By Dr. Adis Duderija, New Age Islam
Gender and Islam Studies, University Malaya
May 13, 2013
Without questioning the real and pervasive presence of Islamophobia in the West ( but also in Malaysia – where I live there are many evangelical Christians who are organizing events for non-Muslims only and denying tenancy agreements to Muslims –as it happened to me when I wanted to inquire about a place I wanted to rent and was asked if I was a Muslim based on my name and when I replied that I was people never got back in touch with me ) ,including Australia ( both myself and my brother, who still resides in Australia, have been and in the case of my brother continue to monitored by the government by means of ‘government minders’ since at least mid 2000s), I would like to have a more careful look at Yassir Morsi’s arguments in his “Disguising Islamophobia’ ( co- written with Mohammad Tabbaa http://rightnow.org.au/writing-cat/article/disguising-islamophobia/and to a lesser extent “Saving the Muslim Woman –Yet Again”-( co written with Sahar Ghumkor) http://overland.org.au/blogs/loudspeaker/2013/05/saving-the-muslim-woman-yet-again/ ( both contain many common points) and critique it.
Let me start first by saying that the articles make many good points about the presence of convert racism in contemporary West, stigmatization of minorities (especially those of non white, Muslim background) and the practice of using them as scapegoats. Also an attempt to define Islamophobia more specifically is praiseworthy as well as the dangers associated with the West’s attempts to redefine Islam for Muslims on their ( i.e. West’s ) own terms ( for which large budgets have been allocated) known in the academic literature as ‘ ontological securitisation’ of Islam.
However, there are many points on which the article needs to be critiqued. The article concludes with this statement: “Disguising Islamophobia under the cloak of gender equality only harms the plight of both Muslims and women.” Let us examine this in more detail.
1. Author’s characterisation of Professor Sheila Jeffreys as a ‘radical feminist (used pejoratively of course) at University of Melbourne is revealing. The only reason given why is we learn that she is indeed a’ radical feminist’ is because she expressed concern that University of Melbourne did not condemn the gender segregation at the event. I have already suggested that there is a clear link (amply documented in gender studies literature including that on gender and Islam) between gender segregation and patriarchy. Gender segregation in the traditional interpretation of Islam cannot be viewed in isolation of other patriarchal practices such as husband’s / father’s complete control of their female kin’s sexuality and mobility as well as lack of decision making power on many important issues which are defended on certain philosophical, theological and jurisprudentic assumptions of normative ‘Muslim masculinity ( artificially constructed on the basis of concept such as men’s sexual jealousy as his over-determining source of ‘family honour’ as well as patriarchal exegetical/theological and jurisprudential interpretations of the Qur’anic concepts of qiwama ( husband’s authority over his female kin) which I have also deconstructed in my above mentioned book or other article that can be accessed here: http://malaya.academia.edu/AdisDuderija/Papers?s=nav#add) and femininity ( artificially constructed on the basis of concepts such as Haya’ i.e. modesty and shyness , the idea that the entire women bodies as pudenda and sources of Fitna –women as sources of socio-moral chaos whose presence in the public sphere is a threat and constant source of irresistible temptation for Muslim men who can’t control their limitless sexual urges ). It is important to emphasize that these views are not limited to the ‘Salafis’ (or more correctly neo-ahl Hadith) but also include all dogmatic adherents of classical interpretations of Islamic theology, law, ethics and politics as I have described in my book which directly deals with this issue ( details here: http://www.amazon.com/Constructing-Religiously-Ideal-Believer-Woman/dp/0230120571/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1/184-5877221-9776846) . Therefore, the authors’ likening of gender segregation practices associated with traditional Islam with gender segregated practices in the West such gymnasiums, private schools or public toilets are plain wrong as they are based on very different cultural and philosophical assumptions pertaining to what it means to be male and female.
If the lowest common denominator of feminism is about extending the same legal rights and opportunities to both sexes/genders as well as valuing their respective contributions to society equally in order to engender a gender just society in which all humans can flourish and reach their full potential than being a ‘radical feminist’ is something that we all should aspire to since there is no ‘moderation in justice’.
2. Authors’ suggestion that Catholic conservative Tony Abbott’s remarks that ‘gender segregation is ‘un-Australian’ are simple political opportunism and an attempt to boost his ‘feminist’ credentials (as he has been a target of feminist criticism in the past ) should also be questioned. It is a fact that the vast majority of Australians, including many Muslims, DO consider gender segregation to be against their core values hence from that perspective Abbott is just stating an obvious fact. We could also argue that the authors’ construction of this argument is itself opportunistic because without this argument the force of criticism of Abbott’s remarks would be significantly lessened.
3. Can we really blame and automatically conflate the statements of Abbott and Jeffries as disguised Islamophobia given what I said above? Or are they genuine expressions of concern that Australian Muslims might be increasingly adopting practices that are in sharp contrast with the values of the broader Australian society and which , given what I explained above regarding the organic link between gender segregation and other patriarchal mechanisms which are harmful to (Muslim) women. As just one example, I know of instances of secret polygamous marriages ( e.g. the husband of a niece of an adopted ‘uncle of mine’) that some Australian Muslim men engage in with the blessings of some Australian Muslim clerics. ( In the absence of actual case studies it is impossible to know how prevalent this practice is). The authors, to their credit, entertain but in final analysis dismiss this possibility. While I certainly find the views of Abbott and Jeffrey as overreactions I can at least sympathize with some of the anxieties surrounding western non Muslims’ views of Muslims given the current nature of international relations and geo-politics and what is happening in the Muslim majority world. That is why with some of my non Muslim friends I cofounded an inter-faith group , Abrahamic Alliance, in Perth back in 2005 to help promote dialogue, understanding and alleviate community tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims with some success. Unfortunately the group no longer exists but I cannot overstate how important these and similar initiative are and continue to be for the sake of social cohesion in Australian communities.
4. Authors’ criticism of Professor Abdullah Saeed should also be scrutinized. Professor Saeed’s main argument that gender segregation normatively has little clout and does not rest on strong historical precedent is based on sound arguments to which Professor Saeed has referred to. His statement that many Muslims who have studied overseas (e.g. Islamic University of Medina and similar institutions) go back to their home countries and preach ‘gender segregation’ -based views of Islam including advocating gender asymmetrical rights in context of marriage clearly favouring men and the upholding of the religious ideal for Muslim women on the basis of their public invisibility ( which I also discuss in detail in my book mentioned above) is also entirely correct. I know this for a fact both in the context of Australia and Bosnia, my country of birth. By making these statements it does not mean that Professor Saeed is blind to covert forms of racism in the West or that he is somehow enabling Islamophobes as the authors suggest. Indeed in his article about the incident Professor Saeed is clearly aware that events such as the one at University of Melbourne can be interpreted by Islamophobes as yet another example of Muslim backwardness, extremism and their being a threat to the Australian society. In this context he writes as follows and I quote: “For those fearful of Islam and Muslims, this is yet another example of out-dated Muslim views being stealthily imposed on Australian society; or even the sign of an imminent take-over of our higher education institutions by “extremist” Muslims.” https://theconversation.com/separation-of-men-and-women-in-lecture-theatres-another-islamic-controversy-13776
5. The argument espoused by the authors, that political left in the West or in Australia for that matter, has uncritical and willingly cooperated with the political right in excluding western Muslims is also questionable. Indeed , the political left in the West ( organizations such as The Socialist Alliance, The Friends of Palestine and similar others- I do not consider the ALP to belong to the political left in any meaningful sense of the term) has been the main supporter of the ‘Muslim cause’ in relation to issues such as the plight of the Palestinians, the so called ‘War on Terror’ and the defence of human rights abuses by western government involving (Western) Muslims as a result thereof . Anyone who has attended political rallies organized by Muslim organizations in the West such as those opposing the war on Iraq in the early 2000s, like myself, can attest to this fact.
6. Also the authors suggest that Muslim women out of their own volition choose to sit at the back and that this is a ‘common thing among Australian Muslims’. For over 10 years I have been heavily involved with the Muslim community in Perth in various capacities as a member, vice-president and president of Muslim Student Association ( MSA) at the University of Western Australia , as a co-founder of Abrahamic Alliance ( mentioned earlier) as well as by attending various academic and non academic events involving issues relating to Islam. Most Muslim events were NOT gender segregated and were only so when organized by the neo-ahl Hadith type of Muslims which are commonly referred to as ‘Salafis’. Muslim women set at the back only at these types of functions, some, due to ‘social conformity issues’ ( people who organize the event were perceived to want this to happen or have explicitly stated so in their advertising material ) while some did so due to their religious convictions ( primarily those women who were wearing Niqaabs).
7. In the article ‘Saving the Muslim Women –Yet Again” the authors repeat the same old narrative of why Muslim women do not need saving from white non Muslim men. In other words any criticism of traditional patriarchal Muslim practices that have been proven to cause incalculable suffering to Muslim families ( especially Muslim women and children) is equated with ‘Islamophobia’ , ’political liberalism’ or ‘Orientalism’ . Without going into detail all I can say is to refer to the well documented and numerous sociological /anthropological studies on Muslim women ( or visit websites such as www.wluml.org or www.musawah.org) , both in Muslim majority and minority contexts (here one example http://www.zibamirhosseini.com/books/control-sexuality-revival-zina-laws-muslim-contexts/) which describe in detail the experiences of Muslim women as victims of patriarchal practices such as honour crimes, forced marriages, repudiations at their husbands’ whim, religiously sanctioned domestic violence, religiously sanctioned lack of autonomy in matters pertaining to their sexuality, mobility and even every day decision making to name but a few. As I said before it is easy for Muslim women (and men) in who are living in western liberal democracies to underestimate the very real and highly harmful effects of practices associated with traditional Muslim family laws because they are not effected by them (or not the same extent) and because they can pick and choose which elements of traditional Islam they want to retain and which to discard. That is why I refer to these type of Muslims as Neo-traditionalists as they do not question the many worldview assumptions and the patriarchal values on which traditional patriarchal Muslim family laws stand.
8. In the same article author’s argue that non-Muslim Australian (society or polity) dictates the terms of Muslim women’s identity and not the Muslim woman herself. Even if that is true the very same thing can be said about those who defend practices associated with traditional Muslim family laws. The author’s seem to point to the work of Saba Mahmood on culturally specific forms of agency and female subjectivity ( Mamood wrote a book on ‘pious ‘ mosque attending women in Egypt back in 2005 ) but her work has been criticized in the academia for making the door for cultural relativism wide open. One could ask, what are the ultimate sources of this type of female agency and subjectivity? They must have come or have been derived from somewhere (I do not share the assumption that our thoughts are primarily result of unconscious cognitive processes). My answer would be patriarchal interpretations of normative religious sources and the broader socio-cultural and historical traditions that sustain them. There are many examples of internalization of patriarchal norms by women of many different traditions, including Muslim women ( e.g. the famous modern example is that of Al Azhar educated Zainab Al Ghazali d.2005).
9. Also there are other issues such as the claim that Al Qaradawi is not a ‘Salafi’ , term that authors was never defined. I have dealt with the issue of definition of Salafism in my book in some detail. Due to space considerations I can only touch upon it. (Also for more on this you can read here: http://www.newageislam.com/the-war-within-islam/what-is-salafism?/d/6624). The concept of Salafism in the Islamic tradition has several dimensions to it. One pertains to its implications regarding what is considered to be an ‘authentic’ methodology of interpreting the Islamic tradition. The second element pertains to a Sunni political doctrine regarding the role of the Companions of the Prophet in the midst of socio-political chaos that characterised early Islam as ‘authentic’ sources of knowledge for Islamic sciences that were developed later on . The third dimension pertains to the manner in which the Islamic tradition is conceptualized based on a particular view of the nature of history and time according to which history and time are regressive in nature. One of the most characteristic traits of Salafism is the idea that one’s authentic Muslim identity can only be established by returning to a fixed point in historical time, that of the Prophet and the early Muslim community viewed a historically and deco textually/ in vacuum. This Salafi-oriented vision of history imposes the idea a priori that this early Muslim community ideal was said to have been inevitably followed by a period of relaxation of standards, deviation and finally of division. Furthermore, according to this Salafi mindset time is not conceived as in itself the medium and instrument of change, but rather as reappearance, re-enactment, after a period of abeyance, degradation, descent into superstition and irrationalism. Both ahl-Hadith and Madhhab based approach to Islam. Qaradawi, although reform minded in a ‘modernist sense’ belongs to the latter . Ibn Taymiyya is closer to the ahl-Hadith and was reform oriented in a puritanical sense although his views are being hijacked by neo-ahl Hadith to some extent. However, both Qaradawi and Ibn Taymiyya share this concept of Salafism. In that sense, Fiona Hill is correct in her assertion that Qaradawi is indeed a Salafi in the sense of modern scholars such as M. Aduh (d.1904) or M. Al Ghazali (1989) who are Qaradawi’s teachers. Both Abduh and Al Ghazali have criticized many aspects of traditional Sufi practices and Qaradawi shares their views on this too. So contrary to what the authors claim he is definitely not a Sufi in the traditional sense of the term.
In conclusion, for any ‘critique’ to be truly called a ‘critique’ it cannot be one dimensional and blind to all of its sources and manifestations regardless of their ideational phylogeny including ones’ own religious tradition (Qur’an is actually very clear on this matter of the significant importance it attaches to self-introspection and self-criticism of speaking against injustices even if it is against those in power or our own lower selves e.g. 4:135.) There must be space for both sensitive, intelligent and relentless criticism of both Islamophobia as well as patriarchal practices associated with traditional Islam. Engaging in this ‘multiple critique’ is exactly what Progressive Muslims (should be) are about.URL: http://newageislam.com/books-and-documents/dr-adis-duderija,-new-age-islam/disguising-islamophobia-revisited/d/11541