01 March 2006

Wednesday February 22, 2006
Khatami speaks
In the 1970s when Ayatollah Khomeini came into power in Iran, the world was presented with a vision of Islam that was dour and uncompromising. The Ayatollah never smiled, at least not in the media, his dull robes gave the impression that Islam disapproved of colour.
Iranian women suddenly covered themselves in black from head to foot, and thereon the image of the Muslim woman became embedded in the global imagination as inseparable from that of the Iranian woman. Not only that, it also became embedded in the minds of certain Muslims that that is what a Muslim woman should look like. As a result, Muslim women who don’t dress like that have had to suffer stereotyping ever since from both non-Muslims and Muslims.
The other stereotyping that has occurred is that Iranian mullahs are uniformly dour, dull, strict and dislike women. So it was an interesting revelation the other day when former President Khatami of Iran, in KL for a conference, asked to meet NGOs working on women and Islam issues. About 10 of us gathered to see him for the one-hour meeting. He asked us to introduce our work, and ourselves, and then he spoke and answered questions.
The first impression of Khatami is that he is not dour. A man with kind eyes, he displayed a warmth and sense of humour that one doesn’t expect from religious men. That he wanted to know what was going with Muslim women in Malaysia was already a surprise. But certainly we welcomed the opportunity to inform him and seek his opinion.
Khatami was indeed a surprise in several ways. For one, his view on Islam is more progressive than one would expect. He thinks that for Islamic societies to progress, we must have education and science and technology. But for this to happen, we must have democracy. And to have democracy, we must have freedom of thought and women’s rights.
“There are some traditionalist views which are not related to Islam which have taken on incorrect Islamic views...the best way to counter these views is to encourage women’s presence in society,” he said.
He stressed that countries must have democratic forms of government. Otherwise no wealth or science and technology is achieved or will not last long. “The most important need for Islamic countries is to achieve democratic governments and then acquire science and technology,” he argued.
However, there are particular difficulties in Islamic countries. Firstly, there exist traditional views and thoughts which have taken on an “Islamic” exterior and that includes “discrimination, depriving women of rights and regarding men as superior.”
This has resulted in two injustices, “the injustice to women and other weaker classes, and the injustice to Islam itself by saying that the first injustice is Islamic.” (Could we have been forgiven for wishing at that moment that various politicians and religious officials had been there to hear this?)
Khatami said that our most important duty is to solve the paradox of promoting women’s growth while keeping families strong. But we must provide the grounds for the education and “intellectual effort” of women “so that they can defend their own rights.” And he is putting his money where his mouth is by establishing the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue in Geneva that has three women trustees, “because it is not possible to have dialogue without women.”
Not only were his views on women progressive, even his views of religion in society were quite surprising. He believes that religion should not be based on static principles because “with time and changing questions and equations, these principles will lose effectiveness. Therefore we must change the principles.... If we insist on these principles, then Islam will fail.”
Now how radical is that? Not that he was saying that religion had no place, but that it “is not important for religion to intervene in the social life of people.” What was more important was how religion could be read in a way that it offers new thoughts in approaching current problems. If not, “this will lead to the destruction of society. If things are imposed in the name of religion, then this will cause people to dislike religion.”
For people to like religion, even for religion’s own survival, Khatami thought that we must have freedom of thought. We must have the ability to think for ourselves. “Where religion and freedom of thought have confronted each other, both have suffered. But if we read religion as conforming to (the idea of) freedom of thought, then freedom will ensure that religion will not become regressive. If we have an interpretation of religion in favour of freedom, then we will be able to achieve much. Otherwise religion will be wiped out of social life.” Hear that, those who like to ban books?
Khatami came into power in Iran because of his progressive views. Unfortunately he was not able to deliver on them, not least because the traditional forces against him were still very strong. Which is the tragedy of the Islamic world really, that even in a supposedly modern country like ours, the backward have the upper hand.