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Keeping Faith: Amaney Jamal

The following is the first installment of “Keeping Faith,” a six-part series of conversations between politics professor Robert George and University professors of various faiths.

Amaney Jamal is a politics professor and practicing Muslim whose work focuses on Middle Eastern politics, democratization and the politics of civic engagement in the Arab world.

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Amaney Jamal: My family was culturally rather than religiously Muslim. I became a practicing Muslim as I grew older. By age 16 or so I had started practicing Islam.

Robert George: What brought you to the faith?

AJ: I really liked some of the underlying values that faith in general espouses. I was drawn to the discourse of social justice, the discourse of equality, the discourse of being able to appreciate what we have on Earth and to be thankful for that.

RG: Did your faith become a point of division in your family?

AJ: You need to think about the developments of the Middle East in the 1960s and ’70s and ’80s. It was a period of rapid transformation. Many people, including those in my family, tended to believe that as societies modernized religion would fade into the past. Many viewed religion as a category that could hold societies back. So they were concerned that religion might not be the best way to represent their values.

RG: Did you wrestle with the same thought?

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AJ: I did not see a conflict between believing in God and moving confidently forward in modern life. Talk of a “secular vs. religious” divide was pervasive as I was growing up. It seemed clear to me, though, that one could be a good and proud Muslim without being backwards. I wanted to embrace that. For a long period it was almost like my secret; I didn’t feel I could go public with it.

RG: Were you thinking your way toward Islamic faith pretty much on your own?

AJ: I was really doing a lot of it on my own. Even now, I do not have a strong formal theological background. But I became very interested in engaging in conversations about faith. I was curious about religion and open to it.

RG: Who were you talking with?

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AJ: I was talking to people of different faiths and also with devout Muslims.

RG: Many religious people say that faith plays an integrating role in their lives. It’s what ties the different aspects of life together. Does faith play that role for you?

AJ: Absolutely. I feel that my work life, my family life, what I aspire to be professionally is all a part of a package. I feel there is a purpose in life. And that purpose is with me whether I’m in a classroom, whether I’m doing homework with my children, whether I’m in the community. It’s part of who I am.

RG: Islam is a religion of prayer. Is prayer, as you practice and experience it, mainly a communal exercise, or does one pray individually as well as communally?

AJ: Both. You can pray individually, although communal prayers are encouraged. Sometimes being out in the community working and praying with others is a good test of faith. You’re out there in the real world, and people are not always easy to work with. I always say this: The easy way out is to say that you’re going to be a good, prayerful, spiritual person, but the hard work is being involved in the community.

RG: In Islam and for you personally, are prayers said according to set formulas, or are extemporaneous prayers part of the tradition? If you have specific needs, do you lift them up in prayer?

AJ: Absolutely. We often say: “Inshallah,” meaning “God willing.”

RG: Something I myself regard as important is the stress that religion places on the need for repentance and forgiveness when one has done wrong, as one often does — at least this one often does. Is that important for you?

AJ: It’s very important. Islam is a lot about individual accountability. It is a religion at the individual spiritual level. You have to be accountable to yourself. You have to be accountable to God. If you err, the test is to repent and improve yourself.

RG: And God’s forgiveness comes as part of the package, then?

AJ: It comes as part of the package.

RG: So one is not doomed to be sunk in the guilt forever. One does get a sense of forgiveness, but it requires something on your end as well, which is an effort of reform.

AJ: Right, and understanding. To understand the good you are capable of doing, you need a strong sense that you’ve erred. Sometimes people don’t want to face that, but it comes with time and experience.

RG: There are some religions in which there are outward signs of one’s membership in the religion. Many Orthodox Jewish men wear the yarmulke. Many Muslim women, yourself included, dress modestly and wear the hijab. Apart from whatever intrinsic reasons the religion has for including such outward signs, they do put one very publicly on the side of faith.

AJ: Right.

RG: So here you are in a secular liberal university environment, but it’s very clear to anyone that you’re a Muslim because of your dress, and people will notice that before they’ve heard a word from your mouth.

AJ: Absolutely.

RG: How does that play out?

AJ: I just gave an academic talk, and the first question after I finished had nothing to do with my remarks. It was: “Why do you wear the hijab?” I get this question a lot. The funny thing is, Robby, I started wearing it in the United States; I never wore it in the Middle East.

RG: What was your motivation?

AJ: The motivation was spiritual. I was discovering my faith. I had grown up in the Middle East with a lot of women who were wearing the hijab and who were model citizens. Respecting Muslim women means respecting their decision about wearing the hijab. Those who wear it should not be accused of allowing themselves to be subordinated. That is really unfair. There was just one day when I woke up, Robby, and said to myself: “I’m going to do something new with my life. I’m going to wear the hijab.” I did not want to yield to the image that, as a moderate and modern Muslim woman, one does not wear the hijab.

RG: One hears criticism of women who wear the hijab coming from very different vantage points. Sometimes the criticism is that they’re subordinating themselves and playing into male supremacy. Then other people say no, they’re asserting the superiority of Islam, or they’re asserting a radical Islamist stance. And it’s always seemed to me that, in the vast majority of cases, what it’s signaling is the tradition’s respect for modesty, its emphasis on respecting one’s own body, treating oneself and others with respect and not as sexual objects.

AJ: Yes. That is certainly true. And people are free to make decisions on what they want to wear. So if we are to be tolerant of others, as we should be, I expect also for us to be tolerant of women who decide to wear the hijab.

RG: In the Jewish and Christian traditions, there is the concept of the human being made in the image and likeness of God. Now, I know that Islam includes much that’s in the Hebrew scriptures and much that’s in the New Testament. Is there anything akin to that notion?

AJ: Absolutely. We’re all God’s children. God endowed the human being with intelligence, with mind, with capabilities. It is our duty to make the best of the gifts He has given us.

RG: Islam traces its roots to Abraham?

AJ: Yes, Islam is part of the Abrahamic tradition. This is a link with Judaism and Christianity. In addition, you may know that Jesus and the Virgin Mary play a role in Islam and are honored. There is a whole chapter in the Quran on Mary and the birth of Jesus.

RG: One would think that as those linkages become better known, relationships would improve across the lines of religious division. And my sense is that this is happening, at least here in the United States. Do you have the same impression? Of course, there are some Christians who believe that Islam is a religion of war. But there are many other Christians and Jews and others who don’t believe that, and there are many Muslims who have a very positive attitude toward Christianity.

AJ: Yes, there is a sense of kinship. Some positive things have happened since 9/11. People are trying to get to know one another. You see this in open houses at mosques and in interfaith dialogues. I was really pleased to see that, although Muslims feel like they’re still a misunderstood population in the United States, close to 40 percent of the Muslim population in the United States report that they’ve been a recipient of an act of kindness from a non-Muslim. And that number’s up by about seven percentage points from a couple of years ago.

RG: It wasn’t very long ago, Amaney, when many Protestant Americans thought Catholics couldn’t be good citizens. Now you see that same suspicion of Muslims. But many Muslims are proving that they do believe in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They don’t get the publicity that radicals get, but they are certainly there.

AJ: Yes, especially Muslims who come from countries that are oppressive. They embrace those ideals even more fiercely than your average non-Muslim American.

RG: Are there disputes within the American Muslim community over just how far Islam can go in, say, embracing religious liberty in its most robust form? Does the apostasy issue generate disagreement within the Muslim community?

AJ: There are ongoing debates. As the Muslim-American community’s becoming more multifaceted and children are being born in the States, you’re having more of these debates. The community is trying to stake out its own position in American religious pluralism. Many Muslim Americans view the United States as much more hospitable than other Western nations to religious faith.

RG: There are Catholic schools in France that are today majority Muslim. Evidently, many Muslim parents want to send their children to Catholic schools because they find the state schools in France so hostile to religion.

AJ: Right. And that helps to explain why many Muslims find the United States much more hospitable than Europe. The United States is a religious country, and Muslims appreciate that.

RG: So, despite the suspicions that came out especially after 9/11, this is a comfortable country for devout Muslims.

AJ: Absolutely. And a lot of Muslims will say they can practice their religion in a richer way here — expanding their horizons, digging deeper in their faith — than they could do in their home countries because of restrictions on freedom.

RG: Muslims seem to represent something that’s a little out of the ordinary in American politics. It is a community that tends to be on the more conservative side on moral and social issues but not tied to conservative doctrines in economic or foreign policy.

AJ: Definitely. The Muslim-American community is more likely to support government spending than your average American because of this conviction that government needs to play a big role in social justice. At the same time, they’re much more conservative on social issues.

RG: Does that mean that Muslim voters are up for grabs because they can be appealed to by the parties on different sets of issues?

AJ: In many ways, yes. Remember, in the 2000 election the majority of Muslims voted for George W. Bush. Of course, this was before 9/11. He had come out against the use of secret evidence, and Muslims liked the fact that he was socially conservative.

RG: Amaney, thank you for talking with me.

AJ: You’re welcome.

The next installment of “Keeping Faith” will run on Thursday, Nov. 17.

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