Who are you calling ‘vulnerable’? Muslim women and inclusive humanitarianism

Ahmed Al-Dawoody

Saman Rejali

In generalizing groups as homogenously ‘vulnerable’, we risk closing our eyes to existing spheres of power, diversity and capacity that exist among populations affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence. By going beyond broad monolithic categorizations and instead accounting for the specific needs, risks and capacities of affected people through an intersectional framework, we can tailor our humanitarian activities and include affected populations as active agents with dimensions beyond their vulnerability. In this post, Ahmed Al-Dawoody, the legal adviser for Islamic law and jurisprudence at the ICRC, and Saman Rejali, Thematic Editor at the International Review of the Red Cross, explore intersectionality between gender and Islam, drawing on the works of prominent Islamic female scholars and leaders to profile how Muslim women affected by conflict go beyond the mould of ‘vulnerable women’ and exercise power and agency over their lives.

There is a shared concern in the humanitarian sector, which has almost evolved into a mantra: we must protect ‘vulnerable groups, particularly women and children‘ and uphold the rights of ‘the most vulnerable‘ in compliance with international humanitarian law.

The aim is commendable: let us be of service to those who need it the most and designate our resources accordingly. However, it is time to be more specific about how we use the label of vulnerability, and in so doing engage in more inclusive humanitarian action by considering the specific perspectives, abilities and needs of the affected people we aim to serve. What sets women apart from children? Are all women and children equally vulnerable? How about women — do they all face the same needs? And — more to the point of this post — what about Muslim women in armed conflicts and other situations of violence: should they be lumped together as homogenously vulnerable, or should we instead look to them as the agents of their own lives and follow their lead?


Is a Christian theological engagement with sharī‘a possible?

In February 2008, Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, gave the annual Foundation Lecture to the Royal Court of Justice in London. His lecture, titled “Civil and Religious Law in England: A Religious Perspective”, engaged with questions of legal theory, multiculturalism, and civil marriage — all fairly standard issues in the academic study and public debates on law and religion. The response to the lecture, however, was anything but standard.

Newspapers throughout the United Kingdom ran reports on the Archbishop’s comments and numerous opinion pieces offered searing critiques of the lecture’s proposals. But criticism did not just come from the tabloids; members of Parliament condemned his argument as disastrous and a return to pre-Enlightenment religious barbarism. A number of high-ranking church officials — including Williams’s predecessor in Lambeth, George Carey, and the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali — conveyed their negative assessments of the lecture, some implying that he should consider resigning his post. The reason for the uproar had to do with one thing: sharī‘a.

A key component of Williams’s argument was that the United Kingdom should consider legally allowing Muslims to have recourse to sharī‘a under the broader umbrella of English and Welsh law. Williams’s proposal that forms of Islamic legal practice around family law be legally recognised, in so far as they are fit within an over-arching commitment to the primacy of the state’s law, was portrayed by his detractors as tantamount to endorsing and encouraging a vision of state-enforced sharī‘a.

The public and ecclesiastical outcry over the evocation of sharī‘a was anticipated in the opening paragraphs of the lecture itself. Williams discussed how often non-Muslims view sharī‘a as if “what is involved in the practice” is essentially “a pre-modern system in which human rights have no role”, and in which women and non-Muslims are treated in problematic ways. Challenging this, Williams presented a more nuanced vision of Islamic law and various Muslim majority juridical and political arrangements. The internal diversity of Islamic jurisprudence was noted, criticisms were raised as to aspects of Islamic traditions, and a strong distinction was drawn between Williams’s own vision for Muslim family courts in Britain and the visions of sharī‘a states proposed by the likes of Sayyid Qutb or Ayatollah Khomeini.


California has appointed its first ever Muslim chaplain to the state legislature

Imam Mohammad Yasir Khan.

(CNN)A Muslim man has made history after becoming the first Muslim chaplain appointed to the California Legislature.Imam Mohammad Yasir Khan was appointed by Anthony Rendon, speaker of the California State Assembly, on December 7 as the assembly chaplain for the 2021-22 session, according to a news release.”Imam Yasir Khan represents California’s growing diversity in all the best ways,” Rendon said in a statement.”I’ve seen the growth of the Islamic community in my own district and have become close to both religious and civic leaders. Like them, Khan shows a strong desire to contribute to the spiritual and civic vitality of California. He has already done so in many ways.”

Khan has served as a chaplain at his local county jails, sheriff’s offices and hospitals for the past six years. He is also the founder and president of the non-profit organization Al-Misbaah. Al-Misbaah works in collaboration with the Sacramento Food Bank to provide food distributions across Sacramento. The organization also helps provide low income families with vehicles that allows them to become mobile.”God allowed me to be here and I am humbled and grateful to have been chosen for this role,” Khan told CNN. “I hope this is a step for other imams and other Islamic leaders in the country to take on positions so we are able to connect with our local communities on the county, city, state and federal level.”


The Power of Storytelling: Creating a New Future for American Muslims

By Wajahat Ali

In 7th-century Arabia, the storyteller was valued more than the swordsman. The audience sat on the floor surrounding the gifted orator as he captivated the eager listeners with beautiful poetry narrating their history. In the 21st century, the art form may have evolved to include motion pictures, TV shows, theater productions, novels, and standup comedy, but they all serve the same function: storytelling.

Ideas and principles are most effectively communicated and transmitted when they are couched in a narrative. Stories, whether they concern the etiquette and biography of prophets or the trials and tribulations of America’s founding fathers, inform and influence a cultural citizenry of its values and identity.

Stories of the Prophet Muhammad most effectively communicate the Quran’s eloquent exhortation to tolerate and embrace diversity: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise [each other])” (49:13).  The Prophet’s cordial diplomacy and communication with the Christian, Abyssinian King yielded one of the first alliances of the young Muslim community. Furthermore, the Prophet displayed unconditional love for his diverse companions, who comprised the gamut of Arab society including former slaves, orphans, widows, wealthy dignitaries, and non-Arabs. 

Similarly, the story of a biracial man with an Arabic name and a Kenyan father elected to the highest office in the land reminds the world that indeed America can live up to its cherished principles of freedom and racial equality, and her citizens are capable of reflecting a magnanimous and egalitarian spirit bereft of prejudice.


Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar’s More Tolerant, Liberal Islam: Not What It Seems

The end of oil, the Abraham Accords and Turkey are forcing Gulf states to renegotiate the role of religion in their societies. Talking up openness and moderation, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha have different playbooks – but share a common aim

It wasn’t long ago that Gulf states were actively promoting ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam, and didn’t shy away from cultivating political Islam either. The U.S. National Intelligence Assessment from April 1970 judged Riyadh as “likely to support conservative non-governmental groups in the Arab world, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.”

But times are changing. Gulf states are being forced into a comprehensive rethink of their religious, political and economic systems, triggered by, most immediately, the prospect of drastically declining oil revenues as global demand shifts away from dependence on hydrocarbons. 


People of non-Christian faiths discuss views of the holiday season

Despite the steps towards religious inclusion during the holidays –– such as the phrase “Happy holidays” as opposed to “Merry Christmas” –– this time of year in the Western world is still typically dominated by Christmas. With holiday specials, festive music and the time off from work or school, Christmas affects every facet of American lives in December.

Even so, there are many families and individuals in the U.S. who, due to their own religious backgrounds and beliefs, do not celebrate Christmas.

Junior linguistics major Jimmy Kieu said his Buddhist family does not really participate in the holiday.

“For my family specifically, we do not necessarily do anything special for Christmas,” Kieu said. “It’s just a day off…Like, it’s literally just like every other Saturday.”

Despite the increased commercialization of Christmas, junior psychology major Hamza Syed said as a Muslim, he still does not see it as a secular holiday.

“Christmas has always seemed like a very Christian thing to me that has been made an American thing,” Syed said. “Which for America to be the melting pot of the world, I feel like [it should] either celebrate all different religious holidays or none of them.”

Roey Shoshan is the executive director of Hillel at the University of Georgia, an organization that fosters the creation of a Jewish community at universities. For him and for much of the Jewish community, this time of year is defined by the celebration of Hanukkah.


Muslim Women don’t need saving

Gendered Islamophobia in Europe

Upon declaring a Global War on Terror in 2001, the US administration claimed that the “fight against terrorism was also a fight for the rights and dignity of women”. In the years that followed, western political discourse regularly referred to the need to “free” apparently oppressed Muslim women from the shackles of their religion and way of life, reviving political and societal debates about head coverings, integration, gender equality, secularism, and neutrality.

Relying on Islamophobic stereotypes, and with no regard for the rights to freedom of expression or freedom of religion, laws and policies were introduced in a number of European countries, which banned the hijab and/ or niqab. In perhaps the most flagrent example of just how entrenched Islamophobia has become, European states, in effect, began legislating on Muslim women’s bodies, dictating which clothes they could or could not wear.

Download the full report here.

In the post 9/11 era, political discourse increasingly pointed towards an apparent incompatibility between what it is to be European and what it is to be Muslim; it seemed impossible to be both. Although anti-Muslim rhetoric has implications for all Muslims, much of the legislation rolled out and the policies implemented either specifically target, or disproportionately affect, Muslim women.

Much can be said about the increased policing of Muslims collectively and the systematic targeting of Islamic places of worship, but Muslim women, in particular, have borne the brunt of state led, racist laws and policies. Those who wear head coverings and Islamic attire are easily identifiable and have thus become easy targets. Following bans on Islamic dress, Muslim women have found themselves increasingly vulnerable and exposed to gendered Islamophobic attacks, while their rights to religious freedom, freedom of expression, equality and non-discrimination have been sidelined or ignored. Attacks motivated predominantly by religion and gender have largely been normalised.


Supreme Court Says Muslim Men Can Sue FBI Agents In No-Fly List Case

FILE – In this Nov. 10, 2020, file photo the sun rises behind the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. The Supreme Court seemed concerned Tuesday, Dec. 1, about the impact of siding with food giants Nestle and Cargill and ending a lawsuit that claims they knowingly bought cocoa beans from farms in Africa that used child slave labor. The court was hearing arguments in the case by phone because of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, ruled Thursday that Muslims put on the no-fly list after refusing to act as informants can sue federal officials for money damages under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The case – Tanzin v Tanvir — involved three Muslim men who said their religious-freedom rights were violated when FBI agents tried to use the no-fly list to force them into becoming informants. None of the men was suspected of illegal activity themselves, and indeed, the Trump administration tried to head-off the suit by removing their names from the no-fly list just days before the case first went to court. It didn’t work. The men refused to drop their case, and on Thursday the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in their favor.

“I feel extremely happy and content. All praise belongs to Allah. This is a great victory for every voiceless Muslim and non-Muslim against hate and oppression and … I hope that this is a warning to FBI and other agencies that they will be held responsible for … traumatizing people and ruining their lives,” said Naveed Shinwari, one of the three men involved in the case.


Evangelicals and Muslims: Not Brothers, But Best Friends

Last November, when the General Assembly of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) took Sunday off for worship and relaxation near Jakarta, Indonesia, a group of top leaders did something different. We got in a van and traveled to the offices of an Indonesian Muslim youth organization.

There we spent several hours in stimulating conversation with a group of Muslim intellectuals. Afterwards, at dinner, we were joined by Indonesia’s ambassador to the United States.

Why would WEA leaders pay so much attention to a group of Indonesian Muslims? And why would our hosts and even a high government official be so interested in welcoming us? Two reasons.

First, both we and our Muslim counterparts are idealists. We share a vision of a world in which people are free to choose their religious belief without risking their lives.

And second, we think a high-level alliance between one of the world’s largest evangelical organizations and one of the world’s largest Muslim organizations can uniquely move humanity in that direction.