Islam


Zainah Anwar is a good Muslim. She is also an outspoken campaigner for women's rights. To many Muslim men in Malaysia and beyond, these two facts are barely compatible.

"Since helping to found the pressure group Sisters in Islam, Ms Anwar has challenged the country's exclusively male religious establishment on issues ranging from polygamy and domestic violence to women's rights to work, dress codes, and moral policing. She has often won the argument, even if chauvinistic practices and prejudices remain deeply entrenched.

"The group's main form of attack--letters printed in Malaysia's newspapers--began in 1990, causing fascination and outrage in equal measure. But the letters proved difficult for Islamic scholars to dismiss since the arguments were based on careful study of the Qur'an. Attempts to force Muslim women to adopt certain modes of dress, for example, contravened the Surah-an-Nur, they wrote. "Some men have forced women to accept forms of veiling and seclusion. Women have been made responsible for limiting men's lustfulness," they said.

"This broadside has had visible impace...

"Malaysia now has a domestic violence act that supersedes sharia law and applies to all Malaysians...

"Hostility to the Sisters in Islam remained strong in conservative religious and government circles, she said. She was called an infidel, disrespectful and un-Islamic. Some of the faithful had sent her pornography by email.

"But their reputation is spreading. They are involved in training and educational projects throughout south Asia. including Afghanistan--a region where Amnesty International's latest annual report says violence against women is "all-pervasive"" (Simon Tisdall. "Sisters take on scholars in battle for Islam." Guardian Weekly, June 10, 2005: 5).

For more information, see Sisters in Islam.


"Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi... fifty-seven year-old lawyer and activist... One of the first female judges in Iran... "..we are born to suffer because we are born in the Third World," she wrote... she is the first Iranian to be awarded the Nobel...

"..she condemned governments that "hide behind the shield of Islam and continue to oppress their citizens"...

"When women protest and ask for their rights, they are silenced with the argument that the laws are justified under Islam. It is an unfounded argument. It is not Islam at fault, but rather the patriarchal culture that uses its own interpretations to justify whatever it wants...

"There is no "true Islam," just different interpretations. Since I brought up patriarchy, let me make one thing clear. I am not singling out men; I am addressing the issue of inequality of genders. A patriarchy does not only not accept the equality of the sexes, it also has a hard time understanding the principles of democracy and its essence. Women are the victims of this patriarchal culture, but they are also its carriers. Let us keep in mind that every oppressive man was raised in the confines of his mother's home. This is the culture we need to resist and fight...

"Q: What's your response to the argument that human rights is just a Western invention and are not applicable to the Middle East?

"Ebadi: The idea of cultural relativism is nothing but an excuse to violate human rights... I know of no civilization that tolerates or justifies violence, terrorism, or injustice. There is no civilization that justifies the killing of innocent people...

"Q:... If the United States is fighting the war on terrorism in the wrong way, then what is the right way...?

"Ebadi:...the United States and a few other governments have used the war on terrorism as a way of violating human rights... [for instance] the Guantanamo Bay prisoners...

"I also want to raise this important question of whether the punishment of terrorists has led to a decline in the acts of terrorism that we have witnessed. Unfortunately, the answer is a negative, since terrorism seems to be on a rise, not a decline.

"We need to do away with what is causing terrorism in the first place. Terrorism is based on two major pillars: One is injustice, and the other is a certainty of attitude, the notion that their version of the story is the correct one. This way of thinking --this self-certainty -- is based on not being educated. Once you get exposed to other cultures, civilizations, and ways of thinking, this self-certainty should evaporate. How do you do away with this? By promoting education throughout the world...

"We also have to acknowledge that certain groups and countries benefit from waging war. Instead of dealing with the causes of terrorism, they let terrorism serve as a justification for war... the countries with important military-industrial complexes that engage in producing arms, including the United States" (Amitabh Pal. "Shirin Ebadi: Interview." The Progressive, Sep. 2004: 35-39).


"Ayaan Hirsi Ali... In 2002, while still working as a researcher for the then conventionally multiculturalist Dutch Labour party, she publicly described the Prophet as a pervert (for taking a child as one of his wives) and as a tyrant. She took over where the eccentric populist Pim Fortuyn had left off, arguing that Islam was a backward religion, that it subordinated women and stifled art...

"It was towards the end of last year, however, that she became the source of a national crisis in the Netherlands. An 11-minute film, written by Hirsi Ali and directed by Van Gogh, was broadcast on television. It featured the stories of four woemn pleading with God for release from domestic, social and marital bondage. What many Muslims found intolerable were the images of naked female bodiees, on which had been painted verses from the Qur'an authorising the subordination of women...

"On November 2, while cycling in Amsterdam, Theo van Gogh was shot eight times by a young, bearded man wearing a long jellaba...

"In the aftermath of the murder, the already fraught issues of Dutch multiculturalism, and of community relations with the country's 900,000-strong Muslim population, became incendiary. Mohammed Bouyeri, the man arrested for his killing, had been in many respects, a model of integration: he was of Moroccan descent, but Dutch-born and Dutch-educated, and this cast him in the role of the enemy within...

"It is possible that, as Mak puts it, the Netherlands is "a small, provincial country", unable to bear the realities of globalization, which has used a nasty murder as an excuse to conflate issues of Islam, immigration and security. But the country's problems are far from imaginary. Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali are not the only public figures to have been targeted with death threats. Amsterdam's Jewish mayor, Job Cohen -- despite meticulous bridge-building with Muslim communities -- also requires bodyguards, as does his Moroccan-born deputy, Ahmed Aboutaleb.

"In many ways the Netherlands is a crucible case within Europe, because the issues surrounding immigration are so stark. For example, the economic argument deployed by both leftwing multiculturalists and free-market conservatives -- that immigration revives aging populations, provides labour resources and generates entrepreneurial activity -- simply does not apply in the Netherlands. There has been no overall economic benefit to population change since unskilled guest workers were invited to the Netherlands in the early 1970s. According to Paul Scheffer, a leading critic of multiculturalism and professor of urban sociology at Amsterdam university, up to 60% of first generation Turkish and Moroccan populations are unemployed. "It's a huge failure," he says, "everyone can see that."

"Within a generation the Netherlands has swung from blithe, open-door immigration to anxious protectionism... By 2001, 46% of the population of Amsterdam consisted of first- or second-generation immigrants. It is in the Netherlands that European multiculturalism most dramatically flourished and died...

"Add to this the fact that nearly 1 million of the Netherlands' 1.7 million immigrants are Muslim, and it is not hard to see how issues of Islam and migration have become entangled.

"Which is why Hirsi Ali's full-frontal attacks on Islam generate such acute discomfort. She argues that there is less a problem with migration in general than with its Muslim component in particular, and that she should know, because she is herself a Muslim migrant. Hopes for a moderate Islam are only meaningful, she argues, it if is possible to chip away the theological brickwork--constructed, she believes, on a foundation of femaile oppression--which permeates the structure of the religion. But Islam, she says, is unable to endure criticism or change, and is essentially at odds with European values...

Influenced by events of September 11, however, she began to publish articles arguing that Islam was not capable of integrating into a society that was itself not very good at integration. Furthermore, she concluded, if you looked into the condition of women in Muslim communities you found an intractable problem, one which liberals and multiculturalists refused to address...

""I am not against migration. It is simply pragmatic to restrict migration, while at the same time encouraging integration and fighting discrimination. I support the idea of the free movement of goods, people, money and jobs in Europe. But that will only work if universal human rights are also adopted by the newcomers. And if they are not, then you run the risk of losing what you have here, and what other people want when they come here, which is freedom"...

""We Muslims are brought up with the idea that there is just one relationship possible with God--submission. That's Islam: submission to the will of Allah. I want to bring about a different relationship, in which you say, 'Dear God, I would like to have a conversation with you.' Instead of submission, you get a relationship of dialogue. Let's just assume it's possible"" (Alexander Linklater. "Danger woman." Guardian Weekly, May 27-June 2, 2005: 17-18).


Zainah Anwar is a good Muslim. She is also an outspoken campaigner for women's rights. To many Muslim men in Malaysia and beyond, these two facts are barely compatible.

"Since helping to found the pressure group Sisters in Islam, Ms Anwar has challenged the country's exclusively male religious establishment on issues ranging from polygamy and domestic violence to women's rights to work, dress codes, and moral policing. She has often won the argument, even if chauvinistic practices and prejudices remain deeply entrenched.

"The group's main form of attack--letters printed in Malaysia's newspapers--began in 1990, causing fascination and outrage in equal measure. But the letters proved difficult for Islamic scholars to dismiss since the arguments were based on careful study of the Qur'an. Attempts to force Muslim women to adopt certain modes of dress, for example, contravened the Surah-an-Nur, they wrote. "Some men have forced women to accept forms of veiling and seclusion. Women have been made responsible for limiting men's lustfulness," they said.

"This broadside has had visible impace...

"Malaysia now has a domestic violence act that supersedes sharia law and applies to all Malaysians...

"Hostility to the Sisters in Islam remained strong in conservative religious and government circles, she said. She was called an infidel, disrespectful and un-Islamic. Some of the faithful had sent her pornography by email.

"But their reputation is spreading. They are involved in training and educational projects throughout south Asia. including Afghanistan--a region where Amnesty International's latest annual report says violence against women is "all-pervasive"" (Simon Tisdall. "Sisters take on scholars in battle for Islam." Guardian Weekly, June 10, 2005: 5).

For more information, see Sisters in Islam.


Please send comments to: Colby Glass, MLIS