“IN order for me to embrace, fully and publicly, my African-American, feminist lesbian identity, I didn’t believe I could simultaneously embrace, fully and publicly, my Muslim identity,” Aishah Shahidah Simmons tells The Nut Graph. “But given all the repression I’ve faced as an African-American, feminist lesbian, I have so many privileges in the world as a US citizen,” she continues in a 5 Aug 2009 interview in Petaling Jaya while on a visit to Malaysia for a conference.
In other words, coming to terms with being a lesbian in the largely conservative African-American Muslim community was not easy. But Aishah still appreciates the spaces she had in the US to explore her religious beliefs and sexual identity as a matter of personal conscience.
AishahIn fact, the 40-year-old filmmaker went on to make NO! — a much-acclaimed account of rape and other forms of sexual assault in the African American community. Thus, despite the multiple oppressions she could potentially have faced, the secular US state allowed her the freedom to explore Islam, feminism, and her African heritage. Could Aishah have gone on the same journey if she had been born Muslim in, say, Malaysia, whose secular foundations are increasingly being contested by Muslim politicians and groups?
In the spotlight
Islam, as it is enforced through syariah laws in Muslim-majority countries, has been in the spotlight in recent weeks. On 4 Aug 2009 in Sudan, police fired teargas to disperse supporters of Lubna Hussein, a former United Nations worker charged under the country’s Islamic laws with “indecent dressing” for wearing trousers.
Malaysia has not been spared, either. On 20 July, Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarnor was sentenced to six cane lashes and a fine of RM5,000 by the Kuantan Syariah Court for drinking beer in public.
Secularists and anti-Islam quarters might use these examples to point out that Islamic laws discriminate against women, and that secular laws protect them better. But then, how would we explain the 2 July killing of Marwa el-Sherbini, a hijab-wearing Egyptian national living in Dresden, Germany? Sherbini was caught up in an argument with her non-Muslim neighbour, who called her a “terrorist” and an “Islamist whore”. The case was brought to court, and during Sherbini’s testimony, the defendant got up and stabbed her 18 times. When Sherbini’s husband rushed to her aid, police mistook him for the attacker and shot him.
Real achievements, real challenges
Indeed, Muslims face very different scenarios depending on whether they reside in Muslim-majority or Muslim-minority countries, and whether the state is Islamic or secular.
Nevertheless, the Islamophobia in secular contexts is sadly reinforced by the fundamentalism and conservatism displayed by many Muslim communities themselves. Aishah’s mother, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, who was also in Malaysia, says that many imams in the US are sponsored from the Middle East, and they often bring patriarchal, conservative interpretations of Islam along with them.
The Turkish German writer Canan Topçu also adds that children of Muslim migrants to Germany often express their Islamic identity more stridently than their parents. “That some daughters of immigrant families do develop rigid ideas of Islam, probably says more about German society, which is still frequently felt to be hostile [towards Muslims], than about the family’s original culture,” she writes.
But in real terms, this devotion to Islam in no way hinders the achievements of Turkish Muslims in secular Germany’s public sphere.
For example, Topçu writes that the number of female Turkish students studying at German universities increased tenfold from 1980 to 1996, while the number of male students increased 2.5 times.
Rabia (Courtesy of Rabia Harris)Rabia Harris, founder of the pioneering Islamic non-violence organisation Muslim Peace Fellowship, tells The Nut Graph in an e-mail interview that there are also many US citizens who are committed to social equality, religious freedom, and freedom of speech as the country’s moral foundation. A Muslim herself, Harris says they may not know very much about Islam and Muslims, or even care, but they know that minorities must be protected.
In addition, she says there are also a number of good-intentioned liberal Christians, and even Jews and people of other religions, who would like to learn more about Islam and to make friends with Muslims.
“Secular” vs “Islamic”
The question, then, is whether “secularism” is necessarily anti-Islam, as is often spouted by politicians and some Muslim groups in Malaysia in their quest to turn the country into an Islamic state. And just as importantly, whether an “Islamic state” necessarily provides justice for Muslims.
“First of all, we have to realise that a secular state is not equivalent to an atheist state,” says Gwendolyn. “It just means that the state does not support any one religion more than the others. All are equal, and all are allowed to flourish, and I realise that in many Muslim-majority states this is probably not going to happen.”
Furthermore, there is the added complication that when a state ties its very identity to a particular religion, the government of the day tends to exploit religious sentiments for its own self-interest.
“And so in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where governments do not allow a political opposition to flourish, opposition fundamentalists resort to using religion to advance their own political ambitions,” she says. These opposition quarters then cast themselves as the “real” upholders of Islam, and designate those in power as “kufur” (infidels).
“They will say, ‘When we are in power we will uphold the true Islam’,” Gwendolyn says, and gives the example of Iran‘s Islamic revolution, which created a theocratic regime quite intolerant to dissent.
Paradoxically, this inability to have intra-Muslim discussions also exists in countries like the US. Harris says, “Muslims are multiply-fractured in my country. Indigenous African-American Muslims mix little with immigrant Muslims. Immigrant Muslims of different ethnicities mix little with each other. Sunnis and Shias rarely speak to each other, and almost nobody speaks to the Ismailis.
That said, Harris believes the very character of the US state will force all these different factions to start engaging with one another. “Since none of us is in a position to exercise power over the others, we will all have to learn how to coordinate with the others, and this may be very productive,” she adds.
Gwendolyn SimmonsGwendolyn, however, is more cautious. “I want to be proven wrong, I want to be shown that there can be a big-tent Islam. But right now I really worry for people who are progressive, who are gay or lesbian — why would they go to the mosque?”
The short answer: either because of personal choice in a secular state where the government has no business regulating on religion, or because the religious legislation in an Islamic state forces them to.
Muslim minorities living in secular states such as in the US and Germany have enjoyed freedom of religion and economic development, while Islamic states have demonstrated clear violations of rights against Muslims themselves. Which course, then, should Malaysia take?
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