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Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.
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Out of the shadows. With the Boko Haram situation in Nigeria in the headlines, the recently released film Honor Diaries seems particularly well timed to encourage discussion about the treatment of women under the harsh application of espoused by radical Islamists. The documentary features nine women’s rights advocates talking about the harsh treatment of women in certain Muslim-majority societies, particularly those that practice Sharia law as espoused by adherents of a radicalized form of Islam.
One of those nine woman is Raheel Raza, author of Their Jihad…Not My Jihad. The Muslim journalist is the president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow and the founder of both SAMA (Sacred Arts and Music Alliance) and the cross-cultural education group Forum 4 Learning. She recently spoke with me about the issues raised in Honor Diaries and about the difficulty media has in honestly presenting them.
JWK: As I understand, you are Muslim. You just reject Islamic extremism.
RAHEEL RAZA: Yes, I am a practicing observant Muslim. I reject a lot of what is…parading as Islam today. It’s been getting worse…It wasn’t like this when I was a child growing up in Pakistan but the last 35 years we’ve seen the injection of the Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia. It appalls me because I’ve seen the other side and I’m really empowered by the spiritual message of my faith. When I look around I see death and destruction in the name of Islam and it really, really bothers me.
JWK: Tell me about your new film Honor Diaries.
RR: Honor Diaries is a documentary that was actually internationally released in March on International Women’s Day. It’s an award-winning documentary. It has the voices of nine activists — the majority of them Muslim women, including myself — who speak out about the atrocities that are committed upon women in Muslim-majority societies. The three major issues we (talk) about (are) female genital mutilation, honor killings and forced and underage marriage. It’s not scripted. It’s very much our own experiences, those of us who are working as activists for a majority of our lives. It has a lot of statistics in it that verify the facts we are speaking about.
 JWK: How do you feel the West should be responding the Boko Haram situation in Nigeria?
RR: Well, I think, first of all, it took a long time for the West to wake up to a huge crisis but we know that Africa has always been on the back burner. We’ve seen this before…Now that the First Lady has sort of spoken about it (and) everyone in America is aware, they need to speak out. They need to empower their government to protect these girls and to work on the larger problem. You know, it’s not just a band-aid solution. Boko Haram has done this before and they will do it again unless, all together, as Muslims and non-Muslims we can touch the politically-incorrect problem that nobody wants to talk about which is Sharia law.  Whatever Boko Haram is doing, they’re doing under the umbrella of their interpretation of Sharia law. Now, you know, if we want to do something, we need to learn…the history of Boko Haram….What is the concept of Sharia that they promote?  We need to take steps to eradicate it.
In Honor Diaries, the thesis is that we have to create awareness and we have to educate (the public) and eradicate the problem. I would say the same thing applies to Boko Haram.
JWK: Do believe that the term “Islamophobia” is used as a way to stifle legitimate criticism of radicalized Islam?
RR: Oh, absolutely. I have said the term “Islamophobia” was deliberately coined by Islamist organizations in North America to deflect any kind of discussion and debate about problems within the Muslim world and in Muslim societies — especially (regarding) the issue of women’s rights. As soon as someone sees injustice happening and speaks out they’re slapped with the “Islamophobic” label — like you might be for (speaking to) me.
I’m a Muslim woman. I’m not scared of their labels. They can’t call me an Islamophobe or a racist. So, it becomes ethically and morally incumbent on me to speak out (and) create awareness…There needs of be some reform — and that has to come from within the Muslim community. But how are we going to do it if there is no dialogue and discussion and if any time somebody speaks out we are shut up?
Now, the work that has to be done is not just by Muslims themselves. We have to work with other faith communities. I’m constantly in dialogue with Christian communities because they had their reform and they had their leader and I want to know how did this happen? How long did it take? How hard was it? With Islam being the youngest of the three Abrahamic monotheistic faiths — there’s a lot that it takes from the other two faiths and that’s what we need to do is to open the debate and discussion and not be so concerned about semantics (as if) any kind criticism is going to harm Islam. You know, my faith is not so shaky that criticism is going to shake my faith.  We have to be honest.
JWK: How do you feel the media has done in covering the issue of extreme Islam and its treatment of women?
RR: They walk on tippy toes. They walk on egg shells because they fear what happens. They are afraid in some cases. In other cases they are politically correct. They have been told by their bosses and superiors not to use the term “Islamist” and terrorism in the same sentence. There are all sorts of pressures on media — although I believe that this is also very relative. You can’t make generalizations. Some media are very well informed, articulate and eloquent. Others don’t have any clue what they’re talking about. They talk to me. They want to know about Sharia but they have no idea what it is. So, I think everyone needs to educate themselves a bit more. There needs to be better knowledge and understanding.
Muslims who are progressive, liberal, who are looking for change and who are looking for reform need to be brought into the conversation. If it is an issue regarding Muslim women, why go to a male imam to find the answer? Speak to the women. We are articulate. We are alive. We exist. Forgive me for the cynicism but for far too long issues of women have been discussed by men. This is one of the problems within the Muslim-majority societies, this idea of freedom.
I come from a faith that says there is no compulsion in religion. Therefore, I feel that individual freedom of thinking is very important. I am a Muslim because I have decided that that is what’s good for me. I don’t want to impose it even on my children.
To come back to Boko Haram and the Sharia idea is to impose their version of Islam — which is not a humane version and not a gender-friendly version. They want to impose that on society like in Brunei. So, we have to connect the dots. What’s happening in Boko Haram is not very different than what’s happening in Brunei.
JWK: When you look at the wide coverage of the Boko Haram situation and combine it with how some in Hollywood are boycotting the Beverly Hills Hotel because it’s owned by the Sultan of Brunei who has declared Sharia law in his country recently declared and add in Bill Maher’s tackling of political correctness regarding radical Islam, do you feel that the tide is turning toward more open discussion of the issues?
RR: Of course. Whenever celebrities come into the fray, it perks up everyone — including media. That’s fine. If celebrities can promote the cause, more power to them. And I think they should…I think it’s fantastic that people are lobbying. If I was in Los Angeles, I would have gone there holding up a placard saying “Back off!” You don’t all of sudden decide that you’re going to kill gays or that you’re going to stone adulterers or that you’re going to bring back archaic seventh-century laws.So, what we are seeing (with) Boko Haram, in Brunei and other parts of the Muslim world (including) Pakistan, where I come from, is a regression back to the laws of the seventh and eighth centuries. Now, you should know by reason yourself that you can’t implement seventh and eighth-century laws in the 21st century. It’s archaic. They’re uncivilized laws. They’re looking at issues of slavery and armed jihad.  These laws of slavery and jihad did exist in Islam at that time. Absolutely–there’s no doubt about that–but we have to look at it and say it’s no longer valid. Our scholars and our religious leadership should have to look at it. I’m not religious scholar. I’m an activist. All I need to do is light a fire under the feet of scholars and cleric to bring about reform — and we will support it. It’s desperately needed for the future of my children and my grandchildren and the future generations of Muslims.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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