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Radical History Review 86 (2003) 175-181

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Beyond Culture:
Teaching Histories of Islam

Leila Hudson

Cultural Misunderstandings

In March 1999, I received a vaguely threatening e-mail from an anonymous Muslim activist who, although not a student in my Middle East humanities class, had heard through the grapevine that I was teaching a false Islam. He based this claim on the fact that I had showed medieval Turkish miniatures depicting scenes from the prophet Muhammad's hagiography in which the Prophet was rendered with his face covered by an opaque veil. I responded that these reproductions of Islamic art were images which illustrate the general principle of an iconography that had motivated my critic to speak out. I added that the history of Islamic views on representation is complex and far from monolithic, that I certainly did not promote any religion in any form, and that ultimately, while such an image might be considered inappropriate by contemporary standards in a mosque, it was absolutely relevant to a university class on Middle Eastern and Islamic culture. I thought no more of the matter until I received a phone call from a senior colleague informing me that this issue had reached the executive board of the Tucson Islamic Center, which had approached him for an explanation. He assured them that it was an innocent mistake from a well-intentioned rookie, and that it would not happen again. He asked me for assurance that in the future I would respect the sensitivities of the local Islamic community.

I had been expecting the opposite sort of political troubles when I arrived to begin teaching Islamic studies at the University of Arizona in 1997. Since all my [End Page 175] teaching emphasizes appreciation for the complex and diverse nature of the myriad communities of the Middle East and the Islamic world, I had been girding myself to face accusations of political correctness and wanton cultural relativism from an anti-Islamic or anti-Arab audience who preferred not to have their complacency or deep-seated belief in the superiority of Western civilization disturbed by serious reflection on Middle Eastern complexity. Except for a young female student who stopped me in my tracks on my way to class one day, I received very few overtly anti-Islam reactions. This student angrily informed me that she was dropping my course, and incurring a substantial financial penalty from the university, because the course material on Islam was causing her to question her heretofore absolute Christian faith and threatening her ultimate salvation. I implored her to stay in the class, arguing that honest faith is not weakened but strengthened by uncomfortable truths and suggesting that later in life she would better appreciate her education—all to no avail.

In both cases—the Muslim who felt compelled to intrude into my class and the Christian who felt compelled to leave it—the problem was an extreme form of a widely held and cherished view of culture as static, unchanging, mysterious, essential; it is seen as a natural or even divine object or condition. The further objectification of culture and religion by authoritative outsider academics appears to be a logical and validating extension of the reverence and fetishization of devotees. Religious culture, even more than national culture, is never to be questioned, challenged, or acknowledged as flexible, manipulable, changing, alive, dangerous. The unexpected interjections by these true believers simply emphasized that this perception of culture not only blurred people's view of other societies, but also of their own familiar traditions. This conventional and ultimately dangerous view of culture works to prevent inquiry into the dynamics—the power flows—of living systems and allows the concept of culture to be wielded not only as a weapon against others but also as an excuse against accountability.

Unfortunately, the aftermath of September 11 brought this dangerous culture concept to the forefront of the national consciousness and discourse. The idea, promoted by the Bush administration, that essential cultural difference in and of itself was sufficient motivation for terrorist atrocity was received with nary a protest from the mainstream U...


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pp. 175-181
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2004
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