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On Islam and Muslims, and the Difference Between Ideas, and Sociology and Politics

Marieme Helie Lucas is an Algerian sociologist, activist, founder of ‘Secularism is a Women’s Issue,’ and founder and former International Coordinator of ‘Women Living Under Muslim Laws.’ Here, and in a few subsequent article interviews, we will discuss gender, Islam, Muslims, and this context surrounding the urgent case of Noura Hussein Hammad.

Hammad has been sentenced to death and has less than two weeks to appeal the case. The hashtag: #JusticeForNoura. There is a petition. Sodfa Daaji’s is the person to email. Daaji’s email if you would like to sign the petition, and please provide first and last name and country, then please send an email to the following contact: 

*This amounts to an activist and educational series.*

Religion, culture, gender, sex, theocracy, and democracy work within controversial, but important, conversations, especially more in the modern period. Helie Lucas took the time to answer some questions on gender roles and religion.

When I questioned Helie Lucas about gender roles and legal rights, she made an important preliminary note to not presuppose “so-called Muslim countries – or Muslim majority countries – are automatically theocracies; that is definitely not the case, they are mostly democracies, technically speaking.”

Where the emphasis for the faith and the democratic elements should be left to the theologians, that is, if they conform with Islam, the theologians have more authoritative statements.

Helie Lucas prefers not to use Islamic: a “doctrine, a philosophy, an ideology, a vision of the world, a faith… I use the term ‘Muslim’, which refers to human beings who claim faith in this ideology.”

By making the distinction between ideas and then “actions, laws, practices, of sociology and politics,” Helie Lucas, wisely, clarified the context of the conversation on Islam as a set of doctrines and suggested practices and Muslims as self-identified practitioners of one of the world’s great faiths.

“In actual fact Muslim majority countries are anything but homogenous; they range from theocracies to democracies, from ultra conservative to socialist,” Helie Lucas explained, “The rights granted to citizens in general and to women in particular therefore vary from country to country; factors that account for these differences are essentially political, economical – far more than religiously grounded.”

Helie Lucas described the Koran and the Bible, in reading them, that one can find both the wrath-punishment god and the mercy-tolerance god. Each progressive and conservative theologian dealing with particular passages of their scripture to justify the progressive or conservative view of the world.

She reflects on this happening with progressive and conservative Christian theologians as well. Helie Lucas believes the problem is political or, more properly, the political use of religion.

“And what is the balance of forces between those and the defenders and advocates of secularism is the next question,” Helie Lucas opines, “This is what really determines the status of women, among others. In Muslim contexts like anywhere else.”

The great problem, as identified by Helie Lucas, is the ultra-conservative political forces on the rise, in a steady patter, around the world. Some with the extreme right, or far-right, in Europe or in Trump’s America.

Also, the similar concern arising in Modi’s India with Hindu fundamentalists vying for power or the Buddhist far-right in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Helie Lucas uses these as points of comparison for the rise of the far right in the world.

With the rise of the far-right, this becomes the general context of which Islam sees a particular brand of the rise. In these mostly Muslim contexts, then the “gender roles and legal rights are different and unequal for men and women – but more so under conservative governments and less so under democratic ones; and even less so in socialist regimes.”

While looking at the history of the countries with mostly Muslim populations include Iraq, Libya, Syria, and the Central Asia Republics, Helie Lucas educates. She explains women had the right to vote.

In some cases, these women had the right to vote well before their European counterparts. “French women for instance only gained voting rights in 1945, i.e. after WWII; as for Swiss women, a last canton gave them voting rights in the last decade – would you believe it?, Helie Lucas said.

These distinctions matter. These histories matter or facets of national and religious and rights history matter. Approximately 100% of girls went to primary school in Libya and if they went to university most would receive a state grant.

This happens, Helie Lucas said, at the same time many women were kept in illiterate states and remained secluded in Asia and Africa. She talked about the quasi-equality and even outright submission of women to male relatives.

Helie Lucas argues that if we want to fight this appropriately then we should bear in mind the political nature of this far right movement. An ultraconservative movement that takes on the cloak of religion in order to justify its existence.

With cases such as Noura Hussein Hammad, Islam amounts to that cloak or guise, but the main theme tying these fundamentalist and ultraconservative movements together is the global tendency towards the right – a far-right global phenomenon.

“At the moment, for instance, many countries in Europe are facing terrible attempts at curtailing reproductive rights, from Spain to Poland, you name it,” Helie Lucas said, and then asked, “Would you say religion is the cause or would you name the far-right forces (eventually backed by Christian fundamentalists) that use Christianism and fear of god to prevent women’s access to contraception and abortion?”

These are important considerations for the contextual analysis of the global rise of the far-right while at the same seeing the rise of ultra-conservative religious and political movements at the same time.

Of course, Helie Lucas made an important concluding note for this session:

Let me clarify one thing: this is NOT a defense of ‘Islam’, it is just trying to position ourselves better in understanding the political forces we are confronting, whether or not they pretend to represent Islam. We should not fall into the trap they set for us.

The hashtag: #JusticeForNoura. There is a petition. Sodfa Daaji’s is the person to email. Daaji’s email if you would like to sign the petition, and please provide first and last name and country, then please send an email to the following contact: 

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