Muslim reformers need to shout

First posted on my short-lived blog Tharwalizations. 

In their first women conference in Hyderabad, India, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind president Dr. Mohammed Abdul Haq Ansari asserted that, “[i]n the name of liberty, women are being sexually exploited and misused for promotion of brands. But reality is that dogs are given better treatment than women in the western countries.”

These are some very powerful words indeed. Unfortunately, we rarely hear such powerful condemnations against women abuse practiced in Muslim societies. Our sharpest criticisms are always reserved for the West, while we tend to whitewash and deny our own problems no matter how serious they happen to be. In fact, we often tend to blame our most serious problems on the West as well.

Islamic radicalism, for instance, and according to former Iranian President, Muhammad Khatami, is the product of a “self-centred” West that is “determined to see the entire world adopt its values.”

But, and to give Mr. Khatami some credit, he does acknowledge that the “violence and extremism” we see in parts of the Islamic world seem to stem from “their backwardness and a feeling of humiliation, making understanding and compromise all the more difficult.”

Still, and unless we are ready to acknowledge that this backwardness comes as an indication that Islam itself is perfectible and that Muslims don’t have a monopoly on knowledge, even in matters pertaining to spirituality and ethical/moral behavior, and unless we are willing to tackle the specific details involved in such acknowledgements, legitimizing all the while the different approaches and interpretations that are bound to emerge as a result of this exercise, such general admissions of culpability are hardly enough to stem the rising tide of radicalism and enable our societies to rise up to the level of developmental challenges posed by modernity.

Hiding behind the insistence on our cultural specificity by making such transparent statements and assertions as the ones made recently by Mr. Eyad Madani, Saudi Minister of Culture and Information, in the opening moments of the Jeddah Economic Forum, when he noted that “[o]ur approach isn’t to call for feminism, but rather femininity,” is foolish to an extreme, as everybody knows by now invoking the argument pertaining to cultural specificity is consistently used to justify the curtailing of certain basic and well-established human right. In this case, the issue was unsurprisingly that of the status of women in Saudi society.

Still, Mr. Madani did stir up a controversy when he asserted that there “is nothing in the written laws of the country that prohibits women from applying for a driver’s license,” and then urged “would-be Saudi women drivers to try to overturn the ban,” often imposed by the local authorities in the Kingdom.

But such minor assertions are hardly enough to balance things up in a part of the world that insists on reliving the crusades. Unless Muslims reformers become more willing to join the intellectual battle against the extremists in their own societies, the talibanization of our part of the world will be made inevitable.