Interview with Carla Power, 2015 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction

Carla Power

If the Oceans Were Ink Carla Power, credit: Jamie Smith
If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran
(Henry Holt and Company)
ISBN: 978-0805098198

 

Interviewed by Merritt Tierce
If the Oceans Were Ink is an introduction to the Quran, to Islam, to the extraordinarily devout and humble Sheikh Akram, and perhaps most importantly to a rare effort: Carla Power’s attempt, as a secular American, to read and understand the text that shapes the lives of more than a billion people in our world. She approaches this endeavor with great diligence and respect, and never takes the less strenuous path when it comes to difficult conversations about gender roles, cultural divides, jihad, stereotypes, and the nature of faith itself. With a journalist’s mind for the story, a born traveler’s heart for the adventure of crossing borders, and a seeker’s yen for the poetry and mysticism of belief, Power creates an exceptional record of a timeless quest.

Merritt Tierce: The Sheikh points to what he calls the laziness of obsessing over details in the Quran rather than investigating its heart, and of avoiding the challenges of thinking for oneself. You write "Gore and absolutes always grab people's attention faster than poetry and nuance," a reality you've come by as a journalist; your book points to the laziness in media coverage that privileges the sensational over the subtle. But when the object is to sell papers or generate clicks or increase ad buys, rather than save one's immortal soul, what exactly is the path (or impetus) toward what might be more honest portrayals of Islam by Westerners? That is—you specifically dedicated a year to the poetry and nuance, and a book's worth of words. Is there a way to calibrate this more probing, respectful approach to the frenetic pace of the 24/7 news cycle, and did your time with the Sheikh give you any insight into what that way is?

We’ve got to find compelling ways of telling other stories.

Carla Power: It comes down to what we define as "news." Geopolitical realities today mean you have to report on groups like ISIS and the Afghan and Middle Eastern conflicts. The economic realities of the news business mean you need clicks, since competition for readers' attention is stiffer than it's ever been. But we've got to rethink what constitutes “news,” because if we don't, and we just see it as reporting on blood and explosions, then the extremists of both stripes—ISIS and Boko Haram in Islamic societies, and Islamophobes in the West—have won.
It's a tough balance. Since the rise to prominence of ISIS, the media have been locked into a kind of ghastly dance with jihadis, where it is these violent outliers who are presented, over and over, as representative of Islam. The extremists have figured out ways of staying in the Western headlines, and the rest of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims haven't. Let's face it: quietism is a yawn.
We’ve got to find compelling ways of telling other stories. By focusing exclusively on violence or the worn and predictable narratives of Scary Violent Muslim Men and Muffled Oppressed Muslim Women, we choke off any hope of hearing about other currents in Islamic societies. It's these internal debates that are crucial to combating not just the image of extremism in media, but for combating extremism itself. The crazies have thrived on the oxygen of publicity. If we figured out a way to give the quiet men and women challenging the crazies near the same exposure, that in itself lends life to their arguments.
I once pitched a piece about a group of top Muslim women thinkers who had come out with the first comprehensive analysis of the Quran's famous verse, 4:34, which has been used over time to make men authorities over women. It’s the verse that Muslim feminists have called "the DNA of patriarchy" in the Muslim world. So to me, as a journalist, watching Muslim activists across the Islamic world struggle to reform marriage, divorce and inheritance law, this seemed a critical publication, an event arguably more newsworthy of coverage than yet another suicide bombing or hate crime.
The piece came out, but not as news. It was posted in the relatively quiet backwater of the Ideas section. I get why, but I also see the irony: if these women had blown something up, instead of attacking the status quo using classical sources and carefully plotted arguments, they'd have made it to the news section.

MT: I love the point you make about equality for women when you say "Akram could content himself with a just God who would even things out after death. Yoked as I was to this life, I couldn't afford to see my justice deferred. I needed it now, in this world, in my own kitchen and bedroom..." Are you satisfied with Akram's assertion that the Muslim practice of male guardianship is (or can be) just?
CP: No. Or rather, yes, having the man being the provider for the household can potentially be just, if you've hit the jack-pot and you have a just man doing the providing. But without readings of the Quran allowing for true gender justice, assuming that men are guardians of women opens the gateway for massive abuse of power. Muslim feminists around the world are arguing that the medieval definitions of ‘guardianship'—the ones that underpin constitutions and legal codes in many Muslim countries—need revising in light of 21st century realities. They're doing this from inside the Islamic tradition, not by importing ideas from outside of it.
Akram believes men should be a support for women rather than an authority over them; that said, he's not as worried about reforming the old notion of the husband being the provider, and thus having the final say in household affairs.
Akram's more sanguine about potential abuse of power than I am. As you point out, he's convinced that abusers of power in this life will get theirs in the next one. But he's a quietist: lots of Muslims are much more eager to see justice—whether gender justice, or economic justice, or political justice—in their lifetimes.

MT: One of the Sheikh's major refrains is that, for many who claim Islam, there is too much of a focus on being Muslim, as an identity, rather than practicing piety; I feel exactly the same is true for the rampant and ramped-up jingoism many Americans have exhibited post-9/11—not only private citizens, but, dangerously, our government and military. At least the Sheikh has the Quran on his side when it comes to underlining Islam's call to practice patience, purity, and pacifism, and ignore what distracts from one's personal submission to Allah. Any thoughts on what a corollary for taming rabid militarized patriotism might be?

If it's up to ordinary Muslims to remind us that Islam is something bigger than beards and veils, it's up to all Americans not to let the term 'patriotism' become the property of flag-waving jingoists.

CP: Jingoism’s one thing; patriotism's another. We've got to chip away at the notion that being patriotic means supporting imperialism, whether domestic or overseas. After 9/11, Muslims have watched extremists define the global image of their religion, while millions of Americans have watched the notion of what it means to be an American hijacked by post 9/11 wars overseas. If it's up to ordinary Muslims to remind us that Islam is something bigger than beards and veils, it's up to all Americans not to let the term 'patriotism' become the property of flag-waving jingoists.
The struggle for a pluralistic Islam has much in common with the struggle for an American patriotism that's more than jingoistic chest-thumping. Just as Akram is urging his students to think about being Muslim as being about actions rather than a matter of beards and veils, we need to do the same. If the Sheikh goes back to his Quran, would-be patriots ought to go back to the Constitution, and its idea that to be an American is to struggle "in order to form a more perfect union." I think of Obama's speech last spring, on the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, where he talked about patriotism as recognizing that America was not a finished thing, but an action—a non-stop struggle to reconcile realities and ideals.

MT: Your willingness to engage in earnest with the Sheikh, to try to understand Islam and the Quran from his vantage, and in person, feels so necessary in the age of the Internet's faceless echo chamber. And yet you are a secular humanist, and the Sheikh is a person who, though it's hard to imagine a more consummate scholar, believes in an actual fiery hell. Was it difficult to grant the whole set of truths that are unequivocal to the Sheikh's worldview, and perhaps impossible in your own? (It seems eminently plausible for secular or non-Muslim religious Americans of relatively tolerant mindsets—and relatively stable socioeconomic situations—to take a "live and let live" stance toward Islam, but your position as a seeker is not one of neutrality. You choose instead to deliberately work at understanding what you don't understand. I'm interested in hearing about how you have a conversation with someone when you know going into it that there are some things they just believe and you just don't?)
CP: There were days that I sat across a cafe table from the Sheikh, but felt that I was staring out across the Grand Canyon. I was genuinely shocked, the day that I learned that he believed in a hell with flames and chains. It was one of the things that I couldn't quite understand, requiring a leap I just couldn't make. Indeed, he didn't expect me to understand it, as a non-believer—he thought belief in such things crept up on one, and didn't fall from a great height onto you. It hasn't crept up on me yet, and the hell issue is one that I couldn't understand.
We could still keep having a conversation, since he wasn't trying to convert me. I sound like a marriage counselor, in saying that it was mutual respect that allowed us to keep talking, but it was.

MT: Through your conversations with the Sheikh, the reader comes within reach of an understanding of how individual pious Muslims and individual respectful secularists (or Jews/ Christians/Hindus) can co-exist, and even enrich one another's lives. But how can carefully wrought truces between individuals become institutionalized peace among tribes, clans, religions, nations? Did you and the Sheikh ever arrive at a position of mutual hope for that reality?

Getting people with divergent views sitting down over lattes and agreeing to disagree is a long way from signing peace treaties. But it's a first step.

CP: You’ve asked the great question of our age—and the answer is way above my pay-grade. Everyone from Obama to parents working to stop gang violence in Rio has pondered it: how do you move beyond individual efforts at peace to group ones? Sitting here in Europe typing, I'm struck by the huge gaps at play during the migrant crisis: individuals opening their homes to the refugees, but governments and EU institutions being much slower to act—and in some cases, outright hostile. The best I can say is that it's a slow process, particularly in a world where, for all the claims about connectivity and the global village, economic pressures mean that we're increasingly likely to be hanging out in cultural ghettos. In the West, we're increasingly likely to live near people who think like us, send our kids to school with people "like us", and interact online with folks whose views echo our own.
Getting people with divergent views sitting down over lattes and agreeing to disagree is a long way from signing peace treaties. But it's a first step. The Sheikh would tell his students to go round to their non-Muslim neighbors when they'd cooked biryani and offer them some, and start talking. That's ad-hoc, low-tech, and will take generations to resonate in a political sphere, but it's a recognition that peaceful and genuinely pluralistic societies hinge on people mixing.
In the current climate, even these tiny steps mean taking risks. The Sheikh had guts to invite me to speak at his madrasa in a tiny village in Uttar Pradesh. By having an American, Jewish, woman journalist speak in a madrasa in a town where even Muslim women don't go out in public, risked offending his community in all sorts of ways. He was worried that the more conservative Deobandi madrasas in the area would label him a "liberal"—the prevailing smear among his peers. He was breaking with the town's traditions of segregation of men and women. But he asked, and I spoke, and perhaps something shifted.

 

Merritt Tierce was born and raised in Texas and received her MFA in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The National Book Foundation named her a 2013 "5 Under 35" honoree, and she was a recipient of a 2011 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award. Her first novel, Love Me Back, was shortlisted for the PEN/Bingham award and won the Texas Institute of Letters' Steven Turner Award for First Fiction. She has been a fellow at the Yaddo artists' colony and Omi International Arts Center, and lives near Dallas with her husband and children.

 

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Photo credit: Jamie Smith