Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Wa Aleykum As-Salaam.

Last week, I flew with my Mom and Dad up to Burlington, VT, to see my friend Frankie and his team leader, Dr. Akbar Ahmed, talk about Islam in America. Islam and I are in the throes of a somewhat tumultuous relationship right now, so it was wonderful to hear some reasoned perspective on the topic.

First of all, the talk was at St. Michael's College, which I had never visited and found absolutely charming. I met Frankie at their lovely Hoehl Welcome Center, where they graciously invited my totally unexpected self to a pre-lecture dinner. The dinner was wonderful, and was spent in the company of the Still100% Made of Excellent Frankie and several members of the St. Michael's faculty, all of whom were wonderfully eloquent and completely fascinating. I also had the priviledge of meeting President John Neuhauser, who just oozed compassion and friendliness; I obviously know little about his policies and the like, but just from his demeanor, it seems that the students, staff and faculty in Burlington are lucky to have him. We then all went en masse to the lecture hall, where we watched a short piece of the documentary being filmed along the Journey to American trip, then listened to a lecture by Dr. Ahmed.

Throughout his lecture, Prof. Ahmed emphasized the importance of dialogue, something regular readers will recognize as a topic I routinely bitch about. What kills me is the state of discussion in the US and the world today...when we're not being so politically correct we can't even talk about the topic at hand, we're being such extremist ideologues we can't find any middle ground. All of this is exacerbated by the capitalist bent of the media, who - intelligently, since they have bills to pay - lead with whatever is scariest, bloodiest, or most radical, and have begun sacrificing accuracy for the sake of shock tactics that get people talking and tuning in. Once you can get rid of all these hangups, you usually find that people are reasonable and willing to actually talk, but sometimes people are simply too far gone to break down those barriers. When you've built up such intense ideological concepts, breaking them down can mean restructuring your whole worldview, and that's a horrifying thing to consider.

Plus...the world is big. I know this is kind of a No Shit statement, but it is, and it's impossible to have a truly in depth understanding of what's going on out there from watching CNN or Fox for half an hour a day. There are also a lot of people in the world, and it's impossible to hear all those voices without actively seeking them out. This is particularly present for me during this campaign season. People have been dancing around the race issue, and the conclusions that other people are drawing from that have been various and weird. A couple of my friends have expressed confusion over the talk about whether white people are saying they'll vote Obama, but will actually vote McCain. From where I stand, in a blue state up North in a patch of suburbia where my small-public-school self attends college and comes from a middle-class household with two Bachelor's degrees and a Master's, race doesn't seem like a huge issue to me. BUT, I know it is. Living in DC showed me that, and working grassroots and formal stuff with folks from red states showed me that. Sarah Bunting gave a GREAT example of this when she was talking about Barry Bonds a while back:
"...they both had some good insights into why players take steroids and how we should think about Bonds. Joe Morgan is not known for making any damn sense at all, much less putting a fine point on an issue, but when Costas asked, "Is this about race?", Morgan responded, "It's always about race." He didn't follow up on that comment, and I wish he had, because…well, I don't think our issues with Bonds have to do with race....But it always comes down to the fact that a white lady like myself doesn't have to give a shit about race, which is why I wish the panel had dealt with that question in more depth. I would like to think that Bonds's race is not in play here, and for me, it isn't — what's in play for me is stuff like Bonds showing up for the 2006 season grossly overweight (and then every story is about his shitty knees…hello?). But if Joe Morgan can talk about how racial issues feed into our perceptions of Bonds, I want to hear it. If Joe Morgan can speak to a double standard when it comes to how white athletes act versus black athletes, he should. If Joe Morgan feels that black players are expected to be "nicer" than white players so that everyone is okay with having them around, he should say that, because I think that, for some people, without their even knowing it, that is true."

This is kind of the crux of both US politics and the Islamic/Western relationship. There is too much to know, and too much to figure out, and oh PS, one half of that has some pretty significant religious stuff to wrap the Western, Judeo-Christian brain around. We don't really understand the foreign mindsets involved - and in the case of the West, sometimes we don't even understand our own - and we don't acknowledge that there are divisions within those mindsets. There is more in play than the Cliff Notes, and we haven't even all picked the CLIFF NOTES up yet.

Islam is complicated for the West right now. The very day that I went to Burlington to see Frankie, I had a stressful morning. In one of my classes (not my Terrorism class, which would seem the obvious choice, because...jihad), we were discussing how the easiest way to understand how your small-p-political environment shapes all aspects of your life is to go somewhere really different from your home country. My trip to Egypt in 2000 came up, and I was asked to explain the Egyptians. It eventually came around to religious influence, and I agreed that they were certainly not a secular society. About thirty seconds later, I was listening to the professor explain that when Egyptians have a religious issue, they have "no problem with killing a couple hundred people to resolve it." What...the hell. Would you take kamikaze pilots as representative of the entire Japanese culture? How about the Crusades as examples of all Christians? Hey, if we're talking about Christians, how about the whackjobs who kill abortion doctors? Do they represent Christianity? The thing is...no one even batted an eye at that comment, and as someone later pointed out, in this post-9/11 universe, they probably didn't even see anything wrong with it, because we've been hearing, both sincerely and through clumsy language, that Muslims = jihadists. This is simply not so.

The problem, of course, is exactly that of the Crusaders and the kamikazes...they are parts of an enormous population. There are about 1.5 BILLION Muslims in the world, and I don't know about you, but I haven't had anyone come up to me all "so, are you a Muslim?" and then shank me when I say I'm not. Weird, since according to some, all Muslims are just roaming around waiting to kill non-Muslims. It does not help that I am in this Terrorism course right now, because as I have mentioned, all the books are called things like Future Jihad, and detail the horrors of the jihadist movements and the scariness of what's out there. And yeah, it is scary. These people are insane. But "these people" are also not "all Muslims." The truth of it is somewhere between the extremes of "Muslims are jihadists" and "Islam is a religion of peace."

The Koran is a giant, dense work, just as the Bible is. There's a lot going on there, and the Koran is also not supposed to be up to interpretation the way the Bible is...the Koran was supposedly handed to Mohammed from Allah himself. None of this "God told me and then I wrote it down" business...the Koran is the word of God, directly and specifically. Now, the worrying thing for me is what we were talking about yesterday in Terrorism class...the references that concern jihad are open-ended to a degree simply not found in the Bible OR in interpretations thereof, as seen in analyses of the Just War Theory. There's a lot of bad stuff in the Bible, as well, but it tends to be specific (as my Terrorism professor put it: "You don't read that today and say 'I'm gonna go find me an Ammonite to kill.'"). The dumbness found in the Bible is maybe best highlighted by the West Wing:

President Josiah Bartlet: ...I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I wanted to sell my youngest daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown Sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself? Or is it okay to call the police? Here’s one that’s really important, because we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you?

I mean...all kinds of trouble in there. Stonings, slavery, dumb rules about textiles. That being said, when it gets right down to war, the Bible tends to include a specific target and a specific time frame - not that this makes war awesome or anything - while the Koran often does not, to wit: "...and kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter, and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbelievers." That's all the time, everywhere, constantly...oh, and by the way, murder <>

So, there's scary, open ended call for jihad in the Koran. Okay. But just like not many Christians are strictly abiding by the rules laid down in Leviticus, not many Muslims are abiding by the more alarming passages in the Koran. In fact, Osama bin Laden and his ilk have made public statements about Muslims who are not fully following the rules of Islam, and have even begun killing Muslims who eschew the more violent requirements of the Koran. THESE TERRORIST LEADERS ARE NOT REPRESENTATIVE OF THE MUSLIM WORLD POPULATION. THEY ARE EVIL PEOPLE WHO HAPPEN TO BE MUSLIM.

So where do we end up?

I guess ideally we wind up in St. Michael's College lecture hall, listening to Dr. Ahmed tell us to talk and to listen to each other. We have to acknowledge that there are bad people out there, and that they can easily twist the documents of faith that we live by to perverted purposes. We have to acknowledge that the only way to defend against them is to be clear about why we are in the right, and to talk with each other so that we can one day shame and crush these vocal and violent minorities into nothing. But we can't do it the way things are going now. We can't do it with these pundits throwing horror stories at us and building walls of conjecture and extremism right through our common ground. We have to know what's out there, and find both the knights in shining armor AND the things that go bump in the night. We have to stop putting monetary gain above sociopolitical health and be realistic about the people and nations we deal with. We have to read each other's writings and listen to each others words.

And that will be a start.

No comments:

Post a Comment