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Explosion When My Pen Hits, Tremendous

<, I've been highly misunderstood by those who met us. They had ears of corn and heads of lettuce” – The RZA, “Sunlight”

I have to admit I was a little disconcerted when, having been gone for a term, I realized that Convocation began at 10:50 instead of 11:15, as I had for some reason assumed, and I had to hurry to the chapel in sweaty workout clothes. Nonetheless, I had a stalwart enthusiasm to see Irshad Manji speak, since I had just spent three months in Muslim countries gaining an appreciation for Islam, and I was interested to know just what the trouble was with it today.

I don’t want this to become one of those “I learned so much culturally while I was abroad and will now flaunt it over your uncultured heads” discussions, but I also must admit that my interest in the subject was probably increased by spending winter term in Mali and following it with a weeklong trip through Morocco. Yet while I may not have been as attuned to my problem with Manji’s Convocation speech otherwise, I would hope that as an open-minded American I would be able to spot the dilemma with her approach to speaking to an American, predominately non-Muslim campus about the trouble with Islam: namely, it does nothing to alleviate the existing prejudice towards the religion.

I think that it’s safe to say that even the well-informed person in America remains incredibly ignorant about Islam. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not terribly qualified on the subject. It is this ignorance that engenders the culture of our “War on Terror,” which amounts in many ways to an attack of a predominantly Christian nation on the Muslim world. Of course, it is not my place to suggest that this is the motivation of America’s current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention the intimations of war with Iran and Syria or the dogmatic support for Israel), yet it’s hard to imagine that all of this hostility would exist if the image of Islam for many Americans, not to assume that the two are mutually exclusive, was not one of burqa-wearing women coupled with machine-gun-wielding men prattling on about holy war.

Manji is right, undoubtedly, that there are elements of Islamic culture that need reform. Religion is supposed to inspire, not stifle people, and there is no reason for any voice in any religion to degrade women or people of other faiths. I imagine that most Americans would probably agree with Manji that something needs to be done to reform the indoctrination present in so much of the Muslim world. Unfortunately, this is probably because most Americans see Islam purely as a religion of backward social values.

It is vital to avoid the trap of treating Manji’s call for reforming Islam to have more progressive values as a back-patting session for humanitarian change when this mindset roundly dismisses Islam as a religion. For Manji or other Muslims working to reconsider the interpretation of their faith, all this criticism is valid. For the outside observer, pointing out the “trouble with Islam” probably only adds to the heap of stereotypes already characterizing Islam as a harsh religion. It also does the cause no favor that Manji’s justification for reform is that Islam has a tradition of creative interpretation. It shouldn’t take too much creative interpretation to find something good about a major world religion.

The fact is, and my liberal peers will agree with enthusiastic political correctness, there are quite a few good things about Islam. I have no wish to engage in one of those post-9/11 discussions that, for the sake of quite unrelated political ideology, managed to characterize all Muslims as either terrorists or saints. Instead, I’d like to deviate into my personal experience with Islam as an outsider.

I have, in recent months, found myself thoroughly impressed with, above all, the discipline and consistency of religious observation in the Muslim world. The idea of stopping to pray five times a day requires a discipline that I can’t claim to have. The ceremony of performing ablutions and the abstention from alcohol suggests purity beyond my own. The inspirational power of the call to prayer is beyond any display of faith I have experienced, and the underlying assumption that enshallah, God willing, things will work out implies a fundamental faith I have never had. This is a religious integrity that I can respect, and it gave me no doubt, when I returned to the American world of commercialism, alcohol, and sex, as to how our world could be construed as having its fair share of sins as well.

On the other hand, I will never get used to seeing women wearing burqas, and I’m unlikely to agree with the imams claiming that all Jews are evil. We cannot let proponents of degrading value systems off the hook. In such respects, I think that it is perfectly reasonable to call for some kind of religious reform. Yet, as Manji pointed out, this is not a strictly Muslim problem, and it is condescending to think of it as one.

In our Carleton culture, it would be easy to see last Friday’s Convocation as justification for the triumph of our liberal values, and I’m not saying that it would be wholly out-of-line to do so. Yet it would be hard to claim so much moral high ground twelve hours later in the day, once the heavy drinking has begun. Let us call for a global culture of human dignity, but let us avoid the assumption that we are making a call to people who have no personal dignity.

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