Tuesday, June 18, 2013

What I Really Think of Muslims

Here’s what comes to my American mind when I think of Muslims: I think of my adoptive brother. I’ll call him Ali because, although he had a long string of names, I’m fairly sure that that wasn’t one of them.

He’d gone to college in Washington a few years ahead of me, and been a dropout longer. His departure from college had been more dramatic than mine. He’d been badly injured in an accident; his surgically reconstructed face looked more than five years older than his original face. He had started out with dark gray eyes, but had to accept a dark brown donor eye. The donor eye served fairly well for driving and manual work but didn’t focus well enough to make reading easy, so Ali used to read the headlines in the newspaper and ask a friend to read aloud the stories that interested him. Because he was now a different-looking man with different prospects in life it was easy for the relative with whom he’d been staying to claim not to know him. The relative was pocketing money remitted to Ali, and for a while Ali lived in a shelter.

Despite some obvious brain damage, he wasn’t stupid. The urban mission that took him in liked to set homeless people out on street corners with tracts to sell for the benefit of the mission. Ali pocketed a little cash, bought some flowers, and resold the flowers for the benefit of his own personal mission to recover financial independence. He worked and saved (and eventually paid back what he owed the mission) and had worked his way up, when I met him, from selling flowers to having a licensed snack wagon. Later he was able to buy a restaurant franchise in a federal building. By age forty he was able to go back to India without embarrassment.

I had dropped out due to mononucleosis and associated hepatitis; since I looked sick and was in fact apt to faint, I wasn’t offered many of the entry level jobs for which I applied, and didn’t keep the ones I took for long. So I had bought a typewriter and started earning my living as a typist. So Ali and I had more in common than the other people who rented rooms and apartments in the houses where we lived, and became friends.

There was some talk, which he encouraged, about our being a couple. According to his cultural tradition he was supposed to have a wife, and an educated American wife would be a special prize, compensating to some extent for his not being able to finish even an accounting degree. (The family were wealthy by Indian standards, and brought up their sons with the expectation that, since they were no longer recognized as royalty, they would at least become doctors.) In practice we were asexual. In the 1980s it was p.c. for women to admit that we liked being free from carnal commotion, but not for men. Men who didn’t at least date were suspected of homosexual tendencies, so I never really blamed Ali for telling his other relatives that he and I were engaged. But it wasn’t true.

We did become partners in odd jobs, and as an ally, or partner, I did sincerely love and respect Ali. And so I observed some things about the Indian Muslim community that most of our Anglo friends missed.

I am one of the few Christians who’ve been invited to eat and cook with Muslims and be in their home during formal prayers. The Koran discourages this kind of intimacy between Muslims and Christians. One of the things that cause some Muslims to despise translations of the Koran is that English doesn’t have words for the precise degrees of friendship Muslims are encouraged to have with Jews and Christians, or only with fellow believers. The infamous English translations are something like “Be fair in trading with them, but do not make friends with them; they have their own friends.” This advice appears in more than one version and context. In one case the message being spelled out is that, since children would inherit their fathers’ religious affiliation, a Muslim man can marry a Jewish or Christian woman, but a Muslim woman must not marry a Jewish or Christian man. In another context the idea is that eating or praying with people whose rules for eating and praying are different would cause offense or ritual impurity. The message is not that Muslims are allowed to be hostile or unethical toward non-Muslims. They are after all supposed to be trying to impress and convert us. What they are advised to do is to be cautious about getting close enough that different beliefs might interfere with neighborly relations.

If I’d realized just how much of an honor it was to be invited to dinner-and-movie nights in the home of some older Muslims who were distantly related to Ali, I probably wouldn’t have gone. Even if they saw me as a prospective in-law I’m still not sure whether they would have extended the same invitations to my brother. But I learned a lot from them.

One thing I learned is that Muslims are “loyal to a fault.” That is the trouble we are having with them, as nations, today. When unsuitable people get into positions of political leadership there is no adequate cultural mechanism for Loyal Opposition, or peaceably removing somebody like Richard Nixon from office. A good Muslim may have supported a different candidate for the position while he or she had the chance, but once a corrupt or demented person is in office a good Muslim has to support his bad policies. This is how people whose religious identity is all about peace and obedience to God end up practicing murder and treachery and obedience to the Evil Principle.

However, this loyalty also makes Muslims great friends to have if you want to launch a business, a campaign, or a charitable project. Their understanding of friendship is practical. When the word gets around that you are a friend, they will become good customers, they will publicize what you’re doing, and they will be watching your back if you have to be in a hostile neighborhood at night. I typed dozens of term papers for people majoring in "Islamic Studies." A total stranger who was part of the social network rescued me in a dangerous situation. When I got into massage I was downright embarrassed to hear that Indian Muslims were telling people I had "healing hands." I owe these people more than I could imagine paying back; I don't intend to become worse than indebted to them.

I didn’t notice this with American-born Muslims, but with foreign-born Muslims the gender etiquette of friendship is very different than it is for mainstream Americans. Minimizing eye contact with opposite-sex friends is a way to show respect. In mixed groups men and women may cluster in different parts of the room rather than staying close to their own partners. Opposite-sex friends don’t touch; same-sex friends hug and kiss freely. In some countries the cultural taboos are very strong and people find it hard to believe that an American who sticks to mainstream U.S. manners can have any sexual morality. I was blessed to have had this explained to me by relatively tolerant Indians before I met an Iranian who treated me as if I were his aunt, but who was later reported to have murdered five other independent working women whom he considered less moral.

Muslims are not a single homogenous group, as Americans sometimes seem to think. People in lots of different countries have subscribed to the teachings of the Koran, but their languages, customs, and cultures have remained different, and various religious sects interpret the Koran in different ways. Most of the Muslims I knew were Sunni, which is sometimes considered a liberal denomination; a few were Sufi, which could even be called an ecumenical denomination. (Sufis are known for their chanting and dancing worship sessions, in which, in Maryland, Jews and Christians were encouraged to participate.) As a non-Muslim woman I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet any Wahhabi Muslims. I don’t know any Orthodox Jews or Amish Christians personally, either.

Another dramatic learning experience was taking Ali home for the holidays. From my family’s and my point of view, and I’m sure he was aware of this, it was just an offer to a foreign student to observe an American Thanksgiving. I expected to be embarrassed.

I was embarrassed at a Greyhound station, when Ali was trying to be clean, as defined by his northern Indian culture, in the restroom. The stationmaster wanted to go home when the bus pulled out. Instead of going into the restroom himself this big ugly White guy got up in my face to say, “Get him out! I’m going to lock up.”

“Well—you can go in and tell him that! You’re a man.”

“I’m not going in there! I don’t know his disposition! I don’t know what he’s likely to do!”

There have been times when I was not proud to be American. This was one of them. People. Please. It does not take much longer to wash the soiled area with soap and water before washing the hands. I’d been living on the same floor of the same house with Ali for several months, so knocking on the door and yelling, “Can you hurry? The station’s closing,” was not terribly humiliating. Having Ali know how stupid and bigoted Americans can be was.

To this son of two doctors and great-grandson of a king, I thought, my home would have to look shabby. The car my parents had inherited, the first one they’d driven in years, was a well-known joke. Everybody teased me about the “old land yacht.” I looked at Ali, trying to anticipate the wisecrack he’d choose, and realized that he didn’t think the old Chevrolet looked ridiculous. To him it was still a big luxurious car. What had I been thinking? Indian fashions are different. Ali also wore leisure suits to family parties.

The old Chevrolet wouldn’t make it up our unpaved private road. We parked at the foot of the hill and walked up. Still no wisecracks. Ali was counting the fruit and nut trees along the road and the well-fed cattle in the pasture below.

At home my natural sister was wailing about some terribly difficult school assignment, long division or Spanish verbs or some such thing. In front of a math major who spoke seven languages! I cringed. Now everybody we knew was going to hear that my relatives had organized a Christian school just to spare an obviously slow learner from the humiliation of being recognized as such at public school...But no. Ali was more impressed than ever, it turned out, by a family that sent even a younger daughter to private school.

Anyone in Virginia would recognize my family as “landed poor,” and in most of the other States the words people might use to describe us would be more pejorative than that. It was mind-blowing to realize that we were rich enough to seem like valuable connections to the aristocracy in other countries. But yes, the historical—and current statistical!—fact is that “poor” people in the more democratic countries really do enjoy more privileges and luxuries than many feudal monarchs have ever had.

Americans like to pretend that money doesn’t matter, although it so palpably does, in our dealings with other people. A certain type of nicely-nice American will at least say, “I don’t know how much money they have, and I don’t want to know.”Although this web site generally leaves foreign policy decisions to people who have lived in the country in question, I think it might be helpful for more private citizens of these United States to understand how overprivileged we are. We seldom feel rich; even my relatives whose screen name here is Oily McFilthy, whose assets are counted in millions, know people whose assets are counted in billions of dollars, so sometimes they feel, well, less wealthy. By global standards almost all of us are rich—although some of us do spectacularly bad jobs of managing our wealth—and when people who are genuinely poor listen to Marxist rhetoric about their being somehow entitled to the “equality” that comes from attacking rich people, the pictures in their mind are likely to be the pictures of Americans they’ve seen on television.

Do they hate us because we are free? Most generalizations are true for some part of the people and situations discussed. However, many Muslims don’t hate Americans at all. Some Muslims are U.S. citizens or are trying to become naturalized U.S. citizens. They can be loyal, sincere, and valuable friends but I’d advise fellow Americans to remember two things: (1) although Muslim cultures tend to instill a strong sense of personal honor in people, their code of personal honor is different from ours, with higher standards about some things and much lower standards about others; and (2) their definition of friendship definitely includes economic benefits as well as warm and fuzzy feelings. The warm fuzzies become strong and sincere after you’ve made solid contributions to each other’s prosperity.

Some Iraqi Muslims do hate us. Part of the code of loyalty in many countries, including some Muslim countries, is that “You killed my father. Now you must die” is an idea sane people take very very seriously. Other blood relatives, close friends, teachers, house guests, and political leaders may be included in the category of people whose death, if premature and wrongful, has to be avenged. Saying “The person who killed my relative is in the hands of God” may be heard as a confession of weakness and humiliation, not faith and moral strength. We went to war against Iraq. Relatively few Iraqis were killed in that war. They left behind a lot of relatives who may still feel that it’s their duty to try to kill Americans. Palestinian Muslims have similar feelings about Israelis and allied countries. And so on.

Many Muslims don’t hate us but do envy us, for good and sufficient reasons. If convinced that we can be worthwhile friends-in-the-sense-of-neighbors-and-trading-partners they’ll be our friends. Since many of these people don’t travel and don’t speak English, convincing them is a matter of convincing their political leaders.

How poor are these people, actually? The answer differs for every person included in the question. Some Muslim cultures have a taboo against displaying wealth by hoarding expensive objects, because the culturally correct way to enjoy wealth is to spread it around by giving gifts and throwing parties. You might see someone wearing an outfit that looks as if it started out as a K-Mart special several years before the person found it at a Goodwill store, driving an old wreck, and sharing a basement apartment with three roommates. This is not necessarily a poor person; this may be the way rich young people in the person’s native country normally live. Even if the person is poor, the shabby clothes, car, and apartment may be the last things on his/her list of what will change when s/he has more money. However, when we see people trying to haul a refrigerator by using string to lash it across a bicycle, chances are that these people would prefer to be able to rent a truck.

Education is a material privilege that has been a topic of misunderstanding. The Taliban’s educational policy is definitely outside the mainstream of Muslim history and culture, and has been described as a cover-up for a subtle form of tribal war. Historically Muslims have prized education, for girls as well as boys. Muhammad supposedly said “Whoever educates two of his daughters is assured of a place in Paradise.” Sex segregation has had madly mixed effects on Muslim cultures. When schools for girls have flourished, educated women have benefitted from the loyalty of same-sex friends and customers. Too often (it takes only a few years) the local system of education for girls has died out, and girls have been homeschooled or not educated at all. The Palestinian women who wailed to Hannah Hurnard, “No one has taught us anything. We are animals,” were probably sincere, and sincerely ashamed of their ignorance.

After seeing for himself that my younger sister went to prep school Ali confided that in his native state there was no school for girls. His stepmother the doctor and his college-educated brothers had taught his sisters whatever they had learned.“Illiterate” and “ignorant” were words these people uttered with real contempt. That these words described girls from rich local families, the prospective mothers of his and his brothers’ children, was a fact they found painful and shameful. That was why they were willing to consider foreign women who weren’t even Muslims as more desirable wives—and they weren’t really happy about that, either. They wanted girls’ schools, on all levels, for their home communities. They were confident that anyone who could bring home a teacher for a girls’ school would automatically enjoy high status in the community.

However, the content of education is also important. Conservative Muslims distrust non-Muslim teachers. Not without reason, since their standards of honor are much higher than ours in the area of chastity, they fear that foreign teachers or even friends may “teach” children to violate the local standards of propriety and lower their social status more than they raise it. Not without reason, they say that girls are more vulnerable than boys are to social shaming if they pick up undesirable “western” habits. So, with all due respect to the British Prime Minister, a heavy-handed move on the part of the U.K.or the E.E.U. or the U.N. to barge in and slap up schools and mandate that girls go there would have to involve martial law, and would probably still generate a backlash that might do the girls more harm than good.

So we have the peculiar predicament of Greg Mortenson, a determined American who took a radical step—merely funnelling U.S. donations to locally owned and operated schools, where the organizer as well as the funders have to take the local teachers’ word about what they’re teaching the kids—and found even that to be distrusted and misunderstood on both sides. (Some of Ali's relatives were among the local people who helped Mortenson.) The Taliban are telling local people that sending girls and boys from different levels of society to the same school is immoral. Americans are concerned that the local teachers are not spending the money in what many Americans would consider the most ethical way—which, I’m sure as a person can be without investigating the situation firsthand, is happening, and should have been expected to happen, because the Indian Muslim code of honor does not have high standards about things like accepting a financial handout and ignoring the strings the donor has tried to attach to it. Education for fine, brave, deserving girls in the Himalayan Mountains, like Malala Yousafzai (two separate links), is still a very fragile and controversial thing.

Also to be expected: when somebody in India, Pakistan, or Afghanistan operates a school, he or she is going to be very much concerned with getting his or her children into the classes for doctors and the neighbors’ children into the classes for nurses, or possibly cashiers or truck drivers. Muslim loyalty puts family first, often in a hierarchical order according to the degree of kinship. (There are different words for paternal-side uncle and maternal-side uncle, for older cousin and younger cousin, and so on, that express the different traditional expectations for each of these relationships in local cultures.) A good Muslim is kind and protective toward all children but inequity is not even a sign of corruption; it’s one of the differences between Muslim and Christian codes of honor.

Ali looked White to me, although he considered himself Asian and claimed to find blond complexions ugly. It seemed ironic to me, and may have seemed like an insult or a betrayal to his family, that after rejecting him as being impossibly alien I later married a naturalized U.S. citizen whose maternal grandparents had come straight from southern India, whose complexion was almost literally black. I had reasons; my husband’s political identity had been Anglo-Canadian, his religious background was Seventh-Day Adventist, and the place where he intended to spend the rest of his life was Maryland, so there were no major cultural issues between him and me. I got on well enough with Ali as a temporary housemate, but when he talked about my going to India as a teacher, I reached for the brakes. I’d had hepatitis in the U.S. already and didn’t think I could survive exposure to exotic bacteria, I said. Also I’d never really wanted to teach elementary school. Also, although the basics of the Indian languages aren’t nearly as alien to English-speaking people as students imagine—that’s why linguists speak of “the Indo-European languages”—I think most people need to grow up with a language in order to be able to teach classes in it. Real fluency in a language one learned as an adult is very rare.

Of course the cultural issues ran deeper than that. In their sense of personal honor Ali’s family resembled my family. Most of them lived in Virginia while in the United States, and Virginia seemed to be where they belonged. But their sense of honor was different from ours, sometimes completely alien. An honorable person does not habitually tell outright lies. An honorable Virginian might tell an outright lie if someone’s life was in danger, or (conversely, paradoxically) if the subject of discussion was so trivial that the only purpose of lying would be to pamper someone’s feelings. So it surprised me that Ali didn’t think there was anything dishonorable about, say, selling a cheap chicken-based hot dog to a customer who wanted the kosher beef hot dog, when the snack wagon ran out of the kosher beef ones. “If she really cared, she could tell by looking. So she doesn’t really care, and God will forgive her as long as she didn’t know.”

“Maybe she would have bought something else if you’d told her the truth.”

“So why would I want her to buy something cheaper, or something from a different place? She should know anybody selling things wants to sell the most profitable thing they’ve got. She should look for herself before she buys.”

Muslims’ relationship with God is often said to be more demanding than Christians’.Their faith has been caricatured as a fear-driven effort to appease an angry God, rather than a search for joyous communion with a loving God--although joyous communion certainly seemed to me to be what the Sufis were looking for. What Muslims are taught God demands from them, they must do, or face horrific penalties from their community as well as anticipating even more horrific penalties from God in the afterlife. But in some respects they’re taught that God demands less than Christians believe God wants from us. Chicanery is commonplace in India and Indian Muslims seem to have no cultural base for confronting it. Ali’s sense of honor made him a brave and generous man in some ways, while allowing him to be what I’d have to call a sneaky, grubbing man in other ways. And it did seem to be a cultural thing; other Indian Muslims might do better or worse than Ali according to his standards, but they seemed to agree with him about what the standards were.

Ali went back to India without a teacher but with enough money to repay those who helped him go to college in the United States. Of that money he still owes me US$800 from a job I considered dubious in the first place. I don’t begrudge the money, and I’m sure he’s used it to do something good...at least I'd rather take that on faith than try to stay in touch with his family now.

On some things we can all agree. As the Sufis say, Jews and Christians can say, or even chant,La ilaha ill’Allah. There are no other gods but God. “Allah” is the Arabic word for “God,” in the same way that“Dios” is the Spanish word and so on. God is One, and that One surpasses all human understanding, is not bound to the shape or gender or even the number of a physical body. When criticizing someone else’s understanding of God people can speak of “your God” and “my God” in the way different biographers might be said to speak of, say, “Joseph Lash’s Eleanor Roosevelt” and “Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Eleanor Roosevelt”; this does not mean that two different subjects are being discussed but that two different people are, at best, looking at them from different perspectives. Or, at worst, lying about what they’ve seen.

Another thing on which we can agree is that although Christians, Jews, and Muslims pray to the same God, some of us don’t pray enough, don’t pay attention to what we say we believe to be God’s teachings and guidance. There used to be, in some of these United States, a gang of petty terrorists who called themselves “The Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” They were disbanded for good and sufficient reasons, including that most Christians thought their calling their activities “Christian” was blasphemous. The position of this web site is that the whole world would be more comfortable with Muslims if more of them would publicly denounce Al-Qaeda in the way Christians denounced the K.K.K. Unfortunately few Muslims seem to be doing this...because, bless their hearts, they are loyal to a fault, and “fault” is about the nicest thing some of their leaders can be called these days.

This spring I spent some time reading Salman Rushdie’s rather longwinded, celebrity-gossip-rich memoir, Joseph Anton, and at least one local lurker has been waiting for a comment on that book. Salman Rushdie is a rare phenomenon, a “Secular Muslim,” someone who identifies with a cultural heritage that includes the Muslim religion but who is not, himself, very devout, or even positive in any religious faith at all. I’m not sure what to think about this; for that matter I’ve never been sure what to think about Salman Rushdie. As a radical Christian I’ve always liked the idea that most people who identify themselves as Muslims do feel obligated to practice their religion in a very serious way, to distinguish themselves from the unbelieving world both by formalities like ritual prayers and by a rigorous practice of their ethical beliefs—however alien from ours those can be. People who call themselves Jews and Christians may have never even thought about their faith enough to realize that they don’t have one, but people who call themselves Muslims are nearly always real Muslims,enlightened or otherwise. I respect that about them.

I would, however, like to see a little reconsideration of the intensity and violence in some people’s practice of Islam. Should Muslims denounce Salman Rushdie, scold him, pray for him, try to lead him back into the faith of his ancestors with kindness, or should they all give it up and become Christians anyway? I don’t presume to prescribe any of those courses of action but I do think Muslims need to pay more attention to the fact that peace is not found through violence. If Joseph Anton teaches anybody anything (I hope most people don’t need to read a long book to learn this), it will be that people’s religious faith is neither fortified nor edified by death threats. Whatever Muslims do about Salman Rushdie should never have included even considering the possibility of murder.

Even those Muslims who have legitimate grievances, against the United States or Israel or whomever, should think more seriously about this notion of vengeance as a point of honor. Meditate on the saying, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Even in cases of wrongful death, it would be more profitable to petition for material compensation for damages.