Dossier 26: What is your tribe? Women’s struggles and the construction of Muslimness

Publication Author: 
Marieme Hélie-Lucas
October 2004
number of pages: 
The first part of the strange title of this article originates in a personal experience. In 1962, after a seven-year bloody war, which made two million victims, Algeria became independent from French colonisation. Shortly after independence, some of us were being introduced, as ‘Algerians’, to some left intellectuals in Paris who had been in favour of our liberation movement. To my utter surprise, they insisted on knowing not only our religion (although all of them without any exception happened to be atheists, they just could not take the fact that we too professed no religion) but also, in their own words, our ‘tribe of origin’. It was a shock and a revelation to me that, for those intellectuals, ‘third world’ people could not do with just citizenship: we had to bear the marks of exoticism. Our sameness was deeply disturbing to them. Moreover it was, in their views, challenging our very identity - a recently acquired national identity that we had fought for so many years. The second part of my title refers to the dangerously growing trend of precisely constructing exoticism and ‘otherness’ in the political, thus reinforcing the ideology, as well as the power and legitimacy, of extreme right political forces, both within and outside Muslim contexts, colluding with each other.

Fundamentalism in context

Many well-meaning people, outside as well as inside Muslim contexts, in good faith, play into the game of fundamentalists and their identity politics. There are many forms and varieties of fundamentalism, and for that reason I would rather speak of ‘fundamentalisms’. However, they have common characteristics. In particular, one key element of their politics is the control of women. This is true of all religious fundamentalisms: we can see it with the Christian Right in the US promoting their views of ‘morality’ by assassinating medical personnel who perform abortions; it is true of Muslim Fundamentalists promoting gender apartheid in Iran, Sudan, Algeria, and Afghanistan; it is true of the Hindu BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) promoting sati (burning of wives alive on the pyre of their deceased husbands).

The list will be long of other religious fundamentalists’ anti-women stands, and of their hatred of women. Indeed, in a context of Islam bashing and racism, this is a much needed reminder that ‘Muslim fundamentalism’, despite being specifically singled out in the international media, is no different in that respect from any other religious fundamentalism.

Moreover, religious fundamentalisms cannot be isolated from other forms of fundamentalism that do not focus on religion but do create ideological and political alliances with each other, such as fundamentalisms based on ethnicity and culture. For religious fundamentalism is not a religious movement as it pretends to be. Religious pretexts, as in Ireland, are inevitably covering up much deeper infrastructural conflicts. Those are political movements, aiming at seizing political power by force, if not otherwise.

As an example, this is what the two main Algerian fundamentalist leaders/co-founders of the FIS party (Islamic Salvation Front) had to say, even long before the December 1991 elections were cancelled in Algeria, about their programme and democracy: “I do not respect either the laws or the political parties which do not have the Qur’an. I throw them under my feet and I trample them. These parties must leave the country. They must be suppressed.”1 “Beware of those who pretend that the concept of democracy exists in Islam. Democracy is kofr.”2 “There is no democracy because the sole source of power is Allah, through the Qur’an, and not the people. If people vote against the law of God, this is nothing but blasphemy. In this case, one must kill these unbelievers for the good reason that they want to substitute their authority to the authority of God.”3 “We do not accept this democracy which allows those who are elected to be in contradiction with Islam, Shari’a, its doctrine and its values.”4 Abhorrent of democracy, Algerian fundamentalist leaders inevitably advocate violence against those who stand for it: “All forward looking leaders should put all their potentialities to the service of the jihad (holy war) and coordinate all forms of jihad, including armed jihad which is its noblest and highest form.”5 This position is confirmed in international media by the representative of FIS in Washington himself: “If the Islamic state in Algeria is not brought to power by dialogue, this will be done by the jihad.”6 “It is true that we declared the jihad, and we did so according to the fundamental principles of Islam.”7 The incompatibility between ‘Islam’ and human rights obviously does not stem from all Muslim believers, but from Muslim fundamentalists only.

Claiming that they represent, if not the holy people by God chosen, then the purest and most excellent race, or the most ancient and elaborate culture; these movements, when they rise to power, impose their rules, codes of conducts, beliefs, and principles on ‘subhuman’ races, ‘inferior’ cultures, and other religions. Fundamentalisms are political movements of the extreme right, which, in a context of globalization, eg forceful international economic exploitation and free-for-all capitalism, manipulate religion, culture, or ethnicity, in order to achieve their political aims.

Rather than looking for examples in far off cultural and political contexts, in some exotic third world countries, one should identify the phenomenon at one’s doorstep. Europe had to face it recently with the ‘ethnic cleansing’ and expansionist policy of Serbian leaders in ex-Yugoslavia.8

Fundamentalism is the form that fascism takes today. Like Nazism in Germany, it emerges in a context of economic crisis and pauperisation, builds itself on the discontent of the people, manipulates the poorer sections of the populations, exalts their moral values and their culture (Aryanity for Germany, the glorious past of Rome for Italy), covers itself with the blessing of their God (Gott mit uns, as the SS used to wear on their belts), wants to convert or submit the world, and eliminates and eradicates their political opponents as well as the untermensch. Far from being obscurantist and economically backwards, fundamentalists are modernist and capitalist.

It is in this context that I shall come back to Muslim fundamentalists, women, and human rights. This particular form of extreme right movement and its specific oppression of women should not be analyzed outside a global political frame such as the one I have indicated here.

The myth of a homogeneous Muslim world

Women in Muslim countries and communities are indeed oppressed, in the name of religious interpretations that sustain and support patriarchy.9 However, there is no such thing as a uniform ‘Muslim world’, not a unique ‘Islamic law’ (Shari’a) applied everywhere, and therefore, women in Muslim societies lead very different lives, suffer different degrees of oppression, and enjoy different rights. “Our different realities range - from being strictly closeted, isolated, and voiceless within four walls, subjected to public floggings and condemned to death for presumed adultery (which is considered a crime against the state), and forcibly given in marriage as a child - to situations where women have a far greater degree of freedom of movement and interaction: the right to work, to participate in public affairs, and also to exercise a far greater control over their own lives.”10

This diversity in itself is sufficient to counter the fundamentalist ideology of ‘Muslimness’, as a belief, a way of life, a code of conduct, a ‘culture’11 that is supposed to characterize the life of so-called ‘Muslims’ all over the world. Like all totalizations, it ignores differences of cultures, political regimes, classes, etc, and proposes the oppressive vision of an unchallengeable, unchangeable, divinely defined homogeneity. But it exists nowhere else than in their imaginations.

However, by insistently suggesting its existence, fundamentalists have managed to convince many Muslims and non-Muslims of its (virtual?) reality. “It is often presumed that there exists one homogeneous Muslim world. Interaction and discussions between women from different Muslim societies have shown us that while some similarities exist, the notion of a uniform Muslim world is a misconception imposed on us. We have been led to believe erroneously that the only possible way of being is the way we currently live in each of our contexts. Depriving us of even dreaming of a different reality is one of the most debilitating forms of oppression we suffer.” 12

Differences in Muslim societies are due to three main factors:

First of all, Islam has spread, over centuries, in many different cultures over all continents, and it has absorbed local traditions; hence, female genital mutilation, although practiced by Animists and Christians as well in the concerned areas, is considered and promoted as ‘Islamic’ in certain parts of Africa while unheard of elsewhere; veiling which originated in the Semitic tradition - Jewish, Muslim, and Christian alike - is now promoted the world over as the symbol of Islam, thus eradicating traditional dress codes; the caste system, originally Hindu, functions in Muslim communities as well in the Indian subcontinent.

Secondly, the Qur’an and hadith have been interpreted throughout centuries by different schools of thought, and ongoing reinterpretation is still an option to many Muslims. Like in all holy books, one can find in the Qur’an the God of love as well as the God of wrath, and many historically connoted positions as well, such as the one on slavery, for example. “Be kind to your slave” is the Qur’anic injunction. To my knowledge, Muslims take it as a step forward in improving the conditions of existence for slaves at the time of Mohammed, rather than a justification of slavery today. Such a historical analysis can be, and indeed is, applied by many Muslims today to the injunctions concerning women: “Beat her lightly” is considered as a step forward from heavy punishments practised in the Middle East at the time, rather than a justification of wife beating today. Following this line, an Algerian Muslim scholar analyses that the function of the veil was to protect married women (by contrast with slave women) in the time of Mohammed; hence, its most appropriate modern equivalent is education and schooling, for this is what, in our times, gives the most protection to a woman.13

And finally, it is clear that political powers using culture and religion choose to emphasize different elements or interpretations in both culture and religion, according to circumstantial needs.

This leads us to make an essential distinction between two concepts: ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’.14 Islam as a religion, an ideology, a utopia, can be analysed from the point of view of theology or of philosophy. ‘Islam’, in this sense, does not exist anywhere in the material world. ‘Muslims’ are those who attempt to materialize their interpretation of these ideas, eg on the one hand, the men and women who have defined themselves as religious beings, as followers of Islam, and on the other hand, the political forces that have monopolized the reading of the text and use it as a major strategy for accessing or keeping political power. Analyzing of their actions belongs to the fields of sociology and political sciences. It follows suit that not all that is done by ‘Muslims’ is ‘Islamic’ and that what is ‘Islamic’ is even debatable and debated amongst Muslims. ‘Islam’ as it should be, ‘Muslims’ as they are. ‘Muslimness’ is man made, not God given.

This conceptual distinction should allow one to defend human rights in Muslim countries without fear of being seen as ‘anti Islam’. It is an important distinction too, for women inside Muslim contexts who fight for their human rights. This paper exclusively focuses on the sociological and political aspects: on what people do, albeit in the name of religion. Hence, we are not here referring to ‘Islam’, but to ‘Muslims’.

In fact, we are even talking here of ‘so-called Muslims’. For, again, another important distinction needs to be made: common sense and common language takes it that all people born and raised in Muslim families are automatically Muslim believers, that all people born and raised in countries or communities, in their incredible cultural and political diversity, whose laws are said to be derived from the Qur’an are automatically Muslim believers. Freedom of faith is obviously denied to people born in such contexts. No one would dream of defining any honourable French man or Swiss lady as a Christian, rather than as French or Swiss. While we, Algerians, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Fijians, Canadians, or British alike, believers and non-believers alike, atheists and free thinkers alike, are labelled ‘Muslims’. Are we still talking of faith? ‘Muslimness’ is becoming a transnational identity - much to the delight of fundamentalists. It is becoming an unwashable ‘original sin’, a stamp on the skin and soul of the people whose accidental location of birth makes them ‘Muslims’. These extensions de sens actually constitute an insult to true believers for whom faith is a deeply important choice in life, and to the freedom of religion. It is, as well, an insult to the personal integrity of those who have not chosen religion as a marker of their identities.

Moreover, it is a very dangerous political labellization. ‘Jews’, believers and non-believers alike, will not contradict me.

The diversity of women’s struggles and strategies

Women themselves are organizing their struggles for human rights on all these fronts concomitantly. Their strategies adequately address the issue, ranging from working from within the frame of religion, by reinterpretation of the Qur’an from a feminist perspective, to an entirely secular approach of human rights.15

Interpretation of the Qur’an has long been monopolized by male scholars, and it is recently, a couple of decades ago, that a strong movement was born from the ranks of feminist theologians and women’s human rights Muslim scholars.16 Initially, it has been seen by non-religious human rights advocates as hardy distinguishable from, or even colluding with, Muslim fundamentalists’ forceful attempts - now unfortunately more and more successful - to infiltrate the human rights domain. The main distinction between these two very different movements is that religiously inclined women human rights advocates do not try to monopolize the field of human rights; they ally with secularists and combine approaches, even if their main focus remains to reform from within the religious framework those laws and practices that originated in obscurantist interpretations of religion. On the contrary, the fundamentalist approach excludes any other strategies and violently combats them. For fundamentalists: “outside religion, no salvation”.

While still using the Trotskyist concept of entryism to describe those using a religious framework for reform, I must qualify this concept because these women have not only invaded a field that was not theirs, but they also have successfully initiated a dialogue on itjihad (reinterpretation) which had been dormant for centuries. They have proposed alternative interpretations which on the one hand, go back to the original text and its semiotic roots, and on the other hand, develop a field of historical and cultural interpretation which is really new, for which they have widely used cross-cultural analysis developed by secular feminists. By so doing they have deeply modified the field of Islamic theological research.17

At the other end of the spectrum, other women - be they believers or atheists - while incorporating the pioneering work of new feminist theologians, do not see religious debate as a main strategy for social change; using their anthropologically grounded awareness of the fact that there is no such thing as a homogeneous Muslim world and far less a transnational Muslim culture, they have successfully pointed at the diversity of situations in which women live in Muslim countries and communities around the world. Criticizing conservative or even inhuman laws and practices, they condemn violations of women’s human rights, regardless of the fact that those may be justified, locally, nationally, or internationally, by reference to religion. Bound neither by customs nor by religious interpretations, they state regarding reproductive rights: “In our context, these laws, policies, and practices are frequently said to flow from the imperatives of Islam. However there is considerable variation in actual laws and policies from one Muslim country/community to another. For example, across the Muslim world, policies on fertility regulation range from a total ban on contraception to forced abortion and sterilization, depending on the political interests that dominate at the moment. What is similar across the Muslim world is the use of Islam as justification of such dissimilar policies. In the present situation, when political forces and ideologies that have been labelled ‘fundamentalist’ are on the rise, governments - even when they restrict such forces in the struggle for political power - pander to them in matters relating to women. In the process, their different political interests collude with male interests in denying women’s human rights.”18

They have also pointed at all the good laws and practices that exist in different Muslim contexts that could and should be adopted in other Muslim contexts, without appearing to the tenants of cultural purity and nationalist isolationism as ‘importing alien mores’.

Commenting on the rise of the ‘religious’ extreme right, WLUML wrote:

“We fear that if we do not act, we may be subjected to a situation which will not necessarily be the worst but could certainly be worse than what we have today, where for instance:
  • unilateral and oral pronouncement of talaq (repudiation) would be legal, as currently exists in India;
  • women's rights to vote would be delegated to men, as was the case in Algeria for two years;
  • zina (adultery and fornication, any extra marital sex) would be punishable by stoning to death or public flogging and/or fine, and/or imprisonment, as is currently the case in Pakistan; further, women orally divorced by their husbands (therefore having no proof of their divorce), when they marry again, can be sentenced under zina;
  • zina bel jabr (rape) would require the “eye witness account of four male adult Muslim men of good repute” before the rapist could be given maximum punishment, as is currently the case in Pakistan;
  • women could be tried and executed for un-Islamic behaviour, for instance laughing in the streets and/or allowing a strand of hair to fall out of the hijab, as has happened in Iran;
  • robbery would be punished by amputation of limbs, as in Sudan and Saudi Arabia - women would be subjected to forcible contraception, abortion and sterilization, as in Bangladesh;
  • women would not have the right to drive, as in Saudi Arabia;
  • women would not be able to leave the country without the written permission of their fathers/husbands as in Iran and Saudi Arabia;
  • women would not have the right to vote, as in Kuwait;
  • women would be circumcised, as in Egypt, Somalia, and Sudan;
  • women would be forcibly given in marriage by their male guardians wali, as in communities governed by Maliki and Shafi schools;
  • etc …
“We emphasize that none of these laws exist in all Muslim countries, nor are they intrinsic to Islam.

“On the other hand, we would like all women to enjoy the following rights that exist in at least some Muslim countries:
  • the right to vote at all levels, as in most Muslim countries/communities;
  • the right to choose their own husbands as in countries governed by the Hanafi school;
  • the right to divorce, as in Tunisia;
  • the delegated right of divorce (talaq e tafweez) as in Pakistan and Bangladesh;
  • the right to a share of the marital property upon divorce, as in Malaysia;
  • the right to custody and guardianship of their children after divorce, as in Tunisia;
  • the right to the marital home at least till the children are adults, as in Libya;
  • the ban on polygamy, as in Tunisia;
  • the right for a wife to curtail second marriages, as in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Singapore, etc.”19
This strategy could not exist without a strong international linkage20 between women from Muslim countries and communities worldwide, without having raised consciousness about our commonalities and diversity; it would not exist without the clear internationalist understanding that we women have partie liée, that the rights we gain here are bound to positively affect women elsewhere, and that the rights we lose here may negatively affect women elsewhere. This is well illustrated by the post Iranian revolution spreading of their ugly form of veiling, including to those Muslim communities which had a completely different cultural dress code and would like to retain it, and by the recent attempts to spread FGM as a Muslim practice to several countries in Asia where it was unheard of. At a global level, the Cairo UN World Conference on Population gave a formidable example of the unholy alliance between the Vatican and El Azhar that tried to stop women’s demands for reproductive rights, contraception, and abortion. In this very case, it became clear that the curtailing of reproductive rights that women had recently faced in Poland, or in the ex-Democratic Republic of Germany, were indeed part of a concerted effort towards depriving women in Muslim contexts, and globally, of the same rights.21

This is why internationalist women strongly advocate for universal human rights. If indeed universalism, as it exists today, is generally highly criticized for its implicit ethnocentricism and leaning towards so-called ‘western values’, most women nevertheless recognize the need for, support the principle of, and work towards a new definition of universality in human rights. The massive presence of autonomous women’s rights organisations from Muslim countries and communities at the UN World Conference on Women attests to the fact that women see the urgent need not only for linkages within Muslim contexts but also with the global women’s movement. These groups are not to be confused with fundamentalist groups, also massively present in Beijing (it would be interesting to explore their sources of funding), or state sponsored organisations.

What is most impressive is the integration, inter-penetration, cross-fertilization, and finally the reciprocal reinforcement and mutual support of these various strategies.22 In most instances, far from being seen as contradictory or oppositional, they are perceived at best, as complementary and, at the very least, as non-antagonistic.23

The construction of Muslimness

This vision of the world is a far cry from the one sided vision of fundamentalists for whom ‘Islam’ is the only possible solution, and their interpretation of it the only one to be enforced, volens nolens, upon the world. For them, all struggles for women’s human rights, be they from within the frame of religion or from a secular perspective, are equally seen as betrayal. Betrayal of one’s religion: the monolithic Islam. Betrayal of one’s culture: the imaginary transnational Muslim culture. And betrayal of one’s community: the Umma. Women’s struggles for human rights are seen as dangerously divisive of the ‘Muslim world’.

However, if one can expect such an analysis from fundamentalists, the collusion of well meaning liberals and human rights advocates with fundamentalists’ ideology comes as a surprise. What is of most interest to me is the fact that amongst these three different but complementary strategies, only one is artificially isolated, getting the most attention, most funding, most recognition. It is seen as the only authentic one, the best for ‘Muslims’. Indeed, it is the strategy of religious interpretation. This should be of concern to all people who recognize the fascistic nature of fundamentalist movements and the fact that, in the context of globalization, these movements are on the rise everywhere in the world today. In the name of respect for the ‘other’s’ culture and religion, or for fear of being accused of racism - for those outside the Muslim contexts, for internalization of the notion of betrayal - for those who, in one way or another, identify with Islam, there is an undue reluctance to name and condemn violations of human rights in general, and more especially, of women’s human rights in Muslim countries and communities.

Moreover, there is reluctance to acknowledge the variety of strategies that women are using all over Muslim countries and communities, the need for this variety, their complementary and reciprocal character, and finally to admit to the legitimacy of them all. In short, while we claim our capacity to work as political equals, not only racists, but enlightened people and women’s allies too, feel that we should go for the most ‘Muslim’ possible strategy, excluding all other possibilities as alien to them.

This sends us back to the image of exoticism that is so often attached to so-called ‘Muslim women’. It seems that the sense of self and identity of those tenants of the exclusive religious strategy is shattered if and when the exotic creatures come too close to one, if we feel free to use strategies that they thought were theirs and theirs only. Is ‘The other’ so different, or so much the same? What are the frightening implications of sameness for oneself?24 By selecting one strategy, limiting the choice and imposing/denying their ‘Muslim’ identity to women who - in their own context, at a specific historical moment in time - decide for other strategies, one clearly refers to an imaginary, ahistorical, immutable image of the ‘Muslim woman’. Indeed, this contorts fundamentalists’ ideology and creates a dangerous political construct of ‘Muslimness’. Why is this construction so well received and accepted by such different sections of the political spectrum, indeed by almost everyone? The notion of difference can be manipulated from several points of view: from the point of view of racists, from the point of view of fundamentalists, from the point of view of migrants, and from the point of view of liberals and human rights defenders. But ultimately, culturalist differentialism and xenophilia, despite the individualistic liberalism of its proponents, exists in a vicious circle of complicity with xenophobic racism.25 For what is difference? Differences are produced by specific historical, geographical, and political circumstances. However, when isolated from their contexts, when essentialized and referred to as ‘nature’ - ahistorical and unchangeable, under whatever disguises they are presented, ‘differences’ feed into the ideology of racism. The promotion of difference has always been at the heart of racist agendas. It is because the ‘other’ is defined as different, radically different and ontologically different, that one ceases to even see its humanity, and finally classifies it as undermensch. Racists emphasize difference as Hitler, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the segregationists from the US South did. Right now, the extreme right in Europe has taken up the flag of difference, using it to argue against the possibility of ‘Muslims’ becoming citizens: ‘equal but different’.

It is not the place to debate here on the dialectical relationship of nature and culture. But, not surprisingly, in times when extreme right political forces are on the rise, there is an upsurge of ‘nature’ and biology, including in feminist theory and in science (recent emphasis on the genetic origin of homosexuality, for instance), and the cult of difference, rather than integration. ‘Communalisation’ (to use the South Asian concept) of the communities, rather than promoting the ‘melting pot’ (indeed so often a failure and a disillusion in practice) becomes the buzzword of human rights advocates.

May I presume that these thoughts cannot be distorted to the point that they would be equated to advocating for the eradication of cultural differences and their homogenisation through the adoption of the ‘western model’. I am only pointing at some of the consequences that the present political construction of a ‘natural otherness’, especially for so-called ‘Muslims’, has for women and for their human rights.

Difference presently benefits from a conjunction of interests which have given it a dangerous prominence. Failure to achieve equality leads to exaltation and tantalization of difference: politics of nostalgia of migrants bound together by being confronted with the same racism. For racists, social differences are seen as the inevitable product of natural differences and thus justify exclusion. Social scientists, ‘experts’, and politologists elaborate on ‘common sense’26 understandings of difference and give academic credentials to ‘immediate knowledge’.27 Hand in hand with racists and extreme right political parties, exploiting the inadequacy of social scientists’ methodologies and the naivety of liberals, fundamentalists exploit the momentum to further their agenda. Within the prevalent discourse of multiculturalism and multi-ethnicism in Europe and North America, Muslims are seen as sharing of a religion which has been dubbed a culture. Despite the fact that ‘Muslims’ live all over the planet, therefore in very different cultural set ups, despite that within one specific country, there are differences between those of rural and urban origin, rich and poor, educated and illiterate; religion is seen as over determining their socio-economic and ideological positions. Culturalist Islamism assumes a cohesive homogeneity which is by no means a reflection of the stunning diversity of social reality. Its fantasmatic ‘culture’ seems impenetrable to others’ cultures, to historical developments; unchangeable overtime, it is dead, rather than reflecting the living history of living people.

Liberals and human rights advocates follow this ideological line. In the name of respect of the ‘other’, respect of the ‘other’s’ culture, they promote cultural relativism. They want to redefine equality so that it fits difference. In the name of difference, they justify practices that, for themselves, would be considered barbaric. And they are not even yet sure, when concerned people, concerned women, challenge this imaginary culture, that they are not witnessing cultural treason and should not, hand in hand with fundamentalists, strongly object to it.

My favourite example has long been the Dutch Parliament’s debate on the opportunity to allow, on the soil of the Netherlands, the practice of FGM “for the concerned sections of the population.” However a very good example has recently been offered by a study on North African migrants in Belgium that led to propositions of law which, if adopted, - despite the fact that 100% of the women investigated unanimously protested against the conclusion (a protest acknowledged by the author and researcher) - would legally establish discrimination and inequality, on the one hand between men and women migrants, and on the other hand between them and the rest of the population in Belgium. The proposed legal measures will abolish - for these migrants and for them only - the rule of equality that is the basis of the Constitution, by adopting amendments inspired by some of the gender discriminatory laws or customs of their country of origin.28

One cannot help suggesting a few epistemological questions: who defines culture? Are women entitled to do so? Is citizenship restricted to men, elders, self-appointed ‘representatives of the community’, and vocal fundamentalists? Is culture immutable, and in that case, in which century are we deciding - in place of the concerned people - that it stopped evolving? Although the habit of secluding and isolating ‘savages’ and ‘primitives’ for the sake of preserving their authentic ‘otherness’ has officially lost its credentials, it seems that new forms of non-material reservations have come to gain legitimacy.

Are human rights today so totally depoliticized? I am not here using this term as in ‘politician politics’, but in the sense that ancient Greek philosophers gave it: a reflection which was also the duty of all citizens.

All opinions, all practices are not equally valid and respectable. Fundamentalism and fascism are not just another opinion. It is not ‘tolerable’, since tolerance nowadays seems to be seen as a cardinal virtue and the epitome of human rights, that Nazis physically eliminated unfits, communists, gypsies, homosexuals, and Jews; that Hindu fundamentalists sell audiocassettes by the millions calling for the murder of Muslims; that Afghan Taliban install gender apartheid; that Algerian fundamentalists cut the throats, the breasts, the genitals of women and invoke Islam to rape them, impregnate them, and force them to bear and produce ‘good Muslims’, just as the Serbs impregnated Bosnian women to force them to bear and produce the superior race.

For all these crimes are not accidental casualties of war, they are the logical consequences of ideologies which clearly, in the name of purity of the race or of the holy creed, intend to commit these crimes and justify even the intention of committing them - as the fatwas on Salman Rushdie and others, known and unknown citizens, amply prove.29

These opinions and ideologies are not just other views of life. Should they be voiced and relayed by Human Rights organisations in the name of freedom of speech, freedom of opinion? We have numerous examples, since the fundamentalist war against civilians started in Algeria30 of well-established Human Rights organisations giving a platform to fundamentalists, as if their crimes did not disqualify them from benefiting from such alliances. Human Rights organisations see them as victims of repression by states, which is the case at points when states are not negotiating the sharing of political power with them; but they ignore their main role as perpetrators and the magnitude of their crimes.31 Moreover, human rights organisations ignore the fact that fundamentalists’ ideology plans and justifies all these crimes, for they are only applying their - religious? - principles when stoning to death the adulterers and assassinating the unbelievers. The wonderful principle of freedom of speech was not meant to help propagate hatred, calls to murder, and views which are definitely against human rights. A frightful confusion between ends and formal means leads to encourage and support, in the name of freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and democracy, for the free expression and subsequent access to political power of the new Hitlers of our time.

At the end of a century that sees the re-emergence of old religions and new sects, as well as spirituality, in societies that have lost faith in transformation towards social justice; deceived and hopeless people turn to gods and values that many of us thought dead. At the end of a century that sees economic and political globalization threaten the very lives of people, one witnesses an unforeseen outcome of globalization: atomized, interchangeable individuals, fearing for their lives, instinctively regrouping with their kin in order to support each other. A North African saying summarizes this reaction: “Me against my brother; me and my brothers against my cousin; me, my brothers, and my cousins against my tribe; me, my brothers, my cousins, and my tribe against the other tribe in the next village...” The other side of globalization is the fragmentation of the people along the lines of religion, ethnicity, or culture.

This is the situation fundamentalisms build on and exploit. But is it not what all fascisms also build on? Human rights, with their counter goal of universalism, have to identify fundamentalisms as the greatest threat of the time.


1 A. Belhadj, Alger Républicain, 5 April 1991.
2 A. Belhadj, le Matin, 29 October 1989.
3 A. Belhadj, Horizons, 29 February 1989.
4 A. Madani, Algérie Actualité, 24 December 1989.
5 A. Belhadj, ‘Open letter to Mudjahidin’, 2 October 1994.
6 A. Haddam, Ennahar (Beyrouth, Liban), November 1994.
7 A. Haddam, el Tiempo (Madrid, Spain), 2 January 1995.
8 WLUML, Compilation of Information on Crimes of War Against Women in Ex-Yugoslavia: actions and initiatives in their defence (Grabels: WLUML, 1992).
9 ‘Statement by 15 Muslim scholars from India, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Morocco, the Sudan, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey’, Free Inquiry (USA), October 1997, reproduced in WLUML, Dossier 19 (Grabels: WLUML, 1997).
10 WLUML, Aramon Plan of Action, 1986.
11 A. Al-Azmeh, ‘Muslim culture and the European tribe’ in A. Al-Azmeh (ed), Islams and Modernities (London: Verso, 1993); and, an extended version, in WLUML, Dossier 19 (Grabels: WLUML, 1997).
12 WLUML, Aramon Plan of Action, 1986.
13 S. Bencheikh, Mariane et le Prophète: l’Islam dans la France laïque (Paris: Grasset, 1998) [English translation: “The Republic and the Prophet: Islam in secular France”].
14 M. Hélie-Lucas, ‘The Preferential symbol for Islamic identity: women in Muslim personal laws’, paper presented at the Round Table on Identity Politics, 8-10 October 1990; published in Valentine Moghadem (ed), Identity Politics and Women (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1993); and in WLUML, Dossier 11/12/13 (Grabels: WLUML, 1996).
15 M. Hélie-Lucas, ‘Women’s struggles and strategies in the rise of fundamentalism in the Muslim world: from entryism to internationalism’ in H. Afshar (ed), Women in the Middle East: perceptions, realities, and struggles for liberation (London: MacMillan, 1993), pp 206–241; and as Occasional Paper No 2 (Grabels: WLUML, 1990).
16 R. Hassan, ‘Selected articles’, in WLUML, Readers & Compilations Series (Grabels: WLUML, 1994).
17 WLUML, For Ourselves: women reading the Qur’an (Grabels: WLUML, 1997).
18 WLUML, ‘Statement to the Cairo UN World Conference on Population’ in WLUML, Women’s Reproductive Rights in Muslim Countries and Communities: issues and resources (Grabels: WLUML, 1994).
19 WLUML, Best Scenario / Worst Scenario (WLUML internal document, 1994).
20 M. Hélie-Lucas, ‘L’Internationalisme dans le mouvement des femmes: les réseaux internationaux de femmes’, as Occasional Paper No 4 (Grabels: WLUML, 1994).
21 L. Freedman, ‘The Challenges of fundamentalisms’, Reproductive Health Matters, No. 8, 1996, pp 55-69; and in WLUML, Dossier 19 (Grabels: WLUML, 1997).
22 F. Shaheed, ‘Controlled or autonomous: identity and the experience of the network Women Living Under Muslim Laws’, Signs, Vol. 19. No.4, Summer 1994.
23 On the concepts of complementarity and reciprocity in international solidarity, see M. Hélie-Lucas, Heart and Soul (WLUML internal document, 1997).
24 K. Malik, ‘The Perils of pluralism’, The Future (Index on Censorship, 1997); and in WLUML, Dossier 20 (Grabels: WLUML, 1997).
25 A. Al-Azmeh, ‘Muslim culture and the European tribe’ in A. Al-Azmeh (ed), Islams and Modernities (London: Verso, 1993); and, an extended version, in WLUML, Dossier 19 (Grabels: WLUML, 1997).
26 P. Bourdieu, Metier de Sociologue (Paris: Mouton and Bordas, 1968).
27 P. Bourdieu, Metier de Sociologue (Paris: Mouton and Bordas, 1968).
28 M. Claire Foblets, Femmes Marocaines et Conflits Familiaux en Immigration: quelles solutions juridiques appropriées? (Antwerpen: Maklu, 1998).
29 WLUML, Fatwas Against Women in Bangladesh (Grabels: WLUML, 1996).
30 WLUML, Algeria: a war against civilians (WLUML unpublished document, 1997).
31 M. Hélie-Lucas, ‘Fundamentalism and femicide’ in I. Lourdes Sajor (ed), Common Grounds: violence against women in war and armed conflict situations (Quezon City: Asian Center for Women’s Human Rights, 1998), pp 108-121.


A shorter version of this article was first published in: C. Howland (ed), Religious Fundamentalism and the Human Rights of Women (New York: St Martins Press, 1999).