Soon, my dear readers, I may have no words. It’s been a least 2 months since I’ve written anything on here, and as Dorothy Fontana once said:
“You can’t say, I won’t write today because that excuse will extend into several days, then several months, then… you are not a writer anymore, just someone who dreams about being a writer. ”
So, it’s entirely possible that this blogger’s block is chronic and I will never recover my fluent writing skills. But still, I think it’s worth getting out of my no-writing hermitage to at least try to illuminate one of my favorite issues: religion’s relationship with feminism. This time, I promise it will be more than mindless ranting (at least in my view). In fact, I even have sources for the occasion: Ayaan Hersi Ali’s Infidel. The book, which I’ve found impossible to summarize in my past ten-twenty attempts, is not one of those works which regurgitates old ideas that you already agree with, which is probably why I loved it. While retelling the dramatic tale of her life in Somalia, Kenya, and Saudi Arabia, in unequal and impoverished societies, in dictatorships and rebel forces, in civil war and in societies where cruelty and dominance over females was done in the name of God and religion, Ali leaves her readers with two poignant messages: 1) let not our fear of offending cause us to turn our back on the victims of injustice and 2) let us stand for free speech, even at the risk of our lives and against our own beliefs. I suppose 2 is rather familiar in this speech-abundant nation, when angry homophobes picket other people’s funerals and the Court, repulsed as can be, will nonetheless give them a stamp of approval. However, 1 is a fresh idea in that it demands that we pay attention to other cultures, that we learn about them but at the same time be willing to criticize, to reform. Ali does not imply that we should nitpick cultures on their food or routines, on their languages or choice of clothing, but we judge each other solely on our secular ethics. Should a young woman be allowed to be genitally-mutilated on the kitchen table in the name of her culture, or even her religion? Ali loudly says no, and that rather than turning away from the uncomfortable truth of such practices, rather than pretending they simply don’t exist, we should speak out against them and make clear that way will not be tolerated, culturally commonplace or not. When forced to choose between cultural relativism and feminism, Ali proudly stands for feminism.
To be quite honest, I would be disrespecting that first message right now if I didn’t also add that Infidel had a third main idea: that Islam is the cause of gender inequality and violence against women. It’s an uncomfortable message for me to repeat, even if it’s a thought from someone else’s pen. However, in many respects I agree with 3, although the author and I diverge on the reasoning. My reasons have much to do with my choice of title And God in all this?. The line is actually from a play by Eli Wiesel entitled Trial of God, and in it three Jewish performers and an innkeeper have a mock trial in which God is tried for his crimes against humanity. The innkeeper, Berish, loudly protests that even one horrific act of violence in the name of God is a crime for which God is responsible, because what father would silently watch while one of His children are raped or slaughtered in His name? What father would allow one child to do such injustice to another, on His behalf? Most striking of all, Berish tells the story of the pogrom that destroyed his town and made him bitter towards God, to which the wisest of the performers, Mendel, quietly mumbles “And God in all this?”, thus accentuating God’s absence in those crucial moments of suffering and need.
The aforementioned theistic bitterness of Wiesel’s characters may seem like a tangent, but in fact it leads to my greater point: the injustice explicitly called for in theistic works. It is not that these works are overall unjust or violent, but even *one* unjust act explicitly called for in a theistic work like the Koran or Bible or Torah does, in my eyes, make the work and the religion at least partially responsible (must as *one* unjust act done in God’s name makes God responsible in Berish’s view). Does not the Torah call homosexuality “an abomination”, thereby perpetrating hatred against gays? Does Deuteronomy 13:6-13:10 not demand the death penalty for those that worship other gods? And does not Islam, even with its many peaceful ideas, have sections like verse 34 of Surah an-Nisa that allow husbands to beat their wives?
All melodramatic writing put aside though, I am not suggesting that religion is some sort of virus that must be purged from society. Not at all. Rather, I merely think Ali has it right when it comes to the literal interpretation of supposed Holy Texts. As the famous Torah Scholar and Chief Rabbi of Palestine Abraham Isaac Kook once said,
“Any thought which disregards the social state of the world and its political systems and is satisfied to float in a purely spiritual air, should be classed as a lie that has nothing to lean on.”
Thus, the goals of feminism (choice, gender equality, a just world) cannot be achieved if religions (including Islam) are to remain stagnant. Especially when one realizes that every major theistic work, when interpreted literally, can promote some form of injustice, inequality, or even violence. Ali, as a former Muslim, is probably correct in her belief that literal interpretation is too widespread and that Muslims, just like believers of many other religions, must engage with their Holy texts and reform them to the modern-day world. Submission, even if that is the true meaning of Islam, is a dangerous path that has indeed lead to violence and gender inequality, as the author asserts. But we do not have to submit totally to the words of any Holy texts, Torah or Koran or Sama Veda. Religion can in fact be a beautiful path for the enlightened, for those who do not merely submit, but who communicate and reform.