A Jihad by Muslim Women Against Violence

Posted on 6 August 2011


Published: August 2, 2011

LONDON — Unsurprisingly, the horrific attacks of Anders Behring Breivik, the far-right Christian extremist in Norway, have stirred powerful debate among the estimated 44.1 million Muslims in Europe.

Although most of his 76 victims were at a Labor Party youth camp, Mr. Breivik made clear that his real targets were Muslims, and what he sees as their insidious infiltration of a Christian continent.

Those who frequent password-protected Web sites, mainly used by supporters of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, are fuming that Mr. Breivik’s acts constitute a “crusade” against Islam and declare that it is the responsibility of each Muslim to be prepared.

Since the attacks, some militants in Britain have asked for a Shariah-controlled zone, with no drinking, no gambling, no music, no drugs and no prostitution. “Norway was a wake-up call for all Muslims in Europe, we need to defend ourselves,” said Anjem Choudary from the organization Islam4UK in an interview in London.

Then there are quite different voices in the Muslim community — in Britain, and elsewhere. One example is Inspire, a women’s organization that before the Norwegian horror declared what it called a “jihad against violence.”

The group says it aims to support and empower Muslim women of all ages and backgrounds, and particularly to educate them so they can counter the arguments of children radicalized by reading on the Internet.

To date, Inspire has led five workshops on countering the ideology of extremists, with 30 to 35 participants in each session. The effort is aimed at Muslim women, because they raise children.

“Very often, when women are confronted with religious questions from their children, they don’t know how to answer,” said Sara Khan, 31, a mother of two who has a master’s degree in pharmacy and was encouraged by her father to work in the South Asian Muslim community in Bradford.

In 2005 and 2006, she was a member of the British Home Office working group tackling extremism and radicalization. Two years ago, she co-founded Inspire.

With the Internet, Muslim youth can easily be swayed by English-speaking preachers like Anwar al-Awlaki — a U.S. citizen accused of having inspired the Fort Hood shootings in Texas and the failed Christmas bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner — or the ideology of Al Qaeda or other radical groups. “Our aim is to give women the knowledge to counter this ideology, and the best way is to use Islam,” Mrs. Khan said.

In most cases, Muslim women of the first and second generation of immigrants in Europe had no Islamic teachings in school, leaving them unable to handle religious questions posed by their children, or to deal with European rightists or Muslim sentiments.

“Many young people think then that their parents are too weak and that they don’t know Islam, so they look for other mentors,” said Kalsoom Bashir, a 48-year-old mother of four who is part of Inspire and has worked with Muslim communities in Bristol for 25 years.

She remembers a family in London whose teenage son suddenly refused to look women in the eyes, or shake their hands. “He gave up his career, didn’t want to take a job,” she said.

He started discussing his religious ideas with his parents, especially his mother, but she had no idea how to respond. The Muslim community in his neighborhood became concerned, and has set up an advisory circle.

A woman who attended one Inspire workshop but asked that her name be withheld said that she became worried when her teenage son one day asked her and his sisters to start wearing veils and to stop interacting with non-Muslims.

“I asked him where he had gotten these ideas from and he said, ‘That is what Islam teaches,”’ the woman recalled. Eventually she found that he had been surfing Web sites that gave him extremist ideas. “After I attended the workshop, I was able to give him the right answers. We discuss much more about our religion and how we have to be open to other religions.”

Mrs. Khan said some found the declaration of women’s own form of jihad provocative. “Jihad means struggle,” she countered, and Inspire wants to teach women to resist all forms of violence, whatever its origin.

“We have to counter both, the Islamophobes and the Muslim extremists,” Mrs. Khan said. “Muslim women like us are attacked from both sides and used by both sides, extremists in our own religion and right wings.”

She added strong criticism of media that she said often use the word terrorism only to describe acts carried out by Muslims. “Whoever commits acts of terror and violence is an enemy to us all,” she said.

Both Mrs. Khan and Mrs. Bashir come from Pakistani families who moved to Britain, where both women were educated. Not just Mrs. Khan’s father but also her husband actively encourage her activism, she said.

But cultural background means there are still substantial numbers of Muslim men in Europe who believe that women carry their families’ honor and should be cut off from life outside the home.

Mrs. Bashir said theirs was also a jihad against the repression of women because rightists, and Islamist extremists, use Muslim women to serve their very different arguments.

“Some right-wing groups like the English Defense League use the picture they are having of Muslim women to argue that Islam is an oppressing religion,” she said.

As abhorrent as Mr. Breivik’s attacks were, they have, if anything, pulled communities together, Mrs. Khan said. “I think they strengthened our resolve to humanize humanity, to understand each other and to counter those that dehumanize the other.”

“We are against all forms of hate,” she said, sipping Earl Grey tea with milk. “This is my and my children’s home, and I will not allow any extremist to take it from us.”