In my early twenties, I remember being seated next to a pretty Frenchwoman at a friend’s birthday dinner in Manila. Shortly after we were introduced, and seemingly unconnected with any pre-existing strand of conversation, she proclaimed to the table: “I’d never marry a Muslim man.”
“It’s a little soon for us to be discussing marriage,” I joked.
However, I was annoyed. (Perhaps even disappointed, it occurs to me now, since I still recall the incident almost two decades later.) In the cosmopolitan bit of the pre-Sept. 11 US where I then lived, local norms of politeness meant that I had never before heard such a remark, however widely held the woman’s sentiments might have been.
Islamophobia, in all its guises, seeks to minimize the importance of the individual and maximize the importance of the group. Yet our instinctive stance ought to be one of suspicion toward such endeavors. For individuals are undeniably real. Groups, on the other hand, are assertions of opinion.
We ought therefore to look more closely at the supposed monolith to which we apply the word Islam. It is said that Muslims believe in female genital mutilation, the surgical removal of all or part of a girl’s clitoris. Yet I have never, in my 41 years, had a conversation with someone who described themselves as Muslim and believed this practice to be anything other than a despicably inhuman abomination. Until I first read about it in a newspaper, probably in my twenties, I would have thought it impossible that such a ritual could even exist.
Similarly, many millions of Muslims apparently believe that women should have no role in politics. However, many millions more have had no qualms electing women prime ministers in Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Indeed, this month’s Pakistani elections witnessed a record 448 women running for seats in the national and provincial assemblies.
Two of my great-grandparents sent all of their daughters to university. One of them, my grandmother, was the chairperson of the All Pakistan Women’s Association and dedicated her life to the advancement of women’s rights in the country. However, among those descended from the same line are women who do not work and who refuse to meet men who are not their blood relatives.
I have female relatives my age who cover their heads, others who wear miniskirts, some who are university professors or run businesses, others who choose rarely to leave their homes. I suspect if you were to ask them their religion, all would say “Islam.” However, if you were to use that term to define their politics, careers or social values, you would struggle to come up with a coherent, unified view.
Lived religion is a very different thing from strict textual analysis. Very few people of any faith live their lives as literalist interpretations of scripture. Many people have little or no knowledge of scripture at all. Many others who have more knowledge choose to interpret what they know in ways that are convenient, or that fit their own moral sense of what is good. Still others view their religion as a kind of self-accepted ethnicity, but live lives utterly divorced from any sense of faith.
When the Pakistani Taliban were filmed flogging a young woman in Swat as punishment for her allegedly “amoral” behavior, there was such popular revulsion in Pakistan that the army launched a military campaign to retake the region.