Whenever I want to write on a controversial subject, I like to put my Arab identity aside. Because without the baggage of Arab and Muslim roots, it is easier to express my secular and liberal beliefs to the world. This is perhaps why I am more comfortable writing in English than in my native language. Western culture does not have many holy cows, and even those are not so sacred if you attack them using permissible means. So as long as I am not blogging hate speech, racism or cruelty to animals, I am not likely to reap too much notoriety.
My native culture is different. How on earth would someone advocate for gay rights, when the language itself had only recently adopted a non-derogatory term for homosexuality? It is mostly thanks for NGOs such as my workplace, that the neutral Arabic expression for homosexuality is gaining more acceptance in official writing. Before that the common Arabic equivalent of homosexual was derived from an adjective synonymous with: irregular, anomalous, atypical, abnormal, unusual, aberrant, eccentric, extraordinary, singular, offbeat, curious, odd, peculiar, strange, or weird. People who speak only Arabic still use this negative term in their conversations, while most westernized people I know incorporate the term in a foreign language, since the official term has not crossed over into local dialects yet.
Religion remains one of the holiest domains of Arab culture. Arab societies are largely conservative, and the Arab states (with the notable exception of Lebanon) are predominantly Muslim. The Muslim population does not take lightly to any criticism to its way of life, whether it comes from inside or outside the ranks. Moreover, Muslims in the Arab world never stop preaching the wonderful Islamic ethic of respecting other religions (especially Judaism and Christianity). They claim that they give Christian citizens all their freedoms, and grant them justice and equity with their Muslim counterparts. I doubt that this often advertised Muslim magnanimity and tolerance would stand to close scrutiny. It is evident that discrimination based on religion is alive and well in society, and in some cases it is even condoned by Arab States. Saudi Arabia is the most glaring example of this. The observant Muslims, however, fail to see any problem in restricting the rights of non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, obliging women to certain dress codes and preventing them from driving. On the other hand, those very same Muslims, would cry foul whenever a Muslim girl is forced to forsake her headscarf in France to protect the secular identity of that country’s school system. In short we Muslims have this deep belief that we are on the right path, and everyone else is going to hell slowly but surely. We like to be nice to these lost causes, to be patient with them in the hope that they will repent and come back to the correct path. How could this belief be ever reconciled with the principle of equal rights before the law in a secular system? Do the ultra conservative even recognize the law when it is not an Islamic law? The documented cases of honor killings in Germany and elsewhere in Europe would suggest that a secular law is no deterrent, in case of strong traditional beliefs.
It is interesting to note the steady shift towards Islamic conservatism around the time when Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates and Sheikhdoms rose as independent, and oil-rich states. Soon after Iran became the Islamic Republic, oil-rich as well. Further east, and even before that, Pakistan and Bangladesh came to being. They were established as legitimate nations of homogenous Muslim communities seeking independence from India. The past decades also saw their politics shifting towards conservative Islam. Nearby is Afghanistan, again, an Islamic legitimate resistance movement, went terribly wrong when it came into power, and stayed there. Southeast Asia seems the only anomaly in this pattern, and so far the predominantly Muslim states of Malaysia and Indonesia, are both practicing a forms of democracy that incorporate elements of religion, and secularism equally. Malaysia for example applies Shariaa law to Muslims only in matter of inheritance, marriage, and divorce among others, while criminal matters remains under the purview of state law. Meanwhile in Indonesia the Islamic law operates on a local administrative level, and not on a state level. It is interesting to note that Islam arrived peaceably in those regions and grew in harmony with existing culture and tradition.
With that in mind we look at the parts of the world won over to Islam by he blade of the sword. Islam arrived as the religion of the conquerors, and I would think that embracing it entitled converts to certain privileges. The Islamic law does not consider the Muslim equal to a non-Muslim. It discriminates against non-Muslims in many subtle, and some not-so-subtle, ways. I can imagine the motivation of abandoning the religion one was born into to join the religion of the rulers. It is human nature. Seven hundred years after the conquest of Spain, Muslims had to experience this as well, and they had to revert to Christianity to remain on the Iberian Peninsula. In my mind, the Muslims of the conquered Islamic Empire, were mostly the product of opportunism, migration, and intermarriages. While the Christians are the true first nations of these parts, the native Arabs (or native Egyptians in case of the Copts). I can see this pure pedigree in the faces of some of my Christian friends, and in their deep connection to the homeland. I do not see it in my face, not even in the photo of my paternal grandfather, who was fair, blue-eyed and probably passed on the genes of some Muslim warlord from Asia minor.
The Islamic State, which a large section of Muslims aspire to revive or recreate, was in its time a colonial power. It subjugated parts of the world, took over its riches and sold its people into slavery. The conservative Muslim would say that we brought the unbelievers from darkness into light in return and showed them the correct path. But we heard that before, from the Crusaders. And we heard that after, with different semantics, from America (War against Terror), and on a lower level still, from criminals who practice corrective rape of Lesbians in South Africa. To me it is the same bigotry and flawed logic. My question to these people, and to those who want to kill a cartoonist, hang a film-maker and silence a writer, where is your power of attorney from God? Who appointed your to speak and administer justice on behalf of the Almighty? Alas, I know that these questions would not stump the fanatic, who would have his answer ready, sealed in impenetrable circular reasoning.
In my experience I have yet to see religion as a barrier against committing any serious social crime. It may prevent Muslims from drinking wine, eating pork, and sleeping with someone they are not married to. However it does not stop them from giving a hiding to a son, or discriminating against a daughter, or marrying her off at a tender age to someone old enough to be her father. It does not stop a bloodbath when it comes to a sectarian war. It did not stop Muslim traders from dealing in human flesh, starting the African slave trade that the white man later picked up and gained notoriety for. Christianity, the religion of love and all humanity, does not stop the hatred and discrimination against gay people, it does not stop the genocide and it did not stop the crusaders from committing atrocities under the banner of the cross.
It can all be summed up in this great quote: “You don’t need religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong, then you lack empathy, not religion.”