Thursday, 29 May 2008

A long night

Yesterday I was having a discussion with my host in the marketplace about the contradiction between ‘not associating partners with Allah’ and the ubiquity of the Allah/Muhammad diptych[1]. Then he went on about how Muhammad has become subsumed within Allah etc. etc. I thought, ‘This really is too much!’
The contradictions within Islam are just too great to swallow any more.
Yesterday also some consultant wanted me to fill in a job application form. I gasped at its presumption. It wanted my parents’ names, places of birth and details of their education. It wanted the complete details of my children and (any) wife too. It wanted my height and weight, date of birth and also my nickname. And it wanted my religion. I started filling it the bits I was happy filling in and writing ‘You do not need this information for the purposes of employment’ in the other sections. Then I realised that there were more bits uncompleted than completed and so I just sent him an email saying, ‘Here is my CV – you can get all the information you actually need from that.’
But when I had calmed down a bit I realised that the biggest difficulty I had was with the religion section. Would it be true if I said, ‘Islam’? I have been feeling increasingly uncomfortable saying that I was a Muslim.
You know already my objections to capital punishment on religious grounds. Amputation hardly serves any purpose – you are taking away from somebody one of the most magnificent organs God has given us, second only to the brain. What right has any human to do this? Torturing people with the lash has never been a deterrent – least of all in matters of human sexual passion. Torture doesn't work: you are just building resentment in the victim and satisfying blood lust in the onlookers – neither of which has any positive value.
The adoration of the person of Muhammad is so utterly opposed to the reason why Islam was attractive to me in the first place: that only God is to be worshipped. That was the contradiction that kept me awake last night and which is so bound up in the fundamentals of Islam and is impossible to extricate.
Some time ago I came across an image of the inside of the Kaaba with the fat Saudi king inside it, purportedly cleaning it. It was a difficult image. First it emphasised that although theoretically everyone is equal standing shoulder to shoulder in prayer some are far more equal than others and can actually go inside the object which everyone is praying towards. But the most important thing was that it gave the Kaaba reality. It was no block of holy essence but an ordinary human bit of architecture: a building. Another building claiming to be for the greater glory of God but actually being for no greater glory than that of the architect or the king who has the privilege of cleaning it. I was attracted to Islam because if its iconoclasm. The Kaaba is no less an idol than any other.
Ahmadiyyat claims, with its message of ‘Love for All; Hatred for None’ to be the true manifestation of Islam. It is attractive because it is opposed by the mullahs. It is the underdog and persecuted. But about two years ago I realised that I did not belong. It has got too big and bureaucratic. And it has the inherent weaknesses of all sorts of fascism – a benign fascism, but fascism nevertheless. It has the cult of personality in the shape of the Khalifa. It has pledges of allegiance. It has the same sloganising and emotionalism. 
The religion binds with chains of fear (of being beaten by rods in the grave if you didn't say your prayers) and guilt. Collective prayers are not prayers at all but have the same role as marching did with the fascists – to collectivise the mentality. Prayer is too noisy. We are always talking – either praising in a language we do not know or begging and examining our guilt. We never stop just to listen in silence and tranquillity and absorb the divine essence. How arrogant of people to construct buildings and call them the house of God when the house of God is the entire universe?
I wonder that it has taken this long to understand what my father was trying to tell me when he warned me about Islam. I wonder even more how the grip of religion has captured humanity for so long. Hitler dreamed of his thousand year Reich. Islam has surpassed that and Christianity doubled it. I wondered at the appeal of Hitler in Indonesia. Last night I realised that Islam is inherently bound to generate a fascist mentality in whichever community it prevails. I am living in the heart of darkness. And I do not know what to do.
I know that I must oppose. I have no choice in the matter. I don't know how to do it. I had intended to write a book perhaps to be published posthumously. I had thought to fight for what I believe to be right in a semi-hypocritical way as a Muslim: saying that this action or that action carried out in the name of Islam contradicted Islamic fundamentals. But I have reached the mental stage now when I can no longer do that, because to do that would be to live a lie.
I have only discussed this with you so far. I really want to hear what you think. You are the only person who really knows me.
I knew that whenever I go on a journey[2] there will be some change in my life. I did not expect this. I really do not know what to do.

Sunday 1 June 2008

AF reassured me that what was happening to me was nothing strange but merely the result of having a rational mind and using it.
In some ways I feel really rather ashamed that it has taken forty years. As a teenager I was troubled that I would take what seemed then like an irrevocable step and kept having the thought that I was young and inexperienced in the world and this could only be a nine days' wonder. It took me a year to get over that feeling.
Two or three years ago there was a meeting in Glasgow which our community sponsored inviting various religious groups to talk about the status of women in their religion. I was one of the speakers and caused a frisson of applause from half the audience when I asked why, since women are the majority in most populations, the topic wasn't ‘the status of men’ and wasn't it a little strange that the delegation representing the (Ahmadi) Muslims were all men? But in that meeting the topic came up about freedom of conscience. The guest speaker, our Imam from London, said that the verse that there was no compulsion in religion is absolute. There is no earthly penalty for leaving Islam and that if the door is always open to enter then it is always open to leave. I felt at the time that if the door was open sooner or later I would go through it. It troubled me slightly. At the moment, because of the attacks on the Ahmadi community, that verse is often quoted so I have nothing really to fear physically. Perhaps I am worried about people ostracising me. Ahmadiyyat is quite a comfortable home where there is a lot of mutual support. I have no doubt at all that I will continue to defend intellectually the right of everyone to say and write and hear and read whatever they want to and to practise whatever they want to do as long as it does not physically interfere with the right of others to do whatever they want. It so happens that speaking out against barbarity and stupidity coincides with defending Ahmadiyyat in Indonesia. It is something I know something about and I can voice my opinion with authority.
I do believe in God and the power of prayer. Belief in God is beneficial because it is a unifying concept. If everything is made by the same Hand and we are all fashioned out of the same clay then there can be no division. It fosters the concept of gratitude and gratitude is the key to happiness – and there must be an object of that gratitude. I do not believe in prayer as an automatic ritual to be performed at set hours. It is a sort of stepping back from the world and does engender the sort of feeling of connectedness which is important for us to maintain our equilibrium. The problem with Islamic (possibly not Sufi) prayer is that it is too noisy. We are too busy asking and formally praising that we do not stop to enjoy and to listen and to be quiet. Having set rituals at set times means that it is rushed and rendered impotent. I do like prayer in the early morning quiet when we can feel the freshness of the coming day and the tranquillity of the world asleep. That is possible in the west. In the noisy Islamic world with the headache inducing recitation and drumming thrust into our being tranquillity and communion are well nigh impossible. Sometimes prayer does work and strange things do happen. But whether the mechanism is through some sort of mind control of the physical universe or whether it is divine intervention I do not know. And it is not important to know. It is not even important to know whether God actually exists as a fact. It seems – at least for me – to be a beneficial working hypothesis and that is good enough. Agnostic is not a negative thing. It is having the humility to realise that we are not so arrogant as to assert something without evidence and to construct a huge edifice out of nothing more than a psychological need. I get angry when, mostly muslims, assert that such and such a person is an atheist just because they do not squeeze themselves into a religious box. To be agnostic is a courageous thing against the torrent of rampant religiosity or rampant secularism.
I often think – and hope – that people will look back two or three hundred years from now and wonder how people could possibly accept all this nonsense and strange world view in the same way that we look back at the protestant and catholic wars and arguments of two and three hundred years before now. Religion has enslaved the psyche of humanity for millennia. When political movements such as Marxism and fascism die early, the ‘divine authority’ of religion has somehow kept it going. Religion was the only mechanism that could have any hope of success in changing society and it has brought with it undoubted benefits – food control, for example, personal hygiene and prohibition of intoxicants, gambling and interest are the baby of Islam which I do not want to throw out with the bath water. Undoubtedly the ‘prophets’ did have important social messages – but messages from their own thought processes, often assisted by periods of isolation, not revelation. No doubt, because of the milieu of the society in which they found themselves and because of the psychological effects of living for 40 days in a cave or the desert, they convinced themselves that they had received divine revelation. The argument that because the language of the ‘revelation’ is so well structured and unique it must be divine is spurious. You have just to listen to a symphony by any of the great composers to be staggered at its power to move and the complexity – and indeed uniqueness – of its structure. The human brain is capable of incredible wonder. In fact there is an argument that religion itself is derogatory of the magnificence of the divine creation of the human brain by denying that the edifice of a religious text is not capable of being produced by it!
As you know, I have not arrived at these opinions overnight. What happened was merely the last stage that took me through the door. It became clear that the de facto adoration of Muhammad is inconsistent with the basic tenets of Islam itself, as is the de facto worship of a piece of human architecture. The tenets of Islam are inherently faulty and is easily unravelled if subject to any analysis.
The great injustice and stupidity in Indonesia (as in many other Muslim majority countries) is that everyone has to fit into one of six religious boxes and religion has to be declared on various official forms. For marriage, for example, you either have a ‘one-stop’ Muslim marriage validated entirely by the Religious Affairs Ministry or you have a ‘two stage’ marriage under the auspices of another ‘approved’ religion. Once you have the religious certificate you then go to the civil registry to have it validated. You can't have a secular marriage at all.
The problem is that once I have ‘internally’ realised that I am not a Muslim – or the adherent of any religion – it is very difficult to lie. That is the real problem. Life in Indonesia would be very difficult to live with a clear conscience. And I do not want to go back to UK. There are a different set of stupidities and tensions that I don't want to face again. It was useful being a Muslim – I could say things that non-Muslims could not say with the same credence. It was being hypocritical – but, I hope benignly so. Now I feel I have passed an internal point from which I cannot really return – I can't keep one foot in and one out.
Actually I am pleased that I have gone back to the way of thinking I had when I was a young teenager and asked my mother to write to the school excusing me from religious assembly because I was an agnostic. I had a belief – I rejected the concept of Trinity or the divinity of any human being – I had a sort of personal faith and that was good enough for me. My father hated organised religion. I did – and do now – too. It is a sort of return home.

Wednesday 4 June 2008

AF warned me about being too open and endangering my physical security and then went on to describe how ‘progressives’ had bent over backwards to try to show that Islamic teachings were not really as unfair as they seemed, particularly in relation to the subordination of women. Saying that women were treated better under Islam than they were before doesn’t cut much ice fourteen centuries later.
Thank you so much.
I will try to avoid getting myself killed.
I am really embarrassed that, despite having what I think is a brain, it has taken me forty years to realise completely that religion is a human construct and an immense burden on physical, emotional and social advancement. It is such an insidious thing that in various forms it has stayed with us for millennia even though political ideologies disappear overnight. I suppose, if Islam has lasted for 14 centuries, then for me to become aware of the elephant in the room after only 40 is not bad, I guess.
At least I can be proud (I always was, actually) that I have never felt the slightest inclination to pressurise anyone else to join me. I have enjoyed having theological arguments with priests and Mormons and so on. People often ask me, ‘How many people have you converted?’ and I always reply, ‘None, thank God.’ Sometimes the ‘thank God’ is sotto voce, but not always. I did however, usually say that how can I invite someone who is better than me to join a society which is worse.
There are a lot of unanswered questions. I would like your opinion because I need the utmost clarity of thought. I am getting increasingly fed up with Indonesia. But it is cheap and I could even survive here on the dribs and drabs of a pension after three years. I do not want to return to the different sort of madness in UK. Perhaps it might be better to leave the country and go to somewhere like New Zealand.
The other thing is that I really want to help get humanity off this awful madness. Perhaps writing is the only way. I found the atmosphere in UK was such a daily struggle against corporate stupidities I did not feel as ‘creative’ (if that isn't too arrogant a word) as here. It is easier to write here. But I do feel that I am living in the ‘heart of darkness.’
Sorry for hassling you but you cannot imagine (perhaps you can...) how much I needed some words from you. It is a lonely journey. Thank you with all my heart.