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Home > Culture and Society

Liberals vs. Islam: What's their beef?

Generalising about Islam is wrong. But perhaps progressive Muslims should openly admit that Islam lends itself to unsavoury interpretations, and this, not some sort of fashionable racism, is why it gets so much stick.

16 January 2004

'While racism has fast become a red line in our society, religious prejudice is still acceptable, dare I say, fashionable in the more well-heeled social circles.' - Faisal Bodi, The Guardian

Yes, it's us pesky liberals again! There's nothing we like better than holding dinner parties in Islington where we can spend a pleasant evening badmouthing Muslims and picking holes in the Koran. We're just such arses.

For a religion that’s as benign as Islam’s adherents claim, people like Mr Bodi seem to spend a lot of time apologising for it. OK, so Kilroy's comments were ignorant generalisations, but there's no question that some interpretations of Islam have led to horrific practices – the stoning of female (and only female) adulterers and medieval punishments are the best known.

But there's plenty more Islamic weirdness for liberals to get upset about in places like Saudi. Take this recent article in the Arab News:

'JEDDAH, 11 January 2004 — Sheikh Ayed Al-Qarni, a prominent Saudi Islamic scholar, has said that Islam does not prohibit women from driving but that the matter must be seriously discussed. He said he preferred a woman driving her car herself rather than being driven by a stranger without a legal escort…

'The prohibition of women driving is not an established religious rule,' Al-Qarni said. 'If a woman is given the choice between driving a car herself or being alone in a car with a stranger, then I would choose that she drive herself,' he added.'

The scholar, however, does not want to give the impression that he necessarily believes that women should drive...

'I personally will not allow my wife or daughters or sisters to drive. But I tell my brothers to keep the matter open for debate by a responsible scientific body,' he said. 'We have to address all issues, including women driving, in a wise and rational manner,' he added.'

Bloody hell. This is a debate that’s more convoluted that the good old C of E’s strange 'you can be gay, but you mustn't bum people' circumlocutions. Basically Al-Quarni is saying: 'We’re not so oppressive as to stop women driving, but we've got to keep an eye on them because they're all shag-happy sluts who’ll sleep with anyone who gets into a car with them'. Nice.

(You don’t have to look far to find implied or actual nastiness in the name of Islam. Another website devoted to Islamic debate includes the comment: 'Recently it was discussed whether stoning was a part of Islam and the Qur'an. To my knowledge, stoning is nowhere in the Qur'an and the injunction is for lashes instead.' So that’s OK then.)

It's pretty obvious that lots of people are doing unsavoury things in the name of Islam. But is this really Islam? Its defenders would say not.

Progressive Muslims take the view that Islam is about living together peacefully, and that Islam says we should all get along regardless of sex, race, class or beliefs – a message that's pretty similar to non-fundamentalist, 'God is love' interpretations the Bible. There are other similarities too: 'Islam' means 'self-surrender to the will of God' and is the worship of the one omnipotent creator, who, of course, is Allah ('The Deity'). The Qur’an, or Koran, tells you how.

The head honcho of Islam was Muhammed, who was mortal, not the son of Allah or anything like that. He was born in Arabia in the year 570. As a young man he became a successful merchant and married his wealthy, widowed employer, the noblewoman Khadija (he was 25 and she was 40, trivia fans). As Muhammed got older, he got more spiritual and one day an angel, Gabriel, told him he should teach the definitive religion - Islam. Muhammed started doing typical prophet stuff: shunning myths and idols, setting up moral systems, living a frugal life, sleeping on a reed mat and – according to one website - 'mending his own clothes'.

When Muhammed's Islam was set up, women got a relatively good deal. The Cultural Atlas of Islam says:

'Prior to Islam a woman was regarded by her parents as a threat to family honour and hence worthy of burial alive at infancy. As an adult, she was a sex object that could be bought, sold and inherited. From this position of inferiority and legal incapacity, Islam raised women to a position of influence and prestige in family and society.'

So why is Islam so often oppressive toward women and others? It would be impossible to give an account of all the different interpretations and translations of the thousands of passages in the Koran, but let’s look at a couple of key examples…

One passage says: 'Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means…'

Judging by our rather haphazard trawl of the Internet, quite a few passages from the Koran are like this: there's a kind of respect for women, but it's always on the man’s terms. The same passage continues:

'As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next) refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly).'

A 'light beating' is a concept that only makes sense to the sort of circuit judges who ask 'What are these so-called “mobile phones” I keep hearing so much about?'. Another passage in the Koran states:

'As for those of your women who are guilty of lewdness, call to witness four of you against them. And if they testify (to the truth of the allegation) then confine them to the houses until death take them or (until) Allah appoint for them a way.'

What this means is anyone's guess. It basically says 'lock 'em up til they die – unless there's another way of dealing with it'. It's worth noting though, that the imprisonment of women by husbands and relatives remains a serious problem is some fundamentalist Islamic states.

So what about this business of women wearing burkhas and so on? This seems to originate in the Book of Light, which says:

'Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands [or other male relatives, other women, children and, er, eunuchs]… and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments...'

This is fairly open to interpretation. 'Draw veils over their bosoms' is pretty clear (could Jordan perhaps move to Saudi Arabia?). However, to say women must 'not display their beauty' could mean anything, from not wearing cropped tops to being completely covered. But whatever the interpretation, we get a distinct feeling that the Koran thinks a woman should know her place. And not wear nail varnish.

That said, the Koran also contains many passages explaining women's rights and status, for example: 'If a wife fears cruelty or desertion on her husband's part, there is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves.' Which is pretty progressive for its time.

And the Koran may come from a different time in history, but Islam as a whole is a blueprint for a good life and a stable society. As a result, some people see the maltreatment of women as the result of highly selective interpretations of the Koran. Some Iranians, for example, say the regime's oppression of women can be directly traced to the writings and TV announcements of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

An Iranian emigrant, Kiana Underwood (her married name) describes some of the worst excesses of the Iranian regime in her paper 'The Destiny of Iranian Women after the Revolution of 1979.' She says Khomeini authorised 'temporary marriage', a euphemism for prostitution. He also issued a fatwa (decree, not death sentence), that sanctioned the rape of virgin girls prior to their execution, and another fatwa that permitted the execution of pregnant women.

Political scholar Asma Barlas says that some Muslims read inequality and patriarchy into the Koran to justify existing religious and social structures. This isn't anything to do with religion, it's just male self-interest. And in almost every society, women were second class citizens up to relatively recently, whether it was being unable to own property independently of men, draconian divorce laws or wife beating and marital rape being regarded as a private matter. (In England and Wales, marital rape only became illegal in 1991, following the case of RvR.)

The problem seems to be that many countries haven't shifted from this standpoint and have actively encouraged it. Islam, like all religions, is open to interpretation. The Bible didn’t sanction the massacres that took place during the Crusades, but you try telling a medieval crusader that. Similarly, it's one thing to find that the Koran permits various barbaric practices and treating women as inferior. It's quite another to take an ancient text literally in 2004.

Generalising about Islam is wrong – it's like saying that all Christians hate homosexuals or believe literally in Satan and the fiery pits of Hell. But perhaps progressive Muslims should openly admit that Islam lends itself to unsavoury interpretations, and this, not some sort of fashionable racism, is why it gets so much stick.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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