This talk was delivered by Nakita Valerio on March 18, 2017 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as part of the interfaith event, Religious Freedoms: A Community Conversation.

Assalamu ‘alaikum, peace be upon all of you.

I want to thank you all for having me here today, especially the organizers for putting together this wonderful day and program.  I want to begin by acknowledging that we are on Treaty 6 territory which is the traditional land of Indigenous peoples who have lived, gathered and passed through here for many thousands of years. In doing this, I want to convey my utmost respect for the dignified histories, languages and cultures of all First Peoples of Canada and reiterate that each and every one of us is a treaty person whether we arrived yesterday, are indigenous to the land, or were born here from settler-immigrant families. We all have a responsibility to uphold treaty values which include mutual respect and working to ensure we all remain here together.

I normally begin all of my lectures with treaty recognition but today it is especially important as I want to start my talk on religious freedoms by reading an excerpt from a different treaty – one written in the year 713, two years after the Muslim arrival from North Africa into what would be Al-Andalus – a Muslim polity in Europe for 750 years, and what is now known as Spain and Portugal. The Treaty of Tudmir was a peace treaty between ‘Abd al Aziz, the son of Musa ibn Nusair and Theodemir, the local ruler of an area called Murcia. The document is interesting because it counters the narrative that violent military victories are what enabled the conquest of the peninsula. In fact, it calls the entire notion of conquest into question as it suggests that the process of taking over the peninsula was gradual and piecemeal and required mutual respect and cooperation between incoming Muslims and their Christian and Jewish subjects. The treaty itself establishes the local religious communities as protected groups under Muslim rule, meaning a guarantee of their personal safety and allowing them to freely practice their religion in exchange for loyalty and (of course) becoming tax payers.

My point in bringing this treaty as an example is to show several things. Firstly, the idea of and anxieties about religious freedom go a lot further back into history than we think. And secondly, the very preoccupation with religious freedoms has historically been related to Muslim-Christian relations and how to navigate and negotiate our differences throughout our shared history together.

The Treaty of Tudmir is only one paragraph long, in which Abd al Aziz ibn Musa Ibn Nusair agrees not to set special conditions on the local Christians, nor harass them, nor remove them from local power. Christians would not be killed nor taken prisoner and they certainly wouldn’t be separated from their women and children (which was common practice in pre-Islamic conquests). Most importantly, the treaty notes that Christians and Jews “will not be coerced in matters of religion, their churches will not be burned, nor will sacred objects be taken from the realm.”

Much of this sentiment derives from the Qur’an itself, the Islamic Holy Book, believed by Muslims the world over to be the direct word of God, passed through the Angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) during the 7th century. Chapter 2, verse 256 of the Qur’an clearly states: “There is no compulsion where the religion is concerned.”

According to Islam, everyone has the right to live freely by his beliefs, whatever they may be. Anyone who wants to support a church, a synagogue or a mosque must be free to do so. In this sense, freedom of religion is one of the basic tenets of Islam, whether or not Muslim have been or are currently very good at implementing that.

So, if this has been a continuous preoccupation with religious freedom in Islam, being the most recent of the Abrahamic faiths, where do many of the modern problems concerning religious freedom come from then? Why are Muslims constantly in the news, particularly in secularized European and North American countries, and especially as it relates to their rights to worship, to build mosques, to pray and other rather simple aspects of Muslim life? Why are Muslim women, like me, constantly hearing about how our veils (worn freely for the sake of worshiping God through our modesty) are incompatible with things like Canadian values? When speaking of catastrophic refugee crises, why have many nations including America and at one point Canada, prioritized Christian refugees over Muslim ones because the latter seem incompatible with North American life? (leaving aside, of course, more important questions about the right to life and safety for these traumatized people fleeing terrible horror and tragedy) Why are these tensions continuously arising between Muslims and Christians? And more often and especially between Muslims and secular institutions?

The problem for me is an issue of translation and definition. Our ideas of religious freedom hinges on and differ based on how we define religion. In the verse of the Holy Qur’an that I quoted, about there being no compulsion in religion, I must note the term that God uses to refer to what we now call religion. In the original Arabic, which the Qur’an was sent down in, the term we now, in my opinion, improperly translate as religion is: Deen and this is largely where the issues stem from.

Deen is not the same thing as the current societal understanding of religion. Both of these terms have their historical geneaologies and both of them mean very different things according to those contexts. And our understanding of our terms has not been fully excavated or accurately translated. You know, academics in my circles are obsessed with defining terms because we know that defining them different ways manifests completely different understandings and social realities according to context and time. We build social worlds for ourselves based on how we define things, so it’s natural that when there is continuous issues, we would return to the terms as the root of our discrepancies.

The original Hebrew term, din, meant law or judgment and, in ancient Israel, often referred to governance and the Jewish legal system, as in beit din. In Islam, the term connotes government, law, reward, punishment, loyalty and submission. It is more accurately translated into our entire comprehensive way of life, or even more accurately, a cultural system.

This differs from the modern, especially secularized, understanding of the term religion. The term religion comes from a specifically Christian historical context but through time, has evolved beyond that and has come to relate primarily to one’s private beliefs about the “supernatural”. Because religion has come to mean what we privately believe about God, there is an assumption that we can simply keep those beliefs and our actions around them at home and the public sphere can somehow be a “neutral” space for community engagement whatever our backgrounds. Where Judaism and Islam are concerned first and foremost with practice and governing social behaviour, which is decidedly public, and we use appropriate terms that are reflective of that, the term religion in the definition of private beliefs, when applied to these systems simply doesn’t work.  It is most important to note that the assumption that the public space free of religion is EMPTY is simply a historical falsity. Just because a secular public sphere seems to be empty does not mean that it is and we all need to think critically about what cultural system is invisibly in place – what values are we taking for granted because we are continuously under the assumption that nothing is there?

A famous hadith (or historical testimony from one of the companions of Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him at the time he was alive) states that Muhammad said: “Deen is very easy and whoever overburdens himself with it will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded; and gain strength by worshiping in the mornings, the nights.” Here, it is clear that Deen must mean a complete way of life, and indeed, in Islam there are comprehensive guidances for almost everything you can imagine, from how and when to pray to how to brush your teeth, which shoes to wear, how to treat the environment, and what conduct is appropriate for dealing with our spouses, our families, our neighbours, our children and the wider communities. While the first pillar of Islam is, indeed, our declaration of faith, that there is no God except God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God, our way of life does not stop there.

Because Islam encompasses every detail of how we live our lives, it means that there can’t really be a secular, religion-free public sphere how people imagine it, as long as Muslims are around. Now before anyone thinks I am arguing that Muslims cannot live in secular society (which I am not) I want to state clearly and unequivocally, that historically Muslims have lived under persecution for their religion for hundreds of years, they have done so secretly for their very survival and will do whatever it takes to maintain their way of life, even if that mean, forcing it into the private sphere. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Further, does this tension mean that Muslims do not follow local laws as some groups would improperly claim, that we instead only follow shariah and are trying to implement it locally and impose it on everyone? Of course not. Part of the guidance of our way of life is in following the leadership and rule of our local governments as long as they do not cause us to leave our spiritual path. And that spiritual path is for us alone. And if there are local laws against aspects of our way of life, as I said, we are also permitted to acquiesce to those laws, depending on the context and time.

What it does mean, and explains historically, is why Muslims and Jews and many other “religious” minorities have decidedly been the OTHER in secular historical contexts, often with catastrophic results (most notably the Holocaust and colonization). In fact, there are virtually no other religious groups in the world who define their ways of life as privitizable or somehow limited to their beliefs only. There are none. And Christian groups who focus a lot on governing social behaviour are now feeling the same pressure against their ways of life in the so-called “neutral” public sphere, despite the fact that such a concept historically originated in Christian contexts.

While this is only the beginning of a much more complex and deep discussion of religion as an entity, I do want to briefly meditate on what the way forward for religious freedom then is?  I would say, that the first place to start is in definitions and translation, and that begins with education. If Islam, Judaism and virtually all other ways of life were understood for what they are, it would become immediately clear that keeping the practices of those ways of life out of the public sphere will be very difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. And if the truth of diversity studies enhancing our shared communities has anything to say about it, it would be that keeping the practices of those ways of life out of the public sphere is also detrimental to our understanding of one another.We have to recognize that historically and presently, we are not incompatible with one another. We have coexisted for centuries. We have to stay firm that it is not an option that coexistence fails. It takes hard work and agreements, and that work begins with the work of translating how we understand our own ways of life and having others learn that too.

Now, lest someone argue that I am against secularism, I need only mention that it not secularism itself which is at the heart of these social ills and misunderstandings. It is the idea of a homogenized, so-called “empty” public sphere that is at the heart of these social ills and misunderstandings and which I demand critique of. If the public sphere was instead understood as a pluralistic and diverse space for multiple ways of life to coexist in the spirit of treaties from 1300 years ago – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Brahmanism, the Sikh way of life, many others AND secularism, respectful of one anothers’ differences –  we could move forward in a much easier manner together. That is why I personally and professionally remain committed to protecting the religious freedoms of all ways of life, even when Islam is not part of the picture.

I look forward to speaking more to these issues on the panel.

Thank you.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta and sits on the advisory committee for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Edmonton Public Library ought to be ashamed of themselves. Last night, I attended their lecture series on Freedom of Expression headed by Salman Rushdie. For people who have come to know Rushdie’s work over the years, we knew what to expect from him: the cognitive dissonance experienced when trying to reconcile two images of a man – a brilliant and evocative writer and a public speaker who revels in blasphemies, insults and what has come to be called (glorified) “trolling”. I attended because I love some of his novels purely for the craft and I received a free ticket from a colleague of mine at the University of Alberta. I also wanted to see what he could possibly have to say that would fly with an open Canadian audience that prides itself on pluralism. What happened at the event, was far more sinister than anything I could have anticipated and is something that EPL should not be proud of.

Rushdie purported to be talking about freedom of expression and censorship – issues that he has built his personality cult around. And yet, his discourse on the subject is not very well-thought out and lacks significant nuance. That is, of course, giving him too much credit. It could just be that he actually believes that freedom of expression means never having any censorship whatsoever, including for spreading hate propaganda and denying that certain phenomena actually exists. Hard to believe that someone could buy that, but he does. Denying the Holocaust as a counter-argument to this “expression free-for-all” is the first thing that usually comes to mind as something that should (and often is) legislated against. (And before any ill-informed Judeophobes get up in arms, let me be clear: historical discussion is not denial. Ever.)

But Rushdie didn’t take his own argument to those problematic ends. Instead he blatantly denied that a different kind of harmful phenomena exists: Islamophobia. He dismissed Islamophobia (a word he allegedly “doesn’t like”) as a relatively recent innovation designed by Daesh (ISIS) apologists (see: all Muslims) to stop genuine criticism of Islam.

Excuse me? Sit down, Sir.

For people who live with the vile discrimination of Islamophobia every single day, dismissing their lived reality as part of a conspiratorial global Muslim plot to make the world more PC is part and parcel of the rest of the Islamophobia we endure daily. Rushdie’s reified Clash of Civilizations narrative wouldn’t even fly in an intro to Poli Sci class at the University so why the hell is EPL giving this fool a podium to spew it so unapologetically?

Here’s a fact: polarizing rhetoric polarizes. They become self-fulfilling prophecies because they don’t describe the world, they prescribe it and in swallowing such quantifiably impoverished arguments, bigots allow the work done to reconcile alienated communities get thrown under the bus immediately. And for him to put all of this under the self-defensive, circular argument of “freedom of expression” is no better than the unreflective xenophobes I am accustomed to dealing with in much less distinguished settings.

At one point, Rushdie actually said he should have the right to disrespect religions and then proceeded to make an argument for the freedom to hate, coupled with jokes that emulated Trump’s pussy-grabbing sexual assault “quips” and quite literally made fun of transgender women for not having vaginas. He did this while painting the artist/writer as a victim of censorship to a room full of people who, astonishingly, swallowed his intellectually devoid argument and laughed along with his hateful one-liners, including politicians and senior city bureaucrats. As a writer, I was appalled.

Rushdie spreads hate under the mandate of anti-censorship so that any legitimate critique of his neo-liberal, anti-religion, secular homogenizing agenda is dismissed as either anti-modern or Islamist.

And isn’t that the tactic of every colonizer to dismiss his critics as being “uncivilized”?

In Rushdie’s Lilliputian world, I am simply a reactive, anti-modern because I don’t think we should give intolerant hacks the time of day – especially not to massive, sold-out crowds at a huge downtown hotel in our capital city. He would simply cry “Censorship” and believe that that should silence me. Point to my hijab and shout “extremist” because I disagree with him. And that should somehow silence me? The caveat of his argument about freedom of expression is that freedom of expression is for all except people who actually recognize how harmful hateful rhetoric is, who devote their lives to studying and preventing it, who don’t believe that people have an intuitive “bullshit radar” (if they did, they wouldn’t have been laughing so hard at his gay-bashing jokes last night and we wouldn’t be dealing with the gongshow of an American election right now) and who know how easily people are manipulated and made to hate by stories told in defense of their social position and power.

But this isn’t about Rushdie. At all. He is so predictable, it hurts.

We all know what to expect from this pandering neo-liberal fool who positively ejaculates every time one of his books is put on a banned list because he gets to self-fellatiate in front of global press audiences. We all know that virulent liberal secularist proponents are the least reflective and least self-critical non-thinkers on the planet. My God, they barely even know that they too operate under an actual cultural system that is not, impossibly, outside ”culture” itself while reifying Christianoform time, rituals and rhetoric unquestioningly as an allegedly non-religious zombie of the Western European tradition.

No, the real problem here is that a community institution, the Edmonton Public Library, attacked Canadian pluralism in bringing him here and simultaneously undermined the difficult and incredible work their staff does daily to establish safe spaces in their libraries for people of colour, Muslims, women and LGBTQ people. I won’t go so far as to say people like him should remain silent or be made silent because I don’t think that is the case. A community institution giving Rushdie’s blatant intolerance a speaking platform and a large audience is entirely another story.  I did not feel safe in an EPL-created space last night and I know a lot of other people who didn’t either. They ought to be ashamed of themselves. I know I am.

 

In case you missed it, France’s recent ban of the Burkini or modest Islamic swimwear for women has caused massive outrage online from those opposed to secular extremism and anti-feminism. Critics, rightfully, argue that social homogeneity always leads to oppression (particularly of vulnerable minority groups) and that the policing of womens’ bodies (whether it be in how much or how little they are wearing) has deep roots in oppressive patriarchy.

The Burkini ban has sparked economic backlash, with sales for the item soaring online among Muslims and non-Muslims alike – because frankly, who doesn’t love SPF 50 fabric that prevents skin cancers, helps you avoid slathering on chemical-laden sunscreens all while dressing as modestly as you feel because people can do whatever they want with their bodies?

Now plenty of rich businesspeople have kindly stepped up and said that they will pay the fines of whichever women decide to wear the Burkini and get caught by the French police officers who are now being sent to the beach to literally check and make sure women are wearing as little clothing as the law now dictates. That’s great but the laws which treat Muslim women as second class citizens remain unaddressed. Maybe France should have thought about how much they don’t like seeing the hijab while they were busy fetishizing it at the height of colonialism. And don’t be telling me #notallFrenchpeople because I don’t see anyone shouting #jesuisMuslimah in the streets at this atrocious affront to civil liberties.

I feel like this entire blog should be in italics or caps lock because I just.cannot.control.my.rage.today.

Not only is it horrific that the reasons cited for the Burkini ban are concerns around the womens’ “hygiene”, but the fact that this is being celebrated by French secular so-called feminists is atrocious. This is not a win for oppression against women because: IT IS OPPRESSION AGAINST WOMEN.

I know this because I see some sexist men online celebrating the ban because they claim that the Burkini isn’t modest enough anyway. And even more insanely, when a Muslim woman was forced to disrobe under the threat of being pepper-sprayed by armed police officers in public on a beach in Nice, these extremist fools had the audacity to question why that woman was even on the beach, asking sarcastically if swimming is obligatory in Islam.

Are you people kidding me?

As my dear friend and colleague, Liz, pointed out, we also need to look at whom these laws serve. Do these laws serve the minority of women who may be forced to veil, or worse, women who are kept at home (banned from the beach) by abusive husbands or male relatives who are then free to go where they like? Do they allow women freedom of movement or restrict it? The answers are clear.

Why is it that extremists obsessively unite around women’s bodies to either clothe or disrobe them?

Muslim women are at the apex of extremism on all sides: the anti-religionists, the Wahhabists, the anti-Feminists and unsympathetic Muslim women who fail to realize that violent assault is the next step in this program.

Secular and religious extremists share the target of the female body, maiming her together by tearing at her clothes, one stretching them to make them longer, the other ripping them to take them off. And these misogynists are cheered on by women who believe themselves to be both liberated and liberators. The same women who bare their breasts (which they are free to do but #notinmyname) and claim that veiled Muslim feminists might think they are free but they don’t know just how oppressed they are. God forbid that a Muslim woman should also be a person of colour and have white supremacists on her back too.

Seriously, people.

Back off.

And what is it with other Muslim women shaming the woman forced to disrobe? This woman was assaulted by armed police officers with the force of the law behind them in broad daylight on a crowded public beach. She was forced to undress under duress. We don’t even know if she was given the option to leave. Would it be different if she was wearing a bikini to begin with and they made her remove it entirely? Why the sudden lack of empathy and strong judgment for your coreligionist?

Empathetic, feminist women (you know who you are): this is a trying time for all of us.

Stay strong and know that whatever happens, as long as you get home safe in the face of assault from all sides, you did the right the thing. And if you don’t, you do not have yourself to blame. It is not in your head and it will only get worse as long as this behaviour is permitted to continue.

I believe you are a victim of many perpetrators.

I believe it is getting increasingly difficult for you.

I believe that you feel suffocated and overwhelmed sometimes

and that those times are multiplying in number.

I know just how angry you are.

I will say this as long as I can,

even if my voice quivers from fear or from rage.

I will stand with you,

even if my covered knees shake.

I believe you.

We will fight for justice together, insha Allah.

The Drawing Board is pleased to announce that Nakita Valerio has been invited by the University of Alberta’s Muslim Students’ Association to deliver an engaging talk in celebration of World Hijab Day on February 1st, 2016.

world hijab day poster

Nakita’s talk is entitled Islam, the Veil and Veiled Secularisms and will deal with such issues as the status of women in Islam, the role of the hijab, why it is at the center of discussions about women in Islam in the West, and commentary on Islam and Secularism.

All are welcome to attend with questions!

Details for the event can be found here.