Speaking on Religious Freedom at the 2014 IALRW Conference

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The International Association of Liberal Religious Women (IALRW) very kindly invited me to speak at their Birmingham conference which took place on 22-24 August 2014. I was asked to speak on Religious Freedom and Interfaith Dialogue.The talk is now on Youtube, and below is a transcript. I also led a smaller group session on the afternoon of 23rd August; the transcript of my introductory talk for that session can be found below as well.

Part 1

My dear friends and sisters – Salam, Peace and Blessings to you all. It is a genuine honour and a privilege to address this gathering today, and my thanks go to the IALRW organising committee for this very kind invitation to speak. I have been asked to speak about current issues and concerns for Religious Freedom and Interfaith Dialogue, particularly with relevance to women, and I am going to attempt to tie this in with the topic of the overall conference, which is:  ‘Raising Our Voices for Change towards a Sustainable World’, in the hope that what I am about to say can contribute in some way to the aim of this conference as a whole.

When we think about the provision of religious freedom, of course much can be said about the change that is desperately needed in our world today. It is my belief that no demographic feels the need for this change more so than women, whether they are religious or areligious. All over the world a culture of patriarchy gives men the licence to dictate what women should and should not wear, how they should and should not live, what they should and should not do. And in every instance, the demands placed on us as women by men in power infringe upon our basic freedom to live as we choose. This is true in the case of the compulsory hijab in Iran as much as it is of the ban on the Muslim veil in Turkish parliament and universities. The full-faced covering and ban on female drivers oppresses women in Saudi Arabia just as much as the niqab ban oppresses women in France who might choose to wear the niqab. As women, if we are to support one another in our struggles, we should, and we must, form a bond of sisterhood borne out of our shared experiences of oppressive patriarchy, and as a consequence raise our voices in unison to oppose the stripping away of the basic freedoms of women everywhere. Moreover, we must do so with consistency, and without double standards.

I feel the need to mention consistency here because as we enter a post-secular age in the West, it seems increasingly, at least to me as a religious woman, that there is greater sympathy for the freedoms of areligious women than there is for the religious. So where Western feminists are eager to protest the forced veiling of areligious women in the East, they make little comment on the forced unveiling of religious women in the West. This, to me, is reflective of a double standard, and the eradication of this double standard must be an essential component of any change as we move forward.

Before I proceed, I must confess that I cannot, with my lack of knowledge, wisdom and experience, stand here and claim to know the answer to how this double standard must be eradicated in the interest of a movement that equitably promotes freedom of religion for women everywhere. All I can do is share my own limited observations as to an approach that would facilitate mutual respect among women both within intra- as well as interfaith contexts.

Perhaps the words “mutual respect” are in themselves worth reflecting upon here – too often, even as women, we look at the religious practices of other women with disdain, pity, or sometimes even downright contempt, as though it is our prerogative, or our right, to place normative judgments and criticisms upon those other women, even though we would detest having the same judgment placed from someone else upon ourselves. In no situation is this more evident than the case of Muslim women who choose to wear the niqab, the full-face veil – following on from the heated ‘niqab debate’ with took place in the UK last summer, niqab-wearing women were subjected to public insults which included comparisons to bin-bags and the Ku Klux Klan, by groups as disparate as white non-Muslim politicians as well as other Muslim women. How unfortunate that more of us did not, at that point, stop to consider the agency of niqab-wearing women in choosing to wear the niqab, nor their inalienable right to free expression of their religion in what claims to be a liberal society.

What is it then, one might ask, that can cause us, even as liberal religious women, to so easily lose sight of that all-important mutual respect, and to become so intolerant and so critical of other religious women? It is in the answer to this question that lies the key to the eradication of the double standard I mentioned earlier.

The answer, in a word, is us.

We make ourselves intolerant, by positioning ourselves as “us” and other women as “them”. We are the ones who turn them into “the other” in opposition to us as “the self”. And we allow our lens, our perspective, be it Western, secular, Arab, Christian, etc, to inform our judgments of the religious practices of other women. We make our norms and our beliefs the standard to which all others must adhere and aspire, and then we use this standard to place expectations upon other women for acceptance and validation. I remember the time when an Anglican reverend, extremely active in interfaith work in the UK, asked me why conservative Muslims preferred not to shake hands with the opposite sex  – “it’s not sexual!” he insisted. It didn’t seem to matter to him that the choice of Muslims to not shake hands with the opposite sex did not bring any harm upon anyone or infringe upon the rights of anyone else. The underlying implication just seemed to be “Muslims behave differently? Well that needs to change!” It is almost as though we are unable to accept someone else’s beliefs as valid and worthy of respect unless they are compromised, even if ever so slightly, to become a bit more agreeable to us, a bit more similar to our own beliefs and practices.

Our lens is the problem. And if we are indeed going to work towards a fair movement that equitably promotes religious freedom for women everywhere, our lens is what needs to change. We must cease to judge others from our own normative standards, and instead begin to embrace the differences wholeheartedly, no matter how alien they might appear to us. The free expression of difference is not only a liberal tenet but is, in fact, facilitated by the golden rule which so many faiths agree upon, to do unto others as you would like done to you. We cannot, after all, ever all be the same. The sooner we are able to accept this and treat others, including those who are different to us, as we would like to be treated, the closer we will be to a world where mutual respect and religious freedom are available to all, with consistency, and without double standards.

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Part 2

I have been asked at this point to discuss present activities in Religious Freedom and Interfaith Dialogue and also propose an action plan and way forward.

Of course to suggest that I can formulate an action plan entirely independently, and then put this forth to all of you today as a kind of magical solution to our problems, would be to both grossly over-state my own capabilities as well as to undermine the magnitude and importance of religious freedom as a world issue. So I will attempt to summarise past and present activities in Birmingham and then hope that we can proceed towards identifying an action plan in the discussions that follow.

Birmingham, as a city, has been renowned in recent years for its multiculturalism, which immediately suggests an environment where multiple faiths and denominations not only co-exist but flourish side by side. As a multicultural city, expectations are high for interfaith dialogue and freedom of religion in Birmingham, and I would like to think that we are meeting these expectations for the most part. More can, of course, be done and achieved, but it is worthwhile acknowledging the contributions of organisations that have already served the citizens of Birmingham and succeeded in bringing us together regardless of our religious persuasion.

The work of Near Neighbours has helped to connect people with the value of neighbourliness, a value which is treasured in many faiths as well as among those of no faith. The Feast has worked to bring people together using the shared enjoyment of food, finding a commonality in human experience that is as good a means as any of building bridges between communities, whether through baking events or interfaith iftars in the month of Ramadan. The Women’s Federation for World Peace has been active in facilitating dialogue among women of different faiths, with the aim of creating an environment of mutual respect and understanding. And the Al Mahdi Institute has worked tirelessly to facilitate interfaith dialogue and improve community relations. I must say at this point that this list is not exhaustive by any means, and only reflects my own knowledge and experience of interfaith activity within the city.

My own role within this area has been limited to say the least. In the spring of 2010 I led the formation of the AhlulBayt Society at the University of Birmingham, a student society representing Shia Muslim beliefs on campus, and it is through this role that I have had the greatest involvement in interfaith and intra-faith work on campus. In the years since, along with organising various public events to create awareness, facilitate dialogue and remedy misconceptions about Shia beliefs, I have been involved in the University’s Interfaith Association, in my capacity as a student as well as an AhlulBayt Society committee member. Moreover, it was as committee member last year that I got elected as Guild Councillor to represent faith student groups at the highest democratic decision-making body of the University’s Guild of Students.

So having discussed previous and ongoing activities in interfaith relations and religious dialogue, I would like to move on now to talking about areas where I believe more work is still needed. Although our focus here is interfaith relations, while we also discuss religious freedom it would be remiss of me to not address the issue of intra-faith relations, and I would request that the audience bears with me at this point as my experience is restricted to Birmingham’s Muslim community, and so will the observations that follow.

It is indeed unfortunate when we promote interfaith relations to work with other faiths while at the same time snubbing those from our own faith who come from different schools of thought, or even just different ethnic or racial backgrounds. Again the double standard I spoke of this morning rears its ugly head.

This is regrettably an issue that is particularly prominent in Birmingham, where as Muslims we take a hadith of the Prophet (may peace be upon him and his progeny) which declares only one out of 72 sects as rightly guided and automatically assume it to mean the triumph of our own beliefs combined with the simultaneous condemnation to Hell of anyone else. The authenticity of the hadith in question is less relevant here than the following question: when we know that the Quran acknowledges diversity, why are we so antagonistic towards those who are different from us? God says in the Quran, in the chapter titled “The Rooms” or Al-Hujurat, “O humankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.” And yet we insist in asserting our own righteousness and our own presumed spiritual superiority in direct opposition of this command to “know one another”, understand one another, become acquainted with and befriend one another.

If we are to succeed in becoming better human beings and better adherents of our faith, in achieving greater proximity to God and greater awareness of God, we must befriend another. It is an elementary principle but so often overlooked.

The other issue which I can identify as requiring attention is our attitude towards criticism of other faiths. In our religious and spiritual pursuits, as we engage in dialogue that is intellectual, academic and mentally stimulating, of course we must apply critical thought in the assessment of our own beliefs and practices as well as those of others. But the difficulty arises when in a post-secular world, religion in general and certain faiths in particular are continually judged by the actions of religious adherents, and these judgments are applied universally, without nuance and without qualification.

The behaviour of ISIS does not suggest an inherent problem with Islam any more than Israeli human rights violations in Gaza suggest an inherent problem with Judaism. Conversely, objecting to the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Burma does not amount to a criticism of Buddhism, and condemning Israeli attacks on civilian targets in Gaza does not equate to a condemnation of Judaism. It is the actions we must condemn, and not the faith. Using the actions of some religious adherents to discredit the faith itself serves only to essentialise the faith, and fails to acknowledge the diversity and the complexity that is a part of any given religion. Moreover, when we problematise a religion because of the actions of some adherents we are not taking into account the undeniable fallibility of human beings in the pursuit of religious ideals.

These are only some areas which I can identify as requiring greater effort on our part. As to how best to deal with them, I mentioned at the start that I would be over-stating my capabilities if I suggested I could independently propose solutions to these complex and widespread problems. I can only hope that if we begin by offering one another mutual respect, by befriending one another, by being critical without being judgmental, and by eliminating any double standards in our dealings with those of different beliefs, then more practical solutions will naturally follow as a result of our good intentions.

The Racist Ideology of Orientalism and its Implications

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Earlier in the year, I was asked to write this article by ‘The Lifting the Veil Project’. It was first published on their blog on 18th April 2014.

 

In 1978, the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism resulted in a systematic dismantling of the academic discipline bearing the same name. Since then, anyone who has read Said’s seminal work will attest to the fact that it causes a shift in perspective which is irrevocable, and so pervasive is the influence of Said’s work that even those who haven’t read it may have, at some point, used the word “orientalist” in the meaning intended by him.

In the academic context, Orientalism as a discipline was originally the study of ‘Eastern’, Islamic, or Arab nations and cultures, and to some extent later morphed into what is now known as Area Studies; it is indeed where the ‘Oriental’ in the London ‘School of African and Oriental Studies’ (SOAS) finds its origin. What made Said’s contribution invaluable is that inOrientalism, applying the theory of philosopher Michel Foucault to British and French colonial literature, Said demonstrated how discourse, i.e. the communicated word, played a central role in the exercise of Western imperial power and colonial exploitation. Examining works of British and French writers from c.17th to 20th Century CE, Said described how the need for the West to negotiate the Orient was thus expressed in the literary representations of all colonised/colonisable peoples and cultures. As an expression of the Western imperialist mindset, these representations were inevitably misrepresentations, depicting non-Western groups and cultures in a manner that was inferiorised, mystified and exotified, thus providing moral and intellectual justification for their subjugation.

At the heart of Orientalism is a Eurocentrism that allows judgment of everything non-Western from a Western perspective, so that the value of every ‘foreign’ cultural practice, social norm, religious belief etc. is judged solely from the position of the West and its presumed superiority over all else. Orientalism explains, for instance, the continued demonisation of Eastern men who allegedly force their women to veil, and simultaneously also explains the Western fascination with belly-dancing over all other expressions of Arab culture. These two phenomena are by no means unrelated – in the Orientalist imagination, the male is always violent, regressive, and opposed to Enlightened reasoning; the female is an object of desire whose allure forever lies in her uncovering. Both are reductive images which reflect not so much the reality of ‘Oriental’ men and women as they do the Orientalist’s need to place himself in a position of control over the Orient. Once we become aware of the Orientalist perspective, its manifestations are not particularly difficult to identify, and they appear everywhere.

Jack Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs, and the film of the same name which was based on Shaheen’s work, both explore the (Orientalist) depiction of Eastern/Arab males as morally redundant sociopaths. This image continues in discussions and depictions of real-life individuals such as Abu Hamza as well as fictional characters such as Homeland’s Abu Nazir. It is also glaringly obvious in films such as Zero Dark Thirty, where the courageous white woman persists in her relentless pursuit of the evil bearded terrorist. The Orientalist portrayal of women from Arab cultures also remains exotified and unrealistic, whether we consider the bare midriff and harem pants worn by Disney’s Jasmine, or the same combined with token head covering for Jeannie in the 60s comedy I Dream of Jeannie.In the film Body of Lies the character of Ayesha, first veiled and then unveiled, speaks again to the Orientalist fascination with Arab women. This appropriation and misrepresentation is not limited to Arab culture either, for the mechanism of control that is Orientalism merges in its racist imagination Eastern cultures which are often distinct and diverse, combining all of them into a monolithic amalgam conveniently referred to as “the Orient”. It explains therefore not just stereotypical portrayals of Arab cultures and people, but those of Persian and South Asian origin as well; take, for instance, the morally repugnant Persian king in 300, the controlling, backward character of George in East is East or the curious, violent rituals in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom.

However, while the representation of Eastern cultures remains problematic, when Said later reflected on the observations made in his book of 1978 he made it clear that one of his primary concerns with modern-day Orientalism was the way in which it continues to be deployed to provide justification for Western imperialism. Centuries later, not much has changed. The depiction of Palestinian youth as rocket-launching terrorists continues to be used to justify Israeli occupation. The depiction of Saddam Hussain and Moammar Gaddafi as crazed despots, and their nations as being incapable of implementing democracy without Western assistance, is used to justify Western military intervention.The depiction of the Taliban as backward fundamentalists continues to be used to justify Western military presence in Afghanistan and Western interference in Afghani politics.

Therefore while Orientalism as a discipline may have been dismantled, the Orientalist approach to controlling the Orient through skewed, exaggerated and racist representations of it carries on to this day. The remedy for Orientalism, or rather the inoculation against it, lies only in all free-thinking people becoming aware of its functions in everyday contexts, and subsequently beginning to recognise ‘Orientalism’, as well as all aspects of ‘the Orient’, for what they truly are.