Friday, March 6, 2009

Where Art Thou, Islam: From Interfaith Dialogues To Sufism (Part 3)

The Constitution of Love And The Community

In this world community, the existence of one community is always affected by the presence of another. If not for a constitution of oneself within one’s community (for example, how Muslims constitute themselves as a single unit despite sectarian differences), there is always a constitution of one’s existence based on another. During a roundtable discussion entitled "Love and Community" where Nancy Jean-Luc discussed the limitations of thinking about love on the community, he states that a “community does not have a common being, a common substance, but consists of being-in-common” (Jean-Luc 2001). He argued that a community is always a community of ‘being-with” – the “with” is characterized by “touch” which is further characterized by proximity and distance. He takes the notion of community away from a spiritual ideal to a physical concept and then examines how these communities exist together. Such co-habitation within a community, according to Nancy, is an embodiment, and such embodiment cannot be violent for a community to survive. To him, there is therefore the impossibility of “penetration” into a community as that means there is something outside of that community that force itself into it – establishing the violence.

The language of “love” within Islam has also shifted. As opposed to the initial sufi concept on love as discussed earlier, love as being portrayed by sufis in these recent dialogues has been criticized as being secular as notions of love are seamlessly tied to political, social and cultural agendas. It would be very tempting to say that Islam and the traditional notions of Islam, as understood in the concept of that “love”, is a secularizing movement. However, the relationship between what is secular and what is religious is not that clear. But as soon as that love becomes a “love thy neighbor” concept, it divorces itself from the notion of a Muslim’s love for Allah, as it is now predicated by a certain notion of how love is constituted on a Christian concept. Quite contrary to what Nancy stated, that to me, is the “penetration” on the Islamic community.

The effects vary to some extend in different parts of the world. In the Middle East, the discussion on the notion of love in interfaith dialogues is not as intense as the discussions that are being made in the European west – for culturally, they are not embedded in the practice of communicating love in the same manner and passion as the Europeans. The differences in treatment and the confluence of culture, race, politics and physical geography reminds one of Thomas Tweed’s theory of religion as “confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and suprahuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries” (Tweed 2006). His argument for increased sensitivities in such diversity and plurality makes one sees such symbols and products as meaning differently when located at different time and place. In these differential outcomes, according to Tweed, it allows for religion to make its homes (dwelling) and cross boundaries (crossing). 

Culturally, such confluence of language and culture are strongly evident. The Arabic language (especially via Spanish and French) has contributed to the vocabulary of English. Common English words such as “coffee,” “sofa,” “genie” and “alcohol,” technical words such as “algebra,” or “alkaline,” and even archaic words such as “lute” and “alchemy” all have their roots in the Arabic language. Arabic words such as hajj, jihad or hijab have become commonplace enough so as not to require translation. The pastime of smoking hookah is now a favorite pastime all the way from Singapore to America.

There is also another interesting element at play. Michel Foucault in "Power/Knowledge" puts the matter in this way: “Power must be analyzed as something which circulates, or as something which only functions in the form of a chain … Power is employed and exercised through a netlike organization … Individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application” (Foucault 1980). There are several important points here: first, that power is conceptualized as a chain or as a net, that is a system of relations spread throughout the society, rather than simply a set of relations between the ruler and the ruled. Second, individuals should not be seen simply as the recipients of power, but as the ‘place’ where power is enacted and/or the place where it is resisted. Thus, Foucault’s theorizing of power forces us to re-conceptualize not only power itself but also the role that individuals play in power relations – whether they are simply subjected to oppression or whether they actively play a role in the form of their relations with others and with institutions. 

Interfaith dialogues do not operate in a vacuum. This is not to belittle the efforts made by individuals in sharing the beauty of their faiths. As Asad alluded to earlier mentioned in this paper, power relations are an important component that needs to be examined. In most instances, the political authority, being the holder of such power, organizes and mobilizes the organization of such dialogues. To this end, I wish to highlight an example of Singapore, where such relationships are being manifested as described by Foucault above: through the legal enactment of the Maintenance of the Religious Harmony Act (1992), the setting up of the Inter-Religious Organization and the Inter-Religious Confidence Circles (2001), the pumping of over-generous financial resources and trainings of its community leaders by the authorities, sponsored overseas visits to study multicultural societies and communities, the buying-in of religious institutions and voluntary grassroots organizations into the national interfaith program and agenda. All these developments were organized, set up and sponsored by the political government. There is that exercise of power and authority in dictating the agenda for the masses. However, as “vehicles of power”, the people were later actively engaged into the agenda and eventually, the running of such organizations and interfaith dialogues were carried over by the people. The government subsequently takes the role of an advisor. This is another interesting move in which interfaith dialogues, when it was first done, was constituted in a certain way for a particular agenda. The language, the mode and the manner of interfaith conversations in Singapore has, up to this day, remained faithful to that agenda – and this illustrates the affect of such political construction on the framework of interfaith dialogues. 

Despite Islam’s long history of interfaith dialogues, it is indeed strange that post-September 11, Muslims and other scholarships are vigorous in trying to make the same point. It is as if Muslims were never engaged in dialogues and that they are defensive about Islam. Muslims are surprised that they have to stand up and make an argument for interfaith dialogues when even in history, Islam has been rich in that tradition. 

The more interesting question would be: do Muslims dialogue in the same language as the rest of us? The answer would be that there is no need to. My argument is that because Muslims do not articulate themselves in the same language as the “others” (for example, in the language of love), their dialogues were not acknowledged. A subjectivication of what a Muslim should be and how it should communicate would be a “penetration” on that community of Muslims. It would be a communication that is constructed from outside that community, forcing its perspectives on another. It would be a colonization of its culture, history and socio-historicity of Muslims by the “other”. This principle plays itself on all levels: on a societal level, a Muslim needs to speak in the same language and manner with non-Muslims to be considered “normal” and therefore accepted. At the international political level, a Muslim country needs to find extensive commonality (culture, politics, economics, military defense and its worldview in general) and extensive generosity with other non-Muslim countries to be considered “mainstream” and not belonging to the “axis of evil”. There is always a double-need to prove themselves as good Muslims, and hence, good world citizens, in order for Muslims to feel belong. This is not to advocate the rejection of the world that we live in, but the protection of a community’s identity, which is slowly eroded through its slow evolution caused by the “other”.

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