Monday, 21 May 2012

* There are no religiously neutral cultures, nor any culture-free religions

 Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University:
The question of culture is central to debates concerning Islam today. Though it must be repeated that Islam is primarily "a religion" and not "a culture", one should immediately add that religion never finds expression outside a culture and that, conversely, a culture never takes shape without referring to the majority values and religious practices of the social group that constitutes it. There are, therefore, no religiously neutral cultures, nor any culture-free religions. Any religion is always born – and interpreted – within a given culture and in return the religion keeps nurturing and fashioning the culture of the social community within which it is lived and thought. Those inevitable and complex links make it difficult to define – whether in the relationship to Texts or in religious practice – what belongs to religion proper and what rather pertains to the cultural dimension.

It is nevertheless important to try to distinguish religious principles from their cultural garb: the process is sometimes easy for all that has to do with creed and worship proper. But things may get more complex when pointing out what the Text actually says, what is open to interpretation in the Text itself, what is linked to the interpreting scholar's culture, what is immutable, what is changing, and so forth. The challenge is a major one, but it is inescapable: If Islam is indeed a universal religion it must provide its faithful with the means to approach the diversity of cultures appropriately. Concretely, this means the diversity of collective mindscapes, social models, imaginations, tastes and aesthetic and artistic expressions. Common principles must a fortiori provide a clear frame of reference enabling protagonists down the line to act and interact confidently within their own cultural universe, both on the level of simple day-to-day details as on that of artistic creativity.

Islam's universality, which was also termed "Islamic civilisation", was achieved through this union between the unity of principles and the diversity of cultures. What is new today has to do with the effects of globalisation and the emergence of an increasingly global dominant culture. Even if one wanted to argue the facts, one cannot deny the reality of perceptions among the populations and elites of non-Western countries: Western culture seems to have settled everywhere and imposes itself through the globalisation of media and means of communication. Everywhere, one can observe the same phenomenon of attraction-repulsion that is common to psychological situations nurtured by a feeling of self-dispossession – while instinct and desire attract us to an object, our intelligence and conscience cause us to hate what stirs and sometimes intoxicates us. Muslim majority communities and societies are run through with such contradictory tensions that sometimes come close to nurturing almost schizophrenic attitudes and discourse towards the "West" which people are as eager to imitate as to condemn.

The cultural question must therefore be taken very seriously, not only as to the mediation it naturally operates in the interpretation of Texts, but also regarding what the latter say about their own existence, their meaning and their richness. The twofold critical work that is required today as regards the relationship between "religion" and "culture" is now stands clear: First, the cultural features that have sometimes reduced, oriented, if not altogether distorted the meaning of the Texts must be identified. Then, we must return to higher finalities and the interpretative freedoms allowed by scriptural sources thus equipping ourselves with the means to encourage creativity and fresh, original cultural expressions. In other words, a double effort is needed: On the one hand, resisting the exclusive, uniform appropriation of the Texts' initial meaning by the original Eastern culture, and, on the other, resisting the standardisation imposed by Western culture which leaves no room for either alternative traditional expressions or any viable notion of "cultural ethics".

This is a huge but crucial challenge. Modernism, the cult of progress, of technology and productivity, clearly go along with impoverishment of the souls of nations and peoples. East and West, women, men and teenagers, increasingly induced to live at high speed, to preserve their youth indefinitely and future minded, gradually lose touch with their memory and with the meaning of roots and History. They engage in putative "civilisation clashes" while they hardly know any more what a tradition or a civilisation is, nor the meaning of origins and of their ever-shifting identities. Devoid of confidence, they experience self-doubts and fear of others; the clash now is often between minimal, superficial "perceptions" rather than "civilisations". Muslims the world over are prey to such confusion and dangerous reduction: spirituality confused with emotive reactivity; obsession with norms without considering meaning; schizophrenic rejection of the dominant culture without proposing any alternative creativity – all are symptoms of the ills that affect Muslim majority societies and Muslims in the contemporary world. The series of fatawa (legal opinions) issued by various Islamic committees daily throughout the world reveal that problems are not given in-depth treatment and that cultural issues are often either understated or wrongly assessed and understood.

If Islam is universal and if it is imperative, when elaborating the different dimensions of its ethics, to integrate the diversity of cultures, their languages, their modes of consumption, their means of expression and their symbols, it is becoming urgent to thoroughly reconsider the relationship of the Islamic discourse and referent to cultures in societies around the world. Resisting the danger of the twofold standardisation described above requires that the various cultures be studied from within in order to identify the roots of their traditions, their distinctive nature and their creativity, while helping them survive and encouraging their expression. This should extend from daily consumption (local dishes and drinks) and dress, to language, architecture, music and all forms of artistic expression. To counter the culture of "fast food", drinks and music that are Americanized in both taste and spirit, we should promote and support the cultural expressions that relate differently to time, being, meaning and finalities, ranging from Chinese tea to local gastronomy from Africa, and from European or American provinces as well. This is again a twofold resistance since, as can be seen, protecting the diversity of cultures implies refusing to submit to a global economy that imposes certain tastes and fashions, a global aesthetics that is now standardised for all.

This deeper, more intimate relationship to national and local cultures is imperative for Muslims the world over. It not only enables them to enrich the modes of expression of their inner being and aspirations, but also to understand more fully the richness of human communities in accord with the dictum "that you may know each other" (Quran, 49:13), and contribute to the creativity of each one of them by integrating them into their own self-expression in a voluntary and always constructive critical manner. Concretely, this entails remaining faithful to higher principles and ethical objectives, wherever one may be, while developing a curiosity and creativity that make it possible to integrate taste models and artistic expressions from all cultures and backgrounds.

Cultures include symbols and just as there are no societies without cultures, there are no societies without symbols. The idea of a culturally neutral public space is not only absurd, but can also be dangerous owing to the amount of secular dogmatism that is required to even consider it concretely. Religious and cultural symbols tell of societies' roots and soul, and it is important never to minimise those dimensions of collective psychology. Not, in deed, to hide behind other people's symbols and become invisible, but to integrate this element and find means to express one's faithfulness to Islam's ethical principles while integrating the symbols of the culture in which one lives, in the West or in the East. In any case, as time goes by a two-way influence will set in naturally, but it is important to show respect for the cultural motives, modes of expression and symbols a culture has developed over its history, crises and evolutions. Here again, respecting the higher finalities of Islamic ethics requires additional creativity rather than isolation and confinement within exclusively "oriental" expressions and aesthetics.

One must discuss entertainment as well. It should first of all be recognised that, for the young as well as for adults, entertainment is a necessity of life and that the standpoints of some literalist scholars or rigorist trends are untenable and absurd. They seem to want to force upon us a daily life devoid of entertainment – without reading, without imagination, without music – without even spiritual rest. This cannot be and does not correspond to Islam's teachings. We hear that music has become the universal language of young people, that the images on television and films agitate the minds of people the world over, that great sports events have become the ritual gatherings of modern times – and we should act as if this had no impact on the minds, hearts and everyday lives of believers wishing to live in harmony with certain principles and a life ethic! The question is not to know whether or not we should entertain ourselves, but what the sense, form and nature of that entertainment should be.

Once the fundamental objectives of Islamic ethics have been determined, the world?s cultures and their specific artistic productions should be considered with an open, critical and always inclusive outlook. We should welcome and integrate as our own all the artistic works – from music and architecture to cinema, literature and drama – that express Mankind's nobility and essence in its quest for meaning, the questioning, emotions, suffering, and the joys. Certainly, we must not promote censorship or restrict writers? and artists' freedom of expression, but instead call upon the consciences and hearts of the women and men who receive their works to seek dignity and high-mindedness, and expression that inspires rather than stirring up the most regressive drives; to respect and accept questions, doubts and sorrows and hail the artistic talent of those who seek to convey them. Accordingly, it is important to think out the outline of an in-depth critical artistic education: Learning the meaning of the artistic act itself, learning about art history, schools of thought, historical stakes and debates aids in fashioning minds, nurturing tastes, and offering a freedom of choice that can resist the pressure of contemporary global culture. Being intellectually, and spiritually, empty of any notion about art history (and the questions that run through it) lead to the risk of being filled up with an art of mass instinct, with ready-made aspirations and answers that do not seem to be so very dogmatic simply because the majority in this global culture give the impression of sharing them naturally.

Specialised, important work is required here, performed in the light of the aforementioned higher finalities and relying on knowledge of past and contemporary productions. This requires the study of classical theories, the theses of "art for art's sake" or Functional Art (such as the Bauhaus Program according to Kandinsky), as well as the claims of the various schools of Modern Art. It also requires learning about the meticulous work of anthropologists and ethnologists studying cultural arts and artistic cultures. Culture and art cannot be ignored - women and men of faith must be given the means to understand and receive them better, without betraying themselves, and without becoming artistically blind and deaf.

This also entails encouraging the cultural and artistic creativity of Muslims themselves. If Islam's message calls upon us to understand the meaning of life and to respect men's common good by celebrating life, peace, dignity, welfare, justice, equality, conscience, sincerity, contemplation, memories, cultures, etc.; then the universe of artistic expression opens wide to everybody's creativity. Obsessed by the fear of transgressing norms, people no longer know how to simply tell of meaning; they find it difficult to convey the most natural emotions and share life experiences that transcend religious belonging, although those are what give norms their true meaning.

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