Saturday, 18 September 2010

A Faith Forced has no Force at All

Ramadan has passed us by, and in parts of the Arab world law enforcement was out in force. Why? It is a legal offense in a number of countries in the Gulf, Egypt, and elsewhere to eat or drink during the day as a Muslim, especially publicly. In Morocco for example, a violation is punishable with a fine and up to six months in jail; the penalties were imposed on a number of people 'breaking the law' including youths last month. In Egypt this year again the police were on the lookout for transgressors of the fast, as was the case in Algeria. This begs the obvious question: is it really an effective use of state resources to monitor what is ostensibly a private religious activity? Beyond this, what is the meaning of religion when it is mandated by the state? Can the state really have such control over the societies that they govern over? And in many cases isn't the reaction of the people in direct contradiction to the intended outcome desired by those in power?

These questions do not call into doubt the intrinsic worth of Ramadan or any religious practices nor the ethics that underpin them. Quite the opposite in fact. True value is derived from liberty and choice not from compulsion. In Islam, this is oft-noted and a prevalent theme within the Quran and hadith (or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). Take one of the most prominently cited Quranic verses as an example (2:256): "Let there be no compulsion in religion." Another that comes immediately to mind (109:6) extols: "Unto you your religion and unto me my religion." In fact two of the central concepts of Islamic practice are niya' and taqwa. Taqwa represents the inner compass of 'God consciousness' that is to be developed in each individual, so that on a daily basis they avoid ill deeds and do good work. Without taqwa then there is no true practice of the faith. Similarly, niya - which means intention - is central to the practice of Islam, including prayers and fasting. Without declaring in truth one's niya there is really no worth to outward rituals or even the good deeds one performs.

Beyond the ethereal, philosophical and textual, compulsion in faith has tremendous practical consequences on societies. In the UAE during a prominent gathering during Ramadan hosted by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi - one of the most influential political figures in the region - an Iraqi Shiite scholar was given a high profile. Sayyid Ahmed al Qabbanji illuminated on what he saw as the strictures of fundamentalism:
“A large number of young people who live under the rule of fundamentalists have renounced their religion because fundamentalists forced religion on them. Faith thrives on freedom and freedom is the basis of ethics. When a religious adherent is forced to give charity, then this charity means nothing and has no actual value.”
This message is one that is too often hidden from view, yet is a very relevant one, and it cuts both ways. When the Shah of the Iran imposed secular dress on its population and a diminution of religion in public life, it only emboldened religious fervor. Then as the religious authorities over the last several decades mandated that every woman cover her body, including her head, it has led to a cat-and-mouse game of absurd levels between religious enforcers and the rebellious teenage spirit. It may be called the Islamic Republic of Iran, yet, for a vast number, their Islam is not something internal or individual, but external and estranged. More dangerously, apostasy (ridda) and heresy (shirk) are capital crimes in a number of Muslim countries still today. That is why there are dramatic cases of a Muslim to be hanged for converting to Christianity (like in Afghanistan), or another to be put to death for allegedly being a sorcerer (like in Saudi Arabia), or yet others who are always under mortal threat for 'pretending' to be Muslim.

Ultimately in the 21st century, in a globalized interconnected world, societies cannot be closed monolithic blocks, where individuals are compelled to be a certain way. Firstly, the value of faith is severely eroded by this approach. Secondly, it often leads to a backlash, at times overt and blatant, but too often covert and away from prying eyes; simply look at the sexual disfunction and obscure practices at play in much of the Muslim world. Finally, and most importantly, states which in today's age seek to control their societies and obstruct individuality will only undermine development, progress, and prosperity. It leads to the absence of strong civic participation and the creation of underground and oft-destructive structures that foster further discord. Ultimately, the act of suppressing individual reason and intellect in religious matters dulls the overall critical thinking of a people. No innovation. No creativity. No curiosity. And no real belief.

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