Across the Bay

Friday, December 03, 2004

Guardian of the True Faith

Brian Whitaker wrote a revealing piece on the abuse of married women in Egypt, and how the legal system actually serves to protect the (male) abusers, leaving women totally helpless.

In his investigation, Whitaker touches on the role of Shari'a (Islamic law) in the workings of the Egyptian legal system:

"Violent husbands can generally avoid prosecution on religious grounds, because the Egyptian penal code excludes acts committed "in good faith, pursuant to a right determined by virtue of the Shari'a" (Islamic law).
"The question of settling divorce should be in the hands of the wiser party, and that is men," Ayman Amin Shash, of the National Centre for Judicial Studies, told a Human Rights Watch interviewer. "Men are wise, which is why they do not have to go to court. Islamic law would consider the wise wife an exception."

Whitaker rightly notes that "[a]ll this places Egypt on dodgy ground in relation to international law." Again, the use of Islamic law comes into play:

"In ratifying CEDAW and ICCPR, Egypt added reservations that said it would not accept parts of the treaties that it deemed to conflict with Islamic law. These reservations amount to rejection rather than ratification of the treaties and cast doubt on Egypt's commitment to women's rights, Human Rights Watch suggests.

Yet somehow Whitaker comes to this bizarre conclusion (fit for a Leftist publication, I suppose):

"In reality, though, this has very little to do with religion. It's simply another case of invoking religion, supposed cultural traditions, or whatever, to justify abuses that cannot be justified by rational means. The real problem is antediluvian attitudes that permeate all sections of society and regard women as irrational, child-like, impulsive, indecisive, fanciful, unreliable, stupid and inferior creatures."

How can you dismiss religion when you just noted the role of religious law in Egypt's legal system!?

There are two dominant trends in the West today when dealing with the issue of religion. One is the (quasi-)materialist outlook, on display here, that somehow religion is best understood in Marxist terms as "ideology." The other is apologetics (often mixed with facile relativism) of the "this is not the true religion" type. The first is inadequate and the second is (deliberately) deceptive.

This is a prime example of why the Enlightenment was crucial for Christianity and why Islam is in dire need for its equivalent today. I don't understand how we can easily (and rightly) criticize certain fundamentalist Christian attitudes towards modernity and the Enlightenment (just count the number of op-eds about evangelical Christianity and "the rise of the anti-Enlightenment current in the US" in the aftermath of President Bush's re-election) and write this kind of dismissive apologetic when it comes to Islamic anti-modernism.

Critical-historical thought is a must for Islam and Islamic societies, and for us who are in contact with them. The status quo is untenable.