Puzzled by Pluralism: Muslim Visitors Question the American Way

By Chang, Patricia M. Y. | The Christian Century, September 6, 2003 | Go to article overview

Puzzled by Pluralism: Muslim Visitors Question the American Way


Chang, Patricia M. Y., The Christian Century


SINCE THE 9-11 terrorist attacks the U.S. State Department has sponsored a number of study programs that bring Muslim scholars from around the world to the U.S. with the aim of showing off the American way" of separating church and state, and demonstrating how American society is able to both nurture faith traditions and support religious diversity. The implied intent is to promote an American-style separation of mosque and state in Muslim countries.

After being an academic director for two of these programs, however, I am acutely aware of how appealing a religiously aligned state is for Muslims, especially for those who live in countries where Muslims are the majority. This may particularly be true in Iraq where Saddam Hussein's brutally repressive secular regime is viewed by some as a cautionary tale of what happens when religious influence is absent from government.

We held the first Fullbright seminar in September 2002, almost exactly a year after the 9-11 attacks. It attracted 13 religion scholars, roughly half of whom came from the Middle East, including the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain. The others came from Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa. The majority had never traveled to the U.S. before, and they confessed to us later that they feared that they would be attacked in the streets for being Muslim.

We went to great lengths to try to make our visitors comfortable. We determined the direction of prayer (toward the qabah) and the correct prayer times for the dates of the seminar according to the longitude and latitude of each day's location. We scheduled the program so as to allow for the prescribed five times of prayer each day. We located halal caterers to provide food at receptions and provided facilities for ritual washing prior to prayer. Still, we were continually reminded that most of our visitors had very little idea of what to expect outside a Muslim country.

Upon arrival they asked to be taken to the nearest mosque to pray. When told that it was a 20-minute drive away they were shocked. "In our country there is a mosque on almost every corner. When it is time to pray you simply walk into the nearest mosque," explained Ahmed Al Dawoody of Egypt. Religion is woven into everyday life in their countries, incorporated into innumerable daily practices and behaviors from the moment they awake to the time they go to bed. They had difficulty understanding how we could claim to be a religious country and yet keep our religious practices separate from our work and public life.

A large portion of the seminar was devoted to showing off the religious diversity that flourishes in the U.S. and Americans' great tolerance of diverse faiths. Rather than appreciating the benefits that religious pluralism offer, to the larger society, some of our guest were clearly puzzled. On the second day of the program, Munib Ur Rehmman, a Pakistani cleric, asked me "If you believe your religion to be true and you believe it is your duty to share this truth with others, then why would you think that religious pluralism is good thing?" I realized that the religious tolerance that we celebrate in the U.S. could be perceived by someone from a religiously homogeneous country as a lack of religious conviction or, worse, a shameful hypocrisy.

I also gained insight into why, in many Muslims' view, religious forms of governance are preferable to democratic regimes. Ibrahim Maibushira, a Nigerian scholar, explained that the Nigerian government has a constitutional democracy that exactly replicates the American model. Despite this form of government and despite being the world's fifth-largest supplier of oil, 98 percent of Nigerians live in abject poverty.

Government officials are so corrupt that Nigeria's northern states, where Muslims are a majority, decided in a democratic election to adopt Shar'ia law and to create Islamic councils to govern local communities. …

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