15 October 2012
Events of the last few weeks have once again thrown into sharp relief why numerous commentators across the political divide, ideologies & cultures worry greatly about Islam. Some do not just worry; they fear.
They worry about and fear an ideology that apparently condones killing of “followers” who may have second thoughts[i]; they fear an ideology which justifies war and violence against the “infidels” and enemies as long as it is for a “just” cause[ii]. They fear an ideology that shows no qualms in killing and maiming fellow believers simply because they have a difference of opinion or interpretation.
They worry about an ideology that considers half of humanity somehow “lesser” than the other half[iii]; that condemns young girls to a lifetime of ignorance and servitude[iv] and that justifies people getting into a paroxysm of rage over perceived or real “insults” to their sacred texts, symbols or figures.
And yet, the one refrain that almost invariably accompanies each such outbreak of barbarity and violence is “Islam is a religion of peace”. Except for one inconvenient fact: If it is, why do its adherents find it so hard to contain and condemn violence?
In the latest incident of such violence, Buddhist homes and temples were targeted and burnt in Bangladesh after a picture of a burnt Quran was posted on facebook[v]. Meanwhile “protests” against a poorly made film on Islam continue across the Arab world, in Africa, in Asia and of course in India too[vi]. “Protests” that have led to hundreds injured and several dead, including the cold-blooded killing of a diplomatic representative – raising questions on whether such “niceties” like diplomatic immunity and privilege are concepts that are no longer relevant. In Baghdad, the wave of violence engulfed fellow-believers too[vii]. Someone mentioned to me a few days back that Islam stands for brotherhood. I am finding it hard to see evidence of that.
What do the Muftis and the Imams have to say on all this? The vast majority keep quiet; some call for more “retribution” so the “infidels” can be taught a lesson. How can a religion whose leaders and followers openly call for the death of an alleged “blasphemist” call itself a “religion of peace”[viii]? Or is it “peace” only on our terms – and of our choosing?
Where are the Muslim reformists? And why are they silent? Why do even the most progressive Muslims limit themselves to just “condemning” these incidents rather than taking the next step and actually fighting for reforms?
Reforms that would make the faith much more compatible with the values of openness, with the values of a liberal culture? Reforms that would create space for tolerating alternative interpretations & alternative approaches to “Truth” – whatever that may be?
Reforms that would make the faith much more relevant – instead of setting the stage for a clash of civilisations?
Why don’t community leaders and scholars denounce these unacceptable, barbaric acts committed in the name of Islam[ix] and forcefully argue that Islam can co-exist with civilisation? And that the Taliban are murderous perverts who have no place in a civilised society?
Why don’t the Muftis and the Imams take upon themselves the task of convincing Pakistanis and Arabs and Muslims elsewhere that it is quite alright to make fun of “Gods[x]”- and that there are other, alternative and peaceful ways to protest and express grievances or hurt sensibilities?
Or is the problem simply that unlike almost all other major religions, Islam has not yet undergone any reform or catharsis? Is this what holds Islam back?
Witness Saudi Arabia – the figurative heartland of Islam – where women are literally treated as “not equals” – and sometimes worse than second-class citizens[xi]?
Look at Maldives where the Islamic Affairs Ministry recently issued a circular banning “mixed-gender” dance events and where the Adhaalath Party, part of the Government, considers “youth’s addiction to music and songs, something that is 'haram' (forbidden)[xii]”
Or Malaysia where government has begun holding seminars aiming to help teachers and parents spot signs of homosexuality in children, in order to curb the "problem" of homosexuality[xiii]
Or Iran where the Legal Affairs Committee of Parliament regards law that prohibits girls below the age of 10 from being married off as ‘un-Islamic and illegal[xiv].”
Or closer home in Afghanistan, where a woman was publicly executed recently for the crime of adultery[xv] or Pakistan where more than a dozen girls aged four to sixteen were recently “traded” to resolve a dispute[xvi].
Which makes you wonder just who are these people who are making these rules and laws? And why do sane voices fear speaking up against them[xvii]? Is the problem at the heart of Islam, the silence of sensible Muslims?
When asked about the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim religion, at least three-quarters of Muslims in Jordan (86%), Egypt (84%) and Pakistan (76%) say they would favor making it the law; in Nigeria, 51% of Muslims favor
[ii] From The Age of Sacred Terror” by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, Random House, 2002 (p. 55) and Douglas Streusand, "What does Jihad mean?", Middle East Quarterly, September 1997; quoted here: http://satyameva-jayate.org/2007/02/22/jihad-a-small-little-word/
[x] http://www.expressindia.com/news/columnists/full_column.php?content_id=87288 The Right to Laugh at Gods, by Tavleen Singh, Feb ‘06
Shantanu Bhagwat (aka B Shantanu) is a political activist, advisor to start-ups, seed investor, one-time VC and ex-Indian Foreign Service officer.