Dagmar Gontard-Zelinkova, 2014-05-03
Those who were abruptly awakened in the middle of the night by a frantic pounding on their door realized that they were targeted. Calling for help would be useless. Nobody in the neighborhood would come to their rescue. Killings were common and nobody really wanted to interfere. Calling the police would be almost as useless; they were losing their officers to the armed militias and, quite often, they were as scared as the people themselves.
But the door had to be opened, and if not opened voluntarily, it would be kicked in. On that night, in the midst of Algerian terrifying 1990s, it was Fatma Bisikri’s daughter who opened the door. Three armed men pushed their way in. They dragged six of her children out of the house. She tried to stop them but they put the knife to her throat. She let go. At first light, Fatma went to look for her children. She found them in a nearby brook where they had been dumped after having their throats slit. Later on, someone suggested to Fatma that this was in retaliation for her daughter’s refusal to stop teaching despite being ordered to do so by the local fundamentalists in their crusade against education.
Education was a sin, but the education of women was the worst possible sin and had to be punished by death, no less. Amel Zenoune-Zouani was among countless females who paid dearly for their dream of being educated. She was twenty-two years old and a third-year law student, when she was pulled out from a bus, at a fake check-point, by men of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Passengers on the bus later told her family that one of those men had a knife and was rubbing it on the pavement prior to slitting her throat. Her death was meant as a warning: one of the GIA men told the other passengers: “If you go to school, if you go to the university, the day will come when we will kill all of you like this.”
Fatma’s and Amel’s stories were not isolated occurrences in Algeria in the 1990s. Indeed, it is estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 were killed and at least 7000 disappeared during that decade. What brought Algeria to those apocalyptic years? In a nutshell: after Independence in 1962, the country embarked on the path of socialism and considerable progress was achieved in building the new society. Yet, this occurred under the authoritarian regime of one-party rule which harshly suppressed human rights. Dissenting voices were heard with increasing insistence, leading the government to authorize opposition parties in the 1980s, including the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The FIS openly declared that they did not believe in democracy. They also believed that society needed to be healed from the contamination of the “Western secularist virus.” Their prescription was: “Islam is the solution.”
Clashes between liberal Algerians and the fundamentalists were inevitable and during the 1990s the whole population was taken hostage, trapped between government forces and various offshoots of Islamist militias. Islamists’ targets were not limited to the field of education; indeed artists, intellectuals and journalists became their enemies as well. Aissa Mohamed was an accomplished violinist. He loved to share his passion for music with children, in a music school which he ran in Blida. He also coached children’s sporting events. He was threatened by the terrorists who said that music and sports were haram and forbidden by the Qur’an. He was ordered to give up both. Mohamed paid with his life for disobeying that order. He was killed at the age of thirty-eight.
Yet, in spite of the prevailing terror, the resistance of liberal Algerians never waned. When the Press House in Algiers was destroyed by bombing on February 11, 1996, Algerian journalists faced not only fundamentalist terrorism but also pressure from the government not to expose the scale of that terrorism. They would defy both. In the midst of utter destruction, they returned to their desks and, to honour their fallen comrades, went on with publication of the gruesome event. Throughout the country, women got together and organized under the Algerian Rally of Democratic Women. Their goal was that the truth be known. They turned to NGO and Human Rights associations for help. Alas, Western associations and media were reluctant to investigate a complex situation and the daily Algerian atrocities rarely got a thorough reporting on the international scene.
The Algerian tragedy is not unique: it is a pattern repeated in every country where Islamists succeed in getting the upper hand. The most surprising case may be Egypt. During the first part of the twentieth century the country was rather free. Women threw their veil into the wind, founded their organizations and became emancipated. In 1937, a freethinking Ismail Adham was even able to publish his book Why Am I an Atheist. After 1952, when Nasser embarked on the path of Arabic socialism, Islamic political groups stood in his way. To counter their influence, military rulers established close links with the Al-Azhar religious establishment, whose influence increased over the years. Books, speeches or artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law were censored. Book banning is not the most serious obstacle that intellectuals face in Egypt. The worst is being accused of being anti-Islamic or a heretic or even an apostate. Gamal Al-Banna is a well-known liberal thinker. Along with fellow reformers, he held a conference in Cairo in 2004 called “Islam and Reform.” The conference was harshly criticized by Al-Azhar authorities. Ahmed Subhy Mansour taught the Muslim history at Al-Azhar but got into trouble, both with fundamentalists and with the Egyptian regime, when he argued that the Qu’ran shows that Mohammed was not infallible. Consequently, he was accused of insulting Islam and thrown into prison. Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd, who received a doctorate from Cairo University for research on Qur’anic interpretation, got into trouble when he wrote The Critic of Religious Discourse. He was accused of abandoning his faith in Islam and Islamist lawyers filed a lawsuit demanding the break-up of his marriage. They argued that an apostate and a Muslim woman cannot be married. Abu-Zayd fled to the Netherlands where he had an offer to teach at Leiden University. Farag Foda was a liberal thinker who mocked the Islamist interpretation of the Koran. He also defended the separation of religion and state. He paid dearly for his courageous stand; in 1992 he was murdered.
It is an irony that Pakistan, whose founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah envisioned as a secular country, evolved into a harsh bastion of fundamentalism. Under Jinnah’s successors, the initial constitution was abrogated several times. Under the military rule of General Zia ul-Haq, blasphemy laws were introduced and then, in 1979, religious authorities brought in ordinances, prescribing amputation for theft, stoning and whipping for unlawful sexual intercourse, and for consumption of alcohol. The best known of Islamic scholars, Mohammad Younas Shaikh, who started an organization called “The Enlightenment,” dedicated to discussing Islam in a contemporary context, was accused of insulting Islam and got arrested in 2001. At his trial, not only was he called an apostate but his lawyers too were accused of apostasy. Shaikh spent two years in solitary confinement and then, after his retrial, when the judge found the original judgment unsound, he was secretly released in 2003. He remained in Pakistan for a time, but after his accusers tried to appeal his acquittal, he fled to Europe. The year 2011 in particular, will remain a tragic reminder of Pakistan having slipped the wrong way. Two politicians were murdered – Shabhaz Bhatti, a champion of religious freedom and Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, for opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Another country which missed its date with modernity is Chechnya. After a bloody war with Russia, there was much freedom in the 1990s. Before the war, Chechen Muslims had followed a spiritual Sufi Islam which is in sharp contrast with the rigid dogma of the fundamentalists. But like in other countries, the extremists tend to grow during wartime. Those who emerged in the nineties in Chechnya tried to impose their interpretation of Islam. Under the current Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, the situation is deteriorating dramatically, especially for women. Kadyrov claims that they are inferior, that they are men’s property and he wants them to be veiled. Russian authorities are acquiescing to all this, as long as Kadyrov opposes independence. Meanwhile, radicals are hunting down those who represent tolerant Islam and killing them.
There is no country in the Muslim world where the lives of reformers are not under threat; the last three decades have seen an ever growing radicalization. Khomeiny’s Islamic Revolution takes all the credit here. Yet those who had agitated for the Shah’s overthrow and welcomed with great enthusiasm the Ayatollah’s return from the exile, became quickly disillusioned. As Shirin Ebadi pointed out in her book Iran Awakening, the taste of Revolution was rather bitter. Women became the first victims. After having been the first woman judge in Iran, the first thing Ebadi heard from the newly appointed overseer of the Ministry of Justice was: “Don’t you think that out of respect for our beloved Imam Khomeini, who has graced Iran with his return, it would be better if you covered your hair?” The logical course of events simply followed: because she was a woman, she was dismissed from her post. But she would not sit inactive at home; she would continue to fight against rape, torture and killings in Iranian prisons. In 2003, she was the first Iranian woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her fight against human rights abuses. Nevertheless, relentless pressure from the government, coupled with death threats to her and her family, led her to flee to the UK. From there she continues to challenge the Iranian government which continues to eliminate its opponents, charging them with “friendship with the enemies of God,” “insulting the Prophet,” obstructing the way of God” and similar accusations.
Who are those “defenders of faith”? Those self-appointed spokespersons for Allah the Great? Those mullahs who try to impose their rigid way of life on the whole world? Music, sports, satellite dishes, cell-phones, information and education are not to their liking. Mali used to be a country with the richest and most colourful women’s fashion in Africa. That was replaced by veils. Timbuctu harboured tombs of Sufi saints. They were destroyed. Malian Islam had a tradition of tolerance. The killings in the name of Allah Akhbar replaced it. That hunger for destruction does not stop with the Muslim world. Fatwas condemning so-called apostates follow them into the West. Unfortunately, just as in the Muslim world, those courageous voices, calling for Islam with human face, often find themselves stranded between, on one hand, the reluctance of their new country to support their struggle and, on the other hand, the fundamentalists’ merciless determination to kill them.
“Muslims like me – those who accept Islam yet revile Islamism – are rendered voiceless,” said Quanta Ahmad who testified, in March 2011, at the hearings held by the House Committee on Homeland Security, examining the radicalization within the Muslim American community. “The (Peter) King’s investigative hearings on radical Islam showed how the same narratives that drove young Pakistani to violence are alive in the United States today, thriving amid similarly vulnerable, disconnected and indoctrinated youth. Such Islamist radicalization is ongoing in our civilian, military and prison communities… Unfortunately, where there should be an outcry and carefully targeted action in response to these critically important findings, we remain mired in political correctness by refusing to identify our enemies’ driving ideology. Islamists distract the discussion from the root of the problem by focusing our attention on what they call ‘Islamophobia,’ arguing that the world is using a broad brush to describe Muslims.”
Zahudi Jasser was another Muslim who testified at the hearings. A prominent doctor in Arizona, he runs a small non-profit group that partners with groups critical of Muslim leadership. He believes that Muslims need to be more outspoken about intolerances in their scriptures and less critical of America.
What was the reaction to the hearings? A general discomfort. “Hearings may well do a lot of damage” and “Hearings are stoking the fires of Islamophobia” were common comments.
“While hostility toward Islam and Muslims is a legitimate and vital concern,” wrote the late Abdurrahman Wahid, President of Indonesia, “we must recognize that a major cause of such hostility is the behaviour of certain Muslims themselves, who propagate a harsh, repressive, supremacist, and often violent understanding of Islam. Rather than legally stifle criticism and debate – which will only encourage Muslim fundamentalists in their efforts to impose a spiritually void, harsh and monolithic understanding of Islam upon all the world – Western authorities should instead firmly defend freedom of expression, not only in their own nations, but globally, as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
I will conclude with Abdurrahman Wahid’s thought-provoking words about classical Islamic civilization:
“The greatness of classical Islamic civilization – which incorporated a human and cosmopolitan universalism – stemmed largely from the intellectual and spiritual maturity that grew from the amalgamation of Arab, Greek, Jewish, Christian, and Persian influences. That is why I wept upon seeing Ibn Rushd’s commentary on The Nicomachean Ethics, lovingly preserved and displayed, during a visit some years ago to Fes, Morocco. For if not for Aristotle and his great treatise, I might have become a Muslim fundamentalist myself.”
- Karima Bennoune: Your Fatwa does Not Apply here
- Paul Marshall & Nina Shea: Silenced
- Shirin Ebadi: Iran Awakening
- Abdurrahman Wahid: God Needs No Defense