Let’s Take Back Religion From The Fundamentalists



The slow creep of fundamentalism affects all religions, writes Dr Mariam Tokhi. It’s time people of all faiths stood against that.

I felt sick as I saw the news screaming from my phone. Family and friends texted frantically: hundreds of innocent folk killed on Easter Sunday.

As a Sri Lankan-born Australian, the peace of our Easter long weekend was destroyed as we worried about friends and family, and reflected on the monumental loss of lives, loves and livelihoods. So close on the heels of Christchurch, this attack on religious freedom was brutal and garish.

And then there was the question of who did it.

The truth is Sri Lanka is no stranger to sectarian violence. My countrymen have only recently dared to celebrate peace, following years of bloody civil war between the Tamil minority and Sinhalese Buddhist Majority. But, in recent years, many Sri Lankans have been worried that fundamentalism – that is, a toxic mix of militant piety, ignorance and an ugly superiority complex – is becoming increasingly mainstream.

And the truth is, this ugly fundamentalism is not exclusive to any religion or creed or country.

Religious scholars describe fundamentalism as a modern phenomenon, where the mysticism and mystery of religion is replaced with literalism and dogmatism. For too long, we who value democracy, pluralism, religious tolerance, peacekeeping, free speech, compassion and kindness, have wilfully ignored fundamentalist thinking in our communities.

We’ve hoped that it would fade out of fashion. Instead, we are seeing a resurgence in fundamentalist violence: people taking up arms in the name of religion, and organising carefully to insert the sacred into the realm of political struggle.

The religion of my grandparents was not this. My grandparents lived in a small village in central Sri Lanka called Akurana. Religion was community and spirituality and kindness and charity and celebration. My grandmother always wore a soft, flowing coloured cotton sari.

In my mind, it symbolised her softness, her strength and her Sri Lankan-ness. She was a matriarch in her village, nurturing her nine children but also tending to the needs of so many others around her. She was the daughter of a poet, and she revelled in reading. She loved her neighbours: Tamil, Buddhist, Muslim, Burgher. Rich and poor alike.

My grandfather was a merchant: growing and trading in the Island’s famed tea and coffee and spices. They valued education, and he worked hard to send their Muslim children to established Christian schools. My grandparents taught their children to love their friends and neighbours deeply.

It looks likely, that this time, it was “Muslims” who have attacked Christian worshippers in their most sacred space on a sacred day. More than 300 innocent people have died. Five hundred others have been injured. Each of them with a story, loved ones, a family that is grieving. In fact, every Sri Lankan I know is grieving the needless loss of so many lives, each of them being one too many.

I would like to make a plea to my fellow Muslims. We have witnessed horrors committed in the name of many ideologies and beliefs, including our own. It is time to wrench back religion from the fundamentalists, and we can start by putting our own house in order.

We are all sceptical of crusading demagogues and we condemn these overt displays of intolerance. But there is also a creeping fundamentalism emerging in our vernacular, and we must be vigilant against it.

It is a selective harking back to the Prophetic times, without questioning or search for meaning. It is a blind faith in literalism. It is rambling, ranting Friday sermons in uninviting, gender-segregated, male-dominated mosques. It is the slow erosion of our progressive past that shines with examples of how once upon a time, Muslims broke ground on women’s rights, workers’ rights, animal rights, environmentalism, inter-ethnic relationships, international relations and science. It is replacing the search for meaning with religious regulation. It is presenting tradition as the literal embodiment of a prehistoric ideal, rather than a source of spiritual inspiration.

The antidote to this creeping fundamentalism is learning to embrace progress and celebrate diversity. Celebrate and love those around you, no matter the differences between you.

Throw away fear and perfectionism and moral superiority. Embrace your doubts. Your spirituality is more than a set of rules laid out for you. If it is important to you, then wrestle with it. You may decide it is so ugly and wretched that it is time to throw it away.

More importantly, you may make it more beautiful and meaningful: you may even wrest it back from the fundamentalists.

I invite you to fight the patriarchy and the dogma with me as we rail against injustice. Speak up for minorities. Respect those who think and express themselves differently. Embrace those who embark on spiritual journeys that are different to your own. Join and support your local progressive Muslim organisation. If there is none, start one.

It is time to create uplifting, loving, inclusive spiritual communities. It may seem simple, but it’s not. It’s really hard work, and it might just make the world a better place.


Mariam Tokhi is Vice President of Muslim Collective, a progressive Australian Muslim community.