Understanding Islam

On the 10-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks, President Barack Obama spoke to America from the Kennedy Center, saying, “Our character as a nation has not changed. Our faith — in God and each other — has not changed.” His rhetoric was openly religious, yet little was said about the elephant in the room, another god — the god of Islam. It is the enduring position of the US government that the United States will never wage war against Islam or any religion, yet the 9/11 attacks, against whom the War on Terror was launched, was perpetrated by religious extremists who invoked the practices of Islam as the legitimate cause of their campaign of violence.

It always seems to me that people in the United States have kind of squeamishness about actually addressing or engaging religious difference, a problem exacerbated by our continuing military involvement in nations where Islam is commonly practiced. Already, so much of our national dialogue on the War on Terror has hinged on the cultural difference that many Arab nations seem hopelessly alien.  Religion has become a source of conflict; we’re all being conditioned to understand Islam as in some way incompatible with Christianity, Capitalism, and the West. How can we learn about Islam, In Obama’s Christian nation, without understanding it as Christians?

It’s so easy to slip into easy narrative binaries when describing the War on Terror. We fight in the East, where pre-modern Islamic nations battle post-modern Western Christian coalitions. The story writes itself. It’s also utter bullshit.

On the homefront, it’s clear that no matter who our enemy is in our War on Terror, American Muslims will always be caught in the crossfire. As the so-called “9/11 Mosque” controversy proves, the United States has something of an unhealthy obsession with Islam. The media spectacle of that unraveling political debacle illustrates that while we are a nation obsessed with Islam, we are utterly unwilling to understand it or the culture that supports it. I think no one could disagree that as a nation we could all benefit from learning about the religion, but in such a way that we identify similarities or reason or beauty in the faith instead of difference. A follow-up question: How?

Here at UCI we have our fair share of religious turmoil. Once, the mother of a friend told me angrily that UC Irvine was run by Muslims. She said that as a student of that institution I probably hated Israel too, just like all my classmates. It was an unpleasant experience, but this is what I learned — people too easily confuse politics and religion, and too often try to justify irrational hate by religious difference. Students at UCI freely express their faiths and openly speak their minds about their political beliefs. Often, they do both at the same time. This is their right. It’s also very dangerous, and not constructive to the establishment of an open dialogue between disagreeing parties.

There are two ways to learn about Islam. The first is by isolating differences, and learning negatively. We start with the familiar, and compare it to the unfamiliar. Our attention is drawn that which is incompatible with our own perspective, we isolate the distance between two points of view. We learn to alienate ourselves, and to compartmentalize the Us and the Them. A second praxis would enter unprejudiced, without preconceived notions and without discrimination to understand Islam on its own terms, or as close to them as we can. It would be counter-intuitive, but ultimately constructive. Difference can be OK so long as it doesn’t guide understanding.

The experience of faith is so profoundly personal that religious teaching I think often misses the point. One must understand faith and God in one’s own terms. I don’t think anyone who prays to any god would disagree that means and method may change but that religion always must bring people together and must never be a cause to divide them. Everyone of course wants unity on their own terms, but if there’s anything America must learn, it is that to understand Islam through  the 9/11 attacks is to do a gross injustice to Muslims everywhere. To move forward, we must put aside the tools of nationalism and to kill the Other. The “Us and Them” mindset is familiar and has been useful in America’s past against Nazis and Communists, but here it can do nothing but hold us back.

Tristan Schlotz is a fourth-year literary journalism and comparative literature double major. He can be reached at tschlotz@uci.edu.