Over the past three weekends my local mosque has been participating in a multi-series panel on “Understanding Islam”. I live in a predominantly Anglo-Christian area of the Midwest, where diversity means someone has an Italian grandparent. So for the community to a) acknowledge the presence of a Muslim community and b) care to discuss and try to understand Islam was surprising. An even more surprising fact, nearly ¾ of attendees averaged age 65. They were there to truly have an open mind to learn and try to understand. It just wasn’t the crowd I was expecting to see.
As a convert to Islam from Christianity I’ve always felt a desire in my heart to reach out and help others to see my faith for what it is and not how it is portrayed. At the end of the last session, each member of the mosque spread out and sat with a table of attendees, to talk more personally. One of the first questions I was asked was, “How does it make you feel that if you were a Muslim who converted to Christianity in Saudi Arabia or Iran your life could be in danger?” Whoa. I curtly replied “Well sir that bothers me because even though I made the choice to become Muslim I still respect the Christian faith and believe that everyone should have the opportunity to practice the faith that they choose.” I tried to explain that government control of religion had little to do with religion and more to do with politics but I am not sure he really wanted to hear anything because what came out next was “well that’s what Islam is isn’t it? All political?” “No sir, no it’s not to me.”
I have since thought of a million responses to that. But what I’ve dwelled on the most is the fact that whether or not we like to accept it religion is political no matter where you are – even in the United States. Think about the debate over abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, the death penalty, education, you name it. Just about every single social issue and policy is riddled with religious relativism. In the case of Morocco the least I can say is at least they are up front with the fact that it is a Muslim country.
A cynical part of me wants to think that by imposing religious regulations on citizenry governments are simply opting for a way to control the population. The optimistic part of me wants to think that those in power want to preserve the religious heritage and moral integrity of a country. It isn’t clear to me that religion can be completely separated from a nation’s identity. It’s a part of the national fabric. The United States has the largest mixture of people, ethnicities, languages, cultures, religions of any other place in the world and we haven’t been able to completely separate the two. I dare say it would be impossible for Morocco or any other country to do the same. If such a feat were attempted there is no doubt in my mind that the two sides of the argument would not be able to compromise on a solution.
After saying all of this I am obliged to point out that, I am more free to practice my religion in the United States than I am in Morocco – a Muslim country. I am not compelled to fast during Ramadan, nor am I compelled to follow societal rules and roles for a woman. I am free to explore, engage, discuss and learn independently and in a group setting about my faith. I am able to deepen my understanding and free to learn about other faiths. This act allows me to grow in my own spiritual journey while respecting the tradition that it grew out of. By not allowing this free flow of information and diversity of opinion Morocco and other Muslim nations do a disservice to their citizenry and in effect control what people are allowed to know about Islam and the world. Perhaps the crown feels that this level of control is better for the moral and religious direction of the country, I however couldn’t disagree more.