A Dialogue in Hell

Farish A. Noor

Posted Sep 4, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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A Dialogue in Hell

By Farish A. Noor

We are in hell by now. No, we are not going to hell, but we are already
there it seems.

Let me explain what I mean by this: I happen to teach comparative religion
and one of the things I’ve noticed while giving my lectures is how in every
major religious system of the world there seems to be consensus over what
hell is meant to look like. In the religious iconography of Jews,
Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists we see the same pictorial
depiction that infernal place. In many of them the image of hell is that of
a place of universal torment, with individuals suffering for eternity. What
is interesting to note in these images is the fact that the torment of each
individual seems to be a very private suffering that is not shared by the
others, for each is suffering on his or her own.

Seen metaphorically, hell marks the breakdown of communication; the
impossibility of reaching out to the other beside you, to communicate one’s
own pain and anguish. Hell is where all sense of collectivism is lost, where
society breaks down, where any form of mutual co-operation is rendered null
and void by the individual suffering that is the lot of each of us.

In that respect at least we seem to be in hell right now. I write this after
returning from a weekend lecture tour of Amsterdam where I caught a glimpse
of the state of debate on Islam and Muslim migrants in the country, and the
prognosis seems bleak. This was not the Holland I left five years ago when I
was based at the Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM)
in Leiden. How could a country that I regarded as being the very epitome of
the liberal spirit and unfettered conscience slide down the path of
polarisation so fast and to such an extreme?

While in Holland I was with my comrades of the Left (of course) and we took
a step back from the heated debate that was raging in the country.
On the one hand the Muslim minorities seem even more isolated, marginalised
and liminal than ever before; and worst still it would appear as if some of
them wanted to remain so. The inflation of all the outward signs of piety
were there, from the growing number of beards and burqas to the revival of
what may be seen by some as expressions of an ‘authentic’ Islamic
normativity that was sadly only as deep as the dress and behaviour of the
people who declared themselves to be orthodox Muslims. Islam for many has
been reduced to some costume party, as if one’s faith can be measured by the
length of one’s beard or the cut of one’s hijab…

Then on the other hand there were right-wing Dutch politicians openly
playing to the gallery and using the race and religion cards to score quick
votes; going to the extent of publicly calling for the banning of the Quran
and comparing the Prophet Muhammad to Hitler, and calling Islam a Fascist
religion. For them it seemed as if the only good Muslims were those who had
left the religion and who were prepared to denounce their former creed as a
fascist ideology. The assumption reigned that Muslims are a homogenous bloc
and that each Muslim was like some automaton, programmed and determined
solely and primarily by the Quran…

In the midst of this bellicose chest-thumping and soapbox oratory, the more
nuanced voices that were keen to emphasise the complexity of both Dutch and
Muslim society were almost unheard. In the wake of the brutal murder of the
director Theo van Gogh, Dutch society is more polarised today than ever
before. I was struck by the urban semiotics that seemed to sum up the
present impasse: Walking past Dutch homes where everything inside was
exposed to passers-by outside, I was struck by the fact that this seemed to
be a society that was both open and yet closed in on itself. Is there still
one Holland today, or has the country disintegrated into a number of
parallel universes, living next to each other but hardly communicating and
not understanding each other? That, perhaps, sums up the hell of modern life
in this messed up postmodern world we live in.

My lament is that of the left-leaning bridge-builder, who has been trying
time and again to remind Muslims and non-Muslims alike that we are all part
of the same human family living on this same planet and that for all of us
to be taken seriously there has to be a demonstration of ethical
universalism and consistency on our part.

Muslims in the West cannot ever be taken seriously as long as we do not
address the problems in our midst at the moment, ranging from the genuine
demagogues and hate-mongers who have taken over our mosques to the baneful
victimisation complex that has devoured our young. We are, all of us,
Muslims in Europe and millions of us have come to settle here to be part of
Europe’s secular-democratic and plural culture. Though racism and prejudice
remain constant factors that stand in the way of the social advancement of
millions of Muslims in the West, we need to remember that the same forms of
economic, structural and institutional discrimination also affects millions
of other poor Europeans as well. Hence the need for Muslims to get out of
their ghetto mindset, work with and within the tools of civil society and to
empower themselves in that plural democratic space. This means committing
ourselves to the democratic reform project and discarding any superfluous
illusions and myths of some ‘golden age’ of the past that never existed in
the first place.

On the other side of the equation I have also been trying to break down the
collombarium of European self-consciousness and self-representation, and
questioning the other equally fallacious myths that hinder the
open-mindedness of Europeans themselves. These include the myth of Europe’s
monocultural past (for Europe was never monocultural in the first place),
the myth of Europe’s self-generation (for Europe’s civilisational
development really took off thanks to contact with other non-European
cultures) and the notion of a unipolar world with the West as its centre.

Such bridge-building is, it has to be said, a tiresome and laborious task
that normally earns the bridge-builder the scorn and contempt of
right-wingers of both sides: Muslim conservatives accuse us of being too
liberal and secular, while Western conservatives label us apologists for
Islam. But the task of opening up the middle ground, complexifying the
debate and emphasising the blurred middle space is too important by this
stage. Muslims in Europe must remember that Europe is too complex, plural
and diverse to be reduced to right-wing Muslim-haters alone. Have we
forgotten that the biggest demonstrations against the war on Iraq took place
here, in secular, non-religious Europe? Have we forgotten that millions of
non-Muslims in the West showed sympathy for the people of Iraq not because
the latter were Muslims but in the name of universal human rights?

Europeans too need to remember that those Muslims who live around the corner
from them did not come from Saturn or Mars, but were and remain the
constitutive other to the multicultural Europe of today. While there are
indeed conservative, sectarian and bigoted Muslims among us, this is not a
malady unique to Islam for Europe too has its share of secular bigots and
racists. A closer look at Muslims in the West will show us that they are,
after all, perfectly ordinary people with ordinary lives and concerns. In
fact, millions of them are so ordinary they are downright boring.

Bringing together and tying together the ordinary strands that make up our
shared community may not be a glamorous media event that will grab the
headlines or make the news. But it is one way to transcend the hell of
everyday life of non-communication. Europe’s experiment with
multiculturalism today is in dire need of direction and focus, and for that
reason that multicultural project has to be taken up by all progressive
forces that look forward to a future that is diverse, rich and plural and
where the fulfilment of self-identity can be secured. At present we are a
long way from that, for it seems that our understanding of the other – and
of ourselves – has sadly been reduced to two-dimensional cardboard
stereotypes instead. That would be a sad fate for Europe, and a sad epitaph
to the Enlightenment project.


Dr. Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum
Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University,
Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site