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

Thursday, 17 July 2014

No Ramadan Gloom and Doom by amina wadud By amina wadud on July 17, 2014 (published at feminismandreligion.con, all rights reserved, copyright)

The first blog I read about Ramadan this year was full of the usual self-righteous pontification that takes this occasion to remind people to do such and such at this or that level. Who is the target audience for such an approach, I wondered? It seemed to operate on the basic idea that Muslims will NOT do the right thing unless someone tells them to. Mostly, though I noticed the gloom and doom of it and I decided then to make my Ramadan focus on joy.

First a quick reminder about the basics: Throughout the 9th lunar month, Muslims are obliged to abstain from food, drink and sexual intercourse during the day. It goes on like this for 29-30 days. There are also points of difference about some details of the fast, like how we determine which day to start. Either we actually cite the new moon, go by advanced calculations of the new moon, or some combination of these two. This leads to healthy chaos at the beginning because no one knows when the first day will, be but must prepare in order to get in that pre-dawn meal, called suhur. I say, healthy chaos, not only because I’m a bit of an anarchist, but also because I like that no one has complete control about such an important decision.

Also of note this year, in the Northern hemisphere, Ramadan started just a few days after summer solstice, which means the day light goes for 16-20 hours—in the heat! Some people observe the length of the fast according to actual day light, others observe the length of the day in another sacred place, like in Makkah. Again, no single decision prevails over all others leaving room for diversity and personal conscience about which option.

There are some exemptions from the fast, with days made up at other times of the year for temporary interferences, like travel, sickness, menstruation. Fasting is not obligated upon those with long term concerns like diabetes. “Feeding the poor” is an alternative to fasting permitted by the Qur’an and practiced widely, again in different forms.

I know what that person was trying to do in that blog. Really, I do. You see, Ramadan is like an annual tune up of faith and devotion. More (of the 1.3 billion) Muslims observe fasting in Ramadan than any other prescribed Islamic ritual. There are also additional acts of devotion associated with the month: personally reading through the entire Qur’an, praying up to 20 units of prayer each night, usually in congregation, called tarawih, and putting your own ego in check over anger and other bad habits.

This year, I thought a lot about what I’d like to call “a culture of fasting”. For although this culture is diverse, it is clear that Muslims are conscious that their fellow Muslims will be fasting, even if they do not observe by choice or necessity. In this culture, even a non-faster wouldn’t invite another faster to lunch! Meanwhile to share the fast-breaking meal, iftar, with family, friends, neighbors, and strangers, even at public and commercial places, is one of the most anticipated pleasures of the observance.

I began my fast awaiting the birth of my grandson in a house with several other adults who were not fasting. So I felt the pang of not having this culture of fasting, except with my daughter who was too pregnant to fast. In my isolation, it didn’t take me long to lose my good sense of humor about making my way to the kitchen at 3 a.m. using a flash light. I missed not having control over my kitchen. It was worse than fasting while traveling, because then it is usually only for a day or two.

A week into the fast a new groove is reached. For me this means greater mental clarity, new insights even to some of the same intellectual concerns. Not being bogged down with much food must make a radical change in the body and the mind. For sure, fasting in Ramadan emphasizes the critical connection between body and ritual. It’s not just about how one feels in the heart, the entire body participates so that whatever is recognized, is intensified. The Qur’an says, the fast teaches self-constraint. A solid month-long readjustment in basic habits brings not only awareness, but appreciation.

In my quest for the joy this year, I met a person who made the best affirmation of gratitude I think I have heard in a long time. It showed me up for the complaining I had been doing about fasting away from my comfort center and with no culture of fasting around me. I saw how I had found fault with being alone, wandering around the house at 3 a.m. with a flashlight.

Then an interesting thing happened. A medical emergency in my family led me to a hospital in another city where I had no recourse except to sleep in my car. At 3 a.m. I got a bag of chips and a bottle of water at the 7-11 and began to chuckle: Had I previously been complaining about a flashlight in a dark house while fasting alone?!

Yes, Ramadan can teach us gratitude; but first we might need to learn humility.

I’m thankful for the lesson.

I am grateful, for a lifetime of work towards Muslim women’s freedom, agency and upliftment. I’m grateful for amazing friends in all parts of the world and the means to keep in touch with them. I am grateful for my family, especially my adult children; all kind, decent, and responsible with a spiritual dedication of their own. I’m grateful they are now parents with generosity and compassion.

This month we welcomed a new member to our family. I am grateful for the opportunity to see him come into the world. I wish him and my family, and you and yours a long and healthy life of prosperity, justice, peace and love abundant.

amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.

This Ramadan: Valuing and Welcoming Women in Mosques by Sarah Sayeed, published At Huffington Post (17/7/2014)

Ramadan is a month of gratitude, embracing community, of togetherness. Fasting promotes self-reflection and a reaffirmation of compassion and justice. It seems an opportune moment to look inward at Muslim communities and speak about the imperative to restore Prophet Muhammad's legacy, peace be upon him, of valuing and welcoming women in mosques.

Across Muslim-majority countries, North America and Europe, we are quite far from the Prophet's example of welcoming women in mosques. In many parts of the world, women do not attend mosque for congregational prayers. Surprisingly, many people seem unaware that the Prophet did not institute curtains or walls between women's and men's rows. And when it is mentioned, there is resistance. It seems that Muslims, both women and men, encourage the following of the Prophet's teachings in virtually every arena except this one. When it comes to women's inclusion in mosques, they make excuses to differ from the Prophet's practice, suggesting that barriers are "necessary" as a preventive measure against distraction during prayer. But such actions and arguments contradict the Quran's requirement to "obey the Messenger" (Surah 4:80) and to follow his footsteps.

Some who disfavor women in mosques emphasize a Hadith, or saying of the Prophet, that a woman's prayer is better offered at home. Others who support women's inclusion in the mosque give weight to his teachings not to forbid women from worshiping in the mosque. Each "side" puts forward its argument in a binary, as if it could invalidate the other. Yet these teachings are not mutually contradictory, since the Prophet's wisdom led him to tailor his advice to the needs of each person. In addition, it's important to know what the Prophet said, as well as what he actually did in practice, which was to fully include women. His compassion and magnanimity are mirrored in the lack of physical barriers in his mosque.

Reflecting on the misogyny that was prevalent during his time, including routine infanticide of baby girls, it is remarkable that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was forward thinking, included women fully in his house of worship and gave women an independent choice as to attending the congregational prayer, depending on their circumstances. Recognizing that they may not always be able to attend, he reassured them that prayer in the privacy of their homes was equally beloved to God as prayer in a mosque. He also easily folded them into the congregation when they did attend. Women also had easy access to his instruction.

The American mosque has a unique opportunity and necessity to embrace the Prophetic practice of unreservedly receiving women in mosques. Muslims living as a religious minority rely on the mosque to serve not only as a place for worship but also as a religious school, and a community center -- a multi-purpose space much like the Prophet's mosque. Families connect at the mosque, through prayers, full-time or weekend schools, or other social and community activities. These relationships help weave the fabric of Muslim communities. Thus, mosques bear a burden as well as a responsibility to meet the religious, educational, and communitarian needs of Muslims. They must be open to diverse segments of society, a challenge that American mosques have embraced but need to work harder to fulfill the Prophetic vision of inclusion.

According to a national study of mosques in the United States, 66 percent use partitions, and have been doing so over the past decade. Many mosques with dividers have predominantly immigrant populations, with imams who are not American born, suggesting the influence of cultural practices. But predominantly African American mosques also use partitions, though less frequently. While many may be comfortable with dividers, it is important to note that they are not part of the Prophet's practice.

Women In Islam, Inc. is committed to spreading knowledge on the issue of women's inclusion in the mosque and to nurturing a cultural shift that enables women, men, and youth to experience mosques in the way that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, encouraged us to do. Beginning the last 10 days of Ramadan, it will initiate a blog to share women's mosque experiences and welcomes submissions on an ongoing basis. This public sharing is not an airing of dirty laundry but rather an opportunity for collective reflection and strategizing, giving women an avenue to contribute concrete ideas about what can and needs to be improved in mosques.

Creating a spiritually whole and welcoming community requires us to work together. When Muslim women ask for their due right to have full access to the main prayer area of a mosque, it is not only consistent with the Prophetic practice, but an act of obedience to the Messenger of God. As noted in the Quran, "the believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of another; they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong, and they establish worship and they pay the poor-due, and they obey Allah and His messenger. As for these, Allah will have mercy on them. Lo! Allah is Mighty, Wise" (Surah 9:71). Once when Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was asked, "What person can be the best friend?" "His reply: "who helps you remember Allah, and reminds you when you forget Him." Insha Allah (God willing) we will hear women as friends who remind us to emulate the Prophet's practice of valuing and welcoming women in mosques.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Most Scots believe prayer can change the world by SHÂN ROSS, Published in The Scotsman (10th July 2014, Copyright, All Rights Reserved)

The majority of Scots believe prayer can change the world, that there is life after death, and that not everything can be explained by ­science.

A report of attitudes towards faith and belief in Scotland also warns of a potential “new ­sectarianism” with a gap appearing to be opening between religious and non-religious people.
Experts recommend setting up a national advisory board to address areas of concern, such as people with no religious belief feeling excluded from public consultations.

The Faith and Belief in Scotland report by the University of Edinburgh was commissioned by the Scottish Government to help councils provide services for people of religion and ­belief. Those described as “people of belief” in the report are those who do not belong to an organised religion.
More than 1,400 people were asked 38 questions relating to current ethical issues.
The major faith groups and the philosophical belief systems of secularism and humanism were represented.

Of the respondents, 66 per cent said there were things in life that science cannot explain.
Some 58 per cent said prayer can have a real effect on the world. Fifty-four per cent believed in life after death, with more people believing in heaven (45 per cent) than hell (37 per cent).
Professor Mona Siddiqui, from the university’s school of divinity, and Dr Anthony Allison, the project’s lead researcher, said the results demonstrated the diversity of perspective and opinion that exists. An example of the diversity was revealed over the issue of same-sex couples with opinion strongly divided within both ­religious and belief groups.

Almost half said that same-sex couples with no religious affiliations should not be allowed to marry in a religious place of worship. Less than a quarter believed they should.
However, if same-sex couples had a religious ­belief, half thought they should be ­allowed to marry in a place of worship. Only 29 per cent ­objected.

Most Scots (59 per cent) felt that their own beliefs were misunderstood by the wider community, with three-quarters saying it was important people learn more about their world view. The report’s authors said Scottish society was becoming more ethnically and ­religiously diverse.

The 2011 Scottish census ­results on religion revealed 54 per cent of people identify with Christianity and 37 per cent with no religion. Those identifying with no religion were also the group seeing the largest growth from the 2001 to 2011 census – an increase of 9 per cent.

In the same period, by contrast, those identifying with Christianity saw a decrease of 11 per cent and most other minority religions either remained the same or showed small percentage increases. However, the report said the short and long-term impact of such demographic changes remained to be seen and it was not known if the trends would continue.

Prof Siddiqui said action needed to be taken to make Scottish society less divisive.
She added: “The issues around religion in public life are creating a new tension and dynamic in Scotland, and it is important that we minimise unnecessary division for the sake of a more inclusive Scotland.”

Dr Allison said the next challenge was getting people to understand each other and talk “to” one another rather than “at” each other.

He added: “I think the findings confirm what a number of people suspect. Spirituality is alive and well in Scotland and takes various forms cutting across the religious and not religious divide.”

Can Islam and Buddhism coexist peacefully in SE Asia?

Postcolonial states from Turkey to China are witnessing a contest for power between political liberals and religious nationalists.

In India new Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in a religious ceremony before taking office; in Indonesia Islamist parties supported presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, a general with tainted human rights record; in Ukraine Jews are fleeing resurgent anti-Semitism; in Britain Prime Minister David Cameron has asserted that the UK is a Christian country; in Brunei Sharia law is being imposed; Nigeria is witnessing the rise of Islamist Boko Haram; and Syria and Iraq are home to the newly established ISIL Caliphate. All are evidence that religion is increasingly being employed in the public sphere.

In many countries, the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion is being challenged by religious nationalists promoting religious "majoritarianism". Such challenges are coming from the Buddhist majority in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, while in Malaysia Muslims are demanding the exclusive right to use the word "Allah". The resurgence of religion is global and it's not limited merely to Islam. Politicians are using religions for political objectives, rather than merely balancing politics with religious ethics - the fundamental rule of political philosophies.

The current critical state of Muslim-Buddhist relations calls for the development of civil relations between the two religious communities. Positive communication would help Buddhists and Muslims discover their rich shared resources and embark on a dialogical journey to build peace and overcome religious nationalism and fundamentalism. Aside from Hindu India, most of Asia is Buddhist. Thailand has the largest Buddhist population in the world. Southeast Asian Muslims should recognise that while they may call the region "Serambi Mekkah" - the veranda of Mecca, for Buddhists it is the "Mecca", or centre, itself. Myanmar, Sri Lanka, China and Japan are the "al-Azhar" and "Medina" - the intellectual centres - of Buddhism. Hence the importance of Muslim-Buddhist understanding and dialogue for the future of Islam in Asia.

The liberal Catholic theologian Hans Kung once remarked, "There will be no peace among the nations without peace among religions." The ongoing Buddhist-Muslim conflicts in Asia have to be approached with a method of historical critique at the religious and socio-political levels and addressed with pedagogical strategies and strong political will on both sides - otherwise their will be no end to obstructions for constructive Buddhist-Muslim relations.

In my view, the majority-minority model of citizenship - a colonial construct - has run its course. There is a need to address the issue of conflicts from the perspective of multicultural citizenship, not multiculturalism only, for globalisation has brought with it the challenge of acceptance of diversities. Building a positive future requires transcending the past through the development of relations between Buddhism and Islam as civilisations, not as provincialisms. Whether in Myanmar with the Rohingya, in Sri Lanka, Thailand, or wherever, this will help transcend local, regional and international tensions between the two largest religious communities in the Asean region. To realise this, Southeast Asia's Muslims need to take this initiative on their own. They cannot wait for the lead from their Middle Eastern co-religionists, for they live alongside Buddhists in Asia and not the Muslims of the Middle East. Asean Muslims and Buddhists also need to transcend attitudes that equate ethnicity with religion, for the former is local while the latter is universal and diverse.

The history of Muslim-Buddhist interaction is old as Islam and has its positive and negatives aspects. In the case of their 900 years of coexistence in Southeast Asia, though their early relations were syncretic, identities later became "ethnicised". As far as I know, today there is no Southeast Asian Muslim scholar of Buddhism and no Buddhist counterpart who is versed in their respective communities' religious-cultural and lingual exchange, leave alone enjoying an understanding of shared words such as agama/sasana - religion; puasa - fast; hari raya - day of celebration, and even shared personal names, etc. In the face of rising religious nationalism and fundamentalism in both the faiths, there is need to build Muslim-Buddhist understanding through pedagogical and socio-cultural projects that are more than mere tourist symbols.

Otherwise, Asean Muslims from Yangon to Tokyo will soon be faced with the rise of Asian Islamophobia (in fact, it could be here already). Real efforts to build interfaith understanding will also help in the construction of the Asean Socio-Cultural Community, which is an integral part of the region's coming Economic Community. The building blocks are all around us, in the messages of compassion, mercy and love at the heart of all religions.

Asst Professor Imtiyaz Yusuf is a lecturer and director of the Centre for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding, College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University.