Here’s a fascinating example of the political realities in the Muslim majority world today. It shows what that real world is like and the alternatives for being politically effective, taking us far beyond the debates of those who try to prove their cases merely by citing this or that Islamic text or apologist.

Mustafa Akyol is one of the most interesting Turkish writers today, and recently wrote a column entitled, “Violence against women as ‘Jahiliyyah.’” Akyol is exploring what kind of strategy should be used in trying to moderate Muslim-majority societies and perhaps Islam itself.

Akyol’s starting point was a statement by Turkish Family and Social Policies Minister Fatma Sahin: “Violence against women is a habit of the age of Jahiliyyah, and we will fight against it with values as well.”

Sahin was saying that violence against women stems from pre-Islamic (Jahiliyyah) society and that it is against Islam. Akyol sums up: she “defined misogyny as an un-Islamic attitude that has lived within the Muslim societies not because of Islam but rather in spite of it.”

Now how does one interpret this? First, it is true that the low status of women in societies that are Muslim today was in place before Islam existed. Notice that Sahin did not say – which a male Islamist might – that Islam has solved women’s problems and everything is great. But of course this also contains a lie, since Islam has always interpreted and almost always practiced, sustained and made systematic that oppression, and made it far harder to change, even 1,300 years later. After all, women’s status in most of ancient Europe was about as low as in the pre-Islamic Middle East.

Things have changed in one region but not in the other.

Akyol doesn’t make those points but focuses on what the minister is trying to do: “It is therefore possible to oppose the seemingly ‘Islamic’ persecution of women with an Islamic argument for emancipation, as various Islamic feminists have done – such as Fatima Mernissi in Morocco, or Hidayet Sefkatli Tuksal in Turkey.”

In other words, these women are not explicitly arguing that Islam must be changed; they are arguing that it should be properly applied. And note this point well – that means that in the real world, it must be “reformed” from the way it is understood and applied today.

Let’s remember that this has been a common argument in Christianity and Judaism. If the original intent was properly interpreted, say the reformers, then things would be different. This can be applied to slavery, the status of women, and dozens of other things. One can argue that such changes can go too far in watering down theology into a highly politicized, neo-Marxist, “social justice” approach. But the basic concept of rethinking and modernizing in the guise – which may be totally sincere – of restoring religious practice to the Creator’s true intention is quite sound.

It is perfectly legitimate to point out that Islamists like the ruling party in Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood have no intention of improving women’s lot – quite the contrary, they want to worsen their situation. Therefore, “Islamist feminism” should not be an excuse for putting or supporting Islamists in power. But if they are in power and the strength of Islam in a society is so tremendous, can women make a secularist argument knowing it has no chance of success? And let’s make a clear distinction between a country like Lebanon or Tunisia, where such an alternative is possible, and places where it isn’t.

Akyol continues: “I also expect that two mutually opposing groups will strongly disagree with this point of view. The first one is the anti-Islamists, who believe that Islam suppresses women, which makes it a horrible religion.

The second group would be the Islamists who believe that Islam suppresses women, which is what in fact makes it a great religion. In other words, they agree on the nature of Islam, but they just have very different takes on it.”

And then he goes on to say: “The real nature of Islam and its take on women is not the key issue here, though. We can have different opinions about it.... When it comes to policy, however, people’s perceptions on the real nature of Islam are more important than the reality itself.”

And thus it makes sense for the minister to appeal “to a broadly religious society through the religious values they uphold.”

He goes on: “Of course, this is not a political line that would be approved by secular fundamentalists – those who believe that religion should be separated not only from the state, but also from politics and even civil society. They would rather argue that all religious arguments should be put aside, and that all political and cultural discussions should be carried out in secular terms.”

He argues that this view is wrong since religion should also have a right to speak out on public issues and “if a society happens to be religious, why not advance liberal causes through religious values? Haven’t we seen how effective that could be in the Christian case for the civil rights movement in the United States for example, articulated by towering figures such as Martin Luther King?”

There is no simple or right answer here. The Islamist or Islamic reformers might be easily beaten by the authoritarian Islamist leaders; they might also be used as fronts by the Islamists to fool people at home and abroad into thinking that radicals are really – or might be – moderate.

In thinking about Akyol’s argument the phrase “a snowball’s chance in Hell” ran through my mind.

Akyol concludes: “Hence, I only hope that policy makers in the Muslim world such as Sahin bring more religious arguments for the emancipation of women and other liberal causes. In fact, that is exactly what this troubled region – which has lately been trapped in a vicious cycle between the anti-religious modernity [remember that radical Arab nationalism was generally very anti-religious – BR] and anti-modern religiosity – needs.”

I’m not saying Akyol is right. If I were a Turk I might think differently, or simply be desperate enough to see his proposed strategy as the only hope. But people internationally should be aware of these debates and these very difficult situations faced by those who live in increasingly Islamist countries.

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) journal. His latest books are
The Israel- Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave- Macmillan). GLORIA Center is at www.gloria-center.org

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