The Taleban has been closing girls’ schools in the northwest Swat district of Pakistan, and threatening to blow up schools which do not comply. Scores of schools have already been burned to the ground. This is a further putting-into-effect of the policies of Mullah Fazlullah, whose fundamentalist brand of Islam is propagated through the region via his illegal FM radio broadcasts. This ‘Mullah Radio’, as he is known, “has long been exhorting people to stop sending their daughters to schools, which ‘inculcate Western values’” (EarthTimes.org).
I’ve spent a few hours thinking over how to frame my response to these most recent crimes committed by the Taleban. Disgust is followed by a desire to act, but I am unsure what I could do from my Boston home that could keep safe any Pakistani teachers and students who want to continue their lessons despite the threats of these fanatics. What I’d like to do, at least, is to share my view of a root cause of such conflicts between “Western values” (the right of all children to an education, without regard to their gender) and Islam.
Mullah Radio can expect action when he declaims the Western brainwashing of Pakistani girls, because he has positioned himself effectively within the system of Muslim authority. In his whereabouts, moral authority derives from one’s scrupulous use of Koranic justification — really, interpretation — or at least from the perception that one is working out of that book. Humanism — and the gender equality which accompanies its more ideal manifestations — isn’t as attractive in the marketplace of ideals as revelatory religious traditions, which have claimed for their exclusive use the virtuous terminology of faithfulness: fidelity, truth, meaning, hope, charity. Until a humanism is articulated which somehow engages the latent cultural forces which associate credo with authority, the conflict between reasoning humanism and dogmatic institutions will be largely communicated through force, not communication. Western humanism has no seat at the table, in Pakistan or elsewhere, as long as adults continue to admit supernatural sources for moral claims. The moral claims of humanism (e.g., “all persons are created equal,” etc.) and the moral claims of theology (e.g., “Our way is the true way, as revealed to us exclusively by our Creator,” etc.) are simply incommensurable.
I don’t mean to suggest that religion need be eradicated before feminism can get girls in school throughout the world. Rather, I have a question: why must religion (the institution where communities pronounce, attempt to understand, and preserve their values) be supernatural? If there were a Church that could credibly command all the language of religion, as well as the right of religion to distinguish between right and wrong, then we would have an institution suitably equipped to oppose Mullah Radio.
Anyone who is freedom-loving, anti-fundamentalist, and interested in taking some kind of action, might start at http://www.rawa.org.
NB: This most recent incarnation of fundamentalist woman-hating is despicable… but unsurprising: Islam is not gender-equitable. However, some commentators are optimistic about making Islam compatible with a progressive feminism.