Speakers in Amherst caution against forming single view of Islam’s role in politics

Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2014
AMHERST — Since moving to the United States from Pakistan, Ali Durrani said he finds that Americans rarely have a chance to speak with someone from a Muslim country and consequently often form their perceptions of Islam solely from what they see in the media.

“People form opinions not based on interaction,” he said.

This was one of the reasons why Durrani, who lives in Longmeadow, said he was grateful for an opportunity to discuss his background with fellow Valley residents Tuesday at the Jones Library as part of the first event in an educational series on Islam and issues facing the Muslim world.

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The series, called “Bridging Muslim/Non-Muslim Divides,” is a joint effort of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Amherst and Critical Connections in Longmeadow. Durrani’s wife, Mehlaqa Samdani, founded Critical Connections in 2013 and helped organize the series. It was made possible with a portion of a $30,000 grant that the Karuna Center received from the MARPAT Foundation in Washington, D.C. in December 2013, said Olivia Dreier of Belchertown, also an organizer and executive director of the Karuna Center.

Tuesday’s event featured speakers, David Mednicoff, director of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Natana J. DeLong-Bas, a visiting faculty member at Boston College and editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia on Islam and Women. They spoke about Islam’s role in the development of new governments in the Middle East since the Arab uprisings of 2011, and how the United States government has reacted.

Mednicoff discouraged the crowd from forming one particular view of Islam’s role in politics.

“I’m puzzled/skeptical of the term ‘political Islam,’ ” Mednicoff said. “What would we say if someone said to define political Christianity or political Judaism?”

DeLong-Bas explained that different interpretations of Islam can produce varying perceptions of democracy. She gave the example that while some Muslims believe in the role of consensus, others might adhere to a belief that God can be the only ruler.

Following the talks, the audience of about 60 people broke into small group discussions before asking questions of the speakers.

Leslie Matlen and Fred Bloom of Amherst, who were in the same small group discussion as Durrani, said they found the speakers’ comments on United States foreign policy with Arab countries to be especially important.

Mednicoff said he finds that Americans were “transfixed” during the uprisings in 2011, but now seem to perceive the revolution as a “failure” because the countries have not yet formed democracies. “Patience is not an American political virtue,” he added.

DeLong-Bas suggests that Americans should think of democracy as a “process” rather than an “event.” She pointed out that many of the groups who have come to power since the uprisings did not have political experience.

She also explained that Afghanistan does not have a long history of having a centralized government.

“Perhaps we have to have a little bit more patience with democracy as it comes into play in the Arab world,” she said. “Democracy is not necessarily where you begin.”

Dreier said she was pleased with the turnout and believes that the discussions gave people a more complex understanding of Islam.

Meghan Boesch of Chicopee, program manager for the Karuna Center, said she was glad to see people with various viewpoints in attendance.

“You can’t have a one-sided dialogue,” she said.

The next event in the series will be a discussion of women’s rights in the Muslim world at 7:30 p.m. April 2 at the Friends Meeting House, 43 Center St., Suite 202, in Northampton. All series events are free and open to the public. The full schedule of events for the series is available on the website for the Karuna Center at www.karunacenter.org.