Note: This is second book for the Politics and IR book club that I wrote about back in August. My original schedule called for me completing this book by the middle of November. I have this problem, however, where I have so many interests and a desire to understand new topics, that I can get bogged down in reading various articles and reports and get behind on my scheduled reading. Best laid plans I guess.
I picked Anne Norton’s book, On the Muslim Question, because I felt it was a timely topic. Since September 11, 2001, the relationship between the West and Islam has been strained, and I think it is always good practice to use education as a way to come to a greater understanding of “hot” topics.
One of Norton’s main arguments is that while the West (its institutions, values, etc.) may feel that it is under attack from Islam, in reality, the West launches its own assaults on Islam. In other words, the West exhibits a great deal of hypocrisy when dealing with Islam and Muslims. For example, the West points to the inequality of women in the Muslim world but still grapples with its own problems of the same nature. Norton argues that by focusing on the oppression of Muslim women, the oppression of Western women is sometimes lost or forgotten. A second example of attacks on Islam can be seen in the vitriol spewed forth by the shockjocks or far-right pundits and politicians who speak or act to outrage people by, say, insulting a religion.
A second main argument, and the one that I think we should all consider, is how to best recognize the presence of Muslims in the West and accept them into society. Norton devotes two chapters that each make great food for thought when considering a solution to this problem- one chapter on equality, and the other on democracy. In the chapter on equality, she builds more on the inequality faced by women in the West. Additionally, her discussion about poverty and charity are relevant on numerous levels (think about the current debate about inequality). Norton also puts forth two provocative assertions in the chapter on democracy- “democracy is rooted in courage,” (p. 131) and “democracy depends on fortitude, on steadfastness, on the ability to endure hardship.” (p. 132) While those two gems may not necessarily answer the question of how to best accept Muslims, they do lead readers to consider their own role in civic life and the public sphere. When it comes to accepting Muslims, Norton argues that there is no “clash of civilizations.” Norton gives numerous examples of how Western Muslims have already integrated into society- popular literature and music, famous athletes, growing popularity of Middle Eastern food, and Muslims holding political office.
For what its worth, I would argue that the best way to end the “war on Islam and Muslims” is through education. If we don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes and don’t want our children to fear “the other,” then we need to encourage people to learn about Islam. In Europe, Germany seems to be proactive in this regard. Just recently, for example, German schools began offering students classes on Islam. Germany has also instituted a number of programs designed to bridge the gap between cultures (see my piece on Germany’s Opportuntiy from March 2012). Here in the US, educating our students about various world religions and cultures should be an important part of all curriculum frameworks. Ignorance is not bliss.
The next book up for discussion is Unequal Democracy by Larry M. Bartels.
Thanks for reading.