When to use the K word

As long as I’ve been a Muslim, there has always been a division among Muslims as to the use of the word kaafir, the Arabic word for unbeliever. Some, particularly born Muslims from non-English-speaking backgrounds and members of certain hardline persuasions, use it very freely. Others find it derogatory, whether or not they are aware of the racial connotations it has acquired. I tend not to use it on this blog, and the majority of its appearances here are in comments, quotes from others, and references to certain sects rather than non-Muslims in general. However, I take the position that, when using it in English, there is a difference between using it in reference to enemies of Islam or the community and using it to refer to non-Muslims in general.

Most English-speakers who have heard of the term think of it as a term of racial abuse, such as it was used by white South Africans against blacks. The origin may have been from their Malay indentured servants; however, I also read a book by the British explorer Richard Burton, who compared the Somalis to the “kaffirs”, presumably meaning black Africans who were not Muslim. Whatever its origins, the term is understood now as a racist term and even those who might hear a Muslim use it as such will probably think that there is a hatred behind it similar to that of racism (often correctly). If black, they might well take it as a straightforward racial slur; if not, they will wonder why you use it on them.

On Monday this week, this article by the columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown appeared in the Independent. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown comes from an Ismaili background, as she freely admits — in this article, she calls herself a “Shia Muslim”, but anyone who has seen pictures of Shi’ite women in Iran, or any other Shi’ite population (Lebanon, Iraq), will know that she is at variance with their practice. She writes this about Muslim female dress:

Islam in all its diverse forms entitles believers to a personal relationship with Allah – it cuts out middlemen, one reason its appeal extended to so many across the world. You can seek advice from learned scholars and imams, but they cannot come between your faith and the light of God. Today control freaks who claim they have a special line to the Almighty have turned our world dark. Neo-conservative Islamic codes spread like swine flu, an infection few seem able to resist.

The disease is progressive. It started 20 years ago with the hijab, donned then as a defiant symbol of identity, now a conscript’s uniform. Then came the jilbab, the cloak, fought over in courts when schoolgirls were manipulated into claiming it as an essential Islamic garment. If so, hell awaits the female leaders of Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Soon, children as young as four were kitted up in cloaks and headscarves (“so they get used to it, and then later wear the full thing,” said a teacher to me who works at a Muslim girls’ school) and now for the graduation gown, a full burqa, preferably with dark glasses.

Of course, the first half of the first paragraph is a lie when coming from that author. Ismailis (she is an Aga Khan follower) believe in infallible imams. In fact, it was one of their imams, as she tells it, who told their women to stop covering their heads, supposedly because it represented “progress”, no doubt really because it represented what their rich white friends were doing. An infallible spiritual leader and a direct relationship with God are not really compatible. In mainstream Islam, scholars are not spiritual intermediaries but interpreters of the law, and their rulings have some variety; they are not a monolithic mass telling women to put on “burqas”.

Refuting her particular claims here is not my purpose, however; I have already posted more than enough words to refute ignorant and dishonest anti-hijab polemicists. The point is that this woman has a long history of using her platform in the popular press to backbite and slander Muslims, and particularly women. She uses anecdotes and broad-brush, unsubstantiated claims to paint observant Muslim women as collaborators with wife-beaters and genital mutilators, or at best as unthinking collaborators in their own oppression. She is one of a particular variety of “ethnic” feminists who advance a kind of aggressive liberalism with a brown face, and uses a spurious “I’m a Muslim and …” claim to back it up, knowing that her audience will not question it as their definition of a Muslim is different from a Muslim’s definition.

Their claims to be feminists or defenders of women’s rights are, in any case, revealed to be specious when we consider that the right to wear hijab is not really what is under attack; what is at stake is the right to wear it — or, for that matter, to dress in any other way which goes against white norms, given that common black women’s hair styles have been an issue in the workplace also, in some places — and still have the same rights to education and employment as the majority population. That isn’t a priority for the ethnic liberal feminists, who are clearly annoyed that Muslim women reject their leadership, as clearly expressed by Rahila Gupta in the Guardian, with hyperbole about the hijab being “soaked in blood”, last week.

People took umbrage when I called the windbag Alibhai-Brown a “vile kafir hypocrite” on DeenPort the other day. I called her a hypocrite because of her dishonesty, even though her behaviour is different to that exhibited by Ibn Ubayy and his set in Madinah; it consists of approaching powerful non-Muslims and saying “look at me, I am a true Muslim” and egging them on to clamp down on normal Islamic behaviour, telling them that it isn’t Islamic, even though most Muslims know that it is. I called her vile for pretty much the same reason, and I called her a kafir because she is, and always was, despite her claims. I was pretty astounded by the hostility shown by some respondents when I used harsh words on her, particularly given the contempt she clearly displays for us — the comparison of the increasing popularity of hijab to the spread of swine flu should give anyone a clue. The truth is harsh, and in any case, I would not have used the same words on someone who didn’t claim to be Muslim.

We are not talking about the kindly tea lady in the local hospital waiting room here. The non-Muslims she backbites us to are not the old folk at the bingo hall. This woman is an enemy with a poisonous tongue and pen whose hostility to mainstream Islam has been common knowledge in the community for decades. If we look at who her friends are, we find Shaaz Mahboob, a character known by Muslims on Facebook for his “anti-mullah” sentiments, and Taj Hargey, a similar character who “got lucky” when a Muslim newspaper assigned him to the Qadianis rather than the equally faithless anti-hadeeth movement ([1], [2]). That they are not Muslims in itself is, of course, their business. The problem I have is when they pretend to be Muslim for as long as it takes to stab Muslims in the back by making dishonest claims about Islam and Muslims in the national media.

It is not as if I go round using the word “kafir” all the time. Generally, I do not use it in English, the only language I speak properly. My friend once told me that he would not call his son “Fakhr-ud-Din”, even though he liked the name, because of its vulgar connotations in English; if the Arabic word for unbeliever meant the same, or something banal like cheese-grater or doorknob, we would not use it either. Even in Arabic, other words are sometimes used: the names of the actual religions, or words like “others”. In this case, I used it on a person I consider an enemy of Muslims not because of her belief but because of her words which have been frequently treacherous, dishonest and slanderous. Why are some Muslims reluctant to call the enemy by his, or her, name?

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