I am not entirely sure what to make of Maureen Dowd’s recent op-ed about her visit to Mecca. I vacillate between thinking that it is a piece of self-absorbed navel-gazing meditation on why everyone cannot be like her, and a piece that is deeply embedded in popular ignorance about religion. My RD colleague Haroon Moghul, in dissecting Dowd’s false equivalencies, convinces me that she is embedded in an Orientalist mindset that is committed to constructing Islam for Muslims, rather than allowing Muslims to speak for their own faith.
Dowd says that someone tells her that non-Muslims are not allowed in mosques and, in the same piece, that someone tells her that non-Muslims are allowed in mosques. One is left wondering what the correct position is. Judging by her visit to Istanbul, it seems that non-Muslims are allowed in, so why mention the other conversation? She seems to be conflating the Saudi state with the religion of Islam. Saudi Arabia is a special case in almost every instance when it comes to the Muslim majority world. It has laws, cultural norms, and definitions of religion that exist nowhere else. That’s why Dowd finds herself saying one thing, and providing examples that prove the opposite. Why would she need to go to an amir (prince) to be allowed in a mosque? Where would she find one outside the Gulf?
She decided that she was not allowed in a mosque, despite actually having been in one, so she needed another avenue to learn the faith. I am curious, if she felt nothing and learned nothing of Islam listening to the adhaan (call to prayer), what she would have learned looking at a cube. It is a building of bricks for those without faith. There is no “off-season” as she puts it. It is the place where religious history is recreated, from the Sacrifice of Abraham, to the end of the Prophet Muhammad’s pilgrimage. Those who do not have the faith receive nothing from it. It is not a tourist space, and this idea of preserving the sacred quality of something is something that many religious people can sympathize with.
Madonna’s playing with the Kabbalah, or American Outfitters‘ defamation of Hindu deities, are good examples of the commodification and desacralization of religious symbols. A reserved religious space for believers is not unusual. Uluru in Australia is a sacred space that should not be climbed, yet courtesy of colonialism, it is constantly being climbed and we do away with the religious sensibilities of the Aborigines. I wonder how many times Dowd has been into a Torah ark or a closed monastery or met with the Pope in his private chambers by just dropping by?
Dowd wants to emphasize the difference of Islam. She points to 9/11 through a sophomoric pun by saying Islam “smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11.” The reality is that Islam has been in America for centuries. At least of the 1/3 of the slaves brought here were Muslim. Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are perhaps two of the best-known Muslim Americans of the 20th century. Spike Lee even made a movie about Malcolm X, which does one of the best jobs I have ever seen of talking about the spiritual power of the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. It should be an embarrassment to the New York Times that they sent her to Saudi Arabia to hang out with princes, instead to New York, the home of nearly a million Muslims and multitudes of courses about Islam, to learn about the religion and its adherents.
If she were serious about trying to learn about Islam from Muslims, Dowd should not have gone to Saudi Arabia, but to New York. Arabs make up less than 20% of the worldwide Muslim population, and the Saudis a tiny portion of that. Her goal seems to be the conflation of Arabs and Muslims; terrorism and Islam; Muslims and the scary “Other.” Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th century Muslim poet, writes in one of his poems that people who go to Mecca to find the truth are often astray. They do not understand that first they must find the truth at home. I wish that Dowd had listened to this advice and not tried to create a vision of Islam that is foreign to both its adherents and to honest observers.