Saturday, March 12, 2016

Power and prejudice

This article was first published on Aquila Style on 20 Mar 2014.

When influential Muslims deride others, they shouldn’t be immune to criticism, says Sya Taha.
Image: Photl
Recently, two incidents unfolded on social media in startlingly similar ways.

Late last month, a Muslim male professor from a prestigious university in Singapore described, on his personal Facebook page, homosexuals as “cancers” and “diseases” who should be stopped “in their tracks”.

Earlier this month, a shaykh-titled instructor from a well-known American-based Islamic institute made a series of Facebook jokes that derided women and black people.

Both these men are respected for their academic and religious authority. Yet both were speaking in a derogatory manner about groups that have been historically marginalised in different ways. Sadly, they also stand by what they said as being in the name of Islam.

One of the ways in which scholars like these continually get away with thinking, saying and promoting such beliefs is by seeking immunity behind their religious credentials. Another is by continually bringing up the importance of “making 70 excuses”[i] when someone calls them out on their offensive speech.

But to what extent should we give such figures the benefit of the doubt? Certainly not when they are promoting harm or abuse of other people. I believe that with leadership comes responsibility – being in position of power means needing to be accountable for one’s actions as well.

When we say sexist and racist things, we fail to accord dignity to people

In the aftermath of these two incidents, it became clear what strategy was usually used to silence their critics: Questioning the latter’s knowledge or adab (manners). In other words, you shouldn’t say negative things about other people if you yourself have flaws. If we were to follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion, no one would ever say anything in situations of injustice. In fact, it doesn’t even really matter how credible or knowledgeable the critic should be, because pointing to someone’s adab is just a way to erase dissent.

These two scholars insist on defending (their version of) “Islam” and how Muslims should be. As a general rule, when someone starts a sentence with “In Islam…”, I run far, far away. More often than not, that someone is talking about mainstream Sunni Islam. I was raised with Sunni teachings and believe they’re perfectly valid, as many people choose to find spiritual peace through it. I just don’t believe that there is one monolith called Islam; instead, I see it as a multiplicity of doctrines and practices.

As an example of what “Islam” should be, the professor believes that Muslims cannot be a homosexual because it is forbidden in the Qur’an. But one cannot deny that homosexual Muslims exist. The shaykh, on the other hand, believes that men and women are not equal and could probably quote a series of interpretations of Qur’anic verses to back this argument. Equally, one cannot deny that there are many egalitarian-minded Muslims who are against gender-based discrimination and violence (with their own Qur’anic interpretations).

Issues like hijab, alcohol and pork consumption, and sexual orientation often become defining markers of “Muslim-ness” more so than other issues like corruption, injustice, or pollution. It’s easy to get caught up in definitions and token discussion points of Islam and lose sight of the bigger picture.

The bigger picture is that people who identify as Muslims should be regarded as such. That every human being should be accorded respect and dignity because we don’t have the right to label one person as being higher than another. That when we say sexist and racist things, we fail to accord dignity to people. That when people in power say sexist and racist things, not only do they not model respect, but they also pave the way for others to perpetuate and justify micro-aggressions and outright violence towards certain groups.

We need to work together towards social justice because we all need each other, women and men, rich and poor, black and white. Let’s not be afraid to call out unjust speech and behaviour, especially when it comes from those who need to remain accountable, remembering that Allah (swt) is the ultimate Judge.

[i] A quote from Hamdun al-Qassar, who lived in the 9th century. Imam Bayhaqi reported that he said, “If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for him. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves.”

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