Thursday, November 16, 2006

Reza Aslan: Xavier

I don't have a photo from Tuesday night (wasn't there) but this one approximates what he looked like behind the podium (watched the video yesterday).

Reza spoke both to our class and then lectured to the community Tuesday night. One word describes his treatment of Islam, terrorism, the current relations between the west and the east:


Finally an academic who gets it. Finally someone who understands both Islam and the scope of the difficulties within it.

I’ve had an uneasy relationship to both Islam as a religion and to Muslims. While I’ve come to love and value Muslims I know personally for their hospitality and the simplicity of their devotion to God, I’ve also developed a fear of Islam in general. That fear was accelerated by 9/11, not caused by it. Having lived in Morocco during the Gulf War and for several years before that, I saw firsthand how utterly other their form of faith and identity were to the way we in America saw ours.

I resented the way women were treated as possessions and sex objects, I couldn't comprehend the way most Muslims were non-practicing yet very defensive and evangelistic, and it appeared to me that the faith itself encouraged a superiority rooted in shame that led to a twisted self-image.

Fundamentalists seemed on the brink all the time of being set off... leading to violence. The government worked over time to ferret them out to head off those kinds of demonstrations.

Moroccans resented the west (even as they admired it) and their resentment looked all the way back to the Crusades, included the European colonialist period, and extended itself to the American-backed corrupt leadership of the Arab world which enabled both Wahabism and secularist versions of Islam to thrive, both of which common Muslims rejected as being out of step with “true Islam.”

Reza Aslan described a Muslim's relationship to America as "Yankee, go home, and take me with you."

Even though the public party line in a country like Morocco had to be support of the king (or find yourself in a dark cell on the back side of the Atlas mountains for 25 years), the subtle yet palpable sentiment underneath the public declarations of loyalty was yearning. Moroccan Muslims yearned for a day when they could see their most perfect of faiths rise to a level of control over society that would lead them into a brighter tomorrow, where problems like hunger, economic hardship, unemployment, the vices of the west and apathetic Islamic practice would fall away.

Sound familiar? Anyone who has spent time in triumphalist movements or hyper fundamentalist Christianity knows what I'm talking about. There's an ideal form of the faith that if practiced purely, will lead to a kingdom on earth! That's similar to how many Muslims talk about Islam. The problems in the Muslim world are never with the religion; they are always located in its imperfect practice (particularly as tarnished by state leaders who are not legitimate Muslim leaders).

Reza Aslan gave language to the uneasy experiences I had. Until now, Riffat Hassan, Karen Armstrong and other lecturers usually gave some kind of apologetic for Islamic violence, or distanced the "true" Islam from the extremists without actually unfolding the tumultuous internal conflict of the Muslim world. I've usually left those meetings feeling like Muslims hold the west responsible for negative stereotypes and the exploitation of the Arab world for oil as the reasons for extremists... and they sort of wipe Islam's hands of any relationship to those more embarassing manifestations of the faithful.

Aslan certainly pointed his finger at the west when necessary, but he emphasized that the reformation under way has little to do with us, really. It has everything to do with seizing a moment in history and becoming something more than they've ever been. I finally get it.

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