Quite refreshing were new hearings led by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on protecting the civil rights of American Muslims, especially after a slew of anti-Muslim events within the past year or so. Those culminated in a House committee's hearings on the "radicalization of American Muslims" a couple of weeks ago.
As glad as I am about Durbin's hearings, I have to maintain that the way to gain the best understanding of Muslims in the United States starts not by listening to politicians or pundits, left or right, but by shutting them off.
The media will seek to focus on the most sensational aspects of Muslims, whether by focusing on examples of extreme views among certain Muslims or on examples of extreme discrimination against Muslims. Pundits will do the same. The results are more division, less understanding, more misconceptions and higher ratings for TV and radio.
Politicians will turn the issue into another means of forwarding their agendas and winning votes. The next election will be a good (i.e., dreadful) example of this.
In the midst of this ruckus, the main victim is the truth.
But perhaps the best reason for shutting off pundits and politicians who want to tell us what to think about Muslims is a simple one: We do not need them. We can do without them quite easily.
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As individuals, we can develop our own understanding, better than that provided by any of the witnesses at the congressional hearings. The fact is, Muslims make no secret of their beliefs and methodologies. All you need to know about Muslims is just as readily available to you as it is to Muslims themselves. It's not that hard.
First, find the closest mosques to where you live. I use www.islamicfinder.com, where I can enter my ZIP code and get a list of local mosques with their addresses and phone numbers.
Second, visit a few of these mosques. My recommendation is to go on a Friday either at noon or 1 p.m. (you may want to call ahead to check when the Friday sermon begins). That way, you get to hear the weekly sermon for yourself and check out what Muslims are being taught, and you get to ask the imam of the mosque directly if you have any questions.
The atmosphere of the mosque will look and feel different at first, but please pay no attention to your fear of the unknown. You can ask all the questions you want, no matter how "offensive" you may think they are, and I'm sure everyone will be happy to help you. Just lose your apprehension, approach someone and say: "I'd like to ask the imam a few questions." No dress code or special gestures or sayings are necessary.
Some Mosques, like the one I go to in Dinkytown, have archives of live English audio translations of Arabic sermons; you can request a copy. Some have websites with the Friday sermons available in audio or video. Most mosques will also have literature available for purchase or borrowing.
Also, Muslim texts are readily available online, from the Quran to the Hadith to various writings by traditional and contemporary scholars, all translated into English. Google comes in handy. Just make sure the websites you visit are made by Muslims, since they will be the websites Muslims themselves use to get answers to their questions about Islam.
Which brings me to an important cautionary point. Religion cannot be understood simply by reading texts. It is a way of life, complete and complex with mental and physical components.
If I wanted to form a correct understanding of Christianity only by reading the Bible, for example, I'm sure I'd be easily misled by some of the violent verses within it. The best route to understanding religious texts is with a person who lives them -- in this case, a Muslim.
I grew up in the Middle East, where the majority is Muslim. I do not recall a TV or radio show in which a group of Muslim panelists gathered to discuss the Bible in the absence of a Christian scholar or priest. Learning about a religion without asking a knowledgeable, practicing member of that religion is simply not possible.
If you would like to learn about Islam, I wish you luck on your endeavor. I know you will find all the answers you need.