Every Friday some of the world′s leading advocates for freedom of expression write for Ny Tid. Our columnists are: Parvin Ardalan (Iran), Nawal El-Saadawi (Egypt), Irshad Manji (Canada), Elena Milashina (Russia), Katiuska Natera (Venezuela), Orzala Nemat (Afghanistan), Marta Roque (Cuba), Blessing Musariri (Zimbabwe) and Tsering Woeser (Tibet).
NEW YORK CITY, USA: These past several days, I have been reflecting on the insights of Norwegian anthropologist Unni Wikan.
Throughout Scandinavia, policy-makers quake when they hear argument: that we cannot place individuals into boxes called «culture» because life is more complex than mere compartments would suggest. To place human beings in the coffin of culture is to mummify them before they are even dead.
Dr. Wikan goes further in her ground-breaking book, Generous Betrayal: Politics of Culture in the New Europe (2001). She insists that all adults – natives as well as immigrants – must be expected to take personal responsibility for the choices they make. Why? To avoid stripping people of their agency and, thus, their dignity.
A feminist and progressive in the best sense of those words, Dr. Wikan defies fashionable post-modern assumptions about Muslim immigrants. I am one of those – a refugee to Canada now living in New York City. I can personally attest that the spirit of discussion and debate in «the West» reflects my values, both as a Muslim and as a human being, far more than the authoritarian power plays of the men who claim to represent my faith.
In short, a Norwegian social scientist understands me far more than the Muslim guys whom government officials meet for «cross-cultural understanding».
Similarly, it is Unni Wikan, not Muslim spokespeople, to whom we must turn if we are to analyze the shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, where 13 people lost their lives. Every layer of the story reveals her point that we need to ask uncomfortable questions. Avoiding ugly truths only turns adults into children – which is the ultimate show of disrespect.
Only hours after news broke of the Fort Hood incident on November 5th, I began receiving emails from agonized Americans. «What does it mean that the main suspect has a Muslim name?» asked one. «Does it matter that he seems to be a Muslim?» asked another. Overnight, more such messages poured in, their tone being confused instead of confrontational.
The fact that these Americans are posing questions rather than rushing to judgment is a sign that they are not all bigots. They are genuinely wrestling with how to react beyond immediate shock and grief.
The questions surely intensified after reports that Major Nidal Malik Hasan visited radical Islamist websites, exchanged emails with an extremist Muslim cleric who endorses the stoning of women and the murder of Westerners, chatted approvingly of suicide bombers and shouted «Allahu Akbhar» as he opened fire on his comrades. Video of him roaming a 7-Eleven store in traditional Arab clothing, days after having told the store clerk that he does not want to fight fellow Muslims, offers only one more reason to reflect on the role of religious affinity.
Let us be clear: If an alleged criminal merely happens to be a Muslim, then religion may well be irrelevant. But if his crime is committed in the name of Islam, then religion serves to motivate. In that case, the suspect’s Muslim identity absolutely matters. Words and images should be analyzed – fully, openly and honestly.
It is not only America that needs to hear this message. Most open societies are still in dangerous denial.
Three years ago, Toronto’s police arrested seventeen young Muslim Canadians for plotting to blow up Parliament and behead the prime minister. The suspects called their campaign «Operation Badr.» This refers to the Battle of Badr, in 624 AD, the first decisive military victory achieved by the Prophet Muhammad and his amateur followers, who were out-manned and out-armed by the other side.
The seventh-century story of triumph against all odds has become legendary in Islam; proof, we Muslims are often reminded, that God intended the Prophet to be a warrior and not simply a statesman. As Iranians could attest during their war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Badr provides potent religious inspiration to generations of Muslim soldiers.
Admittedly, this is an uncomfortable message for people who regard themselves as cosmopolitans. It is so uncomfortable that upon exposing Operation Badr, Canadian police held a press briefing and did not once refer to «Islam» or «Muslims.» At a second press briefing, the police even boasted about avoiding the words «Islam» and «Muslims».
They characterized their omission as an exercise in sensitivity. I considered it an exercise in denial about the role of religion in the alleged plot.
Months later, as a speaker at a police conference, I raised my concern. Various audience members – all connected to law enforcement – then confided to me that it was police lawyers who prevented them from mentioning «Islam» and «Muslims» in public statements.
Disturbingly, Europeans do not have a much better record on this question. A key reason that some European countries are electing ultra-right wing politicians is because the mainstream elites fear touching the «Muslim problem», thereby creating a vacuum for vulgar populists to fill.
Media are among the worst culprits. In the wake of the 7 July 2005 London transit bombings, respectable journalists repeatedly quoted ringleader Mohammad Sidique Khan railing against British foreign policy. But in the same tape, he emphasized that «Islam is our religion» and «the Prophet is our role model». In fact, Khan made these remarks before bringing up the invasion of Iraq.
Religious mythology also manifests in unexpected ways. Consider Muhammed Bouyeri, the Dutch-born Muslim who murdered artist-turned-satirist Theo Van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam in 2004. Bouyeri pumped several bullets into van Gogh’s body. Knowing that this would be enough to finish him off, why didn’t Bouyeri stop there? Why did he pull out a blade to decapitate van Gogh?
Yet again, we must face the religious dimension. The blade – or sword – is an implement associated with seventh-century tribal warfare. Using it thus becomes a tribute to the founding moment of Islam. Even the note stabbed into van Gogh’s corpse, though written in Dutch, had the unmistakable rhythms of Arabic poetry. No wonder that at his trial, Bouyeri proudly confessed to being animated by «religious conviction».
By now, much has been revealed about Major Nidal Malik Hasan: an American patriot on some days and an emotionally distressed dissident on other days; a brooding recluse yet a kindly neighbor; sometimes taunted by fellow troops but more frequently haunted by his conscience and the religious direction in which it turned. While we should be careful not to reduce this story to Islam, let us be equally alert not to erase Islam altogether.
Indeed, Unni Wikan has borrowed an observation that she never misses an opportunity to remind us of: «Unless we describe reality, we will awake one day to a reality that is indescribable».
My interpretation? Understanding is served by analyzing, not sanitizing.
On this, progressive Muslims and non-Muslims can surely agree.
Irshad Manji is the author of The Trouble with Islam Today. A Muslim’s Call for a Reform in Her Faith ( 2004). Manji is Director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University. The Moral Courage Project aims to teach young leaders to speak truth to power in their own communities. For her web site: Click here .
This column was written for the Oslo-based weekly news magazine Ny Tid, and printed in Norwegian on November 27th 2009.