Dr. Fathi Osman at Al-Hewar Center:
"Islam Should be Recognized as
Dynamic, Flexible Religion"

    Islamic Scholar Dr. Fathi Osman, attended the discussion forum Al-Hewar Center, in metropolitan Washington, D.C. on May 6, 1998. The topic for the evening was "Building Bridges of Understanding Between Islam and America," with featured speaker Mr. Alex Kronemer. After Mr. Kronemer's presentation (which you can read in the July/August 1998 issue of The Arab-American Dialogue), Dr. Osman was asked to discuss his experiences of trying to bridge the gap of understanding between Western and Muslim societies.
    He began by asking how the "phenomenon of the West misrepresenting Muslims and of Muslims misrepresenting the West," occurred. While the Western media does have biases and makes misrepresentations of Islam, he said, this is "due to ignorance or lack of information and knowledge, not necessarily to bad faith." He observed that Western television and newspapers dwell on the "spicy" or strange things - the crimes, the problems, the gangs, the drugs, traffic problems, car chases, etc.. Those of us who live here may know that these cases represent "one percent, or one per thousand or one per million of this society," he said, but the person who is just coming from the Middle East or the Muslim World, may get the impression that this is a society without decent values or morality.
    "These images are very dominant," he said. "The media here is looking for the spicy things, and the spicy things are not always the healthy things in a society. So the West is misrepresented in its own media. It becomes very clear, then, how and why Islam is portrayed so badly in the Western media." The media here focuses on those Muslims involved in national struggles or resistance movements, and then lumps all Muslims into that one category "ignoring, or forgetting, that not all Christians are one pattern, and not all Jews are one pattern." He noted that just as one's image of Catholicism should not be based solely on what is happening in Northern Ireland, so should one's impression of Islam not be based on one idea or group of people. People here know better about Catholics because they have many Catholic neighbors and friends, and this is starting to be the case with Muslims too, he said. As people have more and more Muslim acquaintances, their perceptions about Islam will improve. "…Now politicians, people in Congress, have made a number of hearings about Islam, the Republican and Democratic parties reach out to the Muslim community during elections, the White House and the First Lady hosted a group of Muslims during the Eid of Ramadan." This improved situation is providing new opportunities, not only for religious audiences, but for politicians, the media and academia to learn more about Islam.
    The media is reaching out more to Muslims, he said. Now when something happens, they try to contact Muslims for their side of the story. But, he cautioned, Muslims must also do their part. Sometimes they are not sociable enough or positive enough, or they expect people to come to them instead of going out to the people. It is especially important to reach out to the media, he said.
    He talked about his positive experiences with the media in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times once devoted eight pages completely to Islam and most of the material – maybe 90% – was taken from Muslims: interviews, information, everything. It is to our advantage, he said, "to build relations with the media to such an extent that they contact us whenever any problem occurs or anything that they don't know about and they come and ask us what we think about it." He noted that the Wall Street Journal also sent a correspondent to LA, who lived in the Muslim community for three days, just to meet and become familiar with the Muslim population. He said that it is important to dispel the myth that there is a conspiracy. "Some people may have some bad ideas about Muslims, but not all media people are agents. They are professionals who need diverse sources, and we have to approach them and facilitate their jobs.
    Turning to human rights, Dr. Osman said that Islam "is spirituality, morality, belief, and the applied result, or consequence, is human rights… We worship God because God wants us to worship the God who would not abuse our worship, who really does not need our worship, but to prevent us from worshipping the bad gods, the evil gods – not to worship ourselves, or money, or anything else. Not to be exploited. Otherwise, He does not mind if we worship him or not. Worshipping God is a way of establishing human rights, and we should cement and strengthen this side. It is not a metaphysical issue or a supernatural issue… Allah, in the Koran, says that He has conferred dignity on the children of Adam. So we believe that plurality is Islamic, because He spoke about the ‘children of Adam' – not Muslims, not non-Muslims, not Arabs, not anything. We are all children of Adam and we all have dignity from God, and we should preserve it and we should maintain it and we should secure it."
    There are two approaches to human dignity, he said. There is secular humanism, which was a reaction to certain persecutions and problems, and Muslims understand very well the motives that led to secular humanism, and they respect it. And there is Islam, which puts all of these things into consideration because Muslims are not allowed to cause problems or harm any human being in the name of religion. "Being submitted to God," he said, "means that we do not submit to our own egoism, or to selfishness, or to racism, or to any sort of exploitation or abuse...
    "I believe that religion is a way to establish and strengthen human dignity and freedom. Because if you submit yourself to the One God, then you are not a slave to any other person. And this is ultimate freedom and equality. All of human kind, all people, are equal, because we are all created by God." The Islamic approach to human dignity, said Dr. Osman, does not find any contradictions with secular humanism and those who want to establish these ideas based on philosophy or law. Muslims do not contradict any effort to support religious beliefs by law or by constitution. "By nature," he said, "Muslims are the first people loyal to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights because they believe in it as faith, not just as law and having to obey only the police and the judges and the courts, but as an obeisance to their conscience, because this is a matter between the individual and God."
    He also stated that the secular way and the religious way both have the same goal, regardless of the difference in their approaches; however, religious people believe that the religious way is more comprehensive and will appeal to wider masses, precisely because it is related to the conscience.
    Another important element in bridging the gap between Islam and the West, he said, is to recognize that "every religion and every idea goes through stages… This development is accepted in the history of Christianity, in the history of Judaism, in every history, except when it comes to the history of Islam. Nobody is allowing that Islamic thinking went through stages," he stressed. "We developed and we have dynamism within Islamic thinking itself and within Islamic sources. The dynamics of flexibility exist within the relationship between God and man, and so we can have different views according to different circumstances. Sometimes this confuses people…" Each Muslim will interpret Islam according to his or her time and place and particular understanding of the Quran, he said. "The Quran didn't change, but the people who change are the Muslims who understand and apply the Quran. You cannot say that the person of Mecca or Medina understands the Quran the same as the person in Washington in 1998. That is impossible. It is the same with the Gospels and the Torah." But people have taken Islam out of time and place and placed it in a vacuum and consider the understanding or interpretation of Islam to be unchanging or inflexible. "Islam doesn't change in its book, but the understanding of this book by human beings does change," he said.
    Shoura, for example, is a principle that can be interpreted according to where it is to be applied. "I understand that democracy is the best application of Shoura," said Dr. Osman, "but in the tribal society, they have the Shoura within the tribe. I now have the Shoura within the state, and I may consider the democratic procedures and mechanisms as the way to achieve Shoura. Shoura is Shoura, but it is a very dynamic concept in its achievement." Many Muslims do not allow themselves to think in this way, he said, and of course, non-Muslims even more. They deny the dynamism and variety of Islam. "Don't take one verse of the Quran and try to make it a slogan or the principle of everything," he said. "Be fair and don't take it out of context… The Muslims in Pakistan, in Senegal, in Nigeria, in Washington are all Muslims, but it is impossible that they understand the same text in the same way," he said. "It is important to allow this variety in understanding. Yes, some people may understand it in a very rigid way. But there are also people with different, equally legitimate understandings. It must be accepted that there are other points of view and that Islam is not monolithic.
    "…We have restrictive opinions, we have liberal opinions. Islam as a culture is human. The people who interpreted the Quran are human beings. Some of them are rigid; some of them are flexible; some are liberal; some are patriarchal. This is all about our heritage. What about the 21st century or the last decade of the 20th? We are not allowed this thing which is human and which is allowed to any other religion or culture. We are defined by terrorism and so on. This has also been taken out of context that resistance movements or the defense of certain rights is taking place. But not every country can be judged according to its military activities.
    "When people under any religion are attacked, or denied their rights," he said, "they retreat or withdraw into the shell of rituals. This is what has happened to many Muslims who have endured colonization, occupation, and other external pressures. Their only retreat is in the rituals… This does not mean, of course, that rituals do not stand for certain principles or for spiritual things or concepts, but what happened in practical terms is that Muslims were forced to go to the wall and the only thing that they could hold onto for their identity was to pray. So they prayed, and they fasted and so on. Because these were the things that nobody could interfere with, and they became the symbols of Islam. This is unfair, of course. We must now revive a healthier way of thinking about Islam… Islam as a life, not as Islam as a defense, whether a defense of identity or spirituality or whatever. … Islam is wider and bigger and contains more than this. Some Muslims may be affected by this and will insist that whenever you are Muslim you should pray, but they do not look at the wider perspective of the relationship of the Creator to the created and the spirituality and the morality of all this. They are restricting something that in its essence is wide – wider than personal judgment. I cannot judge another person just because I pray and he doesn't, because he may be better in his depth. Only God knows.
    "I believe that there are many landmines that Muslims and the West must overcome in order to make both the image of Islam fair and the image of the West fair. Many things can be done if we are sincere in bridging the gap. It is a cultural gap and a conceptual gap, not a physical or social gap. We and the Western people who believe that all humanity is equal and free, we can work together to improve the situation and to bridge this gap." u

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