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Female author criticizes interpretations of Islam

By Steven Barnhart

Share this article Published: Sunday, September 27, 2009

Updated: Sunday, September 27, 2009

Asra Nomani has been both inspired and discouraged by her faith.

Nomani shared her struggle over Islam with more than 100 students and guests in the Student Union’s Cape Florida Ballroom on Thursday, Sept. 24.

Former writer for the Wall Street Journal and professor of journalism at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., Nomani is the author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.

The Global Perspectives office, as part of its permanent distinguished guest speaker series, hosted the event titled The Paradox of Women in Islam. Nomani focused on her own experience with the religion she’s studied her entire life, from the comfort of a simple prayer taught in her youth to the distortion of the faith used to justify murdering people based solely on their nationality and religion.

Nomani began by talking about being born in a conservative part of India and moving to Morgantown, W.Va.

“I tried to live by the sacred boundaries that were passed down to me inside of my faith,” Nomani said.

The boundaries she faced growing up included not being able to go to junior high dances and having to wear a T-shirt under her cross-country tank top.

She criticized the Saudi interpretation of Islam and its segregation of the women and girls from the men during a celebration. She said this fact alone caused her to question her faith all together.

While talking about her own experience, Nomani connected it to the experiences and crises that women in both Christianity and Judaism faced when excluded from ceremonies or positions.

She admitted to “copping out” at this point in her life, leaving behind both her faith and her community to pursue career goals while ignoring Muslim associations or even going to a mosque.

Unfortunately, in 2002, she was forced to face the community she had distanced herself from when her close friend Daniel Pearl was killed while visiting her in Karachi, India. Pearl was kidnapped and murdered by a Islamic group because he was an American and a Jew.

“It made my stomach just twist up, this was not the Islam that my father had taught me,” Nomani said. “This was not the Islam that my mother had taught me. This was not the Islam that I cherished inside of my heart as a little girl trying to always do my daily prayers and my daily fast.”

Ultimately, this is what brought Nomani back to her faith, a faith that she now found lacking in critical thinking and common sense.

“People started trying to have power and control,” Nomani said. “The hundreds of schools became four.”

And from these four schools of thoughts, she said, came the traditionalist and fundamentalist visions of Islam in the past two centuries. Nomani said that people must speak out against political movement within religion, an intolerant and ugly version that is spread by the Saudi Kingdom, to counter the perceived threat from Western culture.

“I know that change is frightening. I know that it challenges a lot of thinking and doctrine,” she said. “We have to stand up and we have to say that there is an acceptable place where women can speak where they don’t have to be segregated.”

Some students who listened to Nomani responded positively, but others disagreed.

“She uses a personal interpretation of the culture, rather than an interpretation of religious texts,” said Ayub Coley, a graduate student studying western theology and a recent convert to Islam.

This was also a complaint of another critic in the audience, Yazen Ghannam, a junior computer engineering major, who said that she lacked proof to support her ideas.

Ghannam said that Islamic thought is one that is not changed based on society, but on reason and support from the Quran and other sources.

The non-Muslim members of the audience were much more appreciative of her message and more agreeable to her stance.

“Mainstream Islam excludes a lot of people whether it is women who are isolated or people who are from outside,” said David Loisel, an Orlando resident and graduate student studying east Asian art history at the University of Florida.

Christen Pedigo, a freshman English history major, wished Nomani could have gone more in depth with her views and looked for more understanding.

“Respectful, civil discourse, that is exactly what we need in our community,” Nomani said.

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