Thursday, January 25, 2007

Are Muslims fundamentally different?

Guest column
By: Youshaa Patel

During this year's Kenan Distinguished lecture in ethics, the Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks stated, "When you first talk to Muslims you don't talk about freedom and democracy but you talk to them about God's will." I immediately thought to myself, "You can talk to me about freedom and democracy." I then walked down to the microphone for comment but did not have the opportunity to share my opinion. In the Chief Rabbi's response an underlying message of the lecture came into relief which placed religion as the central issue in the apparent clash of civilizations between America and the Muslim world. Certainly religion plays a role, but religions don't act. Rather humans do, based on their interpretations of particular religious texts that are mediated by their particular historical and cultural milieu.

Often these interpretations can be attributed to this milieu rather than to the religious texts themselves. I think this explains why one can find such a multiplicity of viewpoints among Muslims today; for example, some staunchly support suicide bombings while others deplore these operations as completely antithetical to Muslim tradition.Although I appreciated the Rabbi's message of reconciliation, I felt that he simultaneously diluted his message by portraying Muslims as essentially different from an implicitly Judeo-Christian West (Hindus, Buddhists and other nonmonotheists were not even mentioned).

The Chief Rabbi, perhaps unconsciously, repeated an error that dates back to Europe and America's Orientalist past, which tended to "religionize" Muslims by portraying them as essentially motivated by religion uninfluenced by a variety of other factors such as politics, economics and geography. Such an essentialist approach valorizes the liturgical and textual component of religion while devaluing the complexity of motives that drive human action on the ground-understanding this complexity and acknowledging this multiplicity is the true fruit of understanding the estranged Other.

Defending the use of generalizations in his lecture, the Chief Rabbi had earlier quoted a Harvard professor who claimed, "I specialize in generalizations." Although the Chief Rabbi intended reconciliation, generalizations are what led to the Clash of Civilizations hypothesis which attempts, in a sloppy way, to isolate particular values specific to particular cultures (or civilizations).

Such purely ideological approaches necessarily abstract and distance the Other rather than foster understanding-a message the Chief Rabbi emphatically preached.

To promote mutual understanding the Chief Rabbi called for a return to the original religious texts for inspiration, a suggestion that I also support, but only as a starting point. Ultimately this textual focus must be translated into meaningful interactions with those one hopes to understand. So I find in the Quran, the oft-repeated verse which states, "Oh humankind! We created you from a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. The most honored of you in God's sight is the most pious of you" [Quran: 49:13]. If one wants to truly understand the Other, they must simply get to know them first-a pretty simple concept, yet one which remains elusive when the Other is understood as fundamentally different instead of fundamentally similar.

In a recent survey, almost four in 10, 39 percent, advocate that Muslims in America should carry a special I.D. The same number admit that they hold some "prejudice" against Muslims. Perhaps if I were not Muslim I would hold similar views, and so considering the current climate I understand how many Americans can feel this way. Yet according to the same survey those who know Muslims are much less likely to hold prejudices against them. Those connected to Muslim communities know that Muslims too yearn for democracy and freedom, especially since large numbers of Muslims outside America live under anti-democratic regimes where they are often deprived of the fundamental human rights and freedoms that most of us take for granted. In America, approximately 40 percent of Muslims are African Americans. Who better understands the value of freedom than African Americans who were deprived of true freedom for most of America's history?

In the Chief Rabbi's defense, the Muslim composition in Britain is mainly comprised of immigrants, which perhaps contributes to his perception that Muslims maintain alien values. However, I don't believe that fostering a myth of Muslim difference helps his noble mission of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Nevertheless at Duke, amid current discussions concerning diversity in race, class and gender, religious identity and diversity must also emerge among the core issues in the university's period of self reflection-especially in a time where religious conflict is taking center stage. Where Muslims remain a small, marginalized, and still misunderstood religious community on campus and beyond, Duke must do more to make religious diversity and mutual understanding a key part of its strategic vision for the future.

Youshaa Patel is a graduate student at the Duke Divinity School.

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