Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Countering Ignorance: A Review of John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed's Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think

Synopsis: Who Speaks for Islam? is based on a Gallup poll that asked Muslims all over the world their opinions on various issues including religion, democracy, the U.S., terrorism, and other pressing issues. In this age of Islamophobia and three wars being fought in predominantly Muslim countries, giving Muslims a voice of their own is incredibly important. This book strives to correct misunderstandings and to promote the truth about what people in the Muslim world believe and feel.

Review: I was scheduled to finish reading this book tomorrow and actually finished it a day early. It's not a very long book--just under 200 pages (not counting appendices and notes)--but the real reason is that I couldn't put it down.

I have close ties to several Muslims, both men and women. I've lived with them, worked with them, and conversed with them on a number of issues. I've learned a lot about the religion, as well as their respective countries, from them and have long respected the religion, even (and especially) in the face of all of the hatred that is simmering in this country. This book only deepened that respect and it opened my eyes to several things that I either hadn't known, realized, or thought about before.

The book was divided into five sections, each intended to answer a question--Who Are Muslims?, Democracy or Theocracy?, What Makes a Radical?, What Do Women Want?, and Clash or Coexistence?. The answers to these questions (and many others raised by the initial questions) came from Muslims all over the world--Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Turkey, Nigeria, Palestine, etc. All in all, over 50 countries are represented in this poll, each with its own history and culture.

And that is, I think, one of the book's main strengths, although there are many. A lot of people in the West seem to think that Muslims come from the Arab world only. This is simply not true. In fact, the country with the biggest population is actually Indonesia, an Asian country. Muslims live on every continent on this planet; they are not only found in one region of the world.

This is an important thing to note. Because there are Muslims everywhere, there is absolutely no way that every single one of them will believe the exact same things. There is an erroneous (and highly racist) belief out there that Muslims are all alike--that they think alike, act alike, like all of the same things, hate all of the same things. This book (and common sense) shows that Muslims are as divergent in their beliefs as any other group of similar people.

There are, however, some beliefs that most Muslims seem to share--and they might be surprising to you. The results of this survey found that many Muslims do not hate the West. They are saddened by the fact that many Americans disrespect them but they don't want to see them dead, nor do they wish for the West to become Islamized. Muslim men and women are both in favor of women's rights, although they differ slightly on some issues. Most Muslims are supportive of democracy and wish to see them implemented in their own countries...they just don't wish to be carbon copies of Western democracy. They want their countries to remain culturally familiar while still being democratic. I, personally, don't think that this is too much to ask, considering that other Western countries have adopted democracy in a culturally relevant way (e.g. France, Germany, England, etc.).

One of the most interesting findings, I think, is that those Muslims who are considered to be radical are not religiously radical. Instead, they have been politically radicalized. Most of this radicalization has occurred because of Western occupation of their countries or Western imposition into their country's politics. Many countries in Africa and the Middle East were formed because of colonization. Big chunks of land would be carved out by Imperial nations such as England, Portugal, France, and Spain with no thought to the political, religious, and social divisions already present before their arrival. Tribes that had been at war for their entire existence were now united under foreign rule, causing increased tensions between them.

After World War II, many of these nations were formally created, leaving these tensions in place. To add insult to injury, leaders were imposed on these countries by foreign powers. Many of these leaders (or their descendants) remain in power today and a vast majority of them are not democratic. Some Muslims (a small minority) who want democracy but are not able to attain it because of autocratic rule become resentful of foreign influence, especially in cases where an autocratic leader is kept in power by Western nations because of oil or other resources (think Saudia Arabia). This small percentage become radicalized and an even small percentage end up becoming extremists and, sometimes, terrorists.

Most Muslims are not extremists. And most Muslims are vehemently opposed to violence and terrorism. The rules of war as laid down by the prophet Mohamed and others who followed him clearly state that civilians should never be harmed. This does not only mean Muslim civilians, but civilians in general. Many of the people polled in this book expressed concern and sympathy for those who were killed in the 9/11 attacks and condemnation towards the attackers.

This ties in nicely with my next point, which is that the book gives an excellent explanation of the concept of jihad. One of the Muslims that I lived with explained it to me several years ago. He said that the word jihad means "struggle" but that it is not necessarily an external struggle. It is, instead, mostly an internal struggle that each Muslim must wage against him/herself in order to become a better person and a better Muslim. The Muslims polled for this book echo the same message. They said that for them, jihad meant:
  • "a commitment to hard work" and "achieving one's goals in life"
  • "struggling to achieve a noble cause"
  • "promoting peace, harmony, or cooperation and assisting others"
  • "living the principles of Islam" (p. 21)
The religious extremists that say they are fighting a "holy war" in the name of Allah are, quite frankly, going against the Koran and its teachings. They are not in accord with the majority of Muslims who desire better relations with the West, nor are they living their lives the way Mohamed would want them to.

There is so much anger in the West surrounding Islam and it really pains me to see that this is so. Americans who were polled, however, prove that one of the real issues at work here is misinformation, disinformation, and lack of information. Most Americans do not know a whole lot about Islam and therefore they believe much of the lies that are being propagated about it. This book is so important because it gives a much better understanding of the religion, its people, and the issues that are most important to improving relations between the West and Islam.

There were only two issues that I had with this book and they are both very minor. The first is that some of the pages had little gray boxes up at the top that contained text from the page below. It's hard to really describe it but if you go pick up a copy you'll see what I mean. I found the boxes to be superfluous, distracting, and, frankly, obnoxious. The second issue I had was that, although the book provided lots of results from the poll, these results were mostly numbers. There were a lot of quotes from participants but I wish there had been more.

Other than that, I found this book to be a quick, enjoyable, and informative read and I highly recommend it. I feel like if more Americans knew about Islam and its teachings they would be less hostile towards the religion as a whole. No one is saying that terrorists and extremists should be tolerated or forgiven. What I am saying is that overwhelmingly Muslims are NOT either of these things. I have said it before and I will say it again: people are letting the few ruin it for the many. It's not fair, it's not humane, and it does not reflect the principles of equality that this country purports to believe in.

I'm giving Who Speaks for Islam? five out of five stars. If you read any book on the religion, I believe it should be this one.


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