Saturday, 5 December 2009

A Muslim Debate on Interfaith Dialogue

Mountains and Minarets


guardian.co.uk, Saturday 5 December 2009 14.00 GMT
Ian Buruma

Minarets are threatening because they rub salt in the wounds of those who feel the loss of their own faith

Switzerland has four mosques with minarets and a population of 350,000 nominal Muslims, mostly Europeans from Bosnia and Kosovo, of whom about 13% regularly go to prayer. Not a huge problem, one might have thought. Yet 57.5% of Swiss voters opted in a referendum for a constitutional ban on minarets, allegedly because of worries about "fundamentalism" and the "creeping Islamisation" of Switzerland.

Are the Swiss more bigoted than other Europeans? Probably not. Referendums are a measure of popular gut feelings, rather than considered opinion, and popular gut feelings are rarely liberal. Referendums on this issue in other European countries might well produce startlingly similar results.

To attribute the Swiss vote to ban minarets – an idea that was promoted by the right-wing Swiss People's Party, but by none of the other political parties – to "Islamophobia" is perhaps to miss the point. To be sure, a long history of mutual Christian-Muslim hostility, and recent cases of radical Islamist violence, have made many people fearful of Islam in a way that they are not of Hinduism, say, or Buddhism. And the minaret, piercing the sky like a missile, is easily caricatured as a fearsome image.



But if the Swiss and other Europeans were self-assured about their own identities, their Muslim fellow-citizens probably would not strike such fear in their hearts. And that might be the problem. It was not so long ago that the majority of citizens in the western world had their own unquestioned symbols of collective faith and identity. The church spires that grace many European cities still meant something to most people. Few people married outside their own faith.

Until recently, too, many Europeans believed in their kings and queens, flew their national flags, sang their national anthems, were taught heroic versions of their national histories. Home was home. Foreign travel was for soldiers, diplomats, and rich people. "Identity" was not yet seen as a problem.

Much has changed, thanks to global capitalism, European integration, the stigmatisation of national feeling by two catastrophic world wars, and, perhaps most importantly, the widespread loss of religious faith. Most of us live in a secular, liberal, disenchanted world. The lives of most Europeans are freer now than ever before. We are no longer told what to do or think by priests or our social superiors. When they try, we tend not to take any notice.

But there has been a price to pay for our newly liberated world. Freedom from faith and tradition has not always led to greater contentment, but, on the contrary, to widespread bewilderment, fear, and resentment. While demonstrations of collective identity have not entirely disappeared, they are largely confined to football stadiums, where celebration (and disappointment) can quickly boil over in violence and resentment.

Populist demagogues blame political, cultural, and commercial elites for the anxieties of the modern world. They are accused, not entirely without reason, of imposing mass immigration, economic crisis, and loss of national identity on ordinary citizens. But if the elites are hated for causing our modern malaise, the Muslims are envied for still having faith, for knowing who they are, for having something that is worth dying for.

It is unimportant that many European Muslims are just as disenchanted and secular as their non-Muslim fellow-citizens. It is the perception that counts. Those soaring minarets, those black headscarves, are threatening because they rub salt in the wounds of those who feel the loss of their own faith.

It is not surprising that anti-Muslim populism has found some of its most ferocious supporters among former leftists, for they, too, have lost their faith – in world revolution, or whatnot. Many of these leftists, before their turn to revolution, came from religious backgrounds. So they suffered a double loss. In their hostility to Islam, they like to talk about defending "Enlightenment values," whereas in fact they lament the collapse of faith, whether religious or secular.

There is, alas, no immediate cure for the kind of social ills exposed by the Swiss referendum. The Pope has an answer, of course. He would like people to return to the bosom of Rome. Evangelical preachers, too, have a recipe for salvation. Neo-conservatives, for their part, see the European malaise as a form of typical Old World decadence, a collective state of nihilism bred by welfare states and soft dependence on hard American power. Their answer is a revived western world, led by the United States, engaged in an armed crusade for democracy.

But, unless one is a Catholic, a born-again Christian, or a neo-con, none of these visions is promising. The best we can hope for is that liberal democracies will muddle through this period of unease – that demagogic temptations will be resisted, and violent impulses contained. After all, democracies have weathered worse crises in the past.

That said, it would surely help if we had fewer referendums. For, contrary to what some believe, they do not strengthen democracy. They weaken it by undermining our elected representatives, whose job is to exercise their good judgment rather than voice the gut feelings of an anxious, angry people.

• Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

The Price of Being Born Muslim


December 5, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor
By TARIQ AHMAD

I am by no means an expert on the topic of Islam or Muslims. However, by accident of birth, being Muslim was thrust upon me.

My chances going in were not too bad — about a quarter of the world’s population is Muslim. I live with the title and try to make sense of the daily newsworthy events that keep my people in the news. It was not until the fourth grade that I even knew I was Muslim. I was in grade school in Karachi, Pakistan, checking out a library book — an illustrated Bible — when my friend pointed out to me that I had picked the “wrong” book.

He appeared to be a little upset by my choice, as did some of the other kids. Any deviations from the norm, I concluded, would raise unnecessary alarm. My friend, since then, has become a militant atheist, but that is a story for another time.

I continued along a peaceful yet godless path until 8th grade when another friend confronted me with a deep philosophical question: Was I a Sunni or a Shiite? Being Muslim, it appeared was not really as simple as I had thought — I would need to make some difficult choices. My friend gave me a well rehearsed summary of the pros of cons of each group (heavily biased in favor of being Shiite, of course, because he was one) and provided me with the choice.

At last, I could exercise my free will! I decided to be Shiite until my grandmother stepped in after a week and in a matter-of-fact manner said that I was a Sunni, not a Shiite, and these things “cannot be changed.” Many more years of peaceful indifference toward religious matters passed and I ended up a freshman at New York University. It was then that the conflicts associated with being Muslim came to light.

My suite-mate hypothesized, a week into living together, that the college must have been trying to do an experiment on me by making me live with a Jew, a Hindu and a Catholic. Muslims, it appeared, had a lot of enemies and, for the first time, being one appeared to have more to do with the conflicts rather than any particular philosophical doctrine.

The few Islamic Center meetings I attended at college would invariably extend into speeches about the Palestinian conflict, the Kashmir conflict, the Chechnya conflict, the Bosnian conflict. Somewhat dispassionate about such issues, I chose to define myself as an undefined creature with no real place in society — the secular Muslim.

Since 9/11 the nature of the dialogue has changed quite a bit. I experienced the strong backlash against Muslims. Medical school interviews in the weeks after 9/11 were uncomfortable and borderline racist. Even my closest friends appear to place me on the wrong side of a line of “danger.” Everyone is more aware of the fact that I have a Muslim name. The more cultured among them show a genuine curiosity about “our kind.” Others mask their fear with jokes and frustrated questions along the lines of: “Why every time a bomb goes off, a Muslim person is behind it?” Yet others try to be unnaturally polite, likely suppressing undesirable emotions.

But with this increased awareness of the Muslim, there is a lack of appreciation of the nuances within our group. The reality is that many Muslims are secular. We do not pray five times a day, do not read the Koran and have not spent much time inside a mosque. We only turn to Islam when a child is born, someone gets married or someone dies.

We certainly have no interest in participating in civilizational battles. We are, in fact, loathed by the religious minority. And yet we have no clear voice, no representation and no one in the Western world appears to be aware of our existence. Every time a terrorist attack occurs, we suffer the most.

We are trying to succeed in life, trying to be effective doctors, lawyers, business people, artists and other kinds of professionals, and it hurts us, not the jihadists, when society keeps us at more and more of a safe distance “just in case.”

To defeat the threat of radical Islam, I suggest that the answer lies among the people who are the least Muslim.

It is only the secular forces within Islam that can subdue the screams of radicalism. We are united by a lack of indoctrination, a belief in personal freedom and a similar accident of birth and we must unite to properly forge a positive and progressive future for Muslims worldwide.

Tariq Ahmad is a doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.