Recent press revelations have confirmed my initial suggestion that members of the Tsarnaev family were secular ex-Soviets rather than observant Muslims Only a few years ago did the late Tamerlan start exhibiting signs of fanaticism (he was thrown out of his mosque in Boston last January when he stood up to denounce the preacher there for praising Martin Luther King). Being a fanatic is, contrary to the impression both of Fox Cable News and some Muslim radicals, not actually the same as being a good Muslim; in fact, the Qur’an urges the use of reason and moderation ( “Do not commit excess in your religion” (Qur’an 4:171). All this shows that they were on an adolescent homocidal power trip, dressed up like al-Qaeda, the way the Aurora shooter was wearing an arsenal and dressed up like Batman. In any case, here are the signs that Dzhokhar in particular wasn’t ever observant, and Tamerlan’s later fanaticism led him and his brother to disregard Islamic ethics and laws:
4. The Tsarnaev brothers carjacked an innocent Chinese-American. This is called theft and kidnapping, which are both forbidden in Islamic law. In fact is is a complaint of modernists against Islamic law that it is so hard on theft. It was in hopes of stealing a gun, another theft, that they murdered police officer Sean Collins. Murder is forbidden in the Qur’an which says that to kill a single soul is the same as killing all humankind.
5. While they were driving around with their Chinese captive, they were discussing with him girls . Upright young Muslim men are supposed to have their minds on other things than girls.
6. Spreading terror (hiraba in public spaces in order to gain power or money is forbidden in Islam.
8. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev when he was naturalized pledged allegiance to the United States of America, saying “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic . . .” All but the most radical Muslim authorities agree that Muslims owe allegiance to their countries and are obliged to defend them. The Qur’an, 61:2-3 says of breaking an oath, “O you who have believed, why do you say what you do not do? Great is hatred in the sight of God that you say what you do not do.”
For the TLDR crowd, here are the top ten ways that Islamic law and tradition forbid terrorism (some of these points are reworked from previous postings):
1. Terrorism is above all murder. Murder is strictly forbidden in the Qur’an. Qur’an 6:151 says, “and do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct, save lawfully.” (i.e. murder is forbidden but the death penalty imposed by the state for a crime is permitted). 5:53 says, “… whoso kills a soul, unless it be for murder or for wreaking corruption in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and he who saves a life, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind.”
2. If the motive for terrorism is religious, it is impermissible in Islamic law. It is forbidden to attempt to impose Islam on other people. The Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in religion. The right way has become distinct from error.” (-The Cow, 2:256). Note that this verse was revealed in Medina in 622 AD or after and was never abrogated by any other verse of the Quran. Islam’s holy book forbids coercing people into adopting any religion. They have to willingly choose it.
3. Islamic law forbids aggressive warfare. The Quran says, “But if the enemies incline towards peace, do you also incline towards peace. And trust in God! For He is the one who hears and knows all things.” (8:61) The Quran chapter “The Cow,” 2:190, says, “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loveth not aggressors.”
4. In the Islamic law of war, not just any civil engineer can declare or launch a war. It is the prerogative of the duly constituted leader of the Muslim community that engages in the war. Nowadays that would be the president or prime minister of the state, as advised by the mufti or national jurisconsult.
5. The killing of innocent non-combatants is forbidden. According to Sunni tradition, ‘Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, the first Caliph, gave these instructions to his armies: “I instruct you in ten matters: Do not kill women, children, the old, or the infirm; do not cut down fruit-bearing trees; do not destroy any town . . . ” (Malik’s Muwatta’, “Kitab al-Jihad.”)
6. Terrorism or hirabah is forbidden in Islamic law, which groups it with brigandage, highway robbery and extortion rackets– any illicit use of fear and coercion in public spaces for money or power. The principle of forbidding the spreading of terror in the land is based on the Qur’an (Surah al-Ma’ida 5:33–34). Prominent [pdf] Muslim legal scholar Sherman Jackson writes, “The Spanish Maliki jurist Ibn `Abd al-Barr (d. 464/ 1070)) defines the agent of hiraba as ‘Anyone who disturbs free passage in the streets and renders them unsafe to travel, striving to spread corruption in the land by taking money, killing people or violating what God has made it unlawful to violate is guilty of hirabah . . .”
7. Sneak attacks are forbidden. Muslim commanders must give the enemy fair warning that war is imminent. The Prophet Muhammad at one point gave 4 months notice.
8. The Prophet Muhammad counseled doing good to those who harm you and is said to have commanded, “Do not be people without minds of your own, saying that if others treat you well you will treat them well, and that if they do wrong you will do wrong to them. Instead, accustom yourselves to do good if people do good and not to do wrong (even) if they do evil.” (Al-Tirmidhi)
9. The Qur’an demands of believers that they exercise justice toward people even where they have reason to be angry with them: “And do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness.”[5:8]
10. The Qur’an assures Christians and Jews of paradise if they believe and do good works, and commends Christians as the best friends of Muslims. I wrote elsewhere, “Dangerous falsehoods are being promulgated to the American public. The Quran does not preach violence against Christians.
Quran 5:69 says (Arberry): “Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry, and the Christians, and those Sabeaans, whoso believes in God and the Last Day, and works righteousness–their wage waits them with their Lord, and no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow.”
In other words, the Quran promises Christians and Jews along with Muslims that if they have faith and works, they need have no fear in the afterlife. It is not saying that non-Muslims go to hell– quite the opposite.
When speaking of the 7th-century situation in the Muslim city-state of Medina, which was at war with pagan Mecca, the Quran notes that the polytheists and some Arabian Jewish tribes were opposed to Islam, but then goes on to say:
5:82. ” . . . and you will find the nearest in love to the believers [Muslims] those who say: ‘We are Christians.’ That is because amongst them are priests and monks, and they are not proud.”
So the Quran not only does not urge Muslims to commit violence against Christians, it calls them “nearest in love” to the Muslims! The reason given is their piety, their ability to produce holy persons dedicated to God, and their lack of overweening pride.
JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary interviews MUSA ALIMGLU:
This week I asked a China and Xinjiang expert — someone who is familiar with China’s ethnic politics and the work of prominent Uyghur human rights activist Rebiya Kadeer — to provide some in-depth background on China’s troubled Xinjiang Uygher Autonomous Republic and leadership challenges for the Uyghur diaspora.
This Hui Chinese scholar, who goes by the name of Musa Alimglu (not his real name), has recently conducted several field investigations in Xinjiang into “Uyghur miseries” (from an economic and human rights standpoint) and has attempted in his research and in this interview to identify the major causes behind the underlying tension there between the Han and the Uyghur.
As a Hui he said hefeels “great sympathy towards the Uyghurs, not only because they are also Muslims but because they have been treated inhumanely by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), especially since the 1990s.”
Q: How would you characterize the historical relationship between the Muslim Uyghurs, Hui people and the majority Han in China?
A: The Hui and Uyghur have historical, ethnic, and religious ties. Before 1950s, the Chinese term “Hui” referred to both Uyghur and Hui. Many Hui in northwestern China today still use many Uyghur words and Hui religious orders have a close relationship with Kashgar and Yarkand, the two major Uyghur cities in Kashgaria. The major Hui ancestors came from Turkic Central Asia, which borders the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
So it is no surprise that there are some Hui volunteer organizations in northwestern China that have special programs to help the Uyghurs, especially in eastern Xinjiang since it’s close to Hui-populated areas in northwestern China.
The relationship between China’s Muslims and the Han (about 90% of China’s population) was in conflict — for at least 300 years from the 17th century to 20th century — as seen by various Muslim uprisings against Manchu-Han expansions, repressions, and massacres. After the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) conquered Kashgaria (in southern Xinjiang) in the 1750s , many Han officials, especially those who served in or came from Shandong, the home of Confucius and Confucianism, actively attacked the so-called alien religion of the Muslims (“Huijiao”, Islam).
During the “Five-Peoples” Republican period (1911-1949), Muslims had better political status. At that time Mongol, Manchu, Muslim, Han, and Tibetans were the five major peoples of the Republic of China. Many national Muslim organizations participated not only in domestic politics but also in international diplomacy, and were active in trying to garner support from Islamic countries for China’s anti-Japanese wars.
In China’s communist period (1949 to present), Muslims have had a complicated relationship with China. On the one hand, China created 10 so-called Muslim Minzu (nationalities) as part of a divide-and-rule political strategy, but on the other hand, Muslims and Islam itself were targeted as enemies of socialism and communism, especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). It was only after the 1980s that Muslims were allowed to practice Islam in a relatively liberal environment.
Now, Muslims in China are facing a different situation, in the context of China’s rise, and Han nationalism (especially cultural nationalism) has begun to re-appear.
At the same time, China’s “anti-terror” activities in the broader Central Asian region — including China-Pakistan and China-SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization or Shanghai 5) joint anti-terrorism military exercises that target groups like the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) — have made Islam and Islam-related affairs sensitive in China and especially so in Xinjiang.
Pope Benedict XVI’s suprise announcement on Monday that he plans to resign at the end of this month marks a potential generational change in the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. His successor has an opportunity to revive the breakthroughs of the Second Vatican Council in promoting inter-religious dialogue, and repairing the Church’s troubled relationship with the Muslim world. Roman Catholics and Muslims live side by side in much of the world, and there are Roman Catholic orders and individuals who have devoted a great deal of time and energy to good relations between the two. One thinks of the White Fathers in Algeria, for instance.
Although he backed down on some of his positions, Pope Benedict roiled those relationships with needlessly provocative and sometimes offensive statements about Islam and Muslims. His Regensburg speech contained inaccuracies and tried to position the European Roman Catholic tradition as the golden mean between the soulless atheism of modern science and the backward fanaticism of Islam. He initially opposed Turkey’s entry into the European Union, imagining Europe as essentially Christian, though he later moderated that view a bit. (Europe was settled by human beings some 45,000 years ago; Christianity is only 2000 or so years old and until fairly recently Christians were a minority there. Lots of religions have been practiced by Europeans, and the majority of them nowadays is probably secular unbelievers.) Islam may have arrived a few centuries later than Christianity, but European Islam has a 1300-year history on the continent, and not a minor or inglorious one (the way European history is written and taught often leaves out the Muslims of Iberia and those of the Balkans, giving a truncated view of the continent’s religious diversity).
The address is more complex and subtle than the press on it represents. But let me just signal that what is most troubling of all is that the Pope gets several things about Islam wrong, just as a matter of fact.
He notes that the text he discusses, a polemic against Islam by a Byzantine emperor, cites Qur’an 2:256: “There is no compulsion in religion.” Benedict maintains that this is an early verse, when Muhammad was without power.
His allegation is incorrect. Surah 2 is a Medinan surah revealed when Muhammad was already established as the leader of the city of Yathrib (later known as Medina or “the city” of the Prophet). The pope imagines that a young Muhammad in Mecca before 622 (lacking power) permitted freedom of conscience, but later in life ordered that his religion be spread by the sword. But since Surah 2 is in fact from the Medina period when Muhammad was in power, that theory does not hold water.
In fact, the Qur’an at no point urges that religious faith be imposed on anyone by force. This is what it says about the religions:
‘ [2:62] Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians– any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. ‘
The idea of holy war or jihad (which is about defending the community or at most about establishing rule by Muslims, not about imposing the faith on individuals by force) is also not a Quranic doctrine. The doctrine was elaborated much later, on the Umayyad-Byzantine frontier, long after the Prophet’s death. In fact, in early Islam it was hard to join, and Christians who asked to become Muslim were routinely turned away. . . The pope was trying to make the point that coercion of conscience is incompatible with genuine, reasoned faith. He used Islam as a symbol of the coercive demand for unreasoned faith.
But he has been misled by the medieval polemic on which he depended.
In fact, the Quran also urges reasoned faith and also forbids coercion in religion. The only violence urged in the Quran is in self-defense of the Muslim community against the attempts of the pagan Meccans to wipe it out.
The pope says that in Islam, God is so transcendant that he is beyond reason and therefore cannot be expected to act reasonably. He contrasts this conception of God with that of the Gospel of John, where God is the Logos, the Reason inherent in the universe.
But there have been many schools of Islamic theology and philosophy. The Mu’tazilite school maintained exactly what the Pope is saying, that God must act in accordance with reason and the good as humans know them. The Mu’tazilite approach is still popular in Zaidism and in Twelver Shiism of the Iraqi and Iranian sort. The Ash’ari school, in contrast, insisted that God was beyond human reason and therefore could not be judged rationally. (I think the Pope would find that Tertullian and perhaps also John Calvin would be more sympathetic to this view within Christianity than he is).
As for the Quran, it constantly appeals to reason in knowing God, and in refuting idolatry and paganism, and asks, “do you not reason?” “do you not understand?” (a fala ta`qilun?)
Of course, Christianity itself has a long history of imposing coerced faith on people, including on pagans in the late Roman Empire, who were forcibly converted. And then there were the episodes of the Crusades.
Another irony is that reasoned, scholastic Christianity has an important heritage from Islam itself. In the 10th century, there was little scholasticism in Christian theology. The influence of Muslim thinkers such as Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) reemphasized the use of Aristotle and Plato in Christian theology. . . Finally, that Byzantine emperor that the Pope quoted, Manuel II? The Byzantines had been weakened by Latin predations during the fourth Crusade, so it was in a way Rome that had sought coercion first. And, he ended his days as a vassal of the Ottoman Empire.
The Pope was wrong on the facts. He should apologize to the Muslims and get better advisers on Christian-Muslim relations.”
Pope Benedict later said that Byzantine Emperor Manual II’s views of Muhammad and Islam were cited for illustration and were not his own.
“Pope: Manuel II’s Views of Muhammad are not My Own Muslim Brotherhood Optimistic about end of Crisis
Pope Benedict said on Sunday that the quote he had cited from Byzantine emperor Manuel II, which said that the Prophet Muhammd brought only evil and conversion by the sword, did not reflect his own views.
“I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims . . . These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought. I hope this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with mutual respect.”
Although there were protests in Iran and some scattered acts of violence, mostly in already-violent areas, this statement seemed to mollify some Muslim leaders.
A Muslim Brotherhood official in Egypt initially said that the statement was a clear retraction and sufficient as an apology, but apparently under popular pressure, he backed off that stance slightly, saying that the Pope hadn’t actually clearly apologized, though he had taken a good step toward an apology. But the Brotherhood clearly was looking for a way to defuse the crisis, and that it initially latched on to the Pope’s relatively impenitent remarks so eagerly, shows that it is eager to see things calmed down. The Egyptian MB thought the controversy was now likely to subside, and I hope they are right about that . . . ”
Another issue was Benedict’s views on Turkey in the European Union. I argued that Wikileaks showed a dramatic change in his position on this issue over time, toward neutrality and openness to the possibility. I wrote at the time:
The problem is that, while the article on this matter is clear and largely accurate, the headline: “Pope wanted Muslim Turkey kept out of EU” is grossly incorrect.
In 2004, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) spoke out against allowing Turkey to join the European Union. This position was not that of the Church as a whole. Indeed, a cable from that year says that “Acting Vatican Foreign Minister equivalent Monsignor Pietro Parolin told Charge August 18 that the Holy See remained open to Turkish EU membership.”
Contrary to what The Guardian implied, then, it seems clear to me that until he became pope, Ratzinger’s views on Turkey were not reflective of Vatican policy, and after he became Pope his stance changed dramatically in Turkey’s favor.
Ratzinger and others were, in 2004, attempting to have the European Union acknowledge the Christian roots of Europe, and they were afraid that Turkey’s accession might make that declaration less likely. (Since so much of European history (including all the Greek philosophers, Jewish thought on social justice, Irish and Norse mythology, the lives of the Roman emperors until the 4th century CE, not to mention the long centuries of Arab Spain and the Muslim-dominated Balkans) happened outside a Christian framework, this position seems to me invidious.
That the Vatican remained “open” to Turkish membership even after Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope is clear from a subsequent cable. The remaining reservations expressed by Vatican officials derived, at least as presented by Parolin, not from worries about the ancient Christian character of Europe, but concerns that Turkey’s human rights record needed to be reformed before it was admitted. From the Vatican’s point of view, Turkey’s Christians were badly mistreated, and their condition was just short of open persecution.
On becoming Pope, Benedict appears fairly rapidly to have changed his earlier hard line position, to the point that his nuanced neutrality on the issue of Turkish accession to the EU could be misunderstood by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodogan as wholehearted support. The “pope expressed his hope for ‘ “joint Christian and Muslim action on behalf of human rights” and emphasized his hope that Turkey would be a “bridge of friendship and of fraternal cooperation between the East and West.” ‘ By 2006, as well, the US was hopeful that Pope Benedict could be a positive force for Turkey integration into Europe.
Those hopes were not realized. Pope Benedict declared the Vatican officially neutral on the Turkey issue, since the Vatican is not an EU member state. The State Department cable speculated that “The Vatican might prefer to see Turkey develop a special relationship short of membership with the EU.” But if the Vatican was declining to push for this point of view and was actively neutral, this private wish is irrelevant in the world of diplomacy. If your official stance is neutrality, then that is your public position and others cannot abrogate it for you.
I see these cables as the evolution of Cardinal Ratzinger from a key Vatican official concerned with ideology to a pope aware of his global responsibilities, who backed off opposition to Turkey joining Europe and declared a studied neutrality on the issue even while admitting pros (Turkey could be an interlocutor for largely Christian Europe with the Muslim world) and cons (for Turkey to join without implementing religious freedom would endanger this key value for all EU states).
That is, my reading of the documents and the evolution of the Ratzinger position leads me to a conclusion precisely the opposite of the one implied by the Guardian’s headline. In fact, you only wish the Christian Right in the US was as capable of mature reflection on such issues and as willing to be pragmatic as this Pope.”
Pope Benedict clearly learned a great deal over time and moderated some of his initial, provocative stances. He thus established a trajectory toward, if not better, then less turbulent Roman Catholic-Muslim relations. His successor could usefully go further, back to the Vatican II spirit:
” The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.”
I don’t think Pope Benedict began by agreeing with very much of the above, but over time he seems to have grudgingly accepted the wisdom of some of it. It is a passage that had a profound impact on me in my youth, and I hope the new pope revives this tradition of reformist theology. It is how the one billion Roman Catholics and 1.5 billion Muslims can hope to go forward together in the 21st century.
Anouar Majid writes from Rabat, Morocco, in a guest column for Informed Comment
The French are in trouble. The publication Charlie Hebdo has just published cartoons of Islam’s prophet, Mohammed, and now the French government is taking measures to protect its citizens in Muslim countries. I hear Friday may be the D-Day of Muslim protests, but if such protests take place in Morocco, I won’t be here to see them. It will be on my way back to the US.
Last week, soon after I landed in Morocco, my 12-year-old son and I got to witness a ragtag group of protesters walking down the main boulevard in Tangier in Morocco, holding black-and-white pictures of Osama bin Laden, spouting anti-Semitic slogans about the massacre of Jews in the so-called Khaybar battle during the Prophet’s time, and denouncing US President Obama as if he were the chief villain in the sound-and-fury global drama about the defamation of Prophet Mohammed in a stealthily produced YouTube video film. Young men shouted slogans variously referring to Allah, America and Facebook. They displayed black banners with Islam’s declaration of faith, while women followed dutifully in the back, humanizing their menfolk with a less threatening demeanor.
The 200 or so Islamists seemed like a group of desperadoes who had bid their time and labored in the shadows for the longest time until they could find an excuse to walk defiantly along the city’s glittering streets. They were proud of standing up for the Prophet’s honor although few probably had seen the YouTube film. They had no idea that to the city’s café habitués they were a mere sideshow, a mere topic of conversation to fill up the long café hours and start new ones at some bar counter later that night.
Morocco has a mature civil society, a longstanding tradition of peaceful protests, and a strong government. It is also America’s oldest friend in the world. During that same week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with a Moroccan delegation in Washington to plan out a road map for future partnerships. Things are not likely to get out of control here, despite the West’s repeat offense with the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. The point, however, is if such protests happen in liberal Morocco, what should one expect from dysfunctional states in other parts of North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia?
Welcome to the newest chapter in the Arab Spring. President Obama helped liberate the people of Libya, Yemen, and Egypt from the dungeons of secular tyrants, only to find himself ensnared in the web of the hard line Islamist monster and its moderate Muslim enablers. I am by now almost exhausted trying to explain to anyone willing to listen that in free societies everyone is lampooned—no exceptions—but I keep getting the same quizzical looks. One can’t mess with the muqadassat, or the sacred, is the common refrain here.
The West and the rest of the world will not know peace until critical thinkers in the Arab and Muslim worlds start speaking out and getting an audience from the global media. There is no alternative to native dissent to the suffocating culture of the sacred. Muslims are as intellectually capable as anyone else in the world, but their minds are almost hopelessly shackled by taboos, big and small, social and political. Instead of producing a culture of critical thinkers, Muslim societies are teeming with thin-skinned moralists.
Meanwhile, Muslim-majority nations, those whose flags display stars, crescents, and swords, can’t compete with a nation like South Korea in contributing to global scientific research, or invent anything to save their lives.
Muslims are struck in an impossible bind: They are totally dependent on the West for all the good things in life but are fanatically attached to religion as a marker of their separate identity. By being unable to be fully Western, they have forced themselves into an orthodox corner. Fanaticism is the result.
Westerners and Western-educated folk who apologize for Muslims by invoking the depredations of the West are not helping make things better. Muslims don’t need to indulge in a victim mentality; they need to develop their societies, build stronger economies, cultivate the arts and and encourage innovation and critical thinking in all fields. Neither self-pity nor piety will get them there.
Nouman Ali Khan of the Bayyinah Institute appeals to the Quran, the behavior of the Prophet Muhammad, and common sense in upbraiding the violent believers for letting Islamophobes get their goat and provoking them to actions that detract from the reputation of Muslims and Islam.
Jonathan Lyons writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
Islam, Women, and the West
This essay is adapted from my latest book, Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism, newly published by Columbia University Press. For more information, please see the CUP catalogue, at the CUP catalogue or my web page.
In the mid-1840s, French novelist Gustave Flaubert presented readers with a tantalizing view from the top of the Great Pyramid after an arduous climb under the blistering Egyptian sun: “But lift your head. Look! Look! And you will see cities with domes of gold and minarets of porcelain, palaces of lava built on plinths of alabaster, marble-rimmed pools where sultanas bathe their bodies at the hour when the moon makes bluer the shadows of the groves and more limpid the silvery water of the fountains.”
Flaubert’s excitable prose – “Open your eyes! Open your eyes!” – were penned four years before he ever set foot in the Middle East and so tells us far more about the writer’s idea of the Muslim world than they do about anything he could possibly have seen from distant France. Yet, Flaubert was by no means alone.
European artists routinely created their own representations of the Muslim Orient at home and only then set out on their travels in search of confirmation. Eugène Delacroix’s earliest representations of Ottoman women, intimate portrayals of Muslim female sexuality characterized by passive repose, overt submission, and sumptuous surroundings punctuated by symbolic reminders of restraint or outright captivity, were made some five years before his first trip to the Muslim world, which took him to Algeria and Morocco and not to Ottoman Turkey.
When they did arrive in the Orient, many Europeans were deeply disappointed by what they found. Gérard de Nerval, whose Voyage en Orient became a classic, groused to a friend that the Oriental cafés back home in Paris were more authentic than those of the Orient itself. Rather than mingle with real Egyptians, he conducted much of his research in a French-run library in Cairo. Nerval was so nonplussed that he even incorporated whole sections from a pioneering English work on the subject and passed it off as his own observations. Another writer used this same text, which described Egyptian customs, and applied it wholesale to daily life in Syria.
Flaubert’s disappointment was more primal. He found the women of Egypt, in particular those of the urban middle and upper classes, commonly veiled and often secluded and thus inaccessible to his European gaze. Unable to locate the idealized Oriental woman – or man –of his erotic fantasies, Flaubert had to literally create his own; he routinely hired prostitutes to act the parts he so ardently sought.
Not even the new tecnology of photography, with its implied promise of realism, could alter the equation. Soon, an entire commercial apparatus to manufacture the eroticized imagery of the Middle East was in place. Like the writer or the painter before him, the photographer was excluded from his intended subject, and could do little more than re-imagine existing images in the new medium. Entrepreneurs set up local studios where they could gather props, hire prostitutes as models, and then stage harem scenes to create the erotic Oriental postcards their audiences back home demanded. “What the postcard proposes as the truth,” writes the scholar Malek Alloula, “is but a substitute for something that does not exist.”
What is most interesting about this seeming confusion between the imagined and the real, between reading and seeing, is the extent to which the former so often takes precedence over the latter. This, in turn, reflects the primacy in Western thought of the expert “text” – philological, anthropological, theological, etc. – over any lived experience or personal observation of the Muslim world. In fact, whenever observation or experience on the part of the travel writer, the memoirist, or the diplomat conflicts with textual evidence, the prevailing narrative dictates that the text almost certainly wins. Today, we see this in the myopia that plagues most Western news reporting and analysis from the Muslim world.
In other words, Islam cannot be what the Muslims say or do or even what they say they mean, but only what a handful of “texts” – selected and then interpreted by the Western Islam expert – tells us it is and is not. This phenomenon reflects what I call the anti-Islam discourse, a totalizing western narrative that dates back to the run-up to the First Crusade at the close of the eleventh century. Yet, its core elements – that Islam is inherently violent, sexually perverse, and anti-modern – remain as influential today as they once were in the halls of the Roman curia.
These developments have, in turn, left the West unprepared to respond in any constructive way to some of the most daunting issues of the early twenty-first century – the rise of Islamist political power, the emergence of religious terrorism, clashes between established social values and multicultural rights on the part of growing Muslim immigrant populations, and so on.
Historical trends in Western scholarship have contributed greatly to such attitudes and ideas. Nineteenth-century representation of the Orient was closely tied to the earlier Enlightenment notion of Islamic civilization as timeless, dead, and without history. Thus, the Western imagination stepped forward to fill the void that was Islam. Only then could it be properly represented and in due course conquered, subdued, and colonized.
When it comes to the women of the Muslim world, the “hidden” quality represented by the institutions of the harem, of seclusion, and of the veil struck a nerve in the Western mind that went beyond attitudes toward other non-Western women. Initially, this focused particular attention on the imperial harem – with its legions of concubines, guarded by eunuchs – presenting what was in effect an institution restricted to the highest reaches of the Ottoman court as symptomatic of Muslim family life in general.
The general seclusion of middle- and upper-class Muslim women elicited two powerful strategies aimed at revealing the previously unseen: to draw on the storehouse of the Western imagination to fill in the blanks left by this inaccessibility, and later to literally unveil the women of Islam. Both responses drew on the anti-Islam discourse to produce an enormous number of Western statements about Islam and the Muslims, first in the form of Orientalist art and literature and then, beginning with outright colonial rule, in the shape of policies, reforms, and White Papers aimed at ending the degradation.
By the early twentieth century, the institution of veiling had for the most part supplanted the more exotic harem as the focal point of Western attention. Still, the underlying logic of the discourse of Islam and women remains firmly in place today. The end result has been a “sexualization” of the Western view of Islam, one in which the totality of Muslim beliefs and practices and even the entire Islamic civilization are too often reduced to Western perceptions and assessment of the male–female dynamic.
Exhibit A may be found in our obsession with the hijab, or veil, as a barometer of social progress and overall well-being within Islamic societies, to such a degree that it has become a commonplace of Western mass-media coverage, social activism, and political discussion alike. For years, the veil has been a staple of endless news articles, books, and documentaries, and it is captured in magazine and television images – all as shorthand for a society, a civilization, or a system that is backward, alien, immobile, and inherently antithetical to human rights and dignity.
Running throughout this public discourse is the persistent binary opposition of oppression and freedom, veiled and unveiled, bad and good. Islam itself and on its own terms is once again ignored in favor of an unquestioned Western construction. And this construction dictates that the West’s approaches and policy proscriptions toward Muslim societies be seen solely through the lens of our own flawed understanding of both women and gender relations in Islam.
Nothing else can adequately explain the Western fascination with the veil and the apprehension of this institution as the root of the oppressive conditions faced by many women in Muslim societies. The prevailing idea of veiling, and of the associated degradation of women, creates the notion of an inferior Muslim world in need of rescue from itself, by force if necessary. This recalls Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous critique of colonialist rhetoric as largely consisting of “white men saving brown women from brown men.”
To see the immediate dangers in such a course, one must only reflect on the ways in which the U.S. government was able to mobilize public support for two doomed wars against Muslim societies by tapping directly into the overarching discourse of Islam and its important subset, Islam and women. The expropriation of the rhetoric of women’s rights under Islam in order to unleash deadly violence on Muslim nations shows just how much the struggle for women’s equality has become a discursive one rather than a material one.
Closer to home, the discourse of Islam and women recently played out in America’s living rooms, after the obscure Florida Family Association (FFA) successfully pressured advertisers to drop support for a reality TV show, All American Muslim. According to the show’s producers, the program “takes a look at life in Dearborn, Michigan … through the lens of five Muslim American families. Each episode offers an intimate look at the customs and celebrations, misconceptions and conflicts these families face outside and within their own community.”
But the FFA labeled the program “propaganda.” At the heart of the group’s critique, one apparently endorsed by Lowe’s and other departed commercial sponsors, lies the notion that “the show profiled only Muslims that appeared to be ordinary folks.” Once again, when it comes to Muslims, appearances must be set aside in favor of the more powerful – and persuasive –discursive reality of Islam. Not surprisingly, an FFA statement on its Web site directs a central part of its argument on the established narrative of Islam and women: “Many woman were shown wearing hijabs and many who were not, but the program did not show what happens if one of the hijab-wearing women decides to take it off.” Tellingly, FFA sees no need to respond to its own question – what happens? – for the group can have no doubt but that we all know the answer.
Jonathan Lyons, former Reuters Tehran bureau chief from 1998-2001, is the author of several books, most recently Islam through Western Eyes.