Wednesday, 11 February 2015

When does religion lose its authenticity?

For the last ten years or so, the words “Islam needs to change” or “Islam needs to develop” have been repeatedly hurled about the stratosphere with little consideration of their real implications. It is certainly true a few Islamic sects, like IS and Al-Qaeda, and Islamic extremists, need to turn their backs on some of Islam’s more vehement doctrine (particularly some of the hadiths: “Take not the Jews and Christians for your friends and protectors” or “And fight them until there’s no fitnah (polytheism) and religion is wholly for Allah”), so that it can become a religion that can thrive peacefully in a multi-cultural society and world. This is what has happened to various sects of Christianity and Judaism; but is this a valid choice? Can a religious group simply decide to abandon part of its holy scripture?

Nowadays, there are fewer and fewer literalist Christians who take Genesis as a word-for-word account of the world’s creation. This is because the belief is categorically absurd, negated by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, the Big Bang and other sciencey-things. Most modern Christians interpret the book metaphorically: it simply shows God’s omnipotence and his agape love for humanity. But can we say the same for these words in Numbers 31: “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves.” Can we say that Jesus was speaking metaphorically in Matthew 10 when he ordered us to hate our fathers, mothers, wives and children? No, we cannot, and so we just ignore these teachings, we pretend they don’t exist. We eat lobsters and prawns, we wear clothing with two kinds of material, we go to the barber’s for a fresh trim every now and then, all of which is forbidden in the Old Testament.

We have discarded these ludicrous teachings for precisely that reason: they are ludicrous, solely the product of their time. But there is surely something strange in the idea of pressing delete on certain doctrine: are you still a Christian if you eat crustaceans, or if you sleep with someone of the same sex? Is it okay to believe in the Resurrection, but not in the Genesis story? And if belief in the Resurrection diminishes, is that the end of Christianity? Why do we sometimes believe what is supposedly the word of God, and sometimes not? If we can remove certain doctrine or scripture, can we add doctrine too, as in the end of Mark 16, which describes Jesus’s appearances? Is religion still authentic if one only believes in half of it, or a quarter of it? This thought came to me in a school Chapel service: 1000 kids robotically declaring their faith in God, whose son was “conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary,” and who “was crucified, died and was buried” but then “rose again.” The reality is that, although a vast majority of these mind-bogglingly-bored teenagers would claim to be Christians, few of them believed in everything they were saying.

So what does it mean to be a Christian or to be a Muslim? Does it mean that you believe in every word of the Bible or the Qur’an? Or does it simply mean, for Christians, that you believe Jesus existed, and that there is some sort of a divine being that might or might not be the same as the creator in Genesis? So many beliefs recorded in the Bible, once believed to be the word of God, have been forgotten, and so my question is this: is the Christianity we believe in today, still an authentic Christianity? If extremist Islam ignores some of its more dangerous hadiths, then we will live in a safer and more unified world. But, with these hadiths abandoned, will these people still be Muslims? And who is to say that these beliefs are extremist in the first place? After all, what is extremist for us in Western countries may not appear like that in their eyes.  

This seems to me to be one of the inherent problems with organised religion: the fact that hundreds of years ago a load of important men sat down and said “Right, this is what being a Christian means” and that, ever since then, this definition has, for many, been diluted. Of course this is a good thing: religious tenets should not be mindlessly adhered to, and gay marriage, for example, should be allowed in our modern world. But is that not one of the main reasons for religion: to give us moral guidelines by which to live? Obviously, many Christians would argue that “Love thy neighbour” is the central teaching and that this overrides all other teachings, but do other religions have such a fundamental law? Also, what happens when religious teachings conflict, as they often do? It is this contradiction of teaching that has led to the formation of various opposing sects in Islam, for example.

It is a very tough question, and all answers must surely be conjectural. Development in religion is vital, but do developed religions retain their original statuses and authenticity? Perhaps what is needed is a universal adoption of Individualism: a more personal and intimate involvement with one’s own faith, so that beliefs no longer need to be branded as Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, and so that tenets don’t need to be ‘cut out’, as such. Since so many alleged Christians do not really believe in the entirety of the Bible or in the Holy Trinity, but simply believe in some sort of divine being, surely faith is and should be a more individual affair? Recent events, and indeed the entirety of history (the Crusades are an obvious example), have proved that organised religion is a very dangerous thing. Perhaps a movement away from the Church, the Mosque, the Temple, would lead to a more peaceful world. Perhaps a quasi-pluralism, where people practice their own beliefs in their own unique and private way, is the way forward.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Why I'm Not Charlie

This is an article I wrote for The Worldly. Read it here:

No act of violence or terrorism can ever be justified. The purposeful arousal of fear in any country’s general public is never right. This, then, explains the huge outrage that followed the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack: twelve men were killed for exercising their freedom of speech, a fundamental right that should never be waived or impeded.

In the days following the attack, thousands of people throughout France paid tribute to those killed with the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag. The attacks seemed directly to contradict the national motto of France, attributed to Maximilien Robespierre, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (“Liberty, equality, fraternity”). For obvious reasons, the adage spread like wildfire in the Western world. To tweet #JeSuisCharlie soon became a trendy way of taking a stand for freedom of speech, and we were all very keen on expressing our outrage that this right had been broken.

And yet no one really stopped to think what we were actually saying. Yes, we were defending our freedom of speech, but do we have to support a satirical magazine to do so? Let me put it this way: if twelve members of the English Defence League were shot by terrorists, would we all be tweeting #IAmEDL? No, I think not. Maybe the odd person would misquote Voltaire, and a few closet-racists might express their indignation, but the attack would not get half the public and media attention that the Charlie Hebdo attack received. In fact, dare I say it, I reckon a few people would be thinking: “The EDL got what they deserved.”

Now, as I said earlier, this attack was an outrage, and it was completely unwarranted. However, that does not mean that we all have to stand by Charlie Hebdo and support their cause, and I for one refuse to do so. I might tweet #JeSuisCharlie’sRights, but I will not tweet #JeSuisCharlie. I will not declare my allegiance to an Islamophobic magazine that stirs racial hatred, simply because their rights were impeded. Maybe another analogy is in order: if someone tells a member of the public that they are fat, and they get punched, would you stand up for their freedom of speech? No, because calling somebody fat is cruel and unnecessary. Yes, the person should not have been punched, but one can understand the other person’s upset and anger.

In the same way, although these terrorists committed atrocious acts, we can at least understand why: their holy prophet was repeatedly mocked, ridiculed and insulted. Please do not take the George Bush approach and accuse me of supporting terrorists: I am simply saying that Charlie Hebdo are not the best people to associate oneself with. That is why I tweeted #JeNeSuisPasCharlie: I stand by their rights, not by them. Just look at the government officials who attended the march in Paris: all of them had impeded the right to freedom of speech in one-way or another, and I will not nonchalantly join this band of hypocrites. No, instead I am Malcolm Little, I am Malala Yusafzai, I am Dietrich Bonhoeffer and hundreds more. I am anyone who has fought for the right to liberty and equality without satirising others’ religion in the process. I am also Palestine, I am Nigeria, I am Syria, and all those largely ignored by Murdoch’s media monopoly. Religion is the most important thing in many people’s lives, and so to ridicule it is a horrible thing to do. No, I can proudly say that I am not and I never will be Charlie Hebdo.

For similar reasons, I will not stand by the West’s War on Terror with as much zest and zeal as many people do. Yes, we are now the victims of brutal terrorist attacks, but should we be surprised? I certainly am not. It was morally wrong of Adebolago and Adebowale to murder Lee Rigby, but what was their reason: the atrocities that we ourselves have committed in the Middle East and indeed throughout the world. Our treatment of the Mau Mau in Kenya, our interventions in Palestine, our relentless production and selling of arms: all of this (and more) is coming back to haunt us. All you have to do is look at the photos of Abu Ghraib. It is no wonder a vast majority of the world hates the West: because, in the past, we have used our imperialist powers to colonise, take over and abuse nations and races throughout the world. As Jeremiah Wright said: “The stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards… Violence begets violence, hatred begets hatred, and terrorism begets terrorism.” The terrorist attacks in Paris, the 7/7 bombings, 9/11, none of this was justified; but we must remember that our hands are also bloody.

Russell Brand made a good point when he said that we cannot just condemn these acts. We must look in the mirror, we must look at ourselves in an effort to try and solve this problem. Because it is, in fact, a problem that we have helped to cause, with our wars, our drones, our terrorism. It is, therefore, our job to fix it, and we can only do that by changing our ways first. It is not by heightening surveillance and cracking down on extremism that we can tackle the root of the problem, although this may be necessary. We need to make a positive change to our approach to others, and we can start by welcoming Muslims into our society peacefully and by treating all people equally; not by ridiculing people for their faith. I do not think Charlie Hebdo should be banned or censored. However, I think they, too, need to have a long, hard look at themselves.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Hand of Knives

Esther’s plump white skin
                       bursts with ice cold hardnesses.

Soft laughter in the gleaming sun
is exiled from her thoughts.
New York and opportunity
are nothing but a hand
of knives when she is left
This hand spreads whispers
         through her dark,
strokes solace on her flesh:
sharp, with finger tips
                             smeared red.

The Photo Album Ritual

The photographs have misted
in your old, white, unwitting eyes.
“Who’s this?” you ask me, every day:
it’s become a sort of hobby,
this failure to remember,
this squeezing out the final ooze
of memories, now just hands waving.
In my bitter steam of red pity,
every photo is the same:
that home, those dentures, moans,
wrinkles, empty eyes and hanging jaws,
inhaling piss, shit, and flowered walls.
I'll never visit, when you go. I know
I'll only shout and make you cry.

You always do.

So it kills me, this ritual. It pushes up my

heartlessness like thick green phlegm.