I don’t normally read the newspapers of my native land (I would very likely qualify for Sir Samuel Rice’s description of a soul-dead man). But some months ago I found myself browsing the old, once familiar, sources of information, seeking to discover if the latest immigration fiasco, involving legal immigrants this time, had perchance made the headlines in the old country. They hadn’t, as far as I could see, but my attention was arrested by a different lead story, one that had seized pole position in the Indian newspapers, though garnering at best a sidebar on the “Odd news” section here at home.
The wise gentlemen of the cloth at the famous religious school in Deoband declared that coeducation was unlawful and responsible for a variety of evils. The Dar-ul-Uloom seminary in Deoband in India's largest province of Uttar Pradesh is not too famous in non-Islamic circles; even in India, I heard their name in the news less than a half dozen times, I would estimate. But their influence in conservative Muslim circles is extremely significant. To put their importance in perspective: the Taliban leaders were students of the Deobandi school of thought, and were theologically connected, even though they did not actually study at this school. With such adherents to serve as an introduction, we should be prepared for the extreme stupidity that characterizes Deobandi teaching.
Unfortunately, the biggest problem today is not the extremists themselves but the moderates. The debate has swung so far towards the extreme that even the so-called called moderates are anything but. There is no better example of the lack of moderation in the Islamic world than in the response the Deobandi fatwa. If these madmen were merely a fringe, their fear and hatred of offering women the same education, status and freedoms as men could be treated with the contempt it so richly deserves. Unfortunately, moderate experts and clerics have failed to truly repudiate the madness. They have, to their limited credit, accepted that women have a right to education and even defended the rights of women to attend classes along with men who are neither their husbands or blood relatives. But this should have been self-evident, in this day and age. And should never, ever have been accompanied by the qualifying statement that co-education is unobjectionable “provided the woman is properly attired, including wearing the hijab”.
What wonderful freedom this is, for women, that they may attend school or work, only if they hide their faces. I suppose we should be glad that they were not advised to wear that shapeless black all-enveloping costume makes a potato sack look like the height of fashion; their virtue will be preserved if they cover their heads and dress conservatively. I assume, of course that the moderates did not mean the hijab to be worn along with a thong bikini or something like this (mind you, if that was their subtext, I wholly support them). In their qualified defense of women’s freedom, these moderates have basically accepted the central tenet of the Deobandi fatwa, which is that women are the source of temptation and evil and must therefore be forced to cover up lest the drive men to crimes of passion. This has been an underlying principle of all the injustices heaped upon women in Islamic society and to a lesser, much milder extent in Christain concept as well.
As a man, I object to every idea in that position. Passion and lust are not evil, per se; rather they are amongst the most fundamental and basic human emotions, and it is religions insistence on ignoring this fact that actually leads to dangerous repression and deviant behavior (remember all those priests molesting altar boys?). Furthermore I am responsible for my own actions and irrespective of how a woman dresses or acts, I remain solely responsible for my behavior. To blame a woman for being raped is one of the peculiarly stupid attitudes of the Islamic world (and some other conservative societies as well), along with a host of other chauvinistic ideas and unfortunately that they are clinging ever more passionately to them instead of abandoning them in favor of more enlightened attitudes. I know that moderates in Islamic society live in fear of attack from conservatives, less on an intellectual level and all too often on a physical one, with followers of the conservative priests willing to kill those who espouse a less hate-filled view. This is a real and understandable reason to avoid crossing the conservatives openly, but there are ways, especially in societies that are not ruled by Islamic law. In the words of Edmund Burke, "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing", and too often, those good men stay silent out of fear. They do not need to fight back with sticks or guns, but they do need to make a statement all the same. In India, as in the US and Europe, the power to oppose lies with the congregation and all they have to do is shun the more conservative of priests, and the temples they preside in. If the preachers of hatred and intolerance were shunned and left to preach to empty temples, their doctrine would wither and die and soon be forgotten. It would be harder in nations like Iran, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, where the Islamic clergy is entrenched and empowered to rule, directly or otherwise, but even there, if congregations chose to spend Friday evening prayers at home rather than going to their neighborhood mosques, the priests in charge would find themselves bereft of the rabid mobs they need to cower their opponents, and would be reduced to the same levels of influence of the Westboro Baptist Church.
I have harshly trashed the moderates within the Muslim community for their refusal to adopt more enlightened positions and challenge the fundamental drawbacks of their religion. But sadly, self-described liberals like myself deserve no less opprobrium. Liberals champion the freedom and equality of all people within their societies, but too often we hamstring ourselves in our misplaced respect for the sensitivities of others. Fearing to insult Muslims, we do not comment on their treatment of women in their societies and families, pretending that it is a private issue for them to confront. However their comes a time when we have to recognize that our silence is not respect for Islam but compliance in its greatest injustices. We do not have to march in and tear off the veils of pious Muslim women - if the women truly wish to believe that they are inherently evil and impure, we cannot and should not attempt to convince them of their error. Violence in support of even a righteous position is a bad idea but there are other ways that we can make a difference. We have to also let them know in no uncertain terms that we do not believe that trash ourselves, and that we support their right and freedom to dress and behave just as their counterparts in the West do. (I, for one support their right to dress in revealing clothes, like mini-skirts and g-strings). Many of them have been raised in conservative societies, cut off from interaction with the world outside their house and it is critical that we make our message loud and clear. Perhaps we don’t have to do it quite like this clip of “American Dad” but we can assist in emancipation by offering our support should they need it. We can let every person know that we will support their right to renounce their religion without fear of being murdered as apostates – and we should not flinch when we are accused of attempting to undermine Islamic society. That is a card that the religious conservatives have played too well in the past, and forced us to retreat from any meaningful support for true moderation in their midst. Sadly till now, western liberals have shied away from overt support to oppressed groups outside Western society in fear of offending the sensibilities of the oppressors. Worse yet, we have looked the other way at oppression within Muslim immigrant societies in the West while championing the rights of their society as a whole. On occasion this reaches truly ridiculous levels, as when a German judge ruled that a Muslim immigrant has the right to beat his wife, since that was the law of his people and religion. I would say that people who would oppress and ill-treat their own family members, to the point of murdering their own daughters and sisters to protect their family “honor” have no claim to respect for their twisted ideas. It is time for liberals to step up and support the women and religious minorities and voices of dissent in Islamic society, just like western conservatives do so that they are offered true freedom and equality. If Islam is the true religion it claims to be (as do all the other dozens of religions), it should be able to convince people to give up their identity as individuals without the threat of violence and death. And if coercion is all that keeps it alive, then it is a religion best consigned to the trash heap of history.