The Common Good
May-June 1997

A Place Apart

by Julie Polter | May-June 1997

In the midst of contradictions, challenges, and divisions, Western believers and Muslims meet.

I was in Cairo, attending the first day of a conference on the interactions between the West and Islam. Most of us had taken our box lunches to the concrete terrace outside the hotel meeting room. Jet-lagged, dazed, and blinking in the desert sun, I found myself struggling to open the screwtop cap on a bottle of mango drink, to the amusement of my lunch companions.

"Just say the name of God and twist," said a Muslim scholar, her eyes twinkling.

"Yes, just like Islam does to the West," observed the Egyptian professor sitting at my side.

It was a joke among believers, as I knew myself and the two people teasing me to be. We are not believers in identical ways, nor readers of the same sacred text. But the mere fact of faith in God, and knowing that our faith shapes our view of reality, gave me a sense of affinity with these Muslim colleagues that as a Christian American woman I didn’t necessarily expect to find.

This is not an article about how a shared sense of the transcendent might help us all get along. A long, bloody global history of religion-fueled conflicts testifies that nothing is that simple.

But during several days of discussing globalization, human rights, secularism, democracy, and a host of other topics and subtopics concerning the relations between the West and Islam (as part of a group of both Westerners and Muslims), I kept returning to that small sense of affinity-despite-difference. It was a calm point, utterly real, in the midst of contradictions, challenges, and divisions that are also utterly real.

Belief, whether it ultimately brings us together or brings us to the fork in the road where we part ways, comes with certain responsibilities. For Christians, it puts us under the command to love our neighbors, not love as good-feeling or sentiment, but in a biblical sense: recognition of, service to, sacrifice for, walking with, hospitality toward. It is extremely difficult to love people who we treat as invisible or ignore until the next terrorist bombing or overseas scuffle over oil.

Muslims are our neighbors—not just in the sense of the so-called global village, but perhaps just down the street if your home is in a U.S. metropolitan area. An estimated 4.6 to 5 million Muslims live in the United States and Canada.

A friend of mine shares an apartment with an American-born Muslim woman. One of a co-worker’s best friends, an Iranian immigrant, passionately returned to active Muslim practice a couple of years ago. Walking through a Northern Virginia department store, I realize from the head-coverings worn by several women (ranging from silk floral scarves carefully covering all hair to a full-length black robe and veil that revealed only the woman’s eyes) that I’m shopping alongside three different Muslim families.

BEFORE THIS CONFERENCE I probably knew more than most average Americans about Islam and its relation to history and geopolitics. Which is frightening, because I knew almost nothing. I was familiar enough with the general limitations of our media to know that stories about Muslims or Islamic countries might present stereotypes and fail to provide in-depth context. Still, the first things that would come to my mind if someone said "Islam" would be terrorist actions here and abroad by Muslim extremists, and repression, human rights abuses (especially toward women), and martial law enacted in the name of Islam by governments in places such as Afghanistan or Sudan.

Real events bring those negative images to my mind. But "non-militant" Muslims might also disagree vehemently with the actions of such extremists. Islam holds all of reality—social, spiritual, physical, political—as a whole, with the parts never being pulled out of dynamic relationship with one another. It is not an apologia for abuse to remember that those we call militants are distending and distorting a specific area of that comprehensive web.

What is difficult for Westerners to understand is how "moderate" Muslims might view the West as a threat equal or greater than militancy. From this side of a divide that is not so much geographic as cultural and economic, we can’t necessarily comprehend the strain placed on the web of Islamic life by the legacy of colonialism, driving globalization, inconsistencies in political dealings, economic domination and manipulation, an emphasis on the individual, and biases based on faith and ethnicity.

At the end of the day, some things that many Muslims would consider to be matters of culture and religious law we will consider to be infringements on basic human rights or real barriers to democracy. But this assessment cannot be made solely on the basis of negative media images of Islam; depth of field is vital.

Islam is not a monolith. There are more than 60 majority-Muslim countries, from Morocco in the west to Indonesia in the east. Islam has affected, and been affected by, those different cultures in vastly different ways.

Likewise, the history of encounters between the West and those countries is varied. Sometimes the Western colonial powers invaded, sometimes they were tacitly invited in by rulers seeking political coalitions or economic and technological succor. Colonial powers came to predominantly Muslim countries with an insistence on the superiority of Western thought and culture, that symbiotic and often self-contradictory Greek and Judeo-Christian blend.

Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Mason University, describes how Christian mission schools, more than communicating the gospel, ended up being the conduit for transferring a secularized Western mindset and philosophy to the elite of many Muslim countries. A gospel of modernism and progress replaced religious faith. In countries such as Egypt and Pakistan, 80 to 90 percent of the wealthiest citizens attend mission schools.

For less-educated Muslims who place great value on their faith and for members of the educated class who choose to reacquaint themselves with, and reinvigorate, Islam, the West—and by extension, Christianity—is often blamed for secularized leaders who don’t abide by the faith and yet hold power over the faithful.

The most volatile and deadly manifestations of the tensions with "Western" culture may be within certain Muslim countries, intertwined with the specific economic, class, and ethnic divisions within those places. In Egypt there have been two recent massacres of Coptic Christians by Muslim extremists. A top Egyptian Muslim cleric describes these extremists as having "renounced divine teachings," because the Quran not only calls for co-existence with Jews and Christians, but active protection of them from harm. But Christians (or tourists) are prime targets for such militants in part because they are seen to represent economic domination and because such attacks draw intense negative publicity to the Egyptian government, which is trying to eliminate militants.

One Muslim law scholar has noted that most governments, in the West or in Islamic countries, find self-preservation more important than truly dealing with cultural and historical realities. In some Muslim countries, religious parties are excluded from legal participation in the system for fear of clerical rule and the unleashing of what is presumed to be an always irrational faithful.

But in countries where Islamist parties have been allowed to participate in the government, it is evident that some of the most radical edges get dulled in the give and take of governing. And the Muslim faithful, when given a vote, don’t support Islamic rulers blindly, but in terms of their effectiveness.

According to Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, the imam, the one who is to lead the umma (community) on the right path, "is owed obedience (ta‘a) only if he is just (‘adil)," which means following a path prescribed in the Quran. (Shari‘a, the divine law for life, also means "the road.") Western-style democracy is often rejected or viewed suspiciously by Muslims because democracy, with its emphasis on individual freedom, recognizes no prescribed path to be followed—not because the concept of the consent of the ruled is foreign to Islamic thought.

Heba Ra’uf Ezzat, a doctoral candidate in political science at Cairo University and a speaker at this conference, has described (in Middle East Report) consulting people—shura—as the main Islamic dynamic within the political process. "We have shura like the West has democracy," she says.

Yet for many in the West, any political philosophies based on Islam, even arguments for a form of democracy, are the problem. The refusal of Islam to separate God from government or the sacred from the secular spheres is a conundrum and threat. In the most extreme reactions against Islam, the repression and martial law enacted, for example, by Taliban (Islamist zealots who last year took control of Afghanistan) is given as the inevitable result of an Islamic model.

IT WOULD BE AN oversimplification to assert that Islam says "Allah" and the West says "Coca Cola." Some in Islamic countries flock to the global marketplace and some in the West resist and protest the commodification of life. But globalization is seen by many in the Islamic world as a functional successor to colonialism, continuing its culture- and economy-destroying work.

A huge "United Colors of Benetton" billboard looms over Sharia Shalah Salem, a main road winding around the outskirts of Cairo. On the right is the Citadel, a large fortress built in 1179 by the Kurdish general Salah el-Din. To the left is a necropolis, acres of burial tombs built in Egyptian custom with small houses on top, many of which became home to the living refugees of the 1948 and 1967 wars. But the Benetton ad dominates the horizon.

In Egypt the unemployment rate is 21 percent, the average annual income is about $700, and the climate ranges from warm to searing. Given the setting, the Benetton message of global harmony through overpriced sweaters is laughable. And disturbing. Some would say that the dangling of goods in front of people who will never be able to afford them is a form of terrorism in its own right. Islam has a strong, inherent impulse toward social justice and economic egalitarianism, so tension with the global marketplace is nearly inevitable.

Western countries as well are impacted by the excesses of global mass culture and the economic insecurity caused by free-range corporations, and may be no more able to control them. How do you resist or regulate multinationals that exist largely outside the reach of any government or the moderating influences of specific cultures?

SOONER OR LATER, all global discussions need to find something small and concrete to which to tether theory. The veil is sign and stereotype, the most visible symbol of what Westerners consider to be Islam’s oppression of women. It both is of a piece with the real issues and diverts from them. It is a handle by which to begin to grasp how a devout Muslim woman who considers herself to be a woman liberationist locates herself within the community of believers.

Heba Ra’uf Ezzat wears a long robe over a "Western" blouse, skirt, and pumps. White cloth covers her entire head, circling her face, coming down in a white cape that covers her shoulders and arms, extending beyond her fingertips. She wears the veil because the Quran calls for a covered head and long, modest dress.

Ezzat sees it as a means of liberation, not oppression: "What I want is more freedom and justice for women," she says. "In all spheres, a woman is fellow believer, an equal, not subordinate." The veil, she argues, neutralizes women’s sexuality in the public sphere, making clear that they are citizens—not sexual objects.

She also cites the power of the veil in reducing social and economic differences: A woman at her mosque had no idea that Ezzat was an educated woman, a teacher; she suggested that her son, a taxi driver, would be a good husband. Ezzat says she considers a Muslim man in an Armani suit to be as out of line with the modesty called for by Islam as a woman in revealing clothing.

A man counters that the Muslim women he knows in Britain complain that the veil makes them invisible. They are not recognized as citizens, or as human beings, or as being. Other stories are told, of militants in some countries who threaten to throw acid in the faces of women who are not sufficiently covered.

I find myself both empathizing with Heba and resisting her line of argument. Both religious and secular attempts at women’s liberation have to deal with the underlying cultural problem of objectification, dehumanizing a female person because she is female—not as seductively dressed or showing her forearms, but for being.

To counter that pervasive denial of their humanity, women of faith who seek liberation in the world may first need to root themselves and the integrity of their being, voice, and faith outside the world, in the very Power of the universe. Spiritual reality may give the strength to struggle for and believe in the possibility of real justice in religious or secular institutions. This can be almost nonsensical both to other believers who have reduced God to the limits of their own sexism and to non-believers who see religion only as a tool of oppression.

Ezzat commented, "I don’t believe that God wants to humiliate me as a woman." She holds the Quran and sunna (the tradition of the Prophet) as normative for her, and so seeks to change the practice of the faith from within, not as an assault from outside. Other orthodox Muslims may reject her interpretation of tradition, and secularists may reject her for claiming Islam at all.

Everyone wants to talk about the veil. She wants to talk about the women behind the veil, who should be full political participants because of, not in spite of, their faith. This is her broader goal: "economic and political liberation [for all] from the colonialism of the new capitalist world order."

EVERY DAY AT THE conference, a Muslim colleague quietly excused herself after lunch to go pray before the afternoon session. It was a movement (physical, countercultural, spiritual) that I recognized and respected, and understood as fitting in the midst of debates on political theory and cultural trends.

Five times a day, from mosques around Cairo, the call to prayer sounds and echoes from the public address systems and countless minarets. The call to prayer could be a warning, for it is as resonant and insistent as a foghorn in the night. Streets are dust and bustle, a cacophony of buying and selling, donkey carts and massive traffic jams of cars and trucks, people in hijab and galabeahs, tight jeans and tennis shoes. The world is material, inescapable grit and honking.

The call to prayer rises from it, then hovers above, swelling and sustained, both adding to the chaos and calling the faithful to a place apart. A place apart, or a place deeper.

In February 1997, Julie Polter was a participant in "The West and Islam: Clashpoints and Dialogues," in Cairo, Egypt. The gathering was organized by the London-based 21st Century Trust, which sponsors conferences on a range of global issues.

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