Islam and Western Society

Friday, May 6, 2011

CSI’s Islam and Western Society took place on April 6, 2011 at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington DC. The event had five speakers representing a broad array of different positions on the challenges facing Muslims living in Western Societies. Some, like Deborah Weiss Esq. and Dr. Ali Alyami highlighted current challenges, while others such as Pastor John Wimberly and Dr. Ahmed Moen discussed ways in which communities could work together even in the face of conflicts over religion. Dr. Diane Perlman, a psychologist whose research focuses on perception and conflict, rounded out the discussion with some additional context.
James Littleton moderated the discussion.

Pastor John Wimberly
Pastor Wimberly argued that Muslims and Islam in general are facing the same pressures as all communities of immigrants that came to the United States. Rather than condemn members of the Muslim community, the United States should do more to integrate it into the mainstream society. The United States’ greatest strength lies in its diversity and its ability to welcome in new peoples from around the world.

Dr. Ali Alyami.
Dr. Alyami argued that the lives of Muslims in the west are greatly complicated by the government of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government uses its wealth to advance the religious agenda of its Wahabi religious leaders.  This is done through both Arabic language media and through funding of religious schools.
The Saudi government’s activism abroad is directly contrary to the interests of Muslim communities. According to Dr. Alyami, the Saudi government actively advocates separation between Muslims and non Muslims as well as advocates an extremely conservative interpretation of Sharia law.  This advocacy is not only directed at Saudi citizens, but at Muslim communities of all origins.

Dr. Ahmed Moen
Ahmed Moen asserted that Americans of both Muslim and Christian faiths share many values. These shared values were not just religious, but stretched to many other parts of public life.  He framed the issue as a matter of religious tolerance—religious tolerance which could be reinforced through dialogue between the mainstream and Muslim communities.
Unlike the other speakers, Dr. Moen pursued the most explicitly religious course, supporting his arguments with citations from the Quran as well as the Bible.
Moen argued that Islam has a long tradition of coexistence, citing Ethiopia as a major example. Islam had a presence in Ethiopia since the time of the prophet Mohammed, when according to the Quran the country’s Christian King offered Mohammed and his followers protection from their enemies on the Arabian Peninsula.  Since then both Christian and Muslim communities have coexisted in Ethiopia and have often resolved their differences through interreligious dialogue and arbitrators.

Deborah Weiss, Esq.
Deborah Weiss’s concerns centered on the application of Sharia Law in the United States as advocated by nonviolent Islamists. According to Weiss, non-violent Islamists, such as those ideologically aligned with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are a danger to the United States. Weiss argues that Islamists advocate the privileging of their own religion above others. This is done in part by requesting special accommodations- such as protecting the name of Islam from criticism- and through the usage of Sharia Law. Sharia, according to Weiss, is intrinsically at odds with the principles of the United States Constitution and is incompatible with mainstream western culture. Weiss singled out Sharia’s approach to women’s rights as one of the most significant issues.  Furthermore, Islamists seek to undermine the separation of Church and State.
Like Dr. Alyami she argued that the isolation of Muslim communities in the United States and Europe was a problem. According to Deborah, this isolation leads Muslims to set up parallel institutions separate from mainstream society, and also contributes to the radicalization of Muslims and facilitated connections with sometimes violent extremist organizations in the Middle East.  These points met the most resistance from the Wimberly, who argued that these features are much less ominous, but rather are temporary traits exhibited by most immigrant communities in the United States.

Dr. Diane Perlman
Dr. Perlman argued that America’s sense of vulnerability has given rise to a somewhat irrational view of the other. In this case certain members of the mainstream society in the United States are afraid of the Muslim community. This leads to reactions that exacerbate the resentments and tensions between the two communities such as the Quran burning in Florida. However these tensions are not about the other, as much as they are about the about perceptions.
In this way, Dr. Perlman’s arguments mesh most closely with those of Dr. Moen’s. The key to resolving tensions between the communities is through communication and dialogue.

For more information on the speakers, check out our speakers’ biographies on the CSI Website.


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