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Chan'ad Bahraini

(Scomberomorous maculatus Bahrainius)

Note: This page has moved to a new address. Please click on the following URL to get there: http://chanad.weblogs.us/index.php?s=Understanding Muslims for Dummies. Sorry for the trouble.

Understanding Muslims for Dummies

Monday, June 28, 2004

If any of you've been following the Muslim graduation stoles controversy at UC Irvine, here is an interesting commentary from alt.muslim:
Warping The Truth: The Panic Over Muslim Graduation Stoles

You'd think that after years of all-Islam, all-the-time news reporting, of people studying Islam both formally and informally, and so many self-styled "Islam experts" plying the radio and TV talk shows, that critics of Islam would know at least the basics about the religion. This week's "controversy" over Muslim graduation stoles at the University of California, Irvine reveals how fear can warp the truth, even when people who make a living watching Muslims are involved. Seems that some Jewish students were upset about the green, Arabic-covered stoles, finding too much of a similarity between them and green headbands Hamas militants use. It's understandable, I suppose, since the students in question can't read Arabic and their only exposure to Arabic written on green cloth (the shahada, or Muslim declaration of faith, was printed on one side of the stole; the other said "Oh, God, increase my knowledge") was what they see on their TV screens. (Muslim students could have made the same complaint about stars of David, which are plastered on Israeli army tanks & warplanes, but they're smart enough to make the distinction between politics and religion.) What is baffling, though, is that nearly every news outlet said that the word "shahada" was on the stoles (it wasn't - the phrase "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger" that makes up the shahada was) and that the American Jewish Congress said that the word "shahada" that they think is on the stole translated to "suicide bomber". The AJC also called the shahada an "expression of hate" that was a "demonstration in favor of terrorists". Thankfully, UC Irvine officials backed the 20 Muslim students who wore the stoles without incident at their commencement ceremonies, and plan to in the future. "Students wore it at last year's graduation, too," said UC Irvine Muslim Student Union president Osman Umarji. "No one even noticed it." Well, they have now - and they want all Muslims to drop the most basic declaration of their faith because some terrorists have been filmed abusing it.

I have to agree that this incident really shows how little understanding there is of Islam and Muslims among most Americans. Okay, we can't really expect all Americans to know what the shahada is, but certainly those media institutions and scholars who have been reporting about Muslims for so long should have some idea. It is amazing how many people there are in America who think they know Islam and speak with authority about it without ever having lived in the Muslim world for any significant amount of time. If you listen to what these self-styled scholars have to say it becomes obvious that they really do not understand the differences between Islam, Muslims, Islamism or Islamic fundamentalism.

And their tendency to confuse the terms Islam and Muslim goes deeper than just semantics. They seem to believe that Muslims are mere Islamic robots. Thus they think that by reading all of the Islamic scriptures (Quran, Hadith, etc.) they will be able to understand Muslims; as though Muslims have no cares other than abiding by the scriptures; as though Islam is nothing more than a collection of words written on parchment 1400 years ago.

The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that being 'Muslim' is not the only identity carried by Muslims. Muslims are not only Muslims, but are also parents, siblings, children, employees, bosses, friends, politicians, citizens, and above all, human beings. They have interests that go beyond their Muslims identities, and may therefore be driven to do things for reasons other than Islam. Although Osama bin Laden claims to be doing everything for the sake of Allah, let's be serious. I'm sure he has his personal interests to care about, his family, his friends, his money, his comfort. And being in the position that he is, he also has to be somewhat of a politician, compromising his Islamic values for other reasons. This is why we can't try to understand his actions just by reading the Quran and the Prophetic traditions. Nor can we undersand his actions just by listening to his rhetoric. We have to understand who he is, his culture, his interests, his history. These are the things that make up a human being; not merely words written on parchment centuries ago.

And this applies to all Muslims in general... not just the terrorist kind. To be able to understand Muslims we have to learn about their culture (not just "Islamic culture" if such a thing exists). We have to understand how Muslims interpret symbols, icons and rhetoric that are used. In the case of the shahada we need to know the significance of this phrase to Muslims, and not just what it means for Hamas. Only then can we begin to make a judgement on whether its use constitutes malicious intent or not.

The second thing that must be understood is that Islam is not just a bunch of texts. As I've said before, we can't reduce it down to just a collection of words written on parchment 1400 years ago. May of these American self-styled scholars of Islam will claim that they "know Islam even better than many Muslims" because they can quote verses from the Quran and from Tabari and Ishaq, which many Muslims may not have even heard of. But we must recognize that Islam is a living religion; it is made up of human beings, not texts. There is very much an oral tradition among Muslims with information being passed on from generation to generation, from master to disciple, from parent to child, from friend to friend. Sometimes this information is not passed down through words, but through experiences, and without either of the parties even being aware of it, it enters their psyche. It is these things which determine, among other things, how the words of the texts are interpreted in to everyday life; for words are merely words and can be interpreted in any way one sees fit. Learning just the texts alone is not nearly enough to be able to understand what Islam is about.

To really understand what Muslims are, there is NO substitute for living among Muslims, observing them and interacting with them. Learning their history, their culture, their personal lives, their philosophies. Understanding what it is that makes them tick, and how they interpret social action. Judging for yourself whether these people are of the human species that the rest of us belong to, or whether they are a different beast altogether. But until they are able to do this, these so-called American scholars who have never lived among Muslims should speak with humility. By all means they should read whatever they can and make known their opinions. But they should be aware (and also make their audience aware) of the fact that their source of knowledge is limited to a few years of learning the texts, which is not nearly enough to understand how the Muslim mind thinks. And they should also refrain from casting their image of a Muslim upon all Muslims. Very often I read a pseudo-scholar saying something like "those Muslims aren't abiding by such and such verse of the Quran, therefore they are not behaving like real Muslims." The implication of such a statement is that their (i.e. the pseudo-scholar's) interpretation of that verse, and their interpretation of what a real Muslim is is the only interpretation.

My problem here is not that Americans do not know enough about Muslims, but that today many Americans speak with an authority of the subject which is not deserved. Prior to 9/11 when I would get in to a discussion with an American about Islam they would humbly admit that they do not know enough to be able to pass judgement, and would kindly ask me if I might share whatever I may know. In the aftermath of the 9/11 disaster, it seems that many Americans, understandably, feel the need to learn about Islam as soon as possible whatever source is available. All of a sudden I'm finding that more and more people who knew nothing about Muslims just three years ago passing all sorts of judgements in the media, without making it explicitly known their level of interaction with Muslims themselves.

Certainly, the Muslim world has suffered from the same problem for much longer. It is all too common to hear Muslim politicians, religious leaders and pseudo-scholars passing judgements about America based on CNN, Hollywood, and internet rumours, without ever having met an American. For example, when GW Bush used the word "crusade" in describing the War on Terrorism, all of the Muslim world jumped on it, claiming it as evidence that the war was fuelled by religion. But of course, anyone who really understands the English language in its modern-day context will know that the word crusade does not necessarily carry the same religious connotations it did in the past. While Muslims, more than anyone, need to overcome this "know-it-all" attitude, the reason I am so disturbed about it appearing in the American media is because I never though it would reach such levels. When reading some American news sources I am reminded of exactly the same style of arguments that I'm so familiar with here in the Muslim world, where people who have no idea of what they're talking about are (unknowingly) fooling themselves and others with their false authority.

Just an example of the extent of this is the whole graduation stole issue that I started off this post about. Asides from the fact that none of the media sources have any idea of what the "shahada" is, if you read the Jewsweek article about the controversy, they state:
According to a letter sent by MSU board member Jazakhallah Kair to all graduating Muslims...
Haha, really this is too much. If you're an Arabic speaker reading this, then I'm sure you're rolling on the floor in laughter. Because "Jazakallah Khair" is not a very common Muslim name. It is an Arabic phrase meaning "May God reward you well" which is very commonly used by Muslims. What must have happened is that the MSU board member who actually sent the original e-mail must have used this phrase while "signing out" (which is very common). The writer of the Jewsweek article probably got a hold of the e-mail somehow and just assumed that the MSU member's name is "Jazakhallah Kair". Hahaha. Although it is hilarious, it does illustrate the sad state of affairs, that there are so many people who are writing with authority, but so few of them have a real grasp of the subject.
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11 Responses to 'Understanding Muslims for Dummies'

Anonymous Anonymous says:

Unfortunatly there is way to much misunderstanding about your basic Muslim and what they think and believe. This is understandable as here in America the Muslims that get the press are the radicals/terrorists(CAIR and their ilk)
I'm a longtime member of a site called Freerepublic.com, it's one of the leading rightwing website(I call it the homepage for the vast rightwing conspiracy) There are those of us there that are (constantly) fighting flamewars with the (as I call them) the nuke Mecca crowd. IMO it's people like you who are on the front lines NEED to fight these radical(or whatever term you want to use) Muslims. As it really is a war of ideas.    

Anonymous Anonymous says:

Take a look at www.danielpipes.com. Perhaps, you can got a better look at what the US-based conservative media thinks about muslims in general.    

Blogger Chanad says:

Yes, I agree with you that those of us living in this part of the world need to lead the efforts to change the mindset of those narrow-minded Muslims here. For this I take responsibility.

The reason for this post however was to make Americans realize that they also have a part to play in this. The only way we are ever going to win this war on terrorism is if the American public, legislators and executives are able to understand Muslims better, be they terrorists or not. I totally understand that CAIR and ISNA and others dominate the coverage of Muslims in America, but I also feel that the media has played in to this also. Sometimes it seems they are so keen to find Muslims who fit their perceptions of what a Muslim is, that they do not give much airplay to other more sane ones out there (like MWU, FMCAT, Islamica, alt.muslim). It's like they are inadvertently collaborating with the CAIR and co. in thrusting their image of Muslims on all of us. There are alot of American Muslims who have been working hard to create a niche in the ideological and social landscape of America for themselves; where they can be both Muslim and Americans without any contradiction. But it's just sad to see that this niche is constantly being squeezed by the pseudo-scholars so that they have to make a choice between getting rid of their Muslim identity altogether, or joining CAIR and gang. Okay, I'm ranting now,... better stop.

With regards to Mr. Pipes, I know about him quite well and even had the opportunity to attend one of his lectures a few years back. It certainly seems like he has some sort of agenda against all Muslims, so I don't care for him very much. But there are also people like Robert Spencer, who runs JihadWatch. Mr. Spencer seems to me like a genuine guy with good intentions for Muslims and non-Muslims alike in trying to get rid of the militant Islamist threat. However I fear that his understanding of Muslims is quite limited to stuff that he has read. I've asked him on a number of occasions if he might let me know what type of interaction he has had with the Muslim world, but he has not ever replied. It is people like him who I feel need to get a better understanding so that we can work together towards our common goal.    

Blogger global soul says:
6/30/2004 03:26:00 am

excellent post! It seems that leaders and scholars cannot be trusted anymore. It's normal people who have to make the change.

In his book, Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington declares that Islam is a religion of the sword that glorifies military virtues. He says that “the Koran and other statements of Muslim beliefs contain few prohibitions on violence, and a concept of nonviolence is absent from Muslim doctrine and practice.” Needless to say, his statements are wrong and to have him and other leading American scholars (pipes, lewis, etc) to preach such things is extremely dangerous. It deepens the misunderstanding which is the last thing we need nowadays!    

Anonymous Anonymous says:
6/30/2004 08:05:00 am

With regards to Mr. Pipes, I know about him quite well and even had the opportunity to attend one of his lectures a few years back. It certainly seems like he has some sort of agenda against all Muslims,

If I may
The Evil Isn't Islam
by Daniel Pipes
New York Post
July 30, 2002

"ISLAM IS EVIL." That's the message a U.S. Secret Service agent illicitly left on an Islamic prayer calendar on July 18 as he was raiding a suspected al Qaeda operative in Dearborn, Mich.

His crude graffito sums up a point of view increasingly heard since 9/11 in the United States. It's also one that is troubling and wrong.

Here is the rub: It is a mistake to blame Islam (a religion 14 centuries old) for the evil that should be ascribed to militant Islam (a totalitarian ideology less than a century old). The terrorism of al Qaeda, Hamas, the Iranian government and other Islamists results from the ideas of such contemporary radicals as Osama bin Laden and Ayatollah Khomeini, not from the Koran.

To which you might respond: But bin Laden and Khomeini get their ideas from the Koran. And they are only continuing a pattern of Muslim aggression that is centuries old.

Not exactly. Let's look closer at both points:

* Aggressive Islam: The Koran and other authoritative Islamic scriptures do contain incitements against non-Muslims. The eminent historian Paul Johnson, for example, cites two Koranic verses: "Strongest among men in enmity to the Believers will you find the Jews and Pagans" (Sura 5, verse 85) and "Then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them. And seize them, beleaguer them and lie in wait for them." (9:5).

* Aggressive Muslims: Fourteen centuries of Islam have witnessed a long history of Muslims engaged in jihad (holy war) to expand the area under Islamic rule, from the early conquests of the caliphs to what Samuel Huntington terms Islam's "bloody borders" today.

Yes, these points are accurate. But they are one side of the story.

* Mild Islam: Like other sacred writings, the Koran can be mined for quotes to support opposing arguments. In this case, Karen Armstrong, a bestselling apologist for Islam, quotes two gentler passages from the Koran: "There must be no coercion in matters of faith!" (2:256) and "O people! We have formed you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another." (49:13).

* Mild Muslims: There have been occasions of Muslim moderation and tolerance, such as those in long-ago Sicily and Spain. And in one telling example, Mark R. Cohen notes that "The Jews of Islam, especially during the formative and classical centuries (up to the 13th century), experienced much less persecution than did the Jews of Christendom."

In other words, Islam's scriptures and history show variation.

At present, admittedly, it is hard to recall the positive side, at a moment when backwardness, resentment, extremism and violence prevail in so much of the Muslim world. But the present is not typical of Islam's long history; indeed, it may be the worst era in that entire history.

The challenge ahead is clear: Muslims must emulate their fellow monotheists by modernizing their religion with regard to slavery, interest and much else. No more fighting jihad to impose Muslim rule. No more endorsement of suicide terrorism. No more second-class citizenship for non-Muslims.

No more death penalty for adultery or "honor" killings of women. No more death sentences for blasphemy or apostasy.

Rather than rail on about Islam's alleged "evil," it behooves everyone - Muslim and non-Muslim alike - to help modernize this civilization.


Blogger Chanad says:
6/30/2004 12:02:00 pm

Steve, thanks for the Pipes quote. I haven't read that piece of his before. It reminds me that maybe I should learn more about the likes of Pipes before claiming to speak about him with any authority :) It was incorrect of me to claim that he has an agenda against "all Muslims".

That said, I still do feel that his ability to interpret actions from the Muslim world, and his understanding of how Muslims interpret actions in the West is still lacking. His understanding of Muslims seems to be very much based on texts and history, and not enough on the culture and behaviour of Muslims as human beings in different parts of the world today. Maybe I'll have a post on this later, as it's pretty long to explain.

But I do take back my words that "I know about him quite well" (and change it to "I know about him somewhat"), and am reconsidering whether or not I should "care for him" and what he has to say.

Thanks again.    

Anonymous Anonymous says:
6/30/2004 05:15:00 pm

It reminds me that maybe I should learn more about the likes of Pipes before claiming to speak about him with any authority :)

We grow and learn :-)
I would recomend reading more of his stuff.
danielpipes.org should get you there.

Anonymous Anonymous says:
6/30/2004 08:41:00 pm

What an excellent post. It is real easy for either side to feel threatened if all you listen to is the media. I am so old I can remember when the news was just reporting the facts, but now it is generalized and repeated over and over. The obvious bias in the American media is pretty obvious (TV), and it makes me so mad I could spit sometimes. Sorry, but the Arab media doesn't seem much better. I can well imagine why muslims think the West is against Islam; it really isn't that but rather the Islamist who really threatens us all. The American media has helped contribute to the perception that Islam or muslims are the bad guys, and Americans really have to work at knowing the difference.

I too visit Jihad Watch, among other sites, because in large part they cover stuff we never hear in the media. You can see the fear among Americans that is beginning to build into hatred, and people like you need to continue to post there and tell it like it is.

I don't read Pipes often anymore, but I agree with Steve that he has been trying to warn the world about the nutcases. You really can't do that without connecting it to Islam because their view is so extreme and it is connected, which is why I understand other Muslims to feel they too are under attack. There are times he does stretch things, but they are pretty obvious.

I am very grateful for blogs because you get the real scoop by reading and listening. Americans have tons of questions about Islam, Muslims and Arab culture. You have logically addressed alot of them in this post. I hope you post it over at JW at an appropriate place because Americans really are alot smarter than the rest of the world thinks they are.

BTW, I am going out on a limb here, but I do have a problem with these graduation stoles. I don't have a problem with headscaves because I see them more as a cultural thing. I do not think it is appropriate for anyone to be wearing religious items, sayings etc. in an institution that receives public funds such as a school/university. Separation of church and state thing. Everyone should be treated the same, and that doesn't seem to be happening right now in America. We are feeling our way on this one on a case by case basis, but either it's a law or not and everyone is treated the same. Pretty simple.

I wouldn't go out of my way to make a deal about these students, but graduation in America is about academics and stoles are indicative of GPA not a religious statement. So shoot me down if you want; that's my 2 cents.    

Blogger Chanad says:
7/01/2004 12:21:00 am

Thanks for your comments anon. I agree with you that everyone should be treated the same. As far as I understand the situation, I don't think there were any religious groups restricted from wearing similar stoles (please correct me if I'm wrong on this). And if the administration chose to disallow all students from wearing stoles with religious symbols, to keep in line with separation of Church and State, then I wouldn't have a problem with that either. (But that was not the line of thinking that was argued by the groups lobbying against the stoles).

Anyways, thanks again for the comments. I'm glad you found the post useful.    

Anonymous Anonymous says:
7/01/2004 05:33:00 am

From the Irving Student policy guide; sure there was a reason the school allowed the stoles and bet next year there will be a bunch of stoles with the star of David. Lawyers, please feel free to give your expert opinions, but don't send me the bill.

All individuals or organizations using University properties and services must avoid any unauthorized implication that they are sponsored, endorsed, or favored by the University.

As a State instrumentality, the University must remain neutral on religious and political matters. The University cannot sponsor or fund religious activities, and cannot sponsor or fund political activities, except when authorized for University purposes by The Regents or the President or their designees.

41.11 Religious and political campus organizations shall have access to University properties on the same basis as all other campus organizations, according to guidelines set forth in campus regulations.

41.11 Campus Neutrality Regarding Religious and Political Organizations
Religious and political organizations shall have access to University property on the same basis as other organizations as set forth in Section 40.00 of this document. Political and religious organizations may be registered by the University and may sponsor political and religious programs and events by fulfilling registration requirements and by following applicable time, place, and manner regulations. However, to guarantee the neutrality of the University with regard to political and religious activities, no University support is permitted for such activities or for political and religious programs or events. Incidental use of University resources in connection with the use of the property is permitted. Charges will be assessed for mail, duplicating, supplies, garage, computing, and similar services.

A. Political Programs or Events
For the purpose of these regulations, a program or event is defined as political if it involves one or more of the following:
Supporting (financially or through volunteer support) a candidate or group of candidates formally running in primary or general elections for city, county, state, local, or national office;
Supporting or opposing (financially or through volunteer support) a ballot measure or a drive to put an issue on the ballot;
Raising funds or sponsoring programs to support any federal or state registered political party.
B. Religious Programs or Events
For the purpose of these regulations, a program or event is defined as religious if it involves activities that are traditionally understood to be religious, such as:
Worship, devotion, prayer, or the study of religious literature (e.g., the Bible or the Koran);
The membership in or affiliation with a group generally recognized as a religious sect; or
Bringing together persons professing a belief in a divine deity or other belief encompassing theories of human nature or place in the universe and occupying a place in members' lives comparable to recognized religion.

41.12 In correspondence, statements, or other material relating to religious or political activities or issues, the University title of a faculty or staff member or the title of a student government official shall be used only for identification; if such identification might reasonably be construed as implying the support, endorsement, or opposition of the University with regard to any religious or political activity or issue, the identification shall be accompanied by an explicit statement that the individual is speaking for himself or herself and not as a representative of the University or any of its offices or units.    

Anonymous Anonymous says:
7/01/2004 07:15:00 am

I am so old I can remember when the news was just reporting the facts,


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