Sunday, March 05, 2006

Democracy and Change

I would like to draw your attention to a wonderful story in the New York Times by Andrea Elliott called: “A Muslim Leader in Brooklyn, Reconciling 2 Worlds.” As I know some folks can not access the above link because they are not registered with the New York Times, let me offer you a short summary. This story is about Sheik Reda Shata, the imam (or prayer leader) of a mosque in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. He came to America via Egypt, via Germany and now finds himself trying to, as the article title suggests, bridge two worlds. Normally, an Imam’s duties consist of leading prayers and giving a weekly sermon, Imam’s are not quite like priests or Rabbis, but here in the United States his role has expanded into a full leadership position and one that resembles that of a Rabbi. When coming to America, he was confronted with a multitude of conflicts between the Islamic way of life and the Western way of life:
"A teenage girl wants to know: Is it halal, or lawful, to eat a Big Mac? Can alcohol be served, a waiter wonders, if it is prohibited by the Koran? Is it wrong to take out a mortgage, young Muslim professionals ask, when Islam frowns upon monetary interest?"
The problems in the community compound as new immigrants try to live where everyday American life appears to laugh in the face of Islamic law and tradition. As new immigrants start to assimilate, there are more problems as these folks start to question older Islamic law and tradition. The conflict is continuous and painful for many. Here I shall quote Elliott at length:
The religion's fiqh, or jurisprudence, is built on 14 centuries of scholarship, but imams in Europe and America often find this body of law insufficient to address life in the West. The quandaries of America were foreign to Mr. Shata. Pornography was rampant, prompting a question Mr. Shata had never heard in Egypt: Is oral sex lawful? Pork and alcohol are forbidden in Islam, raising questions about whether Muslims could sell beer or bacon. Tired of the menacing stares in the subway, women wanted to know if they could remove their headscarves. Muslims were navigating their way through problems Mr. Shata had never fathomed. For a while, the imam called his fellow sheiks in Egypt with requests for fatwas, or nonbinding legal rulings. But their views carried little relevance to life in America. Some issues, like oral sex, he dared not raise. Over time, he began to find his own answers and became, as he put it, flexible. Is a Big Mac permissible? Yes, the imam says, but not a bacon cheeseburger. It is a woman's right, Mr. Shata believes, to remove her hijab if she feels threatened. Muslims can take jobs serving alcohol and pork, he says, but only if other work cannot be found. Oral sex is acceptable, but only between married couples. Mortgages, he says, are necessary to move forward in America.
Another large problem is the democratic nature of America. Now, I am getting to the core of this post. Elliott explains how America has transformed both Mr. Shata and many immigrants from “rigidity to flexibility.” Mr. Shata stated that he came from “a country where a sheik would speak and the people listened to one where the sheik talks and the people talk back." This excellent article lays out for its readers the struggles between two cultures, two ways of being, two ways of functioning. Core to the conflict is democracy. As America is fighting to bring democracy to the Middle East, we are often told how these people want democracy, crave democracy and desire democracy. I suspect that this is correct, to some degree. After all, most people, especially if they feel oppressed, would like to have a voice in things, decisions and life. People show resistance to oppression in a multitude of ways and democracy offers the promise of freedom from oppression. On the other side of the coin, you can not just make a people “democratic” overnight as we are trying to do. Yes, people have had an opportunity to vote but voting, contrary to popular opinion, is not democracy. It is one function of democracy, one symptom of democracy, not the core. True democracy is where a babble of voices come together, clashing and joining, joining and clashing. Meeting and separating and then meeting again. It is a community project, a chorus effort, of argumentation and conflict solving. It has little to do with just voting. When we see Iraq and other nations struggling with democratic and Western values, we are seeing more then we suspect. Right under skin, right under the thinnest layer of flesh, is the clash of values and traditions. People who are trained to think in a certain mode, live in a certain mode and receive in a certain mode are not able to just change their way of being overnight—even if they want to. It cannot happen—it is not natural for humans to accept change, normally, without resistance, resentment and fear. As we listen to our administration and others promote democratic and Western values, promote change overnight, we must remember that it took over 200 years for America to get the hang of democracy and we, ourselves, are still struggling. Always under the surface is the desire for a hierarchal system of absolute leaders and absolute followers from both those who are in power and those who are not. For those who are in power, they want to keep their power. For those who are not in power, they often find it, simply, easier for someone else to set the rules of the game and just to follow those rules. So, when you see a Muslim friend walking down the street or you see Muslims protesting on your television sets, in your newspapers and radios, remember the conflict they are facing, the enormity of the transformation they are being asked to take on and accept. It is in every sense a type of violation. Remember that this transformation will, and is, destroying their traditions and roles in life—and, know that that destruction will not be accepted lightly or passively. After all, how would you react if someone told you that your whole way of life, your traditions and roles, were completely wrong and must be changed right now, this moment, with absolute conviction?

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