Toronto- Since pursuing a degree in Religious Studies as a secular person, and especially after spending three months in Morocco, there are two questions I am often asked by both Muslim and non-Muslim friends. Do you think Islam is patriarchal? Do you think Islam is violent?
Based on my academic study, as well as personal experiences I would definitively respond No to both of these questions.
That being said, there is nobody who will convince me that there do not exist interpretations of Islam that are both violent and patriarchal, even misogynistic.
When I make this observation, there is one response that I usually get. This, is that people carrying out these violent, or patriarchal acts under the guise of Islam are not real Muslims, or that I am confusing religion with cultural practices that are unrelated to Islam.
I think both of these arguments are weak.
And I think they are merely a way for liberal or moderate Muslims to deflect some responsibility for a very serious problem. They are a very human response to the unpleasant but necessary task of self-reflection.
First of all, I can’t think of anything that has a stronger influence over culture than religion. I also think, that the fact that the acceptance of Islam in certain societies has failed to eradicate some patriarchal and inhumane practices that predate its emergence (female genital mutilation, forced child marriage, racism) is telling of the fact that somehow, some way-people in these societies found a way to reconcile such practices with their Islamic beliefs.
While traveling through the West Bank (Hebron specifically) about a year ago, I encountered a few ultra-conservative, fanatical Jewish settlers. Terrifying is the only word I can use to describe them. These people are not ideologically comparable in any way to the Israelis I have met in Jerusalem, or even in completely different parts of the world. They are also not remotely comparable to non-Israeli, or even anti-Zionist Jews I know home in Canada. But I cannot dispute the fact that all of these people are Jewish, they all claim to be following the same faith, and they are going to the same source for guidance. What separates them is that they have interpreted this source differently.
Now as I mentioned previously, I have studied Islam quite extensively. I have done this in an academic, as well as real life sense. And, as I said before I do not believe that the Qur’an, or the message of the prophet sends a message that is violent or that is patriarchal.
I do however see violence, and patriarchy in the Muslim world. And blaming culture or denying the fact that these people are actually Muslims is in my opinion not doing anything to help solve these problems. It is a way of deflecting responsibility, and it is a form of denial. When I hear Muslims complain about Islamophobia, and a negative perception of the Islamic religion, they often simply blame colonialism and also the Western media for representing the actions of a few extremists as reflective of the entire group.
There is truth to this. Western Imperialism has wrought havoc across the Muslim world (and still is). And the media does deserve blame, it just doesn’t deserve all of it. And rather than simply complaining about this, and waiting for the West to right its wrongs (which at least some Westerners are attempting to do although they are few), what I find perplexing is why more Muslims aren’t taking it upon themselves to combat the emergence of fanaticism. I would also like to point out, that yes although the media has greatly exaggerated the phenomenon of fanaticism, they have not fabricated its existence. There are Muslims carrying out suicide bombings, murders and child abuse under the influence of fanaticism.
If you are a moderate, liberal, or progressive Muslim, I’m sure you hate the actions of fanatical Muslims, and feel embarrassed, or alarmed to be perceived by non-Muslims as members of the same group. You should. You may feel repulsed by the would-be suicide bombers on Hamas’ waiting list, or by the midwives scraping out their daughter’s genitals. But they share with you the most core aspect of their identity-they are Muslims. And they are doing a huge amount of damage to the reputation of all Muslims, including those who do not share their radical beliefs.
If you are a moderate Muslim, you may feel that these people are not following, or are blatantly disobeying Islam. There is truth to this in my opinion, but the point I’m making here is that they believe they are following Islam.
There are many things that cause such twisted interpretations of Islam to develop. Some of these include political disenfranchisement, oppression, or poverty. Often, these types of beliefs are a result of ill-intentioned people subjecting a vulnerable population of uneducated, illiterate or hopeless people to different forms of malicious indoctrination. Unfortunately, these populations are larger in the Muslim world than they are in other regions. This means that at this point in history, Islam is more vulnerable to the threat of fanaticism than other religions. Pretending that those Muslims who become victims of fanaticism are not Muslims, or are influenced by culture over religion is in my opinion denying the existence of a very serious problem, and one that I predict has a very real possibility or getting worse.
One thing that defines fanatics of all types, is that they are utterly out of touch with reality. A lack of education, or indeed miseducation, is a sure way to isolate people from reality, and construct a mindset in them that is fearful, and also hostile. Those who seek to manipulate others by using Islam to suit their own ends are often able to make fanatics out of vulnerable people, who have lost faith in their governments and have nowhere else to turn for guidance, but to those who seek to exploit them.
In this way, many fanatics are also victims. They need someone to intervene on their behalf. If possible, before they are completely lost to the cause of fanaticism.
I’m sure it is unpleasant for most Muslims to think of sharing something with the radicalists they despise. But I think that this may be the only way to help prevent their radical beliefs from spreading. I think it would be much easier to prevent this type of radicalism than it would be to try and fight it. Once people are so committed to such beliefs, it is in my opinion nearly impossible to turn them around. It is difficult to imagine being more committed to something than being willing to strap a bomb to yourself in the name of it.
I am saying all of this here because I see an opportunity for more liberal Muslims to help prevent the problem of radicalism from spreading. This is because they both share what is most precious to their identity-Islam. There is no way that people with such radical beliefs will ever be influenced by a non-Muslim, a woman like me. This means that the more liberal Muslim population has an opportunity to influence those who are at risk of becoming more fanatical.
I will make a comparison here to the Christian religion. In recent years, Church attendance in North America has reached an all time low. This is due to the fact that many Christians have begun to look upon the church unfavorably because of its hard stances on certain issues. Especially denominations that are generally regarded as more conservative and fundamentalist- have lost many members. So, this was responded to by different religious clerics, who saw that despite their differences, Christians needed to engage in some ecumenical dialogue and re-examine how their religion relates to the current age. Some of the hard-liners realized through this dialogue with fellow Christians that they had to relax their fanatical stances. I am suggesting here that something similar could happen among Muslims who have differing views on interpretations of their religion.
Fanaticism is most strong when it operates through religion. This fanaticism has certainly penetrated Islam, and this needs to be addressed. Especially, as fanatics are destroying the reputation of all Muslims.
I will say something here that will slightly embarrass me as a Westerner. But the truth as I see it is that most Westerners will not study Arabic, they will not spend time in Muslim countries and they will not try to educate themselves about Islam in a spirit of genuine curiosity. The media has a tendency to report bad things, and they usually report bad things about Muslims. Many people are going to see these reports of violence, and patriarchy committed in the name of Islam and lump all Muslims into the same category.
Another denial I hear when I speak to Muslims about fanaticism in their religion, is that it is a small problem. I will agree here that the number of fanatics in Islam is not anywhere close to the majority of the followers of the religion, and that it is a small percentage that is not reflective of the majority. Yet it is not a problem that can accurately be referred to as small.
In 2012, 1,000 Pakistani girls were victims of honor killings. The Afghani Independent Human Rights Commission indicated a “disturbing increase” in honor killing last year, and also stated that 90% of girls killed were rape victims under the age of 18 (AIHRC, 2013).
In April of 2013, the Somali group Al-Shabaab was responsible for a suicide bombing that killed at least 30 people, many of them civilians. More recently, their attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya claimed the lives of 72 people.
According to the United Human Rights Council, The Islamist Sudanese president Omar Hassan Al-Bashir and the Janjaweed militia under his authority are presently responsible for the deaths of more than 100 people per day (United Human Rights Council, 2014). The problem of Islamic fanaticism is not small. These things need to stop.
And so here I am making a suggestion. And this is a suggestion for members of the Muslim community who are not fanatics, but who are rational human beings, and deserve to be regarded as such. I am suggesting that you try to examine your faith from the perspective of someone who is fanatical. Try to understand how they have interpreted the same text as you in a completely different way, and then try to think of any way you could relate to such a person. Most importantly, try to engage in some more dialogue with each other, and try to be inclusive of those with whom your beliefs may even clash. Try to look at the parts of your text that are more ambiguous, and look at how a person with a certain agenda could use them, to suit their own ends, and even to exploit people more vulnerable to themselves.
I’m sure most will consider this an uncomfortable task, and many will see it as pointless. But still, I am going to suggest it here because I believe that, the moderate Muslims are the best equipped to fight the problem of fanaticism. I know it isn’t fair that I am asking Muslims to fight a problem that was largely spawned by Western imperialism. But I am suggesting it because I think it could be effective.
I’m sure that after reading this some simple minded will accuse me hating or attacking Islam. I don’t hate Islam, and I’m not attacking it. What I am attacking, is Islamic fanaticism, and this a completely different thing from the mainstream Islamic religion.
I am merely a person who has made some observations. I have been inspired to write this here because I believe both Islamic fanaticism and Western Orientalism are very much alive. As a humanitarian, this incenses me and I can’t simply be quiet about it. I have observed a trend that I find profoundly disturbing, and so I have decided to bring some attention to it, and also to make a suggestion about how it may possibly be reversed. I will try to debunk the stereotypes many Westerners have about Muslims. Quite possibly I will even get a Ph.D, become a professor and spend my life trying to lecture these stereotypes away. But this effort will be nothing compared to the power Muslims have among themselves to combat fanaticism, and subsequently the stereotype that all Muslims are fanatics. Change comes from within.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy
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