Friday, 22 February 2008

The Radical Imams of the West

In appreciation of the radical imams of the West

By Mona Eltahawy

Let us appreciate the radical imams of the West. As a liberal Muslim woman I am generally loathe to express gratitude to conservative men, but the more these imams perfect the ability to say something stupid - often in Arabic, thinking that no one will find out - the more attainable they make my goal: to show that these men do not represent all Muslims.

This is especially important at a time when so many Muslims in the West, particularly in Europe, are being put through the wringer of integration and always found wanting.

Because these radical imams, who have failed to integrate in the West, have unilaterally appointed themselves as our spokesmen - and are so readily accepted as such by the media - their shortcomings are easily projected onto the community as a whole.

Is it any wonder that one study in the United States revealed recently that fewer than 10 percent of Muslims there attend mosque on a regular basis? A similar study in Denmark put the figure there at less than 20 percent.

The imams who are sent from Arab countries usually only speak Arabic and arrive with a suitcase full of stale ideas that are woefully out of touch with the concerns of the congregations they have been sent to tend to and even more out of sync with the culture and mores of their new homes.

Take Sheikh Taj al-Din Hamid Hilaly, Australia's top Muslim cleric who recently asked for an indefinite leave of absence from his duties after he was barred from preaching for three months over having blamed women for rape. The Egyptian-born cleric is but the latest imam whose talent for placing his foot far into his mouth has ironically done the Australian Muslim community a huge favor.

Hilaly's outrageous words - at one point in a sermon he described women who did not dress modestly as "uncovered meat" - earned him the wrath not just of mainstream Australian society, but more importantly, of many within the Muslim community itself, including the board of the Sydney mosque where he preaches. The board should have fired him. But short of that, the three-month suspension was a clear message that many Muslims in Hilaly's congregation refuse to condone such a hatefully misogynistic attitude.

Some Australian Muslims defended Hilaly. While I cannot understand how anyone could defend such views, I can only welcome disagreement among Muslims. What a relief to have our differences so openly aired after years of lazy stereotyping that has portrayed Muslims as a homogenous lump.

You see why I have to thank Hilaly?

The anger directed at him was particularly important because the Muslim world has been so quick to take offense recently. In less than a year, we have seen Muslim anger over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper, comments by Pope Benedict XVI that linked Islam and violence, and former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's view that the face veil, or niqab, prevented communication.
If Muslim offense at any of these things is to be taken seriously, rather than viewed merely as political opportunism by our numerous self-appointed leaders, then that same anger must mobilize and direct itself against "our own." And we have seen just that happen in Australia.

There's a sad but interesting twist to the Hilaly controversy. In a sermon during the holy month of Ramadan, Hilaly told his Sydney congregation that sexual assault might not happen if women dressed in the hijab - i.e. covered all their body except for the face and hands - and stayed at home.

Just days after Australian newspapers first reported the English translation of his sermon, a mob in Cairo went on a rampage, sexually assaulting several women. The assaulters did not distinguish between women who wore hijabs and those who did not.

The Egyptian media has largely ignored the story, but bloggers who posted eye-witness accounts of the assaults were quick to connect the attacks to Hilaly's hateful words. So he has even managed to stir anger in his country of birth.

To further appreciate the positive consequences of the blunders of imams, take the case of Ahmed Abu Laban, the Copenhagen cleric who helped organize a trip to Egypt and Lebanon last year to rally support among Muslim leaders for protests against the Prophet drawings in Jyllands-Posten.

His claims that he spoke on behalf of all Danish Muslims did wonders for the community. For one, it motivated Naser Khader, the first Muslim member of the Danish Parliament, to launch the moderate group Democratic Muslims. More poignantly, the sight of Abu Laban saying one thing to a Danish television crew and then almost in the same breath saying the complete opposite to an Arabic TV crew inspired many to join Khader's group.

I have spent two of the past six months in Denmark researching the lives of Muslims there. Many told me that Abu Laban's duplicity was pivotal in inspiring them to step forward and identify themselves as Muslims who disagreed with the imam. Danish journalists have told me they do not immediately turn to Abu Laban anymore to speak for Muslims. It looks like Muslims in Denmark are slowly being allowed the differences enjoyed by other groups.

So once again, let us appreciate the radical imams of the West.

Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based journalist and commentator and a frequent lecturer internationally on Arab and Muslim issues. This commentary initially appeared in THE DAILY STAR. Her Web site is

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