Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Persepolis, and what it says about today's Islam

I just finished watching one of the most amazing movies I've ever seen - Persepolis. It's a cartoon about how Iran has changed since the Islamic Revolution. Before, it was an open, liberal country. Yes, the Shah wasn't perfect, but neither were the Ayatollahs that came after him. After the revolution, a lot of things changed - women were forced to veil, men and women were often segregated and could not go out in public together, the "moral police" were constantly on guard, thousands of political prisoners were executed, and thousands of innocent people were thrown in jail. (This is all according to the movie.)

The story is told through the eyes of a girl who is about 10 when the Shah is overthrown. She moves to Vienna for a few years, then returns, only to find that Iran isn't really her home anymore. She finds life in Tehran impossible. She is forced to marry at 21 since she can't go out in public with the man she is in love with. She is forced to veil, to accept flawed religious rhetoric at school and university, and to constantly be afraid.

What struck me is that these changes that happened in Iran are happening all over the Islamic world. Capitals that used to be open and liberal are now becoming closed, strict, extreme even. Cairo, Beirut, Tehran. What is happening to these cultural centres?

Were the millions of Muslims who grew up in the 50s and 60s in these cities not good Muslims? Most women did not veil, there was no segregation, couples dated, people were not as judgmental - does this mean all of these people are going to hell? I don't think so, but I'm 100% sure that many Muslims of my generation would disagree and say that yes, those generations were not good Muslims.

Why does Islam (according to these countries) today mean being so strict, so afraid of doing anything? Why does it mean segregation? Why must all women veil (either due to laws or social pressure)? Why can the Qur'an not be interpreted according to time and place? Why should I be called a bad Muslim for even asking these questions?

To make matters worse, Muslims in Islamic countries are sometimes more liberal than converts/Muslims in Western countries. So many converts feel the need to Arabize when they become Muslim - take an Arab name, wear Arab-style clothing - when in fact that isn't necessary. These converts also end up adopting Arab (or North African) traditions such as strict segregation and female circumcision, thinking they are Islamic.

In Tariq Ramadan's book about the Prophet, he quotes the Prophet as having said that moderation is best. Moderation is NOT what I see when I look at many of today's Muslims. And to be honest, it worries me. Either I've got it wrong, and Islam is not what I believe it to be, or I'm right, and we just live in an age today where Islam is being interpeted in a particulalry literal and strict manner.

Ramadan also wrote of the following story: some Muslims were about to go on a journey, and the Prophet told them to not stop and pray on the way, but pray when they arrived at the village. On the way, there was an argument between the Muslims - some thought the Prophet was being metaphorical and meant that they should stop and pray but do it quickly, and some thought that he had literally meant that they should not stop and pray. When they returned, they asked the Prophet which was correct. The Prophet said both. Thus there are two ways of understanding the Prophet's sayings - by following the literal meanings, or by trying to understand the purpose of the saying, its spirit, and occasionally its figurative meaning. "Both approaches had been accepted by the Prophet, and both were therefore correct and legitimate ways of remaining faithful to the message."

I often find myself torn between 2 types of Islam - strict Islam, which I see most Muslims practicing, and a more open Islam, which I see many scholars, academics, and thinkers supporting, and which I also see when I read the Qur'an and books about the Prophet's life. Inshallah I'm on the right path.


Anonymous said...

InshaAllah, and I hope I'm on the right path as well. ;)
Interesting post. :)

Jaz said...

I understand what you're saying. Forcing a strict attitude within society and with others isn't the way forward. One of the worst things about living in Cairo is how judgmental people can be.

Sarah Alaoui said...

great post.

Anonymous said...

I notice this also. Converts think in order to be Muslim that it means dressing in traditional middle eastern clothing, taking on an Arab name, and following Arab customs etc.. I just don't see this as necessary in order to be a Muslim.

Muslim does not equal Arab.

Stacy aka Fahiima said...

It is problematic isn't it? Look at Kabul today. Would you feel comfortable there as a western Muslim or a non Muslim? I wouldn't.
Yet it used to be a city that was visited and celebrated for its beauty.
Egypt has seen a lot of social problems since most of the people moved towards conservatism. Pakistan too. These countries are also seeing more attacks on religious minorities. Most of the Jews left Egypt and Yemen a generation ago. There are a few left in Baghdad, but for how much longer? Then look at all the recent stories about attacks against Christians in Pakistan. I don't think that liberalism is necessarily the answer, but the current move to further literalism and conservatism has taken away the lives and livelihoods of many.

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Sarah the Seeker said...

Do you think it's political? i.e. it's about being as different to the west as possible? Something to do with trying to recover the lost golden age of Islam, before the west got so powerful... reversing the west's influence which is blamed for distracting Muslims from their faith and causing their political demise. But funnily enough Islam was more open during its golden age than it is now.

I suppose it is a crisis of faith for people who think like that, because how can God have given the immoral west so much power? Maybe it's this crisis, this doubt, that propels people towards the certainty of strictness and rigidity and zealous extremes.

Great post, as ever.

G said...

Part 1:

I totally understand your point! I myself have observed the same trend. When I was younger I found an old picture (6o's) of my mom and aunts, all in short skirts and without a veil. My mom is one of the most devout Muslims I know, yet if she was wearing now what she was then, she would simply be labeled as a 'wh*re' and be sexually harassed repeatedly.

It was very eye-opening for me. Why would people assume that you are not a good soul/Muslim/person for not fitting into the most extreme of stereotypes? I just cannot accept it! I mean come on! How do you know what is WITHIN people? Why have we become so superficial and judge everything externally? Why is the Arab/Muslim world so afraid of diversity?

I grieve for the Cairo of the 50's-60's. What a beautiful city it was, open and accepting. Why do we have to ENFORCE things in this time and day? We are moving BACKWARDS. It is really alarming. The cause is too complex to even grasp completely. I mean is it the regimes? Is it the so called "threat" that Western influences cause on our morals? Is it fear of losing tradition due to modernization? Is it terrorist organizations fostering a false extremist Islam in people so they could reach their goals with mass support? Was it colonization? Is it the Palestine conflict? Or is it all!?

As I write this comment I am listening to Um Kalthoum. I was just wondering before I read your post what happened to the great fostering of Arabic art and culture that exploded in our past and diminished today? I do enjoy a lot of the Arabic music these days. But its just common words thrown together with a catchy beat. Where is ART!? I feel deep down that the extreme that we see is steadily killing the creativity of the soul.

Some members of my family are very rigid in their beliefs. They completely look down on artists and their lives. It is like they are doomed to hell just for choosing to be artists. I find this notion disgusting.

Everything has become so hypocritical. I have always been open minded, non judgmental and tolerant. I was shocked to find that in my high-school, because of my attitude, many people felt safe enough to confess their darkest secrets to me. Several veiled girls came and told me they enjoy having pre-marital anal sex in return for bags and perfumes? (excuse my crudeness, I just want to be honest). Of course they all agree that normal intercourse is out of the question because a hymen is necessary to prove they are pure to their husbands. What is even stranger is that they do not need the gifts they get, some of the girls came from the richest families in the country. Some even royalty.

It is not the fact that they do this that shocks me. But it is the TOTAL hypocrisy and double life they lead. The same girls would be in my class and as soon as one of the boys says a moderately naughty joke in class they would look down bashfully, gasp and say "3aib" don't say that that is so filthy! And pretend to be embarrassed and uncomfortable. Why do they feel they have to be such opposites on the outside and the inside?

This phenomenon really symbolizes the deterioration of the Arab country in my mind. Basically you are forced to act and be a certain way, on the outside. But deep down you need to rebel because you are so stifled. As long as no one discovers you do the forbidden privately you are fine. You learn to have two selves. You can NEVER explore who you really are, which I think is the most important ingredient in finally finding the right way to God.

G said...

Part 2:


I read an excerpt of the book called Lipstick Jihad in one of my classes. It is also about Iran. I think you should read it. It was amazingly written. One of the points they make is how the revolution has forced EVERYONE to think about sex ALL the time. Because in wanting to make sure, you are not doing anything WRONG or ILLEGAL by looking at girls or being with automatically think about sex. Of course the book describes this much better.

Anyway, before you think I myself think about sex too much. I am just using this as an example. But you can see a lot of the same trends everywhere. People publicly condemning alcohol but drinking it in private. People who condemn Western media publicly but privately would not believe anything that isn't published in the New York Times and much much more.

It is a SAD time for our region. Really tragic. What has happened? MODERATION IS THE KEY! You are right! I myself am not fully practicing Islam. As I have commented on previous posts I felt driven away and turned off by some of the extreme hatred and rigidity I was bombarded with especially in the Gulf. Whenever I read I see openness and acceptance in Islam. Whenever I open my mouth and discuss with other this opinion I am shunned and looked upon as that "young lost boy". Well I am not lost, and I am definitely not a boy. I am a man who just believes that a beautiful religion was not made to stifle, kill creativity and create people into hateful hypocrites.

I think you ARE on the right path. Whenever I read your blog I feel reconnected with the religion on some level. At least some Muslims can think Islamicaly and yet recognize basic human rights.

Okay so I think I am going to end it here, I am sorry I rambled. It is just that this topic gets me so worked up!

I will be looking for the movie to watch and I recommend you read Lipstick Jihad!

Have a great day all!

Anonymous said...

Oh my. A very interesting post, but I think you're looking at this whole situation a little bit too simplisticly.

First of all, Iran was NOT a liberal and open society during the Shah's time. Shah was a CRUEL dictator, who made people hide their political beliefs and made them scared to practice their own religion which eventually resulted in the revolution. He killed and imprisoned thousands of people and sold off his homeland for peanuts.

I've lived in Iran for three years and I tell you that this (Iran being better under the Shah) is a fairytale that many upper class Iranians tell to foreigners, but it's bull. Maybe the life style that the upper class had during the shah might seem LIBERAL, but just as much as drinking, partying and travelling makes a liberal. Iran was and is a totally class-segragated country, which in my opinion, is not too liberal and open.

Many ordinary Iranian from the villages still believe in the revolution, still believe in the ayatollah and see their life after the revolution as a better one. Sure, they are brainwashed to believe that all the problems the country has are related to foreign countries impact (which is also not completely wrong) and nothing to do with the governing elite, but they still live a better life.

Other than that Persepolis does show the true face of things, it's not an easy life for Iranians I must say. But for a better understanding I would recommend the autobiographic book of Shirine Ebadi, a nobel laureate and an amazing woman who really loves and fights for her country. The book is called Irana Awakening.

Regarding the growing religion extremism I would say it's part of a cycle. Not only in the Middle East and in Islamic countries, but in Europe too. I believe human kind goes in circle from more open/tolerant/liberal to the other end of being stricter, more closed.. and it has to do with politics much more than with religion.

Just my opinion and for the background, I am partly Arab, a Muslim and lived in 3 different ME countries although my homeland is in Europe.

I wish though there were some easy answers, because I share your beliefe in a moderate, loving and open Islam. Insha'Allah one day!

And happy Ramadan to all!


cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Aynur: Inshallah =)

Jaz: I agree, people in Cairo are very judgemental, and it can really affect the way you live your life.

Sarah: thank you!

Sarah Elizabeth: exactly, Muslim does not equal Arab. I don't know why a lot of people think that it does :S

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Stacy: Kabul is another great example. Like you said, a lot of Egyptians have moved towards conservatism, which in itself is not a bad thing, but for some reason it has led to lots of social problems. There is also an expectation that ALL Muslims and ALL Egyptians should be conservative, which I don't agree with.
Liberalism is not perfect, but I would take it over conservatism.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Sarah the Seeker: I think it is definitely partly political. Especially since 9/11, Arabs have been trying to find their own identity that is separate from the West, and also separate from the horrible colonial legacy. Thus a lot of Muslims in these countries have turned to Islam for the solution to this identity progress (in my opinion). However the TYPE of Islam they've turned to is what bothers me, not that they've turned to Islam.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

G: you should definitely start a blog about Islam!!
I have also found pictures of the Egyptian side of my family from the 60s, where all the women were wearing short skirts and could walk on the street with men, etc etc. Its sad how much things have changed in Egypt.
You bring up a great question - why is the Arab/Muslim world afraid of diversity? Islam was meant for diverse people, and we are supposed to get to know each other (written in the Qur'an after all), and yet many people don't want this.
I also wonder where art has gone. Then again, some Muslims think art is haram (music, drawing, etc). So obviously a city where this is the predominant belief won't really be producing lots of art.

I will definitely check out Lipstick Jihad, and let me know what you think of Persepolis!
Inshallah you're on the right path too! Islam is a beautiful religion, and I think moderation will bring out the beauty in it :)

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Natalia: thanks for the background on Iran. I wrote in the post that I got that info from the movie, since I myself don't know that much about Iran politically, so please don't think that was my opinion haha.

What I see is that the Shah forced Iran to be Western, and the Ayatollah is forcing Iran to be the opposite (not necessarily Islamic). The problem is the use of force.

I will definitely check out the book you mentioned, I've heard of her several times and she seems pretty amazing.

I really hope what you say is true, and that the growing extremism is part of a cycle.

Happy Ramadan to you too =)

Stacy aka Fahiima said...

I just gave you an award!

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Stacy - thanks so much! That totally made my day :D:D
I will post those things as soon as I have time! xx

Sarah Alaoui said...

G. puts it beautifully...I love watching old black and white Egyptian movies by the way! Life was so much more different then...

ellen557 said...

I would really agree with Natalia here... one thing she didn't mention though is that when women wore hijab, some of them had it ripped off of them on the streets by policemen. I think it was also banned at some point. This was all during the Shah's time and really shows why so many women would support the revolution.

I really don't agree with either way, forcing to or forcing not to, do certain things... but then I guess I'd rather be in Iran than Saudi Arabia, if that makes sense? The lesser of two evils hah.
But yeah... I do think it's a way of making themselves seem different. Because the Supreme Leader at the moment, Sayyid Khamanei is very knowledgeable about Islam ( but then I don't think he is very good in politics. I just think they chose the wrong sort of system.

And you're right, moderation is best. If we don't know the answer, we should choose the middle path, you know? Iran certainly needs to practice this, as does many other countries and many other Muslims. Sorry, I just realised how airy fairy this whole comment was hehe.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Sarah - it really was, I always feel sad when I see those movies and think of how nice it would have been to have lived in Cairo then, instead of now...

Ellen - you're right, if we don't know for sure, we should choose the middle path. Unfortunately a lot of Muslims today think that if we don't know for sure, we should choose the strictest option - "just in case"/"just to be on the safe side". I really disagree with this, because I think that Islam is meant to practiced moderately, and when you turn it into a literal/extreme religion, it loses a lot of its beauty.