Friday, August 19, 2016

Correspondence: With a religious cast

Edited by Moristotle

Roger Cohen at his best! Great picture and comments: “Olympians in Hijab and Bikini” [NY Times, August 11]. Excerpt:
Since I saw a photograph of an Egyptian and a German beach volleyball player confronting each other at the net in Rio, I have been unable to get the image out of my head....
    The photo, by Lucy Nicholson of Reuters, juxtaposes two women, two beliefs and two dress codes, brought together by sport. The world confronts less a clash of civilizations than a clash of identities, concertinaed in time and space by technology. The West’s image of Islam and the Muslim image of Western societies are often mutually incommunicable; the incomprehension incubates violence.
    No area is as sensitive as that of the treatment of women, women’s roles, women’s sexuality, dress and ambitions. The story is often presented as one of Western emancipation versus Islamic subjugation. That, however, is an inadequate characterization.
    What follows are accounts by two women, an Egyptian and an American, of their experiences with the hijab....
    [The Egyptian:]

My parents — Egyptian mother, Dutch father — separated when I was four, and I grew up in the Netherlands. My mom doesn’t wear a head scarf and when I began to at the age of 19, five years ago, she said, “What the hell are you doing? I left my country so that you could be free and this is what freedom did?”....
    Elghobashy [the Egyptian volleyball player] is wearing leggings in the photo. I think she represents people like me. International-minded, young, modern Muslims who want to go out and study and work and play. We need different images of Islam.
    I got different responses from men when I chose to wear a head scarf rather than a short skirt. It created a kind of distance. But I still have my sexuality in my own hands. I can be very flirtatious, go out and meet a man — but I decide in what mode I want to be. I can be focused on my spirituality, prayers and study without distraction, or I can have a period when I choose to be sexy even in a head scarf through how I act or speak. I feel I have more power and independence vis-à-vis men now....
    [The American, who recently visited Iran:]
I am a deeply religious person. I don’t have a label to attach to my faith, but it is there nonetheless at the core of my being. I believe that God created me and created me with love as I am — just as God creates every other person. When I put on the hijab in Iran and the shapeless tunics I experience an attempt to deny how I have been made — an attempt to neutralize me.
    It has made me afraid. I started this trip almost completely covered by my hijab. Before coming I practiced with the help of an internet video so that no trace of hair or neck or calf would show and make me vulnerable to stares or the humiliation of being chastised. I had come here voluntarily and accepted the terms of admission, so I began the trip in a willing state of submission.
    But then the weather got hot — very hot. I got overheated and all I could think about was tearing this hijab off. I felt suffocated. I thought how I wouldn’t let an animal suffocate like this. If my animal were covered like this and suffering I would tear the fabric off out of simple decency.
    My hair, the curves in my body, were given to me by God. To cover my head and wear shapeless clothes feels like I am pretending not to be a woman and that somehow I am responsible for keeping men’s sexuality within social bounds.
    I just can’t wrap my head around God making me responsible for men’s sexuality. [read more]

“Is God Transgender?” [Mark Sameth, NY Times, August 12]. Excerpt:
I’m a rabbi, and so I’m particularly saddened whenever religious arguments are brought in to defend social prejudices — as they often are in the discussion about transgender rights. In fact, the Hebrew Bible, when read in its original language, offers a highly elastic view of gender. And I do mean highly elastic: In Genesis 3:12, Eve is referred to as “he.” In Genesis 9:21, after the flood, Noah repairs to “her” tent. Genesis 24:16 refers to Rebecca as a “young man.” And Genesis 1:27 refers to Adam as “them.”
    Surprising, I know. And there are many other, even more vivid examples: In Esther 2:7, Mordecai is pictured as nursing his niece Esther. In a similar way, in Isaiah 49:23, the future kings of Israel are prophesied to be “nursing kings.”
    Why would the Bible do this? These aren’t typos. In the ancient world, well-expressed gender fluidity was the mark of a civilized person. Such a person was considered more “godlike.” In Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the gods were thought of as gender-fluid, and human beings were considered reflections of the gods. The Israelite ideal of the “nursing king” seems to have been based on a real person: a woman by the name of Hatshepsut who, after the death of her husband, Thutmose II, donned a false beard and ascended the throne to become one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs.
    The Israelites took the transgender trope from their surrounding cultures and wove it into their own sacred scripture. The four-Hebrew-letter name of God, which scholars refer to as the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, was probably not pronounced “Jehovah” or “Yahweh,” as some have guessed. The Israelite priests would have read the letters in reverse as Hu/Hi — in other words, the hidden name of God was Hebrew for “He/She.” Counter to everything we grew up believing, the God of Israel — the God of the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions to which fully half the people on the planet today belong — was understood by its earliest worshipers to be a dual-gendered deity.
    Scientists now tell us that gender identity, like sexual orientation, exists on a spectrum. Some of us are in greater or lesser alignment with the gender assigned to us at birth. Some of us are in alignment with both, or with neither. For others of us, alignment requires more of a process.
    It may come as a surprise that scientists view gender as anything other than a simple binary. But thousands of years ago, as a review of ancient literature makes clear, that truth was known. In court challenges, administrative directives and popular culture, the issue is playing out in real time, before our eyes. But behind the unfolding legal drama lies the reality of human nature: the fact that gender is not, nor has it ever been, a matter of “either/or.” [read more]
The author of this column cites much of the same evidence Sam Harris did in his 2004 book, The End of Faith: “How Religion Can Lead to Violence” [Gary Gutting, NY Times, August 1]. Excerpt:
The latest victim is a French priest, murdered in his church by killers shouting “Allahu akbar! ”Following such attacks, Muslim leaders assure us that, as Tariq Ramadan said after the Paris massacre, the murders are “a pure betrayal of our religion.” After the shootings in Brussels, the leading Sunni university, Al-Azhar, issued a statement saying,
    “These heinous crimes violate the tolerant teachings of Islam.” Similar responses followed recent attacks in Orlando and Nice. We are told that the fanatical fringe groups who do these terrible things are at odds with the essential Muslim commitment to peace and love. I understand the reasons for such responses, but they oversimplify the relation of religion to intolerance and the violence it can lead to.
    Both Islam and Christianity claim to be revealed religions, holding that their teachings are truths that God himself has conveyed to us and wants everyone to accept. They were, from the start, missionary religions. A religion charged with bringing God’s truth to the world faces the question of how to deal with people who refuse to accept it. To what extent should it tolerate religious error? At certain points in their histories, both Christianity and Islam have been intolerant of other religions, often of each other, even to the point of violence.
    This was not inevitable, but neither was it an accident. The potential for intolerance lies in the logic of religions like Christianity and Islam that say their teaching derive from a divine revelation. For them, the truth that God has revealed is the most important truth there is; therefore, denying or doubting this truth is extremely dangerous, both for nonbelievers, who lack this essential truth, and for believers, who may well be misled by the denials and doubts of nonbelievers. Given these assumptions, it’s easy to conclude that even extreme steps are warranted to eliminate nonbelief....
    For those holding this view, no secular considerations, not even appeals to conventional morality or to practical common sense, can overturn a religious conviction that false beliefs are intolerable. Christianity itself has a long history of such intolerance, including persecution of Jews, crusades against Muslims, and the Thirty Years’ War, in which religious and nationalist rivalries combined to devastate Central Europe. This devastation initiated a move toward tolerance among nations that came to see the folly of trying to impose their religions on foreigners. But intolerance of internal dissidents — Catholics, Jews, rival Protestant sects — continued even into the 19th century. (It’s worth noting that in this period the Muslim Ottoman Empire was in many ways more tolerant than most Christian countries.) But Christians eventually embraced tolerance through a long and complex historical process....
    The eventual result was a widespread attitude of religious toleration in Europe and the United States. This attitude represented ethical progress, but it implied that religious truth was not so important that its denial was intolerable. Religious beliefs and practices came to be regarded as only expressions of personal convictions, not to be endorsed or enforced by state authority....
    The same is not true of Muslims. A minority of Muslim nations have a high level of religious toleration; for example Albania, Kosovo, Senegal and Sierra Leone. But a majority — including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Malaysia — maintain strong restrictions on non-Muslim (and in some cases certain “heretical” Muslim) beliefs and practices. Although many Muslims think God’s will requires tolerance of false religious views, many do not.
    A Pew Research Center poll in 2013 found that in Iraq, Malaysia, Pakistan and other nations in which Islam is officially favored, a large majority of Muslims think some form of Islamic law should be the law of the land. The poll also found that 76 percent of such Muslims in South Asia and 56 percent in the Middle East and North Africa favored executing Muslims who gave up their religion, and that in 10 Muslim counties at least 40 percent favored applying Islamic law to non-Muslims. This shows that, for many Muslims, the revealed truths of Islam are not only a matter of personal conviction but must also have a central place in the public sphere of a well-ordered society. [read more]
I hope that Mrs. Clinton at least learns of the speech that Sam Harris has written for her: “What Hillary Clinton Should Say about Islam and the ‘War on Terror’” [Sam Harris Blog, August 18]. I don’t think he would expect a speechwriter’s fee. Excerpt:
In the past, I’ve said that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda have nothing to do with Islam. And President Obama has said the same. This way of speaking has been guided by the belief that if we said anything that could be spun as confirming the narrative of groups like ISIS—suggesting that the West is hostile to the religion of Islam, if only to its most radical strands—we would drive more Muslims into the arms of the jihadists and the theocrats, preventing the very cooperation we need to win a war of ideas against radical Islam. I now see this situation differently. I now believe that we have been selling most Muslims short. And I think we are all paying an unacceptable price for not speaking clearly about the link between specific religious ideas and the sectarian hatred that is dividing the Muslim world.
    All of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, must oppose the specific ideas within the Islamic tradition that inspire groups like ISIS and the so-called “lone-wolf” attacks we’ve now seen in dozens of countries, as well as the social attitudes that are at odds with our fundamental values—values like human rights, and women’s rights, and gay rights, and freedom of speech. These values are non-negotiable.
    But I want to be very clear about something: Bigotry against Muslims, or any other group of people, is unacceptable. It is contrary to the values that have made our society a beacon of freedom and tolerance for the rest of the world. It is also totally counterproductive from a security point of view. However, talking about the consequences of ideas is not bigotry. Muslims are people—and most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims simply want to live in peace like the rest of us. Islam, however, is a set of ideas. And all ideas are fit to be discussed and criticized in the 21st century.
    Every religious community must interpret its scripture and adjust its traditions to conform to the modern world. Western Christians used to murder people they believed were witches. They did this for centuries. It’s hard to exaggerate the depths of moral and intellectual confusion this history represents. But it is also true that we have largely outgrown such confusion in the West. The texts themselves haven’t changed. The Bible still suggests that witchcraft is real. It isn’t. And we now know that a belief in witches was the product of ancient ignorance and fear. Criticizing a belief in witchcraft, and noticing its connection to specific atrocities—atrocities that are still committed by certain groups of Christians in Africa—isn’t a form of bigotry against Christians. It’s the only basis for moral and political progress.
    One thing is undeniable: Islam today is in desperate need of reform. We live in a world where little girls are shot in the head or have acid thrown in their faces for the crime of learning to read. We live in a world where a mere rumor that a book has been defaced can start riots in a dozen countries. We live in a world in which people reliably get murdered over cartoons, and blog posts, and beauty pageants—even the mere naming of a teddy bear. I’m now convinced that we have to talk about this with less hesitancy and more candor than we’ve shown in the past. Muslims everywhere who love freedom must honestly grapple with the challenges that a politicized strand of their religion poses to free societies. And we must support them in doing so. Otherwise, our silence will only further empower bigots and xenophobes. That is dangerous. We are already seeing the rise of the far right in Europe. And we are witnessing the coalescence of everything that’s still wrong with America in the candidacy of Donald Trump.

“Our Favorite Instagram Photos: Muddy Cowboy and Polar Bear Selfie” [National Geographic, August 9]. Excerpt:
A massive cumulonimbus cloud lit up during a storm, a cowboy’s muddy face-plant, and the tiger snapshot of a lifetime. Every day, Nat Geo photographers post to our @NatGeo account from all corners of the globe, sharing what they’re up to in the field or a favorite shot from their archive. Here we bring you the best of the best. [read more]
Grateful for correspondence, Moristotle

3 comments:

  1. This item, "What Hillary Clinton Should Say about Islam and the 'War on Terror'," a speech that Sam Harris wrote for Hillary Clinton and posted on his blog yesterday, came to my attention only today, after the publication of today's post, but it pairs so well with the third item, "How Religion Can Lead to Violence," I revised the post to include it.

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