Defending the Muslims Should Not Entail Idealizing Them


By Tricia Pethic
As a graduate student of Middle Eastern History, deleteI endured many assigned readings on nationalism, identity and other sleep-inducing topics. But I remember one concept in particular. It stated that when empires gave way to the creation of modern nation-states, any “side issues” which would draw attention away from the creation of “the nation,” were submerged by the larger cause. “The nation” was the mantra of this period, and any talk of subgroups (religion, gender, etc.) was seen as divisive and provincial. “The nation” demanded the complete intellectual obedience of its citizens, even if this meant that certain groups would have to wait in the wings for their concerns to be addressed.

The same problem has emerged in the American Muslim community. As we find ourselves having to emphasize even our basic humanity, there is the same rallying cry to downplay any “side issues” that may portray us in a negative light. In the name of “the American Muslim nation,” we have allowed any issues that threaten positive publicity to be shunned, for we must not be caught vulnerable in a time when we must be ‘Muslim Boy Scouts’: peaceful, patriotic, kind, chivalrous… and never, ever angry and oppressive.

In a recent conversation with a Muslim activist, I realized the degree to which the political environment has silenced these internal issues. Here was a person I consider quite intelligent, disagreeing with me on the following statement: “domestic violence exists in the Muslim community to a greater extent than we know, due to being under-reported.” I was shocked to find such an intellectual person reacting with anger and denial. He demanded statistics, ignoring my argument that abuse is under-reported and thus not included in official statistics. My statement is old news to almost any imam (religious leader) or community activist. Ironically, his reaction did more to embody the “angry Muslim male” stereotype that he was trying to avoid, than did any words of mine. He said domestic violence in the Muslim community is, and I quote, “almost non-existent.”

Nevermind that as a woman I may have more access to stories of abuse than did my male counterpart, and nevermind efforts to create women’s shelters like Muslimat al-Nisaa Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Nevermind the ultimate example of attention to external scrutiny while ignoring domestic issues: a television executive who could wage a multi-million dollar campaign to start a TV channel to build bridges with America, while he could not build a bridge to his own wife. But, nevermind.

Saying “nevermind” allows us to be mindlessly dedicated to “the nation,” and forces us to devalue internal issues of injustice. Either you are contributing to a positive image of our community, or you are contributing to a negative image and must be silenced. Either you are ‘with us’ or ‘against us.’ Sound familiar?

Is the task at hand to prove that we are angels, or Muslims who strive towards the Divine and sometimes fail? Public scrutiny is intense, but we should not let it drive us towards essentialist statements such as: “Muslims cannot be terrorists, anyone who commits terrorism is not Muslim!” or “Muslim women wear hijab by choice,” or “Muslims do not hate Jews,” or domestic violence is “almost non-existent.” We know in our heart of hearts that there are exceptions to these blanket statements, but we do not realize these exceptions as a large enough problem until they balloon out of control. Only then do we react. Often it is too late and we have already lost the trust of those who were “the exceptions”; those who needed our help when they were abused, radicalized, etc.

Brothers and sisters, we do not have the luxury of picking and choosing our issues. A daw`ah activist has his own argument as to why daw`ah is the most important matter. A political activist has his own argument as to why political activism is most important. A women’s activist has her own and a mosque president has his own. We have so many high-priority issues that it makes “prioritization” sound like an empty corporate slogan. This is not a time to tear each other down. This is a time to value each person for whom Allah has made it their heart’s cause to solve a particular problem.

Finally, we must stop speaking in essentialist language. If we continue to do so we will reveal something far more shameful: that we are willing to sacrifice attention to internal injustices on the altar of our “public image.” Each time we downplay domestic violence, for example, a victim of abuse is not only silenced by cultural forces of “shame,” she carries the additional weight of keeping her silence to ensure a positive image for the rest of us. Whether real or symbolic, it is one thing to endure a knife wound, and quite another to be asked not to scream.

Tricia Pethic is an aspiring chaplain in Hartford Seminary’s Islamic chaplaincy program and holds a master’s degree in Near Eastern Studies. She was a board member of the Islamic Center of Tucson, 2006-2007. She maintains a blog, thecivilmuslim.wordpress.com.

Print Friendly

11 Comments

  1. Ahmed says:

    Excellent, concise and to-the-point-article. I don’t see why one would want to cover up such attributes that our communities do suffer from. Yes, it may hurt us to hear such things occurring (we would like to think we don’t have some of the problematic issues that other societies or groups have), but it is much better to face them now, as the author stated, before it gets so out of our control that it is far too late to act.

    I even know of a couple in my local community where there is a history of maltreatment by the husband towards his wife. Additionally, even the issue of a 2nd wife has arisen, where it seems that the newer (and of course, younger) wife is marrying the brother for good, pure reasons (which is found out not to be true once the Nikaah is completed), while the husband tells his first wife (and mother to three children) that she should” remain as the first wife patiently (???) and Allah (swt) will Reward you, etc” or some such rhetoric . . .

    Forgive me if this isn’t in good taste, but it is accounts such as these that make me and others in the community feel saying “Where have we come to? Is this really how ‘far’ we have reached as a community?” We have so many issues and in some cases, the people involved try to cover it up using our Faith to somehow justify it or hide it’s true colors (wrong, ill-advised, unflattering or shameful).

    Anyways, this is just what came to mind after reading the article. Sorry for the “rant”

    Jazak’Allahu Khairan for bringing up this important issue.

  2. María M says:

    Assalamualaikom,

    Thank you very much for this article, I do believe that the first step for Healing is acknowledging that a problem exists. It seems that you talk about facts, then bringing them to Light will help to solve them. It will take a time for the people to assume and recognize it, but the first step is done. Alhamdulillah.
    God bless you. Thank you for being who you are and for all your efforts to Lightening the darkness.

    Salamat

  3. Amani says:

    Assalamu alaykum wa rahmatullah,

    Excellent article. Thank you so much for bringing this issue into light, Miss Pethic. Its really sad how many Muslim women have to endure pain silently due to us being put under the radar. If we need to progress as a healthy community, we should acknowledge our issues, empower our women and face it with courage and a positive mindset so that we can envision a better future. Regardless of who says what about us.

    Love,
    Amani

  4. mike says:

    yes, women issues are under reported and not solved usually ending up in violent death or divorce etc.

    The problem is same as in western society. Its either the entitled males ( with good socio-economics indicators) who commit these crimes or poorly educated men with bad socioeconomic indicators. Both cases there is usually abuse of alcohol or some other substance on part of the aggressor male. Aggressor female in Muslim is unheard of; they might exist as the Lochness Monster exists but I doubt it.

    The problem is even we talk about a problem it blown to into a epidemic in the media and
    thats why people don’t like to talk about it. I mean in Canada and in BC. It is a fact that one in six women will be assaulted in their lifetime living in BC, Canada. Nobody makes a big fuss over it. Even though this a first world country and one the best places to live in the world.
    Nothing; but if you say one in six Muslim women will be assaulted during their lifetime in Pakistan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia or Kuwait etc… This becomes an assault on Islam; on Islam treats women etc… all that bs.

    This is a shame but that what it is. Life.
    Plus the western society also has been unable to solve this problem.
    I mean women shelters are fine but they solve problems after the beating, rapes etc.
    And then these women lives generally are not well even if they escape. I mean exceptions exist but majority no.

    May Allah help us all.

  5. Tricia says:

    I am the author. Sometimes we Muslims give the media more power than it has. Sometimes the problem is already epidemic when the media discovers it. I think this was the case with radicalism and domestic violence in our community. We allowed these issues to creep on far too long because we hoped it would just go away.

    With regard to Canadian or US domestic violence statistics, these are irrelevant to my position. The tit-for-tat reminders of Western crimes vs. Muslim crimes only weaken our condemnations of injustices and reveal a colonized mindset that constantly seeks to prove that Western social problems are worse than ours. In other words the “West” is the ideal which we must constantly knock down. This mentality makes a false separation between our communities and the dominant culture. Whether we like it or not we are connected to the dominant culture because it affects us and we sometimes mirror its problems (and its positives, I don’t want to seem either/or).

    With regard to accepting this problem as part of life, we cannot give up before we have even started. For the most part, this community has not built infrastructures. There are few soup kitchens, few transitional housing for those coming out of prison, few shelters to take in abused women, etc. Until this community puts its money towards these infrastructures, it is not in a position to say whether or not women who go to these shelters have improved lives. I think that is a hard argument to make anyhow, since escaping abuse is always an improvement upon keeping one’s self and one’s children within an abusive home.

    The solution is to support those working on internal problems such as the home with as much enthusiasm as we support dawah or public relations efforts. Rather than threatening the umma, they are actually seeking to make it healthier. Plus, helping the oppressed is simply the right thing to do. When we take care of the weak among us, we are doing God’s will, insha Allah. As salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh.

  6. María M says:

    Assalamualaikom,
    I agree in everything you say, Tricia, and I see you determined to help to improve the situation. Please, forgive me if I´m not right, but I see through your comments that you are talking about meassures to take once the damage is done.
    I´m sure you have thought too, how to go to the roots of the problem, and I mean with this how to educate children that are going to be adult men and women, and how to reeducate the ones that are damaged by the abuse . If we want to have a Healthy Home we have to put Healthy Column Anchorage and all of this comes through education, but through Real Education, and I mean with this, Education based on facts, I teach you what I practice.
    Violence not always comes associated to drugs, … there are many other factors, … and, of course, as you said we have the responsibilitie of taking care of the one that need it.
    We can improve, step by step, little by little, one by one, we can do it, I believe there are out there many people like you, God bless you all, waking up others is not an easy task.
    Life can be improved because it is this way now doesn´t mean it has to be this way always, … I believe God wants the best for all of us, and to be abused is not good for anyone, I don´t know if we´ll see the total change but I believe your article is a signal that we are already changing.
    Thank you very much, Tricia. I thank God for you.
    Salamat

  7. Interesting. I think I’ve been guilty of making these “essentialist statements” at times. Ten days after 9-11 I published an article here urging Muslims not to cower in fear, but to come forward and engage the non-Muslim community, and not to apologize for the 9-11 attacks (because we law-abiding Muslims did not commit them) but to present the beauty of Islam instead.

    The article seemed to latch on to some need in the Muslim psyche at the time and it was widely reprinted on the internet under names like “Muslims, Stand Up!” and “Muslims, Don’t Apologize”.

    Looking back almost ten years later I think that I made many good points, but I think my advice to completely bypass the issue of terrorism was misguided. You can’t be an effective daa’iyy by completely avoiding the most pressing issue of the day. Unfortunately the article is everywhere now and I can’t change it.

  8. Ibrahim Long says:

    As-Salamu ‘Alaikum Tricia,

    Very interesting point. It really draws attention to how many more Muslims (or so it appears to me) speak of how we need to improve our media relations, while fewer speak of how we can improve our community. No doubt that a more positive media relationship should play a critical role in our community’s agenda, but, as you aptly pointed out, let us not shun the other needs of the community in acquiring it.
    Jazaki Allah khair.

    wasalam,
    Ibrahim

  9. muslimah says:

    well said, we should first and foremost try to look and eradicate the problems in our own communities by proper education and upbringing. Another well hidden issue is about sexual molestation and abuse rampant in all communties, this is a subject hardly touched upon. May Allah guide everyone to be God-fearing and Righteous. ameen.

  10. anon says:

    Assalaamu Alaikum, Thank you for this article and for the comments.

    If we think we are guarding secrets, then we are guarding some of the worst-kept secrets around.

    On domestic violence, for instance, our community’s “dirty laundry” has been hanging out for years. When we Muslims were busy not talking about, here’s a brief list of non-Muslim folks who were (and still are) busy actively dealing with it: Neighbors, police, lawyers, judges, doctors, hospital staff, teachers, social workers, counselors, therapists, shelter staff.

    While it is advised to hide the sins that Allah has covered, we need to realize when the game is up and our sins have been exposed (at least in a general way). We can no longer afford to act like little kids, who think they are invisible when their hands cover their eyes.

    I’m not talking about breaching privacy or breaking confidentiality, or individuals publicly recounting their sins in gushes of self-confession. But if it has been exposed in a general way that our religious community has social problems (surprise!), then as believers we take it as a good in which Allah has placed myriad benefits.

    Dealing with our own internal social problems in a forthright, faith-based, kind way — reaching the highest levels of ihsan — benefits our own communities and in turn helps the larger society which is grappling with the same kinds of issues. Inshallah.

    Jazakum Allahu khairan.

Leave a Reply

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

More in Community, Domestic Violence, Media (173 of 252 articles)