14 February 2014

The Veil, Islamism, and Spreading Religion (1)

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“Leila Ahmed visits the UK to promote her new book on the resurgence of the Muslim veil.” “Leila Ahmed visits the UK to promote her new book on the resurgence of the Muslim veil.” http://yalebooksblog.co.uk/tag/burkha-ban/

 

This is the last blog (1 of 2) on one of the books discussed in our public library within the “Muslim Journeys: American Stories” series: Leila Ahmed’s A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America.

First it was the Christian and Jewish women of Egypt and the Levant who cast aside their traditional head coverings in the early 1900s. A decade later, sparked by Qasim Amin’s controversial book, The Liberation of Woman (1899), Muslim women were beginning to unveil, starting with the upper classes. This was a movement that continued to gain strength, so much so that our author, growing up in Egypt in the 1940s and 1950s, rarely saw any women donning the veil in any form.

Ahmed’s “quiet revolution” is about a groundswell of religiosity accompanied by new “Islamic dress” (al-zay al-Islami) for the women, which took over Egypt in the 1980s while spreading throughout the Muslim world, including to post-9/11 America.

A winner of the 2012 Grawmeyer Award in Religion, A Quiet Revolution, is a stimulating read. Ahmed, Harvard Divinity School’s first professor in women’s studies in religion, taps into her own personal memories, into her own knowledge of the religious dynamics of her home country, into her years of diligent study of women and Islam, and finally into the wealth of sociological research about the reappearance of the veil in Muslim societies.

I first dig into the colonial background to this issue, then into Ahmed’s thesis about the connection between the veil and Islamism, then in the next blog into her observations of Muslim American flagship organizations, primarily the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).

 

The Colonial Legacy

Ahmed’s point of departure is Oxford historian Albert Hourani’s 1956 article in the UNESCO Courier entitled, “The Vanishing Veil a Challenge to the Old Order.” Besides chronicling the gradual but irrepressible unveiling movement in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, largely sparked by Qasim Amin’s book, Hourani unwittingly reveals the attitudes of the region’s intellectuals of his time. As education was offered to both men and women, the latter were less and less willing to submit to the traditional norms of veiling and seclusion. He adds, “In all except the most backward regions polygamy has practically disappeared and the veil is rapidly going” (20).

Hourani tips his hands especially in the following statement: it is “only in the Arab world’s ‘most backward regions’ [my emphasis] . . . and especially ‘in the countries of the Arabian peninsula – Saudi Arabia and Yemen,’ that the ‘old order’ – and along with it such practices as veiling and polygamy – still ‘persist unaltered.’”

Egypt and the Levant in the 1950s were a different world. “Today, in our postmodern era,” notes Ahmed, “it would be almost unthinkable that an Oxford academic would casually use such terms as ‘advanced’ or ‘backward’ to describe cultural practices.” Yet in the mid-twentieth century such sentiments were shared and taken for granted by the ruling classes both in the West and in the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, “Hourani’s narrative is grounded in a worldview that assumed that the way forward for Arab societies lay in following the path of progress forged by the West.” The colonial project, though mostly over politically in 1956, was still in full swing culturally as the modern/Western myth of progress had been internalized by the elites and many others as well.

A bit of history is useful here. Taking advantage of Egyptian king (Khedive) Ismail’s mismanagement of state funds and a popular rebellion against him, the British landed troops in 1882 and began a military occupation that would only end in 1954. They forced him to abdicate in favor of his son Tewfik and though the new Khedive remained on the throne, it was the British who made all the important decisions of state. The next year they sent Lord Cromer as consul general – a euphemism for master colonial puppeteer.

Indeed, Cromer left an indelible mark on the country during his 24 years “rule,” and shortly after his departure, wrote a best-selling book, Modern Egypt. In it he gives voice to the common beliefs of the colonial elites (the French as well): it was now a matter of fact (anthropology used skull sizes to “prove” this) that “the dark-skinned Eastern” is inferior to “the fair-skinned Western.” A biographer of Cromer remarks that his book’s popularity “reflected the spirit of the age: a pride not only in empire but also in the management of subject races” (30). This of course spilled over to his conviction that Christianity was superior to Islam.

So then, coming to our topic about women, Cromer was curiously (we might add, “outrageously”) unaware of his own contradictions. On the one hand, he deplored Islam’s “degradation” of women – veiling and seclusion were the chief manifestations of that, while Christianity “elevated” women. On the other hand, Cromer served for a time as president of the Society Opposed to Women’s Suffrage. Men and women ought to stay in the roles God gave them, he reasoned. Clearly in his mind the very notion of British Empire reflected the God-willed hierarchy of white men in charge of white women, while both oversaw lesser races subject to them.

Despite all his agitation for the advancement of women in Egyptian society during his tenure, he did little to allocate funds to one sector that could have made a difference – schools. Cromer even refused to fund a school set up in the 1830s to train women doctors, dismissing the preference of Egyptian women to be treated by a female doctor with the quip, “I conceive that in the civilized world, attendance by medical men is still the rule” (32).

Though much of Ahmed’s discussion of this era is fascinating (like Cromer’s facilitating Muhammad Abduh’s career), let me just close with this quote as a suitable summary:

 

“Unveiling would become ever more clearly the emblem of an era of new hopes and desires, and of aspirations for modernity: of the possibility of education and the right to work for both women and men, and of equal opportunity and advancement based on effort and merit instead of inherited privilege be it of class or race” (39).

 

Thankfully, as elsewhere, colonialism had the unintended effect of intensifying the “subject people’s” thirst for freedom and dignity. We now move on to the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 – a movement that was largely a reaction to the hegemonic presence of the British, and, in particular, of western missionaries and their schools and clinics.

 

Islamism and the rise of the veil

Here we reach Ahmed’s central thesis. Though the unveiling movement had never signified a rejection of Islam, those calling for the reveiling of women saw it just as that. For them, unveiling was to kowtow to western secularism. Still, when the veil came on again, it looked quite different and it acquired many new meanings.

Some women of the middle and upper classes, recalls Ahmed from her youth, would wear an expensive western style scarf over their head and tie it under their chin. Though it was uncommon, it did point to more conservative individuals who thought a woman’s head should be covered in public. This was very different from the Muslim Brotherhood women whose head coverings (hijabs) stood out from both the westernized conservative women’s scarves and the traditional veils. Ahmed seems to remember that their distinctive dress was meant to send a message – at least this is how she perceived it: “they were both different and opposed to us” (49).

I have no space here to deal with the history of the Muslim Brotherhood – if anything, before and after President Morsi’s one year in office (2012-2013), much has been written about this movement in the country of its origin. But Ahmed helpfully adds one more element in her historical sweep: Saudi Arabia’s crucial role in using its petrodollars to spread its own conservative and puritanical brand of Islam. And since many Brotherhood leaders, while fleeing the great “persecution” initiated by President Nasser in 1954, ended up in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, there was a definite convergence of interests between them and their Wahhabi hosts.

What was often dubbed the “Arab Cold War” by scholars was precisely this fierce struggle between the Saudis (who in 1961 founded a university in Medina to train missionaries and the next year the Muslim World League) Gamal Abd al-Nasser in Egypt and other Arab nationalist rulers and elites in the region. Said Ramadan, the son-in-law of the Brotherhood’s founder Hasan al-Banna, was named to the 21-member council of the Muslim World League, as was the great leader of South Asian islamism, Maulana Abu’l Ala al-Mawdudi.

Understandably, the 1967 Arab defeat at the hands of the Israelis rang out the death knell of pan-Arabism and its secular ideology. From then on, political Islam would become the ubiquitous oppositional discourse throughout the Mideast and beyond.

Intriguingly, as Ahmed points out, this defeat sparked a mood of unprecedented religiosity across confessional boundaries. As a scholar of religion, I cannot resist quoting the following paragraph, even though as I wrote in my fundamentalism blog, I have no plausible explanation to offer for this resurgence of religion. As a Christian, I would simply say that the Holy Spirit was moving with power, albeit in mysterious ways:

 

            “Soon after the defeat an apparition of the Virgin Mary was seen beside a small church on the outside of Cairo. Muslim as well as Christians flocked by the thousands to see it, camping out overnight to watch for her appearance. Miracles and cures were reported. Some interpreted the Virgin’s appearance as a sign intended to draw Muslims and Christians together into unified opposition against the Zionist enemy. Others saw it as a divine sign offering comfort to the Egyptians, as if to say that despite their defeat God was on their side. The mood of religiosity had palpable and tangible consequences too. Quranic reading groups now multiplied, and monasteries, which had long been closing for lack of applicants, were deluged with applications” (66).

 

Then came the 1973 war with Israel that gave the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt. This seems to be the watershed event after which the new Islamic fervor, now with unmistakable islamist overtones, gradually began capturing the imagination and allegiance of the masses. That said, the emerging movement in the 1970s was only a university phenomenon, as Fadwa El Guindi’s sociological research demonstrates.

What were their characteristics? Just as the Muslim Brotherhood’s goal had been from the beginning, these young activists aimed “to bring about the ideal Islamic society based on the Quran and Sunna,” fighting the three main foes of “communism, Zionism and feminism” (79). Though the membership was informal, as a movement it included “sororal/fraternal collectivities, which offered separate and parallel opportunities for involvement and leadership among both men and women.”

One of the characters that pops up in several chapters is the “unsung mother” of the Brotherhood, Zainab al-Ghazali. Her single devotion to the cause, her vast energy and organizational skills helped keep the movement afloat, especially in times of dire persecution. When in 1964 the government ordered the dissolution of her women’s organization, it counted 3 million members. She then survived an assassination attempt but shortly after was imprisoned with the other Brotherhood leaders (including Sayyid Qutb) and condemned to 25 years of hard labor. Her memoir came out shortly after six “brutal years” of torture and deprivation. She called it Return of the Pharaoh: Memoir in Nasir’s Prison.

I mention her, because she modeled the values and ideals that the female members of the Muslim Brotherhood internalized and embodied. This was an activist’s Islam, producing a vanguard of Muslim society, which sought through its “gradualist nonviolent means of the jihad of education and da’wa [spreading the message, here to other Muslims] to bring about the transformation and re-islamization of society” (138). In these extraordinary times, she would say, no sacrifice is too great to reach our God-given mission. She herself divorced a husband who didn’t support her commitment to the cause. And she told her second husband from the start that she would leave him too, should he stand in the way. He died during her years in prison; and fortunately, she would later admit, she had never had any children.

In a rare interview she gave Kristin Helmore of the Christian Science Monitor in 1985, Ghazali, who agreed with all her male colleagues in the Brotherhood that the veil is a divine commandment for all Muslim women, explains in greater detail her viewpoint on the issue. Helmore writes that Ghazali presented the “iron determination of one who has given her every waking moment to a cause, and the inner stillness of one who is wholly convinced that she is right” (113).

When asked how a devout woman was different from one who is “more modern,” Ghazali unflinchingly replied,

 

“If you don’t go back to your religion and dress the way I do, you’ll go to hell. Even if you’re a good Muslim and you pray and do what is right, if you dress the way you do all your good deeds will be canceled out” (113).

 

One sociologist who did a great deal of research into the mainstream Islamic movement of Egypt in the 1990s is Carrie Rosefsky Wickham. Her book, Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism and Political Change in Egypt, captures the mood and values of this movement that has now become dominant in Egyptian society (though severely repressed once again). To start with, the militants who believe in the use of violence represent a very small fraction of its members and their ideology is repudiated by the vast majority of society.

On the positive side, what most characterized the people she interviewed was their understanding of Islam as a call to actively serve those in need and influence all others to enter into that same devoted lifestyle:

 

“Some of them held jobs in Islamic institutions, but the majority had their main job in unrelated areas and worked part time in service of Islamism, often for very low pay or on a volunteer basis. Lawyers, engineers, doctors, and other professionals offered their services in Islamic health clinics, day-care centers, kindergartens, and after-school programs; or they taught religious lessons or (if they were men) preached at the mosque” (148).

 

How did these activists succeed in persuading their fellow citizens to adopt their version of Islam, and in particular women accepting to don the zia islami (“Islamic dress”)? There were a variety of methods employed:

 

1. Provide help to people through islamist networks, like finding jobs, receiving funds from a mosque in time of need, obtaining visas for working abroad, and even suitable marriage partners.

2. A psychological boost and a sense of “moral authority” coming from one’s membership in a tight knit society. Paradoxically, as Wickham shows from her interviewees’ answers, and especially for lower class ones, “adopting a strict Islamic code enabled women to be freer to flout traditional limits to their autonomy.” They “gained an aura of respectability that enabled them to move more freely in public spaces without fear of social sanction” (151).

3. Sometimes “hijab and Islamic attire were also being deliberately, actively promoted by Islamists.” Through their networks of friends, particularly if they were able to persuade them to attend religious classes or come to a mosque with a charismatic preacher, these activists could get them to “convert” and start wearing hijab or even niqab (the full-face veil). Of course, it helped when an outfit was offered free of charge for them to wear.

4. Along with this, on the basis of several stories Ahmed recounts from Wickham’s book, she summarizes the tactics of da’wa to which these young activists resort: “Peer pressure and gentle albeit insidiously powerful coercion toward social conformity and the acceptance of ‘correct’ religious practice (‘Isn’t it proper, following the path of the Prophet?’) clearly were all brought into play in the process of Islamist da’wa and outreach in regard to Islamic dress” (153).

 

I close here the first half of this blog on Ahmed’s book. I hope you see, once again, that religious movements don’t spring out of thin air – they're born in specific historical, cultural and sociopolitical contexts. That is certainly the case with the modern birth of the Muslim Brotherhood. The limited backdrop of colonialism offered above might also give you a glimpse into why people in the region see the state of Israel as a western colonial intrusion and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq as more of the same. It also helps to explain, at least in part, the strong anti-American feeling felt on all sides before, and especially after the 2013 military coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt.

With all that in mind, we still have to look more closely at the resurgence of the veil in Egypt and then in the United States coming into the 2000s.