On a recent trip to another city a friend remarked that I turned communal going by my facebook posts. It did not surprise me entirely. I have been sharing quite a few things that blast Islamic Extremism. People who really knew me would be sure that I was not out on a campaign against the entire Muslim world. On the contrary, I deeply worry about increasing extent of polarization today and about the prejudice against the average muslim. The background here is that I have read the Quran (twice, as a child and as a graduate) and many associated readings like Hadith and Sunnah. I worry about how the criticism of Islam is taken as an indictment of all muslims majority of whom have nothing to do with the extremism. The audience of these critics often fail to look at in context. Failure to see the broad spectrum of practice of Islam is very dangerous and plants mistrust in people on both sides. I worry about this not out of any altruism but because of the awareness that most religions I know spew the same bullshit in their books and the majority of their following does not take take it literally too. Now don’t get your atheist bazookas out. The reason I tolerate religion itself is another topic. The jist is that I look at it as some people’s way of dealing with metaphysical inquiries, eternity etc. or as simple substitute for visit to a therapist. Trying to take that away from an individual will backfire owing to basic nature of human spirit. Anyway back to my communalism, so my recent outburst against what’s going on with Islamism is in line with my general belief that we are being too nice to religion. The specific outburst on Islamism came in three bursts: during the lead up Indian election, the Gaza conflict and the current ISIS crisis. I could write a long incoherent essay on why here but I will try to organize a bit and show why I decided to poke this hornet’s nest.
Admitting that there is problem is the first step: Now to the question of what really convinced me that I have to start sharing certain uncomfortable questions on a religion that I don’t follow. I should have no business there, right. Because I care about people on either side of this divide. On one hand ISIS has expanded its targets, in stages, from yazidis, women, rafidah to employees of a company in the silicon valley and then to every non-believer. Sure their armies amount to less than a population of small town but their message resonates far and there have been killings far off from their base in response. On the other hand many of muslim friends don’t even want to acknowledge the existence of these problems. Over time I realized that many of them have never read these books in full to see that their religion is not infallible. Or they are too defensive to acknowledge reality. My guess is they don’t want to give any further ammunition to the extremists from the other side. They are super nice people but the former group (as much as they hangout/mingle with each other) is never sure of their loyalties when it comes to this aspect. There is always an awkward diversion of topic even when it comes up. I hate to put my muslim friends in a spot. But on rare occasions I do, I am often met with a disdainful ‘so are we supposed to hyperventilate every time some incident occurs and put disclaimers disowning these bad guys’. Certainly not, but at least admitting the problem would help others believe that they don’t have to prepare for a war in case this blows up. Asking questions/talking of your own religion might help others know the unknown a bit (which in turn would reduce their fear). And if they don’t care enough to get into that mess, then they should not be bothered when others lampoon their religion too. That is when I decided to give the precious few muslims who speak about it some visibility by asking those same questions. It is the least I could do. And these are hardly original questions and many have asked them before. I was just was not asking them in the effort to appear politically correct.
Recognize that the criticism always seems to come from outside for a reason: My first experience with Islam was so intense that I practically considered myself a muslim for a while. (except for accepting Mohammed. Not out of hate but I anyone claiming final solution with suspicion. Its was only much later I read full biographies and contradicting accounts of his life. His sexual life and wars make him an unacceptable character to me) . But the bullshit in it is not exclusive. All abrahamic texts have concepts of exclusiveness and chosen-ness deeply embedded in them that instantly fills people with a sense of superiority and connection with cosmic ruler. There are good lines too but nowhere to compete with the delusional material. But, if you don’t want to accept the former fact then reading this post further will be of no use. The whole point here is to question the relevance of the text (or at least the bad parts of it). The sad thing here is there is an age group with which such material resonates very well (psychologists have some data on this). This is why people are worried about indoctrination. That turns lethal if the consequences of this absolute confidence in their spiritual master translates to physical danger in the real world to others or political control of others. (I take great pains to clarify when I say that these are nearly orthogonal worlds and never succeed. Hopefully some people ‘get it’). This is why these uncomfortable questions are basically of no value when asked by someone who does not follow the religion. These questions need to be asked by those people with whom Islam has resonated in the first place and not by others. And whenever that happened a long line of such questioners ( I could give a long list here but Ali at the beginning, Ghulam Ahmed somewhere in between, Ayan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan, Irshad Manji etc. in the modern age should suffice) have been basically purged from the religion. So it appears that only questions you can ask are from the outside. This is what makes me single out Islam more often than not. ANY dissidence is met with the most brutal purge. Is it any surprise that criticism always seems external?
The silence of moderates is a death-warrant for others: Islam as it trends today translates to death for me eventually and I have that selfish interest apart from concern for people around me in talking about this. But the more worrisome issue is the lack of mobilization of internal forces of change. I always wondered at what point would muslim moderates stop getting so defensive with lines like ‘there are black sheep in every religion’ and instead acknowledge the reality a bit, just like followers of other religions do. When they use the defensive line what it really sounds to me is ‘hey, look this violence is okay and you have to live with it because there is some degree of it always in every religion’. The only problem being we would not be ‘living’ with it. When they ask me to ignore every evidence of disproportionate terrorist activity that is out there? the number of terror groups associated with Islam, the number of conflicts with Islam on one side, the number of political interferences by islam. I find it really hard to fathom how anyone can hide behind such excuses. When they do that they are basically approving a doctrine that is a death-warrant to others. And they are surrendering their religion as they know it. Sadly most would rather not get into the mess in order to not join the list of apostates. So it appears to me that these moderates, if they exist, either get defensive (due to a bigger scare of extremism from outside) or are scared of offending their extremists or threatened to silence or are actually dead. So whether it is cowardice or complicity, it is just sad. I often wonder if the followers of religions have done so terrible a job in building a bridge of trust that muslims would rather have their extremists win than extremists from the other side. If that is so, I think we collectively have failed. My experiences as a minority in India and in the US tell me that is not case. Hopefully I am right.
So what do I intend to achieve with all this information overload: When I was writing that last paragraph, I felt briefly like the US government claiming that a despotic regime in some other country is silencing every opposition so they will intervene to take it out. I have no such intention. I raised my voice on these issues only when it started affecting something I am really passionate about: India’s future was at stake in the election, I strongly oppose anti-semitism disguised in whatever form (I hate religious philo-semitism too, btw) and religious violence of the nature seen in ISIS’s actions. I really think anyone outside Islam are the worst candidates to criticize it because very often they don’t take the time to know it more or at least its followers more. And the vast diversity in how the religion is practiced makes it impossible for a non-believer to ever do a comprehensive study of it. The fact that wahhabism and associated extremist thought is threatening every other sect/flavor/school of thought is undeniable though. And the best candidates to face this threat are the muslims themselves assuming they disagree with this evidently evil ideology. In light of that I decided to throw my weight behind people like Tarek Fatah, Majid Nawaz, Tawfik Hamid or even little heroes like Malala who are voices of that change. They need all the visibility I can give them. I felt sad sometime back when I felt the tools I help build as an engineer contributed to the world negatively. This is one way I can use them positively. Rather than keep blasting the religion in my unsophisticated way which is only worsening the polarization I see, I am going promote their views instead. I hope that encourages other muslims who care about their religion enough to take it back into their hands.
I think it’s very important for us to build a two way trust here: for the muslims to believe that these critics don’t hate them as people or their freedom altogether. And for us to believe that muslims are capable of reforming their religion on their own. It’s never been done before. That is why it’s a challenge for our age. If I can play a role, I gladly will.