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Happy is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. 07.V.2009 14:15
'I'm glad I learned about Islam before I learned about Muslims.' These were the words of a European convert on his first journey to his new religion's homelands, and they expose a question that we often ignore, especially when dealing with the unfamiliar: what defines a religion, its precepts or the people who practise it? Out of what amounts to intellectual laziness, we gloss over the differences as if they don't matter or don't exist; people who claim that Islam is an 'inherently violent' religion point to the suras glorifying the slaughter of infidels and preaching jihad, and defenders of its record on, say, women's rights, point to those that protect women's property rights, and that state (quite categorically) that men and women are equal, and treating the latter with respect is a fundamental duty. The Bible, of course, contains such verses as well. The problem is this: reading these tells us nothing about the status of violence or women's rights among communities of that religion.

One of the most illuminating moments of my recent trip came at my hotel in Cairo. A few of us and one of the hotel employees were discussing the status of women in Egypt, and the Egyptian declared that he would never, under any circumstances, allow his wife to work. He'd rather work three jobs, because for him to fail to be the provider for his household would be an ultimate shame. If she wanted to find a job, he'd stop her from doing so by any means necessary. Why? Because it's so written in the Qur'an - it is a man's, and only a man's, duty to provide: he would be a bad Muslim if he allowed her to work. However, there was a Pakistani woman staying there as well, on her way home from time spent working in Palestine, and she quickly contradicted him - 'it doesn't say that anywhere in the Qur'an.' It is in the Hadith then - the collection of direct accounts of the prophet's life that are the second important source of Muslim law. It was not there either, she insisted. This was the first time - but very much not the last - I heard a Muslim insist that the lives of most Muslims were incompatible with the teachings of Islam.

And the woman was right: famously, Muhammad's wife Khadijah owned her own business. Unlike most, if not all, religions of the time, the Muslim laws support a woman's right to hold property separate from that of her husband. The way one man explained it to me was this - women are actually better off in Islam, because a man has a duty to bring money and use it to support his family, but a woman taking a job can keep the money for herself. The upshot of this is still incompatible with women's rights, but it's not what we're used to hearing. The problem is, most Muslims aren't like Muhammad - they're like the Egyptian, and women living in their society consequently suffer greatly. Nor, as we would be inclined to expect, is the status of women proportional to the conventional symbols of 'female oppression', such as headscarves and veils - women in Iran, so famous for its religious laws, were more independent, more assertive, and better educated than in any Arab country, while Egypt, whose women are nominally free, is one of the most misogynistic places I've been to. This disconnect arises over a whole range of issues. Muhammad famously sheltered a Jew in his home, whereas the Arab world is beset by a very real anti-Semitism that sympathetic commentators often ignore. Similarly, many Westerners react in understandable horror at the treatment of animals especially dogs, in these countries - even though it is written that Muhammad said a woman who had let her cat starve would not go to paradise.

My personal favourite example, however, of disconnect between a religion and its foundational text comes from Christiani\ty. In Matthew 19:24, Jesus says that 'it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,' a statement well in keeping with Jesus' broader philosophy, that it is incumbent for a man of wealth to distribute it to the poor. Of course, now that Christianity is no longer poor and repressed but the faith of the richest countries in the world, there are many people like Rush Limbaugh who may be Christians but have no intention of giving away much of their vast wealth, and in fact actively oppose it reaching poor people by railing against Obama's supposed tax hikes. Christianity has solved this problem by one of the most ridicuolous sleights-of-hand in religious history - by claiming that the 'eye of the needle' was a nickname for a gate entering Jerusalem, through which a camel could just barely fit. Now, there is absolutely no evidence for this, and its patently ludicrous on its face - ludicrous, that is, to anyone without a vested interest in finding a loophole out of the requirements of his own religion. Of course most Christians, like most Muslims, don't actually know the precepts of their religion - they take them to be the norms of the religious culture they grew up in. That's why the Egyptian man could claim so confidently that no good Muslim would allow his wife to hold a job, and why conservatives claim that liberals aren't real Christians for ignoring a variety of sex-related propositions - and liberals claim the converse for ignoring Jesus' fundamental message of tolerance.

Such cognitive dissonance is par for the course in religious life. Leviticus commands us to stone those wearing materials of mixed cloth (I'm wearing 40% cotton - bring it on, Christians!), as well as a whole host of other rules that AJ Jacobs found out in his Year of Living Biblically; the title of this post comes from Psalm 137. The recently popular idea of Islamic Banking is almost as ridiculous as the 'eye of the needle' trick - Islam prohibits charging interest, but loans would never be made with out it, so a few bits of legalese and the sin of usury is neatly avoided. No religion could be more specifically against violence than Buddhism, yet Sri Lanka's Buddhism even now are wreaking havoc on the majority-Hindu Tamils on its little island. Native American religions, as white liberal guilt has made famous, preached harmony with the natural environment - but many of these societies overexploited their environments, going extinct when there wasn't any other place to exploit. Hinduism may be the only religion to escape this charge - precisely because it is so amorphous and heterogenous that one would be hard pressed to figure out what its stated precepts are.

We ignore these problems, though, because, as the Onion reminds us, stereotypes are a real timesaver - we want nice, clear statements that we can generalise and then argue about, and Holy Books, because of their definitiveness, are the best places to provide this. 'Islam is an inherently violent religion' is one of the more popular Qur'an-defended assertions, and the only truth to it is one that applies equally to Christianity - these are proselytising religions, and among missionary arguments, 'convert or I'll kill you' is among the most powerful. Broadly, however, if you read only the Qur'an or the Bible, and then tried to predict what a society of its believers would look like, you wouldn't be close. Even if you got it right for the modern age, you'd be wrong for the situation a thousand years ago, when Islam was the centre of worldwide science and education, and Christianity had plunged Europe into what are justifiably known as the 'Dark Ages.' In our images of Islam as hostile to external thought, it is easy to forget that the only reason we retain knowledge of the Greek philosophers is because Christians captured their texts, in Arabic translation, during the reconquista of Spain - Christians had destoryed such pagan texts in Europe long ago. Now the situation is reversed - the Arab world has a far less educated populace, and the global centres of learning are uniformly in the Christian West, though some bits of Christianity are slipping into a shocking anti-intellectualism. The point is that none of these developments are based on an inherent 'pro-science' or 'anti-science' aspect in any of these religions.

Ultimately, I think, religion is more an expression of identity than an expression of truth - we may root our behavious in the Bible or the Qur'an, but we go on behaving in the same ways that everyone else in the world behaves. We pursue our desires and we protect our families; we love and we hate. More often than not, religion doesn't drive these behavious, but is rather a tool for rationalising them - that's why, as culture changed, parts of the Bible suddenly became 'metaphorical,' like the seven day account of creation, which was a perfectly reasonable thing to believe until the advent of modern science. So, except for a few fundamentalists, instead of making our beliefs fit our religion, we made our religion fit our beliefs - because these new 'beliefs' were actually knowledge rather than revealed truth. Of course, modern Western society has diverged so much from its roots that the only recourse among liberals has been to a sort of preceptless non-religion for which I have no respect; basically, anything in the Bible you don't like is 'metaphor' or 'irrelevant,' but you're still, somehow, a Christian. But that's okay - because the actions of these liberals, especially in areas such as tolerance of homosexuals or the support of the rights of women, are far more praiseworthy than the contrary stances in their holy books. Similarly, although the Qur'an has, by and large, an even more peaceful and tolerant message than the Bible does, the Arab world utterly fails to reflect such precepts, and is justly criticised for its lack of human rights and, ultimately, backwardness in social policy. When we talk about Islam, or Christianity, we often quote the Qur'an and the Bible - but then we fall into the same trap as so many sociologists, talking about who people say they are rather than who they actually are, which, ultimately, impedes any progress towards understanding these cultures.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

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