June 25th, 2006

Islam: tear down this wall

San Francisco is one of the most “progressive” (read: liberal) cities in the US. And, as this NY Times article describes, there’s a movement there to modernize Islam, at least in a small way.

As part of renovations to the Darussalam mosque in San Francisco last fall, a wall separating the women worshippers from the men was demolished and not reconstructed. This was the result of a campaign by what the Times calls “a small if determined band of North American Muslims, mostly younger women,” to change practices they feel are discriminatory, and not a necessary part of Islam.

The women point to the fact that the tradition of separation is a relatively recent one, the result of Wahabism’s ascendance in 18th-century Saudi Arabia. Wahabism is, of course, the extremely strict sect of Islam, still based in Saudi Arabia, responsible for much of the growth of what might be called fundamentalist Islam, and to which many jihadis, including Osama Bin Laden, ascribe.

It’s a commonplace to say that Islam needs a reformation; but in fact, technically, Wahabism was a reformation. But let’s not get so technical; I think what is meant is that Islam needs a reforming and modernizing movement–as in, for example, Reform Judaism. And of course, anyone who is aware of Reform Judaism knows that one of its changes was exactly the one that has occurred in the Darussalam mosque: the mixing of men and women in worship.

Reform Judaism was a product of the Enlightenment and the relative assimilation and freedom afforded Jews in 18th century Germany (hmmm, same century as Wahabism, different direction). We tend to associate Germany and Jews with the later horrific events of the Holocaust, so its easy to forget that–as far as human and civil rights for Jews went–Germany was probably the most “enlightened” country in the world in the 18th century. And it was that freedom that allowed and fostered the changes and modernizations resulting in the birth of reform Judaism.

I’m not equating Judaism with Islam; there are tremendous differences. But if Islam requires reform–and I believe it does–it stands to reason that reform would begin in the climate of the freedoms afforded by a Western country such as the US or Canada.

Of course, as the Times article states, reform and change can cause backlash and retrenchment. And there isn’t much cross-fertilization between what happens in a mosque in the US and what happens in mosques in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.

But it’s still an encouraging sign that this was allowed to go forward. And the spread of such changes in the Moslem third world, not just in the West, is one of the possible benefits of events such as the Iraq war, and increasing freedom in that country. A backlash is possible, but so is a ripple effect.

The tearing down of the wall in the Darussalam mosque is a small change, it’s true. It may not even rise to the level of a pebble being dropped in a lake; perhaps, instead, a tiny grain of sand. But even a grain of sand can cause ripples.

21 Responses to “Islam: tear down this wall”

  1. Sally Says:

    Douglas: Sally, the fact that there are different major sects within Islam means that Muslims can see ‘true’ Islam differently- however, where they agree is somewhat problematic.

    Yes, to some extent, though I believe the major sects within Islam all split in its still formative years, and the splits may have had more to do with power than doctrine. Still, I’ll readily admit I’m no scholar of Islam, and I put forth the idea of the belief system’s exceptional “brittleness” just as a suggestion or hypothesis.

    The point of making that suggestion, however, and the reason the reformability of Islam is of concern to those outside it, is just that it’s of great significance for understanding the nature of the conflict we’re now engaged in. One theory, for example, is that the islamists are just a tiny, violent splinter group, reacting to post-colonial grievances, and treatable with a combination law enforcement, appeasement, and kind words. Another, opposite theory is that they’re simply the shock troops in an unfamiliar, asymmetric war of cultures or civilizations rather than nations. So far, I think the reality lies somewhere between these extremes — but the reason the suggestion about the nature of Islam is disturbing, is that it pushes things toward the latter, “clash of civilizations” theory.

    I should say that I’d be happy to see the suggestion proved wrong. But reality doesn’t always correspond to our hopes or wishes.

  2. Ymarsakar Says:

    You can’t have reform without the US military busting in doors and killing people, that’s a fact.

  3. douglas Says:

    Sally, the fact that there are different major sects within Islam means that Muslims can see ‘true’ Islam differently- however, where they agree is somewhat problematic.

    I think we all also need to recognize that asking for ‘reform’ in Islam might be nice for us, but might not be so nice for those in the Islamic world, as warring is likely to be a part of the process. Things are rarely as clean and easy as we might wish them to be.

  4. felix Says:

    Sally,
    Well stated.
    Besides what kind of belief system is it that if you convert out of the religion, the Islamists try to kill you. Talk about lack of confidence in your message.

  5. confusedforeigner Says:

    Sally..

    ….what utter chauvanism! There are several branches/denominations of Islam with various interpretations and customs. Wahabists are a small minority.

    That is proof in itself that reform, interpretation and disagreement is not only possible but is a reality.

    What sort of logic and belief system do you employ when you can’t recognise self-evident truth?

  6. Ymarsakar Says:

    Anyone talking about reform needs to understand what Sufism, Salafism, and etc all is.

    War is a great way to change society. I’m a great believer in how war changes society.

  7. Sally Says:

    felix: But it may not be that easy for Islam to adapt to modernity.

    No, it may not. Why? Because of the disturbing possibility that Islam itself is a peculiarly brittle culture or belief system, that can’t flex or “reform” very much without breaking altogether. And that in turn would be a consequence of the possibility that Islam is a belief system essentially without a core — consisting instead simply of a text that can really only be memorized, not interpreted, and a set of practices or rituals, that can only be followed or not followed. That is, Islam may largely lack a real message — other than a self-referential one of converting and/or subduing the infidels — and so have nothing by which “reform” in the true sense may be measured. Any change can only be seen as a falling-away.

    What’s disturbing about this, obviously, is that it suggests the “root cause” (so to speak) of the conflict between the islamists and the modern world is just Islam itself, a belief system that cannot reform, cannot even change, without shattering. And where does this leave us?

  8. douglas Says:

    I think there are much bigger issues than where one sits in mosque or church. Good for them I suppose, but I didn’t see the separation as something inherantly problematic- although they might be given that usually, the womens areas are anything but separate-but-equal.

    I’m not an optimist on the reform issue, but I believe it’s possible. I don’t think it can happen quickly enough, though, so perhaps a total defeat of wahabbist terrorists would be a good start to demonstrating to other muslims that Allah is not supporting that ‘false’ brand of Islam.

  9. Ariel Says:

    Neo,

    The only reason I responded is that the “non-jewess” tripe is an Aryan Nation quote I found long ago and recognized. The Talmud Exposed site which I quoted has a clear refutation of all the Aryan Nation anti-semitic c**p.

    I’m sorry it had to be posted on your site. I could not let it stand.

  10. Ariel Says:

    CLAIM
    “A Jew may do to a non-Jewess what he can do. He may treat her as he treats a piece of meat.” – Hadarine, 20, B; Schulchan Aruch, Choszen Hamiszpat 348.

    RESPONSE
    This is of course poppycock, there is no such source called Hadarine, while the chapter in Choshen Mishpat 348:2 states clearly that one may not steal from a gentile exactly as one may not steal from a fellow Jew. E.S.

  11. confusedforeigner Says:

    “A Jew may do to a non-Jewess what he can do. He may treat her as he treats a piece of meat.”
    Hadarine, 20, B; Schulchan Aruch, Choszen Hamiszpat 348

  12. roman Says:

    This is a positive sign, though about 200+ years too late. Changing from an oppressing patriarchally dominated religious culture does not do any harm to Muslim family values. It is only a threat to ingrained superficial male vanity.
    It is only a simple change in custom but will definitely be renounced as heretical by the Wahabist fundamentalists.
    I fear for the safety of those that were instrumental in this act of reformation.

  13. confusedforeigner Says:

    “One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail.”
    –Rabbi Yaacov Perrin, Feb. 27, 1994

  14. Judith Says:

    Muslim women are our most potent allies, and also Muslims who don’t want their country taken over by Wahabis.

  15. Asher Abrams Says:

    Neo, thanks for posting this. The question of parallels between reformist movements in 18th-century German Judaism and contemporary Middle Eastern Islam is both intriguing and vexing.

    On reading of the removal of the “mechitzah” from the mosque in San Francisco, one can’t help being reminded of the transition from Orthodox to Reform Judaism.

    But Reform Judaism presents its own set of difficulties, which are in general a microcosm of the problem of “liberalism” today. In Reform Judaism, the reforms themselves assumed more importance than that which was being reformed, and “change” was embraced for its own sake – at the expense of tradition, identity, and moral clarity. And as you and I both know, our liberal Jewish friends have often been quick to defend “tradition” as long as it’s someone else’s tradition. (It’s as if they are trying to vicariously replace their own forfeited Jewish heritage.)

    Clearly the “reforms” that Islam needs are vastly different from any reform that Judaism has ever needed in the modern era. It will be interesting to see how the nascent reformist movement in Islam interacts with the waves of reformation, counter-reformation, and counter-counter-reformation in Judaism.

  16. Jeff Says:

    This is a heartening development; but on the other hand there are Muslim women who are pushing our country in a another another direction.

  17. Ymarsakar Says:

    One generation is quite different from another generation, and it is not wishful thinking on anyone’s part to understand that facet of human affairs.

    Your personal views of low expectations has little to do with the human condition, except for perhaps your particular human condition. What does your low expectations have to do with how other people in the world function?

    Modest goals? Because you’re afraid of going higher? We’re not talking about your private investments here, but the investment of someone, a lot of someones, with a much higher capital base. And the question then becomes, play it safe and get 9/11, or risk it for higher returns.

    With one war, WWII, we had a gap between the greatest generation and the Baby boomer generation.

    The mechanisms of human affairs can be re-engineered. This is a fact, it is not an “expectation”

  18. felix Says:

    I have low expectations as far as reforming Islam is concerned, so we should set modest goals. Ymsarkae, just because you say Islam will reform in one generation in Afghanastan and Iraq, that is just wishful thinking on your part.

  19. Ymarsakar Says:

    Iraq and Afghanistan are our strategy for reformation. You heard about the guy sentenced to death in Afghanistan for converting to Christian? We got leverage now, and the people of Afghanistan can probably move to modernity in one generation.

    Same for Iraq. What we do in the 20 years, however, does matter. We are upsetting the balance in the Middle East, and reforming people by making it necessary for them to reform.

  20. felix Says:

    We are again allowing our own worldview to affect our analysis of Islam. Because Christianity had a reformation and Judiasm has changed over the centuries, egro Islam can also reform. But it may not be that easy for Islam to adapt to modernity. And, even if it is possible, we don’t have several centuries to wait around for it to happen.

  21. Ymarsakar Says:

    Muslim women are our most potent allies, if we can get to them before they are successfully indoctrinated or terrorized into compliance.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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