Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Thinking about Islam...

My dad sent me this bit by Sam Harris, author of "End of Faith" and "Letters to a Christian Nation." I have only read the former of the two titles, and I confess I don't remember it well. It had some compelling points, but I was not entirely swayed by his argument that religion in moderation is basically as bad as religious extremism because it sanctions it somehow. Despite not having any kind of religious upbringing, I have a soft spot for religion. I don't like to condemn my friends who do have a religious faith. Maybe it's just me being a sentimentalist. I also have some respect for the traditions and forms of faith -- and being ridden with anxiety like I am, I have a longing for a kind of solace and inner peace that I imagine religion offers some people.

Still, it's very interesting to read Sam Harris' points of view. He is willing to say things that people don't like to say, and this article proves that at the same time that it asserts the necessity of such speech. He certainly does put his money where his mouth is.

I recently finished reading "Three Cups of Tea," which I could talk about at length but which is essentially just a story of this guy, Greg Mortenson, who after a failed trek up K2, stumbled across a remote rural village in Pakistan and became crazy committed to building a school there. After a lot of false starts and adventures, he ended up building more than 50 schools, "women's activity centers," and various random other things (for example, in order to build the first school, he realized he had to build a bridge, and he helps them get clean water which completely halved the infant mortality rate). Mortenson believes that education is at least a major key to bring about the end of terrorism, because schools like his, which teach math and writing instead of Islamic extremism like the madrassas (which in the chronology of the book start cropping up everywhere, like mushrooms, and scare the shit out of him), and give villagers options beyond sticking around where they were born tending to yaks and joining up with terrorist organizations. His other big sticking point is how important it is to education women, an assertion that is not totally backed up with facts/evidence from his own schools; however, there was some statistic in the book that shows that communities with more educated women have better health and life expectancy or something like that.

The reason why all this is relevant is because the entire book is filled with assertions both from the author and the Americans and from the local Pakistani people who work with Mortenson to bring about these changes that they are not like the Muslim extremists or the terrorists of whom we are all afraid. It's a major, major theme in the book. So I am torn when I read these "academic" perspectives on the intrinsically violent nature of Islam and then these anecdotal, experience-based stories which indicate the opposite. Or which focus less on the textual shit, the stuff buried in the Qur'an, and instead focus on the lifestyles of the people whose faith rests with and in that book. I mean, in one example in this book, the leader of a village has a Qur'an that he cannot even read, and he is a paragon of virtue, open-minded, dedicated to providing a school for his village, especially for the girls. His granddaughter ends up being the first educated woman in the region. I like to think that there are more men and women like that out there, and indeed, there are more mentioned in the book. But he also can't read his holy book, which academics inform me is filled with all this bad stuff. So what does all that mean? What's the takeaway?

All I can think is that it's very important for us to try to get to know Islam on both an intellectual level and on an experiential level. I think in Harris' case, although I don't know for sure what kind of Muslim-country-tourism he's gotten up to, he relies at least somewhat on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has had first-hand experience with some of the worst that Islam has to offer. (I have her book "Infidel" on my to-read stack and I keep thinking I really need to push it higher up in the queue.) But what am I supposed to do? Just reading "Three Cups of Tea" I learned tons about Pakistan. I vaguely knew that there were different tribes there, but had no real grasp on that fact. And I'm not planning on making a trip out there anytime soon, so I have to reach for information where I can find it. I think if nothing else, that is something I'd like to take away from this Harris piece -- more information, not less, is good.

Something worth thinking about.

1 comment:

D said...

It's probably a very good thing that the leader of the village can't read the quran.
I really admire Harris. but you already know this