By Kecia Ali
Associate Professor of Religion, Boston University
It’s spring again. The forsythia are in bloom and the days grow longer. Somehow, spring always takes me by surprise — and that’s no different this year, even after a winter so mild it barely deserved the name. But even as the seasons sometimes drag on, the years fly by. Somehow the last decade has evaporated. What has been accomplished? A letter I wrote in late 2002 sums up what I thought Muslim scholars of Islam needed to do then:
Salaam alaikum. This is a long-overdue follow-up to conversations that I have had with many of you, individually and in small groups, over the past year. In the immediate aftermath of the tragic events of September 11, whatever private mourning and internal reflection we needed to undertake as Muslims was largely set aside in favor of our collective obligation to put our scholarly credentials to use in speaking to the media and in public forums. As the months have passed, however, it has become increasingly clear that only do stereotypical images of Muslims held by many Americans need to change, but Muslims as a group need to change also. Continued silence in the face of the simplistic answers presented as what “Islam says” — in our mosques, in what a dear friend of mine refers to as “pamphlet Islam,” on the Web, and by the leaders of Muslim organizations — is a form of complicity in the narrowing of the bounds of acceptable discourse. It has as one result the indifference of those not content to live with such a unidimensional, impoverished view of Islam and the increasing conservatism of those who remain active and visible.
Certainly, the vast majority of American Muslims can be counted as moderates, both politically and theologically. These Muslims believe wholeheartedly that “Islam is a religion of peace,” the mantra that we heard so often repeated last fall. But while it may be true that the greater jihad is the one against our own unruly souls, this is not the whole picture of the Islamic tradition, and we know it.