Shia Followers has conducted an exclusive interview with Catherine Shakdam, the author of Arabia’s Rising – Under The Banner Of The First Imam, to discuss her faith as a Shia Muslim and her experience as a hijabi woman living in the West.
“In the light of rising Islamophobia and sectarian-based intolerance I imagine that Muslim women feel more vulnerable because they are more easily identifiable,” said Ms. Shakdam.
“The hijab has become a thorny issue in Western society and many women feel pressured.”
In what follows, the full transcript of the interview has been presented.
Ms. Shakdam, please tell us a little about yourself and how your faith has shaped your life. What are your thoughts on Shia teachings and doctrines? How relevant are they in meeting the needs of today’s modern world?
Catherine Shakdam: Well I was raised in a Christian household. Although if I’m perfectly honest, my religious education was very limited due to both my parents’ cynicism towards the Church. I mostly remember of Christianity an unwillingness to answer questions. To the extent actually that I felt we ought to blindly follow as opposed to reach belief through reasoning and critical thinking. This led me to be very distrustful of religions in general while I was growing up.
It was only when I reached University that I came to know Islam. It is Islam’s rationality that first drew me in. There is undeniable logic and objective universality to Islam. So much so in fact that one cannot help but become inspired by the depth of its teachings. Unknown to most, Islam is not limited to ‘religiosity’. Islam is a breathing body, a reflection and an expression of God’s Will. It has its own gravitational pull.
As far as my choice in between Sunni and Shia Islam I must say that there was never one to be made on my part. I believe that if left unburdened by others’ bias and cultural baggage, most students of Islam will naturally come to Shia Islam. Again, logic dictates that one follows the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad and such tradition endures through his household: AhlulBayt.
To deny such authority is to both deny and reject God’s command upon the faithful.
To recognize AhlulBayt is a religious duty. It is also an act of love. I personally cannot understand how one can at the same time embrace the teachings of the Quran and reject the authority of the Prophet’s household since their actions were in fact but a mirror of the Quran.
Islam’s teachings are as relevant today as they were yesterday or even centuries ago. Islam’s greatest wealth is in the absolute Truth it speaks. Credit really goes to our religious establishment and the great many scholars who dedicated their life to actualize Islam to our modern needs.
As a Shia Muslim woman, what problems have you encountered in Muslim societies as well as in other countries across the world?
Catherine Shakdam: Bias and prejudices mainly, on both end of the spectrum actually. I have found that people have very set views on converts and that despite what many people claim, we are not always welcome. As for Western society, well, many found it difficult to reconcile their opinion of what and who I should be with my conversion to Islam.
I think intolerance exists everywhere and it would be a mistake to think ourselves (Muslim community) immune from this on account we are a minority.
At the same time we should not let other people define who we are. Maybe society would be more inclusive of Shia Muslims, if Shia Muslims were more assertive in their conviction and less prone to justify their beliefs. People are entitled to their beliefs.
In the light of rising Islamophobia and sectarian-based intolerance I imagine that Muslim women feel more vulnerable because they are more easily identifiable. The hijab has become a thorny issue in Western society and many women feel pressured.
It’s interesting how a single item of clothing can drive so much controversy and lead people to assume oppression.
What role could you, or other Muslim women, play in that regard?
Catherine Shakdam: I think Muslim women should embrace who they are, however they see fit. We need to accept that people are often at different stages in their journey and being judgmental of them is not helpful. Instead we should try to empower each other through positive reinforcement.
Women as mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters have a very important role to play. We ought to remember that our most sacred tradition, Arbaeen, was made possible by the courage of one incredible lady: Lady Zaynab bint Ali. The idea that women are passive elements within society is therefore ludicrous.
There have always been talks about Muslim integration into Western culture. What’s your take on this matter?
Catherine Shakdam: I find the word ‘integration’ a little worrying as it implies that a person ought to change oneself to become acceptable. This idea that Islam clashes with Western culture is insane, and quite frankly, it’s screams of arrogance.
Let’s not forget that Western culture was built on the back of Islam’s thinkers. The Renaissance was made possible because of Islamic scholars. So to turn around and denigrate an entire faith out of warped sense of ethnocentrism is a little hypocritical to say the least.
I’m western and I don’t see how Islam clashes with western culture, other than the fact of course that Islam invites people to respect themselves and each other as opposed to the worshipping of one’s ego.
I think pressure comes from society’s need to have people conform. The West is said to be tolerant but really it wants everyone to be the same.
Do you think Islamophobia is on the rise, especially in Western societies?
Catherine Shakdam: It’s a difficult question because Islamophobia is really a social experiment engineered by the political class to rationalize its military pursuits in the Greater Middle East. The sad part is that society is misdirecting its hatred. Rather than blaming Islam for terror and radicalism it should point the fingers at Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism and their own governments for supporting such an intolerant ideology.
Catherine Shakdam is a political analyst, writer and commentator for the Middle East with a special focus on radical movements and Yemen. A regular pundit on RT and other networks, her work has appeared in major publications such as MintPress, RT, Press TV, the Foreign Policy Journal, Mehr News, the Guardian, Middle East Eye, the Middle East Monitor and many others. The Director of Programs at the Shafaqna Institute for Middle Eastern Studies, Catherine is also the co-founder of Veritas Consulting. In 2015 her research on Yemen was quoted and used by the UNSC in a resolution on Yemen Looted Funds. She is the author of Arabia’s Rising – Under The Banner Of The First Imam.