Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Making peace with disillusionment

Mohja Kahf presents an insider’s loving view of Islam through this coming-of-age immigrant novel, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf . Khadra Shamy, a young Syrian girl, moves to Indiana with her family to be missionaries to the evil Western world and help the American Muslims navigate the difficulties in clashes between shariah law and American law. They face many difficulties as they build the small Dawah Center into an established Muslim community. Khadra struggles between doing what is expected of a proper Muslim girl -- the limitations it puts on staying true to herself – and the freedom that American culture offers. As Khadra grows, she sheds her black-and-white thinking with the stages of childhood: discovering that her idealistic view of Islam is not always perfectly practiced in Arab or American lands, that parents sometimes lie, and that she can be a good Muslim while also being an independent woman.

The author advocates Islam as love, a woman’s right to enter a mosque and pray and learn, and the importance of Mohammed’s wives. It also reveals that shariah law allows abortion up to 120 days, and wife-initiated divorce – showing how progressive Islam could be considered. This is juxtaposed with one character’s suicide bombing, polygamy, Holocaust denial, the delight the Muslims took in the Iranian hostage situation and the Iranian Revolution. As Khadra grows older, she meets many who disagree with the views she was brought up with, and she begins to challenge them and herself to seek a way to tie her beliefs and new understanding together.

I enjoyed reading this novel for the inside take on Islam. I think it is wonderful that the author has been able to counter anti-woman messages with other quotes from the Quran and Islamic history. She is able to present a peaceful version of Islam that would provide more equality than is practiced in most parts of the world. However, in my view, it is a little too easy to say, “oh their interpretation is wrong, that is why they commit these terrible acts.” It is too easy to say that jihad ought to be a war of words, not violence, when it is obvious that many interpret passages of the Quran to be a call to violence. I agree with the author that most Muslims are more apt to desire peace – as most people in general are – than to wish to be a radical and possibly lose their lives, but it also seems like a pat answer. The idea of martyrdom has drawn many after all. Kahf mentions the Islamic challenges to freedom, yet seems to believe that these will fade away as Muslims encounter Western culture and assimilate only the good aspects of it. This can be true for some communities, but certainly not all. This is in rather direct opposition to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s portrayal of the Muslim interactions with the Western world and I am more inclined to believe Ali, who has gone through much tribulation for challenging woman's freedom and place in Islam.

For further reading: check out Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s two wonderful books: A Caged Virgin and Infidel.

I want to end with this quote by Khadra’s father from The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf.
“Brothers, do not for a minute think that we will stop protesting against the immoral and unfair policies of America outside, in the Muslim world. May my tongue be cut off if I forget Jerusalem. But let’s face it: here inside American, there are many good qualities. Law and order, cleanliness, democracy, freedom to work and honestly seks the provision of the Lord, freedom to practice religion. These are Islamic qualities. America is like Islam without Muslims. And our sick and corrupt Muslim home countries – they are like Muslims without Islam” (144).

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