To many Westerners, the face of Islam has been, at best, a religious zealot and, at worse, a crazed terrorist, with not much room in between.
Many Westerners have seen Islam as a monolithic movement of intertwined cultural, religious and political beliefs dating from the 7th century.
To Western eyes, Islam appears anti-democratic, intolerant, and inherently violent.
But what’s happening in the streets of the Middle East and North Africa these days may be changing that.
The peaceful crowds in Egypt’s Tahrir Square sent exactly the opposite message. They weren’t seeking to establish an Islamic state, but to gain greater freedom and to end a culture of political corruption. They weren’t led by fiery-eyed mullahs, but by geeks armed with cell phones and Twitter accounts.
Across North Africa, Muslim men and women are taking to the streets to win the same basic rights people in other countries enjoy – freedom, justice and fair elections.
Their protests are Islamic only in the sense that they often use Friday prayers as their organizing vehicle. Anyone paying the least attention has to be impressed that these crowds are not about to substitute one form of oppression for another, even in the name of religion.
Maybe now we will be able to unpack our conflated beliefs about political, cultural and religious Islam.
In The Many Faces of Political Islam, Muslim scholar Mohammed Ayood points out that Political Islam covers a broad spectrum that is context specific. “What works in Turkey won't work in Indonesia,” he says. And he can point to widely different strains of political Islam to illustrate his point. Saudi Arabia and Iran are very different "self-proclaimed Islamic states;" Pakistan and, until recently, Egypt are states caught "between ideology and pragmatism;" Turkey and Indonesia are Muslim democracies; Hezbollah and Hamas are Islamist national resistance movements; al Qaeda is a fringe group of Islamic fanatics.
The breadth of Political Islam would seem to offer Western governments plenty of handholds from which to begin a fruitful dialog.
One stumbling block, of course, could be Cultural Islam. To Western eyes, many aspects of Muslim culture seem to be stuck in the 7th century, especially in its treatment of women. But it’s just as easy to find misogynistic texts in the Old and New Testaments as in the Qu’ran.
And Islamic culture is not immutable. It is subject to as much change and flux as any other culture. And as was the case in the West, cultural change it will follow -- not lead -- economic development.
Already, surveys show that Muslims in Europe and America are closer to the attitudes of their adopted countries than to those of their ancestral homes. The determining factor seems to be the degree of social integration they’ve been allowed. On the other hand, even Muslims who aren't particularly religious project a strong traditionalist Islamic identity if they feel isolated within their adopted countries.
Ironically, Islamophobic rhetoric and hearings like Congressman King's discourage any hope for greater integration and assimilation by casting suspicion on Muslims as a group-- particularly as potential terrorists. And that undermines the very cultural changes King says he'd like to see.
Finally, Religious Islam is not nearly as “foreign” as it may at first seem. In his new book, Allah: A Christian Response, theologian Miroslav Volf reveals surprising points of intersection and overlap between Islam and Christianity. “What binds Muslims to Christians and religious Jews is a shared commitment to love God and neighbor,” he writes.
What's more, Volf reminds us that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. True, they understand God somewhat differently, but the similarities in their convictions about God are much greater than the differences. Muslims, Christians, and Jews share fundamental values, including some version of the Golden Rule -- a principle that compels you to treat others as you would want to be treated.
“Reaffirming such common values, and holding each other accountable to them,” Volf suggests, “would do much more to improve Americans' safety than will the King hearings.”