What’s Liberating about Islam? - by Rita Karlsen
“One is spared from having to think.”
“What’s liberating about Islam is that one is spared from having to think.” This, essentially, is how a woman explained to me the change that had taken place in her life since her conversion to Islam. Since then, I’ve thought about her many times, especially because at that time I didn’t know very much about Islam. Now I’ve learned more, have gotten to know many more Muslims, and just begun to worry about her lack of thought.
When she explained what was liberating about Islam, it amounted, more or less, to the following: “There are rules for everything. I’m spared from having to think. I just have to learn the rules, and then act. So I know that I’m doing the right thing. It’s liberating.”
To me, it sounded as if she had entered her second childhood. She was an adult, but had freed herself of responsibility for her actions. Responsibility lay elsewhere. Later, to be sure, her explanation caused me a good deal of unease, mainly because I have become acquainted with a number of the rules she lives by. When she decided to become a Muslim, it was a free choice, but having made that choice she is not free to choose which Islamic rules she will follow and which she will not.
I have since mentioned her attitude to other Muslim women, and to a large extent they shared it. But these are women who were born into Muslim families, and who thus face another “challenge,” as they call it: namely, the family. The “family” in question, however, is not a standard-issue Western family consisting of mom, dad, and two kids, but rather an extended family that includes father and mother, their five children, plus the father’s siblings and their offspring, plus the mother’s siblings and their offspring, and, as time goes by, the spouse’s equally sprawling clan. And then there’s the “community,” in which it isn’t necessarily people’s national origin that shapes their identity (there is, for example, a great difference between a Pakistani from a big city and one from a rural village), but rather the sheer fact that they are Muslims.
If, in such a context, you don’t follow the established rules, you have enough to fight against. In addition, these are collectivist cultures, so the struggle that you need to undertake is not an individual one; everything you say or do involves others in the family – it affects other people than oneself. The responsibility lies in the rules, and a violation of them, or an attempt to redefine them, will have consequences for the rules themselves. Precisely for this reason, it is “only” the scholars who can interpret the rules. It is only they who have sufficient authority to say how Islam should be understood and lived out. If an individual starts making such interpretations, complete chaos may result. Yes, the individual may begin to think for himself or herself, decide for him-or-herself what is right and wrong, and (possibly) accept the consequences of the choice.
The overwhelming majority of my Muslim friends lead lives divided between Western liberal values and Islamic rules. But they “shop” big time. They wear hijab or other ethnic garments for some occasions, keep a change of clothing in their purse if necessary (or in the trunk of a friend’s taxicab), they sneak drinks (but don’t eat pork), they attend mosque irregularly, they fast, celebrate Eid, have boyfriends, get plastic surgery, some submit to marriages arranged by their families but later divorce, others have their families “arrange” marriages with somebody they’ve found themselves, they give their children Muslim names and send them to Koran school for the sake of appearances. They do all this and more, all to avoid friction or conflicts with Muslims. This also explains why they marry “their own” – it’s simpler, they say. “How would I get a non-Muslim to understand – and live with – all this two-faced stuff we have to do?” one woman asked me.
So I sit here and wonder: we are always discussing Muslims’ living conditions and rights, always fretting about religious freedom, human rights and integration, and always doing so in a context in which it is “we” (the majority) who are defined as the problem. “We” want “them” to be like us (assimilation). But can it be that this is simply an internal matter, an issue that can only be resolved within the Muslim community itself? Can it be that various liberal values have become so internalized in at least some Muslims that the fatwas are beginning to lose their value? Have they led Islamic scholars to fear that they’re losing power – and thus causing those scholars to tighten their control?
Here in Norway, we saw it in our recent debate on hijab police uniforms, and will see it in our coming debate on religious head coverings for judges in the courtroom; we saw it in connection with the Danish Muhammad cartoons, in the French debate on face coverings, in the British dustup about sharia courts; and we’ll probably also see it in the debate about the Swiss ban on minarets – namely, Muslims who don’t really feel at all insulted or wounded, but who welcome these debates as opportunities to redefine Islam’s rules.
These are Muslims who have been rejected and neglected by conservative Muslims – with the aid of a media establishment that has chosen to serve as a professional mourner for this world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. While all the media handwringing benefits some Muslims, it makes life tough for other believers who genuinely aspire to clean up the House of Islam (to at least some extent), but who are silenced by some people’s eagerness to “understand” alleged Muslim “offense.”
This piece originally appeared on the website of Human Rights Service, www.rights.no, and has been translated from the Norwegian by Bruce Bawer.