Friday, October 27, 2006

Sexism & Islam in Australia - Bad news & good news

One of the most senior Muslim clerics in Australia, Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, recently argued that immodestly dressed women who paraded themselves in public had only themselves to blame if they got raped. These sentiments are not so rare, but Sheik al-Hilali also formulated them using some especially appalling imagery, comparing such women to "uncovered meat" (according to this report in The Australian
In the religious address on adultery to about 500 worshippers in Sydney last month, Sheik Hilali said: "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat?

"The uncovered meat is the problem."

The sheik then said: "If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred."

He said women were "weapons" used by "Satan" to control men.

"It is said in the state of zina (adultery), the responsibility falls 90 per cent of the time on the woman. Why? Because she possesses the weapon of enticement (igraa)."
And in case anyone failed to get the point:
In a Ramadan sermon that has outraged Muslim women leaders, Sydney-based Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali also alluded to the infamous Sydney gang rapes, suggesting the attackers were not entirely to blame.

While not specifically referring to the rapes, brutal attacks on four women for which a group of young Lebanese men received long jail sentences, Sheik Hilali said there were women who "sway suggestively" and wore make-up and immodest dress ... "and then you get a judge without mercy (rahma) and gives you 65 years".

"But the problem, but the problem all began with who?" he asked.
One of the achievements of feminism over the past few generations has been to challenge views of rape that blame the victim this way--and to do so effectively enough, at least in western societies, that they are no longer woven so tightly into legal practice and everyday common sense, and that public statements like these are considered offensive rather than respectable. These changes in perspective are still uneven and complex and incomplete, but there has been a genuine shift in fundamental attitudes.

On the other hand, among people who agree that this is a shift in the right direction, the moral clarity of these issues often gets a lot more confused with it comes to dealing with sexist mores among minority and immigrant communities, especially when these get tangled up with resurgent forms of religious fundamentalism.

=> In this particular incident, one can find elements of both bad news and good news. The bad news is obvious enough. Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali (who also has a history of blatantly anti-semitic statements, by the way) is not just some obscure reactionary cleric, but one of the most prominent religious figures in Australian Islam. As his Wikipedia entry explains:
The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils appointed him Mufti of Australia in 1988.[2] He presents himself as the Grand Mufti of Australia and New Zealand, but other Muslim groups dispute this title [3][4], which has also been described as honorary.[5]
The good news is that his statements provoked widespread public outrage within the Australian Muslim community itself. There seems to have been little inclination to circle the wagons defensively and reject any criticisms as Islamophobic. Quoting again from The Australian:
Muslim community leaders were yesterday outraged and offended by Sheik Hilali's remarks, insisting the cleric was no longer worthy of his title as Australia's mufti.

Young Muslim adviser Iktimal Hage-Ali - who does not wear a hijab - said the Islamic headdress was not a "tool" worn to prevent rape and sexual harassment. "It's a symbol that readily identifies you as being Muslim, but just because you don't wear the headscarf doesn't mean that you're considered fresh meat for sale," the former member of John Howard's Muslim advisory board told The Australian. "The onus should not be on the female to not attract attention, it should be on males to learn how to control themselves."

Australia's most prominent female Muslim leader, Aziza Abdel-Halim, said the hijab did not "detract or add to a person's moral standards", while Islamic Council of Victoria spokesman Waleed Ali said it was "ignorant and naive" for anyone to believe that a hijab could stop sexual assault.

"Anyone who is foolish enough to believe that there is a relationship between rape or unwelcome sexual interference and the failure to wear a hijab, clearly has no understanding of the nature of sexual crime," he said.

Ms Hage-Ali said she was "disgusted and offended" by Shiek Hilali's comments. "I find it very offensive that a man who considers himself as a mufti, a leader of Australia's Muslims, can give comment that lacks intelligence and common sense."
The Islamic Council of Victoria has called for the Sheikh to resign, and his remarks were also publicly condemned by the Islamic Council of New South Wales (see here).
The council said the remarks were "un-Islamic, un-Australian and unacceptable".

A spokesman for the council, Mr Ali Roude, said he was "astonished" at Sheik Alhilali's comments, saying he "had failed both himself and the Muslim community".

"While we respect the rights of any Australian citizen to freedom of speech, there is a further responsibility upon our civic leaders, be they religious, political or bureaucratic, to offer appropriate guidance to the people under their care," Mr Roude said.

"The comments widely reported today do no such thing."

Sheik Alhilali had seriously misrepresented the teachings of Islam in his comments, Mr Roude said, which were offensive to both sexes.

The comments also showed a deep misunderstanding of rape and personal violence, which Mr Roude described as a "crimes of power".

"As a father, brother and son myself, I take offence at the portrayal of both men and women in the alleged published comments," Mr Roude said.

"Islam requires all people, men and women alike, to dress with modesty.

"This is not to reduce the risk of sexual assault and rape, but rather to show respect for the God who created us all as equals and to show respect for ourselves as people who rise above the world of mere things and animals to stand as conscious beings in the presence of that same loving God - Allah Ta'ala."

Mr Roude said he had known Sheik Alhilali for many years and was deeply disappointed he had made the remarks, which were in no way shared or endorsed by the council.

"Any comments or actions which might lead any person, especially any Muslim, to despise or to objectify any other person are clearly contrary to the will of God," Mr Roude said.

"The comments reported today must be heard, read and understood in that context."
And in the face of these public rebukes, Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali felt compelled to apologize, sort of.

=> Looking at the bright side, these developments seem at least mildly encouraging. And the quoted remarks by Ali Roude include a point that is worth highlighting. One strategy that's sometimes proposed to deal with hate speech and other dangerous and pernicious opinions is to try to criminalize them. The temptations to take that route are understandable. But in free societies such statements can be countered more effectively by free speech, counter-arguments, and public condemnations than by legal controls. However, this requires that the people who matter are willing and able to use free speech for these purposes.

So the elements of good news here strike me as important and promising. But they also shouldn't encourage complacency or denial about the real and pervasive problems that this incident brings out.

=> For a useful overview of this affair so far, see the roundup by Marcus at Harry's Place. Below are translated excerpts from Sheikh al-Hilali's "controversial sermon."

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S. According to the Sheikh, atheists and Jews and Christians (that includes me, I guess) will all wind up in hell, "and not part-time, for eternity," since we are "the worst in God’s creation." On the other hand, there will be a lot of attractive women there, too, since "Satan sees women as half his soldiers."

Update: For some of the Sheik's further adventures, see here.
SBS - World News Australia
October 27, 2006 - 12:51:08
Read Sheik Hilaly's comments

The following are extracts from Sheik Taj Din al-Hilaly's controversial sermon given last month, as independently translated by an SBS Arabic expert.

"Those atheists, people of the book (Christians and Jews), where will they end up? In Surfers Paradise? On the Gold Coast? Where will they end up? In hell and not part-time, for eternity. They are the worst in God’s creation."

"When it comes to adultery, it’s 90 percent the woman’s responsibility. Why? Because a woman owns the weapon of seduction. It’s she who takes off her clothes, shortens them, flirts, puts on make-up and powder and takes to the streets, God protect us, dallying. It’s she who shortens, raises and lowers. Then, it’s a look, a smile, a conversation, a greeting, a talk, a date, a meeting, a crime, then Long Bay jail. Then you get a judge, who has no mercy, and he gives you 65 years."
"But when it comes to this disaster, who started it? In his literature, writer al-Rafee says, if I came across a rape crime, I would discipline the man and order that the woman be jailed for life. Why would you do this, Rafee? He said because if she had not left the meat uncovered, the cat wouldn’t have snatched it."

"If you get a kilo of meat, and you don’t put it in the fridge or in the pot or in the kitchen but you leave it on a plate in the backyard, and then you have a fight with the neighbour because his cats eat the meat, you’re crazy. Isn’t this true?"

"If you take uncovered meat and put it on the street, on the pavement, in a garden, in a park, or in the backyard, without a cover and the cats eat it, then whose fault will it be, the cats, or the uncovered meat’s? The uncovered meat is the disaster. If the meat was covered the cats wouldn’t roam around it. If the meat is inside the fridge, they won’t get it."

"If the woman is in her boudoir, in her house and if she’s wearing the veil and if she shows modesty, disasters don’t happen."

"Satan sees women as half his soldiers. You’re my messenger in necessity, Satan tells women you‘re my weapon to bring down any stubborn man. There are men that I fail with. But you’re the best of my weapons."

"…The woman was behind Satan playing a role when she disobeyed God and went out all dolled up and unveiled and made of herself palatable food that rakes and perverts would race for. She was the reason behind this sin taking place."