Dispatches from the Creation Wars

And a Woman Shall Lead Us

I’ve written many times of the need for moderate Muslims to take a stand against their reactionary brethren, and the need to support mass movements toward reform in the Islamic world. One of the key voices for reformation today is that of Irshad Manji. Born in Idi Amin’s Uganda, Manji’s family fled to Canada where she grew up. She is the author of The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, a book that declares unequivocally:

“Not solely because of September 11, but more urgently because of it, we’ve got to end Islam’s totalitarianism, particularly the gross human-rights violations against women and religious minorities. If ever there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it’s now.”

Salman Rushdie has said in interviews that reform in the Muslim world will most likely be led by women, who understand the problem of Islam better than anyone else. With the rise of Manji, Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the Netherlands, Azar Nafisi in Iran and now the US, Asra Nomani in India and now the US, and Asma Jehangir in Pakistan (among many others), this is proving prophetic. Their personal stories are immense, as is their courage. For speaking out against the barbarism of so much of the faith they were born into, they have each faced death threats, fatwas and assassination attempts.

Jehangir, an attorney in Pakistan, has been beaten and thrown in jail. She’s had her home attacked by gangs of armed thugs, and has had to send her children abroad to keep them safe. But she stays in Pakistan and fights the forces of reaction. She has defended Christians against blasphemy charges, saving a 12 year old boy from hanging in one case. She’s defended women accused of adultery and led the fight to reform the Hudood ordinances in that country.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali fled Somalia, where as a child she endured the brutal event of what is euphemistically called “female circumcision” (the removal of the clitoris), and ended up in the Netherlands. She rose to become a member of Parliament there and an outspoken critic of Islamic radicalism. She co-wrote a movie about the status of women among the Muslim extremists with Theo Van Gogh. Van Gogh was later murdered by a Muslim who was upset over the film. Ali is now in the United States, where she will no doubt continue to speak out.

I have written before about Azar Nafisi, an Iranian literature scholar who is now in the US. Her book Reading Lolita in Tehran was an incredibly powerful account of a group of women in Iran who had a secret book club. They met clandestinely to talk about literature, something all but forbidden in their country, and managed to escape the religious police most of the time. It’s a story of extraordinary courage. It’s also the story of one of the most basic realities of human nature – the longing for freedom, both of body and mind.

All of these women have powerful and compelling stories. Over the long run, I believe they and others will do more to improve the world and change Islam than all the presidents and prime ministers of the West combined. We should support their work, talk about them, publicize them, help get the word out that there are voices of moderation and reason within Islam. We must support them and applaud their courage. Ultimately, our struggle against terrorism and their struggle to make Islam more humane and moral are one and the same struggle.

Update: I somehow left Taslima Nasrin off this list, and she surely deserves to be on it. Nasrin is a Bangladeshi who has written widely of the place of women in Muslim society. She was placed under house arrest in 1990, then had a fatwa put a $5000 price on her head. She had to go into hiding, literally being hidden in the homes of supporters like Anne Frank, until she escaped and was given asylum in Sweden (where she continued to live under armed guard for years out of fear for her life). Nasrin has this to say to those who take the “different cultures, different rules” position and refuse to call oppression what it is:

Those liberal Western intellectuals think that the West is against Islam so they feel sympathy for Islam. But by supporting Islam, they are supporting fundamentalism. It’s very bad for the Islamic countries, which need to be secularized. Westerners often support Islam in the name of multiculturalism – “We don’t use the veil, but in their culture, in their religion, they do.” Have they bothered to ask why women even have to veil themselves? The veil is a sign of oppression. Some people try to portray female genital mutilation as culture. Does that mean it should be followed? I love my culture – my food, my music, my clothing – but I never, ever accept torture as being culture. The real conflict is not between the West and Islam, or even Christianity and Islam. It’s been secularism and fundamentalism, irrational blind faith and a rational, logical approach, between innovation and tradition, between past and future, between those who value freedom and those who do not.

Comments

  1. #1 Troy Britain
    August 19, 2006

    “Not solely because of September 11, but more urgently because of it, we’ve got to end Islam’s totalitarianism, particularly the gross human-rights violations against women and religious minorities. If ever there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it’s now.”

    “totalitarianism”? did she say “totalitarianism”?

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    [pause to take a breath...]

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. #2 shiva
    August 19, 2006

    Taslima Nasreen has faced a lot of opposition (to put it mildly) in her native Bangladesh. That’s understandable. What isn’t is the decision of the government of West Bengal (run by the commies) to ban her books and the foot dragging by the government of India over her application for permanent residence. In the days gone by Nehru who was otherwise smitten by Stalinism and socialism still found the heart to provide shelter to the Tibetan refugees led by the Dalai Lama in the ’50s. Wonder where those sentiments have vanished

  3. #3 Leni
    August 20, 2006

    A nit to pick:

    Hirsi Ali is not Muslim, she’s an outspoken atheist. I don’t want to speak for her, but as an apostate she has as much sway with Muslims as Madonna does with Catholics.

  4. #4 Greg Byshenk
    August 20, 2006

    A further comment on Ayaan Hirsi Ali: she is not merely “an outspoken atheist”, but
    virulently anti-Islam. Further, she appears to be both dishonest and an opportuinist.

    It is a plain fact that she lied about some things on her application for asylum in the
    Netherlands, and reports suggest that at least some other parts of it were “embellished”

    Further, Ali jumped from the PvdA (labour) to VVD (liberal) party when the VvD offered her a
    guaranteed seat in parliament [the Netherlands functions under a proportional representation
    system, which means that one can be effectively guarnteed a seat by being place high on the list
    of candidates]
    , and is now quite happy to jump to the American Entrprise Institute.

  5. #5 Gretchen
    August 20, 2006

    It is a plain fact that she lied about some things on her application for asylum in the Netherlands, and reports suggest that at least some other parts of it were “embellished”

    I don’t have a problem with that. If you’re trying to escape your country and haven’t done anything wrong, it seems entirely reasonable to say whatever will get you the chance. I’m sure many Jews lied in their paperwork in order to escape to America before the Holocaust. You can’t blame a person for defying red tape for the purpose of self-preservation.

    Further, Ali . . . is now quite happy to jump to the American Entrprise Institute.

    She got kicked out of the Netherlands. What did you expect her to do? I wish she could’ve stayed, but hopefully America will be kinder to her.

  6. #6 Ted
    August 20, 2006

    I don’t have a problem with that. If you’re trying to escape your country and haven’t done anything wrong, it seems entirely reasonable to say whatever will get you the chance.

    Moral relativism?

    She got kicked out of the Netherlands. What did you expect her to do? I wish she could’ve stayed, but hopefully America will be kinder to her.

    Revisionism?

    I don’t recall her being kicked out. Indeed I believe she still has refugee status and that aspect was not under consideration. Even after the citizenship kerfufle she has the equivalent of a green card, but of course — she is mainly discredited in the Netherlands at this point and her security should be her own matter.

    The Dutch government bent over backwards with providing her with security. Her neighbors on the other hand had less of a sense of humor, just as I would if she moved in next door and I became a captive to her security entourage. I believe in her right to be controversial, just NIMBY.

    Thanks to Leni for pointing out an important fact regarding her lack of religion and subsequent provocations. That she would be representative of the Islamic view and would therefore be an example that Islamic women would find worth emulating is hardly the case.

    People misunderstand the role of Islam and the Quran in the life of many and attribute their devotion mainly to ignorance. So let me make a comparison in our terms.

    I would compare her work on Submission comparable to a radical leftist in the US creating a movie where someone on camera repeatedly wipes their ass with the flag, The Constitution, The Bill of Rights, The Declaration of Independence and the Bible. Then holding up each artifact and asking us to smell it to demonstrate our open-minded liberalism. Would challenging conservatives to examine their views like this work?

    I think many of our congressmen and senators would gladly support this expression of freedom to be controversial and allow taxpayer money to secure said left-winger from the wingnuts and fundies in the US because we’re broadly open minded people.

  7. #7 Greg Byshenk
    August 20, 2006

    No, Ali did not get “kicked out of the Netherlands”; she retains her Dutch citizenship and is in the USA on a visa attached to her Dutch passport. She was in danger of losing her citizenship because she lied on her application, which is grounds for disallowing it, which grounds she did not object to before they affected her. Note that she was quite happy to remain in the VVD while Rita Verdonk, member of the VVD and Minister for Immigration, was cracking down on requests for asylum. And futher note that she had already planned to move to the US and go to work for the AEI before the issue of her citizenship arose.

    And arging “self preservation” is a bit much, don’t you think? Even according to her own story (about which doubts have arisen), she was being forced to go to Canada — which is hardly equivalent to being sent to the camps.

    She is doing what she seems to have always done: leaving for greener pastures. And there is nothing really wrong with that. But looking out for #1 doesn’t make anyone special.

  8. #8 Ed Brayton
    August 20, 2006

    Ted wrote:

    Moral relativism?

    In this situation, absolutely. It’s certainly immoral to lie in many situations, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong in all situations. Would you not lie to a Nazi soldier if you had a Jewish family hiding in your attic? It would be highly immoral to do otherwise. If that’s moral relativism, then I’m all for moral relativism (but it’s not, since the situations are dramatically different).

  9. #9 Ed Brayton
    August 20, 2006

    Leni wrote:

    Hirsi Ali is not Muslim, she’s an outspoken atheist. I don’t want to speak for her, but as an apostate she has as much sway with Muslims as Madonna does with Catholics.

    I didn’t say she was a Muslim, I said she’s one of the women leading the fight to reform Islam. Taslima Nasrin is likewise now a non-Muslim in terms of religion, but both women still have much to say about how Islam, particularly radical Islam, treats women and the kinds of societies it builds. Their message is powerful regardless of whether they still believe in Islam as a religion.

  10. #10 Ed Brayton
    August 20, 2006

    Greg-

    I just don’t much care about the things you mentioned concerning Hirsi Ali. I don’t think they have much to do with this particular issue. Her experiences as a young girl, particularly having undergone a clitorectomy and having to escape the barbaric treatment of women, is what makes her an important and powerful voice in this context. Nothing you discussed changes that testimony or the importance of hearing it.

  11. #11 Gretchen
    August 20, 2006

    But looking out for #1 doesn’t make anyone special.

    Who said it did? I don’t think it makes her special; I just don’t blame her for it. I think she’s special because she is willing to risk her safety to make a stand against what she sees as an inherent injustice in Islam.

  12. #12 Leni
    August 20, 2006

    Greg wrote:

    And arging “self preservation” is a bit much, don’t you think? Even according to her own story (about which doubts have arisen), she was being forced to go to Canada — which is hardly equivalent to being sent to the camps.

    Forcing a person to go anywhere- even the Bahamas for a nice vacation- is a violation of human rights. Some violations may be worse than others, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t violations. She also claims that she was to be forced into a marriage in Canada, not merely relocated to a nice place against her will.

    Ted wrote:

    I would compare her work on Submission comparable to a radical leftist in the US creating a movie where someone on camera repeatedly wipes their ass with the flag, The Constitution, The Bill of Rights, The Declaration of Independence and the Bible. Then holding up each artifact and asking us to smell it to demonstrate our open-minded liberalism. Would challenging conservatives to examine their views like this work?

    I think this is a bit extreme. The film was of a woman in a see-through burka with text from the Koran printed on her body. Texts about the subordinate role of women. Further, none of it justifies the insane response from many Muslims, which has been threatening, violent and sadly predictable.

    The fact that she has received a death threat stuck to the dead body of her collaborator should be an indication that this situation is nothing at all like wiping your ass on the flag. If someone asked me to smell shit I would simply refuse, not threaten to kill them. I don’t think it matters how offensive she was to some Muslims. Those same people find nothing offensive about murdering those who criticize their religion and certain cultural practices. Which do you suppose is worse?

  13. #13 Leni
    August 20, 2006

    Ed, her message is still powerful- I agree. And while she is a critic, she is neither moderate nor Muslim.

    It just occured to me, since you began the post by saying that you thought moderate Muslims should speak out against Islamic fanaticism more, that perhaps Hirsi Ali was not the best fit. I wasn’t saying this didn’t make her a valuable critic.

  14. #14 Greg Byshenk
    August 20, 2006

    Ed, it is not merely that Ali is not Muslim, but that the is an outspoken atheist and anti-Islam
    per se. As such, she may have “much to say about” Islam, but no more influence on “the
    fight to reform Islam” than has Richard Perle or Ehud Olmert. Yes, it may be that her
    “message is powerful” to Westerners or non-Muslims — but its “power” for Muslims is less
    than zero.

    And I do not deny that Ali has suffered, and that much of what she says is true. But her
    suffering is not unique, nor is what she says anything new or enlightening. What she does seem to
    have is a particular talent for PR and self-aggrandizement.

    As Leni writes, your topic here is supposedly “moderate Islam” or “reform” of Islam, and Ali
    simply does not fit under it. Indeed, her position seems to be that Islam is essentially
    sexist and unjust and that rejection is the only option. Which may be true — but even so
    has nothing to do with “moderation” or “reform”.

  15. #15 Greg Byshenk
    August 20, 2006

    Leni, yes, it may be that being forced to go to Canada is unjust — but it is not a
    matter of “self-preservation”, as was originally suggested.

    In closing, I will note only that I have no doubt that Ali’s tales about the inherent evils of Islam will
    find a good home in the US.

  16. #16 Ed Brayton
    August 20, 2006

    I totally disagree with the notion that one must be a Muslim in order to help reform it and make it more humane. If you look at the history of Christianity, you can clearly see how much Enlightenment humanism changed Christianity and humanized it. Voltaire surely had an enormous influence while not being a Christian, as did Paine, d’Holbach and many others. It’s a basic Hegelian dialectic – thesis and antithesis producing synthesis. Ali and Nasrin are powerful and influential voices in this regard precisely because they are victims of radical Islam, and regardless of whether they are still Muslims today, their voice may well persuade Muslim women who are still victims and stand up and say “enough”. That’s why I didn’t bother to make a distinction between liberal Muslims like Manji and those who left Islam but continue to criticize it. Both have important roles to play in illuminating the nature of Islamic fundamentalism and both will bear some of the credit for leading Islam away from its most barbaric forms and for modernizing it and humanizing it.

  17. #17 Leni
    August 20, 2006

    Greg wrote:

    Leni, yes, it may be that being forced to go to Canada is unjust — but it is not a matter of “self-preservation”, as was originally suggested.

    I’m not so sure. Personally, I would consider a forced marriage to a person from a culture and of a religion with a lot of barbaric ideas about women a direct threat to my health and well being. I would also make an extraordinary effort, including lying on immigration forms, to avoid that fate and/or expedite the process.

    Maybe you wouldn’t, but I don’t think you are justified in assuming that avoiding forced marriage is not self-preservation. Of course it is self-preservation. What else would it be?

    In closing, I will note only that I have no doubt that Ali’s tales about the inherent evils of Islam will find a good home in the US.

    That’s because her tales about the inherent evils of Islam aren’t necessarily untrue. They’d have a good home pretty much anywhere.

  18. #18 Ginger Yellow
    August 21, 2006

    I’m interested to see how the right responds to this sort of thing. Will their hatred of Islam (or rather Muslims) overcome their hatred of feminism? How will they reconcile supporting the emancipation of women in the Muslim world with opposing it in the West?

  19. #19 Ted
    August 21, 2006

    I’m interested to see how the right responds to this sort of thing. Will their hatred of Islam (or rather Muslims) overcome their hatred of feminism? How will they reconcile supporting the emancipation of women in the Muslim world with opposing it in the West?

    How do they reconcile supporting democracy in the west and not in the mideast or Pakistan? Say one thing on Fox News and do something else; the rest of the world doesn’t vote (here).

  20. #20 SharonB
    August 21, 2006

    I am not optimistic about women leading the charge to reform. Look at who some of the most vociferous attack poodles from the kristian reich are. A married woman can often be the most intense defender of the status quo. In Islam, unmarried females are beneath second class status.

  21. #21 Leni
    September 16, 2006

    I know this is all rather old, but I was just reading the May issue of Time magazine (Yes, I am that cheap), wherein they list 100 “people of the year”. Most of them, I think, don’t really deserve mention, but a number of them do (including Judge Jones, who had a really nice little blurb). Among those that do is a Syrian-born American psychiatrist and author, Wafa Sultan. Apparently, she turned away from Islam after seeing her professor slaughtered in the classroom by Islamic militants screaming “God is Great” while they pumped the man full of bullets.

    She was recently interviewed on al-Jazeera and spoke out strongly against Islamic theocrats and thugs. She characterized it as a “clash between a mentality that belongs in the Middle Ages and another that belongs in the 21st Century.”

    Which is absolutely true. These statements made her a household name in much of the Muslim world, and she continues to speak out against the fundamentalist Islamic mentality. Anyway, I thought of this thread and thought she probably deserved an honorable mention.

  22. #22 Ahmed
    December 15, 2007

    It’s quite strange .. now a day any stupid can write about Islam and Muslims needs leaving his\her religion away from his \her list ..

    An advice to the writer : KEEP YOUR NOSE IN YOUR BUSINESS !!