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Barriers to Understanding

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Why do the various media (TV, radio, newspapers and magazines) give almost unilateral coverage to those individuals and organizations who reflect the ideology known as "Islamic terrorism?"

Certainly, there are Muslim individuals and Islamic organizations who believe the only way to bring about peace is to "kill the infidel." (The infidel is anybody "against" Islam — at least the version of Islam believed by those who do the killing.)

There are a plethora of Muslim voices that don't agree with the "violence brings peace" mentality. Close to home (Virginia Commonwealth University), we have my colleague Amina Wadud. She received death threats from Muslims all over the world when she led a mixed-gender prayer service in 2005. Farther away, we have my friend Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian Islamic studies scholar — fired from Cairo University for "heresy." Among other things, he thinks the Quran, Islam's sacred text, should be interpreted in the light of the context in which it was given — 7th-century Arabia. He received death threats from angry Muslims and lives in exile in the Netherlands.

These scholars/activists (among many others) are engaged with the wider society — writing articles and books and speaking to a variety of organizations. In other words, they are not "in hiding." They look for opportunities to "speak out." Why is it that we hear so little from them?

Irshad Manji is a Muslim Canadian journalist. She is the author of "The Trouble With Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith" (St. Martin's Press, 2004). She responded on the "CBS Evening News" Sept. 18 to the Muslim uproar over the Pope's speech in which he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine Christian, Emperor Manuel Paleologos II. The emperor said, "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The Muslim world is in an uproar as Muslims snatched the Pope's quoted words from the larger context of his message. Many Muslims are demanding a papal apology. Others have burned the Pope in effigy. Some are calling for his death.

Islam, of course, has no corner on the market of religious terrorism. The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is filled with bloody accounts of warfare. In many cases, God is the one who gives the battle cry and insists on killing every man, woman and child in the "enemy" camp. Jesus, Prince of Peace, says, "I came not to send peace, but a sword," (Matthew 10:34b). Charles Krauthammer's column titled "Religious Sensitivity in Today's World Is a One-Way Street" (Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sept. 22) notes "that all three monotheistic religions have in their long histories wielded the sword … [h]owever, the inconvenient truth is that after centuries of religious wars, Christendom long ago gave it up."

Journalist Manji said: "As a faithful Muslim, I do not believe the pope should have apologized. I've read what's been described as his inflammatory speech. Actually, he called for dialogue with the Muslim world. … We Muslims should remember that God told the Prophet Muhammad to 'read.'" She tells Muslims to "read the Pope's entire speech" and "see that his message [is one of] reason [and] reconciliation." With the word read, Manji put her finger on the crux of this issue.

John L. Allen Jr., in a Sept.19 New York Times essay titled "A Challenge, Not a Crusade," wrote, "The uproar in the Muslim world over the [pope's] comments is … a case of 'German professor meets sound-bite culture.'" I agree with him. How often do we hear or read something "offensive" and react to the words without taking the time to "read" those words within a larger context? But, there's more to it.

Between 2000 and 2004, I lived much of my life in Saudi Arabia. (My husband worked for an oil company.) I discovered that when words, offensive to Muslim sensibilities, appeared in a public place, the mutawa (religious police) went to silly extremes to delete those words. For example, while grocery shopping in Saudi Arabia, I read the label on a can of food, listing the ingredients. The first ingredient was "hamburger," even though all I could see was "burger." The "ham" in "hamburger" had been crossed out with a magic marker because pork is not consumed by faithful Muslims. Another example: I carried a container of hair spray with me from the States, being careful to purchase a brand "sans alcohol." While I was going through customs, an official balked at the word "alcohol." Never mind that the word "sans" preceded the word "alcohol," giving the words, read in context, a legitimacy to faithful Muslims who do not use intoxicants.

More serious, though, was the disheartening experience I had when I applied at a girls' school to teach English. The principal had an American education (Boston University). We discussed textbook adoption. Before we had gone too far into our conversation, the principal put a halt to our talk. "It is of no use," she said. "We are under censorship. It is unbelievable that they [Saudi officials informed by the mutawa] dictate to us what books we can and cannot use since they do not know how to read." The principal did not mean the mutawa could not decipher the words used in an English text. She meant they were not able to extricate meaning from a text and, therefore, incompetent to judge which texts were appropriate for use in an educational setting.

But back to Irshad Manji. Here we have an intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, faithful Muslim journalist, eager and willing to speak sense instead of nonsense. Why don't we hear from her (and people like her) often and regularly? Why do the media seem to give an inordinate amount of coverage to people who demand that we respect their "sensibilities" when so often those "sensibilities" are on a par with those of the mutawa who delete the "ham" from "hamburger"? S



Esther Nelson is the author, with Nasr Abu Zaid, of "Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam" (2004) and the author, with Kristin M. Swenson, of "What Is Religious Studies? A Journey of Inquiry" (2006).



Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.




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