Last week, Maryam Namazie, an Iranian secularist and human rights activist, gave a well-publicized talk at Goldsmiths, Univ. of London where she was viciously booed, berated, talked over, tweeted over, shouted down, made to bow her head in silent deference, and had her presentation unplugged. It is a testament to her will as well as her cause that what could have been a 40 minute speech was delayed into 2 hours – and that she remained calm and composed despite the open hostility and ridicule thrown at her.
In the speech, Namazie seeks to distinguish between Islam, “which is a belief,” and Islamism, “which is a religious right movement,” by highlighting why Muslims “who are people like everybody else,” are viewed with suspicion in Western media. The speech could not have come at a better time, coming as it does on the heels of a devastating attack on Paris and as Republican Party of the American political spectrum becomes divided even amongst itself regarding Islam, Islamism, and Muslims. One candidate in particular continues to ratchet up fear, hatred, suspicion, and misunderstanding going forward in this election.
American Islamaphobia did not start with the recent round of Republican candidates, or even the September 11th. It goes back decades, and together with anti-Semitism, is part of a larger narrative about foreigners who want to challenge the nationalist belief in manifest destiny. Discussing their “rights” as “foreigners” in America is not even a new form of Islamaphobia. “In the formation of the American ideal and principles of what we consider to be exceptional American values, Muslims were, at the beginning, the litmus test for whether the reach of American constitutional principles would include every believer, every kind, or not,”… to show “how far tolerance and equal civil rights extends,” said Denise Spelberg, author of Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders.
It is ironic, perhaps, that Namazie’s efforts to honor members of her family, who are Muslim, was overshadowed by the very thing she was critiquing. Those in attendance tried to apologize for their rowdy brothers, ashamed for the behavior of a few, and Namazie calmly but firmly insisted no one needed to apologize for their behavior – it was too widespread, too indefensible, for any one person to assume that kind of responsibility. One of the things I was struck by, watching and rewatching the speech, was not the act of active and passive aggression being committed by those in attendance. It was that what Namazie was saying was being enacted right in front of her, in front of those in attendance, and ultimately in front of the world entire. The complete lack of self-awareness of those living into and out of the dark reality she was critiquing. There is a distinction between Islam and Islamism, just as there are distinctions between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, Presbyterians and Pentecostals, and the branches of Judaism. That we in the West continue to misunderstand the unique differences within Islam and insist that “all of Islam” is one, unified and unyielding religion consistent across time and location is the height of determined, willful ignorance. But that young, agitated Muslims do not see these distinctions either is a tragedy for religious discourse. It shows religious education has failed to address a glaringly obvious misnomer.
As a religious person, I wholeheartedly condemn any rhetoric, action, or policy that would denigrate, even diminish the honor, respect, and integrity of my Muslim neighbors. To be direct: I have never met a Muslim I did not immediately feel kinship to. Because I share their concerns for the future of the world and devotion to my own beliefs, I sympathize – though admittedly do not fully comprehend the magnitude of these issues facing Muslims today. Still, what I take away from those conversations, relationships, and moments of cultural sharing is that the greatest problem with Islam today is not ISIS, it is the absence of coherent commentary in the West. Other religions have supplemental materials: canons, creeds, catechisms, commentary and thorough curriculum for understanding their faith. Islam maintains they do not need any of these, and Islamism is quite adamant that no such product should ever be conceived. While there are dozens of ways to exegete, and hundreds, even thousands of interpretations regarding the Quran, Islam has not codified these in the West. Tafsir, which is the interpretation or exegesis of a passage in the Quran, is the uncovering of Allah’s will through means of Arabic (assuming you can read Arabic) or the translation provided into your native language (assuming you cannot read Arabic, or read it well). It is like trying to get at the meaning of a verse in Jewish Scripture by looking at the “original” Hebrew text (supposing you know how to read Hebrew) and then roughly translating it for yourself. This is so difficult, that even Jews – who are taught how to read and write Hebrew from an early age – still need refreshers, the guidance of a rabbi, the Talmud, and to do all of this in community. These are the practices of Western(ized) religion, and all religions which resist this or have no place for it, such as Buddhism which lacks even a sacred text, remain incomprehensible to those in the West. In this way, even the most well-minded religious person practices latent colonialism, demanding that “foreign” religions conform to their ways to be considered legitimate or “safe.”
This is not a condemnation of Islam. It is rather an effort to explain what is so clear: there is no coherent, prevailing narrative for Islam in the West. Those outside of Islam only know the rigid interpretation of Middle Eastern countries, Islamism. Judging Islam by Islamism makes as much sense as judging America by the actions of England. There’s been quite a bit of history, culture, and difference of opinion since the Mayflower sailed out of the harbor in 1620, and it’s as fruitless as it is ridiculous to conflate the two.
What’s more, the only time the West pays attention to Muslims is when they are either castigating those Muslims, denigrating the beautiful religion of Islam because of the actions of Islamists, or – perhaps worse – saying nothing at all, hoping those people and that religion “go back home” to the very conditions they fled.
These are not conducive practices if we seek true understanding of Western Islam; they are the hostile practices that time and again bring the West to shame. And here we are practicing them again.