By Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
10 Oct 2014
When Reza Aslan, highly acclaimed scholar of religions, was being interviewed by a CNN team last week, to comment on renowned satirist and TV show host Bill Maher’s comments on Islam, a familiar vacuum bulged out from the footage that went viral on social media. The vacuum is hogged by bigotry and apologia, on either flank, and becomes conspicuous every time Islam is being discussed thousands of miles away from any relevant proximity of the Muslim world. The two self-defeating extremes have been aggravating the Islamist predicament since it metamorphosed into a global existential crisis 13 years ago.
The blatantly ignorant CNN team was masterfully called out for their anti-Muslim bigotry, which was evident by rhetorical questions like ‘Does Islam promote violence?’ The CNN hosts didn’t pose a challenge worthy of Aslan’s religious savoir-faire. This allowed him to meticulously disguise his religious apologia, while the CNN team was left with quite a few dozen eggs on their faces.
Neither the hosts nor the guest, however, brought any meaningful answers to fill the gaping vacuum.
Most discussions ostensibly designed to solve the Islamist puzzle around the globe seem to be hogged by two extremes:
Anti-Muslim bigots who claim that Islam is the root of most – if not all – evil in the world
Religious apologists who assert that there’s nothing wrong with Islam or the Muslim countries at all that warrants special mentions of religion or the religious identity of the countries where most human rights violations are being witnessed.
Both extremes were evident in the five-minute footage.
Bill Maher’s assertions that led to the interview were two-fold. First of all the fact that if significant numbers of Muslims endorse Islamism, Sharia law and extreme punishments – as endorsed by a Pew survey in 2013 which says that around 75-80% of the Muslim world wants Sharia law with stoning, lashing, etc. – then they have “too much in common with ISIS.”
Secondly, Maher cited the fact that 91% of women in Egypt and 98% in Somalia have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) to showcase mistreatment of women in the Muslim world.
Aslan called FGM an “African problem”, and not an “Islamic problem” with Eritrea (89%) and Ethiopia (63%) – both Christian majority countries – vindicating that it isn’t an exclusively Muslim problem.
While it is true that FGM primarily prevails in Africa, but Yemen (23%) and Iraq (8%, Kurdistan 72%) also depict the criminal trend in the Middle East. By dubbing it an exclusively “African problem”, Aslan is guilty of conjuring the same simplistic generalisations that he was countering in the interview.
When 2 million women in Indonesia have their clitorises cut every year and 60-90% Malay women undergo female circumcision, it obviously isn’t just an ‘African problem’. Not after Nahdlat ul Ulema (NU) with 40 million followers in Indonesia has given a fatwa in favour of FGM and the fact that 82% Malaysian Muslim women claim that it’s a religious obligation.
Even though seven of the eight countries with the highest FGM percentages are African Muslim countries, Eritrea and Ethiopia prove that it’s not an exclusively Muslim issue, while Indonesia and Malaysia attest that it’s not an exclusively African issue either. Not to mention the fact that the 91% in Egypt can’t be put down to ‘African tribal culture’, with the Muslim Brotherhood wholeheartedly endorsing FGM.
Aslan, like many others who vie to deflect attention away from women’s suppression in the Muslim world, pointed out that Muslims have ‘elected seven female heads of state’ while the US has none, completely ignoring the fact that Benazir Bhutto, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed became heads as a part of politics of kinship, while both Atifete Jahjaga and Tansu Çiller were elected in constitutionally secular states with Mame Madior Boye and Roza Otunbayeva being appointed and not elected.
In any case if electing female state heads mythicises women’s suppression in the Muslim world then the Bhuttos, Asif Ali Zardari, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and other Pakistani heads of state belonging to Shia community, mythicise the ongoing Shia genocide in the country.
Women are generally more suppressed in most Muslim countries
How hard is it to acknowledge a simple fact that women are generally more supressed in most Muslim countries?
The World Economic Forum’s recent Gender Gap reports highlights that 17 of the 20 at the bottom of the gender gap rankings, 20 of the 28 with the biggest literacy gaps and 22 of the 27 countries with women being less than one-third of the adult workforce are all Muslim countries. No, the scathing stats don’t represent all women in all Muslim countries, but they do represent most women in most Muslim countries.
It is absurd to tout Indonesia, with FGM and virginity tests galore, as examples of countries where women aren’t suppressed. And it is intellectually dishonest to claim that Saudi Arabia and Iran are the exceptions, when Turkey has for decades been the obvious exception to the generally conservative Muslim world.
Lumping Turkey together with Iran or Pakistan as examples of Muslim countries, without acknowledging the secularity or Islamisation of their constitutions, adds to the aforementioned vacuum of solutions to human rights abuse in the Muslim countries. The fact that the countries tend to get more extreme as they move towards Islamisation or adopt Sharia law, quite obviously suggests that you cannot treat Saudi Arabia or Iran as just individual cases that have got nothing to do with Islam. Not after multiple surveys showcase that the overwhelming majority of Muslims support Sharia law with its extreme punishments.
Islamists definitely do not represent all Muslims, but the majority of the Muslims endorse the ideology and jurisprudence that makes the Islam of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Isis, al-Qaeda, TTP, Boko Haram, extremist and outmoded.
Highlighting Buddhist extremism in Myanmar to somehow counterbalance Islamist terrorism, while completely ignoring the disparity in prevalence and ideological support, is exactly why militant Islam is flourishing. Because those that aren’t anti-Muslim bigots, are touting Islamic extremism as just another case of religious interpretation gone wrong, completely sidelining the fact that Islamic ‘misinterpretation’ outdoes the extremism from all other religions combined – and by some margin.
That Turkey’s pluralism is as representative of the Muslim world as Saudi Arabia and Iran, would only be a serious assertion when at least half of the Muslim world endorses tolerant ideals and not primitive laws. As things stand the odds are that one would be lynched by a mob over charges of blasphemy for suggesting anything that contradicts Islamic beliefs, in most Muslim countries.
The vacuum awaiting practicable solutions to the Islamic world would be filled by first acknowledging that extremism is a common problem in most Muslim countries. As things stand, the anti-Muslim bigots and Islamic apologists are wasting a lot of intellectual space and innocent lives, in bigoted rhetoric and precarious denial, respectively.