Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Pakistan gets flustered over Facebook's gay rights meme by Jon Boone in Islamabad

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Those showing support online for the US supreme court’s decision to legalise same-sex unions have faced a barrage of criticism

When Nabeel Khalid joined the 26 million people around the world to superimpose a rainbow flag over his Facebook profile picture, he did not expect a tirade of abuse for showing support for same-sex marriage.

But the meme that swept the social networking site in the wake of last week’s decision by the US supreme court to legalise same-sex unions has not gone down well in Pakistan.

“The reaction was extremely negative with a lot of close friends, colleagues and ex-colleagues just completely unable to handle it,” said Khalid, an IT worker from Lahore. “They could not accept that someone who is married is supporting something they say is away from our culture and our religion.”

The online debate has seen supporters of marriage equality accused of abandoning Islam, as well as claims that bestiality will be next to be legalised, and the widespread circulation of Qur’anic verses condemning homosexuality.

Most observers say social intolerance has grown in Pakistan, a religiously conservative country that has seen radical groups working hard to spread a more militant version of the creed in recent decades.

Surveys find the country’s huge population of young people tends to be conservative: one poll found nearly 40% wanted the country to be run according to Sharia law.

But Marvi Sirmed, an outspoken social activist, says some people are becoming more liberal, particularly on the subject of gay rights.

“It is a very, very pleasant surprise for me that so many people on social media are actually supporting it, because that was certainly not the case just five years ago,” she said.
In 2011 Sirmed was the object of furious denunciations, after she appeared on a television show to defend the US embassy in Islamabad for hosting a “Pride celebration” for Pakistani lesbian, gay and transgender activists.

“It is still extremely difficult to even talk about these issues, but it is getting a little better,” she said.

The US supreme court decision has attracted little coverage in the mainstream media, but considerable scrutiny online.

“The generation growing up with the internet have more access to the outside world,” said Khalid, who lives in Lahore with his wife.

“My virtual life is mostly outside Pakistan, but on Facebook people inside the country can see what I am doing and they don’t necessarily understand.”

Only 32 million of Pakistan’s estimated 200 million people are thought to have access to the internet, although it is growing fast as smart phones become more popular.

Emrys Schoemaker, a researcher from the London School of Economics conducting field research on internet use in Pakistan, said a growing number of poorer people are using Facebook for the first time, as telecom companies offer free access to the site.

“A lot of people don’t know what the flag stands for,” he said. “One day labourer said he felt tricked after liking a friend’s rainbow profile picture and later discovering it was for gay marriage.”

On Wednesday, a call for the liberal-minded Express Tribune newspaper to be shut down was one of the most popular Twitter trends in Pakistan.

The source of the online anger was a blog on the newspaper’s website entitled “My husband is gay – A difficult truth”.

Hamza Ali Abbasi, a film star followed by more than 60,000 people on Facebook, declared himself “disappointed at people in Pakistan celebrating a behaviour that is taboo even in animals” and changed his profile picture to a rainbow flag with a red line across it.

“It’s strange how a law passed in a land far away has generated a debate about a topic which is somewhat irrelevant in Pakistan,” he later mused in a Facebook note.

“Now we know that intolerant fanatics exist who wear western clothes, have utmost exposure, education and are very eloquent in their English skills,” he wrote of the people who criticised his stance.

Homosexuality may be illegal in Pakistan, but can be highly visible at times. A large transgendered community make their living on the streets by begging and prostitution.

In 2009, the supreme court ruled transgendered people had the right to identify themselves as a third gender on their national identification cards and ordered the government to help find them work.

Mohsin Hamid, a Lahore-based author, said that while there was “a lot of homosexuality inside Pakistan, it is not an issue people talk about”.

“In Pakistan there is a kind of societal nervous laughter on the subject of homosexuality,” he said. “It evokes smiles and giggles, but there aren’t many public formats in which to have a serious conversation about it.”

As atrocities are committed in the name of Islam, our ‘leaders’ are failing us by Nazir Afzal

With Muslims both the victims and perpetrators of terrible crimes, the dearth of representative voices in the UK to speak up for our faith has never been clearer 

(Published in Guardian - All Rights Reserved, Copyright) 

Tuesday 30 June 2015

The atrocity in Tunisia, at a hotel I once stayed in, is terrifying and deeply depressing. Muslim communities in the UK feel the pain of those who have lost loved ones. This is Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, and the fact that people have committed murder supposedly in Islam’s name has shocked us to the core.

For it is Muslims who are the biggest victims of Isis. They fight the jihadists in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and it is they who hourly die brutal deaths at the hands of Isis. The soul-searching of Muslims in the UK and beyond is now at fever pitch – the question they ask constantly is: what more can they do?

A “not in my name” march is planned after Ramadan; loud voices on the streets and in the media condemn violence and extremism, but still more is expected. This is where the conversation begins to dry up and the deficit in Muslim leadership is starkly evident. There are 13 Muslim MPs, including eight women, but they do not speak for the faith, rather for their constituents. Imams, with a few excellent exceptions, don’t see their role as anything more than prayer and looking after a building, the mosque – the imam of Dibley is not so different from the vicar in that respect.

Larger representative groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain have little credibility either with the state or the communities. In London Muslims make up 10% of the population, and represent more than 50 nationalities – compared with just a few in the north of England. There are also many different strands of the faith: the biggest mosque where I used to live was Ahmadi, a branch of Islam whose adherents aren’t even allowed to go to Mecca. The faith splinters: it has developed tribes who have different homelands and cannot even agree on the dates of religious festivals.

The government, through largely focusing historically on “representative” groups has failed to build capacity in grassroots organisations. Muslims are mostly under 25, female and from low-income backgrounds, but the “leaders” are much older, male and middle class – they don’t speak for typical Muslims because they aren’t typical Muslims.

We face some real challenges that go way beyond the threat of jihadism. In 2014, 14% of prisoners in British jails were Muslim – more than 12,000, of whom fewer than 200 were inside for terror-related offences. One in four young people in youth custody or secure homes are Muslim. Muslims are disproportionately involved in the drug trade and child sexual exploitation. What worries me deeply is that communities don’t have leaders capable of rising to these challenges. That said, many don’t think it is helpful for communities to have any “leaders”, because it encourages the authorities to lazily go to these usual suspects rather than to engage more widely.

In tackling the deficit of Muslim leadership, we need – to use an economic analogy – to cut and invest. The first thing to cut is the communities’ focus on victimhood. Yes, Islamophobia is real, and anti-Muslim hatred touches thousands. I have suffered it several times in my career. However, you should not be defined by the things that are done to you, but by the things you do. Look at other examples of groups of immigrants who have embedded themselves in the UK, such as the Jewish and Irish communities. Their leaders focused on their strengths, and decided that victimhood would be remembered a few days a year at most. Yes, there should be memorial days, such as that for the victims of Srebrenica (11 July), but it shouldn’t define your whole identity.

The second thing to cut is this reliance on unrepresentative leaders. We need more women’s and young people’s voices to be heard. For several years now I have made it a rule not to attend an event or meeting where there isn’t a mixed audience. Next to be cut is the instinct to put each other down. Too many climb the ladder and pull it up after them. The mentoring schemes are plentiful, but the turnover of mentors is overwhelming. How else are we going to nurture and develop the next generation? Give them the tools to meet their aspirations before extremists suggest another way.

When I talk of investing, I’m talking to those who have more to give. Islam has a long history of charitable giving; it’s one of the five pillars. Organisations such as Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid are internationally renowned. But in this country there are several Ramadan appeals, as there are every year, for funding the building of mosques. The Qur’an talks of this as being a blessing, but when you have more than 100 in Bradford, for example – of which more than half have congregations of fewer than 50 people – would the blessings not be greater if the money raised was used to take someone out of poverty, give them an education and protect them from harm? Developing communities is not the high priority it should be. Examples such as a mosque in Bradford that decided to use the money to employ a youth worker instead of building a dome are rare but welcome.

We have talent. We contribute billions to the UK’s GDP. We have ambitious youth. What we don’t have is the right leadership. Issuing a press release when something terrible happens is no substitute for action on the ground to build capability and to give the young the voice that is stifled by their elders.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Ramadan Is Not a Time for Bloodshed What explains ISIS’s perversion of the Muslim holy month?

By Caner K. Dagli
Published in The Atlantic - All Rights Reserved

In a way, Ramadan combines the spirit of Christmas with the inwardness of the Easter season. Indeed, Muslims consider Ramadan to be the month that the Word of God (the Quran) first descended into the world through the revelation to Muhammad, as Christmas is the time when the Word of God (Jesus) came into the world through the virgin birth.
The Ramadan fast is marked by its anonymity and intimacy with God. The Prophet said that God says, “Every good deed is [rewarded] 10 times its like, up to 700 times, except for fasting. It is for Me, and I will reward it.” No one but God can see you fast. The Prophet said that especially while fasting one should not shout or return insults, but respond to an abuser by saying, “I am fasting. I am fasting.”

Just a day without food and one realizes how fragile the body is, how it becomes harder not only to move but even to think! It is a bodily experience of emptiness and poverty that Sufi Muslims say should be the state of the soul before God at all times. Muslims are reminded of the dependence of human beings upon that which is other than themselves for their happiness, and through the daily Ramadan ritual they practice breaking free of even their wholesome and licit desires in order to turn inward. It is an exercise of the spiritual heart overcoming the ego. The Prophet directed Muslims to the inner nature of the fast by warning, “Many people get nothing from the fast but hunger and thirst.”
* * *
In contrast, at the beginning of the current month of Ramadan, an ISIS spokesman said, “Aspire to battle in this noble month … make Ramadan a month of disasters for the unbelievers.” It was a message that mangled lofty teachings about the holy month drawn from sayings of the Prophet and combined them with warmongering rhetoric whose spirit was summed up in the spokesman’s declaration, “No acts of worship are equal to [military] jihad.” On Friday, the second Friday of Ramadan and just days after the release of the statement, vicious attacks struck three different countries. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the atrocities in Kuwait and Tunisia, but not, as yet, France.

The group’s brutality has also escalated in Syria, where at least 145 civilians were reportedly killed in the town of Kobani.

It is tempting to view ISIS’s Ramadan statement as a manifestation of dueling (and tiresome) narratives between a fringe and a mainstream—“ISIS is Islamic!”, “No, it’s not!”—but in reality there is something deeper going on.

A great danger in all religions is the drift from the inward to the outward, resulting in a focus on the shell at the expense of the kernel. When this happens, rituals like fasting are seen less as interiorizing and illuminating ways of approaching God, and more as measures of conformity and participation in a greater human project. For those people who are usually but misleadingly called fundamentalists (even the most peaceful kind), the pursuits of truth, law, contemplation, and social life are often mashed together into a mechanistic fervor in the service of a supreme goal: the fulfillment of an ideological blueprint. These people fuse and confuse the spiritual and the material, and measure all goodness in terms of adherence to a pre-ordained program and vision of what society (and perhaps the entire world) is supposed to look like.

Without inner meaning and truth, spirituality is reduced inexorably to some social, communal, or legal obligation. Instead of being about the sacred, religion is about “the community” or “the glory of [insert name of group].” For different reasons, modern secular systems of thought tend to see religion as being entirely reducible to (and not only comprising) matters of class, gender, race, and the like. But what about the truth as such? What about the sacred?

When all that is left of religion is its shell, something more sinister will inevitably take the place of the kernel. Rituals, when they cease to nourish the soul and allow participation in a transcendent truth, can become mechanisms of control: you perform the actions and are punished if you do not, and prayer and fasting become gears and levers in a machine designed to build a perfect world. This is the Ramadan of ISIS, where boys are reportedly hung by their wrists for eating during the fast. Only with such a vision of things does it become plausible to say that no act of worship is superior to war, and that a month of fasting and prayer is a special season for bloodletting.

* * *
It is precisely the spiritual power, joy, and generosity of Ramadan that the cynical propagandists of ISIS are trying (and, I would argue, failing) to redirect for their own demented purposes. They will be unsuccessful because for almost all Muslims, Islam is still a beautiful religion whose truths satisfy the mind and whose rituals fill hearts with peace. The idea of Ramadan as a season of cruelty and aggression is not just incorrect but unthinkable. So how does it become thinkable?

A religion is not simply a set of beliefs and rituals. It is a community that enshrines and transmits wisdom across generations and, in the case of Islamic civilization, across continents. Such a tradition enables the believer to know what they must do, but also answers questions like: Why must I do this? What is the nature of the world such that this ritual means something? What is the soul and how will it be changed by this act? Institutions like the Sufi orders, Islam’s philosophical and theological schools of thought, and its vast spiritual literature are delicate and precious, not easily recreated once destroyed or abandoned.

Yet Muslim modernists and “fundamentalists” of many stripes share a conviction that they should jettison over a thousand years of Islamic spirituality, philosophy, and theology, and presume to extract truth and meaning from the Quran and Sunnah (the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad) all by themselves. For the modernizing reformers (Muslim and non-Muslim), this spiritual deforestation is meant to bring Muslims out of a hidebound and even superstitious tradition into a more progressive future, while for revivalists it is meant to purify the tradition of its wayward accretions.

The effect is ultimately the same: believers bereft of a thousand years of wisdom flailing, at best, to make sense of their sacred texts, or at worst, capitalizing on ignorance among some of their co-religionists to enforce their vision of the world, no matter how brutal.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

10 Totally Badass Female Muslim Politicians You Should Know

This article originally appeared on Brown Girl Magazine.
Posted: Updated:

Given the rise of hate crimes and misunderstandings that the general public has towards Muslims, it is important to take a moment to reflect on the mammoth diversity contained within the term “Muslim.” While the fascination towards Muslim women has taken on a life of its own in recent years, portrayals of us have ranged from “oppressed lady” to “even more oppressed lady.”

The truth is, there are some Muslim women, just like any religion, who may fit into these stereotypes. But what may come as a surprise is that every once in a while, Muslim females take a break from being “oppressed and/or more oppressed” to rule a country or two.

One of the most recent Muslims to join this roster is Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, who became the president of Mauritius this month.

In honor of her recent election, here’s a list of 10 badass female Muslim leaders you should know.
  • 1. Benazir Bhutto
    SAEED KHAN via Getty Images
    Bhutto was the 11th Prime Minister of Pakistan. She was the first and only female to hold such a powerful and and prominent office in Pakistan thus far, serving two non-consecutive terms as head of government in 1988–90 and then in 1993–96.
  • 2. Megawati Sukarnoputri
    Sukarnoputri was the president of Indonesia from 2001 to 2004.
  • 3. Sheikh Hasina
    Sheikh Hasina is the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh. She has been in office since January 2009. She also served as Prime Minister from 1996 to 2001.
  • 4. Khaleda Zia
    She was the Prime Minister of Bangladesh from 1991 to 1996 and again from 2001 to 2006. She was the first woman in Bangladesh’s history and second in the Muslim world (after Benazir Bhutto) to head a democratic government.
  • 5. Atifete Jahjaga
    Not only is she the current President of Kosovo, she is also the first female President, the first female head of state in the modern Balkans and the youngest to be elected to the office.
  • 6. Tansu Çiller
    Turkey’s first and only female prime minister to date, this academician and economist served as the Prime Minister of Turkey from 1993 to 1996.
  • 7. Mame Madior Boye
    SEYLLOU via Getty Images
    She was the Prime Minister of Senegal from 2001 to 2002.
  • 8. Aminata Touré
    SEYLLOU via Getty Images
    Following Boye, Aminata Touré was yet another female to occupy the Prime Minister’s seat of Senegal from 2013 to 2014.
  • Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé
    Daniel Berehulak via Getty Images
    A professor-turned-politician, Sidibé was the Prime Minister of Mali from 2011 to 2012, the first woman to be appointed to the position in the country’s history.
  • 10. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim
    The recently appointed president of Mauritius. She is the Head of State and Commander in Chief as well.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Benazir Bhutto was Pakistan's head of state. She was head of government.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Thoughts for life March 9, 2015 by Jackie Kemp

Sexual desire, the search for happiness, dealing with death and living as a member of a minority are just some of the topics Muslim theologian Mona Siddiqui discusses in her new book – part handbook to life, part autobiography: My Way, which she will discuss at Glasgow’s Aye Write festival this April.

Siddiqui, known to many as a lively contributor to Radio Four’s Thought for the Day, is more interested in engaging with the big questions of existence than in explaining radical Islam to journalists, although recently that is what she has been asked to do most often.

My tea grew cold as I scribbled down her fascinating conversation when we met in a cafe close to where she teaches, at Edinburgh University’s School of Divinity in the old Assembly Hall on the Mound. The views of the New Town were spectacular, even as a grey winter’s afternoon faded into evening. Siddiqui, who lives in the west of Scotland, is Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies. She teaches here rather than in an Islamic studies department because she is engaged with questions of faith rather than history or culture.

Her book reads like a massively expanded “thought for the day”, almost a “thought for life”: “People never stop asking the big questions: about happiness, about death, about aging, about love.”

About the book, she says: “I have lived like this. It’s not about issues, it’s more about marriage, children, happiness. I look at these things the way my tradition looks at these things.”

The book is “almost the way I teach.” She teaches about her own way of life “but I’m not teaching in a confessional manner, of calling people to the faith; I’m an academic.”

She has few Muslim students and is rarely invited to speak to Muslim organisations. In the book, she recalls: “During one of only a handful of invitations from a Muslim organisation, I was asked to address the topic of gender and Islam. The topic of hijab came up and I spoke about the scholarly debates over female covering. The whole session provoked angry responses from some women who exclaimed ‘Why is she here? All she has done is confuse us.’ I smiled and replied:  ‘if you are confused then my job as an academic is done.’

For her Edinburgh University divinity students, she says: “They learn that there is not just one way of thinking. It makes them much better at thinking about Islam.”

An endless fragility


Perhaps one of the surprises of My Way is its frank discussion of sex and sexuality:“Quite simply, Islam views human sexuality and desire, erotic love as intrinsic to the fullness of human experience. Sexual desire compels us to reflect upon life and our deepest vulnerabilities … there is no shame in sex, there is no shame in desire and both men and women have rights over one another. Romantic love and sex may not be the same thing but marriage should have both. When sexual desire is realised in marriage, one is acting according to a traditional Islamic understanding of how eros finds its place in human life.”

She considers also that the uncoupling of sex and love is “a monumental change which defines our liquid societies” and quotes therapist Volkmar Sigusch: “All forms of intimate relationships currently in vogue bear the same mask of false happiness worn by material and later free love … As we took a closer look and pulled away the mask we found unfulfilled yearnings, ragged nerves, disappointed love, hurts, fears, loneliness, hypocrisy, egotism and reparations compulsion.”
Siddiqui writes that: “Love holds an endless fragility yet it is at the same time about holding onto the heavy, the difficult, knowing that two people are unfolding their worlds within themselves and for one another. Love demands both courage and humility and you have to listen well, to understand what someone else wants, not what you think they want.”

A marriage can’t survive without forgiveness: ”It is in these moments of forgiveness, whether we are close or distant, that we grow as people and learn how to love.”

Sexual culture and behaviour, Siddiqui points out, are major issues for all the worlds’ thought systems and religions, particularly perhaps for the Roman Catholic Church. “It is all to do with sexuality and sexual conduct and this isn’t going to go away.”

Islam has it own issues, as she sees it, to do with over-emphasis on apparent conformity. In her book she quotes a friend used to dealing with young Muslim women at a British university who wear the Niqab as a veil to cover double lives.

“ ‘So many come to my office and do you know what they ask for? They ask for the morning after pill’ ..It was not as if many of the young women felt liberated and empowered through their sexual experiences; they were simply lost or lonely and their faith could not provide any answers.’ “

Sexuality and desire, she argues, are part of the search for happiness. “This is perhaps the most important fact of all: love, sex, desire, wanting to be wanted. Happiness matters. I talk to my children a lot about happiness and what they want. We don’t know how to talk about happiness. Real happiness is probably quite difficult to find but it’s what we are looking for. Maybe we find lots of things to fill our lives with.”

In the book, Siddiqui recalls how being able to be there for her mother when her father was taken ill brought her happiness.

She explains that in Islamic thought, there is less emphasis than there may be in contemporary thought on abstract concepts like romantic love which relationships then have to measure up to. There is more emphasis on working within real world relationships. “In Islamic thought the meaning of life is found in relationships. I think that’s true.”

Identity? What’s that?


In her own life, Siddiqui manages to marry contradictions which have become faultlines for others; she is a Muslim who is deeply loyal to European values of freedom of expression and religion; she is happy in her arranged marriage but will allow her children to pick their own; and she sees faith in God and the pursuit of happiness as connected parts of the same journey.

However she is reluctant to discuss identity. She doesn’t find the notion helpful. “I don’t even think about identity. I never talk about identity. This is very modern stuff: what identity you have, for me, it’s more about how do I live.

“When I was raising my children, I never thought ‘what’s my identity?’ I thought more about loyalty to certain principles. I’m not even sure what identity really means. In terms of living my life as a British person, it’s just a big buzzword.”

She says she has always believed that “Pluralism is how we live our life. We have freedom and we have to give other people freedom, so we can have all space to be who we want to be.”
After the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Siddiqui has felt called upon to explain what happened.”People ask me to speak about it not because I have done any research but because I’m Muslim and a public figure.”

For her: “It was seen as an issue about cartoons but it wasn’t about cartoons. It was really about values and the values that Europe stands for. If you don’t abide by those values, the values that Europe stands for, where do you fit in in Europe? Where is your loyalty?”
She added: “These things test our  own resolve, how we are coping as a society.”

But she was concerned by the growth of a notion of “them” and “us”, which she felt was toxic. “Most European Muslims have loyalty to the values of Europe: freedom of religion, freedom of expression. But there is a minority of Muslims have no loyalty to the values of Europe. This is something I am called upon to explain.”

For Siddiqui: “It’s not really about the Muslim community it’s about where we are going in terms of differentiating the us and the them. The sense that there is an us and them, with the ‘them’ being Muslims, makes politics even more toxic.”

In the book Siddiqui quotes someone who asked her: “ ‘What would you say to white middle-class families who talk of Muslims as a problem at their fancy dinner parties?’ I couldn’t stop anyone from thinking and saying what they felt about the Muslim presence but as a British citizen I could try to make my own positive contribution to society in some small way.”

A mono-cultural failure?


She adds: “The responsibility to think and act is real and urgent because in the end, when politicians and think tanks claim that multiculturalism has failed, they are really only referring to one minority and one failure – Muslims.”

For Siddiqui, it’s vital that more people understand that Islam is not a monolithic community or an identity. For her, it’s a religion she practises in the private sphere.

But the threat from extremism is real and it’s one that affects us all equally. “The peace and security we enjoy in Europe should never be taken for granted.”

She feels that the young Muslim extremists who head to Syria may be responding to a feeling in some families that “we live here but we don’t belong here.” Partly too, they may be rebelling against privilege, heading for something they feel is more exciting and dangerous. “If the whole world was full of pleasure, we would rail against that.”

Siddiqui, who recalls in the book suffering from incidents of playground racism, feels young people need to be encouraged to maintain a robust self-esteem.
They may feel that they don’t belong, they may get called names. We as parents have to say ‘people get called all kinds of names for all sorts of reasons but you have to find a way through this without becoming completely alienated’.
It’s very sad if a child feels so much on their own, that when someone calls them a name they become completely alienated.

They can indulge themselves in that way. People do have to feel that they belong somewhere but even though part of our society may not suit them that’s life. We have to keep on moving forwards.
In Britain, she says, children tend to be cut loose too young. Even older teenagers and young adults need lots of support and attention from the adults in their lives. “I think our children are grown up too quickly. Even as young adults they still need a lot of support, a lot of talking. Young people need respect to be able to talk.”

She said it is sad for her that in the current context, too often talking about Islam becomes talking about terrorism.

But in her tour of British book festivals in the last few months, she remarks that she is often surprised by her audiences who are so self-critical about the West. “There can be this self-flagellation, people say ‘Oh it’s all us, the West has done everything wrong. I say, ‘We live here. It’s still a good country.’”

Mona Siddiqui will be speaking about her book on March  14 at the Words by the Water Literary Festival, Kendall; March 25,  How To Read series, Conde Nast College, London; March 26,  Oxford Literary Festival; April 20, Ayewrite Festival, Glasgow;  April 25: Hexham Book Festival.

(re-posted from 

“The object of my worship lies beyond perceptions reach; For those who see, the Ka'ba is a compass, nothing more.”

― Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib

What Is Whiteness?

SundayReview | Opinion 

The New York Times - Copyright, All Rights Reserved

THE terrorist attack in Charleston, S.C., an atrocity like so many other shameful episodes in American history, has overshadowed the drama of Rachel A. Dolezal’s yearslong passing for black. And for good reason: Hateful mass murder is, of course, more consequential than one woman’s fiction. But the two are connected in a way that is relevant to many Americans.

An essential problem here is the inadequacy of white identity. Everyone loves to talk about blackness, a fascinating thing. But bring up whiteness and fewer people want to talk about it. Whiteness is on a toggle switch between “bland nothingness” and “racist hatred.”

On one side is Dylann Storm Roof, the 21-year-old charged with murdering nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on Wednesday. He’s part of a very old racist tradition, stretching from the anti-black violence following the Civil War, through the 1915 movie “The Birth of a Nation,” to today’s white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and gun-toting, apocalyptically minded Obama-haters. And now a mass murderer in a church.

On the other side is Ms. Dolezal, the former leader of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., who, it seems, mistakenly believed that she could not be both anti-racist and white. Faced with her assumed choice between a blank identity or a malevolent one, she opted out of whiteness altogether. Notwithstanding the confusion and anger she has stirred, she continues to say that she identifies as black. Fine. But why, we wonder, did she pretend to be black?

Our search for understanding in matters of race automatically inclines us toward blackness, although that is not where these answers lie. It has become a common observation that blackness, and race more generally, is a social construct. But examining whiteness as a social construct offers more answers. The essential problem is the inadequacy of white identity.

We don’t know the history of whiteness, and therefore are ignorant of the many ways it has changed over the years. If you investigate that history, you’ll see that white identity has been no more stable than black identity. While we recognize the evolution of “negro” to “colored” to “Negro” to “Afro-American” to “African-American,” we draw a blank when it comes to whiteness. To the contrary, whiteness has a history of multiplicity.

Constructions of whiteness have changed over time, shifting to accommodate the demands of social change. Before the mid-19th century, the existence of more than one white race was commonly accepted, in popular culture and scholarship. Indeed, there were several. Many people in the United States were seen as white — and could vote (if they were adult white men) — but were nonetheless classified as inferior (or superior) white races. Irish-Americans present one example.

In the mid- to late-19th century, the existence of several white races was widely assumed: notably, the superior Saxons and the inferior Celts. Each race — and they were called races — had its characteristic racial temperament. “Temperament” has been and still is a crucial facet of racial classification since its 18th-century Linnaean origins. Color has always been only one part of it (as the case of Ms. Dolezal shows).

In the 19th century, the Saxon race was said to be intelligent, energetic, sober, Protestant and beautiful. Celts, in contrast, were said to be stupid, impulsive, drunken, Catholic and ugly.
The mass immigration that followed the Irish famine of the 1840s inflamed nativist, anti-Catholic bigotry that flourished through the end of the century. Then new waves of poor Eastern and Southern European immigrants arrived, inspiring new racial classifications: the “Northern Italian” race, the “Southern Italian” race, the “Eastern European Hebrew” race, and so on. Their heads were measured and I.Q.s assessed to quantify (and, later, to deny) racial difference. They were all white, members of white races. But, like the Irish before them, the Italians and Jews and Greeks were classified as inferior white races.

By the early 20th century, the descendants of the earlier Irish immigrants had successfully elevated Celts into the superior realm of northern Europeans.

Meanwhile, World War I dampened Americans’ ardor for “Saxon” — given its German associations — and increased the popularity of a new term liberated from Germanic associations. The new name was “Nordic.” Many German-Americans even altered their surnames during and after the war, but the notion of plural white races held on until World War II.

By the 1940s anthropologists announced that they had a new classification: white, Asian and black were the only real races. Each was unitary — no sub-races existed within each group. There was one Negroid race, one Mongoloid race, one Caucasoid race. Everyone considered white was the same as everyone else considered white. No Saxons. No Celts. No Southern Italians. No Eastern European Hebrews. This classification — however tattered — lives on, with mild alterations, even today.

The useful part of white identity’s vagueness is that whites don’t have to shoulder the burden of race in America, which, at the least, is utterly exhausting. A neutral racial identity is blandly uninteresting. In the 1970s, long after they had been accepted as “white,” Italians, Irish, Greeks, Jews and others proclaimed themselves “ethnic” Americans in order to forge a positive identity, at a time of “black is beautiful.” But this ethnic self-discovery did not alter the fact that whiteness continued to be defined, as before, primarily by what it isn’t: blackness.

Ms. Dolezal seems to have believed that the choice to devote one’s life to fighting racism meant choosing black or white, Negroid or Caucasoid. Black was clearly more captivating than a whiteness characterized by hate.

We lack more meaningful senses of white identity, even though some whites, throughout history, have been committed to fighting racism and advocating for social justice. In the 19th century, abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown helped end slavery. In the early 20th century, Mary White Ovington helped found the N.A.A.C.P. Lillian Smith depicted the South’s nexus of “sin, sex, segregation” in her writings. White Communists, priests and rabbis stood beside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. Where would America be without these white allies of black freedom fighters?

Given that the monolithic definition of whiteness is antithetical to social justice, perhaps we should encourage a rebellion against it. Just as blacks and whites joined together as “abolitionists” to bring down American slavery in the 19th century, anti-racist whites in the 1990s called themselves “race traitors,” believing that social justice for all demands treason against white supremacy.

Eliminating the binary definition of whiteness — the toggle between nothingness and awfulness — is essential for a new racial vision that ethical people can share across the color line. Just as race has been reinvented over the centuries, let’s repurpose the term “abolitionist” as more than just a hashtag. The “abolition” of white privilege can be an additional component of identity (not a replacement for it), one that embeds social justice in its meaning. Even more, it unifies people of many races.

Nell Irvin Painter is a professor emerita of history at Princeton University and the author of “The History of White People.”

India remembers Karachi’s wild child Sabeen Mahmud on her Birthday

On a day when I would have been wishing her the best of health and success, I am instead writing on her birth anniversary. It can’t feel anymore unreal than this….

Remembering Karachi’s Wild Child Sabeen Mahmud on her Birthday When Sabeen was shot down on 24th April, 2015, it was the rudest shock. How could an eventful life with so much purpose be silenced so brutally and abruptly?

And ironically, it is only after she passed away, the global outpour of emotion made me realize how she managed to touch peoples’ lives. In my mind, she was a friend doing some interesting work in Karachi through her café called T2F (The 2nd Floor) which came to be known as a platform for the intelligentsia, artists, singers, stand-up comedians and anyone else with something to say through their respective talents over cups of coffee.

Sabeen Mahmud addressing a crowd. (Photo Courtesy: Sahar Zaman)
Sabeen Mahmud addressing a crowd. (Photo Courtesy: Sahar Zaman)

Sabeen, the Friend

Since childhood, my trips to Karachi have been about meeting family and friends. In more recent years, speaking at T2F about my work was something I always looked forward to. Irrespective of how busy her place was, Sabeen made sure that I got an evening with her visitors, however last minute my request.

She was a silent presence in my life. A friend who stepped in when required. I had once written for a newspaper in Pakistan on special request. When they put out the article in print, my byline was miss-spelt. I was infuriated. But Sabeen, without even me asking, had sent me a message saying that she had called up their head office to correct my name in the online version. This certainly is a very small example of how she looked out for her friends and never expected a favour in return.

Sabeen Mahmud with friends. (Photo Courtesy: Sahar Zaman)

Memorials Across the Globe

Sabeen Mahmud with friends. (Photo Courtesy: Sahar Zaman)The shock on her murder was followed by memorials for her across the world. This included London, New York, Tunis, Singapore, Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Hyderabad (Sindh), San Francisco, Bay Area, Toronto, Massachussetts and Mumbai. I, along with a few common friends, organized one in Delhi.

My friends who had never met Sabeen or never known about her were writing to me shocked and distressed. Her story has now become a story of steely courage and inspiration.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Thursday 18th June 2015
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork​, Ireland   

Muslims globally are preparing to begin the month of fasting. The act of faith that requires every able Muslim to fast from sun rise to sunset.  I see it as a great example of a bodily act to show commitment to faith in God.  This will be the first month of fasting that I spend with my family here in Glasgow after six years in the USA.  I had missed the familial and communal unity that always strengthened me mentally when I was weak in body.  The burden of fasting cannot be underestimated and this has become more of a topic of discussion lately.   More so because the fasting hours are getting longer.

Dr Usama Hassan of the Quilliam Foundation recently stated that Muslims in the UK should observe Mecca fasting hours as he believed that fasting should not become a health problem.  There have always been variations to this.  Icelandic Muslims have the longest fasting hours this year with a whopping 22 hour fast and this is not too far off what Muslims  in Scotland will have to deal with at around 19 hours.   This has led to a more deeper discussion about fasting times. There is no easy solution as British Muslims generally would want to remain committed to fasting from sun rise to sun set. 

It has made me think about how other traditions deal with the every day realities and commitment to their faith.  Even though it is a family and community based month, fasting is a singular act that is between the Muslim and God.  Infact, the Qur’an makes clear that the act of hunger is solely to show submission and strengthen awareness of God.  For me, a religious act should always be done willfully and my understanding of Islam is that it offers concessions to those who may find it difficult.  I guess this is the spirit of the month of fasting.  It comes with much to think about mentally and physically as we submit to God.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

My dear colleague and friend, Professor Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, and I had the honour of launching our books at the end of year University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences reception. Thanks to Raymond for taking these great photos!

Friday, 8 May 2015

A Stronger and Progressive Scotland - For Those of Faith and None - God Bless Scotland

This is the moment my sister, Asea Akhtar, cast my vote as an overseas voter in The British Election yesterday. I voted SNP! Proud Scot in Miami. Moving back to Celtic lands. We need a stronger and progressive Scotland! The voting station is at my old primary school - St. Mungo's Primary in Townhead, Glasgow.

My constituency, Glasgow Central, outstandingly voted in exactly the way I did today. Glasgow Central now has a Scottish National Party Member of the UK Parliament and this Scot in Miami is over the bloody moon. Scotland has voted for a progressive and stronger Scotland! Scotland has always led and continues to lead in democracy and thought.

Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, OBE is a Scottish National Party politician, and has been Member of Parliament for Ochil and South Perthshire since May 2015

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

I'm glad the SNP are using the word Progressive!

Endorsing, Supporting and Voting for the SNP on May 7th. The SNP are a superbly Scottish radical and progressive party that has strengthened my Pakistani and Scottish roots! God bless Scotland and the SNP!

Sir Muhammad Iqbal (Urdu: محمد اقبال‎) (9 November 1877 – 21 April 1938), widely known as Allama Iqbal (علامہ اقبال), was an academic, poet, barrister, philosopher, and politician in British India who is widely regarded as having inspired the Pakistan Movement. He is considered one of the most important figures in Urdu literature,with literary work in both the Urdu and Persian languages.

Preshan Ho Ke Meri Khaak Akhir Dil Na Ban Jaye
Jo Mushkil Ab Hai Ya Rab Phir Wohi Mushkil Na Ban Jaye

My scattered dust charged with Love the shape of heart may take at last:
O God, the grief that bowed me then may press me down as in the past!

Na Kar Dain Mujh Ko Majboor-e-Nawa Firdous Mein Hoorain
Mera Souz-e-Daroon Phir Garmi-e-Mehfil Na Ban Jaye

The Maids of Eden by their charm may arouse my urge for song:
The flame of Love that burns in me, May fire the zeal of Celestial Throng!

Banaya Ishq Ne Darya’ay Na-Payda Karan Mujh Ko
Ye Meri Khud Nigahdari Mera Sahil Na Ban Jaye

By the mighty force of Love I am turned to Boundless Deep:
I fear that my self‐regard, Me, for aye, on shore may keep!

Kahin Iss Alam-e-Be-Rang-o-Bu Mein Bhi Talab Meri
Wohi Afsana-e-Dunbala-e-Mehmil Na Ban Jaye

My hectic search for aim and end, In life that smell and hue doth lack,
May get renown like lover’s tale, Who riding went on litter’s track!

Urooj-e-Adam-e-Khaki Se Anjum Sehme Jate Hain
Ke Ye Toota Hua Tara Mah-e-Kamil Na Ban Jaye

The rise of clay‐born man hath smit the hosts of heaven with utter fright:
They dread that this fallen star to moon may wax with fuller light.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

A few photos from my book launch at 'Books&Books' (Miami). March 18th 2015.

(Published by Bloomsbury Academic, London. 2015)

Surrounded by books and an interested audience

Sporting my alma mater's tartan tie, University of Glasgow. Sharing a joke with a member of the audience about Mirza Ghalib, the Mughal poet, featured in my book.   

Signing my book for a reader

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Sufism won't solve Pakistan's problems - Using Sufism to counter religious terrorism is not the solution to Pakistan's problems - and it's risky. by Bina Shah

| War & Conflict, Politics, Pakistan, Asia  Source: Al Jazeera

Religiously motivated violence has steadily haunted Pakistan over the last 10 years, with the rise of militants and extremists who believe it's their holy duty to wage war on non-Muslims. The latest horrific episode: The Lahore church suicide bombing on March 15 which killed 16 Christians; two Muslim bystanders were also lynched and burned to death by an angry mob in the aftermath of the bombing.

As the author of the novel "A Season For Martyrs", which examines the fusion of Sufi tradition with the power structures of Sindh, I have watched with caution as western think-tanks have thrown up Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam with an emphasis on tolerance, peace, and love, as a means of combating this ideology of violence. Yet, I strongly believe that this is a misguided policy; using Sufism to counter religious terrorism is not the solution to Pakistan's problems.
Head to Head - Pakistan: Victim or exporter of terrorism?
Since 9/11, Pakistan has witnessed the weakening of state institutions, the confusion of political leadership, the uncertainty of whether or not to continue to nurture or disown the state's "strategic assets", that is, religious militants it has sponsored - and the relentless attacks by the Taliban and other militants against civilian, military, police, and minority targets.

Secularism as solution?

Many Pakistani liberals posit secularism as the solution: They theorise, or fantasise, that going back in time to erase the dictator General Zia-ul Haq's Deobandi imprint on Pakistani society - in other words, to eliminate his Islamisation project from both the statute books and the annals of history - will ease Pakistan's pain and bring this divided country back together again.

On the other hand, western think-tanks, ever concerned with the rise of militancy in Pakistan and its ramifications for western interests, decided that Sufism could be a means of countering hardline radicalism in the Muslim world. 

A 2007 RAND report urged western governments to "harness" Sufism; similar reports emerged from the Heritage Foundation, the Libforall Foundation and the Nixon Center, supporting the idea that Sufism, with its "politically moderating" effect, could supplant Salafism, whose local expression in Pakistan is the Deobandi movement.

Muslim and other scholars hit back at this plan, calling it misguided. The peaceful Sufi/violent Salafi dichotomy, they argued, did not stand up to scrutiny; Sufism could be used as much to advocate violence as Salafism. 

In Pakistan, even Barelvis, a moderate sect influenced by Sufism and opposed to Deobandism, have enacted or supported violence. The murder of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was committed by Mumtaz Qadri, a Barelvi, in 2011; Barelvi clerics have rallied for his cause ever since.

Many Pakistani liberals posit secularism as the solution: They theorise, or fantasise, that going back in time to erase the dictator General Zia-ul Haq's Deobandi imprint on Pakistani society ... will ease Pakistan's pain and bring this divided country back together again.

Still, this didn't stop the Pakistani government from trying out the formula: It formed a Sufi Advisory Council in 2009 to try and spiritually convince radicals to lay down their arms.
Since then, shrines and Sufi leaders have continued to be attacked all over Pakistan: the Baba Farid shrine and Sakhi Sarwar shrine in Punjab, Lahore's most famous Data Darbar shrine, the shrine of Sheikh Taqi Baba in Balochistan; and the assassination of the Sufi leader Faqir Jamshed in Dera Ismail Khan, in northwest Pakistan.

Complete reversal

The work of Farzana Shaikh, a Chatham House fellow and author of "Making Sense of Pakistan", represents a complete reversal from the discourse taking place about Pakistan's problems with extremism among its liberal intelligentsia: That religious extremism has come about because of the religious right wing's stubborn certainty that being a Pakistani equates to being a conservative Sunni Muslim, and that violence is a way of eliminating from the fabric of Pakistani society those people who don't fit that definition.

Yet, according to Shaikh, it's precisely Pakistan's uncertainty, not its certainty, about what it means to be Pakistani that has led the country to this critical point of desperate soul-searching amid one extremist-backed attack after another. 

Until the nation engages critically with Islam, trying to pin down whether or not a Muslim country's raison d'etre is to provide a homeland for Muslims or to actually "defend Islam" - with all the troubling implications of that motivation - Pakistani will continue to flounder.
Shaikh calls the enterprise to recast Sufism as the counter to violent extremism terribly risky.
"The geopolitical context has changed; the competing narratives of Islam have all become more increasingly violent." 

Bringing Sufism - or the Pakistani state's co-opted version of Sufism - into the mix has the potential to backfire, tearing the country further apart rather than healing its divisions.
And what effect would these political machinations have on the ordinary worshipper at a shrine, women and men who seek solace and security through their supplications?
"They don't know anything about it," says Shaikh. "They just don't understand why their shrines are now being bombed." 

Using Sufism as a tool in a game of ideologies will only result in more attacks of this nature. Far better to let the Sufi saints rest in blissful ignorance of what the state might make of their legacy.

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.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.