Unpacking the “culture” argument

Unpacking the “culture” argument November 10, 2008

I wrote a few weeks ago about the effect of a fictional white character’s Muslim identity on possible constructions and understandings of Islam and Muslim; this week I want to look at a couple non-fictional women in similar positions.

On Open Salon, a network of bloggers, this weekend’s top story was written by Sara O’Connell, an American woman of Irish descent who has been Muslim all her life. (In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not going to engage with her discussion of hijab. I mean that. Yeah, there are things to say about it, but we’ve got enough hijab conversations happening here, and I really don’t want to hear about it in the context of this post. We’ve got other stuff to talk about here.) O’Connell brings up several points related to her Muslim-American identity; among them, she talks about how her own experiences have taught her that, contrary to popular media discourses, gender-based oppression is not inherent to Islam. She claims that “Often times culture and religion is mixed up and some people often assume that backwards customs of a culture are part of a religion, when in fact they are not.”

Following that, O’Connell talks about the history of women being respected and given rights within Islam, starting with the time of the Prophet. She then asks:

“What happened along the way you ask? Culture. In general, Arab and South Asian men have a very dominating outlook when it comes to women and can be very proud and controlling. So when people here hear these stories of honor killings and the abuse of women they assume that it is something from the religion. But it is not, it is all cultural.”

In another article, focusing on a Muslim women’s conference in Pittsburgh, journalist Diana Nelson Jones interviews Karen Traugh, an American (of unspecified ethnic background) who embraced Islam. Jones tells us a similar story:

“She said Muslims in America can find their Islamic core when they are not bound by the conscriptive culture of their homeland.
“When you come to America, you can really examine why it is you wear what you wear,” said Ms. Traugh. In Jordan, the almost-universal look of religious dress is robes buttoned up the front.
“It doesn’t vary much,” she said, and it’s an example of how cultural customs can become as important as or override pure worship.”

Of course, it’s nice to see people emphasis every so often that oppression and dogmatism aren’t inherent to Islam. But what is the cost of this? In cases such as those quoted above, Islam is let off the hook, but in its place, non-Western cultures (particularly Arab and South Asian ones, as in O’Connell’s quote), are identified as the sources of rigidity and backwardness. (I’ve talked about this a bit before, in the comments section of this post.)

There are a number of reasons why this makes me squirm. First, and most obviously, it perpetuates racism against Arab and South Asian communities, justifying such racism because of their supposed inherent sexism. As usual, any alternate, non-oppressive stories from those communities are silenced, as are forms of resistance coming from those communities, as well as any external forces (such as economic issues, war, etc.) that may be exacerbating gender-based oppression and religious dogmatism. Non-Western cultures are painted as unchanging and firmly rooted in the past, incapable of “progressing” the way that Western cultures apparently do, and therefore never worthy of being examined on the same level as European-influenced cultures.

When such judgment comes from within the Muslim community, it comes across as having added validity, due to the inside status of the speaker. Moreover, this is further emphasised when the message is “No, Islam isn’t oppressive; the REAL sources of oppression come from culture” – in other words, the “truth” of the statement is reinforced through its opposition to other messages that people may have heard. Intentionally or not, racial and cultural hierarchies are reproduced among Muslims in a very disturbing way.

I’m also not comfortable with what this says about white/Western cultures. In this dichotomy, the West is imagined as culture-free, a place where people can let go of the constraints of their home countries in favour of an ostensibly “pure” Islam that can only be found through a disavowal of centuries of traditions (many of which have likely served to preserve Islamic beliefs and practices in many parts of the world.) Westerners (particularly white ones) who enter Islam are assumed to come in with no baggage at all. While it is true that people who become Muslim after having been raised in non-Muslim cultures don’t necessarily bring religiously-sanctioned forms of oppression into it with them, it’s a little simplistic to assume that their Islam will remain untainted by their cultural background.

In addition, white Western cultures are, of course, assumed to be somehow free of ingrained patriarchal tendencies. Oppression and violence against women are seen as individual aberrations rather than culturally located, despite the prevalence of domestic violence and other forms of sexism that are found across Western societies. Other forms of oppression that are also endemic in these societies (racism, economic oppression, and so on) are also never taken up, and certainly never addressed as culturally-derived systems. Whiteness and Western identities are reinforced as superior and above the problems that are found in cultures deemed foreign, rigid and violent. In reality, religious dogmatism and religious justifications for gender-based discrimination and oppression can be found in every culture on this planet (or at least, the vast majority. Let me know if you find any exceptions.) None of us should be assuming that our background or our geographic location makes us immune to these forces.

I am sure that neither of the women quoted here had any intention of feeding into systems of racism and white supremacy, but I do think that those of us who identify both as Muslim and as white have a responsibility to recognise the ways that our voices may be interpreted when speaking for the community. In a social context that privileges white voices, is easy to become positioned (or to position ourselves) as “experts” on Islam, or at least as people qualified to speak about Islam and Muslims, and we need to be accountable for what we say. Hierarchies based on racial identity don’t simply vanish because of our religion. Defending Islam against false accusations is crucial; however, it is also essential to ensure that such defences don’t create or reinforce other cultural stereotypes.

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