Today, the 18th of June, the group was introduced to the NUS Muslim Society in hopes of introducing us to a religion that since September 11th has become somewhat taboo if not simply vilified back home in the States.
I feel somewhat compelled to begin this by saying that back home my best friend is Muslim but his point of view was of that mostly found in the Middle East seeing as how that is the region in which his family originated. Today’s experience was enlightening in several ways because between the media and our own feelings about the culture/religion since the attacks has led many Americans to believe that Muslims are a monolithic people that, while not necessarily sharing the same ideologies, are similar in almost every other facet. The NUS Muslim Society provided us with the views and hopes of South East Asian Muslims which I must say differs substantially from those most commonly associated with the Middle East. (“associated” because what we conceive as the views and hopes of Middle Eastern Muslims is probably much more insidious than their actual views and hopes)
While discussing the prevalence and true meaning of “Jihad” with one of the presenters, his name escapes me; I learned today that Jihad does not translate into “Holy War” as we are most commonly taught in the West. Jihad, according to my new friend, means something akin to “to strive”. He said that Jihad comes in many forms and because he and his peers were at university “striving” for an education that would further them both intellectually and socio-economically, they were enacting one of the many forms of “Jihad”. That blew me away, I won’t lie. Even my pseudo-enlightened World History teacher in the 10th grade presented Jihad as something we Westerners should fear and condemn. Today’s introduction to Islam presented me with several problems that are plaguing me incessantly at the moment; the primary problem tackling the issue of the academic legitimacy of Western, or should I say Westernized, history education. If what we are learning is falsified, or simply a testament to the lack of knowledge even the most educated Americans have about world religions, how are we, as a globalizing nation and world, to come to terms with the many problems combating our global endeavors? We stress the importance of education in building an understanding, thus a tolerance and respect, for other cultures but our education is flawed. What are we to do? I admit that I have neither “The” answer nor any viable conception of a solution.
Later today, after witnessing both a pre-prayer cleansing ritual as well as a simulation of the Islamic prayer of which Muslims are called upon to perform five times a day, we got the opportunity to hear Karen Armstrong, an innovative and forward-thinking academic in the field of Religion, discuss the role of religion in the new millennium. To say that the lecture was boring and pedantic is something akin to blasphemy because she undeniably has the skill to present both the rhyme and reason behind religion and religious beliefs in a way that stresses the importance of both to even the most apathetic of social groups. She further added to the day’s already eye-opening view of Islam by chipping away at the Western misconceptions of the religion, charging those misconceptions, as well as those who would propagate them, as crimes against humanity (not her words). She noted that religion is not intrinsically violent; as a matter of fact it is just the opposite. And what most people view as evidence of Islam’s inherently violent nature is actually political and/or economic strife articulated in religious terms in order to get a particular point of view across. Whether or not you or I agree with this is irrelevant, but the argument in interesting nonetheless and it brought to the attention of at least the people sitting around me, the way in which we perceive the actions of Islamic extremists. Not to mention the fact that most of us also ignore the extremism of certain peoples belonging to the Jewish and Christian faiths.
I have a lot to think about and I’m sure that whether or not I want it to happen, these thoughts and questions will consume me for some time. As I told a friend recently on the infamous Facebook when asked about my trip to “Asia”, this trip is meaning more to me everyday and I’m sure that when I leave here and return to the States I will then fully understand the magnitude of everything that I am witnessing and taking in.