Why barbaric and degrading practices such as veiling of Muslim women or their genital mutilation is not simply cultural, but Islamic too.

Whenever one criticizes cruel practices by Muslims, such as forcing oppressive veils upon women or subjecting Muslim girls to genital mutilation, we are told that it's not Islamic, but a result of extra-Islamic culture. It has nothing to do with Islam. Is that so? Not quite, as the blogger of 'myminddroppings' makes most obvious:

Don’t blame Islam, It's the culture!

Burqa Clad 
Defending honor by denying

When Islam is held responsible for the wickedness that is committed under its name, we hear impassioned (and often menacing) defenses being propped up. Most of these (poverty,  lack-of-education, historic injustice…) are easy to dispel [See this earlier post]. However, when discussing the backwardness of certain practices in Islamic societies, apologists, tend to take refuge in a more elaborate excuse: It's not Islam; it's culture.

Have you noticed that when confronted with backward and barbaric practices such as Burqa or Female Genital Mutilation apologists tend to trot out the old horse (or horse-shit): It's not Islam – it's culture. The subtext is that Islam / Koran does not mandate these things and that various (autonomous) societies have adopted various practices and so, Islam should not be held responsible (or maligned) on this score. In this post, I would like to expose the intellectual bankruptcy of such a claim.

Does the communist manifesto (Leninist or Maoist) explicitly enunciate Gulags? Does it specifically warrant the secret-police? No. Does that mean that communism is not responsible for the horrible crimes that were committed by secret-police units or in the gulags? To take a more modern (and prosaic) example, does the fashion-world explicitly endorse unhealthy eating or unhealthy body-image? No. But does that mean we do not hold it responsible for the fact that the manner in which they have conducted themselves has adversely impacted a generation of youngsters (especially girls)?

Islam is what Islam does.

The simple principle is: Communism is what communism does. Similarly, we should feel no hardship in asserting that Islam is what Islam does! If Islamic societies have adopted certain practices or traditions based on Islamic doctrine, then Islam is culpable! This is more so if the self-styled custodians of Islam have never expended much effort to bring about any change/corrections.

In fact, we see a belligerent insistence on continuing such barbaric traditions on the grounds that these are socio-religious customs and therefore exempt from critique. We have bought into the argument that the world is a rich tapestry of cultures & traditions and we need to accord respect to all and in equal measure. It proceeds from this that just as we (in the west) have some customs that others find unwholesome and offensive, the reverse is equally true and who are we to say that one custom is better than the other?

Seems rather water-tight does it not?  Well… not to me!

It's the Principle.

Here’s the problem: Our criticisms are NOT about a culture. Our criticisms are about specific practices for the specific reason that they are in violation of human-rights. In other words the argument is not about one kind of music v/s another. Neither is it about one dance-form v/s another. Nor is it about one kind of dress-form or another. It is about the underlying principle of human-rights whose violation is manifest in the specific practice itself.

For instance, when the west frowns upon the Saudi practice of denying women the right to drive, it is because of the underlying principle that individual equality and freedom are inviolable and institutionalized curtailment of the same is akin to human-rights violation. In fact the criticism against prohibiting women from driving is actually directed at the Saudi government and not overtly against Islam. It is the Saudi establishment that rejects this position specifically because of their Islamic sensibilities. In other words, it is the Saudi government that has made the womens’ driving issue an Islamic one rather than a cultural one.


Secondly, when there is an outcry against female genital mutilation (in my opinion not enough of an outcry has taken place), it is because of the fact that girls (almost all minors) are coerced into surrendering their bodies which are then subjected to unspeakable barbarism. Since the only defense for this perversion is Islamic insistence on chastity, the responsibility for such practices must be laid at the doorstep of Islamic doctrine – irrespective of the fact that the Koran does not explicitly demand clitorectomy.

Similarly, the burqa-question is NOT about fashion. It is about the institutionalized subjugation and subservience of women that the burqa enforces. It is certainly possible that many (maybe most) Muslim womenfolk choose to wear the burqa in keeping with their traditions. I have no quarrel with that. But if this is indeed the case, why are there laws that prescribe penalties for those that do not? They are there so as to enforce Islamic dictates about the rightful place of women. Since the practice is sponsored by an Islamic dictate, we are within our rights to direct our contempt at Islamic doctrine.

It's not culture; it's Islamic Culture.

The next time you hear someone whine that Islam is being unfairly criticized for a cultural custom, please take the time to ask if any of the leading lights of Islam have expressedly repudiated that custom. If they have not repudiated that custom which purports inheritance from Koranic doctrine, then they have, de facto, ratified it. The ever-so-eager mullahs who find the inspiration to issue fatwas even against the practice of yoga, seem to be surprisingly ambivalent about the practice of FGM and its Islamic lineage. And if they do not reject it, we should feel no hesitation in holding Islamic doctrine responsible for the barbarism it has spawned.

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