Sunday, 10 February 2008

Barriers in the mind


I remember reading the biography of someone who was a young man in Germany during the rise of Nazism. The main appeal – which the Nazis fostered carefully – was the camaraderie between the young people in their various organisations and within the military. This is such a powerful influence.
I think that being in Indonesia again without the rose-tinted spectacles I was wearing when I was here before is helping me to think more clearly. Being subjected to the dreadful noise supposedly associated with holiness, peace and worship is bad enough: seeing the mental barriers that still people have about Fuck Harto – even my DOS[1] who went overboard to be ‘responsive’ to ‘cultural sensitivities’ – was really shocking. In Indonesia the Ahmadiyya movement has been given three months grace to ‘prove’ that it is Muslim to the satisfaction of a quango[2]  consisting of the Religious Affairs Ministry, the Attorney General, the Police and Intelligence Services. In Egypt Copts who have re-converted back to Copt Christianity after converting to Islam are to be ‘allowed’ to do so and have their religion marked on their ID cards because, so a judge holds, they were originally Christian. Other Muslims are not to be ‘allowed’ to do so.
Ahmadis are generally more intelligent than most; that is why, 40 years ago, I signed up to them. But they also have the same ‘camaraderie’ of various organisations and a supreme leader and rather an emphasis on financial contribution, which, of course, goes against the grain. I always regarded Islam as more rational than the complexity of Pauline/Constantine Christian belief and Ahmadiyyat as less harmful – being the persecuted under-dog for daring to say ‘Love for All, Hatred for None’ and saying that freedom of religion extends to freedom to leave it. Having Jesus become unconscious on the cross was a lot less complicated than either the Christian ‘death and resurrection’ or the orthodox Muslim ‘ghost on the cross and physical elevation’. A better approximation of an acceptable system of belief – but an approximation none the less. Belief should not be beyond belief.
Being an only child and finding my relations with my peers extremely hurtful and difficult, the Ahmadis were the first people to really seem to accept me with warmth and actually understand me. When I went to Pakistan in 1969 I had two shocks.
The first was the cultural shock of seeing – and more particularly, smelling – at close hand what life in a third world country was like. The sheer stupidity – not lack of resources – in the way water is drained and rubbish and sanitation dealt with and food exposed to all sorts of unnecessary risks. Until then I had a medical dream – the romantic dream of becoming a doctor on which everyone could rely – of being important – getting up in the early hours to attend an emergency with my trousers over my pyjamas and unshaven face and tousled hair attending to someone in the light of a paraffin lamp hung on a rafter. I woke up to the idea that what was needed was not more doctors: there were already too many of them. What was needed was simple sense, good planning and enforced sanitary regulations. That would save far more lives and help people to think clearly. People who have the shits all the time are angry and stupid. If your bowels are disturbed then your mind will be too. It was only many years later that I would learn that the condition of these countries is a deliberate policy of Malthusian economics and an attitude of dependency which serves the purposes of the Anglo-Gringo economic system well.
At first I had intended to ‘devote my life’ to serving the religious organisation as a missionary after undergoing a course in the Jamia Ahmadiyya – perhaps returning to complete my medical studies later. I saw some of the graduates from the seminary and they were quite saintly and gentle people. I admired them a lot. In fact, one of the main reasons for going to Pakistan was that I realised that my nature was very undisciplined and I was too easily distracted in my studies to cope with medicine. I thought that by joining this seminary I would somehow acquire a more disciplined approach to life and study.
The second shock was the realisation that my public health campaign was incompatible with ‘devoting my life’ and obeying other people's will.
Rabwah, the Ahmadi headquarters in Pakistan, was then mostly run by Ahmadis. Now, since Ahmadis are outlawed and persecuted in Pakistan, it is under government – or more particularly Mullah – control and has been officially re-named Chenab Nagar.
What confused me was how, if the Ahmadis were so observant and sensible about the life of Jesus and the status of prophets and so on and so forth, why didn't they insist on educating street vendors and having more appropriate means of sanitary disposal according to the terrain and resources? Why was there so much stagnant water? Why so many flies and mosquitoes? How could I devote my life to obedience when I wanted to scream about something? I didn't want to be a saintly robot, no matter how well versed in the Quran and Hadith and persuasive in argument.
It was a second cultural shock to realise that people I admired for their wisdom and power of argument over the stupidity of both Pauline/Constantine doctrine and the arrogant stupidity of the Mullahs could be so blind over the more practical aspects of keeping alive in a clean environment.
I have recently had more confirmation of what was troubling me then.
My school chum who introduced me to Islam all those years ago had an accident about 11 years ago. He was run over and had a brain injury. The then head of the community – the Khalifa – took a personal interest and asked everyone to pray for him. He had a ‘miraculous’ recovery although he was eased out of his job as Director of Studies at his university faculty. He took early retirement and ‘devoted his life’ to serving the Jamaat[3]
He tried to get me to sign up to one of these online petitions demanding the withdrawal of depictions of Muhammad on a Wikipedia site.
Why? They are historic and of Muslim origin and have a proper place in an encyclopaedia. Why make a fuss? Scholarship is about increasing knowledge not putting limits on what is and isn't offensive. These pictures exist. They also show that not everyone in the past objected to the showing of pictures. What is very much more obviously objectionable (on grounds of stupidity) is the practice here of making calligraphic diptychs of the names of Allah and Muhammad of equal size. Isn't that the cardinal and unforgivable sin of associating partners with Allah?
It is this going gaga over unimportant things that really annoys me.
It has taken a long time to come to the solution of something which has been a constant dilemma. I have always used the argument in favour of the existence of God that it is part of an innate human need, in the same way that thirst and hunger tend to indicate the existence of the thing that will fulfil them. I have always felt that my life has a pattern and direction and I have self-satisfying evidence that prayer seems to work. Islam seems to be saying the right things – against interest, against intoxicants and gambling, against superstition and multiplicity of deities and against worshipping people. There are powerful social and philosophical arguments which I agree with. The problem is that by having divine authorship the Qur’an becomes rigid and unchanging – unlike any other of God's creations which constantly evolve. There is a certain amount of flexibility in interpretation, but there are inbuilt barriers; not least the barrier of language which has also become fixed.
As a young man I used to rail against motions at party conferences and in my own involvement with trades-unions which were composited: asking people to vote on a package of things which were related. I always wanted to unpick them and deal with each of them separately so that we don't have to swallow something we don't like along with lots of things we do.
There are two things about the Qur’an which I find uncomfortable. It is the way it protests too much. Perhaps it is the language. I was brought up in the west to associate Christian with meaning kind and sympathetic and Christian name as being a synonym for anyone's first name. In the Qur’an unbeliever is the enemy. I could never quite come to terms with that.
Scepticism is the key to learning and discovery. Not believing in something without constantly testing it is the way all human progress has been made. Why should that not apply to spiritual things – and, more importantly, to the way be organise society.
I worried a lot about the opening verses of Surah al-Bakarah, ‘This is the Book, there is no doubt in it.’  In Ahmadi commentaries those words are explained as not implying that we shouldn't doubt the verses as part of testing and analysing them but that in the end all our doubts are bound to be satisfied. That does not seem to be the plain reading of it. And if all the doubts are going to be satisfied it implies that you are wasting your time.
It just seems plain unjust and wrong to categorise unbelief as something to be castigated.
The other thing are the challenges about the Qur’an being the authentic word of God – see if you can produce one verse like it, and you cannot. Does that really prove anything? All that really means is, ‘You can't copy my style’. It is like a double jointed athlete saying, ‘I am a child of the cat god. See if you can scratch the back of your ear with your big toe like I can.’ Again, the passages purporting to prove the Prophet's sanity seem to protest too much.
It has taken a long time to tease out; primarily because by contrast the Ahmadi interpretation of Islam is so much more reasonable that the complete lunacy we see around us in the rest of the Muslim world.
I continue to defend, and will continue to defend, the Ahmadi movement against the stupid attacks of government and religious fascists who would seek to crush it. I do so because I know its teachings and I don't want brave and intelligent people hurt or made homeless or jobless. Arguing against idiocy, such as the attacks on the cartoons or Rushdie, I can do effectively with a Muslim name and arguing from within.
I still do enjoy saying salaat from time to time: but when I want to, not when I am made to feel guilty by a wailing muezzin. My real prayers – the ones I value most – are walking through the botanical gardens or looking in at them from the street or looking at the trees outside my home. But sometimes it is nice just to sit on the prayer mat quietly – repeating no Arabic formulae but just being quiet and listening and feeling the presence of something which holds my life.
The solution does not mean secularist denial. The Turkish and French laws are as daft and narrow-minded as the Saudi ones – in principle, not in practice. Saudis and Iranians are far more cruel in reality.
It is just that all religions are human constructs.
Religion, in the past, was the only way of carrying out social reform. Only by convincing people that your message was the word of God could you get them to swallow whatever you wanted. It seems rather interesting that most religious founders seem to have spent time in isolation from society and emerged from their wilderness (40 days and 40 nights – to emphasise that this was full time isolation) as a prophet complete with visions and laws and tablets or whatever. This seems a rather interesting psychological phenomenon which should be researched. Just spending two weeks leave over Christmas without a PC and not much human contact and just a typewriter I found that I was able to think a lot clearer. It is physically difficult for many people to do that and it takes a loner who does not mind solitude. People who try to emulate this in monasteries and so on miss the point. Their lives are filled with busy-ness – set prayers and readings and so on which does not allow the same process to develop. Some mendicants, however, may have had a similar experience. The problem with religion is that the only way of turning it around is with another religion and then you get a whole host of competing ideologies. That is probably why I have hung on the tails of Ahmadiyyat for so long. Someone outside cannot easily fight against what is perceived to be God's word.
The solution is to understand that accepting that religions are human constructs does not preclude belief and prayer and purpose. I thought for a long time that I was fudging the issue and I was really struggling with my own perceptions of hypocrisy. When someone asks me, ‘Oh, is that your name? Are you Muslim?’ I hesitate, because I am asking my self the same question, but I still affirm. The answer expected is either yes or no. You can't say, ‘Well, about 35%.’ I submit to the will of Allah; that is self-evident. He has control of my life and I would be arrogant and rather silly to suppose otherwise. I do worship Him through the wonder of His creation. I do feel that when I say Salaam to someone it is a prayer and has some effect. I am not sure about Muhammad being the messenger of Allah. I don't think it is worth worrying about.