Last week ABC’s 20/20 aired a special on: Islam, Questions and Answers — intended to demystify this peaceful, yet seemingly frenetic religion, by answering the questions of “ordinary” Americans.
There were the usual dramatic voice overs; interviews with anti-American Arabs; heart-string tugging, sweetly smiling children teaching America the basics of Islam; the all-American Arab-Muslim football player who forgets to pray; sympathetic non-Muslim scholars; and peaceful scenes of your everyday Muslim living and working in hometown USA. All interspersed with scenes of foreign Muslims burning American flags, stoning women, scary women in black burqas and the destruction of the Twin Towers. They even interviewed burqa banning French officials, one niqaab wearing American convert and progressive Muslim activists Irshad Manji and (former Muslim) Ayyan Hirsi Ali.
The online responses to the show range from anti-Islam activists saying that Diane Sawyer and co. got Islam wrong by relying on the moderate voices and ignoring the freethinking apostates, to pro-Muslims saying that Diane Sawyer and co. got Islam wrong by relying too much on the progressive voice and ignoring the moderate religious scholars.
While the voices of “mainstream” Islam (whatever that is) were represented mainly through non-Muslim scholars, Muslim community activists like Edina Lecovic and Eboo Patel, there was indeed an overbearing representation of progressive female Muslims speaking on behalf of all women in Islam. Another problem with the report was that African American Muslims, the largest group of Muslims in America were completely ignored. As were Latino Muslims and converts. Arab Americans were specifically showcased, and compared to overseas, anti-Western Arabs (conflated with Afghani fighters of course — ignoring in the meantime South Asian, Indonesian, and African Muslims), to set up the problematic, essentialist categories of: American Islam = good; foreign Islam = bad.
I actually enjoyed the show. It was sensational but it wasn’t bad. However, the dichotomy that Diane Sawyer sets up between “moderate” and “extremist” Islam and the reaction to the show from both sides of the spectrum left me wondering who the Media thinks speaks for Islam. Is it the Conservative scholar? The ex-Muslim critic? The Progressive? The Reformist? The atheist Muslim? The Sufi lover?
When it came to the question on women, paraphrased, “in a religious culture ruled by men, where women are only property, what does Islam really say about women?” The answer from the progressive representatives acknowledged that women get the short end of the stick in a religion that has yet to deal with misogynistic traditions. And this is what bothered some Muslims about the show. That instead of concentrating on Ayyan Hirsi Ali who calls for a radical revision of the Qur’an itself, 20/20 should have showcased a “typical” moderate religious woman like Amina Wadud or Ingrid Mattson, who would have focused more on the “Qur’an does support women’s rights and no update is necessary because it’s all in the interpretation” approach.
The problem I discovered after a lively FB discussion*, is that while valid, Amina Wadud is not “typical.” She’s just representative of one voice. One perspective. Sure, her particular, empowered-feminist, liberal perspective tends to resonate with me — but her perspective shouldn’t be used to the exclusion of others. Irshad Manji and Ayyan Hirsi Ali also have valid perspectives. And while I wouldn’t necessarily only use them to represent Muslim women, featuring them was not a disservice to Muslim women or Islam in America. In fact, Irshad Manji was pretty much on the “let’s reclaim Islam from the patriarchal bastards” bandwagon and didn’t have anything negative to say about Islam.
There are problems in choosing only one perspective to represent an entire religion. It’s one reason why Islamophobia and extremism are so easily spread — all you have to do is find the right person willing to say that Islam calls for the murder of all non-Muslims, and run with it. Without context and without other opinions on the subject, that one tiny, negative perspective has the potential to influence hundreds in innumerable ways.
Sabina England is a self described socialist-anarchist-atheist-Muslim, a play-write, and filmmaker and is a proud activist of the Muslim Punk scene. Muslim Punk started around 2002 when novelist Micheal Muhammad Knight self published and distributed his novel, The Taqwacores. Filled with complex characters aimed at deconstructing Islam from within (such as the burqa-clad riot grrl who crosses out passages in the Qur’an that she doesn’t like), the book ended up spurring on a new generation of North American Muslims trying to reconcile faith, identity and their hardcore punk scene.
The film takes place in Pakistan with an imam denigrating Western society and negatively influencing members of his congregation. His daughter shows up to the mosque dressed as a punk claiming to feel liberated and powerful. In a fit of rage he disowns her, and his words to kill infidels are taken seriously by a young man who is swayed by the imam’s anti-Western tirades. He kidnaps the daughter with the intent to kill her and maintain the imam’s family honour. In the end, the imam kills the man, saves his daughter and realizes the negative power of his words. It took a Western-influenced punk to show the imam that he can sway more hearts with rainbows and kittens than with hate.
Sabina England is not your Media stereotypical Muslim woman, but she certainly represents. And I just have to say that I love this short. It resonates with me because I’ve played the punk when sermons I’ve heard from the pulpit were just plain wrong, ridiculous or hateful. You may not think that a socialist-anarchist-atheist-Muslim could have the authority to represent Muslim women, but like Irshad Manji or Amina Wadud, Sabina England is a Muslim woman with critical perspectives, and her perspective is just as valid as a woman defending her right to wear niqaab.
Who speaks for Islam is something that doesn’t always have to be manipulated by the Media. And choosing who speaks to the Media for Islam won’t change people’s understanding of Muslims. It will only help them understand one view, and confusion will continue when the other perspectives take centre stage. There are problems within the American Muslim community. Presenting a dichotomy where honour killings only happen in Arabia sets up future fear mongering when the Media has to deal with honour killings that happen at home. What we should be doing instead is demand that the Media combats ignorance and stereotypes in thoughtful ways that don’t actually reinforce problematic stereotypes.