A Saudi Arabian criminal being flogged. A teenage girl was recently sentenced to 200 lashes and 6 months in prison for the crime of being a victim of gang-rape. Is criticism of these human rights violations imperialistic, or unfair? (Photo: Camera Press)

A Saudi Arabian criminal being flogged. A teenage girl was recently sentenced to 200 lashes and 6 months in prison for the crime of being a victim of gang-rape. Is criticism of these human rights violations imperialistic, or unfair? (Photo: Camera Press)

Last month, years of Taliban hostility finally ended when Pakistan’s government agreed to surrender control of the Swat district and allow Shari’ah law to operate there, less than 100 miles from Islamabad. To accomplish this, the Taliban bombed nearly two hundred schools (particularly girls’ schools – women’s education is now prohibited in Swat), set alight government buildings and carried out a string of assassinations, kidnappings and suicide bombings.

I consider this surrender by the Pakistani government to be a grave mistake that will not easily be undone. As an advocate of liberties for all people, I find myself at odds with the fundamental principles of Shari’ah law, especially the version as understood by the Taliban. Their version is strongly modelled on the hard-line Wahabbi Islam of Saudi Arabia, where women continue to be oppressed, thieves continue to be dismembered and apostates from Islam continue to be murdered.

Now, the author of the piece ‘Freedom to criticise, or racism?’ must surely think that my opposition to these horrors is racist, based on an imperialist mind-set. This is nonsense, and it pains me that I am forced to defend myself from accusations of racism, but let me be clear. Criticism of Islam is not and can not be racist. Neither can criticism of Catholicism, Hinduism, Scientology or any other system of belief. Racism is an ignorant and fearful perspective, and an accusation of harbouring opinions of that kind will always carry weight. I detest the accusation, just as I detest that which I am accused of being. Those with a racist agenda, who aim to demonise middle-eastern immigrants, should be rightly condemned. My discourse is with the politics of religion.

Islam appears to be faced with a conundrum. It claims to be the final and unalterable word of God, and yet there are aspects of the faith utterly incompatible with what we as a modern society cherish. Thus, the modern day Muslim in the west is faced with a dilemma: to choose between western democratic values, or the proclamations made by the creator of the universe. Because, whilst Islamic faith can come in various levels of intensity, all Muslims, from moderate to fundamentalist, must believe that Allah’s laws are superior to our man-made ones. That is, by definition, part of what it is to be a Muslim, just as all Christians must believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. This is a conundrum with no easy solution, but I will make an attempt.

‘Criticism of Islam is not and can not be racist. Neither can criticism of Catholicism, Hinduism, Scientology or any other system of belief’

First, however, I must acknowledge that I have been accused of Islamophobia, a charge I will not shy away from. I will not deny that there are forms of Islam I am resistant to, but I do not think it irrational (a necessary component of phobia), and would call it hostility rather than fear. I am hostile to wahabbi Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia, where raped woman might not seek legal protection for fear of punishment by whippings or worse. I am hostile to Islam as practiced in Egypt, where over 95% of all women still suffer female genital mutilation. I am hostile to Islam as was practiced in Afghanistan under the Taliban, where men who believed they were following the advice of Allah beat women on the streets in broad daylight. I am hostile to the Islam that inspired 19 men to hijack planes and fly them into the New York skyline. This is not an exhaustive list.

This is not the Islam that my Muslim acquaintances believe in. It is not the Islam that gave us the great poet Omar Khayyam and his beautiful religious poetry. It is not the Islam that shaped and cultivated the cradle of civilization, laid the groundwork for scientific thinking and began work on what is now modern medicine. However, the fundamentalist forms of Islam do find themselves fully justified in the writings of the Qur’an, Hadith and Sunnah. I propose that it must be the task of modern Islamic scholars to bravely do what must be done and to disagree with or reinterpret the words of the Prophet Mohammed. Female genital mutilation, honour killings, dismemberment, enforced marriage, murder of homosexuals, murder of apostates, whippings, stonings – these things are revolting, and we must hear a unified Muslim voice raised in agreement. Moderate Muslims must distance themselves from the Islam that supports such acts. Islamic leaders, too, must publicly denounce violations of human rights and lead the way towards a compatible Islam that can exist in a democratic 21st century.

War between theocracy and democracy is inevitable, and America’s war on fundamentalist Islam is this idea actualised. But a war of bombs and bullets is not necessary if a war of ideas can be won first. If liberty can triumph over religious dogma then a single shot need never be fired.

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18 Comments

  • I am appalled that such articles are allowed to be published in our unviersity paper. As a muslim, i find your article highly offensive and misleading. You have no understanding of Islam, and you have no understanding of the middle east. As a Palestnian and a Muslim I am shocked to read such claims base on false facts (95% of Egyptian women suffer FGM???????? WRONGGGG) How can you say that? Please read Christakis Georgiou’s article, just so you can get a better idea of the progress of emancipation of women in the Middle East.
    You are just repeating blindly and stupidly how mainstream media has been portraying islam since 9/11. I think people that have no throrough knowledge of the middle east shouldnt even be allowed to speak on behalf of that region. You have deeply insulted my religion and my people by misleading readers with wrong facts and exaggerated terms.

    About ”our supposed democratic 21st century”, can i remind you that there are only about 40 official democratic countries in this world, and their supposed democratic processes are highly questionable.

    Unfortunately because of people like you, there has been no platform available for muslim scholars and intellectuals to express themselves and to be recognized because of the stereotypes that people like you stick to Islam. You forget poeple like Edward Said, Tariq Ali, Mahmoud Darwish, Shirine Ebadi, Mahmoud Mamdani, Tariq Ramadan, Lila Abu Lughod, and the list goes on. These are muslim intellectuals that continue to represent the Islamic and Arab world, and are internationally recognized scholars.

    In countries that you seem to admire and that you would want ‘middle eastern’ ones to live up to, we find women drunk and lying on your streets, extremely high number of domestic violence abuses, secret detention centers (such as Guantanamo etc.), appalling detention centers of asylum seekers, torture in prisons, corruption, wars killing innocent civilians, homophobia, extremist political parties.

    You need stop demonizing and judging other people and their belief systems and start looking closer to home my friend.
    You are blinded, and naive.

    On that note i do welcome you into my country of Palestine where women are the most highly educated in the whole of the Arab world and where they represented 47% of voters etc. etc.

    Bushra

    PS: I will be making a formal complaint against your article.

  • Hmm, it seems the author of the article is a bit behind the times. The series of imperialist occupations which the author has explicitly backed, the author’s ludicrous, fawning perspective on the racist actions of Geert Wilder, yeah these things have already happened – not up in the ether, from the comfort of a flash armchair with a copy of the Radio Times and The Sun. ‘War’ is inevitable because it has already happened, ‘war between democracy and theocracy’ is not inevitable, because it is basically just the moral refuge of a simpleton.

    The criticism of religious fundamentalism, whilst cogent and appropriate, falls on deaf ears given that the author has demonstrated… hm, yes, absolutely NO understanding of anything detailed regarding how ANY religious undertaking relates to violence, let alone anything as specific as what the author chooses to label ‘Islam’.

    Having read this shocking piece of journalism I am seriously contemplating leaving Sussex University to go and become a CND hunger striker, it is that or get a job and allow people like this to take over the world.

  • The problem with your argument is that you link practices e.g. genital mutilation with Islam which I would say aren’t really Islam as such, merely practices/ events which occur or have occurred in Muslim countries, they’re more to do with culture and politics. Religions are not bound to follow their teachers or their holy books – followers do what they believe is moral and sometimes use their religion to justify that, but as you pointed out, you can be Muslim and completely reject all of the practices you mentioned, and you can quite easily justify that religiously.
    I also think that you write from the cultural perspective of someone who has never been immersed in a religion like Islam and therefore you miss some of the nuances of religion, when you view it, as an outsider.

    None of this makes you racist, at all, or Islamaphobic, because you don’t have an issue with Muslims, you just view religion as causing lots of bad things (which I think is an erroneous link to make).

    By the way, I am saying this as someone who was raised in an orthodox Jewish family and community but never liked any of the religious practice. However, I always find myself defending religion, because I think it can be so misunderstood by people who haven’t been immersed in it. On the one hand, you find religious people doing the weirdest stuff because their religion dictates it – like circumcising baby boys in front of a room of people. BUT – This is not really religion, this is a cultural practice which is normalised because everyone in a community does it. There are plenty of commandments in the Torah which Jews no longer practice, like stoning adulterers. My point is that the problem is not religion because religion evolves according to its context, so it’s almost irrelevant to even mention religion alongside a practice like genital mutilation.

  • Oh and Bushra, you’re a complete hyopcrite! You see nothing wrong with defacing Jewish religious symbols (yes it’s still offensive even if it’s on an israeli flag) and waging a vendetta against the Jewish state, but you can’t take criticism of inhumane practices that occur in Muslim countries.

  • When have i defaced jewish religious symbols Ruthie? Please quote me because i can’t seem to remember. As denouncing the horrors comitted by your supposed Jewish state, i do that everyday! And i will continue doing so! As an israeli citizen, i am considered a second class citizen in my own country, doesn’t that give me the right to criticize the state of israel? or what you call the Jewish state. 25% of that state are muslim let me remind you, and please never ever forget that. Now what i ‘wage a vendetta’ against (as u want to call it) are israeli war crimes. Which most of the International community today agrees to. An imperial and racist state, that believes in the superiority of the Jewish community above all other races, ethnicities and beliefs.
    But this is a whole different debate. And we both know where we stand on this political issue. You are a zionist and i’m not.

    About your other comment however, i very much agree with you, it is cultural practices thta are justified through religion. And not religion itself.
    You are very right about that, and no one said FGM was a good thing, you just cannot link it to religion, it is a cultural practice. And culture has never been fixed, it is something that changes and evolves through time.

    Finally Ruthie, you need to stop thinking that i have a problem with Jewish people, you really need to get that out of your head, if that was the case, i think i would have too many people hating me. I have many jewish friends, and never have i defaced anythig about their religious beliefs, and the same goes to them: they never defaced muslim religious symbols. Can you (and your friends) stop putting words in my mouth, i am tired to explain over and over again, something we both know ain’t true!
    I am an anti war activist, and i truly believe in justice and in the case you are mentioning, yes i believe in full justice to the palestinians, how has that defaced Jewish religious symbols? Being anti zionist (how many times do we have to say it) doesnt mean i am anti semitic (do i need to repeat this, or hold a placard for you to understand?).
    Now I am very happy to have this debate with you, anytime, anywhere. But before accusing me of things i haven’t said, speak to me face to face.

    Bushra

  • I think Peter’s point is that the Koran is different from other religious texts, because it claims to be the final and -indisputable- word of God. Therefore, to be consistent (Peter argues) muslims have to follow the Koran to the letter, including all the horrible cultural practices like FGM and killing apostates.

    I’m actually not sure if it’s wise to make this argument. Humanitarian interpretations of religious texts should be encouraged and I don’t wish to point out that it is (arguably) going against real Islam.

    Bushra, by handing out leaflets with a cross through the Israeli flag you seem to be blaming all Israeli citizens for Israel’s defence policy. It’s also religiously insensitive because of the religious symbol on the flag and, although I’m not for a minute suggesting it was your intention, can’t you see why Jews might take offense?

  • Yep Bushra, see Jessica’s comment for what I was referring to…but then again if you didn’t have anything to do with the leaflet then I apologise for the accusation!

    Regarding Israel – my point was not intended to accuse you of being anti-semitic, what I meant was that you are vocal in your criticism of Israel’s mistakes, but take massive offense to the suggestion that practices in other parts of the middle east are barbaric. Then again, it is difficult to see from your response which part of the article it was that you objected to – the association of Islam with those practices, or the criticism of those practices full stop?

    This debate has reminded me of Johann Hari’s recent article which attracted a lot of controversy. This is his defence, of what he said, very eloquently put:

    “All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don’t respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a “Prophet” who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him. I don’t respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don’t respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice…. When you demand “respect”, you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.”

    I

  • Incidentally, Bushra, if I seemed a little bit hostile in that comment it’s mostly because you came accross as very unsympathetic when people took offense at Dr Tamimi’s invitation to speak at Sussex…and that was a situation when myself and others were upset (because Dr Tamimi has a record of promoting killing civillians) and you appeared dismissive and insensitive to people’s feelings.

  • Also I don’t mean to be accusatory, or to say it should have any bearing on this discussion, because the issues really are completely separate, but if you sense hostility coming from me it’s probably because the only time I have heard you speak it was in that situation.

  • I love how people assume im handing out these flyers, even if i have no problem with them and i see them in a different perspective, yes i am against the existence of Israel as it is today, and putting a cross on the israeli flag is by no means an offense to Jewish people, i dont see why, as it is a flag not a menorah. Now if israelis take offense well let them, i disgaree with Isralei politics – and i am israeli myself- so that is again another debate. Please lets not mix things up.

    I will quote Ruthie ” the problem is not religion because religion evolves according to its context, so it’s almost irrelevant to even mention religion alongside a practice like genital mutilation.” I totally agree with this. Again FGM is a horrific thing that happens and that have occured in muslim countries but among christians as well as muslims. Different interepretations in Islam have been done about FGM, but the practice is all in all mostly African, and has been practised in African countries within different communities.

    Ruthie obviously what i am arguing is the naive and easy associations peter has made between Islam and these practices, I think it is too easy. And i think Peter is in no position whatsoever to judge or understand these things, because as you said, he has not been immersed in a religious community.

    I take offense Ruthie when people like Peter mistakingly associate things such as FGM to islam. And yes it is offense to my whole community, and obviously i am very irritated about such misleading articles.

    Obviously you never come to the Palestine Society meetings, then maybe you wlould have seen me in more sympathetic terms. And maybe you were at Azzam Tamimi’s meeting, and if you weren’t then you missed out on his emphasis between anti zionism and anti semitism. As you feel upset with people like Azzam Tamimi, i feel upset when people call themselves zionists, because it is an ideology that believes in the expulsion of my people.

    Bushra

  • I think we basically agree on a lot of points, but my gut reaction is not sympathetic to the offence you feel because you don’t really understand why a lot of Palsoc activities have offended people, and don’t seem to care much. Actually, I do think you have the right to be offended now but I’m going to consider you hypocritical until you understand that certain activities you have been involved in have been…I am going to put it this way, insensitive at best and at worst, offensive.

    Disclaimer: none of the following has anything to do with the above article.

    The flag issue: It was a bit presumptuous of me to bring that up because I didn’t know that you had anything to do with it, it was just something that has been bothering me and I knew that you knew the people handing out the leaflets. But now we are on the topic, here is the issue.

    The star of david is the main Jewish symbol, always has been, which is why it was chosen for the Israeli flag. It’s meant to represent God’s presence – the pointing in all directions symbolises God being omnipresent. Do you now see why Jews have taken offence to a cross through it?

    On zionism, the Tamimi meeting and members of Palsoc supporting Hamas. Zionism as I have been taught it does not require the expulsion of the Palestinian people and I definitely don’t believe that it should. I don’t even know if I want to call myself a zionist because people seem to assume it means all sorts of things and all I know is I believe in a Jewish state and a Palestinian state and tolerance and equality in both states. So please don’t use my ‘intolerance’ as a basis to dismiss the things I have been offended by.

    I wasn’t at the meeting because I was upset that week that he’d been invited in the first place, and I made the decision not to put myself in a situation that would land me in tears. I know the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism but that wasn’t my problem with him in the first place, like I said, my problem was that he has encouraged suicide bombings and said that he would commit one. I was genuinely shocked because I had no idea that members of Palsoc were that sympathetic to terrorism. I was also really shocked by the way that no-one at the council meeting said that they disagreed with what he had said in that interview that I quoted, and no-one responded in a polite or respectful way to my questions on the event wall. It basically made me feel as if Palsoc cares about Palestinians but not about the Israelis who were victims to those attacks and who are potential victims.
    It also made me feel as if any requests for the anti Gaza bombing protest to be pro-peace, and respectful of human life on both sides, were being shunned and labeled fascist, anti-freedom of speech, even anti Muslim.

  • This article is very interesting. While I don’t agree with all of it, it’s certainly refreshing to hear a libertarian viewpoint on campus. The current climate of the Sussex political life is an overwhelming pseudo-socialist smog – (and this is coming from a socialist).

    A lot of people are criticising the figure of 95% female genital mutilation. It sounds about right to me – there is no disclaimer on the WHO sources saying “this is only for a special region of Egypt,” as some are claiming. The WHO estimates that female genital mutilation has been at 95%-97% for the last decade or so.

    There was an article in the Guardian written in June 2007 analysing the issue, importantly citing a UNICEF report on the statistics. According to the UNICEF research, 96% of Egyptian women aged 15-49 reported that they had been circumcised. Moreover, a much less thorough (i.e. biased) inquest from the Egyptian government found that the figure hovered around 50%. So whatever poll you decide to pick, the end result is overwhelmingly negative.

    It has been said in other comments that this mutilation is more likely to stem from cultural traditions as opposed to Islam specifically. Interestingly, Christians in the Middle East have also been cited as proponents of genital mutilation. I feel that this misses the point of the piece: the author is arguing against any kind of theocracy, and appears to be promoting a staunch atheism. To use other religions as straw-men arguments does not detract one jot from the point of the article.

    It is more than likely the case that the author does not agree with any kind of religious genital mutilation practices (as I certainly don’t, either) – rather, highlighting the recent Islamophobia debate and tying it into context.

    Another argument could be made to suggest that Islam actively encourages these sorts of activities. Any basic translation (there are several around) of the Sunan Abu Dawûd records Mohammed promoting a mild female circumcision. Now this text has varying levels of authority, but has been used by Muslim commentators to encourage a very mild form of female circumcision.

    My own opinion is that any kind of circumcision is wrong. And so I disagree with the mainstream Islamic opinion (from hadith) in saying that it is a requirement for boys; and I disagree with the outlying texts in suggesting mild female circumcision. I regard these practices as barbaric and outdated.

    In regards to Bushra’s comments about women being drunk, etc. – I certainly don’t think that women being drunk is a bad thing. I have no idea why that was cited as a problem. Why women specifically – and not men? Is a woman being drunk and ‘lying in the street’ somehow worse than a man?

    Also, there is infinitely less homophobia in Western Europe than in the Islamic world. So again, I have no idea why that issue was cited. The whole comment had shaky arguments. And to make a ‘formal complaint’ against an article seems to be a very poor way of approaching controversial issues. Relegating a touchy subject to a taboo-realm of red tape doesn’t fix anything.

    I doubt that anyone in the university harbours ill-will towards people for being muslim. I haven’t seen, read or heard that sentiment anywhere on campus. And I doubt that anyone wants to really offend; you have friendly, inspiring and intellectual people on every point of the political and religious spectrum.

    We’re getting an emerging stream of Islamophobia-themed articles in The Badger because people are fed up with religious criticism being off-limits. It’s especially important to cast a critical eye on religious ideologies in these times of religious wars. Let’s not jump to accusations of racism.

    In criticism of the article, I’d say that it is important to draw a bigger line between the two kinds of muslim in Islam: the typical follower- wonderful, warm and humble people (of whom I’m lucky to have some as friends); and the extremists we often see paraded in newspapers. Someone with prejudiced motives might see an article like this and use it irresponsibly to fuel the fires of hatred.

    And I agree with Ruthie’s comments about the issue being much more complicated than the article presents. The entire thing is a complicated web of religion, freedom, liberty and rights. It can’t possibly be covered in a single article; and the piece provides a very simplistic overview of one point.

    Much love,
    A.

  • It is somewhat fashionable these days to attack Islam and muslims, but not with actual facts, but distorted facts. This is like blaming every single Christian for the actions of pedophile preists. It’s not silly but nutty!