Expert Panelists Discuss Islam

Last night in a panel entitled “Understanding Islam,” five experts on the Islamic religion tried to illuminate the true nature of the faith in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center by Islamic fundamentalists.

The Graduate School of Education (GSE) assembled the panel, attended by about 150 people, to assure that “some good comes from Sept. 11,” said panel organizer Dottie Engler, GSE’s co-director of external relations and development.

“It’s extraordinary that by the year 2025, one out of four people will be Muslim,” Enlger said. “There’s an elephant in the middle of the room that we’re starting to take a look at.”

Walid Fitaihi, an instructor at the medical school and the treasurer of the Islamic society of Boston, began the discussion with the traditional Islamic greeting, “Peace be upon you.”

or to defend their faith from attack.

Jabri also enumerated the rules of conduct that Muslims must follow if they go to war for their faith.

“If someone slaps you, you have the right to slap them back,” Jabri said, “but only as hard as they slapped you.”

Asani also emphasized that the Islamic community is diverse—geographically and ideologically.

“The Muslim community is culturally very diverse, and Islam itself, while there are certain tenets that hold it together, has different interpretations.”

Asani compared Islam to a rainbow, with many colors but bound by some common lines.

Other panelists also objected to the stereotyping of Muslims.

Fitaihi related a story of how his son, after watching CNN, asked him, “Am I an Arab or a Muslim or an American?”

Fitaihi told him that those labels were not mutually exclusive, but were “in harmony” with each other.

“In the last 22 days, I’ve grown 22 years,” Fitaihi said. “The struggle and agony have made me mature and grow.”

Asani said we have to move past the concept of the Muslim as “the other” in the U.S.

“People think whenever a Muslim does something it’s because of his religion,” Asani said. “It’s like looking at the prison population of the U.S. where most of the prisoners are Christian and saying, therefore, Christianity promotes crime.”

Engler said this panel was just the beginning of promoting understanding about Islam.

“This evening was not meant to neatly package Islam,” Engler said. “If anything, this evening shows the complexity of the religion.”

—Staff writer Anne K. Kofol can be reached at kofol@fas.harvard.edu

All of the panelists stressed that the core messages of Islam are inclusiveness and peace.

“The word ‘Islam’ means submission. The word ‘Muslim’ means submitter. A person who submits to God if they’re Christian or Jewish is Islam,” said panelist Ali S. Asani, professor of the practice of Indo-Muslim languages and cultures.

“You don’t need an ID to get into a mosque, you don’t need a membership,” said Munir Fasheh, director of the Arab Education Program in the Middle Eastern Studies Center at Harvard.

The panelists also tried to dispel the conception of Muslims as angry proponets of holy war, or “jihad.”

Hossam Jabri, chair of the Interfaith Committee of the Islamic Society of Boston, said there are only two reasons for a Muslim to go to war—physical self-defense