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A Dialogue in Hell September 23, 2007

Posted by ummahonline in Islam Bi La Hudud, Kolum.
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By: Farish A. Noor

We are in hell by now. No, we are not going to hell, but we are already there it seems. Let me explain what I mean by this: I happen to teach comparative religion and one of the things I’ve noticed while giving my lectures is how in every major religious system of the world there seems to be consensus over what hell is meant to look like.

In the religious iconography of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists we see the same pictorial depiction that infernal place. In many of them the image of hell is that of a place of universal torment, with individuals suffering for eternity. What is interesting to note in these images is the fact that the torment of each individual seems to be a very private suffering that is not shared by the others, for each is suffering on his or her own.

Seen metaphorically, hell marks the breakdown of communication; the impossibility of reaching out to the other beside you, to communicate one’s own pain and anguish. Hell is where all sense of collectivism is lost, where society breaks down, where any form of mutual co-operation is rendered null and void by the individual suffering that is the lot of each of us.

In that respect at least we seem to be in hell right now. I write this after returning from a weekend lecture tour of Amsterdam where I caught a glimpse of the state of debate on Islam and Muslim migrants in the country, and the prognosis seems bleak. This was not the Holland I left five years ago when I was based at the Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) in Leiden. How could a country that I regarded as being the very epitome of the liberal spirit and unfettered conscience slide down the path of polarisation so fast and to such an extreme?

While in Holland I was with my comrades of the Left (of course) and we took a step back from the heated debate that was raging in the country. On the one hand the Muslim minorities seem even more isolated, marginalised and liminal than ever before; and worst still it would appear as if some of them wanted to remain so. The inflation of all the outward signs of piety were there, from the growing number of beards and burqas to the revival of what may be seen by some as expressions of an ‘authentic’ Islamic normativity that was sadly only as deep as the dress and behaviour of the people who declared themselves to be orthodox Muslims. Islam for many has been reduced to some costume party, as if one’s faith can be measured by the length of one’s beard or the cut of one’s hijab…

Then on the other hand there were right-wing Dutch politicians openly playing to the gallery and using the race and religion cards to score quick votes; going to the extent of publicly calling for the banning of the Quran and comparing the Prophet Muhammad to Hitler, and calling Islam a Fascist religion. For them it seemed as if the only good Muslims were those who had left the religion and who were prepared to denounce their former creed as a fascist ideology. The assumption reigned that Muslims are a homogenous bloc and that each Muslim was like some automaton, programmed and determined solely and primarily by the Quran…

In the midst of this bellicose chest-thumping and soapbox oratory, the more nuanced voices that were keen to emphasise the complexity of both Dutch and Muslim society were almost unheard. In the wake of the brutal murder of the director Theo van Gogh, Dutch society is more polarised today than ever before. I was struck by the urban semiotics that seemed to sum up the present impasse: Walking past Dutch homes where everything inside was exposed to passers-by outside, I was struck by the fact that this seemed to be a society that was both open and yet closed in on itself. Is there still one Holland today, or has the country disintegrated into a number of parallel universes, living next to each other but hardly communicating and not understanding each other? That, perhaps, sums up the hell of modern life in this messed up postmodern world we live in.

My lament is that of the left-leaning bridge-builder, who has been trying time and again to remind Muslims and non-Muslims alike that we are all part of the same human family living on this same planet and that for all of us to be taken seriously there has to be a demonstration of ethical universalism and consistency on our part.

Muslims in the West cannot ever be taken seriously as long as we do not address the problems in our midst at the moment, ranging from the genuine demagogues and hate-mongers who have taken over our mosques to the baneful victimisation complex that has devoured our young. We are, all of us, Muslims in Europe and millions of us have come to settle here to be part of Europe’s secular-democratic and plural culture. Though racism and prejudice remain constant factors that stand in the way of the social advancement of millions of Muslims in the West, we need to remember that the same forms of economic, structural and institutional discrimination also affects millions of other poor Europeans as well. Hence the need for Muslims to get out of their ghetto mindset, work with and within the tools of civil society and to empower themselves in that plural democratic space. This means committing ourselves to the democratic reform project and discarding any superfluous illusions and myths of some ‘golden age’ of the past that never existed in the first place.

On the other side of the equation I have also been trying to break down the collombarium of European self-consciousness and self-representation, and questioning the other equally fallacious myths that hinder the open-mindedness of Europeans themselves. These include the myth of Europe’s monocultural past (for Europe was never monocultural in the first place), the myth of Europe’s self-generation (for Europe’s civilisational development really took off thanks to contact with other non-European cultures) and the notion of a unipolar world with the West as its centre.

Such bridge-building is, it has to be said, a tiresome and laborious task that normally earns the bridge-builder the scorn and contempt of right-wingers of both sides: Muslim conservatives accuse us of being too liberal and secular, while Western conservatives label us apologists for Islam. But the task of opening up the middle ground, complexifying the debate and emphasising the blurred middle space is too important by this stage. Muslims in Europe must remember that Europe is too complex, plural and diverse to be reduced to right-wing Muslim-haters alone. Have we forgotten that the biggest demonstrations against the war on Iraq took place here, in secular, non-religious Europe? Have we forgotten that millions of non-Muslims in the West showed sympathy for the people of Iraq not because the latter were Muslims but in the name of universal human rights?

Europeans too need to remember that those Muslims who live around the corner from them did not come from Saturn or Mars, but were and remain the constitutive other to the multicultural Europe of today. While there are indeed conservative, sectarian and bigoted Muslims among us, this is not a malady unique to Islam for Europe too has its share of secular bigots and racists. A closer look at Muslims in the West will show us that they are, after all, perfectly ordinary people with ordinary lives and concerns. In fact, millions of them are so ordinary they are downright boring.

Bringing together and tying together the ordinary strands that make up our shared community may not be a glamorous media event that will grab the headlines or make the news. But it is one way to transcend the hell of everyday life of non-communication. Europe’s experiment with multiculturalism today is in dire need of direction and focus, and for that reason that multicultural project has to be taken up by all progressive forces that look forward to a future that is diverse, rich and plural and where the fulfilment of self-identity can be secured. At present we are a long way from that, for it seems that our understanding of the other – and of ourselves – has sadly been reduced to two-dimensional cardboard stereotypes instead. That would be a sad fate for Europe, and a sad epitaph to the Enlightenment project.

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