In contrast to Judaism and Christianity, Islam was invisible to most of us as we grew up -- we didn't see mosques in our communities, or hindu temples. As a result, we have very little context for understanding struggles within Islam. "Imagine a bunch of Buddhists watching northern Ireland -- what is it about those Catholics and Protestants and the way they go at it?"
It's a good point. Growing up as a Jew in south Texas I had some understanding of Catholicism, and I knew a little bit about the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, but Islam was not only opaque to me -- it was invisible. In the absence of personal connections, it's easy to view Islam as a vast, confusing, belligerent monolith.
And that view can lead to some troubling things. The week we're now beginning has been christened Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week by the American religious right. The right wants us to mentally link Islam and fascism, and to view Islam through that lens.
I'm not going to dissect the event or what's problematic about it (though I will link to this post, in which Ali Eteraz does just that.) But I do want to suggest strongly that the whole paradigm of "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week" is built on misunderstanding -- which I think is inexcusable, given how easy the internet makes it for us to meet one another and to learn.
A trio of rabbinic leaders who I admire spoke recently at the national gathering of the Islamic Society of North America. Though I can't seem to lay hands on Reb Arthur Waskow's remarks, he's published the remarks of his two fellow speakers: Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus on "Upholding Faith; Serving Humanity"; Rabbi Eric Yoffie's prepared remarks. Rabbi Yoffie said:
[T]he time has come put aside what the media says is wrong with Islam and to hear from Muslims themselves what is right with Islam.
The time has come to listen to our Muslim neighbors speak, from their heart and in their own words, about the spiritual power of Islam and their love for their religion.
The time has come for Americans to learn how far removed Islam is from the perverse distortions of the terrorists who too often dominate the media, subverting Islam’s image by professing to speak in its name.
The time has come to stand up to the opportunists in our midst — the media figures, religious leaders, and politicians who demonize Muslims and bash Islam, exploiting the fears of their fellow citizens for their own purposes.
What better time than now? I welcome the religious right's call to make this coming week an "awareness week" -- a week to become more aware of Islam and of Muslims, of the places where our traditions and values intersect, and of the ways in which we can build bridges and forge connections.
Read Shahed Amanullah's month-long daily blog series Hungry for Ramadan, and read Islamicate; read Sunni Sister and Rickshaw Diaries; read Akram's Razor and City of Brass. Leave comments and strike up conversations. Don't let the fears of the religious right define the terms of our interactions. This week, let's build and celebrate awareness of relationship and common ground.