The New Enlightenment: Theories in Islamic Reformation

Last night I had the pleasure of meeting Madhavi Sunder at the London School of Economics. An expert on women’s human rights in Muslim communities with a formal background in law, Sunder had been invited to speak about “The New Enlightenment: how Muslim women are bringing religion out of the dark ages“. Her views about international human rights laws fuelled her to write an article on women’s rights activism in the Muslim world, titled “Piercing the Veil“, which opens with the rather provocative statement, “human rights law has a problem with religion“. The dissertation looked at the failure to address women’s rights under even the most oppressive regimes because such law is reticent to interfere with religion and culture. 

In her lecture, Sunder begins with an analysis of pioneering work being undertaken by a group called Sister’s in Islam (SIS), a group which was set up to lobby and reform Malay family laws affecting disadvantaged groups, namely women. She hails the work of its Executive Director, Zainah Anwar, a former member of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission. Her work, she says, has enabled the reinterpretation of the Quran, and allowed women to question the norm, and through the process of osmosis, has also filtered into other countries where Muslim women are a disadvantaged group, and refers to it as “universal lobbying” of Muslim women who are “making a difference”. 

Quoting figures from a recent study by John L.Esposito and Dalia Mogahed entitled “Who speaks for Muslims: What a billion Muslims really think“, Sunder claims that over one billion Muslims globally anticipate equal rights in Islam, and then goes on to describe human rights as “rights guaranteed in a secular political world” – the audience gasp and the implication of her statement is clear; Muslims want to embrace secular human rights. But I am not entirely convinced and I start to wonder what this actually means and how is it different to Islamic human rights, if indeed there is such a notion, and whether these groups welcome equal right within Islam, or if these simply are basic human rights – above and beyond religious or cultural boundaries. 

The study Sunder relied on was based on researching around 50,000 Muslims globally via Gallup over six years, and it is difficult to say how representative this is of the majority view of Muslims, whose numbers presently exceed 1.3 billion. Contrary to Sunder’s claim what the research actually states is that “Muslims across the world want neither secularism nor theocracy. They want freedom, rights and democratisation … however, they claim that society should be built upon religious Islamic values and that the shari’a (Islamic law) should be a source of law. Simply put, the majority of Muslim women and men want rights and religion, and they don’t see the two as being mutually exclusive” – a direct contradiction to Sunder’s thesis.

In one of her slides, Sunder picturises two women sitting together in an organisation called Sisterhood is Global Institute (SiGI). The woman on the left is shown to be wearing traditional Islamic attire (the hijaab and jilbaab*), whereas the lady next to her is dressed in western clothing, she is not wearing the hijaab. Sunder points to each woman and highlights the distinct difference in appearance, making reference to their socio-economic background, “the first lady is from a poor background, whereas the second lady (without a headscarf) is from the city“, insinuating that the poor, uneducated lady is donning the hijaab due to lack of education and exposure to ‘progressive’ city-life.

This point seems the most relevant and I ask Sunder the extent to which she believes socio-economic deprivation limits progression in human rights. In answering my question, Sunder gives a somewhat vague response, and relies on her hypothesis about culture and religion being the causal factors in oppression and limitations to human rights for women. This seems like an easy answer. The Muslim world is currently predominantly based within the war-torn, third world – countries with high corruption, high unemployment, low skills, inadequate basic provisions, and civil unrest, to name a few. Secular countries on the other hand, are largely first world countries where human rights, equality and democracy flourish – those who live in these countries are comparatively at an advantage in terms of quality of life. So the two societies cannot be weighed side by side because the baseline is unequal. Probing Sunder further, I ask her whether she really believes that human rights are of primary concern to those living in countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, who often lack basic amenities, things that the western world take for granted. Her response is again blurred by her continuous subjective reliance on theories of culture and religion hindering progression. I am still not satisfied.

After the lecture I approach her and ask her to explain her theories in more detail, she explains that she is more interested in the process of change and “operationalisation of the new enlightenment“, i.e., the methods by which change takes place – which to me seems she wants to have an observational and analytical role in the reformation process, but her presentation instead implied that she is at the very centre of the change, implementing it herself. The problem with this approach is that non-Muslim theorists, although well within their rights to encourage and help promote change within a particular society, are seen as a threat or simply put “fire-starters”, who lack knowledge and intricate understanding of Islam and wider causal factors that contribute to the state in which Muslim countries are living today.

Recommended texts:Piercing the Veil – from the Yale Law Journal, 2003, by Madhavi Sunder

Who Speaks For Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think, by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed

Shariah = Islamic legal system
Hijaab = Covering of the head
Jilbaab = Loose fitting dress