It would be hard to imagine a religion-beat topic more difficult to cover, in an accurate and balanced manner, than that of female genital mutilation.
Some journalists attempt to ignore the whole subject and, in particular, deny that it has anything to do with debates inside the complex world of global Islam. There is a tendency to say this practice is rooted in backward cultural traditions linked to sexism and patriarchy (in isolated groups of Christians and some other faiths as well) and that is that.
That stance is hard to justify if journalists actually listen to the voices of people involved in these debates, which often take place in private, or in Muslim community events that draw few observers from the outside.
Now one of these debates has gone public in the Virginia suburbs near the Washington, D.C., beltway, drawing coverage from The Washington Post -- "A Virginia imam said female genital mutilation prevents ‘hypersexuality,’ leading to calls for his dismissal." This report is much better than the norm.
However, there is one tension in the Post article that is worth noting, because it is linked to a crucial fact: In a debate among Muslim leaders, it is highly likely that people on both sides are going to quote Islamic writings and traditions when stating their case. Hold that thought. Here is the overture in this report:
A Virginia mosque has publicly condemned the words of its leading imam, highlighting lingering divisions among Muslim leaders over the controversial and widely rejected practice of female genital mutilation.
The Board of Directors at the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church said Monday that Imam Shaker Elsayed’s seeming endorsement of the outlawed practice as “the honorable thing to do if needed” ran afoul of both U.S. and Islamic law.
Elsayed’s comments during a lecture on child rearing and family life last month sparked a brief controversy last Friday after a right-wing watchdog group circulated a video clip of his speech online.
The fact that it took actions by conservative groups to force this into the open complicates matters for some mainstream journalists. However, the YouTube videos are there to see and to debate. (Readers seeking additional information about FGM itself can click here for a United Nations fact sheet on the subject, a report that does everything it can to minimize religious elements in these debates.)
The Post story does a very good job of documenting the degree to which mainstream Muslims in this particular community oppose this, for many, stunning statement by Elsayed. Left unanswered is whether there are believers in the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center who share the beliefs of their imam. The story does note:
Dar al-Hijrah’s Board of Directors ... said that it rejected Elsayed’s opinion, and that FGM is “prohibited in Islam as well as the laws of the land.”
“We at Dar Al-Hijrah, DO NOT condone, promote, or support any practice of FGM,” the board said in a statement. “The reference to “Hyper-sexuality” is offensive and it is unequivocally rejected. The Board of Directors is particularly disturbed by such comments.”
Anyone who knows what life is like inside large religious communities knows that a statement by a board of directors may not always represent a unanimous point of view in the whole body. The story does add:
One longtime Dar al-Hijrah member said that the controversy reflects ongoing tension between the more conservative and liberal ranks of the mosque’s leadership.
Now, there are two other important passages in this story that I want to highlight. First, the Post team -- in paraphrased material with no specific attribution -- states:
Although the practice, which is sometimes also called female circumcision, has no basis in the Koran or in the Bible, experts say it is perpetuated in large part because of false claims about religious obligations and health benefits, societal pressures and the desire to suppress female sexuality.
In his lecture, a video of which appeared on the mosque’s YouTube channel, Elsayed spoke about circumcision as the cutting of “the tip of the sexually sensitive part of the girl so that she is not hypersexually active.” He warned about the dangers of more serious forms of the procedure, but advised congregants to seek the advice of a Muslim gynecologist to see whether minimal action was necessary. He also warned that “in societies where circumcision of girls is completely prohibited, hypersexuality takes over the entire society and a woman is not satisfied with one person or two or three.”
That first paragraph is rather typical of news reporting on this topic and, frankly, assumes the point of view of anonymous experts on one side of the debate. Would Elsayed agree with the Post statement that there is "no basis" in the Koran or other Islamic scriptures for his beliefs?
This is where, later in the report, the Post team -- to its credit -- does include a hint that there are other voices, other documents, other traditions, in play.
While some classical Islamic texts endorse the practice, “it’s extremely important to know that the prophet Muhammad and his family did not experience female circumcision in any way, shape or form,” said Suhaib Webb, a popular imam at the Center D.C. who has a large youth following and who supports the call for Elsayed’s ouster.
What, precisely, do the words "some classical Islamic texts" mean?
I would assume that this phrase means that Elsayed would say that there are elements of Islamic tradition -- texts that he can quote -- that support his point of view on FGM, or what many would call "female circumcision."
What are those texts? What level of authority do they hold on other issues in Islamic life? If you search online -- using logical terms such as "Islamic texts," "Hadith," "female" and "circumcision" -- it's easy to find complex question-and-answer articles about this subject on Islamic websites.
Once again, the point is not to undercut the widespread condemnation of this practice among modern Muslims, especially among Muslim feminists in the West and in urban communities. The point is that it's hard to make sweeping statements that arguments in favor of FGM have "no basis" in Islamic writings and traditions. Is that an accurate statement?
In other words, the Post team admitted that there are debates inside Islam about this topic. That's important. The Post even stated, or admitted, that "some classical Islamic texts endorse the practice."
Now, it is important -- even if painful -- for journalists at the Post and elsewhere to listen to these arguments and quote what believers on both sides have to say.