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December 6, 2001 Material grievances underlie clashes in the Middle East



(This photo of Lynda Clarke was removed at the explicit request of the subject, August 26, 2004)

by Barbara Black

Lynda G. Clarke is a scholar of Islamic spirituality, law and literature at a time when the faith is under intense scrutiny in the West.

“I’m intrigued by the phenomenon of people rushing out to buy the Koran,” she said. However, if they are trying to understand the people of the Middle East by reading their holy book, they are missing the point.

“People, especially the media, tend to attribute lifestyles to religion. While people do often express themselves through their religion, their choices of action are based on underlying material factors, grievances, and specific situations.”

Professor Clarke came to Concordia three years ago, replacing Professor Sheila McDonough when she retired. Clarke studied at McGill, earning her doctorate in Islamic studies, with distinction, in 1995. She has a master’s in Islamic studies from McGill, and another master’s from the University of Toronto, in Middle East studies.

Travel and work in the Middle East

Though born in Canada, she has travelled widely throughout her life, and lived in Lebanon, Iran, where she was a translator in Teheran during the Iran-Iraq War, and Syria. She is a Lebanese citizen.

Her research interests lie in classical and modern Shi’ism, law, gender issues, Sufism and comparative mysticism, and Arabic and Persian religious literature.

Her current project on Shi’ite law is funded by grants from Concordia and Quebec. As part of her research, she visits and maintains contact with the main Shi’ite seminary at Qum, in Iran, at Najaf, in Iraq, and others in Lebanon. Currently, she is translating 13th-century Shi’ite legal texts and its accompanying commentaries, tracing the constant evolution of Shi’ite law all the way up to its preoccupations with such modern issues as bioethics.

She and Jewish Studies Professor Ira Robinson plan to offer a joint course on Jewish and Islamic law next year. There are many misconceptions here about Islam and Arabs, she said.
As a scholar interested in issues of gender, she is a bit suspicious of Western sympathy for Muslim women, and sees the current concern about the oppression of Afghani women on the part of the U.S. administration as politically motivated.

The symbolism of headscarves, for example, is very rich, and subtle differences are instantly recognized among the wearers. Like dress in general, she said, the headscarf “is an identity marker. It can mean independence, modesty and dignity.”

While Muslims and Arabs have become more numerous and visible in our cities in recent years, there have always been Arabs in Canada. “Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, homesteaded on the Prairies in the early 1800s, like other immigrants at the time. The first mosque in Canada was built in Edmonton.”

The attack on the U.S. on Sept. 11 hit Canadian Muslims very hard, she said. “They felt conflicted, defensive, shocked — and anguished that such a thing would be done in the name of their religion.” Clarke noticed, though, that from the beginning, there was widespread sympathy for Muslims, and there were few incidents of backlash.

Asked if Islam is changing, Professor Clarke said that the religion became highly politicized in the 20th century, and this phenomenon continues to evolve.

“It’s partly generational,” she explained. “Nationalist and leftist ideologies — socialism, even communism — had been tried. Now there is a wave [of religious fervour] that started in about the mid-1970s, but it’s also linked to left-wing politics. The two streams come together in places like southern Lebanon.”

While she is pleased with Concordia’s ethnic and religious diversity, she naturally has a special concern for the Muslim and Arab students at Concordia, many of whom are recent arrivals or first-generation Canadians.

“They’re finding their place. They want to find room for their political ideas, and they do it vigorously. They may feel that people don’t know who they are, or they may tend to stick together, but in general, they are doing very well. It helps that there are large numbers of them, and they form a community.”