Saturday, April 4, 2015

The "Saw" of Islam (republished, originally from December 2006)

Lirun, a fellow blogger asked me how I felt about an Islamic State in Lebanon. Since I'm neither Lebanese nor Muslim, I'll change the premise slightly and answer the question as it relates to an Islamic state anywhere in the Arab world. Before the vultures start circling and accuse me of being a rampant Islamophobe, take note that the following is nothing more than my perception and a representation of what I feel; rather than a position that fits any particular agenda. My issue is with increased religiosity in general. It just so happens that the most overwhelming religiosity in the Middle East today is Islamic. I have just as many issues with what's happening in the US, but the Arab world is more significant to my personal life than the Bible Belt.
I have picked "introspection" as a label for this entry so as to reinforce the notion that my views towards the matter are in constant evolution, so do not consider any of the following to be finite but rather a reflection of how I feel about it today.

Here it goes:
Have you ever seen the "Saw" series? For those who haven't, it's a trilogy of horror films where victims are tortured and binded to bizarre and extremely painful devices. What's original about Saw is that the tortured characters have a way out, but at an incredible physical and psychological cost. In one particular scene, the standing victim's torso is trapped in a giant metal contraption with metal rings threaded into the person's spinal column. To escape the contraption, the victim has to reach into a jar of extremely corrosive acid and pull out a key. The key is dissolving fast and would disappear within minutes unless the victim is willing to burn her hand to pull it out. To make matters worse, once the key is used to unlock the device, there's no knowing the extent of the damage those metals rings will have on the victim's spinal column.

I'm afraid we are headed towards several Islamic states in the Middle East, the "key", or solution is dissolving fast and the only way out comes at the great expense to the "body of the state".

With pan-Arabism floating like the bloated carcass of a dead whale, Islam is being championed as "The Solution".

I am scared.
Not only do I already feel culturally excluded here in the West, my own Arab world, a long time insurance policy in case I ever want to go back is being pulled from under my feet.

Do not speak to me about the faraway lands of Andalusia and of the once-upon-a-time Muslim tolerance of minorities. Those days are long gone, and there's no knowing what shape Islamic rule will have in the future. Islam, just like Christianity and Judaism has its progressive and its regressive elements. Who will prevail in the end? Will nominally Christian Arabs like me be merely tolerated? or will we live as full citizens with rights and responsibilities? What about citizens who chose to be non-practicing Muslims, or Atheists? Will there be a new Fiqh (Jurisprudence) that adapts to this century?

The Islamic regimes are coming and its only a matter of time before Assad and Mubarak give way to the masses. Before you call me alarmist, how many of you have actually lived in the Arab world? How many of you arm-chair Marco-polos have actually seen first-hand the transformation in an Arab society?

Consider the following personal anecdote:
Growing up in the UAE, we used to have neighbors who were Palestinian like us and nominally Muslim just like we were nominally Christian. Every Eid, my mother would offer them a tray of 'Awameh (عوامة او لقمة القاضي) and every Easter they would bake us a cake. We used to live 2 floors apart and the visits were frequent. Almost every Friday, both of our families would congregate in either living room. Potent Lebanese Arak flowed freely amongst the adults and sometimes they would even allow us kids to have a sip.
Then the day came when their daughter, who was a pre-teen at the time decided to wear a veil. Her mother, a working mother of three, who dressed as any Levantine woman of the time, was horrified. She fought her daughter tooth and nail. But the daughter prevailed and kept her head covering. Just like the "key" in my Saw analogy, the effects were corrosive. In the beginning, the veiled daughter would not join our family evenings since alcohol was served. To accommodate her, the Arak was kept in the cupboard (الله يرحم ايامك يا ابو توما و يا غنطوس). Later on, it was the mixing of men and women that bothered her, so the men came over to our living room and the women to theirs (admittedly, her father was relieved since now he could drink his Arak un-harassed!).

Over the years, the mother started wearing the veil, first during Ramadan and later every day of the year. The father and son started attending Friday prayers at the local mosque. The girl is now married and living in Jordan, she wears a Niqab (full face covering).
What once was a beautiful friendship between our families was reduced to mere exchanges of courtesies in the building's elevator. And it all started with a simple piece of cloth...

11 years ago, when I was a student at McGill, I used to be part of what was once called the Palestine Solidarity Committee (now SPHR - Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights). Our most vocal members were girls.

The other day at an Indian restaurant, I happened to be seated next to a table with a dozen SPHR members. Half of them were girls and EVERY ONE OF THEM WAS VEILED! Will the day come when SPHR gatherings will be completely segregated? How will that effect our image and ability to influence change. Will it cement the perception that the struggle for Palestine is linked to a larger Islamic context?

If the whole Arab nation decides to veil its women, so be it. However, it will not change the fact that all of this religiosity is new and threatening to me.

It scares me.
I'm not used to it.
I miss the days when God was a personal affair and allegiance to Him-Her-It wasn't so explicit.

The Religiosity bug is not limited to Muslims. Some members of my own family have left our allegedly too sedate Melkite sect and joined the more obnoxiously proselytizing Evangelical stream.

Religiosity for me represents fissures at the family level and the greater societal levels. I haven't yet seen a manifestation of it that is inclusive of others who do not share the same opinion. I know I'm not alone to feel this way, there are millions of Arabs and non-Arabs who agree with me on this.

Unfortunately, Islam is indeed the Solution in the Arab world at the moment, as there's no other viable choice. No alternative ideology has the energy, the weight, or the unifying potential of Islam. The question is, which of the many, many versions of Islam will prevail. Will there be a regressive Caliphate or a new brew of Islamic democracies that draw from the positive and inclusive elements of the the Quran and the Hadeeth?

By the time you have finished reading this, the key has long dissolved.

May God save us -- الله يستر

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