Posts in English

Why Muslim Culture Needs More Fun

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] It happens toward every year's end. The more Westernized part of Turkish society warms up for New Year's Eve. Decorations are put up, parties are organized, and restaurants advertise eat-and-dance-all-night-long programs. Santa Clauses and pine trees show up in upscale malls. The Turks who embrace these Christmas symbols often have no idea about Christ. They just like the lifestyle of the wealthy, happy and joyful people they see in Hollywood movies. Meanwhile, people from the Islamic camp often whine about this as an "erosion of values." They blame both the "cultural imperialism" of the West, especially America, and the "imitators" at home who buy into it. As an alternative, some organize events or an "Islamic New Year's Eve," in which the Koran is recited in Arabic, and prayers are made for, say, the liberation of Palestine. An inherently grave religion? I, of course, believe in the open society, and thus welcome both ways of "celebrating" the New Year. But I can't overlook the fundamental difference between the two: The Western way is full of laughter and joy. The "Islamic" way, if there is one, really, is much more sober and dry. The same mood can be observed on other important days of the Muslim calendar: In the two "Eids" ("bayrams") of the year, there is nothing that competes with the belly laugh of Santa Claus and the cool gifts piled in stockings. A Turkish Muslim friend of mine, who lives with her Muslim husband and kid in California, recently complained about that. "Both Christians and Jews here have entertaining religious holidays that the kids love," she said. "What can we do on the Eid? Slaughter a lamb in the backyard?" By looking at this contrast, an observer can easily conclude that Christianity and Judaism are inherently more fun-loving religions, while Islam is, again inherently, a grave one. But that conclusion would be wrong. Observation is true only for the contemporary world. When we are speaking about Santa Claus, decorated pine trees, and nicely packed presents, we are referring to a certain type of Christian culture that arose in the West in modern times. Medieval Christianity, with its scary gothic cathedrals, inquisitions, witch hunts, and exaggerated fear of sin and demons, was certainly much less fun. Even today there is a big difference between Eastern Christianity and its Western, especially American, counterpart. Go to a Protestant church in southern California, and then an Eastern Orthodox one in Russia, and you will see the difference. Islam, too, is predominantly an Eastern religion. Its culture evolved mainly in the pre-modern Middle East, and within agricultural societies consisting mostly of peasants. (The merchant class, which was quite influential in the earliest centuries of Islam, declined gradually as the world trade routes shifted away from the Middle East.) Agricultural societies are not dynamic. People don't travel and see new things. If the land is arid, like it is in the Middle East, sustenance becomes life's main challenge. You do not have many resources to feed your family, let alone buy gifts and organize parties. What you pray for most is not a good education, or a career. Rather you pray for more rainfall. Some of the cultural traits that contemporary Muslim societies keep are the products of this historical context, rather than the Koran. When Muslims see any investment in entertainment, aesthetics or art as useless luxury, for example, they are just echoing the mentality of the agricultural society. The inferior role assigned to women comes from the same background. Keeping modernity outside? However, more and more Muslims are now living in industrial (and even post-industrial) societies. Even the ones in less developed countries get exposed to the modern world, and its glamour, through television and the Internet. And, not too surprisingly, most of them find this brave new world quite attractive. Conservatives who are concerned with this "cultural imperialism" often find the solution in building safe havens for tradition. In extreme cases, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, satellite dishes and the Internet are banned just to keep modernity outside. In other cases, the line of defense is enacted on a cultural level, and "Islamic" alternatives are promoted - things like the "Islamic New Year's Eve" that I mentioned. This effort of isolating Muslims from modernity is not only authoritarian, but is also destined to lose. This is because it clings to pre-modern traditions and lifestyles, which will inevitably be eroded by modernity. What Muslims need to do rather is create their own modernity, by abandoning the bad aspects of their traditions (which there are many) and then articulating the values of their faith in a modern format. Introducing more joy and fun to Muslim events would be a good start. The global world, after all, is an open market in which the most appealing culture "sells" most. If yours is not doing very well, you have nobody to blame but yourself.
All for Joomla All for Webmasters