Freedom of speech is a precious thing. You notice it when you’re somewhere where you have to think twice before sharing what’s on your mind.
You can honour and respect a man who served his country well, without granting him absolute power. Historical parallels indicate that moves to consolidate power in the hands of one man will end in disaster. But who can argue with the bombastic masses, dreaming of a return to imagined glory? Legends are being written before our very eyes. Pious propaganda wins the day.
Another nationwide tour of celebrity scholars? I think I’ll give it a miss.
Too many at these events behave like off-balance teenage girls worshipping their boy-band pop idol. Except the adoring fans are mostly bearded men in thobes, and the boy-band, middle-aged male academics (yes, the organisers forgot to invite female scholars again).
Meanwhile, the scholars in our communities continue to attract an audience of one, because we really just crave edutainment and the opportunity to shower our idols in exaggerated praise, which must surely make them cringe and run for cover.
‘Oh yea of little faith,’ retort their disciples, reminding me to have respect for our scholars — the protectors of our religion.
And it’s true: I struggle with the personality worship in our community. We call these men giants, putting them on a pedestal we minions have little hope of nearing, and even when they speak of things about which they have no real knowledge, we stifle our own intellect, because clearly they know better, because we know nothing.
And so these bizarre spectacles unfold before us. Grown men grabbing hold of their hero’s coat tails. Groups of men forming constrictive circles around a man attempting to hold a private conversation, suffocating him. Selfies, autographs, copycat attar. Possession: claims of ownership, and exclusive intellectual rights. The weirdness is unending.
Surely you can respect your teacher and their knowledge without behaving like an infatuated teenager with a crush. Surely we can build balanced relationships with our teachers without the melodramatic adulation which turns a circle into a circus.
And, just maybe, if we’re really in search of sacred knowledge, perhaps we could go and sit at the feet of that humble sage in our community, who everyone shuns because, well, they’re not a celebrity.
Or is the pull of your darling dearest beloved just too magnetic to ignore? Is he a giant too colossal to neglect? Is his piety so contagious that only a swift sharp fervid dose will see you through until the next nationwide tour? Is this why we take our scholars and monks as lords?1
Have respect: of course, absolutely, no problem. But recall that praise belongs to Allah. Make room for contemplation and introspection, and take a step back. Is the frenzy surrounding the superstar scholar really the way it was meant to be? Or are we called to something greater?
- Qur’an 9:31 ↩
Sobbing scholars, emotional backing tracks, synthetic echoes… I detest all of these manipulative means to convey a message.
It is occasionally worth recalling that the concept of “terror bombing” was not dreamed up in a cave in Afghanistan, but by a celebrated British statesman, who legitimised the mass killing of civilians as a means to defeat the enemy (37,000 in Hamburg and 25,000 in Dresden).
Collective amnesia forces us to wash our hands of these unpalatable truths, but painful introspection is necessary if we are to understand our modern afflictions. Terrorism and the targeting of civilians is always odious, and we should be able to condemn it in all its forms, not excuse and venerate some practitioners simply because they are or were on our side.
The moral argument does not work like that.
Best to be very sceptical of the claims of those who cling to power.
I think we are defined more by our politics than by our religion.
Years ago, when I had just become Muslim, I was invited by a friend to spend an evening smoking fruit-flavoured tobacco from a shisha pipe.
When I declined, suggesting that it was not a good way for a Muslim to spend his time, my companion responded that we would adopt my puritanical stance when the caliphate was restored.
The logic seemed to be that in the absence of a Muslim ruler, none of us had any hope of jettisoning our bad habits or addictions.
Fast forward to today, and it seems that little has changed. All around me, people are campaigning for the return of those great “Islamic” empires of the past.
But ask the question, “Are we establishing Islam in our homes?” at your peril. Apparently we need to establish Muslim rule, before we can possibly hope to establish prayer in our homes.
I wonder what glory has to do with the simple calls of faith. Quranic verses embossed in gold leaf on magnificent buildings will never be a substitute for verses inscribed on our hearts.
So once more our activists and scholars petition us, “Why are you silent? Why do you not speak out?”
And yes, it is true, we feel like renegades, as if indifferent to the suffering of afflicted innocents everywhere.
But the communal amnesia they demand of us won’t stick. We have been browbeaten by tragedy before, and driven by emotion to join the bold choruses demanding war.
And now the millions dead and nations in anarchic turmoil stand witness against us.
They demand that you speak up, say something, make your voice heard, as if everything is clearcut and obvious and true, and as though your voice would make a difference to the wronged, caught in the crossfire of conflict.
Perhaps the silent fear opening the door to another giant invasion from outside, sold as a humanitarian intervention like Iraq and Libya.
Perhaps the silent still recall how those moderate Western-backed rebels morphed into the fearsome ISIS before our very eyes, providing new incentives to bomb the oil fields of Syria just a year after parliament declined to bomb them because of Assad.
Doors will open anyway, and those who want war will get it, whether we witness for the wronged or not. And those that demand we speak up now will demand that we stay silent in the face of wrongs perpetuated by our allies and friends. No, now is the time to call for more war, claim our respected leaders, not a time to petition for peace.
And on and on it goes. Yet more innocents will be wronged, innocent lives destroyed, as the fire spreads, rages out of control and ravages all in its path. And in time we will watch as our unprincipled leaders change their minds, adopting whichever new stance best suits the moment, confounding their students and followers with the fog of confusion that characterises these anarchic times.
But for now: “Speak up!” they chant. “O you hypocrites, turncoats, renegades, men of weak faith, backsliders, heretics, heathens, traitors, defectors, fugitives and snakes: petition all the forces of earth to rain cruise missiles down on the enemy. Demand that they deploy the standing armies from Saudi and Kuwait to vanquish the evil enemy. Speak up, speak up! Join our mighty chorus, beating the drums of war!”
Browbeaten, we might capitulate. Who wants to be an outlaw amongst friends? We will join in the sorrowful rejoinders and mournful laments, withheld from the mass of the victims of equally calamitous crimes; may our invocations sanctify the poor few amongst the thousands dead. Without a doubt it is their right.
But tomorrow, I can tell you, those hallowed ones will change their tune. Those that demand you speak up now, will tomorrow be writing of evil plots, of false-flag operations, of media-collusion, of takfiri extremists who don’t represent us. The fog will suddenly have lifted for them. But as for you: you are still the hypocrite, the heretic and heathen. You are still the ignorant one, to be turned whichever way the shepherd chooses, at that particular moment, on that particular day.
We are but partisan pawns on the great chessboard. We have forgotten that we are called to witness to the truth — if we are able to — not to champion for our team come what may. And if we do not know, or cannot verify the news we receive, to stay silent. Yes, even if everyone around us demands that we speak up, take a stance, make a choice.
But in any case, this fire will rage on and only spread, because nobody is willing to pour on cooling waters to extinguish the ravaging flames. The presumed wise ones demand an incendiary response: only fools would call for peace. So let us be fools.