|September 27, 2001
Volume 32 Number 3A
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
Islamic Diversity Challenges Popular Perceptions
Popular American perception might hear irony in that translation, so accustomed we have become to hearing Muslim and Islamic as modifiers for terrorism and fundamentalism. As an academic community, it is our responsibility to question and complicate these associations, in a time when anguish and fear propel so many of us to dangerous oversimplifications.
There are more than one billion Muslims worldwide, roughly one out of every six people living on the planet. Muslims live on every continent save Antarctica, speak countless different languages, and have skin of every human shade. Beyond the major denominational distinction between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, who make up 85 percent and 15 percent of the Muslim population respectively, is the overwhelming cultural diversity that has resulted from 1,400 years of global Muslim expansion. In Indonesia, for example, 88 percent of the population of 180 million practices Islam, in ways that reflect very little of Arab culture and very much of the regions indigenous and Hindu traditions. Indeed, only about 18 percent of the worlds Muslims live in Arab states.
Muslims are united by a simple creed (There is no God but God, and Mohammed is the Prophet of God); the practices of daily prayer, charity, and annual fasting during the month of Ramadan; and, for those who are able, pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca where Islam was first established.
Theologically, there is more that unites than divides Muslims, Jews, and Christians, who share a common scriptural tradition and trace their roots to common ancestors. At a time when Islam has been made notorious for acts of terrorist and often-suicidal holy war, it is important to remember that none of these three religious traditions is univocally pacifist. The holy books of Muslims, Jews, and Christians have all served to valorize savage crusades and just wars, and all three traditions have been claimed by individuals who have abandoned the distinction between political adversaries and innocent civilians. Christians, in particular, must face intense self-examination when they recall that Timothy McVeigh believed he acted for the God of Jesus Christ.
It must also be noted that while it, like the Bible, has been enlisted in the service of terrorism, the Quran, the sacred text of Islam, also shares with the scriptures of Jews and Christians powerful prohibitions against the slaughter of innocents and profound admonitions against hatred and injustice. Two short passages from the Quran are representative of its overarching message of human brotherhood, reconciliation, and peace:
O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other ...
(al Hujurat 49:13)
never let your hatred of people who would bar you from the Inviolable House of Worship [the mosque in Mecca] lead you into the sin of aggression; but rather help one another in furthering virtue and God-consciousness, and do not help one another in furthering evil and enmity ...
(al Maidah 5:4)
In spite of these observations, how can we account for the fact that many millions of Muslims, from Kabul to Islamabad, Tehran, Cairo, Ramallah, and the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon, have exhibited less than heartfelt sympathy for the United States during these tragic days? For some Muslims, this attitude is an outgrowth of decades, if not centuries, of perceived economic, political, and cultural aggression and domination by the U.S.-led West.
But other forces are at work as well. Rather than linking Islam with terrorism or with Arab ethnicity, or even with particular political situations, it is more useful to explore the complex phenomenon of fundamentalism as it has emerged in a variety of religious and ethnic contexts. The kind of extreme traditionalism associated with fundamentalism is best understood as an effort to define and defend personal and community identity in social and political contexts in which such identity is felt to be lost or threatened. Among terroristsTimothy McVeigh and Osama bin Laden alikethe highly charged language of religion becomes a powerful tool in the struggle against a world that seems to have turned against them.
Instead of focusing on the religion of Islam, then, an effective response to terrorism requires analyses of these underlying dynamics as much as identifying individual perpetrators.
In these past difficult days, Muslims have spoken out from around the world in united expressions of agony and sorrow over the terrorist attacks on September 11. Their voices, not those of the terrorists, are, we believe, most resonance with the rich texts and traditions of Islam.
Joel Zimbelman and Kate McCarthy, Department of Religious Studies
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