Thursday, May 05, 2011

Confusing consequences with goals

The world's "great" religions need to be understood in the context in which they developed. It is useful to understand why they developed and survived - basically because they "worked". That is for another post.

But it is important to understand them to be able to engage in a useful discussion with them. All religions suffer from a problem that, while they all have evolved in many ways, at any point in time they are perceived to be wholly true. Even the Koran shows a progression in the sayings of the prophet as he progressed from little known seer to ruler. It is just harder to see because of the ordering of the sura by length.

Such an appreciation is not evident in the heading given to Paul Sheehan's column in the SMH today; Repressing women is sharia's raison d'etre. In fairness to Sheehan this heading is probably an editor's work - but it confuses the outcome "repression of women", as the cause.

But Sheehan himself comes close to that heading writing;

Because when you scrape away the layers of rhetoric of such jihadists, or those who rationalise their actions, it is evident their primary concern in seeking to impose strict sharia is to control and constrain women's freedom. This is the core cultural impact of sharia.

In this context, the whole concept of Islamic holy war has been in part an expression of sexual repression and sexual oppression.

Let's briefly consider polygamy and its one-sided nature. The Arab tribes that Mohammed coalesced were constantly engaged in war. The consequence of war is that there are lots of deaths. Men can breed many warriors, women only one at a time. It makes sense to send men to war and not women because men are expendable. Once you do so you will have a population imbalance and the process of breeding more warriors will more readily occur by having asymmetric polygamy.

But the law goes much further than this. Indeed one of the bases for the success of Islam was that it treated women better than the other social orders around it at the time. Families have responsibilities to the wives of their brothers and sons. No woman is left uncared for.

Sheehan is right, however, to note that in a modern society with greater life expectancy and not dominated by tribal war-fare that these practices are wrong. To do so requires an engagement with Islam that says "we respect your beliefs and your right to those beliefs, as we ask you to accept our beliefs. We have modified our cultural values as the world has developed around us and we encourage you to do the same."

We have plenty of evidence for how we have changed - the God of a twenty-first century Christian is not the God of Joshua who told him to exterminate all other people.

But equally we have parts of the twentieth century church that are equally repressive of women, as evidenced by the Papal view of contraception and the place of women in the Church.

Sheehan needs to be a little less shrill about Islam and more reflective about belief and culture.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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