The talk was titled “Will the ‘Real’ Islam Please Stand up?” But rather than answering the question, Asma Barlas said asking for a definition of Islam is racist.
The Ithaca College professor and former member of the Pakistani Foreign Service spoke to a small group of students at a Silliman College Master’s Tea Thursday. She criticized Americans’ perceptions of Muslims and called for a sincere dialogue between the American milieu and the Muslim world — a dialogue that seeks to understand rather than blame.
Barlas said Muslims are often asked to define what the “real” Islam is, to explain their religion to people whose true intention is not understanding Islam or the Muslim world. She argued that “defend yourself against my racism,” is often the underlying message in these interactions, and further criticized public officials and members of academia for helping propagate misunderstanding about Muslims in the United States.
She also challenged the views of what she called the “average American” toward Islam, asking why Muslim societies are cognitively reduced to monolithic religious forces rather than being understood in terms of culture, economics, history or politics.
“Why ignore history, culture, politics, economics and ideology when it comes to Muslims?” Barlas asked. “For example, why not interpret 9/11 in terms of a twisted Saudi nationalism, given that bin Laden and most of the hijackers were Saudis.”
She added that Americans — or “U.S.-ians” as she called them — have not bothered to “keep tabs” on what the United States is doing abroad.
“These are the people we oppress and then we’re upset when they’re angry?” she said.
Barlas went on to say that the average American holds Islam responsible for the actions of a few Muslims and does not recognize that religious pluralism exists in Islam as it does in Christianity and Judaism.
“The average American puts a billion Muslims — on call for the actions of a few men,” Barlas said. “By this logic, [one] should blame all Americans for the U.S. bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima — all Germans for the Holocaust, the whole right-wing for Timothy McVeigh’s actions.”
The first woman ever inducted into the Pakistani Foreign Service, Barlas was fired by military leader Zia ul Haq in the 1980s. She has published two books, and worked as a journalist for a Pakistani opposition newspaper before receiving political asylum in the United States.
Her most recent book, “Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran,” addresses sexual equality in the Quran.
James Soza ’05 said he was impressed.
“She seemed to be passionate and well-informed,” he said, “but there was also the polish of the academy.”