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The Muslims I Know

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Westerners' don't have to look far to see Muslims these days. More than 12 million now live throughout Europe. Their men are frequently on the covers of major newspapers and magazines, usually screaming and angry. Their women are regularly pictured in headscarves, veils, or dark full body garments, said to represent the intolerance and oppressiveness of their religion. And Islam's Prophet Muhammed is seen in either offensive portrayals, or as the obsession of intolerant, angry Muslim men screaming about those portrayals. No, one doesn't have to look very hard to see Muslims in the Western press anymore. But is what we see accurate?

Last year I wrote about some of the differences between Christianity as practiced here in Iceland, versus my birth country, the United States. (The Christians I Know.) While Iceland now has the dubious honor of having possibly the "lowest number of Muslims in any country excepting micronations," (the actual numbers range between 321-800 according to the same Wikipedia article) being in a small country has its advantages. Particularly easy, is meeting someone where no one is more than a few hours drive away, and most Icelanders live near the capital, Reykjav├k, as I do. So, determined to meet some of the Muslims in this remote outpost of Europe (as it feels much of the time) I called Salmann Tamimi, head of the Muslim Association of Iceland and spent a few nights visiting the local Islamic Mosque, or Masjid, during Ramadan.

On my first visit, I met about 20 men, from places as diverse as Eritrea, Algeria, Morocco, Palestine, Djibouti, Chechnya and Libya. On subsequent visits, I met Muslims from Iceland, Kosovo, Mozambique, and Indonesia. The treatment I got was chivalrous and accepting, and the hospitality humbled me in its warm openness. Of course, as no women were present that first meeting, I also felt a particular bond was accorded to me as a man, and yet, this too felt fine. When I asked if it were acceptable to meet the women, no one stereotypically objected; they merely asked me to call ahead of time to arrange when I could meet with them separately, at their homes or at the Masjid. I felt nothing defensive from them, or any sense that they felt threatened by my request. On the following visits, I was greeted as a friend and accorded even more respect as I struggled to understand their views and their beliefs. I was even invited to share a Saturday meal with them and found the treatment embracing and decent. I have never been more pleasantly surprised. A summary of our various discussions follows.

It didn't take much prompting to get them talking. Once I asked how they felt about all the attention suddenly directed on Muslims, they spoke up rather quickly.

Their frustrations were apparent. "Why" I was asked, "are we getting so much sh*t from you now when, we were ignored for so long?" one man put it. "Muslims nowadays suddenly have to explain everything."

"Each time our countries have tried for democracies, someone steps in, like with Nasser or Mossadegh, and now with Hamas, and ruins it," added another.

Another said, "The West screams at us to become democracies yet, if we had democracy, nobody in the West would steal our resources."

"OK," said one, "even admitting say, 2 million crazy radicals, militant murderers in Islam," he emphasized, "there are still over 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. This is tiny, and they are the only ones you ever hear about."

So, who are these other Muslims?

The Muslims I know are doctors, engineers, computer technicians, mechanics, businessmen, carpenters and architects. Hardly threatening occupations.

The Muslims I know have no wish to impose on Muslim women the hijab in any of its forms, nor to impose it upon the women of the countries they now live in, while supporting any women who wish to do so.

The Muslims I know believe they are being set up by the constant barrage of negative imagery that passes for news coverage in the West and they are frightened that this will lead to something disastrous for all of them.

The Muslim women I know are also employed, some outside the home, some inside the home raising children, some both. Like the men, they by and large disdained "politics" as such and preferred living "normal lives" in communities tightly woven together by the threads of religion, or culture; and, for new immigrants, trying to learn a new language and a new way of life.

The Muslims I know love their children no less than I do mine and they struggle no less than many immigrant families do to preserve what they feel is best of their heritage.

The Muslims I know are passionate, hard-working people who often hold multiple jobs to help their families in the difficult experience of being immigrants.

The Muslims I know attend prayers, as often as they can, and yet their religiousness is never casually tossed out in conversation to impress anyone.

The Muslims I know accept traditional Islamic prohibitions against alcohol but are remarkably forgiving about those who disagree, neither condemning them nor ostracizing them. "God knows best!" they said.

The Muslims I know reject the killing of innocent women, children and bystanders under any circumstances, for any cause, and refuse to call those who engage in such "Muslims," preferring to call them "murderers" instead.

The Muslims I know ask that their religion be separated from their cultures and accept that "Western" Islam will look differently from that of Islam in other parts of the world.

All very unthreatening.

However, most of the articles one reads regarding Muslims in Europe focus on the so-called "failures" of Muslim inhabitants of Europe to "fit in," or "assimilate properly." The unspoken presumption here is that there is only one way for that to happen and that it is not happening at present to the satisfaction of the "host" countries. Muslims clinging to their religion and customs (something that immigrants everywhere seem to share for at least several generations) are seen as a destabilizing trend that merits drastic action and results in tabloid like headlines fearing ominous consequences. To read some of these articles is to sense that immigrants who hold onto the Islamic part of their identity threaten the very foundations of Western democracy. But a closer look reveals that those "host" countries' collective approaches to their Muslim citizens are seriously wanting.

Muslims in Europe are regularly regarded as prima facie "foreigners," racial "outsiders" and often at best, second-class citizens. Both Germany and France have had severe recent difficulties over the sense of isolation and prejudice experienced by Muslims, even long time residents or native-born citizens. This also appears to be the case here in Iceland, where suspicious looks and suspiciously interminable delays in the building of a larger Islamic Cultural Center, (which would provide appropriate religious and funeral services for their loved ones, as well as offer classes in Arabic) border on the willfully discriminatory. Surely, such "welcoming" leaves much to be desired and exacerbates the difficulties already inherent in the immigrant experience.

Muslims say that they feel embattled, singled out for treatment not accorded other groups who struggle to retain their cultural and religious identity.

The ultra-Orthodox Jewish experience in the U.S. is instructive here. Few demand that their men shave their beards or sidelocks, dispense with their hats and long overcoats, or that their women remove their head coverings, and I have heard no one suggest that their separatist communities and schools pose any threat to the American ideal of a "melting pot" of immigrants. Or that these people threaten American democracy.

Or how about the Amish who, usually considered "quaint," are now bearing up nobly to the unimaginable crimes recently committed to them. They have inspired reams of justifiable praise for their community's values, which, because they were preserved in separate environments, have insulated them from the more typical violence that plagues most American communities. Few criticize them for ending school in the 8th grade or demand greater freedom for their women.

Or how about Native Americans who, often living in South African Bantustan-like conditions throughout the United States, try valiantly to maintain their own languages, traditions and values in separate environments? Does anyone demand Native Americans remove distinctive clothes or jewelry before entering shopping malls or public schools?

Or how about the many polygamous Mormon groups, whose ways are tolerated by many, including the law, across the American West? (Imagine a Muslim group attempting to live in a polygamous community with their own schools and rules. Does anyone think the news coverage would be favorable or even tolerant?)

What is up with all these double standards? What is this fetishistic fixation on Muslims and the more socially conservative cultural expressions retained in some Muslim communities? "The West is just picking the peanuts of Islam," said Tamimi, instead of its more noble fruits. "That hammering on the gender question," he added simply, "is boring."

Further examples of this fixation appear regularly here in Europe. In England recently, a schoolteacher with an otherwise unblemished record is suspended because of her choosing to wear a full face-covering version of the hijab. (One Muslim asked, "When Jack Straw speaks on the phone, does he worry so much about facial expressions? This is crazy.")

In Germany, so called "honor killings" are given remarkable space in the media where Muslim women are regarded as little more than submissive dupes to a violent, patriarchal system inspired by Islam. And Pakistan's President Musharraf is regularly described as a virtual hostage to the poor, semiliterate fundamentalists who seem to have the nuclear fate of the world in their hands.(One Muslim I spoke with described this last issue, of religious leaders role in the political life around the world as, "A Mafia of mullahs and sheikhs who run things for their own ambitions.")

What all these depictions have in common is their cemented connection to Islam that, while containing some truth, (the communities from which these people derive are ostensibly Muslim) distorts the separate role their various cultural traditions play in society.

We do not in the West, I was reminded, commonly described the criminal elements amongst us by their religious affiliation. "Christian" Ted Bundy, for example, or the Christian Tim McVeigh, Catholic Al Capone, the Jew Bugsy Siegel, the Quaker Richard Nixon; no, to do so would be racist, offensive and divisive. Yet, Western media seems to regard all criminal elements in Islam as representative of Islam, and consistently identify them as such.

Women in Islam seem to be a major part of this focus. It is as if the mere presence of women whose skin is covered threatens the collective psyche of Western men, and while their oppressed status is widely acknowledged in many of Muslim countries, even among the Muslims I know here, the concentration on just this single facet of Muslim cultures is disconcerting, to say the least.

All religions are clear about the proper way to treat others: with the same respect and decency, we wish for ourselves. I also believe we, as progressives, need to hold people to account for views that serve to oppress or marginalize whole groups of people, including those we might not like or agree with. And the Enlightenment values that progressives hold dear, such as equal rights for women, gays, and other minorities, should be promoted and not defensively spoken about. (And, perhaps surprisingly to some, no Muslim I know disagrees with any of this.)

But no matter what, this exclusive fixation on the violent or murderous elements within the Islamic community, and the ignoring of a billion+ people who just want to live and love their families, is serving no one's interests except those who desire more war and more conflict.

Perhaps that's the point.
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Jos├â ę M. Tirado is a Puertorican poet, and writer living in Hafnarfjor├â degreesur, Iceland, known for its elves, "hidden people" and lava fields. His articles and poetry have been featured in CounterPunch, Cyrano -s Journal, The Galway Review, (more...)
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