On Al-Jazeera on June 12, 2016

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Progressive Muslim: nothing contradictory about it

with Yazmin, August 2008
Feisty Muslim females: with Yazmin, August 2008

I met Yazmin Khan on the set of Shariah TV this summer, when she turned to me and made a truly poignant commentary about something I had said. Following the taping, we skipped out to spend the afternoon discussing our experiences and the issues discussed on the show. We’ve kept in close contact since then, which has been a wonderful experience for me. She recently published an especially thoughtful blog post about how the term “progressive Muslim” often feels like an oxymoron.

I actually think her post helps to illustrate how this simply doesn’t have to be so. In fact, being “progressive” and being a Muslim are quite compatible. I’d also assert that Islam itself takes on human rights issues some vehemently anti-religious progressives shy away from. I’d further argue that when Muslims live up to the best of our faith, “progressive Muslim” almost becomes redundant.

An excerpt from Yazmin’s post:

“Being a woman within the framework of speaking about Islam and being Muslim is an incendiary position to be in. I find that speaking to other Muslims, my Islamic authenticity is challenged and questioned, as if believing in equal rights for all people, not supporting injustice of any kind and being pro-social justice makes my shahada (declaration of faith) less valid. People, including a coworker last week, will literally quiz me on the pillars of Islam or details regarding the proper way to pray or verses from the Quran that all Muslims must memorize in order to be able to pray. I find these interactions incredibly insulting and frustrating- I self identify as a Muslim, therefore I am.

… None of this faithful belief infringes on my ability to think that women should have control over their bodies always and under all conditions and that women deserve nothing short of reproductive justice and freedom- all the time, no matter what. That includes everything from access to abortion, birth control, family planning, right to marry or not marry as one chooses, the right to an education, the right to move freely where and with whomever and wherever a woman pleases, the right to work, the right to pursue any occupation, career or life path a woman might ever want, the right to love whomever she wants, and the right to protection against all forms of rape, genital mutilation, assault, harrasment, domestic violence, molestation, and any type of intimidation or coercion that puts any girls or women in any kind of danger.”

Read the rest here.

Muslim women don’t need your approval, but you can make yourself useful in our cause

What do you have against sheperds?
What do you have against sheperds?

Time to confess something to you: I’m more than a little disturbed by some of the responses to my post on the Pakistani Taliban’s threats to maim women with acid.

Talk about missing the point! I’ve received emails from seething white supremacists who want to annihilate all Muslims, angry feminists demanding that I remove my headscarf (funny, shouldn’t feminists be fighting for choice?! As a feminist, I fight for theirs!), not to mention verbose comments about “sheparding cultures breeding terrorists” – (wait, wasn’t Jesus “the good sheperd”?), etc etc etc. I even got a message from someone who felt the need to let me know how hideous he thinks I am. Thanks for the pointers, buddy. Now stop looking through my album before you get sick.

I’ll tell you right now – my gut reaction is not just shock at how people can completely overlook the point of something like this – not to mention how anyone can feel absolutely no mercy when it comes to the suffering of others. I’m also choking down a desire to tell individuals to quit wasting our collective time, save their herding commentaries and hit-lists for their own diaries and get back to us when they’ve decided how to help the world in a constructive way. A good many of us have work to do – take your hate and get out of our way. (And a tip for the would-be lynchers: your emails are traceable. D’OH!)

At the same time, I encourage open dialogue. So, other than some downright undigestable hate language, I let most comments go up over the weekend. I’m glad I did, because some positivity did come of it: I received notes from several of you looking for more ways to help Pakistan’s women. I also heard from contacts at the International Campaign Against Honour Killings that they experienced an increase in requests to join their mailing list. This is great news. I encourage more of you to support the work of the ICAHK. This is not a partisan issue. This is something all people of conscience must address.

Some contributors made excellent points:

* A writer from Malaysia reminded readers that Muslims are not the monolithic entity many would have us be;

* Several men decried violence against women, including one who wrote:

I, RJ as a man, personally condemn these horrible/terrible attacks on women for whatever purpose they have been done for, for whatever period of time these crimes will be carried out or have been carried out, whereever in this planet/realm they have been carried out, are being carried out or are being planned for the future. I respect the rights of women and their dignity not to conform to violent views of their sexual practices, morality ( including outlawing and punishing having sexual intercourse before marriage, having multiple partners and etc..), or other manufactured perceptions of their clothing, style and ethics. I personally use all my power and will to stop violence and lack of understanding that is used as a sword against women and their rights. And I from all of my hearts do call upon those in the know, those who lead the banks who support religious terrorism and extremism of whatever kind and also my very distant bloodline relatives, who like to think of themselves as in the minority to do something to stop this – since my example might not be enough. I was not picked by the Divine before I was even born to rule over others and to say to them what to do, but clearly I am not a peasant who will stand by the sidelines and watch one of the few pure sources of joy in my personal life be abused. Since harming women is harming me as a man.”

* Someone named Daoud brought a meaningful defense of Islam to the table – while also calling on Muslim leaders to take action. What do I mean? He didn’t just cite Qur’an and hadith, then stomp away indignantly. He also said:

“It is the role and responsibility of imams, shaykhs, scholars, and political and government figures to lead and give relevant advice to those they are responsible for for the time and situations we are living in. If they will not do this, then they are betrayers of their trust the consequences of which we see meted out to such as these poor women.

If people are genuinely concerned about these atrocities then they should be demanding that the appropriate authorities take appropriate action against the perpetrators – they often know which of the birarderi elders sanctioned these attacks. How about putting them in prison? How about putting the person who actually threw the acid in prison for a very long time? This would be quite acceptable under the Shariah, although the classical punishment would have been even more severe.

There is no tribalism in Islam (”la ‘asabiyyah fi-l Islam” ;) is a well-known hadith. “The best of you are the best of you to your womenfolk…” (akhyarukum akhyarukum li nisa’ikum… ;) is another.

* When confronted with hate, a Muslim woman wrote:

“Well, here’s the thing: there are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. If we were all terrorists, the world would have imploded years ago. The truth is that the majority of us are kind, normal people. The radicals, like the Taliban, Hamas, Al-Qaida etc etc are the ones doing all of the speaking through their actions.

I have said for a long time that it is time for moderate, peaceful believers in Islam to *speak up for ourselves* and say NOT in the name of Allah, of OUR God do you do these heinous things.”

Music to my ears.

* The post has been picked up by Impunity Watch. See their mention of it here, in an article by Managing Editor Lindsey Brady. The mission of Impunity Watch – housed at Syracuse University College of Law – is to “monitor and address horrific human rights abuses.”

* Someone else provided this link, to Pakistan’s Acid Survivor’s Foundation. They help survivors and work to end acid attacks. Their site also contains a list of actual ways you can help. Now that’s a useful contribution to the conversation. 

Finally, I received an email containing the story of Imrana, a survivor of sexual assault in India. When local authorities failed to produce a humane verdict in her case, Imrana, a Muslim, took her story elsewhere. Women’s groups mobilized to assist in her cause, and she’s inspired the formation of the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement. Spread over 13 states in India, with over 2,000 members, these women don’t need the approval of clerics (or racist wingnuts on the internet) to go after their God-given rights. They know that Islam gives them these freedoms. You go, sisters.

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 “The most perfect man of religion is he who excels in character. The best among you is he who gives the best treatment to his womenfolk.”

The Prophet Muhammad, as narrated by Al-Tirmidhi

Don’t forget their names

AP Photo /Adil al-Khazali
AP Photo /Adil al-Khazali

At least 57 people have been killed in Baghdad, following a series of bombings in the city. Three female suicide bombers and a roadside bomb are to blame for the attacks aimed at Shia Muslims.

This week, many Shia Muslims are making the Kadhimiya pilgrimage, one of the major events on the Shia Muslim calendar. The neighborhood surrounding the Kadhimiya mosque was once an epicenter of Shia learning. Over the years, it has been at the forefront of conflict in Iraq – and this week, the sacred site is once again marked by blood.

This pilgrimage was outlawed by Saddam Hussein, who was responsible for the brutalization of Shia Muslims during his reign. The ceremony has grown in size since his defeat and death. As evidenced by this latest outbreak in sectarian violence, any security force would have a long way to go before it can claim success in Baghdad.

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with some colleagues about conflict, and the casualties that have been the result of violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and beyond. We talked about how we are often (not always) able to put a face, name, and story behind American victims. Not so when it comes to others. We hear body counts. Injury counts. We may see a photo like the one above. “A man” and “a child”, they are called.

This isn’t good enough. It isn’t good enough to know a number that can rarely be confirmed. We – Muslims, non-Muslims, Americans and our fellow global citizens – must have something to put to those numbers. I want to know who we have lost.

As a Muslim, I am angry. I am angry that a Sunni would dare to kill in my name. I want to know the names of the dead so I may pray for them. I want to know their names to whisper apologies to their families. I want to know if “a man” and “a child” have lost a wife and mother.

As an American, I grieve the loss of our soldiers. I stop and watch their faces on the news. I listen to the mothers, the younger brothers, the grandparents and partners. I want to thank them. I want to say that yes, I believe this war is wrong but yes, I thank them still.

For both, I cry. For both, I love.

“Let American Muslims share the stage” – Zainab Al-Suwaij

No rejection of hijabi sisters this time!

I meant to share this article quite some time ago, but was reminded of it this week.

See this piece by Zainab Al-Suwaij, founder of the American Islamic Congress, about how the US presidential candidates can best engage American Muslims.

 

  Quote:

“…neither Republicans nor Democrats have developed a clear approach to the Muslim community. Beyond the political implications for both campaigns, this shortcoming also impacts America’s social fabric. For the good of the country, McCain and Obama need to deal with the Muslim community openly and honestly.”

******

“O men, We created you from a male and female, and formed you into nations and tribes, that you may recognise each other. He who has more integrity has indeed greater honour with God…” Qur’an 49:12

Banning headscarves = democracy?

Aksine, I say. (That’s Turkish for “on the contrary“).

                                    

This week, Turkey’s parliament revived its ban on wearing headscarves on university campuses.

The hijab ban is nothing new. Shortly after a military coup in 1980, the hijab was banned in public buildings, universities, schools and government buildings.

The reasoning for banning the hijab is simple. Some factions of the secularist movement feel that public wearing of the hijab undermines the separation of religion and state. Some secularists fear that a visibile symbol of religiosity could lead to a rise in fundamentalism.

In February of this year, the ban on the hijab was lifted . The event was met with both celebration and protest. Only three months later, however, and the ban has been reinstated.

Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. It is also a democracy. Restricting freedom of religious observation and expression, then, seems wrong – doesn’t it? After all, hijab-wearing women aren’t demanding that public institutions stop activity during the five daily prayers (though interestingly, the call to prayer is still heard throughout the country) or asking that all women wear the headscarf.

Some of the ban’s supporters make an argument I’d like to find valid. They assert that for women otherwise forced to wear the hijab by their families or husbands, the ban provides a space – be it on the workforce or in the university – where they will be not just able, but required, to go without a headscarf. In short, women who don’t want to wear the hijab would be protected by the law.

In theory, this makes some sense. However, to believe that legislation like this would protect women from unreasonable family members is, I believe, profoundly naïve. 

Do the ban’s supporters really think that a woman returning home to an illogical family or spouse will be well received without her hijab? Do truly oppressive, dogmatic families care that the law requires the women in their lives to violate what they view to be a religious obligation? Certainly not. The very nature of such mentalities is that they are beyond reason. I’m not endorsing the behavior of those who would mistreat the women in their lives. I’m simply acknowledging that they exist. I’m being realistic in a way that I wish the ban’s supporters would be. Women must follow this law – and thus it is women who will be directly impacted by the reactions it sturs.

I’d argue that women aren’t at all protected here. In fact, legislating women’s self-presentation is the oldest and most repressive game in history. Women’s bodies have always been used as a measure of a community or nation’s purity – be it racial, cultural, religious or secular. Rather than protecting women, then, the state sacrifices them to protect itself. It is women who will have to live with the spiritual, familial and other struggles of this legislation.

If Turkey is serious about democracy, and serious about the separation of religion and state, it would not restrict the choices women can make about their self-presentation and religious expression.

Turkey has good reason to be concerned about fundamentalism. The country must work to protect its democratic system. However, it needn’t borrow from fundamentalists by telling women how to dress.

A much more democratic approach would be to enhance education and vocational training for women – in a way that would reach both more conservative and more secular communities. It would also challenge those men (and women!) who would mistreat a non-hijabi woman. Further, resisting censorship (did you know that all of WordPress is banned in Turkey? All in an effort to silence a secular-minded Muslim!) doesn’t send the message  of democracy. Reforming the Muslim mindset – including focusing on the education of both male and female children – establishes a robust, dynamic society.  Legislating what women put on or take off, however, is the same tactic used by the enemies of democracy.

Why must women prove Turkey’s democratic success with their bodies rather than with their minds and their votes? Ultimately, the hijab ban tells us that the government can’t prove its own legitimacy as a democracy that protects women, their voices, and their bodies.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the United States presents Muslim women with more opportunities to express “traditional” Islam than a country that is, in fact, 98% Muslim?