Domestic violence: Moving beyond the slogans

For as long as I can remember, when faced with sensationalistic media coverage of terrorism that immediately blames Islam for the acts of Muslims, I have responded confidently that such connections are simplistic and untrue. With the 9/11 attacks, my religious identity became inextricably linked with my spokesperson self, and in recent years, I have found it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the spiritual and the controversial – to find the faith among social commentary.

I am sure the same can be said of many of us who are concerned about how Islam is handled by the media and perceived by the American public. In rushing to defend Islam, we often find our connection with Islam somehow reduced to soundbytes; Islam’s principles are simplified to convenient factual tidbits. Islam is a religion of peace, jihad is largely about the struggle for inner purification, Islam gave women their rights well before any other civilization did, and so on.

One favorite that I myself have used many times is “a religion cannot be judged solely on the misdeeds of its adherents.” We spokespeople try to distance Islam from the corruption and terrorism of some Muslims, insisting that the two cannot be conflated. Each time another Muslim commits a heinous crime and the media jumps on his/her Muslim-ness as an explanation for his/her actions, we spokespeople are quick to point out the logical fallacy of such an equation.

The task has become increasingly complicated as more and more Muslim criminals use Islam as their justification. Islam becomes part of the motive, and is itself put on trial—literally—in the case of prosecuted terrorists. Islam, as interpreted by some and colored by sociopolitical factors, can and has been used to motivate violence.

As of last week, it became even more complicated. Muzzammil Hassan, the founder of Bridges TV, a Muslim-interest network which aims “to foster a greater understanding among many cultures and diverse populations,” confessed to the police that he had beheaded his wife, Aasiya Zubair Hassan. As the news accounts go, Hassan walked to the police station after killing his wife and informed the police that his wife was dead. The police went to the Bridges TV headquarters to find Hassan’s wife lying decapitated in the hallway, having apparently died hours earlier. The potential motive? According to the victim’s lawyer, Hassan’s wife had recently filed for divorce after eight years of a physically abusive marriage.

The incident has shocked and horrified the community, and many commentators have rushed to again state that the acts of one crazed individual cannot represent an entire religion. There is no doubt that this statement is true. Regardless of whether Hassan was or was not a devout Muslim, his actions are not necessarily rooted in his religious beliefs. Emotions, mental illness, his baser self—all of these are surely at the root of his professed violence.

However, Hassan himself has complicated the Muslim vs. Islam distinction. Like many of us, he strove to be Islam’s spokesperson, and he did it in a much bigger and more public way. As founder of a TV channel devoted to dispelling stereotypes of Islam, he placed himself in a position of power and influence. He set himself out as a representative for Islam, and now that very act of representation will serve to conflate his actions with Islam.

At the very least, what do his actions say about the spokespeople for peaceful Islam? How credible are the soundbytes when the spokesperson himself does not act on them?

“A religion cannot not be judged solely on the misdeeds of its adherents – or of its spokespeople.” Fair enough, but the argument is beginning to feel a bit strained.

Further blurring the line between the actor and the religion is Hassan’s choice to kill his wife by beheading her, thus invoking images of a male master punishing a female for violating his orders. Indeed, the incident has already been labeled an honor killing by a number of commentators, some of whom are careful to distinguish between domestic violence and the largely Muslim phenomenon of honor killings. Not only did Hassan fail to serve as a spokesperson for peaceful Islam, he also helped fortify some of the most extreme stereotypes about the religion.

Beyond the slogans

While Bridges may have been founded to bridge the gap between East and West and help bring about cultural understanding, Hassan’s actions have made the road painfully longer and more tortuous. He has undermined the credibility of the very spokespeople who work to create a more positive image of Islam.

In exposing the hypocrisy of the spokesperson, though, Hassan’s actions serve as an urgent call to all of us spokespeople to step away from the soundbytes and begin to live our religion again. Constantly caught up in the social commentary—the debates and blogs and conferences and, yes, TV channels—we need to delve deeper and take more seriously the task of representing Islam through our actions and character rather than the slogans and clichés.

It seems that the call is being heard already. Imam Mohamed Hagmajid Ali, the Executive Director of the ADAMS Center and the Vice-President of ISNA, issued an open letter in response to the Hassan incident, urging “fellow imams and community leaders to never second-guess a woman who comes to [them] indicating that she feels her life to be in danger.” He points out that no woman in a healthy marriage would accuse her husband wrongfully, and that the credibility of her claims should thus never be doubted. Abused women should be given a safe haven, while the abusive spouses should be dealt with strongly and categorically. As the imam notes, “Our community needs to take strong stand against abusive spouses and we should not make it easy for them to remarry if they chose a path of abusive behavior.”

He goes on to say that young men should be taught that terror has no place in marriage, and young woman should be taught to never accept and keep silent about marital abuse. And “[n]o imam, mosque leader or social worker should suggest that [the abused woman] return to such a relationship and to be patient if she feels the relationship is abusive.”

The absolutism and specificity of the imam’s words makes his message a call to action rather than a mere pep talk. He is not merely a spokesperson; he is setting the parameters of appropriate action and communicating a zero tolerance policy for domestic abuse. The shift is a critical one.

I personally know of other women in the ADAMS Center community who have approached the imam for help with domestic abuse issues and hope to see the zero tolerance policy translated into similarly concrete action for them, just as Muslim leaders across the nation and the world need to do that for their communities. A national event has already been planned for the Friday sermon on February 20, 2009, where imams across the nation are being asked to make clear that domestic violence will not be tolerated in our communities.

The Hassan incident beckons these imams, and all of us spokespeople for Islam, to take the offensive rather than merely the defensive—to go beyond the soundbytes to criticize the wrongdoers among us and eradicate the source of abuse.

Asma T. Uddin is a Philadelphia attorney and the editor-in-chief of the forthcoming online newsmagazine Altmuslimah.

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