I can’t reply to Yusra & Safiya, because Fatemeh’s stepped in and closed the comments on this post. I’d like to reply to them in my space, however, because both of their comments are interesting and well-argued, and, naturally, deserve a reply.
Safiya takes offense to my suggestion that religion is arbitrary. I firmly believe that it is just that. In fact, it’s a strong component of my very faith. I take a look at Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc., and say, ARBITRARY. Now, everyone, myself included, would like to point their figure at all those other religions and say – “but my religion isn’t like that. I believe! It’s a beautiful thing! There’s nothing arbitrary about that!”
But what we are talking about when we say that is not religion – it is faith. Religion is the shell and faith is the substance. There’s nothing more arbitrary than being born to a certain set of parents, being taught views (which may or may not differ from each other, yet bear the same outward shell), and being named in a way that might even reflect your particular religious affiliation which you then wear proudly, for example. There’s nothing more arbitrary than a religious authority figure excommunicating someone or declaring someone an apostate – usually based on something political (if all of us were punished each time we broke the rules, houses of worship would long stand empty). There’s nothing more arbitrary to the way in which some people are cast aside and others remain in the fold.
There’s nothing intimate about religion. It’s a way of branding people as if they are cattle. It’s a paradox, because it’s religion that usually gives birth to faith, but then again, I accept the fact that the universe we live in is paradoxical to begin with.
Yusra argues that we can’t compare Muslims to, say, secular and religious Jews. By contrast, some of the closest people to me are secular Muslims. They might believe in a God or even THE God (depending on what angle you’re looking from), but the majority have long been either chased out of the religion or else simply decided they don’t want to bother.
The lives of secular Muslims are still impacted by religious law and authority. You actively have to humour tradition, or else you might find yourself in trouble.
It is women in particular who bear the brunt of other people’s anxieties over a religion’s possible demise. This is why you’ll rarely find anyone shouting “APOSTATE!” at a Muslim man who just nipped in to the liquor store for a bottle of whiskey, but women are rigorously policed as to who they may or may not marry. Most religious figures accept that “boys will be boys,” and feed the errant women to the wolves. Men have room to stumble and search. Women do not. In a previous post I argued that the definition of religion is elastic, however, in most cases, this elasticity stops with women.
I don’t mean to imply that Yusra is feeding anyone to the wolves when she states that Islam forbids Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men. I do disagree with her claim that there is no legitimate debate on the subject, however.
Likewise, I think the statement that there can never be any confusion as to who is or isn’t Muslim is a bromide. After a couple of years of living in Muslim countries, it’s glaringly obvious to me that Muslims aren’t any different when it comes to the blurring of identity. The similarity tends to be erased in the name of politics, due to long-standing conflict in Palestine, for example, due to the trouble in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, due to the rampant Islamophobia abroad. It’s important for many people to unite under a common banner and proclaim that “we are Muslims, this is our way of life, stop fucking with us, please.”
Why do I insist on making such a strong distinction between faith and religion? Tariq Ramadan is to blame. I don’t know if he still believes this, and I certainly can’t say that I’m not at all misreading him here – but one of the things that really heartened me back in the day was when he said that you can’t really have a purely religious state. I was going through a crisis of faith at the time, looking at the cruel, crass and, yes, completely arbitrary way that most religious people treat one another, and it was as if Tariq Ramadan laid a warm, protective hand on my shoulder and told me that things were going to be Ok.
The dreadful hypocrisy of a supposedly religious state and the way that it grinds all faith into dust over time was something I could never face. Looking back on it, it was an actual corrupting force in my life – this idea that a religious state was necessary or even possible.
I began to make the distinction between my faith and my religion. The former was important to me, the latter was like having to attend barbecues at Asshole Country Club and smile at everyone as I munched on their stale scraps. I began to actively withdraw from religious life, and never felt better. It was, probably, one of the most important moments of my youth.
I bet Tariq Ramadan would be horrified, if he knew what he did to me. Or maybe not.
As a Christian woman, I also have no business marrying a non-Christian dude. Because I plan on having a civil marriage, however, the point is largely moot. I would never want the man I’m with to have some sort of meaningless “on paper” conversion. I would never want him to have to humour anyone, to pretend, to put up with the nagging relatives, or with some dreadful bureaucratic entity that assumes the duty of God’s voice on earth and bleats out platitudes about faith. I have that freedom, of course. It’s a combination of things – I was born in the USSR, I am financially independent, I disdain religious community (while others need it), I cherry-pick what’s meaningful to me and what is not.
Everyone cherry-picks what they believe, because following text that were written centuries ago for a certain audience is largely impossible. Some people are just better at glossing over this fact than others.