If you are reading this in the United States, you are probably wary, if not critical, of the religion of Islam. Since 2001, the media has paraded horrific images of Isis fighters, Al-qaeda tapes, or Hezbollah revolutionaries across our TV screens. But, recently, you may have noticed something: there are people who are pushing back on the stereotype, people who are pointing out that it is unfair and uneducated to claim that Islam is a religion of violence.
These same people are showing us a blind-spot in our cultural discourse—we don’t talk about good Muslims. But that is changing, isn’t it? In the last couple weeks, we have seen a girl from Pakistan win the Nobel Peace Prize. She is both a devout (and moderate) Muslim, and an advocate for women’s rights. There are many more like her, spread throughout the Islamic world. For my job, I interact with and learn about a variety of people working to combat human trafficking all around the world. Let me tell you about one of them in particular: a Muslim cleric who fights for freedom in Indonesia. People like him and Malala show us that there are certain issues that we can agree on because not because we believe in one certain religion, but because we believe in human freedom and dignity.
How did You Hear about These People?
Let me explain who I am, and how I first came across this Hero’s story. I use the term “hero,” and capitalize it, not because I failed grammar but because he was given an award by the State Department called the “Trafficking in Persons Report Hero” award. This award is given every year upon the publishing of the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. With each report, they name a group of people as Heroes. These are people who have been fighting to end modern-day slavery in any of its forms. Kailash Satyarthi, the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize along with Malala, was a TIP Hero in 2007 (See the article I wrote on him last week). I have the privilege of being the Program Manager for a web-based project concerning these heroes. The website we are building will celebrate and publicize the achievements of the 100 or so esteemed personages who have been named as Heroes since 2004. We go live in January, so keep your eyes peeled!
Kyai Husein Muhammad
Husein Muhammad earned the name “Kyai” which means “venerated scholar” in Indonesian through his work in education. He is the principal of a large school in Indonesia, but his title comes also from his prolific research on various theological issues as an Imam. Husein studied in Cairo, but came back to Indonesia and took over the family business, a pesantren, which is an Islamic boarding school. His school is located in Cirebon. But not only has he served as the principal of this school, he has also founded several NGOs, including the Fahmina institute which is a faith-based initiative to mobilize civil society in Cirebon, and is a commissioner of the National Commission on Violence Against Women. His wife works in the regional government.
In 2013, a website called Magdalene published an interview with Kyai Husein Muhammad, styling him as “The Feminist Ulema.” Check out that interview, if you have a chance. He began to interact with ideas of gender equality in the 1980s, and since has worked tirelessly on gender issues, among other human rights concerns. He has worked with reproductive rights and health, and, sometimes against opposition, empowered communities around Cirebon to fight for their rights. He mentions, as well, that issues of gender equality and women’s rights are not external to Islam. Many people, he argues, view these as westernized values. But he points out that this discourse has been a part of Islam since its earliest days.
He was given the Trafficking in Persons Hero award in 2006 for his anti-human trafficking work in Indonesia. These efforts were primarily through a massive media campaign. He passed out over 22,000 leaflets a week in various mosques, and engaged in external programs to teach people about human trafficking. He has written scholarly materials on human trafficking and Islamic law, among various other women’s rights topics. By engaging the schools in his area, he has made some incredible headway in preventing and eradicating human trafficking.
What is so important about Kyai Husein Muhammad? He is not the only Muslim to have won this award, is he? No. There have been some other incredible stories: Ansar Burney, a Pakistani activist with over three decades of incredible work behind him; Anas Aremeyaw Anas, a Ghanaian investigative journalist; several heroes from Mauritania (the political situation in Mauritania is not friendly to those who combat issues of slavery and so I won’t name them here), and others across the middle east and South Asia. And that is encouraging beyond belief. Because that reinforces that, no matter our beliefs, there are certain issues we can join together to eradicate from our societies and our worlds. But what makes “The Feminist Ulema” different is his explicit use of Islam to combat this plague, these inhuman acts. Whether it is actively stopping an exploitative process of recruiting domestic servants from Indonesia, or sitting at a desk and writing “unprecedented” articles arguing for gender equality from 13th Century Islamic texts, Kyai Husein Muhammad continues to fight for justice and equality in Cirebon.
Want to Learn More?
I hope that this caught your attention, or opened your eyes. I hope that you now hold a fair amount of respect for Kyai Husein Muhammad. I certainly do. And I hope that you want to learn more, both about Islam and the people who are fighting for good in that context and about modern-day slavery, and what YOU CAN DO to put an end to it.
Caleb Benadum was previously the Program Manager for the Trafficking in Persons Report Global Heroes Network. He graduated from Capital University with a degree in Philosophy, and the University of Cincinnati Law School with a Juris Doctor degree. Having spent much of his life overseas, he is committed to modern-day abolitionism and the promotion of human rights around the world.