29 April 2008

The face of moderate Islam?

A natural instinct when first meeting someone is to offer your hand in greeting. But as I introduce myself to Imam Zaid Shakir, even this simple exchange highlights our cultural differences. My hand is left empty as Shakir shakes his head at me, though I notice he has no qualms about shaking my male colleague’s hand. I am able to look past this snub but it leaves me feeling very aware of the fact that my gender could affect the way I am considered.
Shakir was not born a Muslim; he was raised in Berkley, California as a Baptist. Having seen the effects of drugs, alcohol and domestic violence within his neighbourhood, Shakir turned to religion for advice on how to address these issues. It wasn’t until he began to study Islam that he found satisfying answers.
Shakir’s study of the religion did not cease with his conversion and he eventually became an imam, a teacher of Islam. He currently teaches at the Zaytuna Institute in California and is an internationally respected lecturer.
In Glasgow to deliver a talk to fellow Muslims about their rights and responsibilities, Shakir is aware of recent media emphasis on radical Islam. He is keen to emphasise that such Muslims are in the minority: “It’s very important to put a more balanced message out there, and for the good to really come to the fore; not only through words but through actions, and having a positive attitude toward others.”
Asked his opinion on the actions of groups such as al-Qaeda, Shakir tells me he does not believe that the motives of such people are purely religious.
“Most Muslims understand that in no way, shape or form are we to constitute a threat to the public order and security of anyone in this society. I think that those groups are more political than Islamic and are probably more interested in advancing a particular political agenda, as opposed to Islam itself. A lot of what they do in some quarters actually sets back the cause of Islam.
“Anyone who murders innocent civilians, no matter what their religion or justifications, is committing a crime against humanity and I don’t think such crimes would be viewed favourably by God.”
Halfway through the interview, I realise that I still have my coat on, due to the fact that I’m unsure of how my clothes will be viewed by the Imam. I’m no stranger to a short skirt and, in the light of his refusal to shake my hand, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that I might be judged for what I’m wearing. With this in mind, I decide to find out what a moderate Muslim thinks about women.
I query the Zaytuna Institute’s current lack of female scholars, and Shakir admits that, whilst there are some female staff who work part-time, none of them teach men. He claims there is nothing to prevent women from teaching male students, but that at the moment, “there’s no need”.
“We could do better in that regard,” he says, “Circumstances haven’t led to that outcome currently, but there’s nothing inherent to our understanding of Islam to stop us from doing that.”
Imam Shakir is noticeably more uncomfortable with this line of questioning, but I continue, wanting to understand why I was feeling such pressure to keep my coat on.
The issue of whether or not a woman covering her head or face is indicative of oppression has been long-debated. Imam Shakir tells me he feels women are free to make that choice, and that a bigger problem is found when someone is prevented from wearing a headscarf.
“In France, if a girl wears a scarf she can’t go to a public school. I think this is an expression of repression so we say a woman’s free to do as she chooses.”
Although keen to stress that women have an absolutely free choice, the Imam admits that he would prefer that the scarf be worn as he thinks it an “obligatory” part of dressing modestly. Shakir tells me he accepts that some women might feel forced to cover their heads or faces, but that this is extremely rare.
“There might be come young girls whose fathers force them to wear a scarf, but that’s not very common at all. If anything, you have more women complaining that their husbands are trying to force them not to wear a scarf because they don’t want to draw attention.”
The Imam also counters that if a Muslim woman did feel pressure to cover up then that was no different to pressures faced by non-Muslim women.
“In the summertime all the girls are running around with their bellybuttons and midriffs exposed, not necessarily because they have the figure for that style but because there’s a cultural climate. Have they made a free choice?
“I think there’s more pressure on the people who follow Vogue; I don’t think you will find any Muslim girl who feels tortured because she really doesn’t want to wear the hijab. In comparison, how many women out there feel they’ve been reduced to such an inhumane level by following a style or tattooing this, or piercing that? In the end they just give up and end up either suffering from anorexia or committing suicide or something.”
The Imam concedes that countries like Saudi Arabia may have gone too far in their treatment of women but is quick to point out that other Islamic countries are much better.
“There can be abuses anywhere people don’t understand the religion properly. Some policies that some governments engage in are not enlightened and might be viewed as being oppressive to women but if you go to somewhere like Malaysia, you will find extremely enlightened approaches.” Imam Shakir then tells me that he would like to hear his colleague delivering a lecture and so the interview is over.
While it’s clear that the Imam represents a much more moderate interpretation of Islam than is sometimes depicted in the media, I feel confused by his claim that Muslim woman have a free choice over whether or not to cover their heads. Throughout the interview I had a free choice as to whether or not I take my coat off, and yet I didn’t; not because I preferred to keep it on, but because I was uncomfortably aware that my choice to wear a short skirt could be thought of as immoral. Perhaps if Shakir had explained his reasons for not taking my hand, rather than simply shaking his head at me, I would have felt more at ease. As it was, I completely understood why some women ‘chose’ to cover their heads or faces, in order to not be judged immodest.

by Sarah Smith

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