Human Rights First

Yes, Islam can be liberalized. The building block must be human rights, universally applied. A response to the “Islam and Liberalism” roundtable.

By Mohja Kahf

Tagged IslamLiberalism

By way of jumping right into the conversation, may I say to Ani Zonneveld, one of the four participants in Democracy’s fascinating “Islam and Liberalism” roundtable discussion: I’m all for the reform of Islam, but pork stays off the table. Ew. Don’t eat pork, Malcom X’s mother taught him. I’m with her.

But more seriously: How did we get to a point in world history where someone needs to ask where in Islam is there a foundation for liberalism? Two things brought us here: Three hundred years of imperialist violence undergirded by racist Orientalist cultural production, and five decades of an increasingly violent Muslim reactionism. Nobody would have needed to ask this question in historical eras when it was easier to write as a scientist or to be gay in the Abbasid Caliphate than in England, or easier to live as a Jew in Muslim kingdoms than in Christian ones. Anna Karenina couldn’t get a divorce, but a woman of her aristocratic class in the Ottoman Empire in the same era would have been able to divorce and remarry. I am definitely not saying that any premodern era meets our human rights standards, but I am agreeing with Hassan Abbas that the conditions we are addressing are not some timeless part of Islamic societies; also, that the West must not forget its history of struggling with these human rights issues. And both sides have a continuing struggle. Neither side is innocent.

Human rights is the best vehicle through which to work for “liberalism.” Secular and religious people alike must be able to come to agreement on basic universal standards for equality. I don’t care what the specific inspirations are as long as we do the work. If you wanted me to, I could line up which Islamic teachings would work for me, and they would include the Quranic verse indicated by Asra Nomani, which says, “Stand up for justice even if it be against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, rich or poor,” as well as a meditation on the name of God that Keith Ellison cited, “the Compassionate,” which has the same root as the word for “womb.”

I would add the Quranic verse stressed by the Syrian teacher of nonviolence Jawdat Said: “Even though you stretch out your hand to kill me, I will not stretch out my hand to kill you.” I would also mention the spiritual bewilderment of the thirteenth-century Sufi Ibn al-Arabi and the feminist practice of the contemporary Islamic scholar and activist Dr. Amina Wadud. I would add a lot of other things that would take me a semester to list. Each community can glean teachings from its own heritage that will get us to agree on universal human rights standards. Let’s just get there.

When I say “universal human rights,” some people may search for an out. Conservative Muslims don’t get excused from joining in the formulation of universal human rights standards by manipulating the concept of cultural relativism any more than conservative Christians get to claim an exemption by manipulating the concept of religious freedom. Nor do Zionist Jews get a free pass on human rights because the West perpetrated the most horrific genocidal massacre in modern human history against the Jews, or because the Bible says they’re special. Cut through all those false moves, because if you are a believer, then ultimately you believe that your religion and your existence is beneficial to humankind. So let it be beneficial. Find a way.

We are teetering on the edge of a climate disaster that will affect all of us. How are we supposed to work together on that if we don’t even consider the lives of these people and the lives of those other people equally worth saving? If we can’t even endorse that Black Lives do Matter or give LGBTQ individuals the same civil rights as everyone else? If we don’t arrive at basic agreement on universal human rights standards?

World, I’m putting you on notice until 2067. That’s when I turn 100, if I live—and if I don’t, I’m still coming after you from the spirit realm to ask: Have you fixed human rights? Have you established minimum standards for decency that you’re willing to uphold everywhere?

How do we get there from here?

Not by erasing economics from the debate about religious liberalism. The underlying have-and-have-not economic crisis of our particular era often manifests as religious extremism. All of your roundtable participants, and myself too, we’re not the mega-rich but we’re also not the scraping poor, and we cannot just speak from our position of relative privilege without addressing the economic injustice that so often goes into radicalizing people, be they Christian militia members in the high-poverty state where I live, Arkansas, or Islamist militia members elsewhere. We need to tackle the poverty that often drives the xenophobia so easily manipulated by demagogues.

Universal human rights is the best vehicle through which to work for “liberalism.”

Nor can we erase politics from this struggle for Islamic liberalism. Take the campaign in Lebanon struggling for a liberal interpretation of Islam that would allow interfaith civil marriage. There is a small group of activists advocating the legality of those interfaith civil marriages that have already been allowed to happen through a loophole in the law, and a small faction passionately against it on religious grounds (both Muslim and Christian, by the way). The majority is passive. I think interfaith civil marriage is eventually going to gain ground in Lebanon, but only after concerted work on social change swings more people. And there, you’re working on social change in a post-conflict society; Lebanon’s 15-year civil war only ended in 1990, and the state has been set up for sectarian conflict by colonialism and then, in more recent years, repeatedly bombed by Israel.So you ask if the majority there is liberal. It’s apples and oranges to compare liberalism across post-conflict societies on the one hand, which have been shredded by occupation, invasion, and wars fought on their soil, and the United States on the other, which has not had that since the American Civil War, although it has had a social-and-legal-system war against black Americans and indigenous peoples. It’s bogus to compare the United States or France to postcolonial states that have been set up for sectarian conflict as Syria and Iraq were—set up that way by France and the United States, to boot. It’s disingenuous to expect people living under dictatorships and military rule and monarchy to get up and reform their religious traditions overnight on somebody else’s command.

And when that somebody is speaking from the country that has a vested interest in that dictatorship, it adds another layer of bad faith. Whenever an American criticizes how deeply conservative Saudi society is, we also need to face the fact that our country has long been deeply invested in keeping Saudi Arabia stable for the sake of oil and military interests, and thus our lifestyles are also implicated in Saudi conservatism—its anti-unionism, its racist labor laws, and its gender inequality. When we get in our cars and participate in earth-destroying consumption, we also contribute to maintaining the Saudi regime’s need to appease the conservatives in its society. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t demand low gas prices then rail about Saudi fornication laws.

I’m over here working hard on reforming Islam where my hand can reach, and I’m paying a price for it. But it’s not some airy debate, whether Islam can be liberal—it’s being conducted over bodies, soil, and societies that have been shattered. And it’s also about our over-consumptive lifestyle, our devouring of the world’s resources. By “we” I mean we who benefit without examining our investment. We attribute violence exclusively to the Other, the sexist mullah who threatens our lifestyle. And that violence is not an illusion—it’s 9/11 real, and it’s devastating. And, at the same time, our desire to consume is so embedded in us and has been constructed for us as such a towering part of our identity—as what we need to be us—that it has made us agree to destroy others in order to protect that desire. We need to remember that each time we jingle our car keys.

I’m not letting the imam over there off the hook by saying all this. He needs to be lifting his hand to work for human rights wherever he can reach, and he’s not. If he’s all “Islam is a religion of peace” and railing against Islamophobia and imperialism while not declaring zero-tolerance on domestic violence and the sexual trafficking of Yazidi women, he’s also implicated. Dual critique, or activism against injustices on multiple fronts simultaneously, is what I’m after, on an axis of human rights. To do this as Muslims, we call out our co-religionists on human rights abuses while calling out imperialist power and its racist double standards on human rights.

What we have right now is a bifurcation where each side has tunnel vision. Conservative Muslim Americans are vigilant against Islamophobia, and thus often get chummy with U.S. liberals who promote understanding of Muslim Americans. But without the rebar of human rights under it, this kind of work will collapse. They adopt the language of liberalism but don’t walk the walk, don’t step up against gender injustice within the faith community, don’t apply tolerance to LGBTQ Muslims, toward marginalized groups within. Just after the Orlando shooting this June, when a straight Muslim-American homophobe shot up a gay club, I received notices from Muslim-American groups encouraging dialogue “between Muslims and the LBGTQ community,” and other such language assuming that the two were mutually exclusive and ignoring Muslim LGBTQ folk. Add to that the immigrant Muslims who entered under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, benefiting from the U.S. civil rights struggle by black Americans and adopting its language to advocate for ourselves, but failing to step up in solidarity for black lives. And we immigrant Muslim Americans tend to say things like “America has not had a history of Islam,” ignoring the Islam that enslaved Africans brought to this hemisphere 400 years ago. Plus, many immigrant Muslim Americans regularly stand up for Palestinians trampled by the Israeli state while rarely speaking out for the land and water rights of indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere.

On the other hand, progressive Muslims do advocate for gender equality within, do criticize conservative Islamic institutions, do throw down for LGBTQ rights—and I’m with them on all those things. But sometimes they do this work in ways that fall in with right-wing American anti-Muslim bigotry, with its advocacy for racial profiling and heightened domestic surveillance, and its accompanying foreign-policy militarism. They, too, let go the handhold of human rights in their single-sided critique. By focusing just on the sexist imam in Afghanistan (who deserves criticism), but not struggling simultaneously against how we are over-consuming beings invested in powers that keep killing children in the imam’s village—or black women in Texas—we use the term “progressive” in a manner that implies our innocence. By not noticing the agonizing struggle of Syrian people against a dictator but coming out full voice only when ISIS unleashed its terror, too many progressive American Muslims exposed themselves as sheep-like bleaters. ISIS terrorizes Iraqis and Syrians more than it terrorizes anyone else, but Assad is still unmatched as killer of Syrian civilians.

We need to critique ourselves and the larger forces at play simultaneously, not being co-opted by either struggle into blindness toward the other struggle. That’s dual critique, or really multiple critique, or what Edward Said called being “contrapuntal.” But whatever you call it, it’s simply about being consistent on human rights. So we stand up and say ISIS killing civilians is wrong and immoral, and we stand up and say the death penalty in the United States is disproportionately executed on black men, even though one is committed by an authoritarian non-state actor that thinks it’s a state, and the other by a democratic state with checks and balances and habeas corpus. Torture is wrong for both. They both think they’re saving lives by means they deem necessary—but they’re each bent on saving only the lives they think matter. And dual critique includes solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the rights of indigenous peoples. One ethical standard of human rights and human equality, because as soon as we lose our handhold on universally equal human rights we lose the only lever that can pull us all out of this.

I want it all fixed by 2067. So let’s get to it. And I want music in it, Ani, and your beautiful voice singing. And, Asra, I want tantric sex to be part of it. A girl can dream. (But no pork, please.)

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Mohja Kahf is an author and professor at the University of Arkansas. Her most recent book is The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf.

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