Tag Archives: islam

Two links about religion

If you’re coming here for the nature stuff or the poetry, well, I’ll get back to that next week. I wanted to keep on the religion/secularism thing for one more post and throw up a couple links about religion and material culture – punningly literal material culture. I’m talking about clothes, son. I’m teaching a class on doing research in religion and secularism studies this semester, so it’s even more on my mind than usual.

First, this blog post by the Pew Research Center about a University of Michigan study about religion and secularism in primarily Middle-Eastern Muslim-majority countries drew a lot of attention, as it focused on social attitudes toward appropriate women’s dress as an index of secularism, Westernization, and Muslim identity. In particular, the infographic at the top of the post went massively viral.


It shows stylized portraits of six Muslim women from the head up in attire perceived as increasingly less restrictive, starting with the burqa and then moving toward an ultimately uncovered head and Western attire, and then gives the percentage of respondents from each country that selected that attire as the most appropriate dress for women in public. Some of the attention the graphic drew was satirical, some of it disapproving, but mostly it would seem the attention was due to the fascination with how Muslim women dress. (Hey, I retweeted it too.) Hence the disapproval, that Pew was playing into the Western obsession with Muslim women’s hair-covering, not to mention that the graphic abstracted women in the countries covered to a handful of caricatures.

I get the discomfort with the reduction of women’s presence to a sliding scale of clothing marked as increasingly foreign and weird, and I get the annoyance at how fascinated people seem to be with this aspect of culture in Islamic societies. But 1) I think a graphic like this helps give people a slightly better picture of the complexity of cultural expressions of and responses to female modesty in the Islamic world, and, 2) as the authors of the study point out, issues of women’s dress have been central to internal debates about the status of women and secularization for over a century. I think, too, though, that the study could have used some more sophisticated thinking about dress and religious identity that would have helped them move beyond the rather simple and Eurocentric contention that the question of dress unproblematically “also revolves around the question of individual choice, gender equality and a woman’s control over her own body and sexuality,” but it’s certainly true that those questions come up.

The benefit of a more nuanced approach can I think be seen in the interesting and unsurprising gender breakdown of responses in regards to dress. Men and women in each country were largely in agreement about appropriate attire, but differed considerably “on the issue of a woman’s right to dress as she wishes. Women are more strongly in favor of this statement than men across the seven countries. People with a university education are also more supportive of women’s choice (except in Saudi Arabia).” That the Christian populations favor less restrictive clothing is also not surprising, and of course reflects economic and cultural situations and not exclusively religious. What does it mean, I would want the study to explore, that women can insist on having more control and more choice over their clothing, positions that could certainly be seen as reflecting secular values, but that their choices would still mesh with those seen as being more religious, or more traditional?

Second, what I would want it to be would to be more like this fascinating discussion of women’s clothing and religion by Laura Leibman over at Religion in American History that looks at nineteenth-century attitudes toward Judaism, the fraught intersection between whiteness and blackness at the time, and women’s clothing and fashion. I’ll let it stand on its own, and you should go read it in full. A couple things that struck me, though, in the context of the previous debate are the extent to which loose and disheveled clothing were used in art to indicate the non-white status of Jews, and the extent to which clothing that could be seen as stiffer and more restrictive could indicate the relatively freer and less black status of the wearer. That’s the entry into Leibman’s reading of the wedding portrait of a freed mixed-race daughter of a Jewish plantation owner and a slave that closes the post, which then goes on to highlight a number of representations of class and gender freedoms and restrictions in the subject’s tightly corseted attire that cannot be reduced, as she says, to “an assimilationist vs. devout model.”


Leave a comment

Filed under secularism/religion, Uncategorized


You spend time on Twitter? I confess that I’ve had an account for years but only started using it heavily in the past few months (@el_donaldo if you like). Didn’t really get it at first. Now I’m fascinated.

This blew up as a trend yesterday: #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. I’m not entirely clear what started it – apparently something to do with Hugo Schwyzer, a porn and gender studies professor who has written for Jezebel and other popular outfits that I’ve never heard of. (And I read Jezebel.) Some sort of public confession and meltdown, a history of dismissal of feminists from non-European backgrounds, and maybe some more stuff I’m missing, but whatever sent the tag out there tapped into something pretty massive. There is apparently a great deal of resentment among many people working on women’s issues about a bias within feminist discourse to see white, Eurocentric, bourgeois women’s issues as definitive for the movement, and furthermore a bias toward working with those issues as if they were exclusively gender issues divorced from any context of race, class, history, and geopolitics. Watching the hashtag grow was very exciting and illuminating.

This article from Al Jazeera English describes the groundswell of protest and some of its content pretty well. What I was struck with, and this ties into a lot of my previous posts about Islam and the West, was that a critique of a feminism that imagines itself to be above or beyond issues of race and ethnicity is also a critique of a specifically Western secularism. I don’t think that the hashtag covers feminist voices that are explicitly anti-secular, though it is entirely possible that those voices are out there; I do think that the blowback against an ideologically deracinated feminism is also a critique against a secularism that does not recognize its own religious stakes.

solidarityisforwhitewomenOne of the repeated objections revealed by the hashtag is anger generated by the opposition of Western feminists to the headscarf. That headscarf, or hijab, or whichever manifestation we’re discussing, is seen by many in the West as oppressive, and many women in countries where female modesty is strictly enforced also agree, and yet many feminists from Islamic cultures view these obligations much more complexly. I don’t think the objection from Muslim feminists to be anti-secular, though, whatever it may be, as the headscarf also has its secular competent as I discussed in the last post: modesty may obscure, but it also permits. The problem I believe is that a Euro-centric feminism looks at the headscarf and sees misplaced and oppressive religiosity where religion and secularity are actually both present and deeply entwined. And that perspective also views itself as fully appropriately secular, not recognizing that it is as well deeply entwined with assumptions about the appropriateness of religious practice and the public sphere.

Anyway, last post on secularism for a while, as I’m back to writing about nature and writing about writing about nature.

Leave a comment

Filed under secularism/religion

Burka avenger

Another example of the complex agency of female modesty in traditionally Islamic cultures: A Pakistani children’s show about a female teacher that adopts the burka as a superhero disguise to fight for the right of girls to receive an education. I don’t have the background to discuss the narrative and aesthetic ramifications here, but I think it should remind us of women in Islamic cultures adopting the hijab or equivalent as a way into the public sphere. So, like I said, complex.

Via Andy Carvin on Twitter.

Leave a comment

Filed under secularism/religion

Headscarves and soccer

An interesting controversy. And a ridiculous decision on the part of FIFA, the international governing body of professional soccer – well, football as they call it. Basically, just before the Iranian women’s team was set to play an Olympic qualifying match against Jordan last week, they were disqualified for wearing uniforms that might cause the players injuries – that is, for wearing an athletic version of headscarves. The international uproar isn’t helping the already scandal-plagued organization.

I think the case is worth noting because headscarf bans in general get promoted as potentially liberating for the women that they affect, but the liberation of those women is never what actually prompts the bans or serves as their goal, and in fact the bans generally serve to perpetuate or further restrictions on the freedom of those women. I think that’s quite clear in the FIFA case.

Rather than ban the headscarves, it’s more productive, I would think, for those that believe the scarves to be an expression of the oppression of women to advocate instead for the use of headscarves so that women who feel compelled to cover their hair in public can participate as much as possible in public life, and thereby see and experience how other women and other cultures negotiate the demands of modesty and public display. Otherwise, as we see from the FIFA example, they quite literally cannot participate, and therefore forfeit any advancement they may have potentially made on behalf of their gender.

In any case, Fast Company’s Co.Design blog reports on an elegant solution – and what I believe should be the desirable outcome in the situation: a sleekier, even more athletic hijab being offered by ResportOn, a company established by designer Elham Seyed Javad to respond to this very need.

The sports hijab was apparently initially inspired by a taekwondo ban on female Muslims wearing a headscarf beneath a regulation helmet. These are the advancements which serve global civil liberties in the 21st century. If FIFA is able to find this acceptable – and that’s by no means given since the reasons for banning the hijab initially aren’t fully clear and likely more about cultural bigotry or the desire to make women’s soccer more like beach volleyball – but if they do, soccer and sport in general advances, religious liberties advance, personal freedom advances, so does women’s liberation, and finally so does secularism. Hurray! If not, well, we’re in this for the long haul.

1 Comment

Filed under secularism/religion

Islam, secularism, and liberalism (part 2)

Here’s part one. And sadly I think there will need to be a part 3. Plus an additional post specifically on the whole Sharia law paranoia that’s gripped the imagination of the not-particularly-intelligent-or-imaginative. The whole thing is so long, and the arguments against Islam addressed so baseless, that you may very well want to wait until part three is ready, but I had to write this to get it down before moving on to more compelling arguments. It might be useful background at points for someone interested in but not fully engaged in arguments about secularism, secularization, and religions in the public sphere.

So here goes.

Secularism is a product of social developments in Protestant Europe and the political thinking that prodded and was prodded by them. At first a way for competing Christian persuasions to get along, it became an integral component to modernization, liberalization, and the development of the individual self as the primary arena of moral conflict and suasion, and it never quite lost its mooring in the Protestant ethics of individual choice and progress toward perfection. It is this vaporous religious substance trailing secularism that allows Robert Bellah to diagnose the presence in American civic life  the persistence of an attenuated Protestantism that he calls America’s “civil religion” and that remains in the public sphere, for good or for ill, in subtle tension with our Constitutional tradition of resisting any appearance of the establishment of an official state religion.

In the non-Western world, a key question for some time after the ebb of colonialism has been whether secularism is irredeemably a Western phenomenon – requiring too much of a Protestant worldview and ethic to be adaptable to other contexts – or whether its principles have become sufficiently general and universal that they might prove beneficial to all societies. My personal feeling is more the latter than the former, but I’m not going to get into that now. Instead I want to examine the recent liveliness of the other side of the question. One of the unexpected if now unremarkable consequences of the ebb of colonialism is the thorough cosmopolitanism of the West. And this is no longer a purely urban phenomenon, though it is certainly most concentrated and relatively problem-free in more urban areas. The question being asked now, in a variety of registers and with a various sophistication, is whether secularism can accommodate the non-Protestant.

Well, yes, of course it can. The two major problems for American secularism have been Catholicism and Judaism, and we seem to have reached a point where despite occasional difficulties, Jews and Catholics are largely considered citizens without much suspicion that the Catholic is under the authority of the foreign power of the Vatican or that the Jew places ethnicity higher than civic authority. But these religions were well in place in the Western world before our colonial adventures. What’s prompting the question now is the realization that Islam is a presence in American communities and the perception of Islam elsewhere as a geopolitical problem for the project of secularization. So is Islam here in America a threat to our secularism?

I think the instant response for most is that any answer yes to the question must be driven by Islamaphobic bigotry, and by and large that would be right. The always odious Bryan Fisher, for example, has stated that Islam does not qualify for First Amendment rights of the free exercise of religion because when the Bill of Rights was written solely to protect Christianity and its various observances. And that’s such obvious ignorance and distortion. It’s quite clear that the authors of the Bill of Rights and its antecedents had a conception of religion in general very much in line with our contemporary conception of religion as a cultural phenomenon variously expressed throughout all human societies, and that quite literally First Amendment protections encompassed, as Thomas Jefferson once put it, “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”

Another of these recently emerged and easily dismissed attempts to place Islam outside of the pale is the notion that Islam is not a religion, but instead is a political cult with a theology, “a violent political philosophy more than peace-loving religion,” according to Tennessee’s dimwitted Lieutenant Governor and failed candidate for the Tennessee GOP nod for the governor’s race. The Tea Party favorite was speaking in response to the shameful efforts of some Tennesseans to prevent the construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it’s entirely possible to view Christianity in exactly the same manner. In fact, one of Carl Schmitt’s primary contributions to political philosophy is his notion that the entire modern state is a Christian political cult, in that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” And violence is of course in modernity exclusively the legitimate domain of that state.

Regardless of one’s take on Schmitt’s notions of sovereignty, it’s not far off the mark to note that secularism itself as a secularization of Protestant theological concepts would mean that its refusal to accommodate, well, any form of religious expression might have to do more with the political continuation of Christianity than anything else, regardless of what happens outside the historical bounds of Christendom.

But I digress. Religion like so many human endeavors doesn’t afford tidy definitions, nor do all religions boil down to a specific set of categorical behaviors – the insistence, for instance, on confessional beliefs as the defining core of religious expression (“If you are X religion, then what do you believe?”) is itself a primarily Protestant concern fairly unintelligible in other religious contexts. So we assign the term religion instead according to family-likenesses of behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes, and in that arrangement Islam is clearly a religion, and quite resembles its older cousins Christianity and Judaism.

Religion plays an important role in societies, in their culture, and certainly in their politics, but religion is not integral to either society nor culture, even if it may seem at times not completely distinguishable. And Islam, like its cousins Christianity and Judaism, is what we term a “world” religion – a religion that is sufficiently free from cultural and ethical markers to be exportable to other groups, situations, and societies. And it has done so. There is no single Islamic politics, though there may be and are many approaches to politics that come with some Islamic rhetoric attached. Which makes it no different than Christianity or Judaism.

If it is in truth a religion and not a political cult, maybe it’s a religion with a significant enough difference from Christian sects or Judaism that would make it untenable in a secular society. That’s the approach seems to be the lowest common denominator in the recent flare-ups of Islamophobia, the most recent and prominent expression of it coming from Herman Cain, one of the many less-than-serious candidates for the G.O.P. presidential nomination for 2012. He stated, when asked why he’s uncomfortable around Muslims, that based on his “limited knowledge” of the religion he believes “they have an objective to convert all infidels or kill them” – that they have the First Amendment right to practice their religion, but that they are a unique threat because of a drive to enforce their way of life on everyone else.

I’m sure Muslims welcome conversion. Everyone would like to see others brought over to their point of view, particularly if they believe that point of view to offer considerable spiritual benefits. And every group is engaged in a political struggle at some level to place demands upon the public to further a specific spiritual agenda, hence the continual back-and-forth in the public sphere between Christian fundamentalism and secularists. There are points, then, when I wonder to what extent and at what points is secularism merely a political strategy of realism and achievable goals. Let’s take American groups that are aggressive proselytizers (which Muslims are not): Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, both groups which have significantly higher numbers than American Muslims. Is it the secular modus vivendi that prevents them from threatening violent action against reluctant converts? If anything, I think that the relative lack of proselytizing efforts on behalf of American Muslims may be due to the perception that they would then be likely on the receiving end of the ensuing violence.

So, to sum up: the arguments that Muslims cannot participate in a modern secular liberal state because a) secularism never intended for the presence of Islam, b) Islam is not a religion, or c) that Islam is constitutionally incapable of participating in secular society are all quite unfounded, at least to the extent that any of these arguments would distinguish Islam as particularly unsuitable. And certainly to address these issues seems a bit pointless, as anyone who knows – even casually – American Muslims on a personal level recognizes that these objections are groundless and largely based in ignorance and hysterical fear.

But that brings me to what I’ll address in part 3. Although the arguments above don’t hold water, I do find the argument worth considering if ultimately not compelling that secularism itself as currently configured is deficient in accommodating the presence of Muslim communities.


Filed under secularism/religion

Islam, secularism, and liberalism (part 1)

One of the core values of liberalism is the notion of free speech, a notion which has a deep historical association with the freedom of conscience and worship. Indeed, secularism – and by secularism here, I mean the notion that each person should be free to follow the dictates of conscience – can and I believe should be seen as core to the development in the West of individual liberties. There are, of course, other secularisms, and even other strands in Western secularism that complicate application and adjudication of free speech and free worship.

A key facet in our notion of free speech, is that the free exchange of ideas is a form of a market. Rather than ban speech that is dangerous or offensive, we permit it, believing that it will have little currency in the larger market and, failing to gain purchase, will fade. Banning it, we believe, may allow it to fester – feeding it as the oppressed with the legitimacy it would drain from those who ban it.

So much of Enlightenment liberalism, of course, depends on a vision of us as rational actors capable of embracing a common good, and passion and sectarianism – what secularism meant to banish from the public sphere – frequently reveal our limitations and the blind spots in our confidence. Demagoguery has become a real danger in contemporary political discourse, and over the past few years, anti-Muslim demagoguery has become among the most visible expressions of it.

When Terry Jones threatened to burn the Koran on September 11 of last year as a public rebuke of Islam, it became an international media event, despite the fact that Jones is on the fringe of the fringe of hard-right Christianism and the leader of an almost laughably small church. The announcement inflamed many in Muslim communities and provoked widespread condemnation in the Western world. Jones eventually back down in the face of all this pressure.

At the time, many people, myself included, felt that Jones was well within his First Amendment rights to burn the Koran as a form of expression, vile that it may be. I still feel that way. But at the time, I felt that the media was giving him undue attention – that by hyperventilating over his threat, the impression given to the non-Western world is that Koran burning is a large concern and issue in Western public discourse. I don’t believe it is ever wise to determine a course of action largely on the basis of how extremist elements will interpret it, and that needn’t have been the thinking here. Instead, we seemed to be blowing the actions of one minor weirdo all out of proportion because of our concerns that it would allow Muslim extremists to do the same, libeling Western secular culture as irredeemably anti-Muslim.

I appears those of us who wanted the media to ignore Jones and his threats as insignificant and not having any real currency in the free market of ideas were wrong, or at least naïve. When Jones threatened to do it again this March, there was unbeknownst to the general public, a deliberate and active media blackout that refused to cover the event. So it came as a complete surprise to that public when Afghans rioted for several days in early April, resulting in dozens of death, most of them U.N. aid workers. Although only a few Americans were even aware of what had happened, it was not through a lack of effort on Jones’s part, and the story metastasized across the internet, appearing on the websites of Islamic extremists and the like until it became hyped by the perpetually embattled Afghan President Hamid Karzai, sparking the riots.

We can’t ban actions like Jones’s. We can’t, it would appear, simply ignore them and pretend that they won’t have an effect, because in our media and information saturated globe, they persist until they find their intended audience. Not unlike the Danish cartoon controversy: the satirical cartoon depictions of Mohammed in Jyllands-Posten inspired some local European reaction after their publication, but it took some time for them to come to the attention of the Muslim world, at which point they became a useful vehicle for inflammatory rhetoric. For Jones and his supporters, the riots prove the point they were setting out to make: their story reached its audience in the end, which were not so much the Muslims in the grip of extremist and violent rhetoric that set them upon the U.N. compounds, but us back in the U.S. Jones and Karzai alike point at the other and say to those whose support and attention they crave, “See. This is what we’re up against.”

I think that the only appropriate response, after the of course condemning Jones’s actions and the even more horrific actions of the Afghan mob, and the hope that there may be some justice for the violence, is a degree of resignation. Our lives will continue to affected by what Hasnain Kazim is calling the “clash of extremes,” militant demagogues on the Christian and the Islamic worlds attempting to gain power and influence by attacking the other side under the banner of an absolute truth. But neither are we completely powerless. These extremes threaten not only our safety but also the liberties of conscience secularism would guarantee, and in both cases it is that secularism that both extremes are at pains to eradicate, and secularism’s fragility, and the fragility of democracy, the expression of secularism in the political realm, in much of the non-Western world is a legitimate source of concern. If we can’t ignore the extremes, then we’ll have to face them, and talk about them. Confidence in the secular project may be the only best response.

Oddly enough, in reading the claims that Jones makes about the Koran in the rather silly mock trial his congregation put on to condemn it, what stands out are the great pains that the church goes through to damn the Koran and Islam on the basis of insufficient secularism. They write, “Islamic Law is totalitarian in nature. There is no separation of church and state. It is irrational. It is supposedly immutable and cannot be changed. It must be accepted without criticism. It has many similarities to Nazism, Communism and Fascism. It is not compatible with Western Civilization.” And then, “Islam is not compatible with democracy and human rights. The notion of a moral individual capable of making decisions and taking responsibility for them does not exist in Islam.” Is Islam incompatible with Western secularism? I’ll look at a few arguments of the arguments, from silly to serious, in part 2.


Filed under secularism/religion