Tag Archives: Islam

From Alcindor to Abdul-Jabbar

As we approach the April finale of March Madness, we should pause to consider one of the all-time greats, Lew Alcindor, who won three consecutive national championships (1967-1969) with UCLA and was three-time MVP of the NCAA tournament. Over at Aljazeera, he explains why he converted from Christianity to Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It’s a powerful essay that touches on issues of race, identity, and politics. His conversion was in part a protest against the majority religion which he saw as a culprit:

Much of my early awakening came from reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a freshman. I was riveted by Malcolm’s story of how he came to realize that he was the victim of institutional racism that had imprisoned him long before he landed in an actual prison. That’s exactly how I felt: imprisoned by an image of who I was supposed to be. The first thing Malcolm did was push aside the Baptist religion that his parents had brought him up in and study Islam. To him, Christianity was a foundation of the white culture responsible for enslaving blacks and supporting the racism that permeated society. His family was attacked by the Christianity-spouting Ku Klux Klan, and his home was burned by the KKK splinter group the Black Legion.

Inspired by Malcom, Abdul-Jabbar began studying the Koran and eventually converted to Islam. Contrary to popular belief then and now, Abdul-Jabbar did not join the inaptly named “Nation of Islam.” Regardless, his decision vexed both his parents and white America:

The question I’m often asked is why I had to pick a religion so foreign to American culture and a name that was hard for people to pronounce. Some fans took it very personally, as if I had firebombed their church while tearing up an American flag…My parents were not pleased by my conversion. Though they weren’t strict Catholics, they had raised me to believe in Christianity as the gospel. But the more I studied history, the more disillusioned I became with the role of Christianity in subjugating my people. I knew, of course, that the Second Vatican Council in 1965 declared slavery an “infamy” that dishonored God and was a poison to society. But for me, it was too little, too late. The failure of the church to use its might and influence to stop slavery and instead to justify it as somehow connected to original sin made me angry. Papal bulls (e.g., “Dum Diversas” and “Romanus Pontifex”) condoned enslaving native people and stealing their lands. 

And while I realize that many Christians risked their lives and families to fight slavery [bless John Brown’s soul] and that it would not have been ended without them, I found it hard to align myself with the cultural institutions that had turned a blind eye to such outrageous behavior in direct violation of their most sacred beliefs.

From that year to this, I have never wavered or regretted my decision to convert to Islam. When I look back, I wish I could have done it in a more private way, without all the publicity and fuss that followed. But at the time I was adding my voice to the civil rights movement by denouncing the legacy of slavery and the religious institutions that had supported it. That made it more political than I had intended and distracted from what was, for me, a much more personal journey.

The irony in all this is that Abdul-Jabbar chose a religion which would which in some ways supplant race as the next great bogeyman for large segments of white-Christian America. So having jumped out of the racial frying pan, Abdul-Jabbar now finds himself in the religious fire:

Kermit the Frog famously complained, “It’s not easy being green.” Try being Muslim in America. According to a Pew Research Center poll on attitudes about major religious groups, the U.S. public has the least regard for Muslims — slightly less than it has for atheists — even though Islam is the third-largest faith in America. The acts of aggression, terrorism and inhumanity committed by those claiming to be Muslims have made the rest of the world afraid of us. Without really knowing the peaceful practices of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, they see only the worst examples. Part of my conversion to Islam is accepting the responsibility to teach others about my religion, not to convert them but to co-exist with them through mutual respect, support and peace. One world does not have to mean one religion, just one belief in living in peace.

While there is a hint of naivete in this conclusion, I’m not going to complain or critique. More power to Abdul-Jabbar and I hope he keeps writing.


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Graeme Wood Responds

Following on from Cris’ recent posts about ISIS and its coverage in the media, a new interview of Graeme Wood addressing his recent Atlantic article has just been posted by New Atheist Sam Harris. I often have a polarised response to Sam Harris because on the one hand, I agree with him that people are often reluctant to criticise any aspect of religion under the guise of tolerance/relativism, however, he also frequently makes grand reductionist pronouncements about religion or religious traditions and seems to have little use for the extensive existing research literature on religion and extremism. True to form in this interview, Harris provides much to agree with and yet also presents some head-slapping moments. Graeme Wood however comes across well, he provides interesting details about how he constructed the story and further nuances his position. I also agree with his assessment that many of his critics are simply misreading his piece based on their rather inflexible agendas:

Wood: Many enemies of Islam … have wanted to read the story as claiming that Islam is responsible for terror, or that ISIS is Islam. In fact it denies these claims explicitly and has a long section about literalist Muslim objections to ISIS. Many Muslims have, ironically, read the piece in exactly the same way, assuming it blames Islam for ISIS. That misreading, I think, is because it’s easier to argue against the anti-Islam point of view than to reckon with the possibility that Islam contains multitudes, like other religions, and that some of them are very, very nasty indeed, even though they share the same texts as the not-nasty ones… Finally, some readers are desperate to see my article as a portrayal of Muslims as savages, and cannot process that I am actually arguing something like the opposite, and specifically about ISIS. Its members aren’t brainless brutes who cannot think—that’s the Orientalist view, and ironically it’s the view that a lot of people who would call themselves anti-Orientalists take when reading the piece. ISIS members are often highly sophisticated people, just as capable of intelligent critical thought as anyone else. They are simply evil.

The only comment that gave me pause was the final ‘they are simply evil’, which is an understandable reaction but also something of an unproductive sweeping assessment. Sam Harris calls him on this point later however and argues for a more nuanced position:

Harris: Yes, but nor are these people “simply evil,” you stated at the beginning of this conversation. Calling them “evil” can be as misleading calling them “crazy.” …

I see no reason to think that most jihadis are psychologically abnormal. The truth is far more depressing: These are mostly normal people—fully capable of love, empathy, altruism, and so forth—who simply believe what they say they believe. (emphasis added)

I fully agree with Harris’ point here and it made me think about the recent fascination, evident even with liberal news sites like the BBC site and the Guardian, with various mundane details of the previous life of ISIS’ British executioner ‘Jihadi John’. While, his unmasking generated understandable interest, I was taken aback with the fact that the BBC and Guardian’s top stories for the past few days have been recounting his previous jobs in IT and comments from previous teachers, as if they represent some shocking revelation. The fact that he was a normal person, who had lived a fairly unremarkable life, seems to be baffling the media but that actually seems entirely predictable. Extremists can be life long fanatical devotees, raised in families of extremists or recruited after suffering some great injustice, but often they are not- especially when they come from the West, in such cases they are usually just ordinary teenagers or young 20 somethings that fall into extremism for fairly mundane reasons, be it political dissatisfaction or even just existential ennui. Harris’ makes this point clearly and I think it is noteworthy that this suggests a more realistic appreciation of Islamic extremists than many of his critics claim.

Wood defends his point by noting that ISIS fighters commit acts of barbaric savagery and openly promote things like the return of slavery and the execution of homosexuals as ‘good’ and thus calling them ‘crazy’ or ‘evil’ is not entirely unwarranted. Most people would agree with this, but I still think Harris’ point stands that to do so can be counterproductive.

Harris’ hawkishness does come out several times during the interview however and at one point he seems unable to understand how meeting ISIS in some glorious clash of civilizations battle could be a bad strategy:

Harris: It seems that they wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to engage us there, especially if we told them that we intended to build a gay-porn palace on the site, or some other sacrilege. It seems that these guys are telling us with every breath how to wage psychological warfare against them.

So why not act on this information? It seems to me that the psychological and propaganda value of our resulting victory is not something to wave away lightly. Imagine the effect this would have on true believers everywhere: They’ve created a new caliphate, and the new caliph is just swell. All the prophecies are coming to fruition, so an army of the purest jihadis to exist in a thousand years rides into this final battle and gets smashed by infidels. And God just sits on his hands…

Graeme Wood is eventually able to counter Harris’ enthusiasm by highlighting that such actions would lend ISIS and other Islamic extremists a propaganda victory that would ultimately prove harmful:

Wood: The decision not to attack them that way is a natural outgrowth of acknowledging that they mean what they say. If they really think there is a war brewing between Muslims and the West, then you don’t convince them otherwise by telling them to bring it on.

But even then, Harris seems to fail to appreciate how utterly self defeating it would be to hand ISIS a clear demonstration of one of its central propaganda premises, namely “that Crusaders are out to kill Muslims and will come to crush them whenever they become strong”.

Harris: It strikes me as such a strange fear to be obliged to consider. And to have it be the primary concern that closes down specific military options just seems uncanny.

I also enjoyed Wood’s counter of Harris’ simplistic dismissal of all of the existing academic research into extremism. He does then go on to criticise the peculiar ‘dogma’ of certain researchers who dismiss the relevance of ideology or beliefs out of hand but it is clear he does not attribute this perspective to all researchers:

Harris: … when someone says, “I think infidels and apostates deserve to burn in hell, and I know for a fact that I’ll go to paradise if I die while waging jihad against them,” many academics refuse to accept this rationale at face value and begin looking for the political or economic reasons that they imagine lie beneath it. So the game is rigged.

Wood: Yes. However, the countervailing current in social science is the tradition in ethnography and anthropology of taking seriously what people say. And this can lead to the exact opposite of the materialist, “root causes” approach. When Evans-Pritchard, for example, talks about witchcraft among the Azande, he’s describing exactly what they say and showing that it’s an internally consistent view of the world. This is something that anthropology has done quite well in the past, and it gives us a model for how we can listen to jihadis and understand them without immediately assuming that they are incapable of self-knowledge.

What I’m arguing for in the piece is not to discard either type of explanation but to remember the latter one and take the words of these ISIS people seriously (emphasis added).

In short, this is a very nice follow up to The Atlantic piece, which is simultaneously enlightening and at times very frustrating to read. Graeme Wood comes across as a very reasonable and responsible journalist, whose main argument is that we need to pay attention to what extremists say and not dismiss the influence of their beliefs because of the somewhat removed role of religion in Western democracies. He does not posit ideology as being the single factor responsible for extremism but rather a factor that is all too frequently overlooked. Harris on the other hand comes across sincerely, and at times well informed, but also as reactionary and dismissive of opinions that differ from his own. However, I am glad a voice like Harris’ is out there as liberals do need people like him to serve as a counterweight to the vocal US-centric narratives of liberal critics like Chomsky and Greenwald.

— Chris K.


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All About ISIS

Over at The Atlantic, Graeme Wood has posted an article on ISIS that is a tour de force of reportage, a near perfect melding of intellectual history and investigative journalism. It makes for gripping reading and left me yearning for more, though the more I want would require ethnographic fieldwork that is impossible for obvious reasons. At this point we can only imagine what life is like in ISIS controlled territory, but Wood’s article allows the imagination to run wild. I imagine a Camus-like atmosphere, an all too real yet surreal theater of the absurd. Blood, lots of blood, has this flowing quality: it spins back and flashes forth, galvanizing one moment and disorienting another. The closing scene of the latest ISIS video perfectly captures this quality, though stills can do no justice to this Coptic-killing choreography of waves:

Isis-Bloody-WaveISIS-Message-BloodWithin Wood’s article we find two lessons that deserve further emphasis, as both are major issues in religious studies. The first is about definitions and teaches us that “Islam” (like all modern religions) manifests in myriad ways, no one version of which can be singled out and normatively classed as “true, authentic, or legitimate.” There are many iterations of “Islam,” in other words, and saying that ISIS is un-Islamic gets us nowhere. The second is about motivations and teaches us that religious beliefs can directly and primarily impel action. While this claim may seem commonsensical to some, academics often explain, or explain away, religiously motivated action as a product of something else: economy, social structure, politics, power, colonialism, symbolism, etc. In the case of ISIS, religious beliefs are primary and direct spurs to action.

With these in mind, let’s look at some key article excerpts on the first lesson (definitions):

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition” (emphasis added for benefit of progressive ecumenical religionists, aka Huffington Post religion section readers).

It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.

The Islamic State’s ideology exerts powerful sway over a certain subset of the population. Life’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies vanish in its face. Musa Cerantonio and the Salafis I met in London are unstumpable: no question I posed left them stuttering. They lectured me garrulously and, if one accepts their premises, convincingly. To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win. If they had been froth-spewing maniacs, I might be able to predict that their movement would burn out as the psychopaths detonated themselves or became drone-splats, one by one. But these men spoke with an academic precision that put me in mind of a good graduate seminar.

Western officials would probably do best to refrain from weighing in on matters of Islamic theological debate altogether. Barack Obama himself [wrongly] claimed that the Islamic State was “not Islamic”…I suspect that most Muslims appreciated Obama’s sentiment: the president was standing with them against both Baghdadi [i.e., ISIS] and non-Muslim chauvinists [i.e., Fox News producers/consumers] trying to implicate them in crimes. But most Muslims aren’t susceptible to joining jihad. The ones who are susceptible will only have had their suspicions confirmed: the United States lies about religion to serve its purposes.

Now let’s look at some key article excerpts on the second lesson (motivations):

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation – that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise – and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State. Many refuse to believe that this group is as devout as it claims to be, or as backward-looking or apocalyptic as its actions and statements suggest.

Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

Leaders of the Islamic State have taken emulation of Muhammad as strict duty, and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years. “What’s striking about them is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts,” Haykel said. “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”

These excerpts, while extensive, are but a small part of Wood’s article, which I strongly recommend reading in full. It also repays re-reading, allowing the ethnographic imagination to run wild with morbid fascination.

— Cris

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Indonesia (Islam) Rule

In the past I’ve proposed that all evolutionary theories of religion need to be tested with the China Rule. I suspect that the need for such a rule stems from the fact that most evolutionary theorists of religion aren’t aware of the myriad (and subtle) ways in which western constructions of religion have impacted their thinking. What seems like a plausible evolutionary theory from a western perspective may not be so plausible when evaluated against Chinese history.

As an extension of this idea, I want to propose the Indonesia Rule when it comes to “Islam.” Whenever we are tempted to imagine or talk about “Islam” in the essentialized (or radicalized) singular, let’s immediately remind ourselves that Indonesia is the world’s largest “Muslim” country with a population of 240 million. This makes it the world’s fourth largest country and third largest democracy (after India and the US). Indonesia is wonderfully diverse and, when it comes to Islam, different.

We can get a small sense for just how different from “The Swinger’s Guide to Islam,” an article in which Aubrey Belford visits an Islamic shrine in Java where the primary ritual revolves around having sex with strangers. Here’s a teaser:

“It goes without saying that there is a glaring contradiction in the fact that Gunung Kemukus, a mass ritual of adultery and sex, is going on in the middle of Java, the demographic heart of the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

Of course, the ritual isn’t Islam as most would recognise it. Instead, it’s emblematic of Indonesia’s – and especially Java’s – syncretic mix of Islam with earlier Hindu, Buddhist and animist beliefs. But what is truly surprising is that even while Indonesia undergoes a steady shift towards more orthodox Islam, the ritual on Gunung Kemukus is exploding in popularity. It’s a quintessentially Indonesian contradiction.”

It’s a fantastic article that goes a long way towards disrupting the idea that Islam is singular, unified, and stable. There is no hegemony.

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Onward Christian Soldiers

Over the past few years I have become vaguely aware of a strong religious current running through the US military that more or less parallels the rise of the religious right in American politics. At first blush, this seems unremarkable. Whether as handmaidens of power or agents of empire, military organizations have throughout history mostly been conservative institutions and aligned, in spirit if not soul, with institutional religions. Yet despite this alignment, beneath the surface there is often a tempering profanity that borders on irreligious. The pragmatism and fatalism often engendered by war can have this effect, one which Paul Fussell brilliantly illuminated in The Great War and Modern Memory, Wartime, and elsewhere.

In at least some quarters of the American military, however, this tempering appears to have been lost and replaced with evangelical zeal. My first whiff of this came last year, when I posted on the Army’s euphemistic “spiritual fitness test.” What was a whiff became a stink after reading Jeff Sharlet’s “Jesus Killed Mohammad: The Crusade for a Christian Military,” an article which I somehow missed when it appeared in 2009. What Sharlet describes is a fairly recent development, one which was just getting under way when I was commissioned as an Army officer in 1987. While I sensed that something was changing over the next few years, I was unaware of the official impetus behind it:

The turning point occurred in the waning days of the Reagan Administration, when regulatory revisions helped create the fundamentalist stronghold in today’s military. A long-standing rule had apportioned chaplains according to the religious demographics of the military as a whole (i.e., if surveys showed that 10 percent of soldiers were Presbyterian, then 10 percent of the chaplains would be Presbyterian) but required that all chaplains be trained to minister to troops of any faith.

Starting in 1987, however, Protestant denominations were lumped together simply as “Protestant”; moreover, the Pentagon began accrediting hundreds of evangelical and Pentecostal “endorsing agencies,” allowing graduates of fundamentalist Bible colleges—which often train clergy to view those from other faiths as enemies of Christ—to fill up nearly the entire allotment for Protestant chaplains. Today, more than two thirds of the military’s 2,900 active-duty chaplains are affiliated with evangelical or Pentecostal denominations. “In my experience,” Morton says, “eighty percent of the Protestant chaplaincy self-identifies as conservative and/or evangelical.”

The most zealous among the new generation of fundamentalist chaplains didn’t join to serve the military; they came to save its soul.

One such zealot, Sharlet recounts, is Lieutenant Colonel Gary Hensley, who was for a time the chief Army chaplain for all of Afghanistan. Apparently not satisfied with saving the soul of the American military, Hensley thought it would be a good idea to have bibles printed in local languages and distributed to Afghans. In this video, the bibles are on display and Hensley is heard saying: “The special forces guys – they hunt men basically. We do the same things as Christians, we hunt people for Jesus. We do, we hunt them down.”

Hensley’s superiors wisely thought this was a bad idea and ordered the bibles destroyed. They were burned. As sometimes occurs in firefighting, one incendiary was used to prevent another. The Marines, seemingly always a step ahead of the Army, had a better idea: have troops teach Afghans the “true” nature of Islam. No word on how that is going.

Though there were calls for Hensley’s court-martial after these incidents, they were ignored. Hensley was transferred and made chaplain for the Army’s Battle Command Training Program. In that ironic position, he served with distinction and was awarded the Order of Titus which “highlights the great importance of realistic, doctrinally-guided combat ministry training in ensuring the delivery of prevailing religious support to the American Soldier.”

I’m not sure what that means but am comforted to know the award is “non-denominational.”

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Woe Unto Some Muslim Women

Yesterday the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia announced that the kingdom’s girls are, in the eyes of men and Allah, ready to marry at the age of 10 or 12. Rebuking those who called for the servitude marriage age to be raised, he noted that Islamic law doesn’t oppress women and cited the old ones as proof: “Our mothers and grandmothers got married when they were barely 12. Good upbringing makes a girl ready to perform all marital duties at that age.” That surely settles it.

While polite attention is fixed on Saudi women and the prohibitions against driving or competing in the Olympics, several disturbing articles have appeared this week which put the spotlight on women in Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan. In Why Do They Hate Us, Mona Eltahawy pulls no punches:

Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.”

What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing — or divorce either.

After this opening salvo, which presumably starts with Egypt because Eltahawy was born there and was recently raped by Egyptian police, she tours other Arab countries, all united to one degree of another in the abuse of women and use of Islam to justify it.

Photo by Aaron Goodman for Foreign Policy

As might have been expected given the incendiary nature of Eltahawy’s article (and provocative photos such as the one above), the blow-back has been substantial. Angry critics argue that Eltahawy painted with too broad a brush and has oversimplified the issues and causes. Undoubtedly she did oversimplify both the issues and the causes. If this ignited a debate, is it did, it seems a good thing.

As might also have been expected, some critics were quick to argue that the problem isn’t religious. Max Fisher, for instance, proclaims this in his title of his Atlantic post: “The Real Roots of Sexism in the Middle East (It’s Not Islam).” As a titular matter, this is correct. Because there is no essential “Islam” and “Islam” is not a reified thing, “Islam” can’t be a cause or root. But there are interpretations, constructions, and deployments of ideas that its practitioners call “Islam” which helped develop and maintain sexism, misogyny, and abuse. Despite declaring “Islam” innocent and blaming colonialism for sexism-abuse, even Fisher recognizes this:

The colonial rulers who conquered Muslim societies were skilled at pulling out the slightest justification for their “patriarchal bargain.” They promoted the religious leaders who were willing to take this bargain and suppressed those who objected. This is a big part of how misogynistic practices became especially common in the Muslim world (another reason is that, when the West later promoted secular rulers, anti-colonialists adopted extreme religious interpretations as a way to oppose them).

While there may be some or substantial truth to this, Fisher seems to be saying that colonial rulers promoted men who justified sexism-abuse with religion, and that anti-colonialists “opposed” this by adopting even more extreme religious interpretations. Under this strange scenario, women get colonial abuse coming and anti-colonial abuse going, all justified in the name of religion or “Islam.” By Fisher’s own account, these constructions and uses of “Islam” cannot be dismissed as a cause.

From the fire of the Middle East we go to the frying pan of Pakistan, where Zara Jamal reports things aren’t any better. In To Be a Woman in Pakistan: Six Stories of Abuse, Shame, and Survival, we glimpse a small world of suffering. Jamal prefaces the six stories with this odd observation:

Westerners usually associate the plight of Pakistani women with religious oppression, but the reality is far more complicated. A certain mentality is deeply ingrained in strictly patriarchal societies like Pakistan. Poor and uneducated women must struggle daily for basic rights, recognition, and respect. They must live in a culture that defines them by the male figures in their lives, even though these women are often the breadwinners for their families.

Is Jamal suggesting that the abuse of these women is a byproduct of free-floating or traditional patriarchy? If so, my questions to her would be how did this patriarchy develop and how is it maintained? It surely isn’t by vague obeisance to tradition or patriarchy. The “mentality” and “culture” that Jamal mentions are substantially anchored in and justified by a particular reading of Islam, even if she wants to minimize this or not mention it. While questioning and complicating standard narratives is good, complexity needn’t eclipse reality or truth.

In a piece which probes closer to the core of these issues, we have Karim Sadjadpour’s The Ayatollah Under the Bed(sheets). In the past, I’ve sometimes thought that these kinds of societies should be analyzed using a Freudian approach. As Sadjadpour shows, this can bear some fruit:

Ayatollah Khamenei contends that the health of the family unit is integral to the Islamic Republic’s well-being and is undermined by female beauty. Although to some this worldview is fundamentally misogynistic, Khamenei sees men, not women, as untrustworthy and incapable of resisting temptation:

In Islam, women have been prohibited from showing off their beauty in order to attract men or cause fitna [upheaval or sedition]. Showing off one’s physical attraction to men is a kind of fitna … [for] if this love for beauty and members of the opposite sex is found somewhere other than the framework of the family, the stability of the family will be undermined.

Interestingly, the word Khamenei employs against the potential unveiling of women — fitna — is the same word used to describe the opposition Green Movement that took to the streets in the summer of 2009 to protest President Ahmadinejad’s contested reelection. In other words, women’s hair is itself seen as seditious and counter-revolutionary. Even so-called liberal politicians in the Islamic Republic have long fixated on this issue. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran’s first post-revolutionary president, who has spent the past three decades exiled in France, reportedly once asserted that women’s hair has been scientifically proven to emit sexually enticing rays.

Against this backdrop of repression, temptation, and domination, other countries are attempting to gauge whether the Iranian government is fundamentally rational or irrational. Good luck with that.

Meanwhile, the ayatollahs continue wrangling with their other great fear — that Western sex will invade Iran and the revolution will eventually become limp:

Khamenei’s vast collection of writings and speeches makes clear that the weapons of mass destruction he fears most are cultural — more Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga than bunker busters and aircraft carriers. In other words, Tehran is threatened not only by what America does, but by what America is: a depraved, postmodern colonial power bent on achieving global cultural hegemony. America’s “strategic policy,” Khamenei has said, “is seeking female promiscuity.”

All this leaves me wondering: What it is about some men in some countries that makes them so fearful of women? When personal weakness and insecurity marry themselves to domestic, religious, and political power, the results aren’t pretty.

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Sharia Heaven on Shifting Earth

Over at Guernica, Sadakat Kadri has posted the lush prologue to his new book Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World. For those who have never given sharia much thought or have only caricatured ideas about what it is, Heaven on Earth appears to be an engaging antidote. Like any other jurisprudence, sharia is undergoing constant revision, contestation, and construction.

But before Kadri gets to these issues, he takes us on colorful ride through the mystical backwaters of Sufi-inspired syncretic Islam. In doing so, he clearly destabilizes the notion that Islam is singular and there is some essential form of it. Here he sets the stage:

The North Indian city of Badaun is barely known beyond the subcontinent, but among the Muslims of India it has a great reputation. Seven ancient Islamic shrines encircle the town, collectively drawing visitors from miles around, and one spiritual specialty has always brought them immense local renown: they are said to facilitate the exorcism of jinns. That is a weighty claim among the poor, the credulous, and the desperate. Genies of the region are not popularly imagined to be the bountiful servants of lamp-rubbing legend. They are mercurial creatures, capable of wreaking havoc, who routinely seize control of people’s lives. Victims are suddenly plunged into depression or discontent, possessed of unusual ideas, and urged to speak, to lash out, even sometimes to kill. Entire families suffer as a consequence, and dozens are therefore to be found at the largest of the shrines, where they camp out in a shanty-filled cemetery pending miraculous interventions on behalf of their afflicted relatives. The scene is permanently alive, serviced by a nearby market, and it swells into something of a carnival as day-trippers arrive by the hundreds on the eve of Friday prayers. The spectacle had horrified and fascinated me in roughly equal measure ever since I first visited Badaun—my father’s birthplace—in 1979, at the age of fifteen. Elderly relations had warned me then to steer well clear of the place after dark on a Thursday night. In the spring of 2009, I finally got round to disobeying them.

I reached the shrine long after dusk, and its neem tree glades were pulsating to the drums and accordions of an ululating troupe of musicians. Picking my way through knots of pilgrims, past shadowy gures who babbled in the darkness or lunged from wooden posts to which they had been chained, I eventually reached the marble courtyard at the mausoleum’s center. The everyday bedlam of India looked to have merged with a scene from The Crucible. In a moonlight that was fluorescent, bright-eyed girls were whipping their hair into propellers while
 older folk, senile or despondent, chattered to tombstones. As I fidgeted with my camera settings, a teenage girl next to me stepped forward, assisted by anxious relatives, to quiver and collapse into the waiting arms of two shrine employees. Others strode forward to swoon in their turn, and were expertly scooped aside to make way for fresh fainters. Whooping children, barely able to believe their luck, cartwheeled around the hysterics and their helpers throughout. It was hours before the chaos gave way to chirrups and a semblance of peace returned to the sepulchers.

This is quite a picture, much at odds with those in the Western media which depict “Islam” through the minimalist lenses of militants and mosques. It is also a strange segue towards a discussion of sharia that somehow works. When Kadri finally gets round to sharia, there is delicious irony. After noting that conservatives have imagined Islamic law as foundational and eternal, Kadri compares this (false) vision with a similar conservative vision:

That claim raises issues similar to those I once encountered in a very different part of the world—the United States. As a law student at Harvard in the late 1980s, I had learned that many American conservatives consider the Founding Fathers of the United States to be possessed of incontestable wisdom. Some went further, arguing that God had manifested His will through their deeds. According to certain lawyers, that could oblige judges to interpret the federal Constitution according to its eighteenth-century meaning, or even require that they consider the Founders’ views when resolving contemporary legal controversies: limits to the death penalty, for example, or governmental restrictions on free speech.

Back then, I had felt that the deference to ancient vocabularies and dead people’s thoughts had the whiff of a séance about it. Pinning down a person’s meaning and motives is hard enough when he or she is alive. The collective intention of a large and diverse group of the deceased is difficult to conceptualize, let alone know. The traditionalist approach toward interpreting the shari‘a does not, on its face, look very different. It seems more akin to ancestor worship than any grave-venerating ritual could be—simply because holy wisdom does not automatically pass down through the generations.

There is indeed more than a bit of ancestor worship and civil religion in American constitutional originalism. It is no accident that most of those who worship at originalism’s altar also worship at other altars.

I’ll be getting Kadri’s book, which has been reviewed here (Guardian) and here (Telegraph), and reporting back on it.

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