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Asma Uddin
Asma Uddin
Asma Uddin is editor-in-chief of Altmuslimah.



Open religious discourse can prevent a future Fort Hood

Nov10

by: on November 10th, 2009 | 7 Comments »

Washington, DC – In the immediate aftermath of the 5 November Fort Hood killings, some media commentators, alerted by gunman Major Dr. Nidal Malik Hasan’s Muslim name, immediately described the murders as a manifestation of his religious beliefs, reinforcing many Americans’ fears about Islam. In a moment like this one, the topic of religious freedom might be one we wish to avoid, but protecting it is essential to preventing another such tragedy. All Americans — both Muslims and non-Muslims — now have a role to play in ensuring that the country moves forward productively and peacefully.

Soon after the attack, Muslim American individuals and organisations, such as Dr. Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), responded by unequivocally condemning the murders as reprehensible and outside the domain of Islam.

According to CAIR, “No political or religious ideology could ever justify or excuse such wanton and indiscriminate violence. The attack was particularly heinous in that it targeted the all-volunteer army that protects our nation. We Muslim Americans stand with our fellow citizens in offering both prayers for the victims and sincere condolences to the families of those killed or injured.”

The attack has spurred Muslim organisations to urge non-Muslims to refrain from viewing the incident through the prism of religion.

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Zuleikha in the Qur’an and in the Bible

Nov5

by: on November 5th, 2009 | 6 Comments »

In August, four scholars and a small group of Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders met to discuss the story of Joseph in the Qur’an and in the Bible. Here are four reflections, by two Muslim women and two Jewish women, about the significance of Zuleikha in the story and in their respective traditions.

Muslim reflections

I. By Asma T. Uddin

In the Qur’an, Joseph, son of Jacob, had a somewhat dysfunctional relationship with his brothers, who resented him for being the favored, most beloved, son of their father. On one occasion, Joseph’s brothers took him on a picnic and decided to get rid of him by throwing him into a well. After they left, a passing caravan happened to stop at the well, where the caravan’s water-scout found Joseph, and decided to take him to Egypt. Once there, Joseph was sold for a paltry price to a high-ranking nobleman. As the Qur’an tells us, the nobleman who bought Joseph, al-Aziz, said to his wife, Zuleikha, “Tend graciously to his dwelling, he may benefit us, or we may take him as a son.”

From the nobleman’s statements, we are led to believe that the nobleman and Zuleikha did not have any children, and that Joseph could thus have been taken as an adopted son. This is, in fact, the interpretation of many tafsir scholars. The lack of children suggests sexual intimacy may be lacking in the couple’s relationship. With the story framed by Zuleikha and al-Aziz’s relationship, the Qur’an goes on to the widely-known story of seduction and resistance:

Zuleikha felt deeply and passionately attracted to Joseph, and on one occasion, when her husband was out, Zuleikha called Joseph to her room. As soon as he entered, she locked the door and said, ‘Now come to me, my dear one.’ Taken aback by this advance, Joseph told her: ‘God forbid. My master has been generous to me; I cannot betray his trust. Those who do evil can never prosper.’ So saying, he rushed towards the door and tried to unlock it.

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Gender as the Focal Point of Cross-Cultural Dialogue

Sep23

by: on September 23rd, 2009 | 5 Comments »

Louise Cankar, an assistant professor of sociology at Marquette University, recently published a book in which she argues that, while anti-Muslim suspicion existed prior to 9/11, 9/11 created an environment in which hostility toward Muslims could thrive and their political and social exclusion could be legitimated by both the government and nativist Americans. While Cankar’s discussion in her book, Homeland Insecurity: The Arab American and Muslim American Experience After 9/11, is, as a whole, thoroughly fascinating, if not depressing, her research regarding gendered dehumanization stands out as especially troubling – though also suggestive of where we may find solutions. Cankar’s dissection of the gendered patterns of dehumanization identify gender as a critical area for cross-cultural dialogue. She lays out three patterns in particular of gender dehumanization.

Women In Hijab As Symbols of Anti-Americanism

As is perhaps inevitable, after 9/11 Muslim women who don hijab (the headscarf worn by some Muslim women) became central to the construction of Arabs and Muslims as the ominous “Other” – that is, as belonging to a culture in which women are oppressed and incapable of exercising choice, and men are violent and misogynist. No woman could possibly choose to wear the hijab, or perhaps more accurately, a woman could not legitimately exercise choice when it came to something like the hijab, which represented a revolt against American values. Those forced to wear it and those who chose to wear it were both acting in a manner unacceptable to the American way. By obliterating choice with regard to the hijab, these social constructions essentially debased the free will of Muslim women.

Saving Muslim women from these purportedly oppressive garments became a theme used to invoke support for the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan. Those who supported the war, justified the need for the invasion by pointing at images of Afghani women shrouded in all-encompassing, billowing blue burkas, sometimes seen being publicly beaten and executed by the Taliban.

The government’s construction of women in hijab as symbols of barbarism made them counter-symbols to American freedom. The localized effect of such a construction: some Americans – self-fashioned “defenders” of American values – wanted to kick out women who wore hijab from their neighborhood.

Interestingly, the same set of notions that posited women in hijab as the opposite of freedom construed the chastity of Muslim men as equally foreign and threatening. “Muslim women were perceived as forced to cover their hair, just as Arab/Muslim men were perceived as forced into sexual sublimation.” (256) Muslim men’s not being allowed to view female flesh, or enjoy sexual intimacy outside of marriage, militated against the nativist idea of freedom, and for this, Muslim men were made the enemy.

Muslim Women: Producers of Terrorists

While the belittling of Muslim women in hijab may be a familiar concept, a less known phenomenon highlighted by Cankar is that of Arab and Muslim women as producers of terrorists. This was an attack on Arab and Muslim motherhood, alleging that Muslims are cold and unloving toward their children, thus predisposing them to terrorist behavior as adults. Cankar quotes Howard Bloom’s 1989 article, The Importance of Hugging, from Omni magazine to highlight the types of arguments commonly restated by nativists in the post-9/11 climate:

Could the denial of warmth lie behind Arab brutality? Could these keepers of Islamic flame be suffering from a lack of hugging? … In much of Arab society the cold and even brutal approach to children has still not stopped. Public warmth between men and women is considered a sin. And the Arab adult, stripped of intimacy and thrust into a life of cold isolation, has become a walking time bomb. An entire people may have turned barbaric for the simple lack of a hug. (243)

According to Bloom, the lack of public displays of affection between grown Muslim men and women signal a lack of warmth between parents and their children. The total absence of logical consistency in Bloom’s argument is jarring.

Bloom was not alone. The Global Ideas Bank, relying on Bloom’s work, argued:

The cultures that treated their children coldly produced brutal adults, according to a survey of 49 cultures conducted by James Prescott … Prescott’s observations apply to Islamic and other cultures, which treat their children harshly. They despise open displays of affection. The result, he claims: violent adults. (243)

Bloom-like arguments about the barbarism built into Arab and Muslim culture – sinking as low as questioning Muslim motherhood – have been employed in the cultural front of the War on Terror. Muslim women, as reproducers of culture, have thus found themselves frequent targets of this tactic of attack by nativists, or those seeking to protect the “American way of life.”

Gendered Emasculation of Muslim Men

Muslim women are not the sole scapegoats of nativist slander; Muslim men shared in the suffering. Cankar explains that in times of crisis, when nationalism is mobilized, “men and women are expected to conform to hegemonic definitions of masculinity and femininity.” (244) In the post-9/11 process of determining what characterized an American, attacks on Muslim women who donned hijab amounted to an attack against those who did not fit this hegemonic concept of femininity. For Muslim men, the process was a bit more convoluted. Because they did fit the hegemonic conception of masculinity, rejecting them required that they be made not to fit; essentially, they had to be feminized. As such, Muslim men were stripped of their masculinity – the degradation ceremonies perpetrated against Arab and Muslim men imprisoned at Abu Ghraib were emasculation rituals.

While Muslim men at Abu Ghraib experienced a direct form of emasculation, Muslim-American men suffered from a more subtle form. These men were not afraid of the type of neighborhood attacks Muslim women faced, but instead felt unprotected by the rule of law, particularly in small towns where unregulated, abusive detention could be carried out more easily than in urban areas. “They feared being beaten, being detained, and being moved from place to place while multiple agencies searched for records of illegal activity, suspicious contacts, or ties to terrorism, and they feared that, in the process, no one would know.” (259) Muslim-American men were and still are to some degree subject to detention without adequate cause or explanation, and once detained, are made completely powerless. This implied emasculation is tied into larger hegemonic notions of masculinity and who is allowed to fit that image. If, in times of crisis, men and women are expected to conform to hegemonic definitions of femininity and masculinity, and if Muslim men are seen as the enemy and cannot be allowed to fit this definition, it becomes necessary to strip them of their masculinity. As this is not an easy process that can be undertaken by neighborhood crusaders, it must be done through “government actors with powers of detention.” (233)

The Way Forward

In the years since 9/11, Muslim men and women have responded to nativist hate mongering by working within the American legal framework. Muslim women have made the hijab a civil rights issue; similarly, the fight for the human rights of detainees has been going strong for some time.

An additional response – one that is more nuanced to the gendered aspects of the problem – is to use gender and Muslim notions of femininity and masculinity as the focal point of cross-cultural dialogue. In times of crisis people revert to hegemonic definitions of masculinity and femininity and this suggests that there is something about gender and sexuality that is fundamentally linked to national identity. There is something about gender that helps the dehumanization process in times of crisis. It seems, then, that in times of [relative] peace, efforts should be made to explore those connections in a way that prevents the crisis impulse to dehumanize the other.

The inherent femininity of Muslim women who wear the hijab is thus a theme to be explored, as is the seeming “foreignness” of the hijab. Are there ways to make non-Muslim Americans understand the hijab as essentially American? Are there ways to argue for femininity within the framework of Islamic modesty, in a way that non-Muslims can understand?

As for Muslim men, much of nativist fear is rooted in the idea of Muslim men as forced into sexual sublimation, that is, unable to view female flesh or act on their lust outside of marriage. Nativists perceive Muslim men’s modesty in this regard as a threat. Can peacetime dialogue change this conception? Is there a way that male chastity can be explained for its voluntariness, and perhaps even for its inherent masculinity?

Often, cross-cultural dialogue revolves around generalities, focusing on the minutiae of religious history and ritual or varying cultural practices. Broad-based, but deeply probing, discussions on notions of masculinity and femininity and the ways these notions are shared, and cherished, by Muslim and non-Muslims alike, may be more effective in paving the path forward. In place of imposing Muslims concepts of modesty on Americans, or American concepts of freedom on Muslims, cross-cultural dialogue should explore the connections and intersections. That is, it should explore how Muslims who choose to be modest are “free” in a very American way, and how American and Muslim notions of modesty are fundamentally connected rather than diametrically opposed to each other.

Mad Magazine: Marie Claire’s Bias Against Muslim Women

Sep15

by: on September 15th, 2009 | 2 Comments »

Asra Nomani’s recent piece in Marie Claire, “My Big Fat Muslim Wedding,” underscored everything that is wrong with Marie Claire’s coverage of Islam and Muslim women. Nomani’s piece was a confused narrative at best, conflating culture with religion and individual bad experiences with larger truths about entire faiths. A story that should have been about Nomani’s conflicted path to love somehow became a treatise on Islam and love generally, suggesting that all Muslim men and women follow similarly conflicted, contradictory paths. Western ways of premarital intercourse and freedom to marry without regard to religious frameworks are presented as the higher moral ground.

A similar sort of paternalism is rampant throughout Marie Claire’s treatment of Muslim women. Time and again, the image we see emerging from this magazine is that of Muslim women as sequestered, brainwashed, and victimized if by no one else than their own naïve, unknowing selves. Almost all of Marie Claire’s stories dealing with Islam or Muslims have to do with Muslim women either oppressed by or complicit in terrorism and extremism. Women who choose to embrace Islam are belittled, and Islam, in the process, is portrayed as attractive to only lost and desperate souls. On the flip side, Malika, the female jihadist in “Love in the Time of Terror” reflects the danger of Muslim female strength, while purportedly more respectable brands of strong females have spurned Islam to some degree or another (think Ayaan Hirsi Ali).

Consider, for example, Paul Cruickshank’s piece, “I Married a Terrorist,” the story of Maureen, a Belgian woman who met a non-practicing Muslim man at a bar and started dating him, their affair a whirlwind of partying. Somewhere amidst all the clubbing, Maureen began feeling empty, overwhelmed by her crazy ways. Her emptiness prompted curiosity about religion, and she began asking her boyfriend, Rachid, about Islam, of which he himself was ignorant.

This is where the story about Maureen begins to reveal its anti-Islamic and sexist undertones;

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Ramadan: A wife’s perspective (and a husband’s)

Sep12

by: on September 12th, 2009 | 2 Comments »

This post was written by Zehra Rizavi and Yusif Akhund for altmuslimah.com. I think it helps non-Muslims understand the Ramadan experience from an insider’s perspective, while also raising questions of how different interpretations of gender roles may change each couple’s experience of Ramadan.

When my husband finally makes his way down the stairs, my frustration abates and he and I sit across from each other and share our early morning meal. We speak intermittently and keep one eye trained on the clock to ensure we finish our food by the time dawn prayers begin. Despite the sparse conversation and the hurried meal, I enjoy the feeling that we are both beginning our obligatory fasts together, as a unit.

Continue reading on Altmuslimah

the “bad speech” dilemma – does intolerance lead to violence?

Aug21

by: on August 21st, 2009 | 8 Comments »

“A woman who loses her chastity is worthless,” lectures the sermon-giver at Asra Nomani’s mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia. Nomani carefully jots down this statement in her notebook, right alongside the speaker’s other assertion that “Jews are the descendents of apes and pigs.” Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent who came face-to-face with extremism when her colleague and close friend, Daniel Pearl, was murdered in Pakistan, is certain that these statements of intolerance in her local mosque are intrinsically related to acts of violence. Thus begins Nomani’s “struggle for the soul of Islam,” a struggle showcased by Brittany Huckabee in her recent documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown.

As Huckabee’s movie follows Nomani’s fight for women’s rights, it shows how her struggle against conservatism becomes intertwined with her repugnance with extremism. The film focuses on how Nomani ends up conflating the two, explaining time and again that there is a “slippery slope” between intolerance and violence. Nomani’s protest goes from wanting to give women a space in the main prayer hall to wanting women to stand beside men in prayer and to lead mixed-gender prayer. Any other view of gender organization in the mosque is, according to Nomani, a sign of extremism, akin to the type practiced by Pearl’s murderers. Yet, as one of the conservative women from her mosque notes, what does extremism have to do with women-led prayer?

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Religious pluralism in today’s Muslim world

Jul30

by: on July 30th, 2009 | 10 Comments »

In his 4 June speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, US President Barack Obama started his discussion of religious freedom by pointing out that “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance”.

Citing its long history of protecting religious minorities as well as his own experience growing up in overwhelmingly Muslim Indonesia where Christians worshipped freely, he then drew upon the present, turning his attention to those vocal Muslims among whom “there is a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of another’s”. He urged his Muslim listeners to continue the spirit of tolerance that is reflected throughout their history.

The rejectionist Muslims whom Obama referred to are but one part of the vast Muslim world. Surveys conducted in 44 countries as part of the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project show that people in Muslim countries place a high value on free speech, free press, multi-party systems and equal protection under the law. However, while many Muslims desire the type of pluralism that comes with Western-style democracy, those in the Muslim world who push for such ideas can face pressure, and sometimes threats of persecution, by both their governments and rival groups that see no place for religious freedom in Islam.

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The ‘beating’ verse

Jul23

by: on July 23rd, 2009 | 7 Comments »

New on Altmuslimah:

Jurists have created a contradiction that is not in the Qur’an by encouraging divorce and discouraging marriage. In other words, a Muslim woman who wants a divorce must be set free without using force against her, but a Muslim woman who wants to remain married does so under the threat of being beaten. What woman would want to stay married under such circumstances?

The Difficulty of Being a Modern Muslim Woman

Jul23

by: on July 23rd, 2009 | 3 Comments »

First published on May 1, 2009

Growing up Muslim and female in America was, and remains, a tumultuous process. While Islam generally is under tremendous scrutiny, there is probably no issue in greater contention than that of gender relations in Islam. With the media constantly spewing out images of oppressed Muslim women and angry Muslim men, the world looks on with both fascination and disgust. The Muslim gender dynamic – supposedly a singular, unchanging construct – has become a spectacle for everyone to gawk at, comment on, and ultimately use to ridicule the larger Muslim community.

But it is not just our neighbors who are gawking; Muslims often find themselves feeling awkward as well, especially as the news becomes stranger and more prevalent. Part of this is about Western Muslim women trying to make sense of supposedly religiously motivated gender oppression, but much of this is about reflecting on our individual spiritual cores – the place where we, in our quiet moments, wonder about our identity vis-à-vis the world, the part of us that cowers under the spotlight.

This self-reflection involves quite a bit of confusion, as it is hard to reconcile the heart-wrenching news of oppression with our daily experience of meeting, interacting with, living among – being – strong, confident, successful Muslim women.

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Film Review: The Mosque in Morgantown

Jul17

by: on July 17th, 2009 | 2 Comments »

Brittany Huckabee’s The Mosque in Morgantown is, on its face, the story of a battle in the local mosque, but more deeply, the story of a complex and infinitely diverse religious community grappling with its identity in modern-day America. On one side is Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent who came face-to-face with extremism when her colleague and close friend, Daniel Pearl, was murdered in Pakistan. On the other side are, initially, the members of her local mosque, and eventually, moderate Muslims throughout the country.

Upon Asra’s return from Pakistan to her hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia, she believes she sees in her local mosque hints of the extremism she witnessed in Pakistan. Women are excluded from the main prayer hall and the mosque leader frequently makes statements of intolerance and distrust toward women, non-Muslims, and the West. Asra keeps careful notes of problematic statements made in the mosque sermons, some of which include, “a woman who loses her chastity is worthless,” and “Jews are the descendents of apes and pigs.”

Her campaign against this extremism puts the mosque in the middle of a media storm, a fact the mosque’s moderate contingency is highly irked by. Whereas these and other moderates throughout the country would normally have been her main allies, Asra’s reform methodology pits her against them.

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