Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Muslim Enlightenment

I'm coming to the end of Ali's book on fundamentalism(s) and he is carefully trying to explain how, as a critic of religion and believer in Enlightenment values, he can nonetheless sound the call for a much-needed Reformation within Islam... his take on the nature of this justification struck me:

"The Enlightenment attacked religion - Christianity, mainly - for two reasons: that it was a set of ideological delusions, and that it was a system of institutional oppressions, with immense powers of persecution and intolerance. Why then should I abstain from religious criticism?" ch.22/p337

After a thoroughly eye-opening and depressing read about political corruption, slaughter, rape, theft, and mayhem in the Middle East and elsewhere, some by fundamentalists, some by imperialists, some by murderous power-mongers, I am glad to get to the bit where he looks with some hope towards the future. He bemoans the lack of Nobel Prizes in the Muslim world , the lack of political, philosophical, and religious debate that was once present in Islam and was so powerful in shaking up Europe. He speculates on the chance to skip right past the neo-liberal global agenda for commodification enabled by "modernity" and move on to something new... if only Islam could open up real debate and scholarship and separate state and mosque.

I expected to learn a great deal about the layers of Muslim society past and present... blown away by this actually. I also hoped to read a different perspective on 911. One of the unexpected outcomes, though, is the idea that someone who has stripped their faith of religion and embraced humanist ideals still has a valid perspective on religion. This is obvious to most people, I'm sure (that the reformed/deformed can and should engage the rest) but it is often these simple ideas that grab me, give me something to build on.

To be fair to Ali's thesis, he makes pains to show how religion is most often the vehicle or instrument of oppression rather than the ultimate cause, especially in the case of American fundamentalism, which lies beneath the surface throughout many if its international blood-lettings (I'll save that for another post)...

"Exploiters and manipulators have always used religion self-righteously to further their own selfish ends. It's true that this is not the whole story. There are, of course, deeply sincere people of religion in different parts of the world who genuinely fight on the side of the poor, but they are usually in conflict with organised religion themselves. The Catholic Church victimised worker or peasant priests who organised against oppression. The Iranian Ayatollahs dealt severely with Muslims who preached in favour of a social radicalism." ch.22/p.329

I am reminded of how education on climate change, peace, and women's rights, and HIV/Aids (to name a few) still have an uphill fight within evangelical denominations in Canada. In the Mennonite Brethren church I grew up in, the environmental movement throughout the 1980s and 90s was considered "New Age" (of this world, or Satan), something to be viewed with suspicion. On the question of peace, a telling example came with the first Gulf War in 1990. How would this war for oil be met by our belief in non-resistance and the stance of non-participation? After some pressure for some kind of response, a prayer meeting was held - not to ask for peace or and end to conflict, certainly not to condemn violence or examine causes - but to wish Bush, Sr. and other leaders wisdom as they made tough decisions. It marked a key moment in the church -- Anabaptist peace theology got locked in the closet. On the question of rights, the same church continues to bar women from serving as elders (trustees), in violation of it's own Conference principles (from 1985 to the present) and probably the Charter of Rights. The subject of gay rights & acceptance wouldn't even make it past the front doors (please please someone prove me wrong on any of this). I am sure this and others evangelical churches do remarkable things, and that most individual attenders might not even realize these issues exist in their midst, but if they want to rise above the history of institutional oppression, they need to collectively engage with tough issues in the world they presume to affect (start with peace and equality).

So... adieu Tariq Ali... I will never think about Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, Israel, or the United States the same way again.