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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"The Search for Truth About Islam" (Ben Daniel)

TITLE: The Search for Truth about Islam: A Christian Pastor Separates Fact from Fiction
AUTHOR: Ben Daniel
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, (200 pages).

Fear. Jihad. Terrorism. These words can drive one crazy. They can also cause much misunderstanding and misguided perceptions. This can lead to unintended consequences on the rest of the Muslim public on the basis of a few radicals. Insecurities lead to suspicion. Suspicions lead to fear. Fear leads to policies driven more by phobia instead of reality. Good people are mistreated, misjudged, and misunderstood. At the same time, the phobia leads bad people to become more dangerous themselves. The speedy availability of news and information makes it easy to keep people informed or misinformed. It works both ways.This book is written to address all of these.

Beginning with a description of the McCarthy era in the 60s where the fear and dislike of Communism had brought along lots of misunderstanding and unfair treatment of anything or anyone expressing any sympathy, Presbyterian Pastor Ben Daniel notices a modern McCathy-like fear in the way Americans in general treat Islam and Muslim people. From accusations that Barack Obama is a Muslim to arrests of a bartender who had served the author coffee, Daniel grapples with public perceptions in order to help readers distinguish fact from fiction. His aim is to show there has been too much misunderstanding and injustice done to Muslims so far, even as he acknowledges the existence of certain radical Islamic groups. The way he does it is not to take a position of "balance" where he takes some pros and some cons and walk the middle path. Instead, his agenda is to seek out what is true and to expose what is false. Eventually, he wants to confront the biggest giant of all: Fear.

Part 1 describes what Islam is about, arguing that Islam it more than just a set of affirmations of faith, but comprises "various divisions, traditions, denominations, and schools of thoughts." Even the two largest Islamic groups, the Shiite and the Sunni have deep differences. Our misunderstanding of one group can easily lead us to caricature all groups. At the same time, there has been strong opinions by certain groups in America that Christians and Muslims are going to have a future showdown. This is furthest from the truth. Making a personal trip to Jerusalem, Daniel watches how both adherents are able to live side by side, proving that the American fear of Christians vs Muslims is pretty much a mirage. There is even a "Muslim" part of a Church he visited. In fact, the early patriarch of Mr Nuseibeh's family (who is Muslim) even protected Christians. Despite the bad history of the Crusades and the Muslim war, a lot of peace loving efforts have been left unreported and undiscovered. Back to America, Daniel observes how a family is not only a devoutly Muslim but also patriotic Americans. There have been increases in complaints by Muslims about mistreatment and discrimination. From being singled out at airport security checks to discrimination at public places, Daniel determines to counter the unfounded fears many Americans have of Muslims and Islam in general. In fact, one Muslim friend commented to Daniel that a whole chapter can be devoted to the ordeals of Muslims flying into the US.

Part 2 digs into the history and background of Islam. The word "Allah" is the word used for God, and God reveals himself through the Quran. Islam has a tradition of outreach, so as to bridge any misunderstanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. He shares of his encounter with a distinguished Islamic scholar, Imam Zaid Shakir, one of the four founding members of a Islamic liberal arts college in the US, where Zaid explains his personal journey from Baptist Christianity, to Communism, to Atheism, to Transcendental Meditation, and eventually Islam. Zaid even says that "99 percent of Muslims are living peacefully in the United States." Daniel tries to understand the meaning of "Jihad" which according to Hatem Baziam, a Professor of Arabic at the University of California, is basically a "personal struggle" to help build a better society.

Daniel examines the person of Muhammad in Part 3. He is one who is believed by Muslims to be chosen by God, to receive the Quran uttered by Allah through the angel Gabriel. So revered is this prophet that Muslims will often say "peace be upon him" whenever the name Muhummad is referred to. Three important milestones are remembered in Islam. The first is Medina where the first communities of Islam first began in AD 622. This reminds me of the Early Church of Christianity in the first century. The second is in AD 624, when Muhammad directed his followers to pray in the direction of Mecca instead of Jerusalem. The third is the conquest of Mecca which was ultimately in Islamic hands by AD632.The matter of violence is complex and can be easily misunderstood by non-Muslims, so Daniel meticulously explores the reasons and the contexts of the violence associated with the wars and conquests.

In Part 4, Daniel deals with the Quran itself, to look at what Islam had to say on violence and on women's rights, two significant concerns among Americans. He notices how the September 11 terrorist attacks have only fueled rising tensions between Americans and the Muslim world. In some cases, Islamophobia has led to inhumane treatment of people suspected of terrorism. Where was the source of such fear of Islam and radicalism? Why did it become so bad? Daniel then interprets the whole barbarism as no different from some of the earlier pilgrims that practice gunboat diplomacy in the eighteenth century England and America. He makes it a point however, to admit that there had been some Muslims in the past who had used violence for their religious causes. He acknowledges that statistics do not tell the whole picture. Just because a large majority of Muslims are peaceloving does not preempt the damage done by a small group of radicals bent on annihilating the non-Muslim world. Nevertheless, Daniel's conclusion is that violence is not privy to any one group, but every single major religion had been guilty of violence at some point in history. On Islam's treatment of women, while trying to make sense of what the Quran says and the practices of Muslims, Daniel is quick to point out that the non-Muslim world is equally guilty of mistreatment of women, such as sex trafficking, prostitution, sexual exploitation, etc. Even in areas like healthcare, education, pay equity, and other places, women have often been on the shorter end of the bargain. So what makes Islamic treatment in the Muslim world any worse than Western non-Muslim world? Moreover, Daniel feels that Western perceptions of how Muslim women are treatment are way too simplistic.He makes a case that perceptions are less about the treatment of women per se, and more about the people who treat them. In other words, if non-Muslims are concerned about how Muslims treat women in the first place, reflect on themselves about the well-being of non-Muslim women now.

Part 5 deals with the American climate of fear that has made everything worse when this climate is superimposed on all other things. One of the ways that fears can be addressed is through education in order to minimize misunderstanding. Daniel describes the five pillars of Islam. He looks at the tensions created by obsession, fanaticism, radicalism, and points out more similarities rather than differences between Muslims, Christians, and others. From government media propaganda to the widespread use of commercial films and documentaries, Daniel keeps his guns aimed at an audience that has given in more to fear than reality.

So What?

The title of the book is itself a giveaway about the message. Even the words "a Christian pastor" is an attempt to make it more authentic and more palatable to American minds. Clearly, the book is about addressing the fears of Americans, which have increasingly swayed public perceptions from reality to insanity. Ben Daniel's work is earnest and commendable. He strives not to let the climate of fear influence his research into Islam. In fact, he has verified his material through interviews, historical background, and painstakingly plow through the tonnes of material surrounding Islam and to give readers a convenient paperback resource. He makes it clear that he is no fan of "balanced" opinion because as far as truth is concerned, "balanced" may very well dilute truth rather than reveal truth. That is a great start. This attitude is also supported with Scripture that knowing the truth will set us free.

Unfortunately, there are three reasons why I feel the book seems incomplete. First, there are only a limited set of interviews of certain Islamic experts. Although Muslims generally adhere to the Quran, the interpretations of the Quran are way too diverse. This is made more complicated as the Islamic faith is often tightly integrated with various cultural contexts that each Islamic branch comes from. For every one person that is sympathetic to Daniel's project, there are many others who are not. Second, the book appears incomplete because the author himself has a personal agenda right from the start. For all his good intentions, I am not convinced that Daniel is impartial. In fact, I sense that the book is a direct counter-reaction to the Islamophobia camp. While making a corrective is good, there is a point in which it can become an "over" correction, which can unwittingly undo the good done. For example, in trying to protect the majority of Muslims who call themselves "peaceloving," has Daniel truly empathized with families and friends who have lost loved ones to September 11, or the terrorist attacks occurring around the world? There are various points in which Daniel acknowledges the problems of American Islamophobia, but he has not adequately addressed it, fairly. Third, the status of the author may very well be a disadvantage already. How can a Christian genuinely understand Islam? In fact, whatever understanding Daniel has, is also an interpretation which can be debatable. My verdict: Daniel has made a good start, but the book looks more incomplete. Perhaps, the author can consider having a co-author who is Muslim in the next edition of the book.

In summary, the three fears summarized at the end of the book is worth considering. It helps to remind readers that fear in itself can sway opinions. In order to see something more clearly, one needs to get rid of impediments that blur or block one's vision. By dealing with the fears that suffocate American society, we can move closer to understanding the truth. I applaud Daniel's efforts to educate the public about some of his learning of Islam, the Quran, the history of Muhammad, and many other important points about the Muslim religion. By concentrating on knowledge sharing, Daniel has given us a necessary resource to clear up any misconceptions.  That said, the best way to use this book is to adopt it as only a starting point, acknowledging that book is not a dogmatic treatise but an invitation to discuss and interact, freely and without fear. This book is high in dispelling unfounded fears about Islam, but in terms of the coverage of Islam per se, it only scratches the surface.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

1 comment:

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