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An interview with Lucy Bushill-Matthews
by Fiona Zerbst
2009-02-27 10:56:52
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Welcome to Islam: A Convert's Tale
Written by Lucy Bushill-Matthews
2008, Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.
I wrote the book because moving back to South Africa two years ago changed everything. In England I was engaged daily and practically with my community. Uprooting and moving to South Africa gave me the mental and physical space to write about a subject that seems to be of global concern. I wanted to write a book that would be informative about Islam, and realistic about some of the issues Muslims face, but in an accessible way.

We are living in an era where certain experts are talking about the insurmountable differences between “them” (the Muslims) and “us” (everyone else). This attitude can carry down through the generations. When I visited one school in the UK to talk with the children about the Muslim experience of Ramadan, a child who had five Muslim schoolmates in his classroom asked me innocently: “What’s the weather like in their world?”

The best way to break down barriers between people who come from different communities is to get to know each other. And for me the best way to break down barriers is over a cup of tea in the kitchen! This book is the result of numerous cups of tea, and equally numerous conversations.

I have tried to show in the book the ways in which Muslims differ from each other in their practice of Islam - and how it’s okay to be different. I have also come across Muslims judging non-Muslims (eg a mosque committee decreeing they did not want a playground in the mosque grounds in case non-muslim women came to use it wearing mini-skirts) as well as the reverse (eg a taxi driver asking me what it was like being oppressed). So let’s all just relax a little bit and see the common humanity in each other!

Humour makes it easier to make a serious point. It’s more memorable when you do it in a light-hearted way. But the BBC asked on its website recently “Does Islam have a sense of humour?”… I think if I didn’t laugh about it, I would cry.

I was interviewed by The Sun newspaper, but my interview was replaced at the last minute with a two page spread about an English woman captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan, headlined ‘The Taliban banned my nail varnish’.

In South Africa, people openly admit they know little about Islam, and they usually do not have the prejudice against the faith that is so prevalent in the UK. It helps that South Africa is a genuinely multi-cultural society and that Muslims are seen as South African as anyone else. South African Muslims are interested too: converts seem somewhat of a rarity here.

My favourite books about Muslims include the fictional novel by Khalid Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Whilst it didn’t exactly portray men in a very good light, it explored the depth and strength of character hidden within the dark all-encompassing burkas of two very different Muslim women. I have also enjoyed The Meaning of the Life of Muhammad by Swiss-born European scholar Tariq Ramadan. He focuses on applying how Muhammad - peace be upon him - lived to the lifestyle we live today. Did you know he refused two dinner invitations on the grounds that his wife wasn’t invited? The third time she was invited too and he finally accepted.

In the UK, there was an understanding that 9/11 was the action of a few, not of Muslims as a whole, but the tube bombs in July 2005 changed that. The “them” and “us” rhetoric from fundamentalists on both ends of the spectrum eventually filters into the mainstream. A recent large-scale Gallup survey showed that while 98% of Iranians polled identified aspects in the West to admire, just under a third of Americans believed there was nothing to admire in the Muslim world.

Being in South Africa as a Muslim is like being on holiday. Our relocation agent tells me one area is up-and-coming as Muslims have moved into it - I thought I had misheard. The newspaper features a woman wearing a scarf on its front page - and the story is about her comments as an HIV/Aids expert, not about her dress sense. Woolworths puts notices up wishing its Muslim customers Happy Ramadan. Halaal restaurants are everywhere and non-Muslims are happy to eat in them. I also appreciate the opportunity here to make a difference - however small - in the lives of people in some of this country’s poorer communities. I wanted to write about South Africa too, but there wasn’t space, so that will just have to be in my next book…
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AP2009-02-27 13:44:16
"a child who had five Muslim schoolmates in his classroom asked me innocently: “What’s the weather like in their world?”"
This shows how our children are bloody well educated! Shameful. Children listen to adults talking about their neighbours and colleagues, friends and sometimes family as if they were aliens from another world!! This is the tolerance example they're just following.

Emanuel Paparella2009-02-27 14:45:22
“But the BBC asked on its website recently ‘Does Islam have a sense of humour?’… I think if I didn’t laugh about it, I would cry.”

Indeed, Ms. Zerbst, there is a subtext operating in that question and it too is a laughing matter. For the question hides another question and it is the question entertained by all those non-believers who think that to have a faith-identity is to be non-modern and non-enlightened, a retrograde beyond contempt. The real question being asked under the guise of lack of humor is this: are you religious people (the vast majority in all the continents and regions of the world, even in Europe)a bunch on intolerant bigots and fanatics? The paradox here is that such a hidden question hides an elitist, intolerant mind-set deluding itself as being at the cutting edge of everything modern and progressive, the very epitome of tolerance, but at the same time not willing to give the time of day, never mind engage in a serious dialogue with those who don’t have the “politically correct” and enlightened secularist attitude. This stubborn refusal to concede to religious people what Rawls and Habermas call “the public use of reason” by simply laugh at them and considering them bizarre and beyond the pale, has been amply reflected upon by Jurgen Habermas in his article titled “Religion in the Public Sphere” (European Journal of Philosophy, 14: pp. 1-25), retrievable on line as already pointed out, an article that should be read by all those interested in this funny and laughable paradox.

AP2009-02-27 16:28:33
"all those non-believers who think that to have a faith-identity is to be non-modern and non-enlightened"
Who, exactly?

"The real question being asked under the guise of lack of humor is this: are you religious people (...) a bunch on intolerant bigots and fanatics?"
I don't think that's true. The question comes up more because of the reaction to certain cartoons, but it shouldn't generalize. Do you remember the one of the Pope with the condom on his nose? Probably at least some of all these cartoonists are religious people. People tend to express their faith in different ways - even inside the same religion. And they are asked questions according to the way they express themselves.

AP2009-02-27 16:50:14
"Holyoake invented the term "secularism" to describe his views of promoting a social order separate from religion, without actively dismissing or criticizing religious belief."

Honestly, I never thought I would see a time when secularism would be portraited as a major sin.

Secularism actually traces its origins back to Ibn Rushd (Averroes), a Muslim philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages who tried to reconciliate Aristotle with the Islamic faith. It was invented by a man of faith, so I can't see why your aversion... oh, wait:

"This standpoint resulted in two condemnations in 1270 and 1277 by bishop Etienne Tempier of the Roman Catholic Church. Tempier specified 219 different unacceptable Averroist theses. It has been pointed out that Tempier's main accusations are almost identical to those brought by Al-Ghazali against philosophers in general in his Incoherence of the Philosophers (...)
The later philosophical concept of Averroism was the idea that the philosophical and religious worlds are separate entities. However, upon scrutinizing the 219 theses condemned by Tempier, it was obvious that not many of them originated in Averroës.(...)
Thomas Aquinas specifically attacked the doctrine of monopsychism in his book De unitate intellectus contra Averroistas (...)
Although condemned in 1277, many Averroistic theses survived to the 16th century and can be found in the philosophies of Giordano Bruno, Pico della Mirandola, and Cesare Cremonini. (...)
Benedict Spinoza was also notably influenced by Averroism (...)"

I retract what I said.

Emanuel Paparella2009-02-27 20:07:32
Secularism by itself is a neutral term distinguishing the sacred from the secular or temporal. Humanism by itself does not indicate an unfriendly stance toward religion; most of the early humanists in 14th century Italy were pious Christians; its founding father was a deacon of the Church.

The enormous fallacy consists in placing secular as an adjective before humanist as if to imply that to be a humanist one needs to be a secularist inimical to religion which is definitely not the case. It is also not the case that all secularists (what the French call “laicitè”) are ipso fact atheists and unfriendly to religion. But it was a case egregopisly and aggressively made and defended by a self-proclaimed guardian of current political correctness vis a vis religion in the pages of this very magazine for close to two years. He is currently on some kind of sabbatical or leave of absence, as he has done before, but readers who have been following the writings of this magazine know exactly who he is. One may object that he is an aberration and therefore my argument is an ad hominem one, but I would submit that he is a shining example of a type of “enlightened” European who believes that the sooner religion is liquidated, the better. They woudl throw the baby out with the bathwater and eliminate the use because of its abuses. (continued below)

Emanuel Paparella2009-02-27 20:07:56
To support and document the above mentioned view it would be enough to read Habermas’s article already mentioned plus the report by the European Policy Center in Brussels drafted by Dr. Jocelyne Cesari, a senior research fellow, on June 9, 2004. In this report one reads that Europe is the only region of the world which has general hostility toward religion; that Europeans tend to explain every sign of backwardness in terms of religion… The European tendency, according to this scholarly report, is to equate Muslim religion, and indeed all religions, with fanaticism. This phenomenon was also documented by the World Values Survey conducted by a group of social scientists who identify its roots in the Enlightenment Period, the period of Voltaire who while asserting that he would defend to death the right of dissent and free speech, at the same time, and paradoxically wrote the famed “Mahomet, of Fanaticism in 1745, without ever retracting his misguided charges. That spirit as per Haberma, Cesari, unfortunately live on today. But there are signs that its abuses are coming to a head and that is what troubles the assorted atheists and secular humanists of Europe. Stay tuned for a forthcoming article on this issue.

Emanuel Paparella2009-02-27 20:11:27
Errata: egregiously.

Emanuel Paparella2009-02-27 20:38:48
I would be remissive if I did not mention here that what I like about Ovi and keeps me in it is exactly the respect it exhibits, independent of the belief system of its editors, contributors and readers, for what Habermas calls “the public space of reason.” That space is denied to no one. I would therefore venture to say that Ovi is on track as the future trend of post-modern magazines. The ones who will survive and thrive will be the ones that put aside bias, propaganda and “politically correct” thinking and venture into unexplored areas across disciplinary boundaries with an open mind. Another one such magazine is Global Spiral. Unfortunately Newropeans which considers itself at the cutting edge of political modernity fails in that respect in as much at it reveals the bias of its editors for muzzling religion and relegating it to the private sphere. It also discourages spirited debate, a sine qua non in the honest search for the truth devoid of personal preferences.

AP2009-02-28 00:34:56
"Secularism by itself is a neutral term (...) Humanism by itself does not indicate an unfriendly stance toward religion (...) The enormous fallacy consists in placing secular as an adjective before humanist as if to imply that to be a humanist one needs to be a secularist inimical to religion"

Your imagination. And you just said that secularists are not inimical to religion, so it makes no sense. The adjective merely distinguishes secularist humanists from non-secularist humanists. And that's all.

"the assorted atheists and secular humanists of Europe"
There are atheists and secular humanists in every continent. And they should be respected as everyone else.

ps - I would give away one of my eyelashes to know what you have against the editors of Newropeans.

Emanuel Paparella2009-02-28 00:46:39
Stay tuned! There is more coming on the issue.

Emanuel Paparella2009-02-28 01:12:52
P.S. As regards "Newropeans," your gratuitous assumption that I have something against the magazine is a mere fantasy of yours since I never said so, and in fact I have substantially contributed to it in the past. Making a comparison and a judgment between two entities, at least in the world of scholarship, does not necessarily mean that one disparages one at the expense of the other. One just makes an objective judgment based on some objective criteria. Those criteria were mentioned in my comparison; there is no sly of hand at work.

Emanuel Paparella2009-02-28 10:02:28
P.S. That all human beings ought to be respected and left free to hold their opinions by the mere fact that they are humans, even when they present themselves as moral monsters or hold misguided opinions, is quite obvious and I can certainly agree with. But to claim thatt every opinion (especially when interpretations are transformed into facts and no retraction is proffered when that is discovered) is as good as any other simply because we are all born equal with inalienable rights, that's another story altogether. Unfortunately the two issues are often confused.

AP2009-02-28 16:48:28
Yes, but let's stop talking about your habits.

Emanuel Paparella2009-03-01 02:27:33
I wager that when Aristotle explained in his lyceum that good habits are virtues and bad habits are vices, there must have been a "wise" student who must have exlaimed: yes but let's stop talking about your habits; which tells us precious little about Aristotle except perhaps that the student thought him a narcisist, but it surely tells us much more about the student.

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