First, of all, apologies for the long gap in blogging; work commitments as well as general laziness are my less than adequate excuses. Having said that, last week, I attended a lecture by Professor Madhavi Sunder, who is a leading scholar in the field of legal regulation of culture. Her lecture was deeply insightful and thought provoking, so in that respect, a week to reflect on the conclusions of the talk was most welcome.
In 2006, Sunder was awarded a Carnegie Corporation scholarship, to support her writing a new book entitled “The New Enlightenment: How Muslim Women are Bringing Religion Out of the Dark Ages.” Sunder is a thoughtful and engaging speaker and a passionate advocate of human rights. It was refreshing to hear her views on Islam because her work is mainly aimed towards a Western audience. It seeks to dispel the myths that Islam is incompatible with the Western lifestyle and refutes the Samuel Huntingdon model of the clash of civilisations. However, primarily, Sunder’s work focuses on changing the established mindset of Muslim women to secure equal rights and freedoms.
During the talk, Sunder clarified the lecture’s title, explaining that she is not suggesting that Islam itself that is in the “dark ages,” but rather how the religion is perceived, interpreted and indeed practiced in many parts of the world.
First of all, it is important to establish how the “old enlightenment” differs from the “new enlightenment.” The old enlightenment entailed taking cultural practice and religion out of the domains of the law, so that people pursue liberty and equality in the public sphere, i.e. our pursuit of freedom exists outside the realms of religion or culture. However, this does not always prevent the violation of human rights in the private sphere; Sunder conceptualises the New Enlightenment as the right of women to seek liberty, freedom and equal rights not only in the public spheres of society and law, but also in the private spheres of family, culture, and within religion.
Sunder also cited the recent Gallup World Poll, which asked Muslims across the world what they think of education, democracy, religion and culture. The findings of this poll are to be published shortly in a book entitled “Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think.” The book, written by Dalia Mogahed and John L. Esposito compiles six years of research and more than 50,000 interviews, representing some 1.3 billion Muslims in 35 nations, that are either predominantly Muslim or have sizeable Muslim populations.
The research is thorough and extensive, but some highlights include that when asked about what they admire about the West, Muslims frequently cited political freedom, liberty, fair judicial systems, and freedom of speech. Muslims were also asked to critique their own societies; extremism and inadequate adherence to Islamic teachings were cited as their top grievances. Furthermore, between 82% and 99% of Muslims (varying by country) wanted freedom of speech as part of their constitution.
In their report of extremism, a key finding of the Gallup poll was that both moderate and radical Muslims affirmed religiousity, through stating that religion was an important part of their lives, or through attendance of religious services. Thus, despite the difference in the politics of both groups, it seems that clear that to be against terrorism does not necessitate abandonment of religious beliefs. This supports my assertion that the roots of terrorism do not lie in Islam itself, but rather it stems from its (incorrect) interpretation.
It is interesting to note that whilst 33% of US citizens (at least, perhaps more) believe that Islam encourages violence, the radical group represented just 7% of the total Muslims polled. Whilst I would argue that even 7% is too much, this means that 93% of the world’s Muslims are moderates, dispelling the myth that the majority of Muslims are against the West.
But, I digress. The results of the poll make for interesting reading, and I would highly recommend that you check out the findings for yourself. However, the overall conclusion of the poll debunks the myth that the majority of Muslims support terrorism. Rather, the research suggests that there is no battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world; rather the majority of Muslims want liberty and embrace democratic values.
The problem does not lie in convincing Muslims of a democratic, egalitarian vision, as this is the sort of constitution that the vast majority seeks. However, the problem lies in operationalising these rights, such that Muslims countries have human rights alongside their religious rights and freedom to practice their faith. Madhavi Sunder says:
“Islam is stereotyped as regressive, anti-modern, anti-Western and incompatible with democracy. Too often, the media ignore those people doing the much harder work of exposing Islam’s modern side.”
In other words, religion is not the dark sphere that the West perceives it to be. Muslims have a desire for human rights and freedoms within religion and culture, and this is the essence of the modern enlightenment.
Readers of this blog have asked me about the right of people to leave Islam, and this is indeed one of the basic human rights that must be attained in every nation across the world. With regards to this restriction, Sunder also quoted John Locke’s letter on tolerance:
“No man by nature is bound unto any particular church or sect, but every one joins himself voluntarily to that society in which he believes he has found that profession and worship which is truly acceptable to God.”
I would assert that this restriction is not imposed by Islam itself, but rather by interpreters of its laws. Indeed, there are many verses in the Quran supporting this:
2:256 “There is no compulsion in religion”
16:82 “But if they turn away from you, (O Prophet remember that) your only duty is a clear delivery of the Message (entrusted to you).”
88:21, 22; also see 24:54 “And so, (O Prophet!) exhort them your task is only to exhort; you cannot compel them to believe.”
And this reconstructivist approach was the essence of Sunder’s lecture. For centuries, Muslim women have had their rights violated by patriarchal societies who impose the belief that their abuse of human rights comes from a higher power. Sunder argues that Muslim women must take a critical, textual approach, where they are encouraged to examine the Quranic verses for themselves and challenge the widely held beliefs about the text.
The reality is, that there is no conflict between Western democracy and the practice of religion.
With regards to Sharia law, Sunder argues that whilst the laws of Islam might be divinely guided, they were recorded by men and thus have a historical and temporal basis. Now, whether you believe the laws are divinely guided or not is irrelevant; the vision of new enlightenment is a world where Muslim women do not have to abandon their faith in order to pursue freedom.
The point being, that there is inherent flexibility in these laws to interpret them for the modern era. However, the patriarchal society means that many Muslim women simply do not realise that they have a choice within the religion. Just one of the groups working to change the mindset of Muslim women includes Sisters In Islam (SIS). Their mission statement is well worth reading, but here is a short extract:
“We uphold the revolutionary spirit of Islam, a religion which uplifted the status of women when it was revealed 1400 years ago. We believe that Islam does not endorse the oppression of women and denial of their basic rights of equality and human dignity. We are deeply saddened that religion has been used to justify cultural practices and values that regard women as inferior and subordinate to men and we believe that this has been made possible because men have had exclusive control over the interpretation of the text of the Qur’an.”
Such organisations work with women on the ground to operationalise the liberties and rights of women. SIS works with women to create dialogue about the intepretation of the Quran and challenge their beliefs about what the religion states. They help women to realise that religion, in part, is a human creation, enabling women to separate that which is divinely guided from that which is part of human construction, to redefine and reconstruct the interpretation of Islam.
This reconstructivist approach enables democracy and freedom both within the private realm as well as the public realm, since women are empowered to make autonomous decisions.
After the lecture, I had the opportunity to ask Madhavi about her views of Irshad Manji’s Project Ijtihad. The key point is that human rights and injustices are not challenged because they come from a tradition or history within Islam but becaue every human being has the right to assert and challenge injustice. In that way, it is a universal message for all women who have had cultural patriarchy and injustice imposed on them. Some may call it Ijtihad, whilst others assert that we must attain basic human rights, not because Islam says so, but on the basis of our universal humanity. However, one could argue that the end goal is the same.
I really appreciated Madhavi Sunder’s approach and the lecture was deeply inspirational and refreshing. It challenged the notion that secularism is the only solution to securing rights in the Muslim world. Clearly, given the importance Muslims ascribe to their religion, securalism and abandoning faith, whether in the public or the private sphere is not a viable solution.
The lecture gave me much to think about, and was a welcome change from the bleak picture painted by traditional media outlets, who talk about the deep conflict between Islam and the West and leave me with a sense of hopelessness and despondency. Organisations such as Sisters in Islam are a beacon of light and hope in this dark era. Change will take time, it always does, but with the good work of women such as Zainah Anwar, perhaps we will see the New Enlightenment take shape, challenge traditional ideas about women’s rights in Islam and attain the freedoms and liberties that the Muslim world so greatly desires.
The Gallup Poll reports are available as free downloads from the website of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.
“Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think” is now available from Amazon
As always, please feel free to add your comments.