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Igniting a New Model for Islam

Arash Naraghi, associate professor of religion and philosophy, is the author of three books and numerous articles exploring issues in applied ethics, the philosophy of rights, and modernism in Islam, among others. He speaks at conferences throughout the United States and abroad, and in addition to the classes he teaches here at Moravian College, he offers courses online to students around the world but particularly in Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan.

Inside Moravian caught up with Naraghi in his office in Comenius Hall to talk about his most recent book, targeted for publication in Farsi in Iran, and his work to influence positive solutions to the push-pull of tradition and modernity in the Middle East as countries struggle to redefine themselves for the 21st century.

Inside Moravian: Please tell us about your new book.

Arash Naraghi: My goal with this book is to put forth a new understanding of reform in Islamic thought, which is one of the fields I’ve been working in for a long time. The Muslim communities overseas are struggling to reform lifestyles, religion, and their understanding of religion to accommodate the requirements of modernity, so there is a movement in the Islamic World to reform Islam.

Some people believe in a “fundamentalist” way. They don’t want anything to do with modernity. They say Muslim communities should turn away from it, go back to the original sources of tradition, and recreate the lost empire that we had for centuries.

An alternative approach, the modernist approach, is to recognize the good in modern society—modern knowledge, human rights, and so on--and to tap the forces within the Islamic tradition to make change from the inside. For example, in the Islamic feminist movement, Muslim women and men try to offer alternative readings of authoritative texts, which then forces religious authorities to reconsider legal issues regarding women and their status in family and society.

Within this modernist approach to religion, I am offering a new model for how to preserve the integrity of tradition and at the same time be open to change. We should respect the core values of our religion and of our tradition, but we also want that tradition to respect women’s rights, human rights, gay and lesbian rights, and so forth. I hope this book contributes something positive to the ongoing conversation.

IM: Who is the target audience, scholars and intellectuals or the general population?

AN:  The book engages deeply in philosophical and theological discussion to show readers how this approach works and to justify an alternative interpretation. Not only do scholars need to be convinced but all of the middle class--students, women, and so on--because they are the force behind these changes. Change cannot happen without social force behind it.

It is a very technical book, but there is broad interest in philosophical theories in

transitional countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Tazikstan, because these theories have significant political and social implications. Many of the classes I teach here at Moravian College I also teach online to international students but the implications are different. American students have a curiosity, maybe they want to pursue a profession in philosophy, but it may not affect them directly. When I offer the same class to my non-American audience, it can change their lives.

IM: Looking back to your previous work on gay and lesbian rights, you ignited a significant dialog in the Middle East.

AN: When I came to the United States in 1999, one of the things that caught my attention was the dialog over gay and lesbian rights, which is absolutely forbidden in the Middle East. So I very, very cautiously tried to open the door to this conversation.

In 2004, I wrote my first article on the subject, approaching it from a moral perspective. There is a long history in the Middle East of condemning homosexuality as an abomination. My article was a philosophical one—if you discriminate against a group of people you must have a morally sufficient reason for it. If there is not a morally significant reason then discrimination is unjust and justice requires you to change your legal, political, and social structure to accommodate the rights of homosexuals. I asked, how can a religion that is deeply committed to the principle of justice discriminate against this group of people?

Of course, the paper was not published in Iran, but I posted it on my website and of the many articles I have there, this one was the most read. In the first year after it was posted, the article was downloaded 300,000 times. I had touched a nerve. And in the government, too. The newspaper was the mouthpiece of the supreme leader, and they wrote an article saying my story was the work of the CIA who are trying to destroy the morality and the ethics of the country. Even though it wasn’t published in Iran, my paper created controversy there. That is the beauty of the internet.

Some critics said the article was not consistent with the moral position of the Koran, so I wrote a second article in which I showed in detail how you can come up with a different interpretation of the Koran.

Now it is history. I recently went to a conference in Germany on gay and lesbian rights in Iran and was excited to see that this generation is very passionate, active, and knowledgeable. My articles were the focus of some of the panels, but the conversation has moved on. It is much bigger. The intellectual level of the conversation is extremely sophisticated and advanced, and I am pleased to see how it is moving forward.

IM: How did you come to Moravian College?

AN: I was teaching at California State, San Bernardino, in the philosophy department and I was quite content with the school and happy to be near my family who live there, but my research is in religion and philosophy, and I was hoping to find a place where I could teach both. I saw the ad for this position here at Moravian College, and it was as if the ad had been written for me.

IM: And what has been your experience since coming to the College?

AN: I love it here more than California—I love the four seasons. It is beautiful. The school is very friendly, and I felt very welcome. I like to know my students and I enjoy the pleasure of working with them face to face. I have that opportunity here. When I was at University of California, Santa Barbara, prior to my years at Cal State, I taught an ethics class with more than 300 students and six teaching assistants; I never had an opportunity to have personal interaction with my students.

I am grateful to be able to do my scholarly work--not just to be a professor but also a scholar--and for the opportunity to extend myself outside the college to other students and other countries. The University of California didn’t encourage you to go beyond the institution, but part of the mission of Moravian College is to become global and to reach out to other parts of the world.

I am so happy to be teaching in the United States. I can do things I couldn’t imagine at one point in my life. I have the freedom to think what I want, say what I want, teach what I want. I have access to technology and to so many resources. I come from a society in which I didn’t feel safe to teach certain philosophical ideas to students. Here I am in a safe zone. And through the internet, students in Iran can benefit from my online courses, too.

IM: It’s clear that you enjoy teaching.

AN: I love it, I love it, I love it! I feel so fortunate to be paid for something I would do anyway. Even when I was in high school I would teach other students. It has always been a passion.

Teaching is a sweet and sad experience though. It is so wonderful to see how fantastically the students flourish. When they come here they are naïve, and when they leave they are smart, sharp, intelligent, knowledgeable. The level of improvement is fantastic, but it makes me sad to see them go. They become your intellectual kids and your intellectual pals. They learn from me, but I also learn from them.

I stay in contact with some of my students. Last year at 10 at night I was reading, and I received a text message from a former student saying he had just been accepted to graduate school and had received a full scholarship. He said I was the first one he wanted to tell. I melted.

This is pure joy. I feel truly blessed.

And they pay me for it!