Breaking through stereotypes (Muslim Journeys series) 2013.10.23


Libya is a country that almost wasn’t, said Adrian College professor Michael McGrath, and at the same time is has deep traditions that developed over the past 1,200 years.

Its own identity is somewhat clouded due to its history—colonized by Lebanese merchants, then by Phoenicians, followed by the Greeks and then the Romans and many others. There wasn’t much for conquerers to take, other than a rich agricultural region along the Mediterranean Sea.

The end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 left many areas in limbo until a European country decided to make a claim. Libya wasn’t that enticing, and it was Italy that stepped in to take charge. The Italians tried to wipe out the Arabic language and culture, but weren’t completely successful.

At the end of World War II, an effort was made to work toward the independence of countries under European control. Eventually, Col. Muammar Qaddafi came to power in a military coup. There are many, many stories about the oddities of the Qaddafi regime, McGrath said, including his elite body guard, all made up of female martial arts experts who wore military uniforms with high heels.

All residents were required to be part of the national party, although they had no voice under the ruler’s dictatorial leadership.

Qaddafi supported Islamist groups and although he had no interest in religion, he allowed the country to remain Muslim.

“One of the things that transformed Libya was the discovery and exploitation of oil,” McGrath said.

That brought a lot of money into the country, but Qaddafi managed to destroy the economy with a lot of strange plans that were undertaken with no idea about how to carry them out. It was a recipe for disaster, McGrath said, and the leader’s stature fell over his years in command.

“Finally we had the Libya of the Arab Spring,” he said, and the eventual overthrow of Qaddafi.

Hisham Matar’s “In the Country of Men”—the first book in the Let’s Talk About It: Muslim Journeys discussion series at Stair Public Library—begins in 1979, deep within Qaddafi’s brutal hold on power.

“Many characters in the book have been moved by Western liberal values,” McGrath said. “If they’re Muslim, they’re Muslim liberals.”

They seek a hybridized culture with elements of each world, and they don’t want to live under a dictator.

The unique facet of the book is that it’s told through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy.

McGrath and his assistant, Tim Turner, who served tours of duty as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan, were asked at the book discussion Oct. 3 about how Muslims see Americans.

“Just like Americans, Muslims have a million different outlooks,“ Turner said. “There’s not an overarching opinion and you will get different answers from different people.”

The most common sentiment he heard while studying in Jordan, he said, is that

Americans are good, but American government is not. That’s the same response you’ll hear among Americans, quipped an audience member.

“A lot of my friends have a hard time differentiating between their experience and the people,” Turner said, “but for the most part, most of the people I met in Jordan differentiate between an individual and their government, and I find that very insightful.”

Jordanians in their 20s love American culture, Turner said.

“Most of the people at the college knew more about American pop culture than I did,” he said. “They’re very hospitable and for the most part they don’t hold grudges against Americans.”

Following a discussion about stereotypes of the Middle Eastern people, McGrath said that some parts of the region are still very conservative.

“They’re conservative in that way that our society was before World War II or even before World War I in terms of traditional restraints on women, suspicion about new- fangled things...all the things that used to be part of our grandparents and great-grandparents’ lives are still for many Muslims who live in traditional countries. They have not had the kind of economic development that we’ve had, and that development almost always unglues a lot of traditional restraints.”

Many people in the Middle East don’t like the U.S. because our CIA trained their secret police to help whoever is in control maintain power, he said. Citizens feel helpless when they feel no control over their own lives.

Suleiman, the nine-year-old boy in the story, takes his frustrations out on other children, and in a way, Turner said, that serves as an analogy to many populations in the Middle East.

“They don’t have ways to vent,” he said. “In their relation to the government, they feel completely helpless.”

Clashes between the traditional and the modern can make the situation even more challenging, Turner said. Much of the Middle Eastern culture is rooted in tribal relations and if one person steps out of line, it can affect the entire tribe.

Many countries have tried myriad avenues, Turner explained.

“They’ve tried democracy, they’ve tried socialism, but everything kind of falls apart,” he said. “In the 1970s, you see a shift back to a more conservative definition of Islam. Nothing else has worked. If we go back to our roots, God will show favor now.”

“For all of these various people who feel powerless,” McGrath added, “anything in their lives that seems to give them real mean- ing is not in the modern world, but in going back to a more traditional, strictly-defined and standardized Islam.”

Islam used to be fragmented into various local practices, but as Islam began to feel the threat of the West, which started in the 1700s, there was a movement to come up with a standardized, re-invigorated identity. It’s now less humane than it was and much more politicized, McGrath said.

The vast majority of Muslims are not involved in politics and they’re not going to turn to violence, he said. Planet-wide, he figures, the number who follow the violent route is in the thousands, along with a much larger number who are sympathizers but would never take any action themselves.

“We’re not going to do it, but we’re not going to do anything about it,” he said.

Despite some of the fierce sounding words of Islam, McGrath said, Muslims are raised to be gentle and kind people. That, along with the social justice principles of treating the poor and the weak well, is the central idea of the religion. The Koran has many more references to being kind and loving than to jihad.

McGrath’s studies lead him to think of jihad as a matter of protecting the religion at the time of the Koran’s writing and the greater jihad as a principle of personal spiritual development. But extreme Muslims will turn to warfare, especially in light of Western culture.

At the community level, Islam is seen in terms of kindness and peacefulness, but when picked up by rabble-rousing preachers, it can turn very nationalistic.

“Usually it’s a reaction to feeling threatened, that their way of life is going to be destroyed,” McGrath said.

There are examples of terrorists from every religion, and it’s generally a response to desperation. That’s not the case in the novel, he said, where Islam doesn’t intrude deeply into day-to-day affairs—the characters are just ordinary people like many Americans.

“This is the world of lots and lots of Muslims,” McGrath said, “with one foot in a sort of Westernized cultural world and the other in a traditional Islamic world, but every Islamic world is shaped by the country where it’s located and the local cultures, so Islam as it spread accommodated itself to wherever it went.”

Just like Christianity, he said, it’s ended up with many different flavors.