Progressive Muslims seek universal rights

Recently, 12 Muslim reformers, would-be Luthers and armchair imams and mere concerned citizens, signed a manifesto against a New Totalitarianism. The manifesto made claims such as, “We must assure universal rights to oppressed people.” The article generally called for the values of liberal democracy, first articulated in the Enlightenment and further refined against the dread totalitarianisms of fascism, Nazism and Stalinism, and rejected the cultural relativist’s argument that since many Muslim communities do not have a tradition of rights, Muslims have no rights.

Rather than widespread support in the Muslim community, these enlightened Muslims received death threats. For most of them, it was not the first time. For example, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had fled Somalia to Europe when she was promised in a marriage she did not want, previously found a written threat on her own life attached by a knife to the cold, dead body of her co-worker Theo van Gogh. The two liberals had made a movie about a Muslim woman oppressed by reactionary Islam. From the mainstream press, we have nary a word. From the Yale campus, not a peep. Why? Surely Yalies are against totalitarianism. Surely they are against misogyny, and murder, and murder threats to feminists justified by “religion.” There are many issues that compete for our attention, true, and we cannot rally around every would-be reformer. One might think that female reformers of Islam might have some priority in our collective minds, but it’s probably healthy to consider issues on their merits and not on some identity basis. The genocide in Darfur has captured our attention, and rightly so. I think these two struggles are not unrelated.

Know that we have another chance. A young woman by the name of Mehdi Rifai has posted a petition for Muslims and Supporters against Inter-Muslim and Abuse Petition. Signatories, who include Rifai; Irshad Manji, the Canadian journalist, gay rights activist and past Fellow with International Security Studies here at Yale; and others, declare that “pointing out the problems in the Muslim world is not a form of race treason or racism but rather the first step towards solving these problems.” Rifai raises some good points. The violence in Darfur, which we all agree must be stopped, seems to need about 200,000 peacekeepers to be halted. Arab Muslims are killing black African Muslims. Why shouldn’t the East Asian Muslim troops, once suggested to make up a U.N. force in Lebanon, step into Sudan and Chad?

Now we will see what kind of response comes. If we all cared, the Daily News would lead a host of campus organizations and publications endorsing an end to the intolerance, and this petition. Most likely, nothing. Some of you, perhaps, will find Manji’s petition on the Web. Some of you will think, as I at first thought, that it is none of my (or your) business to meddle in the Muslim world. But Americans at first thought it was none of their business to meddle in Russia when Jews were murdered in pogroms. Americans thought it was none of their business to meddle in Turkey when the Turks slaughtered one and a half million Armenians. Americans thought it was none of their business to meddle in Cambodia while the Khmer Rouge destroyed the people of a nation. We are children of the human family, and our business is to meddle when our brothers rape our sisters. If we don’t want that meddling to be American troops, then we ought to encourage other communities to work out their own problems.

Muslim violence against other Muslims in Sudan, and other crises like it, is not only a Muslim problem, and I don’t suggest that we treat it as such. But it should not offend Muslims to suggest that the modern world does not accept wholesale and intentional murder of a nation’s own citizens. Just as it is no affront to Catholics to suggest that raping and pillaging during the Crusades was immoral, just as it is no insult to Mormons to suggest that the members of breakaway polygamist sects from that American religion ought to be brought to justice for marrying underage women, just as it is no insensitivity to tell Jews that those Hebrews from Yemen, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran and the former Soviet Union have been well integrated into neither the American Jewish nor the Israeli Jewish communities, it is no prejudice to suggest that Muslims murdering Muslims, whether for allegedly geopolitical, racial or “theological” reasons, cannot be tolerated in the modern world.

There is more to be said. We could talk about how the Saudi government obstructs Shiite worship in Mecca and Medina, and outrightly imprisons Sufi and Ismali Muslims — and Saudi Arabia is our “friend.” (We’ll see what the new Democratic Congress, alleged friend of the good working, God-worshipping man and not of the oil company man, has to say about that.) But although active religious oppression is a serious issue, I want to start simply. Let’s start by securing the right of everyone, even Muslims, to be alive.

Michael Leo Pomeranz is a sophomore in Silliman College.

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