When communicating across cultures, there is always the risk of misunderstanding.
Direct eye contact is a skill Americans are taught will help them succeed in everything from negotiating for a used car to conflict resolution. The same is not true everywhere.
For months I assumed a Middle Eastern associate was not really listening to me because he never looked me in the eye. I had forgotten that conservative people in the Middle East only look directly into the eyes of a social equal of the same sex.
Let’s consider three misunderstandings between East and West which might encourage Islamic extremism:
Misunderstanding #1: Religion = Politics = Culture
In traditional Islam, religion is tied to politics and culture. The religion empowers the leaders who use religion to develop laws and direct the culture. This is why some elements of Islamic culture and lifestyle have changed little for centuries. When someone grows up with this tri-fold association they will automatically assume it applies everywhere.
In the West the three variables tend to be less interdependent. But when Muslim extremists view an America movie, for example, and see something they consider immoral, they read it as a decadent culture, arising from evil government, stemming from a corrupt religion. Thus America should be punished.
Sura 5:32 of the Koran gives Muslims permission to kill those who “spread corruption in the land.” To an extremist, Americans dress, relative sexual openness, and attitude toward alcohol are proof that we are a nation for which Allah has prescribed punishment.
Misunderstanding #2: Nations Must Share Enemies to be Allies
An Arab proverb states, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Perhaps this relates to the tendency of Islamic nations to distrust a nation that has ties to Israel.
A thing’s value largely depends on the price you paid for it. We might have a list of things Israel has done that we don’t like, but there is an often unrecognized reason, detached from Islam, that America doesn’t want to see Israel blown off the map: we paid a high price for it.
I’m not talking foreign aid. Many thousands of Americans shed blood to rescue Jews from an evil regime in World War II, and many Americans had a relative participate in that conflict. Americans value our blood and don’t want to see our people die in vain.
In the classic film “Lawrence of Arabia,” Lawrence saves a boy’s life by carrying him across the desert, almost dying himself in the process. When the boy is later executed, Lawrence agonizes because he risked his life to save the boy.
Misunderstanding #3: The Koran Has Never Been Changed
If you know Islam, you doubtless will have heard the claim that the Koran is the same everywhere in the world as it was at time of Mohammed, and it is preserved in heaven. This is not true. But it's not that most Muslims know this and are trying to mislead us. It is the devout belief of all but a small percentage of Muslims.
The most important risk of believing the Koran has never changed is the superiority this misunderstanding engenders. Muslims confidently call the holy books of other faiths “corrupt”while being ignorant of the problems in their own. This paradox is partly due to the relative lack of open study of their holy texts compared to others in the science of textual criticism.
How the Koran has changed is beyond the scope of this article. Proof of the changes falls into three categories: ancient Islamic sources – both Sunni and Shiite (such as hadiths), Western scholarship, and differences in existing old Korans. (Greater detail is given in my forthcoming novel “The Topkapi Secret.”)
In believing that Allah has protected only the Koran from change, extremists find proof that their faith is the only true faith and must be propagated over the entire globe.
To promote peace, the West and moderate Muslims should encourage open textual criticism of old Koranic manuscripts and make the findings known.
If Muslims in general become aware that the Koran has not been perfectly preserved this might go a long way toward pulling logs out of the fire of extremism.
Terry Kelhawk is an award-winning writer, speaker and teacher. She holds a doctorate degree and has considerable personal and professional experience with the Middle East and Islam. She is also the author of the forthcoming novel, “The Topkapi Secret.”
August 11, 2010, Fox