Forbidden Research Liveblog: Rites and Rights | MIT Center for Civic Media

Forbidden Research Liveblog: Rites and Rights

Rites and Rights

Saeed A. Khan, Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern History, Politics, and Culture, Wayne State University
Alaa Murabit, Founder of The Voice of Libyan Women, UN SDG Global Advocate & High-Level Commissioner

With a US presidential candidate proposing a ban on Muslims entering the US, Islam has become a popular "foreign" target for demagogues and fearmongers. At the same time, the recent passing of prominent Muslim athlete Muhammad Ali has revealed ways in which Islam had become a popular, domestic target of the same groups—later turned into an engine promoting civil and political rights at home.

These two phenomena have prompted moderate thinkers to reevaluate the past and possibilities for the compatibility of Islamic and Western values. Of the anti-Islam agitators, one area of concern involves the role of women in Islamic law. Less discussed is the intersection of Islam with civil and political rights. And even less heard within this debate are the voices of Islamic law scholars, historians, and practitioners who read the Qurʾān as offering strong protections for women’s rights and for civil and political rights. Groups such as The Voice of Libyan Women and efforts such as its Noor Campaign make compelling arguments for women’s rights from within Islam, not in opposition to Islam, challenge the narrative that Islam is anti-women and anti-west.

Do we misunderstand Islam and its place in the West and in the world? If so, is it because of American misunderstanding of Islam, or tensions between modern and traditional cultural values in some Muslim-majority nations?

liveblog by Sam Klein, Willow Brugh, and myself.

Here, we're exploring research as forbidden because of cultural issues. Can Islam be compatible and coincide with human rights and women's rights? It is important to note that scientific and technical topics are not the only areas where research finds itself off-limits. How can we get past political agendas and media to separate rhetoric from reality? Furthermore, the agency of Muslim women is being ignored. How do we ensure that Muslim women are not just part of the conversation, but are leading it? Thus far in this conference, we've been having a conversation about technology and forbidden research. They are connected. In this context, a lot of the stagnation and challenges are rooted in the perception of religion or the political manipulation of religion. Regardless of how much we research, putting this into practice and policy becomes difficult, because we have to deal with one another as humans.

  1. Perception of Islam and Muslim women in the US and globally (global north)
  2. why the political and security climate are different than the reality on the ground
  3. policies to counteract violent extremism
  4. what are the key next steps in this dialogue - is it research? is it policy? what needs to be done to change the situation for the 1.7 b Muslims and for everyone else?

It is important to consider the perceptions of Islam that exist in the United States. According to a 2015 Brookings study, things are slightly improving regarding the perception of Muslims, though not Islam per se: “Americans differentiate between the “Muslim people” and the “Muslim religion,” and they view Islam more unfavorably than they do Muslims”. Especially in recent months, there is an intensified civic and political engagement of Muslims both in the US and globally. Further, in the US, we are living through a paradigm shift when it comes to national demographics. This is especially true as we move towards 2043 when the US will become a majority minority country. Next we must ask: what is the relationship with Islamophobia and the changes happening to the US? In 2010, for the first time in American history, the number of white births is outpaced by non-white births. In 2013, the Pew Religion and Public Life Study determined that the demographics are no longer majority Protestant. The white Anglo-Saxons essentialism of American identity is decreasing - especially in numbers. It is important to try to situate Islamophobia within this context.

Playing devil's advocate - regardless of Islamophoia, there seems to be a perception that Islam does not co-exist with women's rights - the two are mutually exclusive. This is apparent in just about any academic conversation. There is a moral obligation for the US to promote women's rights, which by default is not congruent with Islam. This ties into sexual violence in conflict as well, where women's bodies are seen as the borders of a nation. In talking about EU, women are seen as the honor of the community (ref. political outrage after attacks in Germany).

There's an assumption that women are objectified and oppressed, that they don't have agency and capacity.

If that, then:
- Why are we asking Muslim women to counter religious extremism?
- Why are we positioning them as a part of global security? Wars have been started on assumed morality to protect Muslim women. Why are they key in this fight?
-- Because the world is beginning to engage in a sociological understanding of women's visibility in the public sphere. Also the centrality of Muslim women in the nuclear family. It is necessary, then, to usurp the narrative.

In the case of EU, 10 years ago, when it came to the hijab ban, Pres. Sarcozy (France) spoke on behalf of the liberation of Muslim women. Sarcozy saw himself as a guardian or custodian, focusing on the sociology of Islam of a tribal society (patriarchal, tribal, and custodial). As our social contract changes, Sarcozy was a throwback to a prior time. He wanted to be a tribal chieftain even though they didn't ask him to do so. How do we respect their autonomy while still sitting down at a table with those countries which oppress their autonomy the most?

We have to deconstruct the fallacy of morality as primary driver of foreign policy. How narratives form in liminal spaces.

Focusing on women’s rights and advocating on behalf of Muslim women, here is an example from the EU - It's perfectly ok to feel you're championing Muslim women from the burkka unless you have a profit to make from it (like fashion is doing). Spending 20 Euro is unacceptable. Someone spending 200k Euros on a designer one is welcome. Politicization of religion and commodification of religion.

Now, let us reference religious texts - can we use scripture to change the conversation? Religion has been used to legitimize some violence. Rather, the manipulation of religion is what is used to excuse violence. However, Islam was initially more of a liberating religion for women. What happened? Exportation of ideals, especially a specific part of Islam from Saudi Arabia. This was able to reach other regions as a result of globalization. Especially in North Africa, people were able to watch Saudi Arabia scholars speak about the right way women should dress, appear & act to keep the integrity of the family unit.

In discussing a transitional justice meeting that I (Alaa Murabit) was a part of – we had quite a few young men from the local transitional justice teams (Libya). The UN mission asked us "where are the Libyan women in the room?" and we asked the same of the UN team. We cite women's rights as a reason to be involved (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran), but we don't hold countries accountable. For example, given this newly rejuvenated relationship with Iran, how will accountability change, especially with women’s rights?

In Saudi Arabia - there is a distraction about an anthropological anomaly - Saudi women are not allowed to drive. But – it is importat to keep in mind that we're looking at a pop of 35 mil people. At the same time, not only do we correspond and interact with this country at the highest level, but we sell them 35 bil dollars worth of weapons, that largely end up in the hands of terrorists/extremists, against whom we fight against 20 years later.

But there’s a silver lining: the future of Islamic faith is inarguably and fearlessly female.
In the past 10-15 years, we have seen a revolution in.thought regarding the interpretation of Islam. A lot of developing and post-conflict countries say that this can no longer be a blueprint from our society and culture. It is necessary now to separate culture (which has the more archaic features) from the religion of Islam. For the past 1600 years, the interpretation has largely been by males - elite males - who have the ability to be authoritative and create power. You'd be amazed at how hard God is to debate with. For women in particular, it has been an uphill battle, because the second you enter the debate , your integrity and humanity and honor come into question, even from well-intentioned people who practice the faith.

Regarding our work in Libya, the involvement of women is the biggest gamechanger. The Noor campaign has been cited by the UN Security Council for Women Peace & Security. How are we going to marry the political and the economic considerations with the moral and with the religions and social. AND the cultural - which will take much, much longer. Categorizations of women as model examples or deviants affects the entire sex, not just Muslim women. That's an issue for the whole world. And I think unless women take a stronger role in politics, governance, and security in particular, this isn't going to change.

[Change has to come from each region, and they are different]: People within a country/region need to consider interpretations of faith, who they are benefiting, and how they could be altered to benefit the global community.

It is important to understand that legal codes such as Sharia Law come with their own economic and cultural backgrounds. A lot of what we find now is walking back to find a system-restore point when things were pristine; but going back 1300 years with a society that has already moved beyond and is moving faster, makes that a herculean challenge.

There are certain schools within Islam with a central figure. For example, there is a 'Catholic' side to Islam: the Aga Khan (for the Ismaili community), Some of the most ardent advocates seeking a single voice for the Muslim world are themselves protestant Christians; I've never understood that. That doesn't take into account the cultural nuances. Looking at jurisprudence among Sunnis: at least 2 of the 4 schools that developed were for geographic considerations. [one is decentralized, deferring to local leaders]

But there is implicit religious authority granted to leaders. See for instance Erdogan in Turkey today.

Q: Challenges and dangers of 'securitizing' women? How do we approach engaging women in discussions about security?
A: Women as borders into a country has been a long-standing element of conquest. They are the bringers of nationality, religion, & so they hold significant power in their ability to propagate a group. This was considered even a long-term peace option: taking & raping women, and having a new generation through them. Women are now engaged more actively: The problem with current efforts to counter violent extremism, is that degradation of women's rights is an early indicator of extreme violence. Women are the first people who know about it; they note that they can't leave home, can't drive, are instructed of what to wear - 2-3 yrs before major violence breaks out. So they are talked to now. The problem is in the security of those women; they are often talked o by people showing up in a bullet-proof car; revealing their position as activist and increasing their likelihood of attack or death.

We also need to look at how this plays out in the West. Britain's 'ban the burka' campaign has been associated with whether those women are dangerous as suicide bombers; no longer as carriers of dangerous cultural memes.

Q: Some people (like Rushdie) are still under fatwa that keep them from appearing publicly. How does one approach Islamic jurists about this? [[what about: related Q re: encouraged violence over Mohammed cartoons?]]
Related: ShariaSource, looking at the wide variety of interpretation, and seeing this as a strength of Islamic jurisprudence.
A: There is a lot of discussion about this already among the expert scholars. What is new is the armchair scholars...So for instance a lot of those casual scholars feel they are bound by every fatwa; whereas that's not the case [and expert scholars would not think it].

Q: I was struck by your analysis that since the 70s the Saudi vision of Islam has been increasingly widespread, through a PR and education campaign. Are there alternatives to this, or things that groups with other interpretations could pursue?
A: It's harder now; much more diverse media and more voices. Speed & efficacy may be harder; credibility for non-Saudi communities is harder [they contain the holiest places in the world] So many scholars have been looking at these interpretations more closely [7000 scholars released a statement last month, opposing extremism and supporting peace and security]. That's the first time that Saudi has had to be accountable to their role and how their interpretation may support violent acts. So it's progress that they are thinking about their role; and civil society is more engaged now than it has been in the past.Saudi has for a long time been a Jenga game. As new pieces are removed, this changes. We used to say "Saudi Arabia is in Arabia, is Islam". As you alter those pieces, the whole concept changes.