By Huma Dar
On Thursday, June 10, 2010, Jerome Taylor, the Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Independent posted an article headlined, “First Woman to Lead Friday Prayers in UK.” Two-thirds of the way down this article, we find that:
“Ms Raza’s appearance in Oxford is a repeat of a similar prayer session in 2008 which was led by Amina Wadud, an American-born convert and Muslim feminist. But this is the first time a Muslim-born woman will lead a mixed prayer service in Britain.”
Taylor’s differentiation between “American-born convert” and “Muslim-born woman” and labeling of the latter as the “first woman” in the headline creates a false hierarchy and subtly delegitimizes Dr. Wadud, a leading Muslim scholar and author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, a path-breaking text in the study of gender and Islam. Taylor’s late admission of “repeat” after the (mis)leading announcement of “First” in the bold headline does not quite cover up for the critical sins of omission and commission, especially as Raheel Raza, the Pakistani-Canadian woman leading the prayer at Oxford, is neither an ‘Alima or a scholar of Islam nor is she known for her advocacy of Muslims at large.
In fact Raza is a rather polarizing figure amongst Muslims in North America and her record does not indicate much learning in the letter or spirit of Islam, as in speaking truth to power and standing with the oppressed. An article of Raza’s published on November 2008, in the conservative magazine, The American Thinker, describes her as a “write[r] for Islamist Watch, a project at the Middle East Forum.” Directed by the famous Islamophobe Daniel Pipes, this forum also runs the “anti-scholarship and anti-university” McCarthyite project Campus Watch, roundly critiqued by the likes of Joseph Massad and Judith Butler amongst others. The Muslimah Media Watch has an excellent critique of Raza’s article in a post “Truth or Scare: Raheel Raza’s Fear Mongering” where Sobia gives ample and convincing evidence of Raza’s crass political opportunism and her adroitness at labeling her detractors as “Islamist” to rise up in estimation of the powers-that-be: the “good Muslim” par excellence!
The critical issue to contemplate here then is the ethics of exacerbating, even if “just” discursively, the current Islamophobic hysteria that has already been responsible for the deaths of more than a million human beings in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, and counting. In this era of perpetual war can we afford to ignore the politics of hypocrisy and Islamophobia? Given this consideration, unfortunately, Raza hardly seems like a Muslim one would want to follow in any way whatsoever: in the Masjid or on the High Street – in much the same way one would avoid praying behind Bin Laden. It is significant to note here that the purported binary construction of “spiritual” and “political” obfuscates their sometimes overlapping and often mutually constitutive aspects. Spirituality is not divorced from politics, but can potentially be the fount of most, if not all, politics — at least in the religiously inclined, one hopes.
To some who express concern that we might want to hold back on critique so as not to discourage women from leading prayers publicly, my response is that it is precisely the uncritical celebration of people like Raza leading a Friday prayer that is insulting and detrimental to our very legitimate struggle for gender-justice, perhaps unwittingly so. It assumes as an a priori that Raza is one of the best – most erudite and pious – amongst us Muslim women, or that the pool is very small and other potential Muslim women imams would not have the discernment to avoid being discouraged by a justified ethico-political critique of Raza. This is in spite of very loud warnings of what can at best be Raza’s ignorance and at worst be the signs of major character flaws: being a sell-out or a native informant to the likes of Daniel Pipes and Phyllis Chesler.
Gender alone cannot be the sole criterion of choosing an Imam – or a President for that matter. Yes, given all other variables being virtually equivalent, I, personally, would choose to support a woman Imam, not only because I am a woman, but also to correct widely prevalent socio-historical inequities. In my mind, to think otherwise, to choose “less than the best” (in Raza’s case: “far from the best”) as an implicit act of charity, is to assume that there are no (or fewer) women amongst the best of us. If any “affirmative action” is needed, it is to make all centers of theological study, all universities, all masaajid, all madaaris, all debates open and genuinely hospitable to all genders, as well as to all others who have been historically marginalized.
There is an Urdu saying: امید پہ دنیا قاءم ھے [ummeed pe duniya qaayim hai] or “the world is founded on hope,” and hope we must…