Sieving Metaphors out of Concrete: the Battle between One and All

I’m still bothered about this Shafelia Ahmed killing. After 4 hours sleep I’m already buzzing. There is something huge that needs to be said about it, so if you don’t mind me burbling on, here goes.

There is a fundamental imbalance at work in belief communities – whether they be religious or political – all around the world. It’s a tug-of-war that goes back perhaps to our earliest experiences of human society, a tug-of-war between the well-being and growth of the group (which individuals are dependent on for their own safety), and the well-being and integrity of the individual (each one of whom makes up the whole).

I could rummage around for hours looking for ‘expert’ quotes on this matter but I don’t think there’s any need – we can see it all around us, all the time. A society clique has its own interests at heart, so people instinctively take on its ‘dos and don’ts’ and most of them will not cross the line for fear of being cast out of the gang.

This is totally primordial. We might not remember it but there was a time when wild animals threatened our live and there was safety in numbers. But the bigger the group is, the more difficult it is to maintain any kind of homogeneity; greater differences of space and time give rise to variances in culture and language. Our climates and landscapes offer us different challenges.

When there is a hierarchical power structure, or just a lot of people with enough will or need to maintain the group intact, repressive tactics begin to emerge. Dissent, whether it be in the form of a teenage schoolgirl wanting to have a boyfriend or a group of social activists campaigning for change, is suppressed – sometimes violently.

This is when the balance between group and individual has been thrown out of whack, and it’s given us Communism, Fascism, repressive Muslim regimes, and vigilante acts like ‘honour killings’. The sacredness of life is subjugated to the survival of the group.

There have always been, in the history of every tribe, pioneers who sense the need for movement, be it through a change in physical conditions (a spring dries up, so they have to move), or disagreements with elders, or simply the overpopulation of a group and the need for fresh space. So a smaller group splinters off and finds a new way – but this doesn’t necessarily mean they cut their ties with their old group, or that they suddenly give up their language and customs.

Humanity is in constant flux. Historical linguistics shows a fascinating story of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, a place where few written languages have long histories and so the movement of people and the interfaces between cultures are tracked by words that have been borrowed and grammatically absorbed by one or other of the 2,000 languages indigenous to Africa. Few languages are used ideologically; you don’t lose your language when you move upcountry – it evolves.

But when this idea of movement and flux is applied to religion and politics, infuriatingly often we find that a shell of customs, ideas and dogmas handed down from one generation to another becomes encrusted over people and they cannot think creatively enough to see when conditions have changed and so modes de vie also must.

The spirit of Islam is finding the ‘Middle Path’ (not unlike Buddhism); the Prophet Muhammad (s.) always advocated looking for a intermediate path between two extremes. The extremes in his day were a diseased kind of tribalism and religious zeal. Today there is a different disease, composed of fashion, market forces, hype, spin and consumerist herd thinking; today’s religious zeal can now be seen in extreme adherence to one’s patria, religion, racist ideology, political party, football team…the tribes are proliferating all the time.

In the first extreme, behind a smokescreen of development and progress there is deep, grave injustice. Children and young mothers forced to work in mines so people in consumerist societies can buy new technology. Children sold to sweatshops to sew sequins onto dresses. Indigenous peoples displaced from their homelands so the natural resources in them can be pillaged. All of this happens so that certain priviledged individuals can have the freedom to buy whatever they want (or are encouraged to want), whenever they want. This is neo-liberal capitalism. This is extreme individualism.

On the other hand, there is the weight of tradition, sometimes (or often) woven and warped into a heavy helmet of you-must-think-this and you-must-do-that, otherwise you will be harming or disrespecting your group in some way. The alternative, for these people, is a dangerous individualism; the threat of losing their identity as a member of that group is so great that they consent to horrific abuses taking place in the name of Nazism, Communism, tribal culture or a repressive Islamic state. In a way, both extremes are nothing more than herd mentality.

The founding principle of Islam, of balance and harmony over chaos, is absolutely dependent on Muslims being confident and creative in the way they apply it. The detritus of the past does not have to be carried forward on our backs. It is stupid to live according to conditions that no longer exist. Would we wear winter clothes in summer?

The individualism we are accustomed to now is isolating; with no need to look after their neighbours or even their own families, people become emotionally detached and capable of doing extraordinary acts of cold-blooded cruelty, or simply neglect. It is unhealthy for the individual to ignore the whole that surrounds him, just as it is unhealthy for a society to ignore the needs and rights of the individuals that make up its whole.

The extremities facing us in today’s world, here and now, might have resonances that go back to a Biblical era – that’s where religion becomes a fountain of wisdom, a body of past experiences that can be observed and learned from – but without the independent thinking that knows how to sieve the metaphor from the concrete, the lesson from the teaching material, it is worse than having no guidance at all.

The balance between all our extremes can be regained, but it will happen one conscience at a time.

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The Insanity of Blame

The life sentences of Farzana and Iftikar Ahmed for the murder of their daughter Shafilea, reported today on the BBC, because her ‘westernised ways’ (i.e. resistance to a forced marriage in Pakistan) were bringing shame on their family, has revealed to me once again how very insane the Muslim world can be sometimes.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-19068490

I say ‘Muslim’ rather than ‘Islamic’, because – and I’m sorry if it sounds obvious – just because a person is Muslim doesn’t make them a torch-bearer for the religion of their forefathers. The very first thing that the Prophet Muhammad (s.) did as a lawmaker was to forbid the killing of baby girls, which was a common practice at the time. How much difference is there between burying your baby daughter alive in the sand, and suffocating her to death with a plastic bag – in front of your four other children?

The prevailing attitude in Arabian society at the advent of Islam was what is known in Islamic history as the Jahiliya, generally translated as the Time of Ignorance. But there are always great subtleties in a root-system language such as Arabic; the word Jahiliyah has nuances of recklessness, foolishess, impetuousity and barbarism. It refers to a state of intense internecine warfare that would see 20,000 people slaughtered over the course of decades because someone from one tribe had killed a goat belonging to someone from another tribe.

Introducing values like compassion and mercy, forgiving rather than exacting blood money, even kissing one’s own children were not taken to kindly by many 8th century Meccans. A Bedouin man once saw Muhammad kiss one of his children fondly and seemed appalled by it. When Muhammad asked him what was the matter, he relied “I have ten children and I have never kissed any one of them”. Muhammad replied, “He who does not show mercy is not shown mercy.”

So the buttons that are pressed by a so-called ‘honour killing’ like that of Shafilea Ahmed reach deep into a Muslim’s conscience. “The best of you is he who is kindest to his family” is another of Muhammad’s most well-loved sayings. These events, like all acts of barbarity or terror, remind us that habit maketh not the man – or in our case, hijab and beard maketh not the pious Muslim. As Hayley Meachin of the British Association of Social Workers told The Huffington Post UK: “Shafilea Ahmed was killed because her parents were bullies and murderers.

But we are by no means the only people to count among their numbers vile, mentally unsound, vicious people. This Jahiliyah mentality is not only a subordination of the individual to the integrity of their tribe, but also at a very elemental level a brutal game of tit-for-tat. You make me suffer (because you aren’t living up to my expectations and people are thinking badly of me), therefore I will make you suffer too.

As my parents pointed out while we were watching the news footage, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his Baptist minister father for supposedly promoting immorality, and the creator of the Bembo font (typography geeks will get it) struck his son-in-law over the head with a metal bar and was executed for his crime. The victims of the Columbine school shoot-out, or any of the American Psycho-type killings we’ve seen in recent years, were not even targeted for their supposed immorality, but just for being in the way of a video game played out with real-live ammunition.

In a subtler way, we all do a bit of this Jahiliyah business. In his incredibly insightful book Non-Violent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg describes emotional emancipation – i.e. being freed from the idea that other people are the cause of your feelings. This works both ways: if someone does something you perceive to be hurtful, you blame them (thus shackling you to a victim mentality). If someone does something you perceive to be pleasing, you warm to them (thus becoming dependent on their talent for feeding your insecurities).

In the former case, what tends to happen – even among highly intelligent, otherwise sane people – is that they act out their suffering on the one they believe to have caused it. You made me suffer, so I’ll make you suffer back. You kill my goat, so I’ll kill yours. It might seem that you are now even, but in fact you create a cycle of resentment and vindictiveness that may never end. Whole families can be embittered by this blaming-hurting dynamic.

As a parent, you can see this happening with small children very clearly. He stole my toy, so I bashed him over the head. Does this playground game ever end there? The Jahiliyah is alive and well, buried in the subconscious attitudes of every single flippin’ human being on the planet. The desire to get our own back is so intense that it can even cause a parent to kill their own child – then lie to police and press for nine years and play the innocent victims.

Do I even need to say it? This isn’t Islam; it’s insanity. And nobody is immune until they investigate the roots of their suffering instead of casting the first stone. As a wise Sufi teacher once told a man who came to him complaining about his wife, “Your wife’s not the problem: you’re the problem.”

For everyone’s sake, we need to be the change, not the problem.