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The Mass Media

UMB Forum Addresses ‘Islam in World Politics’

Islam, a religion often criticized by some for its non-Western qualities, is now beginning to be understood by more and more people and governments in the West who seek the true meaning of Islam. “Islam in World Politics” was a forum sponsored by the International Affairs Association, held Wednesday, November 14 at UMass Boston.

The forum brought six speakers together from various backgrounds to discuss many different issues surrounding Islam, and its role in world politics today. The speakers, Professors Fauwzia Ahmed, Kathleen Sands, Linda Dittmar, Feroz Ahmad, and Primo Vannicelli, along with Muhamadali Adanali, each discussed their individual perceptions, and provided interesting perspectives for all who attended. In their lectures, they answered such questions as: What is Islam really like from the perception of those Who have experienced it in Islamic countries?; What is the true meaning of Jihad according to Islam? How can women in Islamic countries contribute to help stop Islamic extremism?; and more.

Speaking on “Islam and Gender,” Professor Fauwzia Ahmed provided her solution to the problem of the extremist version of Islam. Professor Ahmed calls for a more traditional interpretation of Islam to convey a more feminine point of view. She pointed out that traditionally Islam provides women with an important role, but that some men are interpreting Islam incorrectly. In the Koran itself, according to Professor Ahmed, men and women are viewed as equal and are likewise equal in spirituality. By applying an accepting and egalitarian form of understanding of human beings there can be a more humane and embracing view of Islam, she explains.

Professor Ahmed has conducted research on women in Afghanistan, focusing on the work of a woman-owned bank which provides micro loans to women. The Grahmin Bank, has a revolutionary role because it empowers women economically, whereas in the tradition of Islam women are not supposed to work outside the home. Professor Ahmed described how within the context of a traditional Islamic society, women are finding ways of being major economic forces, while still living within Islam. She posits that, potentially, there is no contradiction.

Professor Kathleen Sands, spoke on “Islam and Western Secularism” which asserted that secularism incorporates Christian values-as we see them in the West. Islam is seen as problematic, in that it mixes religion and politics. However, by not acknowledging this, when Western secular societies interact with Islamic countries, misunderstandings often occur. This results in a perception of the West as a demanding secular society. Professor Sands referred to Edward Said, who, in his book, “Orientalism” seeks to convey a similar, yet stronger message, that the West is committing a “demonizing invasion” on Islamic countries.

Professor Dittmar, of the English department at UMass Boston, spoke on “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” There exists a commonality in the historical experience of Arabs and Jews of “disempowerment and humiliation.” Professor Dittmar posited. The Arabs had been dominated, colonized, and controlled by other forces- just as Jews have been subjected to prejudice and marginalization, etc. She postulated that religion, whether it be Jewish or Muslim, in this context is frequently exploited or used by political groups for their own political ends. For example, she stated that despite

the obvious tragedy of the Holocaust- it is used by political groups to justify Zionism.

Professor Dittmar shared her views on the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the Middle East. She sees the two peoples as being mired in a pathological relationship with significant economic stakes at hand- her implication being that if Arabs and Jews realize that they’re both victimized, maybe they can resolve their problems. She sees both sides as being manipulated by political groups and as having strong economic roles. The solution will not be brought about if mobilizing and promotion of the conflict continues. However, if human beings were to seek the commonality amongst them, she said, then they could prevent the political structures from manipulating them- in this sense there is a solution.

Professor Feroz Ahmad, spoke on the “Historical Context: The Diversity of Islam” which explained how Islam, historically was a peaceful, non-aggressive, embracing religion that never saw itself as the way it is now portrayed. He explained, before WWI there was a good distinction between Islam as a religion and as a national identity. He referred to two secular states to elucidate his point: Iran, (prior to 12 years ago) and Turkey. His interpretation was that due to the failure of nationalism in Arab countries, Islam became more of a religious movement. Moreover, events after WWII like the Arab/Israeli wars, led to the defeat of nationalism. Movements such as the United Arab Republic were formed after WWII to create a national identity amongst Islamic countries, and subsequently Islamic fundamentalism emerged as a reaction to the failure of the goals of these nationalist movements. Professor Ahmad concluded with adding to his explanation of how Arabs turn to fundamentalism to channel their humiliation and anger with the statement, “it is the defeat of Arab nationalism that pushes Islam as a religion to the forefront.”

The next speaker, Muhamadali Adanali, a UMass Boston student who lived and worked in such Arab Islamic countries as Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt, provided his perception, in his lecture titled, “The essence of Islam.” Adanali sought to set straight some of the misperceptions that are prevalent in the West about Islam. Adanali has experienced Islam as a search for peace and sees Islam as preaching a loving, humble

doctrine which nourishes a gentle attitude. If one sets aside images of extremist Islamists and could experience Islam as he has, he feels that they would learn that Islam is about obedience to God- and is inclusive of others, especially Christians and Jews.

In terms of social relations and structure, Islam demands that consultations with others occur between people and along authority lines before decisions are made. Given that this cooperative democratic-consultative process exists in decision making- this represents a form of democracy. The concept of Jihad has come to, incorrectly be considered in the West as a declaration of war. Adanali explained that this is a total distortion of what the religion stands for, as compared to what the books actually say, and from his own point of view from living in Muslim countries. Moreover, to the practicing Muslim Jihad actually means to challenge, or better yourself. To resist temptations within oneself, it is an inner struggle.

Finally, Professor Primo Vannicelli of the Political Science Department spoke on “The Impact of Globalization.” Professor Vannicelli explained how he sees globalization, politically, culturally, economically, as being presented and promoted as a neutral process that benefits all countries everywhere in the world. The reality, he argued, is that globalization is the realization of specific values. That is, political ideologies and economic systems that happen to correspond to the US/European system, while claiming that these values (based on Judeo-Christianity) are neutral and universal.

Vannicelli stated that, economically, globalization is based on the American model of capitalism. Western Europe reacts negatively to the American version of capitalism because Western Europe has a more social democratic version of capitalism and sees it as being undermined by globalization. In Islamic society where both capitalism and cultural values of the West have crept, globalization is perceived as an even bigger threat, due to such an undermining of the essence of what it means to be able to live according to Islamic values. The essence of the problem is that due to those leaders of the globalization process failing to recognize or appreciate that globalization is not a neutral process, they have no idea that in its impact, particularly on Islamic countries, globalization is perceived as Western imperialism, or neo-colonialism.

Professor Vannicelli’s remarks related to some points made by Feroz Ahmad, pointing out that individual’s perception is a recreation of the humiliation of the colonial period, where once again they are exposed to patterns of events that are extraneous to them. Considerable agreement was expressed amongst the speakers. Especially today, understanding the true meaning of Islam is of great importance. Each of the speakers at the forum helped us to understand more. For further reading and understanding on Islam, the New York Times is running a series of articles on the growth and influence of Islam.