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Vol. 12, No. 1, 2013
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farzana hassan's

Betsky L. Chunko
reviewed by


Betsy Chunko holds graduate degrees in both art history and literature. She earned her PhD from the University of Virginia and currently teaches at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.

In Unveiled, Muslim commentator and activist Farzana Hassan describes how she came to question the dogma of conservative Islamic principles from the inside. Essentially, she offers a long meditation on a clear question: Where has critical thought gone in the Muslim world since the end of European colonial occupation of India and the Arab world?

Told in three parts, the text opens by exploring the alienation North American Muslims suffered from the non-Muslim majority following 9/11. In effect, this alienation, Hassan argues, led to ‘push back’ from Muslims who felt themselves marginalized in a Western world increasingly suspicious of their doctrine and political, as well as religious, intentions. While 9/11 is the backdrop for increased attention to the Muslim world by non-Muslim parties in North America and Europe, it is also the background for Hassan’s own reawakening as a practicing Muslim. She describes the process through which she came to critically engage certain tenets of her faith. This book is, in many ways then, both a memoire of her life -- from her childhood in Pakistan to her move to North America -- and a political position document.

While its potential audience is diverse, the message of Unveiled is coherent. “Religion is as much a lived phenomenon as it is a matter of belief,” she believes. It is for this reason that practices such as honour killings have led Hassan, by her own admission, to lose “the solace I used to derive from my faith.” Historically, she connects the rise of oppressive measures and retrogressive sharia laws to the ascendancy of Islamist military dictator Ziaul Haqq’s in Pakistan in 1977. As a Pakistani woman, Hassan is nonetheless able to consider the circumstances surrounding this event with impressive moderation. In fact, the triumph of Unveiled is in the tone she sets. She is not emotional or emotive. She is not whipped to a frenzy at any point. There is passion here, but she is, above all, rational, steady and measured. She puts a completely temperate face on large-looming questions of doctrine and culture in order to construct a message that might resonate at once with practicing Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Some of the main issues Hassan treats regard interpretation of the Koran, jihad and women’s rights. She asserts continually that, where modern Islamic practice fails to meet the expectations of moderate Muslims like herself, culture independent of religion is to blame. As such, she disagrees with the notion that to be Muslim is somehow incompatible with Canadian or American identity. She also questions the apparent lack of religious tolerance many contemporary Muslims show, comparing this with the tolerance she experienced herself as a young girl in convent schools in Lahore and, later, Massachusetts. The question of Islamic heresy prevents many would-be Muslim moderates from practicing tolerance, she argues. As a liberal activist, a mother and a practicing reform-minded member of the faith, she seeks, throughout, to blend logic with personal experience, history with contemporary social commentary, all while reflecting on what it means, in her opinion, to be a tolerant, informed and yet still, by her own definition, pious Muslim today.

“Piety,” she argues, “can be a good thing.” However, she argues that “enforcing it with such implied coercion cannot be healthy.” She suggests that the Muslim social body is not at its healthiest -- is not even capable of experiencing full health -- until it becomes more introspective, more open to moderation and tolerance. It is a problem, she asserts, that what “is or isn’t biddah (i.e., an unwarranted accretion to the faith) is now left to the more fundamentalist custodians of the faith.”

Hassan’s book argues, to this end, for a greater polyphony within Islamic communities. She believes reform must come from the inside: “We need liberal Muslims to step up to the challenge and grasp an opportunity here to defeat the Islamists in their proliferation of an oppressive ideology.” Likewise, she encourages non-Muslims to remain conscious of the goals of fundamental Islamists. Hassan argues for an end to retributive forms of Islamic justice, for an increase in Muslim women’s visibility (literally and figuratively), and against outrageous faith accommodations.

This is timely. In the Foreword, Tarek Fatah describes the “guilt-ridden, bleeding heart white liberals, eager to please the so called victims of ‘American imperialism’ inside America and the West.” North American Muslims were indeed victims of a kind of generalized culture of fear that began to boil among non-Muslims following the senseless calamity of 9/11. But, as Fatah cautions, Islamists who “were able to convince the liberal-left in US and Canada that they were the true inheritors of the civil rights movement” merely “put on the mask of Dr. King’s legacy.” Few people, including moderate Muslims, were able to see through this act of deception carried out in the name of multiculturalism, interfaith pluralism and basic human rights.

Meanwhile, the anti-Western narrative imbuing so much fundamentalist rhetoric within the faith is, as Hassan shows, based on an inherent disdain for the threat of reform the liberal Western discourse engenders. Whereas multiculturalism in Canada and the US allows subcultures to thrive, narrow fundamentalism as it is being experienced by many in the increasingly conservative Muslim centers of power dispossesses those with alternative visions for the expression of their faith. In the end, Hassan identifies tolerance, religious and social, with communal rejuvenation and urges practicing Muslims to modernize.

by Betsy L. Chunko:
Trial by Ink (book review)
Plastics, Toxicity & Health


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Ms. Chunko's review of Farzana Hassan's Unveiled, is an enlightening and helpful exposition of the plight of moderate Muslims, especially those living in the West. However, the subject of moderating Islam is complicated by its authoritative texts: the Qur'an, Hadith, and the Life of the Prophet. It's next to impossible to separate Islam as faith, from Islam as politics; as long as those in power favour a strict interpretation of Islam, moderating the faith is next to impossible. Early attempts for moderation took place in the 9th century among the intellectuals of Baghdad whose cause was championed by two Caliphs; however, their efforts were short-lived; the new Caliph that succeeded them, took the side of an ultra conservative religious leader who favoured a literal interpretation of the sacred texts. Eventually, the 'Door of Ijtihad,' i.e. of fresh exegesis of the texts, was closed around 1100 A.D. The advent of the Internet gives hope for the modernization of Islam, as it is being advoacted on several Arabic-language websites, an opportunity that was lacking in the old means of expression such as in books and magazines.

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