Home > Islam > What’s with the need to “understand” ?

What’s with the need to “understand” ?

Robin Wright’s new book (Rock the Casbah, Rage and Rebellion across the Islamic world; Deckle Edge) is, as one would expect from this long-time observer of the Islamic world, informative and well researched. Readers will heave a collective sigh of relief at seeing confirmed the general impression that extremist Islam and jihadism are definitely losing steam.

It is a fact that the world could allow itself some measure of cautious optimism, starting with the manifestations in Iran in June 2009 and continuing with the turmoil in the Arab world this year. We all saw that the people out in the streets were no longer wild-eyed fanatics like Khomeini’s foot soldiers of 1979 but civil and civilized crowds intent on obtaining from their governments some kind of social contract—which is not to say that they will obtain it. So far, Tunisia seems to be the only country quietly putting in place ways of governing and being governed different from those of the Ben Ali era. Everywhere else, optimism may not be warranted as various degrees of chaos reign, from the unknown forces engaged in a tug-of-war in Egypt to Libyans unfortunately bent on revenge to bloodbaths in Syria and, to a lesser extent, in Yemen.

Political analysts can help make some sense of events, their background and their development, but they all regrettably fall into the same mealy-mouthed statements about cultural differences and questions of faith and belief, especially regarding Islam. Where Wright lost me was with her admonition, too common these days, about “moving beyond fear […] to more exposure to Muslims or education about Islam.” My question is, why? I myself am Iranian-born and familiar with Islam but why should Americans (Wright’s main audience) have to educate themselves? Constantly hearing that we have to “understand” is tiresome and irritating. I know this too-often heard advice makes the person giving it sound enlightened and open-minded but do we ever stop and think about the advice itself?

Here’s the thing. I can live in peace with my Jewish neighbors without knowing about Shabbat and I can have my Indian friends over for a cookout without being familiar with the Bhagavat Gita or the gods of the Hindu Pantheon. Why is it different when it comes to Islam? And isn’t this supposed to be a two-way street? Where, in Islamic communities, either in this country or elsewhere, are people taught about other religions or that many of us are agnostics or even atheists and that doesn’t mean (as the most extreme fanatics seem to think) that we deserve to have our head cut? How is it that we have to acknowledge other cultures that don’t feel the least compulsion to acknowledge ours?

I feel both embarrassment and anger at all the pandering and the oozy flattery. Throughout Ramadan that ended recently (always referred to as the “holy” Ramadan) the general public in America was treated, as it is every year, to too much information about related customs and religious services, the ritual of breaking the fast morning and evening, the eyd or celebration when the “holy” month is over, which mainstream politician went to which mosque, etc. etc. Who cares and why should we care? To write articles in the National Geographic or travel sections of newspapers, to teach schoolchildren about customs of various peoples and religions is one thing. To be tolerant of other beliefs as long as they don’t encroach on ours, absolutely. But to virtuously insist on enlightening the general public on every single detail of a faith different from ours is totally unwarranted. How often does the Saudi or the Sudanese press write about Christmas or Easter or Rosh Hashana or Dussehra? Why do Muslims wish non-Muslim friends a happy eyd and feel insulted when they are wished a merry Christmas?

I see here something quite ugly beyond the bending over backward to tell Muslims that we don’t consider them all terrorists (what idiot would?) and our wanting to know all about their wonderful faith and their wonderful customs and their so-peaceful way of life. To me, all this talk of understanding boils down to huge contempt and talking down, completely unconscious of course. We are the good guys so we’re the ones noble enough to make the effort to “understand.” We would never expect “you people” to feel obligated to do the same.

Oh, and one more thing. The ever-articulate George W. Bush used to say Izlam and Muzlim. That’s how much we know that we continue mispronouncing these words which are actually Islam and Muslim, with a hard s.

  1. October 1, 2011 at 4:03 am

    You are so right!


  2. jonathan smith
    October 2, 2011 at 4:16 am

    fundamental is respect for others. Respect may come with understanding. But not necessarily. It is not necessary to understand different people in order to respect them. Of course, the question of respect is, of and by itself, a very complex subject. I respect out of fear. I also respect out of observing demonstrated acts that show me shared, common values and ethics. Either way, I can respect. But neither way requires me to understand.


    • October 2, 2011 at 1:24 pm

      A writer can’t “require” readers to “understand” but it’s rewarding when they do, as is obviously your case. Thank you.


  3. October 5, 2011 at 5:08 am

    hmmm….nice read!


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