of liberty and tolerance of difference. The challenge is to refuse to be part of the melee, accept that the difference exists and is there to stay and yet being firmly poised in a profound conviction in the ‘hikmah’ of the Divine scheme of things. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

On Vogue's #MyChoice Video


Maryam Sakeenah

The debate around Vogue’s controversial ‘My Choice’ video goes deeper than those on either side of it would think. While I do not make much of critique from those who take anything feministic with a pinch of salt, I understand that for many who sympathise with the feminist cause like myself, the message of the video is disturbing for other reasons. The problem with some of the most controversial statements in the video is not that they are offensive to conventional patriarchal attitudes, but the problem is with regard to a deeper question of personal faith and values.

The question really is of individual choices and individual freedoms to make those choices. The idea of choice in the video is overweeningly individualistic- a choice of one’s own that refuses to take into consideration any factor outside of the self and its interest; a self-centred choice; a selfish choice. This message is disconcerting for reasons beyond the gender debate which the video is about.

In confining choice to the self and its narrow interests, it refuses to consider that choices are made in a broader milieu, and that our choices are inadvertently and inextricably interconnected to a host of other factors and elements outside of the self. This perspective on human choice clashes head-on with the faith-inspired sensibility.

In the Islamic understanding, a requisite to accepting faith is a voluntary stepping back from the self’s desires, obsessions ad impulses for a deeper personal liberation. Faith is an act of submission to another higher, more perfect, sublime being beyond the self. It sets one free from the crippling bondage to the base, carnal and selfish; the material and the merely temporal. This liberation, for the believer, lifts the spirit onto a higher plane of consciousness where one becomes capable of acting impersonally, and altruistic choices become gratifying and heartening; one becomes capable of living larger than life. This is why throughout human existence, some of the most extraordinary acts of selflessness and heroism have been inspired by some form of faith. At this level of consciousness, one becomes mindful of one’s relationship with one’s context, those we share the planet and our lives with, the realm of existence and the Giver of all life.

In Islam this individual consciousness attainable through faith has a communal dimension. It is the most basic element of a social order that aims at justice, equity and the sanctity of individual rights and freedoms intrinsic to all creation. To achieve this is the collective goal of the community and requires regulation of personal conduct and laying down of rights, duties and responsibilities towards oneself, the community and the Creator for a larger purpose that brings the greater good for all and in turn impacts individual well being. In this scheme of things, the exclusive pursuit of absolute and unrestrained individual liberty above all simply does not fit in.

This is why the message that the choice of sexual orientation and sexual behaviour within, outside, prior to or without marriage is offensive to the sensibility that is rooted in the ethic of faith-based submission. It refuses to consider that human choices operate in a context that is not isolated from other lives and that we are part of ordered communities based on and seeking to achieve universally accepted moral ideals- justice, public welfare, equity, rights and liberties, peace, prosperity, harmony. The message of complete and uncompromising personal autonomy in disregard to all other factors and considerations is actually a call to irresponsible action, moral chaos and anarchy.

On the other hand is the issue of the video’s message attempting to pit women against men- a crass and peevish brand of feminism which again flies in the face of the beautiful balance and the Islamic concept of the genders being complementary rather than competing. According to the Quran, Allah has created everything in pairs. Muslim blogger on women’s issues- Sameen Sadaf explains, ‘Pairs symbolize sharing, unity, togetherness, complementarity and completion. The nature of this universe thrives on the complementarity of pairs. It celebrates the interdependent nature of both genders that beautify each other and by working together can they complete the task assigned to them by their Creator. Men and women together weave the intricate web of society in which women are the binding force who strengthen the exquisite fabric of human relationships.’

For all that women suffer, the panacea is not asserting a mutinous, defiant individualism, but in living to the full our multifarious roles as women within our respective contexts in pursuit of common goals for the greater good and as active agents to promote values that subvert oppressive patriarchal structures and attitudes that keep the suffering of women going. The commercial media industry is one such oppressive structure that objectifies the woman’s body for commercial ends. It is ironical that the video has been sponsored by and features prominent members and components of the commercial media.

If the message of the video was against the unfair judgement on women, it has been recklessly presented with a dangerous ambiguity that makes it easy for the core message to be eclipsed. Perhaps this too was for creating a sensationalism stoking controversy that could sell- yet another mark of the commercial media that produced it.

The debate around the video borders on deeper fundamental questions on our choices and liberties and our deepest convictions. The makers and promoters of this sensationalist piece of work should stop pretending that it is a voice or choice of all or even most women, or that it ought to be. To take that message or reject it is also a matter of choice that comes out of deeply embedded personal convictions.    

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Attacks on Churches and Mob Violence in Lahore


Maryam Sakeenah

My parents chose to send me to a Christian missionary school- a decision I have always been grateful to them for. The Convent’s ‘Character Building’ programme instilled in me values which, owing to the essential kinship of the Abrahamic faiths, facilitated my appreciation and practice of my own faith as a Muslim later in life.

Incidentally, all serving staff in my household happen to be Christians. In Ramazan they prepare the Iftar, and at Christmas and Easter we give them an extra something to partake of the family festivity. Through all my extensive and longstanding interaction with Christian friends, colleagues, subordinates, there is no unpleasant or uncomfortable memory I have. And I know I am no exception.

In fact, when I condoled with my Christian domestic help about the unfortunate recent events targeting churches in Lahore, I sensed in their comments the same sentiment I have gleaned from my experience as a Pakistani Muslim. ‘We have been brothers and sisters living together for decades- there was never a problem. And now some unknown enemies wanting this country’s destruction want to create hate. We have nothing against each other- Muslims too are under attack from the same people. We need to be together’, said my illiterate Christian kitchen helper- (translation my own).     

There was an understanding even within these unlettered members of a less privileged minority community that something had gone wrong in recent years; that violent religious hate was not the ethos of this land; and that there was a common enemy out there whose triumph was in sowing discord and hate between the two communities.

And yet ironically I find a complete absence of this simple understanding in the opinions of vociferous social media commentators both from the secular-liberal and conservative perspectives. In fact, the polarity in their views is striking whenever I browse through my newsfeed. While sadness over the attack on the churches was palpable among all shades of opinion, there was a callous lack of sympathy for the innocent Muslim victims of the post-bombing mob-lynching by Christians, and a brazen attempt to paint the ensuing violence by Christian mobsters as ‘but natural.’ This selective sympathy shows our own deeply rooted prejudices. On the other extreme there are outrageous calls for indiscriminate reprisal against the Christian community of Youhannabad where the lynchings happened.

The problem with the narrative that emerges from these polarized, clashing perspectives is that it sees the recent events through the blood-stained lens of ‘Us versus Them’; as a ‘Christian versus Muslim’ issue which is both inaccurate as well as dangerous. In fact, the terrible mob violence that occurred in the wake of the church bombing was also a tragic result of dangerously viewing the attack on the church as ‘Muslim’ violence against ‘Christian’ victims. More accurately, it was violence by an extremist militant minority group for whom all who do not share their violent ideology are potential targets.  This is why the anger was directed at Muslims who had been engaged in routine business in the Christian locality. The two innocents picked for the barbaric lynching were lighter skinned (a characteristic of the Pashtuns) and at least one of them bearded. The mob violence was hence fired by ethno-religious stereotyping and the blind hate born of such prejudices.

In response to the ensuing violence by the Youhannabad locals there is brewing anger amidst neighbouring Muslim communities which sets the stage for potential clashes waiting in the wing. In the climate of fear and anger many families in Youhannabad are planning to relocate or have done so already. This is the triumph of the real enemy as it fulfils the malevolent agenda perfectly. The victory of the enemy is when its victim turns into a savage perpetrator like itself, continuing the cycle of violence.

Violent incidents targeting the Christian community in Pakistan in the recent past certainly fuel the anger by creating genuine and understandable grievances. However, it has to be understood that such targeting of the Christian community has always been resented and rejected by the overwhelming majority of the Muslim population of this country; and that the extremists involved in terror attacks on Christians are a fringe element rejected by the mainstream public opinion. Terrorist outfits are all out to exact vengeance that spares none- mosque, imambargah, church- Muslim, Christian, Shiite- all are fellow sufferers in this great calamity that has gripped us as the terrible cost of owning the US’s Great War on Terror.

The Christian community of Pakistan never has been, is not and should never be an oppressed minority hated and targeted by Pakistan’s Muslim majority. Those trying to reinforce this idea- whether extreme rightwingers, conservatives or the secular liberals- are utterly wrong. This is a false picture that will fuel more rage and blind hate.

What is required in the wake of this frenzied violence is a communal introspection by both communities. The Christian community needs to examine why its young members descended into such rank savagery, and must take responsibility to curtail simmering violence that utterly betrays the Christian spirit of forbearance and compassion. The Muslim community must also engage in a serious endeavour to root out the ire and vengeful streak building up in its ranks in this charged atmosphere.       
The pulpit and the minbar both must take up their vital roles to defeat this false ‘Us versus Them’ narrative. Both religions contain voluminous and powerful content on tolerance and compassion which needs to resonate to drown this madness in the name of faith. Faith must be the healing, the mending and the force inspiring peacemaking. The Quran questions the validity of a faith that justifies and inspires evil. "Say: "Worst indeed is that which your faith enjoins on you- if you indeed are believers." (2:93) It reminds us with a vital message that has never been as relevant as it is today. Let not the enmity and hatred of others make you avoid justice. Be just: that is nearer to piety... Verily, Allah is Well-Acquainted with what you do.”  (5:8)
In the midst of this senseless melee of wrathful hate, the words of Islam’s blessed Prophet (PBUH) for his Christian citizenry from Najran become a beautiful encore played to a deaf audience.

"This is a message from [Prophet] Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.
Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.
No compulsion [in religion] is to be on them.
Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.
No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses.
Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate...
...Their Churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.
No one of the nation (of Muslims) is to disobey this covenant till the Last Day (end of the world)."
(Text of the Charter of Privileges, Treaty of Najran)