On the one hand, I experienced nothing but kindness, hospitality, and warmth from Muslims. I saw how frightened they were of Western Islamophobia, how deeply they felt misunderstood. When the “Ground Zero” mosque was in the news and Terry Jones was threatening to burn Qur’ans, it was all my classmates could talk about. My Muslim friends were staunch defenders of human rights and democracy. One good Muslim friend worked at the U.S. embassy, where he led efforts to protect Americans in the country and thwart enemy designs. I was so impressed with the kindness, dignity, and tolerance of my Muslim friends that I promised to speak for them when I got back to the United States.
On the other hand, I sometimes saw Islam at its worst. I discovered that problematic Islamic legal prescriptions like Islamic governance, the dhimmi system for unbelievers, polygamy, and the death penalty for apostates really do have living force in much of the Muslim world. Numerous well-meaning friends sincerely believed that re-instituting the dhimmi system within an Islamic state would be beneficial for religious minorities. My Jordanian Christian friends were terrified of Islamists, believed that Robert Spencer understood Islam better than any other American, and were willing to support almost any level of authoritarianism if it protected them from an Islamic government coming to power. One good friend, a former terrorist who spent 20 years in Egyptian prison and then converted to Christianity, received regular death threats and nearly lost custody of his children in a drawn-out legal battle on charges of apostasy. I promised that I would speak for him too.
My struggle to make sense of these conflicting experiences with Islam, combined with the rapid rise of Islamophobia in the United States and Europe, led me to write my thesis on the subject. I initially didn’t know what angle I would take, only that I wanted to find answers to my questions, then help other non-Muslims who were wrestling with the same questions.
I read dozens of books purporting to explain Islam, from across the ideological spectrum. I read hostile authors like Robert Spencer and Brigitte Gabriel, and apologetic authors like Karen Armstrong and John Esposito. I read memoirs of ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and memoirs of converts to Islam. I read books by traditional Muslims who defended traditional formulations of shariah, and Muslim reformers who saw those formulations as outdated, flawed, or even dangerous. I read scholarly books about the evolution of Islamic law, and scholarly studies of Muslim communities. I read Islamic classics. I read think tank reports warning of the threat posed by shariah, and think tank reports warning of the threat posed by Islamophobia. I subscribed to popular blogs at either end of the spectrum, which pumped so much bile into the debate. I even spent several months at an Islamic school where, as the only non-Muslim, I studied Qur’an memorization and recital (tajweed) and the basics of shariah law.
During those intensive months of study, I finally felt like I was coming to understand Islam. I found answers to many of my questions. I learned to reconcile my disparate experiences of Islam. This process wasn’t easy, because the answers are so complex and I found so many of the books and articles to be problematic. Everyone had an agenda. Everybody had a unique spin and seemed to gloss over contrary evidence. The more I read, the more I became interested in discourse about Islam as much as Islam itself. I began reading books on critical discourse analysis alongside the books about Islam, and in the end, I wrote my thesis on Language and Power in Discourse About Islam in the United States.
When I got back to the U.S. and reopened my blog, I put off writing about Islam. Partly, that’s because writing the thesis and dealing with bureaucratic infighting at the university was such a miserable experience (I’ll save that story for another day). I was burned out. But I was also reluctant to write because the debate about Islam in America is so terribly ugly. It is loud, angry, and dominated by extreme voices who thrive on hating each other. Step into that debate, and you’ll inevitably be branded with nasty labels: Islamophobe, Orientalist, apologist, appeaser, useful idiot, or even “terrorist-linked.” It is a debate that thrives on absolutes and generalizations, and has little patience for thoughtful, nuanced argument.
And yet, I didn’t spend all that time studying for nothing. Sooner or later, I needed to share what I learned. That kept hitting home with each new report about Islamophobia, and each new scandal about government agencies teaching absurd things about Islam. The recent scandal over a Joint Forces Staff College instructor teaching “Hiroshima tactics” as part of a total war with Islam finally pushed me to write. I have an article coming out soon in Armed Forces Journal about how government agencies should teach about Islam.
I will supplement that article with Building Peace. In the coming weeks, I plan to write a series of posts sharing what I’ve learned. I will do my best to map out the topography of the debate and explain why different voices argue the way they do. I will propose some models and concepts that can help make sense of Islam’s best and worst expressions. I will cover some of the more controversial aspects of Islamic doctrine and practice, and explore the different ways that Muslims deal with these issues. Finally, I will cover some basics of critical discourse analysis and use these tools to illuminate how Americans discuss and debate Islam.
This won’t be a simple or easy project, because my conclusions are complex. They will not satisfy those who are blindly, passionately dedicated to one side of the debate or the other. My utmost priority is to be intellectually honest and accurate. I will strive to do this with civility, and with goodwill towards both Muslims and non-Muslims who value dignity, freedom, and tolerance.
Stay tuned, and if you find this endeavor helpful, please let me know.