Needed urgently – Islamic minority culture

16 September, 2010 at 16:14 | Posted in Inter-faith relations, Israeli-Arab conflict | Leave a comment

London Central Mosque

London Central Mosque (by Tawil via Flickr)

The major problem of Muslims today, especially Sunni Muslims, is lack of minority culture. Minority culture is a set of rules, norms, workarounds and sometimes even philosophies, that enable a relatively small community to live in harmony, or at least in reasonable coexistence, with a surrounding larger community that holds different values and norms. Sunni Islam did not have the opportunity to develop a minority culture because Sunni Muslims became majority within a short period of time from the emergence of Islam. Even in the early days of the Arab Muslim caliphate, when Sunni Muslims did not constitute a statistical majority, they still held the Muslim empire’s governmental posts and populated its political and religious elites. Later on, as the empire’s non-Muslim inhabitants wished to become part of these elites, there were waves of conversion to Islam (and often also adoption of Arab culture), which made the Sunni Muslims a majority also in the numerical sense of the word.

The Shia and the faiths that split from it, like the Druze or Alawite communities, do have minority culture, as they found themselves somewhat isolated within the much larger Sunni community. A famous expression of this minority culture is the principle of taqiya, namely the right, maybe even obligation, of the believer to hide her/his religious affiliation and suspend religious practices in case of tension with the dominant or ruling community. The taqia principle evolved from a mean of survival to a whole philosophy and an essential part of the Shiite, Druze and Alawite faiths.

As for Jews, they have been living in minority communities for centuries until the establishment of the State of Israel. In fact, the emergence of the State poses difficult challenges to the Jewish religious community of Israel. Jews accustomed themselves to life as minority to a degree that they lack cultural tools to handle religious, ethical and practical issues when they form the majority. Prof. Yeshayahu Leibovitz addressed many issues of this kind in his book “Judaism, Jewish People and the State of Israel” (1975). He harshly criticized religious Jews who treat secular Jews in Israel as “gentiles”. He said, for example, that a religious policeman cannot switch shifts with a secular colleague in order to avoid working on Sabbath, because from the religious point of view, all Jews must observe the Sabbath on Saturday, while non-Jews, and only non-Jews, may chose to follow other customs. In practice, however, religious Jews in Israel do treat secular Jews in the same manner Jews in Europe or America treat the non-Jews, because the Jewish law is simply not built to cope with Jews being a  majority.

Christians live in various environments. The Eastern churches have rich minority culture, because they were indeed minority for many centuries, and some of them still are. But Christians as a whole, even in Western Europe were they have been a majority for a long time, have minority culture that dates back to the early days of Christianity. Furthermore, in modern times, religious Christian communities had to deal with European secularism that has made religious communities a minority within larger secular communities. In places where Christians turned from majority to minority, either due to vast secularism or due to demographic changes, they could borrow elements of minority culture from their ancient history or from Eastern Christian communities (despite the controversy over dogmas).

Sunni Muslims are the mirror image of the Jews. They are very comfortable in the majority position, and feel like a fish out of water when they are minority. After all, they held this position of majority throughout the history of Islam until recently. The phenomenon of Sunni Muslim minorities in Western Europe and the Americas has become widespread during the 1900s, giving rise to an urgent need of Muslim minority culture. This is a challenge not properly addressed by Muslim leaders, in my opinion, and this is a major reason for ongoing violent conflicts between Muslims and their surrounding communities in places like France, Germany, Great Britain and Scandinavia, not to mention Israel. In Israel, the situation is especially delicate because Muslims see it as part of the “Islamic land”, even though Jews and Western peoples have equally important attachment to this territory.

Sunni Islam is currently in a position every faith would deem a success. It has hundreds of millions of believers, it control its holy places, including Jerusalem, where the Palestinian Muslim waqf de facto controls Al-Haram A-Sharif (The Temple Mount), despite the designation of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state of Israel. Muslims cannot expect being the dominant faith and culture everywhere. In fact, a good Sunni Muslim should say, “We, believers, have done everything we can according to our faith. The rest is for God to take care of”. Then again, such a statement can come only from the mouth of a believer that learned to act as part of a minority.

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