Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Indonesia's Transsexual Muslims

But Are They “The Good Muslims”? What we talk about when we talk about Egypt’s Salafis

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    by Haroon Moghul

    Associate Editor Haroon Moghul is a Fellow at the New America Foundation and the Center on National Security at Fordham Law. He is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University and the author of a novel, The Order of Light (Penguin 2006). Haroon has been a guest on CNN, BBC, NPR, Russia Today, The History Channel and al-Jazeera.

    After their strong showing in the Egyptian elections, Salafis are a hot topic. But despite all the talk of Salafis, we still have a difficult time defining Salafism. Take Wendell Steavenson’s recent New Yorker piece, “Radicals Rising,” a portrait of Salafi politicians in Alexandria, Egypt.

    Steavenson defines Salafism as “a strain of Islamic fundamentalism that emphasizes the original tenets and practices of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.” Steavenson’s essay is worth reading—don’t get me wrong. But her definition doesn’t actually distinguish Salafis from most other Muslims.

    Islam is rooted in the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad. This applies to Salafis (usually considered Sunni) as much as it does to Shi’a Muslims. For both, Muhammad embodies the Qur’an, and they in turn try to embody Muhammad.

    But while all Muslims stress the “tenets and practices of the Prophet Muhammad,” they have since Muhammad’s passing disagreed on these tenets and practices, as well as how to realize them. But because Muslims recognize no further prophecy, Islam has traditionally accommodated diverse opinions about how to realize the Prophet’s ideals.

    Islam never developed any centralized or institutional authority to arbiter disputes, because no person could have Muhammad’s moral authority. This might also suggest why disagreements between Muslims can be so bitter: Muslims disagree about the same person (and interpretations of the same text)—and there is no institutional means to permanently settle disputes.

    What Kinds of Salafis Can We Live With?

    But the reason we talk about Egypt’s Salafis isn’t because we’re debating theology, at least not primarily—I don’t think we’re actually concerned with the specifics of Islamic thought. We’re more worried about what Salafism and Islamism generally means for our interests, values, and the Muslim world. At bottom, our concerns over Salafis are concerns over what they’ll do when they’re in power.

    So we try to figure out where they fall in the continuum of what Columbia University’s Mahmood Mamdani has called the good Muslims and the bad Muslims. That way, we’ll know who to work with, and who to shun. Except it doesn’t work that way. The Muslim world challenges many of the easy assumptions we make about secularism, liberalism, and democracy.

    Frequently, it was secular autocracy that limited democracy, access to education, and economic development. Religiously rooted forces in Turkey have been associated with an expansion of language rights and political freedom. Even Salafis escape easy characterization. America’s oldest Arab ally is Saudi Arabia, which implements and exports the type of Salafi Islam we’re so alarmed by. So what kinds of Salafis can we live with, and who would we prefer to live without?

    Salafis in Egypt are hard to pin down, too. Does their conservative theology make them politically dangerous, or politically irrelevant? Today, we’d guess the former. But prior to January 25, 2011, leading Egyptian Salafis were against political participation.

    None of this is to say we shouldn’t have real concerns. But we shouldn’t let our concerns push us into falsely reassuring categorizations. Our desire to parse the good Muslims from the bad Muslims means we start issuing value judgments about Islam—and our relationship to a democratizing Middle East will not advance if we’re trapped in religious identity politics.
    Islam is a diverse, pluralistic faith, and religious debates between Muslims frequently go back to the Qur’an and Muhammad. This includes the many Muslims who espouse less politicized or even apolitical interpretations of Islam. Thus, to define Salafis as those who emphasize the Prophet Muhammad sounds, to Muslim ears, that Salafis alone are religiously legitimate—everyone else is somehow insincere, inadequate, or incompletely Muslim.

    If we admit to the diversity of opinions in Islam, we might come to a meaningful and relevant political distinction between Muslims: those who accept the legitimacy of difference, and those who deny it.

    Come to think of it, that distinction applies equally well to liberal and secular parties, especially in the Muslim world, where too often the great challenge of politics is the monopolization of power—the specifics of who, and for what reason, paling in comparison.

World Hijab Day Has Got It All Wrong

By Sara Yasin
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Just in case y'all were wondering, today is "World Hijab Day," a day meant to celebrate a woman's right to wear hijab. First created back in 2004 in response to the start of Sarkozy's war on covered ladies in France, it has become a day to make a statement against bans on veiling — particularly in the West.

Sounds reasonable. I think it's fair to say that people should be able to wear what they want. But one look at Facebook and Tumbr posts related to this day, and it starts to veer into problematic (and not to mention ickworthy) territory. Here's just one of the many things I've seen shared on this glorious day:
Two little girls playing in the sun
one wore a scarf, the other wore none.
"Why do you wear a scarf?" asked the one without,
the other little girl said without a doubt
"Allah loves me to cover my hair
so that little boys won't stand and stare,
when I grow up what I really want to be
is a well dressed Muslim lady like my pretty Mummy."
Happy Hijab Day

Cute. Particularly cute to push the idea that hijab stops creepers from creepin'. The dark corners of the internet will teach you that there's a market for everything — and that includes hijabis. As a hijab alum, I can tell you that no amount of fabric saved me from the stares of sleazy men. And don't even get me started on placing the responsibility of the male gaze on women. That's a victim-blaming mess that I can't deal with on a Tuesday.

This reminds me of another disturbing trend of cartoons that imply that an uncovered woman is much like an exposed lollipop, pearl —- or really any other item that might go rotten if you don't have the right tupperware. Because ladies, you've got an expiration date.

Obviously, it makes more sense to illustrate the point of hijab with the shame of being rotten produce, rather than —- I don't know —- highlighting the experiences of women who wear it because they might feel comfortable in it, or dare I say it —- believe in it?

It's wonderful to be comfortable and happy in the choices that you make, but let's not forget that there are plenty of pious Muslim ladies who don't wear hijab, along with a pretty lengthy debate about whether or not it is required. Emphasis here is on choice.

This isn't — and shouldn't be —- simply about protecting the hijab. What's most important is not to protect the act of wearing hijab as a human right, but actually protecting the right of an individual to be able to safely make that choice. This means that when we're critical of veil bans, we should also be critical of countries that force women to cover as well.

And I'm convinced that understanding a woman's right to choose anything is something we haven't figured out how to discuss constructively anyways. But hopefully we can eventually get it right on this one.

Until then, I'm thankful for the "unsubscribe" option on my mini-feed.