Harvard professor lectures on tolerance, intolerance in Arab World

In the first ever guest lecturer to Williams by the Muslim Student Union (MSU), Dr. Ali Asani, professor of Hindu-Muslim languages at Harvard University, spoke on “Tolerance, Intolerance and Islam” last Tuesday. In his lecture, Asani tried to elucidate the complicated questions associated with the idea that the West and the Muslim world are involved in a “clash of civilizations,” a theory most famously propounded by Samuel Huntington. The event was co-sponsored by the religion department, the Chaplain’s office and the Multicultural center.

After September 11th, Asani has been asked to talk at various organizations and groups to try and explain the terrorist attacks and how they reflect on relations between the West and Islam. “People asked: ‘Do Muslims hate Americans?’” Asani recounted. At the same time, he has traveled to many Muslim countries, where he has received the well-known question: “Why do they [the West] hate us?” It seems as though both sides are troubled by the same existential question.

Asani theorized that it is the abundance of ill-conceived stereotypes about “the others” that have led to the current dilemma the West and the Muslim world face. Examples of such stereotypes are the view that all Muslims are terrorists or fundamentalists, or the conflation of Muslims with Arabs. This latter stereotype is one of the most widely held in Western culture.

The reality is that there are over a billion people in the world who practice Islam, yet, only about two hundred thousand of them are Arabs. Similarly, it is not the case that the Middle East can be equated with Islam, since the majority of Muslim counties are located in South East Asia and northern and sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, not all Arabs are Muslims and indeed, there is a substantial group of Arab Christians.

Muslims, in turn, stereotype the West, in general, and Americans in particular. Using Hollywood movies as their main, perhaps even sole, source of information, Muslims see Americans as wealthy people who drive expensive cars and live in big houses. Another image Muslims pick out from American movies is the concept of free love – something intolerable in the Islamic religion.

This constant seeing of “the others” through such stereotypes, Asani explained, has led to gradual dehumanization. On a small scale, this development would not cause a serious problem; however, this process of dehumanization threatens to have dramatic consequences. History is full of such examples, the Holocaust arguably being the most striking. However, slavery in the United States also belongs in this category.

Therefore, Asani concluded, it is not so much a “clash of civilizations” that takes place between the West and the Muslim worlds, but rather a conflict of ignorance.

It was Asani’s goal to demonstrate that the Qu’ran in itself does not provide a direct answer to many of the questions the West has about Islam. “Simply reading the Qu’ran from cover to cover is not an effective strategy to understand Islam, or any other religion for that matter,” Asani said. A reading of the Qu’ran would just lead to further trouble. It’s analogous to reading the Bible in the same manner. What you need is a correct interpretation of the text.

The Qu’ran has given rise to the idea of the universality of God’s message. “Not a single people has been left out,” Asani said. There is a great deal of tolerance for religious diversity. Consider, for example, the fact that the name Mary, Jesus’ mother, is mentioned more often in the Qu’ran than in the Bible.

The Qu’ran is a pluralist text; that is, it recognizes the existence of alternative paths to salvation. However, throughout the many centuries, the Qu’ran has been subject to anti-pluralism. Certain political developments led to an exclusivist interpretation of the text. Islam was considered to be superior to other religious traditions and this is what was responsible for the aggressive conquering drive of Muslims during the first millennium. Islam had become the religion of imperial rule.

One of the justifications used for the conquering character of Islam during that time was supersessionism, Asani said. This was the idea that Islam surpassed everything else and that Muslims were superior to all other people. Muslims viewed the world as divided into territories under their rule and territories that had to be conquered. This was the period in which the concept of jihad emerged. Interestingly, the word itself means “struggle,” something far from the apocalyptic image most of the West has when talking about this phenomenon. In the particular case of the early Middle Ages, jihad was used to represent the struggle in defense of the Muslim faith.

Asani explained that more recently, fundamental Islamists also have developed exclusivist interpretations of Islam as part of their political ideology to underline the existence of the state. The objective today, however, is to revive the pluralist version of Islam; to revive the need for tolerance within the Muslim world. The intrusive attacks on civil liberties that have taken place after Sept. 11 have led to the rise of what Asani termed Islamophobia.

It is imperative that steps be taken to counter this disconcerting development. “When you look at the many little things in the papers, you think it’s okay. But if you put the big picture together, you will see there is a lot of reason to be worried,” Asani said. There is a rising threat against pluralism in America. He appeared particularly alarmed by the things that have been said about Muslims in the recent past. Muslims have been compared to protozoa that multiply every instant. The Qu’ran has been compared to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” while Islam has been labeled as a new Nazism.

“How do we counter this kind of hatred?” Asani asked. There is a need for struggle both within the Muslim world and within the rest. One way to combat stereotypes, for example, is through education and knowledge. This is precisely where the importance of getting to know somebody on a one-on-one level comes into play.

In the Q&A part of the lecture, Asani was asked why most terrorists seem to come from the Arab world. However, as Asani explained, this is just another example of the many stereotypes that exist out there. You cannot look at it through the lens of religion. It would be another step to dehumanization. If you examine, for instance, Palestinian suicide bombers, it turns out that some of them are Christians, not Muslims. At the same time, you have thousands of Christians in U.S. prisons – an indicator of possibly the highest crime rates in the world. Yet it is not only religion that explains this behavior, Asani cautioned.

Later, Asani responded to the question from a student about the role of women in the Muslim world. “Yet another stereotype,” Asani said. It is true that in some Muslim counties, like Saudi Arabia for example, women have restricted rights and few opportunities for personal achievement. Compared to that, in Bangladesh and Indonesia, the biggest Muslim countries in the world, women hold a much more important role in society. They can drive cars, for one thing, but they can also be judges. “Women and Islam: it’s much more complex than you think,” Asani said.