Dangerous awareness

I came across the website of the Reflection Network in Britain the other day and saw something I have been wanting to blog about for a long time. The Reflection Network does a laudable job.

In today’s world, we often encounter other cultures, values, and practices and we are exposed to different styles of working and communicating. Many organisations have Muslim clients, workers and stake holders, or in some way encounter Islam and Muslim people. Our organisation offers cultural awareness training applicable to a variety of situations and settings.

Why do they do this?

Understanding each other breaks down the barriers of mistrust, confusion and prejudice (…)

I have long been wondering if this starting point is actually correct. In my country too this is the mantra of Muslims and those that are derogatorily called ‘multiculturalists’. Even though I count myself firmly among the latter (if it’s not multicultural, it isn’t culture at all), this is where I’m increasingly departing from them.

Every time when there was a reason for Islam to be the subject of criticism or even attention in the media, there was always at least one voice that said: “If you had a better understanding about Islam, you wouldn’t be saying that.” Mostly there were several voices. My countrymen have been taking that advise seriously over the past decade and have delved into books, libraries and the Internet. The result is definitely a better awareness of Islam, but not a better understanding of each other, nor the breakdown of barriers of mistrust, confusion and prejudice. In fact: the opposite has happened.

My country’s history has been seeped and formed by Christianity. Even though it’s now mostly secularised, Christianity is still one of its major foundations. Yet Χριστος ανεστη is Greek to most people living in it, whereas -with only 5% of the population Muslim- Allahu akbar, inchallah and salaam aleykum is now understood by everyone, regardless of denomination. Nowadays, if you want to explain someone about Lent, the phrase ‘the Christian ramadan’ is the best one to use. In other words: we’re very aware of Islam. This may all still be a good thing. But other effects are less positive.

Getting themselves a better understanding of Islam has also made many people more familiar with -for example- the founder of Islam. With the stories about his difficult relationship with the three Jewish tribes in Medina. With the story that he exiled one and then another. With the story that he had all men from the third executed and the women and children sold as slaves. With the story about him having sex with a nine year-old. With the stories about Asma bint Marwan, abu ‘Afak and Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf. With the fact that most Muslims today do not consider these ‘stories’, but facts about a man whose example should always be followed by the pious. This did not lead to a better understanding of each other, nor to the breakdown of barriers of mistrust, confusion and prejudice.

In fact: it may very well be the case that none of these stories are correct or even true at all. The historical material on which these stories are based were collected for religious reasons, not for historiography. To make matters worse the scholars who used them for writing history applied a method for verifying their reliability that would nowadays not pass even the most basic scientific scrutiny. It takes effort, perseverance and a specialist to get secularised westerners to consider different perspectives on these very old texts and in order to get them acquainted with the actual convictions of Muslims, it takes ordinary Muslims. But who’s going to risk acquainting himself with that lot after having read about all the above? These people would have been better off with less understanding of Islam and a better acquaintance with Muslims instead.

There is a model that works better. Immigrants from China also have their religions and cultural peculiarities. Yet my countrymen seem to know very little about them. I couldn’t even mention the predominant religion in China, nor from which list I should choose. The Chinese very much keep to themselves, nobody bothers, and their children generally integrate well. Immigrant Muslims do have their own successes in integration, and they’re equally impressive, but they’re tainted by muddy debates and hateful controversies about their religion -or alleged religion, because not everyone from North Africa or Turkey is by definition a pious Muslim- and by equally impressive failures.

I can’t help wondering whether Muslims in my country wouldn’t have been better off if they hadn’t made such a point of their religion, and if society hadn’t decided to respect their wishes.


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