This is a guest post written by Muhammad Syed and Sarah Haider (below). They are co-founders of Ex-Muslims of North America, a community-building organization for ex-Muslims across the non-theist spectrum, and can be reached at @MoTheAtheist and @SarahTheHaider.
This past week, a clip of Reza Aslan responding to comedian Bill Maher’s comments about Islamic violence and misogyny went viral.
Maher stated (among other things) that “if vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe, and they do, that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea or drawing a cartoon or writing a book or eloping with the wrong person, not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS.” Maher implied a connection between FGM and violence against women with the Islamic faith, to which the charming Aslan seems to be providing a nuanced counterbalance, calling Maher “unsophisticated” and his arguments “facile.” His comments were lauded by many media outlets, including Salon and the Huffington Post.
Although we have become accustomed to the agenda-driven narrative from Aslan, we were blown away by how his undeniably appealing but patently misleading arguments were cheered on by many, with the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple going so far as to advise show producers not to put a show-host against Aslan “unless your people are schooled in religion, politics and geopolitics of the Muslim world.”
Only those who themselves aren’t very “schooled” in Islam and Muslim affairs would imply that Aslan does anything but misinform by cherry-picking and distorting facts.
Nearly everything Aslan stated during his segment was either wrong, or technically-correct-but-actually-wrong. We will explain by going through each of his statements in the hopes that Aslan was just misinformed (although it’s hard for us to imagine that a “scholar” such as Aslan wouldn’t be aware of all this).
Aslan contends that while some Muslim countries have problems with violence and women’s rights, in others like “Indonesia, women are absolutely 100 percent equal to men” and it is therefore incorrect to imply that such issues are a problem with Islam and “facile” to imply that women are “somehow mistreated in the Muslim world.”
Let us be clear here: No one in their right mind would claim that Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh are a “free and open society for women.” Happily, a few of them have enshrined laws that have done much to bring about some progress in equality between the sexes. But this progress is hindered or even eroded by the creeping strength of the notoriously anti-woman Sharia courts.
- Indonesia has increasingly become more conservative. (Notoriously anti-women) Sharia courts that were “optional” have risen to equal status with regular courts in family matters. The conservative Aceh province even legislates criminal matters via Sharia courts, which has been said to violate fundamental human rights.
- Malaysia has a dual-system of law which mandates sharia law for Muslims. These allow men to have multiple wives (polygyny) and discriminate against women in inheritance (as mandated by Islamic scripture). It also prohibits wives from disobeying the “lawful orders” of their husbands.
- Bangladesh, which according to feminist Tahmima Anam made real advancements towards equality in its inception, also “created a barrier to women’s advancement.” This barrier? An article in the otherwise progressive constitution which states that “women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the state and of the public life” but in the realm of private affairs (marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody), “it acknowledges Islam as the state religion and effectively enshrines the application of Islamic law in family affairs. The Constitution thus does nothing to enforce equality in private life.”
And finally we come to Turkey, a country oft-cited by apologists due to its relative stability, liberalism, and gender equality. What they consistently choose to ignore is that historically, Turkey was militantly secular. We mean this literally: The country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, created a secular state and pushed Islam out of the public sphere (outlawing polygamy, child marriages, and giving divorce rights to women) through (at times, military) force. He even banned the headscarf in various public sectors and is believed by some to have been an atheist.
Only apologists would ignore the circumstances that led to Turkey’s incredible progress and success relative to the Muslim world, and hold it up as an example of “Islamic” advancement of women’s rights. In fact, child marriages (which continue to be widespread in rural Turkey), are often hidden due to the practice of “religious” marriages (Nikah) being performed without informing secular authorities. Turkey was recently forced to pass a law banning religious marriages with penalties imposed on imams for violations.
Aslan’s claim that Muslim countries “have elected seven women as their heads of state” is an example of “technically true, actually false” — a tactic we have often noted among religious apologists.
It is true that there have been seven female heads of state in Muslim-majority countries, but a closer inspection would reveal this has little to do with female empowerment and often has much more to do with the political power of certain families in under-developed parts of the world.
It is well-known that Benazir Bhutto, a woman, was democratically elected in Pakistan. What is not as well-known is that her advancement had much to do with her family’s power in her party (Pakistan People’s Party) and little to do with female empowerment. Her father was once Prime Minister of Pakistan, and she was elected to the position fresh from her exile in the West with little political experience of her own. After her assassination, her nineteen year old son assumed leadership of her political party — as was expected by many familiar with the power their family continued to hold.
Similarly, Sheikh Hasina (the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh) is the daughter of the founding father of the country, Sheikh Mujibur-Rehman. Khaleda Zia, the predecessor of Sheikh Hasina, assumed power over her party after the assassination of her husband — the seventh President of Bangladesh.
In addition, Megawati Sukarnopotri, former President of Indonesia, was the daughter of Sukarno, the founding father of Indonesia.
To anyone familiar with women’s rights around the world, neither Pakistan, Bangladesh, nor Indonesia can be considered states with a stellar track record. It is likely that in these cases, the power of political dynasties was the key factor in their success.
Furthermore, female heads of state were elected democratically in Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, and Kosovo. But, as before, a closer inspection reveals a complicated reality. All three states are secular, where religion was forcibly uprooted from the government — due to Atatürk (in the case of Turkey) or Communism (in the cases of Kyrgyzstan and Kosovo).
Predictably, Aslan fails to mention any of this.
Finally, we get to Aslan’s claim that it is “actually, empirically, factually incorrect” that female genital mutilation (FGM) is a “Muslim-country problem.” Rather, he believes it is a “central African problem.” He continues to state that “nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.”
This is an absolutely ridiculous claim.
The idea that FGM is concentrated solely in Africa is a huge misconception and bandied about by apologists with citations of an Africa-focused UNICEF report which showed high rates of FGM in African countries. Apologists have taken that to mean that it is *only* Africa that has an FGM problem — even though FGM rates have not been studied in most of the Middle East or South and East Asia. Is it an academically sound practice to take a lack of study as proof of the non-existence of the practice? Especially when there is record of FGM common in Asian countries like Indonesia (study) and Malaysia? It is also present in the Bohra Muslim community in India and Pakistan, as well as in the Kurdish community in Iraq — Are they to be discounted as “African problems” as well?
We do not yet have the large scale data to confirm the rates of FGM around the world, but we can safely assume that it is quite a bit more than just an “African problem.” It is very likely that FGM *did* originate in the Middle East or North Africa, but its extensive prevalence in Muslim-majority countries should give us pause. We are not attempting to paint FGM as only an Islamic problem but rather that Islam does bear some responsibility for its spread beyond the Middle East-North Africa region and for its modern prevalence.
So is there any credence to the claim that Islam supports FGM? In fact, there is. To name two, the major collections of the Hadith Sahih Muslim 3:684 and Abu Dawud 41:5251 support the practice. Of the four major schools of thought in Sunni Islam, two mandate FGM while two merely recommend it. Unsurprisingly, in the Muslim-majority countries dominated by the schools which mandate the practice, there is evidence of widespread female circumcision. Of particular note: None of the major schools condemn the practice.
This isn’t the first time Reza has stated half-truths in defense of his agenda. In his book No God But God, he misleads readers about many issues including the age of Muhammad’s child-bride Aisha. Scripture unanimously cites Aisha’s betrothal at age 6 or 7 and consummation at 9. Similarly, he quotes Mariya the Copt as being a wife of the prophet when overwhelming evidence points to her being Muhammad’s concubine.
We believe that Islam badly needs to be reformed, and it is only Muslims who can truly make it into a modern religion. But it is the likes of Reza Aslan who act as a deterrent to change by refusing to acknowledge real complications within the scripture and by actively promoting half-truths. Bigotry against Muslims is a real and pressing problem, but one can criticize the Islamic ideology without treating Muslims as themselves problematic or incapable of reform.
There are true Muslim reformists who are willing to call a spade a spade while working for the true betterment of their peoples — but their voices are drowned out by the noise of apologists who are all-too-often aided by the Western left. Those who accept distortions in order to hold on to a comforting dream-world where Islamic fundamentalism is merely an aberration are harming reform by encouraging apologists.