Friday, 22 January 2016

Inside Muslim Minds

One of the mistakes we make as Westerners is that if we want to know what Muslims think, we go and read the Q'uran.  Not that I think we shouldn't read it - we really should - but we shouldn't assume that once we have read it we know how Muslims think.  What's to say they interpret it the same way we do?  What's to say they emphasise the bits that stand out to us?

Of course the question "what do Muslims think?" is highly simplistic.  There are over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, of all ages, a wide variety of nationalities, languages and cultures and widely differing levels of education.  Naturally they don't all think the same thing.  Still the obvious way to find out what Muslims think is to ask them.

That's why I am surprised that in all the media I have been seeing on Islamic issues in the past few years, and the various bits of reading I've done, no-one has yet referred to Riaz Hassan's Inside Muslim Minds.

Hassan is a South Australian sociologist.  At the time he wrote this book he was Professor of Sociology at Adelaide's Flinders University and is now associated with the University of South Australia as well as holding fellowships with a number of overseas universities.

Inside Muslim Minds was published in 2008, but it reports on research conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  The fieldwork on which it is based involved surveys of over 6,000 Muslims in seven major Muslim-majority countries - Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Egypt, Iran and Turkey.  These countries between them are home to approximately half the world's Muslims.

The countries were selected to provide a diversity of regions and governance arrangements, and within each country the survey sample was stratified as carefully as the social and political situation allowed to include a diversity of ages, genders and levels of income and education.  It would be a stretch to say that the survey represents "all Muslims" but it provides an insight into the views of a wide cross-section of the world's Islamic population.  These views are interpreted in the light of sociological theory and the history of Muslim culture and thought.

Hassan and his colleagues asked their respondents a series of questions aimed at assessing their level of religious commitment and their views on various social and political issues.  His findings are neither as alarming as our anti-Muslim campaigners would like us to think, nor as reassuring as peace-loving lefties like me wish they were.

He starts out by briefly tracing the history of Islamic identity.  He locates the roots of our current Islamic identity politics in the experience of colonialism and more recently  of what he refers to as the "failure of the national project" exemplified by corrupt and authoritarian governments in much of the Islamic world.  These twin experiences of oppression led to movements aimed at renewing and "purifying" Islam as part of a re-assertion of independence.  The two main strands of renewal were Salafism and Wahhabism, which by now are effectively fused into what he calls "salafabism".  Elements of this world view include a profound alienation from both the modern world and Islamic tradition, puritanism, belief in the sufficiency of Islam as a worldview, patriarchy, literalist and uncritical interpretations of Islamic texts and reliance on these to regulate social and personal life.

How deeply has this world view penetrated the Muslim world?  According to Hassan's research, quite deeply.  Responses to a series of questions designed to test agreement with basic salafabist ideas showed either strong or very strong agreement with most of them, even in Kazakhstan, the least "religious" of the countries surveyed.  It is clear that the Islamic revival of the past century has had a real effect among ordinary Muslims.

This has strong practical effects on religious piety.  In all countries except Kazakhstan, a majority of Muslims practice the key elements of Muslim worship - declaration of belief, daily prayer, payment of the zakat (tithe), fasting at Ramadan and pilgrimage to Mecca.  There is also a comparatively high level of personal piety, exemplified by private prayer and study of the Q'uran.  Kazakhstan is the only one of the seven countries surveyed where a majority of Muslims could be said to be merely "cultural", a fact Hassan attributes to the long period of Soviet rule during which religious practice was strictly controlled.

What are the consequences of this religiosity for the way Muslims act in the world?  Should we be worried?

Well, on some fronts we should.  For a start, the attitudes of Muslims, both men and women, to the role and status of women are shown to be highly misogynistic.  There is strong support for the notion that women need to be veiled and segregated from men.  This is not simply a dress preference, it is grounded in the idea that women are a potent source of social disruption and that if they are not veiled and segregated they will cause men to commit acts of sexual misconduct.  This pervasive view of women as the source of sexual problems, as irresistibly alluring, and of men as unable to control their own behaviour, has huge practical consequences for women.  It not only limits their rights and freedoms but leaves them at huge risk of blame for male crimes like rape.  It also provides an environment in many countries where honour killings are tacitly or even openly approved.

Another thing we should be worried about is that this form of Islamic consciousness involves a high level of suspicion and distrust of non-Muslims.  This is shown both in general, in a high level of agreement with the statement "a person who says there is no Allah is likely to hold dangerous political views", and in a strong perception that the major Western countries are anti-Islamic.

However, Hassan is quick to point out that these perceptions are not necessarily irrational - from the point of view of people in Islamic countries, events such as the invasion of Iraq and Western support for Israel, plus the legacy of colonialism in general, can easily be seen to lend support to this view.  It does, however, point to the risk of a spiral - they think we hate them, we think they hate us.  Current policy settings around the world hardly seem calculated to reduce this distrust.

On other fronts Hassan's finding are a lot more encouraging.  Three stood out for me - trust in Islamic institutions, attitudes to democracy and civil society, and attitudes to war or jihad.

In Indonesia, Malaysia and Egypt the key institutions of the Islamic faith are highly regarded.  They receive much less respect in Turkey with its strong tradition of secularism, Kazakhstan where the level of religious practice is generally low, and Iran and Pakistan, where these institutions have a formal role in governance.

Hassan's understanding of this finding is that Islamic institutions have the highest standing where they are perceived to play an active role in mitigating the evils of the State or holding it to account, particularly where there is repressive government as in Suharto-era Indonesia or Mubarak-era Egypt.  Where there is a good level of trust in a functioning secular State apparatus Islamic institutions have a less valued role.  The situations in which they do the worst, however, are in places like Pakistan and Iran where they have a direct role in governance - in these cases they come to share responsibility for any government repression, corruption or misgovernance and their standing declines.  This suggests that Islamic theocracies will struggle for long-term legitimacy.

Related to this is the question of Muslim attitudes to democracy.  It has often been held that Islam is incompatible with the development of civil society and that its ideological tendency is towards uniformity and lack of differentiation in institutions.  However, Hassan draws attention to the findings of the World Values Survey which shows strong Muslim approval of democratic values and disapproval of "strong leaders" - pretty much on the same level as people from other backgrounds.

Where Muslims differ is in holding much more conservative views on matters such as gender equality (although over half approve), homosexuality, abortion and divorce.  This portrait of Muslim politics is, in fact, not strikingly different from that of conservative Christian groups like the ACL.  Along with this, Hassan points to the fact that despite the shortcomings of democratic governance in most Islamic countries, civil society organisations have multiplied steadily over the past few decades in all the countries surveyed.

Finally, he comments on Muslim attitudes to jihad.  He points out that in Islamic teaching the word jihad has a broad meaning, encompassing various forms of struggle.  He also points out that war is never "holy", it is always seen as a necessary evil to be resorted to when other means fail, and conducted within strict limits.  In fact, the traditional Islamic view of war is not too far different from the "just war" theology which dominates Christian attitudes to war.  He does, however, acknowledge that modern jihadi movements have significantly expanded the scope of war.  How widely supported are these expanded views?

He cites two pieces of evidence.  The first is a Pew Research Centre study which asked people in Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco and Jordan whether suicide bombings were justifiable if carried out by Palestinians against Israelis, and by Iraqis against Americans in their country.  This survey showed majority approval on both questions in all countries but Turkey.  How are we to interpret these findings?  Do they indicate a general level of support for suicide terrorism or are they specific to these situations, viewed by most Muslims as hostile foreign occupation?

Hassan asked his subjects a more general question - did they agree with the statement, "War is justified when other ways of settling international disputes fail".  This relatively mild and general way of putting the question drew a range of responses, from over 60% agreement in Turkey, Pakistan and Egypt to less than 40% in Malaysia and Indonesia and 11% in Kazakhstan.

I haven't been able to find a precise comparison, but a 2009 ANU report on Australian attitudes to defence found that, for instance, 68% of Australians would support their child entering the military, 82% supported our military's role in protecting Australia from attack and 42% in protecting our allies from attack, and 53% either approved or strongly approved of our role in the war in Afghanistan.  It seems fair to suggest the best interpretation of this evidence is that Muslims are about as warlike as we are.

So, should we be concerned?  Well yes, we should be concerned about the plight of many Muslim women who face violence and inequality, as we should be concerned about this same issue here at home.  Yes, we should be concerned at the spiral of mutual distrust and suspicion that continues to move upwards and places us all at risk of more violence.  We should be looking for ways to break down these barriers and build greater trust and understanding.

But we should also take heart.  Muslims value democracy as much as we do and generally distrust theocracy.  They are no more war-like than we are and prefer political solutions to military ones.  There are real differences in our cultures and outlooks, and real tensions and dangers for us on the road ahead, but we also have a lot more in common than you might think.  The situation is not yet hopeless.

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