Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 12.23.10

The Battle of the Story
Narrators have the power to shape our understanding
By Nadia Raza

In late August (8/26), I wrote a viewpoint for the Weekly about the significance of fasting during the month of Ramadan. I ended with the sentiment that we need greater dialogue about Islam in America. At the time, debates about the construction of an Islamic cultural center two blocks from “ground zero” captivated national attention. Many of us watched, listened, read and reacted to the spectacle that reduced the issue to a tidy binary of Muslims against Americans (a binary that silences the many who are both Muslim and American). Heated emotions over the issue ignited campaigns of misinformation about Islam as a religion and those who relate to it. Unfortunately the depth of this conversation was abysmally shallow. Flags were flown. Mosques were bombed. Quran burnings commenced, and a battle between two polarizing stories unfolded. 

These stories continue to unfold on the global, national, and now local level. 

Events in Portland, Corvallis and Eugene have brought seemingly distant issues very close to home. The unfolding controversy regarding Barry Sommer’s attempt to teach a class titled, “What is Islam?” has propelled Eugene into the national spotlight and in doing so has precipitated an examination of a myriad of issues ranging from free speech to the legitimacy of those who teach. As we grapple with these questions, it is important to pay attention to the narratives that are given voice and the ones that are ignored. 

Poet Muriel Rukeyser once argued that the world is not made up of atoms; rather, the world is made up of stories. This provocative notion reveals our investment in stories to make sense of the world, to understand and express who we are as a people. As an instructor of sociology and ethnic studies, I am keenly aware of how history is comprised of competing stories that seek to explain, justify, make legitimate or complicate our understanding of the world as we know it. As both a Muslim and an American, I am deeply aware of the power of stories to shape the perception of and actions against Muslims and by extension Arabs, Middle Easterners and South Asians in a post 9-11 world.

I often ask students in my classes where they get their information. Whom do they trust as a source of that information? What makes for legitimate scholarship? And what important ethical questions should we ask of the research we are presented with? As we discuss these questions, we are led to further question objectivity, bias, authenticity and legitimacy. Through this process, we uncover that as we search for answers we often develop more questions. 

As stories and claims circulate about Islam, its tenets and what Muslims believe, it is important to employ some of these very questions. Namely, who is telling the story? Whose voices dominate the conversation and how do they structure and determine the parameters of that conversation? The current debate regarding the cancellation of an LCC community noncredit class titled, “What is Islam?” has been constructed as an issue of free speech and alleged persecution from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. This framing obscures the larger issue: Namely, what qualifications should someone possess to teach a community noncredit course on Islam? And to what extent can someone’s political affiliation compromise their ability to teach material in an objective manner? Moreover, the current narratives of this controversy only further silence and omit the perspectives and voice of the people being discussed. 

As we navigate through increasingly contentious times in search for greater meaning and purpose, it is crucial that we think critically about the politics and power of stories. A glimpse at history reveals that the voices that dominate the conversation do not lead us to the most interesting stories or even complete understanding of the issue. Rather it is the voices from below, from hidden spaces often overlooked and ignored, that lead us to interesting answers. Answers that give us perspective, strength, wisdom and a fuller understanding of the truth. 

Nadia Raza is an instructor of sociology at LCC. She teaches courses on critical race theory, culture and social movements.