I cannot in any way claim to know what people are thinking or meaning on the ground, but for centuries, 'Allahu Akbar' has been in the Muslim world a battlefield of meaning and ultimately of political legitimacy. They are five syllables pregnant in meaning, mutability and richness, not simply a ritualistic or fundamentalist dogmatic trope. Nor is 'Allahu Akbar' simply a prayer. In fact, despite all its negative, violent connotations in the West, 'Allahu Akbar' has been uttered by Muslims throughout history as a cry against oppression, against kings and monarchs, against tyrannical and despotic rule, reminding people that in the end, the disposer of affairs and ultimate holder of legitimacy is not any man, not any king or queen, not even any supreme leader, but ultimately a divine force out and above directing, caring and fighting for a more peaceful, rule-based, just and free world for people to live in. God is the one who is greatest, above each and every mortal human being whose station it is to pass away.
The fact that 'Allahu Akbar' is echoing through the Iranian night is not only an indication of the longing of people there to find a peaceful and just solution to this crisis. It also points to how deep the erosion of legitimacy is in whosoever acts against the will of the people, in whosoever claims to act on God's behalf to oppress his fellow human, including in this case some of the 'supreme' Islamic jurists themselves. This all goes to show that Islam, far from being merely an abode of repression and retrogression, has the capacity of being a fundamentally restorative and democratic force in human affairs. In the end, so it seems, at least in the Iranian context, 'Allahu Akbar', God is greatest, is a most profoundly democratic of political slogans. So deep is this call, that what is determined out of this liminal moment may very well set the terms for (or against) a lived, democratic Islamic reality for decades to come.
Nicholas's comment is speaking directly to the protests in Iran, but it also made me step back and examine my own feelings towards Islam. I fully support the rights of Muslims to practice their religion in America and to live peacefully without harrassment or discrimination, I really do. That support of based on a bone deep belief in civil liberties. But really, I don't like Islam, and that is a prejudice.
I would like to respect Islam as a beautiful and valid religion, but it's hard. It's hard to look at everything that is being done to women and girls in this world in the name of Allah and not resent everything about it. That attitude isn't fair, but it is how I feel. I fully realize that many horrible things have been done in the name of other religions but I look at Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and I don't care. I'm angry at people who would use that religion to repress half their population.
In Nicholas's comment I saw something, though. He reminds me that there may be beautiful and wise aspects of Islam that I never get to see. I have to own up to my negative feelings about Islam, but I don't have to stop there. I learned the tennents of Islam in school, but never looked any deeper at it to see what it had to offer in a pan-religious conversation. I know that, personally, monotheism is not for me and I don't see that changing. I don't like to think of myself as a prejudiced person and I don't want to be prejudiced against peace-loving, moderate Muslims. I will have to examine my own attitudes on the subject a little more closely now.
Still hoping for the demonstrators in Iran right now.