Thursday, April 19, 2007

Complusion in religion

Brett quotes approvingly Sheikh Mohammed Kazem al-Khaqani who said (pdf), "Religious belief is a choice... People should be free to choose the political system that they desire to live under." I agree with the latter statement, obviously, but I'm not sure about the former.

Ian McEwan in his novel Saturday referred to the 'accidental nature' of the views we hold. How much more so when it comes to religion, or the lack of it, when people's identities are inextricably bound up with a belief system? The position I take, for example, surely owes no small part to the fact that I was raised by two strongly secular socialists.

This is not to suggest that there is no element of choice but the will is much more likely to be active when a man or a woman breaks from the faith of their parents and their community.

However, where there is, I think, clear choice is with regards to this whole issue of compulsion, which is to say theocracy. I really don't know what to make of this oft-repeated saying attributed to Mohammed that "there is no compulsion in religion" because historically compulsion has formed a large part of salvation religions, in Islam at least as much as the rest.

But Sheikh Mohammed Kazem al-Khaqani draws our attention to another tradition where religion is expressed either in monastic separation from the world or by ascetic engagement with it - two modes of piety that don't really have significant political implications.

That present-day jihadis, along with politicized Christian fundamentalist, have broken with this tradition, is the matter we should engage with, rather than with religious affiliation per se. For in this world the scope for a person to choose their identity is not non-existent but is nevertheless circumscribed by accidents of birth. But given the breadth and depth of religious traditions, their heterogeneity and their intrinsic capacity to be non-political, attempts to impose these identities on others - which is to say attempts to use political power in order to make others replicas of oneself - are unquestionably social and political choices, modern ones at that, and should therefore be resisted to the uttermost.

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