I recently delivered a talk on honour killings at an event organized by the Aiman Foundation, a children's rights advocacy group based in Scarborough, Ontario. The discussion revolved around the sociological causes of honour killings, including certain religious attitudes as a possible reason for so many of these killings in various religious communities.
Needless to say, the discussion turned vitriolic at the slightest mention of religion. Members of the audience took issue with my stance, not over facts pertaining to honour killings, but on my citing various Sharia regulations as possible factors in the murders.
For example, I suggested that adultery, fornication and other sexual misconduct are severely punished under Sharia law. Although perpetrators of honour killings almost certainly do not consciously consider these stipulations, the killers are nonetheless governed by an environment where sexuality is regulated to the point of criminalizing certain types of sexual conduct. Though it is true that even the most conservative brand of Islam does not prescribe murder for women who allegedly dishonour their families, it is equally true that it places men in charge of women's sexual and social conduct. Is it possible that, governed by such Sharia provisions, men take it upon themselves to both monitor and control the behaviour of their wives, daughters and sisters?
Members of the audience objected to my references to these Sharia provisions. Some of them even stated that I had "no right" to hurt their religious sentiments and that "freedom of speech" does not include this right. They stated that I had little knowledge of Islamic precept and practice. Many of them offered lengthy justifications for various Sharia provisions such as polygamy, women's testimony and the physical chastisement of women: justifications that I am already thoroughly familiar with. One gentleman stated that I was questioning God's wisdom by opposing Sharia law.
Indeed the most retrogressive segments of Muslim society often angrily conclude that reformist Muslims only speak from a position of ignorance when questioning orthodox religious practice. Progressive Muslims are ignorant, self-serving, heretical, and hypocritical according to these conservatives, who consistently accuse revisionists of being fifth columnists with nefarious ulterior motives.
Does it ever occur to the doctrinaire conservatives that perhaps reformists have indeed examined all the arguments in support of Sharia tradition, and still choose to reject them because they find the arguments specious? Intimate familiarity with a particular discourse, rather than ignorance of it, can enable us to identify its gaps and contradictions.
After the lecture, a couple of individuals challenged me to sit with them to discuss the flaws in my understanding of Sharia law. During their public diatribe against me, they dared me to sit with them one-on-one to debate some of these issues at length. I will gladly accept their challenge, but only if they maintain their civility and maintain an open mind.
As one who has experienced threats and intimidation at the hands of fundamentalists, however, I am convinced they cannot or will not meet either of my conditions.