My Meal with a Muslim 2011

Well, I had my lunch with a Muslim yesterday (I’ve decided to leave his name out of this post). And I must say that, despite getting on famously in conversation, there are enormous ideological gaps between the two of us. I came away with the following observations:

  • Contemporary Islam is a very rigorous, insular, and particularist path through life. As such, it is an orientation toward God and the Ummah (the community of believers) that functions, by its very nature, as pushback against secular and Western cultural trends.
  • There’s just not a lot of wiggle room for the Islamic agenda and the secular agenda to meet. For a liberal secularist like me, talking to a Muslim is like Barack Obama talking to John Boehner: we can have a round of golf, and we can perceive one another’s humanity across the ideological gulf that separates us, but we can’t really split too many differences between us.
  • I heard a hilarious campaign slogan for the Republican Party recently: “Repeal the 20th Century: Vote Republican.” That, too, seems apt for Islam. Gay equality? Women’s rights? Evolution? No, no, no. Islam is, in a number of ways, conservatism on steroids. But at least, insofar as I know, American Muslims aren’t hell-bent on repealing the New Deal!
  • Muslim women are always going to be in a position of submission and inferiority in relation to males within any seriously practicing Islamic community. It’s just the way it is. If I don’t like it as a secular person, there’s not much I can do about it. The issue is going to evolve in the direction of women’s equality via a hard struggle on the part of women within the Muslim community itself. Outsiders are largely irrelevant to how that will play out. And if you bring the subject up as an outsider, the guys are likely to dig in.

Am I discouraged? Not completely. In fact, I’m hoping to have a larger discussion with some Muslims (perhaps for a YouTube posting) over the next month. And I’m also planning to have lunch in October with Kamal al Katib (a local imam that I know). So, I’m trying. I continue to think the conversation is valuable. And nothing I say above should be taken as suggesting that Muslims and non-Muslims really can’t live together well and peacefully in a community. So long as religious affiliation is strictly voluntary, as it is throughout America, obviously they can. The question I have is whether we can bring up the tense questions surrounding contemporary religion in one another’s presence, and arrive at some degree of mutual sympathy, or at least calm, about one another. 

It would be nice to bring a Muslim woman into a conversation for YouTube posting. But I’m told that if a Muslim woman attends, she’s likely to simply defer to the Muslim males in the room, saying little or nothing. That’s depressing and wrong. And it’s one reason why I’m still trying to keep the conversation going. There’s a lot to talk about.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to My Meal with a Muslim 2011

  1. I was thinking that your first point could be re-worded:

    “Contemporary [CHRISTIANITY] is a very rigorous, insular, and particularist path through life. As such, it is an orientation toward God and the church the community of believers) that functions, by its very nature, as pushback against secular and Western cultural trends.”

    At least, in my experience there are large sections of christianity that behave that way. Then again, in the US often those sections of churchianity want to impose some kind of christianized laws on the rest of the population so i suppose that supports my fear of theocracy.

    It’s also been pointed out that conservative christians (and presumably Muslims) actually are big users of modern technology, media so that it’s a bit of a mix which parts of science they reject. However, I take your point.

    Did you get asked any hard questions? Like “why are non-Muslims so immoral?” Why do non-Muslims support a drinking and drug culture that ruins many families”? Why are non-Muslims so intent on supporting wars in other countries when they have so many problems at home?

    I recommend reading Irshad Manji’s “The Trouble With Islam Today”.

    • santitafarella says:

      I didn’t get the kind of question you ask from the person I had lunch with yesterday, but I welcome such questions, and hope that they are asked of me in the future (just as I hope to ask direct questions as well; questions that provoke thought).

      My wife and I were talking recently about the precarious path of our two small daughters through life. On the one hand, our culture offers, as the price for full community participation, organized religions that are entrenched in patriarchy. On the other hand, the media are thoroughly sexualized in an anti-feminist way. You have to be a bit of a loner—the village atheist—to blow off both community religion and television in your life.

      Really, there are very few female-positive paths through our culture outside of college and (perhaps) the business community. At school and at work, women have spaces where equality is enforced by law.

      And, yes, I agree that Christians are similar to Muslims in the rigor and orientation of their lives. It would be good for non-Christians to have lunch with Christians as well (and to work with similar disagreements).

      The question is: how durable is secularism? In the face of growing Islamic and Christianist movements all over the world, can secularism maintain secular spaces that can be passed through by one and all?

      In Paris, for example, Muslim have taken up praying in the streets and sidewalks, disrupting traffic and setting a very different vibe on Paris’s otherwise secular ethos.

      Majority disruptions where majorities rule?

      Also, Islam is, at bottom, a form of collectivism (the Ummah is more important than the individual; the individual submits to God and to God’s Ummah on earth). Enlightenment humanism is, at bottom, individualist, Promethean, Lockean. It tends to be intellectually disruptive (even contemptuous) of collectivist projects. Voltaire is a very different fellow from Muhammad or St. Paul.

      The reality is that the Voltaires, Muhammads, and St. Pauls of this world have to carry on their projects in close proximity to one another. They better be talking.


  2. I was reminded of Jurgen Habermas, who, as I’m sure you know, is a great promoter of conversations to resolve seemingly intractable issues. He’s very much a promoter of Enlightenment thinking, and his ideas have been criticised because of that, but nevertheless…

    And yeah. I guess I will have the same issue with my daughter growing up. Perhaps not to the same extent as New Zealand is much less polarized than the USA appears to be. However, Christianity is slowly changing in its views of women. I came across an interesting paper on how feminism has neglected the study of Pentecostal women and missed a lot of “behind the scenes” progress.

    • santitafarella says:

      Habermas is light at the end of the historical tunnel. But I’m less hopeful with regard to Islam and women’s equality than I am with Catholics, Mormons, Pentecostals, and evangelicals with regard to women’s equality.

      Islam’s very anti-Western identity seems tied up with the way its women are clothed. Like ancient Israelites who wouldn’t eat pork among the Canaanites, it’s an identity marker.


      • Women’s dress is debated within Islam. As my Muslim (female) coffee-partner said last year, head-coverings are “not in the Qu’ran” and that’s why she doesn’t wear one.

        I think we should be careful of overthinking the issue, too. I remember reading an autobiography by one of the (many) Saudi princesses of the royal family. The women there all wear the Burkha, the full covering. But she said when they get inside among other women, they take the outer layer off and they are all wearing make-up, jewellery and the latest Parisian fashions underneath – including mini-skirts. Of course, the rich ones can afford that…

        One could argue that Western women and men are just as restricted socially in what they can wear.

        In the end, it won’t be you or I resolving it, of course.

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