A Heretic in New York!

I just got back from a trip to New York where I took part in the Festival for International Literature organized by PEN World Voices. This marked the first time in what seemed like forever that I was treated as a literary figure and not a political one. It was quite a refreshing change to say the least. I spoke at two panels: Exiles in America, and Truth and the Internet, both of which proved quite interesting and lively indeed.

The highlight of my participation though came when I had an occasion to finally meet and speak with Salman Rushdie, who has just finished his term as the President of PEN. Listening to Salman reciting a passage from the Satanic Verses at a Town Hall event was also pretty inspiring for a heretic like me. But then almost all of the 150 literary figures who were invited would probably consider himself/herself as a heretic, as one participant noted. This is was indeed a meeting of the heretical minds. Creative minds are, by default almost, quite heretical. History does offer exceptions of course, but they have always been few.

There was a glaring downside to the meeting though. For almost everyone was willing to condemn the current policies of the US vis-à-vis Iraq and the War on Terror, yet no one, at least no one I talked to, could provide any alternate vision for how things could be better handled. “The Americans should leave Iraq now,” most declared, but will Iraq survive for long after the departure of American troops? And how about the inevitable backlash that will take place across the region against democracy and human rights activists who were all categorized as pro-American by the ruling regimes, even though most of them are indeed leftists of various stripes and are severe critics of globalization and American policies? No one I talked to has given any serious thought to these matters, it seems.

I have no problem or quarrel with people criticizing the way the War on Terror is being conducted, there is indeed much to criticize here, but when some of the most brilliant minds on this planet seem derelict in their duty to try to envision better policy alternatives for how global affairs should be conducted, this at a time when many of them happen to be dissidents and political exiles as well, I have plenty to gripe, sneer and jeer about.

How should we deal with extremist religious movements? What should we do with all those regimes out there who insist on running their countries as their private fiefdoms with complete disregard to the basic rights of their citizens? How can we bring modernity to people who at once loathe it and need it? How can we oppose the greed of international corporations yet manage to satisfy the growing consumerist needs, desires and expectations of our peoples?

Who else can better debate these questions, whose answers can be more informed, at least in theory, who can help inject a necessary humanist perspective into the global debate, if not these people who were there in New York last week? And what better platforms for the exchange of views on these matters could exist than through such events?

So there I was feeling alienated even while surrounded by so many fellow heretics? Our heretical ethos is simply not the same, it seems. Am I exaggerating here? Of course. After all, I haven’t read the works of all the people who were present at the Festival, and very few have read mine. So, like-minded people must have been there, I am sure of it, but we have missed each other somehow this time around. There is always next time, I guess.

6 thoughts on “A Heretic in New York!

  1. You have exactly hit the nub of the matter… I understand that the number of skeletons found in mass graves in Iraq has ticked over to more than 300,000. To the naysayers I would ask what would you have done about this? Oh, that’s right, you did nothing and continue to do nothing (Darfur anyone?) But, you absolutely feel free to object and pick apart anyone else’s actions.I am sadly amused when I hear of expats meeting in the United States and criticizing the country that allows them the freedom to voice their opinion… Next year, hold your conference in Lybia and make sure to send an invitation to Mr. Rushdi!

  2. One of the most brilliant posts I have read, and as torn by the current situation as anyone I have seen. I would like to make six suggestions, briefly, and will defend them at more length in the future, after they have received comments.1.) Accept the problem is not ‘extremist Islam’ but Islam itself, with its anti-fact, anti-critical inherent basis. (The fiefdoms, sadly, seem in some places as the only bulwark against the Islamicizers.)2.) Accept that this will be a long struggle, and that at many points the choice will not be between the ‘good’ (or worse, the ‘well-meaning’) and the bad, but between the ‘bad’ and the ‘worse.’ (Thus, because of the Bush blunders, America can no longer be a factor in Iraq, even though this will lead to the horrors of a civil war. But if we stay there, the long-run results will be the same or worse.)3.) For now, ignore the problem of the ‘greed of international corporations.’ They are a less serious problem that can and should be ignored until the main problems are settled, and they may actually — see next suggestion — help in a way.4.) Support, wherever possible, the growth of a strong, secular, middle class, even if it does mean accepting the ‘big corporations.’ This will give a group with economic and political power that will serve as a ‘counterveiling force’ to the current regimes and the Islamicizers. But convince them not to retreat from the political fray into their jobs, or even into the blogosphere, but to interact with the less-educated and less-sophisticated ‘man on the street’ and ‘man at the next desk.’5.) At any opportunity, support women’s equality, and support women working against the horrors of sharia law, and the horrors of the ‘cultural customs’ in Islamic societies. Let me realize they don’t HAVE to be obedient to their husbands. or accept being beaten, or accept FGM, or accept rape, or accept family-arranged forced marriages. Support any organization that provides shelters and education.6.) Realize that the best long-term weapon in the fight may be humor and ridicule. The one sentence that may do more to end the problems is “You can’t really stand there with a straight face and tell me you believe …” (However it ends. “… in witchcraft and the evil eye” “in throwing rocks at demons on the Hajj” “that the Jews really control the world,’ or, finally, ‘that a God you respect could ‘dictate’ something as confused, incoherent, and contradictory as the Qur’an.’It’s not going to be a short struggle, but I HAVE to believe it can be won, and I DO believe that these are the ways to win it.

  3. I agree with points 3-6, as for point 2, no. I think the US needs to remain involved in Iraq for the foreseeable future, for both its own interests and the interests of the Iraqi people. For a failure to establish a stable regime in Iraq will undermine America’s prestige all over the region, with dire consequences for American interests. Every two-bit dictator will thereafter seek to oppose the US thinking that the Americans cannot afford another disastrous involvement in the region, and America will have a full-scale challenge across the board to its interests and policies. On point 1, I have to say no as well. There is a problem with Islam, just as there is a problem with all traditional faith systems. But that’s not enough to explain what is happening here. The deep root of the problem is psychological, the followers of any faith based on proselytism, messianic expectations, and a strong belief in the centrality of the community of the faithful to the divine plan for the Cosmos, will have major problem when they see themselves marginalized, weakened and disempowered. To believe in evil conspiracies at times like these, and to hate the people who seem to be occupying your “rightful” position in the world, are only natural. This is the essence of the problem then, traditional faith puts the community of believers at the center of the Cosmos, and modernity puts them at the margins. Some cannot take this sitting down, I guess, and tend to react rather violently and puritanically. Others opt for the path of self-flagellation. But most will mourn their fate in silence, while a select few might opt for the more proactive approach, one that sees opportunity and promising possibilities in place of misery. Of course, energy politics and global interests tend to further complicate this rather simple picture. Another major aspect of our current dilemma is that we can never be left to deal with our problems on our own, neither we nor the world will likely allow this to take place. The world will continue to dabble in our affairs, and we will always be more than eager to export many of our problems to it. So there!

  4. Ammar:As for point two, I disagree, but hope you are right and I am wrong about it. Whichever, it is deciding between ‘bad’ and ‘worse.’But I have to both agree with the points you made about point one — parts of which are absolutely brilliant — and still disagree with your overall conclusion.Too often I see the argument that “Islam is just another Abrahamic religion,’ and that it can be considered in the same way that Christianity and Judaism is. (In fact, this was my position about six months ago.) I tend to hear this both from moderate or secular Muslims and from my fellow atheists.The more I look into Islam, the more I have to question this, mostly because of the primacy given to the Qur’an and the continual condemnation of the ‘unbeliever.’Other religions, except for the extreme orthodox/fundamentalist/literaist fringes, leave room for questioning, for doubt, for acceptance of the problems in their Sacred Texts. A Christian can read and accept Enslin, or even Charles Guignebert on the scriptures and still believe. A Jew can read and accept the recent edition of the Torah (produced by Conservative Jews — the middle ground between Orthodox and Reform) which has a preface casting strong doubts on the historicity of some of the major stories in the Bible (I’m talking about King David here, not just Noah and Adam), and remain a believing and observant Jew.Skepticism and ‘critical thinking’ are not abominations to those religions because there is a hard kernel of ethics, of humanity, of love and justice in those religions that is worthy of respect even if you de-bunk (in the literal sense of the word) the sacred texts.But, my apologies, this does NOT seem to exist in Islam. (I am currently, slowly, going through the Qur’an, Sura by Sura, on my website — starting at the back — to see if there is anything left once it is ‘de-bunked,’ or whether it is possible to hold any of the beliefs about it Muslims are required to hold. So far I have found ugliness and absurdity and banality, but little more.)This is not to say the absurdity that Muslims cannot be good humans. Of course they can, but when I speak with the many that I see that are, I find them either having an independent ethical structure, or to be reading their own ethics into the Qur’an without being able to point to specifics where this is actually found. (I hope you can unscramble my syntax here, it is early and I already have things to do domestically.)The trouble is that ‘doubt and unbelief’ is to a Muslim what ‘sexual desire and masturbation’ are to strict Christians, the main gateways to Hell. And for many Christians, they can overcome consciously, these feelings, but the unconscious guilt remains buried within. So, I would guess, do the equivalent feelings for Muslims. (In Christians, this unconscious guilt can frequently come out in the form of sado-masochism. I wonder if the ‘violence in defense of the faith’ that comes out so frequently in Muslims is a similar ‘projection.’)And, just as the sexuality is impossible to avoid for Christians, doubt is equally impossible for any Muslim who seriously uses critical thinking on the fundamentals of his religion, who investigates the difference between the history as he is taught it and the actual history, who looks at the Qur’an with an unbiased but skeptical eye. It is chaotic in structure. It does contradict itself, and use the absurdity of the ‘principle of abrogation.’ It does contain superstition and scientific absurdities — I point to the Surahs where a traveler is supposed to have discovered the places where the sun rises and sets as the most absurd. (And historical absurdities as well — claiming that Mary is part of the Christian Trinity, claiming that the Pharaohs used crucifixion when it was not invented for centuries after and by the Romans, etc.)And further looking shows that there is some truth in Ayesha’s reported comment that Mohammed was lucky that Allah always gave him a revelation that went along with his sexual desires.(I have even read, on good authority that the idea that this is a ‘perfect’ book in the sense of its use of Arabic is questionable, that there are quite a few grammatical mistakes in it, but as a non-Arabic speaker, I cannot comment on this.)Yet for a Muslim to accept these statements — unlike violating a specific prohibition against alcohol or pork — is to condemn himself to Hell. He cannot, as Christians do, move to a more liberal interpretation — there isn’t a ‘reformed Islam’ and, if i am correct that there isn’t an ethical structure in the Qur’an strong enough to build one on, there may not be able to be such a thing.He has to leave Islam — which is not only difficult because of its cultural importance — in a way it is a disrespect of your family and ancestors to — or to shut off his critical thinking aparatus anywhere near his religion, to ignore the problems, and remain a believer, or a practitioner of the religion.But once this is done, then a Muslim (I am talking about the ‘man on the street,’ not the sophisticated middle-class, educated Muslim) is unable to use his critical sense on anything near his religion. (Again, to use a Christian analogy, many American Christian Fundamentalists have come to accept the whole of the Republican secular agenda because they have entwined it with their religion — so ‘no new taxes’ has become an almost Biblical command for them.)So when they are taught the ‘evil of the Jews,’ or the idea that all non-believers ‘really acceppt the truth’ and only reject it out of a love for evil, or that they are plotting against the ummah, they don’t dare look at these propositions. And as i suggest earlier, they might be more violent in their reaction because they are not punishing the unbelievers, but punishing themselves for that kernel of unbelief they can’t get rid of.

  5. The Old Testament and the Book of Revelations contain at least as much absurdities as you have detected in the Qur’an. No, I am afraid you still haven’t convinced me as to the unique case surrounding Islam here. The missionary character of Islam differentiates from most Judaic movements, but it brings very close to the folds of Christianity with the stress on the unchanging nature of the Qur’an replacing that of the unchanging nature of the Logos or Christ, albeit both issues, that is, the nature of the Qur’an and the nature of Christ, have been the subject of much controversy and interpretation throughout the histories of the two faiths. The strange thing is, I have always criticized the problem with Islam with such vehemence that many people tended to tell me the very things I am conveying to you above, namely that Islam is not unique in this regard. But to me, this didn’t really matter, because I knew that the trouble is not only with Islam, but I also know that there is a trouble with it, and on the basis of my personal experiences with Islam I find it easier and more logical to focus my effort on exposing and analyzing this problem, when I choose to speak of matters of faith that is, which is no longer that much of an obsession for me really.

  6. “The Old Testament and the Book of Revelations contain at least as much absurdities as you have detected in the Qur’an”Many of those stories are allegories, not intended to be taken literarily.

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