Does Islam Need Reforming?

Published on Saturday, March 28, 2015

The world of Islam is in a state of turmoil. Radicalised Muslims and their misdemeanours are rarely out of media spotlight these days and rightly so. From the earth shattering event of 9/11 in New York in 2001 and the London Underground bombing in 2005 to al-Qaeda activities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and in many other places; the atrocities of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in beheading countless innocent people in Syria and Iraq; Boko Haram's kidnapping and killing of school children in Nigeria, killing of Charlie Hebdo employees in France; killing of 23 tourists in the Bardo museum in Tunis by the IS affiliate groups and many, many more atrocities; all point to the grim reality that there is something fundamentally wrong with these radicalised Muslims and their monstrous mentality. These people are just not in harmony with the modern times and they fail to uphold human values.

But before one jumps to conclusions in apportioning blame to all the Muslims in a sweeping generalisation, one may apply common sense. One must consider that Muslims all over the world do not belong to a single race, although they may uphold a single religious trait. There are divergences and disharmony among the Muslims as much as in any other major religion. There are more than 1500 million Muslims (over 21 per cent of world population) scattered all over the world in all continents. Hence it is well- nigh impossible to collectively box them together and apportion collective responsibility.

From the deserts of Middle East and North Africa to the lush green swamps of Malaysia and Indonesia; from the Himalayan range through the Alps to the Baltic sea; from the deserts of Mexico to the icy vastness of Canada; Muslims have found their homes. These Muslims are by no means a homogeneous group – either in race or language, culture, socio-economic status, educational achievement, behavioural pattern and so forth. However, one trait that may be seen to embrace them all is the religion of Islam. But, even then that does not mean all Muslims embraced the religion equally or engulfed in it deeply – their religiosity ranges from 'born Muslims' - meaning nothing more than sheer Muslim ancestry - encompassing atheist Muslims, agnostic Muslims, moderate Muslims and so forth to devout Muslims incorporating fundamentalists, Jihadists and other die-hard Islamists. The first group may not be in the majority, but they represent the educated and cultured class of Muslims and they are deadly opposed to the barbarities perpetrated by the radicalised Muslims of the second group.

Studies leading to deep introspection of the causes of egregious behaviour of radicalised Muslims had been carried out by various erudite Muslims and religious scholars with specific objectives, but no concrete result had come out of those studies. But one study which had drawn rapt attention of the public recently was that carried out by a Danish psychologist by the name Nicolai Sennels. He addressed this challenging issue of Muslim fanaticism from two divergent angles: (i) genetic considerations and (ii) religious and cultural considerations. I will consider both of these points and try to make a subjective judgement from the layman's point of view.

The first point that Dr Sennels asserts is that the gene pool of Muslims has become corrupt due to inbreeding of Muslims, not now but right from the beginning of the religion! This smacks a strong resonance to Nazi 'eugenics' philosophy which claimed that the Jews are of lower human breed due to inbreeding among cousins of the Jews. That concocted philosophy offered the Nazis a justification for exterminating Jews, because lower breed humans would have no place among the German Arians! Now Sennels, more than 70 years later, had picked up that discredited and abhorrent racist discourse and hypothesised that because of inter-marriages between first cousins among the Muslims, the offspring suffer from recessive genetic disorders and, since that practice had been going on for nearly 1400 years, the Muslim gene pool is irreversibly damaged. He even went on to say that nearly 50% of all Muslims suffer from genetic disorder!

Firstly, this so-called extensive inbreeding between first cousins of Muslims is not wide spread at all and is limited to ultra-conservative tribal groups. Sennels' quoted statistics that in Pakistan it is nearly 70%; in Saudi Arabia it is 67%; in Jordon it is 64% and so forth are baseless and without any foundation. The figures are not only wrong, they are wrong by significant amounts. Secondly, even if there is the inbreeding, there is no certainty that the DNA will be defective and the offspring will suffer genetic disorder. The genetic disorder is basically stochastic i.e. probabilistic. It had been found statistically that birth defects increase from the baseline figure of 3-4 per cent to 4-7 per cent from inbreeding. So this marginal increase is not that significant as to warrant generic condemnation of the gene pool.

The second point that Sennels propounds - religious and cultural consideration – bears more weight and is worthy of assessment here. In his book, which he most egregiously calls, 'Criminal Muslims: A Psychologist's Experiences from the Copenhagen Municipality' where he claims that Muslims' cultural and religious experiences played a central role in their psychological development and criminal behaviour. He identified 'anger', 'locus of control' and 'Muslim identity' as three most important parameters which differentiate Muslims from other religious groups.

He asserts that in any discussion in the West, expression of 'anger', loss of temper, threatening behaviour are considered uncivilised bad behaviour and an indication of losing the argument. But in the Islamic culture anger, loss of temper, threats etc. are considered assertive and establishing valid points forcefully and hence perfectly acceptable. In conflicts and social disputes if a Muslim does not respond aggressively, he is considered weak and loses face. (From my personal experience, I can say that in Saudi Arabia if there is a traffic accident, the person who can shout most, make most aggressive postures is the non-guilty party. So, immediately after the accident, there is a shouting match, aggressive behaviour and threatening postures, regardless of what had happened or who did what. This behavioural pattern percolates from the Bedouin culture to Muslim psyche. In the West, the two parties calmly exchange their details such as vehicle numbers, insurance policies etc. and if necessary call the police and matters follow smoothly thereon without any violence).

This anger-led threat leads to violence and even death. In Islamic world, a simple argument or a disagreement can escalate into physical violence and even death as no one wants to lose face and that is the culture. In the West, discussion, dialogue, compromise etc. are all peaceful means of dispute resolution before going, if necessary, into the lap of the law.

The second point he mentions is the 'locus of control'. The locus of control is a psychological term which describes people's feelings and experiences, whether internal or external factors influence their lives. In the West people feel that their lives are influenced by internal factors which emanate from within i.e. from themselves. People control their motivation, their ways of thinking, points of view, their emotions, their communication. In short, they take control of their lives. In the Islamic world, people feel that external 'locus of control' influences them. Every action, every statement is adjunct with 'Inshallah' meaning Allah willing. People thus relegate their responsibilities, their accountabilities, their future course of action on the external factor – if Allah wishes, it will happen, otherwise not. Conversely, if something untoward happened, it must have been due to Allah's sanction! The down side of dependence on 'unknown' external factors is that religious leaders can masquerade as agents of the external factor and interpret or impose his concocted views on the people. Thus the Muslims may become over reliant on transmission of external factors through intermediaries and gradually become automatons – they lose capacity to think independently or rationally for themselves, as they see themselves as mere agents to carry out instructions. On top of that Muslims see life on earth as nothing more than a test bed – eternal heaven or hell awaits them and so every action in compliance with the external factor must be carried out.

The third point Sennels mentions is the 'Muslim identity'. He says that Muslims cling on to Muslim identity very strongly, primarily because they are constantly reminded of their 'Muslim-ness' by Imams, by family heads and social leaders. Even when Muslims emigrate to a new country, the Muslim identity remains more important than the adopted national identity. They tend to show off their religious identity by distinctive attires such as burqa, niqab and hijab. They either refuse to integrate or fail to integrate with the host community, no matter how long they live in that country.

There may be a number of factors that contribute to such behaviour. The most important one is that Muslims of national groups tend to stick together, follow their customs together and mix only with other Muslims in mosques and on religious occasions. By doing so, they don't feel the need to integrate with the host community. They fail to learn the local language, culture, etiquettes etc. and they feel unwelcome by the host community. This disjointed existence creates mutual apathy and antagonism. The younger generation even feels inbuilt anger and revolts against the host society.

This identity issue was not a problem with other religious groups such as the Jews who emigrated from East European countries in large numbers to England and America immediately before or after the WWII. They assimilated so well that after one or two generations, it is now difficult to separate them from the indigenous population. Hindus, Sikhs and other religious groups make positive efforts to integrate with the host community, but not so by the Muslims.

Dr Nicolai Sennels' attempt to explain Muslim fanaticism on the basis of gene defects does not carry much weight at all. Based on dubious statistics, flawed logic and lack of risk assessment methodology, he came to the conclusion that only reflects his conviction and blatant racist outlook. However, his deliberations on religious and cultural considerations are much more erudite and worthy of serious considerations.

Although Islam is the newest of the three monotheistic religions, it is singularly overawed by unreformed theological narratives, which other religions have gradually moved away or adjusted accordingly. One must consider that these religions came into being when human civilisation was at its infancy, when the Earth was assumed to be flat, the Sun was perceived to go round the Earth, Heaven and Hell were just beyond the northern star. All of these concepts have found their way to Judaism, Christianity and then to Islam.

With the advancement of science and technology, it is hardly surprising that many of the revelations in religions were at odds with modern science. However, Judaism and Christianity have over the centuries subtly adjusted themselves and reinterpreted revelations to accommodate those scientific views as far as possible. The head of Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, said recently, "The big bang, which we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but rather requires it. Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve". But Islam refused to reform itself and steadfastly clung on to its original version of the divine message. This assertion of absoluteness and immutability is the root cause of conflict between Islam and the modern world.

For Islam to attain greatness it once achieved some centuries ago it must reform itself and embrace modern science and technology whole heartedly. Nicolai Sennels' study irrevocably identified some inherent flaws based on religious and cultural considerations of Muslims character. Without such reform, this religion would be perpetually at odds with the norm of the modern society.

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