When the word “Muslim” is in the news lately, it’s often connected with the word “terrorist.” A group of experts gathered recently at the University of Wisconsin to grapple with this problem and to promote a more nuanced view.
“The ratcheted-up attention paid to radical Islamists,” and skewed mainstream media coverage of Islam inspired the panel, according to Professor Charles Cohen, director of the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions.
“Islam has no monopoly historically on violence,” he added. Nor is “true Islam” what radical fundamentalists say it is.
UW Professor Michael Chamberlain, an expert on the history of Islam, disputed the idea that Muslims of different countries and cultures are monolithic.
“Islam in the Middle East is seen as an operating manual for all Muslims,” he said. “You will understand it all if you understand Islam, the thinking goes.”
He also cautioned audience members not to draw conclusions from the current sectarian turmoil in the Middle East.
“In most places through history, the Shias and the Sunnis have existed fine alongside each other,” Chamberlain said in response to a query about why the two sects of Islam seem to be at each other’s throats. “In the modern world, militant, politicized movements have redefined politics. This is not a revenge of the medieval world.”
UW Professor Asifa Quraishi-Landes, an Islamic legal scholar, said there is a fundamental Western misconception about the nature of Islam itself.
“The Eurocentric understanding of Islamic law is that it is monolithic and encoded like the Catholic Church,” she said. “But there is no clerical establishment, and so no one is authorized to speak on behalf of Muslims. Islamic law is inherently diverse, and this is not known even by Muslims.”
This has led to a lot of confusion, she said. The argument that there should be a “reformation” in Islam akin to Martin Luther’s break from the Catholic Church is misguided.
“The notion of Muslim theocracy being embedded in Muslim government misunderstands Muslim history, since there has been no equivalent of the church in Islam, and so there’s no separation of mosque and state,” she added.
Imam Hamza Maqbul of the Muslim Association of Greater Rockford made a fervent defense of having people in the field, such as himself, speak out on the subject of Islam, instead of scholars on campuses.
The angst over Islam’s image was palpable. An audience member said that he counseled young Muslim-American boys, and unlike when he himself was young, the major concern of these boys was terrorism and how it was affecting the image of Islam in the country. What can they do about this, he asked the panel.
“They need to put their best face forward, and counter this media representation by engaging in service within their communities,” replied Quraishi-Landes. “The best antidote is at the human level.”
Amitabh Pal is managing editor of The Progressive and the author of 'Islam Means Peace': Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today.