The nation is still reeling from shock after Monday’s attack on the Boston Marathon. Gun violence notwithstanding, this is perhaps the first real terrorist attack on US soil after 9/11. Understandably emotions have been running high; no surprise then, that as the events unfolded many people, including the media, jumped on the “Blame the Muslims” bandwagon. The New York Post famously inflated casualty numbers and reported that a Saudi man was apprehended as a suspect by the police. Social media was inundated by predictions of guilt and accusations of violent jihad, at the same time as the Muslim community mobilized to condemn the attacks.
Courtesy: Huffington Post UK
It seems that controversy over the hijab – the Islamic tradition of covering a woman’s hair and body – will not die down anytime soon. Governments such as France and Germany seem to be dead set against it, while theocracies such as Saudi Arabia go the other extreme by forcing women to cover. But ask the average Muslim woman, and she will probably wonder what the fuss is all about. Since when is dress a political statement, even a weapon? FEMEN – a feminist Ukrainian protest group – seems to think it is, and is up in arms over the hijab, declaring April 4 as International Topless Jihad Day. What FEMEN activists perhaps did not expect was that Muslim women who wear the hijab are a tad possessive about their right to wear it, and don’t take lightly to a declaration of jihad (Arabic for struggle) against it.
The Obama administration, Congress and the media are finally showing some concern about the threats that have been emanating from North Korea since the beginning of the year. The Pentagon is moving an advanced anti-missile system to Guam just in case North Korea’s threats turn out to be more substantial than the administration clearly thinks they are.
That follows the announcement that the North Korean military has been cleared to wage an attack on the U.S. using ”smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear ” weapons. On Tuesday, Pyongyang said that it is restarting operation of its uranium-enrichment program at Yongbyon for use in expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal. In March, it declared that it will no longer abide by the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War. And in February, it conducted its third nuclear weapons test.
Pope Francis with Foreign Diplomats, Credit REUTERS/Tony Gentile
The news out of the Vatican seems to be getting more and more fascinating every day. An avid researcher of all religions – and especially interested in all things Catholic because of my educational ties with convents – I have been following the abdication of Pope Benedict and the election of Pope Francis, and all that’s happened in between these two major events, with great interest. When Benedict resigned, I felt a moment or two of incredulity, because it’s practically unheard of. Then I followed the whole voting process, including the betting, with bated breath. And I haven’t been disappointed, for Pope Francis is proving to be an absolute gem in so many ways. As I said, fascinating news… even though I’m a Muslim.
Perhaps no other country of the world has received so much censure about its treatment of women in recent years than Afghanistan. First the cold war, then the civil war, then the oppressive rule of the Taliban, and finally the American war on terror – Afghanistan’s female population has been continually left in poverty, danger, and tragedy as long as memory serves. In recent years, however, with the help of American troops in some cases, and as a result of more education and awareness in others, Afghani women have made great strides in their standard of living, from serving in the police force to hopefuls in politics, and it looks like their luck may finally be changing.
Benazir Bhutto. Credit: Creative Commons/iFaqeer.
March being Women’s History Month, it gives rise to the inevitable discussions of women and their contributions to our collective past. For Muslims, March can also be a time to recognize the achievements of women from our own faith tradition, and in some cases it is a time to discover new female role models we never even realized existed. Stories of the past can serve as powerful motivators for all of us, but for Muslims in particular, the tales of intelligent, brave, creative and influential Muslim women can serve to lift us all collectively into a sense of pride. For the rest of the world, these stories serve to break down stereotypes of the “Muslim woman” – with her perceived limitations, oppression and handicaps.
Last week I highlighted the tale of Noor Inayat Khan, a little-known Muslim spy princess during the French Resistance. Since many in the western world consider Muslim women in the Middle East and Asia to be more oppressed and weak, this week’s Muslim Woman story is about the “other” side of the world. This week I journey in my mind back to my native Pakistan to highlight Benazir Bhutto, a female Muslim political leader who personified women’s empowerment and stood up for democracy in the face of dictatorship.
As a woman, I welcome the month of March – Women’s History Month – each year as an opportunity to pay tribute to women who have made significant contributions to our world. As a Muslim woman, I also look forward to this month as a time to recognize and celebrate the contributions Muslim women have made to the sciences, literature, honorable struggles such as the French Resistance, and so much more. During a time when women in Islam are viewed as dependent, covered up, and oppressed, I look forward to the narratives of strong, independent, and intelligent Muslim women of the past as a much-needed boost to the generally negative and (incorrectly) chauvinistic paintbrush that Islam has been painted with over the last few centuries. This month I will write a series of posts about several little-known Muslim women from whom I personally am honored to learn, and who can demonstrate what Islam really offers to women in terms of freedom, creativity, and authority.
My first historical profile is someone from the recent past. Noor Inayat Khan (1914 – 1944) was an Indian Muslim descended from Tipu Sultan, but more importantly the first female radio operator sent from Britain into occupied France to aid the French Resistance. Interested in music, poetry and writing from a young age, Noor decided to set aside her pacifist Sufi upbringing and participate in the war in order to help change Western perceptions about Indians and Muslims. According to Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: The Story of Indians in Britain 1700-1947, she once said: “I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war. If one or two could do something in the Allied service which was very brave and which everybody admired it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians.”
Islamophobia continues to course through U.S. society, twelve years after 9/11. Credit: veteranstoday.com.
February this year seems to be the month of revelations – not just heartfelt wows of love on Valentine’s Day, but something much more sinister and worrying. Four news reports with sometimes conflicting messages have been released this month from various sources, all discussing the perceived threat (or the lack thereof) of homegrown terrorism by Muslim Americans.
What’s interesting about all four publications this month is that twelve years after 9/11 the stereotype of the Muslim terrorist is no weaker than it was right after the horrific attacks that rocked our nation. We may have become more politically correct than before, or even more educated and aware about “the other”, but underneath it all we still nurse the wounds of 9/11 and identify with a collective enemy: the Muslim American.
Very early in February came “Muslim American Terrorism: Declining Further”, a publication by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. Experts at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill have been tracking terrorist plots within the country for the last several years, and some noteworthy facts emerge this year in their fourth annual report. According to the report, 2012 saw the lowest number of terrorist plots by Muslim Americans, with only 14 Muslims indicted in plots last year, as opposed to 21 the year before and more than 200 since 9/11. Perhaps most thought-provoking is the fact that all the incidents in 2012 came to the attention of law enforcement at an early stage, rather than at the last possible moment of an actual attack as in previous years. Which begs the question, are the police and FBI doing a better job than ever before?
Until today, American Muslim women have been fighting an uphill battle for their right to cover their heads in the traditional hijab. Whether at school, work, even government offices, we have stood unflinching as the debate about Islamophobia, creeping Shariah and all the other ugly words associated with being Muslim in America have swirled about us. Hearing negative comments, facing discrimination in hiring, being marginalized in social groups or treated with sympathy for assumed oppression, we have faced it all while defending our right to express our faith through our dress. Until today.
A little known six-year litigation between a Muslim woman and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department ended in a landmark case today in the Muslim’s favor, awarding damages to Souhair Khatib of Anaheim for the indignity she faced at the hands of law enforcement officials. The case revolved around police holding cell procedures, which demand that articles of clothing deemed dangerous be removed from those taken into custody. While admirable in theory, the procedure failed to take into account religious clothing that the person taken into custody may be wearing – such as the hijab. Those who know Muslim women who wear the hijab (be it in the form of a head scarf, coat, burka or anything else), will also be aware of the importance they award this article of clothing. Most of us are fiercely protective of it – and ourselves in it – and will resist ardently in case of removal in the company of men. For Souhair Khatib, who was not a criminal, having her hijab forcibly removed in front of men despite her pleadings, was a real nightmare, one that I cannot imagine undergoing myself.
A Westchester County couple has accused Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of using more than $3 million in donations to the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement for personal purposes. Credit: Creative Commons/World Economic Forum.
What’s the difference between a Catholic priest and an Imam? Although it may sound like the opening line of a joke, both these individuals actually do have a lot in common. For both Catholics and Muslims, priests and imams are prayer leaders, spiritual guides, mentors, teachers and so much more. Even outside of their congregations, they command respect from all who meet them because they wear the badge of religious leadership.
So when someone like that does something unethical or even criminal, we are left with a bad taste in our mouth and a collective cringe. Catholicism has, unfortunately, been dogged with child abuse scandals for a long time; scandals that have plagued and wounded everyday Catholics who aren’t able to see the priesthood in the same light ever again. As a Muslim I often sympathized but hardly ever empathized. Yesterday’s report from the New York Daily News of former Ground Zero Mosque advocate Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf allegedly stealing funds has changed that perception forever, leaving me – and countless other Muslims – reeling with shock. A person viewed by many as the moderate face of Islam in America, so different from the radical Muslim clergy of the Middle East and South East Asia, the Imam was the last person I would have expected to be… like everyone else.