Sat 8 Dec 2007
[Illustration: Ayaan Hirsi in the Theo Van Goghin film, left;alleged preparation of woman for stoning, right.]
In a New York Times op-ed published yesterday by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a controversial Dutch Somali, a relevant and timely question is asked: Where are Muslim moderates when misogynist renderings of Islam sweep the media? She has a point in noting the relative absence of condemnation of three recent tabloid news items. There is the Shi’a woman in Qatif, raped by several Shi’a men, and herself branded (to the barbaric tune of 200 lashes) guilty by a Sunni Wahhabi court for “mingling” with a man not her husband. Then the hug-my-teddy-bear-but-don’t-mention the-prophet’s-name fiasco over a naive British teacher in Sudan, and finally the case of Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi writer vilified for her feminist writings that approach the controversial barzakh of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. So where are the moderates? For Ms. Ali they are phantom progressives, too blinded by their loyalty to the faith and fearful of telling truth to Muslim power. Here is her assessment:
It is often said that Islam has been “hijacked” by a small extremist group of radical fundamentalists. The vast majority of Muslims are said to be moderates.
But where are the moderates? Where are the Muslim voices raised over the terrible injustice of incidents like these? How many Muslims are willing to stand up and say, in the case of the girl from Qatif, that this manner of justice is appalling, brutal and bigoted — and that no matter who said it was the right thing to do, and how long ago it was said, this should no longer be done?
Usually, Muslim groups like the Organization of the Islamic Conference are quick to defend any affront to the image of Islam. The organization, which represents 57 Muslim states, sent four ambassadors to the leader of my political party in the Netherlands asking him to expel me from Parliament after I gave a newspaper interview in 2003 noting that by Western standards some of the Prophet Muhammad’s behavior would be unconscionable. A few years later, Muslim ambassadors to Denmark protested the cartoons of Muhammad and demanded that their perpetrators be prosecuted.
But while the incidents in Saudi Arabia, Sudan and India have done more to damage the image of Islamic justice than a dozen cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, the organizations that lined up to protest the hideous Danish offense to Islam are quiet now.
I wish there were more Islamic moderates. For example, I would welcome some guidance from that famous Muslim theologian of moderation, Tariq Ramadan. But when there is true suffering, real cruelty in the name of Islam, we hear, first, denial from all these organizations that are so concerned about Islam’s image. We hear that violence is not in the Koran, that Islam means peace, that this is a hijacking by extremists and a smear campaign and so on. But the evidence mounts up.
Islamic justice is a proud institution, one to which more than a billion people subscribe, at least in theory, and in the heart of the Islamic world it is the law of the land. But take a look at the verse above: more compelling even than the order to flog adulterers is the command that the believer show no compassion. It is this order to choose Allah above his sense of conscience and compassion that imprisons the Muslim in a mindset that is archaic and extreme.
If moderate Muslims believe there should be no compassion shown to the girl from Qatif, then what exactly makes them so moderate?
When a “moderate” Muslim’s sense of compassion and conscience collides with matters prescribed by Allah, he should choose compassion. Unless that happens much more widely, a moderate Islam will remain wishful thinking.
If I may provide my own moderate take, as an outside observer, I must agree with Ms. Ali that there is a profound silence on this issue from most quarters in the Muslim community. Take the first case of the woman in Qatif. Neither the CAIR website, nor the Islamic Society of North America, nor the American Muslim Council, nor even Progressive Islam (which advertises itself by saying “sheep are for eid” but then seems rather sheepish on this issue) say anything about the case. There is a lot of commentary out there on the Danish cartoons, but an egregious case of penalizing a rape victim and then trumpeting up an “adultery” excuse is virtually ignored. Alright, this is Saudi Arabia, where the penal system is stalled in Ibn Taymiyya’s century. Women are not even allowed to drive a car. Everything about the case reeks of internal politics, but where are the Muslim voices shouting this from their beyond-the-blog minarets? This case has swarmed over the blogosphere, but sadly there has been hardly any response (at least in a searchable Google sense) by Muslims, who (as Ms. Ali claims) seem content to bury their critical heads in the sand. Whether you agree with Ms. Ali’s own essentialized and negative view of Islam or not, her question needs a response and soon. At least the Khaled Abou El Fadels and Tariq Ramadans of this world need to speak out in this wrenching silence. Can you imagine the uproar if the woman had been raped by American soldiers in Iraq?
Despite the seeming absence of Muslim voices in the media, progressive Islam played a major role in freeing the British woman in the teddy bear case. Two Muslim British MPs held talks with President Bashir of Sudan and were able to obtain the release of the teacher, as the BBC reported. This particular case galvanized the Muslim community in Britain. Also in the BBC report, Ibrahim Mogra from the Muslim Council of Britain told BBC News: “I have not come across one single Muslim in our country who has supported what has happened.” No doubt there were a few hardliners, but Muhammad the teddy bear was certainly no Satanic Verses.
The problem is not that Ms. Ali is wrong about the relative lack of Muslim outrage in the media over acts that perpetuate Islamophobia in the world’s eyes. Just as Muslim law has dispensed with slavery without serious fallout, so progressives should push for more compassion in dealing with the victimizing codes laid down for adultery. Ironically, the stringent requirements for prosecuting adultery historically (such as four witnesses) have been bulldozed in the chauvanist reading of Islam that excuses male sexcapades and invariably treats women the way the Prophet Muhammad never did.
But a second question also needs to be asked by Ms. Ali. One can hardly wonder where moderate Muslims are when their voices are routinely denied access to the same media that dole out the bad news. Muslims of all kinds are scandalized by these very tragic examples. But how many of these are among the “talking heads” that get the original CNN (pun intended) call and are denied the opportunity to get their FOX (second pun, of course) straight? The three cases mentioned above are fodder for the talk show hosts, but how many Muslim voices are sought in the main media? I do not agree with a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who comments: “The fiery arguments coming from women, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, Wafa Sultan, and others who have taken on the social and political excesses of the Islam they grew up with, may not appeal to every progressive Muslim. But no one can deny their breathtaking courage.” It does not take courage as much as anger to lash out at the entire faith of Islam, as all three of these prominent refusniks do in the media. But it does take courage for moderates and progressives to make the point that Islam is dynamic and responsive to change. I am not asking that concerned Muslims throw stones, since none of us are without sin in the broad sense, but that progressive voices throw their collective weight into the arena of public opinion. If you do not think Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaks for you, then speak up for yourself and make your voice heard.
Daniel Martin Varisco
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