Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Problem With Islam Today Isn't Misinterpretation, It's Contradiction

Let's cut to the chase. I believe there are two fundamental problems with Islam:

1. The Sunnis and the Shias are not evenly matched
2. There is no New Testament in Islam

I'm not being facetious. Christianity's journey from its infamous mediaeval intolerance to the modern secular-democratic Western societies it has given rise to are because of (1) its unique history, in which the stalemated Catholic-Protestant wars led to the separation of church from state, reducing the temporal power of the church, and (2) the existence of a markedly more peaceful book (the New Testament) that devout Christians could adopt in preference to the violent Old Testament without sacrificing their faith altogether. Islam today cannot follow the same trajectory as mediaeval Christianity because these two unique elements do not exist within it. There's a rocky road ahead for all of us as a result.

Who am I to utter these impertinent pronouncements? I believe my background (as a Hindu-turned-atheist who grew up in a country with a significant Muslim minority and who spent five early years studying in a Catholic school) gives me unique insights that many others may not have, and in addition, as one who steers clear of all "isms" except humanism, I have the freethinking licence to say things that many probably don't dare let themselves think!

Scarcely 15 years ago, the West was largely ignorant about Islam. In Western minds, confusion reigned supreme about the various religions of the East. Buddhism was probably the one eastern religion that was somewhat understood. In contrast, Islam and Hinduism were often confused with each other. A British comic I read in my childhood showed a Hindu character exclaiming, "By the beard of the prophet!" I have watched an American TV show (It may have been "She's Baaack!", an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch) that showed women in an Arabic setting, dressed in belly dancer outfits and transparent veils, dancing with hands folded in a Hindu "namaste". The most embarrassing gaffe, in my opinion, was Star Trek's iconic villain Khan. His full name? Khan Noonien Singh! In addition to "Noonien" being a nonsense word that means nothing in any eastern language, can a Muslim surname like Khan coexist with a Hindu/Sikh surname like Singh? Only in the Western imagination, because the differences didn't really matter. Until very recently.

After September 11, 2001, Islam very rudely broke upon the consciousness of the Western world, and there is now a great deal more knowledge about Islam in the West than ever before. To be sure, a lot of it is misinformation (such as the belief that female genital mutilation is an Islamic problem rather than a Central African problem), but it is important to recognise that not everything that Westerners now believe about Islam is misinformation. A lot of it is in fact true, and from the perspective of Muslims, uncomfortably true.

For a while now, every time there has been a terror attack by Islamists, there are protests from other Muslims and from liberals that the people behind the attack are not true Muslims, because Islam is a religion of peace that does not condone the killing of innocents. But bizarrely, the claim from the Islamists who engage in acts of violence and terror is that they are doing no more than their sacred duty as they are obliged to by their faith.

Whom to believe? Surely both groups cannot simultaneously be right.

Well-spoken Muslim academics in the West who attempt the difficult job of interlocution between their religious compatriots and the public in their host countries don't manage to clear the air at all. One of the foremost such spokespersons in Australia is Walid Aly, a lecturer at Monash University, who usually pussyfoots around difficult issues concerning Islam and the West, and gives right-wing columnists plenty of ammunition. On the rare occasion that Walid Aly tangentially criticises his compatriots, a fellow Muslim academic immediately tears him down. The debate within Muslim intellectual circles thus appears to be highly circumscribed, and none of them dares approach the true heart of the issue without being called out as a traitor to the cause.

In recent times, the question of where Western Muslims stand with regard to the increasing rift between the Western and Islamic worlds has been posed in stark terms to local Muslim spokesmen (they are usually all men), and the response tends to be much dodging and weaving, with a litany of Muslim complaints being offered in lieu of a response.

Wassim Doureihi, spokesman of the Australian Muslim organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir, was interviewed by ABC TV's Lateline recently and specifically asked if he condemned the atrocities of ISIS. The transcript is here, and it's very enlightening both for the things he said and for the one thing he refused to say!

Wassim Doureihi of Hizb-ut-Tahrir doing a masterful eel act on Lateline

More recently, an article by Fareed Zakaria appeared in the Washington Post. It was provocatively titled, "Let's be honest, Islam has a problem right now". But while Zakaria began promisingly enough, the actual piece was another apologistic exercise that neither asked the right questions nor answered them. I suspect that as a Muslim himself, Zakaria had no real leeway to do either. The comments section of the article, however, contained some brutally honest feedback that pulled no punches. To me, it signalled that a long overdue conversation was commencing, and that the elephant in the room was gradually beginning to be acknowledged.

The core question we need to answer is whether the extremists who kill and spread mayhem are being true to their faith (as they themselves claim) or are acting contrary to the tenets of their faith (as liberals and "moderate" Muslims claim).

Obviously, there is a simple way to answer this question - by analysing what is said in the Quran, which every believing Muslim accepts as the literal word of God - perfect, unalterable and valid for all time. Does the Quran sanction violence of the kind we see nowadays, or does it not? What do (or what should) "moderate" Muslims think? And perhaps more importantly, what does this mean for the rest of us who are not Muslims?

[I won't talk here about aspects of Islam that are often criticised, such as its treatment of women. I will restrict my comments to Islam's attitude towards violence, to its attitude towards those who are not characterised as "the faithful" - i.e., unbelievers, polytheists, idolators and apostates.]

To non-Muslims and non-practising Muslims, it's very important (especially in these days of seemingly increasing conflict) to know what the Quran says about us. Is it tolerant of our existence, or is it not? Indeed, the term "tolerance" itself may be deeply flawed and insulting in its condescension, as Rajiv Malhotra brilliantly argues in his article "Tolerance isn't good enough - The need for mutual respect in inter-faith relations".

To digress a bit, Hinduism is a religion that is externally accepting even as it is internally oppressive. That is, Hinduism treats many of its own followers (women and the so-called "lower" castes) much worse than it treats people of other faiths! But in spite of these internal evils, Hinduism genuinely considers every other religion as an equally valid path to salvation. It does not claim a monopoly on the truth, which is remarkable. In contrast, whether they are violent or not, the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are unremittingly intolerant of other faiths, especially those they view as polytheistic and/or idolatrous.

This episode related by Rajiv Malhotra is illustrative:

My experiments in proposing mutual respect have also involved liberal Muslims. Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, in a radio interview in Dallas, I explained why mutual respect among religions is better than tolerance. One caller, identified as a local Pakistani community leader, congratulated me and expressed complete agreement. For her benefit, I elaborated that in Hinduism we frequently worship images [idols] of the divine, may view the divine as feminine, and that we believe in reincarnation. I felt glad that she had agreed to respect all this, and I clarified that "mutual respect" merely means that I am respected for my faith, with no requirement for others to adopt or practice [sic] it. I wanted to make sure she knew what she had agreed to respect and wasn't merely being politically correct. The woman hung up.

It seems impossible for a devout follower of an Abrahamic religion to "respect" another faith and yet claim to be a true believer of their own, because intolerance towards other faiths is a necessary component of these belief systems. Other faiths cannot be granted any semblance of legitimacy.

Western society is gradually becoming less rigidly Abrahamic in terms of intolerance, a phenomenon referred to by Lisa Miller in her article "We are all Hindus now". Hardline Christians reject this view, as this pastor does, blatantly arguing against tolerance. However, there are other, less doctrinaire, Christian denominations that seem to be more accepting of faith diversity.

Some Muslim strains are syncretic too, for example, the Sufis. However, fundamentalist Muslims typically are not. Fundamentalism implies a return to the fundamentals enshrined in the Quran, and the Quran is an intolerant document in the true mould of Abrahamic scripture.

Many translated verses from the Quran have been widely quoted. These are acutely embarrassing to Muslims and to Muslim apologists, who claim that the translations are either incorrect or taken out of context. However, the glare of the spotlight is only increasing. There are far too many independent translations available to us today, many of them by Muslim scholars, so it is getting harder to make the case that these verses have been mistranslated. Besides, the messages are repeated in multiple different ways, so there is very little scope for ambiguity overall. The messages in the Quran that need serious discussion include the following:

1. Exhortation to kill unbelievers (4:89)
2. Exhortation to kill polytheists (9:5)
3. Assurance that deviations from the faith are worse than killing (2:191)
4. Exhortation for unremitting violence until unbelievers submit (2:193)
5. Exhortation to be harsh to unbelievers (9:123)
6. Exhortation to engage in violent jihad even if a believer finds it distasteful (2:216)

These are just a sample. There are many, many more passages in the Quran that are filled with violent condemnation of unbelievers. The passionate vitriol in these verses is quite unnerving for an unbeliever to read!

To be fair, the Old Testament is also filled with violent and intolerant passages. But many Christians today implicitly reject the Old Testament, preferring to align their faith with the much less violent New Testament (even though Jesus did not repudiate the Old Testament but reaffirmed its validity). This has given devout Christians an easy way to distance themselves from their own religion's violent intolerance to unbelievers, a way that is not available to devout Muslims.

The Quran is a single book with no equivalent to the New Testament, so "moderate" Muslims are caught in a bind. That the Quran is saying some pretty awful things about unbelievers is increasingly hard to deny on grounds of mistranslation. We cannot be fooled by such denials anymore. Next, if the Quran is taken to be the literal word of God, these verses cannot reasonably be challenged by a believer. A Muslim who is genuinely tolerant of people of other faiths can neither reject such verses without being a heretic, nor accept them without giving up tolerance! This basic contradiction poses an ethical dilemma to well-meaning Muslims. However, I don't believe we are doing anyone any favours by being polite and refraining from forcing the issue. The issue needs to be forced.

We cannot forever pretend that Islamic terror is carried out by people who are un-Islamic. There is a deeper problem, and it is the inherent intolerance of the Quran towards non-Muslims that makes terrorists truer to their faith than the moderates.

There is hatred and violence in the Quran that is aimed at non-believers, and I don't think modern world society can ever make progress until these passages are explicitly repudiated by the majority of practising Muslims.

Non-Muslims who believe in equal rights for all (including Muslims) are justified in demanding a reciprocal sentiment from Muslims. However, this seemingly reasonable demand is a hard one for Muslims to accede to because of the basic contradiction we talked about. It is hard for a person to be both a true believer in a religion that recommends violence towards unbelievers, and a good citizen of a secular democracy that demands respecting the rights and private beliefs of all. One or the other set of beliefs will have to yield to the other, and publicly too.

If the Sunnis and the Shias were equally matched in every Muslim country, the standoff might have been able to force a separation of mosque and state in Islamic society, much like what happened in Christendom centuries ago. But this is an unlikely scenario. Sunni Islam is the dominant strain in the Muslim world, and fundamentalist denominations of Sunni Islam are responsible for most acts of terror and intimidation in the world today. Besides, Islam is very much a political manifesto with definite opinions on the running of a state, so it is not likely to retreat into a monastery, metaphorically speaking.

And so, the question of where Muslims stand on the issue of violence against unbelievers will not go away. The question will continue to be asked, and increasingly loudly. It will need to be answered convincingly, not with counter-complaints and not with weasel words. The only answer that will satisfy us ("unbelievers" of all stripes) is an unequivocal repudiation by Muslims of those sections of the Quran that express hatred and incite violence against the rest of us, for the mere crime of being unbelievers.

What this partial repudiation of their holy book would mean for their faith is for Muslims to work out. The elephant in the room cannot continue to be ignored.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Kashmir As Bollywood's Tormented Muse

I want to talk about some special Indian movies made in the last decade - Dil Se, Shaurya, Fanaa and now Haider. The common thread running through all these movies is, of course, Kashmir.

I have not seen Dil Se except for its two captivating song sequences (Chaiyya Chaiyya and the title song Dil Se Re). However, the one significant point that the film dared to raise was the issue of atrocities by the Indian armed forces in Kashmir, with the female protagonist depicted as a victim of rape trauma. That must have riled the right wing, but uncomfortable facts need to be faced, and if a movie can bring an issue into the public consciousness, then more power to the moviemakers.

Fanaa was a very well-made, emotionally charged film (as are most of Aamir Khan's films), but what damaged it for me was its dishonest premise. The film shows an independent Kashmiri terrorist group holding the governments of both India and Pakistan to ransom. The premise that Pakistan is an innocent victim of Kashmiri terror is so laughable that even the most gullible peacenik would be embarrassed to repeat it. Still, Fanaa holds its place in the annals of Bollywood as a significant statement about Kashmir and its relationship to India, even if it is a projection of what Indians want Kashmiris to feel.

The two remaining movies are remakes. Shaurya was a remake of "A Few Good Men" and Haider is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Surprisingly, the Indian adaptations don't look like imitations but as genuine, standalone classics. I believe that their choice of Kashmir as background is the reason. In Kashmir, India has a genuine trove of torment and suffering that can facilitate powerful storytelling because of its authenticity. An Indian movie like Madras Café (reviewed by me here) that dealt with the Sri Lankan crisis can only be partly authentic, because it was, after all, about another country's war, another society's pain. Indeed, almost half of that movie is devoted to the one aspect of the Sri Lankan civil war that actually impacted India - the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The best movie about the Sri Lankan civil war will probably come from a Sri Lankan filmmaker (probably a Tamil) who has first-hand knowledge of the pain of those years.

But back to Bollywood and Kashmir.

Kashmir is what made Shaurya (in my opinion) a much better movie than A Few Good Men (and the latter was pretty darn good!). The Hollywood original came out in the year 1992, at a time of relative peace between the fall of the Soviet Union (1989) and the sudden advent of Islamic terror (Sept 11, 2001). Colonel Jessup's imagery of a "wall" defending the US that he mans is therefore not very convincing in the absence of a credible danger to the US. However, when a similar situation is retold in the context of the Indian army's presence in the restive state of Kashmir, it is credible and real. Colonel Jessup's Indian counterpart, Brigadier Pratap (chillingly played by Kay Kay Menon) exudes both moral certainty and menace in equal measure. The blurred line between defending one's country against Islamist insurgents and outright Islamophobia is the very substantive issue Shaurya explores, not a fictitious "code red" as in the Hollywood blockbuster.

Kay Kay Menon brings out the menace of Brigadier Pratap in this short clip from Shaurya. It would take a brave officer indeed to call him to the witness stand.

I can watch Shaurya again and again, and it gives me goose pimples because it is so close to real-life. Heck, I'd say the only unrealistic part of Shaurya was that justice was served in the end. Human rights violations like what the movie depicted have occurred many times in Kashmir without the perpetrators having to face justice as in the movie.

The "You can't handle the truth" speech

The issue of Kashmir divides Indian left-liberals and nationalists, and the divide appears unbridgeable. To the former, it is clear as day that the will of a people should be respected even if it is unpalatable to others, hence if the majority of Kashmiris want independence from India, they should be allowed to go their way. To the latter, it is unacceptable that the blood of Indian soldiers should have been spilt in vain, unacceptable that after multiple successful conflicts with Pakistan over Kashmir, India should meekly roll over and let the state go. The borders of India are inviolate to a nationalist, and if keeping those borders intact involves denying basic freedoms to a people (sometimes quite brutally), then such measures are justified.

The left/right divide is actually quite understandable when the concept of morality is dissected, as psychologist Steven Pinker has done. According to Pinker, morality consists of 5 strands - fairness, harm, community, authority and purity.

The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.

I believe either Pinker or the Haidt survey is being a bit too charitable to the Conservatives. I think that Conservatives place a lopsided moral weight on community, authority and purity at the expense of fairness and harm, rather than being even-handed about all five strands. Only this explains why right-leaning people in many countries tend to downplay human rights violations by "our boys in uniform" and view any criticism of the armed forces as unpatriotic, even treasonous. The right wing in India tends to deflect criticism of human rights violations in Kashmir by talking about the wrongs suffered by the Hindu Kashmiri Pundits at the hands of Muslim militants (as if two wrongs could ever make a right).

It may be surmised from the above paragraphs that I am a left-leaning liberal, and that is largely true, but there is a twist. Yes, I am completely against giving untrammelled powers to men in uniform, and completely against torture as an instrument of intelligence gathering. Yet I also believe that the Kashmiri separatists are deluded in their demands for Azaadi (freedom). Not only is their desire not shared by Pakistan (which will swallow up an independent Kashmir within minutes of its birth), but it is also quite possibly unviable.

I am speaking not just of economic viability but also of political viability. It may be possible for Kashmir to remake itself as an Asian Switzerland, - a scenic tourist paradise, politically neutral and with unique exports. However, it is people, not natural resources, that make a nation. I'm afraid the track record of Muslim states has not been very encouraging. Kashmir has had a multicultural past, with Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs sharing the region with Muslims, who have also been divided into Sunni and Shia sects, and subsects like the Salafis, Deobandis and Barelvis. Today, the Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs have disappeared from the Kashmir valley, the Shias are isolated in the Gilgit region (under Pakistani occupation), and Wahhabi-influenced Sunnis have extinguished most traces of syncretism. It may be politically incorrect to say it, but Muslim states have a disturbing tendency to fracture along sectarian lines and disintegrate with violence and bloodshed. Would an independent Kashmir become Switzerland or Syria? Call me cynical, but my money is on Syria.

For this one reason alone, I believe Kashmir would be better off staying with India. India is a flawed democracy (with many of those flaws stemming from its treatment of Kashmir), but I think the greatest hope for Kashmir's autonomy, peace and progress will come from its integration into India rather than from independence.

Haider is the latest Bollywood movie to rake up Kashmir in the Indian consciousness (See my review here). That story has offended many (notably nationalistic Indians, who believe it glorifies terrorists and demonises the Indian army). There is even a trending Twitter campaign to #BoycottHaider, but this piece by an ex-armyman, no less, explains why the world needs more stories like Haider.

What we need is more dialogue about Kashmir and other contentious issues, not less. A democracy must not shy away from discussing difficult topics, and Bollywood movies are a great way to start the conversation. In Kashmir, Bollywood has found both its muse and a gold mine.

Movie Review - Haider

(Warning - plot spoilers ahead)

Vishal Bhardwaj's movie "Haider" that is currently the talk of the town tells two stories at once. It retells Shakespeare's Hamlet using Kashmir as the backdrop. It also tells a tale of Kashmir using Hamlet as plot framework. Which of the two stories leaps out at you depends on whether you're a student of literature or a student of political history. I'm a little bit of both, so to me, this extremely well-made movie was a double treat.

An adaptation of Hamlet, replete with the play's imagery

As an adaptation of Hamlet, the movie is fairly faithful in drawing its parallels (except for a very significant Gandhian twist at the end). As with that more light-hearted movie Bride and Prejudice, which masterfully adapted Jane Austen's work, the characters in Haider provide early hints of their roles with names that resemble those of their literary counterparts (Hamlet/Haider, Claudius/Khurram, Gertrude/Ghazala, Polonius/Pervez, Laertes/Liyaqat, etc.) Major plot milestones in the original play find an echo in the movie's storyline, and the screenplay does not seem contrived to achieve that result. One particularly brilliant parallel that fit smoothly within the film's narrative was the scene of Hamlet's remonstrations with his mother, with Polonius's interruption and his subsequent death at Hamlet's hands. Indeed,  I found myself so caught up in the Haider story that I had to consciously stop and remind myself at critical junctures about the corresponding scene from Hamlet. Not everything was a simple parallel, though. The interpretation of the old king's ghost, carrying its tale of betrayal and exhorting revenge, is particularly innovative. Trust the talented Irrfan Khan to pull that one off.

Hamlet as a play is considered a masterpiece both for what it explicitly says and for what it leaves open to interpretation. As with all of Shakespeare's great tragedies, it is also a portrait of its protagonist and the fateful character traits that define him and take the play where it goes. Haider's character is influenced both by the political environment in which he grows up (such as his friendship with classmates who have links to militants) and by his family, the towering personalities of his father and mother. A lot of what follows is then almost fated to happen.

The acting was uniformly good, and I could not single out any one actor for high praise. The characters of Haider (Hamlet), Khurram (Claudius) and Ghazala (Gertrude) were naturally complex. Shahid Kapoor, Kay Kay Menon and Tabu play those roles extremely well. This is not to say that the others were any less good. The entire cast carried off an ambitious directorial venture, the third in Vishal Bhardwaj's adaptations of Shakespeare after Omkara (Othello) and Maqbool (MacBeth).

The reason why Haider works so well as an adaptation of Hamlet is that there was in truth something rotten in the state of Kashmir in 1995. A shakespearean tragedy is a natural fit in that setting.

The tale of Kashmir told through the plot device of Hamlet is bound to be much more controversial than a mere adaptation of Hamlet to a Kashmiri setting, since Kashmir is a wound that is far from healed even today. 

I'll  write a separate post on why Kashmir provides so much rich material for Indian filmmakers, but let me end this one by saying Haider as a movie is a powerful experience for any viewer, even those unfamiliar with either Hamlet or the history of Kashmir. With its many violent and gruesome scenes, it is not for the faint of heart, but often, the most perceptive commentary on life is art. Haider is a superlative work of art. I give it 4 stars out of 5.