Muslim Women “Warriors”: By Frances Kissling

8 03 2009

March 6, 2009

Source: religiondispatches

International Women’s Day (March 8) is a good time to reflect on the efforts of women of faith to reform or repeal texts and practices within their religions that contribute to women’s inequality or oppression.

For those of us in the United States and Europe, of Christian and Jewish traditions, the effort has focused on reinterpreting texts, working for the inclusion of women in ministry, for non-sexist language, and for the elimination of violence against women. The effort has not been easy; Christian and Jewish women still have a long way to go and we’ve experienced a fair amount of derision and even lost jobs, but none of us has actually risked our lives or ended up in jail as a result of this work.

Some of the most prophetic among us have found some acceptance. The Philadelphia Eleven, Episcopal women who were “irregularly” ordained in 1974, ushered in regular ordination by 1976 and the consecration of the first woman bishop, Barbara Harris, in 1989. Roman Catholic women began ordaining themselves in 2004 after an initial irregular ordination by a male bishop in 2002.

While these women (who number about 50 priests and five bishops) have been excommunicated, they are living proof that the institutional church has only the power we give it. They go about the business of ministry and service with skill and good grace.

Increasingly, Buddhist women have been seeking full ordination within the various branches of Buddhism. In Korea, Taiwan, and China, Buddhist nuns have been fully ordained for centuries, in an unbroken lineage back to the Buddha. In other countries and branches of Buddhism, the practice of fully ordaining women has not survived. Buddhist women have organized for ordination, and these are increasing. Thai Theravada Buddhism, which is linked to the state, has been most resistant to these ordinations, and Tibetan Buddhism under the Dalai Lama has been considering reviving the tradition, but as of today, no final decision has been made.

Muslim women—and feminists—are following a different and complicated path. This was brought home last month when I participated in a five day international conference in Malaysia which brought together 250 women from 47 countries, many of them predominantly Muslim with strong links between religion and state. The conference launched the Musawah Movement, a loose network of Muslim women’s groups working to ensure that Muslim family law recognizes and operationalizes the equality of women within the family. Muslim feminists are as diverse as other feminists which was reflected throughout the conference; Muslim feminism is not new. This conference, for example, was the result of 20 years of research and advocacy by a Malaysian group called Sisters in Islam (SIS). Zainah Anwar, the coordinator of Musawah (equality in Arabic) said:

Musawah is in some ways a vindication of a long and difficult struggle to find liberation within my faith and to translate into action my utter belief in a just God. This is the last frontier in the feminist movement to break the theological stranglehold of the patriarchs that prevents Muslim women from enjoying equal rights.

For Sisters in Islam finding liberation in their faith has involved a two-prong strategy: theological education and political advocacy. SIS takes religion seriously. In its early years, SIS reached out to Islamic scholars, studied the Qur’an and came to adopt a modernist methodology of interpreting the Qur’an and the Hadiths. Those of us with less knowledge of Islamic scholarship are unaware of the fact that since the mid-19th century (and before), Islamic scholars have offered modernist methodologies of interpreting Islamic texts that have been developed independently but share some characteristics of modern biblical interpretation.

Abdullah Saeed, the Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at Melbourne University and a conference speaker, offered a methodological framework for interpretation that included understanding the Qur’an as a text influenced by the history of the time in which it was written and requiring analysis of how it was and is received as an element of legitimacy. He notes that progressive scholars and classic modernists in Islam emphasize “core Islamic values of justice, goodness and beauty” and engaging both Islamic tradition and modernity on the issues of human rights, social justice, gender justice, and pluralism.” It is this tradition that Sisters in Islam and Islamic feminist scholars including Norani Othman, Fatima Mernissi, and Riffat Hassan have engaged.

Not all at the conference (nor in the broader Muslim feminist community) are in sync with a theological approach to Muslim feminist advocacy. There was loud grumbling on the second day of the conference from feminists who want nothing to do with religion. For them, the task of Muslim feminism is to secure pluralism and democratic legislation in Muslim countries, based solely on human rights theory and treaty obligations.

Zainah Anwar weighed in on this approach in an opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune:

The decision of so many activists to ignore religion has had undesirable consequences. It has left the field wide open for the most conservative forces within Islam to define, dominate and set parameters of what Islam is and is not.

Anwar makes sense. In many Muslim-majority countries civil family law is based on Shariah. To try to change those laws without addressing its underlying religiosity and offering a respectful but different understanding of the Qur’an is unlikely to succeed. Moreover, in some countries where Shariah is not accepted as civil law, Shariah courts exist within the Muslim community and Muslim women are urged by their families to take issues of family law to these courts rather than civil courts. There have also been efforts by Muslim conservatives in the UK and Canada to pass legislation that would make Shariah courts the legal arbiters of family law for Muslims. These moves have been opposed by Muslim women and human rights advocates although some mainstream political leaders have naively assumed that recognition of such religious courts was an act of respect for cultural diversity.

Shariah is already interpreted differently from country to country, used and abused to justify practices that limit women’s human rights. Women are stoned to death and imprisoned for adultery, and even for reporting rape. Custody laws, which automatically award children to husbands, keep women in abusive marriages. In some countries, women can be divorced without their consent and with no provision for support. So-called honor killings go unpunished; girls’ education is limited or forbidden; women are beaten with impunity by husbands, fathers and sons.

One moderator of a “talk show”-format session, in which women leaders described their personal efforts to change conditions for women, called them “warriors.” In some quarters of feminism and religion, such a word would raise hackles. We are a “kind and gentle people.” But in other circles we combine a fierce sense of bravery and rage, a willingness to do battle for women with the instruments of reason, scholarship, and compassion in pursuing justice and equality. Let us celebrate all the strategies women use to survive and thrive.

Radical Books Raise Fears in Indonesia of Spread of Militants’ Ideas

9 02 2009

SOLO, Indonesia — At a small, back-street bookstore here, the young employees, wearing matching green skullcaps and sporting wispy chin beards, stock books with titles like “Waiting for the Destruction of Israel” and “Principles of Jihad.”


Peter Gelling for The International Herald Tribune
In Solo, a cluster of publishers have issued Islamist texts, which do not sell well but popularize radical ideology. One book was by a man involved in the Bali bombings that killed 202 people.

The New York Times

Solo is known as a bastion of a conservative brand of Islam.
They work quietly, listening to the voice of a firebrand Islamic preacher playing on the store’s sound system, his sermon peppered with outbursts of machine-gun fire.
Another young man, a customer, sifts through a pile of DVDs that chronicle the conflicts in Chechnya, Afghanistan and Sudan. T-shirts, stickers and pins on sale at the back of the store are emblazoned with slogans like “Support Your Local Mujahedeen” and “Taliban All-Stars.”
The jihadi books at the store, which is called Arofah, have been made available by a small but growing group of publishers in and around Solo, a commercial city known as a bastion of conservative Islam.
Many of the publishers openly support the ideological goals of Jemaah Islamiyah, a banned Southeast Asia terrorist network that has been implicated in most of the major terrorist bombings in Indonesia.
The publishers, about 12 so far, still have limited prospects for sales and influence. Radical books generally do not sell well in Indonesia, where a vast majority of the population of 240 million practice a moderate brand of Islam.
A book by one of the Bali bombers, whose attacks on nightclubs in 2002 killed 202 people, is considered a success for its genre but sold only about 10,000 copies.
Nevertheless, the publishers have caught the attention of some counterterrorism experts, who fear they are proof of how interconnected, and resilient, the Jemaah Islamiyah movement is in Indonesia.
By most accounts, the Indonesian authorities have had great success in weakening Jemaah Islamiyah’s militant arm since the Bali bombings, jailing or killing most of its top leaders. But they have been less successful in fighting the organization’s ideology, which counterterrorism experts say spreads within an informal association of groups operating in mosques, prisons and schools around the country, providing a continuing source of recruitment.

“The most interesting aspect is what the publishing operations reveal about the overlapping networks binding Jemaah Islamiyah together,” said Sidney R. Jones, an analyst with the nonprofit International Crisis Group in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital.

“This organization is not some Arab import,” Ms. Jones said of Jemaah Islamiyah. “It’s an extraordinary social organization linked by family, schools, culture, training and now businesses.”
She notes that Solo is not only the base for the publishers, but also the site of Pesantren al-Mukmin, an Islamic boarding school that has educated some of the country’s most notorious extremists. Some of the publishers have taught at the school, and Abu Bakar Bashir, a militant Islamic cleric who helped found the school, originally conceived of the idea of opening publishing houses in Solo that could specialize in books on Islam, Ms. Jones said. Mr. Bashir served time in prison on conspiracy charges in several bombings, including those in Bali.
The International Crisis Group, an organization established to prevent or resolve deadly conflicts, says there is a chance that the growth in publishers of radical books could have an upside, possibly indicating that Jemaah Islamiyah is beginning to wage jihad through the printed page rather than violent acts.
“Some publishers may be playing a more positive than negative role, directing members into above-ground activities and enabling them to promote a jihadi message without engaging in violence,” said a report issued last year by the International Crisis Group.
But Indonesian authorities say that the message of jihad, once put into book form, often enters classrooms and Islamic study circles, ultimately helping to draw young people into Jemaah Islamiyah’s ranks. And that could allow the militants to regroup as a potent fighting force.
Most of the books celebrating radical Islamic thought are Indonesian translations of Middle Eastern works. But the publishers are also picking up the works of some local authors.
One was Imam Samudra, who was executed for his role in the terrorist attacks in Bali in 2002.
The publishers are also hoping to publish the work of another Bali bomber, Ali Ghufron, better known as Mukhlas, the former operations chief for Jemaah Islamiyah.
Before his execution last year, he wrote 10 books, including an autobiography that his lawyer says portrays the Bali bombings as justifiable acts of vengeance for the ill treatment of Muslims around the world.
Solo’s publishers can afford to print such jihadi books by piggybacking on a broader trend: the ballooning demand in Indonesia for mainstream Islamic texts.
Books that explore the Islamic faith — addressing issues like how to be a good Muslim woman, or Islamic beliefs about life after death — are the biggest sellers here now. One popular love story with an Islamic theme sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was recently made into a movie.
“The mainstream Islamic publishing industry is booming right now,” said Setia Darma Madjid, chairman of the Indonesian Book Publishers Association. “Writers and publishers recognize that these themes appeal to readers right now, and so they are rolling out hundreds of books on the subject.”

At least some publishers of radical texts say they, too, are just meeting market demand, not trying to spread an ideology.

One such publisher is Bambang Sukirno, who owns the Aqwam Group and its imprint Jazera, which got its start with Imam Samudra’s first book. He said he was only addressing a topical subject, just as “journalists and others around the world are doing.”

“We see that this ‘terrorism’ phenomenon, whether you like it or not, has seized space in this world,” he said.

So far, the government has taken no action against the publishers despite its crackdown on Islamists. Officials are worried about terrorist attacks but are also trying to nurture their young democracy and the freedoms that democracy guarantees.

“The publication of such material is an issue; we are not very happy about it,” said one senior counterterrorism official in the government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “However, because we are in the process of democratization, it is problematic how we would be able to control the publication of such material.”

Mr. Sukirno said he was not worried that the government would shut down his company.
“Democracy in Indonesia is thriving, and if the government ever tried to interfere in the publishing industry, well, that would be dangerous,” he said. “Interference would just give birth to waves of resistance and undermine democracy.

“Books,” he said, “are a reflection of a civilized nation.”

US think-tank warns of more attacks on city

3 02 2009

3 Feb 2009, 0234 hrs IST,
S Balakrishnan, TNN :

MUMBAI: The Rand Corporation, a highly-respected US think-tank, has warned of more terror strikes in India in the “forseeable future”. It has also stated that the 26/11 Mumbai attack had “local assistance”. TOI was the first to report about the Lashkar-e-Taiba “fidayeens” getting local support to carry out their operation. But the investigators are still to explore the local angle.
The warning of future attacks came in the course of a testimony given by Brian Jenkins of the corporation before the US senate committee on homeland security and government affairs on January 28. It is titled `Lessons learned from the Mumbai attacks’.
Jenkins said India will continued to face a serious jihadi terrorist threat from Pakistan-based terrorist groups. “India lacks military options that have strategic-level effects without a significant risk of a military response by Pakistan. Neither the Indian or US policy is likely to be able to reduce that threat significantly in the short to medium-term. Most likely, the threat will continue to grow. Other extremists in India will inevitably find inspiration and instruction from the Mumbai attacks,” he observed.
Apart from targeting the high-profile Taj and Trident hotels, which have a large number of foreigners, the 26/11 attackers also targeted ordinary people at CST rail terminus, Jews at Nariman Point and foreigners at Leopold Cafe.
Jenkins said, terrorists designed the Mumbai attack to do what the authorities were not expecting. “There were no truck bombs or people attempting to smuggle bombs onto trains, as in previous attacks. Since attacks against high-profile soft targets are relatively easy and cheap to mount, such institutions will remain targets of future attacks. Many of India’s older symbolic buildings were not built with security considerations in mind or are at exposed locations.
Indian security agencies have taken Jenkin’s analysis seriously and are urging the government to take appropriate measures.