A shock jock Imam. Who would have thought it? And yet, there he was, Al-Maghrib’s very own Ustadh Abu Eesa Niamatullah, tweeting away crass jokes about women and feminists on International Women’s Day, a day some set aside to recognize (even protest) the struggles of women in establishing political and social rights in various societies. Comments only got worse as men and women alike started to call him out on his misogynistic tone on Twitter and Facebook.
The self-proclaimed “Imam/scholar/alpha male/comedian/superstar” responded to the backlash with much glee. Among his responses were this sarcastic remark and eventually an even longer much more “bakwaas” explanation about his joke[s] and allegations like “feminists are… the enemies of Islamic orthodoxy” as well as concerns that the controversy may get picked up by “Islamophobes.” Ya miskeen! Maybe he should have thought of that before he made such jhokes. Yanni… Added to the fire were links to older attempts at humor (emphasis on attempt), like this so-called parody of Sergio Garcia’s “fried chicken” joke about Tiger Woods. The irony perhaps is that his bio on Al-Maghrib lists adab to be his expertise. Mashallah.
It should come as no surprise that the backlash that resulted produced a bunch of online campaigns and op-eds (this one included). Rabia Chaudry launched an online campaign to get Al-Maghrib to #FireAbuEesa while Hind Makki initiated #MuslimMaleAllies which was picked up by The Huffington Post. Both wrote corresponding pieces for their columns at Patheos.com. Sana Saeed wrote a piece for The Islamic Monthly to educate Niamatullah and the misinformed about the history and politics of feminism.
Meanwhile, Al-Maghrib issued a brief general statement about its recognition of IWD and reaffirming its commitment to the “Islamic principle of women’s rights.” Sheikh Waleed Basyouni, Vice-President and Head of Aqeedah and Adab at Al-Maghrib, posted that he has never received a complaint from a female student in Niamatullah’s five years of teaching at Al-Maghrib.
Prior to this, quite frankly, I had never heard of Abu Eesa/Niamatullah. From the little I experienced of him in the last few days, through his writings and YouTube clips, it seems he is trying a little too hard, not sure whether he aimed for the real talk style of Sheikh Suhaib Webb or the shock jock style of Rush Limbaugh – the last few days definitely have him seeming closer to the latter. A quick perusal through his Facebook (that facetiously lists him as a “Fictional Character”), shows he has at other times made some valid points in a few circumlocutory posts calling out self-righteous Muslim activists, al-Qaeda and misguided British Muslims wanting to go to jihad in Syria as well as parents who do not provide their children with some sort of sex education. This clip on YouTube about his mom and Christmas got a bit of a LOL out of me. He even has a pro-women post about how much we women put up with men that “hate on” women with teasing and sexism. His unoriginal IWD jokes on Twitter read as just that. His language, crass comments and arrogance, however, displayed in various spots is quite unbecoming for someone who holds himself out to be an imam/scholar of Islam, someone one would expect to hold to a higher standard than us average Mohammads.
And so we end up back at his comments about women and feminists – beyond the jokes and sarcasm to the baseless allegations, personal belief statements and assertions in his last two “apologies” – here and here. If I could armchair psychoanalyze for a moment: Niamatullah comes off as a man with latent anger that he is stuck with the burden of being a bearded brown man who is viewed in eyes of the Western world as violent, fanatical and oppressive to women simply by existing. He wants to appeal and seem badass to young millennial Muslim men and not have to conform to what he sees as societal PC bakwaas. He resents this because he (assumingly) does not beat his wife nor is oppressive to the women in his life and is not violent or fanatical – in his mind, he is a good guy who respects women, as he repeatedly tries to point out. Yet, still these women are out to get him because of some secular liberal Western influenced agenda to make all brown men pay for the crimes of a few. He is only teasing, after all. Boys only tease the girls they love. And he loves women so much, except for all these corrupt feminazis that keep refusing to accept that Islam has already given them all the rights.
Yanni. The Brown Man’s Burden is a tough one to bear. Ya Miskeen.
It is all a little bakwaas and incredibly arrogant.
If only Muslims believed in reincarnation and Niamatullah could be born again as a woman. Or who knows – yanni, maybe God has a sense of humor.
Nevertheless, Niamatullah is not the first public Western Muslim figure to make inappropriate jokes or misinformed statements about feminism. Off the top of my head I remember a certain male sheikh/teacher who posted The New York Times article Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex? with a facetious caption to women. It was quickly taken down when several of his online followers complained that the comments came off as inappropriate. There was the female motivational speaker whose much-praised “empowered Muslim woman speech” completely reduces feminism into “women want to be men” and over the years has made some really frustrating remarks about women’s rights in Islam. Many, including myself, have commented online and/or through email, and her posts have mellowed out in recent months. She has even been tweeting against Niamatullah’s posts. Then there was the much beloved male online media personality who, at a talk I attended, joked about the film Not Without My Daughter as an example of false/exaggerated negative portrayals of Muslims in Western media, extracting many girly giggles from the crowd of adoring MSA fans. Now this really upset me, not only because I knew him, but because I have lived through a similar situation (where I was the daughter). It took all my strength in that moment to get up in front of the crowd, shaking and in near tears, to tell him in a calm tone that while I respected him, what he said, even as a joke, was inappropriate and dismissed the experiences of women like me and my mother and those struggling to have such issues addressed in public Muslim forums. He did not have much to say in response, but he too, has been tweeting about the misogyny of Niamatullah’s rhetoric and has been promoted by a few with the #MuslimMaleAllies.
Not all crass jokes or misinformed comments have to become a means to communal damnation. And there is always a chance that engaging in constructive dialogue will result in shared learning. In each of the aforementioned instances and others I considered pointing fingers at their hypocrisy and writing rants out of years of frustration. But I also realized I do not hold animosity against any of them nor feel their body of work represents something I oppose in any fundamental way. Each provides inspiration for thousands of members of the Muslim American collective, a community that has been and still is struggling to find its identity/-ies and voice through individuals such as these. I understand why the backlash against Niamatullah is so strong and that his responses to many who have tried to engage him have been incredibly arrogant, even insulting, but it is important to remember that he is an agitator, someone who thrives off of getting folks riled up: the more people complain the more he pushes them. If constructive dialogue cannot take place, then ignore him; if that is too challenging, then make fun of him and his love for bakwaas. That is, after all, what he likes to think of himself as, yanni – a comeedhian.
Aside from the general reaction being outcry against a reactionary figure, the whole thing feels a bit Mindy Budgor – “I liberated the Masai women because they couldn’t do it themselves.” I feel uncomfortable that the campaigns being pushed are primarily by Americans who are not necessarily regular followers of Niamatullah or the Al-Maghrib Institute. He has a following regardless of Al-Maghrib, and for those who do follow him, such campaigns only reinforce their skewed ideas about women and feminism. There is no reason in this case to assume that the women at Al-Maghrib do not have agency to address Niamatullah and the Institute directly. At the time this was written, I heard from only one outspoken Al-Maghrib graduate who claimed to be vocal about Niamatullah’s “humor.” I hope to hear from more and that whatever initiative is ultimately pursued regarding his affiliation with the Institute the women of Al-Maghrib lead.
Nadia S. Mohammad is an editor for AltMuslimah.com.