A space for literary discourse? Or terrorist activity?

Our Islamic book club was accused of being a group of closed-cell female terrorists. Should we put forth the effort alone to allay anxiety towards Muslims? Or should people become knowledgeable about the issues?
About a year and a half ago, my friend Asma Uddin, an attorney in Philadelphia and editor of this site, and I decided to form a book club for Muslim women. Our idea was to have members read thought-provoking books related to either gender issues in Islam or the broader topic of growing up Muslim in America. It was important to us that the group read books without regard to whether we agreed with the ideas or not. We wanted to encourage tolerance and open-mindedness.

The main purpose was not only to give us an excuse to do some reading outside of our respective professions, but to connect with other Muslim females in a healthy, open, and friendly environment to discuss our experiences of growing up in America, gender issues, spiritual and secular traditions, activism, marriage, family, and education. We launched the Living Islam Book Club in December of 2007. Although our club has evolved and now also includes men in on the conversation, the intent remains the same.

Thus far, book selections have included a mix of traditional, progressive, fiction, and non-fiction titles – some controversial and others not. One of our progressive choices was Living Islam Out Loud. A book edited by Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, it presents a collection of 16 stories of progressive women between the ages of 25 and 40 who identify as both American and Muslim. The diverse perspectives of women from various ancestral backgrounds, national locations, professions, and Islamic traditions (Sunni, Shia, and the Nation of Islam) illuminated how each forged an American Muslim identity while struggling with the very issues our book club addresses. We were fortunate to have Abdul-Ghafur attend one of our first females only meetings, which attracted about 40 guests.

A few months ago, during a routine update to our website, I thought I would enter the name of our book club into Google to see what would surface. Given the accessibility to and progressive nature of our meetings, I was shocked when I encountered a lengthy list serve discussion that was labeling our club members as closed-cell female terrorists!

One of our members had posted the information for a meeting of ours for the book Living Islam Out Loud. It read:

The Living Islam Book Club is hosting a lunch with the editor of our February book:

Living Islam Out Loud

The lunch will feature our special guest

Saleemah Abdul Ghafur

on Sunday, February 17, 2008 @ 12:30 PM SHARP!

We would love for ALL interested Muslim women to join us – even if you are not participating in our book club!
Come pick up your free copy of the February issue of Muslim Girl Magazine!

RSVP by February 10, 2008 to secure your spot!

Feel free to forward this information to friends who may be interested!

The link to our website was also given. On this site, we provide a synopsis of the book of the month and information about the author.

This post apparently became a catalyst in a reaction that took place among several members, and the commotion that ensued revealed the views and fears of local community members towards Muslims, and in one case particularly, female Muslims. It was clear from reading the posts that very few forum members bothered to click on it to find out what the book – or even our book club – was all about.

As I read the page I had discovered, I found myself experiencing a range of emotions. My feelings oscillated from states of confusion, to surprise, to incredulousness, to alarm, and even to amusement.

One forum member’s self-proclaimed “gut reaction” to the invitation was that our group was meeting to “bash Americans.” Another was “appalled” that we were having such a meeting. The invite also prompted someone to threaten that they would picket the meeting because it “offended [their] sensibilities.” Several expressed their fears regarding Muslims in general.

Perhaps the most eye-widening response came from a post where a member stated that they felt:

“a bit uneasy about a group of Muslims organizing and having what is clearly a ‘private’ meeting… the thought of meetings closed to anyone who is not Muslim [is frightening] more than a little. Considering the fear and mistrust that simply DOES exist since 9/11, if Muslim women or Muslim men do not want to be mistrusted or feared, then perhaps they should be open in what they do. We should be fostering trust and not nurturing suspicious behavior.

Apparently, the fact that women are being used to carry out acts of terrorism, and the ideas of Muslim women being treated as second or third class citizens within our communities and abroad prompted these comments. Suspicious behavior? I was baffled.

The theme of inclusion versus exclusion was recurrent in the thread. It seems that Muslims were being blamed for not doing more. Given the book club’s aim to cultivate an environment for open minded and intellectual discussion and to motivate its members to engage actively and positively with the outside world, I found this thread very disturbing:

If this is a luncheon to discuss the role, strength, and empowerment of women, why would it be closed? Couldn’t all women, regardless of religion benefit from such a speaker? Wouldn’t the Muslim faith/culture benefit more by inclusion…rather than exclusion? I truly feel that if Muslims in America, whether male or female, ever want opinions, biases, and attitudes to change, then the Muslim people who are IN America need to include and embrace all of us who are NOT Muslim, and put an end to what appears to many non-Muslims as a deliberate attempt to segregate yourselves from the rest of us.

Another post stated:

…because of the current events in the world, and because we all need to live together, perhaps whatever bad feelings exist could be changed if Muslims who live among us embraced non-Muslims, and were open and inclusive, which would break down existing walls, and change the current underlying uneasiness that exists, and make us all see that we have so much more in common than we [have] differences.

I became perplexed and wondered why, despite there being an e-mail address in the forum to contact our club, nobody in the forum ever bothered to send a message asking for directions so that they could come picket. Nobody asked if they would be “allowed” to attend our meeting. How could we reach out and include these individuals if they did not include any of us in on their discussion?

Some used this forum to express their real fears towards radical Muslims and their confusion with why moderate Muslims were not doing more to stop them. The forum became a venue where, as one member declared, people were trying to conquer their “instinctual repugnance towards Islam.” One member asked, “Could that be part of a resentment then, to see an invitation to attend an Islam[ic] book club, but no words of empathy in reference to the indefensible actions of some Muslims?”

Is this a one way street? Do moderate Muslims have to put forth the effort alone to allay the anxiety some people have towards Muslims? Or should people themselves also put forth an effort to become knowledgeable about the issues? My instinctual response might be to say, “Why don’t people just read about Islam to try to understand it? Why can’t they just pull up the Qur’an on the internet and see what it really says?”

One post stated that “conversion by the sword is a basic tenet of Islam, always has been from the first city pillaged by the Prophet himself.” Another individual who thought Islam was a peaceful religion seemed puzzled by this statement and asked some critical questions. “Why are there so many interpretations? Why are there so many misconceptions? How can we come to know the reality? What can we do about it?”

Another asked, “To peace loving, law abiding Muslims – how do you feel about the actions of the few who are giving all a bad name? Do you feel you share a small responsibility by virtue of your shared faith? I am honestly curious.”

One forum member seemed to present the real issue that spawned from the invitation. Quoting a response from another post:

The issue is really that because of our insistence to being politically correct, many of us withhold our true and deep feelings with respect to radical Islam. We don’t have a safe place to bring our concerns, and have a true conversation. The moment someone utters anything which can be misconstrued as “bias”, we are immediately relegated to the department of “bad people.” So, although it is considered appropriate to embrace all of [the] Muslim faith… and correct to embrace all religions, it is definitely [in] bad form to express an honest knee jerk reaction of alarm to the [meeting]. It is a sad view of ourselves that we are so intimidated by the PC Police, that we [would] rather keep our views and fears within our own circles, thus ensuring that there never will be a real coming together. In order to overcome deep rooted feelings, we must first be willing to discuss them openly. How can we learn, if we do not[?] So, even more valuable than just using this website as our carping board, would be an actual website dedicated to this very issue. Do not fool yourselves into believing this is not an issue of great importance. An issue which beats in many hearts. And will continue to do so unless great strides are made by all.

Not everyone in the discussion was appalled with our book club meeting – nor were most reacting with hate or prejudice. Says one post:

I’m sure that none of us really believes that this public advertised book club meeting has a terrorist purpose. So there must be some other reason we’re upset about it, and I think our reasoning boils down to this: “We’re afraid of Muslims. If Muslims want to change this, they have to be super-inclusive (never meeting for “Muslim” activities), frequently apologize for 9/11, and go out of their way to educate non-Muslims about their religion.” That’s one way to reason. Another way is this: “We’re afraid of Muslims. If WE want to change this, we should learn about Islam from neutral sources, talk to our Muslim neighbors, and maybe read some literature by Islamic writers (like the feminist author of the book in question). Also, when we know perfectly well that a book club meeting does NOT have a terrorist purpose, we should try to stop being afraid of it and reacting like it does.

Exactly.

In the past year, I have learned to be a little more inclusive when writing our invitations so as not to offend. Our original intent was to target a specific audience that might be interested in our discussion, but if others are interested, we will take them in with open arms.

Terrorism is a heinous act that none of our members condone. My father was in the South Tower of the World Trade Center when a plane rammed right through the middle of it. He escaped and I am grateful to God he is alive. My book club better NOT be a female terrorist group under the guise of casual book discussions and the enjoyment of gourmet paninis, red velvet cupcakes, and tropical smoothies.

Author: Shazia Ansari

Leave a Reply