Thursday, 7 May 2009

Swine flu: can Muslims claim the moral high ground?



Is swine flu a punishment from God for those who eat pork? Some in the Muslim world are making religious capital from a global crisis

www.guardian.co.uk, Thursday 7 May 2009 10.30 BST
Nesrine Malik

The Egyption authorities have decreed that all pigs in the country be rounded up and destroyed, like the filthy, noxious, virulent swine that they are. But country's pigs, bred by Egypt's Christian minority, are a source of income for many, and clashes have ensued with police over the perceived scapegoating.

For non-pork-eating Muslims, the emergence of swine flu is not as much offensive as it is a confirmation of the legitimacy of the Quranic ban on consuming pork. As Khaled Diab pointed out, eating pork is the very final indulgence of the irreligious. If a Muslim does so, he or she is considered to have crossed the Rubicon, more irretrievably so than if he or she were a habitual alcohol drinker or serial fornicator.

The reaction forms part of a predictable pattern. During the mad cow disease outbreak, the assertion was that there was a clear Islamic prohibition on feeding herbivores meat and that the disease was caused by animal cannibalism. Everything from treating animals with respect and kindness to patience when cooking was invoked to prove Islam's prescience. An analysis of where things went wrong is the hallmark of a secure and confident, chip-on-the-shoulder-free civilisation, but it is the gloating spirit that inspires distaste.

This is part of a wider tendency to see random events through a religious lens, often in a rather self-serving way. Tsunami, earthquakes, hurricanes and disease are all part of a divinely accurate system of reward and punishment.

In Islam, there is a useful notion of "ibtila'a" (best translated as "trial", effectively the testing believers' faith through adversity), which, if one suffers and maintains one's faith succesfully, is a sign of God's love. Indeed, a popular joke in the Arab world is that the region's dictatorial leaders are a sign of God's love as a hadith states "The greatest reward comes from the greatest trial. When Allah loves people, he tests them, and whoever accepts it gains the pleasure of Allah and whoever complains earns his wrath." (al-Tirmidhi, 2396; Ibn Maajah, 4031).

On an individual level, this concept is helpful in moments of crisis for it may help a worshipper to reach for deeper levels of calm and reassurance when the temptation is to breakdown altogether, a sort of "why do bad things happen to good people" unguent.

This is not applied on a universal scale however. When others (ie non Muslims) suffer adversity, it is heavenly punishment for straying from the straight and narrow and represents an opportunity for cultural or ideological oneupmanship. The logic can also be extended to other Muslims who do not share one's conservative values. After the 2004 tsunami, as the world was gripped in collective horror at the scale of the disaster, Sheikh Fawzan al-Fawzan of Saudi Arabia said that the tsunami was a punishment for the sexual sins committed in the beach resorts of the afflicted areas.

When Muslims in an ostensibly observant nation suffer, official sources, imams in pulpits and pious heads of state, solemnly resign themselves to a catastrophe that is a test from God. I was in Riyadh in 2003 when the Alhamra bombings took place and recall how constantly referring to the attacks as a "test" conveniently stymied any further examination of the causes and level of the terrorist threat. The litmus test appears to be to what extent consorting with non-Muslim elements or indulging in un-Islamic practices can be identified and how politically expedient the judgment might be. Parties unaligned with governments also indulge in their own exploitation of random events to take the moral highground; in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquke, religious groups claimed the carnage was divine retribution for Musharraf's pro-US policy. It is only a test if the victim is holier than thou.

Muslims who do not consume pork are not immune to the illness nor are they morally superior. We should have a more global community-based approach towards combating the threat and resist the tendency to draw smug conclusions. In a world globalised by an ever more free exchange of goods and people, an ibtila'a on any nation is a curse on all our houses.

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