As with many other people in the Muslim community, I have been following the conversation around the sexist comments made by a teacher at the popular Muslim institute, AlMaghrib, by a “teacher” named Abu Eesa Niamatullah.
Abu Eesa made the comments on the occasion of International Women’s Day and made horrible “jokes” about women, FGM and rape.
Let’s call it what it was: not merely some innocuous “sexist” attempt at humor, but an abashed articulation of male supremacy.
He went so far as to put out an image of himself with this quote on his social media.
Fortunately, we are seeing some powerful responses:
The most helpful summary and scrutiny of this whole episode so far is the very helpful summary by Rabia Chaudry. Here is a powerful response from Rabia Chaudry:
“My day was ruined not by his juvenile tweets and old, lame jokes (women too hard to understand? oooh hahahah, it’s actually because you’re an idiot). It was ruined when I read, and re-read, his pseudo fatwa to rape and beat women, FGM, child marriage, and a host of other oppressions that Muslim women do in fact suffer every single day in this world. We’re not daft, it was widely understood to be a sarcastic remark.
But as someone who has lived through an abusive marriage, his words alone brought back black and blue memories and tears. As the mother of of two young girls, it brought more tears because I thought of them and the fight they would inherit from us, a fight for simple dignity and decency from Muslim men as the norm. I wonder if they’ll be able to hold on to the deen in the face of external and internal challenges, because not everyone is strong enough in their faith to reject the ugliness of some of our leaders. Muslims are apostatizing, rejecting a religion that is made to seem harsh, hateful, misogynistic, angry, and judgemental by people like Abu Eesa. Instead of using gentle speech and beautiful language to draw people to Islam, “scholars” like these burn bridges to faith.”
Hind Makki started a popular Twitter hashtag #MuslimMaleAllies .
Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the former head of ISNA, responded:
If a non-Muslim made “jokes” like this @almaghrib teacher we’d have every Muslim civil rights org sending out alerts
Imam Suhaib Webb stated that Abu Eesa should step down:
I believe he should step down. Sadly, I think some folks don’t appreciate how hurtful his words were.
Abdllah Antepli, the Muslim Chaplain at Duke University, simply said:
“Muslim men should take as much offense if not more by this stupidity.”
Here are six short observations about this controversy:
1) The comments fail the test of Islamic ethics (adab).
Adab, refined manners, is not merely a luxury. It is the very characteristic of the highest of Islamic ethics, and the identifying feature of a person (teacher or lay person) whose manners have conformed to the manners of the Prophet Muhammad.
2) The comments fail the Prophetic test
At the simplest and most fundamental level, joking about rape, FGM, and alike is not what the Prophet would do. One can have a mastery of prophetic traditions, and yet fail to actually live out the meaning of the Prophet’s teachings. Antagonizing half of God’s creation is simply the very opposite of what the Prophet did, and what the Prophet would do.
3) The comments fail the institution and organization test
Abu Eesa is a teacher at AlMaghrib, which is one of the largest Muslim organizations in the West. To put it simply, this is not how an organization establishes credibility. In the professional world, when an employee makes a public statement that is racist and sexist, that employee is fired or put on probation. Furthermore, the organization releases a statement stating that the foolish utterances of the employee do not reflect the values of that organization. For AlMaghrib to retain their hard-earned credibility in the Muslim community, it is important to do this, and do it immediately.
AlMaghrib does a lot of good. I might have some differences of opinion with their Dean of Academics (and one of their earliest instructors), Yasir Qadhi, but I respect him. Many of us have watched and admired the public and honest way in which Yasir Qadhi has come to trace his own growth vis-à-vis his earlier Salafi leanings to his stance on the Holocaust. That self-reflection and self-correction is a mark of a mature human being. As an institution, AlMaghrib needs to do this, and do it immediately.
It is not enough to fire Abu Eesa. Necessary, but not enough. What we have to do is to vomit this virus of sexism out of our community.
4) The comments fail the Muslim community.
The comments of Abu Eesa are hurtful and demeaning. For many people, women and yes some men who are rape victims, these are not funny comments, but old scabs being forced open to bleed again. The comments objectify women, and also prevent Muslim men from participating in respectful and egalitarian communities.
5) The sexism of the comments is linked to the racism of the speaker.
As always, a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Hatred towards one block of humanity tends to be linked to hatred towards other blocks. While many have mobilized against the sexism of this speaker, it is perhaps telling—and a sign of how much work we still have to do on the racial front in our communities—that his earlier anti-black and racist comments failed to generate the same level of attention and controversy.
These type of racist language is reminiscent of the “humor” of Fuzzy Zoeller towards Tiger Woods, and is vile, unfunny, and again, a violation of Islamic teachings.
This pathetic, sad, racist commentary, again a very violation of Prophet Muhammad’s teachings on how there is no superiority for whites over blacks, Arabs over non-Arabs, has to be seen as what it is: part of the same legacy of anti-black racism that should have no place in Muslim communities. Full stop. It needs to be exposed, critiqued, attacks, and replaced by a genuinely Islamic social ethics.
6) And lastly, at a much smaller level of significance, the speaker is simply not funny.
He might deem himself the possessor of a “extremely dark sense of humour”, but these comments are simply not funny. Hate is not humor.
We love humor. Muslim community has nothing but love for Jon Stewart, for Stephen Colbert, for our own comedians (Azhar Usman, Axis of Evil Comedy tour, The Muslims are Coming!, etc.) Abu Eesa is simply, sadly, pathetically, and unprophetically, not funny.
We deserve better teachers, teachers whose human to human relations actually embody the lofty ideals they espouse.
We deserve teachers whose command over the words of the Prophet actually bears a relationship with he who was the loveliest of examples (uswatun hasana).
And we deserve institutions that behave professionally and in a way that reflects high Islamic ideals.
We demand better.
Since we are a people who believe that beauty can come out of a crisis, let us hope that this whole painful episode can shine a light on the dark places in our communities, where we can come to rid ourselves of the viruses of sexism and racism, chauvinism and classism. Some of this work has already started by the beautiful work that many Muslim women and a still too few Muslim men are doing. May this work continue for us to create communities in which the full humanity of all of us can be lived out, and never up for assault.