By Alaa Alghamdi
16 March 2015
It is no secret that Islam has been the subject of a considerable amount of misunderstanding on the global stage, to the point that the term “Islamophobia” has unfortunately been coined as the expression of an all too common phenomenon. The term, indeed, is very apt, a phobia being an exaggerated or irrational fear, and the term placing responsibility for it with the one experiencing it. The fact that the term is so apt, however, does not make the phenomenon itself any easier to bear.
That’s why it is always refreshing to hear about global citizens not from a Muslim culture who does display a deep understanding and even affection for our faith. It may not be common but it certainly does happen. One such person, who, though growing up in the west, has publicly expressed an interest in Islam, is the Irish actor Liam Neeson.
While some reports have suggested that Neeson is contemplating a conversion to Islam, this cannot be confirmed. What we do know, however, is that he has spoken openly about his love for Islamic culture and rituals, in his charming, soft-spoken and gentle way. Having spent time in Istanbul, he talks about the call to prayer, stating: “By the third week, I could not live without it. It became very hypnotic and very moving to me in a very special way. Very, very beautiful.”
Neeson’s own heritage, as may be surmised by his name, is Irish Catholic. In an interview, he mentioned the priest in his village as he was growing up. It may seem a contradiction — this Irish man admiring the Muslim faith — but what if his heritage is actually a reason for his choice?
Neeson, at age 62, remembers a time and a place when faith was firmly entwined with everyday life. He has also had tragedy in his life, with the death of his wife, Natasha Richardson, five years ago. In Islamic rituals, he found the respite from secularism that he was looking for, perhaps.
Whether or not the rumours of his conversion are true, Neeson’s public admiration of the rituals of Islam sends an important message. Religion is for everyone, and carries with it the beauty of a peaceful, time-honoured practice that can provide both solace and inspiration for the mind and the spirit. Islam is certainly not the only faith that can provide this, but as the west has largely chosen secularism over any public or overt expression of faith, we in the Muslim countries have a resource that can potentially benefit everyone.
The unfortunate public image that our religion sometimes has — the association with extremism and violence that is antithetical to the true tenets and practice of Islam — must be balanced by a counter message that, though perhaps quieter, is deeper and more authentic. I do believe that humankind’s inherent need and desire for a spiritual practice will eventually translate into a more positive public image for Islam.
And then, perhaps, the world will find that a different term to describe its relationship with Islam is needed. In place of Islamophobia, it is not farfetched that the world may coin and new phrase, Islamophilia — the love and admiration of all that emanates from the Muslim world.