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After Tunisia

January 15, 2011

I write this in the aftermath of the Tunisian upheaval. There will be many people in the West, both governments and individuals, who will be asking themselves whether the conditions that gave rise to the toppling of President Ben Ali – primarily unemployment – will spur a domino effect in neighbouring countries. They will also be asking whether the upheaval will create a power vacuum which Islamist factions will seek to fill.

I’m not an expert on Tunisia, so I don’t know. But the Tunisian situation set me thinking about relationship between religion and politics. A big subject, you might say. But not one that should be left exclusively to the experts. We should all be thinking about what sort of societies we want to live in. Do we want to live in communities where religion is used as a means of political control? Where our activities are controlled by the dictates of an entrenched clergy whose interpretation of what behaviours are or are not permitted end up being enshrined in law?

And in case you think I’m embarking on a polemic against Islam  – a religion for which I have the greatest respect – understand that I’m not talking exclusively about the Sharia and the fatawa issued by Muslim clerics across the Middle East and beyond. Since the birth of Christianity, the confusion between spiritual and temporal leadership has ebbed and flowed in just the same way as it has in the Muslim world. For the ulema, substitute bishops. For the Sharia, substitute the Ten Commandments and laws based upon them in just about every country throughout history under the control of a Christian monarch or ruling class. The stoning of adulterers, the killing of apostates and blasphemers, the burning of witches, the persecution of Catholics, Protestants, Cathars, Gnostics. Are these the will of God, or are they political acts approved of or committed by rulers who chose to interpret the will of God for us? Acts that enable them to gain power or retain it?

Look beyond Islam and Christianity, and consider Judaism, from the Pharisees who encouraged Pontius Pilate to crucify Jesus to the extremists of today who so strongly influence the intransigent government of modern Israel.

Is not the fundamental precept of the Abrahamic faiths that what is all-important is my responsibility to God? That I am answerable to God for how I live my life – for my sins and for my good works?

In behavioural terms, at the core of Islam are the Five Pillars. At the core of Judaism are the Ten Commandments. And at the core of Christianity are the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount. In this age of enlightenment, mass communications and universal access to information, are we so weak that we need an army of priests, imams, mullahs and rabbis to do our thinking for us? Yes, we all need guidance from the wise from time to time – from our brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, parents, teachers and friends. And from religious leaders and mentors who can offer us advice, insight and empathy in our efforts to reach a closer relationship with God. But do those religious leaders have the right to mediate our responsibility to God by their interpretation of His word, by their personal agendas and by their willingness to justify the actions of their political leaders?

These are questions, not statements. Whatever we feel about our personal relationship with the Creator, the Abrahamic faiths are communal religions. They are stronger when people gather in mosques, at the Haj, in the church and synagogue – or in a mob on a Pakistani street protesting in favour of the blasphemy law, or in a church hall in Florida planning “Burn the Quran Day”. Benign or malign, to be an accepted member of a community you need to follow its behavioural rules.

And in societies where freedom of expression is limited, where people do not feel that they have a voice in decisions made on their behalf, the natural reaction is to politicise the one behaviour that no government can easily interdict, the practice of faith. So the extreme Islamist agenda is to restore the caliphate – to reject what they describe as the hypocrisy and corruption of temporal rulers. And it’s a message well received by people who feel trapped in a cage of unemployment, poverty or lack of personal fulfilment.

Whether those rulers are or are not corrupt is irrelevant. The impulse is for change, any change. Blame is always laid on others, with little thought as to whether the downfall of one government will lead to another with solutions to problems that go way beyond national boundaries. Problems based here on earth – climate change, demographics, dwindling natural resources.

In societies that are highly paternalistic, and where much of the educational curriculum is devoted to rote learning at the expense of critical thinking, is it surprising that citizens who grow up being told what to think fall prey to those who use the scriptures to justify their political agendas?

So yes, it’s right to fear power vacuums that can be occupied by extremist ideologues. In secular societies, by extremist nationalists. In societies bound by a dominant religion, by extremist proselytisers. Because in both cases the extremists latch on to common beliefs – patriotism and faith – and pervert them into malign ideologies.

It is easier to blame others than to take responsibility ourselves. It is easier to destroy than to create. And here in the Middle East, I would argue that creative solutions will address many of the problems facing the people of the region far faster than destructive conflict. If it takes a rethink on the role of the clergy in ordering society to produce new generations of creative thinkers, then the governments of the Middle East will ignore this issue at their peril. And their peril will ultimately be the world’s peril.

The argument is not about secularity versus religion. It’s about building societies in which people are not afraid of thinking for themselves, and are free to express themselves without fear of censorship, persecution and death threats – either from governments or from ordinary members of society. There is nothing that I’m aware of about the basic precepts of Islam, Christianity or Judaism that should inhibit creativity and freedom of thought. If it were so, then the great inventions and discoveries of the Golden Age of Islam, of the Western renaissance and of the Industrial Revolution would never have happened. It is men, not God, who curtail us.

As a Westerner living in the Middle East, I suppose I’m open to the accusation that I’m an outsider. That I don’t understand the culture of the region, and as a non-Muslim I have no right to comment on how Muslims organise their affairs. Even that I’m a cultural imperialist. Fair enough, so I will end this post by quoting in full (so that I am not accused of taking his words out of context) from a recent article in Saudi Arabia’s Arab News by Dr Khalid Nowaiser, a Muslim and lawyer from Saudi Arabia. In his article, entitled Religious Intolerance in Saudi Arabia – Enough is Enough, Dr Alnowaiser says:

I realize I am taking up a very sensitive subject.

I also understand that I would be stereotyped as liberal or secular, but I don’t care as long as this article provokes readers to consider thoughtfully the future of our country. 

My thinking was stimulated by the participation of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, director of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Makkah Region, at a forum held recently at Khadija Bint Khowailid Business Women Center in Jeddah. The strident reactions to his speech deserve an answer. I commend Sheikh Al-Ghamdi for his modern and civilized views in spite of the numerous difficulties he has faced. I also applaud those women who organized and attended the Jeddah forum and who daily combat the tough and inflexible culture of relegating women to second-class status because of intolerant religious edicts.

Despite all the difficulties that currently exist, the bigger issue is how to address the misguided conservative interpretation of Islam that seeks to justify greater repression of Saudi women. This fundamental issue is so problematic and complex that it has dominated and controlled ways of our thinking and the intellectual discourse in the Kingdom.

The present situation requires that we ponder the following points:

First: Certainly, Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam, where Islamic Law is followed.  However, certain puritan religious leaders have ignored Islam’s tolerant and flexible nature and have imposed a kind of strict interpretation that betrays our religion and the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) teachings. Islam is a faith that does not require persons to establish a direct link or relationship with the Creator. Yet, regrettably, many of our clerics are still talking in the name of God and his Messenger and advancing the mistaken view that “He who opposes me also must oppose God and his Messenger.” This is quite similar to the Catholic Church’s stance in the Middle Ages where many people were persecuted in the name of God.  One must ask, “How can Saudi society progress if it allows such a defeatist culture teaming with fear, skepticism and unequal relations between men and women?”

Second: The prevailing attitude for the past three decades is to relegate Saudi women to an inferior status. I doubt that anybody can equal this school of thought in its dogmatism and strictness with the exception of a few Muslim countries that still live in the Dark Ages. Those of us who grew up in the 1960s still remember when we could go to movies and attend festivals and other forms of entertainment in Jeddah without being harassed. Engaging in these activities was not prohibited until the rise of religious dogmatism in the recent past. Never before has our society experienced such an arbitrarily enforced separation between men and women as that which currently exists. Does this mean that Islam has changed or simply that our religious leaders have failed to keep up with modern societal trends?

The failure of this ideology of religious fanaticism is apparent, yet it continues to dominate and control Saudi society in the guise of the pious and in the name of Islam despite preaching intolerance.

Third: Saudi religious schools must enter the modern age or be an impediment to Saudi Arabia’s economic and political development.  Many reforms depend on an informed and tolerant citizenry. Justifying intolerance and ignorance breeds terrorism that strikes at the very security of the Kingdom. We need to consider these leaders of thought, who are called our religious scholars, of whom we should revere? Who among them has contributed anything to the advancement of the human race with scientific breakthroughs like those of Newton, Einstein, Edison, Socrates, Aristotle, or Archimedes?  Instead, could they simply be memorizers who celebrate and continue to live in the past and ignore the rapid changes taking place in the world?

Fourth: Most irritating is the way that these religious dogmatists wrongfully meddle with our lives and personal freedoms contrary to the very teachings of Islam. Who gave them the power to decide how our lives should be lived? Why should a social issue like women driving cars be so contentious?

Shouldn’t a woman decide this? Moreover, why is a woman not entitled to travel without the consent of a man? Why are her employment opportunities so constricted? 

Fifth: When Saudis meet together, their talks center on: “This particular Sheikh has sanctioned doing this, while another Sheikh has prohibited it, describing it as an illicit taboo based on a fatwa.” So, they become obsessed with what individual Sheikhs say rather than the true message of our faith. To combat this nonsense, we need to pay attention to current issues, such as the environment and climate change, the technological revolution, genetic engineering, medicine, industry, research, philosophy, and art. If we fail to do this, we would find ourselves living on the margins of history.

Sixth: In short, there is a prevailing conviction and belief that the existing situation is what the majority of Saudi society wants and, therefore, the country should listen only to the majority. I believe this is wrong. If we look at history, we will see that those who challenged current ways of thinking and advanced reforms were often in the minority. Indeed, constructive change sometimes comes about through the act of a single person, such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, the great founder of the Kingdom, King Abdul Aziz, and all the prophets and messengers, including Prophet Muhammad, the Messenger of God. In order to move forward as a modern civilized society, we must make a clear and decisive choice: Either accept the current reactive and intolerant school of thought which seeks to control our lives and restrict our country’s progress, or promote tolerance and intellectual pursuits to create a better and more productive future for all Saudi citizens.

That Dr Alnowaiser was able to express his opinion freely in the Saudi media is to the credit both of the government and the media themselves. In order to discuss solutions you must first discuss the issues. And I’m not saying that Dr Alnowaiser would agree with everything I have said in this post. But his words give me hope that there are solutions to the problems of the Middle East, and that we are not heading inevitably towards widespread political meltdown – a consequence that would almost certainly not be to the long-term advantage of the disaffected, disappointed and disenfranchised in this region for which I have great affection.

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