THE FAITH DIVIDE
From the Washington Post
When I wrote an article for this website a few months ago called On Muslim Antisemitism, a Muslim friend of mine remarked, "What you say is true, but why do you have to air our dirty laundry?"
I stared at her in disbelief. Did she really think that the world was unaware of our dirty laundry?
The sad truth is that too many people think it's the only kind of laundry Muslims have.
And one of the reasons for this is because mainstream Muslims aren't talking openly about the problem.
My wife was at a dinner party last week and someone asked about the English woman in the Sudan who, at the urging of her Muslim students, named the class teddy bear Muhammad and received jail time and death threats for her efforts.
My wife's friend asked: "Does Islam really say that she should be punished?"
"I don't want to talk about it," my wife responded.
I understand why my wife took a pass. Mainstream Muslims are tired of being put on the defensive, of only being asked about their religion in relation to violence or the oppression of women, as if that's all that Islam has ever or could ever produce.
But her friend still wanted an answer to her question. And if my wife wasn't going to provide one, then she would have to find someone who would.
In this case, it was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote an OpEd in The New York Times effectively stating that Islam requires Muslims to severely punish teachers who name teddy bears Muhammad (Sudan), rape victims who are accused of being in the presence of a man who is not a family member (Saudi Arabia) and female writers who criticize Islam (India).
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is right on two important points. The first is that all of these punishments are appalling and brutal. The second is that moderate Muslims should be louder about these matters. There are some things that are true even if Ayaan Hirsi Ali believes them.
And once moderate Muslims are louder, not in the form of angry indignation but as eloquent articulators of the depth and meaning of their faith, then people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali will suddenly find themselves consigned to the place where they should have been all along: the margins, where they can froth at the mouth all they want.
Hirsi Ali and people like her are widely-read because they offer a theory of the problem: they tell the world a convincing story of why Muslims keep popping up on the front pages of newspapers in negative articles. Hirsi Ali's theory, and the theory of other Islamophobes, is that Muslims have dirty laundry because the body and soul of Islam are dirty.
Hirsi Ali ends her Times OpEd with a subtle but scathing indictment of Islam – that it is a tradition opposed to conscience and compassion. "When a "moderate" Muslim's sense of compassion and conscience collides with matters prescribed by Allah, he should choose compassion," she writes.
I wonder if my wife's dinner part friend thinks that's true. As far as I know, it's the only theory that she's heard.
A lesson for mainstream Muslims: Whenever you don't offer a theory of the problem, someone else will. When there is a vacuum of information about a hot topic and you don't fill it, other people will aggressively move in.
Too many mainstream Muslims believe they have only two options in the face of the current discourse on Islam: angry indignation or stony silence.
I believe there is a third way. It is what University of Michigan Professor Sherman Jackson, one of America's leading scholars of Islam, calls 'Islamic literacy'.
Here is how someone literate in Islam, Muslim or not, might have responded to Ayaan Hirsi Ali's contention that Islam and compassionate conscience are mutually exclusive. First, by saying that there should be no excuses made for those who sought the punishments in any of the three cases she named. They were indeed brutal, and as such, were in conflict with the core ethos of Islam – compassion and mercy, which are enshrined both in the Muslim tradition and in the human conscience.
Compassion and mercy are the two most repeated qualities of God in Islam, best illustrated by the most common Muslim prayer, "Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim" – In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the most Merciful. As they are qualities of God, they are attributes that Muslims are required to emulate.
Compassion and mercy are also enshrined in the first lesson that classical Muslim scholars would teach their students, what came to be known as the Tradition of Primacy in Islam: "If you are merciful to those on Earth, then He who is in Heaven will be merciful to you."
Islam, like other traditions, has internal contradictions. The Qur'an and Muslim law say different things in different places. That is precisely why compassion and mercy play such an important role in Muslim interpretation and practice. When in doubt about how to deal with a particular situation, a Muslim should always be guided by compassion and mercy.
Compassion and mercy are given to human beings by God – they are the content of our conscience. Dr. Umar Abdallah, the most senior scholar in Western Islam, writes in one of the most important essays in contemporary Islam that mercy is the central quality that God "stamped" on His creation.
Fazlur Rahman, amongst the most widely-respected Muslim scholars of the twentieth century (and Dr. Umar's intellectual mentor), wrote that the single most important term in the Qur'an is "taqwa", which translates roughly as "God-consciousness" or "inner torch" or "conscience."
Khaled Abou El Fadl, one of America's most important scholars of Islamic thought and law, believes that people are required to bring their God-given compassion to the reading of the text of the Qur'an. "The text will morally enrich the reader, but only if the reader will morally enrich the text.," he writes in a remarkable essay called The Place of Tolerance in Islam.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, the most prominent Muslim scholar and preacher in the West, wrote in a piece for this website, "Unfortunately, millions of Muslims all over the globe are humiliated and betrayed by the ignorance and lack of basic humanity that a small minority of Muslims too often exhibits."
He continued, "True religion – as well as the highest secular values – demands we … attempt to understand each other, recognize our real differences, and display mutual respect."
That is a statement of both liberation and guidance for mainstream Muslims. Muslims who speak only of brutality and severity and punishment are not just betraying mainstream Muslims, they are violating our tradition. They do not speak for us. We are not required to defend them.
To mainstream Muslims everywhere: When we act and speak with compassion and conviction and knowledge, even about our 'dirty laundry', we are following the straight path of our faith, educating those with genuine questions about Islam, marginalizing people with destructive agendas, and doing our part to build a world based on understanding and respect.
Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit that promotes interfaith cooperation. His blog, The Faith Divide, explores what drives faiths apart and what brings them together. He is the author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. An American Muslim of Indian heritage, Eboo has a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship. He is on the Religious Advisory Committee of the Council on Foreign Relations, the National Committee of the Aga Khan Foundation and the Advisory Board of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. Eboo is an Ashoka Fellow, part of a select network of social entrepreneurs with ideas that could change the world.