NASHIZA SPEAKS: I agree with Noor. I am not a Progressive Muslim, either

I read it first in Farish Noor’s “Why I am not a ‘progressive Muslim'”. Then, heard it resonated in the message of Malaysia Youth Movement’s ABIM. Indeed, the new fever that is catching among civil society groups confirms that now is a time for Muslim activists to pause and look back. Is the environment conducive for the so-called progressive line of discourse? In the South and Southeast Asia, the bandwagon for “moderating” Islam and the sudden interest of NGOs and their international funding-partners about “democratizing” Islam are leaving a bad taste in the mouth. Personally, I believe that one should exercise prudence in claiming and appropriating Islam – be it progressive or otherwise – unless we have acquired consistency in our analysis and in practice, both in the form and substance. Lest I will be misconstrued, at the onset, let me make this disclaimer that I am in no way supporting this US-initiated project of ‘taxonomizing’ Muslims, these arbitrary dichotomies of Muslims as fundamentalists-moderates and traditional-progressives and categorizing theocratics from secularists; the terrorists from the patriots. Nor do I subscribe to the idea of ‘islamicating’ political discourses just to gain audience among the elusive Muslim crowd, or maybe more accurately, to raise funds and ensure profit for the non-profits’ employment — be they Muslims or non-Muslims.

The fact that profiling and terrorist-tagging for even the most harmless of Muslim civic groups has been growing from worse to worst, my feeling would be that unless we fortify ourselves with deeper knowledge about Islam, our passion to advocate might just unwittingly become instrument of dividing and annihilating the Muslim spirit and, worse, in the absence of a contextual understanding of our faith, we might end up endorsing the sanctity of institutions of injustice and oppressions, which we might be misled into believing, for the moment, as Islamic. I am talking here about social structures that perpetuate hierarchy on account of  social class, economic status, intellectual capacity, access to power, gender and other constructs of patriarchy (and male dominance). I think the time calls for spending our efforts in silent furtherance of knowledge and in sharpening our tools of analysis. One respected Muslim scholar once shared the parable of a swan in the lake of confusion, he talks of the swan that is tranquil and unperturbed in the pond of chaos. Above the water she is an image of serenity, but underwater is earnestly paddling towards perfection. We need to comprehend what is in the Quran and hadith. If possible, the non-Arabic speakers among the South and Southeast Asian Muslims must strive to master it in the Arabic language as well as in their local languages. More strategically, Muslims in the North who have the resources and access to the best institutions of learning should help facilitate more access to education and make programs available for the mass of illiterate Muslims in the South, especially, the women. And I mean including those much schooled but least educated, like myself, who can read the Arabic Qur’an but not able to literally translate, much less, interpret/understand what is written there. But maybe more importantly, the globalization should expose the First World Muslims to the realities of the Third World Muslims if only to heal them of their intellectual chauvinism and version of elite islamism.

Unless we, as activists, can be confident about our discourses and are able to articulate as fluently as the ulama and asatids then there is no way that we can be at par, let alone, lead in the dialogue and debates among ourselves or with other faith communities. Nor can we hope to wean away the elusive Muslim masses from their preoccupation with rituals and symbols and awaken them from their apathy and  turn away from their silly obsession with the pageant of the pious amongst Muslim religious leaders and scholars.

For those of us who have committed to be the wick of the lamp in the darkness of this age of new Jahiliyah, we must brace ourselves for the task ahead is not easy. Popularizing ‘Islamic perspective’ or proactively searching for that enigmatic “Islamic voice” in the midst of strong reactionary opinions can be a death wish to many. And, yes, we envisioned even higher goals, that ours be the appropriate world-view that must be mainstreamed to establish social justice and world peace, yet have we forgotten to factor in how much space may be accessible to us and how ready we are in terms of hum an resources, intellectual and spiritual capacities for the mainstreaming process? Caught up in the whirlwind of events since the fateful 9/11, we were not as quick to ride and capitalize on the momentum of the storm, we failed to take advantage of the opportunities for building our organizational and ideological capacities, even of greater failure was assuming our role to rightly guide a world hungry for answers and enlightenment about our faith and culture. Unlike us, the mainstream (non-Muslims) civil society and formal institutions were much more vigilant and agile. In a sudden rush like flood-water they were able to take the rein and lead the bandwagon, now, they are steering the cart. Albeit, perhaps the accusations of self-serving agenda or their fund-driven motives, the mainstream civil society groups and institutions who had the historical advantage over us and the ready machineries for mobilizing resources seized the power of communication and succeeded in assuming to be the champions of the “marginalized and minority voice”, including that of us Muslims, by using opinion leaders and experts from our midst to be spokespersons of their agenda. So, do we remain contented in the joy-ride, just to sit back and relax in the comforts of the passengers’ seat?

Indian feminist Kamla Basin first diagnosed this symptom when it befell the feminist movement. When the Gender and Development (GAD) was hatched by World Bank experts that derailed and adulterated the feminist discourse by reducing it to mere economic parlance of increasing women participation in development but not really getting into the brass tacks of transforming the power structures, Basin said, “there is money in gender but little passion, there is objectivity but no stakes”. The same could be said now of Islamic activism and the appropriation of the Muslim voice by the power-brokers. Because international funders are now investing much on projects as “democracy and Islam”or “Islam and human rights”, non-Muslim civil society groups have been helping themselves to the pot with barely a handful Muslim NGOs beating the drum further down the trail — organizing all sorts of forums in posh hotels and air-conditioned venues, they talk, talk, and talk, while we listen, listen and gawk as mere spectators. And then, the process of ‘islamication’ where the fad progresses and the veil, the kuffiya, the flowing robe or the proverbial beard becoming more and more visible on stage to tuck in the “Islamic perspective” to age-old debates such as human rights, peace and development, which in the past were at least genuine in their own merit. Today, the libertarian concepts have become much abused and confused as ‘love’ has been variedly defined by different interest groups. We are witness to a new wave of advocates for human rights and peace that are spicing up traditional activists’ calls with Islamic fervor and we chuckled at uncritical choices of an aleem or Muslim scholar to give curry flavor to the advocacy. For instance, in one developing country where human rights and peace work among mainstream civil society is hailed to be one of the most advanced in that Asian region, for want of articulate scholars among the minority Muslims, the desperate search for the Muslim mass-leader has led to the caves of medieval schools where hibernating ulama and asatidz are unceremoniously dragged out into the limelight to render in English version what would typically be said in their droning Friday khutba — tossing in one or two verses from the Qur’an, usually picked out of context — and, voila, there comes your Islamic perspective.

These have succeeded only in one thing: constructing, edifying and legitimizing the hierarchy and unjust structures in Muslim society. In many south and SE Asian societies, Muslim religious have been vested the status that Christian bishops and priests of medieval Europe once enjoyed. There now exists a religious elite called the “Muslim clerics” who lay claim and sole rights to the production and distribution of Islamic knowledge, no thanks to all the exposure and patronage of programs whose themes range from reproductive health, population, down to women’s welfare that conservatives are invited to endorse and god-father. Unfortunately, their version of what is Islamic remains uncontested, for either or both of two reasons, one, there is yet no gelling-together of an alternative opinion (from the moderates and progressives, obviously) that could confidently stand to challenge the orthodoxy or, two, the culture of deference and the foreboding taboo have allowed the pervading spiral of silence and apathy as breeding grounds for patriarchy and patronage.

Confounding those problems, in conflict-riddled Muslim areas, islamists and revolutionists seem hesitant to step down from their high horse of heroic and vanguardian air of superiority to take on what the ideal activists should have long done: start-up their mass work again, awaken the grassroot majority from their demoralization and arouse them from the stupor of anaesthetic relief aids and dole-outs from foreign-funded humanitarian projects. And, perhaps more strategically, they must take advantage of the liberal opening and engage more actively in ideological work and be quick in counter-arguing the conservative views in every forum or seminar and every choice-events. Indeed, the stereotypical Muslim scholar dressed in the Arab ghammis or a glitzy Istanbul high-hat is most favored icon to grace conferences and workshops because they not only look good for media publicity, but are sure-hit as endorsers of controversial programs among target Muslim community, never mind if his opinion is eschewed or of little sense to the issue on hand. His role is often limited to that of giving the invocation at the opening ceremonies or, in rare occasions — which women’s rights groups pray not happen — taken to task in serious issues such as gender, reproductive health, and female sexuality. In the latter case, his antiquarian interpretations of Islamic precepts is one being picked up and mainstreamed as the official Islamic stand on such and such issues. Going back to the example of the same Asian country mentioned, recently, a fatwa in support of reproductive health and responsible parenthood was passed, which news brought a tentative smile to the lips of women’s movement. But, alas, what a disaster to this particular Muslim women’s network when the same religious voice who endorsed family planning and reproductive rights recited the old spiels about the evils of contraceptives, the justification of men’s natural lust in the Qur’an and the desirability of polygamy, and the exhortation of women’s subordination and subservience, right in the women’s own organized events! You are free to judge if it was a case of double-standard or a classic example of the height of hypocrisy.

For a woman and a Muslim trapped in such situation of contradictions and blunders, it is both an act of sedition and piety to be angry, rather than be perpetually guilty, embarrassed and be forever burying one’s head in the barren sand of self-censorship.

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About Mucha Q. Arquiza
Supports the preservation and promotion of indigenous knowledge systems

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