Muslim values with reference to gender roles and interaction are generally a hard sell in the West. So often, Muslim religious strictures are viewed as not only foreign or alien, but as contrary to the rights and freedoms afforded to citizens in western nations. This is especially true in America where issues concerning gender have become highly politicized and sensationalized by the media.
But are Americans fundamentally at odds with Muslims on gender issues?
Typical Muslim rhetoric on the topic would lead one to believe that America, as a cultural entity, comprises a morally bankrupt citizenry that has little care for modesty or observance of moral etiquette between the sexes. But confounding these perceptions are Americans such as U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Ryan Berry.
Berry was transferred by the military from his station at an underground missile silo in North Dakota because he refused to work in a situation that Agence France Presse (AFP) quoted him as calling on August 4 an "occasion of sin." It just so happens that the occasion to which Berry was referring was that of working in close proximity with non-related members of the opposite sex. Citing religious conviction, Berry, who happens to be Catholic, refused to work in an environment that he felt could potentially compromise his moral integrity.
Practicing Muslims can empathize with Berry's concerns. Along with prayer, observance of religious holidays and personal attire, workplace etiquette between the genders ranks high on Muslims' lists of on-the-job concerns. But the issue of proximity of male and female employees has generally been less a point of contention in actual worker discrimination cases than other concerns. So it is interesting that a Catholic man stands to become the champion of something that Muslims themselves have yet to bring to the fore in the quest for workplace accommodations.
Muslim issue or not, Berry's situation will no doubt draw criticism from various liberal camps warning of the evils of segregation. But Berry's position, which happens to be in line with the Muslim position, is one that does not seek to exclude women from the workplace. Berry went so far as to state that he supports women serving in the military. And Muslims would not disagree with those who argue that women should be afforded every opportunity to excel in the workplace.
However Berry, along with many Muslims, might argue that equal opportunity employment and adherence to religious standards on gender etiquette are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, the mainstream media generally fail to convey this.
But Berry does not represent the media skew. He is a real American expressing real religious conviction. American Muslims need to recognize then, that Berry's case could be an important indicator, however circumstantial, that there are U.S. citizens who can empathize with Muslims on lifestyle issues. There are people of strong moral and religious backgrounds with whom Muslims can find common ground. And by joining together on issues of common interest, the specific needs of Muslims might be met more expeditiously.
Ali Asadullah is the Editor of iviews.com