On Being An American and a Muslim: Dilemmas of Politics and Culture
By Ali A. Mazrui
The Secret Ballot and the Information Revolution
But there may be fundamental areas where Islam in America and the new information revolution need to find accommodation. These could be at the heart of any Islamic reform movement if it occurs. One area of tension concerns the relations between men and women. Will U.S. Muslims in alliance with the new technology of information fundamentally alter the gender playing field forever? The new technology is leading to shrinkage of sovereignty and the death of distance. But is the third consequence a case of privacy unveiled?
On the gender question the Muslim world has alternated between two codes of conduct. One code has been to treat genders as separate but equal. The United States once attempted to implement the Constitutional doctrine of treating whites and Blacks as separate but equal. However, by 1954 the Supreme Court was ready to conclude that separation of the races resulted in or perpetuated inequality. In the momentous decision of Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court at last rejected the doctrine of "separate but equal" for the races. Racial segregation became unconstitutional.
If "separate but equal" was untenable for races, why should the doctrine work for genders? Because genders live together in homes in a way in which races never used to do in the United States. Every man's mother is a woman. So are men's wives, daughters, and granddaughters, aunts and other female relatives. So the separation of genders is inevitably moderated by family ties. That is a qualitative difference from the separation of races. The gender doctrine of "separate but equal" could survive the new information revolution.
Under the new technology the computerized hijab is at hand, women can more easily stay at home and still be equal computer workers. The distinction between home and work-place is getting abolished. U.S. Muslims may take the lead in that. Indeed husbands may also work at home alongside wives in the 21st century.
But many Muslim societies treat women as "separate and unequal". Is this a sexist code of conduct? Aspects of this are rooted in the Shari'a which made women inherit half of what men inherited, and made the testimony of women in court be worth less than that of men on some economic issues.
Such Muslim societies have assumed that there were two different doors of knowledge - one for men and one for women. Many Muslim societies had assumed that there were branches of knowledge which were not fit for women and children under 15. Partly for reasons of modesty women were spared from certain areas of know-how. Today the Taliban in Afghanistan have carried this theory of two tiers of gender knowledge to the extreme.
The new information technology is going to blow that distinction totally out of social existence. U.S. Muslims may be leading the global ummah in the new technology. More and more information may refuse to be susceptible to gender-discrimination. What men know about sex, pornography, politics and corruption may also be accessible to women through the World Wide Web, Internet and the emerging information superhighway.
In time the veil as the modesty of the face is bound to be destroyed by the new technology. Women may cover other aspects of their personality, but increasingly they will be totally available facially to the viewer through the Internet and the approaching image telephone system. The new technology will pass a death sentence on the tradition of the harem as we have known it since the Abbasid dynasty in many Muslim societies. Will U.S. Muslim women lead the way?
The traditional forms of seclusion of women will not long survive a technology in which women can declare their presence and in time assert their rights. Women voting in the U.S. will be a start. Women running for election will come a generation later. American Muslims will join forces with the new technology of information to precipitate fundamental reforms in gender relations in the Muslim world.
But how should Muslims vote? For one thing Muslims should avoid the mistake which African Americans have made for much of the twentieth century - that of being predictably for one political party and having nowhere else to go. In recent decades African-American votes have been too predictably identified with the Democratic Party - with the result that neither party has tried very hard to court their vote. They have simply tried not to alienate them completely.
Muslim voters should behave differently. They should use the vote as a leverage to reward those who take Muslim concerns seriously and to punish those who ignore those concerns. In some years more Democrats may deserve Muslim support than Republicans; in other years the Republicans may turn out to be the more Muslim-friendly.
In the Congressional elections of the years 2000 and 2002 Muslims should vote candidate by candidate - and not by political party. The American Muslim Alliance has the ambition of having one Muslim senator elected by the year 2002.
Muslims in each Congressional constituency, in each Senatorial constituency should examine the candidates according to (a) their record (b) their policies and pledges (c) their degree of sensitivity to Muslim concerns at home and abroad.
At the Congressional and Senate levels in the years 2000 and 2002 Muslims should vote by candidates and not by party affiliation.
What about the presidential election when it comes? Since this is a crisis of political participation, we must confront the issue head on. There will be two specific candidates close to the elections. Will one of them be more Muslim-friendly than the other?
In 1996 Bill Clinton (at least as compared with Bob Dole) had earned the vote of U.S. Muslims because he had gone further than any other president in U.S. history to give Islam some standing as an integral part of American society. But this was Clinton not as a Democrat but as a pro-Muslim initiator. He had started the process of going beyond the political convention of treating the United States as a Judeo-Christian community only. In personal behavior Clinton fell below Islamic standards of family values, but in official behavior he was a particularly ecumenical President of the United States.
Under his watch, President Clinton recognized a major Islamic institution within the U.S. - the fast of Ramadhan. He sent an open letter to believers wishing them a blessed fast. Under the Clinton watch, the White House for the first time ever celebrated Idd el Fitr to mark the end of Ramadhan at which the first lady recognized the increasing expansion of the Muslim community within the United States and wished Muslims well.
Under Clinton's watch, the United States decided to look the other way when the Islamic Republic of Iran was arming the Government of Bosnia in the face of an illegally-imposed arms embargo by the United Nations in spite of Serbian aggression.
Under Clinton's watch the first Muslim chaplains of the U.S. military were appointed - with the major participation of the American Muslim Council. Under Clinton's watch Arab and Muslim Americans met with the President of the United States and discussed issues of Arab and Muslim concern. Under Clinton's watch Muslim representatives were received by Anthony Lake of the National Security Council and explored with him the implications of U.S. policy towards Bosnia.
Indeed, under Clinton's watch enemies of Islam began to accuse the White House of extending hospitality to Hamas and socializing with mujahiddeen. Bill Clinton stuck his political neck out for Muslims of America. While in foreign policy Clinton was no less friendly to Israel than any other U.S. president, in domestic policy he was more Muslim-friendly than any other president in the history of the United States. Those Muslims who voted for him in 1996 instead of for Bob Dole might have taken some of such factors into account.
To be or not to be politically active in a non-Muslim society. The burden of our analysis has been that U.S. Muslims cannot afford to be politically neutral.
In 1996 the United States made the practice of female circumcision illegal within the country. There were no Muslim protests . That silence was the right code of conduct. Female circumcision has been wrongly attributed to Islam - some Muslim countries practice it for cultural rather than religious reasons. Other Muslim countries reject it altogether. It is not surprising that U.S. Muslims did not make an issue of the banning of female circumcision.
Now that American Muslims (like the Somali Americans or Egyptian Americans) are not permitted by U.S. law to circumcise their women, why should they symbolically castrate themselves by opting out of the political process?