Rethinking Islam

Published on the York University Blog on Apr. 24 2009

     In my Asian Human Rights class my professor played a clip from a recent CBC show where two activists were asked their opinions about the latest demonstrations in Afghanistan.  At the beginning of April about 300 women walked to protest the country’s marriage law that allows a husband to have sex with his wife every four days and restricts her movement outside of the home. One of the activists on CBC shared her doubts about Canada’s place in Afghanistan as she felt the new government’s human rights record was not necessarily better than the Taliban’s.

     For me the protest did shed light on the conservative elements of Karzai’s new regime. But more than that I became more aware that Islamic countries are filled with people of different viewpoints and it is simplistic of us to think that they are all filled with subordinate women and patriarchal commanding husbands. It is easy for us to slip into a West vs. Islam debate where we assume that the West is liberated while the Islamic world is not.   

     I know people that speak with angry tones when they discuss the role of women in Islam.  But I think that they should know that even though many men were screaming and throwing rocks at the protestors that there were also Muslim men demonstrating.  Many Muslim women are also educated and critical of their society.  Islam has also had functions in its structure to protect the rights of people. 

     Islam may need to change, but who has the right to force these changes? What kind of model are we enforcing in Muslim countries? Western powers are obviously pushing Liberal Democratic models, on the Muslim countries, that they invade but do these models consider Muslim ideas for change and development? 

     A couple publications which Political Science profs always talk about are Edward Said’s Orientalism and S.P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations”.  Said warns us not to assume that the West is one culture and the East or Islam is another.  This creates and “us” vs “them” discussion that can quickly devolve into discrimination. Said opposes Huntington’s claim that society’s are different and will therefore be in conflict based on religious and ethnic conflicts. Said says we must see the similarities between East and West and the differences within the West and the East. 

     We are not fighting a “dark threat” and we should be helping countries to develop on their own terms.  And so I don’t really have the right to criticize a woman in a hijab and a burka. Instead I have to recognize her culture, and admit the faults of my own, when I sit down to talk to her about development in both of our countries.

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