Middle East or Middle Ages?

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A few days ago, militants of ISIS destroyed an ancient cultural Iraq site because it is their belief that those shrines and statues found in the Assyrian city of Nimrud were offering means to pray to “false idols”. It is in the light of these recurring events that we are left to wonder if we are talking about the Middle East or the Middle Ages. For many societies, religion is part of their cultural identity but that doesn’t necessarily mean it should remain like that.

Along with the industrial revolution, people’s focus turned from spirituality to developing better means of production. That is the reason why Western countries are more often than not secular societies. Religion is not part of everyday life but rather leaves room for expressing faith in a more intimate context, at home or in a quiet church or chapel. Yet, the Inquisition was proof of how greatly a Church can dominate and ISIS is proof of to which extent people can go in the name of a belief.

Romania is the heart of Europe, surrounded by other countries which left religion outside of how they organize their societies. Still, Romanians have been fighting for years to take the religion class out of the school curriculum, arguing that it offers a one-sided view on spirituality and religion in itself. Which it does. Back in my days, I had to sit through a whole hour every week hearing how a priest more often than not shamed my classmates who did not share the “accepted” confession, which was orthodoxy. How is this considerably different than what ISIS is doing? Suppressing personal and cultural beliefs because they do not comply with what an authoritarian figure considers as acceptable is bullying. The Romanian Church just found a better way of packaging and conducting the bullying process: they do not kill humans but they kill the concept of acceptance and tolerance among children who are often too young to understand what is happening to them.

We now live in a world where it is easier than ever before to move. Globalization is not a foreign concept but an accepted word in our vocabularies. Even so, migration leads to multiculturalism and that is not easy to welcome into your everyday life if you know nothing about understanding others, embracing differences and acknowledging that people may feel different than you about many aspects of life. Fortunately, we do not discriminate against someone who eats a different food than we do. But religious reasons are often the milestone in discriminating against others.

Faith is in itself a wonderful thing. Whether it’s the Bible or the Qur’an, they both speak about solidarity and peace, they provide advice that is merely for organizing reasons and they offer life lessons that modern societies take for granted as regulated by law. It is important to question ourselves how we got from reading that it is bad to steal or kill to having people gathering together to do the exact same thing?

Europe is still managing to contain religion within some boundaries. Even the story in Romania doesn’t seem that bad if it’s put into comparison with the situation in which the Arab communities live. I heard a story once, from an Iraqi who was telling what his take on the concept on “jihad” is. He did agree with the translation into the phrase “Holy War” but he never once thought that what is happening now does any justice to that. For him, fighting in the name of Allah meant defending his people, there be need for it. Not attacking but acting as defense. And those who attacked his loved ones would be, in his conception, the “enemies of Islam”. Unfortunately, this is a concept related to believing and having faith, while all the streaks of destruction ISIS have caused are safely guarded under the umbrella entitled “religion”.

If we think of religion as the reason behind bullying others, a means of expressing intolerance and racism towards “thy neighbor”, a scapegoat for when people destroy ancient artifacts and a site filled with culture, maybe we can assert that we are regressing instead of progressing, going back from modern to ancient. I have faith in humanity to come back from that but it is also my strong belief that modern societies and religions as institutions of dominance and power do not go well together and cannot, in any way if put together, leave room for what the principles behind all of them is: peace and mutual understanding.

Alexandra Stan

Alexandra Stan