Proxies and Purposes in Islam
As I am always reminded this time of year, as law schools begin their hiring processes, there seems to be an overreliance on proxies in the world, over substance. That is to say, let's suppose a law school is evaluating a candidate. Now it's impossible to read every word that every prospective candidate has written, so what you do is try to pick out a couple of things from a resume that might help point out how good he or she is. If she's a Yale graduate, that's great. If a grad of Pat Robertson's Regent, not so much. If she clerked for a Ninth Circuit Judge, wonderful. Supreme Court, even better. If no clerkship, again not as good. If she published in the Yale Law Journal, wow. If the Podunk Law Review on Law and Film, not so much. It can become very hierarchical, Yale over Harvard over Columbia, even in the law reviews. (Be patient, we come to Islam in a minute.)
The justification for this is that the proxy is shorthand. Of course it's not entirely fair, but what are we do in a world with too little time and too much information but rely on this shorthand. But the danger is ever present, that what started out as a proxy actually becomes the standard by which quality is judged. And the Ohio State Law graduate, who clerked in a District Court in Ohio, who is the next Karl Llwellyn in terms of how good his stuff is, gets overlooked or discounted because he isn't from Yale and didn't clerk on the Supreme Court. Even if you read his stuff because he is not "impressive", "impressive" meaning the proxies aren't impressive. In other words, the proxy is now not shorthand, but the actual measuring stick. And so you end up picking the kid who was on the Court, who hasn't written a thing, thinking you did a good thing and he never ends up becoming much. I think my school is actually better than quite a few I can think of, but everyone I think in the academy falls into this trap now and then.
So what does this have to do with Islam? Well ask the Muslim scholar what is proper Islamic behavior, and you get a long list of things. Care for the fellow man, concern for the brotherhood, feeding the poor, social justice and equity, and of course prayer, fasting, the veil and other acts of devotion or worship. No scholar no matter how conservative would say that so long as you worshiped, you could feel free to cheat and steal your way through life.
Yet the reality is that the prayer and the fasting are what make the Muslim distinctive, and become the proxy. And in all too much of the Muslim world, the proxy has completely subsumed the other values, to really be the only true judge of Islamicity. If a woman wears a veil, she is a good Muslim. If the man has a little mark on his head for all the time he has rubbed his forehead against the earth in prayer, he is a good Muslim. If you eat at noon in Ramadan, you are the bad Muslim.
Again, ask the scholar, he won't tell you that's the end of it, in theory. He will say it's the proxy, the easy measure so we use it as shorthand. But it's not actually. Corruption oozes from the pores of so much of the Muslim world, and really the level of religiosity has nothing to do with it. Nowhere is this more true than in Iraq. And I don't mean the sort of thing where the preacher rails against homosexuality and then solicits gay sex in a bathroom, what I'm talking about isn't hidden.
Things like an Iraq law school dean demanding I build him an office or he won't let me build a courtroom for his school (I refuse your donation without a bribe) and telling me to make up my mind quickly, because he has to go pray. The guy who has overcharged me for a bad machine gone for three weeks to make the pilgrimage. The woman who has asked me to help her cheat on an exam wears a full veil. I don't mean to sound like the corruption is limited to religious figures, that's wrong, just that the level of religion has nothing to do with the integrity of the person, in favor or against. And I do mean people who seem entirely sincere in their religion, who don't seem to be praying because I'm watching, or pretending to get a better price, people who lie or steal or cheat to your face like my landlord did and you happen to see them in the mosque, just by chance, not because they were trying to impress.
Here's an easy example, reported in the Egyptian AlYoum the Ramadan before this one. Apparently, if you were sick in the Ramadan evenings, and you went to a public hospital, good luck to you. The doctors ignored the patients, deciding instead to do the OPTIONAL Ramadan additional prayers (the tarawih) and leave the patients to die, or get sicker, or whatever. To tend to dying people God doesn't care. To pray an optional prayer, well that's true Islam.
And so a huge demonstration can take place against the Danish cartoons, and thousands show up to protest, in Egypt, in Iraq, in Syria, in Jordan, and then when they leave the place is a trash pit, it's disgusting. Ask them, and you get a tirade about how the West pretends to be clean, but actually the Prophet said religion is cleanliness and so we taught it to them. But if we taught it to them, why am I hearing this in a trash pit, created by Muslims angry at misrepresentations of the Prophet?
I am hardly the first one to raise this theme, but it is a consistent and troubling one, and a resounding rejoinder who think that somehow Islam is going to solve the problems of the region. I don't see it, not from the crowd of Islamists and the behavior I witness from them. Again, not worse, not more littering, not more corrupt, not more dishonest, but just as bad, just as derelict in their duties, just as lazy, just as inefficient, just as unwilling to do their jobs, just as desirous of a bribe because Islam, among far too many, as it has developed in this culture, isn't really about much more than praying, fasting, going on pilgrimage, and demonstrating against Danish cartoons and French headscarf laws. I'll close with the opening line of an editorial from the Egyptian Al Dustur, some months back, whcih addressed somewhat similar themes, though from a different vantage point:
Did Islam descend upon us in order to cover the hair of women?