Monday, February 4, 2008

Defending Islam

On Saturday I attended a lecture at the University of British Columbia titled "Islamic Law, Women, and the Headlines: A Commentary" by Professor Asifa Quraishi from the University of Wisconsin.

It was a really interesting talk, and I did end up learning quite a bit. However, not surprisingly, I disagree with a lot of what she said.

The general theme of her talk was to explain the "classical" history of Islam, which basically means she can cherry-pick any "facts" she likes, because historical records are hugely variable
and inherently untrustworthy. Of course, according to Dr. Quraishi, classical Islam is very compassionate, tolerant, and respectful (even to women).

Unfortunately, she never got around to talking about contemporary Islamic law. She would basically assert that "hundreds of years ago women were treated perfectly equally, but your news media don't report that do they!" There's a lot of subterfuge in that strategy though. I got the impression that her entire case (and likely her entire career) is based on a misunderstanding of terms. When she talks about Islamic law, she means ancient Islamic law. But when people listen to her, they are thinking about current Islamic law, so the impression you take away if you aren't careful is "Gee, I guess Muslim countries aren't that bad after all." This is basically equivalent to addressing the problems of modern democracy by talking about the ideals of ancient Athens.

There was a great question asked at the end of the lecture that highlighted this. A man asked if she could name a single Islamic country where her kind of equality and compassion is practiced and if not, why not? She stumbled through an awkward non-answer for about 3 minutes and moved on to another question.

There was a particularly scary point she made about international human rights pressure from western, secular nations. She brought up an example where a woman was on trial in Nigeria for some ridiculous offense (I wish I could remember the details, I'm kicking myself for not recording it), and human rights organizations applied pressure to the government to suspend her sentence and punishment. The government, in response to this, actually moved her trial up to punish her sooner. Dr. Quraishi said that even though they had good intentions, it was the human rights organizations' fault that this woman ended up being punished. There was a question about the more recent case in Saudi Arabia where a woman was abducted, raped, and then arrested because of it and international pressure was successful in reducing her sentence. Dr. Quraishi said that was because the international pressure came from Muslims, so the government was willing to listen. She made it quite clear that if you are not a Muslim, then you have no right to express a critical opinion of Islamic nations practicing whatever law their version of the Koran tells them. Bullshit.

She also emphasized the great lengths to which the Koran is interpreted and discussed before it becomes law. The point being to convince us that Islamic law is somehow democratic and dynamic even though at the root it is still based on an ancient and supposedly infallible text.

And of course there was plenty of the obligatory "but you must respect it" garbage. At one point she actually said "sorry to the atheists in the audience" because we can't tell people that stoning homosexuals to death is wrong if they believe God told them to do it. Gimme a fucking break.

If I attend any similar lecture in the future, I'll be sure to record it so I can post the mp3 along with my commentary. I should also plug the Vancouver Institute which sponsors a great series of free public lectures each year at UBC.

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