Yesterday and today I've been reading a library book called AMERICAN ISLAM: The Struggle For The Soul Of A Religion by Paul M. Barrett (a former reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal). This book is temporarily taking the place of Karen Armstrong's book, The Battle For God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, because it is overdue and I have to return it. (I do that, bring home three or four books that look interesting and then leave them lying around, reading a little here and there and then bringing them back late--but not too late.) Armstrong starts her book in 1492 in Spain with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (Catholics) taking over Granada "the last Muslim stronghold in Christendom" and then signing "the Edict of Expulsion, designed to rid Spain of its Jews, who were given the choice of baptism or deportation." (p.3) She goes on to write about the insane prejudice against Jewish people, including the Spanish Inquisition as well as what Jewish people did (convert, leave or die) and what philosophy they held onto during all of this. And I imagined how horrified Jesus would have been to see these "Christians" attacking his own people. And I also thought the God of the Jews is the same God of the Christians, common sense says that that should act as a bond and balm but NO, it is selectively ignored and instead of brotherhood there is enmity. So many Jews fled and where did they flee? To Muslim countries where they were treated civilly.
Then I read in Mr. Barrett's book, which takes place within the last few years primarily, that many Muslims, American and otherwise, despise Jews because of the formation of Israel. These Muslims are openly, almost proudly racist which is NOT to say that many Israelis aren't just as prejudiced in return. (Somewhere in the night I hear two raccoons fighting...) And I keep thinking with such frustration: "ONE GOD" Just as the Jewish God IS the Christian God, so the Jewish God IS the Muslim God. It's the Judeo/Christian/Islamic God. Jehovah and Allah are one, just as all people are one because we all share the exact same humanity. But again, selective ignorance prevails. Can all this be about territoriality and tribalism? This is MY land and MY people and MY God, these are MY rights and the rest of you can (literally) GO TO HELL! In this context love your enemies doesn't fit does it? No, not at all. Good guys and bad guys and little in between. But what's the truth? Isn't it that we all have our struggles between being good and being bad? Jews aren't pure, Christians aren't pure and Muslims aren't pure. We are fallible, everyone of us. There are no gods among us.
AMERICAN ISLAM is divided into seven chapters with each chapter following a particular person in a particular role: The Imam, The Activist, The Webmaster, The Publisher, The Mystics, The Scholar and The Feminist. So far I've only read about an African American Imam named Siraj Wahhaj and an American Indian (as in born in India) Muslim feminist, Asra Nomani. An Imam is a revered preacher and Siraj Wahhaj is a very popular American Imam who operates out of Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn but travels all over. Mr. Barrett seems to try to portray the Imam as impartially as possible but in the end judges him for the fundamentalist streak in his sermons, attitudes and associations. Aside from the fundamentalist streak Mr. Wahhaj preaches against using drugs: "'Some brothers here used to sell drugs,' he said. 'It's better to be a poor man!'" He encourages a philosophy of self-help. He deplores homosexuality: "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!" And he sees adultery as worthy of stoning. On the other hand he welcomes male polygamy.
The role of women in most American mosques appears to still be minimal which is why Asra Nomani challenged the male authority in the mosque at Morgantown, West Virginia by refusing to pray in the women's out of the way section. As a journalist she wrote several pieces on the injustice of the male domination of the mosques and organized a protest gathering other female Muslims from different parts of the country. But she did not seem to elicit the support of the local Muslim women and the resistance to her ideas was great in her community, especially, not surprisingly, from the men. What is the logic behind the separation of the sexes during religious services? The logic is that the men feel they would be sexually aroused in close proximity to a woman praying. But all of this seems to be thinly veiled sexism. One member of the mosque said: "' A woman's honor lies in her chastity and her modesty,' he declared. 'When she loses this she is worthless.'" He also said, "Allah created women sensitive and emotional, especially during her menstrual period." But in the case of women praying in a mosque it appears that it is the men who are "sensitive and emotional", unable to control their desires.
In keeping with this theme of sexism I watched a film called NOT WITHOUT MY DAUGHTER with Sally Fields and Alfred Molina. At the opening of the film Sally Field's character has been married to an Iranian doctor living in the U.S. for seven years. They have a five year old daughter. When the doctor encounters discrimination on the job he decides it's time to visit his home in Iran and talks his wife into going. Soon after they get there the husband tells his wife that they will be staying there for good. He takes away her money, has her watched continuously, allows her no phone calls home and even locks her inside on several occassions. The film is based on a true story but the bias is in favor of the U.S. and against the oppressive rule over women in Iran. But the truth is that many, many women, including female Muslims in the U.S. abide strictly to the rules, keeping themselves covered in public and before men that are not part of their families and allowing men to take precedence over them. Change may come but only with the help of Muslim women like Asra Nomani willing to challenge deeply held cultural beliefs about the rights of women. Right now fundamentalism is on the rise and the liklihood of lasting change appears fairly dim. For those women in fundamentalist Muslim cultures there is the threat of domestic violence, violence that is supported by the general population. Fighting such a system seems to me to be nearly impossible,
but my ignorance about Islam is vast and so my ideas are tentative. I'm hoping that Karen Armstrong's book on the origins of fundamentalism will help to clear up any of my misperceptions about Islam. Several months ago I bought a Koran. Maybe I'll find some answers there.