"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

India's Untouchables & Islam's Universalism and Leadership Role

Today I finished reading India and the Awakening East a memoir relating some of Eleanor Roosevelt's travels.  Roughly half the book is about India with the remainder touching on her brief stops in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines, Indonesia and the Khyber Pass.  It was interesting to hear "Moslems" discussed rather favorably since back then Communism was the big threat. Indeed Mrs. Roosevelt speaks often of how we can encourage these emerging nations to choose democracy over Communism.  It's kind of funny to read this nearly 60 years later and compare it with what has happened since this book was published in 1953.  India and China each had fewer than a half a billion people and talk of the problems of exploding populations (e.g. lack of food and water) was mentioned more than once. 

In the section about India, Mrs. Roosevelt mentioned the Untouchables whom Gandhi called "Harijans" or "children of God."  She said the new Indian constitution abolished "Untouchability and guarantees all people rights before the law.  But, as we know in our own country, it is one thing to abolish discrimination in the Constitution and another to put it into nation-wide practice."  She said in many Indian villages it would probably be a while before caste distinctions disappeared.   Is anyone familiar enough with India to say how things are now - nearly sixty years later?  Have things improved greatly for the Untouchables? Is the caste system still widely practiced within society?


Also - since it was a lovely afternoon outdoors - I started reading Islam Today: A Short Introduction to the Muslim World by Akbar S. Ahmed.  It was published in 1999 so it's a bit old, but I think it will be interesting to read how he portrays Islam to see if it's similar to what we observe over ten years later.  I noticed how he said on the very first page "Islam has become all things to all people" and later how "Muslims believe there are many paths to God" and although Islam may be the religion they believe is most favored, "others may be valid." (pg. 25)  He speaks of the "universalism of Islam" being "reflected in its attitude towards matter of statehood.  Throughout history Muslim rulers have been tolerant of other religions when their empires have been secure and stable -- Ottomans, Mughals, the Umayyads in Spain. One reason for this is in "contrast to both Christianity and Judaism, from its early days Islam emerged as the dominant ruling religion of the area. This gave Muslims confidence in their religion, allowing them to act with generosity and wisdom."  (pg. 26)

Some thoughts:  I found the universalism tie to Islam of great interest because I can think of several bloggers who are former Muslims or have dabbled in Islam and some who almost converted or are Muslims but are very universalistic in their outlook. So I got to wondering if Islam leads to Universalism.  Contrast this with more conservative Christians who believe Jesus is the only way to God.  Much more narrow-minded, right?

Since Muslims as secure rulers tend to be generous and wise would the world then be better off if Muslims had higher places in society? bigger roles in government? Maybe our wish for worldwide peace would be achieved if we allowed Muslims to find their voices instead of suppressing parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood.  Perhaps the terrorism and intolerance comes from their being held down and it's just part of their fight for justice that makes some into the terrorists we find distasteful.   Would we gush about Islamic thoughtfulness and tolerance instead of treating Muslims with suspicion, fear or dislike if they were at the top of societies around the world?  Or has that era passed?  What do you think?

Thoughts on any of this?


sanil said...

Hm. I think it misses the point to say things would be better if Muslims were at the top of society - as if it is some personality trait common to all who follow the religion, that if they aren't in control they will be violent but if they're in charge they will be benevolent rulers. Rather, I think most people tend to react a little defensively when they're a minority (or even when they feel they are, such as some Christian televangelists who see Islam as a threat and fear that it will over-power Christianity and/or make incredibly homophobic statements, somehow seeing themselves as the oppressed minority in that situation), and are more willing to relax when they feel secure.

I think it would be best if no one were at the top. If we could actually achieve a truly tolerant society where no one tried to force their beliefs and will on others, no one would have reason to fear oppression and so would have no reason to strike first and become the oppressors. It may be the kind of dream that will never actually happen, but I like to work towards it anyway. Maybe we'll surprise ourselves.

Suroor said...

In rural India, caste system is still prevalent and a problem.

Regarding Universalism in Islam, I think Islam is more universal than Christianity but I see some disparity considering that it accepts only Abrahamic religions and all others are called kafirs who should be converted to Islam. Early Muslims often reverted to Christianity and they were not pursued.

Amber said...

I don't know that you can make the claim that Muslim's tend to a universalistic attitude. Maybe, theoretically, Islam promotes it, but then so does any number of pagan theologies.

I have never run into a traditional Muslim who thought that other religions were valid. Yes, they believed that Judaism and Christianity were previous revelations, but since both of those peoples had gone astray, they're no longer the original revelations, and therefore don't lead to God.

I don't have anything against Muslims having positions in government, etc. but I don't think that they should get those posts simply *because* they are Muslims. Look at every Muslim country we have. There is no overwhelming sense of brotherly love and acceptance there, and everyone in power is, presumably, a Muslim.

Religion, as far as I am concerned, should not enter into the political arena at all.

Lat said...

"..it is one thing to abolish discrimination in the Constitution and another to put it into nation-wide practice" That's true.It's still around in India although people are becoming aware of the evils of it.Even some educated class stick to this system because of the traditional 'power' and importance it gives them.I think some of the lower caste people have attained govt positions in India after their inclusion in govt,where previously they were not allowed.

"Since Muslims as secure rulers tend to be generous and wise would the world then be better off if Muslims had higher places in society? bigger roles in government? "

Still depends on the country and the ruler.How liberal,moderate and hardlined he is matters and what is the make up of the country concerned matters.It's difficult to say but not impossible to happen.I think Islam can be universal and open to tolerant views of others and leave theological concepts to God to handle Himself because He's capable of it!

Becky said...

I agree with the other commenters, religion shouldn't enter into politics. I actually tend to think that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I do think Islam in theory is more universally accepting than Christianity, but for the majority of traditionalist conservative Muslims, not so much so.

As for India, everything I've heard concerning castes is that it is very much still an issue, especially in rural areas - sadly.

Harry Guggen said...

Hi Susie,

I have been a consistent follower of your wonderful blog for about a year now. This is my first time commenting.

I have read Akbar Ahmed's book. He comes across as practising Taqiyyah throughout the book. One of the major objectives, and a persistent tactic of those most
skilled in taqiyyah, is to downplay the threat of Islam.

Akbar Ahmed's goal, it was clear to me at least, is to fool potential victims of jihad that it is not directed at them.

Similarly in his book, No god but
God, Reza Aslan engages in this Islamic art of deception, when he argues:

“What is taking place now in the Muslim world is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West.”

He further writes: “The West is merely a bystander - an unwary yet complicit casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story.”

Sorry, looks like we have built New York, Pentagon, London, Madrid and Beslan in the crossfire between Muslims:)-

Both Mr. Aslan, and Mr. Ahmed especially, engage in the most brazen form of Islamic deception,
as if they were unbiased observers.

Sarah said...

Interesting. I think it's always easier to be kind and tolerant when you are in a confident, powerful position. I do believe terrorism comes from insecurity and desperation. Not that that condones it in any way. I think we need to somehow equalise the power balance among different parts of the world, but how to create a world where everyone feels secure and no-one needs to hurt anyone else, I don't know.

Susanne said...

Sanil, that's a wonderful dream and I hope we will be surprised by it as well! Loved your comment. Good thoughts!

Suroor, thanks for that information on castes in India and for your observations re: my universalism question and Islam! I appreciate that!

Amber, yeah, most traditional Muslims I know think Islam is the only valid path, but I got to thinking of how many online people I'd met who gave me this impression that I noted. Maybe this author tends to believe that way himself. I'm still trying to figure him out!

Lat, thanks for chiming in on the India issue! I was hoping you and Suroor would. :) I heard that some Hindus believe people are born into a certain caste due to their karma so helping a lower-caste person would go against the 'karma gods' so to speak so it's best to let them deal with their punishment (being in the lower caste) so that maybe they will be raised to a higher one in their next life. Do you know if that is true or just something very farfetched.

I love your last sentence - so good!

Becky, thanks for your thoughts on both issues! I think since Islam accepts People of the Book it probably is more universal of others - as long as you are of one of the Abrahamic faiths and NOT a Trinitarian!

Harry, welcome and thank you for offering your thoughts on this topic. Yes, I can see how this author could be similar in style to Reza Aslan. Hmmm. I'll keep that in mind as I read the book to see if I think this by the end of the book. Glad to read your feedback on this topic. I think there are many peace-loving Muslims, but sadly the hateful ones tend to get the most coverage and color our views of the whole group. Thanks for dropping by!

Sarah, enjoyed your comment. Yes, people tend to fight when they are held down or they perceive this...whether or not it is true. I really appreciate your thoughts on this topic.

Thank you all for your feedback!