To Fix Islam, Start From the Inside
The best way to fight radicalism is to empower Muslim women worldwide.
By Irshad Manji,
Dec 31, 2008
America's 44th President will not need any 3 a.m. phone calls to keep him awake. Figuring out how to restore the United States' moral authority in the Islamic world —while encouraging Muslims to reform themselves—would stop anyone from sleeping soundly.
The solution will require more than success in Iraq or the Palestinian territories. After all, most Muslims live outside the Middle East, and Washington must learn to acknowledge their worth. Doing so demands a foreign-policy rethink. Instead of being driven strictly by counterterrorism, the United States' approach to Muslims should be complemented by a universal human-rights thrust—a cooperative strategy that recognizes ordinary Muslims, especially women, to be immediate targets of jihadism, as well as indispensable partners in the fight against it.
Such a foreign policy would not only improve the United States' global image, it would also allow Americans to form smart alliances and make even smarter use of tools like micro credit. And it would intensify the U.S. pursuit of rights-abusing thugs—those who bomb, behead, bury alive or beat up civilians. Not coincidentally, these are often the same criminals who threaten U.S. security. A textbook example is the Iranian government, which makes everyday Muslims its first victims. Last year the regime arrested Zohreh and Azar Kabiri, 20-something mothers, on charges of adultery. The sisters got 99 lashes each before being sentenced to be draped in white sheets, lowered into dirt pits and stoned to death with fist-size rocks.
Islamic law can be brutal; no amount of cultural theorizing erases this fact. But as a faithful, feminist Muslim, I know that seventh-century cruelty is not inevitable in the 21st century. Human interpretations of divinely inspired words are exactly that—human, fallible and subject to reversal. In October, during the United Nations' annual debate about children's rights, Iran announced its intention to reduce juvenile executions. Campaigns in more than 80 countries and local activists prodded Tehran to that point. The next step is follow-through, and savvy pressure by the United States and other nations can help. The trick for Washington is to listen and learn: listen to dissidents who seek support, respect those who do not and learn from those with a track record of triumph.
Let the record show that human dignity can win. Ahmad Batebi is an Iranian democracy advocate who has faced certain execution more than once over the past decade. A 1999 photo of him—captured in the midst of a bloody protest—circulated worldwide on the cover of a Western magazine. The fallout apparently induced cold feet at the gallows. Batebi's execution was postponed long enough for him to flee to the United States, where he now lives. Western attention also advanced the recent case of a Saudi woman who was gang-raped, then threatened with jail for "dishonouring" her community. Late last year a media uproar amplified by U.S. broadcasters compelled King Abdullah to take the extraordinary step of pardoning her.
Given these non-violent victories, why do citizens and governments of the West often bristle at the notion of getting involved? Put bluntly, too many freeze in fear of being deemed racists for taking up "other" people's business. But as the economy has rudely reminded us, ours is an interdependent age in which the "other" is a mirage. Muslims inhabit the same world as non-Muslims. No wonder a rising number of Islamic scholars—such as Prof. Bassam Tibi of Germany and Abhdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, a Sudanese-American and renowned expert in Sharia—argue that everyone should enjoy the same freedoms of thought, conscience and expression.
This is not to counsel more military invasions to rescue Muslims from each other. Exactly the opposite: Washington's fixation on counterterrorism reduces Muslims to the status of perceived anti-American conspirators, creating enemies out of those who ought to be Lady Liberty's fiercest allies. Foremost among them are Muslim women, who have the most to gain from reform within Islam. Ultimately, it is women who will help Muslims help themselves. The new U.S. president can benefit the Islamic world by engaging the entrepreneurial talents of Muslim women.
Enter a tiny miracle known as micro-credit.
In this season of financial turmoil, it takes chutzpah, I confess, to propose more lending as the answer to anything. But extending minuscule loans to Muslim villagers has demonstrated its worth time and again, inspiring near-perfect repayment rates that shame today's industrial banks. Better yet, micro-credit has the backing of Islam. Khadija, beloved first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, was a self-made merchant who employed her husband for many years. If Muslim men are serious about emulating the life of Islam's messenger, they should have no qualms about letting their wives work for themselves. Moreover, according to traditional Islamic teachings, when a woman earns assets, she may spend 100 percent of them as she sees fit. Through micro-loans, Muslim women can launch community businesses that build profits and, ultimately, change cultures.
I know of a woman in Afghanistan who accepted a $200 micro-loan, started a candle-making venture, and used some of the returns to pay for reading lessons. She found female-friendly verses in the Qur'an and recited them to her still-illiterate husband. When he realized that these words came from God's book rather than a secular declaration of human rights, he immediately stopped beating her. Not exactly paradise, but no longer the pit of hell.
Micro-loans would also equip Muslim women to establish their own schools. That, too, is happening in parts of Kabul, where handwritten signs proclaim, "Educate a boy and you educate only that boy. But educate a girl and you educate her entire family." A sign aimed at the U.S. president might read: "Remember the multiplier effect of investing in Muslim women."
To be sure, Washington cannot neglect the Arab states—nor would it by embracing this approach. If anything, the baby boom in today's Middle East illuminates the urgency of micro-loans for Muslim women there. About 60 percent of Arabs are now under 20 years old (compared with 29 percent of Americans). In one decade (or just over two U.S. presidential terms), Arab Muslim numbers are projected to increase to 430 million. Plenty of young Arabs have college degrees, yet no prospects for work. The idle often gravitate to radical organizations. Deny this growing generation an opportunity to participate economically, and the chaos could convulse our planet.
Here again, micro-credit offers a way forward: Muslim businesswomen can save not only their families and neighbourhoods but also people and places beyond. Entrepreneurial mothers create spaces of commerce—and imagination—for their children. The ensuing sense of possibility will stem the globalization of grievance. That is why micro-credit for Muslim women would fit seamlessly into a foreign policy that balances counterterrorism with human rights.
In adopting this policy, the new president should ally with other countries, each of which would shave a sliver of its annual security budget and pool the proceeds into a coherent micro-loan program. Bye-bye to the Coalition of the Willing. Hello, salaam, and possibly shalom to the Alliance of the Interdependent.
Western nations ought to join the alliance, but Muslim countries, particularly the royally rich Gulf States, must also pull their weight. The next U.S. president can whisper into the ears of emirs his respect for the Qu'ran's message of personal responsibility. Islam's scripture tells Muslims that "God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves." Translation for Muslim leaders: put your money where your moderation is.
In the same spirit, the president should push for a Muslim country to spearhead this alliance. Turkey—a trusted U.S. ally, a veteran NATO member and a functioning democracy—seems a natural candidate, but its ardent desire to become part of the European Union incites suspicion in the rest of the Islamic world. I thus nominate Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country on earth. Its 17,000 islands bustle with as many believers as the entire Middle East. Unlike most of the Middle East, however, Indonesia is an electoral democracy with a secular Constitution that celebrates "unity in diversity." It is a nation forged from 300 ethnicities, scores of languages and a history of tolerance among Muslims, Christians, Hindus and animists. Indonesia faces its own extremist threat. But if the United States welcomed Indonesia's stewardship on behalf of all Muslims, especially before next year's national elections there, the gesture could go far to ensuring that pluralistic Islam carries the day.
Even with Indonesia at the helm, some will smear the Alliance of the Interdependent as a handmaiden of U.S. imperialism; such a rhetorical cudgel is just too convenient to be abandoned. But the new co-operator in chief can draw strength—and inspiration—from language Martin Luther King Jr. once used when accused by eight Alabama clergymen of being an "outsider." As the civil-rights icon replied, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial 'outside agitator' idea."
So it must be in our day, when citizenship is that much more global. Islamist radicals do not give a fig for moderate Muslims—whom they term the "near enemy"—or for Westerners, the "far enemy." We wear the same garment. All the more reason to treat universal human rights as a link between our mutual security interests: the bridge that will return America not just to dry land, but to higher ground.
Manji, creator of the PBS documentary “Faith without Fear,” is a scholar with the European Foundation for Democracy and the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.