INSIDE Chico State
0 February 5, 2004
Volume 34 Number 7
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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How Does Islam Fit in Our Ideas of the West?

Loren Lybarger

Loren Lybarger

Loren Lybarger on the complexities of Islam

Ten years ago, Loren Lybarger, California State University, Chico’s new assistant professor of Islamic studies, returned to his birthplace, a small mission hospital in Lahore, Pakistan, and there awoke sleeping memories of an unusual childhood. The son of lay Mennonite missionaries, Lybarger spent his first seven years in a predominantly Muslim world, remnants of which accompanied him when his family returned to Cleveland, Ohio. “My parents created a sort of mini-Pakistan with Indian rugs and artwork,” he recalled. “They’d speak Urdu in the house.”

Lybarger’s Christian, service-oriented upbringing as well as his own leftist leanings during his undergraduate years eventually steered him back to Middle Eastern cultures, to the places and points where politics and religion come together. “How does religion shape identity, how does it shape the concerns that motivate people politically?” he queried. “One question I often ask students in my Introduction to Western Religions class—and Islam is included in that—is, ‘What is this idea of West, and how might Islam fit under our concept of it?’ I’m passionately interested in these questions as they play themselves out in various Middle East communities.”

After earning a B.A. in European history, Lybarger spent three years in Palestine, first as an English teacher and later, after schools were suspended there by Israeli military decree, working for the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Human Rights Information Center. He earned two master’s degrees before doctoral studies at the University of Chicago’s divinity school.

While working in Palestine, Lybarger witnessed scenes that forced him to consider this country’s role in foreign affairs. “When I was in the West Bank collecting data on human rights abuses, Israeli soldiers would fire tear gas canisters directly into homes,” he recalled. “Pregnant women aborted as a result of this, and there were deaths by choking. When we’d visit families who’d experienced this, they would hand us the canisters and point to the line that said they were made in federal laboratories in Pennsylvania. In addition to M-16 bullet shells, here was a tangible signifier of U.S. power and its effect on real lives in material ways. What is a Palestinian to conclude from that tear gas canister? How is the United States experienced by anybody who isn’t a beneficiary of American power abroad?”

Predictably, Lybarger is often asked to untangle the religious and political motivations behind the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings. His answers are often nine parts caution against stereotyping and one part admonishment of U.S. foreign policy.
“There are things you can say now about Islam in public discourse and get away with that you could never say about other religions,” he observed. “Certainly since Sept. 11, the concept of Islam and violence has solidified in the minds of Americans. And with good reason, if all you know of Muslims and Islam is what happened then. However, those hijackers represented a religious-political movement that has a lot of supporters but certainly isn’t representative of Islam in its entirety. Islam spans an immense diversity of cultures, everywhere from Morocco to Malaysia, and now I think we can arguably say everywhere from the United States to Malaysia. It’s global.”

Although he doesn’t expect to find easy answers to the centuries-old complexity of Islam, Lybarger does believe in holding his own country accountable for its actions.
“What happened on 9/11 was fundamentally a religious act in terms of how it was constructed, but it was also profoundly political,” he noted. “For a while after the event, many Americans asked, ‘Why do they hate us?’ Well, they is very problematic. Who are we talking about? Every single Muslim in the world? The question opened a window of opportunity for understanding, but, unfortunately, I think it has been closed with easy interpretations that get ourselves off the hook. I’m interested in putting ourselves very much back on the hook and taking a hard look at the roles the United States plays abroad.”

Taran March

           
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