Julie Harbin: Experts address questions about Islam, extremism

“Muslims in America and Europe say discrimination against them has seemed more pronounced after the Islamic State terrorists beheaded American and British journalists and aid workers. Hate-filled remarks on social media have also become more prevalent, especially since 9/11, when Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist,” began an article in the New York Daily News last week.

A survey released in late July by the Arab American Institute (conducted by Zogby Analytics) found the favorability toward Muslim-Americans had fallen to 27 percent, compared to 36 percent in 2010. It wasn’t much higher for Arab-Americans who’s favorability rating had fallen to 36 percent from 43 percent.

And as UNC-Chapel Hill sociologist Charles Kurzman confirmed, in an analysis of several polls over the past few years (even before the ‘rise of ISIS’), there has been a steady increase in negative attitudes, in recent years, toward Muslim-Americans, Muslims in general, and toward Islam.

Last month, ISLAMiCommentary and the Sanford School of Public Policy convened a panel of Duke experts for a broad public conversation on “The Middle East in Turmoil.”

But it was two questions from different members of the public, in particular, that came to take up a great deal of the Q & A session afterwards — the kind of questions that have been asked in a multitude of forums since 9/11. Especially in light of a continued rise in negative perceptions of Muslims and a continued misunderstanding of Islam, the short but thoughtful responses from our panelists bear publishing.

So, here is a partial transcript of the responses given by Duke professors Omid Safi (Duke Islamic Studies Center), Bruce Jentleson (Sanford School of Public Policy/Political Science), Abdeslam Maghraoui (Political Science) and David Schanzer (Sanford School of Public Policy/Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security).

QUESTION: Do any of the actions, thoughts, or practices of ISIS conform with the Quran? And if they don’t, which I assume that they don’t, where are the moderate Arabs, whether they be nation states or they be citizens in America or visitors to America, where are their voices?

Omid Safi: So let me direct you to a column that I published with Krista Tippett’s On Being blog. How do we talk about religion and public good in a world of ISIS? Embedded in that particular blog are a couple of pieces that might be of interest to you. One of them is an open letter that is addressed to the so-called Caliph of ISIS. This nobody kid who just declared himself Calipha…

And so that particular letter was signed by religious leaders in Egypt, Jordan, Nigeria, United States, Turkey, Yemen, Palestine, Malaysia, Portugal, France, Indonesia, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Bulgaria, Sweden, UK, Germany, Iraq, Bosnia, Pakistan, Sudan, Iceland, Mauritania and Kurdistan.

That’s just one small sample, but the issue of “Where are the voices of the moderate Muslims?” — this has been sort of a perennial question since 9/11. David Schanzer and our colleague Charles Kurzman at UNC have done a magnificent job documenting many of these voices, creating websites for them.

And yet we still hear them year after year writing these kinds of blogs (asking) “Where are the moderate voices?” “Why are they so silent?” which I think leads us to ask the question: “Is it that people are not speaking up or is it that we’re not hearing it? Is it that we’re not listening to it?”

And if it should happen to be the second, then I wonder what that says about our preconceived notion of a majority of Muslims worldwide secretly being complicit regardless of what they do, regardless of what they say, and regardless of how many of their leading scholars, imams, experts are denouncing the practices of ISIS.

I don’t know of a single Muslim organization or religious intellectual or imam or community leader who over the course of the last year hasn’t lost his or her voice hating and condemning, myself included.

But what does it say about us if for some reason we still go on as if this voice isn’t there? Speaking and hearing is a two-way process. It’s a reciprocal process. And partially what I fear is that the conversation about Islam today has largely become a conversation between Bill Maher and Ben Affleck. And you’ve got the otherwise cool liberal who hates all religion but he just hates one of them much much more than the other ones, and then the white guy that has to come to the defense of Muslims and say no these are human beings too.

And what’s missing of course from that entire exchange are the voices of Muslims themselves.

QUESTION: In the wake of 9/11, to what extent is Islam itself in crisis? It seems like the conversation that should be going on would be between the so-called extremists, like the self-proclaimed caliph and all others. I don’t see a lot of that conversation going on and when I do, interestingly I don’t see any Quranic verses being cited as in violation of any of them and I asked that question of a few of my Muslim friends. And I looked at a translated version of the Quran and I was able to find justification for everything that Baghdadi is doing.

David Schanzer: Sometimes it’s good for non-Muslims to stand up and say something about these issues.

Listen, religion is about interpretation of text and texts have a history, they have a context. They have a lot of nasty things in them as does the Old Testament as does the New Testament.

Religion is about how we interpret text. So we could find literalistic interpretations of the New Testament of the Old Testament that could justify horrific things and that’s what these extremists do. They take a hyper-literalistic (interpretation) of certain phrases or words in the Quran.

They divorce it from all historical context, and they use it to justify the atrocities they want to do. And then what many people in the West do is they engage in the exact same interpretive flaws divorced from all Islamic jurisprudence over the course of the centuries, divorced from all the rulings of reknowned schoalrs and people with authority.

These people don’t have the authority or the training to interpret for all Muslims these texts but then the critics of Islam in the United States, they do the exact same interpretive flaws as ISIS and bin Laden. They engage in the exact same a-historical un-contextual interpretation of the Quran and say “you see here this is what it says,” so I think we all have to think about those things and let’s not fall into that trap.

Abdeslam Maghraoui: I think that in a way I wish we could find this very simple solution and say, “Yes the reason why there is religious extremism and the reason why there is ISIS is because of the Quran.” … It’s much more complicated, as my colleagues would say, in that you are going to find in the Bible in the Old Testament, images of catastrophe and Hell and the same thing in the Quran.

We are talking about the 6th century. And some are going to go to some specific references and use them to justify to legitimate their actions, but there’s a whole strain of liberal reformers who have been writing since the 18th century about how to reform Islam, and they have written treatises on the reconciliation of Islam and democracy.

They have founded institutions and practices that are completely in tune with democracy.

Bruce Jentleson: I am actually more concerned about extremists generally. Way back in the 1950s, a couple of psychologists at Yale did a study of what they call the authoritarian personality.

At the time they studied communists and fascists that showed the same basic personality structure. Need certainty, binary views of this and that. To be honest with you if you look what’s happening, and I’m not making a moral equivalency here with the beheading by any stretch of the imagination, if you look at what’s happening in Israel today between the secular and the religious, and some of the ultra orthodox and what they are saying and they are prepared to do to the soldiers of their own army if they come to evict them from settlements as part of the peace process.

Or you can think of other examples like what’s happening in India with some extremism of Hindus, what’s happening with Buddhists in terms of Burma now. So whatever the flavor, extremists are very dangerous to any notions of civil society co-existence.

Julie Poucher Harbin is editor of ISLAMiCommentary. Column courtesy of Context Florida.


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