Can you blame Islam for the Taliban?

(NB This was written in May 2001, several months before September 11th and the subsequent 'war on terrorism' in Afghanistan. It makes even more interesting reading now, and my comments about religious intolerance have a particular resonance given the prejudice that British and US Muslims are currently facing. As another cross-reference, I found this article in The Guardian a couple of days after the New York and Washington tragedies particularly interesting. While I absolutely do NOT condone violence in any form, particularly against innocent civilians, it is easy to understand the simmering resentment behind the attacks on America - AM, 19/11/01)

Another email chain letter has sparked me off (see my Jamie Bulger page). This time it was a petition to the UN asking it to act against the Taliban. While I agreed with that, as you will read, I objected to the simplistic view that this was just another example of Islamic repression of women.

Here is the email I received, again from a close friend. Names have been deleted to protect the guilty.

----- Original Message -----

From: [my friend, in the UK]

To: [myself and several others]

Subject: petition

If you decide not to forward this, please send it back to me [at a .edu email address]. This is an actual petition, and "signatures" will be lost if you drop the line.

Petition to the United Nations

Background Information: Madhu, the government of Afghanistan, is waging a war upon women. Since the Taliban took power in 1996, women have had to wear burqua and have been beaten and stoned in public for not having the proper attire, even if this means simply not having the mesh covering in front of their eyes. One woman was beaten to death by an angry mob of fundamentalists for accidentally exposing her arm(!) while she was driving. Another was stoned to death for trying to leave the country with a man that was not a relative.

Women are not allowed to work or even go out in public without a male relative; professional women such as professors, translators, doctors,lawyers, artists and writers have been forced from their jobs and restricted to their homes. Homes where a woman is present must have their windows painted so that she can never be seen by outsiders. They must wear silent shoes so that they are never heard. Women live in fear of their lives for the slightest misbehavior. Because they cannot work, those without male relatives or husbands are either starving to death or begging in the street,even if they hold Ph.D.'s. Depression is becoming so widespread that it has reached emergency levels. There is no way in such an extreme Islamic society to know the suicide rate with certainty, but relief workers are estimating that the suicide rate among women must be extraordinarily high: those who cannot find proper medication and treatment for severe depression and would rather take their lives than live in such conditions. At one of the rare hospitals for women, a reporter found still, nearly lifeless bodies lying motionless on top of beds, wrapped in their burqua, unwilling to speak, eat,or do anything, but slowly wasting away. Others have gone mad and were seen crouched in corners, perpetually rocking or crying, most of them in fear.

It is at the point where the term "human rights violations" has become an understatement. Husbands have the power of life and death over their women relatives, especially their wives, but an angry mob has just as much right to stone or beat a woman, often to death, for exposing an inch of flesh or offending them in the slightest way. Women enjoyed relative freedom: to work, to dress generally as they wanted, and to drive and appear in public alone until only 1996. The rapidity of this transition is the main reason for the depression and suicide; Women who were once educators or doctors or simply used to basic human freedoms are now severely restricted and treated as subhuman in the name of right-wing fundamentalist Islam. It is not their tradition or 'culture', but it is alien to them, and it is extreme even for those cultures where fundamentalism is the rule. Everyone has a right to a tolerable human existence, even if they are women in a Muslim country.

If we can threaten military force in Kosovo the name of human rights for the sake of ethnic Albanians, citizens of the world can certainly express peaceful outrage at the oppression, murder and injustice committed against women by the Taliban.

STATEMENT: In signing this, we agree that the current treatment of women in Afghanistan is completely UNACCEPTABLE and deserves action by the United Nations and that the current situation overseas will not be tolerated.

Women's Rights is not a small issue anywhere, and it is UNACCEPTABLE for women in 2001 to be treated as subhuman and as so much property. Equality and human decency is a fundamental RIGHT, not a freedom to be granted,whether one lives in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

DIRECTIONS: PLEASE COPY this email on to a new message, sign the bottom and forward it to everyone on your distribution lists. If you receive this list with more than 300 names on it, please e-mail a copy of it to: [that .edu email address again]

There follows a list of over 200 names with locations, mostly in the USA but also Turkey, Canada, UK, Luxembourg and Mongolia.

I forwarded the email to the .edu address given, Ccing my friend.

--------- My Reply ---------

I've decided not to forward this. While I naturally agree with the basic aim of the petition, I don't approve of the wording of the accompanying text. Specifically, it repeatedly associates the word 'Islamic' or 'Muslim' with the repression and abuse of women. This is a very simplistic view, and one which is flawed: Islam itself is not to blame. Theologically, there is nothing in the basic tenets of Islam which justifies or encourages the suppression of females.

The fact that the Islamic world coincides to a large degree with what we would call repressive societies is a cultural coincidence. Fundamentally (pun intended), Islam preaches neither gender-based nor religious persecution, and there are a number of basically Islamic societies where women are not significantly oppressed, and where one can even exercise freedom of religion; Malaysia is a good example. Conversely there are many states where women are oppressed to some degree, but not in the name of Islam. The USA and Europe - theoretically Christian societies, though the 2,000-year-old socialist egalitarian teachings of Jesus have been somewhat warped over time - are still not entirely blameless on this front.

Personally I find all religion irrational, but I support the right of any person to hold religious views and to practice their religion, provided that does not interfere with the rights of others. So while the Taliban government does indeed need to be destroyed, blaming the religion for the behaviour of its alleged adherents is a mistake which can only lead to further misunderstanding. Should one blame Christianity for the extremist rants of America's southern Baptists - or the southern Baptists themselves?

So you can put my name down for the petition - I agree with the Statement - but I won't be forwarding the accompanying text which encourages religious intolerance.

On another note, is an email chain letter actually recognised as a formal petition?



Alan Moore
Bath, UK

What do you think? Any worthwhile comments, pro or con, will be posted on this page - AM


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