An-Na’im to examine privacy within religious communities



The mysteries of communal religious practices pose questions of privacy and the roles of communities — topics Abdullahi An-Na’im will explore in a lecture this afternoon.

An-Na’im, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law and director of the Center for International & Comparative Law at Emory University School of Law, will give a lecture titled “American Culture(s) of Ramadan: To Invent or Recover?” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. Week Three’s Interfaith Lecture theme is “The Ethical Tensions of Privacy vs. Interdependence.”

An-Na’im will examine the meaning and significance of the cultures of Ramadan in the United States, linking the roles of communities to privacy. He will present Ramadan as an example — a community that promotes the fasting experience might impose social sanctions on those who break the fast, raising questions of privacy within a community.

Although one might accept that his community has the right to intrude on his privacy to monitor an ethical standard or ritual practice, someone who grew up in another tradition might say it is nobody’s business but his own whether or not he fasts, An-Na’im said. It is a delicate balance, he said, between mutual support within a community and judging and dictating the religious practices of others.

“This is how communities get to police our individual behavior,” he said.

Issues of privacy in relation to Ramadan raise a question of judgment, An-Na’im said. If communities are too judgmental, they can drive members — especially young people — away, but if they are completely non-judgmental, then they fail to perform the role they should as communities.

An-Na’im insisted he will not come to the lecture with answers to these questions — such as the relevance of balancing individual privacy and the social good to a culture of Ramadan — and instead hopes to engage with all people about what the issues mean not just for the Muslim community but for all intercommunal relations.

“I would rather live in a community that is ambivalent and conflicted about this than one that is categorical,” he said.

An-Na’im will also attempt to demystify and deconstruct the notion of minority and majority, pointing out that “everybody is a minority by some criteria.” American Muslims are just Americans who happen to be Muslim, he said, and have many other identities, so they should not be judged or pigeonholed by one aspect of their being — an argument he makes in his book, What is an American Muslim? Embracing Faith and Citizenship.

“I have identities that I share with other Americans who may or may not share my religious identities, so politically I am not a minority … socioeconomically I am not a minority, so why should I be identified only as a minority?” he said.

Additionally, it is important to continue to reimagine communities to keep them vibrant alongside changing lives and issues. An-Na’im pointed out that qualities attributed to one community often actually belong to another; religious identity is not so exclusive that all members of a religion share it, and traditions such as food and music might belong more so to a region or a culture than to Islam, he said.

An-Na’im emphasizes citizenship as an identity because it is common ground, and there is a mutually reinforced support between being American and all other identities, he said.

“Citizenship is the universal identity that all Americans have. The only identity that all Americans share, absolutely, the only one is citizenship. Everything else is multiple,” An-Na’im said. “Being American is not a threat to any identity I choose to have, because I am the mediator.”