Issue 88 / July - August 2012
The Butterfly Mosque: Building a Bridge
Jessica Danielle Phillips
G. Willow Wilson openly states in her work, The Butterfly Mosque, "When videos of angry men in beards flooded the airwaves, claiming their religion was incompatible with the decadent West, I believed them" (Wilson 19). As studies show, this belief is not exclusively held by Wilson but by a majority of Americans uneducated about Islam and the Middle East. With the media only depicting fundamentalists and oversimplifying Islam by these few individuals' actions, Americans unknowingly and understandably stereotype Islam and the Middle East only via what they see in the media; perceiving both as completely contradictory to Western ideas and values. G. Willow Wilson addresses this theme constantly throughout The Butterfly Mosque: a gap between the culture of the Middle East and the culture of United States. G. Willow Wilson illustrates her realization and attempts to build a bridge between Western culture and values and those of the East by candidly and bluntly recounting her experience of living in the Middle East, precisely Egypt, and converting to Islam during a time of great unrest between these two regions. Wilson refers to this gap between cultures as she states, "Plenty of people see Islam as irrevocably in conflict with western values... the war between Islam and the West is a human conflict, in which human experience is the only reliable guide... No matter how hard we tried to patch over the gulf between us, it kept opening up" (5-238). Wilson specifically attempts to bridge the culture gap between the United States and the Middle East by portraying a different perspective on men in the Middle East, women in the Middle East, and Muslim fundamentalists in the Middle East from that portrayed in the United States' media.
Middle Eastern men, especially Muslim men, have been depicted in the media as angry, violent, oppressive, and inhumane madmen who terrorize the innocent. Wilson, or Willow as she is referred to in the book, openly discusses her initial fear of Middle Eastern men as she states, "I had been taught to fear [Middle Eastern men]... they always seem like nice guys. It's only after you've gotten involved that you discover the honor-killing wife-imprisoning fundamentalist reality beneath the faÃ§ade" (43). Wilson, through her interaction and relationships with men in Egypt, depicts a very different side of Muslim men in the Middle East. She portrays men as kind, protective, and respectful. Her interaction and relationship with these men varies greatly, beginning with her husband, Omar, and continuing even to two local shopkeepers. Willow's husband, whom she met in Egypt and is Muslim, is far from the stereotypical Middle Eastern man depicted in the media. He is kind, gentle, respectful, intelligent, and patient. Though Omar had never shown anything other than these qualities, Willow was often skeptical of him and how he would be once they married. When Omar's female relatives began to place ideas in Willow's head that Omar was a "traditional" man who would require her to slave in the home cooking and cleaning, she became alarmed and confronted him. Omar responded, "I am not marrying you to have a servant, I'm marrying you because I love you... You have this idea of a stereotypical Arab man in your head, and you keep confusing him with me" (204). Omar never deviated from being an honorable man through the entire book; he always respected and supported Willow in whatever it was she wanted to do: to visit Iran alone, to visit her family in Colorado alone, and even to move to the U.S. with Willow. Another major reoccurring theme when it came to her interaction with men in Egypt was this concept of them being very protective of their women, "The men began to treat me with the same protective chivalry they extended to other Muslim women" (108). While living in Tura, Willow and her friend Jo regularly shopped at a duken where they formed a friendship with its owners, Mohammad and Namir. There was one particular visit to the duken where a fellow shopper questioned Willow asking her if she was American. Mohammad and Namir immediately turned their attention to the man watching and listening to how he spoke to Willow. Willow described the scenario as following, "I noticed that Namir and Mohammad had stopped stocking the shelves and stood very still, looking at the man with an expression that was not friendly. Without speaking, but very clearly, they were saying Stop, go back, and approach her more suitably" (131). Willow further explains her and Jo's relationship with the shopkeepers by elucidating, "Mohammad and Namir subtly defended our honor by insisting that within the confines of their shop we should be treated like Arab women... with the proper degree of respect" (130). There was also a fararghi, or poultry seller, Am Mahmoud, who came to Willow's defense as well. While shopping in the market one afternoon, a group of American tourists stared at Willow trying to decipher if she was American or a Muslim. Willow describes Am Mahmoud's reaction: "At the same moment, Am Mahmoud himself, cleaning his hands with a cloth, stepped between me and the street, screening me from the view of the tourists... the tourists moved on... Am Mahmoud had protected me from exposure and embarrassment as he would an Egyptian girl" (211-212). Though Willow also acknowledges the presence of some desperate, gawking men in Egypt, she more importantly acknowledges and shares with her audience the truth that men in the Middle East are not as they appear in the media. They are human beings and share the same emotions that everyone else experiences. They are protective of their women and have no intention of abusing or oppressing them. They are kind, gentle, and respectful; quite the opposite of violent, angry, and controlling as seen in the media.
Women have also been utilized as a tool in the American media to depict the Middle East and Islam as oppressive and condescending towards women. The media stresses the human rights violations of women in the Middle East, including honor-killings, abuse, polygamy, and lack of education. The media often portrays women as helpless and forced to cover head-to-toe with drapery. What the media does not discuss are the independent women in the Middle East or the reasons behind gender discrepancies within Islam. Wilson, on the other hand, exposes a different side to women in the Middle East: independent women, who are the head of the family. One very solid example of this type of women is Omar's mother, Sohair who is also Muslim. Sohair was a single mother who worked hard her entire life to bring herself and her children out of poverty. Wilson also explains that just as in the West, many young women in the Middle East are also becoming more concerned with their careers and their education rather than just being a housewife. In addition to meeting Sohair, Willow realized the role of women through her interaction in the market and as a bride in Egypt. Wilson discusses women's role as she states, "She is the one who builds relationships with the vendors of the best meat and the freshest fruit, and argues for the lowest price; she knows herbal remedies for dysentery; it is she who cooks for ten people out of three pots when relatives drop by unexpectedly. In Egypt, women create the civilization the men merely live in" (207). She goes on to discuss women's rights in the Middle East and how they are better off since they have influence rather than rights: "Why push for rights when you have influence? A gusty, intelligent woman in the Middle East can steer fortunes of her entire family with a minimum of exposure and risk; giving her a full complement of western rights would limit the scope of her power by exposing her to the same public scrutiny as men" (270). Wilson further addresses women's rights in Egypt and how if she were to marry Omar as a Christian, she would have fewer rights than as a Muslim (90). She even briefly discusses how the marriage license "entitled [her] to a slew of things if Omar took a second wife" (94). Lastly, Wilson touches on the believed double standard of men and women in the Middle East and in regards to being a Muslim. Willow explains that neither Islam nor the Qur'an warrants female oppression, "Islam, in its purely textual form, took my side. There is no religious limit on the public spaces that women can inhabit; nothing prevents them from running businesses or driving cars, there is no reason they must walk behind men or cover their faces. A woman's role is not defined by the kitchen and the nursery" (80). While visiting Colorado and enjoying coffee with a friend, the friend inquired about women not being allowed to be in the company of another man if he is not her husband or of her husband's family. Willow beaks this idea of an oppressive, double standard as she says, "There are only two genders here. Creating a rule for one necessarily creates the same rule for the other. You could just as easily asked whether Omar could go out with another woman or be alone with her, and I would have given the same answer: no" (228). Women hold much more respect than the media leads on to believe. They present one side of the matter without fully explaining the other. Willow summarizes the truth of women in the Middle East for her audience as follows, "It was such a tantalizing contradiction, being a woman in the Middle Eastâfar less free than a woman in the West, but far more appreciated" (250).
The media has created an image of all Muslims as being extremists. What they fail to mention in their new reports is the simple fact that that extremists make up only a small fraction of the Muslim population and those in the Middle East fear these individuals as well, not just Westerners. Islam is the second largest religion in the world; if all or even a majority of Muslims were extremists and terrorists then there would be a much greater number of attacks around the world and on a much more regular basis. Wilson makes clear this point throughout her work. She briefly describes a fundamentalist mosque near her apartment and how "the screams of the muezzin" woke the entire neighborhood up at 4 am (123). Wilson even attempts to explain the truth behind fundamentalists and their actions, "The fundamentalists we could see from our bathroom window hated us for very religious reasons... It became clear to me... how little the anger of our local extremists had to do with military America. While the situation in Iraq gave them political legitimacy and direction, and a dangerous amount of emotional leverage with average Muslims, it was not the reason they were angry. They hated America that exports culture" (135-136). The media is also guilty of blaming Islam for supporting terrorism; which Wilson makes clear is not the case by any means, "Dozens of fatwas against terrorism have been issued since 9/11, many by high-ranking clerics. The silence of the press to positive gains made by moderate Muslims has enabled damaging misconceptions about the religion and its leaders" (243). Wilson even interviewed a mufti, who stated that Islam "aims to protect human dignity and human rights" and that it forbids "tyranny, prostitution, suicide, drug abuse â anything that treats a human being as an object" (247). Finally, Wilson attempts to also clear up the misconception that all Muslims hate Americans and that the Middle East only has a negative view of America and its people as she explains, "To speak about America in such bitter generalities was not typical in Egypt, except perhaps among hard-line fundamentalists" (278). Once again the author tries to make clear that the false generalizations and fallacies presented by the media. Though terrorism is a real problem, and though the extremists do use Islam as an excuse, it does not represent Islam or the Middle East by any means. Just as Americans do not all want to be stereotyped by what is seen in Hollywood, Muslims do not want to be stereotyped by only what is broadcast in the news.
"There was so much about Islam and the people who lived it that was left unsaid in the media and in public discussion, and I could do something about it" are the very words which explain the purpose of G. Willow Wilson's The Butterfly Mosque. Wilson's work was a well-written attempt to bridge the gap between the Middle East, mainly Islam, and the United States. She illustrated the truth: the good and bad of both cultures. While she focused on closing the gap between what is seen in the media in the U.S. in regards to men, women, and fundamentalists, she never presented only one side of the matter. She acknowledged and made reference to the fact that there were truths to the stereotypes, but that the stereotypes did not apply to everyone. These incorrect stereotypes of men being oppressive and violent, women being submissive and abused, and all Muslims being fundamentalists are incorrectly applied to the majority when in reality this applies to a small minority. Readers of this work will finish this book with a new perspective on Islam and that of Middle Eastern culture.
Jessica Danielle Phillips is a senior in International Relations at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL.
Wilson, G. Willow. The Butterfly Mosque. New York: Grove Press, 2010.