Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

In Iraq and Afghanistan, women in the US military have often been in combat roles, a little-known fact until this past week when gender equality in the line of fire became official Pentagon policy. Staff Sgt. Keesha Dentino, an explosives-dog handler for the famous Old Guard infantry regiment at Fort Myers, in an interview with the Washington Post said she welcomes the new ruling. Doing battle officially “is something that I would enjoy,” she said. It’s about an individual’s ability to deal with stress. “It’s dependent upon the person and not necessarily the gender.”

While on combat patrols in Afghanistan, she noticed that when she had proved to the local women that she too was a woman, many of the usual barriers fell. They were especially curious, she recalled, “to know why it is that I’m able to be around other men,” she said. “They’re restricted in that culture. To see a woman out there kind of being treated equally by men is unheard of to them. So they’re very intrigued by that.”

Notice on the one hand the constant pressure a human rights ideal puts on governments to achieve more equality. Let’s call it here “modern egalitarianism.” Though not all agree, in effect Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had little choice in decreeing the right of women to join combat units. For some time – and admittedly aided by the nature of two wars in which any routine patrol might find itself on the front lines – women have been doing combat shoulder to shoulder with their male comrades. Understandably, they were crying out to be recognized and given equal pay and opportunities for advancement.

On the other hand, Afghan women in the countryside were justifiably amazed to see women and men in such close quarters doing a job on an equal footing – a job which in their culture is reserved exclusively for men. That’s the point – “in their culture.” As I see it, religion has little to do with this. But then, how do you draw the line between religion and culture? We’re back to the discussions of the two previous blogs.

This is the third and last installment in this series. Using many current events and debates, I have argued that though there is definite collusion between religion and the unequal treatment of women, neither is it a clear cause and effect relationship, nor is the relationship in every case possible to establish at all. Cultural beliefs and practices (especially the impunity with which men do violence to women), authoritarian regimes and outside pressures (western colonialism was one example), and often the hardships imposed by grinding poverty – all of these and more are factors that increase the suffering of women the world over.


India, the US and everywhere

Since my last blog in this series the world has been riveted by a storm of popular protests in India, and mostly by women. No wonder. It was sparked by the gang-rape of the 23-year old medical student in a New Delhi bus on December 16, 2012. Her boy friend was seriously injured as well and both were dumped into the street naked. For weeks and weeks, crowds poured into the streets of many Indian cities protesting the lack of police protection and the impunity with which men commit crimes against women.

The picture above you shows female students protesting the rape of a village woman by one of the leaders of the ruling Congress Party. News of other rapes and despicable acts of violence against women suddenly began to flow more freely than usual, sending more and more people to vent their anger in the streets.

Not all of the protests are democratic in nature or show an appreciation for the constitution and the rule of law. A lawyer and seasoned women’s rights activist, Flavia Agnes, pointed out that many are calling for sex offenders to be castrated or executed. Their frustration is understandable, however, in a country where “only about 25 percent of rape cases resulted in convictions in 2010, and conviction rates were less than 10 percent in some states last year.”

“What is needed,” said Agnes, “are nonsensational, small measures. Getting women better access to the police station, getting the medical reports done sensitively.” Still, she adds, this groundswell of protest is a boon for women. A senior police officer contacted her to find out more about her organization, Majlis, and how they could partner to get more women to report crimes at their local police station. Also, one party has already vowed not to field candidates charged with rape. Agnes concluded, “For some reason, this rape has caught the national imagination. If that means the government and police cannot ignore this issue anymore, that’s a good thing.”

According to a Gallup poll conducted in the Middle East from 2009 to 2011, women feel less safe in the streets after the “Arab Spring,” and in particularly so in Tunisia and Egypt. Dalia Ziada heads up the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies in Cairo. The revolution, she said, was a call for greater economic and political freedom, but it was not about women’s rights. And with the breakdown of law and order women more than ever before are suffering sexual assaults in the streets. Since the fall of 2011 in several Egyptian cities vigilante groups composed mostly of males have been patrolling the streets to confront men who harass women. They’ve been overwhelmed in the recent explosion of anger across Egypt at the end of January 2013.

Meanwhile, in the United States, legislation to reauthorize the landmark 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has been stalled. The new bi-partisan bill, co-authored by senators Leahy and Crapo, was passed by the Senate in April 2012, but is still held up in January 2013 in the Republican-led House, mostly because the help to victims of abuse (like shelters or legal help) would be offered regardless of sexual orientation or immigration status.

Republicans reject in particular the issuing of special visas (called U-visas) to undocumented immigrants victims of sexual assaults or domestic violence. The New York Times urges the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, to use all his power to help pass this law, with or without this provision. It will save women’s lives and deliver justice, particularly through its provision to reduce "the inexcusable national backlog of untested rape kits."

Faith-based groups are also getting the word out. The Presbyterian Church USA devoted a website to advocate for this law to be reenacted. This is part of the letter they suggest their member use to urge their members of Congress to take action:


“I believe that God wants health and wholeness for all of us, including a home and world free from violence.

We must ensure that victims of violence have access to the services they need and that perpetrators of violence must be held accountable.

This legislation builds on the past successes of VAWA, increasing effectiveness and reaching more victims and provides law enforcement with more tools for protecting victims from their batterers.”


I mentioned in the last blog protests in Latin America seeking to bolster the protection of women victims of violence. No doubt, human societies across the globe (and likely from time immemorial) struggle to curb the aggressive domination by males of the opposite sex. And like the Presbyterian initiative above, people of faith have joined other activists to make their voices heard.


The issue of Muslim exceptionalism

In this three-part series I’ve emphasized the broad scope of patriarchy, both geographically and across religious boundaries. Still Muslim societies are often singled out as being the worst offenders, whether it was the Taliban fiercely misogynist policies of the 1990s, the news that the Saudi state now sends automatic text messages to inform males that their female dependents have crossed the border, the shooting of the 14-year-old Pakistani advocate for the education of girls in her country, or the recent imposition of extreme forms of Sharia law in northern Mali.

In the first blog we saw how the Muslim Brotherhood actually curried favor with the masses through its patriarchal discourse and programs. Egypt, like other societies in that part of the world remains very traditional in its outlook. So what is dictated by Islamic law (interpreted narrowly) is difficult to disentangle from traditional near eastern culture. Though perhaps in Saudi Arabia, where the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia is enforced by the religious police (the mutawa) and where people today are more openly pushing back against its well-known excesses, religion and culture may be easier to distinguish. The king’s latest promise to deploy women agents of the mutawa, however, seems unlikely to curb the kingdom’s zeal to patrol and control how women dress, who accompanies them in public, and whether they perform their prayers at the set time.

Some new research sheds light on the phenomenon of “Islamic exceptionalism.” A young Professor of Comparative Political Science at the University of California (Berkeley), M. Steven Fish, has done us all an immense favor. Specialized in Russia and Eastern Europe he later branched out and spent a sabbatical year in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world. The result was a brashly ambitious work, Are Muslims Distinctive? A Look at the Evidence (Oxford U. Press, 2011). The reviews were glowing. UCLA’s noted scholar of Islamic law, Khaled Abou El Fadl, gushes, “This book is a profound achievement. Reading it has been an eye-opening experience to the point that I feel that I will never be able to approach my own work and scholarship in the same way.” A good review in pdf form by San Diego State political scientist Ahmet T. Kuru is available here.

So how are Muslim-majority countries distinct from other ones? Fish’s data-driven analysis of the issues reveals some surprises. First, Muslims are not more religiously observant than people of other faith. For instance, in France only 10% of Christians and 10% of Muslims attend weekly services. The same parity holds for the USA, though at 40%. In Muslim countries the numbers are higher, but not significantly so.

 Second, the Muslim observance of zakat (the prescribed “poor tax”) seems to make Muslim-majority countries distinctly more egalitarian, with less of a gap between rich and poor. Third, Muslim societies have lower rates of homicide, which, he notes, may correlate to the previous point. Fourth, statistics on terrorism do point to a prevalence of Muslim-initiated attacks on civilians between 1994 and 2008 (74 out of 136). Yet fifth, there seems to be no evidence that Muslims oppose the separation of religion and state more than others.

Finally, on our topic of patriarchy, there does seem to be a Muslim exceptionalism. In a variety of surveys Muslims show much more of an inclination to favor men in relation to employment and educational opportunities. Further, and here I follow Kuru’s assessment of Fish’s book: “It stresses the exceptionally higher gender gaps in income, literacy, and political positions in Muslim societies. Gender inequality is a deep problem that all societies, especially Muslim-majority societies, should take seriously.” Then follows a point which Kuru will dispute:


“Yet, one variable Fish employs—the level of healthy life expectation—makes me extra curious, because providing ‘inferior health care’ for females (p. 203) is much worse than patriarchy. Fish notes that females in Muslim countries have a substantially smaller healthy life expectancy advantage than they do in Christian countries.”


Kuru goes to the World Health Organization (WHO) webpage and combs through the country statistics, arguing that the data turns out to be more significantly related to regions than to religions. Nevertheless, the gender gap still stands out more starkly in Muslim societies than elsewhere, he avers.

Fish recently teamed up with Danielle N. Lussier from Grenell College for an article entitled, “Men, Muslims, and Attitudes towards Sex-Based Inequality.” This is a statistically sophisticated analysis that goes far beyond what I can tackle in this blog. But the following percentages corresponding to these three questions give a good idea of the direction the research is going:


1. Percentage who “agree strongly” or “agree” that “a university education is more important for a boy than for a girl” (Muslims: 38.4%; non-Muslims: 17.7%).

2. Percentage who “agree” that “when jobs are scarce, men should have more of a right to a job than women” (Muslims: 68.2%; non-Muslims: 29.0%).

3. Percentage who “agree strongly” or “agree” that “on the whole, men make better political leaders than women” (Muslims: 70.9%; non-Muslims: 40.3%).


I will have to come back on this article at a later date. Suffice it to say here that Muslim distinctiveness on gender-based inequality seems to be entrenched. Perhaps this is why one finds such a vibrant civil society led mostly by women scholars who devote their lives to reversing these trends.


Muslim initiatives to curb violence and promote gender equality

Many courageous and creative Muslim women could be cited here, but one in particular stands out in my mind because of her global reach. Zainah Anwar was born into the family of a prominent Malay politician (b. 1965) and early on decided she wanted to be a journalist, and a non-conformist one at that. She has never married, preferring to devote herself to her lifetime calling – fighting for justice and human rights, and particularly for women in Muslim contexts.

With a background in journalism, international law and diplomacy (Boston University and Tufts University) Anwar worked seven years for the Institute of Strategic and International Studies and then a couple of years at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. But then in 1987 back in Malaysia with a group of like-minded lawyers, scholars and activists, she began to turn her attention to the plight of women both in the state-run courts and the Shari’a courts. One of those scholars, an African-American Muslim from Philadelphia, Amina Wadud, teaching in Kuala Lumpur at the time, was one of those who challenged Anwar to study the Qur’an with fresh eyes. That process led this group to found an NGO Anwar would lead for two decades, Sisters in Islam (SIS).

In an interview with the Malaysian Star newspaper as she was leaving her SIS executive director post in 2008, Anwar mused about her discovery of the Qur’an’s egalitarian message. It began as she discovered that the same Qur’anic verse that gives permission for men to marry up to four wives (Q. 4:3) then adds, “If you fear you cannot be equitable [to them], then marry only one.” Then further on in the same sura (Women), we read, “You will never be able to treat your wives with equal fairness, however you may desire to do so.” Muhammad Abduh, the great Egyptian reformer (d. 1905), was perhaps the first to write that God’s intention was monogamy, whereas he would only tolerate polygamy in times when many men had been slain in battle, as was the case when these verses were revealed.

Anwar called this moment “an epiphany”: “It was that kind of questioning that made us want to read the Quran with a new lens. It was a liberating process understanding that the Quran speaks to women and is lifting and empowering.”

I encourage you to go to the SIS website and click on “Knowledge Resources.” Then click on “Muslim Family Law.” Toward the bottom of the page you will find an item, “Best Practices on Muslim family law issues.” There you will discover an illuminating comparison between current Malaysian practices and what SIS considers “the best” practices elsewhere. Every comparative rubric starts with Morocco, where in 2004 the king was able to get through parliament one of the most progressive family law rulings anywhere in the Muslim world. Tunisia, Indonesia and other countries are also represented.

I have no doubt but that Zainah Anwar was one of the movers and shakers behind the historic 2006 WISE Conference in New York.WISE is a global forum for Muslim feminist scholars and activists and this conference provided the launching pad for the movement. According to their website,


“The inaugural WISE conference convened 150 of the most accomplished Muslim women scholars, activists, artists, and religious and civil society leaders from 25 countries – spanning Afghanistan, Jordan, Senegal and Morocco to Turkey, the Netherlands, Belgium and the US. The gathering facilitated seminal discussions on the unique challenges facing Muslim women globally and developing concrete tools for realizing the vision of an Islamic expression of gender equality and justice. Collectively, these leaders assessed the needs of their specific constituencies, identified ways to expand their own work and developed recommendations for creating an effective global change movement.”


Their first publication is endorsed by a wide spectrum of female Muslim scholars, “Jihad against Violence: Women’s Struggle for Peace” and is well worth studying in detail. It can be downloaded here.

In the United States one of WISE’s prime movers is the illustrious imam of the Manhattan mosque, Feisal Abdul Rauf, who developed the 13-story “Park 51 Islamic Center” that opened in November 2011. It is open to people of all faiths, and like the other activities Abdul Rauf promotes through his Cordoba Initiative, it is meant to serve the cause of interfaith dialog. Unsurprisingly, the Cordoba Initiative’s motto is “Amplifying Voices of Moderation,” and Park51 includes a 9/11 memorial. Rauf’s new book is entitled Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America.

Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, an immigrant from the Kashmir area of India, has been very active with WISE even before its inception. With her husband she co-founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) which includes “youth and women’s empowerment” as one of its core values. A spin-off of the Cordoba Initiative, it seeks inspiration from the apex of Spain’s Islamic civilization to foster “cultural and religious harmony through interfaith collaboration.” ASMA also functions as an American chapter of WISE.

These activists are not preaching in the desert, however. Women in the Arab world in particular have been emboldened by the popular stirrings of 2011. One of the three Nobel Peace Prize laureates in 2012, Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, thanked all Arab women for their fight for equal rights. Then she added, “The solution to women's issues can only be achieved in a free and democratic society in which human energy is liberated, the energy of both women and men together. . . . Our civilization is called human civilization, and is not attributed only to men or women.”


Closing words

This concludes our three-part exploration of religion and patriarchy, probably leaving you with more questions than answers. In a way, I’m glad for that. Nothing is more destructive to the fabric of a more peaceful global society than the strident voices of those who take their own opinions as the TRUTH. People of faith should indeed be convinced of the veracity of their own tradition’s creeds, but this leaves a whole lot more truth about the world God created to discover, and in particular the world of human beings He empowered, so that they would manage this good earth with justice and compassion.

So we need one another as fellow trustees of the earth. Gender inequality and the resulting violence perpetrated against women is a planetary problem we can only tackle together. Instead of pointing fingers, let’s celebrate initiatives like SIS, WISE, ASMA, and the work of many other religious and secular groups of all kinds. Only then will be able to make headway.

Two things just happened that will come together in this blog. First, I came back from Singapore, where I lectured on the theme of justice from a secular, Christian and Muslim perspective. This was for Pathways for Mutual Understanding’s first Institute in Asia. Second, my review of David Bertaina’s 2011 book, Christian and Muslim Dialogues: The Religious Uses of a Literary Form in the Early Islamic Middle East, was just published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences (Vol. 30, #1).

Don’t worry, I’m still mulling over my third (and last) installment of “Religion and Patriarchy,” but here I start a series of four blogs on justice in interreligious dialog.


Some questions arising from the past

Debates between people of different faiths can be documented as far back as ancient Greece. Plato and other Greek writers offer us numerous examples of these, as do the Romans before and after the advent of Christianity. Also, right before the Islamic era, Christians around the Mediterranean left some fascinating traces of conversations and debates with Jews. It’s not surprising, then, that around twenty documents in the “dialogue genre” written either in Syriac or Arabic have come to light from the seventh to the eleventh century CE.

David Bertaina, from the History Department of the University of Illinois (Springfield), offers an enlightening discussion of these as he sorts them out according to purpose, authors and occasions. As I read him, he leaves us with at least two applications for today:

The first is that, unlike many of the official interreligious dialogs of today – which are often impoverished due to the liberal ethos of “neutrality” – those dialogs were robust, confrontational and polemical at times, but each side willing to stake its case on truth claims many were willing to die for. Some of those were directed to their own communities – and never so urgently conveyed as those of the eighth and ninth centuries by Christian leaders trying to stem the growing tide of conversion to Islam. Others were directed to the “religious other,” with the intent to persuade, consciously engaging in evangelism on one side and da’wa on the other.

The second application is Bertaina’s finding that in interfaith dialog the playing field is rarely even. Issues of power always crop up to cloud the conversation, particularly for one side. During that period of an ascending and then supremely confident Islamic imperial power whether in Baghdad or Islamic Spain, Christians displayed noticeable anxiety on the issue of conversion and at times about their own powerlessness. This, he writes, must be seen as comparable to the situation of Muslims today in the west, who particularly after the 2001 attacks, have often felt under siege. I would add that the bold initiative represented by the 2007 “Common Word” letter fits into the category of a community under pressure seeking to restart a dialog as an equal partner.

The first example of Muslim-Christian dialog is reflected in the Qur’an itself, in which many passages echo and respond to assertions made by the Christians both of Mecca and Medina. In a whole chapter devoted to this topic, Bertaina argues from many examples that there was a lively conversation attested by the Qur’an during the short period of Muhammad’s prophetic ministry. You have to allow, he maintains, that there were more Christians that many have so far assumed, and that they were in fact quite vocal.

Bertaina also unearths several early (“proto-”) Shi’i dialogs that, while trying to rebut Christian claims like the one about the divinity of Christ, simultaneously serve to affirm the superiority of the “virtues of Ali” over any figure the Sunnis might put forward. No religious community is monolithic and interconfessional dialog always brings to the fore the fault lines of one’s own community. On the positive side, the Common Word letter sparked a series of encounters not just with Catholics but also with evangelical Christians in the US and the UK. In turn, that initiative had a polarizing effect in some evangelical circles.

Among several kinds of dialogs that Bertaina highlights in his chapters, we find the “theological education and didactic,” the “hagiographic,” and the “scriptural reinterpretation” modes. Those of course were mostly directed to religious insiders. Still, the one event that captured the imagination of medieval Christians is the one Bertaina emphasizes the most – and rightly so. This is when for two days in 829 Theodore Abu Qurra, Bishop of Harran, debated with the Caliph al-Ma’mun and several Muslim scholars at his court. More than anything, the several texts that mention this dialog agree in their depiction of a passionate and yet courteous dialogue, in which both sides know and search the other’s scriptures to better communicate their own convictions. Interestingly, Christian writers of later centuries saw this encounter as the high water mark of a free and respectful dialog between the two communities.

I’ll join with Bertaina in his masterful work to commend to you this kind of encounter today. And in many ways, Pathways’ Singapore Institute lived up to these ideals in both form and content. Allow me to explain.


A fruitful Asian encounter between Muslims and Christians in 2013

As you can read on their website, “Pathways for Mutual Respect, in cooperation with The Yale Center for Faith & Culture, anticipates welcoming another outstanding group of emerging leaders from around the globe to our Singapore Institute, entitled Faith & Society – Leadership Amidst Controversy.”

As you can see, Pathways specializes in training promising young leaders. That will be my first point: this was a group of impressive leaders, both Muslim (11) and Christian (8), from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Then I’ll touch on the depth of interaction, and finally on the prospects for future cooperation.

The overwhelming majority of the region’s population is Muslim – both the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian Archipelago. These Muslims were well represented here, including several academics and a few more NGO leaders. Citing just a few examples, two were top-level leaders in Malaysia’s largest Islamic youth movement (ABIM) and one of them had been president of the National Union of Malaysian Muslim Organizations (PKPIM). Like most of the others, he is still in his thirties. A Malaysian female journalist with almost twenty years of experience writing on socioreligious issues for several newspapers, and the author of two books on Muslims of the region, offered a more secular perspective. One Malaysian Christian teaches political science in a private university and is an active participant in Muslim-Christian dialogs.

Three academics were among the Indonesians, including one teaching Shari’a at a law school in Bandung who has founded a youth movement called “Peace Generation.” Another is a regional leader of the 30 million-member Nahdatul Ulama organization. The only Indonesian Christian worked as a business consultant/trainer, co-founded a consortium of over 5,000 small businesses, and sits on the board of several international NGOs promoting “value-driven businesses.”

Two of the Singaporean Christians present are evangelical pastors, while one woman is a Catholic who worked for poverty alleviation in the Philippines and Vietnam. One Muslim participant obtained a PhD in sociology from the University of Birmingham and now directs a center that specializes in developing the aspirations and skills of the Malay youth of Singapore. Another is a PhD candidate in the Malay Studies Department of the National University of Singapore, with already two books to his name and numerous articles published in all three countries.

What about the program of the five-day Institute, you ask? It was framed by two highly respected regional academics. Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, one of Malaysia’s best-known public intellectuals kicked off the program with two lectures on “The Challenge of Leadership in a Multi-Faith Society.” Much was taken from the Malaysian context, but as founder and president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST ) Muzaffar was also able to give participants a global perspective on issues that must be tackled. There were other lecturers from the region, to be sure, but let me note the excellent contribution of our host, Syed Farid Alatas, Head of the Malay Studies Department and member of the executive committee of UNESCO’s International Sociological Association, who addressed the group on the challenges facing Muslim communities and helped introduce the final discussion on future directions.

There was a lot more than lectures, however. Participants benefited from various activities (like visiting the Harmony Centre of Singapore, a mosque with an ambitious interfaith component), including large group and small group discussions and special exercises led by Pathways founder and sociologist John Hartley and his team.

My second point relates to the net effect of this intensive interpersonal interaction: on several occasions there were open discussions on the thorny issue of proselytism from both sides – or, if you prefer, the inner imperative of each tradition to share its faith with religious others, hoping to convince them to adopt it as their own. One morning session was devoted to a role play exercise in which both sides had to divide up into “liberals” and “conservatives” (whatever that meant in each case), agree on a particular course of action to resolve a contentious issue of proselytism that was rocking the community; then they had to send a representative to negotiate a solution with the other side.

The outcome was instructive. Both sides were frustrated there wasn’t enough time to resolve the prickly issue at hand. No wonder, since the question of missionary activity is the one that by far generates the most emotion (especially on the Muslim side – remember how Christians felt in the Abbasid Empire around the ninth and tenth centuries CE?). By sitting down and talking about the issue openly and candidly, both sides can dispel misunderstandings and decide on common sense rules all can follow. Building trust is key; and the best way to do this is to invest time in building personal relationships long before problems have a chance to blow up out of proportion.

Was there any discussion of one another’s scriptures, as in the case of the dialog at the court of Abbasid caliph al-Ma’amun? There was, though it was not the focus of the Institute. My second and third lectures were about Jesus and justice, and justice in the Muslim tradition respectively (to be explored in subsequent blogs). Still, let me say that however limited the theological discussions were, the door was widely opened for future conversations on this issue. Besides, working together for the empowerment of the poor and marginalized will automatically increase the desire to hear more about what motivates and nourishes the action of our partners of another faith. And no, we shouldn’t avoid talking through the more contentious differences; but we do so on the basis of trust and friendship, and with the desire to listen, understand and be enriched through the process in our own faith.

Finally, what practical outcomes are likely to follow from these meetings? People were meeting at the last session in three country groups, brainstorming about how they could contribute to each other’s ongoing interfaith efforts and how they could initiate new programs. Many ideas were mentioned, and I’m certain that the ensuing conversation will produce several concrete projects.

For all of its great challenges and specters, our world of 2013 is so much more promising than past ones for those who commit to working for peace, and particularly for those doing so as people of faith linking hands and hearts with those of other traditions. History shows that the greatest experiments of interreligious dialog in the medieval world took place in the Muslim realms of Granada and Baghdad. Today we have the tools and opportunities to take this to a higher level. Pathways’ Singapore Institute confirmed that for me. May God bless the many other initiatives underway around our globe!

A wonderful Christmas to all of you around the world, to Christians and Muslims, especially! Last year I emphasized how much Christians and Muslims have in common as they celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, or Isa bnu Maryam, the great prophet the Qur’an honors as “Jesus, son of Mary.”

Haroon Moghul has left us this Christmas with a wonderful summary of Muslim and Christian convergences and divergences about Jesus (eschatology and all!) in the Boston Review.

For my part this year I’ll emphasize difference, though both communities can still come out at the other end of their respective paths with “human dignity and solidarity.” Let me explain.

Let me take the Christmas story from a less known text – by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians:


“And that’s the way it was with us before Christ came. We were like children; we were slaves to the basic spiritual powers (or ‘principles’) of this world.

But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, ‘Abba, Father.’

Now you are no longer a slave but God’s own child. And since you are a child, God has made you his heir” (Gal. 4:3-7 NLT).


So much could be said about this passage, but let me simply comment on four thoughts:


Slavery: Paul teaches elsewhere that the Law of Moses was holy – after all, God himself revealed it to Moses on the Mount Sinai. But law can become and end in itself and “legalism” can lure us away from God. Yet there is more, taking our cue from the phrase “slaves to the basic spiritual powers of the world.” As I see it, the best teaching on this difficult phrase goes something like this. There are forces inside of us that drag us downward, far from God, like the evil desires of our lower nature and the strong emotions like anger, jealousy and fear that impel us to hurt others – in one word, “sin.” But there are forces outside of us too. Both Bible and Qur’an teach about the reality of Satan or Iblis, who is a sworn enemy of humankind and of God. But even beyond the reality of demonic beings bent on enticing us to “the dark side” (and sometimes commandeering whole nations to commit unspeakable atrocities – think of Hitler, Stalin, and the massacres in Rwanda or Bosnia, Congo or Syria), Paul is also pointing to evil systems of thought that invade human social and political structures. Today we call these “ideologies,” whether nationalism, racism, sexism, materialism, communism, capitalism, or whatever. These can easily ensnare us into trampling on the rights of others.

 This morning on National Public Radio, as I was driving home from dropping my wife off at work (as a hospital nurse she works every other Christmas), I heard Linda Gradstein report from Bethlehem, “This year there was no room at the inn!” Indeed, buoyed by their new national status at the UN, some 15,000 Palestinians and internationals had crowded Bethlehem hotels to celebrate a joyous, even raucous Christmas feast. President Mahmoud Abbas joined in the Midnight Mass at Manger Square’s Church of the Nativity, as Yasser Arafat had faithfully done before him every year since the 1993 Oslo Accords.

 Still, there is plenty of irony in these celebrations, at the picture overhead reminds us. My family spent three Christmases there in the mid 1990s, while I was teaching at the Bethlehem Bible College – a great time for us to learn about that little town and enjoy its people, both Christian and Muslim, natives and refugees. Already in those days Israeli military checkpoints made it nearly impossible for Palestinians to go shopping or worshiping in Jerusalem, only six miles away. But with today’s “separation wall,” Israeli apartheid-like policies bear down on Palestinians in every aspect of their lives, smothering them under a humiliating and dehumanizing pall. And now with the recent Israeli decision to build several new settlements on the Palestinian side of Jerusalem, the hope of a two-state solution to the conflict is all but extinguished.

 Rev. William Flippin, an African American pastor from Columbus, Georgia, meditates on Christmas while reliving his recent visits to Bethlehem: 


“Under Augustus, Rome erected a virtual wall of separation between those who were in and out, those who were rich and poor, and those who lived and died. Peace was the luxury of the powerful.

Interpretation for those of African Descent Communities of Faith: God’s glory is revealed to those on the other side of the Wall.

What we miss when we boil down the Christmas story to a once-a-year celebration of mangers and mall-shopping is the stark truth that Jesus was born on the wrong side of the wall. The emperor Augustus never heard about his birth, nor did the rich and powerful just up the road in Jerusalem.”


 I know from experience: the parallels between the Roman occupation in Jesus’ days and the Israeli occupation in our day is striking for Palestinian Christians. Jesus’ command to love our enemy takes on a whole new dimension for them. Whatever you do, says Jesus, don’t dehumanize the “other.” Speak out against injustice, yes, but find ways to demonstrate care and respect for people on both sides, because they are caught in a vicious cycle of oppression and violence. Truly, evil enslaves us all on many levels.


Incarnation: the good news of Christmas is that God loved and valued his human creatures so much that he became one of them. “God sent his Son, born of a woman.” Naturally, our finite minds run into a logical brick wall at this point. Though the modalities of the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus are presented in similar language in both Qur’an and gospels (God’s Spirit “overshadows Mary” or “breathes into Mary’s womb”), those who lived three years with Jesus day in and day out concluded after his crucifixion and resurrection that indeed God had come to them through in the person of Jesus. So John began his gospel some forty years later with his own Christmas story:


“In the beginning was God and the Word was with God and the Word was God …

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1:1, 14 NLT).


No doubt the Qur’an confers great dignity to the human race: “We have honoured the sons of Adam; provided them with transport on land and sea; given them for sustenance things good and pure; and conferred on them special favours, above a great part of our creation” (Q. 17:70 Yusuf Ali).

But the story of Christmas takes the honor to a much higher level. God joins the human race so as to redeem it. Better yet: he does so to adopt those who receive the gift of his Son into his own family.


Freedom: the great defining event of the Hebrew Bible, solemnly celebrated  by Jews every year as the Passover, is the Exodus -- how God delivered his people from their brutal life of slavery in Egypt. Paul writes to a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, "God sent [Jesus] to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law ..." Jesus gave his life on the cross to break the curse of sin on our race. Then the Father vindicated his Son's sacrifice by raising him from the dead. We are free from the sentence of death hanging over us, and free to live lives of righteousness by the power of his Holy Spirit he has sent to live in us.

This January first 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation President Lincoln signed. For Christians, the cross and resurrection of Jesus is the Good News, the Emancipation Proclamation of human release from the bondage of sin, death and hell.


Adoption: “… so that he could adopt us as his very own children. And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, ‘Abba, Father.’” “Abba” was the Aramaic expression most akin to the English word pronounced by children, “daddy.” Here you have the Father sending his Son to redeem and adopt, and the Holy Spirit of God stirring within the believer and “prompting” her to say to God in the most intimate way, “daddy.” And here you have the mysterious, yet powerfully dynamic and life-changing work of God as both one and three in the human soul.


Protestants have tended to limit this redemption to the individual. But take the Bible as a whole and you will read the gospels in a new light. Pope Benedict’s Christmas meditation from St. Peter’s Square this morning focused on David’s psalm 85:11-14.

Notice how justice and peace spring up from the earth – even from the womb of a virgin, if we read it through Christmas eyes:


 “Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss.

Truth shall spring out of the earth, and justice shall look down from heaven.

The Lord himself will give his benefits; our land shall yield its increase.

Justice shall walk before him, and salvation, along the way of his steps”


 So the Pope prayed for peace and human dignity to spring up in Syria, Israel-Palestine, Mali, Congo and Nigeria. He spoke of China, Latin America, and even Egypt: “…especially the beloved land of Egypt, blessed by the childhood of Jesus – may citizens work together to build societies founded on justice and respect for the freedom and dignity of every person.”


Let me wrap up this Christmas meditation with the stark contrast between God’s lavish love for humanity as seen in Mary’s baby and the pernicious and destructive idols of human making. I’m not thinking of consumerism – though perhaps the most pervasive of the “powers” enslaving humans this time of year. Rather, I want to highlight one whose power comes from his excellent camouflage. Though there are plenty of idols that have wreaked havoc and destruction through the political left, this one is a darling of American conservatives, which, ironically, came to us from Russia in the 1930s. Yes, some of you will have guessed it – the writer Ayn Rand and her novel Atlas Shrugged, which in the 1990s stood only behind the Bible in numbers of books sold.

 No doubt the most influential conservative US politician in 2012 was the Catholic representative, Paul Ryan. In a speech to the Randian admiration society (the “Atlas Society”), he declared, 

“The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” So much did he esteem her values and teaching that he gave out Atlas Shrugged every year to friends as Christmas presents.

 Harriet Rubin wrote an informative piece in the New York Times about Rand. Her philosophy of “objectivism” was all about tying together human excellence with ethical egoism (everyone should seek to maximize their own happiness even at the expense of others) and the capitalist system. Naturally, government interference could only get in the way of those whose gifts could lead them to the top of society. This was a persuasive, if forceful, promotion of laissez-faire capitalism. You can watch a chilling portrayal of her influence in a film online by Adam Curtis, "All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace" (including excerpts in the beginning from a 1959 interview with Ayn Rand).

 No, the good news that God revealed in a lowly stable in Bethlehem was that God was for human beings, and that his love led him to even share our human condition, so that by entering our family he would open the way for us to join his family. This is the basis for human dignity, but also human solidarity. We say 'no' to Randian hymns of praise to human egoism and cold-blooded admiration for the survival of the fittest -- or all other ideologies that disparage the least of these. Peace and justice are not abstract ideas. Rather, they flow out of God’s working in human history through the children of Abraham, then the prophets, then God’s Son sending out a redeemed people to proclaim this Good News by word and by deed, by sacrificial love.

 Today I end with a prayer for God’s gracious intervention in Syria: may he bring an end to the bloodshed and raise up men and women of peace who draw near to God's love – Christians and Muslims, Sunnis, Shias, Alawites, and Kurds.

 A happy Christmas to all!

This is a collage of information on Qatar, following up on my previous blog, “Qatar Goes Green.” Shortly before his untimely death, Anthony Shadid, winner of two Pulitzer prizes, wrote about Qatar: “This thumb-shaped spit of sand on the Persian Gulf has emerged as the most dynamic Arab country in the tumult realigning the region.” What about this “outsize influence” that “Qatar wields in Arab Politics”? I’ll touch on five areas, starting with politics but then going beyond: its success in isolating the Syrian regime, its role in the new Sunni triangle, its sponsorship of Al Jazeera, its vsion as seen through the Qatar Foundation, and the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue. My point is this tiny country is a bridge-builder.


Isolation of the Asad Regime

 Anthony Shadid’s piece on Qatar, written months before an acute asthma attack took his life while reporting in Syria, begins with these words:


“Qatar is smaller than Connecticut, and its native population, at 225,000, wouldn’t fill Cairo’s bigger neighborhoods. But for a country that inspires equal parts irritation and admiration, here is its résumé, so far, in the Arab revolts: It has proved decisive in isolating Syria’s leader, helped topple Lybia’s, offered itself as a mediator in Yemen and counts Tunisia’s most powerful figure as a friend.”


Qatar too is the state that most influenced the Arab League to suspend Syria’s membership on November 12, 2012. Syria, a bastion of Arab resistance over the decades, was stunned. Yet President Bashar al-Assad had failed to implement the Arab League-brokered peace deal, plainly choosing to accelerate his grisly campaign against his own citizens.

In September 2012 the Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani said in a speech to the UN assembly that in light of the Security Council’s failure to act he thought it was “better for the Arab countries themselves to interfere out of their national, humanitarian, political and military duties and do what is necessary to stop the bloodshed in Syria.” There was a historical precedent, he noted. The Arab League in 1976 authorized an Arab peacekeeping force to stem the bloodletting in Lebanon.

It was again the Qatari prime minister who on November 6th urged the Arab League to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the Syrian crisis. Six days later the League decided to suspend Syria’s membership. Qatar had played a disproportionate role in the matter, just as Qatari contacts and funneling of money to the Libyan rebels had been crucial for their revolution as well.

Qatar was instrumental too in setting up a plan for the unification of Syrian rebels’ contentious factions. In early November 2012 the US and Britain announced their support for the aptly named “Doha Initiative.” As it turned out, that initiative did succeed in consolidating opposition forces both within and outside of Syria. No doubt, Qatar is becoming a diplomatic powerhouse.

That said, Shadid’s quip about “equal parts of irritation and admiration” applies here too. For the last couple of months we’ve been reading about the US and the EU’s disquiet about Qatar’s role in channeling money and weapons to the Syrian rebels. Not by chance, perhaps, but the jihadi fighters associated with islamist movements and some even with al-Qaeda (many came over from neighboring Iraq) have the best weaponry, discipline, and strategic skills. One group has already made the official US list of terrorist organizations, the Al Nusra Front. This brings up the next point about Qatar’s affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood and other emerging islamist parties in the wake of the Arab Spring.


The New Sunni Triangle

 Starting around 2005 pundits were wringing their hands about the expanding Shia crescent – Iran now could count on a Shia-dominated Iraq as well as its Hizbullah ally in Lebanon, and the staunch support of Assad’s Syria, whose ruling elites come mainly from a Shia-inspired sect, the Alawites. And even as the 2011 protests unfolded in Tahrir Square, many were making grim predictions of an Iranian-Egyptian rapprochement. That’s what intrigued me most about Mohammed Morsi’s trip to Tehran for the Non-Aligned Summit. While officially passing the ceremonial leadership of the movement from Egypt to Iran, Morsi blasted his hosts for supporting a bloody dictator.

In case anyone was wondering about how isolated Iran has now become, that was one clear indicator. Its only Arab ally Syria was now shut out and humiliated by its Arab brethren. But there’s more.

As New York Times correspondent Neil MacFarquhar argues, the Arab Spring has brought to the fore “a new axis,” a “triumvirate” that “played a leading role in helping end the eight-day war between Israel and Gaza” – “the Sunni Muslim alliance of Egypt, Qatar and Turkey.” Qatar and Turkey have been working for some time on resolving the Syrian civil war and they joined Egypt as its president Mohammed Morsi brokered the Israeli-Gazan cease-fire. But don’t forget: just a month before the fighting, the Emir of Qatar had paid the first state visit to the Gaza Strip since its international blockade was triggered by Hamas’ popular election in 2006. More than just a symbolic gesture though, Sheikh Hamad came bearing tidings of nearly half a billion dollars in aid to the imprisoned and destitute Gazans.

What do Egypt, Turkey and Qatar have in common besides being Sunni? Egypt and Turkey both have moderate islamist governments. Qatar is a conservative Islamic Gulf state, but in contrast to the Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that want nothing to do with the political Islamic ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, its ties to that movement go way back. First it was Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi who emigrated there from Egypt in 1961 and then was asked to establish the Sharia faculty of the University of Qatar. Many other Muslim Brotherhood activists joined him in one of their few safe havens. Bear in mind, as a movement they had renounced violence long before, but they were fiercely persecuted in Egypt and elsewhere because their political activism threatened the authoritarian Arab regimes. Unsurprisingly, when the current emir (or “king”) founded the independent satellite TV station Al Jazeera in 1996, he asked Qaradawi to produce and host its only religious program, Sharia and Life, which now has a global following of 80 million viewers.

Just a quick note about Qaradawi, whose work I’ve been researching. You need to know that there is another side to his leadership in the “reforming” of Islamic law, his strong condemnation of all al-Qaeda-style terrorism and his plea for western Muslims to contribute more actively and constructively to their new surroundings. He also has some strong feelings against Zionism and in particular about what Israelis have done (and continue to do) to Palestinians in their last 45 years of military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In 2009 MEMRI, a think tank with strong right-wing Israeli ties, posted some excerpts from a sermon Qaradawi gave with English subtitles , in which he minimizes the Holocaust, then says Hitler was a punishment from God and that he wishes he could blow himself up in Israel killing as many victims as possible. The website “Islamophobia Watch” retorted that this was a tendentious “cut-and-paste” job and gave other quotes from Qaradawi showing his support for dialog between the three monotheistic faiths and pictures of him alongside Jewish leaders. Just the same, Qaradawi did issue a fatwa in the early 2000s authorizing Muslims to blow themselves up in Israel, because the Israelis are killing so many Palestinian civilians; and besides, Israeli men and women serve in the army.

Now don’t let what I have just told you about Qaradawi lead you to believe that Qatar is a militant ideological state. My own observation is that the emir and his advisors, ambitious as they are, are both pragmatists and idealists. Like the Saudis they oppose the "Shia crescent" that blossomed after the US invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the Shias in Iran joined hands with their brethren in Iraq and the Hizbullah in Lebanon. More to the point, though, as their actions in Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Gaza indicate, Qatar sensed which way the Arab winds were blowing since January 2011 and proactively continue to nurture these rising islamist movements so as to be on the groundwork of a new Middle East, one in which a conservative yet democratic political Islam is on the rise.

Naturally, this sends shivers down the spine of western observers. In fact, no one knows where the current constitutional turmoil in Egypt is leading, nor what future policies the states of Libya, Syria, or Gaza will favor. At the same time, the Al Jazeera project makes me believe that Qatar is genuinely seeking to create links beyond the Arab-Islamic world.


 The Al Jazeera revolution

 At about the time the French were reviled in America (remember “freedom fries”?) for opposing its invasion of Iraq, Al Jazeera TV was castigated for playing tapes by al-Qaeda leaders and generally for fueling anti-American feelings in the region. Yet the story of this project is surprisingly different.

 Al Jazeera in fact has earned a stellar reputation of journalistic excellence. Back in 2003 the BBC signed an agreement with Al Jazeera to share news stories and facilities in the Middle East. You can read about the prizes it has won in the long Wikipedia article devoted to it. The most significant prize, as I see it, was the “Best Circumvention of Censorship” award in 2003 it won from the Index on Censorship. The Huffington Post reported in March 2011 this statement by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:


“Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.”


One could argue that, because it was the only independent channel in the Arab world routinely presenting opposing views on all kinds of issues, Al Jazeera helped develop an Arab civil society that longed for more freedom of expression. No doubt it was one important factor behind the uprisings of 2011. As the explosion of popular anger spilled from Tunisia to Egypt and then elsewhere in January 2011, the New York Times commented that “the protests rocking the Arab world this week have one thread uniting them: Al Jazeera … whose aggressive coverage has helped to propel insurgent emotions from one capital to the next.”


A visionary leadership

 The Emir Sheikh Hamad certainly has great ambitions for his tiny country, as we have seen – mostly in leveraging its diplomatic skills for peace and greater freedom in the region, albeit with its own conservative religious slant. What is less known is the dynamic role played on the regional and global scene by his second of three wives, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned. As in the picture above, she often accompanies her husband in official functions, mostly because of the weighty responsibilities she carries beyond her chairmanship of the Qatar Foundation.

 Sheikha Mozah earned a degree in Sociology from the University of Qatar in 1986 and has since been awarded honorary doctorates from five American universities. Her highest honor was the 2007 Chatham House Award, which is yearly given to the statesperson who has most contributed to improving international relations. Already in 2003 she was appointed as Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education by UNESCO, a task she valiantly carried out even in war zones like Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2005 UN Secretary General Kofi Annan named her to the High Level Group of the UN Alliance of civilizations. Not surprisingly, Forbes Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential women in the world in 2007 and The Times of London cited her as one of the 25 most influential business leaders in the Middle East.

In the above picture taken in Doha in November 2011 she and her husband were hosting the international gathering of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), an initiative she helped to launch in 2008 and financed through the Qatar Foundation with its three major branches of education, science and community development. The 2011 forum brought together 1,200 academics and policy makers from all over the region, representing the culmination of a two-year study in 300 universities. Two other major contributors were the Lebanese Association for Educational Studies and the Carnegie Corporation.

 All this to say, Qatar is again playing a leading role in the wider Middle East to bring attention to the youth and the urgent necessity of offering them the best education and training they deserve. That is far reaching.


Interfaith Dialog

I come to the end of this blog with a confession. Maybe I’m not totally objective (who ever could be, right?), as I’ve just had a piece published by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), thanks to a request that came to me by its journal’s editor, Dr. Adeel Khan, for a special issue on the environment. You can download my own article, “Muslim-Christian Trusteeship of the Earth: What Jesus Can Contribute,” or any other one in this issue of Religions (Adyan in Arabic).

 The mission statement of the DICID reflects the best, I believe, of Qatar’s ambition to provide a crossroads of understanding amidst the angry voices of our world. When people of various faiths come together with ears to listen with respect and hearts to share – and all the more so in the Arabian Gulf – there is hope for a better world:



“We strive for constructive dialogue between followers of different faiths towards better understanding and harnessing of distinct religious principles and teachings to the benefit of all humanity, on the basis of mutual respect and acknowledgement of differences and through cooperation with related individuals and organizations.”


All said and done, Qatar seems to harbor an unshakable optimism that it can mediate between all kinds of hostile crosscurrents. After all, it has provided a pulpit for the world’s most charismatic mufti and at the same time it hosts two American military bases with over 13,000 personnel. The aim, after all, is to build bridges. As the late Anthony Shadid quipped, “Maintaining channels with an array of forces has proven a cornerstone of Qatar’s policy.” We wish it success!



I'm surprised no one has commented on this piece ... But I've had comments elsewhere from people who truly know this region and who've told me this was an exercise in naïveté, if not just plain propaganda. So just a couple of points in response.

1. I plead guilty, in the sense that this is not my area of expertise; I've never been there; I'm basing this only on western media accounts -- not an academic exercise.

2. I never said, however, that Qatar (or any of the other Gulf states) was a democratic state. It is autocratic, by definition, and dissent is punished in a variety of ways.

3. As you can read elsewhere on this website (look at "The Dark Side of Empire" in Resources), I'm very critical of US imperialism and its multiplication of military bases all over the world. So my comment about US bases here is not about celebrating them. And yes, the very presence of US power necessarily adds a whole layer of irony (we have a history of supporting authoritarian regimes in order to meet other goals) and complication at many levels.

4. My title of the other blog "Qatar Going Green" is, admittedly, way overblown. Qatar's spate of investment in high-profile "green buildings" is a good example of window-dressing for the sake of enhancing their international reputation. Qatar and its neighbors (as we do at home) have a long way to reach an environmental policy that would be qualified as "sustainable."

5. Is Al Jazeera truly "independent"? It cannot be since it was started with state money. But since when is private money a guarantee of independence and objectivity?

5. Qatar has all manner of other social challenges (esp. youth unemployment and its poor treatment so far of foreign workers). Still, I want readers to also see the positive achievements of this nation, and especially in light of the prejudice we Americans nurture about Muslim countries in general. Even in our own press it's possible to see different sides of how Qatar and its policies have been covered. Again, the aim of this website is to encourage dialogue and understanding. So please write in your comments!!

In my first installment on this theme, I argued that there is a problematic relation between religion and the status of women. But as we looked at this nexus in Egypt and Israel in particular, plainly what’s involved is a traditionalist and textualist (taking texts literally and applying them to the letter) kind of religion, hard to distinguish from the preexisting patriarchal culture. Here I want to deconstruct – or problematize – that relationship even more in light of some post-Arab Spring debates.

Not surprising, many religious rules as seen from a secular perspective isolate, devalue, silence women, and even in some cases (like Qur'an 4:34 allowing a man to "gently" hit his wife as a last resort) can be seen to encourage violence against women. Many have noticed the upswing in patriarchal discourse and practice in the wake of the “Arab Spring.” Let me be clear, however, I am NOT saying that …


a) “Islam,” “Judaism” and “Christianity” necessarily correlate to patriarchal mentalities that oppress women – sacred texts are “alive,” they evolve, being reinterpreted all the time, with surprising results

b) male fear of the power of female sexuality is the main reason religious men seek to control women


The first point I will discuss on other occasions. Just this one remark: it is instructive to see how conservative Protestants in the US (evangelicals, and even self-declared “fundamentalists”) have evolved over the years on the issue of women. Though many still consider female pastors heresy, they have no trouble allowing their daughters to become doctors, lawyers, or maybe even politicians, if the occasion allowed. This is the same in practice in Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood circles (less so, of course in Salafi ones). The majority of Jews in the USA are either Conservative or Reformed. In either case they ordain female rabbis. This kind of mentality, naturally, makes for added tensions when they “make aliyah” (or emigrate) to Israel, which is controlled by the Orthodox, and heavily influenced by the Ultra-Orthodox in places like Jerusalem.

On the second point, even though in my first blog I quoted a western and a Muslim feminist who both believed fear was at the root of misogyny wrapped in religious clothing, I want to get beyond that opinion here. Gender relations in the Arab world – and in the world more widely – can be explained by a variety of factors, and in the end, as I hope to show, religion serves mostly to justify a cultural status quo. Yet religion can also be a tool for radical change, something I explore in the next installment.


Mona Eltahawy: lightning rod and catalyst

Mona Eltahawy is the award-winning Egyptian-American journalist who was beaten and sexually assaulted by the Egyptian “security forces” in November 2011. Both her arms were broken and had she not been a dual citizen, she would likely have been raped and spent several days in prison.

But Eltahawy also made headline news when she spray-painted a poster in the New York subway sponsored by Pamela Geller’s Islamophobic organization, American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), which read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man” and “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The New York Post filmed the whole incident, which ended with Eltahawy’s arrest – an arrest, I would add, that lasted much longer than the one months earlier in Cairo (22 hours).

“I’m exercizing my right to free speech. This is a racist and bigotted poster,” she shouted to the AFDI woman trying to keep her from defacing the poster and then a few minutes later to the policemen arresting her.

Naturally, Pamela Geller writing in her Atlas Shrugs blog jumped all over what she called "the irony so thick on all levels." Here’s a secular Arab woman who was molested by the police in Egypt, who has complained multiple times about how Arab women’s rights are trampled, and who now wants to defend Arabs and Islam!


“Read on, Ms Geller,” I say. “The issues are a lot more complicated than you make them out to be. Because you believe ‘Islam is inherently violent’ and ‘oppresses women’ you make out all Arabs – and all Muslims, by implication – to be ‘savage and uncivilized’ and Israel as a beacon of enlightenment. Read what Eltahawy writes about Arab women and then see how her writing is sparking some revolutionary debates among both sexes there and elsewhere. She has a lot to teach you if you could only listen!”


Feisty she certainly is, but Mona Eltahawy is also bright, articulate, and with over ten years of journalistic experience in the Middle East. Her most provocative action was in fact an article which appeared in April 2012 for the “Sex Issue” of the journal Foreign Policy, “Why Do They Hate Us?” (subtitle: “The real war against women is in the Middle East”). In very passionate, angry and even strident tones, Eltahawy sounds very much like the secular feminists I quoted in the previous blog, Drexler and Boianjiu. For her, islamism – whether the traditional brand of Saudi Arabia, the puritanical Wahhabi-Salafi brand, or the reformist kind pushed by the Egyptian Brotherhood – will only aggravate the bile of “the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East.” The cause, in one word, is “hatred”: men hate women.

Understandably, Eltahawy was still seething from here own beating and assault in Tahrir Square. But too, she had spent a few years in Saudi Arabia as a teenager – a life-changing experience, as she puts it:


“I turn again to Saudi Arabia, and not just because when I encountered the country at age 15 I was traumatized into feminism – there’s no other way to describe it -- but because the kingdom is unabashed in its worship of a misogynistic God and never suffers any consequences for it, thanks to its double-whammy advantage of having oil and being home to Islam’s two holiest places, Mecca and Medina.

“Then -- the 1980s and 1990s -- as now, clerics on Saudi TV were obsessed with women and their orifices, especially what came out of them. I’ll never forget hearing that if a baby boy urinated on you, you could go ahead and pray in the same clothes, yet if a baby girl peed on you, you had to change. What on Earth in the girl's urine made you impure? I wondered.”


Understandably, Eltahawy’s article caused a firestorm of debate in the region. Men and women reacted with equal passion to her linking of religion with hate as the common roots of female subjugation in their society. Still, few questioned her statement of the problem.


Reactions to Eltahawy – this is really complicated!

Most women responded by agreeing with many of the indignities forced upon them that Eltahawy cited, but disagreed with her diagnosis. Painting all men with the same brush stroke of hatred is wrong. What’s more, can male violence and oppression of women in many forms be reduced to one explanation, whether “hate,” “fear,” “cultural taboos falling away” or “misguided religion”?

I think not. For starters, have a look at the reaction of six other Egyptian women to Eltahawy’s piece. To be sure, her “religion + hate” is too simplistic an explanation and thereby plays into western stereotypes about Islam tyrannizing women. What’s more, you have to take into account the historical context, the political, economic and social factors that have kept women down as well. Sherene Seikaly and Maya Mikdashi offered deeper and more involved arguments about their disagreements with Eltahawy (“Let’s Talk About Sex”): “In her sloppy indictment of Arabs, Muslims, authoritarian rulers, and Islamists, El Tahawy has papered over some messy issues that complicate her underlying message: liberalism is the solution.” Whether it’s female genital mutilation, the Saudi ban on women drivers, child marriages in Saudi Arabia and in many rural areas from Afghanistan to Yemen, or the initiative for divorce still a strictly male prerogative in many places – surely hatred isn’t the issue for most men.

Take the case of female “circumcision,” Seikaly and Mikdashi propose:


“…the reality is that women are often those that insist on the practice because of ways that gender and political economy regimes together make it a necessary rite of womanhood. In fact, critical thinkers have long argued that this practice has more to do with the lack of economic opportunity for women, the imperative to marry, and the hardening and modernization of tradition in response to colonial and neocolonial interventions (including rights frameworks) than some irrational and razor crazed ‘hatred.’”


And what about the vastly different conditions obtaining from one country to the next, or the sociopolitical fallout of the Arab Spring? As the picture above indicates – and as media coverage of the demonstrations in the spring of 2011 clearly showed – women were out in the streets crying out for freedom and human dignity. This will no doubt continue to spill over in all kinds of areas. Too, as Seikaly and Mikdashi put it, this resurgence of female protest isn’t new, though its “liberal” predecessor in the 1920s never affected the masses:


“Critics have pointed to the long history of the Egyptian women’s movement and that formative moment in 1923 when Huda Sha‘rawi took off her face veil at the Ramses train station. This is a useful point to revisit, if only to reflect on why the liberalism that Sha‘rawi and her cohorts fought for—men and women—drastically and resoundingly failed. One reason, and there are many, was that liberalism resonated with only a small elite. As Hanan Kholoussy points out, women under domestic confinement who like Sha‘rawi were expected to don the face veil made up only two percent of Egypt’s five million females at the end of the nineteenth century.”


Another reason that these feminist movements across the Arab landscape never truly got off the ground in the 1980s and 1990s is that they were co-opted by the authoritarian regimes in place, thus deligitimizing them. That is precisely the problem in Palestine, as Hamas’ star has risen and the Palestinian Authority is waning – women’s rights are now on the back burner, though Palestinian women fare much better than many of their sisters in other places. Seikaly and Mikdashi quote a 1999 study by Rema Hammami and Eileen Kuttab on this point:


“Examples are myriad—eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union saw massive attacks on women’s rights issues after the fall of communist regimes because they came to be associated with other undemocratic and unpopular regime policies. Turkey, Algeria, Egypt are situations where you have small women’s movements whose popular legitimacy is lost because over time they have been seen as linked to or sponsored by authoritarian secular regimes” (“The Palestinian Women’s Movement: Strategies Towards Freedom and Democracy,” News From Within 15:4, April 1999, p. 3).


In my last section, I want to summarize some research paths that must be followed, if you are seriously intent on explaining both the poor treatment of women and the current bubbling up of protest and debate on this issue in the Middle East.


What you must include in your analysis

Max Fisher, a former writer and editor for The Atlantic and now a blogger on Foreign Affairs for The Washington Post, also wrote a piece in April 1012 on the brouhaha surrounding Eltahawy’s cover article. In my view, he falls prey to some of the media’s over-dramatic depiction of the issues, but he also puts forward an informed and balanced analysis of the causes. So to his question, “How did misogyny become so ingrained in the Arab world?” he offers the following answers, which I put in bullet form:


It’s not just “an Arab issue.” Though the Egyptian post-revolutionary legislature had only 2 percent of women, the Tunisian one had 27 percent – much higher than our US figures (17 percent). South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have as bad or worse records in this area. In fact, just this week I ran across an article that chronicles the growing violence against women in Latin America, while activists in several countries redouble their efforts to draw public attention to the tragedy. A 2011 Newsweek study on women’s rights and status listed only two Arab countries in the bottom 25 countries. So let’s keep some perspective here.


Many of the legal structures of misogyny in the Arab world were put in place by the Turks (Ottoman Empire), French and British. In fisher’s words,

“These foreigners ruled Arabs for centuries, twisting the cultures to accommodate their dominance. One of their favorite tricks was to buy the submission of men by offering them absolute power over women. The foreign overlords ruled the public sphere, local men ruled the private sphere, and women got nothing; academic Deniz Kandiyoti called this the ‘patriarchal bargain.’ Colonial powers employed it in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and in South Asia, promoting misogynist ideas and misogynist men who might have otherwise stayed on the margins, slowly but surely ingraining these ideas into the societies.”


Just about all traditional societies historically have had ingrained sexist practices. Evolutionary explanations are certainly controversial: men are stronger than women and thus use their physical power to subjugate them; men are afraid of female sexual power, especially when this could lead to their being cheated by rivals and then raising another man’s child, etc. The same goes for racial or cultural explanations (think of Geller’s label of “uncivilized”). Still, what about the origins of sexism in the Arab world?


Judaism, Christianity and Islam all arose in a thoroughly patriarchal context, as their sacred texts indicate. Yet Islam, like its older sisters in the monotheistic faith, is just as much “an expansive and living religion. It has moved with the currents of history, and its billion-plus practitioners bring a wide spectrum of interpretations and beliefs” – a fact I keep repeating in my own writings. There’s no doubt too that the colonial rulers were eager to single out religious leaders who would go along with their “patriarchal bargain.” So religious family law suddenly became the legal codes of the colonies. Then in the early 20th century when independence movements were forming, many leaders fell back on a more patriarchal interpretations of their religious tradition, if only to counter and repudiate the legacy of the colonial powers.


The widespread harassment of women in the Arab street may well be tied to the brutal, authoritarian regimes that have emasculated the men. A female journalist who had experienced this for many years in the region said to Max Fisher that the intrigue and brutality of Egypt’s, or Syria’s or Algeria’a secret police, must be at least one factor in making the “Arab man more likely to reassert his lost manhood by taking it out on women.”


The colonial history still frustrates the efforts of Arab feminist movements. The fact that the west is still seen as trying to impose itself over the Arab world through cultural, economic and political means continues to frame women’s rights as a western ploy to dominate them. As he puts it, “After centuries of Western colonialism, bombings, invasions, and occupation, Arab men can dismiss the calls for gender equality as just another form of imposition, insisting that Arab culture does it differently.” Of course, this also mutes Eltahawy’s credibility among Arabs.


A cultural revolution also has to take place. I end with the three-author article in The Guardian that featured the picture above, because it rings true with my own 16 years in the Arab world. Moroccan journalist Nadia Lamlili is the one referring to a required “cultural revolution.” Arabs will have to rethink the way they raise their children and in particular the way they segregate the sexes. Instead of 'managing' sexual temptations, this practice only amplifies them “and ends up with violence in dealings between men and women.” Then this observation that closes the article – something that my wife and I have observed again and again over the years:


“The problem with our societies is that the women are in love with their sons instead of their husbands, and the men are in love with their mothers instead of with their wives. Men and women don’t understand one another due to the fact that their dealings are not at all clear, as they don't spend enough time together or don’t engage with each other enough.”


This isn’t to say that religious, historical, socioeconomic and political factors aren’t also in play. But it does mean that there is certainly more than just “religion + hatred” that explains the struggles of women in the Arab world – and indeed, in the rest of the world.

The last blog in this series brings some of these strands together to highlight those who are effecting positive change.

[I first posted this on the PCI website in November 2012]

Especially since the 9/11 attacks on US soil, we Americans have struggled to come to terms with the concept of Shari’a. One of the (secondary) justifications for our invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of those murderous attacks was to “liberate” their women from the clutches of “this medieval and repressive system.” True, the Taliban’s legal code forbade women from going to school, working, and wearing anything in public but the traditional village burqa – in effect causing women’s faces to disappear.

For the record, this innovative interpretation of Shari’a flies in the face of all the traditional schools of Islamic law. Still, there are plenty of provisions in the Qur’an and Sunna (the texts reporting on what the Prophet Muhammad said and did) that contravene contemporary notions of gender justice. That said, less than a handful of Muslim-majority countries have such laws on their books and as I have written elsewhere, Muslim jurists – and Muslim publics – display a large spectrum of views on the issue.

But our fear of Shari’a is not just about women’s rights, or even some of the prescribed punishments (hudud) for theft or adultery that seem barbaric to us – they’re rarely applied, even in places like Saudi Arabia. Our real fear, understandably, is terrorism.

The FBI recently caught a 21-year-old Bengladeshi student, Quazi Mohammad Nafis, who thought he was detonating a 1,000-pound bomb in front of the Federal Reserve building. Fortunately for those present, he was only signing his arrest warrant on the tail end of a successful sting operation.

In the months leading up to his attack, the FBI revealed, he had been in conversation with a friend in the US who repeatedly pointed out to him that what he was about to do was against Shari’a law. Nafis insisted that “he was not bound by such rulings.” Indeed, there is a vigorous debate about such issues among Muslims today, and the jihadists have clearly lost the argument in the face of an overwhelming majority of Muslims who favor international norms of human rights and democracy.

As I say, though you do find some jurists outside the mainstream in places like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan who call for violent jihad, the vast majority of Islamic scholars who give legal opinions (muftis who give fatwas) condemn any act of terrorism – defined as the indiscriminate killing of innocent people for a political or religious cause. Islamic law in all four main Sunni schools and the remaining Shi’ite one plainly forbids the killing of women and children, elderly and clergy in the course of war. What is more, suicide is strictly forbidden.

Here I recommend you look at a short article by Yale political scientist Andrew F. March, who wrote a book on Islamic law, covenants and citizenship. Writing as he does in September 2010, he focuses on the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki’s fatwa calling on American Muslim soldiers to kill their non-Muslim fellow soldiers because the US is killing Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. He was writing from his hiding place in the Yemen and was subsequently killed, as you will remember, by an American drone attack.

This was especially problematic because a US soldier, Nidal Hasan, took this ruling as his inspiration to kill over a dozen soldiers at Fort Hood the year before. March tries to disentangle the issues involved here, as far as Islamic law is concerned. There are several related issues at stake:

1. Is it permissible to serve in a non-Muslim army?

2. Is it permissible to fight Muslims on behalf of non-Muslims?

3. What should a Muslim citizen of a non-Muslim state do if asked to fight Muslims?

4. Is it ever permissible to attack soldiers within your own non-Muslim army as an act of jihad?

Then March comments:

“Suffice it to say that for the first three questions, the majority of Sunni religious scholars have said that (1) Muslims shouldn't serve in non-Muslim armies if possible, that (2) they may never fight fellow Muslims on behalf of non-Muslims or “assist in killing a believer even by half a word,” and that (3) if asked to kill fellow Muslims believers should submit to torture or even execution. However, in the contemporary period, pragmatic scholars like Yusuf al-Qaradawi have given fatwas allowing Muslims to serve in non-Muslim armies, even against Muslims if they can serve in non-combatant capacities.”

In that last paragraph I want you to retain two statements. The first is “in the contemporary period.” This is crucial, because Islamic law as it basically coasted from the eleventh to the nineteenth century was worked out in the crucible of a worldview in which a dominant Islamic empire (though ruled by different regimes in many areas – the “Abode of Islam”) felt God-impelled to conquer the rest of the world (the “Abode of War”) in the name of Islam. No one (theoretically) would be forced to convert, but at least the People of the Book (Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians; but later in India, Buddhists and Hindus) could pay the poll tax in exchange for not serving in the army and enjoying a modicum of religious freedom. That’s the famous dhimmi status.

A brief parenthesis – and that’s the second bit I want you to remember from that quote: “scholars like Yusuf al-Qaradawi …” Qaradawi is the most famous and influential traditional Islamic jurist, mainly because of his weekly program on al-Jazeera TV in Qatar (where he’s lived since 1961). He also came back to his native Egypt barely a month into the “January 25 Revolution” of 2011 and led the Friday Prayers in Tahrir Square with close to a million worshipers present. [To gain a better understanding about this man and his influence, read about the paper I presented on him at a conference on Islamic Law at the Hamline University in September 2012].

Back to classical Islamic law: fast forward to the modern period and you find Muslim jurists reinterpreting jihad as permitted by God only for defensive purposes (see my blog on this for a fuller picture). A classic statement on this is the Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA) 2005 position paper, “Against Terrorism and Religious Extremism: Muslim Position and Responsibilities.”

From his own research Andrew March discovered another prominent reason for most jurists condemning acts of terror by Muslim-American citizens: the utter priority of fulfilling contracts and the utmost importance accorded to loyalty once it is sworn to a particular state. In his words,

All Islamic scholars believe that Muslims living in the West, whether native born, naturalized or legal residents, are under a firm ‘contract of security’ (‘aqd al-aman) which renders all non-Muslim life, property and honor inviolable. Even Muslim scholars who support certain jihadi activities by and large tend to believe that Muslim citizens of non-Muslim polities may not engage in such activities against their own states.”

I’ll let you read March’s article in more detail for yourself about how seriously scholars denounced the sin of ghadr (treachery or perfidy), but I’ll have to quote the hadith (saying of the Prophet) which he uses to close his piece – Muhammad definitely had a sense of humor:

"He who betrays a trust will have a flag stuck in his anus on the Day of Judgment so that his treachery may be known."

Now, none of this guarantees that there won’t be more Muslims – US citizens or not (Nafis is not!) – who commit acts of terrorism on US soil. Sadly, that is bound to happen sooner or later, just as there will be other mass shootings for other reasons. But it does mean that the chorus of condemnation from official Islamic sources and from the Muslim street will ring out even more urgently.

I hope you’re breathing a sigh of relief: no picture of a woman in hijab! Seriously, while I have written on “the many meanings of hijab,” and the question of religion and gender equality, I come back to the issue from a different angle: the secular-religious clash in Israel is symptomatic of social dynamics all over the world (though perhaps less dramatic). I’ll throw out some hypotheses as to why there seems to be a connection between religion and the subjugation of women. My main point in this series is that if religion has been (at least) part of the problem, it can also be the solution.


Religion and gender hierarchy

Let me start with the two pieces by Egyptian-American journalist Mona Al-Naggar in the New York Times. One was a short blog about her experience attending a Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored premarital counseling workshop in Cairo. The article on the same topic, "Family Life According to the Brotherhood," is an essay on the Muslim Brotherhood’s teaching on gender roles in the family and society – and how they are using this to recruit new members and rebuild the social order from the bottom up.

The Brotherhood, banned from forming a political party under Mubarak’s rule, still wielded enormous influence through its social welfare services and its many members who ran for parliament as independents. Now in power, president Morsi’s program of “Renaissance” (nahda, same word for Tunisia’s ruling islamist party) aims to strengthen society’s most basic unit, the family. Central to that task is teaching women their rightful place in that unit, they maintain. You can’t have a righteous society without righteous families, and families can’t be godly without women playing their God-given role. Listen to the leader of Al-Haggar’s workshop, Osama Abou Salama, explain this in a discourse that would sound very familiar to many conservative Christians and Jews:


“A woman,” Mr. Abou Salama said, “takes pleasure in being a follower and finds ease in obeying a husband who loves her . . . Can you, as a woman, take a decision and handle the consequences of your decision? No. But men can. And God created us this way because a ship cannot have more than one captain.”


Admittedly, in conservative evangelical circles, it would not be put quite so bluntly. Still, many would follow literally these words of the Apostle Paul: “For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church” (Eph. 5:22-3).

Nor would any western audience (no matter what faith tradition) put up with this: “Women are erratic and emotional, and they make good wives and mothers — but never leaders or rulers.” This is Al-Naggar’s paraphrase of Abou Salamah’s teaching, which provoked absolutely no reaction from his mixed audience. “None of the 30 people in the class so much as winced,” she writes.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, when you come across any theological statement, first go to the sociocultural context to make sense of it. Al-Naggar is right to point out how socially conservative Egyptian society is: most women wear the hijab, cover up even in extremely hot temperatures, and spontaneously segregate themselves from men as much as possible in public. If anything, she argues, “More than any other political group in Egypt, the Brotherhood is fluent in the dialect of the masses.”

On the one hand, this conformist mindset enhances the Brotherhood's chances of success: "By upholding patriarchal and traditional values about a woman’s place in society, it garners popular support, builds political capital and reinforces social conservatism." On the other, this teaching can alienate them unnecessarily from the more secular elements of society – and especially hurt their reputation abroad. In his political campaign, Mursi had promised to name a female vice-president. That is unlikely now, and the published list of 21 senior aids and advisers includes only three women.


Are religious men afraid of women?

Some readers will be saying, “This just confirms what I’ve heard about Islam demeaning women.” Others will retort, “How dare you reinforce the negative stereotypes about Islam and women? Isn’t there enough Islamophobia as it is?”

For one, I’m not highlighting Islam. That’s why I bring up the anxieties of an Israeli secular woman (see below), and why I’ve mentioned Christianity’s lamentable history on this issue elsewhere. Let me add too that patriarchy is endemic in some form or another to most parts of the world in traditional societies. I have a Chinese great-grandmother and my own mother spent much of her youth there. The treatment of women in Southeast Asia, just to mention one area, was rather deplorable. And it wasn’t just the way women’s feet were bandaged up since childhood for the sake of beauty. Clearly, it wasn’t just Confucianism or Buddhism or Daoism that decreed the subordination of women. Religion and culture are too entangled, it seems to me, to blame just one or the other.

Back to Christianity. The Church Fathers were notoriously allergic to the female of our species. In her bestseller on “Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church,” Uta Ranke-Heineman quotes the venerable St. Augustine (p. 88):


“I don't see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes procreation. If woman is not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and a woman cohabitate?”


Jerome, the great fourth-century scholar who produced the great Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate), declared that “woman is the root of all evil.”

It is (sadly) fashionable these days to criticize Islam on the issue of women. But remember, all three monotheistic faiths grew up in the same area – the staunchly patriarchal mideast. True, as Muslim feminists are quick to point out, the qur’anic creation story has Adam and Eve equally responsible for the fall (yes, they were expelled from the heavenly garden on account of their disobedience; and no, this did not affect their descendants – hence, “fall” with a lower case ‘f’). Still, though the Qur’an is relatively moderate in this domain, the hadiths, admittedly, can be quite mysoginistic:


“The woman who dies and with whom the husband is satisfied will go to paradise.”

“Three things can interrupt prayer if they pass in front of someone praying: a black dog, a woman, and a donkey.”


But what about possible causes: why do men seem to despise women? Worse yet, why do they seem bent on dominating them? Is it just that men lust for power and like to control women so so as to make them do their bidding? If that is true, it certainly has theological implications.

But maybe too, the root cause is fear. American author Peggy Drexler who has taught psychology at Stanford and Cornell, argues that male fear is at the basis of female subjugation and that religion seems to exploit this. She posted a blog on the Huffington Post saying just this: “Fear Factor: The Religious Right’s Problem With Women.” It starts with a scene in Israel:


“The world has seen the terror and confusion on the porcelain face of eight-year-old Naama Margolese, who was insulted and spat on by ultra-Orthodox men as she walked to school in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh. The Haredi, to use Israeli term, found her bare arms so immodest that they screamed "whore!"

The video of a very frightened young girl and the furious, arrogant men, who told reporters they were perfectly justified in their actions, has become a flashpoint in what some are calling a struggle for the soul of a country.”


A Washington Post article (“In Israel, women’s rights come under siege” about a month before her blog had served up a long list of “outrageous” actions taken by the Haredi (Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox). Just for starters, “Women are forced to board public buses from the back and stay there. Billboards with images of women are defaced. Public streets are cordoned off during religious holidays so that women cannot enter.”

But unlike that journalist who is seething because this is happening in a place like Israel, Peggy Drexler is determined to explain the common thread between Haredi and Taliban behavior toward women. The justifications are similar, she contends:


“Find a place where men oppress women, and you’ll hear the same justification: we’re doing it for their own protection. It’s not protection. It’s projection.

The logic: My sexual urges take me away from a focus on God. Women cause me to have those urges. The obvious solution is to beat them down, cover them up, and lock them away. What I can’t see won’t tempt me.”


Admittedly, you might expect a western feminist to opine in that vein. Yet Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi has been writing on this theme for over three decades (see for instance her book, The Veil and the Male Elite). In her view, the patriarchal family in a culture driven by the values of shame and honor fears above all else the chaos produced by female sexuality. Nothing sullies a family’s or a clan’s reputation more than rumors about the “indiscretion” of their women. In its extreme form, this fear is at the root of “honor killings.” Mernissi maintains that this is cultural and has nothing to do with Islam, which, as seen in the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet, is essentially gender-egalitarian.

Still, men are apt to project their own lust onto women – or maybe too, to take out their frustrations on them, as a recent article from the BBC implies (“Egypt's sexual harassment of women ‘epidemic’”). But when it comes to violence against women, no one country or society has a monopoly on the wretched reality of domestic violence and male sexual crimes. If anything, when law and order break down, as has been the case so tragically for a decade in the Republic of Congo, women are the first victims.

But I am still wondering about religion’s role in female subjugation.


Back to the clash of “the two Israels”

The picture above this blog was taken from an article (“What Happens When the Two Israels Meet”) written by an Israeli woman, Shani Boianjiu, who during her military service in 2007 was given the task of training new soldiers to use their weapons. One day, she kicked a male trainee who was crouched with his weapon in order to show him that his position was wrong and therefore unstable. Of course he fell over. But he also muttered something she didn’t understand. Later, the same soldier (an “Ethiopian,” she added) seemed particularly resistant again to her orders. Coming behind him, she shook him by his shoulders, trying to show him he was still off balance. But she couldn’t say anything, because the soldier was yelling at her. She explains what happened:


“I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he was still in training and I was shocked by his disobedience. I thought maybe he was confused, so I bent down in the sand and grabbed his foot, moving it so that his toes pointed forward. If anything, he screamed louder. It was only when the drill ended that I caught what he was saying: ‘I observe touch.’”


In talking with the commander and other trainers later that day Boianjiu found out what that meant. Religious men cannot be touched by a woman. The commander said to her laughing, “It has something to do with girls’ periods or something.” She also discovered that year that some of the religious soldiers could not accept a woman holding a weapon in front of them. Some were not even allowed to hear the voice of a woman singing.

Growing up as a secular Jewish girl in Tel Aviv, this was a starkly different world for Boianjiu – and not a pleasant one in the least. Even though in July 2012 the law that had exempted the Haredi from serving in the army expired, she doesn’t think they will ever serve in the military, no matter what the law might say: “there is no simple way to force an entire community into a life that goes against what they believe.” One reason is that 30 percent of the Israeli army are females.

But listen to the feelings her encounter with these men has sparked:


“My encounter with ultra-religious men in the army was the first time I entered a world in which being myself meant existing in a universe where the rules for what I could or could not do rested primarily on my gender. As a female soldier, the so-called burden equality issue has a flip side: It would mean having to accept the burden of serving alongside thousands of individuals who see me as less than equal. For them, I could never be a soldier first; I would always be a woman, whose actions may spell danger to their most deeply held beliefs.”


In the end, Boianjiu doubted that either community – the secular or the religious – believed in the same nation. This clash, or should I say “spirited internal debates,” is played out with gusto all over the Islamic world, even within the boundaries of very religious, traditional contexts. Though the contrasts are less stark than between Israeli secular versus religious protagonists, the stakes in this existential tug-or-war can seem just as high.

My own takeaway for now: if you claim to worship and love a God who created men and women in his image (also a well-attested hadith) to rule together in this earth as His trustees, then somehow you are obligated to promote the dignity of three and a half billion humans, not only as wives and mothers, but also as citizens, professionals, business people, and leaders in all sorts of contexts, alongside their male counterparts. This starts with the curbing of all violence and harassment at home, in the streets and in places of work. This is a platform Muslims, Jews and Christians – of all people – should stand on.

[To be continued …]

05 November 2012

Qatar Going Green

[A shorter version is posted on The Middle East Experience website, entitled "Muslims Going Green in a Big Way," under "The Modern Middle East"]

The next UN Climate Change Conference meets in November 2012 in a new Convention Center reputed to be one of the greenest in the world. In Sweden? Not even close.

Okay, so the architect is the famous Japanese designer, Arata Isozaki. Ah … in Japan? Wrong again.

It’s in the land of the Sidra tree, whose leafy branches spread out to welcome desert travelers, poets, friends sharing news and tellers of ancient tales. The Sidra’s leafs, flowers and fruit have brought healing and comfort to its people since ancient times.

All right, I’ve given it away. The Sidra is the proud symbol of its native land, the small peninsula jutting out into the Persian Gulf, also known as the State of Qatar. And yes, supporting the overhanging roof of the Convention Center in the photo above you see two massive Sidra trunks all of steel.

That is the venue for the 18th (yearly) session of the UN Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol. Thousands of high-level delegates from over 90 countries will converge on Doha to assess how the world is doing on reducing carbon emissions. A fitting venue? Yes, and more than you might think.


Qatar, Gulf Leader in Green Buildings

Ali al-Khalifa, CEO of the company that built the Center and (very likely) a relative of the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, had this to say about the project:

“We have to make something stay friendly to the environment. We are part of this earth. All the oil and gas countries are moving to a green concept to insure the new generation understands they have to preserve this energy and have something efficient.”

This building, he asserted, was made from “sustainably-logged wood”; 3,500 square meters of solar panels covered the roof; and the exhibition halls are all LED lit. And since environmentally-source building materials were scarce at home, the company “went as far as Belgium and South Korea to purchase the environmentally-certified wood, steel and glass.” As Michael Casey of the Associated Press put it, “It increased the initial cost – and contributed additional carbon emissions from shipping – but in the end helped ensure the building 32 percent less energy than a comparable convention center.”

In a speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2012, the Emir, after much commentary on the perils and hopes of the Arab Spring, had this to say about the upcoming conference:

“One of the great challenges that we must face is the question of climate change and its bad and destructive consequences for all countries. This requires us to cooperate and work together to reach the best solutions to this challenge.”

He then went on to urge everyone to come and attend this conference, “so that we reach an international consensus on the matter.”

But think about it. Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world and also the highest fossil fuel consumption per capita. Not surprisingly, it produces the most oil and gas too, relative to its size. This is a great place to start! And buildings are an important first step, as they consume near 70 percent of the Gulf countries’ energy (40 percent is the global average).

As it turns out, though you can find about half a dozen certifying companies for green buildings, by far the largest player in the field is the US Green Building Council (USGBC). Its voluntary program, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), includes 13,000 member organizations and 181,000 like-minded professionals. They are helping to oversee over 5,000 projects around the world, and a disproportionate number in the Gulf countries. Already they have 1,348 LEED-certified buildings, way ahead of Europe.

Though Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also made great strides in this direction, Qatar is forging ahead. Ahead of the 2022 World Cup, it started construction in 2010 on a vast new neighborhood (called Msheireb) that will boast of the most LEED-certified buildings in the world. Here is how Leon Kaye describes the project sponsored by the Qatar Green Building Council (QGBC):

“Phase One of Msheireb is currently underway. A historic neighborhood that has fallen into disrepair, the site includes historic homes up to 100 years old that will be preserved and incorporated into the complex. The new town will include retail space, hotels and apartments, all of which will be crammed together to encourage walking. All parking will be underground and Doha’s future rail system will wind through the middle of the development. Solar panels on top of the buildings and covered walkways will catch Qatar’s abundant sun and will, in part, power all of the buildings. Smart grid technologies will also be an important facet of the development’s promise to be as energy-efficient as possible. Moving from north to south, the buildings cascade and become taller so that each one shades the one next to it.”

Now Qatar will just have to retool its building codes to make sure that all new buildings meet higher standards of environmental excellence, as well as to provide incentives to retrofit older ones – a tall order, but one the leadership seems determined to achieve.


Greening the Hotel Industry

Meanwhile, the Qatar Green Building Council (QGBC) took advantage of the UN Climate Change conference’s Doha venue to spin off a new branch, the Green Hotel Interest Group (GHIG). It’s official kick-off took place in September 2012 at the Windham Grand Regency Hotel in Doha, gathering scores of hotel chains executives, other business people and green technology experts with a stake in advancing more sustainable practices in the hospitality sector.


Among the ideas floated so far, we read:


  • Renting iPads in order to save paper
  • Composting all left over food
  • Phasing in all LED lighting


A lot more research needs to be done, GHIG officials are quick to say. Fortunately, the QGBC has spun off other groups that have been funded to do this very thing: the Solid Waste Interest Group, the Water Interest Group, and the Green Infrastructure Interest Group.

What’s the motivation behind all this ambitious investing?


Islamic Green, Or Not?

Now as someone who studies religion, and contemporary Islam in particular, I wouldn’t say that these Gulf rulers are suddenly awakening to the imperatives of the Qur’an and Sunna to care for God’s creation. But it’s still likely that those teachings, which are clearly gaining prominence in many circles, have helped them sell these policies to their people.

Three factors, for sure, have led these heads of state in this direction. For a while now, they have pondered the implications of the post-oil era and asked themselves, “How can we invest our wealth in a future that will sustain the next generations?” Then too, talks about climate change, about island states that will disappear by 2100, and about environmental sustainability – all this is prevalent in UN circles. Finally, in light of the above, this is simply smart business practice. Qatar’s reputation will only be enhanced. In turn, this will attract more visitors, more commercial partnerships, and more investment.

Still, you might ask, does religion play any part in this? After all, Muslims in many places – and especially so in Indonesia – are rediscovering the idea that if God is one (tawhid), then all his creation is one and equally valuable in his eyes. Further, he has placed humankind on earth as trustees of his good creation, and thus accountable for how they use (or abuse) its natural resources, which are meant to be shared equitably among themselves, with particular concern for the poor and marginalized. Finally, good conservation practices were written into Islamic law over time, and the Shari’a is now also a symbol for “green Muslims.”

That said, the world-renowned Islamic cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has been living in Qatar for over 40 years, has not devoted even one of his 120-plus books to the topic of Islam and the environment. Perhaps it's a generational thing ...

In any case, you'll find much more on the theology and activism of the Islamic environmental movement in my previous blog here.

From the Brill journal Worldviews, Global Religions, Culture and Ecology (Vol. 16, 2012), the Authors' Preface, and my article, "Intra-Muslim Debates on Ecology: Is Shari'a Still Relevant?"


The core insight of this website is the notion taught by both Bible and Qur’an that God created humans with the capacity to reason – thus creating art and furthering science—and to make moral choices for which they will have to answer. So from the beginning he mandated his human creatures to rule over the earth, manage its resources and organize their collective life in just and compassionate ways.

In light of that, I’m very pleased to announce the publication of a special issue of Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture and Ecology (Vol. 16) with the title, Islam and Ecology: Theology, Law and Practice of Muslim Environmentalism.” I had the privilege of co-editing the issue with Anna M. Gade, Associate Professor of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I only have permission to offer you my own article, “Intra-Muslim Debates on Ecology: Is Shari’a Still Relevant?,” and our Editors’ Preface (see below). But you can click here for access to the Worldviews’ issue.

Two of the four articles deal with Indonesia. First, Anna Gade’s fieldwork among the environmentally-friendly pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) reveals a double-pronged strategy to promote creation care: a) theological teaching grounded in the Qur’an and the Hadith; and b) the emotional/affective impact of songs and poetry extolling the beauty of God’s creation and the joy of joining him in caring for it.

Then, thanks to Gade’s extensive contacts in Indonesia, we were able to enlist the contribution of its most influential scholar and environmental activist, Fakhruddin Majeri Mangunjaya, a biologist at Universitas Nasional in Jakarta. His co-author is British anthropologist, Jeanne Elizabeth McKay, who has invested much effort in Indonesia over the years with the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology. They argue that state initiatives to preserve the immense wealth of biodiversity in its rain forests will not be effective in the long run, unless they are joined by religious and community-based leaders who can enlist grassroots support.

Finally, Ahmed Afzaal, an Islamicist teaching at Concordia College in Minnesota, looks at some of the theological underpinnings of an effective Islamic advocacy for a committed environmental agenda through the lens of one the greatest Muslim philosophers of the twentieth century, the South Asian Muhammad Iqbal.

To give you a feel for this special issue, allow me to present an excerpt from the issue’s Introduction by Jonathan Brockopp, Associate Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University. Originally, three of these papers were presented at a session I organized at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in 2010. I was thrilled that Brockopp accepted to respond to the five papers (at the time), as he’s a specialist in early Islam and especially in the development on the legal tradition. Further, he’s an environmental activist both at Penn State and in interfaith circles (Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light).

Religions are complex traditions that contain wisdom that can be applied to new situations. In the case of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, ancient stories, such as the creation narratives, can be reinterpreted and rediscovered. Second, true engagement is a combination of practical engagement with the hands, intellectual appreciation by the mind, and emotional attachment. Examples from Indonesia, Zanzibar, Wales and elsewhere can inspire people all over the globe to respond.

Our experience of working to care for creation, instead of exploiting nature, can lead to an engagement with God. Iqbal’s vision of God as panen­theistic brings to mind Qur’anic verses that challenge people to wander in the land and see there the signs of God:

Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the profit of humankind; in the rain which God sends down from the skies, thereby giving life to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that he scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth―Here indeed are signs for a people that are wise (Q 2:164).

Nature, then, is much more than a storehouse to be plundered or a threat to be neutralized, it is a book full of God’s signs ready for us to read. For reli­gious people, then, preventing climate change and loss of species and habi­tat can be much more than an ethical imperative―it is also the preservation of God’s revelation. To exploit these mysteries for short-term gain is to pro­foundly misunderstand both their meaning and our own role within the cosmos.”


This issue, to my mind, is a response by Muslims to the challenges presented by the Earth Charter launched in 2000. This initiative launched by the United Nations was followed by a decade of widespread discussion on a global scale, which led to a separate international entity with massive civil society participation worldwide, the Earth Charter Commission. Its international legitimacy as a document can be compared to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, in that it is gaining little by little the status of “soft” international law.

Claiming that humanity stands at a “critical moment in Earth’s history,” the Charter asserts that the way forward requires the lucid recognition “that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny.” This means a concerted effort to create “a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.” “Earth community” implies a revised and humbler assessment of the value and role of humankind, compared to the modern Western view. Thus the preamble ends with a sobering and solemn call not just to action but chiefly to a new attitude and ethical imperative: “Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.”

“Earth community,” I believe, is indeed an appropriate expression. Human solidarity on a planetary scale is not just a pious wish. It starts with the recognition of a fact. We all share this planet and as someone from its richest country and greatest contributor of greenhouse gases (China might have that dubious distinction by now), I have to repent of my selfish lifestyle that will visit more and more harm on the poorest. As Brockopp put it, solely focusing on Muslim nations:


Iran, with its oil production, its relatively wealthy population and its heavy industry, also happens to have the largest carbon footprint of any majority Muslim country. In Iran, as in the United States, high carbon out­put is a means to a comfortable, even opulent, lifestyle. But this is the exception in the Muslim world. For example, the 150 million people of Bangladesh produced 46,000 kilotons of CO2 in 2008. The 16 million of Niger produced only 851 kilotons.

It is a sad irony that the very same Muslim countries, which have con­tributed almost nothing to the rise in greenhouse gases will be among the hardest hit. Already, the droughts in East Africa in 2011 and the endless rains that brought devastation to Pakistan in 2010 serve as harbingers of the changes scientists have predicted for our climate, not to mention the pos­sibilities that the Maldives and half of Bangladesh will be under water within the next one hundred years.

This imbalance of cause and effect, our overconsumption causing their suffering, is outrageous and violates every ethical principle of love for neighbor, caring for the poor, and stewardship of the earth that religious traditions preach. How did we arrive at such a point in our development as a species that we so easily dismiss the lives of millions so we can live in climate-controlled comfort?”

I have dealt in greater detail on these issues elsewhere. Suffice it to say here, this journal issue should be heart warming for all. As it takes the pulse of Islamic environmentalism today, it finds many Muslim scholars, religious leaders and activists seriously pondering their calling as God’s trustees of the earth. Join me in earnestly praying for their success.