The politics of choice, faith and inclusiveness

I am truly puzzled over recent events. In Malaysia, unknown attackers have firebombed four churches as the row over the word ‘Allah’ escalates. In France, Parliament will consider passing a law that bans the burqa or niqab later this month. I’ll look at both cases in this post.

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Let’s look at Malaysia. Conservative Muslims have argued that ‘Allah’ may only be used by Muslims; allowing other religions to use this word would lead to confusion and people converting from Islam. The very inconvenient fact that Arab-speaking Jews and Christians have and still use ‘Allah’ has been ignored thus far. The fundamentalists have framed this issue as defending Islam against…some kind of undefined, unspecified, possible intangible, yet somehow real aggressor.

How, exactly, do you ‘defend’ a religion? Can you build a suit of armour around a set of practices and beliefs? Perhaps mount weapons while you’re at it, and take potshots at threatening non-believers. Will shouting yourself hoarse¬† to drown out infidels work? The whole notion, frankly, is as absurd as measuring sanity with a ruler. You can’t quantify the unquantifiable, and that is exactly what they fundamentalists are proposing.

What is religion? Every religion is a series of practices based on a core of ideas. Christianity involves worship at a church and understanding the supremacy of God and the message of Jesus. Islam involves more regular worship at a mosque and understanding the supremacy of Allah and the message of the prophet Mohammad. What is ‘practice’? Something you do. The imperative word being ‘do’. And the precursor to action is a thought, an idea, that you need to do something. In this light, a religion is a collection of ideas bundled together for practice.

Now, how do you harm an idea? Do you poke it with a pencil until it comes apart? Do you shoot it until it exsanguinates? Do you blow it up with a bomb? Again, it’s like measuring sanity with a ruler — you can’t. Ideas can only be proven or disproven, credited or discredited. When disproven or discredited, ideas fade away — eventually. Let’s look at white supremacy. It is younger than Islam, has been disproven and universally condemned, is in fact implicitly illegal in anti-hate and anti-prejudice laws — and it is still around. Can Islam lose any of its character when it has been around for centuries, has not been disproven, is a mainstream religion, over a non-issue involving the use of a word that Arab-speaking Abrahamic believers everywhere outside Malaysia have used since pre-Islamic times?

The answer is no.

Do the fundamentalists see this? The answer is no. As it stands, they seem to embrace the notion that they are a majority group locked in an eternal conflict with other races, always on the defensive against perceived acts of aggression, ready to strike back at anything that threatens their sense of identity. Hence this. Frankly, if the collective body of fundamentalists could be seen as a human being, it would be diagnosed as paranoid.

Worse, they will spark self-fulfilling prophecies. See my previous post for a more in-depth explanation. Suffice to say, their actions will anger and provoke fundamentalists and extremists from other races and religions, or whomever their perceived antagonist of the day is. Those extremists would then be pushed towards hate crimes, justifying them as necessary actions ‘in defence of’ the Cause. The fundamentalists would decry these attacks from the opposing side, the extremists will perform other attacks, and a spiral of violence is born.

The only permanent solution is inclusiveness. Again, read my previous post. Yes, there will be short-term costs. Yes, there will be resistance. But to quote Arthur Schopenhauer, all truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident. I’m hoping the Malaysian High Court is willing to facilitate this process. But I’m not holding my breath.

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France is also very concerned about Islam. So concerned that the French Parliament is moving to consider an outright ban on burqas and niqabs. This is done in the name of sexual equality and secularism, in the face of a growing number of Frenchwomen wearing the apparently formerly rare garment — so many, in fact, that the proponents of the law cannot give an actual figure (source).

This article is the one of the most insightful ones I have seen on this issue. Let me see this in a different light: will the law achieve its intended effect?

The answer, I think, is ‘partially, at high long-term cost’. Muslim women with a rather liberal interpretation of the faith may stop wearing the burqa — such a thing does not really inconvenience her. Devout Muslim women would either take off their burqas — and remember the government as one that rejects an aspect of the Muslim identity — or put up with a never-ending series of fines. Women who are ‘forced’ to wear the burqa will be caught between a rock and a hard place: put up with fines, or put up with a disapproving family. And they, too, will resent the State for putting them in such a position.

And then there’s the Muslims who will interpret the law as an attack on the faith, misguided or intentional. And devout Muslim males (and females) who will be offended at the sight of Muslim women not wearing the burqa or niqab.¬† Should the law pass, they will have a very convenient target to vent their anger: the French government. The result: hate crimes, for starters.

Islam, by the way, is France’s second-largest religion. You can imagine the hue and cry that would follow by appearing to oppress a large minority group.

The French approach is very similar to pointing a gun at a man and ordering him to do something for you. He may comply, but it doesn’t mean that he won’t resent you after the fact, or find ways and means to get back at you. Or he might not comply, and instead lash out at you. You achieve short-term compliance, but you are setting yourself up for long-term hostility.

What can be done? Again, the answer seems to come down to the principle of inclusiveness. The first step is to abandon the religion of secularism (not to mention the law to be passed in Parliament). This ‘principle’, interpreted in France, basically forbids anyone from practicing his or her faith in public — and seems to be squarely aimed at Muslims. The second is to introduce measures to integrate people of all religions into society: hold inter-religious conferences, visit ghettos, improve the lives of the less well-off regardless of faith, teaching children about other faiths, and so on. The third is to host dialogues within Islam regarding the niqab; Muslim scholars are divided on this issue, and by airing their arguments and beliefs, the people will be better informed, and choose accordingly. Discussing the actual policies is outside the scope of this post, but the key here would be information, choice, and inclusiveness.

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In the above two cases, the private intersects with the public. The practices of the individual is apparently at odds with societal norms. In both, I have argued for maximising the choice and right of the individual. This is because the nature of the individual influences society more than society influences the individual.

Here’s an analogy. Take a pencil, a ruler, and an eraser. You can do plenty with these things: write, do homework, draw, correct mistakes, and so on. Now insert a pen. You have thus put together a basic stationery set for the student who may only work with pens, not pencils; and the student or person who may use pencils has an additional option. Add a brush and some paints and now you have everything you need to produce a painting and sign it with your name. Throw in a pair of scissors and you can do basic craft work.

Take each item as an individual, and each group of items as society. The addition of people with different skills — or are just different — changes the nature of the group, and therefore society. A social group is thus a very fluid concept, dependent entirely on the properties of the people within. At the same time, how the people act may be influenced by the group, but not necessarily be a direct function of that group. For example, with my art and craft kit as described above, I can use the scissors to cut out a piece of paper for a work of art, cut open some paper packaging, or stab someone.

Why would I want to stab someone? The most likely explanation is that he or she seems to pose a clear and present danger to myself or someone else, is armed, and does not seem to be listening to my attempts at negotiation. Substitute ‘I’ for ‘extremist’, ‘stab’ for ‘attack’ and ‘someone’ for a social group of your choice (blacks, Americans, Muslims, etc.), and ‘someone else’ as the extremist’s identified in-group (white, Muslim, American, etc.). That right there is the driving factor behind many ideologically driven acts of hate and terror.

How do you prevent this? You remove the notion that there is a threat. You make yourself look less threatening and more friendly and tolerant. You listen to the views of someone else, no matter how contradictory to your personal beliefs, without judgment. In short, you be inclusive. Substitute ‘you’ for ‘society’ and ‘majority social group’ — this is how to prevent conflict. By removing a cause for conflict, and by building good relations, the individual will not feel threatened, and would be more willing to use his or her skills for the greater good. I can go back to using my scissors for my work, and I wouldn’t be afraid to lend it to you if you need them, so to speak.

Society is inherently fluid. It is temporary. The only real differences between a nation and a group of friends are capabilities, population, scale, reproductive capability and life expectancy. By empowering the individual with choices — be it by allowing him to use the word ‘Allah’ or ensuring that she may choose whether to wear her burqa — and by accepting that individual for who and what he is, society tends to benefit because that person’s skills can be harnessed willingly for the greater good of society. That, I think, is the final objective of politics.

The politics of choice, faith and inclusiveness

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