Today we reunited with a friend – a Muslim woman who has presented for the program since 2008. She speak about Islam and her life  as a Muslim woman living in S. India. In the past, her lecture has been the cause of emotional reactivity – I remember myself as a student feeling exasperated back in 2008. This year, her presentation had the most positive reception yet.

I’ve heard her lecture twice before and genuinely appreciated her ability to speak about religion without proselytizing, without shaming, without a single effort to convince – she spoke of her religion and her life. People naturally had reactions to some of her beliefs as a Muslim, for instance, her statement “everyone is born Muslim.” Then when she explained her use of Muslim to mean that we all have Allah or God or love in our hearts when we are born, it was palatable. It is easy to defend, judge, criticize and assert my non Muslim-ness… After all, I am not a believer of institutional religion. Yet I am a believer of acting in a loving and kind way to others as much as possible, and without attribution to false altruism (after all, it makes me feel good). That is my religion – to be a good human being. And what I heard was that she would consider this acting in love – equated with acting in reverence to Allah. Thus, it would make me Muslim. I don’t know…I’m not sold.
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The lecture did have other difficult moments.
She spoke of misconceptions of Islam (see image). I appreciated hearing about equality between men and women written in the Quran – for instance that divorce is permitted and that men are taught to protect their family and when married to treat both wife and mother with respect. Yet, I knew there were many inequalities present as well that she was not drawing attention to. Having not read the Quran myself, I really didn’t have much to comment.

The funny thing is I had a list of questions to ask her but my inquiries slowly became less important as her lecture continued. In particular, I was struck by her recount of moments of harsh treatment and discrimination by Hindus. She is a religious minority in India and is clearly identifiable as such because she chooses to wear a hijab everyday. This made me think: she could easily hate Hindus or non Muslim but she doesn’t. Hate breeds hate and it has to stop somewhere. She defended Islam by saying that terrorists and 9/11 had nothing to do with Islam or being Muslim and due to terrorism claiming actions in the name of Allah, Islam has been demonized globally. Jason raised a supportive point: Why is it that the actions of religious cult leaders or Hitler doesn’t ruin Christianity globally but we cannot separate terrorist actions from Islam?

One student had a strong reaction to the lecture and our subsequent visit to the mosque. She did not participate in the prayer with the rest of the group – any I stayed with her. She later explained that when her family was living in Iran, they had been converted to Islam when the regime took over during the war with Iraq. She shared that her siblings were forced to follow Islam and prayed without believing in it. They were oppressed in this manner for many years. She posed a great question: how is it that this loving Muslim woman can be part of the same system that caused such harm to many people, to her family?

This is the plight of institution and religion. When tragedy, evil and oppression has taken place in the name of God, based on human interpretation of texts, the level of entitlement, superiority, control and virtue that people feel about themselves surpasses reasonable thinking. Those who have been orthodox in their practice are accountable for countless acts of destruction. That said, religious practice has also led to discipline, community, generosity and love. The duplicity is difficult to hold. But there is danger when both aren’t held, when one sees that only evil or that only good exists. Human beings aren’t that – all good or all bad. And given that humans are responsible for interpretation of religious texts, religion also follows suit – not all good, and not all bad. We are both and capable of both.