Thursday, September 22, 2011

Keeping our leaders accountable

WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non. 
“And do not befriend the Christians and the Jews.” This is what the Qur’an says. Youth, please remember this while you’re in school: keep Muslim friends. Having Muslim friends is important. We are mirrors unto each other. When I see you doing something wrong, I will remind you. When you fast and pray, I will be encouraged to fast and pray. The Christians and the Jews will only lead you astray. This is why it is important to have Muslim friends in this country of unbelievers. We remind each other to hold true to our Islamic values.”
What. Since when does holding true to Islamic values mean vilifying others?

I looked around at the other women spread out in our private section of the mosque. No one seemed to be listening. No one was engaged or looked up at me as I tisked and shook my head. A couple were propped up against the wall reading Qur’an; another was trying to control her son who really just wanted to run around in the large carpeted area; but most were just sitting cross-legged on the floor, looking down at their laps, clicking prayer beads, picking dry skin off a toe or dreamily gazing at the one-way, mirrored glass that kept us hidden from the men.

Just another consequence of gender segregation. Though, from what I hear, most men are just as disengaged with the Friday sermons. It’s a rare gem to hear a khutbah that gets you fired-up, excited and shouting praises to God.

I looked over at Eryn who was modelling perfect mosque behaviour for the rambunctious boy. She was sneaking glances at him while making her sock monkey touch its forehead to the ground in mock prostration. I was so thankful that she was too young to understand the hate speech coming from the pulpit.

I sat through the rest of the sermon absolutely seething and thinking about how I had to cut short a meeting with an amazing non-Muslim friend (the fabulous Renee!) in order to make it to Friday prayers on time. And here the khateeb, the community volunteer delivering the sermon, was telling me to stop associating with my friends, my parents, my interfaith partners and my colleagues. Because Muslims are somehow better, more righteous people.

Yes. I can think of many Muslims whom I love hanging out with, who help me become a better person and who are lovely reminders of what it really means to be a tolerant, socially engaged, pious Muslim. People who make me love Islam and who, most importantly, make others feel welcome no matter what.
And then there are those I could do without. Like people who tell me my hijab is wrong, that I shouldn’t touch men and that listening to music, wearing flip flops, makeup or nail polish is haraam. That I should change my name to something more Islamic or Arabic because certainly being named after the smart Charlie’s Angel is a disservice to my faith. That I should work harder at converting my family because I do want to spend the rest of eternity with them, don’t I? Or those who simply deny that there is anything wrong within the Muslim community – that Muslims don't steal, murder or abuse loved ones.


Most are simply negative comments from self-appointed religious judges personally charged to safeguard the religion from “foreign” toxic practices – resulting in a complete erasure and disservice to the identity and reality of North American Islam.

I’ve never understood this underlying mistrust of anything not related to majority Muslim cultures. What makes baba ghanoush more Muslim than cheddar cheese on apple pie? Why is wearing an abaya more Muslim than modest jeans and a tunic? Of course it’s partly related to post-colonial responses, minority diaspora communities, religious revivalism, and any number of political and social movements over the past century that has influenced a great many ideologies in Muslim belief systems. And while I know that the majority of Muslims don’t actually hate the west or anything non-Muslim, I am consistently surprised that it’s a common theme at the majority of Friday prayers I’ve attended over the past 10 years.

Maybe I’m going to the wrong mosques.

So I spoke with some of the congregation after prayers and asked their opinion on the sermon. Everyone agreed that it wasn’t the best and that they know Christian and Jews (and others) have a protected and respected status in the Qur’an – but that with a rotating list of khateebs, the Friday sermon is really hit or miss.

When I mentioned that the Qur’anic verse was taken completely out of context – that it’s referring to a specific period in 7th century history when some of the new Muslims feared for their safety and wondered if they should gain “protection” by asking Jewish or Christian tribes to become their “lord and master.” So a verse was revealed saying, “You know what? The Christian and Jewish tribes take care of themselves. You're old enough now and can take care of yourselves too.” The verse is more about having faith in the Muslim community and less about fear mongering that non-Muslims lead people astray.

I wasn’t surprised when there was agreement all around. This interpretation of the verse is not new. So why didn’t anyone say anything? Why were we all so content to sit and condone the sermon with our silence? What special powers do mosque volunteers have to speak with such authority without question?

The Caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second leader of the fledgling Muslim community, was once corrected by a woman who interrupted him in mid sentence just to tell him he was wrong. After he proposed a new restriction to a monetary requirement for marriage, she stood up and recited a verse out of the Qur’an contradicting the restriction. He admitted his error and withdrew the proposal.

Meanwhile the best we could have done was bang on the glass, or heaven forbid, walk into the men’s section and cause a respectful scene, correcting the khateeb while bringing attention to the ridiculousness of keeping the women in another room.

Funny how much more tolerant the seventh century seems to be.

Of course it’s important for Muslim kids to grow up with others who really understand where they’re coming from regarding prayer or fasting and who won’t make an embarrassing comment about their mother’s hijab. But it’s also important to raise them not to feel different or superior to people of other faiths. Not when Islam stresses humility, love for all and that no human can judge the hearts of others.

I have forged amazing friendships over the years with people from all sorts of belief or non-belief systems – and more often than not, they’re usually more concerned with me attending to my religious duties than my fellow Muslims. My non-Muslim friends will do everything in their power to accommodate me. Last Ramadan a dear friend altered her wedding plans to make sure the Hubby could fast on the day of her wedding. Non-Muslim work colleagues constantly remind me to pray on time. And I have been witness to many generous acts of charity from non-Muslims given to the Muslim community.

In all fairness maybe someone approached the khateeb afterwards and told him he should do further research into the matter before teaching isolation and exclusion. But I highly doubt a correction would be announced. Many mosques desperately rely on community volunteers to help guide the community. But it is also up to the community to bring up issues, actively engage and question when things just don’t sound right.

Our leadership must be held accountable for what they say or don’t say. How else can we have faith in the community?