“Don’t Mention Religion, Mister Fawlty – They’re Nuns!”

Religion

Another day, another fracas because I have misunderstood religion and offended others. In suggesting that the subjective interpretation of the Holy Scriptures by men of faith who have a political agenda instead of a Holy Bible or Quran, I have been accused of “religion bashing?”, or words to that effect. Religion is untouchable, it seems  – “l’enfant terrible.”

For some, the fate of Muslim women has nothing to do with the religion of Islam. It is a fallacy of the West to think so, and we spend an awful lot of time talking and writing about something that in the eyes of Muslims and others, is deemed to be benign. Their rhetoric concerns religion, and not the fate of Muslim women. We, in the secular West, just do not understand.

Believers, and some non-believers, think that religion is not the root cause of a large number of problems that Muslim women face. Believers, of course, cannot partake in a civilised conversation, and will take any criticism as an offence to their religion. Like most Facebook users, they want to have the last word, and be able to prove that you are severely prejudiced, have no knowledge on the subject matter at hand, or probably both. 

 

Just try to talk about religion during a dinner party. It’s a real ice-breaker, and men should rule out religion from the conversation, if they don’t want to end up with the first course all over their bow ties. Women don’t have this problem, being clever enough not to wear bow ties at dinner parties, or do not have the right to air their views in front of their Muslim husbands – if they are allowed to sit at the table, that is.

With Facebook users, you know that you have won the argument when they don’t answer back and disappear into cyber wilderness. With guests at your dinner party, you have won the argument when your bow tie needs washing.

Things really start to get hopeless when people who claim to be non-believers start defending religion. They too, forget one crucial detail of the argument – it is the interpretation and politicisation of the religious message that cause problems, and that is what I deeply oppose. If God, or His Muslim equivalent, tells me eye-to-eye, that I should give women absolutely no rights, only then will I listen.

Criticising religion is rather like making fun of Germans. It can only be done by excentric Englishmen who don’t know their right foot from their left, border on racism and bigotry, and live on an isolated island away from the Golden Age of Islam that came to an abrupt halt, and whose legacy has been taken over by the West and its secularism.

 

Daring to criticise religion and religious texts – in the absence of their author – as the root cause of the fate of Muslim women, makes me as ridiculous and as pathetic as the infamous Basil Fawlty. It makes me, at best, a poor misguided soul and, at worst, a dangerous infidel who must be silenced. Both distort and misunderstand Islam in every way that is conceivably possible. Maybe if the Quran were presented to us in a coherent way, not forcing the Western eye to read it from right to left and vice versa, where the first part of the second part is, in fact, the fourth part of the sixth, we would make fewer mistakes in interpreting the written text of Islam. And so too, dare I say, would Muslims.

It all reminds me of the Fawlty Towers episode with the Germans, where poor old Basil tries to make the German guests laugh, by imitating Hitler and the German army goose walk. He despairingly said, “You have absolutely no sense of humour, do you?” Mister Fawlty was right, the German guests did not find his English sense of humour particularly funny. “How dare you make fun of something so atrocious?”

Muslims, who value their religion above all else, would say the same to me – “How dare you criticize something so serious and pure?” No, I am not criticising something so serious and pure. My message to Muslims would be, “You have absolutely no respect for who you really are, do you?” My criticisms reflect what I see as the total absurdity of life that should be so beautiful for us all, but that we, as humans, make so absurd with our stupid texts and warped ideologies.

Of course, we have to be discerning in this matter. We must be lucid and calm in our opinions, and we must respect those who feel that their faith is a comforter for the hardships of life. I am certainly not saying that religion, per se, is the root cause. I stress again that it is the interpretation of the texts that leads to abuse. The false interpretation only exacerbates the effects of an already patriarchal society, in the Muslim world.

 

It goes without saying that if I were to come face-to-face with nuns, I wouldn’t be as tactless as Basil Fawlty. I would certainly not start contradicting the words of the Bible, in front of them, mocking their spirituality. Poor souls – would I be really so cruel as to say that, from a biological point of view, they are a waste of space? No, I wouldn’t, and neither would you. In any case, nuns, monks, and your local priest, are sweet and harmless, living in their world, behind closed doors. And where would we be, without Dom Perignon champagne, so lovingly made at the Benedictine abbey, in North-Eastern France? Sweet and harmless, they are – at least, that’s what I thought, before I watched a movie entitled, “Novitiate,” and read about the goings-on in Pennsylvania.

I cited two young female students, who oppose the proposed reforms of the inheritance laws in Tunisia, that are so unfavourable to women. What if they were right, and it had nothing to do with the Quran, after all? Maybe it’s a fantasy of Western civilisation, that religion is the root of all evil, perpetrated in its name, and the oppression of Muslim women. I have also heard and read this argument, elsewhere. It is argued that women, certainly in remote areas, have been living in a patriarchal society for as long as their societies exist. They have no knowledge of what it feels, not to be oppressed. But the two female students are not living in a remote village. They are literate, wearing make-up, and going to university, as they should be entitled to do. And they too, maintain that religion is not the root cause, despite the law being Sharia, and not civil law.

 

Tunisia is the only Arab land that has progressed in terms of democracy, since the Arab spring of 2010. Today, president Béji Essebsi is set on reforming the country even further. His proposals of modifying the inheritance law, decriminalizing homosexuality, and abolishing the death sentence, are steps forwards, but these changes will not take place without a struggle, if they take place at all. We must also not forget that president Essebsi and his committee have ignored other blatant breaches of human rights, that occur on a daily basis, in Tunisia. Aldultery carries with it a five-year prison sentence, as does proselytism. Although homosexuality will no longer carry a three-year prison sentence, and the infamous “anal test” for homosexuality will no longer be practiced, homosexuals will face fines.

The president’s proposals for reforming the laws of inheritance, at present based on Sharia law, reflect the struggle of a land that is still buried under the veil of religious obscurantism. In allowing men to deviate from the proposed law, the presidential commission has reflected Tunisia’s difficulties in creating a civil state that is truly independent from religion. The 2014 Constitution upholds freedom of conscience, whilst at the same time sanctifying Islamic values. Tunisia’s civil state must not be forced to justify itself, regarding religion.

Concerning changes in the inheritance laws, the two students may be proven right. Despite proposing that equality inheritance should become law, President Essebsi has left the door ajar for those who oppose the proposals, by allowing families who wish to continue applying Sharia law, to do so. Whatever happens once the law is passed, will be a reflection of how quickly, or willingly, Muslim men learn to differentiate between a revocable tradition and an everlasting religion. Unless, of course, the former has turned into the latter. The question of whether Tunisian society can be cured of its schizophrenia, remains firmly in the balance.