Since Sept. 11, 2001, a leading scholar of Islam at Washington University in St. Louis has sought to help an inquiring American public separate stereotype from complex reality and Islamic extremists from the many-sided moderate majority.
Ahmet Karamustafa, Ph.D., chair of the Religious Studies program in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, is trying to help Americans see that although Islam has its radical factions, these factions are small in number and the majority of the world’s Muslims are peaceful people.
In addition to his many teaching and research duties, Karamustafa, director of the Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies Program in Arts & Sciences and a leading scholar of the theory and methods of all religions, regularly volunteers to speak at churches of other faiths to help educate parishioners about the principles of Islam. With more than 1 billion adherents, Islam is the second-largest religion in the world after Christianity.
“Normally I try to make the audience reflect on themselves,” he says. “If it’s a Christian audience, I ask them what they know about other Christian denominations. I ask them what their stereotypes are about other denominations.”
He then uses that information to make the audience realize how diverse Christianity is in this country and how misguided their ideas about other denominations may be. He then encourages them to apply that knowledge to any Muslim community in the world.
He tries to make the audience see the plurality and diversity amongst themselves as Americans and as Christians. “Politically, economically and religiously there are great differences among us. That doesn’t mean we all hate each other. It is the same with Islam.”
Karamustafa says the two main sources of Islam are the Koran and the teachings and life example of the prophet Mohammed. Those two sources are reflected in the faith of every Muslim.
However, says Karamustafa, there can be many different interpretations of the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed, just as in Christianity there can be many interpretations of the Bible and the teachings of Jesus.
“These interpretations of the Koran can reflect themselves in different ways in society in the form of different political and social movements and different cultural tendencies,” he says. “Radical types, conservative types, moderate types — you have the full spectrum in Islamic society. You may be a radical Muslim or a conservative Muslim based on your own interpretation of the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed.”
Many Americans grow up with a particular version of Christianity. Baptists believe that their version of the faith is correct, as do Lutherans, as do Catholics. It is the same in Islam, Karamustafa says. There are many versions of the faith, it just so happens that the violent, radical versions tend to receive the most media coverage.
“Any impression of Islam as a single, homogeneous community is not grounded in fact. There are many kinds of Islam,” he says. “However, you have to go out of the mainstream media to get the real story. I’m not saying the media is necessarily corrupt, they just don’t always tell the whole story.”
The vast majority of the world’s Muslims are tolerant and non-violent. Our perceptions of Muslims are oftentimes filtered through criteria that the media uses to determine newsworthiness, which can result in a less than accurate portrayal of Islam, Karamustafa says.
“If all you see on television about Iraq are people shooting guns or young, angry bearded males shouting anti-American slogans, then it is very tempting to think that is what all Muslims are like,” Karamustafa says. “And I’m afraid that image might be the prevalent one. There are more pictures of violence or the results of violence than anything else. We hardly ever get to see on the front page the every-day life of a middle class Muslim family.”
He suggests reading online English versions of newspapers from other countries to get a feeling for how they perceive Islam and the situation in Iraq, and to get a fresh perspective on the religion and its practices.
“I try to make people become self-aware. That’s the only way any type of stereotyping will ever change,” he adds.