Some years back my wife and I befriended three Moroccan brothers who had been summarily locked up for 10 years by the late king of Morocco. Tossed into a cell with little light and a ceiling so low that one of the brothers developed a hunched back, they were only released after a human rights campaign in France secured their freedom. One brother finally came to America, where he settled down in a small town in Texas. There he wrote his memoirs and discovered a kind of happiness, surrounded by people who new little of the world he came from, but who were kind and welcoming.
I haven’t spoken with my Moroccan friend since the late 1990s, but my guess is that despite and occasional indignities that some Arab Americans suffered after 9/11, he continued to find peace in that small corner of Texas. Indeed, his story resonates with me, as my father narrowly escaped the Holocaust and with his parents began a life in the United States. There they encountered that distinctive mixture of ignorance and opportunity, freedom and prejudice, diversity and insularity that makes the USA such a compelling and paradoxical land.
I was reminded of those paradoxes after reading that Florida’s attorney general recently directed 500 state employees to watch “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.” The documentary, which I have seen in its abbreviated web format, has been criticized by American Muslim and Arab organizations for its supposed sensationalism, and especially for what some see as its failure to clearly distinguish between the Islamic religion and the hate dogma advocated by radical Islamists.
The documentary’s images of Islamist extremists chanting anti-Jewish and anti-American slogans are deeply disturbing. Having encountered such hate speech in my own research and travels, I have no qualms with a film that seeks to educate Americans about the nature of radical Islamist movements and ideologies.
But what does concern me is the film’s failure to place its barrage of shocking images and language in any historical, political or social context. While contexting should never explain away or excuse the inexcusable, it is vital for helping viewers arrive at a sober judgment of the nature of the threat depicted on the screen. In its absence, viewers will rely more on their hearts then their heads–a process that could easily drive some to conclude that Islam itself is to blame for Islamist radicalism.
Of course, Islam and Islamism are in some way related, but so are the teachings of Jesus as manifest in the Spanish Inquisition or Catholic Liberation Theology. To suggest a direct line from the mysterious or contradictory messages of a particular faith to its political construction by a leader or organization not only does a great injustice to the multitude of meanings that people attach to faith: it also surrenders the agenda to those who claim that they alone represent the true and authentic Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Thus to say that the Islam of al-Qaeda voices Islam itself, is to effectively agree with those Islamists who insist that they are the Party of God (Hizb Allah) and everything else is the Hizb ash-Shaytan (Party of the Devil). Do that, and you have lost the fight.
Still, I understand why many Americans find the distinction between Islamism and Islam is difficult to fathom. Grasping it requires a basic familiarity with the religion itself. In a society where cultures and religions coexist in peaceful ignorance of the precepts of other faiths, Jews and Christians who might find the terms “Radical Judaism” or “Radical Christianity” offensive (or simply confusing), might easily miss why a film entitled “Radical Islam” –which might have its merits –has nevertheless elicited such concern in the Muslim community.
Moreover, it must be said that religions are ultimately what we make of them. If radical Islamists act and speak with the loudest voice, then films, news programs and the like that fail to differentiate Islam and Islamism will seem compelling and even instructive– thus conjuring up the worst fears and apprehensions.
How to address this problem? One obvious solution lies in education. Centers for Middle East studies — including Georgetown’s own Center for Contemporary Arab Studies– have outreach programs that teach the fundamentals of Islam through high school curriculum projects and other initiatives. The United States Institute of Peace also runs similar programs via its Education and Training Center.
However vital, such education programs have their own pitfalls, including the tendency of some educators to try to discredit radical Islam with apologetic arguments about the peaceful or pluralistic nature of Islam itself. Of course Islam embraces these values. But if you read the Quran or Hebrew Bible, you will find passages that speak of peace and brotherhood, and others that celebrate war and confessional allegiance. Thus to say that “Islam is a religion of peace” makes no more sense than saying that “Islam is a religion of war.” Both statements downplay the mysteries and dissonant voices that constitute faith in favor of a political message or slogan.
How then can we address the challenge of radical Islamism without inadvertently echoing the extremists’ manipulation of religion? How can write about and study, much less advocate or promote, a tolerant or “liberal Islamism” and at the same time criticize the radicals for cloaking ideology in the veil of religion?
For a growing number of disillusioned Muslim thinkers, the only satisfying answer to this vexing dilemma is to renounce all efforts to ideologize Islam. This is the position of Abdol Karim Soroush, a courageous Iranian thinker who I have written about, and who is now a visiting scholar at Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center.
My guess is that there are a great many America Muslim thinkers who would be open to this post-Islamist stance, who want to rescue religion from all politics itself. Whether this is possible or even advisable I am not sure. But in a country where religious freedom is enhanced by distancing mosque/church/synagogue from state, we should be sensitive to the costs all communities pay when we conflate faith with Islamism, Jewishism or Christianism. This requires more than peaceful coexistence, more than settling down to a comfortable life Los Angeles or Laredo. It requires a deeper appreciation of one’s own faith, and those of our neighbors down the street.
This post is dedicated to my step-mom, Josie Woll, who passed away last week.
By Dan Brumberg |
March 18, 2008; 3:01 PM ET
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