Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Religion and Culture 05-03-08

Religion, Culture and Change

Mirza A. Beg
Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Al-Jazeerah, Tuesday, March 8, 2005,%20Culture%20and%20Change%20By%20Mirza%20A%20Beg.htm

One of the great challenges of modern times for all societies is how to balance personal freedom and restrictive societal obligations.

It is particularly urgent for the Islamic societies to meet this challenge. It pits the demands of religion as one interprets it, against the freedom of others to interpret it slightly or drastically differently. For a civil society to function effectively, we accept restrictive rules and regulations for the common good. Yet, with time, many seemingly good laws designed to benefit the status quo prove to be bad and restrictive, even retrogressive and draconian. Often good laws degenerate into a bad caricature of the intended purpose. A pluralistic, democratic system regularly reevaluates such laws, not because of external pressures but as an internal corrective mechanism.

It is heartening that many voices are involved in a thoughtful, and at times even cantankerous debate, in trying to reconcile the cultural values and their gradual modification in light of Islamic values and the need of the times.

Many view it as erosion, and erosion it is, if the past is considered to be the norm. The question is whether or not it is desirable, meaning good, or undesirable, implying various shades of evil. A healthy, lively dialogue has ensued among a well-meaning and informed populace. Those who want to be taken seriously do not advocate a ban on the freedom to be different, or passing of laws that force others to walk the straight and narrow. Those in favor of draconian measures are mostly on the loosing side, not because some of their objections are wrong, but because their chosen methods of implementation are wrong.

Times and circumstances change cultural norms, usually within a widely acceptable range. There will always be some who would call such a change too much and others who would say it is not enough and want more. In the last century or so the trend has shifted towards those who want more change. The need is for a dynamic balance, a balance of personal choice within a wide range of acceptability.

In this age of information, and the accompanying misinformation, the choices are increasingly affected by other cultures and religions. Those who want to stop or reverse the trend have major problems at hand: how to do it with persuasion and social pressure rather than draconian measures. It is their burden to devise such a system under the current more individualistic times, a time when one does not have to depend so much on the neighbor or even the community but can have many of the needs met from distant sources of information and commerce. On the other hand, those who want to go forward with greater urgency need to engage the resisters in a constructive dialogue and be mindful of religious and cultural moorings.

Women's issues in Islamic societies have lagged behind, mostly because women had no voice in the debate. It is not relevant to simply claim that women in Islam were given dignity and economic rights in the early seventh century, when women in other contemporary societies and religions were much worse off. Most of those rights have withered and have been compromised over the centuries. That was then and this is now. A careful evaluation and reinterpretation is long overdue. Fortunately there are many thoughtful and well-educated women who have taken on the burden of speaking out. There are differences of opinions among them, as is expected in a vibrant and free discourse, a paradigm shift from the past.

Freedom means freedom of choice. I applaud women who insist on wearing Hijab (head covering) in Turkey and France where it is discouraged, and those who resist wearing it in countries like Saudi Arabia, where it is mandatory.

Arabs emerged from the refuge of the desert to realize that they had a lot to learn. They carefully studied, translated and adapted from Roman, Persians, Indians and Chinese civilizations to usher a long golden age. In turn the West woke up from its medieval sloth, learned and adapted to usher a great industrial civilization.

It is time to learn and adapt. All new or foreign ideas are not necessarily good or bad. It is important to consider them thoughtfully; avoiding the pit falls of colonialist 19th and 20th centuries. Adoption or rejection without thoughtful evaluation, simply because they are from outside or Western, is indicative of an inferiority complex. The baser Western mores have already infiltrated most societies; what is being resisted is the individual freedom and free flow of knowledge to our detriment.

Achieving a great civilization is always much more difficult than descending into chaos. Circling the wagons and pining for a past viewed through rose-colored glasses is not an option, if one aspires to greatness. What was considered acceptable in the past needs reexamination in light of the present needs and knowledge. A healthy civil dialogue ushers a gradual acceptance of the desirable.

Unfortunately with the freedom to excel, grow and adopt also comes the freedom for licentiousness. In a free society the lewd and obscene is harder to overcome. The need is to be bold and not be a prisoner of such fears. No society has ever been free of baser attitudes and behavior. In the more draconian systems they are simply not discussed. The knowledge of their existence, rather than the behavior is suppressed. Social consciousness and pressures play a significant role in keeping such decadence in check. A noteworthy example of reversal of an unhealthy trend is the restrictions on smoking. It has been reasonably successful all democratic societies. It started essentially as a social pressure.

A very important method of casting a no vote to societal ills is by voting through our pocket books. Simply refusing to partake or consume what one objects to, sends a strong message to the "purveyors." For example, not watching a certain genera of movies and TV shows sends an economic message to those trying to cash in on our baser instincts. Ostracized by the populace they wither for the lack of economic sustenance.

A spirited debate and effort for advancing an agenda through persuasion is always good; it helps cultures, religions and societies to grow and flourish. Most of us recognize and object to the extremes; the problem is finding a balanced consensus of a broad norm. This did not happen in the religions and cultures stalled in the medievalist mind set for the past few centuries. We are waking up to the challenge to attain a new, dynamic, forward-looking balance, which is conducive to intellectual and economic growth. Self-education to inculcate a broader perspective seasoned with introspection is an investment for the future.

Mirza A. Beg welcomes comments at

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