Whenever I criticize some aspects of traditional and contemporary Islam in public, the reactions are boringly uniform. The leaders of national Islamic organizations come out with harsh denunciations of my views, while individuals within the community write to congratulate me. Some do question my motives, advising that my harsh words might add to rampant Islamophobia.
My answer is always the same: I do what I do because I see myself, especially in my role as a scholar, as being so commanded by my God, "O you who believe, be upholders of justice, bearing witness for God alone, even against yourselves or your parents and relatives" (Koran 4:135).
When the Feb. 6 edition of the Citizen put my comments on its front page, the reaction was predictable. It was no less different when in March 2004, at a conference in Montreal, I made the statement that many mosques preach anti-Jewish and anti-Christian rhetoric. I was, the leaders of some Muslim organizations declared, destroying the bridges of rapprochement that had been built between communities. On these occasions I point to translations of the very first chapter of the Koran that have interpolations that preach hatred against Jews and Christians. I can quote exegete after exegete. The truth cannot be overcome.
I write not only as an academic scholar of religion, but also in my role as a father, troubled by the pervasive anti-Jewish, anti-western teachings that I know exist in some mosques. Just a few summers before the Montreal conference, I had re-established contact with one of my sons after a rather acrimonious divorce. I had last seen him when he was but five years old, and now, here he was, 14 years old, trying to show me, his learned dad, that he too could joke the way I do: "How do you kill a Jew, dad? -- You throw a quarter on the highway!"
I knew that neither his mother nor stepfather would express these ideas, and I probed further. I learned that his teacher at a licensed private school in Edmonton had given him that piece of wisdom. It is true that this may have been an isolated incident -- but my interactions with children at large, and with parents too, indicate a similar Muslim view of the religious other.
Even now, in blogs among my fellow Guyanese, a people who have always been known for their pluralism and liberal "calypso" Islam, the discussion often leads to the condemnation of the religious other. Certainly, in Judaism, Christianity and other religions, there are groups that similarly offend. But at least in those religions, we don't see an institutional defence of hate.
My statements to the Citizen about the backwardness of my faith community were meant to prod my co-religionists into thinking about themselves and their harsh views of the other. I don't deny for a minute that as a body of people, Muslims in Canada are among the most sophisticated citizens, the holders of degrees and some of the most demandingly intellectual professions. That, however, does not erase the pervasive religious illiteracy that, like a malignant cancer, threatens to destroy the entire corpus of what was once, and still can remain, a great religion.
Scholar Scott Appleby of Notre Dame describes "religious illiteracy" as the low-level or virtual absence of moral reflection and basic theological knowledge among faith followers that could lead to violence against perceived threats. In Islam, this is particularly applicable.
The evidence is blindingly clear: Throughout the world, Muslim intellectuals are punished for daring to criticize. Muhammad Said al-Ashmawy in Egypt is under house arrest for his own protection; Abdel Karim Soroush is beaten in Iran for daring to raise the voice of inquiry, Mahmoud Taha is killed in Sudan. Scholars Rifat Hassan, Fatima Mernissi, Abdallah an-Na'im, Mohammed Arkoun and Amina Wadud are all vilified by the imams for asking Muslims to use their intellects.
Some claim that trained imams are like priests and rabbis. This is certainly a possibility -- and in Bosnia and Turkey, I do know that imams are trained. But the fact is that most imams in Canada are not trained. The fact is, too, that even trained imams base their worldview on medieval constructs of Islamic law that are not only obviously backward, but also downright threatening to national security.
Another point raised in the follow-up coverage to my interview was that an imam might be fired for preaching something wrong. My question is, how is the flock going to know when the imam is wrong? After all, he is the leader, the supposed exegete, the scholar who may have suddenly been imbued with Islamic scholarship by some miracle because he happens to be a medical doctor.
Islamic law was developed largely from the eighth through the 10th centuries, a period when the Muslim polity in the Middle East was at the zenith of its power. In such a situation, the Muslim was the superior to everyone else, and the law was to empower him. Islam was there to rule, not to talk about co-existence in terms of equality.
In the medieval mind the non-Muslim had few rights, and specious argumentation could be used to even further reduce those rights. Contemporary Muslim colleges still use the same texts to function in modern society, hence the backwardness of the average imam, trained or not.
Is this the sophisticated group that -- but for the efforts of good people like Tarek Fateh -- wanted to have Shariah in Canada? Is this the group that, in Montreal, relegated women to pray in the basement of a mosque? Is this the group that still produces some followers who, when asked "Are you Canadian?" respond, "No, I am a Muslim."
And herein lies the problem of cultural identity. There is no one Islam. The Guyanese Muslim is different from the Bosnian Muslim who is different from the Pakistani Muslim who is different from the Saudi Muslim etc. To talk about Canadian culture as being inherently un-Islamic is to create an imagined geography that, at least, creates disharmony and, at worst, threatens subversion.
Muslim apologists point out that Arabs are only about 20 per cent of the Muslim world community. That means that -- at best -- the ratio of people who can read the Koran in its original language is one in every five. And even for those who do speak Arabic, the Koran, from the 10th century onwards, has ceased to speak for itself. Instead, a Muslim scholar will quote the Koran and define his citation by saying, "Tabari explains it thus ..." or "Zamakhshari explains it thus ..." In both cases of reference, the exegetes are medieval men.
The Koran harshly admonishes against tyranny and oppression. Islam's holy text uses many Biblical motifs to illustrate its message, among them, the example of Moses and Pharaoh. Sometimes the Guyanese in me comes out when I see the horrible condition of my fellow Muslims, and I want to sing out, "Let my people go!" And then I look around and realize that Pharaoh is one of us -- in the form of leaders and pervasive ignorance that have usurped the place of reason.
I say this not as an outsider, but as an observant Muslim, buoyed in my confrontational view by the Koranic advice: "God will not change the condition of a people until they change it themselves (Koran 13:11)."
In such a state of affairs, it would seem that there is a need for jihad -- not against outsiders, but against ourselves.
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