It’s Time to End Gender Segregation in Mosques

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I already know what many of you are thinking.  “This is haram/biddah/un-Islamic,” or perhaps my favorite, “This an example of people following their own desires over what God wants or commands.”  Some go as far to call Muslim feminism an “oxymoron,” or “extremely stupid,” and some even say it’s a “perversion” of Islam.  I’ve heard it all before, so if you don’t have anything new to contribute in what I hope will be a civil/mature discussion about gender relations in Islam, please don’t bother commenting.

We all know what the stereotypes say about Islam and women.  “Islam oppresses/enslaves/subjugates women!” cries the Islamophobe, and in response, all Muslims — female and male — get rightfully offended.  We get offended because we know our faith and our history.  We know how the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, abolished sexist and misogynist practices, such as female infanticide, in order to promote women’s rights and gender equality.  We know how the Prophet’s wife, Khadijah, peace be upon her, was an independent business woman who initiated a marriage proposal to Muhammad.  We know that the Qur’an, unlike the Torah, does not blame Eve for the first sin, but rather makes it clear that Adam and Eve were both in the wrong and then pardoned.  And while many of us dispute over how a woman is supposed to express the Islamic teachings of modesty, it is agreed upon that the Qur’an mandates women and men to be modest, respectful, and humble to each other.

We look around our community and know that the overwhelming majority of Muslim women choose whether or not they want to wear the hijaab (headscarf).  We read our history books and learn about empowered Muslim women over the centuries such as the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, peace be upon her, Rabia Al-Adawiyyah, Zeb-un-Nisa, and Razia Sultana.  In modern times, we have seen female prime ministers of Muslim nations like Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.  Muslim women are athletes, journalists, authors, politicians, actresses, filmmakers, photographers, activists, bloggers, students, and teachers, among so many other things.  With all of this in mind, it sounds like the Muslim community enjoys gender equality.  Unfortunately, when we look closer, especially at our Mosques, we see a very contrasting picture.

Muslim Women in Mosques and Male Privilege

In the majority of Mosques, women are isolated in a separate room that is often smaller than the men’s section.  In some Mosques, men and women are separated by a wall or barrier, while in others, women pray behind a curtain.  I’ve been to some Mosques where a balcony is built specifically for women, which makes it easy for men to forget that women are in attendance and easy for women to feel like they have no participation in the Mosque.   Some Mosques, mostly in Muslim majority countries (but in the West as well) may not even have enough space for women.  Their argument is that women, unlike men, are not obligated to pray in Mosques.  Women, according to them, can pray at home and take care of their “womanly duties.”

Depending on how big or wealthy the Mosque is, some Muslim women may be lucky enough to get a sound system and a television in their rooms so that they can hear and see the imam deliver his khutbah (sermon) during Friday prayers.  Sadly, as most Muslim women know, Mosques are infamously known for their poor sound quality and malfunctioning televisions.  But it’s more than just about bad sound or vision.  An article from “Islam for Today,” describes the discriminatory setting that Muslim women experience in Mosques:

…[A]mong those mosques that do let women in, I’m sorry to say that most of the ones I have seen relegate the women to an inferior status. They banish them to basement rooms or other segregated spaces. Too often the second-class spaces allotted to the women are poorly maintained, uncomfortable, cramped, filthy, or otherwise substandard, while the men reserve the best areas for their exclusive use. This kind of treatment makes the preaching about women’s status being equal in Islam sound awfully hollow. Too many places don’t allow women any chance to speak and be heard, let alone have any say in the way the mosque is run.

Muslim women never give sermons or lead prayers, unless it’s front of an all-female congregation and the men can’t hear/see them.  While men are limited to speaking to men only, they have better access to the imam and can make announcements to promote events after the Friday prayer.  If a Muslim woman wants to announce an upcoming event, she must do so through a man.  In other words, she cannot even announce something in her own words or voice.  On important Islamic events and holidays, a Muslim woman’s spiritual experience is significantly affected by the gender segregation.  Krista Riley, a Muslim feminist and contributing writer of Muslimah Media Watch, shares her experience:

On the 27th night of Ramadan – the night most widely believed to be Laylat-ul-Qadr, the Night of Power – I went to the mosque for tarawih prayers, in which they would be completing the recitation of the Qur’an that they had been doing all month. This experience, of praying together on this special night as the Qur’an is completed, is a beautiful and powerful one. At least, so I am told.

What happened in reality is that the women’s section, far too small to fit all of the women who had come that evening, was crowded and uncomfortable. I ended up having to pray close to the elevator, on the marble floor, because that was the only place left when I got there; I had people walking around and in front of me all evening. On top of that, it was NOISY. Several families had brought their small children, who were all sent up to the women’s section (where the “children’s area” was, although few children stayed inside it), and who were yelling, crying, and even running around at various points throughout the prayer. While I could hear the emotion in the Imam’s voice as he recited, I could barely focus on his words, because of all of the noise and activity around me. When the prayer was over, I could not get out of that mosque fast enough. It was, without a doubt, the most stressful prayer experience I have ever had. Far from being inspired, I was annoyed, agitated, and more than a little bitter.

Krista added that she later spoke with a male friend who had no idea about the chaos she experienced.  This reveals the male privilege that too many Muslim men are utterly oblivious to.  As Krista explains:  “Completely disconnected from the women’s space, the Imam and his male followers had the luxury of truly focusing on the beautiful words whose revelation had begun that same month, so many centuries before.”

Muslim male privilege is a reality that cannot be denied, but it often seems difficult for many Muslim men to understand.  Muslim men do not have to worry about having enough space in the Mosque nor do they have to worry about easy accessibility to the imam or shaykh.  Although women have religious and Qur’anic classes, they cannot have the same aspirations as men, such as becoming an imam or shaykh.  As a result of male-dominated spiritual leadership, men can abuse their power and preach sexist interpretations of Islam in order to control women.   Muslim men also have better chances of establishing positions on the administrative board and do not have to worry about being discriminated against because of their gender.

Prior to reading Muslim feminist literature, I was virtually unaware of the sexism that took place within our community, which exposes my own male privilege.  Some Muslims do not consider it sexism, however, and they often present theological arguments to justify segregation.  For example, a study called “Mosques, Collective Identity and Gender Differences Among Arab American Muslims,” by Amaney Jamal, reports that female Mosque attendance is considerably lower than male attendance, but the opposite argument would be that women are not obligated to attend Mosques as men are.  To justify the partition, the argument is that segregation is about modesty and respecting the opposite sex.  Some Muslims believe it is impermissible for a woman to lead men and women in prayer or give a khutbah because their voices and physical appearances can be “distracting.”  While I strongly value the teachings of modesty in Islam, I argue that the manner in which most Mosques practice segregation actually sexualizes gender relationships in ways that many don’t realize.

The Case Against Partition

There is a lot of evidence from the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) that barriers did not exist during the time of the Prophet.  Interesting enough, a Hadith narrated by Ibn Abbas, the paternal cousin of Muhammad, reported that a woman used to pray directly behind the Prophet while he led prayer.  Muslim feminist and filmmaker, Zarqa Nawaz, points out in her documentary film, “Me and the Mosque,” that women used to speak up at Mosques and even refute the speaker if they had to.  For example, after the Prophet’s death, a woman challenged the Caliph, ‘Umar bin Khattab, by citing the Qur’an after he tried to reduce the mahr, a monetary gift a man gives to a woman before marriage.  It was ‘Umar who was ultimately responsible for relegating women to separate rooms.

As I mentioned, separating the sexes on the basis that women and men are physical (read: sexual) distractions to one another sexualizes gender relationships  (it’s really presented as women being distractions to men).  Like all societies, gender socialization is no different in the Muslim community.  Men and women are conditioned by socialized gender roles and expectations, i.e. men are the breadwinners and women are the homemakers.  I remember at a Youth Group meeting, our Mufti was teaching Muslim male adolescents that their primary focus (after being a good Muslim) was on establishing a career that (1) required the least amount of work and (2) paid the most amount of money.  He stressed that careers were important because it enables Muslim men to get married, and settling down with a family is what all Muslims should aspire for.  When we spoke with our Youth Group about dating, I only heard condemnations and unrealistic lessons on how to avoid girls and keep interactions as minimum as possible.  Women were not being presented as individuals, but as temptresses who are after a man’s purity/virginity.   Women, according to the coordinators at my Mosque, need to be avoided until a man is ready for marriage.

Sobia Ali, a Muslim feminist who has also contributed to the aforementioned Muslimah Media Watch, shares her perspective on the sexualization of Muslim women (emphases added):

The reason Mosques segregate is so that men and women do not get distracted by each other. However, the greater concern is with men’s distraction. The segregation is MAINLY so that men are not distracted by women – more specifically women’s bodies. It is not women’s mere presence, but rather seeing her body, or hearing her voice which could distract him. Why? Because men could be sexually attracted to women’s bodies and this will interfere with his worship. Therefore, knowing this, and then being forced to be in a completely different space than men, does nothing but remind me that my body, my female form, is a sexual distraction to the men in the Mosque.  This of course makes me feel like a sex object or sexual being.

The moment we say a woman’s voice may tempt a man, we are making a sexually-charged remark.  We are opposed to the idea of a woman leading prayer because we immediately think that men will “check her out.”  Yet we never seem to realize that women can be attracted to the voice of a Muslim man too.  I remember in my freshman year of college, some Muslim girls I knew were raving about how beautifully a Muslim man was reciting the Qur’an during prayer.  And there was more to it than just appreciating his spirituality and devotion.  “Well it’s different for men,” I remember a Muslim friend telling me once.  “Men are weaker, and they’re easily attracted to the opposite sex.”

Why do we treat gender interactions as a potentially sexual act?  Are Muslim men so weak that they’re unable to control their urges?  Are Muslims supposed to get married based upon socio-economic compatibility over Love and friendship?  I remember a fellow Muslim told me, “Just find someone you’re compatible with, don’t wait to fall in Love.”  At the Mosque, I made a comment once about how I Love Lebanese food, and the response was, “Oh, we’ll have to find you a good Lebanese sister for you, insha’Allah (God willing).”  I’ve noticed that a “good Muslim wife” in the eyes of the Muslim men at my Mosque is someone who is obedient, religious, wears hijaab, and knows how to raise a family.  God forbid if there is anything about romance or a woman’s individuality/personality.  Why aren’t we taught about the Love that hazrat Khadija and Muhammad had for one another?

Who’s Afraid of Amina Wadud and Female Imams?

Amina Wadud is a Muslim feminist and scholar who made international headlines when she led Friday prayer for a mixed-gender congregation in New York on March 18th, 2005.  Over 100 Muslim women and men participated in the prayer despite the controversy and protests that took place.  The Muslim protesters held signs reading, “Mixed congregation today, hell-fire tomorrow,” and one of the speakers was a young Muslim man screaming his head off  about how Amina Wadud is a “prostitute” and “whore.”  Apparently, if a sister in faith is doing something conservatives disagree with, the best way to teach her about modesty is to degrade her sexuality.  Who objectifies who again?

Wadud’s prayer was not the first female-led mixed-gender congregation in Islamic history, but it was the first that received international attention.  Most of the outrage comes, unsurprisingly, from Muslim men, who argue that Islam does not permit a woman to lead a mixed-congregation.  These reactions are interesting to me because I believe they reveal an underlying fear of empowered Muslim women.

It is always irrational when men get offended by feminist movements.  The fear that women want to “enslave men” is a result of the bruised male ego.  Men often neglect the fact that women have been treated as property, non-equals, and sex objects for centuries (and still are) by a male-dominated world.  A lot of men, whether they’re conscious of it or not, do not want to give up their position of power and they’re afraid of losing their dominance over women.  In the case of Amina Wadud, some Muslims argue that a female imam contradicts Islamic Law, but will not bother to read her book or alternative arguments, as if Islam is a monolith and only has one rigid interpretation.

Are we really taught that hazrat Khadijah was an independent tradeswoman and yet women are not allowed to lead prayers?  Are we really taught that “paradise is at the feet of your mother” by the Prophet, and yet we can’t listen to a Muslim woman deliver a khutbah because of whatever “genetic disposition” she has as a female?  Can we really believe that Fatima Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet, will be the first person to enter the afterlife, and yet the voices of Muslim women are completely shut out at Mosques?  How can we truly follow the Qur’an, which teaches that men and women are equal spiritual beings, when our community treats women as intellectually inferior to men?

The Muslim Ummah can never move forward or become enlightened unless we evolve spiritually, empower Muslim women, and truly practice gender equality.  Allah gave us brains and encourages us to our reason and logic.  Instead of raging against Muslim women leading prayers, why aren’t we focusing on the horrible sexual double standard that takes place in our community?  What about the Muslim men who fool around with multiple women, but then eventually settle down with a virgin Muslim woman?  It is impossible to deny that Muslim women are far more stigmatized and penalized if their shortcomings are discovered by their male counterparts.  Why don’t the angry protesters at Amina Wadud’s prayer express their outrage at their Muslim brothers who get drunk, sleep around, and deny the rights of their sisters?

Moving Forward

First of all, we need to get rid of this notion that “feminism” is a bad word.  It’s not.  Feminism is about promoting the respect, dignity, and equality of all human beings — women and men.  Second, Muslims need to stop associating feminism with “Western decadence,” or “Western liberalism,” which usually means “secularism.”  Muslim feminist values are rooted in Islam, not in something external.  I believe with all of my heart that Islam is a perfect religion that teaches gender equality, but Muslims are not perfect, which is why it’s important to address these issues.

Mosques need to be more inclusive of Muslim women. Muslim women should be encouraged to be leaders in our communities, as imams, scholars, educators, directors, activists, artists, and so on.  I personally believe in removing the barrier and having Muslim men and women praying in the same room — with men on one side and women on the other.  Separate rooms should be made to accommodate for the Muslims who have more conservative views or want privacy.

Muslims need to remember what their religion teaches them.  If Muslim men really understood modesty and humility, we’d be showing so much more respect to women. If a Muslim woman leads prayer or gives a khutbah, we should not be thinking sexual thoughts. If a man has sexual thoughts going into the Mosque, nothing — not even a barrier — is going to stop him from having sexual thoughts or desires unless he restrains himself.

Lastly, the phrase “tear down the walls of separation” is an Islamic mystical (Sufi) expression used to convey the passionate longing that exists in our Souls — longing for the Divine, longing for Oneness, longing for self-actualization, and so on.  Beyond the physical, beyond gender, and beyond this shell we call “body,” there is a Being at the center of it all.  It is not your mouth or tongue that speaks, but rather your Being from within — that mystery we call “heart” and “soul.” The Qur’an teaches gender equality, and yes, women and men are different in many ways, but rather than limiting ourselves to roles based upon gender expectations, we should emphasize on celebrating and appreciating our differences.  If we do not actively oppose the sexism and misogyny in our communities, it will persist and only move one step closer to becoming permanent.

“Verily, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in their hearts” – Qur’an 13: 11

Hate Speech is Not Free Speech, Mr. Wilders and Mr. Horowitz

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It is absolutely appalling that Temple University, an institution of higher learning, would allow a blatantly Islamophobic propagandist like Geert Wilders to spew his hate speech on campus. My initial reaction upon hearing this, I must say, was the following: Would Temple University invite KKK members to speak on their campus as well?

Mr. Wilder’s scheduled visit, Tuesday, October 20th, is sponsored by some on-campus clubs, but there is one off-campus organization that stands out the most: The David Horowitz Freedom Center. Yes, this is the same David Horowitz who organized “Islamofascism Awareness Week” on some college campuses because, according to him, most universities in the United States are “bastions of liberal indoctrination.” I believe that is code for something like: “We need to indoctrinate students to think like me!”

But I will get to Mr. Horowitz later.

Geert Wilders, who is trying to promote his anti-Qur’an, um, “short film” or “documentary,” is not the kind of person who tries to code his hateful, xenophobic, and Islamophobic views. On the contrary, he is quite blunt about what he believes about Islam.

For instance, Wilders has gone on record to say the following:

Islam is not a religion… the Qur’an is a book that calls for hatred, that calls for violence, for murder, for terrorism, for war, and submission…We should also stop pretending that Islam is a religion…the right to religious freedom should not apply to Islam.

Yeah.

These words came directly from his mouth at a so-called “Free Speech” summit in Florida. If you’re skeptical about the quote I cited above, click on the link below to watch the video and hear Mr. Wilders say it himself:

Geert Wilders Declares Islam is Not a Religion

The fact that Mr. Wilders was banned from traveling to England should be enough to indicate how hostile his views and attitudes are towards Islam and Muslims (although recently, the ban was overturned and now Wilders apparently believes he has accomplished something with, well, hate speech). He is not someone who is genuinely interested in any kind of intellectual, inter-faith, or inter-cultural dialogue. In addition to accusing Islam of not being a religion, he demands to end Muslim immigration and propagates that Western culture is “better” and “superior” to “Islamic culture.” He argues that Islam “threatens” the West’s “Judeo-Christian values,” ignoring the fact that Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is also an Abrahamic faith! He calls for all Muslim schools in the West to be shut down and he wants to tax Muslim women who wear the hijaab (or “head-rag” as he described it).

Upon hearing about this event, Muslims like myself are outraged that organizations and clubs on the Temple University campus invited Mr. Wilders to speak. The Muslim Student Association (MSA) expressed their concerns to the university via a strong and solid letter to the institution. CAIR, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights organization, was contacted immediately by many local Muslims as well.

Here is where David Horowitz and his band of Islamophobes come into the picture.

Horowitz not only wrote a pathetic reply to the MSA, but also made incredibly offensive and inflammatory accusations against the student organization and implied that it “supported terrorism.” Other Islamophobic blogs are vilifying the MSA with absurd titles like, “Wilders Event at Temple University Attacked by Muslim Student Association” or “Jihad is Joined at Temple University.”

It isn’t difficult to see how Horowitz tries really hard to hide his Islamophobia. Rather than saying “Islam,” he will refer to it as “Radical Islam.” Rather than saying “Muslims,” he will tag it with the word “extremist.” In other words, he is very careful at how he phrases things because he likes to hide under the guise of not being racist, prejudice, or xenophobic.

But poor Horowitz doesn’t seem to realize that his Islamophobia and filthy racism is quite obvious. In his reply to the MSA, one can easily see that he is regurgitating his cliched anti-Muslim rhetoric rather than actually defending Geert Wilders. It is because it is impossible to defend Wilders and present him as a non-racist or non-Islamophobic speaker.  So Horowitz opts to do what he does best: twist the facts and lie.  Shamelessly.

In his letter, for instance, Horowitz writes:  “Geert Wilders…has been an outspoken critic of Islamic terrorists and Islamic attacks on Jews and other religions.”  Actually, Wilders has been outspoken about his hostile and antagonistic views towards Islam in general.  As I cited earlier, Mr. Wilders does not believe Islam is a religion, nor does he believe it deserves religious freedom.  That is not being an outspoken critic of terrorism or extremism, it’s being a hatemonger of an entire religion and group of people.  There is no such thing as simply hating a religion, but not the followers.  Generalizing and vilifying Islam is the same as demonizing the people who follow the faith, no matter how much Mr. Wilders and Mr. Horowitz want to convince (read: brainwash) their readers and viewers otherwise.

Horowitz lies again in the next paragraph of his letter:  “It is the height of hypocrisy for the Muslim Students Association to accuse Geert Wilders of spreading hate or anyone of being a hate group.”  Really?  Can you prove to us that Geert Wilders isn’t spreading hate about Islam?  Wilders expresses his hate explicitly when he says the Qur’an is “fascist” and that all Muslim immigration must be stopped.  I wonder how Horowitz would defend the video clip of Wilders saying that Islam should not be called a religion or deserve religious freedom.  The hypocrisy is in Horowitz’s own words.

Horowitz vilifies the Muslim Student Association by accusing it of being founded by a “Muslim terrorist organization.” It’s a pathetic and shameful attempt to discredit the hard work that Muslim students do on their campuses to organize inter-faith and/or inter-cultural events. Horowitz and Islamophobes alike do not want Muslim-Americans to speak up or defend themselves. Intellectual, well-educated, and well-spoken Muslims challenge the stereotypical and orientalist image of Muslims that Islamophobes want non-Muslims to have. Horowitz et al vilify and demonize CAIR because they do not want non-Muslims to see CAIR as a human rights organization, but rather as a “suspicious” and “dangerous” one.

The fact that Horowitz and his Islamophobes slandered the Muslim students at Temple University is very disturbing and sickening. It clearly shows the sheer amount of hatred that is filled in their hearts because before they even spoke to a single member from the student club, they went ahead and criminalized them. Rather than acknowledging that the MSA at Temple University held a fundraiser dinner during Ramadan to raise money, food, and awareness about those who starve in the world (including in the United States), Horowitz and the Islamophobes accused the MSA of “advocating terrorism” and “jihad.” As a result of these accusations, the MSA has been receiving hate mail, which totally refutes what Horowitz wrote in his letter:  “Temple MSA refers to the fact that security will be necessary at the event as proof that Geeert Wilders is dangerous.”

Yes, hate mail and death threats mean nothing to David Horowitz when they’re made against Muslims.  Based on Horowitz’s relentless attacks on Muslim organizations and civil rights groups, the only good Muslim to him is probably a dead one.  I have seen MSA’s across the nation organize events for multicultural and multi-faith understanding, and I have seen so many non-Muslims support our efforts.  I haven’t seen anything like that from Horowitz and Wilders.  Horowitz talks about “tolerance” in the last part of his letter, but has nothing in his portfolio to show for it.  All we have seen is hate, propaganda, Islamophobia, stereotypes, and generalizations.  How does that benefit society or make us less fearful of one another?

Only those with cold-hearts would say such hateful things without even engaging in any sort of communication or dialogue. The Islamophobic blogs and websites are only concerned about perpetuating the paranoia and fear that Muslims “want to take over America.” Many of these Islamophobes are the same people who believe Barack Obama is a “secret Muslim” in the White House.

The freedom of speech does not apply when it is turned into hate speech. And hate speech is nothing else but inciting hatred, prejudice, and violence against a particular group of people. This is the reason why Geert Wilders should not be permitted to speak at Temple University. By allowing him to speak, the university would not only be welcoming a hostile learning atmosphere for its Muslim students, but it would also be violating its own anti-discrimination policies.

If Wilders and Horowitz really care about their “Judeo-Christian values,” as they so often proclaim, perhaps they would benefit from a simple lesson by Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him:

“Do you not Love your Creator? Love your fellow beings first!”

Sixth Annual Brass Crescent Awards

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Salaam everyone!

Sorry I haven’t updated my blog in a while (at least, it feels like it’s been a long time).  I’ve been super busy with my part-time job and my semester at college.  I was actually a guest speaker yesterday for an inter-cultural communications class that I took last year.  My professor invited me to speak about Islamophobia, stereotyping, and rationalizing prejudice.  I was so happy with the responses I received from the students.  They were attentive, they laughed at my jokes (lol), and they all asked questions.

One of the things I shared with them was how so many people don’t really know what Islam is.  So many people don’t know what Muslims really believe.  I told them Islam is an “Abrahamic faith,” and then asked, “Does anyone know what that means?”  Only a few people nodded, so I went ahead and explained how Muslims believe in the Prophets from the Torah, as well as Jesus and Mary (peace be upon them all).  I mentioned this fact to also point out how irrational and inaccurate it is for Islamophobes to speak about Islam as if it’s not aligned with Judeo-Christian values.  If you open the Qur’an, you’ll see more about Moses than any other Prophet.  Jesus is even mentioned more by name than Muhammad is.

A few people came to me after class and told me that they learned so much about Islam.  They Loved my presentation and asked some more questions regarding practices, as well as the diverse cultures within the Muslim community.  The coolest thing is that my professor is encouraging me to become a teacher and others in the classroom agreed with her.  It was certainly an honor to speak at her class and I’m even more honored that she thinks I should become a teacher.  We’ll see what happens down the road!

Anyway, I wanted to announce that the nominations for the 6th annual brass crescent awards are now open, so if you Love reading this blog, please take a moment to nominate me!  Some of you may know this, but my old blog won last year for my essays on Muslim women in comic books.  Maybe you can nominate “Muslim Reverie” for “Best New Blog”?  It’s up to you!  Just follow the link below:

http://www.brasscrescent.org/

Thank you all so much in advance!  Your comments and feedback really make a difference in everything that I do!  Peace, Love, and Light!

~ Jehanzeb

Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins Scapegoat Islam

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It seems that Bill Maher likes to change his opinions on US foreign policy depending on who he has on the guest panel.  Friday night (October 2nd, 2009) was a perfect example of his inconsistency when he started to engage in juvenile Bushspeak (clip embedded below).

Richard Dawkins appeared on the show to promote his new book, “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution,” and as usual, Maher and Dawkins took some playful jabs at the Christian Right and how “superstitious” the West is becoming.  This wasn’t a surprise to me because both Dawkins and Maher aren’t shy when it comes to ridiculing religion.

I don’t argue against their points simply because they’re offensive, but also because they fuel a false notion that “religion” and “science” are “incompatible.”  This is not to deny the fact that there is an actual debate between creationists and evolutionists.  Rather, the point is that both sides of the argument tend to isolate the many who don’t believe religion and science are antithetical to one another.  Instead, we see Dawkins and Maher use ad hominem fallacies to insult and discredit alternative arguments and perspectives.  For instance, labeling people who believe in God as “superstitious,” “schizophrenic,” and/or “delusional” only dodges opportunities to engage in productive dialogue.

But this post isn’t about evolution or Dawkins’ new book.  It’s about the discussion Maher, Dawkins, and the rest of the guest panel have about Muslims and Islam.  Maher initiates the discussion with a recent report of two young Muslim men who had serious intentions to attack locations in the United States, and then makes an absolutely ridiculous assertion that they “don’t hate America, they Love America and feel guilty about it, I think.”  During the day, he continues, “they’re eating at Chili’s, going to the titty bar, and then they get on the internet at night and want to atone for the guilt they feel for embracing the West in cyberspace.”

Um, what?!

Maher, who has argued many times on his show that violence against the West occurs because of US foreign policy, suddenly transformed into George W. Bush.  Like Bush, Maher is essentially arguing that “they hate us because of our values” or “because we’re a democracy”  Muslims feeling guilty about enjoying American culture?  What kind of “logic” is Maher using?

After Janeane Garofalo brilliantly exposed how irrational Maher was being and argued that US foreign policy was the main issue, Dawkins chimed in with a lazy and predictable remark, “Why don’t you just say it’s religion, it’s so obvious.”  Once again, Dawkins uses religion (in this case, Islam) as a convenient scapegoat to simplify complex realities.  Any honest scholar, especially historians who have dedicated their lives to studying so-called “religious wars” or “holy wars,” acknowledge the fact that religion is not the “one and only” cause of war.  The fact that Crusaders, for instance, slaughtered and subjugated other Christians (namely the Greek Orthodox Christians and Arab Christians) is one of many examples on how flawed the argument of “holy war” is.

Thomas Friedman, an American journalist who supported the invasion of Iraq, entered the discussion with his sheer arrogance and pompous pseudo-intellectualism, behaving as if he had full credibility to discuss Islam, its theology, its history, and its people.  His incredibly flawed and ethnocentric prejudices of Muslims reek in his colossally stupid remarks about the Muslim male psyche and how young Muslim men “hate America” because “their countries” (i.e. Muslim countries) are “behind” in economics and education. Shamelessly, Friedman relies on his own conjectures and then paints Muslims as the “Other.”

And that’s exactly what we get out of this episode:  Otherizing Muslims and Islamophobia.  Whether consciously or subconsciously, the panelists speak about Muslims as if Islam is not part of America.  Although Barack Obama has defended Islam and Muslims on many occasions (and even went as far as saying Islam is part of America), it seems that this message is not resonating with many people.  I get the feeling that Bill Maher was afraid to invite Reza Aslan, Naomi Klein, and Jeremy Scahill (who have all been on his show before) for this episode because either one of them would have blasted Maher, Friedman, and Dawkins on their ignorance and childish generalizations.

I’m hoping Reza Aslan appears on the show soon.  Maybe he can help correct Maher’s Bushspeak and elementary school logic.

Revisiting Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” and Exploitation of Mayan Civilization

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I admit that when I first saw Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” in theaters, I thought it was visually stunning (see screen shot above) and incredibly entertaining.  A few days later, I remember pondering about why Mel Gibson wanted to tell a story about Mayan civilization, especially after making a deeply religious film, “The Passion of the Christ.”  Was Gibson simply looking for a fast-paced action/adventure story to tell (with typical Mel Gibson-style gore) or was he embedding a strong colonial and Eurocentric message (also with typical Mel Gibson-style gore)?

Perhaps he was looking to do both.

It would be wrong to accuse a devoutly religious person of any faith that their work will always contain either an implicit or explicit message that promotes the superiority of one group of people over another.  It would also be wrong to assume that just because Gibson is a traditionalist Catholic, he must then fit the stereotype of pro-war neoconservatives.  On the contrary, Gibson revealed in Time Magazine that the “fear-mongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys.”  However, given Gibson’s drunken anti-Semetic rant in 2006 and his inconsistent remarks about whether or not non-Catholics and non-Christians are worthy of salvation, I argue that there is more to “Apocalypto” than an edge-of-your-seat thriller.

The film opens with a quote by American historian Will Durant:  “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”  By the end of the film, if you keep this quote in mind, the implication seems to be that the Mayas were a brutal civilization that destroyed itself before the Spanish conquistadors invaded and “saved” the people.   These sentiments are echoed by anthropologist Traci Ardren, who writes that the Spanish invaders were Christian missionaries and that the film contains a “blatantly colonial message that the Mayas needed saving because they were ‘rotten at the core.’”  She adds:

[The film] replays, in glorious big-budget technicolor, an offensive and racist notion that Maya people were brutal to one another long before the arrival of Europeans and thus they deserved, in fact they needed, rescue. This same idea was used for 500 years to justify the subjugation of Maya people.

Since the subject of human sacrifice is sensationalized incredibly in high school (and even college) discourse about Mayan and Aztec cultures, it shouldn’t surprise viewers that the film highlights upon the brutal ritual.  Indeed, human sacrifice was practiced, but many scholars argue against the notion that 250,000 people would be sacrificed annually.  Scholars and historians alike argue that the Aztecs would inflate the number for propaganda purposes and to intimidate their enemies.  Julia Guernsey, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas, writes:

We have accounts from the Aztecs of such things; it shows up in their mythology. And we have some images from the Maya that suggest that that kind of sacrifice did take place and that they probably did roll the bodies down (the pyramid). Now, the guys in the movie at the bottom catching the bodies with nets? That is crazy. We have no evidence for that. Another thing that was so funny was all that crazy, wild dancing with women’s breasts flapping. I was just reading hours before I saw the movie with you a 400-page textbook dedicated to Maya dance, and it talked about how women played no major public role in these ceremonies but much more subtle roles.

It’s no doubt that the world in which the Mayan characters inhabit looks like a very scary place.  Mel Gibson intended it to be that way and he is very good at disturbing the audience with demonic representations of the Maya.  We don’t see anything appreciative about Mayan civilization, but rather see a very primitive and barbaric society that simply enjoys hunting, beating, and killing other human beings.  In actuality, aside from technology, the Mayan civilization was more advanced than their European counterparts.  They excelled in mathematics, astronomy, art, architecture, and science.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Brilliant Mayan artistic and scientific achievements in ceramics, sculpture, weaving, and painting, some of which were more advanced than European accomplishments of the same era, all showed remarkable artistic sensitivity. They developed an accurate calendar and complex systems of agricultural and water management.

Rather than enlightening us about these aspects of Mayan civilization, Gibson seems quite persistent in capturing the cruelty, horror, and “backwardness” in ancient civilization.  In fact, Gerardo Aldana argues in his brilliant piece, “Where Was the Maya Civilization in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto?” that much of the brutality depicted in the film was actually “borrowed” from the West.  He elaborates:

[T]he slave market depicted in the city constitutes a mirror image of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the pre-Civil War United States. In that case, the “sellers” of African slaves were Europeans or European-Americans, dehumanizing other peoples by treating them as commodities. While slavery is documented for Maya cultures (and Greek and Roman, etc.), there is nothing that attests to their having been bought and/or sold in public market contexts.

Furthermore, Aldana adds that the raiding of villages for human sacrifice, as depicted in the film, is undocumented in Maya cultures and that the practice of placing decapitated heads on stakes came from “Cortes’s entra in Central Mexico, committed by Spanish conquistadors against their indigenous ‘enemies.’”

Hernan Cortes, as Aldana references, was a Spanish conquistador who brought an end to the Aztec Empire.  It’s interesting to note that the Aztec Emperor, Moctezuma II, feared that Cortes and his conquistadors were sent by the awaited feathered-serpent god, Quetzalcotal (who is thought to be Jesus, peace be upon him, by some Mormon scholars).  It’s disputed among historians whether or not Cortes learned about this prophecy and then claimed himself to be Quetzalcotal in order to take advantage of the Aztecs, but what’s not disputed is that Quetzalcotal was prophesied to be fair-skinned and bearded.  The European invaders were, in fact, lighter-skinned and many of them were bearded, and with their advanced technology, such as large ships and cannons, it worked in the imagination of many that the conquistadors were otherworldly, if not sent by Quetzalcotal himself.

As I keep this in mind, I reflect on the ending of “Apocalypto” when fair-skinned and bearded Spaniards arrive with ships and a wooden cross.  They are portrayed in an innocent and unapologetic light, as if they are, indeed, arriving to save the Mayans.  This bothers and disturbs me for a number of reasons; the main reason being that those who may not be familiar with ancient history of what is now Latin America may watch this film and conclude that the Spaniards simply came and everything was happy and wonderful.  In other words, it perpetuates the romanticization of Christopher Columbus, the “discovery” of the “new world,” and how the Europeans “coexisted peacefully” with the indigenous population.

Audiences aren’t concerned about the achievements and contributions of Mayan civilization when they watch “Apocalypto.”  There is nothing in the film that draws our attention to anything remotely appreciative about their culture or civilization.  Instead, the audience gets a fast-paced action/adventure movie that is set in a “scary” ancient world and we should be thankful for the European invasion.

To put it bluntly:  Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” is an exploitation of Mayan civilization and it offers no apology for the Spanish conquest, which, in reality, imposed Catholicism, colonized Mexico for three centuries, and nearly wiped out the entire indigenous population.  Gibson’s film, with all of its sensationalism, suspense, and violence, ignored the opportunity to enlighten the world about an ancient civilization and, instead, opted to entertain and rake in money at the box office with a cheap colonialist message.

May Allah Protect You

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Salaam/Peace everyone,

I’m sure you have all heard about the devastating earthquake in Indonesia by now.  The United Nations have stated that nearly 1,000 people have been killed, while the Indonesian government believes the death toll is 777 along with hundreds injured.  Regardless, the people of Indonesia need our help.  Switzerland, Australia, Japan, and the United States have already arrived with rescue teams and aid.  President Barack Obama called Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to express condolences on behalf of the American people.

“I’ve ordered my administration to coordinate with the ongoing relief and recovery efforts there,” Obama said.  “They (Indonesians) need to know that America will be their friend and partner.”

Insha’Allah, with the Muslim Student Association (MSA) and possibly in collaboration with other clubs on campus, I plan to help organize a fundraiser for the victims and families of this recent disaster.  Islamic Relief is another organization and rescue team that is in Indonesia and they are appealing to people worldwide to donate now.  Please follow the link below to send your donations:

Islamic Relief:  Sumatra Earthquake Appeal

According to Al-Jazeera English, the rescue teams lack sufficient equipment, which is why aid and rescue teams are urgently needed.  There are still many people, including children, still trapped beneath the rubble of the disaster.  As parents and others pray for their children and Loved ones, the best we can do is pray with them and offer whatever aid we possibly can.

No donation is too small.  Every penny counts and makes a difference.  May Allah bring healing to those who are suffering.  Ameen.