In Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11, Bruce Lincoln writes:
“The religion [of the September 11 hijackers] was not a monolithic entity that can be labeled ‘Islam.’ Rather, these men embraced an extremely militant reformulation of maximalist currents within Islam. To be sure, there are those who consider this style of Islam…to be Islam proper…But we need not repeat that error, any more than we must accept their view of the West – America, above all – as monolithically minimalist” (p. 16).
Tasi Perkins: Like many “open-minded” Americans, I agree with Lincoln’s assessment: the destructive actions of these terrorists is not representative of “authentic” Islam. Yet the image of Islam to which the American public is typically exposed – through the media and through the propagation of stereotypes – is remarkably uniform. The stylized depiction of a Muslim in the minds of many well-meaning non-Muslim Americans is someone who is Arab and is at least sympathetic with movements opposed to secularism, consumerism, hedonism, and the residue of European imperialism. This caricature also includes entrenched attitudes regarding gender identity and religious diversity.
Yet while the image of Muslims is monolithic, most Westerners are able to nuance their own identities – I am not merely a Christian but a Protestant, an idealist, a Wesleyan, a particularist, a narrativist, an ecumenist, a post-liberal, etc. I wonder if you, Shahid, might offer us a bit of self-description as well as your sense of how singular Islam really is. This would be very helpful for those of us who have a deep hunch that Islam is a rich, diverse tradition, but who do not have the vocabulary to articulate this heterogeneity. At the same time, you might comment on what, if anything, you consider to be essential to Islam.
Shahid Khan: While Islam can certainly be spoken of in the singular, one should always remember its diversity and its myriad of expressions. The lack of awareness in this respect is problematic to the extent that the image spotlighted in the media and public arena loses sight of the simple fact that Islam is not monolithic. Does it come as a surprise to some of our readers that Islam is as much a Chinese and Tibetan religious phenomenon as it is an Arab one? What about India, a country with over two hundred million Muslims, and the region of the world to which I trace my familial roots? I believe that even the most rudimentary knowledge of these different parts of the Islamic world can help shatter the usual, stereotypical image of Muslims in the English speaking world.
I commend Lincoln for his efforts at understanding terrorist activity done in the name of Islam: that is, terrorists interpret sacred sources (the Koran and ḥadīth) in a “maximalist,” albeit “militant” way. My only contention to Lincoln’s analysis is that it fails to clarify various forms of “maximalist” expressions of faith, which not only account for the majority of Muslims, but are, at times, clearly antithetical to the “militant” form.
TP: You have raised two interrelated points. First, the focus on Arab Muslims in the news and entertainment media certainly influences the subconscious sense that many Westerners have of Muslims. The recent unrest – violent and nonviolent – in the “Arab Spring” (Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Lybia, Syria, Bahrain, etc.) only further solidifies the Western image of Muslims (especially Muslim males, as they dominate the media coverage). For many Westerners, therefore, the existence of non-Arab Muslims is more propositional than visceral. I wonder both what you think could help to reinforce on a deep level the wonderful diversity within Islam and whether you think that anything is essential to the descriptor “Muslim.”
Second, this term “maximalist” seems helpful presently. As a devout Christian who does not identify with ideologies like “fundamentalism,” “conservatism,” and “dispensationalism,” I often find it difficult to describe myself. Western society seems to demand that “Christians” be either conservative – politically, socially, and theologically – or nominal. One feels compelled to choose between wholeheartedly committing to a conservative interpretation of the Gospel and compartmentalizing one’s religious and secular modi operandi. I am prepared to do neither, so I might call myself a Christian maximalist. Are there parallel pressures within Muslim cultures, and if so, how do you think that the “non-militant maximalists” can come to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of their beholders?
SK: As to the first of your questions: as you have already indicated in your introductory remarks, it is integral to pay particular attention to this point about the influence of the media / entertainment industry. Perhaps, the media / entertainment resource is the most effective way to reinforce diversity within the Islamic tradition, though that is much easier said than done, and requires something akin to a paradigm shift. The descriptor “Muslim,” or literally “one who submits” (to God), is integral inasmuch as it is a widespread self-referential term, which also indicates a significant meaning associated with the religion itself. Be that as it may, all technical terms require qualification, and “Muslim” is no exception. According to a traditional scheme commonly known as the ḥadīth of Gabriel, “submission” (islām) is but one step in the hierarchy of belief, subordinate to “faith” (īmān), and the highest deed, which is “performing acts which are beautiful” (iḥsān).
Therefore, a “Muslim,” technically and hypothetically speaking, could be a “minimalist;” it could refer to a socialist or a secularist, a liberal or democratic; but this does not exclude the possibility that a “maximalist” could uphold similar ideals, in which case it is safe to say that Muslim cultures do have some parallels to Western Christendom. Precisely how non-militant “maximalists” are to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the beholders is beyond my capacity to comment on, though I would say that it depends on their receptivity.
TP: In pointing to the broader dimensions of faith and ethics you make the point that Islam is about much more than detached or blind “submission.” Western perception of the relationship between Islam and a just, moral public order strikes me as a case-in-point of rational understanding colliding with prejudices. Many Westerners can likely articulate, if crudely, the great heritage of egalitarianism, social justice, emancipation, and communal responsibility indigenous to the Islamic tradition. At the same time, many of these same Westerners might harbor deep and unarticulated suspicions that Shariʿa is necessarily oppressive, that Islam trails behind the West in promoting the dignity of women and religious minorities, and that there is something “medieval” or “puritanical” about Islamic morality.
Along those lines, you suggest that Western appreciation for “non-militant maximalist Islam” depends not on the cultivation of this category within the Muslim community (since it already exists and thrives) but rather on Western “receptivity.” For many conservative Western ideologues the Muslim world serves as a convenient scapegoat. By creating a demonized Other these commentators are able to distract their audiences from more internally divisive issues. But Islam becomes more than a straw man, for real violence against Muslims (Michael Enright, Anders Behring Breivik) and alarmist political activities targeting Islam (Congressional radicalization hearings, Swiss minaret ban) emerge from this demonization. Do you think that there is hope for receptivity other than in the assumption of a new collective “enemy?”
SK: The idea that Islam functions as scapegoat in order to distract the public is very perceptive on your part. Could this straw man construct also have other uses, i.e., political tools affecting and influencing the American psyche? I think many would answer this with an emphatic “yes.” The demonization of Islam, or of any religious / ethnic group for that matter, often functions as a means to more nefarious ends. However, the consequences of demonizing Islam, as you have pointed out, bring us to another issue. By connecting the dots between the demonization of a group and the eruption of violence of that same group, one can assume that the two are inextricably linked, and therefore this could hardly function as a point of departure for receptivity: this is destructive, not constructive.
In many ways, the Western appreciation of “traditional” Islam requires a proper disposition on its part, one that respects cultural and religious differences. This does not mean that Islam and the West do not share similar or even identical ethical codes and principle values; rather, this means that at times Islam and the West do not see eye-to-eye in certain respects. The aim of this receptivity, at least as I see it, seeks to understand that which is foreign or unfamiliar. I am of the opinion that both Islam and the West value this ideal as an objective in and of itself. My hope, and to a larger extent my experience, of this noble aspiration towards understanding, has been fostered to a large degree by the educational system.
Tasi Perkins is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church and a third-year Ph.D. candidate in Theological and Religious Studies at Georgetown University. He earned a B.S. from Cornell University (Statistics and Biometry) and an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School, and completed a year of Th.D. work at Boston University.