As if that is the only choice we have to describe ourselves whenever talking about the issues caused by Islam, the media and intelligentsia of various nations have happily divided the narrative as between “Muslims” and “non-Muslims.” It is not a hidden conspiracy, or a mind-game played by extremists. It is the “simple” solution on the quandary of describing the world and the people that are not Muslim.
Excuse me, Mr. Bill Maher? Can you please stand next to Mr. Pat Robertson for the duration of this program, for the five minutes it will take to cover this story about Islamic fundamentalism? It will considerably “simplify” our narrative to divide the world so, for the purposes of this story. Yes, I know you can't stand to have to stand next to a bigot like him but that's another story, another narrative.
No doubt that according to any dictionary, I am “non-Muslim.” I am also a “non-Nazi,” a “non-racist,” a “non-White,” a “non-Black,” a “non-Christian,” etc. The quandry – is this not the worldview that religion specifically promotes? Between the believers and the disbelievers, those who believe that Jesus is the son of God, that Muhammad is the last prophet and those others who do not. Those “pure Aryan” Germans and the “impure” Jews and Slavs. The “natural” heterosexuals and the “unnatural” homosexuals. Us against them.
Who, And What Is A “Non-Muslim?”
The media definition is quite clear, but it is not so well known that in Muslim societies, these are the “special” people. What is the meaning of “non-Muslim” in Islam? Those people for whom the constitution and legal codes have to specifically tell the rest of the population to be nice to them. Those who need “protecting.” The Dhimmis. Where a Constitution's preamble or first article is about the dedication of the document to the Almighty and not to the people – it has to be specifically clarified that “they who do not believe in Islam” also have rights.
This is because of the lengths the Qur'an goes to to describe those who “do not believe in Islam” as odious (40:35), evil (37:18) and cursed (33:61), amongst other colorful adjectives. The interpretation of the “kaffir” in Islam is not linear – it begins with disbelief in Islam, and does not end until it is clearly defined alongside evil.
The time before Muhammad's revelations is called Jahiliya – the time of “ignorance,” and summarily dismissed.
Of course, nobody agrees in the so-called “Muslim world” about who is a “non-Muslim” either, and that should be a great clue. The Sunnis hold that the Shias are heretics. Both sects bear the same opinion about the Ahmadis, followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmed. The consequences of being regarded as “non-Muslim” are quite serious. The years 2012 and 2013 are themselves exceptional in the record number of mass killings perpetrated by Sunnis and Shias upon each other, particularly in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan. Bowing to the fury of mullahs in 1973, Pakistan's constitution duly declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims – an earthquake for that community, which had been an assiduous supporter of the creation of Pakistan. Having once provided Pakistan's first foreign minister and Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Abdus Salam, today's Ahmadis must sign a declaration renouncing their beliefs before they can be approved for a Pakistani passport. The “Land of the Pure,” as Pakistan seeks to be, rests not in having “purified” itself by killing and driving away the “dirty” Hindu and Sikh; the hour now is for the stamping out of the heresies within. It is a society that spends its days looking for all that is “non-Muslim” amongst its population of 180 million..
Some Jews and Christians are grateful to the generosity of Muhammad for describing them as “People of the Book.” That is an “intermediate” status, however. The Qur'an accuses Jews of deliberately perverting scripture and opposing the Apostles Jesus and Muhammad. It is only to allow you an opportunity to accept Islam and become Muslim. If you don't, you will be “cursed” to become “apes” and “monkeys” or just killed. Hindus and Buddhists are practitioners of “shirk” - polytheism, idolatry – the “greatest sin” in Islam. The “de-humanizing” process continues in a remarkable fashion. After the famous Qur'anic verse that asserts that killing one person is like killing all of humanity, come the multiple Qur'anic verses that call upon the believers to not even take non-Muslims for friends (3:28); indeed, make friends with them and you become one of “them.” (5:51) Kill the non-believers, because “shirk” and “disbelief” are the ultimate sins against Allah. (9:73, 2:191-193, et al) So you can indeed “kill all of humanity,” perhaps even more than just one “humanity,” but it won't be as bad as not believing in Allah.
I have tried to observe how the proudly faithful look at me when they ask to know if I am a Muslim (I get mistaken for an Iranian every so often) and I, for sake of brevity, used to tell them I was not a Muslim. A mild gleam enters their eyes which, based on what followed, I could only interpret as meaning “here is a sinner I can bring into the fold of Islam by asking him a few 'profound' questions and encouraging him to read the wonderful Qur'an.” I am reminded of some of the reactions that V.S. Naipaul received in course of his journeys into the “Muslim world” when writing Amongst the Believers: An Islamic Journey, when some Muslims he interviewed proclaimed that by the end of his exploration into the subject, Naipaul would convert to Islam himself. Truly, to a believer it is inconceivable that a “non-Muslim” could have already read the Qur'an and remained a “non-Muslim.” A “non-Muslim” is a “project” for the believer, for the purposes of Islam.
While Muslim groups are mostly divided on who constitutes a “non-Muslim,” the Islamic worldview is quite clear about what a “non-Muslim” is supposed to be. It is a temporary position that is occupied until the Revelation is received. After that, it cannot continue. It is not independent, not self-sufficient. The Qur'an's message is that a “non-Muslim” is a “non-human,” because being one is a worse crime than those who kill humanity. (2:191-193)
The “Muslim” Non-Muslims, etc.
If this was all there was to it, being “non-Muslim” would be a badge of honor. I refuse to be treated with condescension and thinly-veiled hatred by Muslims, but I also refuse to allow others to fit me into a “neutered” point of view. Being “non-Muslim” forces an atheist, a fundamentalist Christian and orthodox Jew onto the same platform, and the Islamic meaning allows Muslims to add to the crime of not believing in Islam the motive of evil. An atheist should take offense at being bundled up with the people who are not only irrational but who will actually enjoy watching an apocalypse befall the rest of humanity because they happen to be followers of their so-called “true faith.” How is an atheist to communicate that he does not regard every Muslim as an enemy if he is to share a stage in the narrative, the stories of our world, with the likes of people who do? The Muslim eye will regard this as “revealing” of an unintentional hypocrisy and will paint an atheist with the same brush as he would the born-again Christian. This is the same eye that is fed, year after year, television programs restating the “blood libel” against Jews as if it was an established fact. This is the same eye, that from dawn to dusk, is supposed to know nothing but Islam. Many don't pray five times a day, don't perform the Hajj nor observe the other religious instructions but it is extremely challenging for them to escape the one-dimensional worldview promoted by their neighborhood clerics, schools, media and political class.
In using the label “Muslim world,” we have already given up the opportunity to be fascinated with the exotic diversity of the cultures and civilizations of the Kurds, Bengalis, Malays, Punjabis, Malians, Turks and many others. Did you know that it was the Persian (Iranian) emperor Cyrus the Great who issued the first declaration of human rights? How would you, since the average American or Briton only associates the word “Iran” with black-turbaned ayatollahs and hooded sadists who take hostages and blow up planes and hotels? Most of Iran is not aware of this significant detail either, since Cyrus, predating Islam, belongs to the era of ignorance, nothingness.. Literature, poetry, philosophy – entire worlds are closed when the Qur'an is employed as the reference for identifying them. Jalaluddin Rumi is considered the finest poet of Sufism, which is under attack by the Salafists as a heretic cult. The West has clumsily settled his work in the category of “Islamic poetry” (a tragic oxymoron if ever there was one) even as many of the believers reject his kind as “non-Muslim” in the same breath. His poetic appeals to Allah, which make much more pleasant hearing than the mindless howling of the muezzins, are either faithful or heretical, and that is all there is to them. How would you propose to describe the philosophy of Omar Khayyam? While the people of reason analyze his writings to find an eclectic blend of agnosticism, hedonism as well as Sufism, the official narrative identifies him with the “Muslim world.” In their native lands, the work of these men exists only to be gauged and re-gauged for how truly and purely they embody Islam. There can be no other value but purity, for nothing “good” can exist beyond religion. Examined and “defended” endlessly are these men by one set of Muslims against the charges of another set of Muslims that they were not “non-Muslim.” Infidels to the Salafist, and saints to the Shia. Lost in this endless struggle somewhere is the true brilliance of the philosopher, the poet and his work, buried under the monolithic quagmire that is the “Muslim world,” the “Ummah.”
Al-Ma'arri, a blind poet from 10th century Syria was one of the earliest critics of Islam, its clergy and organized religions, and Ibn al-Rawandi was an avowed atheist from 9th century Iran. I find both of them conveniently herded into the same “Islamic world” in almost every account of their lives. Is an Arab or Iranian ever permitted to contemplate of himself or herself being anything more than a “Muslim” or “non-Muslim”? Even as the theocratic noose of Islam strangles Iran and Syria today, how many of those people even think to discover the other worlds that exist beyond can be fair and sunny, that they are not beholden to the dark clouds of Islam, lest Allah's lightning rod smite them. These ancients lived in a medley of intertwined, intellectual and cultural worlds – amidst the final gasps of the dying Persian civilization and religion, and the birth of the Shia insurgency against Arab imperialism. That their ancestors championed atheism and freedom of expression is knowledge withheld from the people by the architects of this monstrosity called the “Ummah” and those who accept it as an absolute. We betray ourselves to a quicksand, which you can only resist or “submit” to; which will consume the colors of lives, theirs and ours, to be lost in the mists of time.
The World Is Shrinking..
We're just the guys who aren't Muslims, you know.. There is apparently nothing on this desert of a planet of ours beyond Islam, so everything is either Islamic or not.
For the sake of “simplicity,” perhaps in the next American election cycle, NBC and CNN should use the term “non-Democrats” and FOX should apply the term “non-Republicans.” You know, its “simpler” because it eliminates from our consideration the irrelevant independents, Libertarians, Greens, etc. Almost every American knows that these television networks push rival visions and only care about their own preferred side winning, riding the others periodically into oblivion. How tempted are you to pretend that there are no Republicans who support gay marriage? Are there not Democrats who oppose gun control and abortion rights? If Republicans are the party of “small government,” what are these Libertarians exactly? As it happens, the Libertarians supported gay marriage long before the Democrats finally admitted to it. So why is the Democratic party portrayed as the true home of gay rights? If Americans feel nothing but contempt for the “political establishment” and want “change,” why do these media geniuses strive so hard to keep the choice “simple,” between the two establishment players? Why do we import this way of thinking when carrying out the extremely important cross-cultural, inter-community dialogues, where the outcome is about the preservation of lives a world worth living in?
Following the Sultan of Brunei's recent introduction of comprehensive Islamic legal punishments such as stoning and flogging in public, a reporter sought the views of a boat taxi driver in the capital of the tiny kingdom. Mr. Tuah Ibrahim's reply was poignant - “I can't imagine our country turning into somewhere like Saudi Arabia,” said he, citing the incompatibility of Brunei's predominantly “peaceful” Malay culture with the harshness of the punitive remedies. I could not help wondering if he knew that his country's official name Brunei “Darussalam” meant “Abode of Islam,” and that the global media saw it as part of the “Muslim world” that began with and centers on Arabia. Is there another world beneath the waves of the Islamic ocean? A Malay one, in this instance? If the imposition of Islamic law is regarded as a “foreign” phenomenon, is it correct to put this man and many others in this little nation in the ranks of the “submitted”..? Behold the Turks and Egyptians who protest the imposition of Sharia in their countries that strangely, lie in the “Muslim world.” They may call themselves liberals or secularists, or even patriots, but to the believers, they are already and only “non-Muslim,” as they oppose Allah's laws. As it goes for reason in the realm of faith, these are ripples on the surface of the pure faith - meant to disappear..
I once held my own mind under siege to a massive and assuredly wondrous book on Microelectromechanical systems (“simplified” - MEMS – telling us exactly what it is..) by a certain Dr. Mohammad Younis. I found my tail clasped firmly in my hands as I withdrew from it after only a handful of pages, but I wonder now if this “Mohammad” is ever regarded as the same kind of problem for his adopted nation as other Mohammads are found to be. The appeal of a frantic and exhausted public falls upon a blind and dumb political establishment, fueled by collective needs and anxieties, which is charged with adjudicating whether or not these Mohammads are worth allowing upon the soil. When it comes to assessing men and women, why is a vile warlord's book of hallucinations permitted to dwarf this Mohammad's brilliant scientific contribution in our minds? How dare anyone suggest that the the brilliance of intellectuals such as Omar Khayyam, Dr. Younis and Al-Ma'arri have to be clouded over by the venom of a 7th century genocidal maniac in having themselves and their work be described “Muslim” and “Islamic” before their own unique, distinctive identity as human beings? That due to our cowardice in not naming the true perpetrator of atrocities and hatred in our respective homeland – one Prophet Muhammad – a present and future Dr. Younis may be herded out of his is an unbelievably sordid state of affairs.
Why are we cutting up the world, closing the doors upon ourselves?
As a young lad in India, I found it unpalatable that the media and school textbooks, when discussing history and politics regarding Muslims and Islam, would group an extremely diverse array of philosophies and communities – Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews, Parsis, Christians – into that tragic vacuum of a term “non-Muslim,” applied with great ease as if it explains everything but in fact, does the opposite. These are the labors of a nation still struggling to comprehend its sudden vivisection at the hands of the Islamic concept of “us and them” more than sixty years on. In Pakistan, history is silenced with the stale nothingness that it inevitably was before Islam. When the question is asked of who lived in Pakistan for thousands of years before the arrival of Islam, we do not even get an acknowledgment that they existed? Who “They”? Not the Harappans, Hindus, Mehrgarhis, Sikhs, but the “non-Muslims,” in the age of Jahiliya..
In any debate or conversation with Muslims or about Islam, we must insist on being described for who we are – Rationalists, Agnostics, Poets, Free-thinkers, Hindus, Secularists, Christians, Mathematicians, Americans, Jews, Filipinos, Antitheists, Sufis, Indians, Physicists, Chinese, Socialists, etc. These are all complex and beautiful philosophies and cultures, representing the evolution of human civilization. Insist on being identified out of context, for the religious context is intolerably offensive and nihilistic. A “Muslim” audience must be challenged to have a more diverse worldview before they realize there is more to life, more to humanity and more to themselves than just being or not being a follower of Islam. The rest of the world must realize there is more diversity within the so-called “Muslim world” than has ever been appreciated.
I, a human being, refuse to be “simple” - I am but one of a complex and dynamic people.
I write about religion, so I am certainly aware that it will be a little cumbersome. However, I find forcing myself to devote a precious few moments to the individuals, peoples, philosophies and customs that I was about to herd into the “non-Muslim” shed, is to make my work the richer for it. The mechanized troops of the mainstream media and its assorted organs no doubt take greater pride in executing their daily labors in as mind-numbing a way as possible. However, I sincerely request they reconsider – a minute or more into your television program, a sentence or two in your article. A small price to pay for not having the world shrink incredulously within your mind's eye, and not knowing it did.