Sunday, 12 September 2010

General Specific - thoughts on Islam and society


"O mankind! We created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know and honor each other (not that you should despise one another). Indeed the most honorable of you in the sight of God is the most righteous." Koran Chapter 49, Verse 13

Yesterday evening’s therapeutic visit to the Club finished with an enjoyable interaction – OK, dear reader, spat – with the neighbour. About Muslims. Or more importantly about General Specific.

The contention is clear – because it says somewhere in the Koran that non-Muslims have to be killed, therefore all people laying claim to being a Muslim subscribe to this and are a threat to our peace and democracy. Now, for the purpose of what follows, I am taking the existence of the offending chapter as a given. In truth I don’t know whether or not such a passage exists, what its context might be and how those who concern themselves with such matters interpret the chapter’s meaning.

My problem with all this is pretty simple. And to illustrate this I will make use of a book I have read – the Bible. Now you all know that the bible says that adulterers should be stoned to death:

If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city. (Deut 22: 23-24)

Now, I’m pretty sure that if I bob along to talk to Cullingworth’s vicar (I think we have one now they’ve rebuild the new vicarage on the site of the nice one they knocked down), he will not be saying that your typical Cullingworth adulteress should by lined up in the Rec and bricked to death. While there may be subscribers to the Old Testament view – perhaps in the wackier outposts of American fundamentalism or in one of the nuttier African churches – I can say with some confidence that almost all Christians reject the requirements of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, at least in respect of stoning.

It’s all right, I’m ahead of you! The Koran also prescribes lapidation as the punishment for adultery and, as we know, in some Muslim countries such punishment is used – most notably and recently in Iran. So perhaps I was wrong in last night’s debate? Perhaps all Muslims do subscribe to the absolute, inviolable truth of every word within the Koran? I do not know but I am sure that those arguing that specific examples – a stoning case, a bearded mullah calling for jihad in a grainy video or a leaflet handed out by over-enthusiastic students – indicate a general position are no better informed.

It may be the case that all ‘proper’ Muslims subscribe to this view. But that makes it tricky for the many Muslims who find the prescription of stoning and the calls for endless, eternal, violent jihad something less than appealing. I do not believe that the good men and women I encounter – some devout Muslims, others Muslim by culture and tradition if rather lax in their practice – are engaged in some lurid conspiracy to destroy freedom and democracy. And I am encouraged by some Muslim writers:

Moderate Muslims aspire for a society – a city of virtue -- that will treat all people with dignity and respect. There will be no room for political or normative intimidation. Individuals will aspire to live an ethical life because they recognize its desirability. Communities will compete in doing good and politics will seek to encourage good and forbid evil. They believe that the internalization of the message of Islam can bring about the social transformation necessary for the establishment of the virtuous city. The only arena in which Moderate Muslims permit excess is in idealism.

Now this writer may be a lone voice in the wilderness but what we read more accurately reflects what I see and hear from those Muslims I meet. Indeed that same writer has written this encouragement to progress:

In my opinion, Muslims can modernize without de-Islamising or de-traditionalising. India and Japan have shown that societies can modernize without losing their traditional cultures. Muslim societies today have to distinguish between Islam and culture, retain their Islamic essence and reform dysfunctional cultural habits that hinder development, progress, equality and prosperity.

Muqteder Khan is no more the voice of Islam than is Osama Bin-Laden but his writing demonstrates that there is a pluralism of thought within Islam. And that we cannot take a passage from the Koran and from that extrapolate that every Muslim subscribes to a literal interpretation of that passage – any more than we can for Christians or Jews.

When some young men – acting, as they thought, in the interests of Islam – crashed planes into the World Trade Centre, I was sat in a Bradford Council Executive meeting (in the days when we had an all-party executive) discussing the response to Bradford’s riots of 7th July 2001. The link between the two events – while only slight – was not lost on us. We were discussing how better to involve and integrate a large Muslim community while, through an act of terrorism in another country, some other Muslims set up a huge wall between good men like my neighbour and the City’s Muslim community.

However much I point to the good Muslims and argue that you cannot go from the specific to the general, my good neighbours will point to the twin towers, to the bombs of July 2007 and to the stories of stonings and such. And they will say: “explain that then?” And I will be at a loss for words unable to understand how a faith that speaks so clearly of justice and peace can, at the same time, contain some who promote such barbarism, injustice and violence?



JuliaM said...

Because it's more than just another faith?

Angry Exile said...

I was leafing through the Bible myself the other day for similar reasons. Christianity's and Islam's respective holy books have their roots in the same part of the world and, gosh, shock, the Bible is chock full of death by stoning and burning alive for trivial offences mixed in with a good dash of holy war, violent proselytisation and religious genocide. If it's just what's in the books that's at issue then Christianity is as big a problem as Islam because they both say the same kind of things. JuliaM feels that Islam is more than just another faith, but that is only true of those Islamists who see their faith that way. Fundamentalist Christians are the same way about their faith, and when they're saying how nice it would be if Islam was eradicated (to begin with, of course) and maybe Mecca nuked I can't see anything at all that distinguishes Christianity over Islam. If anything they're more to be feared because the world's most powerful nation is overwhelmingly Christian and has several thousand nukes, many sophisticated weapons and a couple of million men and women under arms.