Wednesday, October 22, 2008

OPINION: Something rotten in the states of Islam ...

Those wonderful people from the Eureka Street ezine have just published an essay I sent them as part of the Inaugural Readers' Feast/Eureka Street Award for a human rights essay.

The headline put on the essay is Something rotten in Islam. This is a deliberately provocative headline designed to get people to read the article. But will Muslims read it? Or will they be turned off it?

Before reproducing the article, I've reproduced a brief exchange of e-mails between myself and the editor. I think these e-mails will provide readers with a better understanding of the editorial process.

Eureka Street is not and has never been a racist or Islamophobic publication. Another colleague of mine, Saeed Saeed, also writes for the publication.


When one submits an article for publication, it is the sub-editor/editor's job to write the headline. It isn't for the contributor to select a headline. The editor also chooses a graphic if appropriate. It isn't my role to tell you what headline to place on this article.

With that in mind, I should tell you that this article was addressed to all men but in particular men of Muslim faith/heritage/background/ancestry. The headline is good in that it will attract and perhaps even shock people to read the article.

On the other hand, many Muslims will find it offensive. This in itself isn't a bad thing, though it might turn out to be counterproductive.

Many will argue that the graphic is the sort of graphic fit for the Daily Telegraph. I myself have hacked into the Tele for using such graphics. Still, when the Tele uses them, it is often on issues unrelated (or tenuously related) to Muslim women.

I cannot say for certain as I doubt any research has been done on the topic, but my own experience is that the vast majority of Muslim women don't wear a face-veil. Further, many do not associate the face-veil with physical or sexual violence against women.

In this sense, some Muslims will argue that the graphic does little more than entrench stereotypes. Hence Muslim women may find the graphic offense.

Perhaps a better graphic may be a photo of one of the victims. Perhaps a better headline could be "Something rotten in states of Islam". That way a distinction is made between Islam as theology/law/texts and Islam as modern post-colonial political orders.

However, this is only my view. It isn't for me to be telling Eureka Street how to edit an article in their own publication.

People should be free to say what they like about any faith tradition. My own personal practice is not to criticise faith traditions but rather to criticise people whilst praising traditions. Hence my last piece attacked Hindutva as a political movement but pointed out that Hinduism itself was above all this.

Just some feedback.

Irfan Yusuf


Hi Irfan,

Thanks for feedback. Our title was, as you acknowledge, designed to pique people's interest and get them to click through and read the essay. It is lifted almost directly from the essay itself: the subtitle 'Something is rotten' is followed by the sentence 'Something is rotten in the state of Islam', adapted for the title to 'Something rotten in Islam'. But I take on board your comments regarding sensitivity.

Your point about image selection is also fair. I confess it crossed my mind that I was running the risk of 'entrenching stereotypes' by using that image. Ultimately my intention was to use something that would be immediately recognisable to the general public as a 'Muslim woman'. Perhaps that is just another way of saying the same thing! I'm sorry if you feel the image reflects badly upon your essay.

In any case, you are most welcome (and I would encourage you) to post your feedback at the base of the article, as it adds to the dialogue about Islam and makes valid points about the editorial process.

Thanks again Irfan.



Something rotten in Islam
Irfan Yusuf October 22, 2008

A Muslim proverb says that a child's first university is her or his mother's lap. Young children at this age are like soft clay and can be moulded into more or less a permanent shape that will prove difficult to change in later years. It's a process that might be called education by osmosis.

I graduated from the university of my Indian mother's lap with a fear of the prayers of others, especially those I have wronged. The word for oppression in both Arabic and Urdu (my mother's North Indian dialect) is zulm. An oppressor is zaalim and the oppressed is muzloom. Mum's Urdu formula was fairly straight forward.

Zulm na karo. Kiyun kar Allah Ta'ala muzloom ka dua hamesha soontahey, chahe muzloom kaafir ho aur zaalim musalman.

Literally this means: 'Do not oppress. Because God Almighty always hears and responds to the prayers of the oppressed, even where the oppressed refuse to acknowledge Him and the oppressor believes in Him.'

Collective oppression

What happens when the oppression is collective? What happens when communities oppress themselves? And do so in the name of establishing God's law?

I could apply mum's proverb to many Muslim communities and come up with an explanation as to why so many are politically, economically and socially backward. At least 51 per cent of Muslims are women. And whether Muslim men accept it or not, many are the subject of the collective negative prayers of their mothers, sisters, daughters and wives.

So often I hear Muslim imams, preachers and apologists reminding me that Islam gave women certain rights at least a thousand years before Europe did, that the rules of Islamic sacred law (also known as the sharia) cannot be legitimately applied in a manner which causes injustice to women, and that Muslim women have equal (if not always the same) rights as men.

That might be the case in textbooks of theology and sacred law. But what is the current reality on the ground?

Something is rotten

Something is rotten in the state of Islam. Perhaps not in the sacred texts nor even in the vast legal tradition. Muslims can debate among themselves whether the source of the problem lies in the religion itself. But the reality is beyond debate.

Something certainly is rotten in many of the 58 states that make up the organisation of Islamic Conference. A cruel sickness of absurd and oppressive gender-based practices and attitudes is poisoning the lives of men and women in Muslim societies.

Such practices and attitudes aren't limited to ignorant villagers, nor are they random acts of murder committed by strangers. It wasn't an unlettered stranger who murdered 17-year-old student Rand Abdel-Qader in Basra on 16 March this year. She was murdered by her father, a government employee who worked in Iraq's Health Department.

Rand's mother tried to save her from this barbarism but to no effect. The Observer reported on 11 May:

Though her horrified mother, Leila Hussein, called Rand's two brothers, Hassan, 23, and Haydar, 21, to restrain Abdel-Qader as he choked her with his foot on her throat, they joined in. Her shrouded corpse was then tossed into a makeshift grave without ceremony as her uncles spat on it in disgust.

What was her crime? This young student at Basra University had worked as a volunteer with displaced Iraqi families. Over a period of some four months, and after a few short conversations, the young woman had become infatuated with a 22-year-old British soldier.

That's it. She had feelings. Her father came to know of this. He saw her talking to the British soldier in public. He dug a makeshift grave. He murdered his own daughter. His sons joined in, spilling the blood of their own sister, their own flesh and blood.

Why? Apparently this act has become known as an 'honour killing'. It seems that for some men, the only way to restore the honour of their family is to kill family members.

Concentric circles of oppression?

Some have argued that this incident was a symptom of the wider oppression of Iraqis, of the foreign occupation which hasn't brought the promised peace and order promised by the self-styled Coalition of the Willing.

It is true that the brutality of occupation can lead to other forms of brutality. Tortured, humiliated and oppressed men need some kind of outlet. All too often, such men end up torturing, humiliating and oppressing their wives, sisters and even mothers.

But such incidents also happen where there are no brutal occupiers present. In April 2006, hacked pieces of 20 year old Bahnaz Mahmod Agha's body were found in a suitcase in London. In June 2007, a London court had convicted Bahnaz's father and uncle of her murder.

Bahnaz had entered a marriage arranged by her Kurdish-Iraqi father when she was just 17. Her husband had repeatedly raped and abused her, even knocking out one of her front teeth after she called him by his first name in public. In late 2005, by which time she was 20, Bahnaz had left this abusive relationship and fallen in love with another Kurdish man from a different tribe.

Bahnaz's uncle convened a family council during which it was decided that the family's honour could only be restored by killing her. Bahnaz's mother alerted her to the plot, but police didn't believe the story. With her family against her and the police refusing to assist, to whom could this young woman turn?

Again, concentric circles of oppression operated. Again, Muslim religious and community leaders had more important things on their mind, such as the pressure of the post-7/7 environment, the increased public scrutiny, the struggle against oppressive anti-terror laws.

The ultimate victims of these concentric circles of oppression are the 51 per cent of Muslims that happen to be female. So what is the solution?

It's true that these practises are not religiously sanctioned (though theological justification is often found by misogynistic religious authorities), are not limited to Muslims and are found in non-Muslim communities in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa also. But Muslim men can not afford to live in denial about their prevalence.

The double standard

Muslim faith communities suffer from multiple personality disorder, applying one standard to the male and another to our female side. And we impose our double standards under the garb of tradition or sharia.

We speak of reviving the age of Muslim glory, when Muslims were the most civilised nation on earth. But what characterised that civilisation?

There is the story of one Muslim woman who was kidnapped by the Byzantine empire. The Caliph in Baghdad wrote a letter threatening to send an army whose length stretched from Baghdad to Constantinople.

Today, Muslim Presidents and Kings and Generals do nothing to help women being mistreated and held in captivity in their own countries. Without international pressure, one wonders whether Pakistan's General Musharraf would have allowed Mukhtar Mai liberty within her own homeland.

Perhaps the most obvious example of our double standards is in our domestic relations. Many Muslim men regularly beat their wives. Unlike their non-Muslim brothers, Muslim men don't require excessive alcohol or narcotics in their system to beat their wives.

There are few laws in Muslim countries protecting women from domestic violence. Worse still, those responsible for enforcing the law — police and the judiciary — are open to bribery by the usually wealthier male perpetrators. What makes the problem worse is that imams rarely mention the problem to their (mostly male) congregation.

Muslim and ethnic language newspapers commonly read by Muslims rarely mention the issue. It is as if we are pretending the problem just doesn't exist. Or worse still, it's as if it isn't even a problem.

Raising voices

Some years back, a group of men in Canada decided that they would take a stand on violence against women. The result was UNIFEM White Ribbon Day. Each year, men where white ribbons to take a stand, to show that they regard violence against women as an abomination.

I'm not suggesting that the solution is Muslim men merely wearing white ribbons. But the philosophy of WRD is one worth promoting — that violence against women is a men's issue and that the situation won't change until men speak out against it.

Because if we stay silent, we might as well be lending a hand to the perpetrators of violence. Today it may be a stranger. Tomorrow, it could be our mother, our sister, our daughter. Paradise can be found under the feat of mothers. Yet millions of Muslim mothers and sisters and daughters are living in hell on this earth.

I wish more Muslim men stopped justifying theology or pointing to historical precedents and address current gender realities in Muslim communities. I wish more influential men in nominally Muslim communities and countries raised their voices against the continued exploitation of at least half of their community.

With that in mind, I'll start by raising my voice.

First published in Eureka Street on Wednesday 22 October 2008.

UPDATE I: Some discussion on the piece can be found here.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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