Don’t blame Islam. Its the culture!

Burqa Clad

Defending honor by denying dignity

When Islam is held responsible for the wickedness that is committed under its name, we hear impassioned (and often menacing) defenses being propped up. Most of these (poverty,  lack-of-education, historic injustice…) are easy to dispel [See earlier post]. However, when discussing the backwardness of certain practices in Islamic societies, apologists, tend to take refuge in a more elaborate excuse: Its not Islam – its culture.

Have you noticed that when confronted with backward and barbaric practices such as Burqa or Female Genital Mutilation apologists tend to trot out the old horse (or horse-shit): Its not Islam – its culture. The subtext is that Islam / Koran does not mandate these things and that various (autonomous) societies have adopted various practices and so, Islam should not be held responsible (or maligned) on this score. In this post, I would like to expose the intellectual bankruptcy of such a claim.

Does the communist manifesto (Leninist or Maoist) explicitly enunciate Gulags? Does it specifically warrant the secret-police? No. Does that mean that communism is not responsible for the horrible crimes that were committed by secret-police units or in the gulags? To take a more modern (and prosaic) example, does the fashion-world explicitly endorse unhealthy eating or unhealthy body-image? No. But does that mean we do not hold it responsible for the fact that the manner in which they have conducted themselves has adversely impacted a generation of youngsters (especially girls)?

Islam is what Islam does.

The simple principle is : Communism is what communism does. Similarly, we should feel no hardship in asserting that Islam is what Islam does! If Islamic societies have adopted certain practices or traditions based on Islamic doctrine, then Islam is culpable! This is more so if the self-styled custodians of Islam have never expended much effort to bring about any change/corrections.

In fact, we see a belligerent insistence on continuing such barbaric traditions on the grounds that these are socio-religious customs and therefore exempt from critique. We have bought into the argument that the world is a rich tapestry of cultures & traditions and we need to accord respect to all and in equal measure. It proceeds from this that just as we (in the west) have some customs that others find unwholesome and offensive, the reverse is equally true and who are we to say that one custom is better than the other?

Seems rather water-tight does it not?  Well… not to me!

Its the Principle.

Here’s the problem: Our criticisms are NOT about a culture. Our criticisms are about specific practices for the specific reason that they are in violation of human-rights. In other words the argument is not about one kind of music v/s another. Neither is it about one dance-form v/s another. Nor is it about one kind of dress-form or another. It is about the underlying principle of human-rights whose violation is manifest in the specific practice itself.

For instance, when the west frowns upon the Saudi practice of denying women the right to drive, it is because of the underlying principle that individual equality and freedom are inviolable and institutionalized curtailment of the same is akin to human-rights violation. In fact the criticism against prohibiting women from driving is actually directed at the Saudi government and not overtly against Islam. It is the Saudi establishment that rejects this position specifically because of their Islamic sensibilities. In other words, it is the Saudi government that has made the womens’ driving issue an Islamic one rather than a cultural one.

burqa21Secondly, when there is an outcry against female genital mutilation (in my opinion not enough of an outcry has taken place), it is because of the fact that girls (almost all minors) are coerced into surrendering their bodies which are then subjected to unspeakable barbarism. Since the only defense for this perversion is Islamic insistence on chastity, the responsibility for such practices must be laid at the doorstep of Islamic doctrine – irrespective of the fact that the Koran does not explicitly demand clitorectomy.

Similarly, the burqa-question is NOT about fashion. It is about the institutionalized subjugation and subservience of women that the burqa enforces. It is certainly possible that many (maybe most) Muslim womenfolk choose to wear the burqa in keeping with their traditions. I have no quarrel with that. But if this is indeed the case, why are there laws that prescribe penalties for those that do not? They are there so as to enforce Islamic dictates about the rightful place of women. Since the practice is sponsored by an Islamic dictate, we are within our rights to direct our contempt at Islamic doctrine.

Its not culture –  its Islamic Culture.

The next time you hear someone whine that Islam is being unfairly criticized for a cultural custom, please take the time to ask if any of the leading lights of Islam have expressedly repudiated that custom. If they have not repudiated that custom which purports inheritance from Koranic doctrine, then they have, de facto, ratified it. The ever-so-eager mullahs who find the inspiration to issue fatwas even against the practice of yoga, seem to be surprisingly ambivalent about the practice of FGM and its Islamic lineage. And if they do not reject it, we should feel no hesitation in holding Islamic doctrine responsible for the barbarism it has spawned.

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10 Responses

  1. My two cents, Anthropology 101: you can’t separate culture from religion. They insist that Islam = koran, but ‘it’ only sits on a shelf and collects dust. Priests do things for it, to the extent that the culture gives it/them a role. The priests say their opinions (of some holy book) are supreme. The culture, that is the general population, the herd, may or may not buy that. Look at the pope.

    Modern cultures give the herd itself a voice, and their interests don’t coincide with those of the priests.
    In primitive cultures any conflict is decided in favor of the priests; in modern cultures it’s decided in favor of the herd. It’s in the interests of government to deny the herd a voice, and the priests are useful tools for keeping things primitive. There are muslims that condemn x y z, but the governments will never support them. They’re fighting a last ditch battle against modernity.

  2. well said Uzza.

  3. “… the practice of FGM and its Islamic lineage.”

    I don’t think FGM came from Islam, it is really cultural thing that predates it. Perhaps an honest statement would be that Islam did not help. The conservative Saudi newspaper Al-Ryiadd once had an op-ed against the practice, but as with anything in Saudi Arabia, it had to be discussed within the framework of Islam rather from a humanistic point of view. If the lunatic Wahabis of Saudi Arabia and an overwhelming majority of Muslims don’t practice it, then why ping it to Islam. I agree Islam plays a negative role in almost everything, but not everything is Islam’s fault.

  4. The last time I tried to bring up the Shariah law in Muslim nations such as Saudi, the Muslim guy debating with me said that Saudi, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan are all secular nations (Saudi being a monarchy thus not Islamic) – riiiiiiiiiiiiight, makes a whole lot of sense! /end sarcasm.

  5. OMG! This article just had me shouting ‘i KNOW!!!’ every 5 seconds and nodding along the whole time. The number of times I heard the title of this article in Pakistan! That, and ‘When in Rome’. Thhhhhhppppppt!!! 😛

    Man…I wish I’d known about you when we were living there…you really would’ve been great therapy! 🙂

  6. Gobbycoot,

    You are very kind. Glad you like it so far. I will try and be more regular with updates. I’m just re-surfacing from a month of bone-crunching work.

  7. I follow your blog for quite a long time and should tell you that your articles are always valuable to readers.

  8. the trouble is, the practioners of islam don’t permit interpretation of Koran with changing times. Scriptures, like language, must lend themselves to changing times and changing locales or will become obsolete (like dead language). Bible, for example, instructs that women cover their heads in temples. Today, this is a rare practice, and is prevalent mostly in india ‘cos covering the head is a cultural practice here.

    tthe fundamentals of scriptures must be separated from the ephemera. when the two are confused, problems arise.

    the smartst religions are those which adapt their scriptures to the times and contexts.

  9. last week French government reach to make a law versus “Burqa”.
    Why ?
    why does wearing a Burqa is illegal ? In France like other democratic country ” La declaration des droits de l homme et du citoyen ” just has lost its credibility.
    Liberty of culte and liberty to wear what you want if you just decline your identity to the police and show them your face when they ask you to.
    If only to conceal myself with a Mickey or Darkvador disguise were forbidden too,but it is not the case.I am very disapointed and ashamed by my country now (I don’t quote the name of the actual president….).
    In the street we can see punks or metal rockers fan with T shirts with draws like bloody skulls or a christic croce upside down meaning to be a kind of satanist.
    a lot of young people used to wearing war trellis, a cap etc…showing tattoes, percings or black glasses….
    Burqa is illegal from now because it is religious inspite of our president said “it is more to save dignity and respect of the women than to blame their cult.”
    What hypocrisis ! Almost all those women are very proud of their “diguise”. France like others developed countries has no suitable wearing concerning our culture so we can wear what we want, if you respect the law (concerning nudity for exemple).
    How can we talk about dignity when young girls are dressed very short or showing their breast a bit to much.And what about pornography wich finally is very easy to watch nowaday.
    At last no law could forbid the burqa so we just invented one….SHAME.
    If religious extremism is a problem,If citizens complaint of or else, the only way to fight against it is the JUSTICE. State can attack extremist community like salafism in a tribunal,that’s it.

  10. You are a very insightful writer with a refreshingly objective and honest view towards islam. I do not fear Islam, I fear what it can do and become. You must write an article exploring how the thesis statement of Islam is that it is about ‘PEACE’. A common greeting in Arabic is Peace be With You. Well to gain trust of the western world, let us witness that they PROVE it for once. Sadly, there are far too many tragic reports of violence and intolerance from adherents to Islam’s beliefs. We are forced to honour them, but they do not honour us. It’s OK for Muslims to build a mosque in the west, but it’s impossible to build a Christian church or synagogue on Muslim soil. Islam is going to destroy itself. All branches swear they are the real version. All sects wish to prevail.

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