Thursday, 30 April 2009

A convert! Wee! (1)

It is strange how the mind works. I have been looking at our old correspondence (I have a delightfully perverted mind – the long running BBC radio programme From Our Own Correspondent always makes me think of Dear Old John Mortimer's[1] father making his living as a barrister[2] in the divorce courts – ‘We brought you up and educated you, my boy, on the proceeds of adultery’ – I always think of it as From Our Own Co-respondent)...
OK. That was an inordinately long parenthesis so I'll start again.
I was looking at a letter I wrote you[3] about a decision of the European Court of Human Rights saying, effectively, that the Turkish Government was right to dissolve the former ruling party because it wanted to introduce Sharia and that would have been inconsistent with the European Convention and principles of democratic governance. I wrote at the time that the majority judgement had not fully examined Sharia and had reached a biased decision.
I have just re-read the judgements and the speech. Both seem perfectly coherent and well argued. In fact I would go as far as to say that they should be required reading. It is clear that there are three main problems with Sharia:
1.        The hudood punishments address issues which should not be addressed, such as personal sexual behaviour and are inherently cruel and unjustifiable. Capital punishment is totally discredited, even on religious grounds.
2.        They are ‘divine’ and inherently inflexible. You cannot argue against ‘God’. The basis – the foundation of human society is human thought and human discourse. There can be nothing which is not open to question.
3.        Although Islam claims to be unifying, what in fact you get is a fragmentation of humanity according to religion with different rules for the adherents of different religions.
What is happening in Indonesia is just such a process. Once you let Sharia in (as in Aceh) you now have several different regencies (counties in the US sense) making Sharia byelaws. Already membership of society is determined by belonging to one of six ‘approved’ religions – they are specified on your identity card. To not have one of the set religions is not to exist. The concept of nationality and citizenship is being actively eroded by sharia‑isataion and with it the rights of the citizen. That was cogently argued by the (secular) government of Turkey and by the Court in its support.
That is actually the case in some countries, like Egypt, where people who adhere to minority groups are not allowed to register their existence and are denied the rights of the citizen, including education, the right to vote or access to whatever health care is available.
I am not sure of the extent to which that is a problem in Indonesia – I think there is a sufficient degree of pragmatism and people are more willing to lie and bend the rules. Officially, for example, Jews do not exist in Indonesia but that has not stopped their synagogue from being burnt down recently.
What is intriguing is my own thought journey. From my current perspective I cannot see how I could have had any problem with following and agreeing with the opinion and judgement. In February last year I did have a problem with it. I had always had a problem with Turkey and was very upset with Ataturk for his, as I saw it, love affair with the West and repression of religious expression under the guise of secularism.
I now understand the fine balancing line that had to be drawn between allowing freedom and at the same time controlling the forces of religious conservatism. The fact is that Turkey is trying hard to achieve the impossible. It is not a question of supporting those who are ‘liberally’ or ‘progressively’ religious as against those who are fanatic or ‘conservative’. The religion itself knows no such distinctions. There is a certain amount of leeway, but the book is unalterable and there are ‘punishments’ laid down in it. It is only where the pressure from non-Muslim majority states has forced Muslim individuals to behave or talk ‘progressively’ or where people who do not believe, but have had to pretend that they do, have fought for the most simple and basic of human dignities.
I remember in maths classes wondering why it was other boys (single-sex school) did not understand simple concepts when it was all so bleedin' obvious.
The Ahmadi interpretation of the events surrounding the crucifixion matched what I had worked out for myself and, with the apparent strict monotheism of Islam, it was all so bleedin' obvious.
Now, of course, it is bleedin' obvious that all religions are made up and that Islam isn't unifying and isn't even monotheistic. But it took a long time to realise it – unanswered questions piling on top of unanswered questions. Teasing the thought out of the woodwork that religions are constructs was an immensely difficult process although everything immediately fitted into place after it was released, as it were.
Most Muslims wonder why everyone doesn't follow them. They struggle to understand the non-Muslim thought. I can follow that to some extent – I still struggle to understand Christian thought, but the seeds of agnosticism were always there. My father always talked against ‘organised’ religion. It took forty years to really understand – or understand again – what he had been going on about.
I ratted on my father. I remember once he wrote me a letter warning me desperately against Islam. I ignored his warning. I said to myself, well that is true in most cases, but not the Ahmadis, they are peaceful. But I am sure he was immensely hurt, wondering what was going to happen to his only son, his only child.
Of course the reason, the real reason, I signed up to the prayer mat was for acceptance and belonging. Even though most Muslims wonder why everybody else doesn't become Muslim they wonder even more when someone does. They are so busy telling themselves how sublime and perfect their faith is (I mean, how many times do they say Allahu Akbar every day?) that when of these rational, freethinking, scientific westerners joins up it is such a source of wonderment and delight. So, let’s not beat around the bush here, it was wonderfully good for my ego although I put it all down to the genuine brotherhood and loving kind society that the religion engenders. Which, because Ahmadis are a persecuted minority, is actually true for other reasons.
Now I have grown up and I have re-ratted and gone back to my father's way of thought. Churchill was right; it did take a surprising amount of ingenuity to re-rat. But what surprises me is that you have this charming little group of infidels in Cleveland who would be so delighted to be reassured of the existence of someone who was a former adherent but has now renounced religion. I feel the warm glow of happiness as they greet a new convert, ‘Welcome to our group, brother.’
Oh dear.
John N. Gray (promoting his new book, Gray's Anatomy, some writings on Start the Week[4]) said that Humanists were just Christians in disguise – their secularism had all the hallmarks of a religion with faith in the hope of a future through humanity. Strangely Dr Gray seems to be rather in favour of religion, even though he believes that humanity is quite rightly doomed and will be swallowed up by Gaia.
I do get his point though. We must avoid (although I am sure your sweet group of atheists – is that really what they call themselves? – do avoid) turning secularism into a religion in the same way that Bolshevik Marxism and Maoism became full blooded (in every sense of the word) personality cults.
Of course I am always willing to help along any discourse which deals with the problems facing our society – and religious mental enslavement seems to be a pretty huge problem – I think I have learned my lesson and will not be joining any group. I think I will follow the example and advice of Thoreau[5] and give notice that I actively de-subscribe to any group who would claim me as its member: the biosphere, humanity, friends and relations excepted.