Notes From Babel

Archive for the ‘Islam’ Category

Multiculturalism and the moral order

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This story reminds that there is a great potential friendship between conservatives and Muslims when it comes to instilling positive values in our children, and resisting the trend to secularism.  Here’s an excerpt, though I recommend reading the whole piece:

Then I looked across the school playground and saw a Muslim mother, the mother of my daughter’s best friend, holding her headscarf in place with her hands as the wind blew about restlessly. I caught her eye for a moment and we smiled at each other. Before this moment, I had never thought that my situation in any shape or form was similar to that of a Muslim mother. And I had never thought seriously about talking to a Muslim mother about issues of faith or raising children in our community. But now I was beginning to reconsider. Perhaps our Muslim fellow citizens, especially those who are spiritually and intellectually confident in their ways of life, can challenge and inspire us to reflect more deeply on our own faith and morality, and perhaps in the process we might discover that we share some of the same moral principles and hopes and dreams for our children.

We always hear so much about the things that separate Muslims from Christians (and no doubt there are things that do separate us), and often these differences are expressed in negative and prejudiced ways. I wonder if our misunderstandings and misconceptions prevent some of us from trusting and forming spiritual bonds and friendships with those who are confronting some of the very same challenges that we confront. I live in a community where many of my moral views about sexuality, marriage, and the family are in the minority. Sometimes they are challenged (respectfully and disrespectfully), and every now and again someone agrees with them, but often they are simply dismissed. Like my daughter, I’m comforted to know that there is someone else with whom I share similar experiences (and perhaps a moral view or two).

There is, perhaps, a different brand of multiculturalism that underscores rather than undermines the moral order.  It’s a shame that many conservatives have written off American Muslims because of disagreements on certain narrow political or foreign policy views, when we really have so much to agree on.


Written by Tim Kowal

March 18, 2011 at 12:58 am

Forged in War

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In Michael Barone’s piece in the latest edition of the Claremont Review of Books, he reviews Thomas Bruscino’s A Nation Forged in War: How World War II Taught Americans How to Get Along.  Some of the figures Barone relays are interesting.  While Hollywood’s habit of putting a colorful Brooklyn loudmouth in every war movie may seem unbelievable, in fact, nearly 3 of every 50 Americans in the 1940s was from one of New York’s five boroughs.   For all their atrocities, the 20th century’s wars united America’s disparate and bickering races and religions in a common story and purpose.  America’s various peoples were put into a common uniform and given standard issue weapons and supplies, and made to rely on each other in the worst of all possible conditions.  Barone describes the profound impact of Bruscino’s story of four chaplains of different faiths, including Jewish, sacrificing their life jackets to their troops and praying together as their torpedoed ship sank in the North Atlantic.  As a result of the shared experiences of America’s formerly disparate peoples, America was a more united and harmonious nation after 1945.

Certainly, war is not the only sort of experience that can bring Americans together.  But it is hard to imagine a more powerful and fast-acting one.  I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that there are few war stories that involve Muslims as our American brothers-in-arms.  Quite the opposite, in fact, in this age of the War on Terror.  I also wondered about the tendency of Muslims to enlist in the U.S. military.  According to the NY Sun in 2006:

Out of the 1.4 million service men and women serving actively in the American military, an estimated 3,700 are Muslim, according to the Department of Defense.

The Wall Street Journal puts the number at 3,409 as of April 2008, according to Pentagon statistics. This comes to about a quarter of a percent.  Since many Muslims choose not to indicate their religion upon enlistment, the actual number is estimated to be up to three times higher, approximately 10,000, or just under three-fourths of a percent.

Compare this with the percentage of Muslims in the U.S. population at large.  Pew Research Center puts the number of U.S. Muslims at 2.5 million in 2009, putting Muslims at about 0.8% of the total U.S. population.  Thus, it would appear that Muslims are actually enrolling in the military at a higher rate than their proportion of the general population.  This is commendable, I think.

Written by Tim Kowal

January 19, 2011 at 12:05 am

The Muslim PR Problem

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Here are some of my take-away thoughts from the Federalist Society discussion today on the big three current issues concerning America’s tense relationship with Islam:  Koran burning, the Oklahoma Sharia law, and the Ground Zero Mosque.

First, the idea that the Muslim community center planned for development at Park51 might be the result of pure intentions is simply not credible for many Americans.  As a colleague observed, either Abdul Rauf & co. are akin to the nuns at Auschwitz, or they are truly trying to extend the olive branch and advance the cause of Muslim goodwill.  It is hard to believe the latter given the divisiveness of the project.

Professor Larry Rosenthal, under whom I studied First Amendment law and criminal procedure at Chapman, makes a strong case for permitting the Park51 project.  There is little question the Constitution protects the right to develop the mosque.  The more perplexing problem, however, is how we deal with prevailing American attitudes about Muslims and Islam.  Rosenthal emphasized that there is no shortage of examples in our history of Americans “overreacting” to perceived problems with other religious and racial groups.  We were once confident that Jews—“Christ-killers”—could not be assimilated into our predominately Christian culture.  And yet today we proudly proclaim our “Judeo-Christian values.”  We overreacted to Japanese-Americans during WWII and, on the basis of security concerns, indiscriminately interned them without a shred of evidence of any Japanese-Americans abetting the Japanese war effort.  From these sorts of examples, Rosenthal argues that we have every reason to distrust our intuitions about races, cultures, and religions that may seem strange and foreign to us today.  It is within our power to “choose” not to be offended at the Park51 project and, Rosenthal urged, we ought to so choose.

There is something to this argument.  Certainly, we have to be cautious not to repeat mistakes we’ve already made.  And the Park51 project seems innocuous enough—it’s just a community center, after all.  And it’s not even physically at “Ground Zero.”  It’s at an old Burlington Coat Factory two blocks away, near two strip clubs and a lingerie store, among other things.

In fact, the whole thing seems like such a non-issue that this itself becomes an issue:  Why are Americans so apoplectic about what seems like such an innocuous project?

My theory is that Muslims are simply bad at PR.  Consider two other religions with rocky starts in American culture, Mormons and Jews.  Mormons gave up polygamy long ago as a condition for gaining statehood in Utah.  Jews spun off the Reformed Judaism movement in large part to advance their ability to assimilate and gain acceptance among Americans.  In so doing, both groups have gained wide acceptance in American culture.  Muslims, on the other hand, still tend to be somewhat monolithic.  While American Muslims are probably much more moderate than Muslims in other parts of the world.  And Americans certainly want to believe this.  Yet, few seem to grasp whether or what formal or doctrinal differences exist between “our” Muslims and the Sharia-embracing chauvinistic Muslims of Saudi Arabia, for instance.

And still, it is not American Muslims who seem to be leading the charge in advancing a new nomenclature that would readily distinguish themselves from their crazy counterparts.  Instead, it is good-hearted Americans who want so badly to believe that true Muslims, American Muslims, their Muslims, are actually more a part of American culture than some mysterious “Muslim culture.”  So we come up with words like “Islamofascism” and “radical Islam” in order to conceptually distinguish the loony Muslims from the real Muslims.  This need to make sense of the difference between the true Islam and the hijacked Islam is so strong that it played itself out on live television a couple weeks ago.  The poor ladies on The View were so overcome with their own overinflated political correctness that they walked off their own stage when Bill O’Reilly stated that “Muslims killed us on 9/11.”  The implication is obvious:  anyone describing that kind of Muslim must not fail to so designate, e.g., by using one of our neologisms like “radical Muslim.”  But why is it that Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar are leading this charge?  This, in my view, should be a bit of an embarrassment for American Muslims.

There is also the sense that American Muslims are much too measured in their condemnation of terrorism.  I grant the issue of terrorism is not often enough addressed in the broader historical, sociological, and political context that it warrants.  So when a Muslim is asked “do you condemn Hamas,” I think the reluctance to give an unequivocal “yes” owes to the fact that while terrorism is indeed awful and unforgiveable, Muslims more than ordinary Americans want to urge a level of understanding as to why it exists.  In this sense, the implication seems to be that if we strive to understand why Hamas employs terrorism, we might understand that, while it goes astray from time to time, it does not deserve to be condemned wholesale.

This is a fine academic exercise.  As an undergraduate, I studied some of the psychological and sociological causes for the rise of Nazism and the German people’s acceptance of the persecution and attempted genocide of the Jews.  But the vast majority of the time, it suffices merely to condemn Nazism and genocide as unequivocally evil and move along.  There is a causal explanation for everything if we care to look for it hard enough.  But it strikes ordinary Americans as conspicuous when their Muslim counterparts try so hard to “understand” terrorists.  It might even strike Americans as something of a duty to condemn terrorists.  The time for critical analysis and sociological inquiry can occur in another forum; when plainly asked whether one condemns an organization that employs terrorism, the answer should be, simply, “yes.”

So these were some of my take-aways from the riveting discussion today.  I think Americans would be willing to let things like the Park51 project remain the non-issues they should be, if only they had greater assurance and understanding from the American Muslim community what they are all about.  What are American Muslims thoughts on sharia?  On theocracy?  On women’s rights?  This information is available to those who seek it, but those who would seek it don’t tend to be the cranks banging on pots and pans.

All that said, here’s a pretty uplifting music video by Lena Khan, a female Muslim filmmaker.  The song is by a Muslim country singer named Kareem Salama.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 1, 2010 at 12:30 am

Great Video About American Muslims

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Written by Tim Kowal

May 15, 2010 at 10:05 am

Posted in Islam

Advice to American Muslims

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I had a talk once with my Muslim friend, who was frustrated that Americans still don’t seem to accept Muslims into their culture, particularly in comparison to Jews, for example.  I suggested the first of the following suggestions below, and recently thought of some more.

1. American Muslims ought to be more upset about terrorism than anyone.  9/11 was a calculated attack against Americans, so American Muslims ought to be at least as upset as any other American.  And terrorism casts aspersions on Muslims’ religion and inhibits their acceptance into the American mainstream.  In other words, the social and psychological effects of terrorism hurt Muslims in America more than anyone else.  They ought to be leading the charge against the violence done either in the name of Islam or with its supposed blessing, by offering clear, forceful rebuttals to arguments suggesting the Koran endorses and/or mandates these atrocities.  There have been lots of wackos purporting to follow some brand of Christianity who wind up brainwashing and murdering lots of otherwise good folks.  The idea is to explain these people were off the reservation, following nothing like true Christianity and instead made up their own cockamamie doctrine, and were, well, wackos.  American Muslims need to do something similar.

Instead, a common response from American Muslims to this point has been a cool-headed psychoanalysis of terrorists, suggesting that while terrorism is to be flatly denounced, we ought to understand what has pushed them to this point.  But while there is indeed some interesting stuff here for the head-shrinkers, no one wants to hear the “I feel your pain” trope when it comes to those driving planes into our buildings yelling “Allahu Akbar.”  No one wants to talk about how we ought to peer into the subtle and complex inner workings of the terrorist mind so that we might understand his pain.  This is not to say we can’t ask those questions.  But when these sorts of sentiments dominate one’s thinking on the issue of terrorism, one comes off as entirely disengaged from the reality of the subject and wholly out of step with the rest of America.

2.  Somewhat less severe yet symbolically significant, American Muslims ought to be come out and condemn burkas. Modesty is fine.  In fact, American Muslims’ strong commitment to traditional moral values put them in the mainstream of conservative Americans.  But burkas are problematic in a number of ways.  Legally, they ostensibly pose a problem of state incursions into religious practices, such as when burka-wearers would purport to testify at trial.  There are also obvious security implications where a fashion custom prevents a person from being recognized.

Simply as a matter of custom, however, they’re weird.  At the outlet mall a couple of weeks ago I passed a couple of of burkas, who were apparently doing some shopping.  Though I couldn’t directly tell, I assumed there must have been people inside of them, judging by the general cut and surface area of the textile, and intuiting that the propulsion of a five-foot tall drape along the sidewalk at midday was best explained by positing some manner of anthropoid lurking about in the contents.  Even the little eyes peering out were difficult to discern, as the accompanying custom of burka wearers is to avoid eye contact.  (I imagine an enterprising fellow might think to introduce a periscope to the general design.)  Even diversity-loving, kumbaya-singing free spirits should be able to admit it’s off-putting.  Moreover, I am given to understand the burkas have nothing to do with Islam as a religion, but rather with certain regional customs.  Cultural tolerance is fine, but let’s encourage the home team Muslims to accelerate these new folks’ assimilation.  Americans like their beer cold, their TV loud, and their people with faces.

3. With respect to more current events, American Muslims ought to be deeply troubled that South Park and Comedy Central—the program and network who broadcast a single episode featuring the word “shit” in 162 separate instances—finally succumbed to censorship in its 201st episode, apparently due to to this warning/threat from an American convert to Islam featuring an image of the murdered and bleeding body of Theo Van Gogh.  There is something to be said for the sacking of our entertainment by those who find it easy to obtain laughs simply by pushing the envelope.  This, perhaps, is the cost of inexpensive production and distribution of culture.  (Though, I do admit, I find South Park hilarious.)  But one would like to think that it goes without saying that “culture war” is just an expression.  Aside from furthering the impression that the religion is intrinsically violent, the South Park matter just makes Islam seem deeply lame.

4. This leads to my final suggestion.  Given there are so many reasons Islam has left such a bad impression on Americans, it is lamentable that American Muslims are so uniquely awful in not only failing to seem to care about that negative impression, but that they are so disproportionately concerned with America’s relationship with Israel.  Without going into a big thing about it, I will say that I understand the skepticism over our foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel.  I read Walt and Mearsheimer’s book.  It seemed to make some sense.  But that’s neither here nor there.  No one likes a Johnny-one-note.  American Muslims need to get off the hobby horse and get concerned about some other causes, too.


[UPDATE: A friend forwarded me this article, entitled “Changing the Muslim conversation.”  While it contains perfectly valid points, it is nonetheless indicative of the problems I discuss above—namely, that American Muslims are far too disengaged from the cultural and ethical battles that the rest of America takes up with boundless enthusiasm.

So why, I ask you, is Abou Talha Al-Amreeki not written off as just another lunatic? Are his blue eyes and flowing brown beard giving him credibility even though Revolution Muslim has all of 12 followers? Muslims in general and the media in particular are misdirected. The ones offended by South Park must choose their battles, no pun intended. The media, following journalistic ethics, ought to do basic homework and interview representative organisations such as CAIR, Council of American-Islamic Relations and MPAC, Muslim Public Affairs Council, or individuals of scholarly credentials such as Dr Sherman Jackson, Dr Akbar Ahmed of American University or Dalia Mogahed (former President Obama’s adviser on Muslim relations), among many others all across North America.

Incidents like South Park unnecessarily endanger us all. Together we can change that if we alter the interaction by marginalising the violent and discoursing with the deserved. And, of course, keeping response to offence in perspective.

This advice—that American Muslims’ message ought to wait on journalists getting around to talking to Muslim religious scholars and policy wonks—is precisely the opposite of what is needed.  This advice suggests that American Muslims perhaps really aren’t all that upset that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are kept from drawing Muhammad snorting coke (as they did with Buddha) or watching internet porn (as they did with Jesus).  Instead, offer up a cool, reasoned, white paper reaffirming that the official position that violence is bad, but don’t get more exercised about the whole thing than absolutely necessary.]

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Written by Tim Kowal

April 29, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Posted in Culture, Islam

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Islam Is Not Islamism

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I take Krauthammer’s side in this debate with Mark Steyn regarding Geert Wilders.  In simplified terms, Wilders believes that there is no distinction between Islam and radical Islam.  Or, perhaps the difference for Wilders is between Islam and fake, watered down Islam.  I’m no scholar of Islam, so I cannot engage the debate at the level of discussing what “true” Islam is.  But I have spent a good deal of time studying what it means to have a consistent worldview, and the conclusion I’ve reached is that few if anyone has a truly and thoroughly consistent one.  And we are often faced with examples of where strict adherence to a worldview may lead to grisly results.  Christianity, or certain variations, for example, view abortion as murder, and thus might justify or even compel violence in preventing it. Obviously, most of us are thankful that adherents to such worldviews decline the urge to practice strict consistency.

Similarly, as I have suggested before (e.g., here and here), a consistently practiced purely secular worldview would lead to absolute relativism—not only on moral issues, but on every other kind of truth, be it abstract or concrete.  Now, secularists certainly don’t agree with me about that.  And this is a somewhat lofty, metaphysical debate, still carried on hopefully in good faith, and usually in the context of debates in universities or in academic journals or, ahem, in blogs.  At any rate, I certainly wouldn’t go around insisting that the rest of the world treat my position on the debate as a foregone conclusion.

I suggest the same goes for Geert Wilders.  He’s entitled to his view, but his is not a foregone conclusion, or a widely accepted conclusion, or even much of a respected conclusion.  It is still in the R&D stage, so to speak.  It may be the topic for stimulating discussion and debate on university campuses and whatnot, but one should tread awfully lightly before using it as a launching-off point for crafting new legal or social policy.

Written by Tim Kowal

March 9, 2010 at 11:52 pm

UCI’s Muslim Student Union Association Embarrasses Themselves

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I have long been sympathetic to Muslims in America and in favor of a more balanced conversation when it comes to Israel and the Middle East.  All the more reason the behavior of the Muslim Student Union at UCI is such an embarrassment.

By the way, Michael Oren’s Power, Faith and Fantasy is a worthwhile primer on U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

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Written by Tim Kowal

February 9, 2010 at 11:08 pm