Saturday, 10 January 2015

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Monday 5th January 2015
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
University of Miami, FL

It’s been a difficult start to the New Year with a number of quite dreadful events covered in the news.  One place we hear about often in the news is Israel and Palestine where even the use of these identity markers can bring out impassioned emotions from both sides.  I fly out to Jerusalem today to take part in an American Muslim leadership initiative as the only non-American.  It comes as no surprise that many from all sides have mixed feelings.  It is clearly an extremely complex situation.  I’ve been to Jerusalem several times in the past and I’m all too aware of the politics of such a trip. 

However, I’ve always tried to steer clear of political traps and concentrate on the people.  Jerusalem, the Holy land, to Jews, Christians and Muslims is sacred to them all.  It is then clear that only an inclusive society will thrive and exclusivist claims will and actually always have failed. I remember listening to an American diplomat once who said that if the holy land was just a matter of real estate then it would have been resolved a long time ago. 

I travel to the holy land to see how every day Jews, Christians and Muslims li  I’m also intrigued to see the ways that the non-religious communities find themselves and co-exist.  No one is winning in the current situation and sadly the holy land continues to bleed.  I have very little hope in political systems or even political parties yet I have every hope in the every day man and woman who builds bridges.  It’s not an easy task, especially when we become arm-chair commentators far away.  Another reason why I want to go and immerse myself in the individual voices of Palestinians and Israelis as a Scottish Muslim who wants to see peace and equality in the holy land for all.  Every new year brings with it challenges with a mixture of hope toward the unknown. Our actions can be read and understood in various ways but at the end of the day we must be firm in building bridges.

Monday, 8 December 2014

NOTHING shouts Islam here by Vicky Allen, published in Herald Scotland (All Rights Reserved, Copyright)

There are no hijabs, minarets or prayer mats in Mona Siddiqui's working world. When we meet at Edinburgh University's school of divinity, where she is Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies, and search for suitable settings for the photo shoot, we find only heraldic shields, wood-panelling and black and white marble flooring. Nor is there anything that yells "Muslim" about Siddiqui herself. Of course her religion is there, as we sit down for lunch in a nearby restaurant. She doesn't drink alcohol. She eats only halal meat - here, she orders hot smoked trout, pushing aside the anchovies which she doesn't want. But she doesn't wear her faith. Rather she talks it, thinks it, analyses it, examines it, reads it, writes it and lives it.

Islam, she says, is never out of the public focus, and "for all the wrong reasons". "Most people see Islam in terms of conflict," she says. "The only way of talking about it seems to be through the prism of terror." When she speaks at events, many people only want to know about the veil and extremism. Yet most days of her life she thinks about neither. "I'm thinking about other things." Those things are reflected in her new book. Part memoir, part theological contemplation, My Way: A Muslim Woman's Journey, is a very personal book. Intentionally, it is not about politics, but about those issues that preoccupy all of us: "Love, marriage, children."

Siddiqui's conversation is littered with simple, philosophical ponderings, bite-sized thoughts for the day, and reflections on human connections. "The most important thing we do in life," she says, "is cultivate relationships - and that's what keeps us happy and makes us sad."

Her book is rich in such musings, backed up with more complex theology and quotes from culturally diverse figures such as the poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Jalal al-din Rumi. But it also tells her own life story and that of her parents, who came to Britain from Pakistan in the 1960s, with their three daughters, including five-year-old Mona. Although initially unsure if they were leaving Karachi for good, they decided to stay here for their children's education, and became part of the experiment of British multiculturalism.

The book contains colourful descriptions of the family home in Huddersfield, and of Eid, a grand feast her mother always insisted on hosting. "As children and even as young adults," writes Siddiqui, "we just helped out, never quite understanding why we always did the inviting, why we always had to cook so much and why my mother was so insistent that it was bett

er to have guests than be a guest." The Eid feast is a practice she continues with her own family, her husband and three sons. "Otherwise," she explains, "how will the children know what it should be like?"

My Way doesn't shirk the hotly debated politicised issues that revolve around Islam. Siddiqui sets her faith in its historical context, construing the Qu'ran as a text that sees the world through a man's eye, and represents the patriarchal view of its time.

When I raise the issue of the veil, I can sense her sighing inwardly. Islam, she fears, has been reduced to "a dress code". "People," she says, "have stopped talking about so many other things to the detriment of society. There are larger issues: education, gender equality, domestic abuse."

There is a tendency, she notes, to parcel people into categories. "If a woman covers her head that might be considered quite extreme or conservative," she says. "But that girl might be very liberal in other ways." Appearances can be deceiving. In Siddiqui's book, she relates the story of how a Muslim academic told her that some niqab-wearing Muslim women in her university were leading double lives. Many, the woman said, would come into her office asking for the morning after pill.

Siddiqui has never made a habit of donning the veil. Even when she married into her husband's hijab-wearing family and was gifted countless scarves, she declined to wear them. "The family never complained," she recalls. "I didn't do it out of defiance. It just wasn't something that I was interested in." She has occasionally worn a veil out of respect. Aged 18, on to Saudi Arabia where her father was then working, she wore the burqa. In a 2008 radio interview she recalled that, far from finding the garment oppressive, she enjoyed being able to "smirk and laugh and joke about everything underneath that burqa". Back home in Huddersfield, she even wore a long, black mackintosh and head-covering to recapture the "wealth and exotic atmosphere" of the Saudi experience.

Siddiqui, who in 2011 received an OBE for services to inter-faith relations, is perhaps best known as a contributor to BBC Radio 4's Thought For The Day, but she is a regular commentator on Islamic issues in other parts of the media - and remains one of the few high-profile female figures in her field.

Although interested in women's rights, Siddiqui does not describe herself as a feminist. She laughs when I mention the word: "Oh gosh, no. I don't like labels. I don't like Muslim labels, I don't like secular labels." Nevertheless, she shares many feminist concerns. "Things like honour killings, forced marriage, or women not being allowed to have a voice, not being allowed to do certain things: these are big issues," she says. "For a lot of women from Islam even just making their voice heard is a big jihad [struggle]. It means they've gone against so many moral codes."

Siddiqui's mother, who grew up in India, probably had "very few freedoms". "But maybe she didn't see it like that. She was a determined woman so whatever culture she grew up in, she made the best of and took it a stage further." She was also strict with her children. Siddiqui wasn't raised with the freedoms many of her school mates had. She wasn't allowed to go to the cinema (except in daytime), or discos. "You just live with it," she says. "I mean you can rebel against it, but that wasn't something I was going to do. I think I was too close to my mother."

Siddiqui and her sisters appear to have adored their mother, who wanted one of her daughters to be a doctor, one a lawyer, and one a lecturer - which is what they became. Siddiqui also knew she would be expected to have an arranged marriage. People are often surprised that she and her accountant husband were matched in this way. "They can't quite link who I am now with the fact I had an arranged marriage. People have perceptions about what it is - that it's something quite narrow and limiting. But I always say it doesn't matter how you marry, it's what you do after you marry."

It seems to have worked very well for Siddiqui and her husband Farhaj, who have been married more than 20 years. The match was arranged through family friends. She recalls feeling, when they met: "This man will make my life comfortable and I will enjoy my life." On marrying, she moved to Scotland to live with him. "When we married, I felt relief. I was with somebody who understood me. He was almost like a husband and a friend rolled into one."

They were "on the same page quite a lot". They wanted, for instance, to be the primary carers of their children, and not rely on extended family for childcare - instead, using nurseries. They didn't want to find themselves living in different cities because of work. What's striking about Siddiqui's description of their life together, is that their arranged marriage seems the quintessence of a modern relationship. They both work. She does more of the domestic chores, but in the juggling act of nursery, school runs, conferences, time away from home there has been a real sense of shared parenting.

Her sons are now 13, 18 and 20. She does not plan to arrange marriages for them. "I say to them," she says, "if you can find somebody you feel you can make a life with, then just let me know." She has, she says, given them more freedoms than she and her siblings enjoyed. Would it be different if her children had been girls. "Yes. I would have been more conservative."

One of the big cultural decisions she made was to speak Urdu at home. "If you don't know the language you've lost a sense of something." Like her parents, she wants to give her children the best of her background. For her mother and father that meant the best of "the real culture of the subcontinent": not its food and dress, but its "literature, culture, music, thinking". Knowledge was what mattered to them. Her father, a consultant psychiatrist, was a "very well-read man" - and her mother was an avid reader. They made regular trips to Bradford, where they would rake through the Urdu bookshops.

In the book, Siddiqui writes movingly of the loss of her mother. She was in her 30s, had just started a job at the University of Glasgow and was occupied with bringing up her own young family, when her mother was struck by a sudden brain haemorrhage. "It took almost four years before I could wake up in the morning and not feel a faint ache at the front of my head reminding me that she was no longer alive," she recalls. Two years later, her father, who had been already affected by a stroke, also died. He had "sobbed loudly" on the death of his wife. She speaks very inspiringly about these two people, who bonded in the risk they had taken together in starting a new life away from their homeland.

On a visit to Delhi for a family wedding, Siddiqui was struck by the "emotional and physical challenge of how families and couples lived in close proximity, often in the same house". She found the intensity and lack of privacy unappealing. She was also shocked by the living conditions in her father's home village: no running water, no real electricity, hardly any furniture. "I couldn't quite picture him growing up with so little," she writes in her book.

That sense of family and community, deeply enmeshed, is not something she has fostered in her own life. The intensities of juggling work and family life seem to have left little place for "the community". Yet, she seems to perceive this connectedness as something we are losing all the way across society. "We only want to do things in our own little environment. Is that what's leading to so many communities breaking down? Where is the happy compromise? The being part of something bigger while keeping your own space and independence."

She quotes frequently from The Culture Of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch, which describes how "there are more and more single people doing things for our own satisfaction but ultimately feeling less fulfilled". In a recent piece on extremism she theorised that emotional unfulfilment, rather than politics, might lie at the heart of why some are attracted to extremist violence.

My Way is just one small tale in the wider story of British multiculturalism. Siddiqui believes it is the job of minority immigrants, not the host communities, to make it work. Yet she also appears slightly despondent about the possibilities of diverse groups living side by side "meaningfully". "In terms of issues like intermarriage," she says, "there are communities where there is very little movement". Who you are happy for your children to marry, she says, is a true test of how liberal you are. But even she fails a little on this. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't want them to marry within their faith. And that's partly because I know marriage has enough hurdles without adding extra hurdles."

Talking to Mona Siddiqui is a comforting break from the daily media assault of stories about violence and Islamic extremism; a reminder that there remains a strong, liberal strand to British Islam. Who is listening to her? It turns out Siddiqui is well aware of her audience. Whether at conferences, or musing on the radio, she is not, for the most part, playing to Muslims (she has only been invited a Muslim-only conference three times in her life). Rather, she says, she is talking to "white, fairly secular people".

People like me. We, it turns out, are the ones who like her message.

My Way: A Muslim Woman's Journey by Mona Siddiqui is published by IB Tauris

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Why I don't believe people who say they loath Islam but not Muslims - It is psychologically unnatural to claim that you hate an ideology without hating the people in whose lives it is expressed - Andrew Brown

Published in Guardian
Wednesday 5th November
Copyright, All Rights Reserved
It is a trope among people who loathe and fear Islam that their fear and loathing has nothing in common with racism because Islam is not a race, the implication being that hating Muslims is rational and wise whereas hating black people is deeply irrational and stupid.

Some people who claim that Islam is profoundly evil will also say that they bear Muslims no ill will but I don’t think they are telling the truth. It is really difficult and indeed psychologically unnatural to claim that you hate an ideology without hating the people in whose lives it is expressed. Religions, nations, and even races are all shared imaginative constructs (although nations and races have other characteristics as well) and if you really want to extirpate them, you must extirpate the people who imagine them as well.

I remember George W Bush explaining that we were not going to war with the Iraqi people, but with the Iraqi government. Since then, something like a million of the Iraqi people have died as a result of our not going to war with them. The distinction is no doubt a great comfort to their surviving relatives but it’s not very useful for predictive purposes.

Racial and religious hatreds have one thing in common: they are not inspired by the race or religion of the hater, but by the religion or race of the victim. This is clearest in the case of antisemitism, which can appear as either a racial or a religious hatred, or indeed both. What’s constant is that it involves hating Jewish people, whatever the reasons given. Similarly, if you hate black people, you hate them on racist grounds whatever the colour of your own skin, and if you hate Muslims, Catholics, Quakers or Mormons, you hate them for their religion – whatever your own beliefs. So it is perfectly possible for religious hatred to be motivated by atheism and it may be quite common in the modern world.

The claim that Islam isn’t a race and so it is entirely rational to hate and fear it gains its moral force from the implicit claim that there is something uniquely horrible about racial hatred. I don’t think there is, though I see why we assume it: 50 or 60 years ago racial prejudice was an entirely natural part of English life. In order to change that, it was necessary to mark it as a uniquely dreadful and disfiguring condition: racism became a kind of moral leprosy. Without in any way wishing to roll back that progress, it’s worth noting that in other societies and at other times racial prejudice has not been the most urgent incitement to communal hatred.

But if we allow that the crimes of Stalin, or of Mao, were comparable to those of the transatlantic slave trade in ambition if not in duration, they are not excused in the slightest by saying that the most terrible atheist dictators were not very racist at all.

Stalin and Mao would have enthusiastically endorsed Sam Harris when he wrote that “there are some beliefs so terrible that we are justified in killing people just for holding them”, just as they would have endorsed his defence of torturing prisoners.

In the end, the position of people who claim that hatred of Islam is somehow superior to hatred of black people is pretty much like Alan Partridge boasting that at least he’s not David Brent.

Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens: 'Muslim community criticised me for picking up a guitar again' Yusuf Islam – formerly known as Cat Stevens – talks about his controversial return to music

Yusuf Islam – formerly known as Cat Stevens – has rarely been seen on stage since he converted to Islam in 1977. In recent years, however, he has returned to live performing and, with new album Tell 'Em I'm Gone out last month, Yusuf played two sold-out gigs in London this week as part of his European tour.
The British musician has now revealed that his decision to start producing and performing music again led to criticism from some Muslims.
"I was getting criticism from the Muslim community: why are you picking up a guitar again? What's happening to you?" the 66-year-old said in an interview with AFP.
"I say: listen to me, this is part of Islamic civilisation, we have lost our contact with it, we lost our vibrant approach to life and to culture."
Yusuf, who is performing songs from the new album, as well as classics such as Wild World, Moonshadow and Peace Train from his 1960s and 1970s heyday on the tour, said of his dual identity:

"I'm a mirror glass for the Muslims as well as the Western world, which looks at me in a slightly different way, but they are looking in the same mirror."
Yusuf will also return to the United States for his first tour there in 35 years. It comes 10 years after he was banned from the country after his name appeared on a no-fly list – a fact he blamed on mistaken identification.

"I feel very welcome now," he said and described his inauguration into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 as a "significant moment where they kind of remembered me".

"I think it's [the tour] going to be pretty good, I'm hoping," he said.

"One song I do is The First Cut is the Deepest. I try to remind people I wrote that song, not Rod Stewart." Yusuf continued.

When he first converted to Islam in 1977, Yusuf hung up his guitar to dedicate himself to philanthropic and educational work.

He attracted controversy in 1989 when he defended the fatwa issued by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini calling for Muslims to kill British author Salman Rushdie for blasphemy. He later dismissed his remarks as in bad taste, but there are many who still reproach him for not apologising.

After his US experience, two British newspapers alleged that he was involved in terrorism. Yusuf successfully sued them for libel, but the whole experience has left its mark.

"It's always on the knife's edge as far as I am concerned," he said of his relationship with the media. "I can never quite trust anybody anymore."

Everyone, however, is welcome to come and see him perform live. "People who want to remember me as Cat Stevens – welcome. Those who want me as Yusuf, you're here," he said.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Islamic State lacks key ingredient to make ‘caliphate’ work: eunuchs By Thomas W. Johnson and Richard J. Wassersug October 21 (Washington Post, All Rights Reserved, Copyright)

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed Islamic State as a Muslim caliphate on June 29, 2014, with himself as caliph, a term reserved for a successor to the prophet Muhammad. His would be the newest caliphate in a line extending from the Rashidun Caliphate (632-661), through the Umayyads (661-750), Abbasids (750-1517) and Ottomans (1453-1924). Each of these earlier caliphates, however, had a feature that the Islamic State lacks and which may not even be possible for the newly proclaimed “state.”

The Ottoman Chief Eunuch was an influential figure. In this and other caliphates, eunuchs supervised the harem, the princes, the financial affairs of the palace and the mosques, as well as controlling access to the ruler. Photo postcard 1912 (Image 1)

Currently, the Islamic State is more of a marauding horde than functioning state. It operates more like the Vandals or the Ostrogoths of European history rather than any historic caliphate. Its “citizens” are self-described warriors (jihadists) killing men, capturing women and grabbing booty as they go. Many of its fighters are foreigners from Europe, North America or other Middle Eastern countries, rather than locals who are the core citizenry for anything that can legitimately be called a state.
Beyond effective use of social media for recruitment, there appears to be little of the governance that makes this state a true state. The Islamic State’s goal is clear: “purifying” Islam through elimination of competing religious ideologies, whether they are held by other Muslims, such as the Shiite, or practitioners of other religions, such as the Yazidi and Christians.

What is a state without a capital?

While al-Baghdadi has appeared in the Syrian provincial capital of Ar-Raqqah, the Islamic State has yet to establish a proper capital. A true state needs a central place to which taxes are paid and from which laws, regulations and other administrative functions descend. Thus far, funding for the Islamic State seems to come largely from smuggling oil, extortion and bank robbery, and not from taxpaying citizens.

Creating a stable capital will be difficult. With the weaponry the Islamic State has acquired, it can fight a ground war. But previous caliphate capitals had walls to protect their seat of government from attack. Such defenses would be ineffective now. As the recent air assault by the United States and its allies shows, a Topkapi today would be fragile in the face of modern ballistics.

No above-ground capital would be safe for the Islamic State. To protect its control center from bombardment, the caliphate would need to bury itself in tunnels, like termites (or al-Qaeda). But even a buried bastille would need to be some 60 meters down to be safe from bunker-busting munitions like the GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator.

Should the Islamic State manage to create a political state with a capital, how closely could it model its governance upon the historic caliphates it claims to emulate? In all preceding caliphates, power was demonstrated, in part, by the number of women the caliph controlled. Hundreds of women were impounded in the palace from which government decisions emanated. Most of the women were not for sexual pleasure, but simply to demonstrate dominance.

At the moment, the Islamic State’s systematic killing of men and taking of women performs as a predatory horde rewarding its warriors more than as an organization developing the governance of a true caliphate. A core question is whether the new caliph will be able to maintain and control the women he acquires as well as his predecessors did. And who will handle the daily governance for the new caliphate to maintain cohesion in the state?

Caliphates relied on eunuchs

All previous caliphates relied on a special class of bureaucrats to provide stability and statesmanship. Those were eunuchs, who were unable to impregnate the women sequestered in the palace. Eunuchs were without family and dependent upon the caliph for support.

For four millennia and through many different Asian empires and caliphates, eunuchs proved themselves to be efficient governors. Their presence was, again, a sign of the power and authority of the ruler.

The number of women and eunuchs in the central palace during the various caliphates could be quite large. The Caliph al-Muqtadi (908-932) presided over a palace that contained 4,000 women, 7,000 eunuch guards and menial laborers, plus 4,000 eunuch bureaucrats to administer the realm.

The Sultana Served by Her Eunuchs, 18th-century painting. (Wikimedia Commons/Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo (1719-95) (Image2)

When the Fatimid caliphate fell in 1171, the seat of government had 12,000 members. Only Caliph al-‘Adid and his immediate male relatives had intact testicles. The rest were women and eunuchs.
As long as the Islamic State persists in beheading rather than castrating the males it captures, it has little hope of resurrecting a historic caliphate. Granted Islamic State is already acquiring women, but it has no one to guard them for the caliph and no infertile functionaries to enact the authority of the state.

While it has been less than a century since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, it is clear that a key concept for continuity with the great caliphates of the past has been lost. Simply stated, if the Islamic State doesn’t build a deeply fortified city and start producing eunuch bureaucrats, it will never have the stability and endurance of historic caliphates. The best it can hope for is to be recognized as a 21st-century predatory horde.

It is an academic question as to which is more barbaric: to behead (murder) or to castrate (mutilate). But of the two choices, if Islamic State continues along its current path, it is likely to be remembered like the Vandals – that is, as murderous marauders who get a brief mention in high school history classes.

There is no reason to believe that the state the Islamic State aims to develop will be less barbaric than its fighters’ current “jihad.” But al-Baghdadi will have to change how his followers process prisoners if he is sincere about getting his caliphate up and running.

'Violent' Muslims? 'Amoral' atheists? It's time to stop shouting and start talking to each other The logic of blanket statements falls apart when you’re confronted with the diversity of the religious and nonreligious experience


Lost in the venomous arguments that have recently been flying back and forth between Muslims and atheists – on HBO and on op-ed pages, in the United States and beyond – is just how much these two marginalized, underrepresented groups have in common.

According to a Pew poll conducted this year, Muslims and atheists are the two least favorably viewed religious or ethical groups in the US. Both communities are severely underrepresented in the general population – roughly 2% of Americans identify as atheists, compared to 1% for Muslims. Both face rising levels of animosity from the general public. And both tend to be defined by the loudest voices within their communities.

The media may be saturated with images of Islamic terrorists and suicide bombers, but a 2011 Gallup survey concluded that Muslims are actually more likely than any other religious or ethical group in America to reject violence against civilians. At the same time, the vocally “anti-theist” atheists who dominate the airwaves and the bestseller lists may get all the press, but a 2013 study from the University of Tennessee indicated that less than 15% of atheists fall into the “anti-theist” category.
So why hasn’t there been more dialogue and solidarity between Muslims and atheists? Can’t we all just get along?

The divide has to do in part with our natural inclination to retreat into our own communities or get defensive when confronted with difference. As a result, stereotypes about both groups not only go unchallenged – they become amplified as each side clings to its preconceived notions of the other. While it’s certainly not the only cause, the amplification of this “us against them” attitude has contributed to large majorities of Americans labeling Muslims as “violent” and atheists as “amoral”.
The irony is that when atheists and believers get to know one another, they often discover that many of their values are not so different after all. That is something that we, a Muslim and an atheist, have learned from our friendship – even as we acknowledge our differences and disagreements.

We’re not alone in recognizing the power of relationships to overcome differences. Research shows that simply knowing someone from another religious or ethical group often leads to more positive views of that group. That’s why personal relationships are indispensable when it comes to changing how we talk about religion and atheism. When you know and admire a Muslim or an atheist, it no longer makes much sense to make sweeping generalizations about either group as made up of fanatics or bigots. The logic of blanket statements falls apart when you’re confronted with the diversity of lived religious and nonreligious experience.

When 46% of Americans think Islam is more violent than other faiths but only 37% even know a Muslim, and when atheists remain one of the most distrusted groups in the country, it’s clear that a conversation between these two communities could benefit both. But that won’t happen until we Muslims and atheists commit to spending less time speaking past one another and more time speaking with one another.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Muslims and atheists will suddenly find themselves in absolute harmony. We will continue to debate and argue with each other, confident that our conversations may bring to light as many challenges and contradictions between our communities as they resolve. Pluralism isn’t relativism; it isn’t the erasure of differences, or even its embrace. It is the recognition that differences exist, and that the resolve to engage them is a good thing, a necessary thing.

Nor does it mean that we should only lift up the best in ourselves and others while whitewashing the real problems that exist in both of our communities. There is a great deal of work to do in the Muslim community concerning attitudes about and practices affecting LGBTQ people, ex-Muslims and women. At the same time, the atheist community continues to struggle with fraught debates over anti-theism, sexism and racism among atheists. But as we work to address these problems within our communities, we can also benefit from looking beyond our borders and learning from those outside.
Or we could just go back to shouting at each other on TV.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

New Academic Appointment - Celtic Connections - Scotland and Ireland

Today I have accepted a position at the University College, Cork (Republic of Ireland) as Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam. I will be joining and helping shape Ireland's first secular Department of Religions within the College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences from September 2015. I left Scotland in 2009 with no idea how long I would remain in the USA. From a year at Ithaca College and now my fifth year here at the University of Miami, I am grateful to both institutions for their support during the last few years. I cannot express in words how excited I am about returning closer to home, especially in this senior capacity. Many mentors and friends have advised me in the last few days/weeks and I am grateful to them all.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Want to end sexual violence against women? Fix the men. A crisis of masculinity needs to be addressed in order to see a reduction in sexual violence against women.

Published at alJazeera - Aug 13th, 2014
All Rights Reserved, Copyright

The Global Summit to End Violence Against Women in Conflict took place in London in June 2014, with 1700 delegates from 129 countries and 79 ministers attending, drawing much-needed attention to the problem of women suffering sexual assault in war zones.
Yet as I studied the programme's fringe events and followed the coverage in the news, I wondered what exactly a conference in London could truly do, beyond the call to action, to help women in places like Syria, Iraq, or Egypt, where women have suffered systematic rape and sexual assault as a "weapon of war", as summit keynote speaker Angelina Jolie put it.

It's vital to commit to tackling sexual violence in conflict and supporting victims, as the summit's action statement outlined, as fresh conflicts erupt across the Middle East and South Asia. But while the summit stated its aim was to "end the use of rape and sexual violence in conflicts around the world", it didn't give more voice to key elements: honesty about the true origins of the violence - the skewed concept of masculinity in patriarchal societies, which operates in both war and peace - and the concomitant need to confront male perpetrators of violence against women with a prescription that goes beyond the conventional formulae of legal reform and punishment for sexual crimes.

Amanullah de Sondy, assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Miami and author of The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities, identifies a type of rigid, patriarchal form of masculinity in Muslim men that acts out at times in the form of sexual violence against women. "The issue is the global crisis of Islamic masculinity," he says. "Women are finding their voice and position in society through God and this unsettles patriarchy." But De Sondy points out that "the issue is actually not with Islam or its theology". He adds that "sexual violence against women is being challenged by men and women who seek to dismantle these rigid forms through the very foundation of Islam."
This global crisis is being played out daily in Pakistan, where patriarchy has historically been deep-seated and rarely questioned, but at the same time where women are awakening to their rights and responsibilities and claiming them eagerly, using Islamic scripture to justify their choices.

In May, Farzana Parveen, 25 years old and three-months pregnant, was murdered outside a Lahore courthouse because she married out of free will, a right guaranteed to women in Islam; her husband reneged on the dowry agreement with her family, who pounced upon them and bashed her to death with bricks. Ms Parveen was only one of the hundreds of thousands of women who face similar violence because of the notion that women's lives are secondary in importance, disposable by nature to the needs and whims of men.

Hundreds of NGOs, organisations, local and foreign, work to empower ordinary Pakistani women, teaching them their legal, human, and Islamic rights; connecting them to legal aid and financial resources so that they can become empowered and independent. But not one programme or resource could save Farzana because they didn't focus on teaching her male family members that she was not their property to dispose of as they pleased - ending her life when it was of no more value to them, using "honour" as a pretext.  (The global press deemed her death an "honour killing" - a phrase I loathe because it is so deceptive about the real roots of violence against women. Honour is often simply the pretext for conflicts over money, property, family feuds, or just a backlash against the increasing empowerment of women in Pakistan society.)

Out of the 175 events at the Global Summit in London, I found two fringe events that focused on the role of men in ending sexual violence. Care International hosted two panels that highlighted how its projects in both Bosnia and Rwanda are changing the attitudes of boys and men towards women in order to reduce sexual violence against them and turn them into "allies and champions for change."

In Bosnia, the "Young Men Initiative" has successfully changed attitudes by teaching boys and young men through the use of workshops, drama and sport that a "real man" does not have to dominate women or use violence to prove his masculinity. Now, schools in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo are adding the lessons to their curriculum in the hopes that an entire generation scarred by war and conflict will not turn to rape and sexual violence the way their forefathers did during the bloody wars.

Similarly, the Rwanda Men's Resource Center works to "engage men" in the support of women's leadership and rights, the promotion of non-violence and egalitarianism in the relations between men and women, and teach gender sensitivity to generations of young men and boys who have witnessed some of the worst brutality in recent history. And similar programmes and organisations are springing up as far afield as Brazil, Chile and India, recognising that the education and empowerment of men alongside women is the only way to ensure women's security within the greater umbrella of advacement in developing societies.

The organisers and participants of the Global Summit in London had, for the most part, good intentions. But my experience living in Pakistan, where the war on terror has soaked our society in extremism and violence, is that political and military conflicts serve only to strengthen an already strongly-entrenched patriarchy. And today's global focus on empowering women will fail utterly and completely unless it also encompasses educating and reforming the men that live beside them.
I long to see programmes focusing on men like the Care International ones in Bosnia and Rwanda enacted in Pakistan and everywhere else in the world where violence against women is endemic in both peacetime and war. As Amanullah De Sondy says, "Now more than ever before do men have to answer calls that question their masculinity and this is is the crisis to all men, globally." Stopping sexual violence against women is a battle that I believe we can win. But to do that, we're going to have to fix the men - because it's a change in their attitudes and actions that will be the turning point in this war.

Bina Shah is an award-winning Pakistani writer from Karachi. She is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times and writes a monthly column for Dawn, the biggest English-language newspaper in Pakistan.

Follow her on Twitter: @BinaShah
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

A few thoughts on the Arab/Israeli conflict

"The biggest issue is that we are being duped to believe what the Arab/Israeli conflict 'is' when infact what we see and hear are actions being taken by political systems that fight and react to each other. Politics is a vicious game on all sides of this conflict. They have very little to do with every day Muslims, Jews and Christians who are stuck under these systems. I am not a 'political system', my understanding of humanity does not come from liberal or conservative political systems, I am a human being who tries to feel the humanity of everyone, regardless of religion. I remain an optimist that every day Jews, Christians and Muslim want to co exist in the Holy land and make it flourish."

Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Department of Religious Studies
University of Miami