The Forgotten Queens of Islam
by Fatima Mernissi
University of Minnesota Press, 229 pages, $20
Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy
by Fawaz A. Gerges
Harcourt, 320 pages, $25
The Trouble With Islam Today: A Wake-up Call for Honesty and Change
by Irshad Manji
St. Martin’s, 240 pages, $12.95
Islam Our Choice: Portraits of Modern American Muslim Women
edited by Debra L. Dirks and Stephanie Parlove
Amana, 304 pages, $14.95
If the battle for the soul of Islam ends up being won by the moderates, the victory will in no small measure have been secured by women. The books that Muslim women publish, the films they narrate, and the organizations they run put them in the crosshairs of the jihadists bent on imposing their misogynistic version of Islam on everyone else. Wafa Sultan, a Syrian American psychiatrist living in the United States, is only the latest heroine to come to the attention of Americans, winning accolades for her brave defense of the dignity of women in a near-shouting match with a radical Islamist cleric that was broadcast on Al Jazeera television earlier this year.
The noted Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi has been challenging the fundamentalist version of Islam for decades. The Forgotten Queens of Islam , her historical investigation first published in 1993, came out in a new edition in 2003. Mernissi claims that the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings brought to the world a spiritual democracy: It contrasted starkly with the caste system of the Hindus, and it granted explicit rights of religious worship to women. The male religious establishment of succeeding centuries stripped these elements away, she writes, and effaced many”but not all”traces of the politically powerful women who held sway in sultanates and kingdoms of the Muslim world. She recovers these accounts, and also examines the hadiths , or sayings of Muhammad, that assign women a status inferior to that of men. She concludes that some were likely invented after the prophet’s death and falsely attributed to him.
Islamists revile such reinterpretation of religious doctrine and history”in fact, they forbid any and all interpretation of the words of God’s messenger. Qur’anic law must be made the law of the land without amendment”that is what Fawaz A. Gerges’ interviewees told him during his sojourn to Cairo to research Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy . The Middle East Studies professor at Sarah Lawrence College, a native of Lebanon, has since September 11 offered media commentary that draws fine distinctions between homegrown religious radicals in Iraq and the violent men whom Al Qaeda dispatches to that country or to other flashpoints around the globe. Some of the intra-Islamist trends and crosscurrents he has identified have had implications for how the United States and its allies can fight the war on terror; others, however, seem to be distinctions without a difference, at least as far as winning that struggle is concerned.
Journey of the Jihadist is centered on recent encounters with Egyptian radicals, most prominently an ideologue named Kamal el-Said Habib. The distinction drawn in the book is between Kamal el-Said Habib as a young holy warrior in the 1970s and Habib now, a veteran of many years of imprisonment in an Egyptian jail. Kamal (as the author familiarly calls him) was part of a movement to Islamicize society by force: He helped plan the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. His ten years of being tortured in prison, however, drained the violence out of him, and he expressed himself chastened by the failure of the jihadist attempt to seize power. He told Gerges of his desire to Islamicize society through political persuasion and religious calling instead of through violent revolution.
On the other hand, Gerges reports, at least two things had not changed about Habib and his associates. One was their powerful longing to make Islam supreme. The other was their view of the role of women in society. The author pressed Habib and the others on the question of why activists seemed so terrified by female empowerment. One man, an attorney, simply told me to shut up, writes Gerges.
He observes that many more women nowadays appear in public veiled in places like Beirut, Damascus, and Algiers, and that religious texts flood the bookstores in these previously secular urban settings. Yet he wishes to caution his readers that these signs of increasing religiosity are merely part of a worldwide rise in fervor within all the major religious faiths and that they therefore should not be misinterpreted by Westerners worried about terrorism. These legions of newly pious citizens are, he writes, socially conservative and do not represent likely candidates for violent forces. One of the major reasons jihadists have failed to bring down the region’s military regimes is that they have lacked the support of the Muslim middle class.
Before breathing a sigh of relief, however, we must note that here is one of those Gerges distinctions that non-Muslims will find overstated. While the jihadists may, as Gerges says, lack support in Beirut, Damascus, and Algiers, they don’t lack room to operate in those places. As Irshad Manji is at pains to point out, millions of mainstream Muslims the world over object to the wanton cruelty of bin Ladenism but they seldom express their objections openly. The Canadian television journalist has written The Trouble with Islam Today: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change to try to bestir her coreligionists in the decent and peace-loving majority to stand up to”and root out”the violent radicals in their midst.
Manji, born in Uganda to an Egyptian mother and a Pakistani father, immigrated with her family to Canada and took classes at a madressa in the suburbs of Vancouver. To keep one’s head down”to negate the individual will for the benefit of the group”was drummed into the madressa students. The lesson didn’t seem to take: Her impertinent questions got her kicked out of the school. She attributes her ejection to having soaked up the Canadian atmosphere of open inquiry and tolerance.
Muslims need to stop bowing to the dictates of madressa teachers and mosque leaders, she writes, and to start honoring the intertwined theological heritage of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the People of the Book. She calls the Qur’an a text so profoundly at war with itself that Muslims who ?live by the book’ have no choice but to choose what to emphasize and what to downplay. In contrast to Fatima Mernissi and those writing in the Mernissi vein, Manji insists that the Quran is not transparently egalitarian for women. It requires the hard intellectual and spiritual work of ijtihad , or interpretation, she says, to reconcile Islam to modernity and rescue the faith from the mindless rigidity of the Islamists.
After the attacks of September 11, the author publicly called for introspection, declaring: The twin towers that did deserve to collapse continued to prop up a palatable yet unexamined version of Islam. One tower was deceit”that under peer pressure to keep on telling the world that we’re not all terrorists . . . we reflexively romanticized Islam. The other was conceit”that Westerners owe us basic human respect, but we owe nothing to the Western values that offer us this opportunity for respect.
Besides the passivity ingrained by Islamic training, what also hinders reform is the justified fear of being physically attacked for speaking out. The danger for outspoken Muslims is magnified many times over for Irshad Manji because she is a lesbian. Being disapproved of”in fact, as she acknowledges, I’ve been rejected by the mainstream of Islam”has only seemed to prompt greater outspokenness. She goes after all the sensitive targets, including the desert Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia; the antireligious bigotry of the secular feminists; and the follies of whites on her side of the political spectrum (the left), who all too often grovel before the multicultural imperative to accommodate religious minorities by giving the intolerant ideologues among them a moral pass.
The Arab sections of the book remind one of the writings of the noted Egyptian feminist Leila Ahmed. Ahmed inveighed during the 1990s against the linguistic and cultural imperialism of Saudi Arabia and the malign influence of desert Islam on a country (Ahmed’s native Egypt) that did not even consider itself Arab before the advent of the state of Israel, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ascent to power, and the rise of pan-Arabism.
For Manji, the Saudi imposition of Wahhabi fundamentalism hobbles the Muslim spirit from Pakistan to Poughkeepsie. Within the Saudi kingdom itself, she points out, the combination of Wahhabism and sole economic reliance on petrodollars negates a key to advancement for poor Muslims: the urge to engage in commerce. Generating wealth is crucial to sustaining any new democracy, she writes, and enabling the women of the Islamic world to become entrepreneurs is one of the main planks of her reformist program. (She advocates the micro-credit model of Bangladesh’s Muhammad Yunus and the grassroots-capitalist model of Peru’s Hernando de Soto.)
The liberating power of the market, the need to respect the piety and the veiling practices of individual women, and the belief that nation states remain important even in an age of multilateral institutions-it’s a combination that makes the author seem like an emanation from the mind of Alexis de Tocqueville. Indeed, while her book does not spare democracy in America, or the Bush administration, from criticism, her admiration for the United States comes through. What Manji particularly values is the recognition here of the moral power of women. An adept comparativist, she homes in on the designation, by Time magazine in 2002, of Persons of the Year who were whistle-blowing female employees of Enron, WorldCom, and the FBI. Where in the Muslim world, she asks, would you find women being hailed for busting corruption?
That Islamists are dead set against women exerting a moral influence upon men was evident to Fawaz Gerges in his talks with Anwar Sadat’s jihadist enemies in Cairo. Gerges notes that part of their rage against Sadat was focused on his wife, Jihan Sadat. His interviewees believed that she had convinced her husband to pass secular legislation and to empower women, violating the most fundamental codes of Islamic morality.
Islam Our Choice: Portraits of Modern American Muslim Women offers evidence, unfortunately, that not every American woman is cut out to be a moral preceptor. Editors Debra L. Dirks and Stephanie Parlove have collected the personal essays of six American converts to Islam who tell of lives of rootlessness, loss, dysfunction, and divorce. All have found a home in Islam, and in several cases they’ve adopted the rigidly orthodox Islam against which Fatima Mernissi and Irshad Manji are doing battle.
Two are Coloradans whose interest in horses led them to encounter Islam on horse-purchasing visits to the Middle East. Mrs. Parlove, who spoke only English, found that in both Syria and Jordan, people were flexible and welcoming. She and the other tourists needed help in communicating, and the Syrian government had sent the most wonderful people on the trip to ensure there were enough interpreters. Her description of the Holy Land includes no mention of Judaism.
Other Pollyannas in the book include the wide-eyed Jennifer Manzoor of Kansas. Mrs. Manzoor is at pains to show her Pakistani husband to be acceptable in American terms (he pitches in around the house), but she seems clueless as to why she is not treated as a first-class Muslim by other women of her mosque who are Arab. A nice Midwestern woman, she is pitifully loath to condemn tribalism when she sees it. She is also loath, as are the other essayists (with one honorable exception), to say much about the events of September 11. The passivity and defensiveness identified by Manji appear to be in full force in America’s heartland.
Far be it from us to begrudge spiritual succor to these women”or to anyone else, for that matter. But perhaps it is not amiss to hope that they someday encounter the thought of women with a direct experience of repressive subcultures within Islam. If there is to be a Muslim reformation, and a clearly defined, tolerant Islam becomes the religion’s dominant tendency, let it be true that these American women stood up and made a contribution.
Lauren Weiner is a writer in Baltimore. She has written about politics, history, and literature for the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, and other publications .