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Inside Islam

(The History Channel; US DVD: 25 Feb 2003)

Striving

The horror of 9/11 is still fresh in many memories. And the fear that a decentralized enemy that can strike at any time, anywhere, at anyone, for any reason, continues to “shock and awe” much of the United States. Too often, this fear leads to a collapsing of crucial concepts—Islam, violence, and “Hatred of Democracy.” This leaves Islam, the 1,400-year-old religion practiced by hundreds of millions of peaceful people across the world, so thoroughly vilified that it has become synonymous with extremism and aggression, and to some Americans, even responsible for the attacks.


Nothing could have been more damaging to Islam’s image or have had so strong an impact on the U.S. psyche as 9/11. The sensationalist mainstream U.S. media coverage is largely complicit in this impact, but there are alternatives. Inside Islam, the History Channel’s timely documentary is designed to reshape the U.S. view of Islam.


Inside Islam argues that Islam is a peaceful, charitable, and compassionate religion, despite the violence pursued in its name. It does so in part by contrasting such violence with quotations from the Qur’an, the holy text of Islam. Akbar S. Ahmed, Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, explains how the terrorism committed on 9/11 contradicts the peaceful teachings of Islam: “Here we have a hijacker committing suicide, taking lives of people, violating the Qur’an, twice over.” He continues, “You have a paradoxical situation emerging in the minds of these young men that they can violate the Qur’an itself by committing suicide and killing innocent people because the situation demands it.”


Ahmed’s assessment leads to one of the more fearsome concepts to emerge from the vilification of Islam: “jihad.” But jihad, as Inside Islam points out, is a tricky subject. The word is commonly, especially in U.S. media, understood to mean “holy war,” when in fact, it means “striving.” This semantic difference is key because, primarily, jihad is an inner struggle to rid the self of depravation and debasement. Its secondary meaning, the “paradoxical situation” Ahmed spoke of, is where the controversy exists, as jihad has, for some, motivated repeated violence between September 2001 and Inside Islam‘s February 2003 release.


Inside Islam‘s 15 chapters cover extensive ground in just under two hours, but there is simply too much history and too little time to examine every last detail. Still, ongoing clashes between Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews and between Pakistani Muslims and Indian Hindus are so increasingly urgent that the documentary comes off as slightly dated and very biased.


Inside Islam also points out a common misconception, that the “Muslim World” is not the Middle East. This misconception has undergirded much of U.S media’s focus on the region, such that Islam, fanaticism, and violence are repeatedly conjoined in recent reports. In reality, Islam is practiced not only in the Middle East, but also all over the world, with over 1000 mosques in the United States and more than 170 million Muslims in Indonesia alone.


Many non-Muslims all over the world, especially in America, can no longer differentiate between what Islam means and what some Muslims have done. Inside Islam‘s Reverend Charles Kimball, Chair of the Religion Department at Wake Forest University explains, “Even though people know there are a lot of things the Christians have done, they tend to talk about the teachings of Jesus as though that somehow represents Christianity, not what Christians have actually done. Then they look at Islam and don’t know what the Qur’an says or what Mohammed taught through his sayings and actions, but see the behavior of extremists and think that represents Islam.” Kimball here illustrates the dichotomy that in many Americans’ view of violence waged for Islam or for Christianity.


Inside Islam devotes some time to that double standard. And indeed, if U.S. viewers (most of whom are comfortable with Christianity) can become educated on the similarities and interrelationships between Christianity and Islam, not only in their faith, but also in their parallel histories of violence, then they might change their perceptions of Islam. Inside Islam points out that the Qur’an refers to Christians as “fellow people of the book” and acknowledges all of the Old Testament prophets from Noah to David, as well as Abraham and Jesus.


But, after 9/11, pointing out such similarities won’t be enough to bridge the widening gap. Bombing Afghanistan, occupying Iraq, and continuing to wage war against “Axis of Evil” nations might seem to ease U.S. paranoia. But these efforts also leave the U.S., somewhat ironically, in a position that resembles that of Islam, in need of rebuilding an “image” when the dust clears.


For all its good intentions, the film also fails to delve into the mistreatment of women in many Islamic cultures, an issue that seems key to any endeavor to dispel confusion over Islam’s meaning. Instead, it describes the lives of many women in Islamic societies as “harshly restricted,” then focuses almost exclusively on the Hijab and the Burka as “symbols of oppression” without elaborating on the actual oppression. Inside Islam leaves out the travesties that many Muslim women have endured—from the beating of “improperly clothed” women to the public stoning of women accused of having sex outside of marriage—and does not provide the contexts in which they occur.


It does, however, make the important point that the introduction of Islam dramatically improved the “rights” of many women. After all, before Islam, female children were sometimes buried alive in some Arab countries just for being female. Amina Wadud, Professor of Islam at Virginia Commonwealth University explains, “The Qur’an intended to eradicate many negative practices and attitudes towards women, and did so in explicit terms.” The Qur’an granted women the right to own property, to receive an inheritance, to have a choice in their own marriage and divorce, and the right to vote long before Western civilizations.


Wadud’s statement is poignant, but requires some background to understand how those “explicit terms” have been misinterpreted. Asma Gull Hasan expands, “Islam was never meant to be a religion that oppresses women… It’s manipulated by people who are really expressing their own culture, that’s patriarchal and tribal, and is a reflection of what the society was like before Islam came to the world.” In other words, Hasan’s assessment leaves the viewer wondering just what it means to be a woman in that “patriarchal culture,” and doesn’t explain why some women have had acid poured on their faces.


The relation between women and Islam is complex and subjective, and hardly explored by this film’s brief treatment here. To its credit, Inside Islam does provide a compelling and illuminating overview of Islam’s long history, what the religion means and represents. But with suicide bombings, war, and violent terrorism so indelibly tainting Islam’s image, the documentary also leaves the viewer with a question: what can be done about the present?

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