Saturday, August 08, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - on heresy and prejudice

Tikno's post, Fatwa against terrorist, continues to draw some interesting responses. I think that to some degree at least, Tikno has achieved his objective of publicising alternative views, the opposition to terrorism among Muslims.

Australia's dumb would be terrorists set out my first gut reaction to the alleged terrorism plot in Australia. I have been busy and I haven't watched/read as much as I should on subsequent developments, but I really felt sorry for their families.

Australia has had a relatively long experience with displaced people. The trauma of war and social disruption leaves deep scars. I suspect that there are very few Australians who have not had some personal contact with former refugees, a substantial number where the experience is directly personal or in their own families.

I should write about this from a purely personal perspective at some point because I have been alive for long enough to span multiple movements of people into Australia. I suppose one thing that I have found is that the contacts temper my own views.

I am naturally curious and like to find out about people. The best way to do this is simply through conversation, asking questions. The key is to listen, not argue. I have learned so much. Often, the most interesting things are the purely domestic, the way families work, attitudes to children, to faith. Sometimes the stories skirt absolutely horrifying things that I can barely comprehend.

These things don't go away, they just have to be lived with. People get on with their lives as best they can.

I don't think that it helps to revisit the past to much because it re-opens old wounds, reinforces divisions.

Another thing that I have learned is that people and societies do change. At one level this may sound like a truism. We all know that things change. However, at a second level (and this applies to me too) we also have deep beliefs that things and people don't change.

You can actually see this in what is called the law and order debate in Australia. The desire to punish, to lock people up and throw away the key, rests on an often implicit assumption that personal redemption and reform is not in fact possible.

I suppose that I write a fair bit about change and change processes. Sometimes I write because I think that certain changes are wrong, equally often I am arguing in favour of change. Sometimes I do both at the same time!

As part of the discussion around Tikno's post, Ramana sent me a link to an Economist story. Entitled Islam and heresy: where freedom is at stake, the opinion piece deals with change and dissent within the Muslim faith.

The central ideas in the piece are interesting: heresy, apostasy and the need for internal change within the Muslim faith are interesting ideas. That said, I thought that it was a remarkably shoddy piece of writing because of the overlays of prejudice created through use of words. The article begins:

To most Western ears, the very idea of punishing heresy conjures up a time four or five centuries ago, when Spanish inquisitors terrorised dissenters with the rack and Russian tsars would burn alive whole communities of ultra-traditionalist Old Believers.


Quite a bit of my train reading over the last few months has focused on European history exploring, among other things, the changing nature of perception and prejudice. It may be true that we don't, for example, burn people at the stake any more in Western European countries, but the history of Europe of the last two hundred years is absolutely littered with examples of barbaric human behaviour linked to race, religion, ethnicity. This includes the secular faiths such as communism or fascism where punishment for heresy or apostasy - denial of the true way - could send you to concentration camp or gulag.

I am not singling out Western Europe. I am simply saying that discussion of the need for change in any community or organisation, of concepts such as heresy or apostasy, is not greatly helped by irrelevant overlays.

The growth of the concept of civilisation and of associated concepts such freedom in Western thought is an important story notwithstanding the failures that I refer to. The failures and sometimes horrors themselves have been part of the evolutionary process.

Finishing up with a definitional note. One definition of heresy says:

  • a religious opinion or doctrine at variance with accepted doctrine
  • a willful and persistent rejection of any article of the faith by a baptized member of the Roman Catholic Church
  • any belief or theory strongly at variance with established opinion.

I would have thought that the idea of punishing heresy was well established in Western democracies, it's just that the definitions have shifted somewhat.

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