Denny Pattyn is an American priest of a special kind. In 1996 in Arizona, he set up a programme by the name of the Silver Ring Thing with the aim of urging young Americans to refrain from sex before marriage, convincing them that it is fornication, and sinful. Pattyn regularly holds events attended by hundreds of young Americans who read the Bible with him and then pledge before the Lord to preserve their virginity for their future spouses. At the end of the celebration, each puts on their left hand a silver ring inscribed with Biblical verses, which they wear until they marry.
The surprising thing is that Pattyn’s campaign has won a large following in the US, and received funding from the government. On French television I saw a long programme about Pattyn in which his followers defended virginity as a measure of virtue. A French psychologist appeared to discuss their ideas respectfully.
I began to wonder: Pattyn’s ideas about chastity as a measure of virtue are completely in line with Arab Muslim culture, but yet on French TV they deal with him politely because he is American, Christian and white. If an Arab or Muslim had said the same thing, he would have faced a barrage of accusations that he was backward, barbaric and contemptuous of women.
This western double standard is widespread, and there are countless examples. Elections recently took place in Iran and the winner was President Ahmadinejad. But there were allegations of vote-rigging. Western governments were up in arms, issuing strongly worded statements in support of democracy in Iran.
Yet Egyptian elections have been rigged regularly for many years and President Mubarak has taken office through rigged referendums, so why hasn’t that provoked such anger? The outcry is not to promote democracy but rather to embarrass the Iranian regime, which is hostile towards Israel and trying to develop its nuclear capabilities, which are a threat to western imperialism. The Egyptian government, on the other hand, in spite of being despotic and corrupt, is obedient and tame, so the western media overlook its faults, however horrendous they might be.
When the young Iranian woman called Neda Soltan was shot by an unknown assailant, her death quickly became global headline news. Western politicians were so moved that even President Obama, close to tears, said that it was heartbreaking. A few weeks later in the German city of Dresden, an Egyptian woman called Marwa el-Sherbini was attending the trial of a man who racially abused her because she was wearing a hijab. Fined €2,800 for insulting her, the extremist then went on a rampage, attacking Marwa and her husband with a knife. Marwa died on the spot.
The murder of Marwa and the murder of Neda should be seen as crimes of equal barbarity and of equal impact. But the murder of the Egyptian woman in the hijab did not break Obama’s heart and did not receive front-page coverage in the west. The murder of Neda incriminates the Iranian regime, whereas the murder of Marwa shows that terrorism is not confined to Arabs and Muslims – a white German terrorist kills an innocent women and tries to kill her husband simply because she is Muslim and wears a hijab. The western media do not care to convey this message.
In short the west, politically and in the media, generally adopts points of view and policies that are hostile towards Arabs and Muslims. But are Arabs and Muslims merely the innocent victims of this prejudice? Definitely not. We cannot use “the west” as an exclusive term meaning only one thing. There are millions of ordinary westerners who neither love nor hate Islam, simply because they know nothing about it.
Now, what of the image that Muslims themselves convey of Islam? If an ordinary westerner decided to find out the truth about Islam through what Muslims do and say, what would he find? Osama bin Laden would look out at him, as though emerging from a medieval cave to announce that Islam ordered him to kill as many western crusaders as possible, even if they are innocent civilians who have done nothing to merit punishment. Then the westerner would read how the Taliban has decided to close girls’ schools, arguing that Islam bans the education of women on the grounds that they are as intellectually and religiously deficient.
After that, the westerner would read statements from those who call themselves Islamic jurists, saying that a Muslim who converts to another faith must repent or have his throat cut. Some jurists will assert that Islam does not recognise democracy and that it is a duty to obey a Muslim ruler even if he oppresses and robs his subjects. They will welcome women covering their faces with the niqab so that those who see them are not driven by sexual desire.
The westerner will not find out that Islam gave men and women completely equal rights and obligations. He will not find out that in the eyes of Islam if someone kills an innocent it is as if he has killed everyone. He will never find out that the niqab has nothing to do with Islam but is a custom that came to us with the money of the Gulf from a backward desert society. The westerner will never find out that the real message of Islam is freedom, justice and equality, and that it guarantees freedom of belief, in that those who wish may believe and those who do not, need not, and that democracy is essential to Islam, in that a Muslim ruler cannot take office without the consent and choice of Muslims. After all that, can we blame the westerner if he considers Islam the religion of backwardness and terrorism?
Last year, I had to make a speech in Austria about the reality of Islam. I told how the Prophet Muhammad was so mild-mannered that when he knelt down to pray his grandsons Hassan and Hussein would often jump on his back in play. He would stay kneeling so as not to disturb the boys and then he would resume his prayers. I asked the audience: “Can you imagine that a man who stopped praying for the sake of children would advocate killing and terrorising innocent people?”
Many listened to this story with interestand later asked me how they could obtain real information about Islam. It is true that the west’s policy treats us as colonial peoples who do not deserve to enjoy the rights of their citizens, and it is true that its media is mostly biased against Arabs and Muslims – but it is also true that the retrograde Wahhabi reading of Islam that is now widespread helps to entrench an unfair and mistaken image.
It is our duty to start with ourselves. We must save Islam from all the nonsense, falsehoods and retrograde ideas that have attached themselves to it. Democracy is the solution.
Alaa Al Aswany, the Arab world’s bestselling novelist.