by Phyllis Chesler
Yesterday I had the enormous privilege of delivering a lecture at Yale University’s Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism. In a few days, a video will be posted on their Web site. It was also a pleasure to be hosted by the very suave yet exceedingly sober Dr. Charles Small, the director, and to engage in dialogue with so many thoughtful, well-spoken faculty, retired faculty, students, and community members.
I had the additional pleasure of sharing the ride there and back with Professor David Menashri, one of Israel’s leading experts on Iran and the Chair of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. Professor Menashri was born in Iran, left as a child, and returned to gather data there for his thesis in the 1970s, before Khomeini’s revolution.
My speech was titled: “How Scapegoating Israel Diminishes the Rights of Women in the Middle East.” One among many important questions concerned whether Western thinkers and activists are—or are not—connecting, influencing, being influenced by our counterparts in the Arab and Islamic world.
I responded at length. In essence, I said that this exchange was the most important bridge-building exchange imaginable, one that was being severely hobbled by our inability to read each other in our native languages. What is written in Arabic, Persian, and Kurdish is not being translated into European languages and what is being written in English is rarely being translated into Arabic, Persian, Kurdish, etc. I have desperately been seeking translators, funding, and distribution channels. I have been talking about this ever since a group of enterprising Iranians beamed my Senate Press Briefing speech via satellite right into Iran and had it simultaneously translated into Persian. That was back in 2005. I immediately saw enormous potential in such an exchange.
In 2009, in Rome, at a G8 meeting, I had the honor of bonding with a group of Muslim feminists, both religious and secular, over our shared concerns. They told me that they had felt abandoned by Western feminists who refused to take a stand on issues such as honor killing, forced veiling, the subordination of women—lest they be considered “racists” or ‘Islamophobes.” Many of these women were wearing hijab (headscarves) and they were all intellectually honest, brave, and fabulously feminist.
Yesterday, at Yale, I asked the group whether anyone had ever heard of the October 2010 Casablanca Call for Democracy and Human Rights? No one had. Actually, my dear friend Ibn Warraq had only just called it to my attention a few days ago. He had not heard about it either until someone sent him an email which led to his November 18 piece in The National Review. Hundreds of signatories from many Arab countries including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Jordan, Kurdistan, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, and from all over Europe and North America, signed a Call for “profound reforms that respect the rule of law…for the separation of powers…[and] respect for human rights and freedoms.” They demand the immediate release of all political prisoners and an end to political trials which involve both kidnapping and torture, the protection of an independent judiciary, the empowerment of women, a guarantee of freedom of expression, and the achievement of democracy.
No one was demanding the right to wear the burqa, the right to child marriage, the right to stone women to death, the right to Sharia law, or the right to practice polygamy.
Most important, the Call is “appealing to democratic forces in the entire world to put pressure on their own governments to refrain from supporting non-democratic regimes in the Arab world, and from adopting double standards in their relations with Arab regimes.”
President Obama: Are you listening?
No, they may not want our military intervention but they do want us to take moral stands, to apply international pressure, to dialogue with their governments—if only to give heart and hope to the dissidents within and at the mercy of tyrants.
This is an interesting progression. In 2007, in St Petersburg, Florida, I was privileged to chair the opening panel of the first-ever Secular Islamic Dissident Conference, which also yielded a declaration which stated, in part, as follows:
We affirm the inviolable freedom of the individual conscience. We believe in the equality of all human persons.
We insist upon the separation of religion from state and the observance of universal human rights.
We see no colonialism, racism, or so-called “Islamaphobia” in submitting Islamic practices to criticism or condemnation when they violate human reason or rights.
We call on the governments of the world to
* reject Sharia law, fatwa courts, clerical rule, and state-sanctioned religion in all their forms; oppose all penalties for blasphemy and apostasy, in accordance with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights;
* eliminate practices, such as female circumcision, honor killing, forced veiling, and forced marriage, that further the oppression of women;
* protect sexual and gender minorities from persecution and violence;
* reform sectarian education that teaches intolerance and bigotry towards non-Muslims;
* and foster an open public sphere in which all matters may be discussed without coercion or intimidation.
The signatories included Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Magdi Allam, Mithal Al-Alusi, Shaker Al-Nabulski, Nonie Darwish, Afshin Ellian, Tawfik Hamid, Shahriar Kabir, Hasan Mahmud, Wafa Sultan, Amir Taheri, Ibn Warraq, Manda Zand Ervin, and Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi.
My talk at Yale, which I may publish separately, concerned the ways in which demonizing and scapegoating Israel made it very easy for the world to disappear Muslim-on-Muslim tyranny, torture, and religious and gender apartheid, and to render invisible Islamic imperialism and colonialism.
I need to have access—we all do—to books such as Zeyno Baran’s wonderful anthology The Other Muslims: Moderate and Secular in which anti-Islamist Muslims, both secular and religious, speak their diverse truths. More important: Those who read only Arabic, Persian, or Indonesian need access to this work even more.
We have the technology for such a spirited and vital exchange of ideas. We only lack the political will—and the funding.
No, I do not expect or desire Muslim countries to become exactly like Western countries. I hope that religious Muslims will be allowed to interpret and re-interpret the Qu’ran just as Jews and Christians have evolved our traditions and adjusted some ancient barbaric practices to more modern and humane ones. But yes, I do believe that the same wide world that is ready for cellphones and television is more than ready for a revolution in terms of individual human and women’s rights.
I wish to acknowledge the generosity of Abigail and Jerry Martin who subsidized the research and writing of the speech I delivered at Yale.
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