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My Relationship With Islam Taught Me How Fear And Intolerance Poison Us

Posted by Sarah Ather Kashmiri in Society
May 2, 2017

My life has revolved around the concept of God. I have been a Muslim, a theist, an agnost and an atheist in different phases of my life. I am sure that as I keep growing, my perceptions too will continue to mature.

In my late teens, my Muslim identity slowly faded when I picked up Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Back then, I was perpetually angry. Angry at Islam, angry at Wahabbism, angry at the imposed patriarchy in Islam. I believed religion was unscientific and only spelt bad news for the world. When I discussed all this with my Hindu friends, they told me how Muslims were perceived as cruel and misogynistic. They told me how I was different to see the truth. I felt a sense of moral superiority, felt that I was so rational and unbiased to be able to see the faults in my own religion.

A bookworm that I was, I read from Deepak Chopra to Reza Aslan, from Sam Harris to Stephen Hawkings, from Carl Sagan to Joseph Goldstein, from Plato to Nietzsche. I tried understanding paganism, Sufism, spiritualism, Buddhism and everything else that came my way. I was surprised to find how I had missed all the beauty the Sufis had to offer to the world. I found their philosophy strikingly similar to what the Buddha taught, for which I had immense respect.

Every time I saw a search for the truth in the writings of a physicist or a philosopher, or a saint or Sufi, I only saw humility in the awe of whatever it is that had made us. Call it God, call it entropy driving random bits of matter to generate complexity, I found this relationship to be very personal. And this relationship cannot be reduced to mere religious labels.

I met a charismatic Muslim woman, some time back. She wore a hijab and was studying medicine. She was sounded intellectual in her conversations, and was open to concepts I hadn’t even heard of. I found myself impressed by the conversation I had with her.

She also told me no one had ever forced the hijab on her and that it was her own choice as she felt closer to God that way. And in that moment, I saw a hypocrite in me. I remembered mocking hijab-wearing women, considering them backward. I thought to myself: Maybe what was just a piece of cloth to me was an identity to her. Maybe she had an attachment to it, just like people have attachment to various possessions like rings.

Image Credit: Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

This is not to deny the horrific patriarchal history associated with the forced covering of women’s bodies. But we shouldn’t forget that every human being is different and perceives things differently. Why should we presume that a person should only dress up according to what we feel is appropriate? I want to emphasise here that I do not support the forceful imposition of any kind of clothing, and to me, the concept of modesty is different as well.

But I am writing this story to highlight the fact that there is a latent culture of hate associated with the hijab today, one that is explicitly visible. So many women who call themselves feminists mock the hijab to feel a sense of moral superiority. I want to raise two points to explain why it’s hypocritical:

  • The message of feminism is to stop dictating to women what they should wear. This stands for the hijab as well. For those who wear it, it should be their choice.
  • For those who are forced to wear it, when you mock a burka-clad woman, you are speaking the language of their oppressor. If you want to stand for feminism, stand next to her in solidarity. Telling her that she is powerless only increases her feeling of alienation. If you want to actually empower her, help her in ways that would actually improve her condition.

Recent events in my country have opened my eyes. The same friends who applauded me when I had spoken against the burka suddenly turned hostile when I tried to speak up for Mohammad Akhlaq. Wasn’t his murder a hideous crime? Shouldn’t our souls have shuddered at the thought of a man being killed by a mob on the suspicion of what kind of meat he had in his fridge? Shouldn’t we weep at the applause his killer received?

Numerous such incidents have followed in the wake of Akhlaq’s murder. And we are told that the media is just sensationalising it. Can we call ourselves human after saying that? We’re talking about loss of lives! What is more baffling is the ‘whataboutery’ that follows: But what about ISIS bombings?

Self-proclaimed nationalists claim that liberal Muslims are responsible for their own plight because they don’t criticise the extremists enough. This is blatantly false as Muslims have time and over criticised terror attacks. Moreover, it’s Muslims themselves who are the most severely affected by Islamic terrorism. Not to mention Muslims do not exist as a united and homogenous entity. We would never think of referring to Christians or Hindus in a similar way because we are aware that the catch-all description is virtually meaningless.

It is appalling to see how everytime I speak about the violence unleashed by the RSS or VHP, I am told to leave for Pakistan. I am told, “So what! They are not as bad as ISIS!” Has the bar for our morality been set so low? Are we not supposed to speak up against atrocities till they become ISIS-like in magnitude?

As I researched more about religions and their history, I was surprised to see how far off Hindutva actually is from genuine Hinduism. Hindutva is toxic whereas Hinduism is a beautiful religion. I was astounded at the intellectual complexity the Gita had to offer. People like Carl Jung and Aldous Huxley had expressed their admiration and respect for the Gita.

I would like to say to saffron-clad nationalists, “Do you know what you are fighting for? How are you any different from the Jihadists you hate? The anger that has been sold to you is poison. Remember that Krishna said that delusion arises from anger. The mind is bewildered by delusion and this destroys our capacity to reason. We fall from the right path when we can no longer reason.”

To Muslim-hating Indians, I would like to tell them that to love India is to love its plurality. We should not forget that the Indian Independence struggle was a plural project. And look at where we are today, nearly 70 years after independence. Open a news channel and listen to the issues our country is facing. Are Ram Mandir and cow protection really that important? Don’t we have more important issues we need to be talking about?

We need to realise that our power lies in our unity, not in the petty satisfaction one may feel after shouting down someone from a different faith. We would do well to remember the old adage, ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’

Image Credit: Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images