Wednesday, October 28, 2020

On Cartoons And Headscarves, Islam Should Not Be Reduced To A Cult Or Mere Optics


By Junaid Jahangir, New Age Islam

28 October 2020

Does Islam have any internal value or is it always going to be defined in opposition to some perceived external threat? This question becomes relevant as many Muslims outside France are engaging in demonstrations and boycott of French products over the umpteenth row on the Prophet’s cartoons. This question is also pertinent given that the recent policy of Faysal Bank in Pakistan to mandate headscarves is being justified by some in opposition to the French ban in government spaces.


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Often intellectuals of the Marxian bent blame colonialism for the ills of the Muslim world. While there is merit to the arguments on the role of colonialism, it is also true that Muslims had agency in response to colonialism and are not mere hapless victims of past historical events. Islam rejects the concept of original sin, so that the sins of the father do not visit the son. What this means is that we have the responsibility to not allow past ills to define the future course of our policies and actions. Borrowing from Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, based on an approach of merciless introspection, the reactionary approach of Muslims towards silly cartoons and headscarves deserves to be thoroughly critiqued.


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The Umpteenth Cartoon Demonstrations

Muslims across the globe outside France have been demonstrating and campaigning to ban French products over the cartoon issue. This raises the question that how many French products do Muslims who are protesting really consume to make any difference? What are they really sacrificing? After all, it is not clear that these demonstrations are being supported by Muslim governments, as they continue with their trade policies based on economic realities instead of exaggerated emotions. This is true for countries like Turkey that enjoy significant trade relations with both Israel and France even as the Turkish President keeps playing the emotions of the reactionary Muslim masses.


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All of this indicates that such protests and campaigns are merely about optics. Consider the Pakistani response if the offending country were China. It is here that neither the Pakistani Prime Minister nor the reactionary masses have raised any vocal concerns despite the existence of the education camps, which some brand as concentration camps for the Uighur Muslims. Indeed, Pakistan cannot afford to take a principled stand with respect to their strongest ally on whom they are utterly dependent especially as they lose ground with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

 Another issue that arises is that Muslim masses are often played by hateful, lying and deceitful ideologues that instigate other people's youth to murder and terrorism. Such ideologues have often used old footage and pictures and introduced them in an entirely different context. For instance, some Muslims are circulating an old video of the French police tackling Muslims on a property rights issue and selling it in the context of the cartoon issue to incite Muslim passions to action. But this isn't about Muslim sensibilities, for several Pakistani Muslims have most recently been glorifying the Caliph Yazid who had the Prophet's grandson and his family mercilessly murdered. What becomes of the respect for the Prophet when his own family has been so badly treated by Muslims themselves?


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To reiterate, neither are these protests about a principled stand that warrants personal economic discomfort nor are they about the Prophet’s honour that is best upheld by his example to repel evil with that which is better. Alternatively, this manifestation of a reactionary Islamic narrative is simply about getting political mileage and remaining relevant through optics in a world where the real issues include exacerbating inequality and climate change that is leading to havoc like the current pandemic.

The Umpteenth Regulation Of Headscarves

The emphasis on optics that rests on the superficial instead of Tazkiyya Nafs (inner purification) that calls for deep introspection is perpetuated when men continue to control women’s bodies by dictating their dress codes and their bodily autonomy on reproductive rights. Most recently, Faysal Bank mandated that women employees should wear headscarves and loose-fitting clothes. Some Muslims argue that if France bans headscarves in government spaces then Faysal Bank can have laws mandating an Islamic dress code and that if you don't like it, you can take your business elsewhere.


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The problem with this logic is that it defines Islam as a reaction to France and not as an entity that stands on its own. Such has been the Muslim logic for centuries whether Islam was defined in opposition to the British Empire or more recently “western values.” Another problem with the logic is that if the French violate a reasonable freedom of expression then it does not necessitate that Muslims should mindlessly follow the same violation of women’s bodily autonomy. Yet another problem with this logic is that it treats Islam as a corporate cult or a brand. A cult is a cult whether it is defined by mandatory tattoos and piercings or by beards and headscarves. Alternatively, Islam cannot be reduced to dress codes.


 One should pay heed to the nuanced scholarship proffered by Muslim women academics like Amina Wadud, Riffat Hassan, Asma Barlas, Fatima Mernissi and Leila Ahmed amongst so many others on the subject that concerns women’s bodies. Similarly, many male Muslim scholars like  Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, Moiz Amjad, Shehzad Saleem, Khalid Zaheer, Mufti Abu Layth and Farhad Shafti amongst others do not view headscarves as an obligatory practice. Additionally, headscarves have never been part of the Pakistani culture. So why should a practice from the Middle East be imported to the Indian subcontinent, especially when strong role models for Pakistani women like Fatima Jinnah referred to as the Madare Millat (mother of the nation) never wore one!


Islam should not be reduced to a cult.  If Islam is an umbrella for universal values, then one interpretation cannot be privileged over others. This means that women who believe headscarves are obligatory will wear them and those who don’t will not. Neither group of women should police each other and men should simply leave women's issues based on the Prophet’s teaching that a mu’min (believer) does not concern himself with that which does not concern him. They should live and let live.


In essence, on both cartoons and headscarves, Islam should not be reduced to a cult or mere optics. 


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