I didn't obsess about religion, but every now and again a question would pop up, and I hunted for answers in the only place I thought might have some. Picture it: the public library in the pre-Internet period of the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of what I'd read about Islam exuded a textbook tone. Lots of reference, little risk. Then, on February 14, 1989, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. This "unfunny valentine," as Rushdie would later call the fatwa, demanded of Westerners more than a collective tiptoe around theocracy. Many people in the West did take a stand against the death warrant and I'd be disingenuous to deny that. But the commentaries I tracked down at the public library seemed satisfied with merely explaining Muslim outrage; they steered away from asking if the Koran is as virgin, as divine, as the effigy-burners would have us believe. What happened to the religiously respectful yet intellecutally messy West I'd fallen in love with? Was multiculturalism losing its mind?
In a crucial sense, I think so. I say this because my trips to the library coincided with the era of Edward Said. He was the Arab-American intellectual who, in 1979, used the word Orientalism to describe the West's supposed tendency to colonize Muslims by demonizing them as exotic freaks of the East. A compelling theory, but doesn't it speak volumes that the "imperialist" West published, distributed, and promoted Edward Said's book?
Within a decade, Said was all the rage among young academics-turned-activists in North America and Europe. Their worship of him effectively stifled other ideas about Islam. By the time Salman Rushdie came out with The Satanic Verses, Said's acolytes stood ready to denounce as "Orientalist" (read: racist) just about anything that affronted mainstream Muslims. In my experience, the public library didn't escape this chill.
I began to regain faith, in both the West and Islam, after the mid-1990s. Praise Allah for the Internet. With the Web making self-censorship irrelevant -- someone else is bound to say what you won't -- it became the place where intellectual risk-takers finally exhaled. They reasserted what makes the West a fierce if imperfect incubator of ideas: its love of discovery, including discovery of its own biases. And as the critics probed Islam, I picked up on some jaw-dropping aspects of my religion.