By Yasser Latif Hamdani
In a tweet a few years ago, the Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour complained that Saudi Arabia’s critics were just too obsessed with the ban on women driving in that country; after all the Kingdom gave women 10 weeks of paid maternity leave.
This tweet was recently dug up, no doubt by her most vociferous critics, but regardless there is a point worth making. Why must a Palestinian American Muslim activist make excuses for a policy that is so patently absurd? How can any self-respecting feminist claim that it was ok to stop women from driving as long as there is paid maternity leave. This is rich considering that the same Ms Sarsour had claimed that Zionists could not be feminists on grounds of extremely stretched logic. Can you be a feminist then defending Saudi Arabia’s absurd policy of depriving women of their right to mobility? When questioned, Ms Sarsour went on a blocking spree, blocking amongst others this scribe as well.
There is something terribly wrong with those of us, who identify as Muslims, if we are incapable of self-reflection and exhibiting the basic sense of fairness. The truth is that the Muslim World in its current state is hardly in any state to be proud of. In most Muslim majority countries things such as human rights and women’s rights are optional at best. Saudi Arabia, claimant to the leadership of the Muslim World, is a woeful example be it women’s rights or human rights in general. It is the responsibility of every Muslim to point out the flaws so that these self-proclaimed leaders of the Ummah are held accountable for their actions, which in the final assessment have damaged the image of Islam and Muslims globally.
The other responsibility lies on the shoulders of those in the West who have been propping up apologists like Sarsour as representatives of Islam and Muslims. This started with the “American flag Hijab” image. Hijab is a personal choice of a Muslim woman. Why must it be made controversial as a political symbol? Yet that is precisely what Sarsour and other organizers did – made the Hijab a political symbol instead of a personal choice. There are Muslim women who wear the Hijab and there are Muslim women who don’t. A cloth around one’s head is neither a symbol of religious bigotry nor of progressive values. It should not be presented or seen as either. Back when I went to college in the US, I viewed the penchant of some American Muslim women to insist on wearing a headscarf to be reactionary. This was before I met several strong willed and progressive women who donned the Hijab as a matter of pride and identity and not religious reaction. Our assumptions either way about women who do or don’t wear the Hijab are misguided. You cannot judge a book by its cover. That is precisely the problem with that image too. Subtlety is thrown out of the window. A stark choice is presented to the American people - the image, ostensibly designed to show the changing face of America, ends up fuelling the very Islamophobia its proponents claim to oppose.
The first amendment to US Constitution puts up a wall of separation between religion and state. Therefore Americans are never going to ever accept any mixing of religion and state at whatever level. This may be contrasted to the British model where there is fusion of the church and state at the very top, while these are kept separate by convention in all spheres of life. The makers of the US Constitution however opted to ensure that such a fusion would not exist at any level. Therefore the question posed to Muslim Americans, i.e. do you support Sharia law, is not as absurd as some make it out to be. Every citizen of the US must bear true allegiance to the US Constitution. The question of divided loyalties is one that has plagued legal thinkers and jurists in the US since before the inception of that country. This is reflected in the oath of a US citizen, which is reproduced as under:
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America”
This is oath of allegiance is an absolute bar. You cannot be a US citizen and want the imposition of a religious law – Christian, Talmudic, Hindu or Muslim- on that country. Therefore the question often posed to American Muslims is as justifiable as a similar question to those Christians who would want to limit the US presidency and high offices of the state to Christians only. This brings us back to American Muslims like Sarsour who enjoy the cosy comforts and privileges of US citizenship while championing regressive and oppressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia as models. Such people should not be championed by progressives but called out for their nauseating double standards. If this is not done, the progressive and the left movement will only discredit itself further, ceding space to the right wing and ultra nationalists in America.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality.