Thinking American and Muslim
Interview With Hadia Mubarak
Hadia Mubarak is a full-time doctoral student at Georgetown University's Islamic Studies department. Her research interests include the development of Islamic family law, Islamic reform, and gender issues in Islam. Mubarak previously worked as a Senior Researcher with the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, a researcher with the Gallup Organization's Center for Muslim Studies and a researcher with American University's Islam in the Age of Globalization project. As a field researcher for the project, Hadia accompanied Professor Akbar Ahmed throughout the Muslim world and conducted on-site surveys and interviews with a range of Muslim scholars, government officials, activists, students, and journalists in Qatar, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, and India. The findings were published in Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization.
In 2004, Mubarak was the first female to be elected as president of the Muslim Students Association National (MSA) since its establishment in 1963. MSA is an umbrella organization of approximately 500 chapters in the United States and Canada, which serves to promote religious awareness on college campuses and foster an atmosphere that accommodates the religious diversity of its student body.
Mubarak received her Master's degree in Contemporary Arab Studies with a concentration on Women and Gender from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. She received her Bachelor's degree in International Affairs and English from Florida State University. Hadia's publications include "Young and Muslim in Post 9/11 America" (The Brandywine Review of Faith & International Affairs Vol. 3, No. 2); "Breaking the Interpretive Monopoly: A Re-examination of Verse 4:34" (Hawaa Vol. 2, Issue 3); The Politicization of Gender Reform: Islamists' discourse on repealing Article 340 of the Jordanian Penal Code (MA Thesis, Georgetown University, 2005); and "Blurring the Lines Between Faith and Culture" (America Now: Short Reading from Recent Periodicals. 5th ed.), among many others. Recently IslamOnline.net did an interview with Hadia Mubarak about rights of Muslim women, American Muslims, and the Muslim world.
IslamOnline.net (IOL): American Muslim woman as an example of a Muslim woman: oppressed, silenced, or rather active and vocal?
Hadia Mubarak: As the recent Gallup report on Muslim Americans illustrates, Muslim American women's status and achievements defy every stereotype that exists out there about Muslim women. They are at least as likely as Muslim men to hold a college or postgraduate degree. Their greater level of education has translated into greater numbers in the work force, as Muslim women have a greater level of economic gender parity of any group Gallup studied. More importantly, these women are not secular or non-observant Muslims, but Muslims who take pride in their faith, attend mosque regularly, and take an active part in their communities. This trumps the common stereotype that only secular, non-religious women achieve high levels of education and have successful careers.
Islamic Family Laws
Mubarak: Family law, as currently applied in most Muslim states, is one of the areas most in need of legal reform. With the codification of Islamic law and the creation of modern nation-states, Islamic family law lost much of its flexibility and pluralism which had previously characterized Islamic judicial practice. Unfortunately, many of the existing family laws in Muslim states yield great injustices against Muslim women, especially when it comes to divorce, custody rights, alimony, etc. The state of women's rights in the Muslim world – for the most part – seems to defy in every way the spirit of justice and egalitarianism which the Quran and Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) had established.
Gender & Islam
IOL: What difference do you see, in the Western (American) concept of "gender" and the "gender issue in Islam"?
Mubarak: I think it is difficult to speak of a homogenous conception of gender whether it is in the West or in the Muslim world. The truth is that a number of factors influence one's conception of gender with religion often being just one of many factors. Hence, we can find people in both Western and Muslim societies (those societies with a majority Muslim population) who espouse patriarchal and sexist views towards women, just as we can find individuals in both societies who espouse egalitarian and progressive views towards women. However, when we examine the gender paradigm of Islam — as a religion — we find that it promotes equality, justice, and mutual respect between the two genders, with verse 9:71 being one of many such examples.
Political Engagement for US Muslims
Mubarak: In recent years, Muslim Americans have made significant progress in their political participation on the local level, which is what matters most in my opinion. People often look at Muslim representation at the national level to gauge Muslim political involvement, but that is a false indicator in my opinion. That is because politics begins at the local level. With increasing numbers of Muslims getting involved in local political parties, city councils, state legislatures, etc., it will only be a matter of time — with sustained effort — before this involvement translates into great representation on the national level.
There are two Muslims in the US House of Representatives, nine state legislators (two of them are women — Rashida Thlaib and Jamillah Nasheed) and a number of mayors, city council members, and county commissioners who are Muslim. Muslim Americans have begun to realize that unless they get involved and speak out on behalf of their own community, then others will fill the void and misrepresent Muslim issues and concerns, whether it be xenophobic radio hosts or bloggers who think that there is no place for Muslims in America or Muslim extremists who exploit Islam to pursue violent ends.
Propagandists & Attacks on US Muslims
Mubarak: I do not think they are relevant at all. In fact, these types of right-wing xenophobes pose the greatest threat to American democracy and liberties than anyone else. That is because they realize that American principles and values — as represented in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights — would mean that Muslim Americans have an equal right as anyone else to become successful, pursue their aspirations, lobby for their concerns, and lead Americans on the national level. Their fear and intolerance of Islam fuels them to incite hatred and fear of Muslims at all levels of society. Our struggle is not unlike the struggle of other minorities before us — be they Catholics, Jews, or African Americans — who had to overcome prejudice, hatred and xenophobia through courage, moral consistency, and integrity. There is no question in my mind that these people will ultimately lose their battle because America is larger than the hatred, exclusivity, and racism that they propagate.
9/11 & Social Role
IOL: Looking back to American Muslims before 9/11 and now, how would you assess their role in the American society?
Mubarak: 9/11 was a watershed moment for Americans at large, and specifically Muslim Americans. Personally, the pain I experienced in the days after 9/11 was multifold. There was the pain of the tragedy itself, the deep agony one feels towards those who never said goodbye to loved ones they would never see again. There was also the pain of seeing my religion, Islam, vilified as an inherently violent religion whose 1.2 billion followers, a fifth of the world's population, were suddenly seen as a threat to world security. I have to acknowledge that the most difficult pain I experienced in those days was the pain of realizing that people who shared my faith had committed such unspeakable horror … It was unfathomable, unimaginable, and unforgivable to see my religion, my source of refuge, hope and peace in the world, become a tool for violence in the hands of men who had no regard for the sanctity of human life, and who had the audacity to use religion and God as a pretext for their political motives.
While Muslim Americans were coming to terms with what just happened, they also had the double burden of absolving Islam and Muslims from association with such violence. For the first time, Muslim Americans were confronted with a sense of perpetual displacement in the psyche of the American public. Although we were born and raised in this country and knew no other place to call home, I and other American Muslims came to realize for the first time that we were not in fact perceived as American in the eyes of a large swath of the general public. As our religious beliefs became a reason for our incrimination after 9/11, as our organizations and places of worship became the target of vandalism and hate crimes, and as we were perceived as potential threats to the security of our own nation, we felt that our very identity as Americans was subjected to scrutiny, challenge, and contestation.
Muslim Americans realized that their ability to speak out and accurately represent Islam and Muslims had a direct bearing not only on their welfare and safety at home, but on US-Muslim relations abroad. As the war drums began to beat in the aftermath of 9/11, Muslim Americans were at the forefront of the anti-war movement. They underscored the fact that dropping bombs on innocent civilians and destroying a country's infrastructure would only exacerbate grievances against the United States and further jeopardize its security.
The most fundamental problem in US-Muslim world relations today is our inability to view current events through the prism of historical, socio-political-and-economic conditions in the region. When it comes to the Muslim world, there is a dogged insistence among policy makers and the American public alike to view Islam itself as the source of current tensions between the United States and the Muslim world. The most dangerous aspect of this illogical premise is that it paints a picture that is inaccurate and hopeless. Not only does this culture dependency theory reek of religious bigotry, but this faulty analysis leads us to ignore real grievances that fuel anger and resentment towards the United States.
In fact, a recent poll by Gallup demonstrates that anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is not driven by hatred of US values, but hatred of US policies in the region, which can be addressed without compromising US interests. In fact, nothing would better serve US security interests in the Muslim world than to address and alleviate the widespread legitimate grievances of millions living in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, etc.
What the Muslim World Thinks
Mubarak: Here are five of our top findings based on surveys we conducted in eight Muslim countries in 2006:
Responsibility in the Face of Injustice
Mubarak: Individuals have a moral obligation to eliminate injustice when and where they seem occur. In the Islamic tradition, this moral obligation is captivated by a powerful prophetic hadith in which the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) tells us: "Whoever among you sees an evil action, then let him change it with his hand [by taking action]; if he cannot, then with his tongue [by speaking out]; and if he cannot, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith." [Narrated by Muslim in his Saheeh]
The correlation between one's response to injustice and one's faith, in my opinion, is that one's response to injustice is a direct reflection of the state of one's faith in God. When one has internalized the idea that he/she will be held accountable before God for the way he/she has lived one's life, then one becomes aware of his responsibility towards others — whether it be the homeless person down the street or displaced Palestinians or Somalis thousands of miles away.
Message to Muslim World Women
IOL: What message, being a Muslim-women activist, you want to give to the American as well as Muslim world women?
Mubarak: There is a serious need to revive the egalitarianism and justice that Islam established as early as the seventh century. When Muslim women in the seventh century set off from Mecca to Medina on their own during the hijra, they were driven by the realization that they had a role to play in the creation a new political structure that was based on justice, equality, and divine truth. These women left behind everything they had, their families, their husbands, and their wealth. Many of them carried their children with them as they traveled through the hot desert on their own. Some were pregnant and actually gave birth to new life on their arduous journey, never giving up, never returning.
When Khawla bint Tha'lab went to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to seek redress for her husband's sexual abandonment and found none, and then said, "I will take my complaint to Allah Almighty," she did so out of absolute conviction in the justice of God, that even if mortal men could not alleviate her grievance, that God would bring justice to her cause. In fact, the first five verses of chapter 58 in the Quran were revealed in response to this woman's plea.
It is this sense of God-consciousness that compelled women throughout the history of Islam to break through the shackles of cultural prejudices and constraints and set their own course into the future. These women eternalized their status as God's vicegerents on earth and understood the importance of the responsibility they carried.
This is the legacy of the women who came before us and this is the legacy that we need to revive. It is a legacy that recognizes the mortality of our souls, and the equality of all human beings as servants of God. It is a legacy that compels us to re-evaluate our priorities in life, to probe our hearts and check the status of our iman (faith), to improve the lives of those around us, to contribute to society in a meaningful way, and to leave this world better than we found it.
18 May 2009
Thinking American and Muslim (Interview With Hadia Mubarak)