Identity, Religion

What does Muslim pluralism look like?

I had an acquaintance in college, a man whose parents had moved to America from Bangladesh, an observant Muslim with whom I would spend late nights discussing religion and watching the mountain fog coalesce. We lost touch after he moved off-campus and later graduated, but I still remember one comment he made to me after I did my best to explain to him what a “machloket” is and how the halachic system accomodates (or otherwise deals with) disagreements in matters of law.
He was impressed, and complained about the Muslim student group on campus, saying the form of Islam espoused there was too strict and particularistic. Muslims from Bangladesh, he said, don’t practice the religion the same way as Muslims from Arabia, and the Arab students in charge were intolerant of that diversity. He and other non-Arab Muslims were told that their clothing was “un-Islamic” and their observances were faulty. He objected, saying, “I’m not Arab. I shouldn’t have to follow Arab cultural norms to be a good Muslim.”
Apparently, policy clashes between conservative and liberal Muslim students, and between Muslim students with different traditions, are common on college campuses. Sound familiar? But unlike in the Jewish community where Hillels have a set policy of pluralism dictated from on high by philanthropists and “Jewish professionals”, according to this article by the New York Times’ gloriously-named Neil MacFarquhar each franchise Muslim Students Association chapter (there are more than 200 in the US) sets its own rules as to what food/clothes/events/philosophies are acceptable. Depending on where you go to school, your local MSA may alternately scandalize traditional parents or Imams, and shun students who aren’t “Muslim enough”.
The reporter, who apparently attended last weekend’s MSA West Conference in San Jose, got some good anecdotes, including community reaction to the sexes mingling at a barbecue, a potential member driven away because he wore a Budweiser t-shirt, liberal Yale vs. Wahhabist UC-Irvine, and the kinds of sermons given by Imams who visit college campuses.
I’m wondering what can we learn from this article, and what those of us still in school can learn from our Muslim fellow students. And what can we teach them? Keeping in mind the extensive similarities and deep differences between Judaism & Islam and between the Jewish community & the Muslim community, there’s got to be some productive knowledge to be gleaned. What do you think it could be?

8 thoughts on “What does Muslim pluralism look like?

  1. “there’s got to be some productive knowledge to be gleaned.” Yeah, stop hanging around with people who want to murder you.

  2. Its right here in little old San Jose. I went to school there at SJSU. The MSA was extremely intolerant. It’s leaders were obsessed with politics and control rather than religion. Other Muslims attempted to start more liberal Muslim groups but were pressured by the MSA into abandoning their attempts. Sometimes the pressure included threats. Pressured into silence at a university, how ironic and sad. They brought Imams onto campus who talked about “The Jewish Conspiracies”. While I was leading the JSU, some Jewish students even encouraged me to work with them, thinking that they would become less radical if they got to know us. I tried but there was too much opposition from within their group to work with us(Jews).

  3. Yes, American style pluralism is going to have a huge impact on Islam as the Muslim population in America grows. See here for some reflections on Muslim American identity.
    (And Incorrect, would you knock it off already. We understand you hate Muslims, you don’t have to post your hate on every article, its getting tired.)

  4. Aaron, the same thing happened with me when i was prez of JSU at Berkeley. MSA had for years refused to deal with us. Yes, they are a bit more religious than political… but they never worked to be as apolitical as JSU was. reading the times article was really illuminating for me.

  5. Why is it necessary to tar someone as “hating Muslims” when their objection is not to individuals who refer to themselves as Muslims, but to those who in the name of the Muslim religion call for the extermination of Israel, the subjugation of monkeys and pigs (a/k/a, in the words of some Muslim clerics, Jews), make Jewish life miserable on many college campuses, and on the whole exhibit the kind of anti semitism that would make the Nazis proud. Can you really talk to that kind of person? Or is our inherent belief in the goodly soul making us oblivious to the reality that there really are a group of self proclaimed Muslims who who like nothing better than a world without Jews, and who intend to do what they can to effectuate that desire?

  6. Maybe it’s because Chillul Who? was telling the story about a Muslim friend from college who was Bangledeshi and was frustrated that the local MSA chapter was attempting to enforce Arab cultural norms (like the racisim of which you speak) on non-Arab Muslims.

  7. This particular student was mad at his intolerant religious establishment, so yes, clearly he wants to kill Jews. There could be no other explanation, other than rational thought.

  8. the same thing happened with me when i was prez of JSU at Berkeley. MSA had for years refused to deal with us. Yes, they are a bit more religious than political… but they never worked to be as apolitical as JSU was. reading the times article was really illuminating for me.

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