There has perhaps never been within American society more suspicion about Muslims than in recent weeks. The terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino as well as the possibility of more tragic events occurring in the future has everyone on edge. Even though this is the case and even though there has been an increase in hate crimes, we must still stress that the vast majority of Americans have been supportive of their fellow citizens of Muslim background. Unfortunately, in a similar fashion that a small minority of Muslim violent extremists attract the most media coverage, the confrontational attitudes and aggressive displays of bigotry of a small number of Americans get much more attention than the daily acts of kindness and love that average Americans show towards Muslims. I still strongly remember after 9/11 the outpouring of support for the Muslim community in San Diego, CA where I then lived. These acts of kindness far outweighed any bigoted actions despite the area being rather conservative. I recall hundreds of non-Muslims visitors to the Islamic center bringing flowers and attending Muslim worship services. I also recall a group of neighbors volunteering to take turns guarding the mosque overnight after vandals sprayed hateful graffiti messages on its walls. As a Muslim American I have since that time lived in different parts of the states of California, Washington, Maryland, Virginia, and in the District of Columbia. With the exception of a couple of incidents, my experience has been largely positive. I found much support, encouragement, and sympathy whenever I went.
This reminder is not meant to absolve American society from all responsibility in the occurrence of hate. While hateful individuals do not represent all Americans, they are still the product of our society. Our history is replete with major instances of exclusion and discrimination. We still have a problem and we have to come together to solve it before it worsens. The Trumps of the world are certainly not helping the cause of love and unity in this country and neither are well-financed groups like Pamela Geller’s that spread ignorance and fear. These fear mongering corners are taking advantage of the frustrations of people who have already been shaped by the increasingly polarizing politics that have dominated our nation for more than a decade. Standing against bigotry and hate requires of Americans to stand in solidarity with Muslims (and others like Sikhs who are mistakenly identified as Muslims) who face any kind of harassment in this climate of uncertainty.
One particularly vulnerable group is Muslim women that wear the hijab. Given their dress, they become the easiest target of ignorant and aggressive bigots. The fear of being harmed in public because of one’s identity highly increases the everyday stress of life; this is simply unacceptable in an open and democratic society. In solidarity with these women, some have suggested a “Wear a Hijab” day during which non-Muslim women would don scarves showing the world that the harassed women are not alone. In response to this, author Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Hala Arafa, a retired journalist wrote a lengthy opinion piece in the influential Washington Post asking non-Muslim women not to participate in “Wear a Hijab” events. As Muslim women, Nomani and Arafa made the case that this kind of support is problematic because it strengthens the agenda of conservative Islamist ideology and the Islamist vision of the role of women in society. They rejected the interpretation of the hijab as simply a symbol of modesty and argued that there is nothing Qur’anic about the hijab. For the authors of the article, hijab is another way to silence women as is clear in the policies of states like Saudi Arabia and Iran that impose a dress code to protect men from women’s sexual appeal, thus “absolv[ing] men of sexually harassing women and put[ting] the onus on the victim to protect herself by covering up.”
Unsurprisingly, the article led to heated debates between Muslim activists on social media featuring all kinds of counter-arguments including ad hominem attacks on the authors. Many sought to defend the Islamic authenticity of hijab while others highlighted that wearing hijab was a choice made by Muslim women for reasons of piety and that it must be respected as such. On the other side, women (and men) that reject the hijab brought their personal experiences to bear on the debate, highlighting how it negatively impacted their lives or how it was imposed on them (for an example of these social media debates, search #hijab on Twitter).
I’m not interested here in providing my own view on hijab in Islam except to stress two sociological elements. First, hijab could symbolize all kinds of things; it is not monolithic. In some contexts, patriarchal orders impose the hijab. It could then be oppressively enforced by either the political authorities (Iran since the 1979 Islamist Revolution; Saudi Arabia) or social pressure (even in Europe and North America in some cases). In other contexts, it is a choice and it becomes an important marker of a particular identity. In some instances, hijab plays a liberating role on an everyday basis as when it empowers women to participate in public life and to enjoy more mobility. Second, the dress of “Muslim” women is as pluralistic as the many cultures that Islam interacted with historically and as diverse as the various eras in which Islam existed (including some settings in which the majority of Muslim women in urban areas did not cover their hair at all).
What interests me here however is a bigger issue. There is a central problem in these debates on hijab and it transcends this specific issue. The problem is the inability to create enough distance between on one hand the necessity of protecting human beings from harm and safeguarding their dignity and on the other hand submitting religious ideas and dogmas to critique. In the case of Islam, perhaps this tension is present in the very word that we generally utilize to speak of anti-Muslim sentiments. This term is Islamophobia. It is true that this term catches the long history of European distrust of Islam as a religion and the misinformation surrounding everything that Westerners have connected to Islam. Nevertheless, the term becomes dangerous as a free-floating concept because it connotes that criticism of Islam as intellectual discourses is not acceptable. Much of the current debate on “Hijab Day” is another illustration of this state of affairs.
We are all prisoners of our contexts and in those contexts we all deserve to be safe. We ought to celebrate all forms of solidarity that seek to protect the vulnerable regardless of how much one agrees or disagrees with their perspectives or lifestyles. “Hijab Day” is such an instance of welcome solidarity. Ideas, including religious ones (perhaps especially religious ones), however, must constantly be put under critical scrutiny. Religious ideas too are contextual and are therefore amenable to ideological manipulation for the benefit of this or that interest. In fact, unmasking the various manipulations of power structures that are hiding under the guise of sacredness is a vital way of allowing human beings to protect themselves against oppression. Importantly, critique and serious debate (albeit in respectful ways) must not be confused with shouting matches between individuals already certain about what they believe.
Political oppression is real. Social oppression is real. Patriarchy is real. The use of religious language and (selective) religious texts to maintain all kinds of oppressive structures is also real. Therefore, the constant critique of ideas and institutions is necessary. It provides people with novel ways of thinking beyond what is presented to them as “normal,” “true,” or “authentic” within a particular setting. In the case of Islamic discourses on women, there are many problems that must be courageously addressed. Many Muslim thinkers have done just that. For those who want to show solidarity with Muslim women, I urge them to also listen to these outstanding voices in all their diversity.
As the French say, à bon entendeur, salut!