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Personal Growth

We Need to Study Islam, Not Just Criticize It

The California State Assembly named August Muslim Appreciation and Awareness Month.
Islam is the predominant religion the length of the East African coast from Mozambique to Arabia. Mosque interior at dawn. (Credit: Harry Hook / Getty Images)

Comparison and criticism are two necessary components of well-informed cultural analysis. As cultures do not form in a vacuum, understanding the evolutionary ladder is critical, as is seeing beyond the limitations of each culture, getting stuck in unhealthy patterns. Progress is impossible without both mindsets.

Criticism of Islam comes easy to many in modern America; another entire subset finds it impossible to criticize any aspect of the religion. Both attitudes are dangerous.

For example, climb the ladder: Islam was created as a response to the political circumstances of seventh century Saudi Arabia, relying heavily on biblical references in building its chronology of divinely-inspired events. The chronic debates between the Abrahamic religions are ones of degree; Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, was born of the same essential psychology. Much can be learned comparing them.

Now to contrast: physical copies of the Qur’an must not be polluted. This is why the book is set on a pedestal, above the contaminated ground. Taken further, conservatives do not allow menstruating women to touch the book for the same reason. A powerful example from a modern perspective: the notion that women are dirty because of their menstrual cycle is an old throwback that needs to be abandoned if we hope for equal rights between genders. This is something every culture in the modern age should fight for, and not merely turn a blind eye while saying, Oh, that’s just them.

The thread between comparison and criticism is education, a missing link apparent in so much current discourse regarding Islam. To solder this link the California State Assembly declared that this month is Muslim Appreciation and Awareness Month. Introduced by Assemblyman Bill Quirk, he explained his reasoning behind the bill to NBC:

Muslim Americans have made contributions to education, science, entertainment and medicine both nationally and globally. Unfortunately, the Muslim community has been, and continues to be, the target of harassment, discrimination and assaults.

This is in stark contrast to many common sentiments of Islam in the media and on social media, filled with an inordinate amount of criticism without an iota of comparison (or empathy). For example, consider a recent labeling of the Philippines as a terrorist nation. The country is comprised of over 74 million Catholics, five million more of various Christian denominations, four million unaffiliated, and just over five million Muslims.

Does this mean terrorism is not a problem in the Philippines? Of course not. The island chain suffers from political manipulation, poverty, and religious extremism. Yet the blatant ignorance of it being called a terrorist nation is indicative of an uneducated mindset. Easier to criticize than compare.

Last year I argued that we need more religious instruction in schools. The goal of such education is not indoctrination (though I was criticized for such). Indoctrination is more likely if you only study the culture and faith you already understand and believe in. Educating yourself on the history, beliefs, and practices of others makes you more open-minded, tolerant, and understanding—the exact goals of this California initiative.

There will be many Muslims that find such an initiative ‘ridiculous,’ to borrow from Mike Wallace’s interview with Morgan Freeman in regards to Black History Month. Freeman points out that in America there is no White or Jewish History Month. He concludes that doling out thirty days for the appreciation of African-Americans fosters racism.

Point taken. Yet it’s hard to imagine how else we arrive at tolerance in the current climate. Quirk’s bill is well intentioned, a reminder that beyond stereotypes and broad assumptions resides a rich and nuanced religion that has been assimilated by countries across the planet. Like Christianity, and like Judaism and Buddhism and Hinduism, Islam is much different in America than in Ghana, and it is much different in certain parts of America compared to others. This is quite natural, and ideally a cause for celebration, not condemnation.

In the larger arc of history such a month might seem frivolous. Given this particular moment in history, however, Americans need all the education they can get. Cheers to California for recognizing that.

Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.


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