Friday, February 11, 2011

"Muslim Culture"

This is in response to my friend Carl's post of two weeks ago. I couldn't fit it in the comment field on his site (go figure), so I've posted it here on my blog:

When a quarter of a million Egyptians demand their Allah-given right to freedom and democracy, I can't help but feel love for them. Surely, with democracies rising out of the Middle East, one can feel hopeful for the future of Muslim nations.

So, I’d like to address a few of your minor points and then I’ll tackle the major one.

First of all, you suggest that we need to “get over colonialism.” It’s important to make a few distinctions here because a statement like that can inflame instead of inspire. One way that statement could be misinterpreted is that it suggests we forget colonialism ever happened. Disastrous. If there’s one good reason to study the horrible atrocities of our collective histories, it’s so we don’t repeat the same mistakes.

Another misinterpretation might give license to today’s superpowers to feel superior to the nations and minorities upon whose backs they made their fortunes. It would be dishonest to not give credit where credit is due. Black Americans contributed more labor to the building of this country than anyone can estimate, not to mention their contributions to our collective culture, language, music, dance, literature, etc. etc. etc. ‘Getting over colonialism’ cannot mean feeling proud that we (white Westerners) did it all or are solely responsible for the prominent position our society has in today’s world.

But if you mean we need to start the process of forgiving each other for past atrocities, I agree, mostly because we will never progress as a human race if half of us harbor rancor toward the other half of our own species. Isn’t that a little like racism?

And, you’re right, white Christian men don’t hold the monopoly on oppression; it should be decried wherever found and whoever is committing it. But even a cursory look at the last few thousand years of history will show that white Westerners had the power to oppress other peoples more often than other cultures, and we often wielded that power to disastrous effects. I think it’s a human tendency we have to want to lord over another. But for whatever reason, white Westerners had more opportunity to be world-class jerks and we need to own up to the fact that that’s not very enlightened behavior.

Another point I wanted to address is the conflation of the terms “Islam” and “Arab.” The former is a religion with 1.57 billion adherents. The latter is an ethnic group of about 300 million worldwide. There are radical cultural differences between a Muslim from Saudi Arabia and one from Indonesia or Canada. There is no pope or a uniform agenda. One cannot simply condense an entire religion into one culture. The differences between, say, Russian Orthodox Christians and Latter-day Saints demonstrate that culture and religion should not be confused. So, when Hirsi Ali talks about “Muslim culture” (213), frankly it’s ridiculous.

Furthermore, your claim that we need to “integrate Muslim immigrants into western societies” implies that all American Muslims are Arab immigrants. In fact, fully one-third of American Muslims were born here. And more American Muslims are of South Asian and African descent than Arab, which constitute only one quarter of their numbers. Another quarter consists of African Americans. And is education the untried answer? Your post fails to mention that American Muslims are more educated and affluent than the national average.

Now, if you mean to say that we need to help Arab immigrants assimilate to American culture, well, that’s another thing. If you are saying that Western culture is superior to Arab culture, that changes things quite a bit. I still don’t really agree, but I think that’s the real claim you’re making.

As a side note, you mention female genital mutilation. As you say, FGM is not part of Islam. The Qur’an never mentions it. This is not a religious practice, but a cultural one. It isn’t endemic only to Muslim nations either. Furthermore, changes are already in the works (most notably in Iraq right now) that will illegalize it in some of these nations that traditionally have practiced it. Female oppression seemed tightly wedded to Western culture for at least two millennia, but we’re a little better now. I’d much rather let Islam survive unmolested (but encouraged) to realize for themselves there is a better way. That leads to the question of best how to do that. How can we influence the culture of a people that live thousands of miles away? Well, social media seems to have some effect.

Finally, I don’t know if anyone can make a judgment call about an entire culture and its superiority to another. We just don’t have that kind of objectivity. There may be aspects of another culture that are clearly disadvantageous. But there are aspects of mine that are pure evil too: the pervasiveness of pornography, for example. Our own culture, even traditional culture, is not all that perfect. Elder Scott affirms this when he wrote on rooting out unhealthy cultural norms, “I have found how difficult it is as I work to overcome some of my own incorrect traditions.”

When I think about Western culture, I don’t see us as the bastion of enlightenment. I wonder what you would think of Western culture in the Middle Ages. Or even more recently. One hundred and fifty years ago we condoned slavery. One hundred years ago women could not vote in this country. Fifty years ago minority groups still fought for equality. If we are enlightened, we only caught on recently. If certain cultures that happen to be mostly Muslim need a few years to make the difficult, bewildering step into a new cultural awakening, I’m willing to let them work it out, encouraging all along the way.

My fiancĂ©e works in the field of social change in the Middle East. Her company’s tactic is to use the culture and religion already in place to effect change. For instance, they might point out that FGM is never condoned in the Qur’an, that birth control is actually acceptable. I like this kind of work, for its effectiveness and its respect for the good in every culture. You say you don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater for Western culture. Let’s give all people that same opportunity.

With recent events, it seems change in the Middle East, some that should sound very familiar to enlightened Westerners, gives me great hope for the future of Islam. This from an op ed piece in today’s New York Times: “The narrative about how Arab countries are inhospitable for democracy, how the Arab world is incompatible with modernity — that has been shattered by the courage and vision of so many Tunisians and Egyptians.”

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