By Yazan Jayyousi
Art work by Sarah Maple
Featured art work: ‘Haram’ oil on canvas, 2008
Sitting editor: Eliza Marks
Although there is now a separation between Church and State in the West, and Christian theology has, in general, lost its power, one should not assume that all forms of dogma have been eradicated.
The West has shifted from craving a God in the traditional sense, to another type of craving that seems similar to religion in the singular mindset it demands, but differs in details: that of group identity, led by specific “divine” role-models.
These role models are often glorified the same way that gods are glorified by worshipers. Why do humans want to put a role-model to the same level as a god? Do we have an instinct to “belong,” making us susceptible to the “false consensus effect”? Why does the concept of divinity and perfection still prevail? Why can’t we be real free thinkers without any effect? Is the group identity these role-models symbolize in fact a ‘modern’ form of dogma?
The solidification and presence of group identities, ideally, provide a voice for a certain group of people so they would be heard, and can initially be empowering and help that group fight for dignity. This is especially powerful for minority groups to push back against dominant systems of power. But what happens next can be tricky. The identity formed to foster inclusion can also exclude those who fall beneath its umbrella. It can end up controlling members, rather than simply guiding them, since that umbrella is the one that defended their rights.
One of the major draws of religion is that it simplifies facts of life and make it easier to define the elements of a “good life.” Is that not also the function of group identities? Some of the loudest voices that fight on behalf of a group against the dogmatic and discriminatory ideologies that marginalize them end up marginalizing its members a second time, this time on a different scale. Some of these identities in fact require a dogmatic adherence to a specific set of values. Are these singular group identities actually a form of protection? “Protection” can be falsely wielded as a weapon to control, and legitimize such things as a society’s placing women under rigid codes of conduct for her ‘protection’ instead of confronting the issue of male dominance itself. If following a certain set of guidelines is necessary to belonging to that group, then that might make us fall again under collectivism and disregard individualism and personal differences.
In short, the marginalization of a group can create other forms of control within that same group. If you consider Muslims abroad or those in Muslim-majority countries, you will find many of them unified under a single, strict ideology or interpretation of Islam. Further, if we consider Maajid Nawaz’s reflection on the issue, minorities within minority groups abroad have it the hardest, such as Muslim feminists, Muslim seculars, LGBT Muslims and ex-Muslims within Muslim communities. A group identity created to represent its members might hold power in one setting, but it often fails to address the diversity within, supposing that group to be homogenous. This is unfair to those who do not fit with the dictated set of norms of the group, and can resultantly restrict their freedom, disregard their individual needs, and, in certain cases, put them in life-threatening circumstances!
‘The identity formed to foster inclusion can also exclude those who fall beneath its umbrella. It can end up controlling members, rather than simply guiding them, since that umbrella is the one that defended their rights.’
Nawal El Saadawi is one of the major inspirations in my life. I am marvelled by her rebellious nature, how she is so bold to express her views and defend as much as she can. I am amazed how courageous she is, how she was jailed for defying systems of religious and political thought, how her jail experience did not weaken her but strengthened her more. She even continued writing in jail, and though they tried to ensure that she would be unable to do so, she managed to take toilet paper from a fellow inmate, a convicted sex worker, from another cell. She used her writings as a weapon to fight, despite being banned from doing so. She was not afraid of death, and she in fact sent a thank you note after she got out of jail to the ruler at the time. She continued to fight and advocate for feminist issues until a law was issued that grants unwedded mothers the ability to register their children with their names, and another that prohibits Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
The amount of love I had for her blinded me, and in certain situations, inhibited my ability to look at her work critically. I made her a goddess, making her untouchable. It took me time to acknowledge that she is human, and that it is her ideas (but not all of them) that should be appreciated. Her ideas can lead me to look at the world more critically, but not a limitation to my creativity or what lies beyond her own ideas or thinking.
Glorifying someone as a role-model or voice of a specific group can inadvertently lead to a number of negative outcomes. Firstly, we shall not glorify any person or allow them to be the single representative of an idea, even if it is ideal. People change, their ideas change, and that is normal. Secondly, people are not perfect, they commit mistakes like us, we cannot keep on monitoring their every move and expect them to always do what is “right” in the world.
Shall we only follow the ideas of a role model we see fit according to “our” principles? Or, can we adopt or value an idea developed by “bad people,” even criminals? For instance, I once shared a quote by Golda Meir found in one of the articles by Maajid Nawaz on Facebook, in which she responded to a mass sexual assault happened against women from her time by saying that men, not women, are the ones who should be home at night. My post started a debate brutal actions she has taken in the past, as a grounds to argue against quoting her. But isn’t it about the idea not the person? It is hard to be that objective and divorce the idea from the person who promoted it, but how can we develop if we keep on personalizing ideas? Ideas are separated from human beings as soon as they leave a persons mouth or pen, and seeing this separation helps prevent us from venerating or demeaning figureheads and to see their ideas in a truthful light.
Are group identities and the lauding of those who symbolize them simply a new forms of dogma, that members must follow blindly? Or, is it a gateway for real empowerment? This is for each person to determine individually…
We can maximize on the potential of group identities to create and advocate ideals and to support people who are in need, without elevating anyone as a figurehead. We shall ensure that all ideas are able to be admired, disliked, and criticized, regardless of who they “belong to.”If we do not, we run the risk of allowing these ideas and people to become a new form of control, oppressing some people twice over. It is in our hands.
About Sarah Maple:
Sarah Maple is an award winning visual artist known for her bold, brave, mischievous and occasionally controversial artworks that challenges notions of identity, religion and the status quo. Much of Maple’s inspiration originates from being brought up as a Muslim, with parents of mixed religious and cultural backgrounds. She completed a BA in Fine Art from Kingston University in 2007 and in the same year won the ‘4 New Sensations’ award for emerging artists, run by The Saatchi Gallery. Sarah’s artwork, film and performances have been exhibited internationally at galleries and institutions including Tate Britain (London), A.I.R Gallery (NY), AGO (Canada), The New Art Exchange (Nottingham), Golden Thread Gallery (Belfast) and Kunisthoone (Estonia).
Follow Sarah Maple’s work via Instagram here