By Menahal Begawala
When I became a therapist I had a vision of helping people get through hard times, communicate better with their families, and develop perspective when they felt stuck. I’ve been honored with the privilege of being allowed a glimpse into the lives of my clients with this goal in mind. My greatest privilege (and challenge) so far has been to work with adolescent girls.
When I sit across from young girls who come from Muslim families, my first challenge is to face my own apprehension. I don’t know what preconceived notions they’ll have seeing a conservatively dressed hijab wearing therapist. Thus far, I have found these young women not only open, but also happily willing to work with me. While it is not my place as a therapist to be a religious figure for my clients, I recognize that on some level they are relieved to be able to openly talk with someone who appears to embody the very facet of their backgrounds from which they feel disconnected.
I believe that the challenges young Muslim girls face in navigating their identity in today’s society are more difficult than they have ever been. Between the ongoing struggles of societal, familial, and cultural pressures, the sexualization of women, and the often negative impact of social media, young girls are often left navigating identity issues that would leave many adults in a paralyzing bind. For the sake of this article, I will limit the conversation to issues surrounding adolescent girls and sexuality.
It’s a pervasive issue that is impacting the Muslim community.
“I don’t think that any boy can ever there for me emotionally like Amani* is. And I just can’t see myself being with a boy who isn’t there for me emotionally.”
“I always crushed on Jasmine, never on Aladdin.”
Sexualization and the Loss of Identity
As an Education major, I was required to read The Disappearance of Childhood, by Neil Postman. Postman discussed the impact of media on the portrayal and loss of innocence in children. It’s safe to say that society has come a long way since 1994 when that book was published, and that we have far more sources of media input than were available in the 90’s. Whether through print, filtered photos on Instagram, or television, young girls are constantly bombarded with images of what is considered beautiful and attractive. The gap between girls and women is closing quickly as girls hit puberty and physically mature at earlier ages than ever before. Clothing and fashion for tweens and adult women are almost indistinguishable, which cause young girls to be focused on their appearance (with or without hijab) before they’ve had an opportunity to develop a deeper sense of identity.
Everyday, young girls receive constantly opposing messages about identity, freedom, having a voice, and modesty. When the exploitation of women is guised as liberation and independence, it is easy to see how one’s appearance and sexiness can be mistaken for worthiness. On the other hand, when we drill the idea of modesty being purely about outer garments, we are sending the same damaging message: that a woman’s worth is relegated to the way she dresses. Please note that this is not a comment on the status of hijab in Islam. The intention here is to highlight how we talk to our young girls and what messages we are giving to them when we shy away from deeper more meaningful, albeit difficult, conversations.
Sexuality vs. Sexualization
Dr. Leonard Sax distinguishes between sexuality and sexualization in his book Girls on The Edge. He notes the importance of recognizing sexuality as an important and healthy part of adolescent development. Sexuality is about who one is, a part of her identity, whereas sexualization is a focus on how someone looks. Sexuality is a normal and necessary part of human development. Human sexuality is defined as “the quality of being sexual, or the way people experience and express themselves as sexual beings. This involves biological, erotic, physical, emotional, social, or spiritual feelings and behaviors.”1 Adolescence is a time when youngsters are figuring out their place in the world while navigating their changing bodies, emotions, and social lives. Sexuality is intertwined in every aspect of a young person’s both with themselves and the world around them. It’s normal, natural, and healthy. The sexualization of young girls however, is not.
Sexualization, unlike sexuality, is when the focus is on one’s appearance and sex appeal and goes hand in hand with objectification. It goes without saying that the sexualization of women leads to many negative consequences beyond the scope of this article. However, within the Muslim community, it seems like we’ve become so scared of these consequences that we are stuck on external solutions in the name of protection/safety. Healthy and necessary conversations about sexuality are abandoned and even stigmatized. The resulting message for girls is that their sexuality, and in essence, their being, is shameful and cannot be spoken of. As a result, our young women are left to navigate the challenges of developing an identity inclusive of their entire selves on their own. One client told me, “My mom doesn’t want me to hug boys. That doesn’t matter because I’m bisexual anyway.” I can’t help but wonder how the girl may have taken it differently if her mother had a conversation about her self-worth and why she was asking her to refrain from certain behaviors. What we don’t realize is that when the adults in these adolescents’ lives don’t lovingly guide them and keep the door open for interactive conversations, social media can very easily fill the void.
It is normal for adolescents to have questions about their developing bodies and sexual awareness. We do our children and our communities a disservice when we choose to ignore the realities of their development. It was not uncommon during the time of the Prophet for women to come to ask questions about intimate matters. They knew that modesty and openness could coexist. We see, in the following hadith, that the Prophet was clear about a woman’s response to sexual arousal and the implication that this is part and parcel of conception.
Um-Sulaim came to Allah’s Apostle and said, “Verily, Allah is not shy of (telling you) the truth. Is it necessary for a woman to take a bath after she has a wet dream (nocturnal sexual discharge?) The Prophetreplied, “Yes, if she notices a discharge.” Um Sulaim, then covered her face and asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! Does a woman get a discharge?” He replied, “Yes, let your right hand be in dust (An Arabic expression said light-heartedly to a person whose statement you contradict) and that is why the son resembles his mother.” Sahih Muslim 608 Chapter 3, The Book of Menstruation (Kitab Al-Haid) `
In addition to sorting through their physical, emotional, and social growth, the youth of today are living in a time where it’s almost expected that they will explore, or at least question, their sexual identity. This is another topic that the Muslim community often likes to keep behind closed doors. We assume that our children will accept the heterosexual norms of our religious and cultural communities. Many will, but it’s not something that can be taken for granted. Whether we like it or not, and irrespective of the Islamic rulings on the topic, the fact is that more and more of our young women are faced with questions regarding their sexual identity. Their lives are caught in the dichotomy of a society in which sexual exploration is encouraged and homes and communities where discussing sexuality is taboo.
In a culture where 1) girl-girl sexual intimacy is no longer taboo, 2) fluidity of sexual orientation, especially for females, is normalized, 3) where emotionally unengaged parenting can leave girls with an emotional void to fill, and 4) where young men are less mature than they used to be, it’s no surprise that more and more young girls are turning to the same sex for comfort during these formative and difficult years2. When girls are battling the normal developmental challenges of adolescence, while living in homes where they feel ignored, criticized, or misunderstood, it can translate into low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and/or rebellion.
Peers easily become the primary support system, and emotional intimacy can translate into physical intimacy. When I asked one of my clients about her feelings towards her family ignoring her, she said “I don’t care. My friends are my world. They’re my everything! Actually, and don’t tell my mother this, my best friend and I just started going out a few weeks ago.” I’ve worked with this client long enough to know that she isn’t unaffected by her family’s dismissal towards her, but that she is coping through her friendships— which can end up becoming romantic as well.
Dr. Sax posits that the “girls themselves may not understand what’s happening because the girls aren’t in touch with their own sexuality.” (p 33) According to Dr. Sax, the number of young women who identify as lesbian or bisexual may be somewhere between 15 to 23%. We have to stop assuming that Muslim adolescent girls and young women don’t fall into this range. We also have to recognize that superficial conversations about modesty and hijab and exhortations to “have taqwa” with threats of hell are not a viable solution. The issues are a lot deeper and require us to move out of our comfort zones and look in the mirror as parents, adults, and as a community.
The Issue with External Solutions
Hijab. It’s the first thing that comes to mind for many people. Questions of whether there should or shouldn’t be partitions in masajid are still being hotly debated. In defending our positions on the physical barriers between men and women, we lose sight of the fact that our young girls are struggling; regardless of whether or not they wear hijab. When it comes to Muslim girls, we become so hung up on the topic of external appearances that we end up overlooking conversations on what it means to create a healthy sense of identity, sexuality, and self-worth. The underlying issue is not the presence or absence of the physical barrier, hijab, clothing type, or make-up, as much as it is our girls’ identities becoming defined by and limited to these things. I am not arguing that discussing or talking about hijab with our girls should be abandoned. I do believe however, that these conversations need to happen within a larger context that makes them more meaningful.
On one extreme, religiosity becomes imposed on girls. They are taught what is halal, what is haram, and often overly cautioned about actions that will take them to hell. Girls are taught that hijab is important due to them being analogous to sweets that have to be covered from flies. What is this teaching girls? I can’t get over how many young people I meet who are turned away from Islam because they’ve been given such a dark and ignorant perspective. At best, they begrudgingly oblige. At worst, they begin to identify as “in the closet atheist.” When we don’t treat those younger than us with compassion and mercy, they begin to believe that the God —whose teachings we’re imparting —also doesn’t have Compassion and Mercy.
Ibn Majah narrates on the authority of Jundab ibn ‘Abdallah who said: “We were with the Prophet – a group of youngsters close to the age of maturity. We learnt what was iman before we could learn the Quran. Thereafter we learnt the Quran. In so doing, we increased our iman.”
This hadith shows us that the Prophet began his teaching of youngsters by developing a relationship with Allah . There’s no denying that hijab is a command from Allah. However, when we reduce religious teachings only to lessons on halal/haram, the relationship with Allah doesn’t have a chance to develop.
The other extreme is when conversations about modesty and proper hijab are scoffed at and deemed judgmental and/or cultural. During the second wave of feminism, popular notions of women’s roles in society, their sexuality and reproductive rights were debated, and modesty was posited as a byproduct of the male patriarchy. Many of these notions have become entrenched within the Muslim community and any questions or criticisms of modern hijab and fashion trends are considered politically incorrect. It has become increasingly common to meet young Muslim “feminists”. I use quotes around feminist because I believe that many young women don’t actually know the history of feminism, or how it impacts them beyond giving them more rights than what are afforded to them within their families.
The problem with both of these approaches is that they take away from healthy conversations on sexuality and identity. We become so busy imposing or defending external factors that deeper discussions fall to the wayside. It also doesn’t help that the widespread use of social media is forcing girls to always be “camera ready” lest an unflattering picture of them make it onto someone else’s Snap story.
What Can We Do?
The issues presented here are part of a much bigger picture and definitely don’t exist in a vacuum. Here are suggestions of what parents and communities can do for their daughters.
Be curious. Ask her what she’s feeling. Acknowledge that it’s difficult. Acknowledge that you may not understand, but that you want to. Don’t assume you know what your daughter is going through. Also, don’t diminish her sadness or other emotion that makes you uncomfortable as “dramatic.” We have too many adult women who have lived their lives being told they are drama queens and in turn, that their emotions are not valid. We perpetuate this injustice on our daughters when we ignore their pain or tell them what they should or should not be feeling.
Empathize. You may not know what it feels like to be in your daughter’s shoes. You may not understand why she feels the way she feels, whether sad, anxious, lonely, or excited. But you do know what these feelings are. You’ve undoubtedly felt them. Let your daughters (and sons for that matter) know that you have also felt this way at some point in your life, and still experience these feelings. Normalize these feelings for your children. Recognize and verbalize their existence.
When we don’t empathize with children, it can come across as indifference or shaming. Too often I see parents telling their kids not to cry or not to feel a certain way. This minimizes real and often difficult emotions and doesn’t actually teach young people about how to navigate the circumstances causing them. It just teaches them to shut their feelings off. The problem is that we cannot selectively turn off emotions. When we choose to shut down our capacity to feel pain and grief, we inadvertently also shut off our ability to feel joy and excitement.
Pay attention. Notice changes in your daughter’s mood. Is she isolating herself? Is she constantly on social media? While it’s normal for adolescents to push away from their parents, it is not normal for them to shut them out completely. Paying attention requires spending time with our children and getting to know who they are. It means looking beyond their grades and whether they know how to make chai to their interests, their passions, and their struggles.
Stop comparing. Not to your struggles, not to a sibling’s successes, not to another cousin/friend/random person’s goodness. Comparing doesn’t positively motivate anyone. Our girls have enough damaging comparisons with airbrushed models being the standard of beauty. Let’s not make them believe that they aren’t good enough by telling them that so-and-so handled the same struggle or passed the same test with flying colors. Comparing sends a message that we don’t love who they are. Instead of making comparisons with the good behaviors of others, learn to notice and compliment the efforts that are being made.
Be willing to be the mean parent. It is possible to show love, compassion, and acceptance to children while also setting healthy boundaries. I encourage everyone who is a parent, or works with young girls in any capacity to read Girls on The Edge to better understand the implications of social media, sexual identity, and other factors on the development of girls. It won’t be easy to go against the grain of many popular norms, but it’ll be healthier for our girls in the long run.
This is especially important when it comes to social media. Research has shown a correlation between the usage of social media and depression. Being constantly connected can have a detrimental effect on young women, and it’s up to parents to regulate and teach their children how to be responsible and balanced in their use of social media.
Be more positive more often. After having worked with a number of young girls as a counselor, I’ve come to notice a pattern. Every single one of them, without exception, feels criticized and/or ignored by their parents. When I meet with the parents, I can see genuine love and concern for their daughters. However, this gets voiced in the form of complaints or suggestions for improvement while appreciation and genuine compliments have to be probed for. Even when it comes to adult relationships, Dr. John Gottman, a renowned relationship expert has found that successful marriages have a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. As adults, we need to be validated and acknowledged positively in our relationships. Yet in the hustle and bustle of daily life and getting tasks done, we forget to do this for our children. The most important component of our children’s healthy development is for them to know that they are loved. Don’t assume that your children know that you love them. Tell them frequently that you do.
Create opportunities. This is where the community comes in. We need to create avenues for girls to explore their interests and develop their sense of self in the context of a community. Dr. Sax discusses the importance of girls engaging with a community of women of various ages as well as giving girls the opportunity to explore their spirituality. Our masajid are ideal places for women, old and young, to come together and develop a multidimensional sense of self.
Seek help. Life is hard. At some point we developed the expectation that we should know it all or somehow be able to figure it out. This just isn’t true. We need to develop the ability to ask for help when we need it on an individual, familial, and communal level. This can take the form of seeking therapy or counseling, leaning on a friend for support, or getting professional consultation of some kind. When we aren’t willing to ask for help, we also often end up being unable to be helpful.
Be a role model. Not just in terms of religious or vocational success. Struggle and failure are a part of life. These visitors come in and out of our lives at every stage. They don’t make us less than nor do they diminish our worth. When we learn to be honest about our limitations and are willing to face our own emotions, we show the youngsters around us that it is not only okay, but also safe, to do so. Be willing to grapple with the challenges that are uncomfortable. Our children do it every single day.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy of the client.
- Jerrold S. Greenberg, Clint E. Bruess, Sara B. Oswalt (2016). Exploring the Dimensions of Human Sexuality. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. pp. 4–10. ISBN 1284081540. Retrieved June 21, 2017. Human sexuality is a part of your total personality. It involves the interrelationship of biological, psychological, and sociocultural dimensions. […] It is the total of our physical, emotional, and spiritual responses, thoughts, and feelings.
- Researchers at Cornell University, examining data collected from a representative sampling of young Americans that included more than 20,000 individuals across the United States, found that 14.5 percent of women were categorized as lesibians, bisexual, or “bisexual leaning heterosexual.” Among young men, 5.6 percent were categorized as gay, bisexual, or “bisexual leaning heterosexual.” See Ritch Savin-Williams and Geoffrey L. Ream, “Prevalence and Stability of sexual orientation components during adolescence and young adulthood,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, volume 36 (2007), pp. 385-394. The proportions in the United States might be even lower than in some European countries. For example, in Norway, more than 20 percent of girls and young women were categorized as lesbian or bisexual: see L. Wichstrom and K. Hegna, “Sexual orientation and suicide attempt: a longitudinal study of the general Norwegian adolescent population,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, volume 112 (2003), pp. 141-151. In another study, 23 percent of girls and young women in New Zealand – nearly one in four – were sexually attracted to other girls and young women: see N. Dickson and colleagues, “Same sex attraction in a birth cohort: prevalence and persistence in early childhood,” Social Science and Medicine, volume 56 (2003), pp 1607-1615
Menahal grew up in Queens, New York. She’s a graduate of the Al-Huda Institute and has a Masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Menahal works with individuals, families, and couples covering a client base with a broad range of mental health issues, including substance abuse disorders. Most notably Menahal has completed Levels 1-3 of marriage counseling via the Gottman Institute, world renowned for its work on marriage stability and divorce prediction. Thereafter, she worked with the Gottman Institute to author the Islamic Reference Guide to the Gottman Method. She is now pursuing training in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, a modality to treat trauma. Menahal can be contacted for speaking or workshop requests, or therapy related inquiries at email@example.com.
My seven-year old son sat on the ground, digging a hole. Around him, other children ran, cried, and laughed at the playground.
“He’s such a strange kid,” my oldest daughter remarked. “Who goes to the playground and digs holes in the ground?”
In an instant, scenes of my ten-year-old self flashed through my mind. In them I ducked, hiding from invisible enemies in a forest of tapioca plants. Flattening my back against the spindly trunks, I flicked my wrist, sending a paper shuriken flying towards my pursuers. I was in my own world, alone.
It feels as if I have always been alone. I was the only child from one set of parents. I was alone when they divorced. I was alone when one stepmother left and another came in. I was alone with my diary, tears, and books whenever I needed to escape from the negative realities of my childhood.
Today, I am a lone niqab-wearing Malay in the mish-mash of a predominantly Desi and Arab Muslim community. My aloneness has only been compounded by the choices I’ve made that have gone against social norms- like niqab and the decision to marry young and have two babies during my junior and senior years of undergrad.
When I decided to homeschool my children, I was no longer fazed by any naysayers. I had gotten so used to being alone that it became almost second nature to me. My cultural, religious, and parenting choices no longer hung on the approval of social norms.
Believe it Or Not, We Are All Alone
In all of this, I realize that I am not alone in being alone. We all are alone, even in an ocean of people. No matter who you are, or how many people are around you, you are alone in that you are answerable to the choices you make.
The people around you may suggest or pressure you into specific choices, but you alone make the ultimate choice and bear the ultimate consequence of what those choices are. Everything from what you wear, who you trust, and how you plan your wedding is a result of your own choice. We are alone in society, and in the sight of Allah as well.
The aloneness is obvious when we do acts of worship that are individual, such as fasting, giving zakah, and praying. But we’re also alone in Hajj, even when surrounded by a million other Muslims. We are alone in that we have to consciously make the choice and intention to worship. We are alone in making sure we do Hajj in its true spirit.
We alone are accountable to Allah, and on the Day of Judgment, no one will carry the burden of sin of another.
مَّنِ اهْتَدَىٰ فَإِنَّمَا يَهْتَدِي لِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا ۚ وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ ۗ وَمَا كُنَّا مُعَذِّبِينَ حَتَّىٰ نَبْعَثَ رَسُولًا
“Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger.” Surah Al Israa 17:15
On the day you stand before Allah you won’t have anyone by your side. On that day it will be every man for himself, no matter how close you were in the previous life. It will just be you and Allah.
Even Shaytaan will leave you to the consequences of your decisions.
وَقَالَ الشَّيْطَانُ لَمَّا قُضِيَ الْأَمْرُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَعَدَكُمْ وَعْدَ الْحَقِّ وَوَعَدتُّكُمْ فَأَخْلَفْتُكُمْ ۖ وَمَا كَانَ لِيَ عَلَيْكُم مِّن سُلْطَانٍ إِلَّا أَن دَعَوْتُكُمْ فَاسْتَجَبْتُمْ لِي ۖ فَلَا تَلُومُونِي وَلُومُوا أَنفُسَكُم ۖ مَّا أَنَا بِمُصْرِخِكُمْ وَمَا أَنتُم بِمُصْرِخِيَّ ۖ إِنِّي كَفَرْتُ بِمَا أَشْرَكْتُمُونِ مِن قَبْلُ ۗ إِنَّ الظَّالِمِينَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ
“When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves. I cannot help you, nor can you help me. I reject the way you associated me with God before.’ A bitter torment awaits such wrongdoers” Surah Ibrahim 14:22
But, Isn’t Being Alone Bad?
The connotation that comes with the word ‘alone’ relegates it to something negative. You’re a loser if you sit in the cafeteria alone. Parents worry when they have a shy and reserved child. Teachers tend to overlook the quiet ones, and some even complain that they can’t assess the students if they don’t speak up.
It is little wonder that the concept of being alone has a negative connotation. Being alone is not the human default, for Adam was alone, yet Allah created Hawwa as a companion for him. According to some scholars, the word Insaan which is translated as human or mankind or man comes from the root letters that means ‘to want company’. We’re naturally inclined to want company.
You might think, “What about the social aspects of Islam? Being alone is like being a hermit!” That’s true, but in Islam, there is a balance between solitary and communal acts of worship. For example, some prayers are done communally like Friday, Eid, and funeral prayers. However, extra prayers like tahajjud, istikharah, and nawaafil are best done individually.
There is a place and time for being alone, and a time for being with others. Islam teaches us this balance, and with that, it teaches us that being alone is also praiseworthy, and shouldn’t be viewed as something negative. There is virtue in alone-ness just as there is virtue in being with others.
Being Alone Has Its Own Perks
It is through being alone that we can be astute observers and connect the outside world to our inner selves. It is also through allowing aloneness to be part of our daily regimen that we can step back, introspect and develop a strong sense of self-based on a direct relationship with Allah.
Taking the time to reflect on worship and the words of Allah gives us the opportunity to meaningfully think about it. It is essential that a person gets used to being alone with their thoughts in order to experience this enriching intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience. The goal is to use our thoughts as the fuel to gain closeness to Allah through reflection and self-introspection.
Training ourselves to embrace being alone can also train us to be honest with ourselves, discover who we truly are, and work towards improving ourselves for Allah’s sake. Sitting with ourselves and honestly scrutinizing the self in order to see strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement is essential for character development. And character development is essential to reach the level of Ihsaan.
When we look into who we want to be, we are bound to make some decisions that might raise eyebrows and wag tongues. Being okay with being alone makes this somewhat easier. We should not be afraid to stand out and be the only one wearing praying or wearing hijab, knowing that it is something Allah will be pleased with. We should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe in even if it makes us unpopular. Getting used to being alone can give us the confidence to make these decisions.
Being alone can strengthen us internally, but not without pain. Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that people who dissent from group wisdom show heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the sting of social rejection. Berns calls this the “pain of independence.”
All our prophets experienced this ‘pain of independence’ in their mission. Instances of different prophets being rejected by their own people are generously scattered in the Quran for us to read and reflect upon. One lesson we can extract from these is that being alone takes courage, faith, conviction, and confidence.
We Come Alone, Leave Alone, Meet Allah Alone
The circumstances that left me alone in the different stages of my life were not random. I always wanted an older brother or someone else to be there to rescue me from the solitude. But the solitude came with a blessing. Being alone gave me the time and space in which to wonder, think, and eventually understand myself and the people around me. I learned reflection as a skill and independent decision-making as s strength. I don’t mind being alone in my niqab, my Islam, or my choices. I’ve had plenty of practice after all.
You are born alone and you took your first breath alone. You will die alone, even if you are surrounded by your loved ones. When you are lowered into the grave, you will be alone. Accepting this can help you make use of your moments of solitude rather than fear them. Having the courage to be alone builds confidence, strengthens conviction, and propels us to do what is right and pleasing to Allah regardless of human approval.
Why Israel Should Be ‘Singled Out’ For Its Human Rights Record
Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians.
Why is everyone so obsessed with Israel’s human rights abuses? From Saudi Arabia, to Syria, to North Korea to Iran. All these nations are involved in flagrant violations of human right, so why all the focus on Israel – ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’? Clearly, if you ignore these other violations and only focus on Israel, you must be anti-Semitic. What else could be your motivations for this double standard?
This is one of the most common contentions raised when Israel is criticized for its human rights record. I personally don’t believe in entertaining this question – it shouldn’t matter why an activist is choosing to focus on one conflict and not others. What matters are the facts being raised; putting into question the motives behind criticizing Israel is a common tactic to detract from the topic at hand. The conversation soon turns into some circular argument about anti-Semitism and the plight of the Palestinian people is lost. More importantly, this charge of having double standards is often disingenuous. For example, Representative Ihan Omar has been repeatedly accused of this recently and her motives have been called ‘suspicious’ – despite her vocal criticism of other countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
However, this point is so frequently brought up, I think that perhaps its time activists and critics simply own up to it. Yes – Israel should be singled out, for some very good reasons. These reasons relate to there being a number of unique privileges that the country enjoys; these allow it to get away with much of the abuses it commits. Human right activists thus must be extra vocal when comes to Israel as they have to overcome the unparalleled level of support for the country, particularly in the US and Canada. The following points summarize why Israel should in fact be singled out:
1) Ideological support from ordinary citizens
When Iran and North Korea commit human right abuses, we don’t have to worry about everyone from journalists to clerics to average students on campuses coming out and defending those countries. When most nations commit atrocities, our journalists and politicians call them out, sanctions are imposed, they are taking them to the International Court of Justice, etc. There are instruments in place to take care of other ‘rogue’ nations – without the need for intervention from the common man.
Israel, however, is unique in that it has traditionally enjoyed widespread ideological support, primarily from the Jewish community and Evangelical Christians, in the West. This support is a result of the historical circumstances and pseudo-religious ideology that drove the creation of the state in 1948. The successful spread of this nationalistic dogma for the last century means Israel can count on ordinary citizens from Western countries to comes to its defense. This support can come in the form of foreign enlistment to its military, students conducting campus activism, politicians shielding it from criticisms and journalists voluntarily writing in its support and spreading state propaganda.
This ideological and nationalistic attachment to the country is the prime reason why it is so incredibly difficult to have any kind of sane conversation about Israel in the public sphere – criticism is quickly seen as an attack on Jewish identity and interpreted as an ‘existential threat’ to the nation by its supporters. Any attempts to take Israel to account through standard means are thwarted because of the political backlash feared from the country’s supporters in the West.
2) Unconditional political support of a world superpower
The US is Israel’s most important and closest ally in the Middle-East. No matter what war crimes Israel commits, it can count on America to have its back. This support means the US will use its veto power to support Israel against actions of the UN Security Council, it will use its diplomatic influence to shield any punitive actions from other nations and it will use its military might to intervene if need be. The backing of the US is one of the main reasons why the Israeli occupation and expansion of the colonial settlement enterprise continues to this day without any repercussions.
While US support might be especially staunch for Israel, this factor is certainly not unique to the country. Any country which has this privilege, e.g. Saudi Arabia, should be under far great scrutiny for its human rights violations than others.
3) Military aid and complicity of tax-payers
US tax-payers are directly paying for Israel to carry out its occupation of the Palestinian people.
Israel is the largest recipient of US-military aid – it receives an astonishing $3 billion dollars every year. This aid, according to a US congressional report, “has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.”
Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians. Activists and citizens thus have a greater responsibility to speak out against Israel as their government is paying the country to carry out its atrocities. Not only is this aid morally reprehensible, but it is also illegal under United States Leahy Laws.
4) The Israeli lobby
The Israeli lobby is one of the most powerful groups in Washington and is the primary force for ensuring continued US political support for the nation. It consists of an assortment of formal lobby groups (AIPAC, Christians United for Israel), think-thanks (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), political action committee or PACs, not-for-profit organizations (B’nai B’irth, American Jewish Congress, Stand for Israel) and media watchdogs (CAMERA, Honest Reporting). These organizations together exercise an incredible amount of political influence. They ensure that any criticism of Israel is either stifled or there are serious consequences for those who speak up. In 2018 alone, pro-Israel donors spent $22 million on lobbying for the country – far greater than any other nation. Pro-Israel lobbies similarly influence politics in other places such as the UK, Canada, and Europe.
5) One of the longest-running occupation in human history
This point really should be the first one on this list – and it is the only one that should matter. However, because of the unique privileges that Israel enjoys, it is hard to get to the crux of what it is actually doing. Israel, with U.S. support, has militarily occupied the Palestinian territories (West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) since 1967. The belligerent occupation, over 50 years old, is one of the longest, bloodiest and brutal in human history.
Israel continues to steal land and build settler colonies the West Bank – in flagrant violation of international law. It has implemented a system of apartheid in these territories which is reminiscent of the racist regime of South Africa. The Gaza strip has been under an insufferable siege which has made the living conditions deplorable; it has been referred to the world’s largest ‘open-air prison’. In addition to this institutional oppression, crimes committed against Palestinians include: routinely killing civilian protesters, including teenagers and medics, torture of Palestinians and severe restrictions on the everyday movement of Palestinians.
The brutality, consistency and the duration for which Israel has oppressed Palestinians is alone enough reason for it being ‘singled out’. No other nation comes close to its record. However, for the reasons mentioned above, Israel’s propaganda machine has effectively painted itself as just another ‘liberal democracy’ in the eyes of the general public. Any attempt to bring to light these atrocities are met with ‘suspicion’ about the ‘real’ motives of the critics. Given the points mentioned here, it should be evident that the level of support for Israeli aggression is uniquely disproportionate – it is thus fitting that criticism of the country is equally vocal and unparalleled as well.
Co-written by Shaykh Osman Umarji
As writers on MuslimMatters, it came as a surprise when the website we write on marked itself zakat-eligible on its fundraiser for operations in Ramadan. This website has previously highlighted the misuse and abuse of zakat for vague and dodgy reasons, including instances of outright fraud by nonprofit corporations. We have lamented the seemingly inexorable march from zakat being for living human beings in need to financial play-doh for nonprofit corporate boards.
Estimated global zakat is somewhere between $200 billion to $1 trillion. Eliminating global poverty is estimated at $187 billion– not just for Muslims, but everyone. There continue to be strong interests in favor of more putty-like zakat to benefit the interests of the organizations that are not focused on reducing poverty. Thus, in many ways, a sizeable chunk of zakat benefits the affluent rather than the needy. Zakat, rather than being a credit to the Muslim community, starts to look more like an indictment of it.
No, it’s not ikhtilaf
The recent article on this website, Dr. Usama Al-Azmi seemed somewhat oblivious to the cavalier way the nonprofit corporate sector in the United States treats Zakat. The article did not do justice to legitimate concerns about zakat distribution by dismissing the issue as one of “ikhtilaf,” or a reasonable difference of opinion, as it ignored the broader concern about forces working hard to make zakat a “wild west” act of worship where just about anything goes.
It’s essential to identify the crux of the problem. Zakat has eight categories of permissible beneficiaries in the Quran. 1 Two are various levels of poor, distribution overhead; then there are those whose hearts are to be inclined, free captives, relieve indebtedness, the wayfarer, and the cause of Allah (fisabilillah). The category of fisabilillah, historically, the majority of scholars have interpreted as the cost of jihad (like actual fighting). However, in recent times, Muslim nonprofit corporations, with support of learned Muslim leaders, have adopted an increasingly aggressive and vague posture that allows nearly any beneficial cause to get zakat.
The concerns about the abuse of zakat, and the self-serving desire by corporations to turn fisabilillah into a wastebasket Zakat category that could be “incredibly broad” has to do with far more than a difference of opinion (ikhtilaf ) about the eligibility of Dawah organizations. Let’s assume dawah and educational organizations are eligible to administer Zakat funds. We need to know what that means in practice. What we have is a fundamental question the fisabilillah-can-mean-virtually-anything faction never manages to answer: are there any limits to zakat usage at all?
Show Your Work
We fully understand that in our religious practice, there is a set of rules. In Islamic Inheritance for example, for example, we cannot cavalierly change the definition of what a “daughter” is to mean any girl you want to treat like a daughter. There is an established set of rules relating to acts of worship. For the third pillar of Islam, zakat, there seem to be no limits to the absurd-sounding questions we can ask that now seem plausible.
Unfortunately, we have too many folks who invoke “ikhtilaf” to justify adopting almost any opinion and not enough people who are willing to explain their positions. We need a better understanding of zakat and draw the lines on when nonprofit corporations are going too far.
You can be conservative and stand for zakat as an act of worship that contributes to social justice. You can have a more expansive interpretation friendly to the nonprofit corporate sector’s needs to include the revenue source. Wherever you stand, if you don’t provide evidence and develop detailed uniform and accepted principles and rules that protect those people zakat was meant to help, you are inviting abuse and at the very least, opening the door towards inequitable results. 2
Can you feed the needy lentils and rice for $100 a meal, with margins of $99 a meal going to pay salaries to provide these meals and fundraise for them? Why or why not?
Can a Dawah organization purchase an $80 million jet for its CEO, who can use it to travel the world to do “dawah,” including places like Davos or various ski resorts? What rules exist that would prevent something like this? As far as we know, nothing at all.
In the United States, demographic sorting is a common issue that affects all charitable giving, not just giving by Muslims. The most affluent live in neighborhoods with other people who are generally as prosperous as they are. Certain places seem almost perversely designed to allow wealthy residents to be oblivious to the challenges of the poor. There are undeniable reasons why what counts as “charity” for the wealthy means giving money to the Opera, the Met Gala, and Stanford University.
The only real way affluent Muslims know they supposed to care about poor people is that maybe they have a Shaikh giving khutbas talking about the need to do so and their obligation of zakat once a year or so. That is now becoming a thing of the past. Now it is just care about fisabilillah- it means whatever your tender heart wants it to mean.
As zakat becomes less about the poor, appeals will be for other projects with a higher amount of visibility to the affluent. Nonprofits now collect Zakat for galas with celebrities. Not fundraising at the gala dinner mind you, but merely serving dinner and entertaining rich people. Educational institutions and Masajid that have dawah activities (besides, everything a Masjid does is fisabilillah) can be quite expensive. Getting talent to run and teach in these institutions is also costly. Since many of the people running these institutions are public figures and charismatic speakers with easy access and credibility with the affluent. It is far easier for them to get Zakat funds for their projects.
People who benefit from these projects because they send their children to these institutions or attend lectures themselves will naturally feel an affinity for these institutions that they won’t have with the poor. Zakat will stay in their bubble. Fisabilillah.
Dawa is the new Jihad
Jihad, as in war carried out by a Khalifah and paid for with zakat funds, is an expensive enterprise. But no society is in a permanent state of warfare, so they can work towards eliminating poverty during peacetime. Muslim communities have done this in the past. Dawah is qualitatively different from jihad as it is permanent. There was never a period in Islamic history when there was no need to do dawah. Many times in history, nobody was fighting jihad. There was no period of Islamic history when there were there was never a need for money to educate people. Of course, earlier Muslims used zakat in education in limited, defined circumstances. It is not clear why limitations no longer apply.
Indeed dawah is a broad category. For example, many people regard the Turkish costume drama “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” as dawah. Fans of the show can’t stop talking about the positive effects it has had on their lives and their iman. What prevents zakat from funding future expensive television costume dramas? Nothing, as far as we can see.
No Standards or Accountability
Unfortunately, in the United States, there are no uniform, specific standards governing zakat. Anything goes now when previously in Islamic history, there were appropriate standards. Nonprofit corporations themselves decide if they are zakat-eligible or not. In some instances, they provide objectively comical explanations, which supporters within the corporation’s bubble pretty much always swallow whole. Corporations don’t have to segregate Zakat-eligible funds from general funds. When they do, they can make up their own rules for how and when they spend zakat. No rules make zakat indistinguishable from any other funding source since they can change their standards year after year depending on their funding needs (if they have rules at all) and nobody would be the wiser. It is exceedingly rare for these corporations to issue detailed reports on how they use zakat.
The Shift to Meaninglessness
Organizations with platforms (like the one that runs this website) are going to be eager to get on the zakat gravy train. There is no cost to slapping a “zakat-eligible” label on yourself, either financial or social. It seems like everyone does it now. Some Zakat collectors are conscientious and care about helping the poor, though they are starting to look a little old-fashioned. For them, it may make sense to certify Zakat administrators like halal butchers.
Zakat used to be about helping discrete categories of human beings that can benefit from it. It can now mean anything you want it to mean. In the end, though, without real standards, it may mean nothing at all.
- The sunnah also highlights the essence of zakah as tending to the needs of the poor. For example, the Prophet commanded Muadh bin Jabal, when sending him to Yemen, to teach the people that Allah has obligated charity upon them to be taken from their rich and given to their poor (Sahih Muslim).
- In Islamic legal theory (usool al-fiqh), sadd al-dhariya is a principle that refers to blocking the means to evil before it can materialize. It is invoked when a seemingly permissible action may lead to unethical behavior. This principle is often employed in financial matters.
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