The Toronto Star last week ran a gushing profile of Indonesian Muslim feminist Musdah Mulia, exulting that she “blames Muslims, not Islam, for gender inequity” in the Islamic world. This is closely related to a large-scale and continually growing problem: analysts attribute the actions of the global terrorist movement to a hijacking of Islam, without caring or daring to look squarely at what exactly it is about Islam that gives rise to fanaticism and violence.
Musdah Mulia, according to journalist Haroon Siddiqui, “wears the hijab but says it’s not Islamically mandatory, a position augmented by a big majority of Muslim women in Indonesia, indeed around the world, who don’t don it and feel no less Muslim.” Neither Siddiqui nor Mulia mention the Islamic tradition in which the Prophet Muhammad commands that “when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays her parts of body except…face and hands.” Nor do they mention, while noting that Mulia “wants polygamy banned,” that the Qur’an tells men to “marry women of your choice, two or three or four” (4:3).
Musdah Mulia, exults Siddiqui, “is no Westernized secular feminist. She is an Islamic scholar, with a PhD from the Institute of Islamic Studies” in Jakarta. “She teaches there part-time but her day job is director of research at the ministry of religious affairs, from where she needles the government. When her bosses issued a white paper last year updating religious laws, she wrote a 170-page critique that annoyed them and the conservatives.”
Mulia was not always such a gadfly. She is the “granddaughter of a cleric, went to an Islamic boarding school and grew up in a strict environment.” She offers one stinging memory of her childhood: “I could not laugh hard. My parents did not allow me to befriend non-Muslims. If I did, they ordered me to shower afterwards.” But then she traveled to “other Muslim nations” and realized that “Islam had many faces. It opened my eyes. Some of what my grandfather and the ulema (clerics) had taught me was right but the rest was myth.”
So what led to her transformation? It turns out that her parents, her grandfather, the clerics, everyone had Islam all wrong, and she, Mulia, had gotten hold of the real Islam: “the more she studied Islam, the more she found it modern and radical.”
So the hijab, the burka, the chador, the polygamy, the divorce that the man achieves by uttering a phrase three times, the unequal inheritance laws, the inability of women in many Muslim countries to leave the house without a male relative as escort, the ban in some Muslim countries on women even driving — all this is now, according to Mulia, un-Islamic. After all, Islam, she says, “had liberated women 1,400 years ago, well ahead of the West.”
The claim that Muhammad actually improved the lot of women is curious. It is based, apparently, on the supposedly terrible position of women in pagan Arab society. But did those conditions really improve with the coming of Islam? Even Aisha, Muhammad’s beloved child bride, said: “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women.”
So many fighters for women’s rights in Islam are like Mulia: they cannot admit to others or apparently to themselves that Islam itself contains the texts that are responsible for the continuing mistreatment of women: not only in the Qur’an, but in the “authentic” Hadith, and in the records of Muhammad’s treatment of and attitude toward women in the Sira. It is much the same with all too many Islamic reformers: they speak blandly of how the jihadists, or terrorists, or Wahhabis, or whatever is the villain group du jour, have hijacked Islam, without offering any coherent program for converting all these multitudes of violent misunderstanders of Islam worldwide into peaceful, tolerant pluralists.
The Islamic attitude toward women is properly reflected in the difficult position of women throughout Muslim lands — a position that is difficult to the precise extent that any country’s legal system approximates the theoretical ideal of Islamic law, the Sharia. Look at Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan. It is only in those Muslim countries that are the least Muslim, either because they have managed to constrain Islam from within (Turkey, Tunisia) or because Islam has been constrained by outside powers that women have had a chance for a more decent existence.
Mulia does not explain how the “cultural traditions and interpretations” to which she objects arose in Islamic countries. What molds the “cultural traditions and interpretations” of Muslims if it isn’t Islam? After what did Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Iran model their laws and fashion their mores besides Islam? Beyond the basics of faith, Mulia says, most laws affecting women are man-made: “none of it came as a fax from heaven.” But those who legislate in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Sudan, and Pakistan think that they are following a mandate from heaven. For what after all is the Qur’an itself, in the Islamic view of it as a series of dictations by Allah to Muhammad, if not a “fax from heaven”?
Like so many other self-proclaimed Islamic reformers, Mulia seems to be on the side of the angels, but she is actually helping to promote confusion about Islam. Ibn Warraq put it well: “There are moderate Muslims, but Islam itself is not moderate.” Too many Muslim reformers think they must defend Islam at all costs, whatever mental contortions they have to perform in order to do so — even if it means glossing over and refusing to face the elements of Islam that jihad terrorists use to justify their actions. It is only “bad Muslims,” we’re told — Wahhabis, or extremists, or what have you — who are responsible. Yet these very same “bad Muslims” seem to be those who most fervently accept, in every area of life, the actual teachings of Islam. The more relaxed, unobservant, and above all non-literal minded the Believer, the better his treatment of women and his commitment to pluralism and peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims.
That is something that even Ms. Mulia cannot hide from forever.
Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch; author of Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West (Regnery), and Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World’s Fastest Growing Faith (Encounter); and editor of the essay collection The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: Islamic Law and Non-Muslims (Prometheus). He is working on a new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades (forthcoming from Regnery).