A perception exists in the West that Islam is a sort of mirror-image of Western values. Western countries separates church and state while Islamic countries impose Sharia law; democratic liberalism supports freedom of the press, but Islam does not permit any criticism or even visual representation of Muhammad; the West supports equality for women, but the Qur'an counsels the subordination of women to their husbands. This dichotomous thinking supports a "clash of civilizations" mindset.
On May 6, Professor Madhavi Sunder gave a talk as part of the Chicago's Best Ideas lecture series entitled "Reading the Qur'an in Kuala Lumpur." (She has an earlier post on this blog on the same topic, as well as an interview in International Affairs Forum.) She stressed that Islam is in fact quite heterogeneous, and that heterogeneity creates space for cultural dissent within the religion. A movement that began with women reading the Qur'an for themselves in Kuala Lumpur is now experiencing some success in forging greater equality for women in the Muslim world.
There are a billion Muslims in the world, and that population contains a wide array of people. Most Muslims live in Asia, not the Middle East. The largest Muslim-majority countries are Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and the largest Muslim-minority is in India. Fifty million Muslims live in Europe. Furthermore, opinions vary among Muslims. A Gallup poll found that over ninety percent of Egypt, Iran, and Indonesia favored a constitution with freedom of speech, and sixty to ninety percent of Iran, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia agreed that women should have rights equal to men.
Professor Sunder described how Dr. Amina Wadud joined a group of accomplished women, most of whom were lawyers, journalists, and academics, in Kuala Lumpur. The group had been fighting and losing legal battles against Islamic family law for a decade, and the persistent problem they encountered was that religion could be invoked to end a discussion (which is a problem here as well as there); they did not have an effective counterargument to religious authority. Fortuitously, Dr. Wadud had recently finished her doctoral thesis on feminist interpretations of the Qur'an. The group became a "book club" with the name Sisters in Islam where Dr. Wadud taught the women methods for interpreting the Qur'an, and, eventually, the Sisters began making religiously grounded arguments in favor of fairer laws. They could now say, "That is just your interpretation." The first public debate they engaged in centered on a domestic violence law that many wanted to apply only to Hindus and not Muslims; the Sisters published a pamphlet entitled "Are Muslim Men Allowed to Beat Their Wives?" that helped expand the scope of the law to everyone.
This movement spread to other Muslim countries, and the Sisters networked to spread effective interpretational arguments. Professor Sunder used this story to emphasize the importance of cultural dissent (also the title of an article of hers in the Stanford Law Review). "Cultural dissent" is the right to advocate change to some group while still remaining a member of that group. Isatou Touray is a Gambian reformer who had her genitals cut at age eleven, which was the local practice. One could make argument after argument about how evil female genital mutilation is, but a particularly effective argument in Gambia--which Touray was shocked to discover many years later--is that, despite what the clerics said, the Qur'an makes no mention of genital cutting. Unlike other arguments, this is an Islamic argument. Religion no longer ends the discussion.
Stay tuned to the Faculty Blog tomorrow as Alex Kolod and I liveblog the Democracy and Gender Equality in the Muslim World conference taking place at the Law School. The conference is sponsored by Professor Sunder and Professor Martha Nussbaum and will feature many participants in the movement spawned by reading the Qur'an in Kuala Lumpur, including Sisters in Islam founder Zainah Anwar.