Islamophobic white saviors

Picture Credit: Mostafa Meraji

Earlier this week I tweeted a reminder that the Taliban were not Islam, and told people not to @ me unless they read Dalia Mogahed’s Op-Ed on Al-Jazeera’s website, “Is the Taliban’s treatment of Women really inspired by Sharia?”. Of course, the bait was too much for someone to resist and I had a “well-intentioned liberal” in my mentions “but actuallying” me, letting me know that there are hadith, (collected traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) that support the kind of Islam that the Taliban represents. At the heart of that tweet was that a non-Muslim scholar of Christianity could better define and tell a Muslim woman what her religion was. This was a classic Orientalist move. It used doctrine, no matter how obscure, out of date, and fringe to justify a violent representation of Islam and to discredit the knowledge and speech of a Muslim woman. 

This is quite common when Muslim women don’t accept the savior impulses of the Christian west and denounce our religion. I’m not here offering an apology for the Taliban or other repressive political or guerilla regimes that cloak their violence and thirst for power in religious language. What I am doing is calling out the knee-jerk response of western liberals to immediately go looking for the most violent language in Islamic hadith, fiqh, or sharia and use that to discredit the religion. All the while ignoring similar cultural / religious violence in Christianity because its doctrinal documents are different. And because the facade of secularism obscures the deep and bigoted Christian roots of those political regimes. Most of these folks wouldn’t be able to tell you the difference between hadith, fiqh, and sharia, but they are all experts on “Islamic extremism.” This positioning is Orientalist and Islamophobic. It is fundamentally intolerant because it grounds its understanding of Islam in violence. 

Muslim women are a flashpoint not only in the west’s War on Terror but also in the broader cultural War on Islam. Positioned as the most visibly oppressed group under Islamic patriarchal and sexist tyranny, we need to be rescued from our fathers, brothers, and husbands and from the culture at large that systemically devalues our lives. When we don’t turn on our families and our cultures, we are either brainwashed fools or sexist collaborators. Within this representational frame, we lack the power to critique our own experience outside of western intervention. The work of Muslim feminists or womanists is erased in favor of an imperial white feminism, which can be espoused by western men and other people of color, too. 

Our lived experiences can and are routinely overruled in favor of the centuries long framing of Islam as violent and misogynistic. The violent misogyny of the so-called secular west, in their engagement with Muslim and Islamicate cultures, however, remains unexamined, unremarked, and unquestioned. This is not a whataboutism argument, rather I’m simply making the obvious but necessary point that the care and concern for Muslim women often espoused in the west is rooted in oppressive ideology. The freedom we are being offered from our religion and culture only works if we conform to Islamophobic values and agree to a different victimization at the hands of secularism. All the while we are expected to ignore the material violence of the bombs dropped in our countries that are killing women and children, or the extractive neocolonialsim that keeps our people in poverty all the while siphoning mineral riches from our lands. Cordoning off Islamicate cultures and Muslim majority countries from the politics of western neocolonialism is the only way “Islam” and Muslims are legible.  

Islam is no more or less violent or misogynistic than any other religion. Regimes that espouse Islamic values, on the one hand, and deny Muslim women rights to education and independence, on the other hand, are in fact operating contra to not only hadith but sharia. They are as selectively picking and choosing the parts of the religion they want to enforce as are the Islamophobes. Meanwhile Muslim women continue to be sidelined. Maybe it’s time to listen to us. I know that I am not representative, because I can’t speak for half of the 1.6 billion Muslim population, which simply means that Islam is a religion that is extremely diverse in belief and in practice. Muslim women’s experiences are as diverse, too. Many Muslim women experience brutal oppression at the hands of regimes that systemically devalue them. I am not here to defend those regimes or to obscure those realities. We must stand in solidarity with them and fight for their lives and dignity. What I am saying is listen to them/us, in their/our specificity and their/our particularity. Let them/us lead the conversation and action that will manifest their/our liberation. Because I can guarantee that there are women on the ground doing the work who are not looking for white western saviors who only value Muslim women in order to prove their Islamophoic agenda.

Next time you want to @ someone, make sure you’re not acting under an Orientalist and Islamophoic impulse. One way to know if you are: is your claim rooted in making sure that Muslim people know that their religion is the most violent? If so, maybe just delete that tweet.

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