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Raffique Shah


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The opiate of mankind

November 13, 2005
By Raffique Shah

IN my 23 years as a newspaper columnist, I have had fun at the expense of politicians, attacked governments and state institutions that are supposed to be accountable to the public, tried to bring new perspectives on issues that have bedevilled the country-hell, I even got a kick out of lyrically-kicking successive US presidents who believed they were God's designated representatives on earth, none more so than incumbent George Bush. The one topic I have tried to steer clear of is religion, and for good reason, I need add.

It's not because I'm agnostic or because, like so many of the superstitious among us, I fear the mythical "spirit lash" that some religious leaders claim to have the power to inflict. It is because, although I do not believe in religion, I respect those who believe-whatever their faiths-and who, in all honesty and with pure hearts, practice their religions. I expect, though, that they in turn will respect my right to remain aloof from a spiritual world that appears to me to be mired in dogmas, which in turn lead to the lunatic fringe elements we see cropping up in just about every faith.

There is great fear among many, Muslims included, that those who are referred to as "fundamentalists" in Islam are wreaking havoc on the world through suicidal terrorist activities against "enemies" perceived and real. I have watched with detached interest the transformation of Islam in this country. When I was a boy and a practising Muslim, I attended "Jumma" prayers on occasion, as did my parents. The only head gear seen in the thatched-roof mosques of that era were "orhinis" on the heads of the women, and other than a few select men who could make or afford the "topees", we simply wrapped handkerchiefs to cover our heads. Still, I am of the firm belief that imams like "Sakrullah Meah", a genial soul who presided over the Freeport Jamaat, will have gone to heaven (if there is such a place) because of his humility and his compassion for people. It mattered not whether they were Muslims, Hindus or Christians. The elders of Freeport can attest to that.

Today, unless you wear a "kurta" that stretches to your ankles, or, in the case of females, "burkas" and "hijabs" that cover all but your eyes, you are not considered a Muslim.

I know what I write of since members of my immediate family are all deeply religious, and, like most Muslims of today, believe they must proclaim their faith not just by practising and living good Muslim lives, but by wearing garments that in my view were designed for the desert conditions that prevail in the seat of Islam, Saudi Arabia. But I hasten to add that while they (and others) appear comfortable with what they choose to wear, they do not shun me because my standard "liming" gear comprises tennis shorts, tee-shirts and sandals or sneakers.

Before I go further, let me add that fundamentalism and the violence associated with it is not an exclusively Islamic phenomenon. A forerunner was buried deep in the Catholic Church in the form of the Inquisition. That started with early Christianity, was sanctioned by successive Popes, and saw tens of thousands of mainly honest Christians burnt at the stake in just about every part of the world. The IRA in Ireland, in the name of Catholicism, has given many non-Catholics, and even their own, bullet-or-bomb-laden express tickets to heaven or hell. And in India, the supposedly ultra-peaceful Hinduism has produced fundamentalists like the RSS whose hands are stained with barrels of mainly Muslim and Dalit blood.

When, therefore, I watched Abu Bakr last Eid frothing at the mouth as he spewed venom on Muslims who do not pay the compulsory "zakaat", I was more than amused. Bakr was correct to the extent that many Muslims, more so the wealthy, do not meet their obligations as enunciated in the Qur'an. In fact it's the poor who pay from what little they have, while the wealthy pay very little from their vast coffers. But if I am to interpret the Qur'an correctly, while "zakaat" is an obligation, no one person has been designated "The Collector". It is up to the individual to give. If he or she chooses to use it to help an unfortunate relative (as my parents and other close relatives did when an aunt lost the breadwinners in her home), it's up to them.

Bakr clearly has no Allah-given right to deem himself "collector". But other Muslims, more so those who cheat on their "zakaat", ought to know they cannot fool Allah by donning expensive "kurtas" and "topees". Either you live by the injunctions of the Qur'an or you live fooling yourselves that you have bought tickets to heaven when your destination is in fact hell. Oh, religion .the opiate of mankind!