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University News

Middle East experts advocate nuance on Islam

By
Contributing Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

“We would be hard-pressed to come up with a distinctly Muslim value,” said Nancy Khalek, assistant professor of religious studies, at “Islam and Governance: The Political Future of the Middle East,” a Janus Forum-sponsored panel held Tuesday in Barus and Holley 166.

Khalek spoke with Hussein Banai GS, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science, about the difficulty of defining distinctly Muslim values, the role of Islam in the Middle East’s political development and their own negativity toward radical Islamic movements. 

Kelly Mallahan ’11, Janus Fellows director and Herald copy desk chief, said the event’s topic “is on the minds of a lot of students, especially politically minded students, and is something that often gets glossed over.”

Banai underscored a point Khalek made about the many forms of Islamic identity.

“You need to recognize that not all of us get up in the morning and pray five times a day,” he said. He emphasized pluralism in Islamic society, saying that one must “balance various identities and religious backgrounds, and above and beyond that, ethnic backgrounds.” He also said Islamic values are influenced by time and place. 

Politics is “about the intersection of the universal and the particular,” Banai said, and Khalek agreed. Banai said that though “particularized orthodox ideas” exist, they are difficult to find in the modern Middle East. He cited as an example the Green Movement in Iran, which involves a group of individuals that is both “youthful, Western-oriented” and “very locally adept.”

Khalek examined the relationship between Islamic scriptures such as the Quran and the actions of Islamic governments, speaking about traditional Islamic tenets found in several nations. “When it comes to contemporary politics,” she said, countries have vastly different ideas of how to implement certain aspects of Islamic law.” Political Islam and Islamic government are not the same, Khalek said. 

Both Khalek and Banai expressed criticism of radical Islamic movements, which Khalek called “severe simplification of facts on the ground.”

“It is A-B-C Islam,” she said. Ultimately, it is “easy to sell to the disenfranchised, easy to package,” Khalek added.

These movements are responses to outside forces, as opposed to a nation’s domestic tribulations, Khalek said. This is “spent force,” Banai said.

These groups claim they are responding to hostile actions, Khalek said. In actuality, “al-Qaida has killed more Muslims than it has killed Westerners,” Banai said. 

“I think that it is always the wrong questions being asked,” said Maryam Al-Khawaja GS, a Fulbright non-degree graduate student, after the event. “Before we start educating people on what’s happening now, we need to educate people on what Islam is.”

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