We inhabit a world that is increasingly inflected, indeed divided, by issues of religiosity. This is an idea that was echoed repeatedly in the World Voices Festival 2006, hosted by the PEN American Centre. A hundred and thirty four writers and cultural critics from 44 countries gathered in New York to probe the theme of Faith and Reason in a series of panel discussions, readings and one-on-one dialogues from April 25 to April 30.
Orhan Pamuk - the Turkish writer charged last year by his country's government with "insulting the identity of Turkey" - inaugurated the festival by delivering the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture. He recounted the story of how, in March 1985, Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller traveled to Istanbul, not for a literary event, but rather in an effort to assist the many "vigorously persecuted" writers in that country. Pamuk expressed admiration and gratitude for the solidarity amongst writers that, in his own case, too, helped in dropping the charges that the Turkish government brought against him.
His address, nuanced and well articulated, plumbed the shadow depths of shifting loyalties, of the necessity and inevitability of a multiplicity of voices and beliefs, of the sometimes indecipherable boundary between liberalism and nationalism, between repressors and liberators.
"Whatever the country, freedom of thought and expression are universal human rights," he declared. "These freedoms, which modern people want for as much as bread and water, should never be limited by using nationalist sentiment, moral sensitivities or, worst of all, business or military interests...[W]e must also be alert to those who denigrate immigrants and minorities for their religion, their ethnic roots, or the oppression that the governments of the countries they have left behind inflicted on their own people," he said pointedly.
The inaugural event heralded the promise of a literary marathon that would not only deliver the gift of contemporary world literature (much of it, especially in translation, unavailable, in the US) by the international authors themselves, but, simultaneously shed light on the insidious pattern of faith-based politics that has evolved into a global issue.
However, during the course of the six-day fete, while the theme of faith and reason was touched upon, if not exactly thoroughly debated, what did become alarmingly evident was a tendency by several panelists, particularly those representing the European perspective, to view faith and reason as symbolic of two conflicting dichotomies. In the less nuanced discussions, the ideas of faith and reason became synonymous with opposing paradigms such that faith and reason were rendered as Faith versus Reason, Medievalism versus Modernism, and ultimately, Islamism versus Western Enlightenment.
Pamuk's address, though, remained true to a novelist's way of interpreting the world: he maintained the all-seeing eye of a narrator arraying the world of his characters. "I know I cannot reduce my thoughts about life to the views of a single voice and a single point of view. I am, after all, the kind of novelist who makes it his business to identify with all of his characters, especially the bad..."
By contrast, occupying an obstinate and all-too fixed position on the dichotomous relationship between faith and reason was author of 'The Caged Virgin', Ayaan Hirsi Ali, originally from Somalia, and currently a member of parliament in Holland. In conversation with Philip Gourevitch, editor of the Paris Review, she proclaimed that she withdrew from religion, and Islam in particular, after 9/11 for she lost all faith in a religion in which "God asked for such terrible things to be done". She described the Islamic world as "a monolith, unlike the west", ignoring, for the sake of her argument, the multifarious divisions, cultures and practices within the religion and contradicting her own argument by upholding the West as a uniform bulwark of enlightenment.
Hirsi Ali's heated argument was momentarily deflated by a single matter-of-fact sentence uttered by Gourevitch: "A lot of what you're against is provincialism and not really Islam." In response, she countered with the idea that Islam's provenance was desert Arabia and that "Arab desert tribal provincialism has been spread in the name of religion, in the name of Islam."
This is when the conversation finally veered away from the murky terrain of generalizations and stereotypes. Regrettably, though, apart from barely skimming the very superficial surface of the subject of Wahabism (a Sunni fundamentalist Islamic movement that is the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia) - the crux of Islam's problems today - the conversation lapsed into the all-too familiar subject of medievalism versus modernism. "Why can't Islam borrow the values that underlie the material things of the West?" and "We need to decrease the number of people who are fundamentalist by nature."
Had Gourevitch probed harder, not only would the discussion have been enriched, but Hirsi Ali's enthusiastically supportive audience might have been enlightened by a foray into the origins of Wahabism, its relation to the Saudi elite, the role of oil and, together with it, the export of a politicized, highly obscurantist interpretation of the religion that was conveniently co-opted and supported by the US during the Afghan war.
In a panel titled 'Writing Faith', the discussion of the festival's theme of reason and faith was grounded in the enterprise of literature. American author Richard Rodriguez introduced himself in no uncertain terms, celebrating the complexity, and often contradictory strands, of his identity: "I come here as a writer, as an essayist. Unreason is the real muse for writers. It commutes us to the magical, the transcendental; the mystery of love. I am a Mexican Catholic. Or more precisely an Irish Catholic..." He drew attention to the dialectical relationship between the first person pronoun 'I' - the paragon of American identity - and the first person plural 'we' that dwells in the domain of religion as well as in the originating cultures of many immigrants in America. Of the US, he says, "We are troubled, angry people who can't find the 'we' in our own families."
In the same panel, Azhar Abidi, a young Pakistani writer based in Australia, spoke about the dual forces of religion and reason in his own upbringing by a devoutly religious mother and an agnostic father. In his debut novel 'Passarola Rising', he wanted to ask the question: how does one get to the truth. "I didn't want to tackle religion head-on," he admitted. "The way to write about these things is irony and humor. That's a more interesting way to sabotage the religious mainstream."
In a literary festival that tried courageously to unpack the theme of faith and reason and gauge the diverse sentiments that rage around these epistemologies, there were few who took an ambivalent stance and even fewer, if any at all, who rooted for faith. Wisdom, perhaps, was most succinctly encapsulated in the words of E L Doctorow, reading from 'Why We're Called Infidels' from 'Reporting the Universe': "Doubt is the great civilizer on earth."