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Deviating slightly from our usual posts, we wanted to share with our readers an interview between Anne Dijk, a female Sunni scholar based in the Netherlands and Arjen Buitelaar, a male Shia scholar also from the Netherlands. They were interviewed by Arek Miernik who is from Poland, and the interview has been translated to English. You can read more about their backgrounds at the end of this post.
- What is the idea behind Su-Shi and how did it come about as your project?
Arjen Since the outbreak of the ‘Arab Spring’ we notice heightened and more open tensions between the different Islamic creeds, mainly Sunnites and Shiites, and the voices of the extremes on both sides become louder. Of course this is a development that has been going on for several decades by now, and the extremes on both sides kind of hijack the voice of the common and good willing majority of Muslims. We see both sides recruit people to war zones in countries they have never been to, and tensions, incomprehension and impotency grow. This kind of reached a peak when Mosul was conquered by ISIL forces. It was that moment that Anne Dijk participated in a radio talk on the differences and similarities between Sunnites and Shiites, and she emphasized that the differences weren’t that big (more on jurisprudential level), but in practice it often seemed impossible to get the groups together even for something simple like an iftar. I then decided to approach her, because it was the bitter truth and despite the talks (and efforts) from authoritative scholars that we share so many commonalities, that we are brothers and sisters or even each other’s souls, and that we should work together, we see that communities simply don’t do that and we wanted to change that.
Anne The idea behind su-shi is that we want to bring together Sunni, Shia and all possible creeds within Islam, together, on an equal basis, to meet on a personal level. We don’t want to ‘create’ one single creed, or try to undermine the differences, which exist. We want to strengthen the ummah by informing about the differences and also speak out against stereotypes and prejudices that cause harm to both groups.
Often, the stereotypes of arguments against the opposite groups are based on prejudices, which often only hold for the extremes, and not for the mass-mainstream. Getting to really know each other, in a safe place, where genuine interest and curiosity for the other, is hardly happening. Talks on internet fora very often result in harsh language and conversations that get hijacked by extremes. That’s why we focus on small get-togethers, to really give a platform for personal meetings, based on proper (academic) information.
- How do you create a “safe” and neutral space during your meetings and events? Considering the deep level of division and animosity that these differences can cause, exacerbated by current political events in the Middle East, how do you make sure that these divisive attitudes don’t make their way into your meetings?
Anne During the 1,5 year of preparation, before we went online, formal and open, we discussed this issue elaborately. How can we create a safe and neutral space? Of course we can never guarantee anything, but we made clear ‘houserules’. A few elements therein are, are that dialogue is the goal, not debate. Trying to convince the other of your own truth is not allowed either, sincere and open questions are. Tafkir is not allowed; anyone who considers him/herself Muslim deserves within sushi that we treat him/her as such. Per activity we try to make a ‘risk management’ – for example: we held a iftar last ramadan – what to do with the adhan? (su of shi time?) and what to do with the prayer? We try to prevent any kind if discussion of such issues: how? We talk about them openly and elaborate on potential differences. For example, we elaborated en public on the different times of braking the fast, and that the dates were presented for everyone who wanted to brake the fast at that moment (Sunnis) and that we would do one adhan at the shi time. Later, the prayer was open for everyone – everyone must feel free to be able to pray together, but if someone wanted to pray later, that was also fine.
Arjen I agree with Anne’s answer; these are good examples in practice. Within the core group we have a dozen different ethnic and sectarian backgrounds, so you can imagine we have lively talks on possible difficulties when organizing an event. I’d also like to emphasize that one of our core rules is to support respectful dialogue and denounce debate, which, in effect, could be focused on individual monologues only while dialogue forces to open up and listen to the other. It are these house rules that ensure the safe space individuals find themselves in. Added to that, it is important to note that we work with what we call an ‘oil spill formula’, by which we mean that every visitor is personally invited by someone he/she already knows within the ‘Su-Shi Community’. This way we ensure that people feel more secure to open up and say what is on their hearts. Another way we make sure people find themselves in a safe environment is that we do not use traditional set ups with podia for the speakers and people sitting on chairs for a few hours. Depending on the size of the group we either meet up at someone’s home and start with chit chat and dinner. Or like our last Iftar we met up in a ‘youth club’/lounge setting, having some armchairs, couches and tables to sit on, providing a more relaxed atmosphere and automatically ‘compelling’ people to mix up.
- The idea of meeting ‘the other sect’ in this environment presupposes that participants already have a certain degree of openness to it. Did you have any reactions so far from those sectors among both communities which prefer to maintain division and hostility?
Arjen Yes we did, though this was outnumbered by massive support messages. A certain degree of openness is definitely needed, simply because within the extremes of religions and ideologies people and or communities build virtual walls around them that make it impossible to reach out to. When people consider the other to be the devil, or inspired by the devil, or a hypocrite of some sort, and subsequently consider his words to be deceiving, how could one ever be willing to listen to it?
And this is kind of the scope of the hostile messages we received. Some extreme Salafists and Quranists who did not and will not acknowledge the existence of other creeds to be Islamic, and who attempted to defame some of our members on a personal level simply because there’s not much to argument about the content of our stance.
Because it is our policy to engage in dialogue and approach everything positively, instead of bogging down in endless debates, we do not react on that. Instead, these two negative approaches have given us plenty of points to further elaborate and communicate through the positive platform we’ve created.
- In your experience what are the main or most common reasons that the extreme sectors of each sect give as justification for their enmity towards the other sect? How much of it is theological, how much historical/political and how often is it perhaps rooted, or strengthened, by people’s personal experiences?
Arjen This is a fairly difficult question that needs some elaboration. It is most interesting that the extreme sectors from all creeds base themselves on core sources, just as much as mainstream creeds do. Sometimes even the exact same texts, yet interpreted differently. The narrower the boundaries of a sect become, the more stress they will put on their absolute authority to explain the meaning of texts and not to stray from the ‘right path’ by looking at explanations by authorities from outside their group’s ‘enclave’. The ‘other’ is literally demonized, and by defining ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’, and ‘divine’ and ‘satanic’ the justification easily becomes ‘theological’. It remains the question, however, whether the origins of the justification were theological by nature, or rather inspired by political motives. The same goes for stances on ‘historical truths’. These are based on the same kind of source texts that have alternatives that are consciously neglected, and have shortcomings. Subsequently these become indisputable dogma’s due to their absolute character, and are proposed as ‘real Islam’, yet are nothing more than fallacies. Used to manipulate and monopolize the conversation and hijack individual thought.
The main tradition that is used to justify sectarianism is that the prophet Muhammad ص would have said that Islam will be divided in 73 sects of which just one will enter paradise. This (weak tradition) is used to intensify the fear of individuals and groups to be amongst the dwellers of hell, causing people to know more about the ‘wrongs’ of the other than the ‘goods’ of themselves. With regards to other religions, Islam actually has the same opinion about truth as it has about herself. Christianity will be divided in 72 sects and Judaism in 71, both also have one rightly guided group. For Muslims it doesn’t seem to be their business to define which groups from other religions is the rightly guided one, as long as they do not interfere in Muslim matters. But as one reaction by a self-proclaimed institute wonderfully articulated their view on Islamic sectarianism: “the battle for influence over the Muslims continues…”
- Yours is clearly grassroots, bottom-up project. Do you think that the established Muslim leadership like traditional ulama etc. are falling short in building intra-religious bridges among Muslims at the top-down level?
Arjen The answer to this question has multiple layers; it would be too easy to say that they do or do not. In my opinion there are many efforts being made by the established Muslim leadership to build bridges, but their (and this is not reserved to Muslims or religious communities) focus is mainly on people from the top segments, not on community level. In the past decade alone we have seen the Amman Message, which is a great document that Su-Shi uses as well in our argumentation, and the Marrakesh Declaration, which apparently has been improved over a longer period since the 1990s and in its recent update specifically gained attention for its focus on minority groups such as the Yazidis and Christians who suffer much in the Middle East as we speak. Other attempts are being made as well, such as the annual Ghadeer Khumm Festival in Najaf, which I personally attended in 2013, and where leaders from different religious communities spoke. Including more subordinated sects such as the Druze community. All these attempts are very valuable and should be cherished.
At the same time, we see that these innumerably valuable official declarations are not lived after in practice. In real life they remain theoretical documents, that are sometimes not even lived after by important leader figures who endorsed them at first. Or that important religious leaders make statements that, unintended, lead to deeper sectarian rifts.
In parts of the Middle East region tensions are so high since the beginning of this millennium, that it is, of course, very hard to maintain these statements. Leaders can communicate with each other and make agreements at top level, but when blood is shed at ground level people will rather follow a leader that speaks their mind.
The main reason why these declarations hardly have an effect on ground level, however, is that most Islamic – and in fact Abrahamic – faiths are exclusivistic is in nature. When ground level believers hear from their leaders that they should respect and embrace believers from other faiths and sects, and at the same time read in their jurisprudences that those people from other faiths and sects are intrinsically ‘impure’ (najis) because of their ‘infidelity’ or being born to ‘infidel’ parents, than that is at least confusing. In practice, among migrant communities in the West, this means we see, for example, how certain Shiite groups try to find escapes from the statement by the highest authorities that ‘Sunnis are not our brothers and sisters, but our souls’, and try to explain how this still means Sunnis are not on the guided path. And vice versa we see the tremendous influence of Wahhabism which too, albeit being an extreme side faction, affects mainstream Sunnism as well by planting its poisonous seeds of hatred towards others. There is no other way to break this way of thinking, that is imported along with or even strengthened through immigration, down but by starting to work on this from a grassroots, bottom-up project. A project in which the participants themselves can add to the thinking process, and can themselves speak out for peace and cooperation instead of having to depend for that on top level leadership.
Anne It’s indeed a bottom up approach that we have, and that’s for many reasons. 1. We want to grow slowly in order to build real trust based on personal connection in stead of theoretical words only. And 2. To put into practise what those ‘top down’ approaches have tried to formulate but failed to implement.
- On a practical note, how do you fund your activities? The reason I’m asking is that as we know, with funding from established Muslim organisations often come agendas and expectations that might potentially jeopardise independence of a project or try to influence a project in a particular direction.
Anne We are up till now completely independent; meaning we don’t get any subsidies from any organisation from any denomination. We are very happy with our team; we all have a broad network so up till now we found free locations; the speakers were all unpaid and the food was covered by our volunteers alhamdulillah. But since we are a Foundation since this year, we are open for donations from individuals. Being independent and self-sustained makes you stronger. Maybe you grow slower, but inshaAllah the project can run longer. Being truly honest to your own values is the most important thing.
Arjen Before Su-Shi had become an organization and was still an idea, I have once organized an event in the Su-Shi spirit that we did receive donations for. From that I can confirm what you mentioned: there are donators that demand their agendas and expectations and try to influence what you do. This is very simple for me though; I reject such donators. Whenever the autonomy of a project or of our organization as a whole is in jeopardy, it isn’t worth what you gain. So when we think out a project, donators can support that of course, but not lay any conditions on us.
- Arjen, you are Shia and Anne, you are Sunni. What are the rough percentages in terms of sects among all people involved your project and those attending your events?
Arjen It’s difficult to speak in percentages. Few of our participants have a very homogenous background themselves, however some do. And the same then goes for who they invite through our ‘oil spill’ method. Overall, however, I think that people from a Sunni and Shiite background make up the majority -both close to the half- of participants of our events.
Anne We must also admit that we try to work towards a fair share as well. Meaning: we very consciously have 50% of the board Sunni, 50% of the board shi’i and one ‘neutral’ board member. In this way we direct towards an almost equal percentage of participants as well. Over all, most of our participants would consider themselves Sunni of Shia, we had a few Quranist participants and people with an Allevi background that are enthusiastic as well.
- What would be your personal message to people absolutely refusing to engage with the “other sect”, based in their conviction of the other sect’s “heresy” and their conviction that there is no “right” Islam outside their own school of thought?
Anne Allahu Alem. I would ask them so sincerely contemplate on this statement of “Allahu ‘Alem” and with this, try to focus on tazkiyya an-nafs, the cleansing of the soul. How can you, as an individual, be so sure? For me, in essence, ‘Allahu ‘Alem’ means absolute humbleness towards The Truth. Only God knows, that means, that we as human beings, per definition don’t.
Arjen I would like to emphasize that no layperson nor scholar is infallible, and that no matter what you personally believe, we do not all share the same beliefs and convictions. Nonetheless, we do live together, in a space that is becoming smaller and smaller. That brings tensions, but we are not animals. As humans we can use our reason to ‘defend’ our intellectual territories, we shouldn’t be so afraid of the other, and rather listen to each other. Dialogue is not about convincing one another, it is more about becoming stronger in your own convictions, but with respect for the other’s convictions in his or her own space.
Anne Dijk has a background in Religious Studies and a Master in Islamic Studies, specialised in Islamic Jurisprudence (Sunni). Fascinated by the transformations of the schools of law (madhahab) and the internal discussions, she found out that there is a deep ethical essence within the jurisprudence that differences of opinions (ikhtilaf) were deeply respected in history. In the hardened debate within Muslim communities nowadays, about ‘what is really Islamic’, she missed this ethical attitude. As Director of Fahm Institute she works on diverse ways to more understanding (fahm) of Islam. She is de co-founder of Su-Shi Intrafaith Dialogue, because she believes that world peace should start within yourself.
Arjen Buitelaar has a background in History and a Master in Religious Studies. From his Master’s thesis till now, he is conducting research of the Shi’ite communities in the Netherlands, at the moment primarily focusing on the role of rituals and symbolism in the shaping of (group) identity. Due to the increasing tensions between Sunnis and Shi’is since the start of the so called Arab Spring, he found it necessary to start with the Su-Shi Intrafaith Dialogue initiative to create better understanding between different Islamic creeds.
Arek Miernik has a background in English literature, is an Al-Mahdi Institute graduate, and leading figure of the wider Muslim community in Poland. Though primarily involved with the Polish Shi’i community, he doesn’t confine himself to it and is a heard voice in opinionated media on the wider Muslim community and its status in society. He is the heart behind the Strefa Islam blog, where this interview was originally published in Polish.
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website. The above interview was conducted by another organisation and not SSWH but has been reproduced with the permission.
“Woman is a delicate creature with strong emotions who has been created by the Almighty God to shoulder responsibility for educating society and moving toward perfection. God created woman as symbol of His own beauty and to give solace to her partner and her family.”
― Hazrat Ali ibn Abu-Talib A.S
Last month, Islamic centres around the UK joined forces to take part in the MCB’s VisitMyMosque initiative. Mosques taking part opened their doors to the general public and served tea and delicious cakes. However, rather than positive stories of communities getting to know one another, the initiative was overshadowed by Cathy Newman’s claims that she was ushered out of a mosque in South London. Through CCTV footage obtained, it is now apparent that Cathy turned up to the wrong mosque, and that the incident of ushering is at best, questionable, and at worse, probably not true at all.
Cathy has now apologised for “tweets sent in haste”; she’s now taken a break from Twitter. There’s no doubt in my mind that there was a serious error of judgement on her part, and if there’s one thing we can learn from all this, it’s the all-too familiar modern-day adage “think before you tweet”.
But what else could the Muslim community could learn from this incident? Perhaps we need to scratch beneath the surface and ask why Cathy was so quick to assume the worst.
When there are any negative stories about Muslims in the mainstream media, it’s only natural that Muslims will jump on the defensive. That’s because the mainstream media paints an overwhelmingly negative image of Muslim behaviour, which is arguably grossly unfair. However, we also need to be insightful and self-reflective in order to move forward and improve our own internal problems within the Muslim community.
There’s no justifying what Cathy did, but perhaps she wouldn’t have assumed the worst, if the idea of a mosque being unfriendly to women was completely ludicrous. In this case, the incident was due to a mix-up, not sexism, but the fact is, many mosques could definitely do more to make women feel more welcome.
Sometimes it does feel as though some mosques are made for men. The men’s rooms are always bigger, and they always seem to get fed first, while women have to contend with not only waiting to feed hungry children, but also perhaps not getting any of the dessert. 😉
I can only think back to some of my own experiences of trying to visit unfamiliar mosques around London. I remember being pretty excited to find a local mosque close to my university and eagerly printing off Streetmap instructions for how to get there (Google Maps wasn’t around then – I am officially old). Then being turned away hurriedly at the door with the words “Brothers only, brothers only!”
As a working woman, I also felt it was quite difficult to visit mosques in the vicinity of my workplace in order to pray during the day. When I did muster up the courage to visit a local mosque in the City, I found that I was the only woman in the entire building. Moreover, there were no separate washrooms for women, so the Imam had to stand outside the bathroom to prevent men from coming in while I performed the wudu or ritual ablution. While a separate room was unlocked for me, in the end, I felt extremely uncomfortable being a lone woman in a mosque entirely filled with men, so decided I would be better off praying in peace in my own home at a later time during the day.
The imam did well to accommodate me as well as he could, but it seems that a working woman praying in a mosque in the city is perhaps a rare thing.
You could argue that these couple of incidents are one-off experiences that I’ve been unlucky to have faced. However, there is plenty of evidence to show that many Muslim women aren’t accommodated that well. In an article for The Independent, Sara Khan of Inspire argues that despite the Cathy Newman incident being a mix-up, many Muslim women have faced “very real, unambiguous discrimination.”
There’s a strikingly similar account to mine in an article for the Telegraph and Argus. The author, Nabeelah Hafeez, conveys her own terrible experience of trying to visit a mosque while at university.
And, in a piece for The Muslim News, Masuma Rahim recounts the time she tried to offer salat at the West End Mosque, but was told by the imam that she was “not allowed to pray there”. This, despite having prayed there previously, and the mosque having four floors of empty space.
It seems ridiculous that some imams are putting up barriers to offering prayers; these are people who are going out of their way to pray on time. Surely the role of the mosque is to make it easier to worship God.
What about children in the mosque?
Ease of access to the mosque seems to become even more difficult once you have kids, and this seems to be true regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman. I’ve spoken to many mums who don’t feel comfortable bringing young children to the mosque because elders say they dislike the noisiness or complain of being distracted.
Furthermore, the lack of baby changing facilities or just a separate, private room to take your children if they need a nappy change, a feed, or just a handy time out can make many parents left feeling unwelcome or reluctant to visit the mosque.
This feels very strange to me. Surely, we should be making it as easy as possible to bring children to the mosque from a very early age, because undoubtedly, the next generation are the future of the faith. And it’s only when they become accustomed to sitting in the mosque from an early age, that they will want to visit of their own accord when they are older. Moreover, visiting the mosque regularly will allow children to socialise and make friends within their own community. Surely, that can only be a good thing.
Even with a separate children’s room, it would be better if some mosques allowed parents to make their own choices about allowing their offspring to sit in the main hall. Putting children in separate rooms often creates pandemonium, whereas in the main hall, children will eventually learn how to behave and sit quietly without distracting others. But, we need fellow Muslims to be understanding and sympathetic in order to allow this to happen.
There’s a good post which explores the importance of bringing children to the mosque in more detail by Aman Ali on Facebook. In this post, Ali recalls his own happy childhood experiences of running freely through the mosque and how this contrasts with what he sees as an adult.
The mosque he talks about had the sign “”NO CHILDREN ALLOWED IN THE PRAYER AREA”, though one father chose to ignore this sign and insist on taking his four-year-old son to prayers. The dad in question said he often receives complaints and gets shouted at for bringing his child to the mosque.
This is just so sad. We have to ask ourselves what is all this for, if not to allow for the continuity of the faith. How can we expect the next generation to practice the faith, when they are discouraged from visiting the centres of worship?
Is change on the horizon?
Having said all this, it’s not all bad news, however. Mosques such as Hyderi, where Cathy Newman ended up visiting have women on their committees and women are welcomed to pray in the main hall.
Some women have decided to start doing it for themselves and are setting up their own women-only organisations to counter the discrimination they face. Earlier this year, the US’s first women-only mosque opened its doors in LA.
One mosque I frequently visit, Bustan-e-Zehra, has its own women’s section where programmes are organised by a ladies committee. Though more can always be done, it works pretty well, because the women have their own programmes with female speakers and everything is organised impeccably.
While it’s good that women are empowering themselves, the ideal situation is for mosques to improve conditions, to reduce discrimination and to welcome women openly so they don’t have to set up separate organisations for the basic right to worship the Almighty.
I’m pretty optimistic and excited about the opening of the new Salaam Centre. It certainly feels like a new type of mosque, as the project will grant Muslims from all walks of life a much needed community centre. The mosque will provide worshippers not only a place to pray, but also a means for Muslims to educate themselves, socialise, keep fit and much more besides.
The Salaam Centre offers a unique shared space for the community. Open to all, it aims to fulfil the physical, intellectual and spiritual needs of people from all walks of life, age and gender. Beyond the bricks and mortar, we seek to foster an environment of warmth, thought and creativity through the open interaction of users at the Centre, be it during a workout at the gym, a book club in the library or over coffee at the cafeteria. The Salaam Centre can become a place to enjoy with friends and family, a resource for work on projects and shared dreams, and ultimately a space to develop oneself and the community.
The opening of these new mosques and committees is definitely a positive step forward, but there’s still a long way to go. I’m reminded of the recent HeForShe campaign, because to really change things, we need to recognise that this isn’t a “women’s problem”. We need solidarity, with men and women coming together to implement change, because allowing access to the mosque regardless of gender, race, disability or anything else, truly benefits us all.
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.