Liberating Faith, Rigid Followers
By Aijaz Zaka Syed
January 23, 2015
Of all the angry speeches, sound bites and opinion pieces that the Charlie Hebdo massacre generated, the best one came from an unexpected quarter – Pope Francis. In the face of the west’s chorus defending unlimited freedom and free speech, Pope Francis mustered the courage to argue that there were limits to this freedom, especially when it insults or ridicules someone’s faith and beliefs.
By way of example, he referred to Alberto Gasparri, who organises papal trips and was standing by his side aboard the papal plane when he spoke. “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch”, the Pope said, throwing a pretend punch his way. “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
The leader of 1.2 billion Catholics said it was an “aberration” to kill in the name of God and said religion can never be used to justify violence. But he said there was a limit to free speech when it concerned offending someone’s religious beliefs. “There are so many people who speak badly about religions or other religions, who make fun of them, who make a game out of the religions of others. They are provocateurs. And what happens to them is what would happen to Dr Gasparri if he says a curse word against my mother. There is a limit.”
The Pope also joined four prominent French imams in issuing a joint declaration that denounced the attacks but also urged the media to treat religions with respect, disappointing many western liberals and closet fanatics whose concept of freedom begins and ends with testing the limits of Muslim tolerance.
In the relatively short period of time since he took over as the leader of the Christendom, Pope Francis has gone out of his way to win hearts and minds and not just of his flock. This is what leadership is all about. This is what men of faith should and ought to do – showing the way, making peace and offering hope and a healing touch.
And what a refreshing change this Pope offers after his staid, rather dull predecessor. This is perhaps because of the fact that he is the first non-European Pope in 1300 years – remarkable for a faith that was born in the east!
Francis comes from Argentina, a nation with a long history of western colonialism and subjugation. So unlike the cold and distant Europeans, this Pope has no qualms in showing his human side and warmth from time to time.
For example during a visit to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, he stopped over to pray at the monstrous, ugly Wall that Israel has built to imprison Palestinians in their own land. An emotional pontiff touched the Separation wall and silently prayed, glancing at the graffiti that voices Palestinian defiance and resolve for freedom.
When he visited Jerusalem and the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, he was seen warmly hugging two old friends – Rabbi Abraham Skorka and a Muslim leader Omar Abboud. During a visit to the Yad Vashem Memorial to victims of the Holocaust, he met half a dozen survivors of the Nazi genocide, fervently kissing their hands.
As Tim Stanley notes in the Telegraph: “This is a cleric who is prepared to talk frankly and humanely about issues of injustice. His simplicity appeals, too. Often, the Pope is seen boarding a plane carrying his own bag. But when talking to the press mid-flight, he displays a rugged kind of faith that, again, citizens of the developing world would appreciate more than ‘cosmopolitan’ Europeans.
“He decried the killings in Paris, but noted that when people love God like a father, they take a risk when they insult Him. For perhaps the first time, many western liberals were disappointed with Francis – for questioning the wisdom of blasphemy. But those who truly want to understand how Muslims feel about Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) could learn a lot from what he had to say.”
His emphasis is not upon liturgical richness but, happily, upon straightforward themes of love and compassion that resonate widely. In the Philippines, street children asked him why God allowed suffering. When one girl broke down in tears, the Pope told her crying cleansed the soul and asked why so few women had been invited to speak.
No wonder this pontiff evokes strong emotions wherever he goes. In Manila, some six million people turned up for communion. It was perhaps the biggest papal mass in history. Stanley also suggests that it was Pope Francis who played a critical role in bridging the impossible, decades-old gulf between the United States and Cuba, earning generous praise from President Barack Obama.
The pontiff also earned himself silent gratitude of Muslims around the world when he defended the Prophet’s (pbuh) honour with a conviction that not many Muslim scholars or leaders have managed to.
Which reminds me – why do we not see Muslim scholars and religious leaders reach out to the world with such love, warmth and kindness? Especially when Islam is being increasingly monopolised by a lunatic fringe that distorts and twists its humane teachings and commits every sin imaginable in the name of all that is holy.
We never tire of claiming that Islam stands for peace, salvation and universal brotherhood. How many of our leaders, scholars and imams demonstrate this with their actions or even in their speeches, reaching out to the world with the liberal, universal message of the faith?
Why do we not see Muslim scholars talk more about the kindness, generosity and humanity of the Prophet (pbuh) that he showed to the worst of his adversaries? Or his emphasis on kindness to women and children and his Last Sermon that celebrates the equality and oneness of humanity like nothing else does?
Instead of offering guidance and leadership to the faithful in these most trying times and in confronting challenges such as extremism and ignorance, our scholars spend much of their time obsessing over frivolous, non-issues. From issuing fatwas on Indian tennis star Sania Mirza’s sartorial choices to condemning social media such as Twitter as ‘the source of all evil,’ our priorities and propensity to scout for the irrelevant and absurd never cease to amaze me. It is as if we inhabit a different planet altogether.
Recently, Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh stunned everyone by proclaiming that celebrating the Prophet’s (pbuh) birthday is ‘sinful’ and a ‘bidaa’ (innovation). One understands the Grand Mufti’s emphasis on embracing the teachings of the Prophet (pbuh), rather than ceremonial celebration of his birth anniversary. But the joy that the faithful experience on this most special day, can it really be termed ‘sinful’?
This at a time when Christmas is being celebrated all over the Middle East with increasing fanfare and fervour Shopping malls and hotels in the Gulf are all decked up months before December 25th.
We seem to have lost ourselves in the literal world of dogma, leaving somewhere behind the soul and spirit of a generous, powerful faith. We see technology and innovation that the rest of the world hungrily laps up as a challenge. We fear change. We are afraid of women who drive and work. We even fear harmless schoolgirls.
I know there is no concept of clergy or a global religious leader in Islam. But the faithful can certainly do with some leadership and much-needed guidance right now. It is time to rediscover the spirit of the faith.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Middle East based columnist.