Shirin Ebadi, the OIC and human rights

Shirin Ebadi, the OIC and human rights
by Dr. Mazeni Alwi

Having chosen to host the OIC meeting this year, we pulled all stops and embarked on a publicity blitz long before the event to impress upon the cynical muslims of the world that this time it was going to be different. But it all ended up as usual, like the NAM meeting previously, with accolades of Malaysia being a very hospitable host, generously treating delegates with pomp and extravaganza, as if to make up for the deficiency in substance and intellectual content. Like it or not, The world is already too familiar with the notion that the OIC is at best a weak, ineffectual and poorly regarded club of muslim leaders whose yearly jamboree is nothing more than diplomatic tourism and mutual congralutory back-slapping, or worse, a gathering of leaders, often unelected or whose representation of the popular will less than legitimate, of nations distinguished by various shades of bad-governance and corruption, economic mismanagement, political repression, poverty and backwardness, such that it would be easy for others to heap all that on a single factor: the religion of the muslims.

There is some basis that the OIC meeting in Malaysia promised to be different. It is after all the model of Islamic moderation, the most successful muslim nation that has leapfrogged into the twenty-first century while remaining faithful to its Islamic and Asian values and tradition. In these turbulent and challenging times, we are supposed to lead the muslim world to become respected players on the global stage, to stand up to the imperialistic designs of the world’s hyperpower, and to speak up for our oppressed brethren in Palestine.

We may have worked out everything to the finest details months ahead but events beyond our control and our own silliness have their own way of conspiring against our best laid plans. It was as if fate was planning its sweetest revenge on us. One could sense that the Kuala Lumpur OIC meeting was not going to be a ground breaking one that would take to organization to new heights, as we hoped it would, but instead stumbled from one disaster to another. For a start, it did not help that Kofi Annan failed to show up without giving a good reason. That must have struck a cruel blow to our collective self-esteem. Was that supposed to be a measure how much contempt the world harbours toward leaders of muslim nations? There was not much we could do about Kofi Annan not showing up, but can’t our judges wait to convict Irene Fernandez? The trial has been going on for years anyway, what harm does it do to come out with a verdict after the OIC bash? The whole world now knows that the most moderate and enlightened muslim nation convicted a rights activist who blowed the whistle on the brutal (with fatalities) and humiliating abuse of muslim illegal immigrants awaiting deportation in detention camps. How dare they lecture us on all this nonsense about human rights for illegal immigrants. And if that was not bad enough, our highly efficient police force gave us unwanted publicity at the worst possible time. For a number of years now the public and civil society NGOs have raised their concern over the inordinate number of deaths of suspected criminals in shootouts with the police our in lock-ups. But this time, it was a form six student whose disbelieving family was told that he was armed and dangerous, with 20 criminal records.

Whenever muslim leaders meet, they would not miss on the opportunity for grand-standing to the world’s muslims by championing the cause of Palestine which means also condemning Israel, zionism and jews, only that we are often confused about the distinctions between them. We thought the only way to appease the already too cynical muslims is to condemn the jews ever more strongly. But little do we realize that Jewish Conspiracy card has been played too many times, that they would immediately recognize its frayed edges and worn out appearance. The denunciations came fast and furious from all over, even from our friend Chirac. Damn. It was meant to be our finest hour and everything had to go wrong!

Depending on how one looks at it, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a muslim woman, an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist, may be seen as recognition of efforts towards genuine reforms for democratization in the muslim world. Strangely, despite the flood of congratulatory messages from international human rights organizations and world leaders, the muslim world especially their governments have been rather mute. To the conservative fundamentalists who see a conspiracy lurking in every shadow, this is the west’s machination to destroy muslim societies and dominate them. Like the hard-line clerical factions in control of major institutions of government in Iran, they viewed the award to Shirin Ebadi as western intervention in Iranian politics, using human rights issues in Iran as a political tool in the pursuit of its own agenda. That the conservative fundamentalists remained in muted embarrassment is hardly surprising given their deep suspicion of every outside influence, especially the west, but that the champions of moderate and enlightened Islam were also silent seemed awkward, especially when we were in the midst of showcasing our enlightened Islam to world. Perhaps we were too conscious that Shirin Ebadi gave the lie to our claims to moderation and enlightenment. Yes, if she were Malaysian, she would have ended up with a fate not unlike Irene Fernandez’s. Beneath that veneer of Islamic moderateion, we have a catalogue of executive abuses, corporate corruption, inhumane laws, judicial improprieties etc.

Simplistic this might be, the Islamic world seems to be perpetually torn between the religious fundamentalism that wants to bring the muslim people under a theocratic authoritarianism hostile to everything that the west represents, and on the other hand “secular” nationalist forces with a warped understanding of secularism, anxious to import and copy the west’s material glitter but unwilling to submit to the more positive values that had helped shape western civilization, such that the muslim world today has become characterized by “first world infrastructure with third world mentality”, repressive, corrupt and intolerant of criticism.

Could the recognition accorded to Ebadi by the Nobel Committee symbolize a new force in muslim society, one that is genuinely concerned with democratic reforms free of the ideological baggage of secular nationalism or conservative fundamentalism whose popularity owed much to the failed experiments with modernization of the former? The abuse of human rights in muslim countries is a very valid issue. As long as we don’t seriously address them, western governments will continue to close their eyes to these abuses one day and use them against us for their own leverage the next, whenever it suits them.

It is time that human rights issues are seen as what they really are. We as muslim nations have the dubious distinction of having among the worst human rights records, integral to the package of bad-governance, corruption and intolerance of dissent. The time has come for us to stop accusing the west of trying to impose their ideas of human rights and democracy on us on the grounds that those “western” values are alien to our culture and religion. The notion that our Islamic or asian values are more suited if not superior for our own people may have sounded sweetly persuasive and self-reassuring at first, but many of us now are beginning to wise up to the deceit that they are mere pretext for the elite to maintain a ruthless control over the people and exclude them from participating in the political and nation-building process.

The announcement that the Nobel Peace Prize winner for 2003 is a muslim human rights activist who is also a woman must have caused many embarrassed faces among leaders of muslim nations. Not only did it remind the world of the sorry state of human rights in muslim nations, but it also undermined all pretensions that we have about ensuring human rights in the way that suits us best, the muslim way, or the OIC way. To show that the west are not the only ones concerned about human rights, the OIC approved the Islamic Human Rights Declaration at its foreign ministers meeting in Cairo in 1981, something that is perhaps little known to the muslim bureaucrats themselves who were busily checking on the last details of the Kuala Lumpur meeting before the arrival of “the big guns”. Ironically the Islamic Human Rights Declaration was Iran’s initiative, which was quite understandable as it was then receiving criticisms from the international community for its summary justice against opponents of the Islamic Revolution. 20 years on, nobody talks anymore of the re-invented Human Rights wheel as muslim governments are the among the worst abusers of the basic rights of their own people.

Today, free of the ideological constraints of the Cold War, the world is more rational in discussing human rights issues and into accepting one common standard. After all, the 1948 Universal Declaration, even if the majority of muslim and 3rd world nations were not yet inexistence when this was framed, when viewed objectively, the basic principles of the Declaration are truly universal, acceptable to the moral teachings of all the great religions and secular humanism. Furthermore human rights discourse has evolved very significantly especially after the Cold War and to say that it is the preserve of western governments is inaccurate. That western governments are hypocritical and selective in their judgement of human rights practices in third world and muslim nations is no basis for re-inventing the wheel, for there’s no reason why they too should not be judged by the same standard.

Finally, at the level of individuals, many among the educated middle class are still not comfortable, may even harbour a strong distrust towards the idea of a universal standard for human rights, swayed no doubt by the argument that it is an alien western concept with too much emphasis of individual rights. Most are probably unaware of the existence of the Islamic Declaration, which on the core issues do not differ with the Universal Declaration in spirit. Conferring the Nobel Peace Prize to a muslim woman is viewed as a devious and deliberate attempt at secularizing an insular traditional muslim society. Here too, we should set aside our religious – ideological baggage and view things objectively-human rights as human rights. The Norwegian Award Committee said it chose her because of her focus on promoting human rights and democracy in her country. Shirin Ebadi is not the typical muslim feminist whose idea of liberation for muslim women is transplanting western social norms into muslim societies. In an interview with the German daily, Tageszeitung, she pointed out that muslim women who wear religious headscarves do not see it as a sign of submission and often feel stronger than men, dismissing the muslim feminists’ popular contention that the muslim woman’s hijab is a symbol of religious oppression. Although media reports tended to place emphasis on her struggle for the rights of women in Iran, to stress the feminist aspect of the award does not do justice to the breadth of her work as a lawyer. Other than her focus on promoting the rights of women, she helped found the Society for Protecting the Child’s Rights in Iran and she was also actively involved in the struggle for refugee rights. But her best known engagement which led to her subsequent brief imprisonment was working as the lawyer representing the families of writers and intellectuals who were victims of the 1998 – 1999 “serial murders”, where officials of the government of conservative clerics were implicated. However, being an opponent of the repressive policies of the hard-line religious government does not mean that she would welcome western, especially US intervention for regime change in Iran.

It is refreshing to hear a voice like Ebadi’s that strives for justice and democracy, but still working within the tradition of Islam. The Norwegian Nobel committee citation states that “with Islam as her starting point, Ebadi campaigns for peaceful solution to social problems, and promotes new thinking on Islamic terms. She has displayed great personal courage as a lawyer defending individuals and groups who have fallen victim to a powerful political and legal system that is legitimized through an inhumane interpretation of Islam. Ebadi has shown her willingness and ability to cooperate with representatives of secular as well as religious view”.

She is certainly not the first Iranian to advocate such reforms. Intellectuals like Abdul Karim Shoroush and reformist President Khatami have long echoed similar views, at times at some personal cost. In the 70’s Ali Shariati’s impassioned speeches awakened the consciousness of Iranian youths for an Islam that places great emphasis on social justice and democratic principles, throwing their weight behind the revolution, only to be hijacked later by the conservative clerics. The experience of post-revolution Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban are lessons enough that the sway of conservative fundamentalism will unlikely hold on for very long in muslim societies.

Dr. Mazeni Alwi

The Muslim Headscarf : A Tale of 2 Secularisms

The Muslim Headscarf : A Tale of 2 Secularisms
by Dr. Mazeni Alwi

In Charles Dickens’ novel, “A tale of two cities”, set around the time of the French revolution, the principal English character, the tragic hero Sidney Carton is portrayed as a sensitive, warm and caring to his fellow men in trouble, even to the point of self-sacrifice, whereas the principal French character, Madame Defarge, a working class woman whose family suffered much at the hands of pre-revolutionary aristocrats, is an uncompromising character whose vengefulness in the end undermined her quest for justice.  In some strange way the portrayals of the novel’s characters somehow personified the political temperament of the English and the French in the encounter between religion and liberalism from the Enlightenment to the modern democratic age.  With the late 20th century phenomenon of waves economic migrants from their former colonies settling in the west, we again witness the contrast in this political temperament when muslims begin to take Islamic teachings more seriously, the most visible aspect of which is muslim women’s dress code.  While France saw this as an affront to its state doctrine of laïcité (French for secularism) and a threat to its conception of the Republic, Britain accommodated to this multicultural reality by trying to integrate her muslim citizens, such that in areas where muslim presence is significant, religious instructions are given in state schools and the head-scarf for girls hardly became such a vexed issue.  After years of struggle, Islamic private schools are given the status of voluntary-aided school and receive state funding in the manner of established Christian and jewish schools.  In some respects, modern Britain serves as a fair example of multiculturalism, religious tolerance and successful integration of second generation immigrants from her former colonies.  In the 2 ½ years that I worked and trained in paediatric cardiology (the branch of medicine that concerns itself with the treatment of children with heart disease), during which time the head-scarf issue exploded in France than a decade ago, we had 2 British muslim doctors of Pakistani origin rotating through our department as part of their post graduate training in paediatrics.  In the universities and the professions, the presence of second generation muslim immigrants today is very much visible.  This is not to say that racism no longer exists in Britain, or prejudice and ignorance towards Islam and muslims are things of the past.  Unemployment and marginalization from mainstream society still affect muslims more than other immigrant communities, but this cannot entirely be blamed on the host society.  It has to be said that positive institutional measures for multiculturalism have in some way led to better integration and social mobility of muslims compared to the situation other western countries.

The liberal atmosphere has also allowed a vibrant discourse on Islam to thrive.  On the one hand writers like Salman Rushdie, Tariq Ali and Hanif Qureishi may have little respect for Islam and its traditions, but others like Ziauddin Sardar, Shabbir Akhtar, Parvez Manzoor and converts like Yusuf Islam and Abdal Hakim Murad actively articulate a refreshing exposition of Islam for the modern readers over a wide range of topics from politics to theology and spirituality.  At the same time, it has to be admitted that freedom of expression has been abused by radical Islamic fringes to freely propagate their ideas and recruit members.  The aftermath of September 11 has sobered up the mainstream muslims to recognize this problem within their midst.

In contrast, muslims in France are in a more difficult predicament.  For a start, an intellectual leadership of the community is lacking.  One does not see a vigorous intellectual defense of Islam or writings on the Islamic tradition for the modern French readers, with Tariq Ramadan who is based in Geneva among the exception.   The kind of social mobility among second generation muslim immigrants that one sees in Britain is almost unheard of, and almost always at the cost of having to dissociate from their parents’ culture and religious traditions.  Multiculturalism is not something that is consciously promoted or celebrated, such that one does not get to see programs like “mind your language” or “thin blue line” on French TV.  Marginalization and exclusion is the sad plight of many young French muslims who live on the fringe of mainstream French society in the grands banlieus (suburbs) of greater Paris, hidden from the multitude of visitors who throng the museums, monuments, cafés and gardens of metropolitan Paris.  This is set to become worse if the government-appointed Commission on Secularism’s recommendation that all conspicuous religious symbols (which means really the muslim headscarf) be banned from state schools becomes law.

Secularism, commonly defined as “separation of church and state” can be discussed and defined at a number of levels – theological, etymological, as political philosophy etc.   In standard Islamist political discourse, secularism is seen as anti-religion because it removes Islam from any role in the public and political sphere.  The forced westernization of Turkey and deliberate suppression of her Islamic heritage through the various state institutions served as the only vivid and lasting example of secularism in the muslim imagination.  Turkey’s secularism is modeled on France’s concept/doctrine of laïcité.   But in our present day context of living in a modern society, secularism is basically about reconciliation or compromise on the role and influence of religious tradition and values in the public/civic sphere – in legal matters, education, governance, social institutions etc.  Secularism seen in this context blunts religious fanaticism or will-to-dominate while allowing freedom of conscience and promotes tolerance of cultural and religious pluralism, all within the frame work of democracy, respect for individual liberties and the primacy reason as the driving force of human civilization and scientific progress.   It is the equilibrium or entente in the tension between religious tradition and values on the one hand and the humanist liberal tradition whose intellectual well-spring was the 18th century Enlightenment (Even so, religious thinkers would argue that liberalism’s ideas of human dignity, brotherhood of man, respect for individual rights properly belong to religion, which in the western context is Christianity).  Good or bad, secularism in the west also means people becoming less religious as society progresses and the equilibrium seems to be always shifting towards that of less and less religion.  As society modernizes it tends to loosen itself from religious strictures and traditions, and religion becomes increasingly relegated to the private sphere.  But even in highly secular western europe, there are still many people, especially among those in Catholic organizations who argue that religion should have an important influence in the public sphere and civic institutions.  This is evident in the debate on wether the christian heritage of europe  should be mentioned in the draft of European Union’s constitution.   Pope John Paul II in his speech to the European Parliament in 1988 urged the deputies not to banish christianity from public debate, “The vocation of christianity is to be present in all domains of existence… .  If one day we were to question the christian foundation  of their continent, if we suppress all reference to ethics, then we might as well reject our European Heritage” (Sous la pression des Églises by Christian Terras, le Monde Diplomatique, January 2004).

If what gives the west its present shape today is this equilibrium that took form as a result of conflict, realignment and compromise between religion and liberal humanism, this process was by no means uniform among european societies.  The particular historical experience of each society shaped the nature of secularism, and no where is this contrast more pronounced as that between France and Britain.  The conflict between the church and the liberals in France that led to the separation of church and state had no parallel in England.  A columnist in the Guardian wrote, “From John Locke onwards, Britain wanted its religion reasonable.  The approach of British Liberalism has been to liberalize religion over the past 200 years, and what we have today is that very English type of faith: tolerant, accommodating Anglicanism” (“Secularism gone mad” by Madeleine Bunting, the Guardian December 18, 2003).    English secularism has always been leavened by this accommodation as the English monarch as Head of State is also the Head of the Church of England.  In modern multicultural Britain where the muslim presence has become visible, this is taken one step further.  The heir to the English throne the HRH Prince Charles, known for his very accommodating view on Islam, sometimes raises the ire of those who see the hallowed traditions of englishness being threatened by multiculturalism.

France, on the other hand has had a long history of bruising confrontation between the Church and proponents of liberalism, the outcome of which wrote its way into its conception and ideals of the Republic, where “laïcité” (secularism) became enshrined as state doctrine.  France’s secularism has its roots in the struggle against the power and influence of the Catholic church which had traditionally been aligned to the monarchy.  The 18th century Enlightenment philosophers led ideological attacks on two sorts of absolutism, Royal and Theological.  The movement’s clamour for “freedom of thought” and “reference to reason” sought to achieve political and spiritual liberation and this formed the basis of western liberal tradition and scientific progress.  While in the liberal atmosphere of Georgian Britain religious toleration and freedom of publication generally flourished, the harsher realities of repression and persecution gave the writings of the French Enlightenment a tone that is more bitter and less compromising.  The French Revolution brought about a head-on clash between the Church and the new state, the French Republic.  Church assets were confiscated and priests made to swear allegiance to the Republic.  The fortunes of the Church waxed and waned during the successive phases of the French state, reaching its peak again during the imperial reign of Napoleon III.   As the 19th century drew to a close, France was rocked by a major scandal that bitterly divided French society, the “Dreyfus affair”, where a Jewish officer in the French army was accused of treason for spying for the Germans.   The republicans and the majority of French intellectuals, notable among whom was the writer Emile Zola defended Dreyfus, claiming a racially motivated conspiracy.  On the other side were the nationalists, the Military and the Church.  When Dreyfus was finally cleared, the French nation was deeply divided and traumatized, and amid renewed anti clerical militancy, the third Republic decreed the law on separation of Church and State in 1905.  This has been the basis of the French state since, where there is  supposed to be strict official neutrality in religious affairs.  Whereas in Britain secularism means accommodation of religion and freedom conscience in an atmosphere of liberalism, in France, secularism became a sacralized state doctrine through the principle of laïcité.

With weakening of religious traditions and traditional ways of living, laïque humanism derived from the French liberal tradition, purportedly free of religious moorings, can lay claim as forming the basis of ethics, moral code and law.  Anything that has its basis in religion is viewed with suspicion and disdain, and religion connotes repressive dogmas that corrupt the mind.   “Laïcité aims to develop in human nature, within the framework of a permanent intellectual, moral and civic formation, a critical mind along with a feeling of solidarity and brotherhood… .  It tends to institute, beyond ideological, community or national differences, a human society favourable to everyone’s enlightenment, a society from which all exploitation or conditioning of man by man, all fanatical spirit, hate and violence will be excluded” (from the “White Book of Laïcité” – source: the internet, author unknown).  In the document, laïcité also makes the assumption that identification with cultural, religious and linguistic differences must necessarily lead to violent conflicts.

In the particular historical context of conflict between the catholic church and anti-clerical proponents of the French Republic, laïcité as state doctrine, in theory held great promise as a vehicle of achieving social cohesiveness and a sense of shared destiny for the French nation.  But in the face of late 20th century phenomenon of immigration from her former colonies, laïcité has not quite lived up to its promise of a secular utopia.  Those familiar with modern French society understands the phenomenon of exclusion, marginalization, and high rate of unemployment and criminality among the second generation immigrant Arabs and blacks, and conversely, the elitism of the French upper class.

Having said that, modern civilization owes a great deal to France’s liberal, humanist tradition, whose challenge against the excesses of the powerful church was in many ways justified, and the anti-religious strain of French secularism that emerged triumphantly from this conflict and the concept of the làique Republic is seen as perculiarly her own.   With weakening of religious tradition, laïcité has not been a problem either as the French nation had remained essentially european in character, even as France had to absorb many refugees and immigrants from her neighbours who shared the same christian heritage in the interwar years.

But cracks began to appear when France, over a short period at the close of the 20th century has a sizeable non european minority with a religion that has had a long history of conflict with christianity, i.e. immigrant Arabs from her former colonies in North Africa.  The encounter between laïcité and a less than welcome, sometimes troublesome minority with their peculiar religious expressions and practices was bound to be problematic.  Muslims in France are constantly reminded to adapt themselves to the concept of laïcité, without which their loyalty as citizens of the Republic remains suspect.  However the first obstacle for muslims to adapt themselves to this doctrine is the impreciseness of this concept and the absence of unanimity in definition.    Alain Boyer, official in charge of religious affairs in the Interior Ministry during the socialist government 1980 – 1990 admitted that laïcité has a wide range of interpretations.  He gave three explicit understandings of the term, “firstly, laïcité as the will to limit the role of religion and to outline the role of the individual according to an institutional framework consisting of on one side, the law (proposed by Jules Ferry) of 1881, 1884, and on the other, the separation of Church and state.   Secondly, laïcité has also become synonymous with anti-clericalism, even irreligiousity.  It has become a new faith, with its own militants and its own temple.  Thirdly, laïcité is also a philosophy, a value that is transmitted, particularly in moral education and civic instruction in state schools that has replaced religious instruction” (Quoted in Marianne et le prophète – l’Islam dans la France laïque by Soheib Bencheikh, 1998, Grasset, Paris.  “Marianne” is symbol of the French Republic.  The author is mufti of Marseilles).

Although laïcité in theory means positive neutrality of the state in matters of religion, with people generally becoming less religious, this has come to be associated with disdain for anything that smells of religion, and the term laïque becomes interchangeable with not having any religious belief.  With instructions in the christian religion excluded from state schools, the anti-clerical and anti-religious elements have appropriated laïcité and turned it into the new religion of the sophisticated, modern man.  According to a researcher on muslims in France, “laïcité has been corrupted into militant, dogmatic philosophy dominated by positivism” (Jocelyne Cesari, from Marianne et le prophète).   It is thus when some muslim girls insist on wearing the head scarf to school, this is seen as a threat to French secularity by Islamic religious militants, to be countered with the vehemence of ages past, never mind that these girls come from a powerless, marginalized and economically weak minority.  Little consideration is given to the fact many muslims view the wearing the head scarf as a religious injunction, a right to which they are entitled to within the frame work of democracy in most societies, rather than an ostentatious religious symbol.

If ignorance and the monopoly of laïcité by anti-clerical republicans is one obstacle that muslims in France face in trying to adapt to the French concept of laïcité, an even bigger hurdle is prejudice towards Islam and muslims.  On the vexed question of the Islamic head scarf in state schools, it makes many wonder if the doctrine of laïcité has been used by Islamophobes and racist elements of French society as a cover for their prejudice towards Islam.  This prejudice has historically deeper roots in the european psyche than secularism and the liberal philosophy, stretching back to medieval times when Islam’s rapid expansion threatened european Christendom.  Spain was conquered and ruled by muslims for 800 years and muslim forces advanced north as far as Tours in France.  The Age of Reason ushered in by the Enlightenment has not been able to deal adequately with this deeply embedded prejudice, such that even a towering figure like Voltaire vacillated between treating Muhammad as a profound political thinker and founder of a rational religion, and an impostor who enslaved souls by resorting to religious fables.  Is it against such a backdrop of prejudice that the muslim head-scarf has become such a thorny issue?  President Jacques Chirac commented that there was something “aggressive” about the wearing of a head-scarf.  The proponents the ban say that it threatens the social peace and national cohesion of the French Republic.  And so the standard arguments followed, that it is a symbol of oppression of women by a patriarchal religion, that it is an instrument of propaganda for an intolerant version of Islam, and women who wear them are necessarily radical extremists who support terrorism.

Such prejudicial attitudes belie the hypocrisy of dogmatic, “fundamentalist” secularists when it comes to Islam and muslims.  Laïcité may have its roots in secular humanism and the primacy reason, but it refuses to be reasonable nor rational in its dealing with muslims, paralysed by the millennium-old conflict between medieval Christendom and Islam.  It ignores the voices of muslim women who wear the head scarf out of choice and claim to feel liberated by it.  Liberalism assumes that in this post-modern, post-feminist age, everyone shares its concept of liberty.  The Taliban government enforced the Burqa on Afghan women, but the issue of the head scarf must be viewed as separate from the serious and dangerous issue of religious fanaticism and terrorism among muslims.  Many in europe, muslims and non muslims, have expressed the concern that the head scarf ban risks further exclusion of muslims, and out of desperation, some muslim youths may be lured to find meaning in religious extremism and terrorism (the story of French moroccan Zacarias Moussaoui, “the twentieth hijacker”, in the simple book “Zacarias, my brother – the making of a terrorist” by Abd Samad Moussaoui and Florence Bouquillat, 2003, Seven Stories Press, New York, provides a useful insight into this disturbing phenomenon).  At a time when muslims in the west are finding themselves on the ropes in the aftermath of September 11, muslim leaders and intellectuals should actively participate to re-centre the debate on secularism/laïcité away from the monopoly of those who view religion with disdain and contempt.  Ethnic and religious pluralism is the modern reality.  The idea of racial and cultural purity of nation-states hardly apply to many societies today and secularism/laïcité sacralized as state doctrine formulated in a different historical context needs to be adapted to this modern reality.

It is interesting that a federation of Christian associations, “Reseau du Parvis” recently created l’Observatoire Chretien de la Laïcité (a think tank devoted to promoting a more modern form of laïcité relevant to the pluralism of europe today), and published its manifesto in the January issue of Le Monde Diplomatique.  In its initiative to bring a fresh debate into secularism, it takes as its starting point Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights : Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observation.   Muslims, forming as much a part of today’s plural world as christians, have as much a stake in this debate.  Instead of making a blanket condemnation of secularism as an anti-religious ideology, we should make it work as a principle of accommodation and peaceful co-existence within the framework of Democracy and respect for Human Rights, as a compromise between the opposing poles of religious exclusivism/domination and a self-absorbed liberalism born of hubris against the gods.

Dr. Mazeni Alwi

HIV/AIDS – No Room for Zealotry(s)

HIV/AIDS – No Room for Zealotry(s)
by Dr. Mazeni Alwi

Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” reminds us that even first-hand accounts can be unreliable.  People tend to embellish their versions of an event and hide inconvenient facts to make themselves look good and to persuade listeners onto their side as to who the heroes and villains are.  In that 1951 classic film, a simple woodcutter returning from a trial for rape and murder in feudal Japan to which he was witness took shelter from the pouring rain under the ruins of the Rashomon gate.  He despondently recounted to the other travellers how the people involved were less than honest in their testimonies- the thief accused of the crime, the raped woman and the spirit of the murdered husband who spoke through a temple medium.  But in the end, even the simple woodcutter whom the audience initially felt to be a truthful witness left important holes in his recounting of the event.

The second International Muslim Leaders’ Consultation on HIV/AIDS (IMLC II) conference on HIV/AIDS ended more than 2 weeks ago but the controversial paper by Dr. Amina Wadud and the verbal fracas that it provoked still animated the English press (“Clouded by obscurantism” by Rose Ismail and Aniza Damis, NST 25 May, and “Drawing Muslim leaders into fight against AIDS” by Aniza Damis, NST June 1 and “Urgent request for more charity among muslims” by Askiah Adam, the Star 25 May).

Divergence of positions between the “progressive” muslims and those of mainstream traditional persuasion is often thrown into sharp relief on issues that touch on gender and sexuality.  The debate not infrequently becomes emotive and the atmosphere highly charged, that the objective of the conference becomes lost in the confrontation.  In the various feature analyses that appeared in the English press, those who sought to broaden the fight against the AIDS/HIV pandemic beyond condoms-campaign to include religious moral values have been vilified as “obscurantists”, “opposers”, “resisters”, “retrogressives” etc by those who appropriated for themselves the term “progressive” and “liberal” muslims.  The “progressive” muslims quickly claimed the moral high horse by demonizing their opponents as consistently failing to show understanding and humanity towards AIDS sufferers and instead condemn and pass moral judgements on them.  They are obdurate and belligerent in their medieval views of women and sexuality.  In truth, there is a lot that muslim religious leaders in Malaysia need to learn about the nature of the AIDS pandemic, and how to treat AIDS sufferers with kindness and humanity, and be non judgemental of what people do in their private lives.  This failing on their part has been repetitiously highlighted and rather unfairly amplified in the various newspaper features. But then, this was perhaps the first time that they had such an exposure in the examining of complex social problems beyond the simple black and white of religious moral sanctions.  If the objective was to bring the mainstream ulama into a consultation to fight HIV/AIDS, then they should perhaps be treated with more respect and understanding.

The progressive muslims appeared to have gained a lot of sympathy from the English reading public as victims of the retrogressives’ moralizing and obscurantist attitude to sexuality and gender.  But does the press tell the whole truth?  Well, like the characters in “Rashomon”, every body tells the story the way they want people to hear it, and we all understand how the media works in this country.  While the Malay press may sometimes be overly critical of progressives like Sisters in Islam (SIS), in the English media it is the other way around.  They are the media darlings and their opponents are cast in the worst possible light, with no recourse for rebuttal or defense.

As expected, the President of Islamic Medical Association (IMA) Malaysia’s reply to Rose Ismail’s “Clouded by Obscurantism” which mercilessly demonized the mainstream “retrogressive” was never published, even though some of the specifically religious references could have been modified to suit a mixed, general readership.  Although I was not physically present at the conference, I kept in touch very closely with what went on as these events were recounted by colleagues blow by blow and updated daily on a net discussion group, and I have had the privilege going through all the papers that were presented (including the Dr. Wadud’s) and the newspaper clippings.

Given the media’s unbalanced accommodation towards the progressive muslims in their demonization of their nemesis, I think another perspective on the controversial event that took place during the conference is in order. Firstly, the public may have been led into thinking that all those who protested against Dr. Wadud’s paper are the typically conservative, patriarchal and chauvinistic ustaz and ulama who will not tolerate open discussions on gender and sexuality, who think of AIDS as God’s punishment on sexual permissiveness, and people who lack compassion and understanding towards AIDS sufferers.  Yes, certainly there were such people in attendance, and the culture shock was probably too much to handle for first-timers.  But is everybody who disagrees with the progressives necessarily an obscurantist zealot?  What has been largely hidden from the public by the progressives is that the most effective challenge to their agenda was mounted by articulate, muslim medical professionals.  They led a walkout when requests to debate the controversial paper was turned down, and they quickly organized press conferences and issued media statements, as anyone who wished to be heard but were unfairly silenced would have done. NST’s Rose Ismail commented that the dissenters were highly organized and able to come up with typed statements in a short time.  That is hardly surprising as the protest was, among others, led by Dr. Musa Mohd Nordin, President of Islamic Medical Association (IMA) of Malaysia.  The highly respected British trained paediatrician and neonatologist is indeed a very articulate person who, at the same time has a deep understanding of Islam. Some of us might recall his appearance on TV2’s “Point of View” some time ago, brilliantly fielding questions from the live audience on cloning and reproductive technology.  He is also a formidable debater at Malaysian Paediatric Association annual congresses.  Dr. Musa’s secretary is a British trained specialist in respiratory medicine.  The other dissenter is Dr. Ali Misyal, President of the Federation of Islamic Medical Association, a very warm, deeply religious, soft spoken and fatherly man whom I have the privilege of friendship for more than a decade.  For many years he was endocrinologist and Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Illinois, Chicago.  He later went back to Jordan and founded the successful and highly regarded Islamic Hospital in Amman.  He has been to Malaysia several times at the invitation of IMA of Malaysia and the Ministry of Health to address various issues related to medical ethics and Islam.  The IMA Pakistan president is an eye surgeon well known for his medical charity work among the poor.  Then there were representatives of IMAs of United Kingdom, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Uganda and South Africa (well, AIDS is, for all its social and economic ramifications, a medical problem).  So there is hardly any parallel with the “Persatuan Ulama Malaysia (PUM) vs. Farish Noor” affair.  It is also not true that all the dissenters are chauvinistic obscurantists who completely lack compassion, understanding and humanity towards AIDS sufferers.  The IMA of Malaysia founded and runs “Rumah Solehah” in Cheras, a charitable half-way house that provides shelter, counseling, living skills and more importantly friendship and understanding to female AIDS sufferers in a society that is still deeply ignorant and prejudiced towards people like them.  Rumah Solehah today has expanded to embrace children with AIDS and has recently opened its business premises managed by the inmates themselves to sustain some measure of financial independence.

The conference’s advisory council and the various national IMAs have long recognized the pioneering effort of IMA of Uganda in AIDS education at community level though Imams working from their mosques.   The IMA Uganda in 1992 established the project “Family AIDS Education and Prevention through Imams”, which provided training to 850 imams and 6800 assistants, who then reached 100,000 families.

The progressives seemed to have deliberately potrayed the dissenters as uncaring religious moralists with a very distorted, narrow perception of the AIDS pandemic.  The muslim professionals well recognize that despite Islam’s moral strictures, in today’s modern multi-cultural society like Malaysia where sexual behaviour has become more liberal in contrast to homogeneous traditional muslim societies, AIDS transmission though extramarital sex or homosexuality and its spreads to family members is a real problem, and no one would argue that condoms and safe sex are effective measures in controlling the spread of the disease in high risk groups.

The dissenters’ protest over the Dr. Wadud’s paper had less to do about HIV-AIDS but that she had used the conference as platform to expound her revisionist feminist theology to denigrate mainstream muslim beliefs and ethics in a language that many consider vulgar outside the circles of university militant feminists.  The gist of Dr. Wadud’s paper “Vulnerabilities, HIV and AIDS” can be summed up as “that Islam and muslims exacerbate the spread of AIDS and that a traditional Islamic theological response can never cure AIDS” (page 3).  Well she is right about the last part because the Quran is never intended as a textbook of medicine or epidemiology, as she said “it will be impossible to refer to a specific Quranic verse or prophetic ahadith that can stand as the foundation of the technical skills, medical know how or research methods that could actually prove to bring about the solution” (page 14).  But she is irresponsibly wrong to say that “Islam and muslim exacerbates the spread of AIDS”.  This is the exact opposite to WHO statistics on the disease.  In the sub-Saharan nations, where as high as 1 in 5 people carry the virus, one can imagine the spectre of humanitarian catastrophe that is slowly unfolding, but muslim nations north of the Sahara on the same continent have among the lowest prevalence of HIV/AIDS.  Similarly, muslim minorities in the worst hit African nations have much lower rates of infection and experts have attributed this to the strict Islamic moral code as one of the major factors.  The vulnerability of 2 innocent subgroups, monogamous heterosexual women and their children become infected through their husbands and fathers was the whole edifice on which her attack on Islam and the Sharia was founded, drawing from western feminism on equating Islam with “the tyranny of patriarchal domination through heterosexuality, that for the most part, marriage in Shariah is marriage of the women’s domination” (page 6), and “the Quran itself as well as the Shariah is founded upon male sexual experience” (page 8).  In the context of AIDS, where a muslim wife is “… defined in terms of her benign unconditionally sexually available to her husband. Properly fulfilling this role of wife is fatal to some women…” (page 4).  While it is regrettable that in some traditional muslim societies oppression of women is a known phenomenon and that they may not be treated with dignity and respect, to attribute this directly to Islam’s holy book and prophetic traditions rather than to interpretational aberrations formed the crux of the delegates’ protest.  As part controversies have informed us, because of the way a religious text like the Quran is organized, it is easy to pick and choose certain verses while leaving out problematic ones and render them out of context to suit one’s ideas, wether it is liberation theology, neoliberal economic theory or in this case, feminist revisionism. At any rate, the Sharia with regards to family law is not such a closed entity.  Many jurists would argue that in a deadly transmissible disease like AIDS, women have the right to refuse conjugal relationships without safety precautions or even ask for divorce if they know that their husbands carry the HIV virus.  But things would not have snowballed into a protracted confrontation between the “progressives” and obscurantists” had the organizers allowed her paper to be debated, given its very controversial content.  But little did the progressives- dominated committee realize that they were facing a very articulate, literate and highly organized opponent. After much bargaining and arguments, the organizers relented to the dissenters’ request and an hour-long rebuttal forum was held the next day. Among others, Dr. Ali Mishal of Jordan gave a point by point rebuttal of Dr. Wadud’s paper while Ms. Nazlin Omar, a veteran AIDS campaigner from Kenya defended mainstream Islam from a feminine perspective against the feminist revisionism of Dr. Wadud.  According to colleagues, while the session’s atmosphere was not exactly congenial, it was not one where delegates stripped and skewered Dr. Wadud as some quarters claimed (this dispute can be settled by recourse to the session’s transcripts).

That brings us to the question as to the role that Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (JAKIM) played, being co-organizer of IMCL II with Malaysia AIDS Council.  Have their representatives been sleeping-walking through the committee meetings or completely sidelined in its planning stage, given that Dr. Wadud’s 1999 book, “Quran and Women: Rereading the sacred text from a woman’s perspective” was declared as Haram by JAKIM in 2001 and its circulation banned by the Home Affairs Ministry?  One could not help feeling suspicious that the JAKIM with its suit-wearing ustaz, given its resources and clout as a government religious body has been taken for a ride.

It is also odd that for such a conference, a significant number of its invited speakers are known for their controversial and provocative views, such as Riffat Hassan and South Africans Ebrahim Moosa and Farid Esack, apart from Amina Wadud.  Farid Esack’s book “Quran, Liberation and Pluralism” (Oneworld, Oxford, 1997) borrowed heavily from Liberation Theology and proposed an iconoclastic revolution in Islamic methodology that attempts to make Quranic ethics conform to post-modern, late twentieth century western ideals.  He demands the abolition of gender – related dimensions of Quranic legislations which conflict with modern liberal values, and among these, advocated female imams in mosques.  In the early 1990s, Nelson Mandela had promised Muslim organizations that Muslim personal law would be introduced following the abolition of apartheid.  Esack however led a determined protest against this move which resulted in the authorities changing their mind.  But views like Esack’s and Wadud’s can only thrive in authoritarian societies where mainstream traditional discourse in the media is hounded, caricatured or demonized, where anti-tradition zealotry masquerades as liberalism.   In South Africa, Esack’s constituency for his hyperliberalism shrank rapidly since Mandela’s victory and his Call to Islam Society no longer even exists.  Similarly in Malaysia, the community would be more intellectually robust and confident had the media been more balanced allowed open discussion and debates on Dr. Wadud’s book.

Despite the bitter and fractious confrontations that lasted almost throughout the conference, at least the whole episode would serve as a sobering starting point for a more civilized discourse between the progressives and mainstream muslims in the future.  AIDS prevention is much more than condoms and safe-sex, especially in Malaysia where disease transmission through sex accounts for only 12.9% of cases (and homosexual sex, 0.9%).  The rest is through contaminated needles in IV drug users.  The AIDS pandemic is too great a problem that no one group can appropriate the cause against it and claim to have all the solutions.  Calling oneself progressive and those with differing views as obscurantists is hardly a good beginning for consultation, it is just the other face of zealotry.

Dr. Mazeni Alwi