Reclaiming or Redefining Islam?

, Val Jensen, Leave a comment

The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) held a Forum on June 20, 2011 at the Rayburn House Building entitled, “A Solution in Search of a Problem: The Impact of Anti-Sharia Bills in America.” The Initiative stems from recent bills introduced by state legislators (and passed in Oklahoma) that aim to bar adherence to Sharia law and make it a punishable offense. The recent anti-Sharia bill in Tennessee met with a huge outcry from Muslim activist groups as well as from the ACLU. The outcry was effective in causing Republican State Senator Bill Ketron and House Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny to offer a revision which now contains no reference to Islam, but still allows the state to prosecute those who offer terrorist entities financial support.

The argument put forth by Muslim activist groups like MPAC and echoed by panelists at the forum such as Noah Bakr, Commissioner of the Montgomery (MD) County Commission on Women who just completed doctorate work in Near Eastern and Islamic studies at Princeton University, is that Sharia is a broad set of principles which a Muslim lives by that concern “doing good” and “protecting life, liberty, property, and justice for all.”  She defines Sharia literally as “a path to the watering hole” and says that Sharia is consistent with democratic ideals. When arguments were made about Sharia’s punishment for adultery, Bakr countered by saying that stoning of an adulterer can only be done when there are four adult witnesses to the act.  She then asked when something like that would ever happen. It is important to state, however, that she did not directly condemn the punishment for adultery in that if there were four witnesses to the act, then it would be in all correctness, according to Islamic law, to punish the adulterer by stoning them to death. This is all according to Hadith (or sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad). The Quran does not mention stoning but states in Surah 24: 2, “The woman and the man guilty of fornication: flog each of them with 100 stripes.”

Haris Tarin, the moderator of the event who is also Director of the Washington D.C. office of MPAC, clarified that there is a medieval interpretation of Islam that some individuals, groups, and countries follow but which American Muslims and many Muslims around the world do not condone. When asked a question about the fear that Islam seeks a one-world caliphate, both Bakr and Tarin said that this was unrealistic and a non-issue and that Islam does not support aggressive wars. When confronted with a question about the separation of the world into dar al-Islam and dar al-harb (essentially land that is under Islamic rule and land that is not) and the subsequent thought that dar al-harb should be eventually in subjugation to dar al-Islam, Harin responded that these definitions were never meant in the medieval setting to be applied today. He concluded by saying that this kind of talk is “bin Laden talk” and no one else talks about this.

There is no doubt that many American Muslims are speaking out against what they see as false and extreme interpretations of their faith and are trying to reclaim Islam under the banner of peace, good will, and in accordance with democratic principles. This is an incredibly important initiative to undertake and should be done with the full understanding and sympathetic attitude toward the American public when it has a logical fear and apprehension. Simply denouncing and labeling those who wish to protect American rule of law and ideals as racists or discriminatory is also counter-productive just as the American Muslims’ argument of alienating their community is counter-productive.  But if measures are implemented which are truly undemocratic then the inherent democracy of the system does allow for correction and change which American Muslims are seeking.

An interesting point of discussion, however, is that for centuries, Islam, spearheaded by Muhammad’s example in Arabia all the way up to the start of the decline of the Ottoman Empire in 1683 has sought a path of conquest logically supported by the Quran. The heights of the Ottoman conquest broke deep into the West. The fact of the matter is that for 1,000 years there was a Muslim conquest of the world under the banner of Islam (and, it can be argued, was only stopped by the West’s Enlightenment period and technology boom which left the Muslim world in its wake). Islam being heralded first and foremost as a religion of peace and human rights could be most likely attributed to the effects of Muslims in America living under America’s founding principles. If this is indeed the case, are American Muslims reclaiming or redefining their faith?

Val Jensen is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.

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