When the good chance, at the end of the Cold War, had presented itself for a more peaceful and with a different setup world collapsed, all hell broke loose. The world, as it now appears, is coming apart at the seams. As the major blocks keep battling each other and as the new and old visions are colliding at the crossroads of the future. The Western block, with sometimes active support of the rest of the world -and at other times with only tacit acquiescence- is squeezing the Muslim world from all directions and with all the means available to it.
In this large and sweeping picture, it's easy to confuse the tree with the forest. If on first glances one sees a powerful and modern against a weak and traditional, however on a bit of thought one also has to remember what history teaches, that's, victims are not always angels. Even at the risk of falling into the trap of blaming the victims, one has to admit Muslims have, in no small degree, did their best to bring the various catastrophes that have wrecked or are still wrecking havoc with whatever meager resources they've. Arabs along with the India and China were the only cultural areas that slumbered for the last thousand years or so. China -along perhaps of India[?]- came to grips with its reality, purged itself of all demons local and foreign, cleansed its file and rank (not without great sacrifices during more than a century of turmoil ), and has renewed its body and soil to take-off toward reaching new horizons and become a truly a shining beacon on the hill for the rest of humanity. Only the Western world had so before, renewing itself every 500 years or so with new messages and new ways of living. Arabs? Well, they got lost in the labyrinth connecting the body with the soul. Their confusion is total: cannot make up their mind which life is worth living this one or the other life; which way to take: the way of this world or the way to the other-world!
What are, so far, Islam and Muslim's reactions to havocs wrecking their homelands, besides shouting fouls and screaming victimhood, more of the same if not worse? One is tempted to say that Muslims' dilemma was in driving themselves into a labyrinthian abyss, difficult if not impossible to get out of, that's: if they heed the call and change their direction they would have to recognize their shortcomings and accept their critiques, and that to many would amount to a surrender and total defeat in front of the advancing Western armies. Thus they reverted to what they know best, which has been chosen time and time again, to withdraw to their own habitual cocoon and hide behind a real or an imagined yet illusive carapace of their glorious days. An illusive past, hard to pin down and define, becomes their Holy Grail. The beginnings of their only awakening on the world stage. The law of the unintended consequences: the more Muslims are pressed to slough their past and join the caravan, the more they get attached and nostalgic to that always receding past. The more humans get secular the more Muslims get pious! How can such a puzzle be explained? And since most of the societies composing Islam have very little else beside it. Islam thus becomes the key to understand their behavior and impasse.
Religion, as a system of thought, was always restricted to the initiated few. Its thematics were never a completely kosher subject nor a seductive argument. On the popular level, beyond rituals, even dabbling in it irritates the intelligent and infuriates the ignorant. Thus it's more than a matter of snobbism talking about Religion is not welcomed in polite company. For, wading into its jungle is tantamount to being caught in a mire of seen and unseen bogs. In the same vain writing about it is fraught with all kinds of risks, from rabble rousing to mind bugling logic! Notwithstanding all of these, however, each Religion, and indeed at each generation, if it's to be kept vibrant and updated, always needs must its own aspirants of Galileos, Savonarolas, and Giordano Brunos, et. al., if not to question its basic premises, then to re-assess its role, to curb its excesses, and to limit its sway of power over the multitude. In other words, to mitigate its charge and to limit its side effects.
Time's sweeping course leaves behind deposits -the result of work and creativity- some of them good -monuments and further knowledge- and others were mere accretions which with time again have become callouses. Time seems to hypnotize the gullible and anesthetizes them from feeling the pains, societies are not excepted. That's why from time to time revolutions do occur to jog society's memory, shake its stultified belief system(s) and re-affirm what it's all about. When the idea that had brought the earlier members together gets tangled in nuances more akin to nuisances, if not forgotten, than original covenant, then it's time to rework once again society's original purpose, so it can renew its mission and presume its march. Culture, Religion, History, etc. All become suspects of betrayal until they approve otherwise. Until these have been sieved through, purged of what's harmful, calibrated to new purpose, and injected with the equivalent of a steroid to them give some vigor in pursuing its renewed course, are suspended and put on trial.
Among all the variables which their sum total of actions and interactions result in a specific social groupings, Religion is one of the strongest. Tackling Religion as a variable perhaps is one of the stubborn yet fruitful social enterprise. As Blaise Pascal made it clear when he stated: "men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." Since this variable has so much impact on the other variables that resolving its problematic first perhaps would do a lot of good and accelerate the rate of change of the other subsequent factors.
Some religions, if not most, have realigned themselves to modernity and have come to accept their reassessed positions vis-a-vis the other realms of human interactions. Others are still in the process of coming to terms with what inevitably will be their clipped roles in the modern world. As the balance tilts more and more toward the known and as the sway of the unknown is loosening its hold, the social disenchantment gets deeper and inches ahead slowly. What historically gave Religion its power of endurance, was its precarious locus at the straddle of the unknown and the known, is now slowly yet persistently getting untenable. The unknowable is giving way to a world rapidly tipping more and more toward the knowable and graspable. As humanity's strife to get hold of its own condition acquires speed, Religions find themselves more and more on the defensive and have to cede even more of their traditional territories, whether by accepting their own limitations or just saving and collecting their energy for another day, are still open questions. In a compartmentalized world Religion has been left no other choice but to withdraw to its own niche.
Rivers, if not oceans, of ink has been spent mulling the antagonisms and conflicts in the relationship between Faith and Reason, Faith and Science, etc. but, if truth is to be said, they seem to be going not far, if not to no avail at all. The bid was set from the beginning on a colliding course! The sacred vs. the mundane? When in fact, the prophetic and the human truths are oceans apart as Genesis and Sciences have lucidly shown. Granted Religion traditionally has assumed, if not always played, the roles of an anchor as well as a brake to society's uncharted leaps of faith more so than a beacon to orient with, a map for a safe journey, and a refuge from unexpected calamity. Rather than reconciliation, it's understanding that's at stake. Understanding the role of metaphysics in a world tending more toward the physical. In this brave new world, the old heuristics of structuralism, textualism, and the like are giving way to more relativist approaches of deconstructionalism, narrativisim, etc. Deconstructing what was contingent and accidental from propositions supposed to and actually endured because of their universal appeal or commonsensical nature. However, just because of the tools of investigation are available and the thus ability to understand is increased doesn't mean there'll be a rush to embrace them. Cultural openness and social plasticity were always, if not determinant, catalyst. Since such an undertaking can be initiated only when the wall of categorical imperatives has been weakened and some fissures started to appear. The task must not be to prop up the wall but rather to see through its chinks and cracks some of the materials that entered into its making. Way from taking it apart and rebuilding it again!
Such social as well as individual 'soul' searching' gropes were of the essence of civilization's concerns. Through cultural-textual archeology and collective mind probing other wholistic Faiths, Islam yet has to face! came to loosen a bit the grips on the individual and slackened their societal tentacles. Islam has lagged in this area tremendously. In addition to cultural stagnation and social decadence, perhaps, part of its lag can be attributed also to its presumed (or alleged) make-up: for instance, its pretense of being all and sundry when in fact most of the acrobatic claims of reasonableness, scientificity, and not to mention commomsensicalness were post facto justifications and rationalizations.
The task at hand thus becomes: How to reconcile wholistic System's Thoughts and Traditions which were steeped in absolutistic and only foundational Truths, there are, to a relatively new way of looking to the world of men and women as purely human construction? Postmodernity goes even further by looking to all texts as mere narratives, and as such are in need of deconstruction and reconstruction again. Deconstructing a text is to take apart its constituent elements and (assumed) truths, i.e. its contents, and relate them to its time, culture, author(s), and relations of power, etc. to see their influence on the Texts and how themes of individual concerns and social praxis as well as the problematics of power, justice, gender, etc. were dealt with. Evidently, a society to reach the stage of such awareness must have been going through dramatic changes and has gained other ways to access to the "truths" about itself and the world by other means. Though still a task of such a magnitude is not easily taken nor is it beyond the pale of criticisms.
Islamic societies' contemporary dilemma consists in having slept for so long only to awake and find the world has moved far ahead of them to the extent they cannot see it anymore. In this wakeful and subsequent blurred visions they've been groping their way(s) around in the darkness of their own blind cultures. Cultures which had reached their growth and stopped somewhere in the middle ages. How to bridge the gap between then and now becomes the crux of the matter. The task is less how to reconcile Faith with Reason, Science, and Commonsense in general and more how to bridge the chasm separating the Middle Ages from our times. How to stir a mindset frozen, if not in space, certainly in time; and, how to probe a social reality stuck in the tribal stage of history.
Examples of alienation of Reason from the cohorts of the Faith - the hierophants and high priests- abound. Bizarre pronouncements and absurd handling of what would be simple matters are only the froths on the surface of more darker and turbulent undercurrents. As example to how deep the abyss separating the world of the Muslims from the rest of humanity, take a careful look to these recent events and think about what they really mean or what they imply:
1- Malaysia: a Muslim woman who converted to Christianity has lost an appeal to the country's top civil court to be recognized as a Christian. A landmark case which was viewed as a test to the limits of religious freedom in what's considered a "moderate" Islamic country. A federal panel turned her case to the Sharia court, as the only jurisdiction which has the power to decide her appeal. "She cannot simply at her own whims enter or leave her religion," Judge Ahmed Fairuz said. "She must follow rules." Has Islam become a No-Outlet alley, a one-way street with no U-turn? As al-Kuni once wrote in one of his novels, I forgot which one, on the voice of one of his characters warning -or giving advice- to a Greek hydrologist who fell in love with one of the oasis beauties and was sort of forced to convert if he's going to pursue his heart's desire: know Constantinos that it's easy to get into Islam -just pronounce the few sentences!- but then it's difficult, if not impossible, to get out of it. How remarkable and in the same time how upsetting to realize that fiction is more truthful than factual blabberings about how forgiving, uncomplicated, and simple, is Islam.
2- In line with a folk anecdote -more an axiom!- probably of religious derivation, more widely banded in the backwaters of the darker sides of the globe, that says whenever a male and female are together in private, the Devil must be their third! To avoid the implication of the devil's insinuated temptations and to find a way to today's reality of male/female interactions in the workplace and in the rest of life's chores, a chair of a department in the 'venerable al-Azhar University's' school of Religion Sciences (theology school), has issued a summa theologica, a bizarre verdict or a fatwa regarding the interaction, in private, between male and female. After probing the literature on the subject he pronounced that the co-existence in the same place in private of non-related adults of the type of human male and female, must be measured on and done according to the principle of 'relations in milk' the co- breast-fed by the same "mother"or the so-called brotherhood- and sisterhood-in-milk. The axiom was applied to the infants who suckled from the same women to become related in all except for inheritance purposes! Thus, the new exegesis enlightens that: a woman in letting an adult male to suckle her breasts's milk five times (5-sips), in the presence of others who'd witness, be come as a close relative, thus they both can be in the same room, without a third person with them, and can she expose her face, hair and hands to him! What a stroke of genius such 'knowledgeables' can exert! An actual sin to avoid a potential sin? The strangeness, though the new relationship allows them to exist in each others presence doesn't foreclose marriage clause, etc.? Needless to say that such a verdict has caused quite a stir, actually more a roar, in Egypt and the venerable professor has to apologize and to withdraw his well-researched but badly reasoned screed.
Such failed readings of social realities, while is of no surprise coming from a group of cohorts who still value the rote learning and precedent parroting, if they tell anything at all they foretell among other implications: absolutistic truths are in retreat, though their proponents have not realized that fact yet. It also confirms what Rorty has been claiming: "Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with saying." The fact that such edicts have still to be percolated through the social hierarchy is a sign perhaps the scale started tipping toward another direction. If it can denote anything at all: It's time to disengage the state from the grip of the force of conservatism, if not darkness, and let society decides the laws by which to live by!
3- State and Religion are coming to a clash in the only "secular" state in the Middle East, Turkey! The assault on the 'secular' state and its institutions, by the religious parties, is reaching the presidency of the Republic. Turkey's secular-religious controversy has been going on since Kamal Ataturk had abolished the old Ottoman Caliphate (1923) and instituted in its place modern Turkey. The shaky truce is, now, once again! heating up and coming to a decisive confrontation between secular and religious forces. The assault on the secular state and its institutions, by the religious parties, has seen a decisive increase in recent years due in part to the wave of religious fervor and revival sweeping the Middle Eastern region in particular; and as a reaction to the military assaults on some of the core states in the area. Thus Islamic inspire parties after having taken the government are now reaching the presidency of the republic.
Three events occurring almost simultaneously in time though seemingly distant in their space of action yet they all partake in the overall frame of reference. The cultural mind-set, textual referents, relations of power, etc. are, beyond the contextual variations, can be likened to rivers and tributaries that feed into the same sea: resistance to modernity and secularism. The methods of resistance may differ but just as death, in its manner and ways are many yet the result, the purpose is one and the same: to end a living entity. The forces of darkness have been changing tactics, never the strategy! By reverting to the oldest trick on the book, that of using the states laws and institutions and subvert the state -mind you not the state itself as such- but only the state in its modern conceptualization, the liberal-secular-state, based on a set of foundational truths, such as, all humans are equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. In other words, the liberal state, as a human construct par excellence, based on the ideas of freedom and equality -regardless of color, gender or creed- in front of the law, and endowed with a Bill of Rights. Such a state with these assumptions as its foundations, is what bugs the forces of reaction and retreat. A portentous sign auguring Turkey's dream to join the European Union!
As the Malaysian court's justices have stated clearly individuals, in the Islamic-based state, are not to be free to choose and act according to their own whims and wills -whether creed or otherwise- but must submit to their own Vatican-type theocracy, and ask permission! To ask permission from Sharia-inspired authority, the same authority which has never recognized individuals as fully autonomous agents and still denies them the right to act on their own free will. As the Summa-theologica of the Egyptian al-Azhar's Doctor makes clear there're no limits to how far idiocy can reach when accompanied by no boundaries to human illogicality. When it comes to Religion, its self-appointed guardians wouldn't hesitate to throw all commonsense and human achievements into the wastebasket in defending their turf and keeping the world turning according to what they consider a true and literal readings of the sacred texts. One question the sanity of such idiots if they cannot even distinguish a tree from the larger forest, that's to have the ability to look the small detail simultaneously inside the bigger picture. The fatwa, in essence, allows an actual sin to take place, before and in order to avoid a potential sin! Ain't this another nail in the coffin of a disappearing world? The end of the road for such "thinkers" and their books and traditions. Have not they done enough already through the centuries to make of their fellow humans mere zombies?
Aristotle's claim: "men create the gods after their own images," can be echoed and paraphrased by what would correspond socially, that's, society weaves, on such an image, a Religion which reflects its world view, mores, and habits. Across the millennia, much later, Aristotle's thought was transposed into social thought by another philosopher, H.L. Mencken, when he stated: "Men become civilized not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt." To cap the whole line of thought, Arthur Schopenhauer added: "Religions are like gloworms... They need darkness to shine." Such statements only reinforce the belief that Religions, like the societies they dominate, reach a point when they need an overhaul, so to speak, a renewal, to rejuvenate them and realign them with the new realities of how humans gain their livelihoods and conduct their lives. Such a need becomes even more urgent when the traditional barriers of space-time are collapsing by the day and the world is becoming, depending on one's stand, either a big jungle or an interconnected global village. In this brave new world, the old values are fast disappearing, but the new ones, to replace them, are lacking or slow to come. As social space keeps stretching, so also individual freedom, human dignity and respect, and social fairness keep marching.