Fighting the fanatics
By Ashwin Ahmad
26 Aug 2007, 0239 hrs IST,TNN
The attack on Taslima Nasreen again highlights how Islam is
being hijacked by extremists. Ashwin Ahmad profiles three women who, despite
death threats, are fighting for change.
A former journalist and author, Asra Nomani’s name causes sharp divisions within
the Muslim community. While some praise her attempts at helping women become
aware of their rights, others see her as a shameless publicity hound, who loves
to court controversy. A founder of the Islamic feminist movement, Nomani has
been fighting since 2003 for women to be allowed the right to enter mosques by
the same entrance as men, pray alongside them and even lead prayers.
On this reason for her stand Nomani says "When I learnt that a woman Umm
Waraqa—led women and men in prayer at the time of the Prophet Mohammed, you
should know I had spent a lifetime being told the opposite. I was told I
couldn’t enter a mosque and when I was allowed in I had to be in the basement or
a dark corner."
Ironically, Nomani spent most of her professional life as a journalist writing
on issues other than Islam. But the gruesome murder of close friend and
colleague Daniel Pearl in Pakistan changed her outlook. Determined to
''save’'her faith from extremists, Nomani went to Mecca. After her return she
found herself being harassed as she tried to step into mosques, determined to
pray alongside men.
Her stance got her recognition of the unwelcome kind. Her family was ostracised
by the local community and hate mail and death threats for Nomani poured in. "My
mother received a call, where the caller threatened to slit my
throat."Thankfully for this single mother, her family remained her anchor.
Despite the threats, Nomani has persevered, and managed to create some change.
In 2005, her friend and co-founder of the Islamic feminist movement Amina Wadud
led a mixed congregation in prayer at a mosque in New York.
"Organising the prayer was a moment of empowerment for me. Women are so often
the spiritual and religious heads of households. Yet it is rare in a home that
you see her lead her son in prayer. Somehow we have divined that he will lead
her in prayer."
Nomani has also conducted what she calls 'Freedom Tours' which involve groups of
Muslim women scholars travelling across the US to conduct prayer meetings.
But not everyone is convinced. Critics say her crusade was part of a campaign to
publicize her book Standing Alone in Mecca. They add that there is good reason
for men and women to pray separately — so that they are not distracted by the
opposite sex. But despite what they say, more and more women are leading the
faithful in prayer. All thanks to Asra Nomani.
Even though she has been honoured as a Young Global Leader at the World Economic
Forum, a lot of people still aren’t ready to listen to Irshad Manji. A brief
look into her background will explain why. The first problem is Manji’s book The
Trouble with Islam Today. In the book she talks about the inferior treatment of
women in Islam, Jew bashing and the lack of ijtihad or critical thinking within
the Muslim community today.
Add to this the fact that Manji is openly gay and you begin to understand why
some people and organisations hate her; others even want her dead. Small wonder
then that her home in Canada is equipped with a security system and bulletproof
Manji talks candidly about reconciling her sexuality with her faith. She says,
"I acknowledge that the Koran contains passages implying homosexuality cannot be
tolerated. It also contains passages implying that Allah knows what He is doing
when he designs the world’s breathtaking diversity. In addition to the verse
that says, 'God makes excellent everything He creates,'there are other verses
that say, 'God creates whom He will'and nothing God creates is 'in vain.'How do
my critics reconcile those statements with their condemnation of homosexuals?"
Manji also feels Muslims have a duty to battle for their freedom to think about
Islam and issues concerning Muslims. Why, she argues, should Muslims allow
extremists to place a bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head while ignoring the number
of honour killings that take place within Muslim families across the world each
year? Why are Muslims using the sensitivity of religion to prevent
introspection? Manji feels it’s because today Muslims "are confusing dogma with
It is to counter this that she has launched Project Ijtihad. The project aims to
''bring liberal Muslims and non-Muslim allies together’'to discuss issues like
homosexuality, marriages between Muslims with non-Muslims, and the reclamation
of women’s rights in Islam —- a subject close to Manji’s heart. It also offers
Muslim women in poor countries microcredit loans. "This will hopefully help the
women to become literate, teach their children, and help them start their own
But while many people praise Manji for her outspokenness —- her book has got
positive reviews in the New York Times, there are others who feel otherwise.
Critics charge her with ignorance about Islam’s history and Arabic, which make
her unaware of the wider debates within Islam.
Her open admiration for Israel, which she has in the past praised for its free
press and freedom of expression, has also raised hackles. According to Manji,
some of her detractors have dubbed her ''worse than Osama bin Laden.’'
It’s not just extremists. Manji’s book has come in for criticism from
'liberal'quarters as well. Tarek Fatah, founding member of the Muslim Canadian
Congress and an initial supporter of Manji, has turned hostile.
On the book, Fatah comments in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper that ''Manji
makes Muslim haters feel secure in their thinking.’'Manji retorts through the
same paper, "Mr Fatah feels the book was written by the Jews for the Jews... My
thanks to him might be for revealing just how deep the trouble with Islam is
Hero and reformist for some, pawn and Islamophobe for others, Syrian-American
Wafa Sultan has been admired and reviled in equal measure. But love or hate her,
you cannot ignore this psychiatrist’s importance. Named last year in Time
magazine’s list of 100 most influential people, Dr Sultan is someone who has
become a much sought after spokesperson on Islam, at least in the west.
Sultan’s meteoric rise to fame began when she appeared on Al-Jazeera television
on February 21, 2006. Debating with Dr Ibrahim Al-Khouly, a lecturer at Egypt’s
Al-Azhar university, she made some comments that immediately got her global
"The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions or a
clash of civilisations...It’s a clash between a mentality that belongs to the
Middle Ages and another that belongs to the 21st century," she argued forcefully
on the show.
Her comments were distributed in an online clip on youtube by MEMRI (Middle East
Media Research Institute) where an estimated one million people viewed it, and
instant fame — or infamy, depending on one’s point of view — was the result.
Interviews with CNN, LA Times and the New York Times followed and today, most
debates in the west on Islam include the views of Wafa Sultan.
Sultan’s reasons for her attack on a faith which she once followed go back to
events in her personal life. In 1979, when she was a student at the University
of Aleppo in Syria, gunmen belonging to the radical group, the Muslim
Brotherhood, burst in and shot her professor before her eyes. This act, says
Sultan, caused her to question and finally abandon Islam. She now declares
herself to be simply "secular."
Her critics insist that no such incident took place at this time at the
university. They also believe the MEMRI clip was edited out of context to make
her look impressive and provide a pro-Israel slant.
With such a history, it’s no surprise that Sultan’s name causes passions to run
high on both sides of the ideological fence. In a recent online debate on
Sultan, blogger Firozi Fali wrote: "How often do you see an Arab woman voice a
critique of Islam right in the Islamic heartland, on mainstream Arabic-language
TV? Not very often would be my guess."
Countering this, fellow blogger Dr M wrote: "There’s nothing remotely courageous
about regurgitating orientalistic nonsense on a satellite connection. No Muslim
worth his or her salt would babble such neocon nonsense."
While such charges may be unfounded, there is no denying that Sultan’s comments
have earned her the admiration of the Jewish community, who describe her as the
"voice of progressive Muslims". Last year, she accepted an invitation by the
American Jewish Congress to visit Israel.
Such actions ensure Sultan will continue to remain a controversial figure. Add
the fact that she’s working a book on Islam and you know the world will continue
to hear more about Wafa Sultan.