Faith in Fiction 9: Grist for the Mill

In Saudi Arabia, all citizens are rqurieed to be Muslims, and the public practice of other religions is forbidden. Private practice of other religions is sometimes allowed and sometimes persecuted; there is no law protecting even this.Iran is officially a Twelver Shiite state. Some other religions (Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism) are permitted, but are not allowed to proselytize; and they are sometimes persecuted even if they don’t. The Bahai faith is not allowed at all. Sunni Muslims are subject to some restrictions also.In China, all religious organizations have to be authorized by the government. This has given rise to conflict when the government appoints religious leaders different from what the religion itself chooses. There are state-appointed Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Taoist, and Muslim leaders. These are not always approved by the religious organizations outside of China. Those who practice religion outside these state-approved organizations are subject to severe persecution.In Turkey, since the secularization by Ataturk in the early 20th century, the government permits all religions but keeps them all under close surveillance. Special religious clothing (the veil, the fez) is not permitted to be worn in public. Turkey is predominantly Muslim, and there is some prejudice against other religions.In North Korea, virtually no religious practice is allowed except a limited amount by foreigners. Worship is considered a political offense.Cuba was for years officially atheist, and religious practice was seriously discouraged, with some persecution. But now religious people are even allowed to join the Communist Party. The government is secular rather than atheist, and religious practice is pretty much free.These are a few varied examples of governments which have restricted religious practice. In our time, the States that restrict religious freedom are mostly Muslim or Atheist.I can’t think of any other belief system that does this in modern times.Religion is the source of meaning and values for many people, and restricting it restricts the growth of the human soul. In countries where a religion is imposed, it loses some of its growth potential. In countries where religion is not restricted or mandated by the government, it flourishes and leads to better values and ways of life. — posted to a comment thread

This was a comment that appeared on my last Faith in Fiction blog and, though I wasn’t sure it really belonged there, I wanted to respond to it in part because it does propose some ways that religion is treated in “real life” which can be reflected in our fiction.

As I said in my short reply in the comment thread, I really wanted to speak to how easy it is to spread disinformation—which has ramifications for both life and the arts that imitate it.

The aim of the comment was, I think, to encourage religious freedom, for and from. But it opens with a chunk of disinformation: “In Saudi Arabia, all citizens are rqurieed (sic) to be Muslims, and the public practice of other religions is forbidden.”

After checking a variety of sources, including academic and tourist industry ones, I was able to confirm what I thought was actually the case: Islam is the majority, official religion of Saudi Arabia. Most Saudis are Sunni Muslims, about 10-15 % are Shi’ah. There are statistically verifiable populations of Christians (just over 3%), Hindus (a bit over half a percent) and Baha’is (about .1%).

However, the practice of their religion is NOT forbidden.

For one thing, forbidding the practice of Christianity would run counter to the text of the Qur’an so blatantly that I’m not sure even the Saudi royal family could pull it off without outraged Islamic scholars camping out on the palace steps.

But though there are no laws that forbid the practice of other religions, neither are there laws that specifically protect that practice.

This loosey-goosey approach to the legality of certain behaviors can have mixed consequences as well as mixed meaning. It may mean that most of the members of a society are so on the same page that they’ve never contemplated the need for certain laws. But it may also mean that the rulers of said society have not contemplated that need because, darn it, their word is law.

Whatever the provenance of the issue, it is one that the Saudis are having to deal with increasingly. I found it interesting that Saudi women have recently been using Islamic law to acquire freedom they had not been granted under the traditional system. For example, the recent uproar over women driving revealed that there are no actual laws on the books forbidding women to drive. Or marry whom they please. Or work outside the home. A handful of female activists, with the help of experts in Islamic law, have been using what IS on the books (or Book, really) to gain access to the rights their faith grants them that have been buried under centuries of tribal tradition.

Pretty cool.

I think this points to the truth of something I read in a text on forensic law. When human relationships break down and unspoken social contracts fail or need revising, we create laws to fill in the gaps. Makes sense. And it’s something to think about when you’re creating that religion or social structure for your novel. If, for example, people’s personal ethics are such that no one ever steals, it is unlikely that society will have laws against stealing or punishments for same. Laws arise because of general or sometimes very particular need. There was, oddly enough, a law on the books in one of our eastern states that made it illegal to—ah—fling hamsters (or was it gerbils?) at a clergyman.

No, I am not kidding.

Laws also existed in Texas until the 1990s that forbade a woman from opening a checking account or rearranging the furniture in her living room without her husband’s permission. You have my permission to laugh or gnash your teeth, accordingly.

When creating your story book worlds, it can be challenging and enlightening to try to imagine the sorts of situations that will arise and result in the enactment of laws or the development of traditions. Even if you’re positing a real revelation that’s sent down from a real God, then that God might tailor laws to do one of a number of things: 1) Deal with a traditional structure that is faulty (as Muhammad’s laws granting women full civil rights countered tribal traditions that had made them chattel); 2) proactively lay the groundwork to combat potentially dangerous trends (the sheer number of sacred verses dedicated to quashing the “them and us” paradigm is staggering); 3) give the members of the community something to shoot for—a target of behavior just enough out of reach that they have to stretch to attain it (Do as you would be done by, for example).

A glance back at the situation in Saudi Arabia reminds us that sometimes traditions that have nothing to do with religion (and which may actually run counter to its teachings) can become so strong that—a hundred or a thousand years down the line—they are believed to be law. At least until a new revelation comes along or until someone is smart enough and motivated enough to challenge the tradition. The “authorities” may find themselves at a loss to uphold their tradition in the face of reality, because (and this is where a bit of my old Quality Management training comes in handy): if it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist.

Well, THAT ought to open up a can of philosophical worms.

All of this is grist for the fictional mill. And fiction, I remind myself daily, is the way we make reality behave by pretending to look the other way. (Thank you, Ray Bradbury for that epic thought.)


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About Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Writer of speculative fiction as the result of a horrible childhood incident involving Klaatu and a robot named Gort. Author of The Mer Cycle trilogy.
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2 Responses to Faith in Fiction 9: Grist for the Mill

  1. I have noticed that many laws and regulations do not spring up out of nothing. Instead they are reactions, usually to some egregious offense. Many of the licensing regs are rooted in this. Quack dentists are victimizing gullible people with toothache? People are setting up as veterinarians in their garages? I get up in the morning and decide to be a funeral director? Somebody once tried that, and after all the ruined teeth, sick babies and defrauded mourners the state set up licensing rules so that you have to jump through some hoops before you hang out your shingle. And this filters out all the bunco artists and clue-free docstors.
    We can see the borderline of this, when we look at (say) literary agents or publishers. Anybody can get up in the morning, set up a web page, and start a business as a literary agent. There are no rules or registration requirements. That’s why Writer Beware is necessary, so that a young writer can check agents out.

  2. pooks says:

    Fascinating. Thanks for dispelling the misconceptions about Saudi law, but more importantly to me, sharing how women are using it to their advantage (I hope).

    Also, thanks for giving me an idea for world-building.

    Woohoo. I wonder what to do with this world that is now exploding in my head.