Tuesday, 24 February 2015


ISIS and Authority By Kecia Ali on February 24, 2015

Last week, Graeme Wood caused quite a stir with his article “What ISIS Really Wants.” It focused on the apocalyptic religious vision of the group and contended that ISIS was, as a scholar quoted in the article put it, “smack in the middle of the medieval tradition,” including on the things most shock and repulse observers, such as slavery.

Though Wood grants that most Muslims do not support ISIS, and acknowledges in passing the role of interpretation in formulating its doctrines, the overall impression conveyed by the article was that Muslims who deny that ISIS is a fair representation of Islam are either apologists or simply do not really know anything about Islam. Others have offered rebuttals of many of the points in the article, and Bernard Haykel, the scholar quoted, has offered a more nuanced articulation of his views. More than one commentator has pointed out that by treating ISIS as a legitimate representative of the Islamic tradition, seriously religious and dedicated to the texts “shared by all Sunni Muslims,” it fosters an unholy convergence of interests between extremist Muslims and Islamophobes.

Wood is right about some things and wrong about others. ISIS is laying claim to the tradition and the texts they cite are in what we may call the canon. Still, to quote approvingly and without clarification Haykel’s contention that “these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else,” seems quite a stretch. To be sure, it is not the job of religious studies scholars (or U. S. presidents) to judge which groups are “Islamic” or “un-Islamic.” Rather, we must understand how various actors make claims to represent, understand, or further their tradition. That does not mean there are no distinctions that can be made, no criteria by which to situate those religious claims in a historical and social framework.
Some attempts to assess ISIS’s legitimacy have focused on the fact that reputable Muslim authorities – clerics, scholars, ‘ulama – uniformly distance themselves from ISIS and condemn its brutal tactics.

Though unwilling (for sound theological reasons) to declare leaders or followers of the Islamic State apostates, some have been willing to describe its actions as sinful, evil, or even “un-Islamic.”

But these arguments from authority worry me too. When women do something “impermissible” – lead Friday prayer, open a Women’s Mosque, interpret the Qur’an in feminist ways – self-described “traditional” Muslims offer similar condemnations: these acts–and these actors–are outside the pale of tradition. Regardless of the sophistication of the arguments presented, the response is that those who make them are not properly trained. What authority do they have? In sum: how dare they?

These specious criticisms are nearly impossible to counter, even when those spouting them do not necessarily offer more nuanced or methodologically sophisticated answers. The simple appeal to widespread scholarly agreement leaves me unconvinced.

Take the example of the Open Letter to Baghdadi published last September. Among other things, it condemns ISIS’s violation of what the letter describes as a century-old consensus on the abolition of slavery.  (Though presented in a press conference, the letter attracted virtually no attention from the mainstream media – unlike the shocking violence that prompted it.) Undoubtedly well-intentioned, the letter makes a hash of both history and the classical tradition, with its ahistorical declarations (“No scholar of Islam disputes that one of Islam’s aims is to abolish slavery”) and simplistic proclamations of things that are “forbidden in Islam.” The letter was signed by 126 male Sunni scholars and leaders from around the world. Since its publication online, others, including a handful of women, have signed.

Admittedly, this letter, which affirms “the prohibition and criminalization of slavery” as “a milestone in human history,” offers a much more compelling ideal than ISIS’s propaganda magazine, which signals “enslaving the families of the [disbelievers] and taking their women as concubines” as a sign of its own legitimacy and prowess, and reminds its readers that denying or mocking scriptural permissibility for slavery renders one not merely “weak-minded and weak hearted” but also an apostate. Still, however appealing it is to believe that slavery was, as the letter states, “something the Shariah worked tirelessly to undo,” such wishful thinking does not provide a firm foundation for criticizing contemporary injustices.

The most troubling thing about the Atlantic article is the static definition of tradition that Wood uses. In his view, tradition is a body of texts. Legitimacy emerges from texts. Practices consonant with the texts – or that are interpreted as being so – are therefore “Islamic.” Muslims who say otherwise – as he admits the overwhelming majority do when confronted with ISIS – do not have much ground to stand on. But the rejection of ISIS on the basis of its distance from the classical tradition and its unacceptability to contemporary scholars who claim to constitute the legitimate inheritors of that tradition is not a panacea either. Too frequently, the weapon of “scholarly consensus” has been wielded against Muslim women who overstep its bounds—not, as ISIS has done, in a quest for domination, but in a quest for dignity.

Kecia Ali, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University where she teaches a range of classes related to Islam. She writes on early Islamic law, women, ethics, and biography. Her newest books are The Lives of Muhammad and the co-edited Guide for Women in Religion, revised edition. Her earlier books include Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (2006),Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), and Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint (2011). She currently serves on the Membership Task Force of the American Academy of Religion and serves as president of theSociety for the Study of Muslim Ethics. She lives in the Boston area with her family.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Reclaiming the Prophet Muhammad in Iran By Christiane Gruber 1/31/15 at 11:26 AM

Published in Newsweek - All Rights Reserved, Copyright

 
Figure 1, Mi'raj Mural Tehran 2008A new film about the Prophet Muhammad is slotted to have its debut this Sunday at the Fajr International Film Festival in Tehran. Directed by Majid Majidi, the biopic’s cost has exceeded $30 million, making it the most expensive Iranian movie shot to date. Well before its release, the film was the subject of criticism due to the physical presence of Muhammad on screen. Although the Prophet’s facial features are camouflaged through light and shade strategies, the Sunni clerics at al-Azhar in Cairo nevertheless attempted to halt its release so that “an undistorted image of the Prophet can be preserved in the minds of Muslims."

Figure 1: A five-story mural depicting the Prophet Muhammad’s celestial ascension, in Tehran, Iran, in 2008. 

This latest disagreement over filmic portrayals of Muhammad reveals ongoing anxieties regarding visual representations of the Prophet in the Islamic world. However, such divergences do not appear to be based on sectarian grounds, as the movie covers Muhammad’s childhood until the age of 12. Sunni and Shi‘i debates over the life of the Prophet tend to revolve around the events of his adulthood, especially whether he appointed ‘Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, as his rightful successor. As Majidi himself has noted, the film purposefully skirts these sectarian debates over the life of the Prophet in order to present a positive and united presentation of Muhammad to international movie audiences.

This new Muhammad film does not emerge out of thin air. In addition to earlier movies (like Akkad’s The Message) and others still in the making (by Qatar), Majidi’s large-scale project is part of an effort to visually reclaim the Prophet and his legacy in Iran that has been under way since the Danish cartoons of 2005. While reactions to the cartoons in some Arab, Sunni and especially Salafi quarters included issuing of decrees stipulating that “images of prophets are disrespectful and caricatures of them blasphemous," a vastly different response has unfolded within Iran over the past decade. Indeed, Iran has launched a number of artistic, educational and public relations projects since 2006, itself dubbed by Ayatollah Khamenei “The Year of the Noble Prophet." As a result, celebratory depictions of the Prophet have emerged in full force, with Majidi’s film the latest outcome of these officially sanctioned endeavors.
 
Figure 2 Salam Gol-e Mohammedi, page 18, like the sun, low resAmong them, one of the most visible Iranian responses to the Danish cartoons is a colorful mural depicting Muhammad’s celestial ascension, which was painted in 2008 on a five-story building located on a major thoroughfare in central Tehran (Figure 1). Sponsored by Tehran’s municipality, the mural beautifies the capital city’s urban space much like the vibrant and sometime surreal compositions by Iranian artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo. Notably missing here are portraits of ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, as well as Palestinian and Iranian martyrs. In their stead appears a pictorial eulogy of the Prophet based on a 15th-century manuscript painting. While the original illustration shows Muhammad’s facial features, the contemporary mural renders his face as if a blank slate. This erasure of the Prophet’s facial features most likely is because the image is in the public domain instead of tucked inside a private manuscript. It is also a likely result of the more reactionary and intransigent Muslim responses to images of Muhammad in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy.

Besides this mega-mural, a number of other Prophet-centered products have been made for the Iranian market since 2006. Targeting a juvenile audience in particular, a series of illustrated books written in simple prose and verse aims to teach children about Muhammad’s life and miracles. These books include images of the Prophet, who often is depicted with a veiled face and solar halo, as can be seen in one image in which he is shown extending his arms to receive revelations at Mount Hira (Figure 2). The text that accompanies the colorful illustration informs its young readers that Muhammad was like the summer sun and the full moon, emitting both light and enlightenment into the world.

Figure 2: The Prophet Muhammad receives revelations on Mount Hira in an illustration from the children’s book “Greetings, Rose of Muhammad,” Tehran, 2006.
Figure 3 Muhammad's birth

Just like these Iranian children’s books, Majidi’s film takes up the question of childhood. The film’s major scenes indubitably will reiterate some of the more famous episodes of the Prophet’s youth, including his highly auspicious birth and his being recognized as a prophet by the Christian monk Bahira. Visually depicting these pivotal moments of Muhammad’s early life is by no means a new phenomenon in Persian lands. Indeed, from 1300 CE onward a number of manuscript paintings represent Muhammad’s birth as a luminous, angelic event (Figure 3). The texts that buttress these images inform us that, when he was born, Muhammad illuminated the entire world with his cosmic radiance, which rose upward to set the heavens and stars alight.

Figure 3: A radiant Muhammad is born and held aloft by angels in Hafiz-i Abru's “Quintessence of Histories.”

Persian illustrated manuscripts also depict Muhammad’s foretelling as a prophet at the tender age of 12, when he visited the city of Busra in Syria. It is at this time that the Christian monk Bahira recognized the signs of the young boy’s future prophethood through a series of natural phenomena, like the bending of a tree’s branches and/or a cloud providing him with shade, as well as the “seal of prophecy” mark imprinted on Muhammad’s body (Figure 4). The latter episode belongs to a corpus of Islamic narratives that relate that the Prophet was announced and foretold as a prophet by a Christian holy man, who had read about his coming in the Bible.
bahira 4
 
Figure 4: The young Muhammad is recognized as a prophet by the Christian monk Bahira in Rashid al-Din's “Compendium of Histories.”

The story of Muhammad’s youthful “seal of prophecy” recognition is a popular one across Islamic lands even today. Over the course of the 20th century, a number of mass-produced images of the young Muhammad—composed in a wide array of creative variants—were made in Iran. These appeared in banners, posters (Figure 5), postcards, carpets and stickers until they started to be suppressed in 2008. 

Figure 5, Young Muhammad poster, Iran, 1990s, V&A
Figure 5: The young Muhammad, identified as “Muhammad, the Messenger of God,” on a poster made in Iran in the 1990s.

While the recent Iranian suppression of these images is certainly a response to the Danish cartoon controversy, it also emanates from the discovery of its original pictorial source: an early 20th-century Orientalist photograph of a young Arab boy. Along with the anxieties brought about by this borrowed image, “severe security” concerns in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo caused the Victoria and Albert Museum to attempt to dissimulate its possession of one of these modern Iranian images of the young Muhammad.

Not shying away from depicting this pivotal moment in the Prophet’s youth, Majidi in his biopic shows the young Muhammad arriving at Bahira’s monastery (Figure 6). In this film still, the adolescent protagonist walks down the main aisle of a church as a burst of sunlight streams in from the open doors. This radiance symbolic of Muhammad’s future prophecy floods into the interior space and overwhelms his facial features. This carefully designed visual strategy allows the Prophet to be both visible and invisible—represented and unrepresented—all at once.
 
Figure 6: In a still from the film "Muhammad, the Messenger of God," the young Muhammad enters a monastery, where he is recognized as a prophet by the Christian monk Bahira.
Figure 6 Young Muhammad at Bahira's Monastery, Majid Majidi, Muhammad Rasul Allah, Iran, 2015These paintings, murals, children’s books and films about the Prophet that have been made in Iran since 2006 are illuminating in several ways. First, they show that traditions of representing Muhammad are still well and alive in some areas of the Muslim world. These still and moving images aim to commemorate the Prophet, present his status and legacy in a positive light, and teach a variety of audiences about his life and miracles. 

Unlike in Sunni-Salafi spheres, in which recent responses to the Danish and Charlie Hebdo cartoons have largely comprised a flurry of obdurate injunctions, the response in Iran has been markedly different. Indeed, rather than shying away from or banning images of the Prophet, Iranian leaders, artists and filmmakers have harnessed the creative arts to recover and restore the image of Muhammad in the public domain.
Such images serve as powerful reminders that there is no universally accepted ban on the figural arts in Islam and that traditions of prophetic representation still continue to flourish in Iran today. Above all, they highlight the fact that in Islamic lands there exist two diametrically opposed reactions to defamatory European cartoons: While some actors engage in censorship and suppression, others actively seek the promulgation of the Prophet Muhammad by reasserting the positive power of picture-making.

Christiane Gruber is associate professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Michigan. Her primary field of research is Islamic book arts, paintings of the Prophet Muhammad, and Islamic ascension texts and images, about which she has written two books and edited a volume of articles. She also pursues research in Islamic book arts and codicology, having authored the online catalog of Islamic calligraphies in the Library of Congress as well as edited the volume of articles, The Islamic Manuscript Tradition. Her third field of specialization is modern Islamic visual culture and post-revolutionary Iranian visual and material culture, about which she has written several articles. She also has co-edited two volumes on Islamic and crosscultural visual cultures. She is currently writing her next book, titled The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images.

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.