Rationalizing Muslim Domestic Violence in Australia

According to academic Samina Yasmeen, Islamic women endure greater rates of domestic assault at the hands of their husbands because … yes, you guessed it … ‘Islamophobia’ drives them to such fits of impotent rage that many simply can’t resist lashing out at the easiest targets

ISLAMIC MISOGYNY

Forget that Muslim men must be held accountable for domestic violence against their female partners. Forget even what a notorious Muslim cleric from Melbourne stated about males having a religious right to hit and force sex upon their disobedient wives.[1] Apparently, according to a Muslim academic based in Western Australia, violence by Muslim men against their wives is primarily caused by a form of “Islamophobia” consisting in a ‘disproportionate negativity towards Muslims when compared to Australian attitudes towards other religions including Buddhism and Christianity’.[2]
Academic and Irrational

Samina Yasmeen is director of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies and lectures in Political Science and International Relations in the School of Social and Cultural Studies, the University of Western Australia. This specialist in “political Islam” and “citizenship among immigrant Muslim women”, apparently believes that male-perpetrated domestic violence in the Australian Muslim community is not entirely the perpetrators’ fault. Instead, in an article entitled ‘Australian Muslim Women and Islamophobia’ this Muslim academic contends that such a violence is associated with the ‘Islamophobic’ attitudes of the Australian people and resulting ‘negativity towards Islam and Muslims … [that] limits the capacity [of Muslim men] to be gainfully employed’.[3] I do not wish to be accused of distorting her words, so it is better for me to quote her directly:

Australian Muslim women experience both indirect and direct consequences of this creeping Islamophobia … But the negativity towards Islam and Muslims limits their capacity to be gainfully employed … [and] the inability to get a job or to secure a job … causes depression among men with an adverse impact on women as well … In extreme cases, it also increases the incidence of male-perpetrated domestic violence. In less extreme cases, the sense of powerlessness linked to employment difficulties prompts men to assume a more authoritarian and restrictive approach vis-à-vis women in their families who are put under pressure not to engage with the wider community.[4]

An Excuse for Male-perpetrated Domestic Violence

Please correct me if I am mistaken to assume that this amounts to an excuse of male-perpetrated domestic violence in Muslim families. Such a negativity towards Islam in Australia, she says, provokes ‘depression among [Muslim] men’ to such a level that it ‘increases the incidence of male-perpetrated domestic violence’. In less extreme cases, of course, she thinks that the sense of powerlessness of Muslim men makes them authoritarian and restrictive towards women in their families[5]  In sum, she assumes that domestic violence is a result of the lack of a sense of self-worth and empowerment by the Muslim men in society. It is therefore our fault that such Muslim man physically and emotionally abuses their wives, because, in the eyes of this influential Muslim academic, our ‘Islamophobic’ society has ultimately failed to empower the abuser and to persuade him that violently attacking his wife is not necessarily a good thing to express his grievances against our democratic society. [6]

To be fair, Yasmeen acknowledges that such a negativity ‘is directly linked to the identification of Islam as a source and cause of terrorism’.[7] She complains none the less that the negativity towards Islam ‘has not subsided in the years since the 9/11 attacks. Instead, with each subsequent [Islamic] terrorist attack – especially those in London (2005), the Sydney Siege (2014), Paris (2015), and san Bernadino (2015), Australian Muslims have been exposed to greater negativity’.[8] Above all, she expresses a deep concern that that only a small proportion of Australians are negative towards Christian and Buddhist faiths, but a much large proportion apparently are negative towards the Islamic faith. In the words of Professor Yasmeen herself,

Australian Muslim women experience their lives as citizens against rising negative attitudes towards Muslims, and have been subjected to both indirect and direct effects of Islamophobia. The Scanlon Foundation (Dunn et a. 2015) has … drawn attention to the disproportionate negativity towards Muslims when compared to Australian attitudes towards other religions including Buddhism and Christianity. It reported that: “questions on attitude to Christian, Buddhist and Muslim faith groups [found], as in past surveys, [that] a very small proportion are negative towards Christian and Buddhist faiths (close to 5%), but a proportion almost five times higher (close to 25%) towards Muslims … The Australian situation could best be described as one of creeping Islamophobia yet not one where negativity is pervasive in the wider Australian community towards Muslims and Islam.[9]

Professor Yasmeen defines “Islamophobia” in terms of an unreasonable ‘fear of Muslims and the Islamic faith’.[10]  I wonder if she ever contemplates the possibility that such a “fear” may be associated with the constant terrorist acts claimed by those who profess a more serious commitment to her religion. Besides, you do not hear so often about terrorism committed by Christians. According to her, the primary reason for “creeping Islamophobia” in Australia is not terrorism but rather the bigoted attitudes of the Australian people, including our federal politicians.

Although she openly praises Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for his enthusiastic support of the Islamic religion and culture[11], she goes on to accuse former Prime Minister Tony Abbott of “Islamophobia” for allegedly expressing doubts about the Muslims’ true opposition to terrorism, when he stated: ‘I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a “religion of peace”. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it’.[12]

A Rational Response to the Irrationality

Ironically, what Mr Abbott says is absolutely correct. In Shari’a Law in the West (CUP, 2010), a seminal book edited by eminent law professors Rex Ahdar and Nicholas Aroney, these leading academics in the field explain that, indeed, ‘[s]ince September 11, 2001, governments eagerly awaiting firm denunciation by Muslim community spokesmen of … terrorist attacks have been consistently disappointed. … The extent to which this silence represents tacit acquiescence and support for the radicals remains a moot point.”[13] Furthermore, writes the American journalist and senior editor at The Weekly Standard, Christopher Caldwell, ‘condemnation of terrorism [by Muslim leaders] has never been frequent or full-throated enough to assure their fellow citizens. There was a collective test of loyalty. Muslims, for the most part, failed it.’[14]

As noted, Yasmeen describes the situation of Australia as one of “creeping Islamophobia” because she thinks there is a pervasive negativity in the wider community towards Muslims and Islam. Perhaps it might be a good idea to explain why this might be happening and Dr Abdullah Saeed may explain this rather authoritatively. He is Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, and convincingly argues that, broadly speaking, Muslim views of Australia comprise three different categories.

First, there are Australian Muslims who completely reject any compliance with the law of the land, reasoning that ‘a Muslim cannot be bound by a national constitution that allows interest, alcohol, and [any] other behaviour which contradicts Islamic teachings’.[15] Second, there are Muslims who are ‘undecided as to whether they want to be full members of Western societies’. Such people are reluctant to recognise any law that violates Sharia.[16] Finally, there are Muslims in this country who are happy to live here because they assume that the legal system is already “Islamic” enough, insofar as it now accepts Islamic notions of justice and morality, and it allows them to exercise their religious duties according to the Islamic law.[17] Fortunately, Dr Saeed says the majority of Australian Muslims fall into the third category; that is, they think that Australia’s ‘secular law’ can be tolerated because ‘the law of the land supports [Islamic] notions of justice […] and allows Muslims religious freedom to practice their fundamental beliefs’.[18] The Australian media and politicians refer to such people as “moderate Muslims”. Nonetheless, as Daniel Pipes, a respected expert on Islamist ideology and President of the Middle East Forum, pointed out:

Muslims present a disproportionally large source of problems, as becomes clear when they are compared with Hindu immigrants, who are roughly the same in number but generally fit quietly into the West. Violence is the headline topic relating to Muslims, whether it’s large-scale plots (Paris) or sudden jihad syndrome lone wolves (San Bernardino), but violence is hardly the whole problem. Muslim hostility towards non-Muslims takes many other forms such as teaching Islamic supremacism in mosques, spewing anti-Semitism in the streets and threatening anyone who dares to publicly criticise Islam. Issues concerning women include female genital mutilation, honour killings, polygamy and forced marriages, Islamic mores leading to strong antipathies against seeing-eye dogs, mixed swimming pool, and homosexuals.[19]

And if Australians are really “Islamophobic” as Professor Yasmeen says, how then would she describe the negativity towards non-Muslims in the vast majority of  Muslim-majority countries,  where a considerable segment of the population even express the willingness to assassinate Christians, Buddhist and Jews? In Indonesia, for example, a 2004 survey by The Jakarta Post and Associated Pressreveals a disturbing support for the killing of “infidels”.  Although 59% of respondents disagreed with the attacks carried out in Bali, still 16% supported those attacks’ and a further 25% ‘did not have an opinion’. [20] Since Indonesia’s population is around 250 million, of whom 85% (say, 200 million) are Muslims, this means that, apparently, about 30 million Indonesians support the Bali bombings and other acts of Islamic terrorism.[21]

BRIAN GRIM is senior researcher in religion and world affairs at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington/DC. Roger Finke is a Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at The Pennsylvania State University and a former President of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. In The Price of Freedom Denied (2011), they carefully examine the face of resurgent religious fundamentalism and debate about the place of religion in the world. Perhaps the most revealing finding in the book is that, in majority-Muslim countries, religious persecution is reported in 100%.[22] According to them, ‘religious persecution is not only more prevalent in Muslim-majority countries, but it also generally occurs at a more severe level’.[23]

But Yasmeen appears to be sincerely concerned about the “sense of exclusion” among Muslims in our democratic society, ‘of being second-class citizens who are not necessarily protected by the state agencies’. In particular, she claims that Muslim women in Australia are constantly ‘harassed in public spaces’, although she also confesses that these women have never actually ‘reported the incidents to police and instead, restricted themselves to sharing their experiences with family and friends’.[24]

A Need to Shift Focus to the Appalling Treatment of Women in the Islamic World

Instead of focusing her study on the perceived feelings of Australian Muslim women, I strongly advise such an academic to concentrate all her efforts on the appalling treatment of women in the Islamic world. Naturally, it would not be an overstatement to call women living in some of the countries of the Islamic world as third-rate citizens. This is actually to elevate their present social status. In some countries of the Middle East, for example, about half of all Arab women are still illiterate and honour killings (the killing of women who “shame” their family) remain a common practice.

Although Sharia controls every single aspect of the life of a Muslim, it clearly discriminates against women in a variety of detrimental ways. For example, the testimony of women in a court is worth only half of a man’s (Surah II.282); women will inherit only half of what men do (IV.11); wives may be beaten by their husbands (IV.34); and Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslims (II.221). According to law professor John W Montgomery, the Quoran even dictates that “men are superior to women, owing to the qualities which Allah has elevated the former over the latter” (IV, 38). He explains also that there is an important debate in Islamic jurisprudence as to whether women can even enter Paradise.[25]

Worst still is the practice of female genital mutilation, which involves amputating the whole clitoris and sometimes even the entire vulva.  The most common source of justification for such a practice is the Sunnah, which records a certain debate between Mohammed and a woman who was a “circumciser” of female slaves. He asks if she was still practising genital mutilation, to which she replies: ‘Yes, unless you forbid it’. Mohammed answers: ‘It is allowed. Come closer so that I can teach you: if you cut, do not overdo it, because it brings more radiance to the face and it is more pleasant for the husband’.[26] In Southeast Asia female genital mutilation is not indigenous but it was imported with Islam. It is a practice entirely limited to the Muslim population in Indonesia and Malaysia; a Muslim rite and with no other group involved. In Guidelines for Health Care According to Islamic Law, an Indonesian book published in 1956, one reads the following instruction:

Therefore, circumcision among Muslim female children involves cutting the praeputium clitordis, sometimes the clitoris itself or the labia minora. The child lies flat on her back, lifts up her knees and straddles her legs widely …  After some words of prayers, the clitoris is cut with a pair of scissors or a small knife, as closely as possible along this boundary. It if it cut by a knife, a slice of Rhisom (turmeric) is placed as a base between the knife blade and the clitoris.[27]

Unfortunately, apparently it is also “Islamophobic” to criticise these religious practices and assume that some Muslim women are accorded an inferior status within the Islamic faith. Professor Yasmeen deeply criticises the assumption that Muslim woman should ever be “protected” or “liberated” of religious oppression.[28] Senator Cori Bernardi, for instance, has been accused of Islamophobia for simply identifying the appalling Burqa as a symbol of oppression of Muslim women (Bernardi 2010)’.[29]

And even some female Parliamentarians are not spared from the accusation of Islamophobia. Former West Australian Minister for Women’s Interest Robyn McSweeney is apparently “Islamophobic” for just thinking that the burqa is a “confronting” garment. And Senator Michaela Cash is also “Islamophobic”, according to this Muslim academic, because she dared to argue the burqa might reflect ‘a lack of freedom for Muslim women’.[30] Apropos, a 42-year old woman from Iran has just been reportedly charged with “inciting corruption and prostitution” and sentenced to 20-years in prison after she removed her Islamic headscarf in public. The Islamic dress code, in place since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, considers veiling obligatory for any female above 13 and says women must cover themselves from head to toe, while disavowing any figure-hugging clothes.[31]

Despite such gross violations of women’s rights in the Islamic world, Professor Yasmeen complains about ‘the excessive focus among the critics of Islam on how Muslim men treat women, and equating Muslim womanhood with victimhood and supposedly repressive – as well as retrogressive – tendencies in Islam’.[32] Such a concern, of course, is not extended to the misogynist attitudes of Muslim men, particularly when they are free from the moral constraints of living in a Western society where everybody must be treated equally before the law and be respectful of human rights for all, including women and children.

But I also notice that Yasmeen is a proud member of the Council for Multicultural Australia. She has been commissioned by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) and the Office of Multicultural Interests, Government of Western Australia, as part of the National Action Plan. According to her, multicultural policies constitute an important measure to combat our “creeping Islamophobia”, including ‘among sections of governmental institutions at state and national levels’. Such an “Islamophobia” is apparently so pervasive that it happens to be manifested even through the actions of our federal government, in particular the government led by Liberal Prime Minister John Howard (1993-2007), which Professor Yasmeen outrageously accuses of “Islamophobia” for having ‘implicitly “othered” Muslims in its efforts to combat the flow of asylum seekers by boat’.[33]

Have young Muslim girls in our Western societies benefited from the multicultural policies advocated by such a Muslim academic? In “multicultural” Britain, for example, it does not appear so, with hospitals reporting an average 15 cases of female genital mutilation each day, although apparently there have been no successful prosecutions despite the practice being illegal since 1984.[34]  Given such a multicultural environment it is no wonder certain ‘cultural excuses’ have become a common strategy of litigation in the criminal cases involving Muslim male domestic violence against women. These criminal cases relate to Islamic misogynistic practices such as honour killings, forced marriage, and polygamy. In such cases the notion of ‘cultural defence’ has been successfully applied to excuse (1) the kidnap and rape of women by men who claim that such actions are part of their cultural practice; and (2) wife murder by Muslim immigrants from Asian and Middle Eastern countries whose wives have either committed adultery or treated their husbands ‘inappropriately’.[35] These cases involve criminal defences where perpetrators allege that in the Islamic culture women are not of equal worth, but subordinated to men socially, sexually and domestically.[36] In each of these cases expert testimony concerning the religious background of the male abuser has resulted in either dropped or considerably reduced sentences.[37]

WHERE are the multiculturalists on this and other issues pertaining to such gross violation of women’s rights? Apparently there is for such multiculturalists a whole hierarchy of ‘correctness’ and the notion of ‘cultural diversity’ trumps the fundamental rights of women.[38] Of course, such ‘cultural defences’ reveal a tacit consent to the substantial power imbalance between men and women in the Islamic faith, thus revealing also that securing ‘cultural diversity’ and preserving the basic rights of women can become competing principles that might have to be traded off against each other from time to time. As Ibn Warraq correctly points out,

Multiculturalism often ends up providing cover for the most reactionary beliefs and practices of other cultures, rather than encouraging the more liberal strands to develop. An attentive ear is given mostly to the community elders and traditionalists, who often are the least educated and most determined to preserve their power in the status quo. Thus we essentially defend the most oppressive believes and practices of a minority culture, ignoring the denial of rights to its women or children.[39]

This is why supporters of multicultural policy, such as Professor Yasmeen, may be fairly accused of downplaying the importance of human rights and equality before the law for all, including Muslim women.[40] In ‘multicultural’ Britain, however, almost 4,000 cases of female genital mutilation were reported in 2014, and more than 11,000 cases of so-called “honour-based violence” were reported between 2009 and 2014.[41] Such a terrible situation is made even more disturbing after well-known research on domestic violence, carried out in the 1990s, found that British women married to Muslim men are eight times more likely to be killed by their spouses than any other married women. Nonetheless, as noted by the Australian-American journalist and novelist Geraldine Brooks AO,

Presented with statistics on violence towards women, or facing the furore over the Rushdie fatwa […] Muslims […] ask us to blame a wide range of villains: colonial history, the bitterness of immigrant experience, Bedouin tradition, pre-Islamic African culture. Yet when the Koran sanctions wife beating and the execution of apostates, it can’t be entirely exonerated for an epidemic of wife slayings and death sentences on authors. In the end, what they […] are proposing is as artificial an exercise as that proposed by the Marxists who used to argue that socialism in its pure form should not be maligned and rejected because of the deficiencies of ‘actually existing socialism’. At some point, every religion, especially one that purports to encompass a complete way of life and system of government, has to be called to account for the kind of life it offers the people in the lands where it predominates. [42]

Maybe Professor Yasmeen should talk a whole lot more about Muslim men controlling their own violent and misogynistic urges but that would involve contradicting her “holy” book. At some point, she will have to recognise that belief in a totalitarian religion that purports to encompass a complete way of life (and system of government), makes the adherents of such a religion have much more difficulty deflecting full responsibility for their wrongdoings and misbehaviours, and not only against Muslim women but also against our community at large. Above all, there should be no compromise or excuse to behaviour that objectively constitutes a gross violation of fundamental human rights. Regrettably, to accuse our country of Islamophobic is to offend our tolerant people and to shift responsibility from individuals who are misogynistic and violent even towards their own women and children in their families. This is simply not acceptable!

Dr Augusto Zimmermann LLB (Hon.), LLM cum laude, PhD (Mon.) is a Distinguished Fellow at Salt & Light Global. He is Professor of Law at Sheridan College in Perth, Western Australia, and Professor of Law (Adjunct) at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney campus. Dr Zimmermann is also President of the Western Australian Legal Theory Association (WALTA), Editor-in-Chief of The Western Australian Jurist law journal, and a former Commissioner with the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia (2012-2017). He is the recipient of the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research, Murdoch University (2012)