Friday, June 02, 2006  

Uppity Muslim Girls

Laila Lalami has written a very thoughtful piece in The Nation about two books which are creating quite a stir, The Caged Virgin by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and The Trouble With Islam Today by Irshad Manji.

About Ali's book, Lalami says:
The overarching argument in The Caged Virgin is that there is insufficient freedom for the individual in Islam. This, Hirsi Ali argues, is because one of the fundamental tenets of the religion is the submission of the individual to God, which creates a strict hierarchy of allegiances. At the top of this hierarchy is God, then His Prophet, then the umma, then the clan or tribe and finally the family. The individual, she insists, is simply not valued. Whatever one thinks of this hierarchy, however, it is hardly unique to Islam; one can make the same argument about other monotheistic religions. Furthermore, many Muslim countries are in fact secular or military dictatorships (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Egypt), while others are to one extent or another theocracies (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan). Religious hierarchy does not play the same societal role in Turkmenistan as in Saudi Arabia. On top of this, there are political, national and linguistic considerations to take into account, particularly when one is making claims about fifty-seven nations spread out across Asia and Africa. But Hirsi Ali addresses none of these. In her view, they simply do not matter. Rather, she sees Islam itself as the problem and its fundamental tenet of obstructing individual freedom as the very reason the Muslim world is "falling behind" the West.

and this:

Along the same lines, Hirsi Ali seems to believe that Muslims are deficient in critical thought: "Very few Muslims are actually capable of looking at their faith critically. Critical minds like those of Afshin Ellian in the Netherlands and Salman Rushdie in England are exceptions." The work of Khaled Abou El Fadl, Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Reza Aslan, Adonis, Amina Wadud, Nawal Saadawi, Mohja Kahf, Asra Nomani and the thousands of other scholars working in both Muslim countries and the West easily contradicts the notion. In any case, why the comparison with Rushdie? Have fatwas become the yardstick by which we measure criticism? If so, this suggests that the people who offend Islamists are the only ones worth listening to, which is ridiculous. The most shocking statement, however, comes from the essay "The Need for Self-Reflection Within Islam," in which Hirsi Ali writes: "After the events of 9/11, people who deny this characterization of the stagnant state of Islam were challenged by critical outsiders to name a single Muslim who had made a discovery in science or technology, or changed the world through artistic achievement. There is none." That a person who has apparently never heard of the algebra of Al-Khawarizmi, the medical prowess of Ibn-Sina and Ibn-Rushd, or the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Umm Kulthum is considered an authority on Islam is proof, if ever one was needed, of the utter lack of intelligent discourse about the civilization and the cultures broadly d

and about Manji's book:
to her credit, Irshad Manji appears to be acutely aware of the audience question, and tackles it on the first page of The Trouble With Islam Today. The book is written as an open letter, addressed directly to Muslims, both in and outside the West. And it also helps the critical reader that Manji backs her claims with source notes, which are listed on her website, The Trouble With Islam Today is a chronicle of Manji's personal journey of introspection and discovery about her faith, prompted in part by the constant stream of horrendous news about repression that seems to pour out from (the region of) Islam. "When I consider all the fatwas being hurled by the brain trust of our faith, I feel utter embarrassment," she writes.

Unlike Hirsi Ali, Manji has not openly renounced her faith, although, she says, "Islam is on very thin ice with me." She attributes her skepticism to her childhood experiences at the madrassa she attended in Vancouver. In the orthodox, gender-segregated school, she could not visit the library freely; instead, she had to wait for all the men to clear the area where it was located in order to be able to browse the offerings. The imam was a stern man who discouraged questions and proffered dogma. So woeful was the training Manji received that she did not know that Islam was an Abrahamic religion until after she left the confines of the madrassa. Later, when she purchased an English-language Koran, she finally embarked on her own journey of learning.

Much of what Manji describes will be familiar to those who have read reform-minded books on Islam. For instance, she questions the assumption that the Koran is the inviolate word of God and has remained so for fourteen centuries, without a single diacritic or vowel-length change. She tells the controversial story of the "Satanic verses" (also known as hadith al-gharaniq) to show that this point is debatable. According to some scholars, the Prophet had included verses that referred to Meccan goddesses while reciting lines from the Koran. Later, realizing they were not inspired by revelation, he abrogated them from the sacred text. This, of course, establishes a precedent that the Koran was changed at least once. Why is it so hard to imagine, she asks, that other human beings could have added their own changes? She rightly argues that both the terrorists and the peacekeepers among Muslims find scriptural support for their views in the Koran. (Incidentally, this is no different from the Bible, whose most peaceful and most violent verses have been used at various points in history to back up the institution of slavery as well as abolition and the civil rights movement.) A significant portion of the book consists of calling on Arabs and Muslims to be responsible for their own destinies, and to stop blaming the West or Israel for their problems. The style here may be very blunt, but the proposition is wholly unoriginal. One can read similar statements in commentary and op-ed pieces of many newspapers across the Arab world.

You can read the rest here

Lalami seems to be less critical of Manji than of Ali though she does accuse both of extrapolating from a very narrow set of experiences and making blanket statements.

I have encountered this before with films on women in Islam done by South Asian or African women who claim to look at women in Islamic traditions in general. Interestingly enough, the whole Arab experience is entirely missing in many of these films and there is a sense of extreme disconnect. While these films are interesting and many are very well done, they are ultimately looking at an Islam which is an inherited expression, that is, brought by traders and others and overlaid on another tradition several centuries after Islam sweeps through the Arab world and North Africa. And to leave the Arab experience out is to give an incomplete- and if you are pitching to a Western audience, a misleading presentation.

The problem with some of this work is, to refer to Uma Narayan, the sense of the Monolithic Other as authentic voice, especially in the West, which currently has little or no information on which to base a critical reading of these texts. And so, the West has no idea if the "informant" is knowledgeable, has an axe to grind (legitimate or not), or is simply spouting nonsense.

Lalami also mentioned the concept of the "silent native." Nowhere is that more problematic than in the realm of non-translated "Other" materials. For example,in my work on North African film, I have the advantage of being able to read French and to reference native speaker readers for Arabic texts. As a result, I use as many "indigenous" texts as possible because I want to promote that voice in my work. So I end up reading North African film critics, Arab feminist writers, North African and Arab sociologists, etc. Read an analysis of, for example, the Moroccan film Door to the Sky,and 9 times out of 10, none of this is brought to bear on the text.

One way to overcome this is to encourage more translation of texts from these tradition. Hirsi Ali is interesting in that she is a voice in the dialog, but to infer that she is the voice is to ingnore countless others that round out the dialog.

One example of a text that openly struggles with the idea of the "silent witness" and Muslim women in need of the Great Western Hope is Elizabeth Fernea's In Search of Islamic Feminism (Anchor/Doubleday, 1998, 1999, 2001). It's a fascinating book for several reasons:a) who is interviewed and b) the sense one has that Fernea (maybe disingenuously) is surprised to find a locally produced form of feminism that is organic to the region rather than a group of desperate women waiting for the West with bated breath.

I haven't read much of Manji's book nor of her other writings to have much comment on them. For Arabic and Urdu speakers, Manji's site Muslim Refusenik has free links to the Arabic and Urdu editions of her book.

I am pleased to note that Manji is promoting the idea of Ijtihad or the tradition of independent thought in Islam (akin, in my mind, to the command of Gabriel to Mohammed-"Read in the name of the Lord thy God who made you!" (rough translation)- which to me suggests that reading is a good thing in Islam).The tradition was revived in modern form in the democracy/independence movements, which were later undermined or squashed outright when it became obvious to the ruling party, former colonial masters and the US that gasp there was a clear danger of the country going democratic and oh, no! the people interested in governing themselves.

However, when it comes to Ali, I feel she is more than a little suspect. In Holland, she aligned herself with the very right-wing Theo Van Gogh and has indicated that she will soon be joining the American Enterprise Institute, credited with shaping a number of Bush's policies as well as linked to the Heritage Foundation.

Given the current climate, coupled with the information and attitudes that are going to come out in the coming trials of the Camp Pendleton Marimes for the murder of Iraqi civilians, the alliance of Hirsi Ali with the Institute is basically a pact with the devil.

Articles for Day 1 and Day 2 have been posted.

I encourage everyone to cross-post or write your own articles as much as possible this month.

Thank you

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