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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

This final section will unpack the scope of Barlas’ discourse on justice. A theme that continuously resurfaces in her writings is her commitment to speaking truth to power in both Muslim and non-Muslim Western contexts.[1] This is an intellectual that occupies two uneasy subject positions: the one as a believing woman in a patriarchal Muslim community, the other as a Muslim in a racist, Western- dominated world. She succinctly sums up this dual grievance as follows:

As a Muslim woman I thus find myself precariously balanced on the inhospitable terrain between the (ostensibly religious) sexism of conservative Muslims and the (secular) racism of the liberal Western society in which I live. My quarrels, therefore, are necessarily with both.[2]

Barlas’ oppositional role in both contexts is effectively encapsulated in a volume titled, Re-Understanding Islam: A Double Critique (2008)— a collection of two lectures that she delivered in 2008 as part of the Spinoza lecture series at the University of Amsterdam. The first lecture is essentially a summary of her gender-egalitarian reading of the Qur’an, a project clearly targeted at the wider Muslim community, while the second unpacks the problematic ways in which nonMuslim Westerners have represented Islam and Muslims, thereby addressing a different audience altogether.[3] While I have used the subjects of these twin lectures as a heuristic tool to illustrate her commitment to ‘double critique’, it is important not to portray Barlas’ exegetical work on the Qur’an as being targeted solely at Muslims. As she notes at the beginning of her Commentary, she undertook this study in order to challenge both conservative Muslims and secular feminists, who cannot see the Qur’an as being anything but a patriarchal, indeed blatantly misogynistic, text.216 Confronting European and North American discourses on Islam is crucial given the long history of the West’s demonization of Islam and Muslims. Barlas notes, for example, that Prophet Muhammad’s vilification as a terrorist in Islamophobic circles is not simply a contemporary phenomenon, but has deep roots stretching back to medieval Christendom, in which he was attacked as an imposter, a fanatic, and even the Antichrist.217 As a result, when writing on Islam, especially in European languages, the Muslim intellectual has to think against the grain of an entire vocabulary—an epistemology—that posits her/his religion as being irredeemably conservative, irrational, backward. Conversely, argues Barlas, such representations serve to vindicate the West, which comes to stand for everything that Islam is not, and never will be:218 liberal, reasoned, civilized. And it is precisely in order to escape such racist dichotomies that she unmasks injustice in both Muslim and non-Muslim contexts, showing that oppressive systems like patriarchy are not exclusive to Muslim societies. As she puts it with regard to violence against women:

As someone who was born in the so-called Muslim world and who now lives in the so-called West, I am as horrified by practices like ‘honour’ killings in some Muslim societies as I am by the fact that a woman is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes in the US.219

Theology’, and the second, delivered in June 2008, was titled ‘Would Spinoza Understand Me? Europe, Islam, and the Mirror of Difference’.

  • 216 Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, xii.
  • 217 Barlas, Re-Understanding Islam, 39. For two pioneering historical studies of Western representations of Islam, see Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009), first published in 1960; and R.W. Southern, Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962).
  • 218 Barlas, Re-Understanding Islam, 32.
  • 219 Ibid, 18. She adds that what initially drew her to the issue of violence against women was not violence perpetrated in the name of Islam, but rather the European practice of witch-burning, which lasted between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries and claimed the lives of almost one million women.

This section will demonstrate that it is this commitment to double critique that forms the critical point of departure for Barlas’ comprehensive approach to social justice, drawing connections between different forms of suffering and resistance.

  • [1] While she acknowledges that the West is an ideologically loaded term, plaguedwith essentialist assumptions and premised on a reductive representation of a primitive East, she uses it because it reflects ‘an actual existing hegemony that characterizesitself as Western.’ See Asma Barlas, ‘Globalizing Equality: Muslim Women, Theology,and Feminisms’, in On Shifting Ground: Middle Eastern Women in the Global Era, ed.Fera Simone (New York: Feminist Press, 2005), 108.
  • [2] Barlas, Islam, Muslims, and the US, 14.
  • [3] Barlas, Re-Understanding Islam, 31. The first lecture, delivered in May 2008,was titled ‘Believing Women in Islam: Between Secular and Religious Politics and
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