When ordinary Muslims say things in the media (and it sounds outrageous)

Most people, especially most religious people, are not aware that they are not living in a vacuum. They aren’t aware that their words and actions are politically charged, or of the wider implications and interpretational consequences. They think they are just being religious. They think they are just being religious and living their lives even when they are involving this in politics. When a Christian says that something political is against their religion and therefore it is wrong for everyone, they are not really intending for it to sound like what it sounds like to me. Even if it is something really, really oppressive. They are not thinking about what it means. They are not saying what they are with the intention that I believe they have. Because they don’t have that intention except for themselves (even if it sounds like otherwise), which is exactly why they’re not thinking about it. Because they don’t have that intention in the first place.

And when we are talking about Muslims, there isn’t just this blind. There is a double.

When I was in the fifth grade–after 9/11 (that is sort of how I sort out my life in those early years, I’ve realized, everything happened either before or after 9/11)–my mosque hosted an event at which it invited non-Muslims. It was sort of like a small quiet party. And the speaker, in all his good intentions, said something along the lines of, “The U.S. Constitution is a lot like shari’ah law.”

Of course that didn’t quite translate with the guests. There he was, the poor man, standing on the stage with an affectionate look and behind me the guests were shifting uncomfortably in their seats and silently exchanging panicked glances. I was 11. I rolled my eyes and turned around and called, “He doesn’t mean what you’re thinking!”

He meant of course shariah law according to the Qur’an, in which non-Muslims are not ruled by the laws of Muslims. In which, essentially, there is a distinction between what is required by religion and those who do not follow it, and it is understood that one cannot make compulsory something that is a part of a religion that another person doesn’t follow. This philosophy is extracted most specifically from this verse:

There is no obligation in religion. (Quran 2:256)

The verse is quoted by Muslims very often. (Of course you will never hear it reported as often as the “violent” verses even though it is used exponentially more often.) In fact it is so critical in Islamic discourse that it is embedded in very sermon, every lecture. “As Muslims we do not drink.” “As Muslims we give charity.” “As Muslims we should help the victims of the drought.” Meaning of course, that non-Muslims are not obliged. Nothing is absolute. You will rarely hear simply, “We should help the victims of the drought.”

This does several things: on the good side, not only does it promote religious virtue by constantly reminding Muslims who they are but it emphasizes that non-Muslims are not bound to these principles.

On the flipside, unfortunately, it also contributes to rendering the other as exactly that–the Other. Of course they’re not obliged to help victims of the drought! Barbarians! What else do you expect from a bunch of heathen non-Muslims? Uncivilized, only bound to the primary sphere of morality, unenlightened!

The point is (before I derail more than I have already) when reporters quote a Muslim saying things like, “The U.S. Constitution is a lot like shari’ah law,” they have no idea that this Muslim means, “There is no obligation in religion.” It’s twice as bad as when a Christian goes on and on about things they mean politically but don’t really mean politically.

Well, you know. Except for the War on Women.

4 thoughts on “When ordinary Muslims say things in the media (and it sounds outrageous)

  1. I’m still not sure I understand what the speaker meant. The meaning I took from the line and your post is that not only is there freedom of worship in shari’ah law (at least, as applied to non-Muslims) but there is also no requirement that non-Muslims behave as Muslims (and implicit in this is the freedom of worship). This is like the Constitution, or at least it reminds me of the Lemon Test. The talk about abortion rights and access to birth control and marriage equality really pisses me off because what a lot of people aren’t getting is that they cannot make a law that imposes their interpretation of their religious belief upon another. That shit doesn’t pass the Lemon Test. And it’s like some politicians took stupid pills and forgot about the Constitution and the diversity of this country (and especially the Treaty of Tripoli).

    I’m not sure how to phrase this, but I think the experience of being a minority is so valuable (I call it the wise Latina factor), especially among politicians. I don’t understand why it is so difficult to understand that this country is diverse and free and that we can’t make laws just because it suits one group.


    1. Yes exactly. Well the speaker himself was referring to the concept of freedom, which is embedded in (the Quranic) shari’ah law, but if a reporter had been in the room this is not how the meaning would have been conveyed (as proven by media sources quoting Muslims saying “absurd” things and thus concluding Muslims must want shari’ah law established in the US.) At the same time Christians who impose their religious tenants on non-Christian Americans (and against the Constitution) are not viewed as a threat though they have a disproportionate level of privilege impacting the system. The point of this post is mainly that there are translation issues between the Muslim community and the rest of America because Islam is an underprivileged religion in the US and not mainstream, so less is known about Islam. Instead people fear when they hear certain terms (like shari’ah law) without truly knowing what these terms mean because they have been appropriated and redefined by certain media outlets to paint American Muslims as terrorists, even though this is not the speaker’s intention.

      When a Christian does something it will not be attributed to their religion like when a Muslim does something, and it will not be misconstrued and language will not be appropriated. Christians can use the words crusade in a way I can never use the word ji’had–even if comparatively by definition alone ji’had is much milder. (It refers to inner struggle primarily.)

      1. “When a Christian does something it will not be attributed to their religion like when a Muslim does something, and it will not be misconstrued and language will not be appropriated.”

        Yes! This reminds me a little of a concept I learned from a social psychology course I took. I wish I could remember the psychological term for it (but I was in college eons ago). In a group, if a group member who is a member of a minority (a woman, a person of color, etc) her positive contribution will most likely not be credited to her, but the group will most likely blame her for anything negative.


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