To read part one: INTERVIEW | dr Akari Iiyama brings an important 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 tainted with a history of conflict between Islamic and Western forces. Equally, however, most people in Japan know little about Islam.
JAPAN Forward I recently met with Dr. Akari Iiyama, one of the foremost 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.
The Arab Spring
your new book, Under the Egyptian sky, is a compelling tale of your time 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, right at the beginning of the Arab Spring. As you will recall, the Arab Spring began with protests in Tunisia, building on long-simmering dissatisfaction with the Tunisian government. In December 2010, a street vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire in desperation after the government deprived him of his livelihood. That was the spark in the powder keg. Egypt, too, 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. For example, many in America see the Arab Spring in Egypt as a popular revolution against long-serving American-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was later defeated in a military coup.
Japan also has little understanding for the political and populist situation in Egypt at the time.
The reality was that the Egyptian people rose up in a wave of patriotism and carried out two revolutions, not one. The first was against Mubarak. The second was against Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed candidate elected by the Egyptians after the fall of Mubarak. In 2014, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected president and re-elected four years later. It was all a victory for Egyptian patriotism, very different from what was portrayed in the West and in Japan.
you write in Under the Egyptian sky that during the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square in Cairo you encountered some Egyptians who had a much lower patriotic sense than the average man or woman.
One interview I will never forget was with a man who was an Islamic State (IS) fanatic. This man was Egyptian but told me that as a Muslim he wanted to blow up the pyramids and the Sphinx because they were symbols of a pagan culture. He was also involved in blowing up the two ancient rock carvings in Afghanistan known as the Bamiyan Buddhas. He seemed to hate Egypt very much, and this obviously made others uncomfortable, even – especially – those who were devout Egyptian Muslims.
My testimony to Egyptian history has taught me that patriotism and religious devotion complement each other in the Middle East and that the drive among radicals and extremists to restore the caliphate, like the jihadist I met who supports ISIS, is most Muslim is foreign.
The same man, by the way, refused to speak to me directly. I went to our interview without a full body covering. He looked at me, said I was “‘awrah,” a word that refers to genital nudity and means something like “shamefully exposed,” and asked me to sit at the back of the room.
Islam and women
One of the things that strikes me is that the Japanese Islamic scholars that you mention in your books are like that almost all male. Many of them have adopted and defend Muslim dress and habits, even justifying violence perpetrated by Muslims. But as you write in your books and columns, Islam looks very different from a woman’s perspective. And you are one of the very few women in Japan who are experts on Islam.
There are women researchers in the world of Middle East studies in Japan. However, while pretending to be close to Muslim women, they defend Iran’s Islamic regime, which forces Muslim women to wear them headscarfand Hamas, which also forces women to blow themselves up and become martyrs.
There has been much debate in the West about the fact that women in many Muslim countries are required to wear a head covering, such as headscarf or even a full body covering, e.g burqa, chador, niqabor isdal.
In Japan we sometimes see women wearing these disguises, especially in areas of Tokyo with a high concentration of immigrants.
What many do not seem to understand is that although this type of covering for women is suggested by the Muslim scriptures, the Koran, are not required. In the 1950s and 60s, many Muslim countries turned away from the strict interpretation of Islam, and women became much more free to dress as they pleased. In Afghanistan, Iran and Egypt, among others, women wore dresses and high heels and styled their hair in the latest fashion.
Today, however, the trend is in the opposite direction. Women lose their freedom. I write in my books about Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine, who coined the term “black wave” to describe the return to all-black body coverings for women, inspired by rising fundamentalism in some Muslim countries.
In Iran, women are often imprisoned for refusing to wear a headscarf. Many women in other Muslim countries also secretly dislike having to cover themselves in this way.
That Koran places 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 Islamic scholars in Japan seem to support this view.
Religious and social dilemmas
It’s not always easy to talk openly about such sensitive issues. Were there negative reactions to your assessments?
When I have spoken out against aspects of Islam such as the status of women in some Muslim countries, I have been accused of hate speech. But the facts are the facts. Women in Muslim countries are very often confronted with such impossible dilemmas, between religious and social constraints on the one hand and their own desires and values on the other.
Lara Logan, the famous reporter in the US, was repeatedly raped while covering the Arab Spring. She has bravely told the world what happened and has also been branded anti-Muslim for speaking the truth. I respect her enormously. The truth is that Islam is misogynistic in many ways.
The people of Japan, especially Japanese women, need to understand reality. We must not rely solely on male Japanese Islamic scholars for our information.
Navigating the future of Islam in Japan
You have written and argued in public appearances that Japan must be willing to take advantage of this to deal with the rule of law with the gradual increase of Muslim residents in the country. What do you mean by that?
Muslims often live by a separate law called Sharia. Sharia law can be at odds with national laws, especially in countries like Japan or the United States. For example, some Muslims practice female genital mutilation, which the vast majority of Americans and Japanese find abhorrent.
When there are such conflicts between Japanese law and custom and Muslim practice, Japan must strictly enforce Japanese law and the Japanese way. We must protect Japanese women and make it clear that Muslim residents are expected to conform to the rule of law here.
Assimilation is not always Islam’s forte. In the case of Japan, there is a growing problem of Muslims demanding the construction of cemeteries for burials, leading to conflicts with local residents.
In Japan, burial is not illegal. However, many Japanese have a physiological aversion to it. As these problems increase, dislike of 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 must be respected and preserved.
Author: Jason Morgan
Read more essays and interviews by Dr. Jason Morgan under this link.