By Mohamed Hemish
January 26, 2015
Does condemning the attack on Charlie Hebdo make me less Muslim? No, supporting the freedom of speech of the dead cartoonists, or the Saudi blogger being flogged for “insulting Islam” doesn't make me a westernized secular who doesn’t care about Islam, my religion or the Prophet Muhammad. Instead it is those so-called Muslims hostile to critical thinking that lack basic understanding of what Islam is all about.
The fact remains that the reason we lack freedom, or any shot at democracy in the Middle East, is because it is so difficult to speak one’s mind, whether it is about religion, politics or social justice.
In Egypt, the satirist Bassem Yousef had his show cancelled following the overthrow of democratically elected Mohamed Morsi. Why? Because, Bassem was going to criticize Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s coup. In Turkey, the Justice and Development party, which was initially hailed for deepening democracy, is now destroying that democracy by jailing and arresting journalists and banning social media websites to mask a massive corruption scandal within the government.
SINCE A YOUNG AGE, Muslims and Arabs are told not to question any authority that presides over them. Islam as taught in the schools has many contradictions, which many children try to wrap their heads around. Yet when they ask about contradictions, the answer is always, “Questioning God’s will is forbidden. We have to accept everything God does and says even if we don’t understand why he willed it that way.” As a teenager I wondered why Islam prescribed the death penalty for apostasy, my Islamic Studies teacher responded, “They deserve to die because they rejected Islam after they were lucky enough to be enlightened as Muslims.”
According to the Pew Research Center, in Egypt and Jordan more than 80 percent of questioned Muslims approve of the death penalty for leaving Islam. In Palestine and Egypt more than 80 percent favor stoning as a punishment for adultery. These cruel punishments and close-minded religious interpretations are reminiscent of the Islam that ISIS seeks to establish in Syria and Iraq. Yet many Muslims believe that ISIS is a plot by foreign governments, and the very reason these conspiracy theories thrive is because we have given up critical thinking and questioning.
However, Islam rejects that idea. The Quran indicates over and over again that questioning is the very foundation of being a Muslim. Prophets came to revolutionize the societies they lived in. They didn’t accept the atrocities that were taking place and came to fix them, to enlighten and not to keep people in darkness.
Yet too many Muslims have suspended basic critical thinking. Does it make sense to beat your wife? Does it make sense to make your daughters slaves to older men when they are twelve? Does it make sense for a woman to wear a hijab just because she is a woman? Does it make sense to stone women who have been raped? Does it make sense to perform the painful and hideous crime of female genital mutation on girls as young as five? Does it make sense to behead an aid worker who was helping Syrians in times of war? Arabs and Muslims are throwing around all these traditions as “Islamic laws.” But they are not. You simply need access to Google to prove that those traditions are not part of Islam.
BUT TODAY, in many countries, you can’t say that in public without censure or more serious punishment. In Egypt, a student was sentenced to three years in prison for proclaiming that he was an atheist and “insulting Islam.” Yet he was simply declaring his disapproval of killing people who leave Islam or the practice of stoning for adultery. He questioned and ended up in trouble. Imagine how many who secretly believe the same thing but are afraid to speak out. It is this very instinct of wanting to know why, what and how that is being put to death slowly until it no longer exists.
Everyone must be allowed to talk, criticize and think, whether about religion, politics or social traditions. This is something that many in the Middle East gave up on a long time ago, until the glimpse of youthful hope of the Arab Spring, until it was hijacked by the old paternal and controlling elite.
It is easy to capitalize on religious sentiment when people feel helpless. Equating political and religious authority is important in consolidating power. They feed into one another. Embracing a more radical or ”brave,” as its champions call it, interpretation of Islam makes the leader look less submissive to “evil western” powers for rejecting their sinful liberty.
Egyptian President Sisi, who many Egyptian seculars supported when he announced his coup, made it clear that Salafi groups and the al-Azhar religious authority was on his side. To the majority of Egyptians who voted for Morsi a year before he affirmed that he was even more Muslim than the Muslim Brotherhood itself.
IN TURKEY, Erdogan won three consecutive elections by adopting a subtle yet effective religious rhetoric to please his grassroots supporters. He no longer talks of secularism, freedom or democracy. Rather he asserts over and over again his religious identity, his wish to make women to be stay-at-home mothers, and act more “moral,” for example not laugh in public as one of his ministers suggested last year. All the while in Turkey journalists are being silenced and protests are being squashed or gunned down.
Ideological extremism exists in every country and every religion, yet the fact that it remains part of the government, whether democratic or not, is the very reason repression remains endemic in the region. At its root is this idea of not being able to think freely. One doesn’t need surveys or statistics to show that where freedom of speech exists and prevails, societies and nations stand a better chance of enhanced lives, a better chance at practicing their beliefs, in other words a real democracy, not a farcical one.
Mohamed is a freelance writer currently based in Istanbul who has written for The Atlantic, Aslan Media and others.