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Ali: What's Different About Islam?

09/09/10 5:55PM By Saleem Ali
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(HOST) A Florida pastor has canceled plans to hold an event to burn copies of the Quran.  But the controversy has commentator and UVM Professor Saleem Ali thinking about Islam and its place in American society today. 

(ALI) As the ninth anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11 approaches, there is a wave of unprecedented fear about Islam that is gripping America. The latest Pew research center poll indicates that 38% of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam.  Columnists such as Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times who try to defend American Muslims are also attacked by a wide spectrum of commentators for being "bleeding hearts" who are giving Islam an easy pass.
 
As an American-Muslim, I consider it my citizen's duty to try and address some of these concerns dispassionately.
 
One of the claims often made is that Muslims are different because of how they treat women.  

There is no doubt that many Muslim societies such as Saudi Arabia continue to have a medieval view of women's rights but this is often just as offensive to other Muslims as it is to non-Muslims.  The diversity of Muslim countries from Indonesia to Morocco suggests that there is a wide range of perspectives on women's rights for the worshipful.  Four Muslim countries have had women as heads of state, including my own country of origin - Pakistan.  The critics respond that these were elite women with family ties to other politicians, but in their mind the same standard doesn't seem to discredit Western women politicians such as the current U.S. secretary of state.

Another differentiation frequently made about Islam is that there are clear verses in the Quran which advocate armed conflict and show scorn towards other Faiths.
Those who are so willing to recite these verses with antipathy should also remember that numerous other Abrahamic scriptures have similar  scathing verses about armed conflict and a dismissal of many racial groups.
 
Perhaps where the difference does arise is that Muslims are less willing to contextualize their scripture in comparison to other Faiths.  They tend to be far more literal in their view of scripture which remains the biggest impediment to reform efforts in places such as Saudi Arabia.  However, this too is slowly changing, partly by young Muslim imams and scholars living in the West.
 
The most frequent refrain which we hear these days by those who fear Islam in America is that it is an evangelical Faith with designs on influencing the American polity.
While the demographic of Muslims in America makes such a prospect virtually impossible, the evangelism of Islam actually makes it a closer match to contemporary American Faiths.  I just returned from a visit to Salt Lake City and saw evangelism in all its American glory at Temple Square.
 
There is nothing wrong with trying to share one's Faith as long as there is no force at play - and indeed the Quran is very clear in an oft-quoted verse which reads in Arabic: "La Ikra-ha fi-deen" - there is no compulsion in religion.

The reformation of religious traditions is a generational struggle. Muslims are immersed in this process just as other Faiths have been.  They need to be helped rather than hindered in this seminal transformation.

(TAG) You can find more commentaries by Saleem Ali at VPR-dot-net.
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