Thursday, June 25, 2009

When nuance is not so nuanced

So I am currently working my way through The Heart of Islam, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr--a book I picked up at the recent Muslim Arts and Voices festival in New York City. The book's flyleaf promises a thoughtful and nuanced examination of cultural, political, and religious Islam as well as an acknowledgement and exploration of the religious beliefs and traditions that it shares with the other Abrahamic faiths, Christianity and Judaism. Given these laudable goals, I am disappointed that his discussion of these three faiths often results in his extolling the virtues of Islam above the others and dismissing facts which contradict his claims. For example, it is quite frustrating to read a sentence that states, "In the middle part of the Islamic world...[there are] still some Jews...although most of the Jews from Arab countries migrated to Israel after 1948." Factually, Nasr is correct in stating that most Jews living in Arab countries left during that time period (Andre Aciman in a recent New York Times op-ed placed that number at 800,000), but it is also misleading to make such a statement without any sort of context. There is no mention of the anti-Semitic rhetoric, policies, and violence that forced Jews to leave en masse. If Nasr wishes to extol the relative peace of minorities in Muslim lands, it is equally important to recognize when this is not the case.

Similarly, when Nasr discusses Christian missionary work in the Muslim world, he is equally one-sided. He is highly critical (appropriately I believe) of missionary efforts to convert Muslims and charges Christian groups with using material aid (food, medicine, etc...) as temptation. He does not however, or at least not yet, talk about how these same tactics are used within the Muslim world, especially among more radical groups (i.e. Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, etc...) to win converts. Perhaps these situations are not exactly comparable, but when Nasr so strongly condemns Western consumerist culture, and does not acknowledge that these same activities (with similar aims--conversion) occur within the Muslim world, between Muslims, it demonstrates a double standard which directly contradicts his stated aim of a nuanced discussion.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, these points of contention, this book is certainly food for thought. If I do finish it, I hope that by the end I will have gained a somewhat deeper understanding of religious Islam...if nothing else.

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