Censorship – muslims caught in the middle

Earlier this year I joined thousands of other websites protesting against PIPA & SOPA; laws being drafted to restrict freedom of expression. I initially thought this was my first direct experience with censorship, but in reality, I’ve been exposed to it for the past decade;

ever since I became a Muslim

I was raised Christian, even attending a convent school, but the nuns found my persistent questions tiresome, and, in lieu of answers, labelled me precocious. I decided religion was for wimps. Fast-forward to my twenties when a non-halal roast dinner incident (that’s another story) revealed my ignorance about muslims.

I’m a curious, wannabe know-it-all type (yeah, I can see you warming to the nuns now…) so I read some books and found myself, again, asking questions. This time there were answers that made sense. I was as surprised as anyone. A year later, I took my shahada and converted to Islam.

With the new convert’s unflagging zeal, I devoured books to broaden my understanding. I’d exhausted my local library, so I moved on to Islamic bookshops and it was here that I encountered books that made me uncomfortable. I found chapters stating I should avoid contact with non-muslims; others informed me of the duties of a wife to her husband: seeking permission for everything, never calling him by name, never refusing his desires in bed… Then there were the books that claimed I should cover my hair, stop plucking my eyebrows and chuck out my CD player.

I recognised this wasn’t the Islam I knew and tried to quell the disquiet they caused me by attributing them to cultural differences that didn’t translate well. But it was more than that. Agendas were being pushed. Scouring the Qur’an for proof that I should be wearing a hijab I found only requests to dress modestly. This was puzzling. Was I missing something? All those women, suffering the summer heat, their heads swathed in fabric – they couldn’t all be mistaken!

censorship in islam

Covering was originally a cultural trend pre-dating Islam. Today, young women are donning the hijab as a political and religious statement and calling it a “religious obligation”, to the collective despair of older women who rejoiced when they were finally freed of it. Islam recognised women’s rights centuries before the Suffrage Movement, but, in patriarchal societies, cultural conventions remain cemented, keeping them oppressed. How could the Qur’an, 1400 years ago, have forbidden women to drive? In Saudi Arabia a woman can still be jailed for attempting it.

Finding answers isn’t easy. I’m lucky to have educated muslim friends who helped me recognise the many faces of radicalism, and taught me to have confidence in my own reasoning, but not everyone is as fortunate. In theocracies, dictatorships and countries with low literacy rates, people rely on imams, sheiks and muftis to guide their understanding, despite Islam being a clergyless religion where no-one has authority to compel another to follow a religious directive. Many have no access to a Qur’an in their native language. While the ability to memorise and recite the entire Qur’an in Arabic is revered, earning one the title of hafiz, little weight is given to understanding its words. I was told a translation could never convey the true meaning, and I should concentrate on learning Arabic and perfecting my pronunciation. That puts an accurate interpretation of Islam beyond the reach of many.

Censorship is always accompanied by propaganda and the muslim world is saturated in both. Propelled by petro-dollars and the powerful political allies they buy, Islamist organisations pushing their “brand” have made it difficult for muslims to explore their religion, much less someone from a different faith. Dissenters are persecuted by radicals attempting to silence them. Just ask Hamza Kashgari, although that might be difficult; he’s currently in a Saudi prison for “blasphemous” tweeting. The censorious reach of radicalism extends into  democratic, secular and Christian countries. Salman Rushdie and Raheel Raza regularly face its vitriol for voicing their opinions.

Today’s moderate muslims are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They’re viewed suspiciously by the West, thanks to the terrorism of extremists and the bureaucratic imposition of “political correctness”. But if we speak out to set the record straight, we face threats and condemnation by people claiming to be brothers and sisters in our faith. Silence is made to seem the only option. If that isn’t censorship, I don’t know what is.

Aisha Ashraf is a writer and blogger who converted to Islam ten years ago. She still struggles to equate the faith she researched with the one she finds in the world, and continues in her efforts to improve her understanding.

Brave Little Blogger Contest

39 Comments

  1. For once I’m lost for words. This is beautifully written from the soul… I do hope you find what you are looking for and the inner peace you seek. I am sure the words of the bible were also hijacked by radicals and murder was comitted over the centuries by fanatics in the name of God. Do I pray any more? yes, but not in a church. Be true to yourself, be BRAVE!
    PIP

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    • Thanks Piglet. I’ve found what I was looking for; it was in me all along. I just feel so frustrated when people use religion to justify their cruelty. No religion encourages hate and hurt, they’re all based around love and respect for one another. But it seems the human race has always preferred to concentrate on the differences rather than the similarities. Your support and understanding is very much appreciated. x

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  2. This piece was a real eye opener for me. That sounds like quite a struggle… having to perfect Arabic before being allowed to read the scriptures? A strange elitism.

    Matter, Don’t Mind

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    • It’s not mandatory that you read the Qur’an in Arabic, but you get a lot of muslims helpfully offering this information when they find out you read an English translation. Many will say you are wasting your time and that you will get greater blessings for reciting in Arabic, even if you have no idea what you are saying.

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      • Congrats on your win! And, thanks for the clarification about the Arabic. It makes me giggle to picture, but I still think I’d feel the pressure to learn. I definitely wouldn’t want to recite things I don’t understand.

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        • P.S. I’m a Christian trying Buddhist meditation for the first time. I felt snubbed by an attendee last week for a question I asked. Thankfully the teacher answered politely. Still, I was reminded that perhaps all churches have their “things”.

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          • Lol! Oh yes, they all have their “things.” It’s not so much the religion as the people…

  3. It must have been very hard, as an enthusiastic woman convert, to learn about this distorted version of Islam. It has, I believe, done perhaps irreparable harm. I am not sure if the answer for moderate Muslims like yourself is to remain silent, however. I truly respect and admire you for your faith – although I quietly believe that organized religion tends to veer towards the hatred and cruelty, overwhelming the love that it was founded on. But that’s just my personal feeling.

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    • I don’t believe we should remain silent, but, similar to the stigma surrounding mental illness, if muslims speak out they are humiliated and shunned by the community. It was very difficult coming to terms with this – I feel suspicious and distrustful of organised religion for the same reasons you mention; it attracts the power-seekers and the corrupt. But I’m damned if I’m giving up MY religion just because someone else has messed with it so much it’s virtually unrecognisable. I’ll stick to my beliefs, they can stick to theirs.

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      • I can understand that, too. It’s very sad though…

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  4. Congratulations!!! Just seen that you won the competition with this piece. No surprise – it’s thought-provoking and as usual, extremely well-written. Well done, you!

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    • WOW!!!! Julie, I didn’t know! Thanks for telling me – I’m so thrilled you wouldn’t believe!!!
      Thank you for the compliment, but I’m just glad to get my message heard. BRILLIANT! That’s made my day; I’m gonna have face-ache from this huge smile :-)

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      • Many many congratulations on your win. I am proud of my fellow-blogger! Well deserved. I have shared this post with many….

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        • Thanks so much – it’s vital that a more balanced view of Islam is available to stop the spiraling “Us & Them” mentality. Thank you for your help and support :-)

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          • You are most welcome. The support will continue!!

      • Happy to be the bearer of good news. The link in Emily’s email doesn’t work though so it might be worth contacting her to get her to fix it so everyone can read your winning article.

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        • Thanks Julie, appreciate you telling me x

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  5. Congrats on your winning article which as always is courageous and as Heidi said provocative. I admire your open discussion and honest posts. It takes a strong person to write this and as a convert myself I have come across very very similar challenges. Glad to have connected with you on multiple levels. Hugs from Dubai:)

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    • I could only stay silent about some of this stuff for so long. As I get a fair bit of discrimination from other people who are, in their opinion, “more” muslim than I am anyway, thought I may as well say it as I see it. Shukran for your support, jazak-allah.

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  6. Sincere congratulations! Always glad to follow those who think with their heads and are bald enough to speak their minds. Well deserved!

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  7. but why exactly are u still a muslim? i just dont understand that. do you really formally have to belong to a religion to see the so called benefits it assures? what a funny idea? and why are you defending “your” religion? whay would anyone defend a bad idea, as though it belonged to him?

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    • That’s a question I’ve asked myself, John. I feel loathe to say I follow an organised religion, because organised means by Man, which kind of loses sight of things in my opinion. I suppose the best way I can describe the conclusion I came to is, when you’ve found a good thing, would you let a bunch of bullies hi-jack it and give it, and you, a bad name? It’s not so much about fighting the bullies, as giving back the choice to people so that they can make their own minds up. I’m not talking about converting people. I mean helping them have an opinion based on fact instead of propaganda and hearsay. Also, I don’t like being told what I can and can’t do.
      I still call myself a muslim because I still see the benefits of the five pillars of Islam – the foundation of the religion. If I said I wasn’t a muslim but still observed those five basic aspects, I would be lying, and I have no reason to lie.

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      • fair enough. i still cannot follow your logic from a rational point of view. but i guess tribalism is so inherent to the human spirit, that we are all victims of it at some or the other level. for me religious tribalism is not at all important, but maybe i am tribal at some other level.
        even so, i think the idea that you have to fight off the islamists is a politically poor idea. they benefit more from your tribal identification with islam, than your so called fight against them. as far as finding a good thing, you seem more interested in finding a sense of belonging than any real (religious or otherwise) benefit.
        sorry if i sound judgemental. full disclosure, i am a hindu, born and brought up that way. but you know how much i would want to defend hinduism from its extremists….NOT.

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        • I’m not enamored with the idea of fighting off extremists either, but once you begin to be judged by others according to the picture they’ve painted, I think it becomes necessary. It’s like someone stealing your identity and using your details to make purchases that you end up paying for. How long would you let that continue?
          I’m not particularly tribal in my outlook and I didn’t become a muslim for the warm and fuzzy feeling of “belonging” (if I had I would have been sorely disappointed). I don’t have a great deal to do with many other muslims because I’m tired of trying to assess everyone’s agenda (anti-white, anti-Irish, fundamentalist, pro-Pakistan, anti-Israel, arab supremacist, mindless sheep…the list seems endless), what I found in Islam was self-knowledge and self-awareness, purely personal and exclusive to me. If only others could be happy with that instead of trying to impose some kind of Sharia legislated fundamentalist state on everyone.

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          • <>

            Just an observation here… Don’t you have to fight off the bullies in order to restore freedom of choice among Islam’s followers who have been caught up in the extremism and violence that the radicalized segment of Islam has adopted? Isn’t that in fact the enemy? Radical Islam? So how do you restore free choice without fighting off the bullies? I think words have specific meaning, and frankly “bullies” doesn’t go far enough to describe the threat to me as well as yourself from radical Islam. I think that murderers would be a fair description of those who advocate Jihad and terrorism to achieve their political/religious goals. I happen to be one who can compartmentalize the pure religion of Mohammad from that of Radical Islam. I perceive that you have done so also. But the bottom line is that the violent and hateful offshoots of Islam are getting the most press, and quite frankly are the ones taking over the religion. Teaching of young children to hate and kill is becoming more the rule than the exception. I for one fear the caliphate that is on the rise in countries caught up in the “Arab Spring” and believe that eventually radical Islam will drown out the peaceful followers of Mohammad. I am extremely interested in your thoughts on this matter.

          • The truth will always out and people will eventually become tired of being played for fools. I don’t know what shape the future will take but I do know that the pendulum swings back and forth throughout history and will continue to do so. There’s some truth in the phrase “every dog will have it’s day”.
            Muslims became conceited. Basking in the glow of their laudable history of knowledge and enlightenment they rested on their laurels too long, neglecting to deal with issues which have festered and now threaten to engulf. But they’re not the only ones at fault. The political machinations of various nations have taken their toll also. It’s a complex picture. But I’m not overly worried. The enlightened world won’t bend to the will of the fundamentalist few for long. This technological age will make it hard for them to keep people in the dark for long anyway. What’s important is to stand by our values and keep speaking the truth.

  8. Congratulations Aisha, nicely done. I think the name of the award says it all: sometimes you have to be brave, even in the face of potential shunning and blowback, in order to right wrongs and help light the path for others. We need the voices of moderate Muslims (moderates of any religion, actually) to help clarify and bring reason to the conversation, even (especially) a conversation of faith. No need to earn a fatwa, simply keep blogging.

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    • Thanks Linda, there are bigger things to fear than what other people think – I don’t intend to stop anytime soon :-)

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  9. Altough I don’t agree with all. YOu make a good point, and you make it so well.
    Congradts!

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  10. Realy great…..
    Your award was well deserved, really enjoyed reading.

    Thank you.

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  11. Very interesting points there. May I ask you a question? I heard that a massive islamic centre is to be built in Ireland (40 million euro worth megamosque). Do you think it is a good thing for Ireland?

    Keep up the good work, and all the best to you.

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    • Hi Steve, thanks for your comment. With regard to your question, is a mega-anything ever a good idea?? Seriously though, if this is what you are referring to, No – I don’t think it’s a good thing, you’re right to be cautious.

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  12. Everyone in my family is roman catholic and I always felt my parents raised me “better” then other kids. It was always fun to go to church (the priest was our teacher too and so funny…) but then I got older and realized that religions (no matter what kind of religion) are never good if you’re too serious about it. Call me stupid but I have seen too many “bad” muslims doing things that were not ok so when it comes to Islam I usually have a skeptical opinion. (Yea, they say the radical muslims those are not the “real Muslims”) but I still don’t trust them. I have been travelling a lot and so far I met only a hand full of Muslims that I really liked. I just wished there were more people like you who do believe in God (whatever) because they’re educated etc. not because that’s just the way it is…
    I am really sorry for what happened to you!

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    • “religions (no matter what kind of religion) are never good if you’re too serious about it.” As soon as people become passionate about something, they lose some of their objectivity. The balance shifts and it becomes more important to them to validate their beliefs rather than question them. I now have a healthy respect for those that don’t have all the answers…

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  13. I needed to thank you for this excellent read!! I definitely loved every little bit of it.
    I’ve got you book-marked to check out new stuff you post…

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  14. Have you studied Islamic fiqh on the matter of hijab or is this based on your understanding of what you translate from the Quran?
    I saw this post on Mumsnet.

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    • Islamic fiqh concerns social legislation in Islam and is an expansion of Sharia, a cruel and medieval code of conduct determined by man not God. The Islam I understand is open to all – man and woman, the scholar and the farmer – it doesn’t require any special knowledge, education, or excessive leap of understanding, just a commitment to Love, Gratitude and Compassion. If we have to legislate for those then clearly we’ve missed the whole point…

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