Respecting the Qur’aan

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This article was first Published on Wednesday, March 19, 2008 at – :

Ingrid Mattson, PhD, President
The Islamic Society of North America

Geert Wilders is a Dutch politician who broke with a mainstream national party to form his own extreme-right, anti-immigrant platform. Wilders has directed most of his hatred in recent years at Muslims. Wilders has called for the Qur’an to be banned and in the last few months has been promoting his “documentary” attacking the Qur’an. Wilders has intimated that the documentary will show a copy of the Qur’an being desecrated or destroyed.

Geert Wilders wants the Qur’an to be banned. Many Muslims want Wilders’ film to be banned. Wilders wants Muslims out of “his country” and to be denied the rights of other citizens to practice their faith. No doubt, many Dutch Muslims wish that Wilders would just go away (and Wilders has received threats of violence from some). Neither Wilders nor these Muslims will (or should) get what they want. Now what?

Many have looked to this situation only through the lense of the law. News articles have focused on threats made to Wilders’ life and the calls to ban his film. Of course, the threats are unacceptable and criminal. Wilders should be afforded the full protection of the law and those threatening violence against his person should be prosecuted.

As for the right of freedom of speech, Wilders’ film should be treated like other statements within Dutch law. The Netherlands, like most other countries, has certain restrictions on speech that is defamatory, libelous or insults a group of people based on their race or religion. The Dutch Prime Minister has publicly stated that if the film, once released, is judged to have violated the law, then his government has the duty to enforce their legislation. This treatment of Dutch Muslims as equal citizens under the law shows to the Muslim world that the Netherlands is not an enemy to Islam.

My plea is that we also need to look at this issue more broadly so we can find better ways of living together in a world in which there will always be people whose views and beliefs we find odd or even obnoxious. We should not justify or excuse extremism of any kind, whether they are racist and hateful attacks on the Muslim community or vigilante violence by Muslims against those who make such statements. What we should try to understand is why some otherwise ordinary people feel caught in the middle, and are sometimes attracted, in part, to the emotional appeals of the extremists.

In the last few decades most societies in the world have gone through enormous transitions. Many European countries have had to give up significant symbols of their national sovereignty to join the European Union and even those who did not join the EU have seen significant changes in their societies due to globalization. Even those who have benefited economically and in other ways from these changes are sometimes are troubled by the loss of traditional forms of communal solidarity and culture: local farmers’ markets, church pews filled with families on a Sunday morning, neighborhood bakeries and craftsmen; landscapes, streetscapes and the rhythm of life have changed. Perhaps each generation has a limited capacity for change, or perhaps none of us, as progressive as we claim to be, can help but romanticize the society of our youth.

An increased presence of Muslims in Europe, while part of this change, is not the cause of all these changes. Muslims did not cause a decline in attendance at European churches; they were not responsible for the fact that some churches have been turned into museums or bars. Muslims did not cause the declining birth-rate in many European societies. But the fact that Muslims are building mosques and attending religious services in higher numbers than European Christians, and that many Muslims have larger families than most European Christian families, makes Muslims easy targets of scapegoating. Europe has seen this kind of ethnic hatred before in its history. Financially-successful Jews were for many centuries viewed with jealously and resentment by some European Christians.

Muslims should not be scapegoats for the problems not of their making. At the same time, we have to be fair and acknowledge the fact that large-scale Muslim immigration to Europe has presented real challenges to these societies. Unlike in the United States, many of these immigrants arrived with little education and were often settled in large numbers in government housing that set them apart from the rest of the population. The natural process of adaptation to the new environment was stifled by many of these well-meaning policies. On the other hand, blatant and persistent discrimination experienced by many immigrants in their daily lives, combined with the availability of some extreme Islamic ideologies in the communities too often mitigated against a positive model of integration.

Most of the time, however, the problems have been cultural. This is because even when communities share the same basic values (as I believe is true of most European Christians and Muslims), the different cultural ways communities express these values can lead to misunderstandings and tensions. Our values are conveyed not only with words, but with our actions, our clothing, and our architecture.

Let’s look, for example, at the issue of respect, an important value in any society. What constitutes a respectful encounter with another? In many east-Asian societies, business cards need to be offered with two hands like a gift; to thrust a card out towards a new acquaintance is interpreted as rude. In American society, one indicates interest, respect and attention when speaking to others by looking them straight in the eye. In many Muslim cultures, such a direct gaze might be considered disrespectful, especially if one is conversing with an elder or a member of the opposite sex. I once had a student who complained to me about another student in the class: ‘he is so disrespectful to women,’ she said, ‘he never looks at me.’ The young man, an international student from a Middle Eastern country expressed dismay at her perception, ‘I was trying to respect her by not staring at her!”

The point is that you cannot simultaneously look someone straight in the eye and avert your gaze from them. Only one of these culturally specific means of signifying respect can be adopted in any one encounter. Most people learn to adapt, and even become bicultural. But this process takes time, and if the differences are politicized or idealized, conflict ensues.

As new communities settle in areas that previously were inhabited by a dominant cultural group, misunderstandings can multiply. I grew up in a mid-size Canadian town first settled by German, and then English and Irish immigrants. I heard many nasty comments when Portuguese families started moving to town and planted their front yards with vegetable gardens. We lived in a Platonic universe where beanstalks and carrot tops must line up in the backyard, never in the front.

These adjustments are natural, they happen every day across the world. Muslims have for centuries adopted their cultures and customs to new environments; that is why from Indonesia to Jordan to Senegal, Muslims differ in their dress, architecture, aesthetics, economies and other aspects of community life. Islamic law, in fact, requires the adoption of “good” customs as long as they do not violate fundamental religious principles.

European Muslims are slowly figuring out what is necessary and sacred in their lives and what is cultural and can be adjusted and adapted. Most Europeans understand that this can be a difficult process, and they are patient and supportive of their Muslim neighbors. Unfortunately, the voices of self-proclaimed nationalists – really, racists – like Wilders, often seem louder and more powerful because they are threatening. This is also true of the extremists in the Muslim community who preach against good relations with non-Muslims. Although they are small in number, they can affect great damage to society.

The most important thing to keep in mind in the midst of all this changes is that we can never live together peacefully with all our differences unless we are willing to respect the different choices that others make. We do not have to agree with each other or love each other, but we have to afford respect to each other. This means that we do not deliberately try to humiliate each other. Defacing or destroying symbols of each other’s most cherished beliefs violates the basic principle of respect.

Wilders’ actions are designed to hurt, offend, and even intimidate. This is why many Dutch people, including the current government, have rejected Wilders’ actions and insist that such hateful statements are not consistent with Dutch values of tolerance and communal harmony. Many Dutch Muslims have responded positively to an assertion of Dutch citizenship based on diversity within the framework of common values and they are working with their non-Muslim neighbors to create a positive environment of mutual respect.

Still, there are some people who are just looking for a fight. No matter how many Dutch interfaith and civic groups join with their Muslim neighbors to demonstrate their solidarity and mutual respect, al-Qaeda and their ilk will point to Wilders’ film as more proof of the “Western crusade against Islam.” And no matter how many Muslims respond to Wilders’ film calmly, or not at all, Wilders will point to the violent response of some extremists as more proof that Islam is barbaric.

All I ask is that we do not blame whole communities for the actions of a few. Muslims should not blame all the Dutch people, much less “the West,” for Wilders’ hateful actions. Similarly, no one should blame all Muslims, much less Islam, for the hateful actions of some extremists.

As for me, I have vowed that if and when Wilders releases his film, the first thing I will do is pick up my Qur’an, kiss it as a symbol of the reverence it deserves from me, then sit down and read it for an hour. This is the best defense of the Qur’an.

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