On and off over the past year or so, I have gotten into some pretty heated discussions here about Islam. In August of 2014, I wrote a two-part post called “Trying to Be an Ally: Thinking About Hejab, Muslim Invisibility, and the Casual Hatred that is Cultural Appropriation.” (Part 1 and Part 2)1 I wrote those posts in response to this one on Ms. Muslamic about “hijab tourism.” I put this one up about Sahar Amer’s book What Is Veiling? in response to some of the discussion on the other two posts; and I posted this one , about Reza Aslan’s response to what Bill Maher said in this clip because I was tired of listening to Maher trying to pass off his anti-intellectual Islam-bashing as some kind of crusade for justice.
For me, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the discussions on Alas that these posts engendered was what I perceived to be some people’s inability to distinguish between criticizing the oppressive behaviors of Muslims–whether as individuals or governments–and characterizing Islam itself as somehow inherently “barbaric,” which is not the word they used, but is consistent with the emotional tone of Maher’s (and some of Sam Harris’) rhetoric.
One of the points I kept trying to make in these discussion was that there are already Muslims addressing on Muslim terms many of the critiques that we in the West have of religion. There was some not insignificant pushback against this point. So, for example, when I linked to evidence that there is at least one Muslim scholar, Dr. Amanullah De Sondy, who argues that being gay might in fact be compatible with Islam, G&W responded with this:
In all seriousness: so what? Who cares that there are some people who are deliberately promoting a view that contradicts the plain language of the text? Why on earth are they relevant in a general conversation, since they are a tiny fraction of all Muslims?
To be fair, I have taken G&W’s comment a little bit out of context because I am not really interested in reopening the precise conversation that was going on at that point. Rather, I have quoted him here because it was this comment that brought home to me my own ignorance about the very discussion within Islam that I was insisting we had to acknowledge and respect. Obviously, unless we are reading the Quran in Arabic, and also have access to the necessary and appropriate etymological, historical and other commentaries, we have to be very careful about what we actually mean by the phrase “plain language.” Nonetheless, granting for the sake of argument the aptness of G&W’s question and phrasing, the fact is that I had no idea, and I still don’t know, if Dr. De Sondy’s argument is or is not based on the Quran’s “plain language.”
Realizing this, I decided that I would take down from my shelf a book that I have owned for more than twenty years but never read: The Veil and The Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, by Fatima Mernissi. My plan was to read her book and post a kind of reading journal as I went, but a host of circumstances intervened, making my reading a far more disjointed experience than such a project would have required. It’s only now, two or three months after I first picked the book up, that I have finally finished it. One of the things I learned as I read was that, even if I’d been able to devote the time to the book that I’d wanted, a single reading would not have been enough for me to post in the way I originally had in mind. Mernissi’s argument is subtle and complex and relies not only on a textual analysis of passages in the Quran, which I have never read, not even in English, but also on a body of religious and historical research and commentary with which I am completely unfamiliar. I simply don’t know enough to do what I originally wanted to do in the way that I wanted to do it.
Instead, then, what I’d like to do is offer some passages from Mernissi’s “Preface to the English Edition,” which is clearly intended to frame her book for a Western audience, because I think encountering the very different framing that she, as a Muslim woman, brings to this issue is instructive. It certainly was for me.
From page vi:
Is Islam opposed to women’s rights?….Is it not odd that in this extraordinary decade, the 1990s, when the whole world is swept by the irresistible chant for human rights, sung by men and women, by children and grandparents, from all kinds of religious backgrounds and beliefs, in every language and dialect from Beijing to America, one finds only one religion identified as a stumbling block on the road to true democracy? Islam alone is condemned by many Westerners as blocking the way to women’s rights. And yet, though neither Christianity nor Judaism played an important role in promoting the equality of the sexes, millions of Jewish and Christian women today enjoy a dual privilege–full human rights on the one hand and access to an inspirational religious tradition on the other.
That initial framing question is important. She is not denying that there are Muslim governments which actively deny rights to women; she is asking if Islam itself is opposed to women’s rights, asserting that if nothing inherent in being practicing Jews or Christians prevents Jewish and Christian women in the West from accessing their full rights as citizens and asking why we should assume the same can’t be true of islam.
From pages vi-vii:
Westerners make unconscious religious references constantly in their daily activities, their creative thinking, and their approach to the world around them. When Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, they read to the millions watching them, including us Muslims, the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: “In the Beginning God created the Heaves and the Earth…” They did not sound so very modern….Here is a clear message for those who doubt Islam’s capacity to survive modernity, calling it unfit to accompany the age of higher technology: why should Islam fail where Judaism and Christianity so clearly succeed?
Again from page vii:
[H]ow and where can a businessman who profitably exploits [Muslim] women…find a source in which he can dip his spurious rationale to give it a glow of authenticity? Surely not in the present. To defend the violation of women’s rights it is necessary to go back into the shadows of the past. This is what those people, East or West, who would deny Muslim women’s claim to democracy [as practicing or at least consciously self-identified Muslim women] are trying to do. They camouflage their self-interest by proclaiming that we can have either Islam or democracy, but never both together.
From pages vii-viii:
Any man who believes that a Muslim woman who fights for her dignity and right to citizenship excludes herself necessarily from the umma and is a brainwashed victim of Western propagand is a man who misunderstands his own religious heritage, his own cultural identity. The vast and inspiring records of Muslim history…speak to the contrary. We Muslim women can walk into the modern world with pride, knowing that the quest for dignity, democracy, and human rights, for full participation in the political and social affairs of our country, stems from no imported Western values, but is a true part of the Muslim tradition….Women fled atristocratic tribal Mecca by the thousands to enter Medina, the Prophet’s city in the seventh century, because Islam promised equality and dignity for all, for men and women, masters and servants. Every woman who came to Medina when the Prophet was the political leader of Muslims could gain access to full citizenship….
From page ix:
[That Mohammad’s] egalitarian message today sounds so foreign to many in our Muslim societies that they claim it to be imported is indeed one of the great enigmas of our times […] For those first Muslims democracy was nothing unusual; it was their meat and drink and their wonderful dream, waking or sleeping.
These last two quotes made the most impression on me, not because I am sure Mernissi is right–I find her book persuasive, but I don’t know enough to say more than that–but because her assertion that “the quest for dignity, democracy, and human rights, for full participation in the political and social affairs of our country…is a true part of the Muslim tradition” so thoroughly undermines the Western-centric framing used by people like Bill Maher and Sam Harris. Mernissi is a serious scholar of Islam in ways that Maher and Harris are not. On that count alone, her assertion deserves to be taken at least as seriously as anything they have to say on the matter.
Finally, I’d like to say this. In writing this post, I am not trying to defend Islam as a religious practice, a body of law, or a way of life. Rather, I am interested in making visible the often very biased framing that we use to understand and critique Islam here in the West–which, I hasten to add, doesn’t mean that I think we have no right to call out the oppressive behavior of Muslim governments, organizations, or people, or to call oppressive Islam as it is practiced and/or enforced by those entities. To acknowledge the existence of Mernissi’s perspective, much less its validity, is merely to acknowledge that the most useful, constructive, and effective answer to that oppression may not lie with us and that perhaps we ought to stop behaving as if it did.