Saturday, March 7, 2009

Stop picking on (only) Islamic extremism

Let me burden you with a small personal preface: Having been raised Catholic and educated for 18 years in Catholic schools, I remember the lessons from the Bible that were repeated year after year in my education. Despite no longer calling myself religious, I still hold high Christian values. And when I say Christian values, I mean the original lessons and parables we get from the man himself in the Gospel (although those as well were likely changed and amended in the nearly 2,000 years before they got to me in the 1980s.)

I now live in an environment even more steeped in religiosity than anything I have experienced before. Conservative Islam permeates every aspect of society here, perhaps most noticeably in women's clothing. In recent posts I have discussed the rather confusing issue of the abaya'. I have pondered and questioned—why do people follow what they can't defend? Perhaps many of the women cannot explain why they wear the abaya', or tell me where it comes from, but is that so unusual? Is that so reprehensible compared to what goes on under the guise of Catholic morality? If you look around you, Catholicism is getting harder and harder to defend itself.

Just this week, the Catholic Church excommunicated a 9 year old Brazilian girl and her family. The girl had been raped by her step-father, and was pregnant with twins. Her family made the decision to have an abortion. The Vatican responded by banning this family and the doctor who performed the abortion from the Catholic community forever. Is that a Christian response? What would Jesus do? Cliché—no doubt. But perhaps a little dose of 8th grade religious simplicity would do the Vatican a bit of good.

I remember the passage: “How will you say to your brother, Brother, let me take the grain of dust out of your eye, when you yourself do not see the bit of wood in your eye? You hypocrite! First take the wood out of your eye and then you will see clearly to take the dust out of your brother's eye.” –Luke 6:42
In addition, let’s remember the well-known passage of Jesus telling the crowd which is about to stone the adulterous woman that the one among them who has done no wrong should throw the first stone. Everyone leaves, of course.

In short: we are not to be judgmental. We cannot decide for others, for we are so blinded by our own inadequacies and are so deeply imperfect.

This astory would strike anyone; however, it affected me not only because it is a heart-wrenching and dismaying story, but also because it sheds new light onto all the international hullabaloo over Islamic extremism.

So often, we hear the rhetoric that Islam practices extreme moral policing and robs people of their freedom. We hear about Saudi Arabia punishing and imprisoning a woman for being raped. It makes international news, framing Saudi Arabia’s religious policy as antithetical to human rights and justice. Compare that to the story of this victimized child in Brazil. A Brazilian Archbishop claimed that: "Abortion is much more serious than killing an adult. An adult may or may not be an innocent, but an unborn child is most definitely innocent. Taking that life cannot be ignored." (See article.) Wasn’t this little girl completely innocent as well? The Catholic Church as well brandishes the sword (and not for the first time) of extreme religious policing with fervor. How can an institution that treats its own with such a blatant lack of compassion and understanding possibly claim to be all about inter-religious dialogue?

The Church needs to take the plank out of its own eye and do some serious spring cleaning in the Vatican. Certainly if it plans on taking a leading role in any sort of religious dialogue, particularly with Islam, which is so often internationally demonized, it needs to brush up on the Bible, and start writing public apologies to all the people and families which have been victimized by both its unacceptable actions of the past years and its all too facile stamp of moral condemnation.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Women in Black

After a week of wondering in vain why Gulf women wear the black abaya’ over their already loose and colorful clothing, I decided to do a little investigating. (See previous post). The only difference between the abaya’ and their home attire is color. I was sure that color could not possibly be the deciding factor as to why women wear the abaya’ in public as opposed to their more traditional dresses and scarves. And I was correct. It’s not color, but it’s also not modesty. In response to the question, “Why do you wear the abaya’ every day?”—every woman in my small sample of six women said, in different words, “just because.”

My issue was with 1) the color black, and 2) the double covering with no increase in modesty (I made it clear that I understand using the abaya’ cloak to cover other clothes, such as jeans, tee-shirts or anything tight or revealing. I just did not, however, understand the redundancy). Some said it was required by Islam (not true). Some said that it was in the Hadith (not true). Some said the Mohammed said to wear black (not true). Some girls even asked me where it came from. Eventually it came down to other people. Other people will look at them if they don’t wear it. Not necessarily looking at them because they were showing anything more…a sexy bit of collar bone or some womanly curves; rather because they would simply stand out. The power of a homogenized culture boggles the liberal mind. After just years, not even a generation, a trend can become enforced—a cultural, even more than a religious, uniform. Most women here know that the abaya’ is not traditional Omani clothing, but they have no idea where it did come from, so much so that they turned to their resident western fashion guru—me—to find out where the abaya’ came from, and when.

I’m all about people making their own decisions….so long as they are informed decisions. I am done pondering why Gulf women wear this black robe over their already modest, loose dresses. The deeper and much more important issue (although it may not seem to be more important in this heat) is why these young women don’t know the history that they put on every morning. They are fulfilling unknown fatwas; following nameless rulers; abiding by the edicts of a stringent form of Islam that they cannot name. Why are these women so ignorant of the forces that control them?

Perhaps the examples are clearer here in the Arab Gulf—the quiet oppression and confident cooperation stand out like a sore thumb to an aware outsider. But it is crucial to rise above one’s immediate surroundings and look around at the rest of the world. Can the lessons being learned here in my little Omani town be applied all over the globe? People are passively, or at least unknowingly, cooperating with their silent oppressors everywhere. It just happens to be blisteringly obvious here.