Foreword to Salbiah Ahmad’s Malaya: Critical Thoughts on Islam, Rights, and Freedom in Malaysia, published by SIRD, Petaling Jaya, RM40.00; 405 pages. [Second of two parts]
Interface of Islam, Feminism, and Human Rights: Prism Versus Eyeglasses
The power and persuasiveness of Salbiah are in her words, ideas and logic, and she demonstrates them well in this collection. She writes on the interface of Islam, feminism, and human rights, three highly contested areas in contemporary social discourse.
Just as the ulama are claiming exclusivity on matters Islamic, so too are strident feminists abrogating unto themselves women’s issues, and Western secularists, human rights. If we view matters exclusively though the individual prism of the Islamists, feminists, and secularists, especially their extremist elements, then indeed there are the distinct and different colors of reality, and never will they merge. Red will remain red; the blue, blue, and the green, permanently so. Ground those prisms into eyeglasses, not only would those individual colors disappear and be synthesized into a whole and colorless unity, but we would also get a much clearer vision, minus the parallax and other distortions. The sight we see then would be much closer to reality. Salbiah Ahmad’s essays represent this eyeglass, in contrast to the prisms as represented by the polemics of the Islamists, feminists, and secularists.
She is eminently qualified for this synthesizing role. Educated at the “secular” University of Singapore’s Law Faculty, she brings her lawyer’s analytical skills to her commentaries. To be noted here is that although Singapore has a sizable Muslim minority and is located in an overwhelmingly Muslim region, its law faculty has not seen fit to offer a course in Islamic law. NUS may aspire to be the Harvard of the region, but it has a long way to go. Singapore’s leaders while they were at Harvard never ventured beyond their prescribed coursework to discover that even Harvard has a Chair in Islamic Law. This proves my point that while you can take them out of their island and send them to the Harvards of the world, more difficult is to take the island out of them. Singapore’s leaders, political and academic, have yet to escape the insularity of their tribalism trap.
Salbiah readily made up for that deficiency. She was an International Human Rights fellow at Emory University’s Law School in Atlanta, one of America’s premier institutions. Emory’s Islamic Family Law Global Project, under the leadership of the intellectual giant Abdullahi An-Naim, is pioneering the effort at reconciling the Sharia with modern concepts of human rights. My own introduction to An-Naim was through his seminal Toward An Islamic Reformation, published in 1990. It transformed my thinking of and rekindled my faith in Islam. To this day it remains one of the few books I keep re-reading.
Salbiah taught law for many years at the International Islamic University, once headed by the legendary legal giant Ahmad Ibrahim. She was also at one time a Human Rights activist associated with various non-governmental organizations. She is now with the United Nations Office of Recovery Center in Aceh, serving her fellow humankind devastated by the Tsunami tragedy. Salbiah takes to heart our prophet’s exhortation that to serve your fellow being is to serve God.
In this collection of essays, Salbiah brings just the right mix of scrupulous scholarship, rigorous analysis, and personal observations. She speaks as a Muslim, a feminist, and an ardent advocate for human rights. She does not see any conflict; on the contrary she is very comfortable with and proud of the three roles, as well she should.
Unlike feminist Muslims of the Sisters-in-Islam variety, Salbiah is very comfortable in her tudung and not at all perturbed that others might mistake her to be of the fundamentalist stripe. She wears it because she is comfortable with it, plain and simple, period. She is fully aware that the tudung now represents much more: as a subtle statement of protest for an oppressed minority (as in Thailand), a reflection of group identity and solidarity (as in Europe), a consequence of peer pressure (Malaysia), or merely as a fashion style. It could also be simply a functional item, a convenient cover for “a bad hair day.” Salbiah could not care less. To each his own, that is what freedom means.
Salbiah’s observations on the reactions (rather, over reactions) of the authorities in Singapore and Turkey to Muslim women donning the tudong are both entertaining and insightful. As she astutely observes, such overreactions reflect more the oppressive tendencies and authoritarian streaks of those governments and their leaders and less on the piety of those ladies.
I find Salbiah’s personal anecdotes just as revealing and instructive as her critical analyses. In one of her essays, she recalled being a member of the Sisters-in-Islam meeting the Ford Foundation officials in Kuala Lumpur for possible funding. Her fellow “Sisters” insisted that she discarded her tudong lest those Americans would think that the organization was made up of fundamentalist Muslims! This irony is just too delicious not to note. Here we have these modern liberal and “emancipated” feminist Muslims, many related to or part of the country’s establishment (Prime Minister Abdullah’s daughter is an active member of Sisters-in-Islam), successfully overcoming the local social pressure to wear the tudong, only to succumb to perceived Western expectations!
There is yet another personal episode of hers worth noting. On meeting her superior at IIU over the “non-renewal” of her teaching contract, she, being the conscientious teacher, was concerned that there might be students’ complaints over her teaching. On the contrary, she was terminated over a dress code!
I can relate to Salbiah’s experience. Years ago when IIU was planning its medical school, I applied for a senior academic position. Despite being forewarned by the dean, I was still offended by the intrusive questions. The university was not interested in the papers I published, only a few lines devoted to that, but there were pages to inquiring about my intimate beliefs and practices as a Muslim. I have always thought the university as a sanctuary for open inquiry.
At IIU, you need a special dispensation from the Rector to read Shiite literature, which is kept under lock and key. Imagine what they would do if you were caught reading the bible!
Concept Versus Content
Conversations over social constructs like freedom, equality, justice, and human rights quickly degenerate into controversies because we each bring our own cultural and other baggages to the discussions. Such discourses are less genuine dialogues with the intent of learning from one another, more of posturing and talking over each other. These sessions create high heat but little light.
Most of us intuitively think that first and foremost we are all humans, all the children of Adam, all subject to the usual human foibles, and all aspire to the pursuit of happiness. We do not allow such labels as beliefs, class, culture, faith and race to come between us. While we look upon our differences and diversities as a sign of God’s Grace, to quote the Quran, these ulama would seek to impose “purity,” as they see it.
It is an expression of human ingenuity that when we cannot get answers from our leaders we seek them out on our own. When our leaders (political, religious or traditional) go off on a tangent, the masses have a way of re-establishing equilibrium and collective sanity, for the most part.
Controversies erupt because we confuse concepts with contents. We are all for justice, equality, freedom, and human rights; those concepts are universally agreed upon; all faiths subscribe to the golden rule, or variations thereof. At issue are the contents. A barbed wire fence can be a reassuring protective barricade to some or an intimidating intrusive barrier to others, even when viewed from the same side. A hijab may be seen as oppressive to a Western feminist but liberating to a Muslim woman. Exposing one’s midriff may be emancipating to a Westerner but degrading to an Easterner.
If we keep focusing on the content, the twain shall never meet; concentrate on the concept – everyone’s desire to be free – than we are more likely to find common grounds. A Christian in Beirut does not feel out of place being transported in a Red Crescent ambulance, any more than a Muslim in Boston has qualms receiving blood from the Red Cross. Some may associate the Red Cross with the Crusades and the Red Crescent with the Saracens, and if the two organizations were to focus on that and not on the universality of their mission to serve the injured, sick and the displaced, then there will be no end to the fight.
The ideals of the UN’s Declaration on Universal Human Rights are also the ideals of Islam. They are to emancipate not entrap human beings. The first article of the UN’s Declaration could easily have been excerpted from the Quran when it asserts that all human beings are born free, with equal dignity and rights, and endowed with reason and conscience. Islam, the feminist movement, and the UN Human Rights Declaration all have one common objective: to emancipate human beings, to give each of us our inherent right as individuals, regardless of faith, nationality, skin color, or sex.
That Western secularists have claimed these ideals unto themselves is no reason why Muslims and others who share in those ideals should not join forces. Yet many Muslim countries have yet to ratify that UN document. An even sadder and more tragic reality is that flagrant abuses of basic human rights occur with impunity in many self-professed Muslim countries. Islamists who are quick to condemn such abuses when they occur in the West are curiously silent when they occur in their own backyard. Many abuses on Muslims and especially Muslim women are carried out in the name of Islam, making a mockery of our faith’s charity, benevolence, and mercifulness.
Salbiah Ahmad’s central concept in these and other essays is that the ideals of Islam (and other great faiths), the feminist movement, and Human Rights encapsulated in the UN’s Declaration are shared ideals. That is what we should be focusing on, not on the infinite variations of their content. This is the message we must strive to hear but are having increasing difficulty hearing above all the dins and clamor.
If we go beyond the contents and focus on their underlying concepts, we will be pleasantly surprised to discover that such terms as Islamic humanist or Islamic feminists are far from being oxymoronic. They are repetitious, for emphasis.
Of the many things Mahathir did right as Prime Minister, one was to leave cyberspace free from censorship. One consequence is that the views of the likes of Salbiah Ahmad can be freely expressed. That the mainstream media did not seek her out is a sad reflection of the general state of journalism in Malaysia. Malaysians and others owe a debt of gratitude to the brave folks at Malaysiakini for giving a forum for Salbiah Ahmad. They went further by publishing this volume of her essays. All will benefit from her thoughtful views. Her training in law enables her to dissect the arcane issues of Islamic jurisprudence in the language understandable to the general readers, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Not being an Islamic scholar she has thankfully spared her readers from being obfuscated behind ancient Arabic texts. As a social activist, she brings passion and commitment to her writings.
In the opening I referred to the many contributions of non-surgeons to my profession. Nonetheless when someone needs surgery, they must still seek out a surgeon, not one of the non-surgical experts no matter how eminent. Likewise, our ulama and Islamic scholars should seek out and welcome contributions from outside their field. If our ulama and scholars have a better appreciation of economics, psychology, and the sciences, that would only enhance their understanding of our great faith. Their fatwas (decrees) then would have far greater influence and impact. Learning from these non-ulama experts would not in any way detract or diminish our ulama’s piety or religiosity. Rest assured when we need someone to solemnize our marriage, lead our congregational prayers, or bless a birth, we would still go to our trusted friendly ulama.
Our religious scholars should heed well these words of the Egyptian intellectual Taha Hussein, as quoted by Ahmad Zewail in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “The end will begin when seekers of knowledge become satisfied with their own achievement.”
M. Bakri Musa, Morgan Hill, CA www.bakrimus.com firstname.lastname@example.org