Openness versus Retreat: Strategies for Coping with the Modern World

Ebrahim Rasool addresses faith and cultural change in the age of globalization.

When I engage with a group of Muslim leaders from a country where they live in the minority, I don’t start out with an assumption that they are fundamentally different from a group of Christians in the charismatic tradition. Nor are they different from a group of ultra-orthodox Jews or a group of business people who don’t understand the world as we understand it.

Paradoxically, I think that the world today is actually less divided by the formal categories of Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Jew. It’s less divided by ideology. But it is very much divided by mindsets.
The response to the uncertainty in the world is threefold: orthodoxy, fundamentalism and a third way of embracing complementary identities, multiculturalism.

Response 1: Orthodoxy

First, there are those who retreat into orthodoxy. They rely solely on what they know, what has been given to them by tradition, what they have inherited from their forbearers and the thoughts that were packaged in books.
Those are the people who retreat into the mosques and who want women to be what they have always been. Those are the people who want to bring up their children as they were brought up, despite the fact that their children have more information at the age of 10 than they themselves have had at the age of 50.
The siren song of orthodoxy is very tempting. But our priests, imams and rabbis also know when they sit in the church, the mosque or the synagogue that the congregation is getting older.

The youth presence is shrinking and the preachers realize that they are speaking to the last generations of people who will hold onto orthodoxy, who will find credibility in it.
The inability of orthodoxy to give answers to the world today in any discipline, any religion or any ideology has created great impatience.

Response 2: Fundamentalism

Second, there are those who have become fundamentalists. They chose fundamentalism because they have grown impatient with orthodoxy, because it is unable to give answers to the world today – in any discipline, any religion or any ideology.
Fundamentalists have decided that they will not live where they don’t make the rules – they will fight to make their rules universal. They want to destroy the status quo because they can’t live where they don’t make the rules.
Their stance doesn’t allow for tolerating difference. They must destroy difference. It doesn’t allow for tolerance of the other, so the other must go. The other must either be like them – or go.

This attitude comes up crudely in places, for example, where and when extremists place car bombs, whether destined for Sufis or for Shias. It comes up in sophisticated debates on television screens about immigration. Whether it’s sophisticated or crude, it’s the same thing.
The crux is the extreme character of the fundamentalists’ response. It also won’t astound anyone that fundamentalists actually have certain things in common among themselves. What is, in fact, the difference between a Muslim fundamentalist, a Christian fundamentalist, a Jewish fundamentalist, an economic fundamentalist or an environmental fundamentalist?

They prefer to use labels because they are not able to debate beyond their own blinders. Some of them kill because they can’t embrace. They die for the cause because they don’t know how to live amid the changed conditions.
In a very real way, we have two extremes: orthodoxy in a state of inertia, not moving forward and not moving back, and fundamentalism that is nihilistic and destructive.

How do we live where we don’t make the rules?

The third response is up to those of us who find ourselves in the middle – in living where we don’t make the rules. How do we embrace the unknown? How do we live where we don’t make the rules?
How do we every day go about being “bewildered” by unfolding that path that Rumi speaks about? How do we help by walking the path to show the way, not knowing the way, but discovering it and telling people, “It’s safe here,” “it’s okay here,” and “it may even be very nice here”?

It is okay because we are discovering different people. We are eating different foods. We are seeing (as Rumi also says) the same sun. It may be lighting up different worlds in different ways, but it is the same sun.
Christians may not prostrate as Muslims do. But whatever they do they do to the same God
How do we who live in the middle send out a signal about the safety of the unknown? How do we say that there is nothing to fear in the unknown, but a lot to discover in it?

The first rule of living where you don’t make the rules is about embracing different identities. Why? Because then you see yourself connected to more and more people in the world.
Nelson Mandela allowed Muslims in South Africa to say, “I’m a Muslim,” and then to say, “but I’m a South African Muslim.” I can go further and say, ”I’m a South African Muslim of Malay origin.”
And then, I can go even further and say, “I am a South African Muslim of Malay origin who watches Manchester United play soccer.” Those are identities that don’t compete. They complement each other, they add to me as a person. They don’t subtract from you.

Being a South African does not subtract from being a Muslim. Being of Malay origin does not subtract from being a South African – and supporting an English soccer team does not subtract from being Malay.
The fundamental fault line between both sides is whether people can live with multiple identities – rather than to live or die by one. On the orthodox side and especially on the fundamentalist side, they want you to live or die by single identities. We have got to break free from that.

When you say, “I’m a Muslim American,” you are not only connected to the five million Muslims or whatever the number is in the United States. You are certainly connected to 350 million other people who also say that they are Americans.
When you recognize that you may be a Muslim American of African origin or Indian origin or Arab origin, you can enjoy all the food that comes from those regions as well as the other cultural joys of it.
Most important, you can also then say, “What I enjoy as an Arab, Turkish, Indian or African, I want to share with 350 million other people who I believe will enjoy it when they see it, taste it, experience it or feel it.”

To embrace multiculturalism

The second rule of living where you don’t make the rules says that you are better off embracing multiculturalism. In today’s world, monoculturalism and monocultures decay.
We now know that the great growth spurt in Islam was when Muslims encountered non-Arabs. When they went to Turkey, they produced Suleiman the Magnificent.

When Muslims went to Spain, they produced in Andalusia the most tolerant society the world had ever seen. When they went to India, they created architectural and cultural wonders. It is when former multi-cultures become monocultures that they decay.

Positive cultural collisions

In much the same way, the United States was at its most creative, its most vibrant and its most dynamic when all these different cultures were colliding and interacting every day. It’s when former multi-cultures become one and then find an overarching – sometimes an overbearing – single culture and single identity that they lose their edge.
Thus, they begin to fall behind. A national culture needs openness because it needs the different minds, eyes and ways of looking at things and thinking about things. That is what constantly re-invigorates a culture.
A large part of the inertia in Islam is because in a sense we have stopped colliding with other cultures. We need other cultures. When Islam collided with Africa in Fes, Morocco, these two forces produced the world’s first university.

When Islam collided with Africa in Timbuktu, Mali, it produced manuscripts of enormous learning and philosophy. When it collided with Africa at Al Azhar, it produced the world’s third university.
When Islam stopped colliding with others in wholesome ways and started to collide with others in destructive ways, it began to contract – not in numbers but in ideas. In a very real way, we’ve got to embrace multiculturalism because monocultures decay.

Providing to others what you wish for yourself

The third rule of thumb for living where you don’t make the rules is this: What you wish for yourself when you are powerless, you must be able to provide to others when you are powerful.
You can’t cry out for a mosque in New York – but not allow a church in Saudi Arabia. You have got to be able to maintain consistency and understand that unless you are consistently good, the sword cuts both ways.
If you don’t open that door to others, you will later open the door of intolerance to yourself. That happens whenever temporary powers change, when temporary majorities become minorities or temporary minorities become majorities. So what you want for yourself, you have got to be willing to give to others.
That means not making up all kinds of philosophical and theological gymnastics to come out of that obligation.

It’s got to be clear-cut.

The path of bewilderment, not a “miracle”
This is the path of bewilderment that I think that Rumi invites us to. How do we allow ourselves to be bewildered and to act on the purest instinct that is within all of us?
If we follow that purest instinct, we will do the things that are right – and then maybe we won’t need rules. Then, human interactions will be a matter of negotiations.
That is what South Africa has really taught the world in the modern era: Words, compromise, dialogue used to be seen as something weak people do.

What we need to do is to invest those concepts with strength. We have seen the power of those three things in South Africa at work to make the transition from apartheid to democracy.
Wherever I go, people admire that transition, but they don’t just admire it they call it “a miracle.” They don’t just love Nelson Mandela, they call him a saint.
I challenge them: No, we don’t want you to see South Africa as a miracle and Nelson Mandela as a saint, because, if you do, you are in effect copping out. You are supplanting human agency with divinity. When you make something divine, you put it out of reach for yourself.
They then say, “Nelson Mandela was so great, he fomented a miracle.” What does that mean? It means, “I can’t do that.” It means that I cannot forgive my neighbour who has angered me.

If Nelson Mandela could forgive those who put him in jail for 27 years, what’s the problem between you and your neighbour? When you sanctify human actions, you abrogate your responsibility to do the same thing.
Therefore, I think what we need to do on a regular basis is to enjoy this bewilderment. It leads us to a wondrous path of being able to negotiate, to engage in dialogue and to make compromises on a daily basis.
We made fundamental compromises in South Africa and we still live with the aftermath of our history. We manage it every day.

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