Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/Gulf News

In recent years, the western media has been constantly churning out stories on the anomalies and forced imposition of Islam on other cultures and suggesting an impending war of civilisations. It is unfortunate that a few bands of power-hungry thugs operating under the cloak of an Islamic facade have helped promote this perception very rapidly. They do nothing more than defile Islam, a religion that does not beckon by force.

In the current scenario, thugs from two armed groups in Timbuktu are calling themselves Islamists — Ansar Dine and Mujao have begun imposing their own brand of religion on the hapless populace. These radical criminals who took control of the city a few months back through violent means are now requiring that the people follow their version of Sharia, which to their control-driven psyche means an attack on women’s rights. They have begun by demanding that all women be clothed in loose-fitting clothes and covered in black veils. The failure to comply with their demands would mean that a woman risks being whipped, disfigured or sent to jail on the trumped-up charge that she was not following Sharia. And they have been brutal in ensuring the application of their new laws.

According to an observer: “The Islamists announced that any woman who disobeys their rules will have her ears cut off and be sent to a new, all-female prison. Though they haven’t gone that far yet, they are still quite strict. On Thursday afternoon, as I was visiting a friend at the hospital, I saw a very pregnant woman arrive. She was wearing a white veil, so the Islamists asked her to go home and change. She explained that she was going into labour and that she lived two kilometres away, so she couldn’t go back. She ended up giving birth outside, on the sidewalk.”

Their rule is governed by the threat of corporal punishment for acts they deem to be a violation of their brand of Sharia. Punishments include whipping, amputations and in extreme cases the stoning to death of those in violation of Sharia. Just last month, one Timbuktu resident had his hand chopped off as he was charged with theft, while earlier, a couple was publicly whipped for indulging in extra-marital relationship. It is unfortunate for the residents of Timbuktu that such will be their plight until they get rid of this menace within their midst.

Another incident of forceful application of personal interpretation took place recently in a classroom in the southern town of Luxor, Egypt. According to a news report, a female school teacher was fired last week for cutting the hair of two 12-year-old girl pupils because they were not wearing the appropriate Islamic headscarves.

She defended her actions by stating that she had asked all her girl pupils “to put on the headscarf, saying it was required for girls older than 10 to do so. Our religious traditions make it obligatory,” she said. “It started as a joke with the girls when I told them I would cut their hair if they don’t wear headscarves. Last Wednesday, one of my boy students reminded me and gave me scissors from his school bag and I used them and cut small amounts of their hair”.

Her action drew immediate condemnation by a leading woman’s organisation who termed it as one of “illegal violations of human rights and the rights of children”. A human rights activist chimed: “Without exaggeration, we feel that many of the hardline Islamists feel empowered by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power to impose their strict views on society.” Many of the country’s top clerics had on previous occasions addressed the issue of head-covering as a matter of personal choice.

In the rural province of Qasim in Saudi Arabia, a Filipino male reported that he was accosted by two bearded men while walking down a street. He was then led by both arms to the nearest mosque where he was told to perform ablution (the washing of parts of the body prior to performing prayers). Following that, he was then led to the interior and told to stand in line with the praying congregation. When he came out, he called his wife and related the incident. “The weird thing is that I am not even a Muslim. Perhaps they didn’t understand my English when I first protested,” he said.

In the Quran, it is clearly stated: “Let there be no compulsion in religion”. And God says: “If it had been your Lord’s will, all of the people on Earth would have believed. Would you then compel the people so to have them believe?”

Why then are we, the majority who practice Islam peacefully, silent on the acts of these thugs who continue to defame our religion through their acts of forcing their version of religion down people’s throats? To them, it is all about the quest for power, carefully concealed under a cloak of Islamism. We should expose them for what they are, for our continued silence will only reinforce the negative perceptions that are growing day by day.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.