The Elephant of Islam

Last night, as the rain fell hard on my window, I considered the crisis in the Middle East and the growing Islamaphobia in mainstream media. I thought of the movie Elephant by Gus Van Sant, which referred to the Columbine High School Massacre of 1999. One scene shows two students with duffel bags full of shotguns ('shotties'), handguns, explosives and assault rifles crossing the campus lawn. They encounter a student, but tell him to keep walking and don't come back – shit was going down. This student implores other students and teachers: “Don't go in there.” His words are ignored. The ‘elephant’ in this film refers to the oppression of the dominant over the disadvantaged. It refers to the elephant in the room that no one talks about. In Elephant, the voice of the average student, aka the majority, was ignored.

What would this voice say about Islam in the news? A 20-year old woman from Qatif, who had been repeatedly raped, found guilty herself due to the charge of “mingling”... The case of a 54-year-old British teacher named Gillian Gibbons who went to a Sudanese jail for naming a classroom teddy-bear Muhammad according to the suggestions of her students... Richard Dawkins, baiting a Muslim to express his hatred of Western decadence... The Danish cartoons... all examples of religion at its worst, nevertheless sensationally misrepresenting a belief system held by 1.57 billion Muslims, 23% of 6.8 billion human beings.

That voice may grudgingly admit that our perceptions of Islam may be distorted by these examples, but the question remains. In an article from the New York Times entitled “Islam's Silent Moderates”, a Muslim apostate turned atheist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, asks: Where are the majority, the moderates who will speak for the peace that is promoted in the Qur’an, in contradiction to the news? Ali criticizes them for their silence. This question speaks directly to the fact that the mainstream media is preoccupied with the loudest and most outspoken. But it does not mean there is nothing being said – we're just not hearing.

Michael Muhammad Knight wrote a book called Taqwacore, describing the rise of Punk Islam through his description of a fictional Muslim Punk manifesto. It struck a nerve and, in a life-imitates-art rebellion, prompted the conception of a Taqwacore movement, including several bands who toured the US and Pakistan. His rationale? That he would rather be standing inside the Mosque pissing out than standing outside the Mosque pissing in.

Jon Stewart, that satirical gadfly of great influence, recently featured Anna Baltzer and Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a Jewish American and Palestinian, respectively, amicably discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict, saying – see? We can get along. Three million viewers, probably laughing.

Then there is Little Mosque on the Prairie. It depicts a small town mosque, presided over by an imam, and explores the sides of faith and assimilation. It’s a sitcom, conceived by a woman named Zarqa Nawaz of FUNdamentalist Films – “putting the ‘fun’ back in fundamentalism.” 2.1 million viewers on opening night.

Finally, there is Afghan Star, akin to American Idol. While Shariah law prohibited music, television and dance from 1996 to 2001, occasionally punishable by death, 2005 saw the emergence of a new parliament, and shortly after, Afghan Star. The winning prize is $5000 and several women have competed, some making it into the top ten. This is of no small significance to a country that, under the Taliban, did not allow women to leave the house without a burqa and an escort. It is the most popular show in Afghanistan, yet despite the excitement, the contestants routinely receive death threats.

The voices of the moderate Muslims must be included according to their own terms. It is difficult to criticize them for speaking out against injustice, fundamentalism, and women's rights when, in most cases, it would mean their deaths to do so. We place an expectation of Western free speech on people who have never known it. But the aforementioned examples of music, dance, and theatre have created a context for moderation and communicationa possibility for art to become the global catalyst. These expressions tell us a different story than the screaming horror of the evening news. Their temperate message may be necessary, because critics of Islam have been violently suppressed, and a metaphor can succeed where a direct contradiction will fail. Far from mere entertainment, the human preoccupation with arts, culture and comedy allows for a complete picture of life in common. The world’s overlapping art forms inform us, and remind us of our similarities; they allow us to discuss these strange elephants in our rooms through metaphor, rather than rhetoric.

//Kevin Murray

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