Dr. D. Latifa – Normative Islam

Academic, psychologist and feminist. It’s never nice to use short labels for uncategorizable people like Dr. D. Latifa, but it sets the tone. For a long time she was the director of an important research program in a Pakistani university. These days, however, she mainly focuses on her work as a psychologist and a center for the study of gender and culture.

If she had to place herself within a certain strand of Western psychology it would be Jungian psychology, although she can be quite critical about the Jungian approach as well. In fact, being critical is a quite general aspect of Dr. Latifa’s character – which is something I always appreciate. As such, instead of just having a chat of an hour or two, I ended up spending three days with her, discussing various topics related to religion and society. When I eventually headed back home, it was in high spirits and with new insights.

What follows is just a small extract of one of our conversations. As Dr. Latifa tries to keep a low profile, certainly considering her stance on certain issues, I changed her name on her request.

One of the things I noticed while traveling in Pakistan is how closely the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam interlock. Not because I had expected more sectarian violence as I already saw that as grotesquely anachronistic in a country where the two branches have lived together so peacefully for such a long time. I mean on the spiritual level… does someone like you, who has always lived alongside neighbors of the other branch still see a spiritual difference?

One of the great aspects of the Shia tradition is its enormous contribution to the passion and love within Islam. In some ways I actually see this as the main rift between the two branches. As you know, their conflict never was about the Qur’an or the prophet but it also wasn’t simply about the choice of who would be the next khalif, as it is always presented. In my eyes, it was also about the way Islam should be lived. Of course every aspect of the Islamic religion can be found in every branch, that is to say: love, fear, jurisprudence, tawhid and all other core concepts are present in both the Sunni and the Shia theology but, in a way, the ‘psychological approach’ of the Shias had a somewhat stronger emphasis on passion while the Sunnis focussed somewhat more on the fear of God – which is of course also needed.

Not a lot of Western psychologists would easily say that fear is needed – and most certainly not in relation to God.

There is a cluster of ways to relate ourselves to God. We can do so through fear, love, justice or many other aspects. And within the monotheisms the aspect fear also gets a strong emphasis. Look at the ten commandments for example, seven of them are about what you will not do.

The emphasis in Christianity is on love. In Islam, as a whole, it’s on knowledge, if you ask me. It’s not that there’s no love in Islam, no knowledge in Judaism or no fear in Christianity, but it’s what’s emphasized as a profile. It’s bland to say that all religions are the same, but when we speak of the differences between different religions, it’s not so much about theory or dogmas. It’s about the emphasis on a certain aspect of relating to the divine. And whether emphasized or not, fear has its place. It teaches us limits for example. It makes us recognize that there are lines that we shouldn’t cross. One of the biggest examples of the absence of fear is the disastrous situation of the environment, for example. So those statements like Roosevelt’s “the only thing you should fear is fear itself” is nonsensical to me. You can’t explain to a one year old not to put his fingers in an electrical socket, only fear will teach him not to do it.

This modern idea that there is no need to fear is an impoverished look on the world.

I personally think that the West certainly made phenomenal contributions in the realm of the hard sciences but when it comes to psychology it’s a complete disaster. It really hasn’t gotten far in terms of explaining what human beings are and what are they all about. So fear has its place. If you look at the 99 names of God, for example, you see names of love and kindness and compassion but also of awe and power – if that doesn’t evoke fear, what else will? (laughs)

So this modern idea that there is no need to fear is an impoverished look on the world. And also, if you think about it, what has really happened? We are surrounded by fear! Everywhere you go. The present day fear of terrorism is the multiplied version of it. First there was a denial of fear and now we can’t escape it.

We can even see fears for the non-existent future, like the frenzy we had around the Maya calendar that supposedly ended in 2012.

Yes indeed. It even becomes a whole industry. So what are the psychologists talking about? Like Carl Jung said: whatever you deny eventually comes to face you.

I agree that fear sometimes gives us a proper sense of boundaries, like you said. It makes me think of the experiences of some of my friends who recently, for various reasons, started to go to psychologists and therapists. What I noticed was that the therapists will try to give advice to their clients to help them cope better with their situations. And so they should. But as I look upon the world in spiritual and religious terms, I can’t deny my personal conviction that eventually there also are certain moral lines that shouldn’t be crossed. So that poses me with a problem. On the one hand I really don’t think it’s the job of a therapist to tell someone he should stop his marriage, for example – on the contrary they really should help to analyze the problems of their clients as objectively as possible and without any moral judgment – but on the other hand I sometimes wonder: how long will we sometimes learn people to ‘cope’ with certain situations when in fact moral or spiritual lines have amply been crossed. I know you have a spiritual outlook on life as well, so how do you deal with this yourself in your practice?

Of course context, gender, etc. are very important but I also think that age is very critical. To encourage a sixteen year old to be fearless is a good thing. At fifty, I’m not so sure. (laughs) And yes indeed, past forty a lot of issues are actually moral issues. As a psychologist I think it’s important to realize this if I properly want to address certain psychological problems. But modern psychology has no room for that.

Generally speaking modern psychology is overwhelmingly modeled on the psyches of young males. That is to say, the model of the young male is the archetype. It was Freud’s archetype as well. Which is all fine for young males but it simply doesn’t work to impose that on women or on men who are in the later stages of life. It doesn’t leave enough room for soul.

Generally speaking modern psychology is overwhelmingly modeled on the psyches of young males.

Talking about soul… I guess that when you work with your patients, religion comes into play quite often.

It depends on the person and his age. Again, there’s no point talking religion to a sixteen year old. In fact it’s wrong to do so. It’s unnatural. But when people come to me, expecting a psychologist who has studied in Western countries, they mostly don’t come to me to talk about religion.

Sure, but I also suppose that underneath all their questions there is some sort of embedded religion and spirituality. At least a lot more than in the West I would think, where religion is, by and large, not at all as embedded in people’s minds as it is in the minds of the Pakistanis.

You’re right, but then again, a lot of Christian concepts in the unconscious of Western people – and not always in a pleasant way. So when dealing with people who had a highly Western education and who are asking questions about religion, the first task is to get rid of their ‘Christianist’ unconscious.

Even Jung already talked about this. He had a protestant father, so one way of looking at his entire life could be to see it as a rebellion against his father but that doesn’t take away the fact that his critique of protestant Christianity is absolutely brilliant. I’ve been fortunate because I spend my schooling first in Anglican schools, in a Catholic convent, an American Presbyterian college – all in Lahore by the way – and therefore got to know the whole spectrum. So I probably know the bible better than most Europeans. And as such I think I can fairly judge the depth of the critique of Jung and that today it’s a critical issue to make people aware of how they think about religion. Yes, religion itself is changing in some ways, but more importantly we are changing our views on what is religion. Also in the Islamic world because the tragedy is that we’re now seeing the worst form of Protestant Christianizing of Islam. Though this is dreadfully politically incorrect what I’m saying. (laughs)

we’re now seeing the worst form of Protestant Christianizing of Islam.

Don’t bother about political correctness. A good bit of political incorrectness brought about quite a lot of justice all through history. So go on, please explain more on what you mean by it.

Well, if you ask me, the West is stuck in some sort of ‘Cartesian Christianism’. Essentially it’s this Protestant mindset, combined with Cartesianism. By Cartesianism I mean the rational approach to things, the mental, disembodied and purely analytical way of looking at reality and knowledge.

Combine this puritan ‘scientific’ approach with a Protestant mindset that holds, at its core, the conviction that only faith in Jesus saves a soul, and what you get is the idea that every question can only have one answer and that everything in existence can be brought back to specific essential parts. In such a worldview religion becomes something that must, by definition, consist of certain strictly organized convictions and believes. But this isn’t at all the case in most religions. Also not in Islam, even though the Muslim world, by now, has come to see religion in the same terms. I’m not the only one saying such things of course. Someone like the French Gilles Kepel, for example, has also written about such matters.

Read full interview here

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