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Chan'ad Bahraini

(Scomberomorous maculatus Bahrainius)

Note: This page has moved to a new address. Please click on the following URL to get there: http://chanad.weblogs.us/index.php?s=Humanism. Sorry for the trouble.


Sunday, June 06, 2004
I generally try and stay away from labels. But when pressed on it, I would refer to myself as a humanist. By this I don't mean to suggest that I am a scholar of the humanities, or to imply anything about whether I believe in secularism. Rather, I use the term to describe how I understand identity and the way in which I structure my outlook of the world. A racist views society as the interaction of different racial groups; a nationalists think in terms of nations; a Marxist thinks in terms of socio-economic classes; a Fascist thinks in terms of States; a feminist thinks in terms of gender; an Islamist thinks in terms of religion (sort of), etc. To be more specific though, feminists not only structure their view of the world through gender-tinted glasses, but also believe in a collective female consciousness which is their primary identity. In the same way, Islamists believes in a collective consciousness spanning Muslims the world-over, and identify themselves primarily through this consciousness.

In this sense, by calling myself a "humanist" I refer to my belief in a collective consciousness of human beings. Moreover it is a label for my desire to identify myself primarily with humans, before any other type of grouping. The meaning of this is that in my view, I am a human before I am a Muslim, a male, a member of the middle-class, a South Asian, or a citizen of a specific country, etc. I believe that the common characteristics shared by all human beings are far greater than the differences between any nationalities, ethnicities, genders, religions, socio-economic classes, etc.

The reasons for this belief are based, in part, in Existential thought. In that we enter this universe without really knowing anything at all about ourselves, but in order for us to settle on any identity, we must first be in some way aware of the fact that we are humans. An example might help. In order for me to make the active decision to embrace a religion I must first view myself as a human being. As a human being I come into contact with the sacred texts and understand the tenets of the faith, after which I might embrace the religion and call myself, for example, a Muslim. The point is, that before I made the decision to be a Muslim I must have been something. Maybe I was a Christian, or a Hindu, or an atheist. But there must have been a point somewhere in my life before I ever made a conscious decision to believe or disbelieve. At that point, I could have only made that choice with the view that I am a human. It wouldn't make sense otherwise.

Okay I know my logic doesn't really hold, as it would take me pages to fully express what I mean, and even then there are no promises (because at the end of the day none of our beliefs are completely logical). But I'm definitely not the first person to think in this manner. Although my flavour of humanism is slightly different, "secular humanism" bears the same essentials, and is a movement which was quite strong some time ago. It was often associated with socialism and Marxism, yet it is not vitally attached to these other ideologies. In the Middle East and South Asia, the movement has left behind a great wealth of beautiful art and literature which I thought I might talk about.

One of my favourite Bollywood movies is the 1959 "Dhool ka Phool", translated as "Flower of the Dust". The plot of the film involves a mother abandoning her newborn baby in the jungle, to be rescued by a villager a few hours later. He takes the baby back to the village to find someone who will adopt it. Everyone refuses to adopt the baby on count of not knowing the background of the child's parents. All of the Hindus say that "What will happen if we adopt the child and raise him as a Hindu, but we later find out he is the child of a Muslim? Sorry we can't adopt the child." All of the potential Muslim parent have the same concerns that he might be the child of Hindu parents, and refuse to adopt him account of this. Finally an old devout Muslim man adopts the baby as no one else in the village will accept the responsibility. At first he is unsure of whether to raise the child as a Hindu or a Muslim. But he soon decided that he will not raise the child as either. At this point of realization the old man sings a song, the refrain of which is:
Neither a Hindu nor a Muslim will you become,
You are the child of a human, and a human you will become.
Yes, its all very idealistic and dreamy, but there's definitely something about it.

Another piece of literature that portrays this concept is Ghassan Kanafani's short story Return to Haifa. This follows a similar story, based around two Palestinian parents who unknowingly abandoned their baby in their home while fleeing from the Israeli army as it invaded Haifa. The parents settled in a camp in Jordan and had no way of going back to Haifa (which is now part of Israel proper) to find out about what happened to their child. They had long assumed that he had died in the havoc. The story then fastforwards to the late 1970s when it becomes possible for Palestinian refugees to visit their former homes in Israel. The parents hesitatingly decide to go and see their old home in Haifa, not fully knowing what to expect. (Warning: If you plan on reading the story yourself then you should stop reading this here). When the parents go there, they find an Israeli family living in their home. They also learn that the Israeli parents adopted their baby soon after they left. Now grown up, their son is loyal to the Israeli state and has even joined the Israeli army. To the Palestinian parents' surprise, he refuses to have any relationship with his biological parents since they provided him with nothing but genes. It's a very moving story, with a stinging criticism of nationalism and Irridentism.

"Toba Tek Singh" is another short story, written by the Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto. The story is based on a lunatic asylum at the time of the partition of British India into modern day India and Pakistan. It is absolutely beautiful, hilarious and tragic, with some viscious satire, all at the same time. You can read this one for yourself here. It is really short so it should only take you five to ten minutes to read it. But definitely read it.
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