Sometimes It Really is About Islam

This was written in response to Ramzy Baroud’s CounterPunch article ‘It’s not about Islam; it never was. ’(January 14, 2015).

First of all, I feel very uncomfortable about extracting some verses from the Qur’an, as Baroud does, and then leaving out others as we corroborate our convictions. Baroud writes that “gender equality in Islam has been enshrined in the language of the Qur’an.” Do we want to cite the many verses in the Qur’an where the language does not make women feel equal? The Malaysian media is full of stories about women who are made to feel unequal by the Islamic courts when their husbands get another wife, or when they lose custody of their children, or, in the case of inheritance, when faced by this kind of qur’anic language: “As regards your children’s inheritance: to the male, a portion equal to that of two females”; or “those of you who die and leave widows should bequeath for their widows a year’s maintenance and residence; but if they leave the residence there is no blame on you for what they do with themselves, provided it is reasonable.”

Many Muslims, including women, will say “Ah, but in such cases it is the laws that are not implemented properly. Islam is a perfect religion, it is Muslims who practice it imperfectly.”  They will say that the meaning of the Qur’an is a question of interpretation. They will ascribe to Western methodologies of relativism and historicism and tell you that everything has to be understood in its particular context. Fine, but the point is that they are showing that Muslims are already reading the Qur’an as they like. They are already performing a kind of selective interpretation, taking what they like and ignoring what they don’t. What is it, then, that leads some Muslim authorities not to apply perfectly the religion they claim is perfect? What is it that makes some interpretations carry more weight than others? Surely not all Muslim unhappiness or anger can be blamed on the United States’ invasion of Iraq, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and Dutch imperialism in Indonesia. If many Muslims are unhappy and angry in their own Muslim countries, we have to consider that maybe Islam, sometimes, has something to do with it.

Muslim Responsibility

True, there are some criminals who happen to be Muslims. There are many Muslims in American prisons, for instance, who are Muslim. And the world does not demonise Islam because of them.

However, when one shouts “Allahuakbar!” before the kill and when profiles of killers read like “The brothers had allegedly attended a mosque near the Buttes-Chaumont, an area of northern Paris, where they came under the influence of a radical imam called Farid Benyettou. He reportedly encouraged them to study Islam at his home and at a Muslim centre in their area” (from the BBC report, ‘CharlieHebdo attacks: Suspects’ profiles, 12 January 2015) how can one expect anybody—Muslims and non-Muslimsalike—not to make “Muslims and Islam relevant to the media debate?”

If one argues that “Islam is not just a religion, it is a way of life” as Baroud does, then Muslims certainly have to be interested in what that way of life produces, all the good and all the bad. Muslim terrorists don’t just materialise out of nothing. They come from a Muslim way of life. They may also come from a Western way of life, but many of them still, nevertheless, claim to have been raised as Muslim.

In 1950, a colonial court in Singapore decided that Maria Hertogh, a thirteen-year-old Dutch girl who was raised as Muslim by a Malay woman, should be returned to her biological Dutch Catholic parents. There are many details in this story that would provide fuel for an Islamophobe. But really, there are things Muslims should deplore, too. For instance, during the trial, thirteen-year-old Maria contracted a marriage with a Malay schoolteacher, a move that was seen by many as an attempt to keep Maria from being returned to her parents. Official accounts often say that press pictures showing Muslim Maria kneeling before the Virgin Mary offended the Malays, leading to riots that left eighteen dead and almost two hundred injured.  But people don’t just go on a rampage, just like that, after seeing pictures. They usually have a leader, goading them on, telling them what to do, as was the case with the Maria Hertogh riots. It is interesting, though, that there was no counter leader who was strong enough to mobilise Muslims to demonstrate against Maria’s marriage and to support her return to her biological parents. After all, Muslims know that the Qur’an says that God has “not made your adopted sons your sons.”

On January12, 2015, Malaysian human rights lawyer, Eric Paulsen, was arrested by twenty Malaysian policeman, yes twenty, for tweeting that some Friday mosque sermons promote extremism, and that the government needs to address this if they are serious about fighting extremism. Until we have a vast body of literature about what Muslims are being told in sermons, about what they are saying to each other, about what is going on in Muslim families and, as far as history is concerned, detailed accounts about slavery, invasion, conquest and so on that go beyond the so-called Andalusian golden age,  I would not be in a position to speak of “acts that victimised millions of Muslim people”. I cannot assume notions of Muslim solidarity and shared “collective feelings of humiliation, hurt, pain and racism that extend to every corner of the globe” that Baroud is talking about.  Yes, it is known that some Malaysian Muslims ‘under the influence’ are going to Syria to join ISIS to fight Assad. But I do not believe that Indonesian, Syrian, Saudi Arabian, Malaysian, Palestinian, Algerian, Pakistani, Somali, Turk,Iranian, Egyptian, European Muslims and so on have the same concerns and are struggling with the same problems. And it could be dangerous to make them feel that they do, to mobilise them towards a ‘common enemy’.

The reason why today nobody blames Christianity or why Europeans are not held accountable as Christians for all the horrible things they do in the world is that few see Europeans as following a Christian way of life. Europeans are not claiming, en masse, to follow a Christian way of life even though many may, de facto, do so. What good is it to harp on the point that violence is also linked to Christianity, that Bush felt he was on a Christian mission when he invaded Iraq? Why are Muslims measuring themselves—or even worse consoling themselves—against the worst standards of the West?

The main reason why Muslims should care about what Europeans think of them is to safeguard against being attacked, beaten and killed, the same reasons why Europeans should care about what Muslims think of them. But beyond that, as an intellectual question, if Muslims are still so captive to what the West thinks of them, how can they transform the Western prejudice they are so sensitive to into something creative and not destructive? Shouldn’t  Muslims be looking at their own history, cultures and states, and criticise themselves, to each other, just as much as, or more than, the West is criticising them? Shouldn’t there already be a massive body of such critical literature that centuries of Islamic history and culture has produced?

To say ‘It’s not about Islam’ is really to shift responsibility. It is to put the blame on the other. It is to make the perceived source of one’s problems also the solution to the problem, thus entrusting power to the source. It is not knowing how to find creative solutions also within Islam which should not depend on the end of “western interventionism” in the Middle East, though that end, of course, is desired. It is to show that mental slavery has not totally ended in Islam.

Masturah Alatas is a lecturer at the University of Macerata in Italy. Her writing often focuses on Italian connections to Singapore and Malaysia, the countries of her childhood.

Masturah Alatas is the author of The Life in the Writing (Marshall Cavendish, 2010) and The Girl Who Made It Snow in Singapore (Ethos Books, 2008). She is currently working on a novel about polygamy. Masturah teaches English at the University of Macerata in Italy, and can be contacted at: