Saturday, 9 August 2008

Scottish Islamic Foundation: Cronyism, Pounds, and the Media

I am becoming increasingly tense about the way in which the media is harpooning the Scottish Islamic Foundation and it’s closer than close links with the Scottish Nationalist government. Remind me as to what the real reason was for the establishment of this foundation in the first place? Was it to find a group of friendly political faces to represent ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’ in Scotland? Was it to fund a foundation that would wave a magical wand that would eradicate any chance of radical terrorists to be bred in Scotland so that our political leaders could sleep better at night? Was it to cosy up with the Muslim voters?

I’m not getting this at all am I?! I’ll keep trying! Or maybe the Scottish government just has too much money in its hands and decided that nearly half a million pounds would help establish some sort of Muslim tartan army on a crusade towards ‘Freedom’, ‘Life and Respect’, ‘Education’, ‘Family and Community’, and last but not least ‘Justice’! I quite like the idea of having a foundation in Scotland which would make it their business to strive for these issues and when I say strive I mean ‘really’ strive! You see I’m sick and tired of politicians who keep telling me they are striving for some greater good so what we need in Scotland is some real striving and who can achieve this – the progressive Scottish Muslims. The real issues that are hampering progress amongst the Muslim communities will not be resolved by politically motivated foundations but through a deep spiritual awakening and reasoning with Islamic theology where we realise that the beauty of Islam can live in us all as Muslims and quite comfortably in our beloved Scotland. Why do we fear this happening so much? Why do we seem to get to the barriers of progress but then regress clutching the banners of 'Islam says NO!' -- the Islam that most advocate is a set of ideas that men, yep men, have voiced and made the bastions of the faith - even God's divine voice in the Qur'an has the hallmarks of liberality than what these men spew!

I’ll keep saying it – wake up progressive Scottish Muslims!

Every time someone rises to the platform with false progressive credentials they will come tumbling back down. No one should take my statement as an attack for I think that every Muslim in Scotland has the right to create a foundation, or anything else they get funding for, to highlight their cause but what I am doing is raising some serious questions and a serious challenge to those who make grand statements to put their money where their mouth is! God bless Scotland!

Islam on Campus and Progressive Islam in Scotland

The Centre for Social Cohesion produced a report titled ‘Islam on Campus – a Survey of UK Student Opinion’ by John Thorne and Hannah Stuart. The Herald newspaper ran a story the other week titled ‘Divisive study of Muslim attitudes comes under fire’. Alison McCallum reported how Islamic Societies leaders in Scotland were not pleased with this report, which they said was not a true picture.

I have just finished reading the full report and wanted to comment on some of the issues the report highlights. I found this piece of research generally very well laid out and reject the accusation by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies that there is some form of ‘agenda’ by the authors. Let’s not fall into our siege mentality here and just accept criticism! Let’s unpack some of the findings. The researchers found that a lot of Islamic Societies on campus were based in some form of prayer room and in these prayer rooms they found many books which had particular ‘Islamic brotherhood’ leanings. This is not really a surprise to me as I was myself the president of the Islamic Society at Stirling University where we had many books by leading authors of a very political Islamic nature. This in turn creates a political atmosphere as opposed to a spiritual one. A lot of the folk who are involved in Islamic Societies are fairly political in their activities. The report highlighted some tension between more right wing Muslim students on campus and the more Sufi in nature. It seemed that they would remove each other’s books from the library just to get at each other. From my experience Islamic Societies in Scotland have little to no leaning towards Sufism and it would be fair to say that they are more Wahabbist in outlook.

The Shar’ia and its interpretation were also questions which students were vocal about. There was some reluctance by students to support the re-interpretation of the Shar’ia. This is also no surprise because there is so little understood about what the Shar’is is! There is widespread understanding that Shar’ia is just right and wrong ordained by God! On the issue of the caliphate it seemed that this was also a split issue with some in favour and some not. Again, lack of objective understanding on the issue. However, the question which hit the Scottish Herald newspaper headlines was the issue of ‘killing for the sake of Islam’ where 32% said it was justified to kill to ‘preserve and promote the religion and if the religion was under attack’. This is rather worrying and must be condemned by Islamic Societies throughout the country. I’m not convinced that students would actually want this to happen physically but a lot of the time, because of the lack of understanding of the issue, Muslims will make statements which they have never researched. For example, at the end of most Friday prayers the Imam will make a series of prayers to different people and one of them is to help the Jihad of the Mujahadeen. What exactly does this mean? I know why I find this shocking but does the average Muslim in the Mosque sit up and ponder the prayer they are making?

I should recall my own shocking story when I received an email on the University of Glasgow student email list serve from some holier than holy Muslim student who was using terminology such as ‘Kafir’ in order to secure his own conservative interpretation of Islam whilst writing about Muslim-non-Muslim relations. Now the term is most often used in a derogative sense towards non-Muslims. I found this unacceptable in this email and asked for a retraction by the President of Glasgow University Islamic Society. This never happened but was told these were the author’s own opinion. So why was this being sent from and on behalf of the Islamic Society? I found this rather strange and I was never given a reason for this.

On the question of apostasy 50% of students would not support their Muslim friend to convert to another faith. The Qur’an is very clear on the issue of coercion, the sooner we realise this the better. There were also some questions on the Shi’a and Sunni divide and how students perceived the other. There seemed to be a lack of understanding about what Sufism was amongst students. There also seemed to be a general intolerance towards homosexuals, especially amongst Muslim male students. It was also believed that the Hijab is an integral component of the Islamic faith. I guess this is no surprise as we are still so engrossed in the Hijab issue, it has become the be all of what Islam and Muslims stand for, at times. We must realise that there is more to a Muslim women than what she puts on her head.

There was a positive response on the issue of equality amongst men and women. However, researchers found that there was still a separation of men and women in lectures on some campuses such as Queen Mary. A long time ago I was the Scottish Executive to the Federation of Student Islamic Societies but I gave up on this one because I felt that it was not moving further forward. The final nail was hammered when the council of Student Islamic Societies failed to elect a much worthier female student to the post of President just because she was a woman! They elected a male candidate who was nowhere near of the same calibre. I also find it rather shocking in this day and age that there are ‘Sisters’ Sections’ in Islamic Society heirarcy which basically sets the females aside from the brothers ruling the roost! If there was an acceptance of total equality then females would be able to become Presidents of Islamic Societies on campus. I think the Muslim commentator, Ziauddin Sardar sums FOSIS up pretty well in the report, “Most members of FOSIS ... [were] … strongly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan. These organisations preached a simple message: Islam Good; Secularism Bad.”

The report also highlights something very important that representative bodies are not always representative! Take heed Scottish government and policy makers in Scotland. “Islamic societies nationwide are at least nominally affiliated, via FOSIS, to the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), a registered charity and umbrella group which claims over 400 affiliates and describes itself as the largest Muslim organisation in the UK. Since its 1997 founding, the MCB has sought to position itself as the main voice of British Muslims. Yet, according to a 2006 Dispatches poll, ‘What Muslims want’, for Channel 4, less than 4% think that the MCB represents British Muslims. In addition, many of the group’s leaders and founders such as Khurshid Ahmad were formerly affiliated with Islamist parties in Pakistan such as Jamaat-e-Islami.”

The report also found that students had little understanding about Judaism and Zionism. There seemed to be a close affinity to organizations such as Friend of Al-Aqsa, “Founded in 1997, Friends of Al-Aqsa’s stated goals include “defending the human rights of Palestinians and protecting the sacred al-Aqsa Sanctuary in Jerusalem.” Ismail Patel, the current leader of Friends of Al-Aqsa, has said that the group aims “to raise awareness of the Palestinians’ sufferings and dispel the notion that Hamas is barbaric, and that it cannot be dealt with.” As a specialist in the history of medieval Jerusalem, I have often felt totally uncomfortable with such organizations which have a clearly political message to promote as opposed to one rooted in Islamic understandings of peace and tolerance, something which Jews, Muslims and Christians have all exhibited in the Holy Land in the past.

In conclusion, this report has presented a fairly coherent picture of what is happening on campus. I disagree with the way The Herald picked the most controversial finding and plastered a headline, how else did they expect Muslim students to react? Was this just to sell their newspaper? If this report is to promote change how has this whole situation helped to do that? By headlining it in this way have we made this report accessible to Muslim students to pick up, read and seek change? No, I think we have alienated all sides in this argument and no one seems to want to accept the face of reality. This goes back to what I wrote about a few days ago about criticizing the current situation Islam and Muslims find themselves in. Change and progress can only occur if there is a sincere acceptance of the reality in which we find ourselves. I have no qualms about stating my opposition to the type of Islamic understanding that is bred on campus but promoting their siege mentality and crying Islamophobia is not going to help anyone.

This leads me on to my final rant. The progressive voices of Muslims on campus have little to do with Islamic Societies because they are often shunned for not following the pack. However, the moderates have began a clever crusade of using the word progressive in order to fool the wider community into believing that they are the real progressives. I have found this very disturbing of late. Maybe I should be gloating that they might have been reading my blog and the word is catching on but then maybe that’s wishful thinking. I am sceptical that the word ‘progressive’ is not being used to its ultimate potential in the spirit of Islamic liberty and progress but is being abused to further a political agenda. Once again, would the real progressives wake up!

Pakistani Music: Fear of Rejection

Mehdi Hassan (b.1927) is a prolific ghazal singer from Pakistan. My father has always been a great fan of his and I remember wondering what his songs were all about when I was younger. Some folk have asked me why I translate these ghazals and post them on this blog and what is their connection to the whole aim of my blog. My answer to that is that we seem to disassociate culture, arts and music from Islam for some reason but for me they can quite beautifully blend together. God wants us to seek the beautiful within us and for far too long I failed to realise that so many Pakistanis/South Asians who are a credit my whole existance have laid laid the foundations with their hard work in such fields. It is time to revisit them and be proud of what they have to offer us all. So I decided to pull out one very famous song of his which was featured in a Pakistani film. I've tried to translate it as best as I can and I'm sure the clip will add to that effect. If anyone knows the name of the movie and year of release do let me know.

Saamne Akay Tujhko Pukara Nahi
Teri ruswa’i mujko gawara nahi

In your presence I failed to call you
For I feared your rejection

Zukhm sinay mein tujsey chupa’o ga mein
Pyar ka naam lub pur na la’o ga mein

The wounds of my heart I will forever conceal
For I will not even utter the word of love from my lips

Haar kur bhi yeh baazi mein haara nahi
Teri ruswa’i mujko gawara nahi

Having lost this game I still feel I have not lost
For I feared your rejection

Shukriya tumnay jo dard mujhko diya
Kush raho pir bhi dayta ho tum ko dua

Thank you for the pain that you have given me
But, still I continue to pray for your eternal happiness

Koi shikwa zuban pur tumhara nahi
Teri ruswa’i mujko gawara nahi

My tongue has no grievance towards you
For I feared your rejection

Mujhsey logo nay poochi kahani teri
Kya dekha’o mein unko nishani teri

People asked me about your story
What sign will I show them of yours?

Teray chehray sey purda utara nahi
Teri ruswa’i mujko gawara nahi

I did not take of the veil from your face
For I feared your rejection

Saamne Akay Tujhko Pukara Nahi
Teri ruswa’i mujko gawara nahi

In your presence I failed to call you
For I feared your rejection

Friday, 8 August 2008

Asha's Restaurant: Birmingham

I had the honour of visiting Asha Bhosle’s world renowned restaurant in Birmingham whilst I was there. I was a little reluctant in going to a place named after the Bollywood Queen of music but I have to say it was a wonderful experience. Some of us from the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life went there on our day off. As we entered I recognised her famous song ‘Yeh Ladka Hai Allah Kaisa hai Deewana’ – it is a song about a mad boy who seems to have fallen for the girl and she is crying to God (Allah) about his madness and how difficult it is to bring him to his senses. I am attaching her singing this song live in concert, even if you don’t understand it you get a ‘flavour’ (couldn’t help myself!) of how she encapsulates the listener in fun and madness! I would highly recommend this restaurant to anyone visiting Birmingham where you can enjoy some exclusive Asha Bhosle created dishes and also an array of photographs depicting Asha’s musical career.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Progressive Islam and a Critique of Edward Said's Theory of Orientalism

It may be too soon to try and deconstruct how I feel about the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life but if I don’t write them down now I may never get round to it. I don’t want to spend too much time delving into the politics of the summer school. The Arab/Israeli conflict was very much at the heart of the school with participants from the Holy Land. There were few occasions when the subject didn’t turn back to the conflict. It was very difficult for me to listen to the concerns of both Arabs and Israelis. Both have suffered but in amongst all of that they still sat side by side and had a laugh now and again. We had an interesting task of a group presentation in which one group, with Arabs and Israelis, had a humorous discussion exposing the prejudices they had about each other. Nothing was resolved but exposed some of the issues at stake. Humor is a good way of sitting outside of the serious issues and talking about them. Maybe this is a good first step to conflict resolution.

As you all know, I was reluctant in going to this summer school but now feel that it was a wonderful experience. Meeting with Professor Adam Seligman and listening to him was for me one of the highlights. It is Adam’s firm conviction that the knowledge of different faiths and religions is ‘knowledge for building a good city, differently’ which in my understanding pushes for the knowledge to aid communal harmony and not its convictions. This is a pretty similar argument to the Ford Foundation project on Social Justice Philanthropy which I led a few years ago in which I argued that faith communities need to start working on social justice issues as opposed to arguing about the similarities between them theologically.

So here is where the summer school helped me define my own goal and aim. That there are many religious people out there who create networks with those from different faiths in order to do some good in society, regardless of there traditional or progressive views. For example in order to feed the hungry in developing countries does one really need to understand the theology of the faith based relief agencies such as Islamic Relief or SCIAF? Of course not!

It is with the same method that the so-called ‘moderate Muslims’ who are presented often with their highly platitudinous comments on Islam’s peaceful side are a welcome sight to the non-Muslim communities or even the media. It is not the concern of the non-Muslim to challenge progressive or conservative Islamic theology. Those who do are quickly dismissed. There were key non-Muslim academics who undertook a critical enquiry into Islam in the past but then came Edward Said with his book Orientalism in which he lambasted non-Muslim interest in Islamic studies as a conspiracy of neo-colonialism, if the colonial power had fallen then knowledge of the ‘orient’ would keep the colonial spirit high, Said argued. This is one of the reasons why I am greatly saddened that non-Muslim academics of Islam are forever having to justify their existence. I’m sure there are some out there who do not want to see Islam progress but why do Muslims paint them all with the same brush? I believe the reason is to manipulate the situation. A lot of Muslims abuse the terms Islamophobia and Orientalist in order to uphold and propagate their conservative views. A clever game is then played to silence criticism from non-Muslims. So who is seeking progress if the progressives have been silenced and the non-Muslim labeled as Orientalist and Islamophobic?

I see a bright future for Muslims in Scotland (I can only comment on my ‘patch’ so I will not be too ambitious about the rest of the world!). I find it detrimental to my own faith and spirituality to sit back and accept views on Islamic theology which I don’t believe in. In the very essence of freedom of speech the views of the progressives cannot be silenced. This is not the same as setting up a relief agency in conjunction with Christians or Jews. The stakes are much higher, the future is at stake. In my opinion most of these voices that we always hear are highly politicised and void at root of God’s love, true liberty and progress. I do believe that this bright future can only arise if we all live out an Islam and love of God that is rooted in our Scottish soil. The path for those stuck in the romanticised ideals of medieval Arab Islam is simple and unchallenging but realising that God’s love and beauty also flourishes in our beloved thistle is one which seeks a more adventurous soul.