Saturday, June 30, 2007
Bagi saya pula, keputusan itu tidak memberikan banyak jalan keluar atau "penyelesaian" terhadap isu-isu seumpama ini. Malah, ia hanyalah pemanjangan kes-kes sebelum ini, termasuk Revathi Masoosai, Rayappan a/l Anthony, M. Moorthy dan R. Subashini.
Yang harus serius difikirkan ialah: kesejahteraan individu terbabit, keluarganya dan kerukunan hidup antara agama dan antara kaum di negara ini.
Maksudnya, "jalan keluar" terhadap isu-isu ini harus difikirkan secara serius, ilmiah, perundangan, politik dan "psikologi" ke arah mencapai matlamat kemanusiaan, bukan tujuan keagamaan atau ketuhanan.
Dan di sisi ini, orang Islam kena yakin dan berani untuk membenarkan seseorang anggota masyarakatnya (sama ada Melayu atau bukan Melayu) keluar daripada Islam. Sama ada dilahirkan daripada keluarga Islam atau menganut Islam (daripada agama lain), seseorang itu harus diizinkan untuk meninggalkan Islam.
Dalam bahasa agama, kita sebut "murtad". Kita harus benarkan proses ini berlaku -- suatu keputusan yang berat, membingungkan, menekan psikologi, mempunyai kesan-kesan politik, kebudayaan dan agama.
(Hakikatnya tidak ada bangsa yang menganut satu agama sahaja. Semua tamadun besar melahirkan keragaman kepercayaan, agama dan bukan agama, dalam sesebuah masyarakat. Malah, anggota-anggota keluarga nabi-nabi banyak juga tidak beriman pada risalahnya.
Jadi, orang Melayu-Islam harus bersedia meninggalkan takrif "Melayu" sedia ada dalam Perlembagaan Persekutuan. Takrif itu bersifat ketat dan keras).
Membenarkan anggota masyarakat Islam keluar daripada agamanya hanya satu pilihan. Yang akan dianggap anjal, demokratik dan menjunjung hak-hak asasi manusia -- nilai-nilai yang kini dianggap lebih relevan dan sesuatu dengan arus zaman. Pilihan ini pilihan pertama.
Sebab, selagi kita tidak memperkenalkan hukuman bunuh kepada seseorang yang murtad, selagi itulah kita harus memberi ruang ini (atau "jalan keluar") selepas seseorang yang ingin murtad itu telah melalui proses-proses yang sedia ada, misalnya kaunseling, denda atau penjara.
Selepas menjalani hukuman tertentu, tetapi jika seseorang itu terus tekal ingin meninggalkan Islam, maka masyarakat Islam harus membiarkan proses ini berjalan lancar dan diiktiraf secara rasmi, perundangan, dokumentasi, politik dan kebudayaan -- seperti seorang warganegara yang sama hak dengan orang lain.
Kalau kita enggan membuka jalan ini, kita ada pilihan kedua. Yakni, menjatuhkan hukuman mati kepada seseorang Muslim yang ingin meninggalkan agamanya. Dalam soal ini, kita sama ada ingin memakai pandangan ortodoks, klasik tentang isu ini atau pun kita memakai ijtihad baru.
(Jadi, dalam pilihan kedua ini, kita jangan fikir bagaimana tanggapan orang lain atau negara lain. Kita juga jangan fikir apa-apa implikasi politik dan kebudayaan akibat memperkenalkan hukuman bunuh. Selagi kita was-was, selagi itulah kes-kes seumpama Revathi, Rayyapan, Moorthy dan Subashini akan berulang. Mahu atau tidak? Bila? Sekarang atau akan datang?)
Dua sahaja pilihan yang kita ada. Yakni menghapuskan jasad itu (bunuh) atau membiarkan jasad itu hidup dengan pilihan agama barunya.
Bagaimanapun, isu kebebasan beragama atau "tiada paksaan dalam beragama" (Islam) atau "agama itu ruang peribadi antara seseorang dengan Tuhannya" tidaklah sama dengan minum teh tarik atau makan roti canai.
Yakni, seseorang boleh makan roti canai sesuka hatinya hari ini, kemudian keesokannya mahu makan mee udang, lusa makan satay Pariaman! Agama, di sisi ruang subjektif individu (perkaitan Tuhan dengan individu), memang boleh bertukar lebih pantas daripada memakan roti canai.
Tetapi agama, di sisi undang-undang awam (yakni hubungan individu dengan masyarakat), haruslah tidak semudah makan roti canai. Harus ada rekod hitam putih dan juga dokumentasi. Dokumentasi ini bukanlah bertujuan mengongkong kebebasan hati nurani (freedom of conscience) tetapi sifat individu yang tidak terpisah daripada hubungannya dengan individu lain, keluarga, masyarakat dan negara.
Jika kita tidak berpuas hati dengan kaedah dokumentasi, elok kita bubarkan sahaja institusi-institusi moden ini (yang kita panggil "negara", birokrasi, undang-undang atau rekod). Kita kembali ke zaman yang lebih primitif yang tidak memerlukan kad pengenalan, pasport dan boleh membina tempat kediaman di mana-mana sahaja di ceruk dunia ini. Malangnya, zaman itu sudah berlalu!
Bagaimanapun, saya tidak setuju rekod atau dokumentasi itu harus (wajib) melalui mahkamah sahaja. Mahkamah, syariah atau sivil, hanya satu pilihan atau jalan keluar. Suruhanjaya Sumpah mungkin satu lagi saluran. Kecuali ada pertikaian serius, maka pihak-pihak berwajib boleh tidak menjadikan mahkamah sebagai jalan keluar agama. Seseorang boleh menggunakan kaedah-kaedah lain yang sah, kuat dan diiktiraf undang-undang.
Apatah lagi tanggapan terhadap mahkamah syariah yang masih tebal dengan ortodoksinya. Mahkamah bukan tempat sah memberikan perakuan tentang status agama (termasuk pertukaran), tetapi mahkamah juga tempat menghukum seseorang.
Jika seseorang ke mahkamah syariat, peluangnya untuk dibenarkan murtad menjadi "80:20" (80% tidak boleh: 20% boleh). Sepatutnya, mahkamah menukar nisbah itu menjadi "20% tidak diizinkan (kes-kes istimewa) dan 80% diizinkan".
Mahkamah menjadi saluran yang "aman" dan sahih untuk merekodkan pertukaran agama. Tanggapan ini, buat masa ini, tidak wujud. Orang takut ke mahkamah syariat kerana bimbang.
Dalam pilihan 1 (membenarkan seseorang murtad), rekod atau dokumentasi hanya satu pilihan. Pilihan kedua, kaunseling dan pendidikan. Andaiannya: seseorang itu membuat pilihan untuk meninggalkan agama (Islam) tidak berdasarkan kesedaran, pengetahuan, kefahaman atau kerelaan hati yang tinggi (ulang: "tinggi") tetapi disebabkan dorongan-dorongan lain yang rendah atau remeh.
Jika begitu, pertukaran agama menjadi semata-mata "pilihan peribadi", hampir-hampir menyamai proses makan roti canai, nasi dagang, laksam atau satay Solo! Yakni, pilihan peribadi yang "main-main", yang tidak serius, anutan agama jatuhnya sama taraf dengan bertukar-tukar fesyen baju atau kasut!
(Saya tidak mahu mengatakan ia bukan satu "pilihan yang sah" tetapi implikasi dalam masyarakat, perundangan dan politik akan menjadi lebih rumit. Khususnya jika kekerapan menukar agama terlalu tinggi -- sehingga seseorang boleh beragama apa sahaja, di mana-mana dia suka, kemudian mendirikan rumah tangga, beranak-pinak sewenang-wenangnya. Ibaratnya: Aku punya pasallah, apa kau orang peduli!)
Jika kaedah kaunseling atau didikan diguna pakai, sebelum seseorang itu boleh disahkan murtad (meninggalkan Islam), maka kaedah yang sama juga harus digunakan kepada muallaf (sebelum menganut Islam) yang ingin menganut Islam. Jadi, masuk-keluar agama harus melalui proses kaunseling dan didikan.
Jadi, apakah "pusat pemulihan akidah" yang ada di suatu tempat di Selangor boleh dianggap sejenis proses "kaunseling" dan "didikan" atau sejenis hukuman (penjara)?
Saya cenderung menyebut begini: Selagi proses kaunseling atau didikan ini bersifat tertutup dan kurungan, tidak telus, selagi itulah prasangka akan muncul. Prasangka di kalangan anggota keluarganya, prasangka komuniti agamanya, dan juga prasangka di kalangan orang Islam sendiri.
Apakah yang sebenarnya terjadi sehingga (a) dia mengekalkan Islam selepas enam bulan di pusat pemulihan akidah? atau (b) dia terus bersedia meninggalkan Islam selepas "dikaunseling" di pusat tersebut? Ertinya, dalam kes (b), dakwah Islam yang disampaikan itu tidak berkesan atau tidak berguna apa-apa!
Jadi, dengan misteri ketertutupan pusat pemulihan akidah tersebut, maka mudahlah orang menuduh proses yang berlaku sebenarnya bukan kaunseling, didikan atau dakwah, tetapi "pembasuhan otak", brainwashing -- suatu "erti" yang paling kuku besi pernah diperkenalkan dalam era demokrasi.
Saya tidak menolak proses kaunseling atau dakwah, tetapi bukan melalui institusi pemulihan. Seharusnya pendidikan atau kaunseling bersifat "terbuka", beberapa cara boleh difikirkan. Misalnya, anggota-anggota keluarganya boleh hadir di sesi-sesi tersebut. Atau, peguamnya atau wakil NGO boleh hadir. Bukan sebagai "pengacau majlis" tetapi sebagai pemerhati agar pusat pemulihan akidah menjadi lebih terbuka, bukan "Bilik 101" George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four.
Saya menyokong proses kaunseling yang lebih terbuka kerana sifat ilmu pengetahuan agama (sama ada Islam atau bukan Islam) sudah terlalu mudah untuk kita perolehi. Jadi, kenapa sejumlah pengetahuan itu -- yang boleh dibeli di kedai buku, di perpustakaan kampus, dalam pengetahuan "pakar" atau di Internet -- harus disampaikan secara sulit, rahsia, misteri atau tidak telus?
Bukankah kaedah ini mengembangkan lagi prasangka bahawa pusat pemulihan akidah itu sebenar-benar "Bilik 101" Orwell, kalau pun bukan kem penderaan Nazi!
Maksud saya, brainwashing -- isi-isi pengetahuan Islam bertukar propaganda paksaan, bukan lagi diskusi adil dan telus secara ilmu/ilmiah.
>>> Kurang-lebih beginilah jawapan saya kepada sekumpulan aktivis muda yang mewawancara saya tentang "kebebasan agama" dalam konteks hari ini. Rakaman filem ini, selepas mereka sunting, mungkin boleh diperolehi pada Ogos ini.
>>> Sementara itu, jika berminat, sila tinggalkan ulasan di kaki coretan ini. Berhujahlah dengan saya sepuas-puas hati pembaca. Jika ada yang sesuai, saya ulas kembali. Jika saya tidak mampu, biarkan pembaca lain mengulasnya. Wallahu a'lam.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Pengarang (asal): Khaled M. Abou el-Fadl
Penterjemah: al-Mustaqeem Mahmod Radhi
Penerbit: Middle-Eastern Graduates Centre (MEGC)
Harga (kedai): RM25.00
Buku baru, dan menarik. Wajib dibaca!
Hanya Tuhan Mengenal Tenteranya: Persoalan wibawa dalam wacana Islam terjemahan karangan Inggeris, And God Knows the Soldiers: The authoritative and authoritarian in Islamic discourses.
Buku ini menjelaskan, tidak semua wacana itu bersifat adil, ilmiah dan demokratik. Malah ada wacana agama, dan pengemuka wacana agama itu, bersifat authoritarian atau "kuku besi" (paksaan atau pemaksaan, istilah yang dipakai di dalam buku ini) dalam menyebarkan tafsir-tafsir keagamaan.
Buku ini nipis, tetapi padat, sesuai untuk bacaan peminat agama, termasuk penggiat usrah dan aktivis dakwah, yang ingin mengenali kewibawaan, atau sifat authoritativeness dan authority, sebenar sesuatu wacana --- khususnya agama (Islam).
Pengetahuan yang dilontarkan oleh pemikir ini boleh dijadikan panduan untuk mengenali siapakah guru, aliran berfikir dan wacana Islam yang "berwibawa" (authoritative) dan siapa pula yang bersifat "paksaan" (authoritarian), yakni tidak membenarkan pendengar/pembaca berfikir sendiri dan merumus kefahamannya, atau sesuatu tafsir yang beragam ditenggelamkan ragam fikiran yang lain.
Siapa yang "berlagak" Tuhan ketika menyampaikan "kebenaran" agama?
Buku Hanya Tuhan Mengenal Tenteranya: Persoalan wibawa dalam wacana Islam memberikan garis panduan tersebut, bermula dengan persoalan teks, pengarang dan pembaca.
Apa yang dibawa Khaled M. Abou el-Fadl mungkin asing dan pelik jika kita tidak mengikut perdebatan/teori tentang hubungan/ketegangan antara tiga unsur ini: teks, pengarang dan pembaca.
Jadi, persoalan kediktatoran wacana dan kewibawaan wacana sulit untuk kita fahami.
Untuk menyelami rahsia besar perdebatan yang dibawa oleh Khaled M. Abou al-Fadl, saya bercadang menghuraikan lebih lanjut teori/debat tentang  "teks, pengarang dan pembaca", khususnya yang telah dikembangkan dalam dunia akademia dan  kediktatoran wacana dan kewibawaan wacana.
Mungkin, jika dipersetujui teman-teman, Komunite Seni Jalan Telawi (KsJT) akan mendiskusikan panjang lebar buku ini dalam siri-siri Diskusi Warong kami. Apa kata kalau kita jadikan teks kuliah Ramadhan nanti?
Buku ini sesuai dibaca oleh khalayak yang berdepan dengan teks, khususnya teks-teks berbau agama, dan juga semua pembaca, seperti mereka yang terlibat dengan usrah kerana setiap minggu mereka berdepan dengan teks, sama ada al-Quran, buku dakwah atau hadis.
Khaled mengingatkan kita untuk cermat dalam memahami teks, dan sekali gus, teliti mengemukakan pandangan, khususnya agama, agar tidak terjatuh menjadi "pemaksa" kebenaran tuntas dan tunggal sewaktu wujud persaingan pandangan atau sesuatu itu bersifat terbuka dan belum muktamad.
Buku ini asalnya ditujukan kepada, dan mengulas isu, umat Islam di Amerika Syarikat -- tempat ahli akademik ini mengajar perundangan Islam. Ia bermula dengan sebuah "fatwa" yang beredar melalui e-mel tentang hukum berdiri menghormati lagu negara dan bendera negara tersebut.
Perjalanan ini sampai di peringkat menganalisis budaya intelektual dan tingkat berfikir masyarakat Islam di negara itu, dan di beberapa negara lain -- mungkin di Malaysia juga, yang menderitai penyakit "kemalasan berfikir" atau berfikir dengan mudah seolah-olah agama dan persoalan agama begitu ringkas dan tidak perlu dipayah-payahkan.
Buku enam bab ini bermula dengan pengenalan 'Peninggalan sebuah buku ringkas' dan berakhir dengan 'Pasca penerbitan', kedua-duanya bab baru yang ditambah untuk tidak mengganggu edisi asal sewaktu cetakan semula 2001.
Jadi, kita boleh mendekati buku ini dengan bab-bab di tengahnya dahulu, misalnya bab 2: Persoalan wibawa, bab 3: Teks dan wibawa, dan bab 4: Kajian kasus (kes) sebelum bab 5: Pembentukan autoritarian. Saya cadangkan buku ini dibaca begitu, kerana bab-bab ini dikarang lebih awal daripada dua bab lagi. Namun, bagaimana mendekati buku ini terserah kepada pembaca.
Misalnya kita temui perenggan berikut di Bab 2: Tuhan, menurut hujah ulama, tidak menetapkan kebenaran yang objektif dan tunggal. Kebenaran melekap pada pencarian ---pencarian itu sendiri merupakan kebenaran yang unggul. Hasilnya ketepatan, atau kebenaran, diukur berdasarkan keikhlasan pencarian masing-masing individu.
Di bab 3, walaupun pengarang menyebut suasana buruk tradisi keilmuan Islam di Amerika Syarikat, tetapi saya fikir gejala yang sama juga wujud di Malaysia --- menjadikan buku lebih relevan dibaca juga di sini.
Misalnya pengarang menulis: ... mereka belum membangunkan jalan untuk menilai keabsahan atau kewibawaan pelbagai jalan yang boleh digunakan untuk membaca dan mentafsir sesebuah teks Islam. Hubungan antara warisan hermeneutik dan epistemologi klasik dengan Muslim yang hidup di Amerika sangat parah.
Muslim di Barat merupakan kelompok yang tidak mempunyai warisan, dan mereka terbujuk untuk membentuk semula diri mereka tanpa bersandar kepada hikmah yang dikumpulkan oleh generasi Muslim terdahulu.
Apabila tiba waktu untuk memahami teks Islam, terdapat lompong yang jelas --- lompong yang sering diisi oleh agen-agen autoritarian yang mentafsir Kehendak Tuhan dengan tujuan mematikan wacana. Keparahan ini diakibatkan oleh puritanisme yang despotic untuk mewujudkan suasana sunyi yang melemaskan.
Ungkapan beliau di sini mengingatkan kritik Seyyed Hussein Nasr terhadap fundamentalisme agama, yang disebutnya "Islamicist" dalam kitabnya Traditional Islam in the Modern World.
Yakni ayat Khaled M Abou el-Fadl yang ini: "tanpa bersandar kepada hikmah yang dikumpulkan oleh generasi Muslim terdahulu" atau dalam konteks kita di Malaysia, merobek-robek "hikmah yang dikumpulkan oleh generasi Muslim terdahulu" yang dilaungkan dengan jelas apabila kita menekankan beberapa mazhab "rasmi" Islam sahaja seperti Sunni dan Syafi'e sahaja dengan mengabaikan, malah mungkin lebih tepat --- menyembunyikan, sejumlah aliran dan tokoh Islam klasik.
Malah, tokoh Islam kontemporari juga menjadi korban pada sikap jahat memilih-milih ini, termasuk karya Nasr sendiri Traditional Islam in the Modern World.
Sebab itulah buku Khaled ini sangat relevan!
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Selain Hilton, yang baru dibebaskan daripada tahanan hari ini, Abdul Razak Abdullah Baginda juga dilihat memegang dua novel besar di mahkamah hari ini.
Penganalisis politik dan isu keselamatan itu memegang novel Lost Horizon karangan James Hilton di mahkamah petang tadi.
Abdul Razak juga dilihat memegang novel The Master and Margarita karya Mikhail Bulgakov. Berita lengkap lihat di mStar Online.
Komentar beliau kepada wartawan Bernama itu menarik: "Dah enam bulan duduk di penjara, baca macam-macam buku," kata Abdul Razak.
Saya teringat Anwar Ibrahim, penjara dan buku-bukunya. Juga Hishamuddin Rais, buku-buku dan kem Kamuntingnya.
Nampaknya, kalau mahu membaca banyak buku, kita harus bersedia masuk penjara!
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Seseorang yang tidak biasa dengan diskusi isu-isu Zaman Pencerahan, debat falsafah sains Barat tetapi meminati agama dinasihatkan membaca dengan perlahan-lahan dan teliti.
>>> Bacaan wajib bagi teman-teman Komunite Seni Jalan Telawi --- jika diterjemahkan, lagi baik!
I was presenting a report to a group of physicians, and dropped the phrase, “the Enlightenment,” probably as a dangling participle to no good effect.
In any case, the chief medical officer, a man in his mid-40s at the time (that is, a man about my own age), South African (and thus possessing an accent that smacked of erudition), and a rather general haughty air about him (no doubt from the authority of his position), stopped me by asking, “What is the Enlightenment?”
I paused, not sure of his intention, but soon discerned that he was genuinely perplexed from a state of utter ignorance.
At that moment, there in the boardroom of the big city hospital, I realized that we were in trouble, deep trouble.
Shortly thereafter I initiated my career shift into philosophy, where despite encountering a universe of different kinds of problems, at least my colleagues knew such turn of phrases as “the Enlightenment” and could respond with a kindly nod or a disapproving frown. They knew how we are the products of that cultural moment, and how those values developed and continue to guide liberalism and the specific endeavor we call education.
I have often contemplated how I might have answered my physician inquisitor.
Instead of sputtering some incoherent mumblings, I wish I could have quickly listed the key components of the Enlightenment: celebration of an unfettered reason; the relentless questioning of authority and doctrine; the promotion of individuality and free-choice; the centrality of selfhood and moral agency; the confidence in progress; the sanctity of secularism.
In short, these precepts, refracted into the worlds of politics, law, social mores, and perhaps most evidently in theology, marked modernity’s coming of age.
Returning to my doctor colleague, I would have explained that his ignorance was symptomatic (a word he would undoubtedly have understood and would hopefully peak his interest) of the troubled status of this humanist-science alliance. Let us briefly review that recent history.
>>> Baca lagi di sini Science and Reason, Reason and Faith: A Kantian Perspective [format PDF]
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Sehingga Reformasi 1998 itu ditanggap sebagai “Merdeka Kedua” atau the new defining moment. Sehingga krisis politik dan kenegaraan itu tidak dilihat di lapisan luar politiknya sahaja, tetapi ditakrifkan sebagai “krisis kebudayaan” atau “krisis pemikiran” pemimpin negaranya, penentangnya, cendekiawan dan senimannya.
Begitulah komunite (kependekan kata “komuniti minum teh (tarik)” berkembang menjadi kumpulan anak muda yang mengkritik hampir semua ruang bernegara dan berbudaya negara ini – sama ada lengkap, lemah, perinci atau dangkal. Yang pasti, tiada ruang yang mahu diabaikan.
Sebagaimana lantangnya laungan di pinggir-pinggir jalan, dan beraninya meredah sergahan kekuasaan, begitulah lantangnya “suara baru” ini dikumandangkan tanpa rasa apologetik terhadap rakan dan lawan – “kejujuran intelektual” harus ada demi meluahkan kebenaran hati (dan akal).
Dengan kesedarannya yang luas dan terbuka kepada warisan dunia, Komunite Seni Jalan Telawi menjadi “sarang” mencerna sembang kedai kopi dan salon Pencerahan abad ke-18 (Eropah), gerakan reformasi al-Afghani-Abduh (Mesir), gerakan al-Hadi dan al-Imamnya (Singapura dan Pulau Pinang), kumpulan Barranquilla si Marquez (Colombia), Lingkar Vienna, lingkar kopi Karl Menger atau 'geistkreis' Friedrich Augustus Hayek (semuanya Austria), mazhab Frankfurt (Jerman), Manifes Kebudayaan dan komunitas Utan Kayu (Indonesia), liberalisme J. S. Mill serta Isaiah Berlin, rasionalisme Karl R. Popper dan ....
Jangan takut dihina "intelektual", jangan bimbang digelar "berteori" .... semua kesedaran dan keagungan bermula daripada keberanian melangkah, menafsir dan mengharungi Semangat Zaman, zeitgeist.
Melangkah kita pastilah sudah.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Allah Is Not Obliged
by Ahmadou Kourouma
A Troubling Story of Warrior Children
A Review by Matthew Cheney
First published in Paris in 2000 as Allah n'est pas obligé, and now arriving in the U.S. for the first time, Ahmadou Kourouma's final novel is the harrowing story of a child soldier in Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia in the 1990s. It is a story of adult atrocities perceived (and committed) by a child, but ultimately it is something other than that, a fiction that shows how fiction can -- and, perhaps, should -- fall apart when asked to bear the weight of the real horrors of the world.
Though his four novels are as yet almost unknown within the United States, Kourouma's reputation in France is strong, and he received various awards before his death in December 2003. Born in 1927 in Côte d'Ivoire, he spent time during his childhood in Guinea and Mali before going to France for school and later to Indochina as a soldier with the French colonial army. He returned to Côte d'Ivoire after it gained independence in 1960, but, after clashing with the new government and being imprisoned, ended up in exile in Algeria, Cameroon, and Togo before once again returning in the 1980s to his home.
Allah Is Not Obliged begins boldly: "The full, final and complete title of my bullshit story is: Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth. Okay. Right. I better start explaining some stuff." Thus, we are introduced to our narrator, Birahima, who tells his story to an unidentified audience for whom he explains a nightmare gallery of "stuff" in a one-man show of profanity and atrocity, profundity and absurdity -- as if Candide and Gulliver were summoned by a grigriman and made to dance on the grave of Conrad's Kurtz.
Birahima, for all his vulgarity and naïveté, proves to be at times omniscient, offering detailed histories of not only the characters around him, but also of the political situations that create the wars he joins and the warlords he serves. He has inherited four dictionaries from a dead man, and he uses them to tell us definitions of words from French or pidgin or African languages. Sometimes this is a technique of satire, sometimes it is a way to provide meanings for words that most readers would be unlikely to know, and occasionally it seems to be the part of the novel that suffers the most from translation, as words and phrases that are, in English, likely to be ones a child would know are defined for us, perhaps because in French they are more obscure.
The verisimilitude of Birahima's monologue encounters too many obstacles for the voice to hold together as anything other than a convenient tool of the narrative, a way for Kourouma to portray certain events and comment on certain subjects. This is not simply a fictionalized version of a child soldier's story. We certainly see much that is expected in such a story -- the families and villages destroyed, the leaders who rise to heights of power from which they fall to ignoble deaths, the suffering, the insanity -- but again and again the plausibility of the monologue cracks and splinters, forcing us to reflect on the fact that there is literally too much here for any one boy to know. We watch Birahima try on the words of the worlds he travels through, without any understanding of what words his audience already comprehends. We see him attempt a pose of cynicism and indifference, a shield made from recycled phrases, a callousness that he falls back on when he gets carried away and then remembers someone is listening. He explains the machinations of various leaders, the ebb and flow of causes and effects, the meaning of actions that seem tragically meaningless. He chronicles people and armies and nations. Much is filtered through the warping lens of his consciousness, but much is presented with a certain sort of objectivity, too, or at least authority, like a newspaper report or well-preserved legend.
Toward the end of Allah Is Not Obliged, Birahima gives his longest history lesson, a section of about twenty pages where, with only occasional and small breaks, he tells us all about Sierra Leone's warlords in the 1990s. As names and dates pepper the pages, all pretense of this being the testimony of a young boy disappears, though some of his familiar phrases and locutions remain, and the story is told with a wearily satirical edge. It is as if in the face of such horrific absurdity, Kourouma lost faith in the persona offered by fiction, as if he could not stomach pretending that the litany of abominations came from an imagined character's mouth, as if even so strong a voice as Birahima's could not carry such a burden of truth.
Allah Is Not Obliged might have been a more satisfying book if Kourouma had tried harder to make Birahima's monologue more plausible, but it would not have been as thought-provoking and challenging, nor would it have been able to encompass as much as it does. All readers know that fiction is a game, a dream we agree to enter; great writers know when the games should pause,when the dreamers should awake, and when the enormities of reality should not be forced to fit in a neat and symmetrical form.
Monday, June 11, 2007
Why do they hate Him?
by Anthony Gottlieb [reproduced without permission from NewYorker.com, 21 May 2007]
Great portents and disasters turn some minds to God and others away from him. When an unusually bright and long-tailed comet was tracked through the sky in the last two months of 1680, posters and sermons called on Christians to repent. A hen in Rome seemed to confirm that the Day of Judgment was near. On December 2nd, it made an extraordinarily loud cackle and produced an exceptionally large egg, on which could be seen a likeness of the comet, or so it was said. This added to the religious panic. But the comet also sparked a small triumph for rationalism. In the next few years, as Armageddon somehow failed to arrive, a stream of pamphlets across Europe and America argued that heavenly displays were purely natural phenomena. The skeptics won the day. From the eighteenth century onward, no respectable intellectual saw comets as direct messages from God—though there were still some fears that one might eventually hit the earth.
The felling of the World Trade Center in New York, on September 11, 2001, brought its share of religion. Two populist preachers, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, called it divine punishment (though both quickly withdrew their remarks), and not only the bereaved prayed for help. But September 11th and its aftershocks in Bali, Madrid, London, and elsewhere are more notable for causing an outbreak of militant atheism, at least on bookshelves. The terrorist attacks were carried out in the name of Islam, and they have been taken, by a string of best-selling books, to illustrate the fatal dangers of all religious faith.
The first of these books was “The End of Faith,” by Sam Harris, which was published in 2004 and was on the Times paperback best-seller list for thirty-three weeks. Then came “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,” by Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University, who has written popular books on the science of consciousness and on Darwin. Next was “The God Delusion,” by Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and Britain’s preëminent science writer. Harris joined battle again last year with “Letter to a Christian Nation,” which renewed his attack on Christianity in particular. And now there is “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (Twelve; $24.99), by Christopher Hitchens, which is both the most articulate and the angriest of the lot. Hitchens is a British-born writer who lives in Washington, D.C., and is a columnist for Vanity Fair and Slate. He thrives at the lectern, where his powers of rhetoric and recall enable him to entertain an audience, go too far, and almost get away with it. These gifts are amply reflected in “God Is Not Great.”
Hitchens is nothing if not provocative. Creationists are “yokels,” Pascal’s theology is “not far short of sordid,” the reasoning of the Christian writer C. S. Lewis is “so pathetic as to defy description,” Calvin was a “sadist and torturer and killer,” Buddhist sayings are “almost too easy to parody,” most Eastern spiritual discourse is “not even wrong,” Islam is “a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms,” Hanukkah is a “vapid and annoying holiday,” and the psalmist King David was an “unscrupulous bandit.”
It’s possible to wonder, indeed, where plain speaking ends and misanthropy begins: Hitchens says that the earth sometimes seems to him to be “a prison colony and lunatic asylum that is employed as a dumping ground by far-off and superior civilizations.” He certainly likes to adopt the tone of a bemused Martian envoy hammering out a report for headquarters. (We hear of “a showbiz woman bizarrely known as Madonna.”) In a curious rhetorical tic, Hitchens regularly refers to people whom he wishes to ridicule by their zoological class. Thus the followers of Muhammad are “mammals,” as is the prophet himself, and so are the seventeenth-century false messiah Sabbatai Zevi and St. Francis of Assisi; Japan’s wartime Emperor Hirohito is a “ridiculously overrated mammal,” and Kim Il Sung, the father of North Korea’s current dictator, is a “ludicrous mammal.” Hitchens is trying to say that these people are mere fallible mortals; but his way of saying it makes him come across as rather an odd fish.
He is also a fallible one. After rightly railing against female genital mutilation in Africa, which is an indigenous cultural practice with no very firm ties to any particular religion, Hitchens lunges at male circumcision. He claims that it is a medically dangerous procedure that has made countless lives miserable. This will come as news to the Jewish community, where male circumcision is universal, and where doctors, hypochondria, and overprotective mothers are not exactly unknown. Jews, Muslims, and others among the nearly one-third of the world’s male population who have been circumcised may be reassured by the World Health Organization’s recent announcement that it recommends male circumcision as a means of preventing the spread of AIDS.
Hitchens is on firmer ground as he traipses around the world on a tour of sectarian conflicts. He recounts how, a week before September 11th, a hypothetical question was put to him by Dennis Prager, an American talk-show host. Hitchens was asked to imagine himself in a foreign city at dusk, with a large group of men coming toward him. Would he feel safer, or less safe, if he were to learn that they were coming from a prayer meeting? With justified relish, the widely travelled Hitchens responds that he has had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad, and that, in each case, the answer would be a resounding “less safe.” He relates what he has seen or knows of warring factions of Protestants and Catholics in Ulster; Christians and Muslims in Beirut and in Bethlehem; Hindus and Muslims in Bombay; Roman Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbians, and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia; and Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians in Baghdad. In these cases and others, he argues, religion has exacerbated ethnic conflicts. As he puts it, “religion has been an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred.”
That’s more plausible than what Sam Harris has to say on the subject. He maintains that religious belief not only aggravates such conflicts but is “the explicit cause” of them. He believes this even of Northern Ireland, where the Troubles between pro-British Unionists and pro-Irish Republicans began around 1610, when Britain confiscated Irish land and settled English and Scottish planters on it. As far as Harris is concerned, Islam brought down the Twin Towers, thanks in no small part to the incendiary language of the Koran; Middle East politics, history, and economics are irrelevant sideshows. This thesis suffers from a problem of timing: if he is right, why did Al Qaeda not arise, say, three hundred years ago, when the Koran said exactly what it says now?
One practical problem for antireligious writers is the diversity of religious views. However carefully a skeptic frames his attacks, he will be told that what people in fact believe is something different. For example, when Terry Eagleton, a British critic who has been a professor of English at Oxford, lambasted Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” in the London Review of Books, he wrote that “card-carrying rationalists” like Dawkins “invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.” That is unfair, because millions of the faithful around the world believe things that would make a first-year theology student wince. A large survey in 2001 found that more than half of American Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians believed that Jesus sinned—thus rejecting a central dogma of their own churches.
So how is a would-be iconoclast supposed to tell exactly what the faithful believe? Interpreting the nature and prevalence of religious opinions is tricky, particularly if you depend on polls. Respondents can be lacking in seriousness, unsure what they believe, and evasive. Spiritual values and practices are what pollsters call “motherhood” issues: everybody knows that he is supposed to be in favor of them. Thus sociologists estimate that maybe only half of the Americans who say that they regularly attend church actually do so. The World Values Survey Association, an international network of social scientists, conducts research in eighty countries, and not long ago asked a large sample of the earth’s population to say which of four alternatives came closest to their own beliefs: a personal God (forty-two per cent chose this), a spirit or life force (thirty-four per cent), neither of these (ten per cent), don’t know (fourteen per cent). Depending on what the respondents understood by a “spirit or life force,” belief in God may be far less widespread than simple yes/no polls suggest.
In some religious research, it is not necessarily the respondents who are credulous. Harris has made much of a survey that suggests that forty-four per cent of Americans believe that Jesus will return to judge mankind within the next fifty years. But, in 1998, a fifth of non-Christians in America told a poll for Newsweek that they, too, expected Jesus to return. What does Harris make of that? Any excuse for a party, perhaps. He also worries about a poll that said that nearly three-quarters of Americans believe in angels—by which, to judge from blogs and online forums on the subject, some of them may have meant streaks of luck, or their own delightful infants.
The Bible is a motherhood issue, too. Harris takes at face value a Gallup poll suggesting that eighty-three per cent of Americans regard it as the Word of God, and he, like Dawkins and Hitchens, uses up plenty of ink establishing the wickedness of many tales in the Old Testament. Critics of the Bible should find consolation in the fact that many people do not have a clue what is in it. Surveys by the Barna Research Group, a Christian organization, have found that most Christians don’t know who preached the Sermon on the Mount.
The tangled diversity of faith is, in the event, no obstacle for Hitchens. He knows exactly which varieties of religion need attacking; namely, the whole lot. And if he has left anyone out he would probably like to hear about it so that he can rectify the omission. From the perspective of the new atheists, religion is all one entity; those who would apologize for any of its forms—Harris and Dawkins, in particular, insist on this point—are helping to sustain the whole. But, though the vague belief in a “life force” may be misguided, it’s hard to make the case that it’s dangerous. And there’s a dreamy incoherence in their conviction that moderate forms of religion somehow enable fundamentalist zeal and violence to survive. Are we really going to tame the fervor of an extremist imam’s mosque in Waziristan by weakening the plush-toy creed of a nondenominational church in Chappaqua? If there were no religion, it’s true, neither house of worship would exist. So perhaps we are just being asked to sway along with John Lennon’s “Imagine.” (“Imagine there’s no countries /It isn’t hard to do /Nothing to kill or die for /And no religion too.”)
When Hitchens weighs the pros and cons of religion in the recent past, the evidence he provides is sometimes lopsided. He discusses the role of the Dutch Reformed Church in maintaining apartheid in South Africa, but does not mention the role of the Anglican Church in ending it. He attacks some in the Catholic Church, especially Pope Pius XII, for their appeasement of Nazism, but says little about the opposition to Nazism that came from religious communities and institutions. In “Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century,” Jonathan Glover, who is the director of the Center of Medical Law and Ethics at Kings College London, documents such opposition, and writes, “It is striking how many protests against and acts of resistance to atrocity have . . . come from principled religious commitment.” The loss of such commitment, Glover suggests, should be of concern even to nonbelievers. Still, Hitchens succeeds in compiling a list of evils that the faithful, too, should find sobering. Now that so much charitable work is carried out by secular bodies, religious ones have to work harder to keep the moral high ground. For the Catholic Church in particular—with its opposition to contraception, including the distribution of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, and the covering up of child abuse by priests—the ledger is not looking good.
Bertrand Russell, who had a prodigious knowledge of history and a crisp wit, claimed in 1930 that he could think of only two useful contributions that religion had made to civilization. It had helped fix the calendar, and it had made Egyptian priests observe eclipses carefully enough to predict them. He could at least have added Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and more than a few paintings; but perhaps the legacy of religion is too large a conundrum to be argued either way. The history of the West has been so closely interwoven with the history of religious institutions and ideas that it is hard to be confident about what life would have been like without them. One of Kingsley Amis’s lesser-known novels, “The Alteration,” tried to envisage an alternative course for modern history in which the Reformation never happened, science is a dirty word, and in 1976 most of the planet is ruled by a Machiavellian Pope from Yorkshire. In this world, Jean-Paul Sartre is a Jesuit and the central mosaic in Britain’s main cathedral is by David Hockney. That piece of fancy is dizzying enough on its own. But imagine attempting such a thought experiment in the contrary fashion, and rolling it back several thousand years to reveal a world with no churches, mosques, or temples. The idea that people would have been nicer to one another if they had never got religion, as Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris seem to think, is a strange position for an atheist to take. For if man is wicked enough to have invented religion for himself he is surely wicked enough to have found alternative ways of making mischief.
In the early days of the Christian era, nobody was fantasizing about a world with no religion, but there were certainly those who liked to imagine a world with no Christians. The first surviving example of anti-Christian polemic is strikingly similar in tone to that of some of today’s militant atheists. In the second century, it was Christians who were called “atheists,” because they failed to worship the accepted gods. “On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians” was written in 178 A.D. by Celsus, an eclectic follower of Plato. The Christian deity, Celsus proclaimed, is a contradictory invention. He “keeps his purposes to himself for ages, and watches with indifference as wickedness triumphs over good,” and only after a long time decides to intervene and send his son: “Did he not care before?” Moses is said to be “stupid”; his books, and those of the prophets, are “garbage.” Christians have “concocted an absolutely offensive doctrine of everlasting punishment.” Their injunction to turn the other cheek was put much better by Socrates. And their talk of a Last Judgment is “complete nonsense.”
There’s not much more where that came from, because within a couple of hundred years Christians became the ones to decide who counted as an atheist and was to be punished accordingly. Pagan anti-Christian writings were destroyed wherever possible. In truth, from the start of the Christian era until the eighteenth century, there were probably very few people in the West who thought that there was no God of any sort. Those thinkers who had serious doubts about the traditional conception of God—of whom there were many in the seventeenth century—substituted another sort of deity, usually a more distant or less personalized one.
Even Voltaire, one of the fiercest critics of superstition, Christianity, and the Church’s abuse of power, was a man of deep religious feeling. His God, though, was beyond human understanding and had no concern for man. (Voltaire’s satirical tale “Candide,” which attacks the idea that all is for the best in a world closely watched over by a benevolent God, was partly inspired by a huge earthquake in Lisbon, which struck while the faithful were at Mass on All Saints’ Day in 1755 and killed perhaps thirty thousand people.)
Voltaire, like many others before and after him, was awed by the order and the beauty of the universe, which he thought pointed to a supreme designer, just as a watch points to a watchmaker. In 1779, a year after Voltaire died, that idea was attacked by David Hume, a cheerful Scottish historian and philosopher, whose way of undermining religion was as arresting for its strategy as it was for its detail. Hume couldn’t have been more different from today’s militant atheists.
In his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,” which was published posthumously, and reports imaginary discussions among three men, Hume prized apart the supposed analogy between the natural world and a designed artifact. Even if the analogy were apt, he pointed out, the most one could infer from it would be a superior craftsman, not an omnipotent and perfect deity. And, he argued, if it is necessary to ask who made the world it must also be necessary to ask who, or what, made that maker. In other words, God is merely the answer that you get if you do not ask enough questions. From the accounts of his friends, his letters, and some posthumous essays, it is clear that Hume had no trace of religion, did not believe in an afterlife, and was particularly disdainful of Christianity. He had a horror of zealotry. Yet his many writings on religion have a genial and even superficially pious tone. He wanted to convince his religious readers, and recognized that only gentle and reassuring persuasion would work. In a telling passage in the “Dialogues,” Hume has one of his characters remark that a person who openly proclaimed atheism, being guilty of “indiscretion and imprudence,” would not be very formidable.
Hume sprinkled his gunpowder through the pages of the “Dialogues” and left the book primed so that its arguments would, with luck, ignite in his readers’ own minds. And he always offered a way out. In “The Natural History of Religion,” he undermined the idea that there are moral reasons to be religious, but made it sound as if it were still all right to believe in proofs of God’s existence. In an essay about miracles, he undermined the idea that it is ever rational to accept an apparent revelation from God, but made it sound as if it were still all right to have faith. And in the “Dialogues” he undermined proofs of God’s existence, but made it sound as if it were all right to believe on the basis of revelation. As the Cambridge philosopher Edward Craig has put it, Hume never tried to topple all the supporting pillars of religion at once.
In Paris, meanwhile, a number of thinkers began to profess atheism openly. They were the first influential group to do so, and included Denis Diderot, the co-editor of the Enlightenment’s great Encyclopédie, and Baron D’Holbach, who hosted a salon of freethinkers. Hume visited them, and made several friends there; they presented him with a large gold medal. But the philosophes were too dogmatic for Hume’s taste. To Hume’s like-minded friend the historian Edward Gibbon, they suffered from “intolerant zeal.” Still, they represented a historical vanguard: explicit attacks on religion as a whole poured forth within the next hundred years.
Since all the arguments against belief have been widely publicized for a long time, today’s militant atheists must sometimes wonder why religion persists. Hitchens says that it is born of fear and probably ineradicable. Harris holds that there are genuine spiritual experiences; having kicked sand in the faces of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, he dives headlong into the surf of Eastern spirituality, encouraging readers to try Buddhist techniques of meditation instead of dangerous creeds. Dawkins devotes a chapter, and Dennett most of his book, to evolutionary accounts of how religion may have arisen and how its ideas spread. It’s thin stuff, and Dennett stresses that these are early days for a biological account of religion. It may, however, be too late for one. If a propensity toward religious belief is “hard-wired” in the brain, as it is sometimes said to be, the wiring has evidently become frayed. This is especially true in rich countries, nearly all of which—Ireland and America are exceptions—have relatively high rates of unbelief.
After making allowances for countries that have, or recently have had, an officially imposed atheist ideology, in which there might be some social pressure to deny belief in God, one can venture conservative estimates of the number of unbelievers in the world today. Reviewing a large number of studies among some fifty countries, Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California, puts the figure at between five hundred million and seven hundred and fifty million. This excludes such highly populated places as Brazil, Iran, Indonesia, and Nigeria, for which information is lacking or patchy. Even the low estimate of five hundred million would make unbelief the fourth-largest persuasion in the world, after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. It is also by far the youngest, with no significant presence in the West before the eighteenth century. Who can say what the landscape will look like once unbelief has enjoyed a past as long as Islam’s—let alone as long as Christianity’s? God is assuredly not on the side of the unbelievers, but history may yet be. ♦