Do you remember our inspiring #IamHuman interview with Zafir Dewshi from London on the dehumanization of faith? If you haven’t read it yet, we strongly propose you to do so! The comments and feedback we received from people from various backgrounds and religions, were mindblowing. Today we would like to present you Part II – and delve a bit deeper into Islam, ISIS and the dangers of measuring Muslims with the same yardstick as ISIS. Ok, let’s start! From here is a no-prejudice and non-defensiveness zone!
Santa: Hello Zafir, you are Muslim and we love to ask you some questions about (your version) of Islam. What should people know about it? People quote surahs of the Qur’an promoting peace, while others quote surahs that promote the opposite. What do most Muslim people you know believe in?
Zafir: Before I address your question, it is important to note that there are several different translations of the Qur’an available. If we compare these translations, they differ according to the translator; it is therefore problematic to separate the translator’s ideological bias from the text itself. This is one of the reasons Muslims insist on keeping the Arabic version of the text during prayer and why it can be problematic for non-Arabic speaking Western authors to rely on translations of selected verses. Moreover, if random chapters or verses of interpretations are then read in isolation of the essence or spirit of the scripture itself, they can produce an incompatible message. A similar thing has the tendency to occur in other scriptures such as the Bible or Torah.
Moreover, a Holy Scripture of any faith is incapable of having meaning without believers to honour, interpret, and give them authority. Different believers will understand them according to the context they find themselves politically, socially, economically and culturally. Therefore, when understanding varying materialisations/interpretations of faith, it is vital that they are not decontextualised, and that we maintain religious literacy. For example, a right-wing group such as the KKK’s reading of the Bible is used to legitimise their stance of white supremacy, while in stark contrast, the Bible was read as a source of hope and salvation for African Americans who fought for civil rights after overcoming years of slavery.
Coming back to your question, what I think that most people should know, are that the principle messages of Islam are of peace, tolerance, generosity and the togetherness of humanity. I see Islam as an intellectual, spiritual and pluralistic faith, wonderfully illustrated by the following expression about the unity of humanity from the Qur’an:
‘Oh Mankind, fear your Lord, who created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women….”
A similar message was echoed by Hazrat Ali, the fourth Caliph and 1st Imam of the Shia Muslims when he wrote a letter of advice to the then Governor of Egypt advising him to show mercy, kindness and love to his people, and stated: “Remember that people are of two kinds: they are either your brothers in religion or your brothers in mankind.”
Santa: … meaning that Hindus, Christians or atheists can indeed be brothers in mankind under Islam?
Zafir: Indeed! While we are faced with images of radicalisation and of the desacralisation of Islam, it is vital to understand that an exclusivist view is indeed antithetic to its core messages. No matter how much religious jargon is misused by those with an extreme agenda, a hateful person is simply a hateful person. It reminds me of a Sufi proverb I read which asserts that ‘a donkey with a load of holy books is still a donkey.’
Santa: This proverb is indeed very common sensical! However, it is very hard to imagine what an extent of “donkeyism” could lead to the phenomenon of ISIS. Do you have any insights to share with us?
Zafir: This is a difficult question to answer, however, I would like to reiterate that ones context is pivotal to how they perceive things. We have heard opposition to political decisions, wars and instability in the Middle East, foreign intervention in Muslim countries and so on. Clearly, an environment of instability and underdevelopment due to years of conflict, poverty and a lack of institutional resources will take its toll on any society.
If these issues are left unattended, and allowed to exacerbate, for many many years, a deep sickness is inevitable. Most recently, the invasion of Iraq has been identified as a turning point; firstly because of the historic sentiment Baghdad holds amongst Muslims, and secondly due to the imposing of a new government, causing great volatility. Indeed, many of the senior figures of Daesh were imprisoned together in Camp Bucca, Iraq after being captured by the US, and this is where some say their ideology took course.
Santa: What do you think is ISIS’ underlying motivation? Is it political, socio-economic or merely religiously driven?
Zaifr: From what I see Daesh’s motivations are political. This is in spite of how they have manipulated religious texts in order to legitimise their political position and gain support for their self-appointed Caliphate. Many have said that these radical positions have had widespread influence through heavily funded exclusivist movements promoting a puritanical ideology. In summary, I believe a combination of factors have led to where we are today, and it would be facile to think that such an ideology is developed in isolation or to ascribe it to religion itself.
Santa: What strikes me most is that young people, often kids, join Daesh from Western states, and very interestingly not only of Muslim background but also kids from Christian or other background. Why do you think this happens- and how can we as a society and our respective governments do something about this disturbing phenomenon?
Zafir: It seems that for those who have joined Daesh from the West, a distinct lack of religious education has been apparent. For example, two British men who were on their way to become Daesh ‘jihadists’ in Syria were prevented from doing so, and found to have ‘Islam for Dummies’ and The ‘Koran For Dummies’ books in their luggage – naturally ordered from Amazon. Clearly, they lacked any comprehensive understanding of religion, and their fight was primarily political. This supports the view of the Mi5, whose leaked 2008 report published in the Guardian newspaper stated; “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.” And went on to say “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation”.
Some have also pointed towards a lack of identity, remedied by a sense of belonging and camaraderie appealing to youth, who lack purpose and feel disconnected from their religion and countries of birth. As we know, there is active recruitment by demagogues who target disillusioned youth. Sometimes these can be young new converts still forming an understanding of their faith and easily led astray. Online networks have enabled communication and masses of propaganda from these groups to reach large audiences including women. These audiences may also be from a poor educational and economic background, and lack prospects and perspective. I do not think there are any instant solutions to reverse what has been happening. As I asserted in an earlier question, I think that we have to examine the context in which people are turning to extreme ideologies, and start working towards solutions on that basis without marginalising communities.
Santa: Are there ways to create a feeling of society without assimilation and loss of cultural/religious identity? What is your take on that?
What I would repeat is that we need a more inclusive society, and commitment to developing a cosmopolitan ethic. If the diversity of people’s cultural and religious identities are suppressed, and only acknowledged in a negative light, I see more people feeling distanced from society. If we speak about integration in to French, British or European life, then there must first be a new way of looking at difference. If we welcome difference, and commit to understanding diversity, then I feel that the task of integration without conflicting cultural/religious identities will be a much easier one.
Although we are more connected through growing diversity, with more means to travel, and communicate through the Internet, ignorance has acted as a barrier. As Harvard Professor Ali Asani has identified, ignorance feeds distrust, and ‘age old prejudices – racial and cultural bias with origins in colonialism, as opposed to differences rooted in actual religious doctrine – govern human interactions’. These are things on which it is essential we work together to overcome. I would urge Muslims and others not to be sold by the depiction of a conflict between the West and Islam, and to protect themselves from this with more complete knowledge. This means talking to each other with mutual respect, and eradicating any ignorance and fears of the ‘Other’ as much as is possible.
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