Fetters on freedom

Print edition : August 23, 2013

March 18, 2005: Amina Wadud (right) leads both men and women in prayer at Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Photo: DON EMMERT/AFP

In acting at the behest of the police to cancel the lecture of Islamic scholar Amina Wadud, the University of Madras not only offends the scholar but also exposes its inability to protect free speech.

AMINA WADUD, the celebrated United States-based scholar of Islamic Studies, who is waging a “gender jehad” to seek justice for women within the global Islamic community, is a person feeling deeply offended today.

Similar is the state of mind of a group of intellectuals and scholars of Islam and students who were looking forward to listen to her special lecture on vital issues relating to “Islam, gender and reforms”, a topic of high relevance in Tamil Nadu which of late is witnessing increasing activism against gender disparity within the faith.

The reason: a phone call, followed by a message from the Chennai Police a day prior to the programme on July 29 asking the organisers, the Justice Basheer Ahmed Sayeed (JBAS) Centre for Islamic Studies, University of Madras, to cancel it.

The message came from the police to University Vice-Chancellor R. Thandavan claiming that Amina Wadud’s lecture, according to intelligence inputs, would lead to law and order problems and needed to be cancelled. The police could never say where and from whom they received the information about the “fringe Muslim outfits” that called Amina Wadud a “puppet of American imperialism and hence anti-Islam” and threatened to create a law and order problem.The police sought an explanation from the organisers for not obtaining their permission to hold the programme. “It was pointed out to them that it was not necessary to seek their permission for an academic exercise to be held inside the institution,” said P.K. Abdul Rahiman, Assistant Professor and Head, (In-charge), JBAC Centre for Islamic Studies, who took the initiative of inviting Amina Wadud to Chennai for the event. But on July 28, the Vice-Chancellor asked him to call off the lecture.

Amina Wadud, despite having undergone a surgery about 10 days earlier, was by then waiting at the Kozhikode airport to board the flight to Chennai. She later told Frontline that since she had committed herself to attending the programme, she did not want to disappoint the organisers by withdrawing on health reasons. But the flight developed serious technical snags and she had to wait for nearly seven hours at the airport, when she was informed over the phone about the cancellation of her Chennai engagement.

A senior police officer pointed out that he, in fact, had spoken to the Vice-Chancellor over phone the previous day and told him that Amina Wadud’s lecture would disturb public peace. “Besides, she is on a tourist visa and hence could not address any such public gathering. I got instructions from my superiors. I text-messaged it to the Vice-Chancellor, asking him to cancel it,” he said. The officer, however, refused to divulge more details.

The Vice-Chancellor, facing severe criticism from scholars for “giving in to police pressure”, came out with a clarification three days after the incident that the lecture had to be cancelled on the advice of the law enforcement agencies. “It is an administrative compulsion and not a choice,” he claimed. Barring a handful of faculty members who condemned the action, others in the university preferred to disassociate themselves from the entire episode.

But Rahiman is embarrassed since he, in tune with the “best interest of the hoary traditions of Madras University and students and scholars”, invited Amina Wadud for the talk. “The entire incident was very unfortunate and uncalled for. Scholars across the world and within the faith acclaim her as an accomplished scholar of Islamic studies. She has been working extensively on gender justice and women in Islam in relation with Quranic interpretations,” he said.

“Our students also were disappointed, since they longed to listen to the lecture of a scholar whose books have been prescribed for them,” Rahiman said. For them she is a celebrity scholar.

“While she has attended a series of programmes in Kerala, where there were no disturbances, why should it happen to an erudite scholar in Tamil Nadu?” he wondered.

The cancellation of her special lecture had a cascading effect. Another programme, a roundtable discussion for a select audience with her on “Women’s experiences and the Questions of Authority in Islam”, which was scheduled for the next day in the city, was also called off, more out of the fear of “police rather than the fringe elements”, as one of the organisers put it.

Rahiman said that Amina Wadud has been countering the vexatious issue of gender bias. Her perspective on gender initiative within the Quranic tenets was unique. Her interpretations, he pointed out, represent diverse ideological orientations. “Amina attempts that decisively,” he said.

“Her attempt is to look at the Quran as a divine text that ensures gender equality and justice,” Rahiman said and regretted that a purely intellectual exercise of an academic body had sadly been dragged into a bout of unnecessary controversy.

“Amina, a U.S. citizen, has been in India on an extended stay. She has been addressing a series of meetings in many important universities and organisations in Kerala, including the Calicut University. It is only in Tamil Nadu that such a needless row has been created. That is a sad commentary on the prevailing situation,” Rahiman said. Religion, he felt, should be insulated from such acts of intimidation.

Intellectual assault

Amina Wadud is the author of two well-received books. Her first book Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective was banned in a few countries; the second, Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam, talks about the struggle for justice for women within the global Islamic community.

Reacting to the recent experience, she sent mails to the organisers saying, “I am subject to dishonour, an intellectual assault and the attack on my dignity.”

It was an “unpleasant and regrettable” incident, she said.

The African-American convert to Islam who led the mixed congregation of men and women at Friday prayers in New York in 2005 and created a firestorm of controversy that exposed and broke the male imams’ traditional dominance in prayers, is annoyed over the way the University of Madras conducted itself in this episode. Those who had taken the responsibility to invite her, were themselves helpless to either defend her or support her, she said.

In her mails, she said: “That an academic institution has no other means to address such fringe extremism within its own community is appalling”. “It was for the Madras University to defend me and my honour [and] since it was not able to, I am done with the matter,” she said.

A Danish Democracy Award winner, Amina Wadud has stoutly denied the claims of “some extreme or fractional group” that sometime ago she had addressed a meeting at Karur in Tamil Nadu and that the meeting had created controversy and commotion. “I have never been in Tamil Nadu except at a tourist site in 2012 [and] a lie has been cast upon me and a slander on my character,” she added.

The Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies and Visiting Scholar, Starr King School for the Ministry, Graduate Theological Union, Berkley, California, called them “vicious lies”. “I have also never created even the slightest stir at any of at least 12 public/university or college lectures and half a dozen public meetings at other grassroots or community organisations and an equal number of interviews,” she pointed out.

Talking to Frontline, Amina Wadud, one of the founding members of Sisters in Islam (SiS), a forum working for gender reforms within the community, said she was overcoming the ordeal she had experienced. “Peace on my mind. No issue. Put behind the bitter experiences and move on,” was her terse message.

She, however, was not willing to stay long in India. “I am disappointed. I would never again agree to participate in any programme in the way in which the issues are negotiated here. I hoped to find a vision here. But unfortunately, it is not the environment I wished for,” she said. “I would never again agree to further participate in the way in which Islam is negotiated here,” she said.

“If you are not interested I will not speak. I am also done with India and now will complete some commitments I have in the region and plan for my departure (for the U.S.) in the upcoming months,” she said. To a question whether she would consider returning to the country, she, after a bit of hesitation, reluctantly said, “I will see.”

‘Baseless’ allegations

Describing as “baseless” the allegations that she is a “U.S. puppet”, a group of activists, academicians and writers, besides a core group from Chennai city, strongly condemned the cancellation of the scholar’s programme. They criticised the attitude of the Madras University and urged it to restore the “freedom, honour and dignity of the academic”. They condemned the police interference in academic pursuits and called upon the academic community to stand up for its freedom.

“My scholarship is not lacking; my training and education is not short. But I do feel insulted. It is just not worth it to take up the battle.” Nothing could convey Amin Wadud’s frustrations more powerfully than this message of hers.

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