The following is a speech given by Donna M. Hughes, Professor and Carlson Endowed Chairperson of the University of Rhode Island Women's Studies Program.
Thank you to the URI College Republicans for organizing this week of awareness about a major threat to world peace and freedom. Thank you for inviting me to speak about how this global political movement threatens women’s freedom and rights.
I’ll start out by addressing terms. There are a number of terms that are used to refer to the global political movement I want to talk about: Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic extremism, Islamo-Fascism, Islamism, and Radical Islam.
I chose the term “political Islam,” a more neutral term, for the title of my talk, not because I think one can equivocate about this global threat, but to emphasize that we are talking about a political movement — a political movement based on selective interpretations of the Koran.
I am not talking about all of Islam or all Muslims. Although as with any political movement, it is built on particular traditions, culture and views; otherwise the movement would have not appeal to the base from which the movement leaders want to draw their support. I am talking about a political movement with an ideology, goals, and methods for achieving their goals.
The term Islamic fundamentalism seems to imply that we are talking about a conservative or traditional practice of Islam. When I use the term, I am referring, not to conservative or “fundamentalist” interpretation of Islam. I am referring to a political movement.
The term Islamic Fascism clearly links the phenomenon that we are talking about to a political movement — fascism. Although the goals of radical Islam are not exactly like those of Mussolini’s fascist movement, it evokes an authoritarian political goal and differentiates the movement from a purely religion one. It does have a more harsh sound to it and it doesn’t roll of the tongue very easily.
The term Islamic fascism was coined by moderate Algerian Muslims who were under attack by Muslim extremists who wanted to impose Islamic or Shari'a law in Algeria. Helie Lucas, the founder of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, explains that Islamo-fascism means the “political forces working under the cover of religion in order to gain political power and to impose a theocracy … over democracy.”
Islamism is the word closest to what the advocates of this political movement use themselves. Islamism is not the same thing as Islam. Islamism, with an “ism” on the end connotes a political belief system, like feminism, communism, Nazism. And a supporter of Islamism, is an Islamist, as in feminist or communist. This term is by far the easiest to use, but I am hesitant to use it, 1) because it is easily confused with Islam or someone who observes the Islamic faith, and 2) I have Muslim, pro-women’s rights, pro-freedom supporters who consider themselves Islamists. They think that Islam is compatible with democracy. They support a type of political Islam that recognizes the rights and freedom of all people, and they are working to create such as state.
I will use all these terms in my talk. The important thing to remember is that I’m talking about a political movement, not a whole religion or all Muslims. I’m talking about a political movement with a set of beliefs and political goals, practices that put those beliefs into action, and methods that impose their rule and belief system on others, whether they are willing or not.
I want to tell you how I came to understand the threat of Islamic fundamentalism to women, girls, and their rights. This occurred long before 9/11.
In 1994 to 1996, I worked as a Lecturer at the University of Bradford in England. The city of Bradford has the largest population of Pakistanis outside of Pakistan. The loudest sound in the city was the call to prayers broadcast from the mosque on the edge of campus.
I learned that after Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Religious Leader of Iran (i.e. religious dictator) issued a fatwa calling for the murder of British author Salman Rushdie, there were demonstrations in Bradford is support of the fatwa. Soon after I arrived in Bradford, a young Muslim woman was murdered. She was run down by a car driven by a family member as she was walking on the sidewalk to work. This was what is called an “honor killing,” in which women and girls are killed by family members for disobeying their fathers or for being too independent. She wanted freedom from an arranged marriage and rigid cultural constraints on her life as a woman.
I joined an organization called Women Against Fundamentalism. It was formed by mostly Muslim women of Asian descent after the fatwa to murder Rushdie. Its goal was to oppose the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in England and its threat to women’s freedom.
At the University of Bradford, I was in charge of a women’s studies major. We had several Asian women, as the Pakistani and Indian women were called, on the course. I soon learned that all of them were being pressured to drop out of school and accept arranged marriages. They were guilt-tripped, threatened, and sometimes beaten.
I soon realized that staying enrolled at the university was the only thing that helped them maintain a moderate level of freedom and independence. If they dropped out, they would be forced into marriage.
A couple of the women couldn’t resist the constant pressure. They came to my office and told me they were dropping out of school and accepting their family’s plans for them. They tried to put a good face on it.
Some women were beaten by their families to force them out of school. I learned how common this was when I made inquiries on how we could help a frightened, exhausted young woman. The University maintained a set of rooms in the halls of residence for women who needed emergency shelter each semester.
On a regular basis, I saw the political campaigns of the Islamists. Groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahir, which is now banned, had literature tables in the lobby of the building where I worked. I often stopped and picked up the pamphlets. I was particularly interested in what they said about women and women’s rights. Their goal was, and is, to unify all Muslim countries into one Islamic state ruled by Islamic or sharia law. They predicted that in the near future, they would take over the UK and turn it into an Islamic state.
Their literature stated that they would advance women’s rights by protecting them from the kind of harassment and violence that western women are subjected to. Wearing the veil or hijab would protect them from sexual harassment and sexual assault. The political tracts stated that they respected women and would allow women to stay in the home and take care of their families where they would be protected by their fathers, brothers, and husbands. These were not presented as choices for women, but their roles and destinies under Islamic rule.
I believe that people mean what they say and write about. I took the Islamists at their word. I showed the pamphlets to my colleagues, asking “Have you read these things? Do you know what they say they are going to do?”
Two years ago, when the world learned that the suicide bombers on the London underground were from Leeds, a city just ten miles east of Bradford, I was not surprised, as some were, that the terrorists were homegrown. I had read their literature ten years before.
In 1996, my education about Islamic fundamentalism expanded from the local level to the global when I met groups of Iranian exiles living in Europe, the U.S. and Canada. They were survivors of the Khomeini revolution in Iran, which brought to power the first modern theocracy, which means "rule by religious leaders." They (the Iranian exiles) had supported a liberal interpretation of Islam, freedom, democracy, and rights for women. Many of them had been arrested for opposing the rise of Islamic fundamentalists to power in Iran. Some had been tortured. Many of them had friends and relatives who were executed by the Iranian regime.
For the past 11 years, I have continued to learn about Islamic fundamentalism from them and have supported their conferences for women’s rights, democracy, and freedom.
I learned from them what happens to women when religious fascists — a term used by my Iranian friends — come to power.
I have also learned about the fate of women under Islamic fundamentalism from groups like Women Living Under Muslim Laws and the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan.
ISLAMIC FASCISTS, POLITICAL IDEOLOGY, AND PRACTICE
When Islamic fascists put their political ideology into practice, they use methods we call terrorism — the systematic targeting of civilian populations using violent means. The first place they exert their power is on the local level. I like to say that terrorism begins at home. The first victims are usually women and girls.
Islamic fundamentalist ideology rejects universal equality and rights as set out by the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and the basic principles and rights on which democracies are based.
The Islamic fundamentalism ideology rejects liberalism, women’s rights, moderate and liberal interpretations and practices of Islam, and promotes discrimination against non-Muslim religious groups, particularly Jews.
The political goal of Islamic fascists is to create a religious dictatorship, based on their version of Shari'a or religious-based law. They oppose democracy and the western concept of freedom, claiming that Western democracies and laws are man made, and only the laws of God or Shari'a laws are valid.
According to Shari'a law, Jews and other non-Muslims, such as Christians and Hindus, can only have secondary status as citizens. There is no freedom of religion. For example, under Shari'a law, if a Muslim converts to another faith, he or she can be punished by death.
Under Islamic fundamentalist ideology and law, men and women are not equal. Women are considered to be physically, emotionally, intellectually, and morally inferior to men.
Under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, women were not permitted to go to school or to work or to leave the house unless accompanied by a male relative and had to wear a burqa — a bag-like garment that covers the whole body and has only a mesh opening to see out.
In Iran, women are not permitted to run for president or be judges because they are not emotionally capable of making decisions. Women and girls are not permitted freedom of movement or freedom of dress. They are required to wear the covering chosen by the religious leaders.
Women and girls are seen as morally weak and must be prevented from having contact with men who are not family members. Sexual misconduct, which can be an act as simple as a girl talking to or meeting a man from outside her family, is considered to be a violation of her family’s honor. The shame she has brought on the family can only be wiped out by killing her. This is the basis of “honor killings.”
In Iran, there are official “crimes against chastity,” which includes things such as having a baby without being married. For violations of these laws, a woman or girl can be flogged or even hanged.
The most torturous form of punishment in Iran is stoning to death. Currently, eight women are imprisoned, waiting to be stoned to death in Iran. This form killing is not found in the Koran, it is a barbaric form of killing used centuries ago and brought into modern times by Islamic fundamentalists. [Editor's note: While it is strictly true that stoning is not mentioned in the Koran, it is not prohibited, and it says in the Koran many times that Muhammad should be used as an example to imitate, and Muhammad endorsed stoning as a punishment.]
Under Shari'a law, all public facilities, such as hospitals, classrooms, and buses, are segregated. These laws make women officially second class citizens without equal rights. A Muslim, Iranian woman coined a name for this system — gender apartheid.
This kind of misogyny, or woman-hating, is at the heart of Islamic fascists’ control of a population. If you suppress 50 percent of the population, and systemically punish violators by public stonings, hangings, and whippings, you can terrorize an entire population.