20 November 2004

Reformist Muslims vs. Militant Secularists

Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith, contrasts European and North American attitudes toward religion in a New York Times op-ed:
What then gives me the sense that even modern Muslims can't be modern enough for Western Europe? It's precisely that, from Amsterdam to Barcelona to Paris to Berlin, people incredulously ask me one type of question that I'm never asked in the United States and Canada: Why does an independent-minded woman care about God? Why do you need religion at all?

I'll answer in a moment. To get there, allow me to observe key differences between the debate over Islam in Western Europe and North America. In Western Europe, the entry point for this debate is the hijab - the headscarf that many Muslim women wear as a signal of modesty. By contrast, the entry point in North America is terrorism.

Some might say that difference is understandable. After all, Sept. 11 happened on American soil. But March 11 happened on European ground, yet the hijab remains the starting point for Europeans. Meanwhile, it makes barely a ripple in North America.

This difference speaks to a larger gulf in attitudes toward religion. To a lot of Europeans, still steeped in memories of the Catholic Church's intellectual repression, religion is an irrational force. So women who cover themselves are foolish at best and dangerous otherwise.

Not so in North America. Because it has long been a society of immigrants seeking religious tolerance, religion itself is not seen as irrational - even if what some people do with it might be, as in the case of terrorism. Which means Muslims in North America tend to be judged less by what we wear than by what we do - or don't do, like speaking out against Islamist violence....

As one young Turk told me, "If Western values are tolerance, democracy, justice, equality and freedom, then I live in a Western country: Turkey." Try explaining that to those Europeans who want to impose their baggage from the Vatican onto Muslim immigrants. Their secularism can be zealous, missionary - dare I say it, religious.

Which brings me back to the question of why I, an independent-minded woman, bother with Islam. Religion supplies a set of values, including discipline, that serve as a counterweight to the materialism of life in the West. I could have become a runaway materialist, a robotic mall rat who resorts to retail therapy in pursuit of fulfillment. I didn't. That's because religion introduces competing claims. It injects a tension that compels me to think and allows me to avoid fundamentalisms of my own.
via a Rainy Day commentator

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