Religion and Expression

Yesterday a distant colleague (we work in the same organization but there’s no cross-linkage – I wonder if it is because of the mammoth size of the organization or us …) said that I am insulting locals because I am upfront in my rejection of a belief that the god created all creatures in the world to be devoured by the human beings and understanding of the god as a power privileging one creature (human beings) over all others. According to my colleague we are guests in the country so we should not try to challenge local beliefs.

I am not sure what to call this … a cultural relativist approach to survive in another country, or a patronizing approach, or treating the Afghans as incapable to thinking, understanding and tolerance. Another distant colleague joined the conversation and tried to argue from a point of view that my rejection of the belief should not be treated as an affront to the locals and that it is a matter of personal beliefs and such an interpretation of my view is a denial of my basic right to hold and express an opinion. The colleague was told the view coming from a non-Muslim is an affront to Muslims including her, an expatriate Muslim. This was a new angle to the discussion about who has a right to expression and who has socio-cultural and religious rights within an Islamic state.This was an interesting conversation which threatened to divide the so called homogeneous group of expatriates – all my previous conversations found the discussions referring to the ‘expatriates’ and ‘nationals’ in a binary opposition as though each of the supposedly homogeneous groups were not at all divided or riven. In a way it did divide unlike before … for the next few days I avoided the distant colleague who suggested that I must conform (and devour all creatures as is the majority local practice, I suppose); the other distant colleague begin to regard the first distant colleague as a fake whenever that one critiqued fundamentalism; and the first distant colleague called two of us insensitive to Muslims at our backs.

I am still not able to regard the first colleague as a fake because some aspects of her life known to me demonstrate that she has trespassed fundamentalist ways … in fact, the way she lives her life demonstrates that it is shaped more by her personal inclinations than by any dogma. But I am not able to understand her apparent effort to simplify the world into Muslims and non-Muslims and deny liberal opinions in a Muslim context. She is also not a conservative or so I think based on what I have seen of her. Yet, I am unable to find a rationale for her illiberal and intolerant attitude towards very basic requirement, ie, freedom of expression, for a dialogue. Is it the fear of the locals … or an assumption that her identity as a Muslim puts her in a relatively secure position compared to other expatriates; that if she is seen as not conforming it may jeopardize that position …?

There have been tremendous progress in Afghanistan in the last few years that I have seen; there have been different developments in thought as well as in the way people live. A great mass of new knowledge has come into an ordinary urban middle class or affluent Afghan’s possession, particularly men’s possession – new knowledge about technology, world economy, development, international law, state systems; knowledge about the history and politics of the state and neighbouring countries and in particular about their thinking in matters of religion and the methods religious expression; and a revival of the interest about other religions, about the differences and similar ways in which religions and religious practices have developed.

There some Afghans I know who have not kept the information and knowledge newly accessible and available to them in a compartmentalized order – there has been an obvious influence of the new information and knowledge on their understanding of their religion and also a very obvious interpretation of the new information and knowledge through the lenses of the religion. With some among this group I have noticed that they almost in awe of the new information and knowledge mainly because they were deprived of these for so long that any bit of something new is far from irrelevance or being a fad. Some others see destructive zeal in the pace at which the new information and knowledge is flowing in and they would like to keep them separate from the understanding and practice of their religion because they feel otherwise they would be compromising their intellectual and spiritual integrity.

I haven’t had opportunities to have such discussion in rural areas. Discussions in the rural areas have been mostly related to the social (some bit of tradition and culture minus religion) and economic development issues. But I have found openness among even the rural people to accept my non-compliance with certain practices including meat-based food and headcover when I have made the effort to explain my non-compliance as matters of my belief and difference in culture. I have felt respected when I have said that I am not an Afghan and I do not want to imitate one. Some have treated my efforts as my intellectual ingenuity, some as daring, and some as sheer foolishness. I do not possess any sort of spiritual depth so cannot argue from a spiritual or theological perspective. I feel that the effort to explain my views and beliefs is indispensable to develop a relationship between different identities. The views and identity that I come with cannot be left as antagonistic to the local or their perspectives as unrelated from mine. There is a degree of incongruence in our views and beliefs but as human beings we must be able to think together on some issues and be comfortable in each other’s company.

I don’t think that there is anything new about the situation; I think this has been a perpetual state of affairs on our planet earth! Things have blended in a new combination in the past (some backfired) and things will blend anew. Some may backfire but I don’t regard not taking the risk as an alternative. It would be a pity to let our fears shut the doors to such opportunities of being able to co-exist comfortably in our separate identities.

By: on 5 Dec 2009