Giving Islam a Bad Name

malala yousufzai 2Today, on her 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai addressed the United Nations about her experience of being shot by the Taliban for speaking out on the importance of education for girls. On the day she was shot, she said, “nothing changed in my life except this—weakness, fear and hopelessness died.”

I can’t even imagine the courage it took, and still takes, for girls to attend school in northwestern Pakistan. There have been more than 800 attacks on schools in the region since 2009. Schools are routinely bombed in the middle of the night. Existing schools have armed guards during the day. And yet many girls still attend; their desire to be educated is that strong.

But this post isn’t primarily about their courage or Malala’s message. I’m writing today because of the great sadness, and yes, anger, I feel about the dishonor the Taliban and other like-minded organizations bring on Islam.

The Pakistani Taliban says that the education of girls is a symbol of Western decadence and governmental authority. They also bomb schools to keep the military from being able to establish temporary bases in them. But of course their motivation isn’t really about politics, it’s about protecting the sanctity of Islam.

Excuse my language, but that’s bull***t. And I’m sick and tired of organizations like the Taliban using Islam as an excuse to acquire power and intimidate enemies.

I accepted Islam as my religion partly because I admired its emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge. To me, education is almost as sacred as worship. For what good to Allah is a Muslim who is ignorant, especially willfully so? And why would Allah want women to be ignorant when they are the very foundation of the family?

It’s bad enough that some Muslims kill in the name of Allah. But most non-Muslims realize that these are the actions of a few deluded fanatics. However, when they hear that whole Islamic organizations advocate the repression and mistreatment of women, they find it hard to give Muslims the benefit of the doubt.

I’m tired of non-Muslims looking at me like I’m crazy when I say that Islam is an egalitarian religion and that Mohammad admonished his followers to treat women with justice and respect. I despair of ever convincing them to give Islam a chance when the news is full of stories about honor killings, female genital mutilation and deadly attacks on schoolgirls.

The media are partly to blame for sensationalizing the negative, but not as much as fundamentalists are for perpetrating the myth that Islam is patriarchal and misogynist. I feel like a mother whose child has been wrongly accused of wrongdoing; my heart breaks at the damage that is done to Islam’s reputation in the world.

Sometimes I imagine the day when all these “pious” Muslims will be judged for how they distorted Islam’s message. We all have sins we dread being confronted with on Judgment Day, but I hope that making the lives of half of Allah’s children miserable won’t be one of mine.

How 9/11 Changed America

Some of you who are reading this have no idea what America was like before 9/11. This post is a reflection on how I think America has changed since then.

I’ve heard people say that they think 9/11 brought us closer as Americans. They point to the way we responded to the crisis when the towers came down: all those who willingly risked (and sometimes lost) their lives in order to bring others to safety. I’ve heard about the bravery and courage of so many on that day, it’s hard to not be stirred by their stories.

But the way we respond to something bad in our lives doesn’t just mean how we respond at the moment the bad thing happens. It also means how we respond afterward, when the sky has cleared and the dead have been buried (those who could be found, that is). I’m proud of the Americans who reached out to help after 9/11. But I’m not proud of what we have become since then.

Before 9/11 we thought we were invincible. We thought nothing could touch us. I understand that 9/11 changed that belief and made us paranoid about it happening again. I’m not saying that those fears are unfounded. But instead of making us more empathetic about all the world’s people who experience similar (or worse) tragedies, we adopted a “Poor me!” attitude. 9/11 was horrible and shocking, but it pales in comparison to things that happen daily in other parts of the globe (or even our own nation).

It’s normal when you’re anxious to try to find a target for your fears. If you can identify the enemy, it gives you something to focus on. We were anxious after 9/11 and we needed to know how to protect ourselves from it happening again. I understand that. But I don’t think that excuses the distrust and hatred of not just Muslims, but of anyone who is “different.” Do you think it’s an accident that people are more emotional about immigration than they used to be? We think we’ll be safe if we keep all foreigners out of America (except for, of course, the acceptable ones).

Ten years ago, conservatives were critical of liberals, but they weren’t as outspoken as they are today. And they were more civil, even during political campaigns. Now conservative talk-show hosts say the most outrageous and hateful things they can think of, and no one blinks an eye. (That’s not entirely true: there are plenty of people who don’t like it, but we don’t have the voice conservatives do.) And it’s not just the pundits like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and Laura Ingraham, it’s also the politicians. Judging by the last presidential campaign, I shudder just thinking about how uncivil the conversation will be this time around.

I’m also appalled at how willing people are to give up their individual freedoms. Homeland Security is our country’s “secret police force.” They have powers we don’t even know about. We have no idea to what extent they can snoop around in our lives and it’s all legal. We can be detained without reason or with no representation. All it takes is the suspicion that we might have something to do with terrorism.

And to make matters worse, we’re just supposed to sit and take it. Protesting is compared to committing treason. Right after 9/11, even comedians toned down their political satire; they were that afraid of being branded as unpatriotic. I remember a hush over the country, as if everyone was tip-toeing around the elephant in the room: the reactionary policies of a paranoid President and government.

Has America learned anything in the past ten years about courage? Courage to stand up for our convictions, to speak our minds, to fight for what we believe is right? Have we learned anything about charity, about helping others, even at great cost to ourselves?  And most of all, have we learned anything about tolerance? Are we more aware that we are all interconnected? Has the world become smaller for us, or is America still the center of our universe?

When the towers came down on 9/11/01, it was like a nuclear bomb went off. And ten years later, we’re still dealing with the fall-out.

[Cross-posted on my other blog, Femagination.]

Sexual Rights, Human Rights

As part of the “One Day, One Struggle” 2010 campaign to promote sexual and bodily rights in Muslim societies, Lebanon-based groups Nasawiya, Helem and Meem developed this video campaign, focusing on bodily autonomy and sexual rights of individuals.

On November 9, 2010, the 2nd international “One Day One Struggle” Campaign called for public attention to issues like Right to Information, Sexuality Education, Sexual Health, Bodily Autonomy and Sexual Rights of Individuals, LGBTTQ Rights, Sexual Diversity and Islam, Sexuality and Shari’a as well as the struggle to stop sexual rights violations ranging from Polygamy to killings of women, gay people and transsexuals. The campaign took place in 12 countries across the Middle East, North Africa, South and Southeast Asia. Almost 50 participating human rights organizations, universities and municipalities will participated.

Launched by the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR), “One Day One Struggle” is a unique effort to underscore the joint struggle against the violation of sexual and bodily rights in Muslim societies. Nasawiya, Meem and Helem are part of CSBR.

Some Muslims take offense at campaigns like this because they feel that a person’s sexuality, while a private matter, should be regulated by Islamic rules and regulation and the morés of Muslim society. However, sexuality is often used as a tool for political oppression and human rights violations. This is especially true among militaristic, conservative Muslims who politicize Islam as justification for their attempts to control society, chiefly through their control of women.

I’m not arguing that Muslims should be free to do whatever they want with their bodies. But their obedience in these matters should be to Allah and not to civil or religious authorities.  Judgment and punishment is Allah’s to dispense. We have no business punishing individuals, especially all out of proportion to the act itself,  like execution for adultery.

A society that punishes its women for wanting to come and go as they please or to socialize with whom they please is a society that doesn’t trust Allah’s ability to guide those who believe in Him. Sure, people will make mistakes, but the only time that sexual actions should be punished by man is when they are perpetrated willfully against the innocent (such as rape or child abuse).

And I especially do not agree with judging women more strictly than men for the same actions. For example, women are told that they have to be modest so they won’t tempt men. Why isn’t as much emphasis put on men to control their thoughts and actions (as well as to be modest also)?

One reason I’m a feminist and a Muslim is because I believe that men and women are equal before God. They should share the same burden to be chaste and to fulfill the obligations that are put upon them by Allah. I don’t buy the idea that women are the source of all evil and therefore have to be controlled by men “for their own good.” Men and women are to help each other to be virtuous.

Education and example are the keys, not punishment and control.

Read more about the “One Day One Struggle” campaign here.

Do Unto Others

When I was a Christian, one of my favorite magazines was Christianity Today. In my opinion, it’s still one of the best Christian magazines out there. Although it is geared toward evangelical Christians (“evangel” means the Gospel, and evangelicals feel it is their mission to spread it), the tone is not conservative or fundamentalist. For example, it’s clear that its writers deplore abortion, but they would never advocate picketing abortion clinics. I would have to say that they are even “soft” on homosexuality: they consider it to be unbiblical, but they are much more concerned with helping homosexuals to feel loved by God and other Christians than they are with condemning them.

Christians who read Christianity Today are more interested in creating dialogue among people than in defining boundaries between them. They believe that bringing the Gospel to the world means acting like a Christian, not just sounding like one. A recent article by Joseph Cumming illustrates the kind of Christianity that I felt comfortable with when I was a Christian. In it, the author asks whether Christians should defend religious liberty for Muslims, particularly Muslim women’s right to wear the face veil.

Cumming bases his argument on Jesus’ admonition to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (sometimes known as the Golden Rule). If we don’t want others to restrict our right to practice our religion as we see fit, then we shouldn’t try to restrict theirs. I’ve heard many people, including Christians, argue that until Islamic states allow Christians freedom of religion, those of us in the West should not allow Muslims freedom of religion.  Cumming argues that this is totally unbiblical and I salute him for saying so. He writes that being a disciple of Christ means that you follow his example, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so.

Most people want to strike out when they feel that their views and practices are being threatened. Many Christians feel threatened by Islam. But when they let their fears dictate their viewpoints, they seem to be saying that they don’t have much confidence in their own faith. What difference does it make if the Muslim next door prays five times a day with his nose to the ground? Or if the Muslim woman wears a headscarf or face veil? Or even if a mosque is being built in your neighborhood? If you’re secure in your faith, these things shouldn’t bother you. And if you’re following the Golden Rule, you should defend everyone’s right to practice their religion.

The problem that some people have with Islam is that they think it advocates violence against non-Muslims. They see mosques as breeding grounds for terrorists and burqas as a way to hide bombs and identities. But they’re confusing politics with religion. Muslims who advocate the overthrow or eradication of Western governments are motivated by their fear that Western governments are trying to do the same to them, and in fact, that Western governments have been doing it for centuries. But it’s incidental that terrorists are Muslims. Take away Islam and they would still be targeting the U.S. and other Western countries as the enemy.

Would we want our countries to be invaded? Would we welcome other governments setting up and supporting corrupt regimes in our countries? Would we like it if other government tried to control, even seize our resources? And most of all, would be be upset if another country attempted to squelch our way of life?

Of course the answer is “no” to all of the above. But that’s all the more reason why true Christians should refuse to do the same things in other countries. And they should do it without expecting anything in return. (Luke 6:35) Even so, they might be surprised at the results.

[Note: As Muslims, we revere Jesus as a great prophet and follow his teachings as long as they do not contradict the concept of the Oneness of God.]

Also, here is a talk by Karen Armstrong, who is a historian of religion, about reviving the Golden Rule:

Movie Review: No One Knows About Persian Cats

I wanted to see No One Knows About Persian Cats (trailer here) because I’m curious about everyday life in Iran. The movie delivers some of that, but what it excels at is showing us Iran’s underground music scene.

As with most things, Iranian officials are very restrictive about what music can be played, who can sing (females are not allowed to sing solo), even what instruments are used. You can only play publicly  in Iran if you get a special permit and of course you won’t get a permit if you don’t stay within the boundaries. Anything that smacks of the “decadent West” won’t get approved and might even get you put into prison.

That poses a problem for the musicians in Persian Cats because they want to play everything from indie rock to rap. In fact, one of the things that most surprised me in this movie was the wide range of styles that were represented. I expected something that sounded, well, Persian (don’t ask me what I meant by that). I was also surprised by the quality. Even the rap song, which I don’t normally gravitate toward (a nice way of saying I dislike it), was well-done and enjoyable.

That doesn’t mean that the music was merely copied from Western music. The lyrics especially are brooding and poignant. What they weren’t–and this also surprised me–was political. It seems that the only rebelling the musicians are interested in is in the realm of art. That’s not to say that art can’t be political, but when these musicians sing about freedom, they mean the freedom to express themselves. They’re not advocating an overthrow of the government.

That’s what makes the Iranian government’s prohibitions and punishments seem so over-the-top: the music scene, at least the way it is portrayed in this movie, is no threat to the regime. Unless you ascribe to the view that once people taste freedom in one area, they want more of it.

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Women’s Rights: The Headscarf (Hijab)

There are many people out there who will think I’m crazy for saying that the wearing of a headscarf (or hijab) is a woman’s right. That’s because Western society views Muslim women as oppressed and the hijab as a symbol of their oppression.  We assume that the only reason women wear the hijab is because their men require them to and that they will discard them as soon as they’re liberated.

While I don’t doubt that there are some Muslim women who dress the way they do solely because of the requirements of their culture, who would prefer to not wear the hijab, I believe that the majority of Muslim women who wear the hijab feel quite comfortable doing so. In fact, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

When I first encountered women wearing hijabs in my job, I was curious and dubious. I wondered if they resented having to wear them and doubted that they would if they had a choice. I had always seen the head scarf as depersonalizing. I thought that it took away a woman’s right to look as attractive as she wanted to. It seemed to me that Muslim men insisted that their women cover themselves in order to keep them from being sexually enticing, as if men couldn’t control themselves if they saw a woman’s hair or the outlines of her body.

I also thought that I would never be able to tell the women apart. That reflects a prejudice on my part which I now realize is completely unfounded. The women still have faces, for God’s sakes! And their hijabs are all different, some of them really beautiful. I realize that there are Muslim societies where the women are required to wear all black and cover themselves from head to toe. (For a discussion about this click here.)  But the Muslim women I’ve gotten to know are from Libya  and are here in the States studying to be doctors. Through them, I’ve been able to see a different side of being a Muslim and a woman.

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