Farid Esack is a South African Muslim, a Koran scholar and a fascinating commentator on issues relating to politics, theology, reconciliation and gender justice. He visits Australia this week.


Stephen Crittenden: This week a distinguished visitor has arrived in Australia from South Africa. Farid Esack is a Muslim scholar, a leading exponent of Koranic Studies, and a political commentator in several of South Africa’s leading newspapers and journals. He was also a key figure in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, and in 1996 he was appointed Commissioner for Gender Equality by Nelson Mandela.

Well Farid is in Australia this week, giving a series on lectures on fundamentalism, sexuality, politics and what he calls “progressive Islam” – and he joins us now.

Farid Esack, welcome to the program. What do you understand by the term ‘progressive Islam’, is it like liberal Catholicism, or reform Judaism ?

Farid Esack: Well I don’t think that it would happily take on the term ‘liberal’ or it would happily take on the term ‘reform’. Progressive Islam sees itself as understanding the faith through the eyes of the marginalised. If there is one reality that dominates the world, despite the fact that people want to think that it’s terrorism or fundamentalism, if there’s one thing that characterises the world, particularly as an African, then it is the reality of HIV-AIDS. More than thirty million people have died on our continent of AIDS in the last twelve, thirteen years. How now do you redefine your faith in the fact of this pandemic? How do you re-understand your Islam, what is Islam saying now about sex and sexuality, about compassion, about judgmentalism? and so it’s a faith, then, in this context now, where judgmentalism and moral arrogance and moral righteousness must stand way for the cultivation of new kinds of values, such as compassion and non-judgmentalism.

Stephen Crittenden: Would you agree that normative Islam has indeed been judgmental in the past?

Farid Esack: The truth of course is that there is nothing really normative about normative. The truth is, though, that the dominant face of Islam is – I mean for better or for worse – seen as an angry one, seen as a judgmental one, seen as far more interested in wanting to know how did you become HIV positive, instead of asking what do we do about the fact that you are HIV positive? So you are right.

Stephen Crittenden: And what is the situation with Islam in South Africa, and its attitudes now towards people with HIV? Is there a shift in position, in reality?

Farid Esack: Yes, and sadly the shift in position comes because of the magnitude of this disease. The faith has always been flexible, and often not by choice. I think it is people like me who insist that the faith must also become flexible by choice, and not just because we are forced by our social realities to change.

Stephen Crittenden: I’ve just been reading a very interesting article about Samuel Huntington and the clash of civilisations, suggesting that Huntington was only half right, that the real clash of civilisations between the Islamic world and the Western world is a clash over sex. That people in the Islamic world want democracy for example, even if they don’t always mean the same thing by it, but what they don’t want is the West’s permissive attitude towards sexuality, our kind of feminism, our gay rights, our abortion laws and so on. What do you think of that idea?

Farid Esack: That’s a very interesting one. Look, I mean, I don’t think that sex and issues of sex, of permissiveness, that these are issues that exist in a vacuum. If for example one looks at traditional attitudes in a Hindu village in India, it’s no different from the attitude of a Muslim village towards sex and sexuality. The argumentation that they have against gender justice, or against same-sex unions, all of these arguments you find even in Afrikaaner communities. I mean, I think it’s very far-fetched to talk about this is a clash of not of civilisations, but on positions towards sex and sexuality.

Stephen Crittenden: Well indeed, to take one very emblematic issue, and that is the wearing of the hijab, particularly Muslim women wearing hijab in Western countries, if they happen to live in the West. To what extent do you think there’s perhaps a reluctance to see the hijab as a hangover of misogynist cultural views, which in fact may have nothing to do with Islam, that may pre-date Islam altogether.

Farid Esack: In different societies and for different individuals, this hijab really means something completely different. I mean in Turkey for example, it’s only middle-class women that wear the hijab, rural women wear ordinary folksy kind of scarves. Increasingly in many cities in the West, also in some parts of the Middle East, people don the hijab as a marker of their own identity, or as a protest against what they see as the commodification of the woman’s body. But I don’t want to dodge the point, that the hijab in many Muslim societies is a hangover of misogynistic culture, it is a reflection of men wanting to control the lives and the bodies of women. I think that it is reductionist for us to assume that it is only that. I don’t quite – look, you know, we also have our own double standards. When Sister Wendy is seen as rather cute on TV with her program and walking around covered in a tent, because she’s a nun – but that’s “our” hijab, so our hijab is OK.

Stephen Crittenden: I remember very well being a very small child you know, perhaps 40 years ago, my mother wearing a mantilla to mass. You know, covering yourself in a veil, it’s not so long ago we were doing that in the West.

Farid Esack: Absolutely. Then it is seen as cute, you see. There is another completely male system, a male system that wants to control – and I’m talking about the Vatican – that wants to control the lives of women, all of these men all the time taking decisions on behalf of women. But no, when “our” people dress in hijab, then it is cute. I mean, when these Muslims come and dress like this, then it is threatening to what we stand for and what our cultures represent. So I think that our obsessions with the clothing habits of other people, often says far more about us and our own hang ups than what it says about what this veil or what this scarf really means to them and their communities.

Stephen Crittenden: You were appointed by Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s Commissioner for Gender Equality, which I guess is proof yet again of Mandela’s genius. But how was that seen by other South African Muslims? And what problems have you had to deal with?

Farid Esack: I’ve never carefully looked at how this has been viewed by the Muslim community, in part because when you’re Commissioner for Gender Equality you are there to defend the rights of all people in the country, and particularly the most marginalised sections of our gender population which happens to be women in this case. But if ask me about a particular – a very difficult one for me was the question of a Muslim radio station that refused to broadcast the voices of women, because they argued – they were one of seven Muslim radio stations, I must emphasise, and all the others were happy to have parity between men and women – but this one particular Muslim radio station argued that men get turned on by the voices of women, and therefore they shouldn’t have – I mean, my argument was very simple, that if you get turned on, tell your listeners to turn off. And in the end, the complaints were filed with the Gender Commission, and this led to the closure of this particular radio station. And then, of course, one of the great moral dilemmas that you deal with, was that most of the radio’s supporters were in fact women.

Stephen Crittenden: Well, without wanting to go back to the hijab again, and to dwell there – I mean, it’s quite clear to me speaking to Muslim women here in Sydney for example, that the loudest defenders of the hijab in Western society is the Muslim women.

Farid Esack: And we are torn between the defence of the right of people to do what they want to do, and – I don’t want to equate hijab now to domestic abuse – but there are very many women who live in relationships of domestic abuse, and who don’t want to get out of it. So on the one hand, we have responsibility to give people choices that “look, if you want to get out of this relationship, this is where you can go to”. On the other hand, there are limits to what one can do to force people to be adult.

Stephen Crittenden: In Australia, I think the Muslim community here felt itself very embattled in the wake of September 11, as I’m sure Muslims did all throughout the West. Do you think though that Muslim communities in the West are in fact beginning to respond to the challenges of September 11, that they’re doing better than perhaps they were in the immediate aftermath?

Farid Esack: Yes, it’s a difficult one to answer, you know. Sometimes I feel that yes, we are doing a better job of responding to those challenges, sometimes I don’t think we’re doing such a good job of it. But I do think that the immediate kind of defensiveness, the knee-jerk reaction, the back-against-the-wall-ness –

Stephen Crittenden: That’s past now?

Farid Esack: Much of it has passed, and people are now beginning to ask new questions about violence in Islam, is it just resorting to simplistic stuff such as “the only form of jihad is a jihad against yourself”, or “Islam means peace”. I think people are beginning to look beyond those kinds of simplistic responses, and people are grappling with the underlying questions of coexistence. But I don’t know, I think that there’s an ongoing responsibility on the part of critical thinkers within the community to push the parameters of critical thinking. Of course it’s not helpful when any community feels themselves besieged, feel themselves being placed under all sorts of demand for change and so on. I don’t know whether people as individuals or as communities really transform themselves when they’re under pressure. And so at the end of the day, it is only when we deal with our own internal questions – assisted, and in some ways cajoled by our friends from the outside – that we’re able to transform ourselves.

Stephen Crittenden: I must say when I’ve spoken recently to members of the Muslim community here in Sydney, I never cease to be amazed by how many otherwise sane and rational people appear to believe that Mossad flew the planes into the World Trade Center, or see the problems they’re facing as Muslims in the West as basically a public relations problem, not really a problem for them but a problem of a hostile media. If only the media would report Muslim people differently, it would all just go away.

Farid Esack: The reality is this: that the nature of the media is such that it must focus on drama. But I also think that the Muslims do a pretty good job of shooting themselves in the foot very often. When we go around all the time for example shouting ‘death to America’, when we portray these angry images of our faith and so on, in many ways we have ourselves to be blamed when we are being – we provide these negative images to the media, and so it isn’t just a question of a bad press. There are very many things fundamentally wrong within the world of Islam, and it doesn’t help us to just blame the West, to blame Mossad, to find a Jew under every bed. The point I want to make is this, that yes, we do get a bad press, but to reduce the problems of the Muslim world to a bad press, that is far too simplistic and lets us off the hook, and doesn’t force us to deal with very, very many of the problems that are indeed of our own making.

Stephen Crittenden: It’s been great to talk to you, thanks for joining us on The Religion Report, Farid Esack.

Farid Esack: Thank you very much for having me over.

Source: The Religion Report