Soraya Deen is a spiritual activist, lawyer,and the founder of the Muslim Women Speakers Movement, which seeks to promote the voices of Muslim women as leaders within their communities. She is also the co-founder of PeaceMoms, a Muslim/Christian interfaith organization and organized the first Interfaith Women’s Leadership conference at the Los Angeles City Hall in October 2016.
She is the author of PEACE MATTERS – Raising Peace Conscious children.
She graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project Dialogue Coordinator Elliot Friedland about her activism.
Soraya Deen’s activism journey began when, on September 11 2007, her then seven year old son asked, “Mommy are we terrorists?” She realized that words have the power to liberate and enslave, to give hope or to trigger despair.
It was also then that she decided to become engaged in social activism and civic action. Soraya is a South Asian Muslim and vehemently refutes any notion that all Muslims follow one Islam that is embroiled in and dominated by Middle Eastern culture.
In March of this year, she embarked on a tour to travel to Oregon – driving 1,000 miles and meeting 1,000 people. Across the state, large numbers had never met a Muslim. Her goal was to put a human face on who a Muslim is. She is planning to visit all 50 states and meet 50,000 people in the coming year.
She feels very strongly that “every enemy is someone you don’t know” and therefore has faith that dialogue, engagement and outreach can yield huge dividends in making progress on tough issues.
When she left the state the newspapers wrote, “Meet Soraya: A True American Muslim.”
The challenge, she says, is when she comes back to the community and she has to ask herself, “Am I a true Muslim?”
The patriarchy, misogyny and the unwillingness of large segments of religious scholars and community members to deconstruct Islam’s received theology is debilitating the community and in some situations fueling violent extremism.
Our youth are lured by the promise of the hereafter. We claim the Quran is perfect and go around as if we have nothing to learn from the world and Islam has everything to teach the world.
We talk of the text but forget the context. The ‘accept everything because it says so’ attitude is not improving our standing in the world.We are stifling free thinkers, we are freezing our epistemology.
To fight against this attitude, Deen is a fellow and leader with the Omnia Institute for Contextual Leadership. The Omnia Institute runs programs aimed at training new generations of leaders how to disrupt received theology and deconstruct parts which are no longer relevant.
Her counter-extremism approach can be boiled down to female empowerment and deconstructing received theology. The intersection of politics and policy also needs consideration, she says.
To Deen, Islam as it stands was packaged and interpreted by “men with beards.” She hopes to bypass these men and speak directly to women, women around the world — in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and even in the United States.
“We women have have the agency with our creator to interpret the scripture the way we choose to, not as dictated by men with beards,” she said.
She certainly puts her money where her mouth is. She was invited to lead prayers at the new women’s mosque in Berkeley California, Qal’bu Maryam, and did so with gusto. Deen described herself as the “least qualified but most prepared.”
“A movement is rising in America,” she says, “empowering women who interpret theology and who are imams.” There will be a meeting of female religious leaders in October in Copenhagen. One just finished in Indonesia.
“It’s a long walk, a lonely one sometimes.It could be easy if men would stand and support us.”
Since women are more collaborative and compassionate, in her opinion, Deen feels they will be much better placed than men to face up to today’s challenges. Women clergy would be able to counsel troubled young men and talk them out of horrific acts, she feels.
I personally want to tell youth, life is God’s gift to us and how we live it is our gift to God. There is a concept in Buddhism which says, ‘If one says this is the truth and everything else is untrue, he does not speak the truth.’ We must be humble in our faith.
Her perception of American Muslims is as a community under threat and which is constantly criticized for not doing enough to fight terrorism. Muslims are considered outsiders, which contributes to an identity-crisis, especially in the case of younger generations. This dual identity, or the lack thereof, can have devastating consequences, such as in the case of the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi.
“We are all looking to belong,” she pointed out.
Holding Muslims vicariously liable for terrorism can be toxic she says. Yes, Muslims have to do more from within to fight extremism. But they can’t be pushed to a wall. Non-Muslims ought to “talk to us, not about us. As long as we are at the table, we can have a discussion.”
Funding should be directed to women’s mosques to promote a new way of interpreting the faith, she argues. This way, women can give a narrative to the youth to deconstruct the received traditions and cope with contradictions, highlighting those passages which are best suited to a modern context and critically analyzing the violent passages in the text which find legitimacy with the extremists.
Deen doesn’t just talk about challenging extremism. She takes action.
Four months ago she traveled to Nigeria, where she met with local Christian and Muslim leaders to discuss effective on the ground strategies. The reason, she says, for Boko Haram’s success, is because of polygamy. In rural communities in Nigeria, men often have many wives and frequently as many as 8-15 children. These children grow up without stability and without money. Boko Haram gives them $5 to join up, and they are so poor they are willing to take it.
When Islam started 1,400 years ago, everyone was polygamous. But times have changed since then. The context has changed now. We don’t have men constantly dying in wars. We don’t have orphans and widows that need a man to protect them. Women are financially independent. The Quran says that one wife is best and all wives should be treated fairly. But these patriarchal men are still applying the wrong context. Someone needs to teach them that it’s not ok. We can help a widow, a destitute, without having to marry her. Whether or not we can treat them fairly is a non-issue.
She says to Muslims who are happy where they are, “Stay where you are but do not stay the same. Question every answer. It is time that Muslims stopped educating non-Muslims about Islam and started educating themselves about Islam. Understand the context, study the contradictions and be wary of claiming that the Quran is a perfect book. Focus instead on how you can contribute to a thriving, vibrant, living Islam, the one hijacked by the extremists.
When I asked her about backlash, she said it gets bad sometimes. She’s never had death threats, but she has received warnings of “serious consequences” if she doesn’t stop what she’s doing.
“I am always told to listen to some scholar or other to improve my knowledge, and that I need to know Arabic. ‘Too bad,’ I say to them. ‘Perhaps Allah only intended the Arabs who spoke Arabic to practice Islam then?”
“Islamic pluralism,” she tells me, “is what she is fighting for. She wants to see Muslim women focus on issues within the community rather than blaming external communities for their problems.
She says, “We must put our house in order first.” She wants to see a strong and vibrant organization to enforce pluralism of thought and contextual teaching, to welcome people to the conversations. “We have a lot to learn from Jewish pluralism,” she said.
Deen considers herself passionately pro-American and committed to respecting the law and the country.
“I am religious in the broader sense of the world; I am a humanist and a universalist. I am an American who is Muslim. I believe that we are all masterpieces of the master. I challenge patriarchy, because how come only the men in our community have the opportunity for their greatness to be expressed while we women have our greatness suppressed?”
My final question to her was what non-Muslims could do to tackle Islamism.
She said the most important thing was to “engage with us, treat Muslims with compassion and care. It’s important to support Muslim feminist organizations. I am an example of what is possible when women support each other. I have been surrounded by extraordinary women who believed from the goodness of their hearts that my voice also mattered. Sadly our initiatives and feminist movements are not funded or supported by mainstream Muslim organizations even in the United States.”
The reason she thinks is that these organizations are stuck in Surah 4:34 of the Quran, which reads: “Men are in charge of women by (right of) what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend (for maintenance) from their wealth.
“So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. But those (wives) from who you fear arrogance-, (first) advise them; (then if they persist) forsake them in bed; and (finally), strike them. But if they obey you (once more), seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever exalted and grand.” – (Sahih International)
“All Abrahamic faiths have been prejudicial to women. Religion has always collided with women’s freedom and rights. But in the Muslim world, we enforce this today. This must stop.
“In fact a girl scouts troop in Berkeley, California (Troop 33531) donated $400 to the Qal’bu Maryam women’s mosque, where I led a prayer with a sweet note that said, ‘Congratulations on starting such an important endeavor.’”
Soraya Deen was a pleasure to speak to and an inspiration. Her work for the community shows a caring compassionate activism that is pro-Islam, pro-American and pro-integration. We could all learn a lot from her example.