Friday, May 05, 2006

Bi-polar on Islam

On Wednesday, I gave a talk on a Catholic approach to Islam at a theology on tap in downtown Augusta, GA.

Now I'm far from being an expert on Islam -- familiarity with Indian Islam isn't really a huge qualification. However, I certanly felt comfortable talking about what the Catholic Church has taught about Islam, and, I'm comfortable with some basic cross-cultural analysis, so I accepted. Of course, as was to be expected, the organizers also wanted me to address contemporary issues: after all, the general interest in Islam is hardly academic these days. So, I did a crash course, reading all that I could in the weeks leading up to the talk. That was certainly very enjoyable, and it underlined just how little I did know.

I generaly describe myself as sympathetic to Islam, or rather, to Muslims. That's just how I grew up, with that good ol' Indian secular mindset, which is generally sympathetic towards the subcontinent's Muslims. My visceral dislike of the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP-Sangh Parivar types only reinforced that sympathy, and it only deepened after the horrors of the 2002 pogroms in Gujarat. In the US, I've always found it a little strange just how little familiarity there is with Muslims and Islam (the third largest religion in the country). After 9/11, of course, everyone and their grandmother wanted to learn about Islam, and had a "take" on it. I generally found myself on the "liberal" side of things: worrying about racial profiling, sympathetic towards American Muslims, eager to promote dialogue as a path towards reconciliation, and a little blindly, perhaps, equated the "other side" as made up of, well, ignorant bigots.

Of course, over the past 5-6 years, overall, I've become "more conservative" (which is probably not the best way to describe how my thinking has changed, but as shorthand, it works). Preparing for this talk on Islam let me think through my own positions, apart from learning a whole lot of new things.

Apart from reading, I contacted a few scholars (thanks to people who know people). One of the responses that I got was so amazingly skewed to the left, that I found myself laughing. The writer was at pains to make me understand that asking the question "why is Islam so violent" is an inherently racist question. Basically, in this person's view, the problem isn't Islam. It's the West. We're violent. We have a violent history. His suggestion for the talk was that I basically, deconstruct the question. [I was also amused at a patronizing attitude that suggested that just because I had some familiarity with Indian Islam and studied it a bit in grad school, I was not really qualified to talk. Maybe not -- I certainly couldn't give "expert" advice. But, my hosts felt that I had something to share ... anyway.]

Now it's not that there isn't some truth to this particular position: certainly, some of the roots of the problem can indeed be traced to colonialism, and of course, one must examine how Western (and in particular, American) foreign policy is a contributor to the problem, so to speak. And yes, one shouldn't pretend that Christianity has had a pure and blameless past. However, that is not the only thing that one can say (unless one is Susan Sontag, I suppose! :-)). The vehemence with which this came across made me a do a double take.

I guess this is just not a satisfactory position for me. It's not that one shouldn't be critical of the West, or of Christianity. But if one starts out by thinking that this is the only source of the problem, that it's only we who are to blame, one is indulging in a kind of self-hatred that, increasingly, I find troublesome.

So, after all this reading, I describe the discourse on Islam (and Islam and the West and Christian-Muslim relations) as, in general, clustering around two poles. At one end, one has the "Islam is a religion of peace" position. Basically, Islam has been misunderstood, hijacked by a minority whose positions (and actions) are new-fangled aberrations of what Islam really stands for. One can hardly ascribe the positions of the KKK to all of Christianity, for instance. So, why do we treat Islam differently? Nor, of course, ought the actions of a few taint the whole.

At the other end is the "Islam is the enemy" position: these are not aberrations. This reflects the true nature of Islam. In some sense, this kind of violence, this intolerance towards other religions, a perpetula state of jihad, is built into the religion. The jihadists aren't aberrant. Their discourse is more mainstream than one realizes.

Typifying the first pole, I would say, one has Karen Armstrong and, say, John Esposito (Georgetown U). At the other end, maybe, Bat Y'eor and Robert Spencer (Jihadwatch).

I guess, I'm bi-polar. There's parts of the first pole that I'm sympathetic towards. And, of course, I don't see the other end as simply ignorantly bigoted. In my talk I described this as "dialogue and vigilance." Another way of putting it would be "cautious dialogue." It seems to me that one should be open to the other -- to dialogue, with our neighbors here in the West (at a local level that's all one can do, I guess!), and encourage movements and actions that build bridges of understanding and reconciliation. Yet, one shouldn't have such a roseate view of things that one is blind to other threatening forces in Islam, forces that seem to, at least right now, be the loudest, and also the ones with strong backing, and wider sympathy than one might realize.

Underlying all this, of course, is what so many (especially Pope Benedict) keep saying: the presence of Islam, the dialogue (and confrontation) with Islam challenges us to really examine closely our own sense of identity in the West (and, particularly, its relationship to Christianity, one could add).

The talk itself went off well, at least as far as I could tell. A crowd of 25-30 young adults, intelligent questions and a good discussion. "I'm glad it wasn't just Islam-bashing" was one comment. I spent the bulk of it doing a kind of "Islam 101" -- going over the history of the religion, the Prophet, the Qu'ran, the Five Pillars, etc. and also a brief history of Christian-Muslim relations since the birth of Islam, sections from magisterial teaching (particularly Nostra Aetate). I had downloaded some mp3s of Qu'ranic recitation (which, I find to be incredibly beautiful), but decided that it probably wasn't the best idea to play selections from the Qu'ran at a bar! Most of the contemporary scene was discussed in the Q&A.

Since Wednesday, there seems to have been a flurry of stuff on the Net on Islam and Catholicism (no, it couldn't have come out before the talk now. That would have been too easy!). There's the piece, mentioned and linked below, by Fr. Samir Khalil Samir of Benedict's understanding of Islam, and an earlier piece at Catholic Exchange, on the apostasy debate in Islam. This week, Cardinal Pell gave an address critical of Islam, or rather, sounding a pessimistic note (and I'm not sure equating the call for reduction in carbon dioxide emissions with pagan appeasement of divinities is at all helpful). In today's Word from Rome, John Allen reports on some colloquia dealing with the subject. [He classifies the poles of discource as "hawks" and "doves." Oh well. No, I didn't think I was being original ... :-) However, I do think the discourse tends to end up at one pole or the other. I guess it's not really easy to do otherwise!]

Finally, a big thanks to Corey, for being such an excellent trans-Atlantic soundboard as I was preparing for this talk!

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