Ghavri: What is Islam, Anyway?

A self-proclaimed “angry brown man” rants about Islam.

by Anmol Ghavri | 4/27/17 12:45am

Islam is whatever a practicing Muslim says it is for them. Period.

If you are a religious layman and your journalism diet consists of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, then your only interaction with Muslims is when an anchor is narrating coverage of a terrorist attack in Paris or London. Panic, brown bodies and explosions are the only thoughts a majority of Americans associate with Islam. As far as they are concerned, there is no difference between a “radical moose-lamb” terrorist and any other Muslim. Islam is Islam; Christianity is Christianity. Done deal. No-go zones in British cities and the oppression of women! “They” are incompatible with “us.” “They” hate democracy and are jealous of how wealthy and powerful “we” are. And that is that.

Unfortunately, this is not a fringe belief. Powerful people in Western governments hold these views. The religious and cultural illiteracy around the world and especially in halls of power is shocking. Politicians like Rep. Steve King, R-IA, President Donald Trump and his chief strategist Stephen Bannon view the world in black and white. Good and evil. Christianity and Islam.

Religions are first and foremost social and cultural phenomena. They are not top-down monolithic entities but are inseparable from class, race and gender. In Muslim majority countries, socioeconomic status and the urban-rural divide are far more predictive of social and cultural views than simply “being” a Muslim. Indeed, there exists no singular form of Islam, just as there exists no singular form of Christianity. The issue of the veil? Cosmopolitan or upper-middle class female Muslims often do not wear a hijab, and if they do, many choose to do so under their own volition.

I do not mean to say that many cosmopolitan women in Muslim majority cities are not forced or culturally coerced to “cover-up,” just that we should examine who has agency in the choice. Last year’s attempts to enforce a “burkini” ban on French beaches essentially swapped religious patriarchy with state paternalism. If someone continues to wear religious attire after a white feminist tells her that it has historically been a tool of male-led oppression and she no longer has to, is it not just as patronizing and orientalist to tell her how “backward” she is for continuing to do so? Give Muslims, especially Muslim women, agency in representing themselves to the world. Whether it is the state-mandated hijab in Iran or the ban of religious attire in France, please stop using women’s bodies as cultural battlefields. For a Muslim woman’s perspective on this issue, I highly recommend the blog “The Brown Hijabi,” run by a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Another issue that gets under my skin is the issue of Sharia law. Alabama passed an amendment to its State Constitution in 2014 to ban Sharia. Phew! Our brave legislators stopped that creeping Sharia from taking hold in the great patriotic state of Alabama. Yet, all religious texts govern how people interact and live. The key issue is how these texts are acted upon or followed in practice, if at all. There is text within the Bible governing the lives of Christians, just as the Quran and hadiths have stuffy diatribes about how to act or how early Muslims acted. To actually understand how this all manifests itself, we must ask: who is doing the reading, interpreting and enforcing? Where is the form of religion being practiced? Christianity in 14th-century England was different from Christianity during the Byzantine period. Sufi Islam in rural Punjab, India is different from cosmopolitan Islam in Istanbul, Turkey, which is different from Wahhabi Islam in Saudi Arabia or dialectical Shiism in Shiraz, Iran.

Moreover, Islamic law, like Christian law, is a loose and uncodified collection of texts and beliefs. It is debated continuously and selectively enforced, if at all, in many countries. The Islamic State is attempting to enforce some purified and mythological form of Islamic law which never existed. Just like in Western countries, legal codes in many Muslim majority countries are usually a reconciliation between English civil codes and local traditions. Because religions are also social phenomena, Islam often finds a way into such codes. But is that any different from America’s supposedly “secular” legal system in which “Christian values” are influential? Still, there exists no singular and menacing Sharia law coming to enslave us supposed infidels.

I do not mean to downplay the issues within Islamic communities and countries but to emphasize the need for some nuance and sophistry. The problem of the alienation and radicalization of young Muslim men in the postcolonial West is real. Fundamentalist groups in East London, Germany and France, along with the quasi-state formed by Daesh in the Levant, are pressing issues that are not going away. Sweeping policies, claims and “kill them all” language are not real solutions — although they will certainly get you votes in U.S. elections.

If the United States was really serious about “radical Islam,” it would confront Saudi Arabia over its promotion of Wahhabi ideology and conformist-puritanical vision of Islam. Large-scale attacks such as 9/11 and the emergence of groups such as ISIS can be traced back to Saudi Arabian Wahhabism and its spread. Yet, with its power over oil and security alliance with the West, Saudi Arabia may be the only Muslim majority country the United States will never challenge.

When pseudo-intellectual political commentators like Bill Maher or Sam Harris speak about the problems of a single “Islam,” what they are really doing is glossing over the hundreds of dialectical, localized and cultural forms of Islam and the socioeconomic diversity within the Islamicate world to present one version to Western audiences — not too different from the “clash of civilizations” approach taken by Steve Bannon or Wahhabis.

Travel to Muslim majority countries. Eat Middle Eastern cuisines. Listen to some Arabic or Turkish music. Look at Islamic art. Get to know your Muslim neighbors. They did not migrate across the world with some ulterior motive to impose Islamic law on the unsuspecting Americans of Alabama. They are here to stay, they adhere to secular ideals, they are good people and they do not want to “change” us. As if cultures were ever static and unchanging ideas to begin with.