Without questioning the real and pervasive presence of Islamophobia in the West, including Australia, I would like to have a more careful look at Yassir Morsi’s arguments in his ‘Disguising Islamophobia’ (co-written with Mohammad Tabbaa) and, to a lesser extent, ‘Saving the Muslim Woman, Yet Again’ (co written with Sahar Ghumkor).
The articles make many good points about the presence of covert racism in contemporary western liberal democracies, the stigmatisation of minorities (especially those of non-white, Muslim background), and the practice of using such minorities as scapegoats. Its attempt to define Islamphobia more specifically as an ‘over-determining and inappropriate heaping of suspicion on all things Islamic’ is praiseworthy, as is its warning about the dangers associated with Western governments’ attempts to redefine Islam for Muslims on their (that is, the West’s) own terms (something known in the academic literature as the ‘ ontological securitisation’ of Islam).
Nonetheless, there are many points on which the articles needs to be critiqued.
‘Disguising Islamophobia’ concludes with this statement, which can be taken as its main argument: ‘Disguising Islamophobia under the cloak of gender equality only harms the plight of both Muslims and women.’ Let us examine this in more detail.
The authors characterise Professor Sheila Jeffreys (who specialises in gender studies at the University of Melbourne) as a ‘radical feminist’ (used pejoratively, of course). The reason given is that Jeffreys expressed concern that University of Melbourne did not condemn the ‘imposed’ gender segregation at an event. Professor Jeffreys’ concerns must be understood in the framework of the clear link (amply documented in gender studies literature, including that on gender and Islam) between gender segregation and patriarchy. This is what the authors have overlooked in their criticism of Jeffreys.
Another dimension not problematised by the authors is that gender segregation in the traditional interpretation of Islam cannot be viewed in isolation from other patriarchal practices, such as the husband or father’s complete control of his female kin’s sexuality and mobility, as well as their lack of decision-making power on many important issues, which are defended on certain philosophical, theological and jurisprudential assumptions of normative ‘Muslim masculinity’. These are artificially constructed on the basis of concepts such as men’s sexual jealousy as an over-determining source of ‘family honour’, as well as patriarchal exegetical,theological and jurisprudential interpretations of the Qur’anic concepts of qiwama and wilaya (husband’s authority over his female kin) which I have deconstructed in my book Constructing a Religiously Ideal ‘Believer’ and ‘Woman’ in Islam: Neo-traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims’ Methods of Interpretation, as well as in other articles. They also rest on particular notions of ‘Muslim femininity’ artificially constructed on the basis of concepts such as haya (that is, modesty and shyness) and the idea of women as sources of socio-moral chaos whose presence in the public sphere is a threat and constant source of irresistible temptation for Muslim men who can’t control their limitless sexual urges.
It is important to emphasize that these views are not limited to the ‘salafis’ (or more correctly neo-ahl hadith (as I explain in my book) but also include all dogmatic or uncritical adherents of classical interpretations of Islamic theology, law, ethics and politics (known as madhhabists). Therefore, the authors’ analogy between gender segregation practices associated with traditional Islam and gender-segregated practices in the West (gymnasiums, private schools and public toilets, for instance) are simply wrong, as they are based on very different cultural and philosophical assumptions pertaining to what it means to be male and female.
Let me also add that the lowest common denominator of feminism is about extending the same legal rights and opportunities to both sexes/genders, as well as valuing their respective contributions in order to engender a gender-just society in which all humans can flourish and reach their full potential. This is something to which we all should aspire, since there is no ‘moderation in justice’.
The authors’ description of Catholic conservative Tony Abbott’s remarks that gender segregation is ‘un-Australian’ as simple political opportunism and an attempt to boost his ‘feminist’ credentials should also be questioned. It is simply a fact that the vast majority of Australians, including many Muslims, do consider gender segregation to be against their core values. Can we automatically describe the statements of Abbott and Jeffries as disguised Islamophobia, given what I said above? Or are they to be understood as genuine expressions of concern that Australian Muslims might be adopting practices that contrast with the values of the broader Australian society and which, given the organic link between gender segregation and other patriarchal mechanisms, are harmful to (Muslim) women? As an example, I know of instances of secret polygamous marriages that some Australian Muslim men engage in with the blessings of some Muslim clerics (though in the absence of actual case studies it is impossible to know how prevalent the practice is).
While I certainly find the views of Abbott and Jeffries to be overreactions, I can at least sympathise with some of the anxieties surrounding Western non-Muslims’ views of Muslims. That is why, with some of my non Muslim friends, I co-founded an inter-faith group, Abrahamic Alliance, in Perth back in 2005 to help promote dialogue, understanding and alleviate community tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, with some success. Unfortunately, the group no longer exists but I cannot overstate how important these and similar initiative are.
The authors’ criticism of Professor Abdullah Saeed should also be scrutinised. Professor Saeed’s claim that gender segregation does not rest on strong historical precedents is based on sound arguments. His argument that many Muslims who have studied overseas (for example, at the Islamic University of Medina and similar institutions) go back to their home countries to preach gender segregation views of Islam, including advocating gender asymmetrical rights in the context of marriage, is true. These statements do not mean that Professor Saeed is blind to covert forms of racism in the West or that he is somehow enabling Islamophobes. Indeed, in his article, it is clearly evident that Professor Saeed is well aware that events such as the one at University of Melbourne can be interpreted by Islamophobes as instances of Muslims representing backwardness, extremism and a threat to the Australian society. That is why he writes:
For those fearful of Islam and Muslims, this is yet another example of out-dated Muslim views being stealthily imposed on Australian society; or even the sign of an imminent take-over of our higher education institutions by ‘extremist’ Muslims.
The argument espoused by the authors that the political Left in the West, or in Australia for that matter, has uncritical and willingly cooperated with the political Right in excluding western Muslims is also questionable. On the contrary, the Left (in the context of Australia, represented by organisations such as the Socialist Alliance, the Friends of Palestine and others, for I do not consider the ALP to belong to the political Left in any meaningful sense of the term) has been the main supporter of the ‘Muslim cause’ in relation to issues such as Palestine, the so-called ‘War on Terror’ and the defence of Muslims against human rights abuses by western governments. Anyone who has attended political rallies organised by Muslim organisations in the West (for example, against the war on Iraq in 2003) can attest to this fact.
The authors also claim that Muslim women out of their own volition chose to sit at the back and that this is a ‘common thing among Australian Muslims’. For over ten years, I have been heavily involved with the Muslim community in Perth in various capacities as a member, vice-president and president of Muslim Student Association ( MSA) at the University of Western Australia, as a co-founder of Abrahamic Alliance, and by attending various academic and non academic events involving issues relating to Islam. Most Muslim organised events were not gender segregated. They were only so when organised by the neo-ahl hadith type of Muslims (commonly referred to as salafis).
In the article ‘Saving the Muslim Women, Yet Again’ the authors repeat the same old narrative of why Muslim women do not need saving from white non-Muslim men. But this narrative is constructed in such a manner to stifle any criticism of traditional patriarchal Muslim practices that have been proven to cause incalculable suffering to Muslim families (especially Muslim women and children). Instead, this criticism is equated with ‘Islamophobia’, ’political liberalism’ or ‘Orientalism’.
Without going into detail, I refer to the numerous sociological and anthropological studies of Muslim women (documented on websites such as www.wluml.org or www.musawah.org), both in Muslim majority and minority contexts, which describe in detail the experiences of Muslim women as victims of patriarchal practices such as honour crimes, religiously-sanctioned forced marriages and the repudiation of wives at their husbands’ whim, religiously-sanctioned domestic violence, religiously-sanctioned lack of autonomy in matters pertaining to their sexuality, mobility and even everyday decision making, to name but a few. It is easy for Muslim women (and men) who are living in western liberal democracies to underestimate the very real and highly harmful effects of practices associated with traditional Muslim family laws because they are not affected by them (or not to the same extent), and because they can pick and choose which elements of traditional Islam they want to retain and which to discard. That is why I refer to these types of Muslims as neo-traditionalists, as they do not question the many worldview assumptions and the patriarchal values on which traditional Muslim family laws stand.
In the same article, the authors argue that non-Muslim Australians seek to dictates the terms of Muslim women’s identity rather than allowing the Muslim woman to do so herself. Even if that is true, the very same thing can be said about those who defend practices associated with traditional Muslim family laws. The authors seem to point (approvingly) to the work of Saba Mahmood on culturally-specific forms of agency and female subjectivity not based on a secular-liberal framework or assumptions. Mamood wrote a book on a movement of pious mosque-attending women in Egypt back in 2005 but her work has been criticised by many in academia for opening the door for cultural relativism (an excellent overview of responses to the work of Mahmood is available). Regardless whether this assessment of Mahmood’s work is correct, one could ask the question as to what are the ultimate sources of the types of female agency and subjectivity she discusses. Mahmood argues that the embodied ethical practices give rise to subjectivity and agency by means of creating positive affective experiences. My answer would be that even if we agreed with Mahmood’s analysis of subjectivity and agency as arising from embodied ethical practices, their origins are to be found in the patriarchal interpretations of normative religious sources and the broader socio-cultural values, practices and historical traditions that sustain them. Were these forces not present, in my view, these types of female agency and subjectivity would not have been there in the first place.
There are many examples of internalisation of patriarchal norms by women of many different traditions, including Muslim women: the famous modern example is that of the religious scholar and activist Zainab Al Ghazali. This also explains why there are alternative, faith-based, women affirming or emancipatory forms of Muslim female agency and subjectivity (which are not predicated on the secular/liberal framework Mahmood criticises) that are based on progressive interpretations of normative religious teachings and non-patriarchal values compatible with contemporary human rights and the assumptions that underpin them (which are not considered as inherently contradictory but rather in accordance with the ultimate higher intents or the spirit of these very same teachings) exist.
It is further claimed that Al Qaradawi is not a salafi, a term that authors never define. I have dealt with the definition of Salafism in my book (and more information is available here). The concept of salafism in the Islamic tradition has several dimensions. One pertains to what is considered to be an ‘authentic’ methodology of interpreting the Islamic tradition. The second element pertains to a Sunni political doctrine regarding the role of the Companions of the Prophet in the midst of socio-political chaos that characterised early Islam, taking them as ‘authentic’ sources of knowledge for Islamic sciences that were developed later. The third dimension pertains to the manner in which the Islamic tradition is conceptualised based on a particular view of the nature of history and time, according to which history and time are regressive in nature. One of the most characteristic traits of Salafism seen from this perspective is the idea that one’s authentic Muslim identity can only be established by returning to a fixed point in historical time: that of the Prophet and the early Muslim community viewed ahistorically and in a socio-cultural vacuum. This Salafi-oriented vision of history imposes the idea a priori that this early Muslim community ideal was followed by a period of relaxation of standards, of deviation and, finally, of division. Furthermore, time is not conceived as in itself the medium and instrument of change but rather as reappearance and re-enactment, after a period of abeyance and degradation. In other words both history and time are conceptualised to be regressive in nature. Both ahl-hadith and madhhab based approaches to Islam share this concept of history and time. Qaradawi, although reform minded in a ‘modernist sense’, belongs to the latter approach. Ibn Taymiyya is closer to the ahl-hadith and was reform-oriented in a puritanical sense (although admittedly his views are being hijacked by neo-ahl hadith to some extent). In that sense, Fiona Hill, whom the authors criticise for labeling Qaradawi as a salafi, is correct in her assertion that Qaradawi is indeed a salafi in the sense of modern scholars such as M. Aduh or M. Al Ghazali, who were his intellectual forerunners. Both Abduh and Al Ghazali have criticised many aspects of traditional Sufi practices, and Qaradawi shares their views on this, too. Thus, contrary to what the authors claim, Qaradawi is definitely not a Sufi in the traditional sense of the term, although he might appreciate some aspects of Sufi thought.
In conclusion, for any critique to be truly called a critique, it cannot be one dimensional and blind to all of its sources and manifestations. There must be space for sensitive, intelligent and relentless criticism of both Islamophobia as well as patriarchal practices associated with traditional Islam. Engaging in this ‘multiple critiques’ is exactly what progressive Muslims should do.