At the center of the media firestorm is an interesting woman, Daisy Khan, co-visionary of the proposed center. But, her vision and life work have been nearly invisible in recent media accounts. She has been categorized almost exclusively as “the Imam`s wife” and quoted because he`s out of the country. But, if one pushes aside the media`s smothering memes, one can easily find out more about Daisy Khan beyond her role as wife. Why has the mainstream media ignored so much about her life and achievements? It turns out she`s an interesting American woman struggling to build new institutions for women to reclaim voice and power.
Daisy Khan`s work is important – for America, for Islam, for Muslim women and for the women`s movement within the US and internationally. In an interfaith conversation at the Garrison Institute in 2009, Khan described her path to activism – especially to improve the condition of Muslim women. Khan said, “So, in 2006, I left my regular cushy job and dedicated myself to really looking at our community and seeing what needs to be done.” She convened a gathering of almost 200 Muslim women from 27 countries, out of which emerged the Women`s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE)– an organization which describes itself as a “grassroots social justice movement led by Muslim women” with the mission to build “a cohesive, global movement of Muslim women that will reclaim women’s rights in Islam, enabling them to make dignified choices and fully participate in creating just and flourishing societies”. In four years WISE has tackled an impressive range of issues affecting Muslim women internationally – including domestic and sexual violence, education, women`s rights in marriage / divorce / inheritance. Their current focus is a campaign against extremist violence in Islam. In a striking innovation they are developing the first ever training program for women to become a Muslim jurist (or mufiyyah) – qualified to interpret Muslim law and pronounce decisions (or fatwas). This program values modern scholarship (e.g., modern human rights law, theories of globalization), ecumenical exchange with Jewish / Christian and other traditions (it is hosted at the protestant Union Theological Seminary), and, is deeply rooted in the long and diverse traditions of Islamic scholarship and spirituality. As Daisy Khan said, “If you look at the landscape of the Muslim world there are more than 500 million Muslim women around the world and there was not a single institution that spoke for us. So, if we are not at the table, who is going to speak for us?”
Now this, I say, is truly newsworthy! What`s with U.S. media? Why don`t they ask Khan about what she`s doing, rather than parroting rightwing talking points? It`s important geopolitically that American Muslim women are innovating institutions like WISE. American stereotypes tend to see Muslim societies as unremittingly sexist. However, scholarship shows that historic patterns are complex and variegated. Women`s inequality has marked some Muslim-majority communities, but not others. Women tend to get oppressed under political economies dependent on herding, or agriculture with high inequality in landownership, or, marked by warfare (especially when combined with inequality, corruption and unequal patronage in access to natural resources) – whatever the religious culture. However, theologians such as Abdul Rauf affirm strongly that sexism is not inherent to Islam – and that vibrant themes of peace, equality and justice are central to Islamic practices and teachings. One would think that America would support such important strands within the lavishly diverse fabric of Islam. This kind of work could provide new fulcrums in dangerously balanced geopolitical forces.
It is striking, however, that almost nothing been said about the feminist challenge of Daisy Khan`s work and its importance. The Association for Women`s Rights in Development does have a brief, factual report. But I find little from other women`s organizations or feminist pundits to support Daisy Khan these days. This is strange because gender is everywhere in this drama--in the intricate mix of racism and sexism in Far Right attacks, and, in the centrality of feminism to Khan and her husband`s work. But, informing us about Kahn’s work just doesn’t fit the national script. There appear to be weird currents in the American collective unconscious that need to hold onto images of the subhuman, violent Muslim male – as the Great Enemy, the Total Other. Has our media landscape been highjacked by some strange collective psychodrama?
If Aristotle were around now, he`d be worried. He has some great writing about how a democracy mutates into tyranny. Lose your middle class (and we`re sure headed that way) and you have no buffer in democracy between arrogant elites and resentful masses. Then, the time ripens for demagogues brandishing empty symbols of democracy to whip the masses into a frenzied panic toward –well, whatever direction best serves hidden (or not so hidden) elite interests.
Hatred of Islam is the new engine of 21st century American demagoguery. And, new mutations of sexism are essential to it. There are two main mechanisms to collective hatred. First, you need symbolic devices to project negative qualities onto a scapegoat – who is then destroyed. Second, you need some magical image of social order that you wrap yourself in – to protect yourself from the contagion of social disorder that scapegoats carry. Women and women`s bodies often provide key symbols for both dramas. Take the horrific violence between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs when India and Pakistan were separating in 1947-48. Anthropologist Veena Das has powerfully documented how the two new nations purified self-images and scapegoated their Other – by means of sexualized imagery of this as a battle over women`s bodies. What`s weird about America these days, however, is the extent to which the Far Right is changing the sexual and racial imagery in the symbols of national self-purification and other-scapegoating. There has been a feminization of war partly because the lack of jobs has pushed so many women into the military. But, also, folks like Sarah Palin are creating new imagery of Warrior Mom-- a beast both man-eating and maternal. Her speech at the Glenn Beck rally on August 29, reminded me of the mother in ancient Sparta who gave her son a shield as he left for war, saying come back victorious, or come back on this, dead. That rally also downplayed old-style American racial scapegoating. No matter how white the crowd, the symbolism was all epluribusy—a multicultural medley of token racial others. This multicultural, post-sexist veneer can put a symbolic veil over growing elite dominance and inequality in this country – reminding us of Bertram Gross` fears of “friendly fascism”.
Islam is our current national scapegoat – so if we can understand the internal symbolic mechanisms of Islamaphobia, we can learn how to take it apart. One key linchpin is the American view of Muslim women. The feared “Islamist” scapegoat is stereotyped as male – it oscillates between the young male terrorist threatening mad violence, and, the old male patriarch Imam who imposes vile Islamic law. Increasingly, the feared contagion of runamuck Social Disorder is carried in terrifying images of Sharia –which, incredibly, many on the right believe threatens to take over America. Sharia in this mindset, is often symbolized as a patriarchal Imam`s who veils and controls women. The American stereotypic view of Islam needs, therefore, to keep Muslim women invisible. Note that the media talks the most about Muslim women right before a rush to war. It seems Muslim women appear when American men need to have someone to rescue, but quickly disappear behind a media veil after the fighting starts. Is this why we`ve seen only one side of Daisy Khan? Perhaps, the sight of strong, unveiled, free, eloquent Muslim women is like kyrptonite to Islamophobia. Would Islamophobic psychodramas just not work if they included mutually respectful, reasoning and gentle couples like Khan and her husband?
For me, Daisy Khan and Women`s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) are crucial parts of American repudiation of extremism as we turn away from the bread and circus of sensationalized scapegoats – to rebuild our nation in the wake of war, financial meltdown, globalization, and de-industrialization. Daisy Khan is an American hero, facing down vicious death threats, to reclaim the American democratic promise – and to build an American Islam that can be a beacon to the world of tolerance, love, women`s rights, and freedom of faith and assembly. Much is at stake in the current controversy over the proposed Islamic Center in Manhattan. It is important for progressive and feminist media to widen the debate beyond the mainstream media`s far too narrow frames.
Betsy Taylor is a cultural anthropologist, and co-author of Recovering the Commons: Democracy, Place and Global Justice. She can be reached at email@example.com