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Spiritual Meditations ( 4 March 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Religious Groups and Identity: A Feeling of Hopelessness



By Aiman Reyaz, New Age Islam

4 Mar 2013

Our sense of grouping and identity is the strongest in terms of religion. We group most strongly with our religious group members and identify most personally with our religious identity. Religious group may be defined as members of a religious community following and acting in almost the same fashion. For example, Muslims, following the teachings of Islam and acting according to the Quran and Hadith. Religious identity may be defined as the distinctive character of any religion shared by members of the same religious community. For example, thinking that Islam is a distinct religion and it is different from other faiths, this makes Islam distinct and unique as well.

Having a common religious identity, with same outward appearances, like trimmed moustache, flowing beard for men, and Burqa for women; similar names like Abdul, Ahmed, Muhammad etc; and having common beliefs, values and practices, like believing that Muslims are destined to go to Heaven, never mind however much evil they do, praying 5-times a day, fasting in Ramazan, giving charity etc., brings in a strong bond of cohesion.

They share same emotional experiences: for example when Pakistan wins a Cricket match, many Muslims feel elated, especially if they beat India and vice versa. Presence of an out-group unconsciously makes us a group: we unconsciously divide the world into ‘Us ‘and ‘Them’, ‘I am good’ and ‘You are bad’, ‘Muslims will go to Heaven’, ‘Mushriks will go to Hell’ etc.

Our religious identity comes to the forefront in the presence of other religious community, this is for our preservation. Our brain acts in such a manner that it tries to protect itself by linking itself with members of the same group. This, self-preservation is due to thousands of years of “hardwiring” in our brain. Some psychologists believe that we are obligatorily interdependent- that our evolutionary history is one of a necessary reliance on each other for collective knowledge and information sharing, and that, indeed, such group connectedness is important for our survival as a species. For our survival, we need to be a part of a group that thinks, believes and acts like the way I think, believe and act.

If a lone person wanted something and a group also wanted it, the group would almost always win. Over evolutionary history, loners would therefore be losers, whereas the people who passed on their genes toward future generations would be the ones who formed groups. This is also one of the major reasons for our obsession with the numbers game i.e., facts like ‘Islam is the fastest growing religion’ and that many people accept Islam on Peace TV, makes us, common Muslims, really happy. We feel that since ‘our group’ is increasing and getting stronger, ‘I’ am also increasing and getting stronger and my chance of survival will also go up. This is also one of the reasons for the Crusades of the Christians and the Jihad (Struggling in war) of the Muslims.

 What do religious group achieve? The answer to this simple question is divided into two parts: 1. Social and 2. Cultural. At social level we feel safe and secure. When we see members of our group we take a sigh of relief. No wonder the Ulema are now propagating even more strongly to Muslim men to sport a beard and to Muslims women to wear a Burqa. The more these numbers increase the more the ‘Muslim group’ feel great about themselves. Ahmed Deedat once said in a lecture on ‘If the label shows your intent wear it’ that the more “true Muslims” (bearded men and burqaed women) are there to be seen, the more it “terrifies the enemies (non-Muslims) out of its wits”.

At the cultural level, we look and behave in the same fashion. We dress, eat, pray etc in the same way. All this satisfies our brain and it gives the impression that everything is fine and familiar. Discomfort arises when we are in the presence of other religious group. Their dresses, their food, their method of prayer confuse us and this confusion can also lead our brain to perceive that “something is not right”.

All the time we are switching our identity. One time ‘I’ am an individual- this is my personal identity. In this ‘I’ am different from my In-group members. Then ‘I’ become a member of a group- this is my social identity. In this ‘I’, ‘My’ group is different from the out-group members.

Similarly when I think about ‘my’ group more in terms of ‘myself’ then I lose my individuality. By sporting a beard and by wearing a Burqa, we unconsciously or consciously lose our ‘selves’. Most of my behaviours will not be the result of my free way of thinking, but it will be the result of the group behaviour.

So a Muslim is a Muslim not because he has submitted his will to God but because he is a part of the Muslim group and the actions of this group is distinct from ‘other’ groups. So to be a part of ‘this’ group a man must keep a beard, trim moustaches and a woman must cover herself completely in full-body covering Burqa. Although the religion has nothing to do with these, yet since it is part of the ‘in-group’ and different from the ‘out-group’ hence it has to be followed.