Religion and Media
Religion and Media
Monday, December 7,2009 17:23

Back to Religion editor conducts an interview with Kamran Pasha, writer and filmmaker, on religion and its relation with media. Pasha is a Hollywood filmmaker and the author of Mother of the Believers, a novel on the birth of Islam as told by Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha.

Back to Religion Editor: From your personal view, what does 'religion' mean?

Pasha: I would first make a distinction between "faith" and "religion."  I define faith as a deeply personal experience of connection to the cosmos, a sense of wonder at this incredibly universe we find ourselves in, an intuition that life is not without purpose, and that death is merely a transformation to a new reality.  I would define religion as a body of ideas, practices and rituals that has evolved over centuries to allow human beings to share with others that deeply personal experience of faith.

 In that sense, faith would be the inner experience of the human condition, while religion is its outward manifestation.  Both are necessary for a healthy spiritual outlook, in my opinion.

Back to Religion Editor: To what extent do you agree that, nowadays, people are moving from their organized religion to a more personalized version?


Pasha: I think that is true only to the extent that some religions have stumbled in their efforts to answer important human questions in modern times.  I am a practicing Muslim and believe that Islam successfully answers all my questions, so I have felt no desire to leave the structures of my religion for something ad hoc or cobbled together out of my own personal preferences.  

 I have found that many of the issues that trouble friends from other religions (especially how to reconcile religion and science, and how to relate scripture to historical evidence) simply do not arise in Islam.  I can be a fully believing Muslim accept the Qur'an as God's Word without having to abandon science, history and knowledge.  And in my experience, many people who are frustrated by the difficulties in believing scriptures and dogma in the light of modern information are attracted to Islam and find their answers here.

 For others, there are two paths within their own religions.  Either to cling to traditional religious understandings of the universe and reject information that contradicts such perspectives (as many fundamentalists do), or to try to pick and choose what they believe out of their religious heritage.  I think the latter path leads to what you are describing as people seeking a "personalized" religion.  The problem with that, however, is that the entire purpose of religion is to create community and human connections based on shared beliefs and practices.  When people start creating their own personal religions, their world becomes smaller and they lose connection with others.

 In essence, you have everyone experiencing "faith" but then being unable to share that experience with others, which is the gift of religion.  I think such a personalized spirituality is actually quite sad and lonely, but I understand why people are forced down that path when their religions fail to give intelligent answers for the modern world. 

Back to Religion Editor: Being in the era of the marketable "images", do you think that there an increasing commercialization of religion?

Pasha: I think that religion has always been "commercial" for a segment of the human population, and always will be.  Modern media and marketing are just tools like any other, and they can be used for the right or wrong purposes.  Using modern media to educate and inspire people is a good thing.  But treating religion like a cheap commodity or as an instrument to manipulate buyers is immoral. 


Back to Religion Editor: Do you think that we can describe a society as a purely secular or a purely religious one?

Pasha: I think that such generalizations are useless.  No society on earth is purely "secular" or "religious."  In every part of the world, people are trying to make sense of their lives and the universe around them.  They find their answers wherever they can, in religion, in science, in philosophy and politics.  But I do believe that societies where the cultural norm is to devalue religion tend to be unhappier than societies where religion is a healthy part of society. 

At the end of the day, everything else besides religion -- science, philosophy and politics-- cannot truly answer the most important questions of the human condition.  Why are we here?  What purpose does life serve?  What happens to us when we die?  Every human effort to answer those questions is by definition pointless.  It is like an eye trying to look at itself. 

To answer questions like this, we have to turn to something that transcends the human condition.  Only faith can provide those answers.  And if we find answers through personal faith, the only way we can share them with other human beings is through common stories, symbols and rituals -- which is what religion is.

 I think that a "purely secular" society would be a miserable and terrifying place, with millions of people who have no answers for their purpose in life living in a state of constant confusion.  The madness of communism gave us a glimpse of what such a society could look like, and it is an ugly picture.  A society without religion is like a body without life. 

Back to Religion Editor: In your opinion who should talk in the name of religion? Who can interpret the religious text? Do you think that, currently, there is a kind of fragmentation of authority? Why?

Pasha: Since I define religion as a collection of common stories, symbols and rituals, I think that having a single spokesperson or group of spokespeople for a religion is ridiculous.  The purpose of religion is to take individual experiences of faith and bring them together through a shared language.  But the individual experience of faith can never be taken away.  Religions evolve and grow due to a dynamic process by which each individual adds his or her unique perspective to the collective experience.  If individuals within a community are silenced by "official" spokesmen, the religion will begin to break apart from within, which is what we have seen in communities with religious hierarchies. 

The Catholic Church has been struggling for centuries with the issue of priestly dogma versus popular belief, and in Europe at least, it has collapsed as a powerful force in many people's lives.  A similar thing is beginning to happen in Iran, as popular unrest is destroying the legitimacy of a political structure that gives clerics the final say in society.  Many Shiite Muslims are beginning to question Ayatollah Khomeini's innovative theory of vilyat-e-faqih (rule of the jurisprudents) as a violation of traditional Islamic beliefs that clergy should serve as voices of moral authority, not as self-serving politicians.  I myself am a Sunni Muslim and very much appreciate that in traditional Sunni Islam, there is no official spokesperson for the religion, no "pope" who has the final say in defining what Islam is.

 The community must work through a process of collective dialogue and debate which allows all voices to be heard, and which provides a way for bad ideas to be analyzed and rejected through consensus.  That process permits all voices to be heard, while allowing the most effective ideas to survive the debate.  I believe that a diffusion of authority in such a fashion is the ideal way for a religion to function and evolve in a changing world.

Back to Religion Editor: Do you agree that time pressures and meeting deadlines in media may produce a simple static representation of religious knowledge and activities that might need more time and space to be demonstrated?

Pasha: It is certainly true that time pressures and deadlines encourage sound bites and sloppy presentation of complex religious ideas.  But I also believe that if an idea is really true, the human heart will understand it without long and convoluted analysis.  I think many people who speak on behalf of religion make things more complicated than they really are, partly because they are using smoke and mirrors to cover weaknesses in their arguments.  The less you have to say to convey your point, the more honest it is.  The Sufis say that one who knows, does not speak.  And conversely one who speaks, does not know.
Back to Religion Editor: How far do you find religion leading to violent reactions?

Pasha: Violence takes many forms, religious, secular, political, racial… etc.  The thing that each of these forms of violence share is that they come out of hatred and a desire to dominate others. 

You don't need religion to justify violence.  People who wish to commit violence against others will do so even if religion is outlawed, because you cannot outlaw hatred, which is an emotional disease.  In communist countries, violence was common under the banner of state atheism.  In fact, removing religion from a society often takes away the last vestiges of restraint and decency in human behavior.

 Without a belief in divine accountability, human beings are free to do whatever they can get away with on earth.  Kill, rape, and steal as long as you have the ability to do so.  This was the creed of totalitarian regimes such as the Nazis and the communists.  Since there is no life beyond this one, no ultimate accountability outside human retribution, the logical conclusion of atheism is a society in which human beings are reduced to a Hobbesian state of war -- every man or woman for themselves. 

Religion arose throughout history as a means to end such cycles of violence.  That is certainly true in the case of Islam, which was born in a world of savage blood feuds.  The religion arose as a means of bring law, order and stability to a barbaric people, and it succeeded.

 Of course, people of bad character will always use whatever justification they can find to commit violence, and religion is a useful tool for them, since it allows them to feel morally superior while committing monstrous acts.  But the fact that some evil people twist religion for that purpose does not change the reality that the purpose of religion in every society on earth is to bring about peace and happiness.