Giving Islam a Bad Name

malala yousufzai 2Today, on her 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai addressed the United Nations about her experience of being shot by the Taliban for speaking out on the importance of education for girls. On the day she was shot, she said, “nothing changed in my life except this—weakness, fear and hopelessness died.”

I can’t even imagine the courage it took, and still takes, for girls to attend school in northwestern Pakistan. There have been more than 800 attacks on schools in the region since 2009. Schools are routinely bombed in the middle of the night. Existing schools have armed guards during the day. And yet many girls still attend; their desire to be educated is that strong.

But this post isn’t primarily about their courage or Malala’s message. I’m writing today because of the great sadness, and yes, anger, I feel about the dishonor the Taliban and other like-minded organizations bring on Islam.

The Pakistani Taliban says that the education of girls is a symbol of Western decadence and governmental authority. They also bomb schools to keep the military from being able to establish temporary bases in them. But of course their motivation isn’t really about politics, it’s about protecting the sanctity of Islam.

Excuse my language, but that’s bull***t. And I’m sick and tired of organizations like the Taliban using Islam as an excuse to acquire power and intimidate enemies.

I accepted Islam as my religion partly because I admired its emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge. To me, education is almost as sacred as worship. For what good to Allah is a Muslim who is ignorant, especially willfully so? And why would Allah want women to be ignorant when they are the very foundation of the family?

It’s bad enough that some Muslims kill in the name of Allah. But most non-Muslims realize that these are the actions of a few deluded fanatics. However, when they hear that whole Islamic organizations advocate the repression and mistreatment of women, they find it hard to give Muslims the benefit of the doubt.

I’m tired of non-Muslims looking at me like I’m crazy when I say that Islam is an egalitarian religion and that Mohammad admonished his followers to treat women with justice and respect. I despair of ever convincing them to give Islam a chance when the news is full of stories about honor killings, female genital mutilation and deadly attacks on schoolgirls.

The media are partly to blame for sensationalizing the negative, but not as much as fundamentalists are for perpetrating the myth that Islam is patriarchal and misogynist. I feel like a mother whose child has been wrongly accused of wrongdoing; my heart breaks at the damage that is done to Islam’s reputation in the world.

Sometimes I imagine the day when all these “pious” Muslims will be judged for how they distorted Islam’s message. We all have sins we dread being confronted with on Judgment Day, but I hope that making the lives of half of Allah’s children miserable won’t be one of mine.

The Individual and the Ummah

Muslims are constantly talking about the ummah, which means “community,” specifically the community of all believers. We’re proud of being a part of this community, but in actual practice we do little to foster a feeling of fellowship among its members.

Sure, we all pray “together” five times a day and fast at the same time during the month of Ramadan. And there are mosques where we can gather for prayer and other events. But unless you live in a Muslim community or country, it’s hard to feel like you have access to actual brothers and sisters with whom you can share joys as well as afflictions.

This is a big problem in the United States. Outside of communities where there are a lot of Muslims (for example, Dearborn, Michigan), there are too few masjids to serve the needs of Muslims who are scattered all over the country. In my own area, there are none close to where I live and the ones that are closest tend to be made up of close-knit groups who share the same ethnicity or nationality. As a white American convert, I don’t feel at home in any of them.

Another problem is that Muslims don’t have clergy the way that Christians do. If you belong to a church, there is always a central person you can call on for help or guidance. He or she will pray for you, visit you in the hospital, baptize your children and officiate at your death. And if you’re new, it will be the priest or minister who will either personally or through an assistant visit you and welcome you to the church.

I’ve been a Muslim for almost three years and I have never received a call or visit from anyone at the mosque where I said my Shahada. I don’t even know the name of the man who heard my confession of faith! I’ve never been called by anyone from any masjid where I’ve attended, partly because the masjids I’ve gone to don’t keep records about their members, let alone about people who have just visited.

Most churches encourage new visitors to stand up and be recognized so that people can come up to them after church and make them feel welcome to come back or to attend Sunday School classes. They also encourage them to become members of their particular congregation, and if they do, they are entered on the membership roles.

I’ve often wondered how masjids get enough money to operate on when they don’t have any way of identifying who their members are. The only appeals for money I’ve ever heard were made informally after prayers. In Christian churches, if you’re a member you will be contacted about giving money to the church on a regular basis. While there are times when this can be irritating, I still don’t see how a religious institution can function without it.

And yet somehow mosques do flourish, even without formal requests for money. This is partly because charity is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Every Muslim knows that he has an obligation to give of his own bounty toward the aid of others.

This is one of the things I love about Islam: the emphasis on personal responsibility. We don’t wait for someone to remind us that we’re supposed to do something (not even Allah); instead, we’re supposed to be constantly seeking ways to be faithful to the tenets of Islam. We are to educate ourselves about our obligations. Imams and fellow Muslims can give us guidance and inspiration but it’s ultimately up to us to do what’s right.

But all too often individual efforts to help are hit-and-miss.  Masjids are run by volunteers, but what if they don’t get the volunteers that they need? Without a formal clergy, strong leadership and an organized structure, many basic needs go unmet. This is one of the weaknesses of Islam.

The way I see it, the ummah is only as effective as its individual members.  There is no professional clergy whom Muslims pay to do their work for them. Each Muslim is held accountable for what he or she does (or doesn’t do) in life. It does no good to complain about what the community is not doing for us when we ourselves are not doing anything for the ummah.