Not in My Name - We’re not responsible for the behaviour of all Muslims, so why are we constantly berated for what happens abroad?
by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed
When I recently read the story of a 19-year-old Saudi woman who was gang-raped 14 times in an attack in Qatif, in the eastern province of the country, a year-and-a-half ago, I felt nauseous. I was disgusted. But not as horrified and angry as I felt when I read that along with the sentences for the perpetrators, the victim had also been sentenced to 90 lashes for breaking the Saudi rule that men and women who are not related should not be together. The victim claims she was not alone with any man but had in fact been abducted from a public place. When her lawyer protested that the sentences against the seven men were too lenient, and she went to the media, the presiding judge did increase the men’s sentences slightly (from one to five years, up to two to nine years) but also increased her sentence to 200 lashes. The lawyer’s right to practice is also being revoked.
I searched the news feeds to see if I had missed some key fact, mis-read the story, over-looked any shreds of humanity, compassion or justice. I found none. And so, for the first time - as I wrote on my blog about this incident - I found myself writing the words, Not In My Name.
I wrote these words as a human being disgusted that another person could punish further the victim of a multiple rape. But I realised that I also wrote these words as a Muslim. The ruling in Saudi Arabia was not to do with me, or my faith.
After the bombings of July 7th I had heated debates about whether I wanted to support campaigns that Muslims were organising under this very strapline of Not in My Name. I felt at the time that such a campaign would support reverse logic: by saying that the horrific attacks were not to do with me, I was indicating that somehow I was indeed responsible and related in my values to the bombers. I felt as though I was being asked to admit guilt and responsibility, where neither were appropriate. I was not responsible for what they did. What those men did, and others like them, is not from my understanding of my faith. It does not come from the core values of Islam. I asked myself, why should I feel the need to create an anti-connection to these men, if I was rejecting the very premises of their violent views? I condemn utterly what they have done.
My rejection and disgust at the bombings was the same horror as that of the British people. I shared the nation’s grief as a human being. In this I was not distinguished from my neighbours by colour or creed. The mourning and distress of Britain, was my own mourning and distress. I felt no need to claim special status, responsibility or special distinction.
In the matter of the Saudi woman, however, there was no mourning, no outcry, no public grief. Therefore, I felt the need to make the declaration that this act had no truth, justice or compassion. The values of my humanity and my Islam were betrayed. The decision was made by those supposedly in authority, those who claimed special rank in showing what Islam should be. The Saudi courts who made this horrific ruling had not rejected authority, they were not attacking establishment - they were claiming in fact to be the authority and they were the establishment. How could I do anything BUT state that this authority and this decision was Not in My Name?
It is a given fact that I am not accountable for what another individual does. This is a basic premise of British law as well as Islamic belief. We only have a responsibility for our own actions. Neither do I have direct accountability for what happens in Muslim countries abroad. I’m fed up of being told I am to blame for what happens elsewhere in the world. I’m frustrated that as a nation, we have a discourse that says that just because there are problems - serious problems - in many Muslim countries with regards to human rights, religious practice and tolerance, then that means Muslims here are responsible for that, and that people of faith, including Muslims, should be denied rights here. Again, it is reverse logic. Why should our behaviour as a nation, be governed by the values of others? That only brings us down to the lowest common denominator. As a sovereign nation we should lead by example. By we’ (in case I need to spell it out) I mean Britain. And that includes Muslims as an inherent part of the British people. Our actions should be rooted in truth, justice and compassion. They can never be contingent on the behaviour of others. As a nation we can only be responsible for the way we act, and we can only be accountable for our actions in the international community.
What is incumbent on me is to be a good citizen of my own nation, and to uphold truth, justice and compassion here in our land. I must assess and recognise what is right and wrong on its own merit, not based on who is saying it. My duty is to create the best society where I am, and that duty applies to those of all faiths and none.
As Muslims we need to be clear that just because a government or an individual that carries out an action claims to be Islamic or Muslim, that does not mean it is inherently right. If an action is carried out, or an opinion held by those of other faiths (or none), that does not make it inherently wrong. Locate the truth first, then see who is saying it, stated the Prophet Muhammed.
My actions should not be contingent on what someone else does. They should be rooted in what is right and what is wrong. At the end of the day, I am only accountable for my own actions, but that also means that I am responsible for my own actions irrespective of how other people act and behave. The case of Holocaust Memorial Day is illustrative. The organisers state that the aim of the day is to “motivate people individually and collectively, to ensure that the horrendous crimes, racism and victimisation committed during the Holocaust and more recent genocides are neither forgotten nor repeated, whether in Europe or elsewhere in the world.”
I wholeheartedly support this objective. I believe that as a Muslim, as a person of faith, as a human being, it is my duty to remember all innocents who have been killed, and to offer my condolences and in this case, I offer my condolences and mourn those millions that were specifically lost in the holocaust. Never again, has to be our pledge.
Many people ask, if these are the aims, then why is this not a genocide memorial day? They rightly say, have not people all around the world suffered brutal massacre and persecution? I firmly believe that the international scale and horror of genocide does indeed need to be recognised, and that it is now time that we should have a separate day to mark that. But on this one particular day, we remember these particular innocents: those who were killed in the holocaust.
Every human life is equally valuable and I must recognise it as such, wherever or whenever it is lost. My action in remembering, and vowing that it should not happen again, is not contingent on the motives or responses of others. I carry out this action because it is inherently right.
Our decisions must be informed by truth, justice and compassion, and these decisions must direct our actions. If we make our actions contingent on the behaviour of others, then we all find that our humanity is compromised.
Assessing independently what is the right thing to do, is no easy task. That choice is just as difficult whether it is in the context of being a nation, or an individual. When our humanity is compromised then it is the responsibility of all of us, together, to state that this is Not In Our Name.
Update on Saudi case: the woman in question has ‘confessed’ that she was having an affair with the man in question. This ‘confession’ has come subsequently to the outcry over this case.
Please visit Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s site at http://www.spirit21.co.uk/