Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Religious intolerance and fundamentalism

Recently, I came across a website called Challenging Islam. It was interesting from a purely academic perspective and so I bookmarked it, promising myself I would come back to it when I had the time. True to my promise to myself, I returned last night, and took the time to read the contents of the site. After pages and pages of rambling about Cuba and what-not, I came upon the library link. I clicked on it out of sheer curiosity. Very soon, I discovered that all the 'articles' spoke about how bad Islam was, how unjust and how violent. Now, many of these accusations would have held water if the writers did not refer continually to the Bible to show how 'different' and just and good it is. I tend to dismiss the authenticity of any claim that refers all the time to the Catholic Church as an example of the good and the just. Before I continue, I must make a disclaimer, so as to avoid accusations of heresy and Christian-baiting. I am not Muslim, nor am I Christian, nor Jew. In other words, I am not a person "of the book". I will be criticising Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and every other religion in this post. This is not a personal attack against a single religion. Rather, it is an observation that I wish to make regarding the attitude of religion in general towards certain issues.

Now, on with it. The one article that drew my attention was on the position of women in Islam. This particular article talks of the relationship between the veil and rape. It claims that a "rape epidemic" is sweeping Europe and that a direct connection between rape and Islam is irrefutable. It goes on to demonstrate, using the words of Imams and scholars, that Islam exhorts men to rape women if they are unveiled. What the hell? No thinking individual, irrespective of his knowledge is Islam, will believe that claim for a single minute. No religion, however conservative, would call upon pious men to rape women for the sin of exposing their hair. This article is only one among many that claim that Islam is inherently anti-women and that the civilised Christian world must rise in protest against it.

This is where I started raising a series of objections. First, Islam's interpretations are given by Imams and scholars, most of whom are men. Second, the Koran in itself may have undergone mutations over the centuries (don't quote me on it, I am only guessing). Third, most of the people who criticise Islamic practices are Christian and tend to continually refer to the Bible as proof. Most people would agree that the Bible was not translated into English and other vernacular languages until the 8th Century. By then, the original Hebrew Bible went through many transformations. It was inaccessible to the lay public for centuries and the Catholic Church had complete control over its interpretation. The position of women in the world's major religions is far from satisfactory. The Catholic Church still refuses to accept birth control and abortion that can empower women in more ways that one. Hinduism and its offshoots gave way to atrocious practices such as Sati. Women in Hinduism have long been treated as second-class citizens. A widow was forced to shave off her head and wear plain white, no matter how young she was, until the 1960s. The Christian Church, both Catholic and Protestant have been far from egaliatarian in their treatment of women since the Middle Ages. I don't know much about Judaism and so will not comment on the treatment of women by the Jews. The point is, women have always been treated as second-class citizens by every religion. Most of the time, the fault lies, not with the religion texts themselves, but with the interpretation of these texts by priests and clergymen, most of whom were men.

Why then do we take the moral high-ground while discussing women in Islam and pretend that it is the only religion that treats its women badly? Why do we demonise Islam and denounce it in intellectual conversations while turning a blind eye to the discriminatory practices that exist in our own religion. To me, that is simple hypocrisy. The problem is never with religion. It is with the people who practise the religion and interpret it to suit their personal interests. If we must protest, we must protest against all discriminatory practices in all religions and stop demonising Islam. But then, that's just my opinion. Maybe it is simply a politically-motivated campaign rather than a serious criticism of the status of women in religion. I do not know. Any answers are welcome.

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