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In an excellent podcast earlier this week for the Godless Spellchecker, Maajid Nawaz said that ‘any form of theocracy is repugnant’ to him. How right he is and what an important message to try to spread! No version of any religion should be imposed on any society.
Why? First, because each individual should take personal responsibility for her or his conduct. Our ‘humanity’ should be measured by the extent to which we love and care for others. Second, all religious dogma is likely man-made and, therefore, flawed. Whether you put your faith in the AD 325 Council of Nicea which thrashed out early Christian doctrine –interestingly, voting to omit reincarnation – or the current arguments about the nature of God (one or triune) and the difficulties with the authority of the hadith, the result is a complete muddying of the waters. By all means say that you are Christian or Jew or Moslem or, indeed, atheist but, please, do not let that be all that you are. There have to be absolutes which transcend religious dogma or cultural preference.
I spent eight years in Jordan; two in the capital, Amman, and six in Um Sayhoun – the village created to house the poor Bedouin who used to live in the tombs and caves of Petra. At first, speaking little Arabic, I tried to show by my facial expression and body language that I honoured the ways of my neighbours. That became more and more difficult until, towards the end and with more Arabic at my disposal, I simply had to resist much of what I saw around me. My greatest difficulty lay in the lack of human rights, particularly concerning women and the disabled. [To say nothing of the animals. ‘Compassion for animals is intimately connected with goodness of character; and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man.’ Arthur Schopenhauer – a subject which needs a separate blog.] Many women were not permitted to work. Many were old before their time after multiple pregnancies. [A 38 year old that I met at a wedding had the most beautiful eyes that I have ever seen, but she did not have a single tooth. She was breastfeeding her sixteenth child.] A 22 year old bride, a model of feminine decency, lost 90% of her wardrobe on her wedding night as her husband went through her clothes, throwing out what he judged to be immodest. Then there was a neighbour whose husband took a second wife. Being poor, he did not have enough money to build a second house. So he divided his home with breeze-blocks, leaving his first wife and her five children to live and sleep in one windowless room and a walk onto the filthy street and re-entry by another door in order to reach the rudimentary kitchen and toilet.
It isn’t enough to give alms to the poor. A sense of compassion must be built into the nurture of children, particularly boys. Marriages between first cousins can cause mental and physical disabilities. With little centralised provision, families are often forced to keep the afflicted ones locked up at home. If they escape, boys jeer and drive them away with stones, as if herding their goats. For the first two years of schooling, the boys’ classrooms are at the girls’ school so that they won’t be at the mercy of older boys in the playground at break.
What has this to do with fighting extremism worldwide? It demonstrates that trying to live by extremist interpretations of religious scriptures or cultural norms is certainly not ideal. It would be far more favourable to live by universal human rights which promote equality. Our humanity must be measured by the value that we place on all our neighbours.
I was watching a TV programme recently in which a female Islamic scholar, wearing a niqab, told a young, modestly dressed young woman that ‘to wear a hejab is an act of worship.’ What a beguiling idea that sounds but how insidious. It is my opinion that such apparent authorities need to be resisted. This hadith, for instance:
Narrated ‘Imran bin Husain: The Prophet said, “I looked at Paradise and found poor people forming the majority of its inhabitants; and I looked at Hell and saw that the majority of its inhabitants were women.” Hadith – Sahih Bukhari 4:464.
Or the 2013 events in the Afghan parliament: MPs halted a debate on a new law concerning women’s rights. After only 15 minutes all discussion was stopped. They failed to approve the law because parts of it violated what they believed to be Islamic principles. Among its provisions was a ban on child marriage and outlawing the practice of trading women to settle disputes.
Let us, instead, pay more attention to internationally agreed human rights laws and to the guidance of our own hearts. Am I showing compassion and justice to my fellow human beings?
Towards the end of my time in Jordan, and with a better command of Arabic, I started to say things like;“Women are a lot more than their bodies, you know,” or “Our bodies are from Allah too,” or “There are parts of the world, like Tibet, where nudity is accepted naturally, and not as an indicator of improper sexual display,” or “There are parts of China, where the imams are female,” or “I think that people should be able to live without fear,” or “There are communities in the north of India where it is the women who are allowed to take more than one husband,” or “You are not afraid of your God. You’re afraid of your neighbour,” or “If any given belief or message aspires to the status of self-evident truth, why does it need fear in order to instil or maintain it?” The women listened, fascinated, their eyes lighting up at the dawning realisation of other ways of thinking, yet wondering at my audacity. Most of the men laughed at me. Just sometimes, there were one or two who nodded quietly but remained silent.
Inspiring change comes from touching people’s hearts – not from the tweaking of religious dogma.
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