Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Review: Burqas, Baseball and Apple Pie by Ranya Tabari Idliby

Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in America
After listening to an interview with Ranya Tabari Idliby, author of Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in America, I published a response/rant the guilt from which compelled me to buy and read the book.

My response to the interview reflects my views, but the book impacted me more deeply and, upon reflection, helped me appreciate Ustaza Ranya's positions. I present some criticism unique to the book and a few observations, and I end with a strong promotion of the book and Professor Ranya.

On page 44, she ponders the terms "secular Muslims" and "non-religious Muslims."
Too often, the choice in the West is cast as if it were a battle between Islam and secular Muslims, a choice that many Muslims appear to confirm when they describe themselves as secular Muslims or non-religious Muslims. I do not feel that this is a wise choice. We must give our children other options. To abandon or to call oneself not-quite Muslim is not just semantics. It has real and important consequences. It denies the possibility of the natural and necessary diversity that exists and has always existed within Islam. ... To shrink from Islam or to qualify our Muslim identity is to abandon our religion in its time of need. For all the stereotypes and challenges, for all the misconceptions and fear, I still expect my children to carry the truth of their faith with conviction and pride, to patiently serve as Americans and as Muslims. It takes courage and fortitude to navigate childhood and young adulthood in defiance of those who are too eager to label you or to dismiss you as qualifying for neither or as both.
On pages 45-6, Ustaza Ranya writes:
My friends have asked me, as I have sometimes wondered myself, why I continue to remain Muslim in spite of my frustrations. The reasons are many, but perhaps the most important is that I remain a Muslim to some degree because of my frustrations. ... I am a daughter of Islam. I have loved its stories, poetry, and people my whole life. I have loved its heroes and heroines. I have loved its prayer beads in the hands of my father and my grandfather before him. I have loved its sights, smells, and sounds; its domes, minarets, and prayers; its art, architecture, mosaics, and ceramics. To have loved is to owe. It is to stand by it in its hour of need. I know no other way. [italics in original] 
I agree with her criticism of the term "secular Muslim," and I wonder why she described herself with that term in the CSPAN interview. On page 210, Ustaza Ranya seemingly interchanges the terms "Muslim secularists" with "secular Muslims."
Muslim secularists are not necessarily rejecting their faith. Many do not want to be at the mercy of orthodox Muslims who have appointed themselves as guardians of the faith and who define faith strictly through the observance of rituals. Many secularists do not want to be denied the possibility of spiritually rich lives. They are often inspired by Muslim values and the belief in the transcendent, beyond the here and now of life. Many secular Muslims are not happy just committing to humanistic or secular ideals, but insist on their right to be inspired by Islam's rich plurality of traditions and culture. They do not believe that orthodoxy is exaggerated and inflamed to empower orthodoxy to define the boundaries of faith. [p. 210]
A secularist is a believer in secularism. The varied definitions of secular seem to preclude it from describing somebody affiliated to a religion. I believe in secularism because I think it is a better way to organize society than state-enforced religion. But I am not secular because I believe individuals' actions have a worldly dimension and an otherworldly dimension, i.e. God's judgment. In this and in other issues, Ustaza Ranya is not systematic and careful with her language. [However, by the time I finished the book, I began thinking that my search for systematic thinking was akin to the various fundamentalisms she was criticizing.] [P.S. See this interesting article about religion secularizing.]

It is also clear from the second passage the great extent to which Islam remains for Ustaza Ranya a matter of personal identity. Earlier in the book, she emphasized how it would be inappropriate for parents to burden their children with a despised religious identity out of "loyalty." [pp. 13-14]

It is also tricky, IMO, to say that Islam is in need. And even if I would accept that assertion, I would hesitate even more to think that it needed me. In a secular sense, Islam is not an animate being that needs (see Edward Said's book Covering Islam.) In a divine sense, if Islam is God's religion, than there's no reason to fear for it. Muslims, and humanity in general, are in need. There may be something I can do for them. I also think the same thing when I hear Muslims of other viewpoints say things like "Islam needs you to do X or believe Y."

I'm sympathetic to Ustaza Ranya's response to the passage in the Quran which some Muslims have used to justify wife-beating. She wrote that Muslims take three approaches. The first is literalist and Wahhabist and in full support of the most misogynistic practices. "The second approach, embraced by apologists, tries to whitewash the verse by offering conditions and qualifiers regulating and limiting the circumstances under which a Muslim husband can beat his wife. ... I find this approach tragic and comically absurd in its desperate efforts to resolve a Quranic verse that is clearly offensive--even to those defending it. Its proponents understand that the verse is unacceptable to the social and cultural values of the twenty-first century, but they are not ready to make that leap which requires the rejection of a verse that is in the Quran. Progressive and reform-minded Muslims embrace the third approach." (pp. 72-3)

The author mentions some figures who have shaped her thoughts on these matters. Most prominent is Feisal Abdul Rauf, associated with the Cordoba Initiative to build a community center in Lower Manhattan and author of the book What's Right with Islam, which I liked. Another is Abdolkarim Soroush, whom she met through a New York Times Magazine article. Ustaza Ranya writes, "... I secretly wondered if Muslims had virtually replaced the divinity of Jesus with the divinity of the Quran ... In my mind, the Quran for many Muslims had become God; to worship God was to worship the Quran." [p 51] She also references Khaled Abou El Fadl and Fazlur Rahman.

I do feel a need to be more systematic when taking radical positions regarding the dominant ideas among Muslims about the Quran, but I do not believe that that particular shortcoming overshadows the insights Ustaza Ranya presented on this subject.

I was curious to find out what Ustaza Ranya ended up doing regarding the textbook which mentioned Muslims' acceptance of wife-beating, but that was never revealed in the book.

The book is filled with praise for "America." Thus, I found it ironic that the author could write this sentence without irony:
Israel is America's kindred spirit in the Middle East, a relationship nourished by religious, cultural and political connections. [p. 97]
Another example of unsystematic use of a concept fraught with dispute in American minority communities is assimilation:
As a confident America moves forward in its expansive power of assimilation, I hope that my children too are a part of that larger and better union, a stronger union, and a union that includes American Muslims. Let us inspire Muslims all over the world as they pursue a justice and a freedom that we as Americans have long known. [p. 158]
This passage upset me at first, but I believe the author has in mind something that only became more clear to me by the time I finished the entire book.

I also disagreed with the author's definition of fatwa: "legal decrees in Islam issued by religious law experts." [p. 87] But I 100% agreed with her condemnation of the mindset which demands and produces fataawaa:
Do Muslims really need a fatwa on everything from brushing their teeth to how they socialize? Or when and how to have sex with their spouses? What some of these people need are parents, not Muslim legal opinions. By engaging in the trivial and the banal, Islam becomes a trivial and banal religion. [p. 92] 
My attitude about the book changed right as I was entering its final third. Perhaps it was because my own rigidities were loosened enough to appreciate it. Sometimes a book and a reader take a while to get in tune. Think of two pendulums eventually matching oscillation. Or maybe because Ustaza Ranya just let it rip and wrote the final chapters with more passion.

On pages 141-2, she makes her first historical argument about why Muslims frequently seem to justify political violence.

Then we start getting beautiful passages such as:
Those who have made Sharia into an obsolete punitive system obsessed with regulating people's vices as opposed to a true quest for justice or taqwa are criminals. [p. 157]
Chapter 16, entitled "Mommy, Can I Marry a Jew?," makes two assertions with which I disagree yet contain truth I cannot deny. The first is that it is better to marry a good non-Muslim than a bad Muslim. The second, regarding the offspring of mixed religious marriages, is the idea that the child can practice two religions at once.

As a male, I have forbidden myself from commenting on women's clothing issues, but I like how the author handles it in Chapter 17.

Speaking of the idea of the "Clash of Civilizations," the author writes:
My children's identities will not be a paradox, but an inspiration. It is more accurate today to speak of the complicity of civilizations. Of the candor, collaboration, and cooperation of civilizations as we move forward together to solve, heal, cure, and advance in our quest for God's irrefutable and absolute values. [p. 203] [italics in original]
In the final chapter, the author describes her idea of assimilation in rhetorical assertions of the rightful place of Muslims in America and the noble nature of America itself:
America's nascent ideals have proved to be more powerful and resilient than the contradictions of its reality and historical struggles. ... When American Muslims salute the flag and take the oath, they are bowing at the altar of America's one and most important religion, which preempts all other differences and diversities; it is an American faith in the elixir of its ideals. Although historically those ideals have been tested, corrputed, and appropriated to the exclusion of others, time and time again it is not cynicism that sets in but a resilient faith that a better America will reign supreme. ... Our journey has been about refusing to be denied our simultaneous Muslim and American identities. By no uncertain measure, we choose to be Muslims because we refuse to be lesser Americans. [America's] heart and soul are in its historic promise, its superpower ability to welcome, assimilate, and empower those who continue to flock to its shores. [pp. 221-5]
So I feel like I disagree with the author on a variety of points, yet the author has convinced me that those differences don't matter. It's more important to focus on the values of agreement, which are more important, than the value of purity of religious practice or ideology. It's very disarming! It is very easy to continue reading and listening to people who reaffirm your own thinking. I am very happy that I did read this book despite my misgivings because it changed how I think about my practice of Islam and my relations with other people.

P.S. I also think that the author's concern for her children elevated her thinking on topics beyond where I, who don't have children and thus may not have as much skin in the game, have gone. It's like the Arabic proverb:
اللي إيده في المية مش زي اللي إيده في النار
Literally, "the person whose hand is in water isn't like the person whose hand is in fire." Meaning something along the lines of walking in another person's shoes.

Updated February 25, 2014: Everywhere I had written the word fatwa, I inserted a link to a fantastic article.