Tuesday, July 31, 2007

They Spoke; We Listened and Learned


By Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham

Several months ago “On Faith “(jointly published by the Washington Post and Newsweek) held a symposium at Georgetown University on "What it Means to be Muslim in America." During the discussion, panelists were asked why Muslim religious leaders around the world didn’t speak out against violence.
The Imam on the panel replied that they did. The problem was that nobody listened to them, that the press didn’t report about it because it wasn’t sensational.
So we decided to devote a week on our site to give Muslim leaders a chance to speak out. We posed three questions -- on violence, religious freedom and women’s issues -- and invited more than 50 Muslim leaders throughout the world to respond. Twenty-two people from 13 countries chose to reply to the questions. Others such as the Aga Khan wrote essays on the subject. Other contributions came from Jimmy Carter, Tony Blair, Kofi Annan and Queen Rania of Jordan. We also featured essays from Muslim scholars and journalists from around the world who have studied, taught or covered Islam.
At the same time Newsweek did a cover story on Muslims in America, the Washington Post’s Outlook (opinion) Section devoted their Sunday edition to the subject, and Post-owned Slate Magazine and Post-Newsweek TV stations all participated that week in the coverage as well. Our partners in this endeavor included Georgetown University and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
It was an unprecedented and ambitious undertaking, and we learned a lot. Overall we have received thousands of comments, some positive, some negative. Many of the comments affirmed that different cultures have a long way to go before reaching common ground. But many others suggested that if you reach out, others will reach back. A couple of examples: Ali Gomaa of Egypt and Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah of Lebanon, two controversial Muslim leaders often seen as radical, spoke out strongly against suicide bombings and killing women, children and non-combatants. Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, and others rejected the idea that apostasy is a punishable offense. In some Muslim countries, it is punishable by death.
At first we were concerned that fewer than half of those invited had responded. But when we began to talk to some of our Muslim colleagues and contributors privately, it became more clear why that was so.
Some felt that the questions were too negative, that they had a “When did you stop beating your wife?” tone to them. Others who were invited, we were told, were suspicious of an American owned media company and didn’t know whether they could trust us to print what they said accurately without being edited, or they feared that their remarks would be misused, opening themselves up to hostile comments. As it turned out, they were right about that second concern. There were a number of unacceptable and abusive comments.
Others of more moderate beliefs were afraid to speak out, either for political reasons or safety reasons. And interestingly, some who were known as moderates did not want to go on the record with their more controversial points of view. One of them said he writes his defenses of Islam under a false name. Two women accepted being on the panel and then dropped out with no explanation.
Some who have spoken out often against the violence said they were tired of explaining themselves.
We were told by our Muslim colleagues that even though most of the respondents were names that the average American or European may not have heard of, many of these people are hugely important in their own countries. They are constantly in demand and called upon to participate in so many things that they simply were too busy.
Off the record, many, including very high ranking Muslim leaders, were defensive. They couldn’t understand the problem with Muslim women wearing the headscarf. As one of them put it, “Grace Kelly wore a headscarf and everyone thought she looked fabulous!”
Fadlallah addressed the subject of the veil with a bit of humor. "I would like to add, jokingly, that all men in the world, especially civil servants and high officials, are committed to the veil, since they cover all their bodies except their heads," he wrote, "where as the women also veil their breasts and their sexual organs, depending on the concept of sexual excitation that is broader in the Islamic view than the western one."
These are just some of the issues that arose during the dialogue we have conducted in the past ten days. We have also invited our regular panelists to weigh in on what they have learned and what they thought about the responses to the Muslim leaders.
The most surprising thing we learned is how many Muslim organizations already are trying to combat violence and views that Islam is a violent religion. King Abdullah and Prince Ghazi of Jordan conducted a panel on “True Islam” in 2005 on this very subject and issued a report now referred to as the “Amman Message.” It became very clear that there is power in numbers. The more who speak out, the more others will do so, too.
We are pleased with the results of our “Muslims Speak Out” venture, but we realize that it is just one small step. There is so much to be done in interfaith dialogue, not just on Islam but among all faiths and nonbelievers as well. This is just a beginning for “On Faith.” We want our audience and our contributors to know that their thoughts and their comments will always be welcome.
As it says in the Qu’ran, “God made us different nations and tribes so that we may know one another."

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