An Italian Notebook III
Bill Long 7/6/06
Speaking of Islam
The first five days of my two-week Italian vacation (June 21-25) were spent in Rome with about 65 people connected with Stanford University. This part of the trip was arranged by an energetic an smart triad of early/mid 1970s Stanford grads (Helena Lankton, Caroline Farrar, Joan Lamb), and was brimming with intellectually and culturally stimulating events. On June 22 we had a two-hour presentation/discussion forum with Monsignor Timothy Verdon and Hon. Fouad Kaled Allam (both of them Professors at the "Stanford in Florence" program) on "Religious and Cultural Diversity" in contemporary Italy. What was quite evident, however, was that this discussion was really not about religious/cultural diversity at all (i.e., not a word on Evangelical Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, etc.) but was focused on the presence and accommodation of Muslims in Italy. In fact, what was really going on was a discussion of whether Islam is compatible with the democratic traditions of the West (Professor Allam is a living example of this), and how tolerance "works" between Muslims and Christians in the West. Interestingly enough also, not a word was said about the historical tension between Judaism and Christianity in Italy--a sensitive subject to this day. We focused, thus, on the "headline" issue of the day: Islam and Western Democratic societies.
What struck me during the presentations, however, was that there really is only one "acceptable" way to speak about the problem in a group of highly educated and prosperous Westerners, and that is by using the words "democracy" and "tolerance." We cherish the former and embrace the latter primarily because they have been the means by which Westerners see the world. We really cannot imagine embracing another society in which there is an alternative political tradition--such as an authoritarian ruler for life or where religious institutions control the political debate of the society. Thus, what was really behind the discussion was the way in which Muslims must change in order to become more like us before we will grant them them the kind of respect they want. What we do not realize, however, is that our most cherished concepts can be perceived by those in the Islamic world as corrosive acids that will wear away the unity and religious authority of their societies. The thesis of this essay is that we Westerners must learn to look at Islam in a different way than this if we expect harmonious relationships to develop between Islam and the West. The method is one which I call sympathetic understanding. First, however, a word about the panel participants.
The Two Speakers
Father Verdon is really, at his core, an art historian. He loves the world of Renaissance Art and has published several books and numerous articles on the subject. One of his books is called Churches of Florence, which I wish I knew before I went to Florence so that I could have "read up" on all the magnificent ecclesiastical structures of that town. He put the issue of relations between Islam and the people of Italy in historical perspective by giving three instances over the past millennium or so which showed fear, violence or harmony between the two. His point was that these "models" from the past provide perspective (to use a term from Renaissance Art) to view the Islam/West relationship today.
Professor Allam is a sociologist who, in addition to teaching at the Stanford-in-Florence program, also is a professor at the University of Trieste and a recently elected member of the Italian parliament. The tone of his remarks (in Italian--ably translated by Fosca D'Acierno of the Stanford-in-Italy program) was that Italy is changing, the West is changing, and that immigration, assimilation and integration of different cultures will be the future reality in the West. But, the Islam that he embraces is one which includes the ideals of democracy and religious tolerance. He was quite eloquent when he spoke of the difficulties of being an outspoken Muslim for tolerance--because the value he espouses is not met with a like response from many of his fellow Muslims.
The Way of Sympathetic Understanding
The only model given us by Verdon and Allam is that mutual respect, tolerance and democratic ideals must characterize the relationship between Islam and the West. But "tolerance" is a concept that often is on the lips of the "winners" or those in power as a way of eroding the power base of those who are supposedly "intolerant." Rather than framing the issue of one of tolerance or intolerance, however, I would like to define it as the West's need to develop sympathetic understanding of another culture and way of life. What does sympathetic understanding mean in the relationship of the West and Islam? It means at least three things: (1) A willingness to learn the other's language and culture; (2) A desire to study their holy book in the way that they study their holy book; (3) An inclination to try to understand their construction or telling of their own past. Space doesn't permit a full exposition of all these points, but here are a few words.
1. Learing Arabic. Make no mistake about it, Arabic is tough. I have studied three Semitic languages and still am a bit scared to take on Arabic, though I want to begin it in 2007. In my graduate education I once had a professor who articulated this heavily -Germanic approach to the Semitic languages: "Any one of them is easy once you know them all." We will see how much that helps me next year. But the serious point ought to be clear. We have to learn how the other speaks and thinks, what his/her proverbs are, how the modes of thinking are reflected in the ways of speaking. It is hard, but welcome to the world.
2. Learning the Koran. Good Muslims memorize their holy book. Pure and simple. It is only 2/3 the size of the New Testament, and a lot of it is in Psalmic-type language that can easily be learned. I would love to go to a madrasa, to hear the language of the holy text spoken and try to internalize the thoughts that have shaped people for nearly 1400 years.
3. Learning their History. This is a most important task and can be started right now. The primary thing we would learn is that Muslim societies feel that in the last 200 years they have been humiliated by a West bent on conquest and stealing/destroying their identity and resources. This has to be learned and heard before any kind of mutual understanding is possible.
Thus, though I as a Westerner am of course in favor of tolerance and democracy, I know that these terms must be laid aside if I truly am to have an understanding of/impact upon my Islamic neighbors. But the plan that I have suggested takes time and considerable effort. Much more easy it is to preach democracy and tolerance, blame them for their radicalism, and then rush off to our catered lunches.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long