Muslim Activists: Linking Allies Through the Web

by Kristen Minogue

“I pledge never to engage in, support, or remain silent about the physical, psychological, and emotional abuse of Muslim and non-Muslim women and children.” – Mohammad Khalil, online pledge from Muslim Men Against Domestic Abuse

In February, Mohammad Khalil launched Muslim Men Against Domestic Abuse. Part blog, part educational advocacy and part online community, the Web site seeks to unite Muslim men in actively opposing domestic violence. Members sign the one-sentence pledge above to solidify their commitment. The organization has raised a few eyebrows for singling out men, even from activists who, overall, support the idea. Khalil has said he does not want to establish men as “arbiters of morality,” but he does want to break the stereotype that domestic violence is simply a women’s issue. The 30-year-old assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign talks about his faith, his work and the impact of a signature—for better or for worse—in this edited Q&A.

What does the Quran say about fighting?

If you look at the whole Quran, it makes it very clear that fighting is for when you’re dealing with people who are oppressed. The Quran says, how could you not fight when there are men, women, and children who are crying out because they’re being oppressed? So even fighting, the Quran makes it very clear the concept of the noble fight. That is something most people agree with anyway. Most Americans agree with the concept of the noble fight. Fighting Hitler, that’s a noble fight. But the question becomes, “okay, well, what is and what isn’t a noble fight?” And that’s of course where you’re going to have lines that are drawn that are very different from one Muslim to another.

And do you consider what you’re doing now an example of a noble fight?

I think it definitely is. Not a fight in the violent sense. I mean, one of the terms that’s been totally misunderstood is the term jihad. Now some Muslims will say it just means a struggle, a spiritual struggle, and has no connotation to warfare. That’s not true. They’re tricking themselves. Jihad could have a relationship to warfare, but again as this concept of the noble fight, not any kind of fight, but the term jihad could be used to refer to other kinds of struggles.

Could you give an example of that?

I remember staying up late at night, and I was working on something, it was while I was in high school, and my father came in the room and he said, “You know, Mohammad, this is a great jihad that you’re doing.” And I’m sure he was not saying this was a great holy war. He was saying this was a great struggle …

Now the problem is that when Muslims try to explain the term jihad, they’ll go the other extreme of being totally apologetic, and so they discredit themselves in the process. But jihad, if you want an honest answer as to what is jihad, it means a struggle, it includes the noble fight, it also includes the personal, spiritual fight, to pray, to give to the poor. Jihad really touches on all kinds of things.

What difference do you think signing a pledge makes?

When I signed my own pledge, it cemented the decision and made it real. It made it so that if I were to hear someone abusing their wife or their child, according to the pledge, I can’t sit by and let that happen, let that be. And so the pledge is a sign of a commitment. And by creating this sense of unity, it’s not just me, now I’m going to do this and a whole bunch of other guys are going to do this, and we’re going to take a stand, we’re not going to let it be, we’re not going to remain silent anymore, and your name is published. It’s online. It’s always there. You can’t erase it. And so that kind of adds to the seriousness of it all.

Why do you think some people are hesitant to sign the pledge?

It has to do with that whole post 9/11 culture. You’re hesitant to sign your name to an organization that could be associated with x, y, and z….I can’t begin to tell you how important that is, how much that affects the way I view things. You have to be really careful these days. You so much as say the wrong thing, be associated with one group, and next thing you know you could be on somebody’s blacklist.

[Muslim Men Against Domestic Abuse is not affiliated with any other organization.]

You had mentioned that some in the Muslim community are in denial that domestic abuse is a problem. Why do you think that is?

Part of it I think has to do with a romanticized conception of oneself versus the other. When you’re living as a religious minority and you’re trying to assert your values, you’re trying to distinguish yourself from everybody else. One of the ways you do that psychologically is you say, “Whatever problems they have, we don’t have, because of their culture.” And domestic abuse is one of those problems.

Why do you think men are more reluctant to step into this fight?

If you look at men, usually, although there are victims of domestic abuse who are men, but usually, they are not the victims. And maybe they’re not familiar with what’s going on. And there are also cultural factors that are involved. If you are a man speaking out against domestic abuse, you might be regarded, as one gentleman noted on my Web page, a feminist. A Western feminist. So anyways, that’s the way some perceive it, that you are going to be a sellout. That this is not an Islamic thing; you’re just selling out. And I think that’s extremely unfortunate, that it’s come to that point.

Anything else you wish people understood about what you are doing?

What we’re doing in fighting domestic abuse, we believe we’re doing it because of our faith, not in spite of our faith. That’s an important point to make, because I think all too often today, we see people saying things like, oh, not all Muslims are violent, evil, and the implication is that if they are good, they’re not good because of their faith, they’re good in spite of their faith. They’re good because of their common humanity. They’re probably not familiar with their religion. Well I’m a professor of Islamic studies. I’ve spent my whole life studying Islam. And I find that demeaning. In my case, it’s because of my faith that I do what I do. It’s because of the inspiration of my faith that pushes me to do this.


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