ASU faculty, students work to combat misunderstandings between Arab, American cultures
Professor Souad T. Ali says women may be uniquely suited to creating a new era of understanding
The United States is home to more than 320 million people from dozens of countries and ancestries, in addition to Native American peoples.
Arab countries make up 22 nations in the Middle East and North Africa where Islam and the Arabic language are dominant factors — more than 300 million people, a quarter of all Muslims.
With an undergraduate degree in psychology, Shabnam Rezai took a class in women and religion that inspired her to present a more positive view of Afghani women, told from their own perspective and experiences.
Ayla Perez’s Masters Applied Project for Women and Gender Studies examined honor crimes within imperialism, colonialism and regime change. As a case manager for substance abuse and mental health, she is using her expertise to obtain grants for a program for U.S. survivors of the crimes.
Souad Ali (left), Aisha Usman and John Carlson at a meeting of the ASU Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. The center has exchange projects with universities in Pakistan between the ASU English Department and the ASU Cronkite School.Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now
Also graduating this spring with her master’s degree, Perez studies honor crimes, including honor killings. The violence is almost always committed against women for a perception that they have “brought shame on their families,” usually for reasons such as refusing an arranged marriage, having sex outside marriage, becoming the victim of rape, or dressing immodestly.
“Honor crimes stem from older patriarchal or tribal societies,” Perez said. “It happens in every religion, including Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh. But there is no basis for it in any religion.”
The United Nations reports 5,000 honor killings every year around the world, although experts believe that large numbers go unreported. Honor crimes happen in most every country, including the U.S., but the numbers are under-reported, often mistaken for domestic violence or religious “custom.”
Perez works now to obtain grants to develop a program in the U.S. to recognize honor crimes against women and create support systems for survivors of honor crimes. She receives her master's degree in women and gender studies from the School of Social Transformation.
Ali believes that more scholars, particularly more female scholars, can better understand and correct some stereotypes, such as the many misconceptions around the role of women in Islam. For example, Ali points out, the Qur’an declares that men and women are equal in the eyes of God. It instructs Muslims to educate daughters as well as sons and states that women have the right to refuse a prospective husband and the right to retain their own assets, including owning or inheriting property.
“Muslim women scholars have made many contributions toward understanding the true meaning of the Qur’an,” Ali said.
She dismisses the claims of terrorist or fundamentalist groups such as ISIS (or ISIL). “They want to establish an Islamic state. There is no support for this in the Qur’an. Islam is a religion, not a state.”
Ali also points proudly to a long-standing tradition of science and medicine, which flowered in the early years of Islam. During the Dark Ages in Europe, the Islamic Golden Age flourished. Muslim and Christian scholars translated and preserved the classical knowledge of the Greeks and other conquered civilizations into the Arabic language. Books devoted to mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, engineering, medicine and other subjects were preserved in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Many of the books were later translated into the European languages, particularly during the Renaissance, from the original Arabic.
In addition to teaching, Ali believes that what most contributes to mutual understanding is sharing that which makes us human — literature, the arts and culture. To this end, through her leadership of the ASU Council for Arabic and Islamic Studies, Ali actively organizes Arabic film and poetry series, lectures and other events at ASU inspired by President Crow’s unique concept of the New American University
“Humanity, not religion, is the way we connect. The human factor is what people should focus on. There are always differences between cultures. We need to focus on the similarities of our own humanity rather than the differences.”
Souad T. Ali is an advocate for ASU’s innovative programs in multiculturalism, diversity, interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural understanding. She serves as affiliate faculty in the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, Women and Gender Studies, African and African-American Studies, and the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. A Fulbright Scholar, she is the author of “A Religion, Not A State: Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq’s Islamic Justification of Political Secularism,” “The Road to Two Sudans” and a book in progress, “Kuwaiti Women in Leadership Positions.” She has also published more than 100 scholarly papers, including conference publications for a national and international audience.