Archive for the 'Religion' Category

Modernity Worldwide

hejaab. photo by Please! Don’t Smile.

Many Westerners commonly, if unconsciously, believe that the paradigms enveloped by the term modernity – progressivism, universal suffrage, feminism, etc. – were essentially birthed in the West, only to leak out and infiltrate other societies in recent eras.

While my education and experiences abroad have certainly taught me better, I could have at least in part counted myself among the masses who subconsciously subscribe to that belief – until yesterday.

Yesterday afternoon I sat down with a professor of feminist literature who lives here in Madison, and by chance dove into a brief discussion about feminist thought in the Middle East. As we talked, she drew upon personal experiences with Middle Eastern women and on books from Middle Eastern authors to make a point about how the West never held the market on progressivism.

One of the authors she mentioned that intrigued me most is Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian woman who wrote and illustrated a graphic memoir titled Persepolis. Satrapi was raised in a progressive household in Tehran, but was sent by her parents to Vienna at age 14 to escape an oppressive regime – she lived a migratory life, hopping between Iran and Europe a couple times before settling in Paris.

Though I’ve yet to read the books, what I gather from this professor’s commentary on them is that despite Satrapi’s exposure to the West, the roots of her progressivism stemmed from her homeland. I could perhaps relate this to a feminist novel I have read written by Egyptian author Nadal al Saadawi, who’s disdain for patriarchal society was homegrown.

My interaction with this professor encouraged me to think a bit more deeply about the dangers of viewing the world as split geographically into backwards and forwards. In this time of fear and war, the images most Americans see of Middle Eastern society are those representing backwards tradition – radical Islamic clerics, women wearing face veils, and bombed-out dust bowl cities. If we are ever confronted with opposing representations, perhaps of Middle Eastern academics or educated people fighting for equality, media often frame them as being “Westernized.”

And there is another danger in this view – making similar assumptions, many fundamentalists in the East have written off and dismissed progressive ideologies as simply being an invasion of Western thought, rather than being homegrown movements. The truth is that Eastern societies have a rich cultural history of academic thought, and wherever there is a pursuit for knowledge, dissidence for the status quo will surely sprout.

The fight for equality and wisdom is first and foremost a human endeavor, and no one region or society holds the keys. Movements for freedom often take on different features and cultural traits, as evident in Turkey’s current struggle for balance between secularism and Islamic faith, but the heart is essentially the same.

When Westerners view other nations or societies as typically backwards, needing to be fixed by Western value systems, we are unwittingly reverting to the archaic perspective of “the white man’s burden.” This is an odious reality we need desperately to face, because in truth, we do not have the corner on modernity – everyone has legs to stand.


Violence & Islam: Exploring the Roots

It is a question that has been heavily pondered in silence – by myself, and I imagine by countless others: Why have so many violent, hateful people proclaimed their murderous acts to be in the name of Islam?

Today, Newsweek‘s Michael Hirsh asks it out loud, and explores what he calls Islam’s ‘Death Cult,’ the destructive aberration of a tradition that has been used to justify the countless atrocities of recent days:

Yes, we understand that many Muslims are angry—about the Iraq War, about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and the usual list of grievances. But there are many people, in many different societies and cultures, who are angry about many things. Would any other culture or religion produce a group of doctors and professionals who apparently deemed it morally correct to kill innocent people in large numbers? Has something gone wrong with Islam itself, or at least the culture it has produced? To merely pose that question, of course, is to play with political dynamite. But it must be asked. []

Hirsh addresses this question thoughtfully through careful historical analysis, and examines the political roots of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative branch of Islam that appears to be at the core of much extremist activity. Counter to what has likely become the dominant perception held by the West, Hirsh discovers that the history of Islamic radicalism is relatively short, and that the religion’s past is not any more violent than that of Christianity.

Recent events, however, highlight the perverse direction that extremist off-shoots have taken:

In one widely cited recent case, insurgents allegedly tried to trick a 6-year-old boy into blowing himself up at an Afghan police checkpoint, fitting him with a suicide vest they told him would eject flowers at the push of a button. Police managed to free the child. [LA Times]

Indeed, something must be terrible awry when “26 percent of younger Muslims (in the U.S.) say suicide bombing can be justified under some circumstances,” a statistic cited by Hirsh from a recent Pew study. This coming from members of a supposedly peaceable religion?

Hirsh concludes that Islam is facing a dangerous reality – a cancer of violence within itself that is, however small, absolutely lethal. He adds that only those within Islam are in a place to sever the violent limbs that have sprouted from the faith – while I mostly agree, I feel that it as least partly up to those on the outside to see things for what they really are.

I don’t consider hateful Christians as true followers of Christ’s teachings, nor hateful Buddhists as true followers of the Dharma. While it is undeniable that some deviant modern aspect of Islam has bred a culture of violence, we must not make the mistake of assuming a connection between the the true heart of that faith and the destruction wrought by those blinded by hate .

Shari’ah: Divine Law or Gender Oppression?

A harsh campaign to step-up enforcement of Iran’s strict dress code is creating another example of the potential for Islamic law (or Shari’ah) to stifle personal freedoms.

Today, the BBC reports on the situation in Iran:

Police say they stopped more than 1,300 women for dressing immodestly on the first day of the campaign in Tehran.

More than 100 women were arrested on Saturday; half of them had to sign statements promising to improve their clothing, the other half are being referred to court.

The focus of the new campaign is to stop women wearing tight overcoats that reveal the shape of their bodies or showing too much hair from beneath their headscarves.

However, young men have also been arrested for sporting wild hair styles or T-shirts considered immodest. […]

[Read the rest on BBC]

While I’ll concede that my Western rearing may have imbued in me values decidedly different from those held in Iran and the rest of the Middle East, what is undeniable here is that the Iranian government is wasting vast amounts of resources enforcing a superficial morality, and punishing those who obviously do not internally adhere to the doctrine – this seems inherently backwards.

But while being arrested for improper dress may be ludicrous, it is perhaps the most benign abuse of human rights to date supposedly mandated by the Shari’ah.

In a high-profile case in 2002, a woman raped in Pakistan was originally convicted of adultery and sentenced to be stoned to death. By her own account and medical evidence, Zafran Bibi had been raped – but according to Pakistan’s archaic laws blended with the Shari’ah, the asbsence of four male witnesses to the rape was enough evidence for an adultery conviction. Thankfully, the verdict was overturned – but I would argue that this was largely due to the international community’s attention to the case, not to a sudden government moral epiphany.

Human rights Watch has also written about gender oppression in North Africa and the Middle East being legitimized by the Shari’ah – state and religious laws in these countries allow women no agency, even over their own bodies. In some countries, domestic abuse cases are non-existent simply because there are no laws against rape or beating within wedlock; women’s interactions with the state (in simple actions such as voting) are only allowed through male members of the family.

While this post can certainly do little justice to this complex topic, I wanted to express my feeling that dialogue over Islam-legitimized gender oppression is getting stifled under the guise of religious tolerance – and I would argue that it is this mechanism, this “dare you defy the word of God?” attitude, that has allowed this gender oppression to be perpetuated.

We ought to examine and challenge moral codes critically, despite whatever claims to legitimacy, in order to create humane societies.

Please feel free to comment – I’d be interested in hearing others’ opinions.

(Recommended reading: Nawal El Saadawi – Woman at Point Zero)

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