What Does it Mean to Respect Islam?: The Witness of Soraya M.

 
 

Healthy respect takes account of the diversity in Islam and focuses not on respecting an idea but on respecting the humanity of individuals. A new movie that opens in U.S. theaters today helps illustrate this precise point.

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Calls to “respect Islam” abound, as most recently witnessed in President Obama’s speech in Cairo. Some view these calls as “appeasement” and balk at the perception that they are being told to respect everything Muslims do—be it a Muslim charity feeding the homeless or the Taliban throwing acid on school girls’ faces.

On its own, the term “respect” seems to represent a positive concept. And yet when the terms “respect” and “Islam” come together there is tension. The problem in our public discourse about respect and Islam lies in confusion in terminology—attaching different meanings to the term “respect” while assuming we all mean the same thing when we use this term, when in fact we do not.

One helpful resource to untangle this knot is the work of the Respect Research Group of the University of Hamburg in Germany and the Rotterdam School of Management in Holland. Their research into “respect” is complex—it is academic work complete with social science jargon and detailed flow-charts. From their work we can distill some helpful insights with broader applications that will help us maneuver through the controversies about “respecting Islam.”

A key distinction that these “respect” researchers point out is between respect that involves appraisal or evaluation of an issue (e.g. respecting a public leader for his or her political stances) and respect that is an attitude of basic recognition (e.g. respecting the right to life of a human being because of recognition of basic human dignity). They call these two kinds of respect “appraisal respect” and “recognition respect.”

Another aspect of their research that is helpful for working through the controversy about “respecting Islam” is their focus on interpersonal relations. With this in mind, I think shifting discussion away from “respecting Islam” to “respecting Muslims” changes the dynamic in a way that could foster fruitful discussions instead of generating more controversy.

As for the phrase “respecting Islam,” one needs to ask whose Islam? Islam is a vast, complex, diverse realm filled with a multitude of individual, human interpreters. Does “respecting Islam” mean respecting the arguments of those who throw acid in the faces of girls trying to attend school in Afghanistan, or does it mean respecting the arguments of a woman such as Asra Nomani who seeks access to mosques for Muslim women? In both cases this entails “appraisal respect,” dependent on the speaker’s evaluation of others’ actions and attitudes. We should not feel obliged to respect a position that claims the authority of Islam if that position is without merit.

By contrast, the phrase “respecting Muslims” shifts the discussion away from abstraction and toward the plane of human dignity and interpersonal relations. In the case of some Muslims throwing acid on the faces of Muslim girls trying to attend school, I can—even if I do so gnashing my teeth—respect the humanity in the acid-throwers without having to agree with them or condone their actions. With respect for their humanity I can feel concern for them—as believers in their faith they claim to be truth-seekers yet engage in destruction and brutality; it seems that in them there is an internal decay underway that harms them and others around them.

Respecting Muslims means recognizing, on a foundation of human dignity, the humanity—and thus also the diversity—among those who are followers of Islam. It does not mean agreeing with every single one of them on every issue, which would mean simultaneously accepting contradictions.

Consider the true story of the stoning to death of a woman named Soraya for alleged adultery in Iran. A tremendously powerful film based on this story, “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” opens in U.S. theaters today. The film is well made on many levels, and its story of the efforts of Soraya’s aunt and a foreign journalist to make known the profound horror of this case reminds all who see it what the word “courage” means.

When colossal barbarity such as beheading, stoning, or throwing acid into the faces of schoolgirls occurs in Muslim communities, sometimes one sees in the media accusations, or at least insinuations, that because Muslims did these things therefore this represents the true essence of Islam. There is a danger in this approach. I call it “selective Islamicization,” namely associating Islam with barbaric acts carried out by some Muslims while neglecting to associate Islam with the victims and opponents of these acts who are also often Muslims. There are Muslims involved in committing horrific acts, but that is not the whole story.

“The Stoning of Soraya M.” is a case in point. Yes, in this incident the imam, who convicts her in a kangaroo court, and Soraya’s husband, who hatches the plot to get Soraya stoned to serve his own selfish desires, are Muslims. But does this mean Muslims favor stoning innocent women to death? Such a perspective neglects consideration of those getting stoned, and those who are voices instead for justice. In Soraya’s case, she for one, to put it mildly, certainly doesn’t favor getting stoned to death. Likewise, there are Muslims in her community who do not support the injustice of the imam’s kangaroo court or favor the stoning; these Muslims instead seek dignity and authentic justice.

The making of this story into a film is an important project. For one thing, audiences need to understand the depth of the horror in such real-life situations; in this film actress Shohreh Aghdashloo and others excel in conveying raw, excruciating emotion.

Another reason this particular film is important is that director Cyrus Nowrasteh’s telling of this story portrays the lived-practice, not just abstract concept, of Islam with nuance. This film is not a cheap shot at Islam or Muslims. Rather, in “The Stoning of Soraya M.” the faults of those who manipulate religion for selfish gain say more about individual human folly and the brokenness of the political system in that location than about Islam or religion. The filmmakers have steered clear of simplistically assuming and portraying that simply because one man has the title of imam, and another man sporadically drops references to Islam, that therefore all their thoughts, words, and deeds are Islam itself.

The viewer also sees the face of Islam in the woman who is about to be stoned. She is Muslim, and so too is her aunt, who tries to protect her and risks her own life to expose the deeds of Soraya’s attackers. Soraya and her aunt are anything but savage stone throwers. They are Muslim women who care about their families and try to lead decent lives.

So, what does it mean to “respect Islam”? I think the best respect we can show is to respect Muslims themselves, as human beings with human dignity. This is interpersonal respect, human to human. This is different than respect for ideas and concepts.

For me as a non-Muslim, respecting Muslims does not mean that I will always agree with my Muslim interlocutors, but I can respect that they are seekers of truth, seeking God, and that they are human beings created by the same Creator who created me.

Respecting a Muslim who throws acid on a schoolgirl’s face does not mean I am called to silence out of “respect.” On the contrary, it is precisely because I respect the human dignity of both the victim and the perpetrator that I will openly disagree with such destructiveness and the attitude behind it. When heinous acts threaten the humanity of victims as well as the perpetrators’ own humanity, speaking out in opposition is an act of respect for victim and perpetrator alike. Silence would not be respectful, and I would threaten my own human dignity and undermine any possibility for self-respect.

“Recognition respect” of Muslims recognizes and respects their humanity. This should not be confused with “appraisal respect” which involves evaluation of the normative claims of another. With “recognition respect” we can agree to disagree while remaining civil and also leave open a space for the possibility of agreement and collaborative efforts. This does not compromise our own convictions.

The problem with the broad form of “appraisal respect” is that it forces the appraiser to take a monolithic view of what one is appraising, such as the abstract concept of Islam, and then face the binary option of accepting or rejecting the concept.

This is not to say that a person’s beliefs are irrelevant. Respecting an individual requires us to see that a person’s beliefs are important to and valued by that person, and this forces us to recognize the importance of preserving a space for religion in society. When I don’t understand someone’s faith, but respect that person as a human being because his faith is important to him, I am called to listen, inquire further, and learn. This type of respect enables the listener to become a learner, to understand the diversity which can be present within a community, even within a religion.

Focusing on interpersonal respect of Muslims makes human beings the focus and allows room for individual diversity within groups of people. Recognizing this diversity is as important today as it ever has been.

In the struggles and controversies underway at present over the future of Islam and the roles of non-Muslims alongside Muslims, we would do well not to lump peaceful Muslims together with their abusers. Soraya, her aunt, and individuals like them in Muslim communities stand to be allies for human dignity; we should seek out opportunities to partner with them and help their side.

Jennifer S. Bryson is the director of the Witherspoon Institute’s Islam and Civil Society Project. She is a contributor to Public Discourse.

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