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Can We Preserve Religious Freedom and Diversity as Muslims Fight Muslims?

08/14/2014 07:11 pm ET | Updated Oct 14, 2014

President Obama steps up to the plate: He thwarts the genocide. He rescues Erbil, supplying the Kurdish capital with air dropped food and water for the Iraqis fleeing the "genocide" imposed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The President responded to the plight of thousands of homeless people in the mountains, who had nothing but the clothes on their backs.

What's this all really about? Thomas Friedman writes, "this is becoming a religious conflict." He quotes the Lebanese historian Kemal Salibi who says, "the region is going back to tribalism, as if a century of intellectual awakening and secular ideas are being erased and our identities are evaporating."

Friedman is astute when he says: "This is crunch time." Either the moderates collaborate or the zealots take over; take your pick.

In my mind, Nicholas Kristoff nails it when he references a Christian woman being lashed 100 times for refusing to relinquish her Christian faith. He writes: "Many Islam haters consider this faith as a malignant religion of violence while politically correct liberals are reluctant to comment for fear of feeding bigotry." Kristoff looks at Islam through a historical lens in 628 when Prophet Muhammad issued an ordinance to protect the monks of St. Catherine's Monastery. The Prophet went on to protect the right of a Christian woman to give her approval in marrying a Muslim who could not prevent her from praying in her church. The Islam of my youth in India which was spiritual, low key and intensely personal has been hijacked by today's fundamentalists and the price is outrageously high.

Growing up in India, the various Muslim sects were a potpourri and we could hardly distinguish between the Barelvis, the Ahmadis and the Shias -- all under a large Muslim canopy. Today this canopy of Islam which has endured for many centuries is being splintered by sectarianism. In many countries religious tolerance of differences is waning, even as Islam is becoming both more factionalized and more politicized. What Muslims need to rediscover is what really binds us: I believe, it is our common spirituality both with fellow Muslims and with humanity at large.

A PEW Research Center study found Muslim and Christian victims of violence in equal numbers but with a critical difference: Kristoff highlights that some of the worst violence takes place in Muslim-dominated countries -- with Pakistan targeting Shiites and the Ahmadis who can be arrested for simply saying "peace be upon you." And yet, Kristoff reminds us of a historical fact: Pakistan's first foreign minister was an Ahmadi and that is inconceivable in today's Pakistan.

As tribalism and politicization of religion gain ground with Sunni Muslims at odds with other Muslim sects, not only are Muslims attacked and displaced, their lives are at risk.

As I look around me for hope in today's embattled world, the one thing I hold onto in my Islam is a concept, Women's Islam, which Leila Ahmed, now a professor at Harvard Divinity School, articulated in her book, A Border Passage: From Cairo to America--A Woman's Journey.

I was desperately seeking solace in my faith after 9/11 and I returned to A Border Passage, in which Leila Ahmed explains her conception of Women's Islam which gave me hope, solace and re-affirmation of my faith. Leila Ahmed writes: "And the women had too, I now believe, their own understanding of Islam, an understanding that was different from men's Islam".

She continues:

"Islam as I got it from them was gentle, pacifist, somewhat mystical, just as they themselves were. My mother's pacifism was entirely of a piece with their sense of religion... Being Muslim was believing in a world in which life was meaningful... Religion was about inner things. What was important was how you conducted yourself, how you were in yourself and in your attitude towards others and in your heart."


In a nutshell, Ahmed delineates the differences between Men's Islam and Women's Islam. Women's Islam is un-official, aural and a way of being while men's Islam is official and textual; Women's Islam is fluid, Men's is rigid; Women's Islam is practiced via a direct relationship with God and a rich spiritual life and key words in the women's vocabulary are mercy, justice, peace, compassion, humanity, fairness, truth, kindness and ethics. Men's Islam is rigid and led by mullahs, mosques and madrasas.

The key words that guide women are left out of Men's Islam where men are supposed to be superior and have dominion over women. Women were relegated to the home and as caretakers of their children; men were more in the public domain as bread winners, professionals in religious, public and political spheres. While women lived in the spirit and essence of Islam, men were guided more by medieval, authoritative Islam.

In the turmoil of our world, what's at stake? Religious freedom. What's required? Religious tolerance. The world at war results in a high death toll and a profound instability. The loss of family, dislocation and disempowerment drowns us. We need a new model for rapprochement. Let's think together.

Shahnaz Chinoy Taplin, board president of Invest in Muslim Women, a non-profit project of the Global Fund for Women. Invest in Muslim Women focuses on the economic empowerment of Muslim women, justice and peace.