Muslims Creating Muslims: Imperialism and False Analyses of Islam and Feminism by Muslims

An edited version of the article can be found at AltMuslimah.

Maya Migdashi began her recent, excellent 10-point reminder on studying gender in the Middle East with, “Gender is not the study of what is evident, it is an analysis of how what is evident came to be.” Unfortunately, an influential strand of analysts remains steadfastly deaf to her admonition, instead peddling Orientalist imagery as insight.

Meanwhile, Western interventionism in the region, increasingly justified in terms of its civilizing mission, vociferously demands recognition of its self-claimed struggle for Muslim women. Of course, this is tragically evocative of Gaya Spivak’s seminal words, “White men saving brown women from brown men.” In response, an industry of academics, journalists and opinion-makers is deployed to repudiate Spivak’s indictment.

They identify valiant, often female, protagonists who battle oppressive institutions and figures, the latter typically male and bearded. Dominant, patriarchal and conservative religious dogma is found culpable of demanding stringent assimilation, and circumscribing individual choice to the detriment of vulnerable communities, particularly women. Circulating the gamut from FOX News to New York Times, the industry serves the critical task of establishing moral veneer, even imperative, for Western intervention.

Assenting expatriate analysts – whom Hamid Dabashi terms ‘comprador intellectuals’ – lend key legitimacy to this story. Dabashi summarizes: “The comprador intellectual speaks with the voice of authenticity, nativity, Orientalised oddity. He is from ‘there,’ and she ‘knows what she is talking about,’ and thus their voices carry the authority of a native informer.” From Hirsi Ali to Manji to Rushdie, they confirm that central blame lies with dominant theology and the bigotry of its false or antiquated interpretations of Islam. Across the breadth of the Ummah, they suggest, malinterpretations of Islam trap communities in systems of oppression and abuse.

Radical challenge to these ideologies will break their hegemony. The Muslim world’s salvation lies in its religious fringes: empowered, progressive, religious subaltern will provide a liberal alternative to dominant illiberal ideologies.

This view, with its emphasis on Islam’s liberal dimensions, frequently masquerades as the progressive position. In fact – and despite its ubiquity – it is a retrograde and perilous misdiagnosis.

Disregarding Migdashi’s injunction, it conflates symptom with cause: it describes the evident – that intolerant interpretations of Islam dominate – but does not excavate the cause of their ascendency. Blind to history and context, in summarily inculpating dominant thought, it creates a false dichotomy; an easy binary of progressive and conservative, tolerant and intolerant, good and bad Islam. But how can one tell the two apart?

Analogous to the creation of the East that Said details in Orientalism, the identification of intolerant strands of Islam is made possible, and accessible to West, by characterizing symbols, attire and practices – visible markers of affiliation – as intrinsically invested with ideology. Political Scientist Wendy Brown, in her book Regulating Aversion, also identifies this maneuver. The bearded mullah, by virtue of his affiliation to the mosque and – to borrow from Colbert – ‘Muslish’ ways, has no progressive dimension; the blue denim of the jeans-clad professional woman, conversely, personifies modernity. The multiplicity of the human experience is denied and the Muslim essentialized.

From here, it is an easy transition to promoting the rejection of anachronous religious ways to make way for modern ones. In this, it is presumed, lies the elixir of Muslim progress.

Unfortunately, this echoes Leila Ahmad’s famous description of a far darker era: “colonial feminism … introduced the notion that an intrinsic connection existed between the issue of culture and the status of women, and … that progress for women could be achieved only through abandoning the native culture.” Feminism, in contemporary neo-colonial narratives, is similarly synonomus with the updating of traditional religious practice. Religion is singularly prioritized as the lever for progress.

Brown describes this attitude towards Muslims, “We [Westerners] have a culture, they [Muslims] are a culture.” And a backward one at that. Hence Western support feminist movements that speak the only language Muslims understand: Islam. And, with the ardent sanction of the comprador intellectual, the project swings into motion.

A brief discussion of two hot-button issues, the hijab and the Islamism, provides insight in the production of this narrative.

“If the Virgin Mary appears wearing a veil on all her pictures how can you ask me to sign on a Hijab ban law?” – Roberto Maroni, former Italian Minister of the Interior

Maroni’s comment, likely inadvertently, conforms to the postmodern feminist position on veiling. While the veil has an undeniably sordid history as a technology of patriarchy, it is not bound to that past.

This de-linking of the veil from oppression, however, complicates the comprador intellectual’s tale, for whom the hijab is invested with regressive and misogynist Islam with no ability as a tool for progressivism. So, speaking to Bill Maher in 2011 regarding France’s Burqa ban, Manji concedes that some women choose purdah freely, but denies veiling any function in the feminist arsenal.

This stands in stark contrast to more thoughtful accounts of purdah. Leila Ahmad, for example, in A Quiet Revolution, documents the role of the hijab, among other markers of piety, as a tool for women engaged in Islamist social justice movements to assert their agency in contexts as diverse as the United States and Egypt. Saba Mehmood, in her paradigm shifting book, Politics of Piety, describes the same phenomenon among Egyptian women, their ‘lifeworlds’ fundamentally divergent from the expectations of liberal feminism and actively advocating the hijab as a symbol of conservative piety, yet also lending its wearer broad political agency. And Humeria Iqtedar, in Secularizing Islamists?, similarly catalogues the feminism of the women of Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami and Jaamat-ud-Dawa parties, virtually all of them hijabis.

Yet, these stories find no space in the tropes the comprador intellectual propounds to sustain Western misimagination of Muslim women.

“The repressive consequences of Islamic extremism on women and of mullah-driven politics on the freedom of the citizens; these things are what Muslims actually face in the real world.”- Salman Rushdie at India Today Conclave 2012

The traditionalist mullah is seamlessly associated with tyrannical misanthropy – its misogyny emphasized – and the stereotype of patriarchal, per-modern Muslim is reinforced. Of course, women’s rights remain under attack in the Muslim world, but Rushdie offers no context to elucidate its anti-feminism. Instead, the Mullah is presented comprehensively anti-feminist.

In contrast, better descriptions of conservative Islam and women’s rights contextualize their antagonism. Mahmood Mamdani, for example, in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, traces the genealogy of Taliban barbarity: How did a populist movement with women and youth at its core become violently repressive of both groups? The Soviet secularist project, its centralization of power and similar power-consolidating programs supported by the CIA in Afghanistan are found culpable in creating an intolerant political landscape. Historically contextualized, the image of the intrinsically misogynist mullah is shattered.

Similarly, Omayma Abdel-Latif emphasizes the role of political exigencies in dictating the Brotherhood’s relationship with feminism; the Brother is afforded diverse perspectives and competing imperatives on women’s issues. His perspective is lent pliability and the stereotype of the unbending misogynist is weakened. Hussain Haqqani’s Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military highlights a similar flexibility between the Islamist stance and feminism. Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s preeminent Islamist party is documented to be the only national-level party to have supported the liberal feminist position that a woman may be the country’s President in the face of a military-led, centrist opposition that claimed the act unIslamic.

De contextualizing and de historicizing feminism and Islamism, the comprador intellectual perpetuates the inaccurate notion of an inescapable clash between of Islamic conservatism and women’s rights. This misrepresentation is made possible by the promotion of two fallacies, (a) that Muslims are a culture (Islamic) that needs to be updated, and (b) that repression has an attire and phenotype.

And they make noxious brew.

They allow Sally Wall to declare the Afghan Islam is bad because the Taliban burn girls’ schools, and allow Obama to use headscarves – their acceptance or rejection – as the barometer for whether Muslim women need liberation.

Meanwhile, concerns for women’s wages, the exploitation of female workers by indigenous and global predatory capitalism, and the myriad of concerns of hijabi, conservative women are granted only marginal welcome in the rhetoric for the rights of Muslim women. Attention to these – and not headscarves and hymen, the mullah and mosque – is what is required.