Kenan Malik in Eurozine (image source: Shutterstock):
Every year I give a lecture to a group of theology students – would-be Anglican priests, as it happens – on “Why I am an atheist”. Part of the talk is about values. And every year I get the same response: that without God, one can simply pick and choose about which values one accepts and which one doesn't.
My response is to say: “Yes, that's true. But it is true also of believers.” I point out to my students that in the Bible, Leviticus sanctifies slavery. It tells us that adulterers “shall be put to death”. According to Exodus, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. And so on. Few modern day Christians would accept these norms. Others they would. In other words, they pick and choose.
So do Muslims. Jihadi literalists, so-called “bridge builders” like Tariq Ramadan (“bridge-builder”, I know, is a meaningless phrase, and there are many other phrases that one could, and should, use to describe Ramadan) and liberals like Irshad Manji all read the same Qur'an. And each reads it differently, finding in it different views about women's rights, homosexuality, apostasy, free speech and so on. Each picks and chooses the values that they consider to be Islamic.
I'm making this point because it's one not just for believers to think about, but for humanists and atheists too. There is a tendency for humanists and atheists to read religions, and Islam in particular, as literally as fundamentalists do; to ignore the fact that what believers do is interpret the same text a hundred different ways. Different religions clearly have different theologies, different beliefs, different values. Islam is different from Christianity is different from Buddhism. What is important, however, is not simply what a particular Holy Book, or sacred texts, say, but how people interpret those texts.
The relationship between religion, interpretation, identity and politics can be complex. We can see this if we look at Myanmar and Sri Lanka where Buddhists – whom many people, not least humanists and atheists, take to be symbols of peace and harmony – are organizing vicious pogroms against Muslims, pogroms led by monks who justify the violence using religious texts. Few would insist that there is something inherent in Buddhism that has led to the violence. Rather, most people would recognize that the anti-Muslim violence has its roots in the political struggles that have engulfed the two nations.