It was the beginning of April in 2013, a month away from my graduation thesis show. I plopped on the floor of my small but recently cleared out art studio at school as I stared at the large Gordon Paper I had tacked onto one of the walls. I got up, took a pen, and wrote ‘Respect’ in the middle of the intimidating brown space. I stared at it, sat back down, and stared some more.
Earlier that year I had recently completed Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and could not be stopped from bringing it up in mundane conversation. While I’m sure I annoyed many, religion became, and has been, paramount in my life. Not my adherence to a religion but my own removal from one.
It wasn’t that I had been taught something foreign to me and became fascinated. It was that every question and every doubt I had about the role of religion in my life and environment, became validated by a single piece of literature. I had to get it out.
In speaking of my newly found passion with friends and family, I came to realize that the conversation on religion always ended with one similar sentiment by those I spoke with: “You just need to respect others beliefs.”
But what was I saying that had anything to do with respect?
Frustrated by the way those conversations ended, I couldn’t stop wondering what people meant. Respect? Respect what exactly? What does that mean? Is it an action? An emotional stance?
While to many the answers to those questions may seem obvious, I’d like to challenge that notion.
I couldn’t shake that word: Respect. I wanted a conversation about the role of religion in the social world, not advice on how I should personally deal with it.
Many of us, if not all, were taught that ‘respect’ is a sort of “live and let live” mantra which to live by. “You do you and I do me”. Therefore, on the superficial level, I was being told to “you need to……” What?!
I need to do what?! I need to hold esteem or regard for those beliefs? That is, after all, the definition of ‘respect’. To admire, hold regard, or esteem for someone or something. That’s when it hit me! Once you attempt to interchange the word ‘respect’ for one of its available synonyms, its imagined meaning completely changes. Here are some examples:
- appreciation, awe, consideration, deference, dignity, esteem, fear, honor, recognition, regard, reverence, tribute, account, adoration, approbation
Therefore, when being told to ‘respect’ religious faiths, I was expected to have a sort of positive attitude towards those beliefs in spite of my own. And while I understand what is being said, it, in its entirety, dismisses and disregards what religion is.
I could go through the sociological approach towards outlining how, by its very premise, religion is not based on a “you and me” social relationship. Rather, it is an “us and them” situation. Religion, for much that one could look to argue for its spiritual value, is organized. There are places of worship, doctrines, hierarchies, and conflicting ideologies and interpretations. But there is enough literature out there by intellectuals to complete the task.
But because of horrific events occurring world wide with the rise of Islamic terrorism, I believe there is no better time to put into perspective what ‘respect’ means when we attempt to unwrap religion. Therefore, I will use Islam in my approach but will further expand with the Christian-Catholic faith.
The Orlando shooting last weekend, once more, stirred up the political conversation as to the role of Islam in the world. Whether or not it was the shooters motivator, it became part of the conversation.
On one side, there are the Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, and xenophobic. On the other, there are those that do not equate Islamic terrorism to Islam. Those that adhere to ISIS or Al Qaeda are a tiny, insignificant portion of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world.
Because the former attitude has gained mainstream status, the latter has come out in an attempt to point out that a small portion of something, does not make it everything. And while this is true, it does not make the latter all the better.
The liberal media and moderate Muslims in the West have come out in defense of their religion with fervor and passion. The phrase “It is a religion of peace” is often espoused by Muslims and liberals that speak out against those that look to demonize the religion. These are, more than not, Muslims that have become somewhat westernized and liberals who seem to want to pacify the debate on religion. And while they should do this, there is discrepancy between the used defense and the actual practice of Islam in Islamic based nations.
By basing the debate of the nature of Islam on terrorism, the conversation completely disregards the social and political practices of Islam. And while we should all be vocally against terrorism, we not need to agree with the religion itself in order to do so. As moderate Muslims put it, Islam is not about terrorism. But, I along with others say, Islam does not coincide with liberal, or even secular, thought either.
Now, this is not about demonizing Islam or feeding the Islamophobic, anti-immigration, xenophobic rhetoric. It is about accepting that there are absolute contradicting values between Islamic nations and their traditions, and the practice of separation of church and state in Europe and the United States, for example. The latter, isn’t even necessarily a liberal practice. It is a basic secular practice to ensure democracy within a State. A democratic principle that allows Muslims to practice their faith with the liberty to decide how to do so. A democratic principle which many Muslims around the world are afforded, BUT not most.
There are only a few outspoken Muslim activists who make this distinction, and even they suffer for it.
The problem with ‘democracy’ as understood by the West, is that it cannot be translated to many eastern countries. The world learned its lesson when the United States “wanted to bring democracy” to Afghanistan by the way of invasion only causing more social and political destabilization. When has imperialism ever brought about peace?
The Pew Research Center has found that most Muslims, in nations where Islam is the dominating religion, in fact want Sharia Law to be enacted. That means the law of the land should be based on the religious doctrine of Islam; the divine law within the Quran. That means that both private and public life should be guided and led by the faith.
Some of these nations and their support for sharia law are: Afghanistan (99%), Iraq (91%), Niger (86%), Malaysia (86%), Pakistan (84%), Morocco (83%), Bangladesh (82%), Egypt (74%), Indonesia (72%), Jordan (71%), Uganda (66%), Ethiopia (65%), Mali (63%), Ghana (58%), and Tunisia (56%).
While the practice of Sharia law varies within each nation, most Muslim countries make use of it in one way or another and their people are in favour of it.
Afghanistan, for example, legally enacts capital punishment for apostasy, purdah (segregation) on women, and imprisonment for homosexuality.
What does this mean? That the Pew Research Center uncovered how most Muslims in these nations approve of the state of affairs within their own countries.
In circling back to my concern with ‘respect’ and religion, do I really have to ask?
When I’m told that I must respect ones faith, I am not being told to respect a type of spirituality. I am being told that I need to respect social values and practices that go along with it. That I should respect values and practices which go against those that have been afforded to me. That I should respect values and practices of which I am not just opposed to, but which I’ve been both socially and intellectually taught to view as negative. Values and practices which have been statistically and scientifically proven to be detrimental to society as a whole.
BUT because these are religiously based, I am not allowed to say so.
Which takes me to my general point: Because I can understand a religion, does not mean I have to respect it.
Just to emphasize that I am not being bias, I have the same problem with the religion I myself grew up with; the christian-catholic faith.
While it has been found that Mexican Catholics are in a high opposition with the church, they are still morally and socially molded by their interpretation of the faith. With 81% of Mexicans identifying as catholic, women’s sexual health, including abortion, remains a heated debate nation wide, very much like, if not more so, the United States.
Unfortunately, Mexico City is the only place which fully grants women the right to abortions (under 12 weeks only) without being subject to a penalty. All while, in another 18 states, they could be subject to penalization. In the worst of cases, up to 30 years of imprisonment.
With epidemic-like rates of teen pregnancy and domestic abuse in poverty stricken communities, along the incompetence to provide proper sexual education and resources by the public education system, I cannot respect the faith based belief that women should not have access to an abortion clinic. Let alone, be punished for it. The social and economic impact of high rates of teen pregnancy in poverty, when they have not even concluded their secondary level education, is not only detrimental to them, but society as a whole.
Not only are women affected by the Catholic faith, but homosexuals are still viewed as morally corrupt by 55% of Mexicans.
It is one thing to ‘respect’ or “let live” another’s beliefs when they do not infringe on the basic rights and freedoms of others. When they do not intend to endanger one specific demographic. When they do not look to put one citizen or believer above another based on their adherence to the doctrine. If as an adult you still believe in Santa, that’s your prerogative. I’ll think your nuts and won’t respect it but, unless you harm someone for it, I don’t see the problem. I haven’t even touched the miracle/mystical side of religion.
But it is another thing entirely to ask me to respect beliefs that do those things.
I cannot respect a faith which does not respect those that leave it, but rather kills them for it. I cannot respect a faith that does not respect a women’s body, but rather asks her to cover it as a sign of ‘modesty’. I cannot respect a faith which does not respect women’s ability to control their health and ability to choose their future, but rather forces them to a life defined by one sperm and one egg. I cannot respect a faith which does not respect an entire community’s nature, but rather asks for the restriction of their civil rights. I cannot respect a faith that would limit my own ability to have control over the direction of my life.
“So with all due respect”, I cannot, nor will I, respect that as it is in my absolute freedom to do so.
*For those curious as to my resulting artwork: my endevour to challenge the word ‘respect’ resulted in an installation where I represented in list significant events from the 20th and 21st Centuries in where literature had been burned for ideological or political reasons. From Harry Potter to the Christian Bible, I documented the process in which I recreated the act, cataloged the book covers, and jarred and planted the ashes in potted Hydrangea.