First published in 2007, this book is even more relevant today than it was six years ago; the current controversy about women claiming the right to wear the veil is an example. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says on the book’s cover, “In these fraught days of heightened tension and increasing hostility, few books could be more timely.”
The authors, John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, both leading experts on the Muslim world, both boasting an impressive list of publications on Islam and its relation with the West, are particularly apt at talking on the subject. In the words of Karen Armstrong, Who Speaks for Islam should be required reading for policy makers, journalists, broadcasters, teachers, students and scholars.”
I should say first that one of the assets of this book is its easily accessible structure. The chapters are clearly divided into section and each chapter ends with a series of ‘key points’ that sum up the ideas exposed in it. When it comes to its contents, what becomes immediately visible is the complexity of the subject.
Nothing is black and white here, and we find ourselves forced to revaluate our own – often simplistic – opinions and assumptions. In fact, the thing which becomes abundantly clear is “the enormous gulf of perceptions between Muslims and Westerners”. This is particularly obvious when it comes to the position of women in Islam. For example, how many of us are aware that many of the laws imposed on Muslim women are not founded on religion but on cultural customs – usually Arabic – and that those customs actually go against the sayings of the Quran?
But it is perhaps the way we react to this book which shows its particular relevance for us. I found it impossible to read a single paragraph without weighing it, either strongly agreeing or objecting equally strongly to it or, less emotionally, thinking of different arguments to present. There are many comments one would like to widely publicize. For example, ‘resentment against the West comes from what Muslims perceive as the West’s hatred and denigration of Islam, not from their refusal of Western values.’ When asked what they admire most about the West, many Muslims say: ‘real freedom, economic and scientific advancements, equality, justice,’ as an Iranian respondent puts it, ‘freedom, care for human rights, democracy and equality, says a Turkish respondent. These may come as surprising statements. But, as this book shows, our surprise is only a reflection of the gap of ignorance and misunderstanding that exists between the West and the Muslim world.
We may be surprised by the fact that Muslim women simultaneously say that there are ‘eager to have better relationship with the Western world’ and that ‘their attachment to their spiritual and moral values is critical to their progress.’ But what lies behind our surprise? A book like this one will certainly help to find the beginning of an answer to this question.