Not Left, Not Right, Not Center

I struggle: I identify as left, often far left. I’d like to think that the definition of ‘politically left’ applied to me, that is ‘supports social equality and egalitarianism, often in opposition to social hierarchy and social inequality’, as defined by Smith & Tatalovich (Cultures at War: Moral Conflicts in Western Democracies, 2003).

However, the struggle is that in certain areas, I deviate from the popular opinions held within the leftist community. And that is when it comes to Islam, about which the left has become both protective and defensive. The deviation is in many matters, such as my frustration with the attitudes toward Islamic extremism among the moderate Muslim community. The common #notinmyname as a standpoint is as ineffectual as the ubiquitous #notallmen when it comes to feminism. Of course, not all Muslims, just like not all men. But if the problem is related to a cohort you are a part of, by choice or birth, then as a member of that cohort, you have a responsibility, as much if not more, than members of the wider community.

It’s the same argument I have with regard to men’s roles in feminism. If sexual violence, harassment, domestic abuse toward women has to stop, the burden of stopping it has to shift and the responsibility has to be laid with the cohort identified statistically as most responsible i.e. men. Yes, not all men but education and prevention has to start with men, from men and to men. It has, unfortunately thus far lain with the women, either with the individual woman or with the groups of women running organizations to support survivors of abuse.

In the same way, if there is a small percentage of the Muslim cohort who is responsible for overt acts of terrorism and violence then a proportion of the responsibility to manage or address that must lie with the larger percentage of Muslims i.e. moderate Muslims. It should fall to the moderate Muslim’s to address and educate their own. But it’s not only in the area of moderate Muslims addressing Islamic terrorism. Moderate Muslims should also become more accepting of the flaws in the religion and how it’s practised, on a day-to-day basis.

I admit I do see that happening, more now. A good example of that is Anne Aly, the Australian Muslim MP, and a counter terrorism expert. Another example is the liberal/progressive movement in Islam, which is looking at Quranic verses and re-interpreting them within a more moderate framework. I also understand, like anything, such as feminism, this will be a long, slow trek, with many challenges.

One of the challenges to making these changes, particularly with regard to attitudes toward women, is the every-day, lay-person moderate Muslim, who denies the glaring flaws in Islam and Islamic communities; flaws which impact women. These deny-ers who claim that they have had no issues with Islam affecting their everyday lives, drawing only from their personal experience. Or the deny-ers who attribute any impact of Islam on their lives as resulting from ‘misinterpretations’ of the Quran[i]’. The deny-ers who wash their hands of flaws which come to light, after the token #notinmyname-ing. The Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s who claim vehemently that Islam is “the most feminist religion”. These deny-ers, men and women both, function as obstacles to progressive Islam, by stating that there is nothing wrong in the first place, no problems to address. Which is a bare-faced untruth. And the final challenge, from the moderate Muslims: the uber-defence ‘I’m Offended’. This catch-all, cop-out defence frustrates me intellectually and the question I want to ask (and often do) is ‘isn’t your belief system and ideology robust enough to withstand the regular cut and thrust of debate?’ Apparently not.

People often associate being politically left wing with intellectualism and even intelligence. That, unfortunately, is patently not the case. There are as many dogmatic, intellectually inflexible, pedantic leftists as there are dogmatic, intellectually inflexible people to the right. The former are the ones who shout ‘islamophobia’ at any criticism, and refuse to see the impact of Islamic ideology on women.

The issue of the Hurstville Boys Campus of Georges River Colleges School students being allowed to ‘opt out’ of shaking hands with female presenters is a good example of where the left and I collide. Many leftists argue that there should be sensitivity toward and tolerance of practices within cultural groups, and some may argue that this is not an issue that requires address and should be accepted as a culture-specific norm. The reasons for declining the handshake, in Islam is a hadith[ii] which suggests any physical contact with a non-family female is unacceptable. The distilled argument in some Muslim groups against male-female handshakes was simply that avoiding handshakes prevents unwanted touch and declining one is a sign of respect for oneself and the other.

My question is, to what degree should such culturally specific behaviour, such as declining opposite gender handshakes be allowed? To the degree of clear and direct harm? Perhaps declining, politely, to shake a woman’s hand does not cause clear, direct or immediate harm. But it has far reaching implications for the Muslim community in Australia and eventually the Australian community at large.

The boys permitted to opt-out of opposite sex handshakes will learn several things. The first learning would be to notice a person’s gender first, and make judgments that differentiate across gender and have their behavior guided by that gender-discriminatory judgement. The second learning would be that a woman’s touch, however innocuous and in whatever context, is sexual. This then, would lead to the identification of women as sexual objects regardless of context or consent to be identified as such. The third learning would be to identify any contact with the opposite sex as a sexual trigger. What kind of self-regulation is that? The message it appears to send to boys is that their ability to self-regulate is so fragile that they must resort to abstinence type strategies to avoid arousal. That handshaking is the gateway drug to sex. The fourth learning would be that the respect one has for a woman is hinged on physical contact and that a woman’s consent to physical contact would allow the deduction that she is not deserving of respect. Finally, the act of avoiding a handshake, to ostensibly avoid arousal presents to the impressionable mind that sexual arousal is something to be avoided and treated with discomfort and dissonance. Humanity struggles enough with sex and the cognitive dissonance religion has created about it (such as linking sex and morality), without including yet another damaging dimension.

In the same vein, as much as I dislike Le Pens xenophobic immigration stance, I agreed with her actions with regard to refusing to cover her head for a meeting with Lebanon’s Grand Mufti: another area where cultures collide and I collide with typical leftist political correctness. I agreed and was glad she didn’t cover her head, as that would have been an acknowledgement of her identity as a woman being first and foremost, rather than her role as a possible political leader. By refusing to cover her head, she is refusing to accept cultural norms that continue to implement rules on women that do not have an equal application to men; from changes in dress to changes in behavior.

When does a nation or a community take the step of acknowledging culture but clearly addressing the fact that certain aspects of that culture simply should not apply anywhere, inside or outside the country where they originated? And when does a nation or community recognize that accepting cultural norms can be the acceptance of gender discrimination and therefore allowing gender discrimination to proliferate?

[i] Side note — The Quran: The convenient book from which a reader can choose a suitable, self-serving meaning from. Like a religious pick’n’mix.

[ii] Sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhmmed: which would have the validity of Chinese whispers. But there are scholars who have been deemed to have identified the most valid and reliable hadith.

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