18 June 2008

Project Ijtihad – Islam and human rights belong together

(Humanisti/The Humanist 3/2007)

The subject of the Days of Humanism on November 17-18 2007 was the battle of outlooks. Actually the subject matters of different lectures involved many problems inherent in multiculturalism. In this article I take a closer look at the important goals of international Humanist movement, that is, global ethics and universal human rights, and mostly at the challenge that the conservative interpretation of the Islamist law poses to Western values. In the end of this article I show that contrary to beliefs of many Westerners, Islam and human rights are fully compatible.

Currently there’s more need for the humanist movement than ever. In Europe we’ve seen riots by the frustrated immigrant youths. Behind this rioting is disenfranchisement, unemployment and even urban decay among the immigrants.

Also in our neighboring country Sweden there has been quite difficult integration problems, mostly in Malmö. At the same time the riots benefit the rising far-right movements that get more leverage for their xenophobic agenda from the social problems. In many countries, nationalistic parties gain followers while more and more immigrants move to Europe from Islamist nations.

On the one hand I see the prevention of right-wing populism and racist activity as the most important goal of the humanist movement and on the other hand raising the socio-cultural problems of immigration into open discussion. Naturally the discussion must involve the mutual respect of the participants.

Fortunately this humane approach is inherent in the humanistic view on human condition and general outlook on life. We must leave racist and xenophobic statements out of our discussion, because they define themselves out of civil and rational dialogue at the very outset. The same is of course the case with the religious fundamentalism.

What are the causes behind the negative views of Islam?

During recent years we’ve seen numerous signs of the radicalization of Muslims in the media. Likewise, human rights violations are much too frequent in the countries where fundamentalist Islam is the law of the land. Seldom we can see everyday life of ordinary Muslims portrayed in the media and this is why the picture of Islam in the West is inevitably distorted.

In his lecture professor Juha Sihvola sharply criticized the views of Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t ignore Huntington, since some of his predictions about the clash of civilizations have proven to be correct.

Yet, in my opinion Sihvola was right in the fact that Huntington sees the cultures generally as too intractable, while they in fact are dynamic and fuzzy in their borders and in continuous interaction with each other. Of course, this enables cultural change and peaceful coexistence.

Professor Risto Kunelius in turn lectured about the background and after-echoes of Muhammad cartoons published in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, but my impression of his lecture was quite confused. To me he seemed to want constructive dialogue between cultures, but he didn’t say clearly whether we should give up in the face of Muslim fundamentalists’ and raving fanatics’ threats of physical violence. I myself have no qualms about taking the side of the freedom of speech.

As a matter of fact, the Muslim rioting that began because of the Muhammad cartoons showed that there is an abyss between cultures Huntington foresaw and that it indeed exists on many levels. Admittedly, the cartoons were quite tasteless, but nonetheless, they were only cartoons. The Western freedom of speech explicitly includes the freedom of press, but some representatives of Muslim nations and even more moderate Muslims don’t seem to understand this.

Moreover, Kunelius didn’t mention that the late Danish imam Abu Laban toured the Islamic world mongering cartoon hysteria and tendentiously had even included a couple of forgeries among the original cartoons that were actually fuzzy photographs not depicting a person mocking the Prophet at all.

In the September of 2006 Pope Benedictus XVI in turn made the mistake of citing an emperor who lived in the 14th century saying that prophet Muhammad brought evil and cruel things into the world; for instance, an order to spread the word about Islam with the help of a sword. After Pope’s speech he received death-threats, a 70-year old nun got shot in the back in Somalia and an Islamist group in Iraq threatened to commit a terrorist strike in Italy and Vatican. On top of this, a fundamentalist religious leader in Somalia openly urged to kill the pope.

Shortly after this there was a huge public scandal in Germany, because the Deutsche Oper of Berlin decided to cancel an opera where Jesus and Muhammad lose their heads in the end. The Opera had to give up the showing of Mozart’s Idemeneo only because the executive producer Kirsten Harms was afraid of insulting the Muslim population of Germany. After massive public criticism they withheld the decision, but they needed a police guard to make sure that the shows were secure.

Moreover, the leaders of theocratic Iran got angry to Denmark in October 2006, because TV2 of Denmark showed a program where some drunken members of the Danish nationalist party mocked prophet Muhammad in their summer banquet. Iran made an official complaint to Denmark and Finland (back then Finland was the chairman of the European Union). The Copenhagen embassy of Iran was sorry about the fact that the Danish government allowed the showing of a program that taunted Islam. In other words, Iran’s leaders seem to think that the Western media and the summer banquets of political organizations should be under the rule of Sharia. Despite the fact that the mockers were drunken nationalists from whom we can indeed expect this type a of childish behavior, Iran’s government got mad because they showed on TV how these members of the nationalist party publicly made clowns of themselves.

Quite recently the British teacher Gillian Gibbons living in Sudan was charged of mocking the religion and spreading hatred. This happened because she let her pupils call a teddy bear Muhammad. Gibbons was sentenced because of her so-called crime to 15 days in prison and was deported. The Sudanese people demonstrating on the streets nevertheless wanted her to be shot after this seemingly all too lenient sentence.

Here I’ve shown some reasons why more and more explicitly negative criticisms of Islam have been emerging in the West during the recent years. I think we can say that the pinnacle of these critiques is The End of Faith – Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. Harris sees Islam in a very negative light and his message is extremely pessimistic, even eschatological. But undeniably behind his criticism there are many justified grievances.

Hindrances to open discussion

Multiculturalism implies tolerating the ways of the others and the respect for their traditions and religion. No sign of this can we see among the so-called anti-immigrationists. Some of them are openly racist and especially tangible is their fear mongering about Islam. In the Internet you can find more or less questionable blogs, where these individuals spread their populist Islam-hatred and xenophobia through “rational” argumentation and with the help of “scientific facts”.

At their worst these views go to the extent of being pessimistic-romantic eschatology: they are indeed sort of end of the word visions, where “barbaric” Islam supposedly conquers Europe and destroys Western civilization and Christian values. To a large extent Sam Harris supports this kind of thinking and it is possible that his well-argued criticism of religion may turn against itself.

On the whole there is a danger that even criticizing Islamist fundamentalism may be identified as being against multiculturalism and freedom of religion. Harris has indeed been vehemently criticized as well as the biologist Richard Dawkins, due to his emphatically religion-critical book The God Delusion.

What is very important for the humanists is, on the one hand, to separate themselves from the xenophobia-mongering Internet right-wing populists, and on the other hand, to defend moderate liberals like Dawkins and Harris, who want to evoke open discussion and you can’t deny that they indeed have succeeded in doing so. For the humanists the pluralistic society must be more or less self-evident and at least I myself think that being against multiculturalism stands in stark contradiction to the humanistic outlook.

Moreover, in many cases provocation seems to act as an enticement to discussion and because of this we must congratulate both Dawkins and Harris. Of course I am not an impartial in saying this, since I’m an atheist myself and very critical towards religion. But nonetheless I fully understand why the polemical criticism of religion by Dawkins and Harris has enraged even moderate Christians and Muslims.

On the other hand, bending over backwards too much and using kid gloves may be an avenue for moral relativism to sneak in via cultural relativism. And as we know, moral relativism is self-contradictory. Integrating immigrants is crucial in respect to the question of Islam, but it is of course self-evident that we must not force anyone to relinquish their harmless traditions. The Tatar population of Finland is an excellent example of well-integrated immigrants.

Also the study recently done by the Secretary General Kristiina Kouros of the Finnish League for Human Rights on the views of Muslims living in Finland on family values and family law is a reason for optimism (http://www.ihmisoikeusliitto.fi/selvitys.pdf). According to Kouros “as a whole, the study shows that a peaceful, balanced and respectful family life is wished for. These values are shared by Muslims and the Finnish population in general, and may serve as a bridge between Finnish law and Islamic law.” But there are also conflicts between the traditional interpretation of Islamic law and Finnish legislation.

In her lecture at the Days of Humanism Kouros emphasized that “a significant amount of conflicts have to do with things that are not a duty of a Muslim, but instead are possible to do in the purview of Islamic law.” According to her, many Muslims consider it to be self-evident that they should follow the legislation of their country of residence, even if this would be in conflict with the Islamic law.

On the basis of this it is easy to begin an open and constructive dialogue. It is very important to understand that we can and we must discuss about these things. This is the bedrock of democracy and open society. When we respect the other participant and know how to listen, we will learn from each other and get wiser, while the light of understanding inevitably flashes in the dark hallway of prejudice.

Global ethics and the conservative interpretation of Islam

Global ethics the Humanist movement supports wouldn’t be possible without the notion of universal human rights. These are included in the United Nations declaration of human rights of 1948.

The same kind of universal principles are also written in the Fundamental Rights of European Union. For instance, article 10 of “Freedom of thought, conscience and religion” includes freedom of changing religion. But this article is at odds with the traditional interpretation of Sharia that holds that relinquishing Islam is forbidden and the punishment for not obeying is death. The same is true with the article 18 of the UN declaration of human rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Nevertheless I must emphasize that most of the world’s Muslims don’t want to literally obey Sharia and the interpretation of this law has for a long time been the monopoly of the scholars of Islam. Usually these scholars are more or less conservative, but of course fundamentalists and theocratic Islamist dictatorships support their views, or in other cases the scholars themselves wield political power. Though half of the Muslims Kristiina Kouros interviewed in her study held the Islamic law above the Finnish legislation in principle, most of those who answered the questions wanted rulings supported by the Finnish family legislation in relevant cases.

Nonetheless, the aforementioned fear of stigmatization shouldn’t make us revert from criticizing Sharia in the cases where it clearly violates international human rights agreements. The recent case in Saudi Arabia where a young woman was sentenced to 200 lashes and jail because of being raped is a blatant violation of human rights and a horrifying injustice to those used to Western jurisprudence. And yet we didn’t see too many critiques of this sentence in the Western media. It is also a well-known fact that in the conservative Islamic nations the situation for women, sexual minorities and atheists is very bad indeed.

We can and must break the taboos

You can call the fear of being labeled as a xenophobe or racist political correctness and we can see many examples of it among the academics, politicians and intelligentsia. Along with the stigmatization, these people are afraid of hurting the feelings of moderate Muslims and accusations of supporting the warring foreign policy of the USA. But one must not tolerate intolerance, for this would be the suicide of tolerance. I’ve been noticing that speaking about certain things is a taboo, even in our quite liberal society. In this respect tolerance has at least already shot herself in the foot.

Despite all this there are some brave thinkers who have managed to break through the walls of political correctness and raise the issue of the violation of human rights by the conservative interpretation of Islamic law into public discussion. But at the same time I must emphasize that all too often people use political incorrectness as an easy rhetorical way to gain the ever so glorious status of martyrdom and to automatically justify the outlook that goes against the mainstream view. So, we must be critical of this too. And sometimes political correctness is of course fully justifiable; sheer politeness and decent manners. But at its worst it can be a thought-shackling force – self-censorship – that hinders well-based criticism of clear violations of human rights. A person who is interested in human rights must seek her way between these two extremes all the time.

Along with Sam Harris especially the Somali-born liberal feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has literally put her life in jeopardy by tackling the human rights problems she encountered every day while working as an interpreter in the Netherlands. Hirsi Ali’s books The Caged Virgin and Infidel have raised a lot of discussion and in their wake the problems caused by the Muslim extremism and failure of the integration of Muslim immigrants inside Europe have been recognized.

Hirsi Ali has received death threats from Muslim fundamentalists and often her sayings have made also the moderate Muslims angry. For instance, Hirsi Ali has called Islam “a cult of death” and this is undeniably a provocation par excellence. You can indeed ask, is this kind of all-too-pointed presentation more harmful than useful? In my opinion Hirsi Ali’s works and thoughts are very important, but on the other hand I would wish her to be more prudent in expressing things, since the far-right basically loves it when a black intellectual shoots canards like this out of her mouth.

But then again, because the Western intelligentsia and politicians are afraid of openly discussing the problems inherent in the traditional interpretations of Islam and quotidian practices lest the feelings of moderate Muslims get hurt, the far-right organizations and nationalist xenophobia gain popularity. Thus it is evident that political correctness benefits both the far-right and Muslim fundamentalism at the same time. Hirsi Ali doesn’t represent either, but her poignant opinions may indeed every now and then act as an ammunition to help those who are against immigration and even to help Islamists to achieve their goals.

On the whole we can say that in the West and among those who have relinquished Islam the problems are too often seen caused by Islam. However, this is not necessarily true. In the aforementioned study Kristiina Kouros writes (p. 93):

“The fact that the low status of women in the Muslim countries and Muslim culture is simplistically connected to Islam as a religion in the Western rhetoric is not well-based at all from the point of view of the most important Islamic legalistic source, the Koran. Secondly, in my opinion, this doesn’t in any way help the progress of women’s rights. Riffat Hassan has said that there are three things that make an average Muslim woman in the world: she is poor, illiterate and lives in the countryside. If a defender of human rights wants to ‘liberate’ this Muslim woman, she can’t do it by telling her about the UN declaration of human rights, because this doesn’t mean anything to this woman. But if she is told about the justness and mercy of Allah, and of the possibilities that her own religious frame of reference contains, hope shall light in her eyes. And at the same time these are the things secured by the international human rights, as Abdullahi An-Na’im has pointed out.”

Kouros goes on by saying that “we can enhance the status of Muslim women both in Muslim countries and in Finland without denying the religion of Islam. By bringing to the fore the rules and instructions included in the Koran that emphasize the equality between the sexes we can erode the foundations and justification of the traditions that violate the women’s rights.”

I fully agree with this statement. It is of utmost importance that the rules that support equality and human rights included in Islam substitute the patriarchal traditions that currently hold sway in Islam. Of course we can’t just come from the West and say that the Muslims must relinquish their faith. Instead, we can support the more peaceful interpretations of Islam and help in giving them publicity in the West. In the modern world knowledge will spread around the world. We must break the taboos first – only then can we make the world a better place. If we try to make an imaginary world a better place, nothing in reality shall change.

Taking the bull by the horns

Project Ijtihad
, launched by the Canadian intellectual Irshad Manji, doesn’t strive for nothing less than a radical reform in Islam. Manji is a Muslim, but nevertheless openly lesbian. The conservative interpretation of Islam doesn’t accept homosexuality but this doesn’t seem to bother Manji.

Manji is a polemical human rights activist and Ayaan Hirsi Ali is her friend. I would like to compare Manji to the late Russian Anna Politkovskaya. The aforementioned has the courage and bravado of taking a stand against the mighty Islamist patriarchy, just like Politkovskaya, before her cruel murder, stormed the barricades in defense of the Chechen minority oppressed by gigantic Russia. Well, Manji is so straightforward in her criticism of the conservative interpretation of Islam that she often hurts the feelings of her moderate Muslim sisters and brothers too.

Project Ijtihad is a very important Islamic reform movement also because they are willing to take atheists and freethinkers into their ranks and indeed actively seek to work with them. Ijtihad is the old Islamist tradition of independent thinking, so in this respect this tolerance is very understandable indeed.

Executive Assistant to Irshad Manji and Coordinator of Project Ijtihad, Raquel Evita Saraswati, who like Manji is openly liberal and lesbian, tells that they don't identify themselves as moderate Muslims. According to Saraswati, they instead hold themselves as reform-minded Muslims. She emphasizes that moderate Muslims do denounce terror to be sure, but often refuse to acknowledge that religion plays any role; and refuse to call out members of their own community for the violence committed under the banner of Islam. In this respect, they are part of the problem.

According to Saraswati, many, not all, moderates would rather brush the ills facing their faith under the Persian rug, so to speak, rather than raise their voices against them. Moderate Muslims are often so busy chanting "Islam means peace" that they forget that they must also own up to the things about their faith and their faithful that are not so peaceful.

Project Ijtihad is an indication of the fact that Islam already has the raw material to be reasonable, humane and just. But at the same time Saraswati points out that silence is an accomplice to injustice. We must discuss openly and bravely even about those things that might make us feel uncomfortable.

Manji’s executive assistant emphasizes that they refuse to be silent and allow those with malignant intentions to have their way with Islam. Here she in effect repeats the thought of Kristiina Kouros I cited earlier, according to which we can enhance the status of Muslim women both in Muslim countries and in Finland without denying the religion of Islam. After both Saraswati and Kouros the fault is not in Islam but in the conservative, patriarchal interpretation. So now we must ask ourselves, how precisely this interpretation came to be the conventional wisdom in Islam?

What is ijtihad?

Ijtihad is Islam’s lost tradition of independent thinking that emphasizes the right of a believer to interpret the faith freely. In the early centuries of Islam, thanks to the spirit of ijtihad, 135 schools of thought thrived. Inspired by ijtihad, Muslims gave the world inventions from the astrolabe to the university. So much of we consider "western" pop culture came from Muslims: the guitar, mocha coffee, even the ultra-Spanish expression "Ole!" ‘Ole’ has its root in the Arabic word for God, ‘Allah’.

Toward the end of the 11th century, the "gates of ijtihad" were closed for entirely political reasons. During this time, the Muslim empire from Iraq in the east to Spain in the west was going through a series of internal upheavals. Dissident denominations were popping up and declaring their own runaway governments, which posed a threat to the main Muslim leader -- the caliph. Based in Baghdad, the caliph cracked down and closed ranks.

The 135 afore-mentioned schools of thought were deliberately reduced to four pretty conservative schools of thought. This led to a rigid reading of the Koran as well as to a series of legal opinions – fatwas – that scholars could no longer overturn or even question, but could now only imitate.

To this very day, imitation of medieval norms has trumped innovation in Islam. Project Ijtihad aspires to revive ijtihad to update Islam for the 21st century.

Project Ijtihad is a charitable initiative to promote the spirit of Ijtihad, Islam’s own tradition of critical thinking, debate and dissent. They support a positive vision of Islam that embraces diversity of choices, expression and spirituality.

What is important as far as the Western Humanist and freethinker movements and human rights acticvists are concerned is the fact that to achieve their goals, Project Ijtihad will build the world’s most inclusive network of reform-minded Muslims and non-Muslim allies.

One especially positive aspect of Project Ijtihad is their activity in sparking taboo busting debates both online and in person. Naturally, the issues relevant to Islam are in a central role in this debate.

Reinterpreting islam for the 21st century

Ph.D. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah mentions in his article ”Innovation and Creativity in Islam” (Nawawi Foundation 2006; http://www.nawawi.org/downloads/article4.pdf) that ijtihad is an Islamic duty of the first magnitude. Along with this he emphasizes that ijtihad implies knowledge about Islam, but this doesn’t mean that practicing ijtihad should be limited to scholars. Instead, the rules of ijtihad require the lay community to pass judgment of each scholar’s aptitude. According to Abd-Allah, ijtihad is by nature empowering, forward-looking and creative. He points out that ijtihad is inherently creative and optimistic.

Correspondingly, in a special report by the United States Institute of Peace, the expert on Islamic law and interpretation, professor Ingrid Mattson emphasizes that mere narrow legalistic vision of ijtihad is much too repressing and one-sided. Along with it we must encourage comedians, poets, and musicians to come forward to articulate new views of reality. Mattson wants arguments and discussion about the limits that should be imposed on these new visions (http://www.usip.org/pubs/specialreports/sr125.html).

Moreover, the report says that many Muslims believe that they must choose between Islam and modernity or between Islam and democracy. But the practice of ijtihad, interpretation and reasoning based on the sacred texts, enables to combine things that previously were thought to be incompatible. This new interpretation indeed is necessary.

New interpretations of the old texts are particularly important in relation to the status of women, relations between Sunnis and Shiites, and relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. New interpretations are also needed in relation to the role of Muslims in non-Muslim societies and Islamic economic theories.

The report makes it clear that at the moment restrictions on the contemporary practice of ijtihad are imposed both by religious establishments and by repressive governments in certain Muslim countries. However, democracy and freedom of inquiry and expression are essential to the practice of ijtihad and to the successful reconciliation of Islam and modernity. Likewise a reform of Muslim educational systems is essential to implement ijtihad.

Muslim scholars and leaders in the Western societies are in a key role, since they have the freedom to think creatively while still being faithful to the texts, and their new interpretations could stimulate new thinking among the more traditional religious establishments in Muslim countries.

Islamic law and universal human rights

Raquel Evita Saraswati says that ijtihad is not literally or clearly written in the Koran. The command to think, reflect and analyze, however, appears three times as frequently as anything saying what is absolutely right or wrong. According to Saraswati, this indeed serves as quite the command to ijtihad. Like Kristiina Kouros pointed out, “by bringing to the fore the rules and instructions included in the Koran that emphasize the equality between the sexes we can erode the foundations and justification of the traditions that violate the women’s rights.” This is just what ijtihad means.

In the March 2007 Manji and Saraswati published the following statement: "Practicing Muslims are an integral and valuable part of the global community, as well as essential to any movement for secular, faith-respecting states that work toward universal human rights. We acknowledge the peaceful observance of Islam to be a legitimate choice for many. We stand by those who embrace an Islam that defends critical thinking, empathy, justice, and non-violence. They are our allies, and we are theirs."

In Project Ijtihad, global ethics and universal human rights have gained a valuable supporter. The international humanist movement and human rights activists probably agree with Kristiina Kouros that it is fully possible to reconcile Islamic law and human rights without relinquishing the faith in Islam. As a matter of fact, also here Kouros expresses the core idea of ijtihad. What’s best in ijtihad is the fact that none of the views mentioned above are at odds with the Fundamental Rights of European Union or the UN declaration of human rights – quite the opposite.

So, open discussion has begun and it is probable that gradually it will lead to mutual understanding, wisdom and peaceful co-existence of different cultures and religions. It is important to recognize the problems and painful spots and, on the basis of this, to harness both the far-right and Muslim extremism. We must also repeatedly emphasize that American Christian fundamentalism is patently as grave a problem as Muslim fundamentalism.

On our journey toward the more just world we, perhaps, more than anything else, need fighting humanism the famous Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright used to demand. So let us hope that ultimately the pen truly is mightier than the sword.

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