by Farid Esack

The truth is that there is no stable self nor a stable other.

FARID ESACK is the author of Qur'an, Liberation and Pluralism (1996), On Being a Muslim: Finding a Religious Path in the World Today (1999) and An Introduction to the Qur'an (forthcoming), all by Oxford: Oneworld. Delivered as the Jack and Lewis Rudin Lecture at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, October 10, 2001.


In the Name of Allah, The Gracious, The Dispenser of Grace

-- In the Wake of September 11th

O who have attained unto faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding equity, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God, even though it be against your own selves or your parents and kinsfolk, whether the person concerned be rich or poor, God's claims takes precedence over the claims of either of them. Do not then follow your own desires lest you swerve from justice; for if distort the truth, God is indeed aware of all that you do. (Qur'an 4.135)

* * *

The story is told of a Jewish rabbi whose disciples were debating the question of when precisely "daylight" commenced. The one ventured the proposal: "It is when one can see the difference between a sheep and a goat at a distance." Another suggested, "It is when you can see the difference between a fig tree and an olive tree at a distance." And so it went on. When they eventually asked the Rabbi for his view, he said, "When one human being looks into the face of another and says, 'This is my sister, or this is my brother,' then the night is over and the day has begun."


"You've seen the picture of Jesus and the lamb in some Christian homes? Jesus was hanged because he stole a lamb," some Hindu kids told me in Pakistan. "Sir, do you know why the Sunnis fold their hands during the prayers? Because they hide their little idols in them," my students at an all-Shiite school told me. (I always refrained from telling them what I was, not that I actually knew!) "The Shiites do not believe in this Qur'an; they believe that the goat of 'A-isha', the Prophet's wife, ate ten chapters," the venerable Mawlana Badi'uzzaman taught our third-year class in Karachi. (I did wonder how the goat managed to devour a neat ten chapters and called it quits right there!)

While all of these examples emanate from my days as a teacher and student in Pakistan, and while there is certainly a link between these stories and the burning of churches, as well as the current numerous drive-by killings of worshippers in Sunni and Shi'ah mosques, I do not for a single moment want to suggest that Pakistani or Muslims are exceptional in the art of demonizing "the other." I only wish to demonstrate the crudeness of demonization among my own as a way of, from the outset, declaring myself and my own as a part of the problem.

My Pakistan experience was also the first time I saw the remarkable similarities between racism -- so vividly manifested in my homeland -- and sexism. In Pakistan, I witnessed how women were treated exactly the same way that I, as a black male, was treated in South Africa. My sojourn in Pakistan thus alerted me to the comprehensiveness of the quest for just relationships. It is not only a quest of people with diverse political agendas or from diverse cultural, ethnic or religious backgrounds who need to learn to live together; it also includes those of diverse physical abilities and appearances, gender, and sexual orientation.

While all of these examples of religiously inspired violence or sexism in Pakistan suggest that there is something intrinsically noble about learning to live together, another part of my identity, my South African-ness, has also enabled me to see slightly beyond the often simplistic nature of calls to eliminate prejudice and to learn to live with tolerance and in peace.

As a Muslim scholar, I try to find inspiration and guidance (or is it justification?) from the Qur'an, as I think through these issues. I can use Islam and its text, the Qur'an, to reinforce all my prejudices, to shed them, or to rework them. As Goldziher says, "It could be said about the Qur'an,. . . everyone searches for his view in the Holy Book." During the Battle of Siffin, the opponents of 'Ali Ibn Abi Talib (May Allah be pleased with him), the Prophet Muhammad's nephew, demanded that the dispute be resolved by resorting to the Qur'an as an arbitrator. Ali's dilemma is reflective of that facing many a Muslim committed to the Qur'an:

When Mu'awiyah invited me to the Qur'an for a decision, I could not turn my face away from the Book of Allah. The Mighty and Glorious Allah declared that "if you dispute about anything refer it to Allah and His Apostle." (Q. 4:59) [However,] this is the Qur'an, written in straight lines, between two boards [of its binding]. It does not speak with a tongue; it needs interpreters, and interpreters are people.

Interpreters are people who carry all the inescapable baggage of the human condition. Every generation carries its own and every individual his/her own. Our reading of the Qur'an or of our religious heritage is thus marked by the nature of our baggage, our frustrations and aspirations.

Truth and Justice

Truth, whatever else it may be, is also a human construction. We also make truth, much as we like to believe that it is solely an eternal and self preexisting reality beyond history. Modernity has accelerated the awareness that the mind is not a tabula rasa, furnished with facts entirely imported through cognitive or spiritual senses -- or imported by the authority of religio-intellectual traditions. The seemingly inescapable legacy of our theistic beliefs and our ongoing and often inexplicable commitment to them compels us to find new ways of describing the way preexisting reality -- Allah -- may address today's world. This world is, of course, made and being made by people who are not today whom they were yesterday. It is also a world desperate for justice and wholeness.

More than in many other societies, we in South Africa -- and those of you who may have had the courage in recent days to listen to the voices of "the enemy" -- understand the consequences of living with competing realities and, consequently, rival justices. The task of arbitrating between competing and incompatible rationalities and justices, as Alisdair MacIntyre points out, is exceptionally difficult because we cannot pose a point of view that is non-contingent or independent of one particular conception of rationality or justice.

The South African engagement with the Qur'an in recent years has suggested that it is possible to have perfectly orthodox understandings of what the Qur'an is about and yet use these texts in rather perverse ways, such as justifying racism. We are confronted with a plethora of urgent questions: What is an "authentic" appreciation of the Islamic message today? What constitutes and informs "authenticity"? How legitimate is it to produce meaning -- as distinct from extracting meaning -- from Qur'anic texts? These are some hermeneutical questions that underpin any Islamic investigation of the subject of prejudice and its relationship to our religious heritage. The easy option may be for embarrassed Muslim scholars to deny that our heritage is a mixed bag of swords and plowshares, invitations to enter abodes of peace and exhortations to war. If, however, we want to live in fidelity both to our text and as caring inhabitants in a world that can no longer be simplistically divided between the abode of peace and the abode of war, then we have to engage in a far more rigorous interrogation of our theological legacy.

Truth and justice are also frightfully painful categories to discuss at times of conflict and anger. In times such as these, when "common knowledge" has it that Al-Qa'idah and Sheikh Osama bin Laden are responsible for all the devastation of September 11, for example, only the reckless or the prophetic still speak about "the rule of law" and the separation of powers. Judges still exist to weigh evidence. Notions of the rule of law, the separation of powers, are cornerstones of our civilization. Tamper with cornerstones at your peril and that of all the bystanders. "Common knowledge" in South Africa has it that the whites have stolen our land and that now we should get it back from them. Mercifully, our government insists that common knowledge should be tested in properly constituted courts of law by impartial judges in an impartial setting.

In these times of "needing to stand together, to be united behind our President," the most daunting challenge for believing people is to respond to the above cited verse of the Qur'an: to rise as witness bearers for God in the matter of justice, though this may be against yourself. This demand stands in contrast to the demands of fundamentalists to be with us or against us. I stand by the truth, by truth as I see it -- however failing my vision may be.

Does an acknowledgement of the complexities of "the task of arbitrating between competing and incompatible rationalities and justices" mean that one does not have any convictions? Oh no! I certainly do have convictions; I hold them passionately and have suffered for them. However, I can no longer walk over others in the deep-rooted belief that only mine matter. While I can and, indeed, do derive inspiration from my faith and from the Qur'an, I can no longer disregard the pluralistic nature of the world wherein we live. I have to find a yardstick to measure the correctness or incorrectness, the justice or injustice, of my prejudices and predilections. I can no longer appeal to that which is exclusive to my community. Nor can I appeal exclusively to my perception of what my religious heritage is all about. The gap between belief and reality and between competing realities and beliefs within my own community is too obvious for me to do so. Unless I am desperate to become a caricature of -- or am already in fact a reflection of -- the fundamentalists whom I deplore, I cannot insist that their world has to be judged by my standards. Particularly not when (a) the world in fact does have universal standards that can be tested in a court of law and (b) we regularly display an inability to connect our deeds with our ideals.

Let me tell you a story that illustrates the gap between our beliefs and our realities.

The oppression of the Harijans in India is something widely known to most of us. The curse of untouchability has for centuries been a blot on the conscience of India. "It is rooted in Hinduism," we Muslims say. "We have none of this racism and exploitation in Islam." That may well be the case, but how does one explain my story?

In the Punjab region of Undivided India, a fairly common phenomenon among the Harijans was conversion to Christianity, which offered both the hope of escape from the indignities of the caste system and the hope of possible favor from their new co-religionists -- the British ruling class. Many of these Punjabis were sweepers; "they belonged to the sweeper community," as one would say on the subcontinent. Now, of course, vertical social mobility in this area is extremely slow and, for generations, it may even be nonexistent. Sweepers would thus remain sweepers, the personification of dirt on the subcontinent, and so would their children -- Christian or not Christian. Undivided India became the Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and what happened to these Punjabi Christians in Pakistan? They were treated by Muslims in exactly the same manner as they had been treated for centuries by the upper-caste Hindus. The Muslims, especially in the more remote rural areas, routinely deny them drinking water, permission to eat in roadside cafes, etc. When the Muslims are asked why they force the (Punjabi) Christians to walk miles for water, they respond by saying that these people are Christian.

Now some of us who come from the subcontinent may find this difficult to believe, may even be tempted to dismiss it as anti-Muslim propaganda.

I would suggest that we go a bit gently on the dismissals. For too long have too many privileged whites in South Africa denied our pain; for too long have they insisted that all our suffering is a myth of communist propaganda. I have encountered far too many Jews who deny the pain of the Palestinians who have just come under attack from Israeli "targeted bombing." I have seen the pain of Jewish families over loved ones who never emerged from the Twin Towers, even as rumors fly across the Muslim world that four thousand Jews were absent from work that day.

To return to the Pakistani story -- and I do not do so casually.

The Punjabi Christians, the sweeper community, are dark-skinned and speak Punjabi and some Urdu. There is, however, another Christian community in Pakistan, the Goans. They are of Portuguese-Indian descent, speak English, and are usually fair-skinned. The Goans are esteemed guests at Muslim functions and are highly sought after as secretaries, air stewards, and business partners. When the guilty Muslims are asked about this rather obvious contradiction, they stare at you as if you are Salman Rushdie's first cousin.

In the village of Padre Jo Goth in the province of Sindh, this endless anxiety and humiliation over drinking water was also the lot of the local Punjabi Christians until the good old Ecumenical Church Council of Germany (EKD) intervened. The Germans decided to fund the boring and construction of wells for their fellow Christians. What wonderful Christian charity! That is, until the wells were completed and the Christians denied the "unclean and unsaved" Hindus access to their wells!

I have little doubt that these Muslims did not act the way they did because they were Muslims, nor did those Christians act the way they did because they were Christians. The point is that -- correct or not -- their prejudices are sustained, for them at least, by their respective religions. Many of us will hasten to say that this has nothing to do with our religions. Perhaps such disclaimers should be a bit less swift. Listen to Sheikh Kishk in Egypt, Ahmad Deedat in South Africa, Jerry Falwell in the USA and the followers of Rabbi Kahane in Jerusalem; see how many of our co-religionists are swayed by them. These people are as much an intrinsic part of our heritage -- they draw as much from our wells -- as you and I. So many times in the last week have I been asked if Osama bin Laden is a Muslim, and I have refused to go for the easy option. Appending a Kafir label to Osama will only allow me to walk away comfortable in my lies that there is nothing in my sacred text that inspires him, that my theology is not filled with well-documented argument for his terror, and that the vast majority of Muslims in the world do not support him and Al-Qa'idah. I may denounce them, attempt to compensate for their evil, and even pray that they die of piles and infested with the fleas of ten thousand camels; I cannot, however, disown them.

Often our prejudices about the other are a way of holding on to what we perceive as "the known." Many Muslims feel that Deedat's multitude of anti-Christian, anti-Jewish and anti-Hindu videotapes have told us all that there is to be told about the other, and we are comfortable with that. There are times, of course, when questions surface about the importance of correct dogma, about the importance of labels to a God whom we believe sees beyond labels and looks at the hearts of people. Instead of pursuing these questions, we hasten back and seek refuge in "the known." We order another of those Deedat tapes.

"The known" is a powerful shield against what we perceive to be -- and indeed often is -- a hostile world; it enables us to survive. Or, at least, this is how we feel. Look at the tremors of uncertainty among the neo-Nazis in South Africa, as "the known" is collapsing all around them. They are facing a hostile world and we are grateful for this hostility. Clearly not all forms of accommodating the known are acceptable; neither are all hostilities unacceptable. For people committed to the noblest in our religious heritages, though, the question is not merely one of the survival of our own. Today our survival depends on the survival of the other as much as the survival of the human race depends on the survival of the ecosystem. We have gone beyond "No man is an island unto himself," to "No entity is an island unto itself."

We are all comprised of multiple identities depending on where we come from, what we believe in, where we are, and with whom we are interacting at a particular moment. Often we insist on identity as a fixed and unchanging category. A closer look, though, shows that we -- and the way in which we view ourselves -- are really ever changing. The insistence on viewing identity as stable, static or monolithic is usually reflective of our insecurity, our fear of the unknown parts of ourselves that may emerge when the label is peeled off. So we desperately hold on to the label, although the single certainty about its contents is inescapable uncertainty.

The truth is that there is no stable self nor a stable other. Every encounter of the self with the other contributes to the process of ongoing transformation. Intermarriages, linguistic cross-pollination, migration, the Internet, McDonald's, CNN and the emergence of Christian atheists, Catholic Hindus, and Muslim Quakers, as well as Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu worshippers of the Market, are only the more obvious manifestations of the collapse of borders -- if, indeed, there were ever borders. In the words of Salman Rushdie:

We have come to understand our own selves as composites, often contradictory, even internally incompatible. We have understood that each of us is many different people. . . The nineteenth century concept of integrated self has been replaced by this jostling crowd of "I"s. And yet, unless we are damaged, or deranged, we usually have a relatively clear sense of who we are. I agree with my many selves to call all of them "me." (Time, August 11, 1997)

While postmodernity has deepened our appreciation of the complexity of identity, it is far from mere theoretical musing for an organic intellectual or a progressive theologian who grapples with the challenge of teaching students to live together.

First, when we deal with students, we are dealing essentially with persons who are really the carriers of multiple and ever-changing selves. (This is more particularly the case in societies that are no longer culturally homogenous -- however relative and varied in meaning that may be.) We can no longer speak of Algerians, North Africans, Kurds or Blacks but must have the willingness to understand and appreciate the nuances and distinctness of each person sitting in front of us, along with the many diverse elements which make up that being.

Second, we are taught that communities are not unchanging entities that we can collectively hold hostage for crimes committed against an equally ahistorical and essentialist "our people." "The Jews are our enemies," I often hear, to which I respond: "Well that may be the case, but tell me, which ones? Where do they live? When did they do what? What were their names? What kind of support did they have and from whom? And, besides, who are the "our" in "our enemies?"

Third, while it is true that the way we deal with others is really a reflection of the way we deal with ourselves; the process of learning to live alongside my many selves must accompany, and not precede, the process of living alongside the other. When learning to live with the self precedes learning to live with the other, then self-discovery runs too great a risk of degenerating into a narrow narcissism.

And so we link the questions of our survival with our identity, and while we occasionally debate the question of identity, we seldom interrogate survival -- as to what it is and what it is for. The question, in fact, goes beyond survival, because mere survival is more often a form of slow death. In the garden of humanity, we may say, whatever is not growing is, in fact, busy dying.

Let me tell you a story of my journey from the comfortable but suffocating known into the pain of the unknown and back into the ignorance of the known.

Like all Muslim children, I too, was sent off to madrassah (religious school) at an early age. In a completely unproductive butterfly dance, I moved from one madrassah to another until, at the age of twelve, I came across Boeta Samoudien. My previous madrassah saw me already being able to "read" the short chapters at the back of the Qur'an. I presumed that I would continue with my new teacher where I had left off. I read with confidence until Boeta Samoudien asked me to point with my finger where I was reading. The boys behind me started giggling and he put a primer in front of me and asked me to start from the beginning, the alphabet.

Now there are few things as fragile as the ego of a twelve-year-old. Despite my offended ego, I managed to "read," believing that I'd quickly disprove the mocking laughter that was challenging my competence.

I could not read. The primer in front of me was a new one -- one that I had never seen before -- and all the letters of the Arabic alphabet were jumbled up. With the always-available assistance of another student, I had become conditioned to memorizing my lessons. Now, without recognition of the letters in the usual pattern, I was caught out.

Twelve years old, having already started with the short chapters at the back of the Qur'an, it was discovered that I couldn't recognize an "Alif" from a "Ba!"

With humiliating discomfort, I agreed to purchase the new primer, but couldn't get myself to go back the next day. Upon being asked why I was not keen on the new madrassah, I told my late mother (May Allah have mercy on her soul) about the new primer. She then consulted her cousin, Aunty Salamah, who was also a madrassah teacher. Aunty Salamah concurred that this modern primer was wicked and probably one of the ways in which the Ahmadi/Qadiani sect wanted to subvert Islam.

I was saved by my mother and Aunty Salamah to continue my dying in ignorance.

I had a known; it was my way of learning the Qur'an. I knew how to wait for someone to make me rehearse my few lines; I knew how to parrot those lines without being able to recognize the letters of the alphabet. It was a process to which I had been conditioned over the years. I was dying, but it was preferable to the agony of heading for the unknown, starting off all over, from the beginning, in a new primer. Oh, how often do we choose death over life!

In Man's Search For Meaning, Victor Frankl writes poignantly about his fellow prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. He tells how some of those prisoners, who yearned desperately for their freedom, had been held captive for so long that, when they were eventually released, they walked into the sunlight, blinked nervously and then silently walked back into the familiar darkness of the prisons to which they had been accustomed for such a long time.

John Powell, a Jesuit, comments on this unnerving encounter with the light in Why I Am Afraid to Tell You Who I Am:

This is the visualized, if somewhat dramatic, dilemma that all of us experience at some time in our lives and in the process of becoming persons. Most of us make only a weak response to the invitation of encounter with others and, because we feel uncomfortable in our world, expose our nakedness as persons.

Because we refuse to risk a full life of knowledge of the other, we die behind our fears and prejudices. Dragging slow and uncomfortable steps, we nevertheless feel that we are moving. We forget that all motion is not movement, just as I "moved" from alif to Surah Fatihah, a meaningless motion deeper into ignorance of who we and those around us really are.

Survival and the Clan

Survival and the clan are elevated to absolutes in our fear and ignorance. The commitment to the clan and the invariable corollary, demonizing of "the other," acquire a greater value than truth and our beliefs. "The Jews," however bitter the internal debate about who is in and who is out, and "The Muslims," however desperate the effort to deny each other, are labels that become far more important than Judaism and Islam. Some may, of course, argue that there is no Islam without a Muslim or Judaism without a Jew. I can understand how this may be thought of in terms of God-people relationships. I get a bit worried, though, when it inevitably results in God itself becoming a label.

I remember a rather painful encounter with this commitment to the clan at the expense of the truth at the 1986 annual Summer School of the Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (CSIC) in Birmingham, where I was based for four years. A Muslim and a Christian speaker shared the platform for a seminar on religious minorities. The Muslim speaker dealt with the encounter of Muslims with Christianity in the United Kingdom, while the Christian spoke on Christians' experiences in Pakistan. Having lived there for about eight years, I certainly regard Pakistan as a subject with which I am familiar. The Christian speaker gave a rather gentle and somewhat diluted account of the social oppression experienced by Pakistani Christians. She failed -- or refused -- to talk about the horrendous tales of dehumanization to which Christians are subjected there.

As many of you are probably aware, interfaith dialogue is a rather fragile affair and many feel unable to utter raw truths in these fora. We still feel far more comfortable in our own faith circles, with what Riffat Hassan describes as an "inauthentic dialogue based on abbreviations."

With a few exceptions, the Muslims present took umbrage at the Christian speaker who, in the behind-the-scenes words of the Muslim speaker, "is being regularly planted at seminars like these to discredit Islam." Another Muslim participant asked the Christian speaker "if a Muslim could become the Pope since you are so keen on Christians becoming ministers and mayors in Muslim Pakistan?" At that point I rose and pointed out that the Christian speaker did not suggest that the Pope should become the Imam of Makkah, but only wanted to know why a Christian cannot become a mayor in a Pakistani city in the same way that a Muslim may become -- and, indeed, was at that time -- a mayor in a British city.

Until then I had the privilege of leading the two evening prayers. I had, however, broken ranks and was immediately transformed into a religious leper. After the prayers, the Muslims rushed into some corner to discuss my "treacherous behavior," and I was left to receive some hollow pats on the back for "courage" from the Christian participants. When I asked another imam who was also present about the Muslim response to my intervention, he replied, "You are correct in your argument, but you should not have presented it in front of these (non-Muslim) people."

For the first time it occurred to me that many a Muslim may actually be committing "shirk" (heresy/associationism) by elevating the community above his/her commitment to be a witness-bearer to justice for Allah -- though this may be against themselves (Q. 4:135). The injunctions of Allah to "not conceal evidence, for whosoever does this has a sinful heart" (Q. 2:142) and not to "cover the truth with falsehood while you know" (Q. 2:283) are often of little consequence.

The underlying assumption in this defensive posturing is that the other is the enemy and that we are here to, firstly, defend ourselves and, secondly, perhaps also to win some over to our side.

It is, of course, not difficult to perceive of the other as the enemy. We are not mere individuals but carry our community histories with us, as I said in the beginning. Muslims are still living through centuries of misrepresentation of Islam, the collusion between colonialism and so-called objective scholarship to reduce Islam and the Qur'an to a figment of a sensuous pretender's imagination. There is also our own experience as part of the colonized world that has been exploited by the West, by a power that regards its culture as normative and all else as an aberration, as kinky.

For Muslims this experience of colonialism and all its underlying assumptions of the superiority of Western cultural and religious norms are not mere baggage of history. Today so many in the West object to Muslim women wearing scarves in their schools, while it never occurred to these Westerners to wear loin cloths when they came to Africa.

It is, however, the fear of Islam of ordinary men and women that troubles me. Their prejudices and fears, too, are usually based on the unknown. When it is based on the known, then it is a known processed by their mass media, which is owned and controlled by the powerful.

While the dispossessed have their own fears and prejudices, the powerful in the West have the economic and military power to transform fear and prejudice into potent weapons for destruction and "defense." This remains a significant issue and should not be obscured as we examine the question of prejudice and examine ways of overcoming it.

The Muslims Are Coming!

I have no desire to jump on the "blame-it-all-on-the-media" bandwagon. The truth is that there are numerous ordinary, sensitive, and intensely humane people -- Muslims and non-Muslims -- who are deeply troubled by much of what is happening in the world of Islam. We may accuse the West of distorting Muslim events but we certainly supply those events. We do burn books, we do denounce democracy, we do threaten authors, we do deny women the right to drive their own cars (forget about their own lives), and we do deny people the right to drink from our wells. Certainly, not all of us, but how loud are we to denounce these events or utterings when they occur and how frequently do we not choose silence in order not to supply even more food for "our enemies"?

How much of this fear of Muslims and of Islam by ordinary and decent non-Muslims is well founded? Much of this fear is focused on a growing tide of what is described as "Muslim fundamentalism." This is not the occasion to go into the various local and international factors responsible for this phenomenon or the inappropriateness of applying a term rooted in Christian theological developments to Islam and Muslims.

However one wants to describe it, there is a phenomenon in the world of Islam akin to what other religions experience and describe as "fundamentalism." It is a phenomenon that many do find threatening. This is a fear that is shared by numerous sensitive, open, and deeply committed Muslims -- especially women -- throughout the Muslim world.

Whatever its origins, much of fundamentalism is characterized by racism and misogyny. The former, in Muslim fundamentalism, is particularly marked by an intense hatred of the Jews and casually ascribes all the ills of the world -- ranging from the depletion of the ozone layer to constipation -- to Jewish conspiracies. Many Muslims will protest, "How can a Muslim hate Jews or women, given that Islam is a universalist religion that acknowledges the Jews as 'People of the Book' and given that Islam has elevated women?" As I said in the beginning, "Interpreters are people." The problem is not so much Islam, as it is Muslims who, presumably, have to give shape to its principles. There is little in our attitudes toward the other -- especially Jews and women -- to indicate that we are serious about the universality and justice of Islam. The point is not how well Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) treated women and what rights they have "under Islam." Nor is the point how badly Jews were treated in non-Muslim lands centuries or decades ago and how comparatively well they were treated in Muslim lands. The point is: what do we make of justice for women today; what do we believe of Jews today?

I am implacably opposed to fundamentalism for two reasons:

Firstly, all forms of absolutism invariably have to narrow their base. If they come for Jews today, tomorrow they will come for "heretical" Muslims; if they come for women today, they will come for beardless Muslim males tomorrow. Tolerance, ambiguity, and pluralism are not qualities one can decide to withhold from all save your own; when you deny them to others, then, inevitably, you end up denying them to your own.

Secondly, you cannot deny the worth of the other -- walk over another people -- and not have your own worth diminished. A man cannot continue to oppress a woman and not himself emerge from that oppression a lesser person. Witness the psychological devastation that white racism in South Africa has caused to numerous whites, indicated by the growing number of Afrikaners who kill their entire families. Many sensitive Jewish writers have written very movingly about the way Israeli society is increasingly being dehumanized by the occupation of Palestinian Territories and the violence required to maintain it.

I have alluded earlier to another form of fundamentalism and wish to draw your attention to it as I move toward my conclusion. Muslim fundamentalism is little different from the postcommunist triumphalism that we are experiencing in the West today. For free-market triumphalists, there is only one path to salvation. Others must be converted or enslaved; eligibility to the world community is based on acceptance of their values; all else is tolerated for as long as it remains confined to the lunatic fringes. When it does become a cohesive force capable of challenging the dominant religion, then the fanatics move in with a vengeance. We have seen Grenada, Chile, and Nicaragua. "Free marketeers" have displayed every bit as much contempt for democracy as the fundamentalists in Algeria. As for respecting international law, the United States of America has yet to pay the fine imposed on it by the International Court of Justice for the illegal mining of the harbor of Managua.

The relentless march of Uncle Sam over the lives and cultures of everyone else causes huge resentment, as does uncritical U.S. support to states and "terrorist" groups -- ranging from Savimbi's Unita in Angola to Massoud Rajavi's Mujahidin-i-Khalq in Iran -- that serve U.S. political and economic interests. A few years ago in the midst of the second Gulf War, Saddam Hussein -- Invader of Kuwait and Butcher of Halabja in Kurdistan, where hundreds of thousands died in chemical weapon attacks -- was voted Man of the Year by more than 90 percent of the listeners of the BBC's Africa Service. Surely something is profoundly wrong when my neighbors rejoice at the burning down of my house. I may be bitter, watching them laugh as I try to douse the flames. The elders among them may protest -- as Yasser Arafat vainly tried to do last week -- that it was only a few of their kids who rejoiced. Those of us who live inside the neighbors' house -- mortified as we are at the rejoicing -- know that it is much more widespread. Why did the Korean people rejoice when hundreds of thousands of innocent people died when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

It may sound harsh at the moment to ask, "Who invaded Afghanistan and who trained the resistance to the communists? Who supported the rise of a religious alternative to the secular PLO in Israel just about fifteen years ago? Who armed Saddam Hussein to the teeth as a counterweight to Iran twenty years ago?" Whatever Osama bin Laden is, he is also the product of the USA and its involvement in Afghanistan. A Turkish proverb says this beautifully: "When the woodchopper strikes us with his axe, let us remember that the handle is also one of us."

When Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he responded, "That would be a brilliant idea." The questioner had probably experienced Western civilization as something tangible. As a subject of British colonialism and a freedom fighter, the Mahatma had encountered little of its loftily proclaimed ideals. So, too, when President George W. Bush spoke about Muslim fundamentalists as being "bitter at our freedom of speech, civilization and democracy," he was obviously blind to how others experience it. The world is still fresh with memories of the USA rejection of the Kyoto Protocol (climate change) and the International Criminal Court, the unilateral revoking of the Anti-Nuclear Missile Defense Treaty, and a recent World Court judgment against the USA in a case brought by Germany on the barbaric death penalty. In short, the USA fulfills a number of criteria that normally lead to being described as a "pariah state." Well, nothing quite succeeds as power, especially if you are the only one wielding it. (Just wondering about all of those liberals regularly clamoring -- and justly so -- for strong parliamentary opposition in the Two-Thirds World. Why is it so difficult to see what a one-party system has done to the world?)

I have little doubt that the attackers who struck on September 11 were religiously inspired. The truth is that religion can be put to many different uses. It was Billy Graham, after all, who prayed with President George Bush, Sr. in the White House the evening the President decided to bomb Baghdad ten years ago, and it was South African Defense Force military chaplains who blessed the soldiers who came on murdering sprees to our township. What we have seen colliding at the Twin Towers was the clash of two fundamentalisms -- the one only cruder than the other. When those planes were hurled at the Twin Towers, it was not Western civilization that was being attacked but a particular manifestation of it. A reckless, incorrigible, fundamentalist, and all-pervasive religion of the Market was being attacked, not by Islam but by a particular manifestation of it: a fierce, angry, and vicious fundamentalist driven by pathological, deluded -- but nevertheless religious -- individuals. In brief, the Twin Towers disaster was the collision of twin religious fundamentalisms.

Some of the essential characteristics of fundamentalism -- all kinds, yours and mine -- are an obsession with a single truth as understood by me or my group, the demonizing of all others who refuse to get behind this "truth," the willingness -- even desperation -- to destroy those who offer alternatives in a holy war (In these holy wars, innocent victims are referred to as "collaterals."), and the conflation of ideals with one's personal being ("Islam is a perfect religion, therefore I am beyond questioning."). As for religion, it has a deity or a notion at its core, which is the focus of the believer's life and death. It has a theology of selfhood and others. It has temples and missionaries. Being religious is a way of being in the world, with its unique and often competing symbols, e.g., the cross and the crescent. For many, there is also a paradise for us, the faithful adherents, and a hell for the pagans who refuse to join us -- or who fail to do so because of their essentially evil nature.

Most of us have a sense of what religious fundamentalism is. The Free Market is one. All adherents of the Free Market see their lives driven to the worship of the One All-Powerful and Jealous God -- Capital. Underpinned by its theology -- economics -- it has numerous huge temples in the form of shopping malls that are bent on driving out all the little corner churches propounding insignificant little heresies such as "the humanness of chatting to your own friendly butcher." Our lives rotate around the worship of Capital and many of us, like suicide bombers, drive ourselves to death as sacrificial lambs (or martyrs) at the altar of success. (Heard of "shop till you drop?") You cannot leave your home or switch on your TV without being confronted by its missionaries or having a pamphlet thrust in your hand: "Convert Now or You Will Lose Out! Buy Now. The Sale Ends Today!" So successful, however, have their missionary activities been that we restrain our annoyance at these intrusions, while we might not do so with Jehovah's Witnesses. The major symbol of this religion, the notorious "M" arch of McDonalds, has driven out that other symbol of a now old-fashioned religion, the crucifix of Christianity, as the most widely recognized symbol in the world. It's as if the arch is telling the cross: "The Lord, Your God is One; You shall have none others in my presence." Paradise awaits those who believe and hell to those who reject or who fail -- or who have failure written in their destiny. ("The unemployed are just lazy; the poor shall always be with us.") Consider Free Market images of the ideal: The Gloriously Carefree Resort! The perfect toilet for you! The BMW accompanied by your very own sex-bomb, etc. How do they really differ from the images of paradise presented by other religions that sometimes have your own sex-bomb (an houri or two) thrown in as an added incentive?

The religion of the Market is also a fundamentalist one. The struggle against socialist countries is unashamedly described as a "crusade" with collateral damage. ("There are no innocent victims in our crusade against Cuba; those children dying under our sanctions are the offspring of infidels. So who cares?") There is damnation for those who do not believe as we do, and even for those who fail despite being faithful practitioners, as most are. (And, inevitably, many must fail. Under the market economy, success can only come to a minority, for -- and here lies the damning rub -- its paradise is founded upon an earth that has limited resources.)

This fundamentalism of the Market, with Capital as its God, seeks to convert all other cultures in its image, utilizing them for consolidating the system. It presents itself as the only way, and claims that outside its pale there is no salvation for the world, but only the hell-fire of destruction or the limbo of "primitivism." As Buddhist thinker David Loy has said: "The collapse of communism makes it more apparent that the Market is becoming the first truly world religion, binding all corners of the globe into a worldview and set of values whose religious role we overlook only because we insist on seeing them as 'secular.' "

The economic policies led by the USA and pursued with a vengeance every bit as ferocious as the most intractable forms of religious fundamentalism have caused poverty and death on a colossal scale. UN Development Program (UNDP) statistics indicate that, in 1960, countries of the North were about 20 times richer than those of the South. In 1990, Northern countries had become 50 times richer. The richest 20 percent of the world's population now have an income about 150 times greater than that of the poorest 20 percent, a gap that continues to grow. According to the UNDP report for 1996, the world's 358 billionaires have more wealth than the combined annual income of countries with 45 percent of the world's people. As a result, a quarter of a million children die of malnutrition or infection every week, while hundreds of millions more survive in a limbo of hunger and deteriorating health. This is the terrorism of our age.

There is nothing in this clash of fundamentalisms that is intrinsically Islamic, in the same way that there is nothing intrinsically Christian about the religion of the Market or the ideology of apartheid. That the Muslims responsible for this attack -- if indeed they were Muslims -- may have been inspired by Islam is plausible; that they used Islam as justification for their deeds is probable, for the Qur'an is as open to diverse readings as any other text. What is very obvious from the history of Islam and the Qur'an, though, is that there is little place for peace as self-subsisting discourse. The only peace that matters is one founded on justice. Like any sharp contemporary religious fundamentalist, President Bush understands the need to take over other faiths by stealth rather than through direct confrontation, and so he says, "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. . . When we think of Islam, we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world." Having set himself up as a definitive interpreter of Islam, he seeks to co-opt us as partners in a peace that actually has a name: Pax Americana, peace on the terms of the United States. What Bush, the Texas oilman, and his co-fundamentalists in the religion of the Market do not understand is that, in the words of Paul Salem, "to the dominated members of the 'pseudo-imperial' world system, peace may be something that they might indeed seek to avoid, and conflict may be an objective that they might seek to invigorate in order to destabilize the world system and precipitate its crisis or collapse."

This is not done because of any blind hatred but because these people actually believe in an alternative vision. Islam is indeed a religion of peace, but not exclusively that. It also calls upon people to destabilize the peace when it hides the demons of injustice. The problem with Muslim fundamentalists is that they are every bit as fascist and exclusive as the order they seek to displace. They seek to create an order wherein they are the sole spokespersons for a rather angry, patriarchal, and chauvinistic God. These Muslim fundamentalists, with their universalist and exclusivist claims, have a perverse sense that "it ought be us controlling the world rather than the USA." Because they have fused a "righteous" anger with a misplaced love for martyrdom, countless innocent lives are being destroyed.

The workings of the fundamentalism of the Market and the havoc that it has played with Muslim society is only half the story. The other half is one of Muslim brokenness, fragile egos and delusions of grandeur involving power and control over a world governed by the shar'iah -- a shari'ah that we Muslims are incapable of living alongside ourselves, but for which far too many of us are prepared to die. The embarrassment caused first by the Taliban and later by Osama bin Laden has far more to do with the vulnerable position of Muslims in respect to the Western powers, or as minority communities in the West, than with any principled distaste for what the West represents.

We are now engaged in a collective taqiyyah (dissimulation) with the West; we all pretend that we mean no harm, that Islam is inherently pluralistic and that Islam only means peace. Yet virtually all of our religious institutions and mosques on the Indo-Pak subcontinent and the Middle East espouse the kind of Islam visited upon us by the Taliban and Osama. Osama is not an anachronism. He has followed the letter of the teaching to which I and countless others have been subjected for eight years or more of our lives. These religious institutions, as well as the vast majority of Muslim organizations throughout the world, did not merely fail to condemn the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhist icons; they refused to do so. How could they, given that for centuries they have taught the destruction of everything that does not represent their kind of Islam?

The Taliban represent the logical consequence of a literalist and misogynistic reading of our earlier Islamic heritage, a reading that is far from an aberration. They have, for example, always insisted that women will have access to medical treatment, if the government can afford it. How different is this from the Saudi regime, where they do enforce this segregation because they have the financial resources. Do we really believe that the Saudis would have allowed mixed facilities if they did not have the means to keep the sexes separate? When we see Osama sitting cross-legged, surrounded by hundreds of books on Islamic jurisprudence and theology, we are seeing our legacy -- our mainstream legacy. None of the books that the Taliban have used to justify their war on women or on the USA are considered heretical.

Are there no enemies out there?

Yes there are; there is an "us versus them." The South African crucible, however, has forced me to rearrange my perceptions of friends and enemies. I will tell one final story before concluding.

It was in August 1984 when we heard that the army was planning to seal off the township of Guguletu, as a prelude to creating mayhem in the area. Nineteen religious leaders were arrested while defying a ban on entry into the black township. What happened after we were taken to the cells at the Wynberg Magistrate's Court marks that day as particularly significant for the South African interreligious experience. Guarded by twelve uniformed policemen, the nineteen of us -- united in our quest for a just society but belonging to different religious groups -- discovered our common commitment to and need of Allah. Allan Boesak began by reading scripture; Lionell Louw led the group in singing; Imam Hassan prayed; and I delivered the sermon. Then the group rose and sang the national anthem, "Nkosi Sikelela i Afrika" (God Bless Africa). We discovered each other -- diverse in faiths, but comrades in the struggle. Nineteen small people waiting in a cold cell for a magistrate.

At one point during the service, Imam Hassan jocularly whispered a profound dilemma of faith. "Mawlana," he said, "I would ten times prefer having Boesak as Abu Bakr in my cave rather than Mawlana So-and-So. (His reference was to a prominent pro-apartheid Muslim cleric. The cave allusion is to the Flight of Muhammad (Peace be upon him) to Madinah. Abu Bakr (May Allah be pleased with him) accompanied the Prophet (Peace be upon him) and they sought refuge in a cave upon being pursued by the Quraish of Makkah.)

Imam Hassan's explicit choice was for a non-Muslim as his keeper, if that person shares a common struggle with him -- a fairly innocuous statement in that context but, nevertheless, profound in its theological implications. Who are my brothers and sisters? Who is my enemy? Fine, Allah does say, "Indeed the believers are partners" (Q. 49:10), but who is a believer?

There are times when rushing for another Deedat video does not put one out of the pain of recognizing the integrity of "the other." Sadly these times are usually born in the sharing of suffering and seldom come to those who have sufficient food for the next three months stocked in their deep freezers.

When we starved in the ghettos of South Africa, my mother's only source of financial support "until Friday" was Mrs. Lewis, a Christian neighbor. And when her son said, "Away with exploitation," a Muslim cop came to arrest him. Who then is my partner and who is my opponent? How can I hold Mrs. Lewis hostage to the crimes of a Christian government that uprooted us from our home and set police dogs on me when I defied its right to deny all of God's beaches to all God's people.

This refusal to engage in the blanket rubbishing of a people does not preclude a just evaluation of historical roles. If such an evaluation of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Marxism or any other religion, leads to a scathing denunciation of the roles that their adherents played, then let it be. However, as a Muslim and a person committed to dialogue, I do not believe in carrying the baggage of recrimination and bitterness from one life period into another. I do believe very strongly, however, that peace is predicated upon justice, and that a just evaluation of the past is necessary for establishing peace in the present and the future (Hassan, 131).

This approach is equally applicable to an evaluation of our collective heritage. We need to see it for what it truly is. It is not a sign of a mature commitment to our faith to rubbish historical or present-day accounts of our insults and injuries to others. Our legacy consists both of our faith and the way its adherents lived it -- or refused to live it. A refusal to acknowledge the dark corners in our heritage in a candid manner is not a sign of faith; rather it reflects the opposite.

Sharing Your Water When Your Very Survival Is Threatened

A significant challenge to those who believe that we have to live together is presented by communities whose very survival is being or has been threatened. The language of pluralism comes relatively easily, for example, to a South African Muslim whose descendants have lived in that country for 340 years and whose own legitimacy of stay has never been questioned. A rather different response to the challenge of living together may come from a Turkish Muslim who came to Germany about thirty years ago when there was a demand for his labor and now, under somewhat straitened German economic conditions, sees his home petrol bombed. Far more challenging is the case of a community that has actually stared into the abyss of annihilation with the world looking on. It is understandable that some Jews will argue that, given the horrific closeness to annihilation that they reached not so long ago, living together with the other can only follow upon the guarantee of their own existence.

I have only two things to say in response to this problem:

First, the fundamental question of "for what" should not elude us. In December 1962, in an account narrated by Hodes (1971, 122-25), Martin Buber met with a group of twenty-five teachers at his home for a discussion on the problems facing Israeli teachers. The chairperson of the group opened the discussion by recalling that Buber had described teachers as "the representative of the world and messenger of history to the child" and said that "faith in the world wherein people live was the aim of the education." The chairperson went on to say that, after the terrible massacre of the Jews during World War II, Jews cannot have the same faith as before.

Another teacher spoke about the extraordinary crisis that the Jewish people had experienced and her difficulty in understanding the new goals of this generation. "I do not see the light wherein I am supposed to exist," she said. When Buber responded by saying that the question of existence was inadequate and that "for what purpose" has "always been a fundamental question in Judaism," a teacher answered, "Our 'for what' is that we want to ensure our existence in this place." Buber replied that this cannot be a peculiar objective because every living human wants to ensure existence, to continue living. Of course, we know that Buber's entire existence was an ongoing quest for what he described as "Hasidic humanism," a humanism rooted in hesed (loving-kindness). By "embracing the life of dialogue in his everyday actions," Buber said, a person comes out of a crowd and "becomes himself."

Second, the nature of the world wherein we live today and the potency of our weapons of destruction mean that the fate of all of humankind is irretrievably interwoven. There is no selective existence for any particular community, for the cake of humankind is beyond unbaking. We cannot now separate the sugar from the flour or the water. We sink or swim together. A vague and sentimental sense of attachment to the clan is not going to see us through the turbulent future of a world threatened by the gradual reemergence of Nazism, environmental devastation, a triumphalist New World Order based on the economic exploitation of the Two-Thirds World -- a world where women continue just to survive on the margins of dignity.

There are many ways of dying.

There is, however, only one way to live: through discovering what the other is really about and what we have in common in the struggle to recreate a world of justice, a world of dignity for all the inhabitants of the earth.

And God knows better.


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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 2002, Vol. 51,  No 4.