Abuse of women is sadly endemic

Today's Zaman (Turkey). Feb 21, 2011

Abuse of Women is Sadly Endemic
Parvez Ahmed

Amidst all the euphoria about Egypt’s peaceful revolution, the news of CBS news reporter Lara Logan being sexually assaulted hits like a ton of bricks. The people of Egypt, especially its youth, have been such an inspiration that any hint of deviant behavior understandably elicits gasps and should provoke soul searching. Sadly the incident is not as isolated.

A 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights shows 98 percent of foreign women and 83 percent of Egyptian women reporting being sexually harassed. Six in 10 men admitted to such behavior. How is it that Muslim society’s, which often pontificate about conservative values and uses such mantra to advocate segregation, that women are denied the most basic of dignity?

The Islamic scripture is unequivocal that the proper treatment of women is a cornerstone in developing personal piety and societal harmony. In chapter 9 verse 71, the Quranic paradigm is clear, “The believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another: they enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey God and His Messenger. On them will God pour His Mercy: for God is Exalted in power, Wise.”

Expounding on the subject of gender relations, noted Islamic scholar Jamal Badawi writes, “Under no circumstances does the Quran encourage, allow or condone violence (against women). In extreme cases … it allows for a husband to administer a gentle pat to his wife that causes no physical harm to the body nor leaves any sort of mark. …. In the event that dispute cannot be resolved equitably between husband and wife, the Quran prescribes mediation between the parties through family intervention on behalf of both spouses.” Badawi is attempting to contextualize the Quranic verse 4:34. And yet many Muslim religious leaders do not place this verse into its proper context, making it ripe for abuse both at the hands of Muslim men and by those who blame Islam for all that ails the Muslim world.

Contradictions between the teaching in sacred texts and the reality on the ground are not limited to Egypt or the segregated and repressive Gulf States. In Turkey, 4 out of 10 women are physically abused by their husbands, according to a recent study titled "Domestic Violence against Women in Turkey."

To be fair, abuse of women is not exclusively a Muslim problem. The same day that the Lara Logan story broke, news media also reported that female members of the U.S. Navy were alleging cover up of widespread rape. A U.S. Justice Department study shows that 1 in 6 American women are raped during their lifetimes. Nearly half of all murders of women in the U.S. are committed by a romantic partner. Abuse of women is just as problematic in conservative Muslim societies as they are in the liberal West. This underscores the need for less finger-pointing and ought to provide the impetus to collectively address the issue.

The abuse women in Muslim societies are particularly jolting because of its stark contrast with the normative teachings of Islam. I often have the privilege of speaking to people of other faiths about Islam and Muslims. Such contradictions are what most troubles my audience and why they continue to harbor negative opinions about Islam and Muslims. Islamophobia cannot be overcome by merely preaching Islam. It will require Muslims to live Islam and their societies to reflect Islam’s values and ethics. While Muslim preachers rail against those who prevent women from wearing headscarves or hijab they are largely silent on the endemic abuse of women. While Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, are quick to defend segregation as a way to “protect” women they have taken few measures to stem the pervasive mistreatment of women in their own backyards.

In the general gloom and doom of the Middle East, once again it is the educated and enlightened Muslim youth that is providing a ray of hope. Visit the Facebook page titled, “Lara Logan: An apology from Egypt.” The messages of apology seem heartfelt. Many Egyptians are rightfully ashamed of this ignominy. My fervent hope is that they turn this moment of shame into motivation for positive change that eradicates this ‘social cancer.’ Can Arabs and Muslims once again turn their hopeful eyes towards Egypt leading the path to civilization? CNN producer and camerawoman Mary Rogers gives voice to the hope of many, “Perhaps it will be people power, the same people power that brought down a regime, that will successfully combat sexual harassment. But the only real protection women can have is when the attitudes of men change.”

[Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida.]

We are all Egyptians now

Today's Zaman, Feb 3, 2011

We are all Egyptians now

I am mesmerized by the peaceful popular uprisings calling for the end of three decades of dictatorial rule in Egypt. Often the news from the Muslim world is depressing. Not today. The impact of this is still unknown.

But one thing is unmistakably clear: We are all Egyptians now. The young voices from Egypt fill me with hope and optimism about the future of the Middle East and the Muslim world. In the unlikeliest of places and in the most trying of circumstances, the Egyptians are not just demanding their freedoms but, unbeknownst to them, are helping to shatter several myths along the way.

The unforgettable images from Tahrir Square are helping to erase the myth of Muslims and Arabs being apathetic to democracy and docile to authoritarian rule. It is also erasing the lore of the archetypal Muslim male -- conservative and angry -- and the stereotypical Muslim woman -- compliant and veiled. Like any other society, Muslim communities boast a range of voices. Many practicing Muslims favor separation between mosque and state, viewing this as a position closer to normative Islam, while others desire that national laws reflect their religious values, fervent in their belief that such an action is pleasing to God.

Along with the Jasmine Revolution of Tunisia, the popular uprising in Egypt is a deathblow to the urban legend that change in Muslim societies can only be brought about by force. For over a decade al-Qaeda and its affiliates have successfully exploited the lack of freedoms and dignity in parts of the Muslim world to foment terrorism, euphemistically calling them martyrdom operations. Overwhelming majorities in Tunisia and Egypt by their actions emphatically rejected the nihilism of al-Qaeda. They instead chose the Gandhian approach of non-violence and peaceful assembly to redress their grievances. This sign of hope must not be extinguished by the intransigence of Hosni Mubarak to step down. Orderly transition cannot be a pretext to extending his iron-fisted rule.

Equally impressive is the shattering of yet another myth, often the bedrock assumption behind America’s unquestioned support for the Mubaraks and the Abdullahs of the world. For long the Mubaraks and the Abdullahs have sold the notion, and America bought the idea, that choices in the Muslim world are bipolar -- the ruthless dictator or the parochial religious fundamentalist. To most Muslims these are false choices. Like their counterparts in other parts of the world, most Muslims care less about the ideology of their government and more about the services which that government can deliver. Palestinians in Gaza did not choose Hamas for their ideological bent, but rather they voted Fatah out for failing to deliver basic services to the people. Many Turks may not agree with the socio-religious views of their conservative prime minister, but time and again they back his party at the polls because they deliver on their promises of good governance.

The young voices in Tahrir Square showed that in a few days of freedom they have earned a lifetime of wisdom. Even when angry at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians they did not want their new government to walk away from Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. While remaining skeptical about the motives of the Muslim Brotherhood, they welcomed diverse voices in the new Egypt. Their disappointments over American foreign policy did not make them break out into anti-American chants. When the state apparatus failed to protect innocent civilians from looters and thugs, youths acted in an impromptu fashion to protect the dignity of their families and their communities. Egyptians and Tunisians have best exemplified the slogan “Yes, we can.”

Standing at the edge of a new dawn, one cannot help but be hopeful. But this euphoria of hope should not detract attention from a basic fact -- democracy is a process, not an outcome. The process requires engagement and vigilance. Removing a dictatorial regime is not enough, for democracy is not merely the rule of the majority but also necessitates the protection of minority rights and voices.

In my visits to Egypt I have always been impressed by the sense of civilizational pride that ordinary citizens expressed, from college campuses to coffee shops. Egyptians now have a chance to put their pride in their long legacy of monumental civilizational achievements to good use. Watching from afar, we may not be able to help much, but at the very least we can pray that the extraordinary sacrifices of the most ordinary amongst us is not wasted. Rather, it serves as a powerful motivator to truly usher in a new era of peace and healing to one of the most troubled regions of the world.

Additional Reading: Egypt's Revolution: How Democracy Can Work in the Middle East
By Fareed Zakaria

A Sputnik Moment for U.S. Foreign Policy

NY Times Photo Gallery on Egypt Protest

Huffington Post, Feb 1, 2011
Florida Times Union, Feb 2, 2011
A Sputnik Moment for U.S. Foreign Policy

The Jasmine Revolution has led to the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the autocratic leader of Tunisia and has sparked similar revolutionary fervor from Algeria to Egypt. The success in Tunisia has emboldened protestors across the Middle East demanding greater freedom and dignity. The many unforgettable images of the demonstrators are helping to erase the myth of Muslims and Arabs being apathetic to democracy and docile to authoritarian rule. Democracy deficiency has been a fact of life in the Middle East not because the people did not want it but because for decades American support propped up the Arab dictators, all in the name of stability. This policy is now in shambles. Today the region can boast neither stability nor freedom. The "Sputnik moment" opportunity is to reorient the arc of U.S. foreign policy from being solely motivated by American national interests to being guided by the universal values of freedom, liberty, rule of law and democracy.

American Presidents, both Republican and Democrats, have not been totally callous about the lack of freedom and liberty in the Middle East. But they have always made the need for stability in a region whose natural resources (oil) fuels America's economic engine a more urgent priority. Although Egypt and Jordan does not supply the U.S. with oil, their peace treaty with Israel makes them important linchpins of American foreign policy. The dictators in the region obviously know all that and gladly play the fear-card to keep America in their corner, no matter how diametrically opposed their domestic policies are to American values. The Abdullahs and the Mubaraks have for decades successfully invoked the specter of religious hardliners coming to power in the absence of their iron-fisted rules. The distinction between religious conservatives and lawless terrorists were maliciously and deliberately blurred. With Western support Mubarak had cracked down on political opposition often in the name of fighting terrorism. Decades of such actions seeded the violence that convulses much of the Middle East today.

The Iranian experience provided a further pretext. The toppling of an unpopular U.S. puppet, the Shah, was followed by a government hostile to Western interests and restrictive of the freedom and liberty of its own people. When faced with calls for greater democracy, the U.S. foreign policy establishment often argued that the removal of a dictator in the Middle East will not necessarily increase the chances of a liberal democracy in the region. Underlying this assumption is a fallacy that often drives American public opinion about Islam, Muslims and the Arabs -- the propensity to judge vast swaths of people, spanning different cultural backgrounds and historical experiences, with the worst behavior or examples from that part of the world.

For every Iran there is a Turkey. Muslims are neither monolithic nor merely shaped by their religious beliefs. Turkey and Bangladesh for example have held on to their secular democracy, even when religious conservatives rose to power. Instead of using the fear of an Iranian-type religious takeover in Egypt as a pretext to extend President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule, it will be far better to take into account the unique cultural contours of Egypt.

With its three millennium of civilizational experience, Egypt is far more tolerant and pluralistic than many on the outside are led to believe. While religious movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood enjoy some support in Egypt, they are not universally adored. Although, it is likely that in an open and democratic Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will play some role (unlikely to be dominant), there is no need to fear monger such a possibility. The next Egyptian regime will have to bear in mind that the so-called Arab street is now wide awake. They will not tolerate any government that fails to meet the demands of their people. If a brutal dictator ruling with the unqualified support of the West could be removed in a few days of street protests, as in Tunisia with Egypt hopefully being next, then no regime that rules without the consent of the governed will ever be safe. In addition, the successes, both at home and abroad, of a religiously conservative government in secular Turkey provide a practical model for conservative political forces to emulate in the region.

The time has come for the U.S. government to demonstrate to the Arab and Muslim world that it is indeed on the side of the people. Support for the true democratic aspirations of the people in the region can go a long way in restoring America's image in the Arab and Muslim world. Anything less will only plunge these societies into further darkness from whence could emerge ever more dangerous reactionary and militant forces. The Sputnik moment has arrived. Will President Obama exhibit transformational leadership to provide meaningful American support in transitioning this region to democratic rule of law? Will the Egyptian people see America on their side or will they interpret the mantra of "orderly transition" as code for keeping the Mubarak regime alive, albeit on life support.