INTERVIEW | Witness history through the eyes of an Islamic scholar

To read the first part: INTERVIEW | Dr. Akari Iiyama brings vital perspective to understanding Muslim countries

Unlike its American ally, Japan has a generally positive history of relations with Muslim countries, and its ties to Islam are not fraught with the history of conflict between Islamic and Western forces. To the same extent, however, most people in Japan know little about Islam.

JAPAN Striker recently met Dr. Akari Iiyama, one of the top scholars and public commentators on Muslim affairs in Japan. In the interview, the fluent Arabic speaker further explained the complex relationship between Japan and the Muslim world.

Excerpts continue below.

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Dr. Akari Iiyama

The Arab Spring

your new book, Under the Egyptian sky, is a gripping account of your time working in the Middle East. You certainly seem to have encountered a lot of negativity due to your gender and also the fact that you are not a Muslim and are from a foreign country. But you also write about your fascination with Egypt and other Muslim countries, and the friendships you made there. Please tell us how you ended up in Egypt and what you experienced.

I went to Egypt in 2011, at the very beginning of Arab Spring. As you will recall, the Arab Spring began with protests in Tunisia that built on long-standing dissatisfaction with the Tunisian government. In December 2010, a street vendor set himself on fire Tunisia in desperation after the government stripped him of his livelihood. It was the spark in the powder keg. Egypt also quickly boiled over in revolutionary fervor.

I witnessed the Arab Spring with my own eyes. What I saw was very different from what was reported in Japan or the West. Many in America, for example, see the Arab Spring in Egypt as a grassroots revolution, against the longtime US-backed dictator. Hosni Mubaraklater thwarted by a military coup.

Japan, too, had little understanding of the political and populist situation in Egypt at the time.

The reality is that the Egyptian people rose up in patriotism and led two revolutions, not one. The first was against Mubarak. the second was against Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed candidate that Egyptians elected after Mubarak was ousted. In 2014, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected president and re-elected four years later. All of this was a victory for Egyptian patriotism, very different from how it was covered up in the West and in Japan.

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Book cover: ‘Under the Egyptian Sky’ by Akari IIyama.

You write in Under the Egyptian sky that you encountered Egyptians with far less sense of patriotism than the average man or woman in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Arab Spring.

One interview I will never forget was with an Islamic State (IS) fanatic. This man was Egyptian, but told me that as a Muslim he wanted blow up the pyramids and the Sphinx, because they were symbols of a pagan culture. He also had participated in the explosion the two ancient rock carvings in Afghanistan known as the Bamiyan Buddhas. He seemed to have a great hatred for Egypt, and it clearly made others uncomfortable, even – especially – those who were devout Egyptian Muslims.

My testimony of Egyptian history has taught me that patriotism and religious devotion complement each other in the Middle East, and that the urges radicals and extremists restoring the caliphate, as with the jihadist I met who supported ISIS, is foreign to most Muslims.

This same man refused to speak to me directly, by the way. I went to our interview without full body coverage. He looked at me, said I was “‘awrah,” a word related to genital nudity meaning something like “shamefully exposed,” and demanded that I sit at the back of the room.

Islam and women

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Afghan women in full body coverage. (Image courtesy of PMS.)

One of the things that strikes me is that the Japanese scholars of Islam that you mention in your books are almost all male. Many of them have adopted Muslim dress and habits, and defend, even justify, the violence perpetrated by Muslims. But as you write in your books and chronicles, Islam is very different from a woman’s point of view. And you are one of the few women in Japan who is an expert in Islam.

There are female scholars in the world of Middle Eastern studies in Japan. However, while posing as relatives of Muslim women, they defend the Iranian Islamic regime, which forces Muslim women to wear the hijaband Hamas, which also forces women to blow themselves up and become martyrs.

In the West, there has been much debate about the requirement in many Muslim countries that women wear a head coversuch as a hijab or even a full body coveringsuch as a burka, chador, niqabor isdal.

In Japan, women are sometimes seen wearing these coverings, especially in areas of Tokyo with a high concentration of immigrants.

What many don’t seem to understand is that these types of coverings for womenalthough suggested by the Muslim scriptures, the Koran, are not mandatory. In the 1950s and 60s, many Muslim countries moved away from the strict interpretation of Islam and women became much more free to dress as they pleased. In Afghanistan, Iranand Egyptamong other things, women wore dresses and heeled shoes and did their hair in the latest fashions.

Today, however, the trend is in the opposite direction. Women lose their freedom. I write in my books about the Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine, who coined the term “black waveto describe the return – inspired by the rise of fundamentalism in some Muslim countries – to all-black clothing for women.

In Iran, women are often imprisoned for refuse to wear a headscarf. Many women in other Muslim countries also secretly dislike having to cover up in this way.

the Koran puts men above women in many contexts. I think many women in Japan would be shocked to learn that this is the norm in many Muslim countries – and that male scholars of Islam in Japan apparently endorse this view.

Religious and social dilemmas

It’s not always easy to speak candidly about sensitive topics like this. Have you had any negative reactions to your reviews?

When I denounced aspects of Islam such as the status of women in certain Muslim countries, I was accused of hate speech. But the facts are the facts. Women in Muslim countries very often face impossible dilemmas such as these, between religious and social pressures on the one hand, and their own desires and sense of worth on the other.

Lara Logan, the famous journalist in the United States, was repeatedly raped while covering the Arab Spring. She bravely told the world what happened and was also called an anti-Muslim for telling the truth. I respect her enormously. The truth is that Islam, in many ways, is hostile to women.

People in Japan, especially Japanese women, need to understand reality. We should not rely solely on Japanese male scholars of Islam for our information.

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Camii Mosque in Tokyo (By Wiiii – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Navigating the future of Islam in Japan

You have written, and argued in public appearances, that Japan must be ready to use the rule of law to deal with with the gradual increase of Muslim residents in the country. What do you mean?

Muslims often live by a separate law called Sharia. Sharia can be in stark contrast to national laws, especially in places like Japan or the United States. For example, some Muslims practice female genital mutilationthat the vast majority of Americans and Japanese find abhorrent.

When there are conflicts like this between Japanese law and custom and Muslim practice, Japan must strictly enforce Japanese laws and the Japanese way. We need to protect Japanese women and make it clear that Muslim residents will have to adapt to the rule of law here.

Assimilation is not always the strong point of Islam. In the case of Japan, there is a growing problem of Muslims demanding that cemeteries be built to be buried in the ground, leading to conflicts with local residents.

In Japan, burial in the ground is not illegal. However, many Japanese have a physiological aversion to it. If these problems increase, dislike for Muslims may increase. This is unfortunate for both Japanese and Muslims.

As I have said many times, I love Egypt, I love my Muslim friends, I am grateful for the experiences I have had in Muslim countries. Japanese and Muslims can live in harmony. But in Japan, Japanese culture should be respected and preserved.

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Author: Jason Morgan

Read more essays and interviews with Dr. Jason Morgan at this link.

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