Monday, 28 December 2009

Islam and Capital Punishment

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day - Tuesday 29th December 2009
Amanullah De Sondy
Assistant Professor of World Religions
Ithaca College, New York

A British man has been executed in China for drug smuggling. Akmal Shaikh was found in possession of 4 kg of heroin in 2007. His family had pleaded for leniency stating that he was mentally ill and was duped by a gang of drug dealers. My thoughts are with Akmal Shaikh’s family as they try to come to terms with their loss and the circumstances surrounding their loss.

This harrowing reality has pushed me to consider my own position on capital punishment. In a recent discussion in New York with friends of all faiths I was told that the execution of criminals must be simply condoned in Islam. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at this statement as it made me realise once again the generalised view we have of Islam. Law of any nature is there to uphold peace in civil society and this has been the core of what Islamic law tries to assert too. But in the current political situation Islam’s ideas of forgiveness and liberty can be hijacked by those who uphold clear-cut edicts.

It also makes me think about the effectiveness of capital punishment. Is it not just too simplistic to kill? Is a society’s greatness not in its ability to punish without taking life? Even though in some way death might close a criminal chapter it begs us to consider the difficulty that religions and societies face when promoting law and order through their own understanding of justice and peace. Let's be honest we all differ on what justice and peace is.

And I’ve also been thinking about a person’s voluntary entry into a country different from their home nation. I’ve been working in the US and although I agree that every nation has a right to promote its own criminal justice system – it’s a personal challenge when the law differs significantly from what we are used to or agree with.

We must all consider the implications of our actions, whether as individuals or nation states, when negotiating our own understanding of right and wrong, life and death. But irrespective of our beliefs and judgment surely there must also be room for feeling sympathy for one family and their suffering.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Pakistan Eunuchs Get Own Gender

Pakistan's Supreme Court says eunuchs must be allowed to identify themselves as a distinct gender in order to ensure their rights. The eunuchs, known as "hijras" in Pakistan, are men castrated at an early age for medical or social reasons.

The court said they should be issued with national identity cards showing their distinct gender. The government has also been ordered to take steps to ensure they are entitled to inherit property.

'Respect and identity'

There are estimated to be about 300,000 hijras in Pakistan and they are generally shunned by the largely Muslim conservative society. They tend to live together in slum communities, surviving through begging and by dancing at weddings and carnivals.

A hijra association has welcomed the order, saying it is "a major step giving respect and identity in society". Indian authorities last month agreed to list eunuchs and transgender people by using the term "others", distinct from males and females, on electoral rolls and voter identity cards, after a long-running campaign by the members of the community.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2009/12/23 16:29:47 GMT

Sunday, 20 December 2009

The Festive Season and Returning Home: A Muslim View

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day - Monday 21st December 2009
Amanullah De Sondy
Assistant Professor of World Religions
Ithaca College, New York

As the festive period moves into full swing it brings with it the return of family and friends back ‘home’. Returning home had been on my mind for the last few weeks as I organised my own return from New York to Glasgow having spent the last 4 or so months teaching at a liberal arts college there. It took me a while to set up a new home in a land far from my beloved Scotland.

We may consider the politically correct statement that these are winter holidays but let’s be honest and be proud of the fact that these are our Christmas and New Year holidays – something Scottish tradition and culture is not only proud about nationally but renowned for internationally. Of course at the same time we must appreciate the fact that Hannukah and the Islamic New Year also coincide with this festive season, but appreciation of religious and cultural diversity can only be equally celebrated when we as a nation or individual Scots are confident in our own identity, uniting us in diversity.

I, as a Muslim, feel very comfortable with the celebration of Christmas, infact this was the first year that I put up a tree in my flat in the States. It was with a raised eyebrow that one of my Jewish students questioned why I was putting up a Christmas tree. My answer was simple – the tree can be whatever you want it to be, it does not affect my spiritual existence as a Muslim and it was a personal matter, as with many other issues in the life of a believer. It reminds me of the actions of the Prophet Muhammad when he found a painting with the nativity scene showing Mary and Jesus hanging in the Kaaba – understood in Islam as the house of God, he ordered it to remain hanging. And so we adorn our homes with many things that make us comfortable – be it our family, friends, trees and paintings all united in the phrase ‘home is where the heart is’, let us now consider the wider implications of this phrase in our Scottish homeland.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

No Mosque Has a Right To Dismiss Women!

Published Date: 22 November 2009
Scotland on Sunday
I find it quite absurd they wouldn't let me join. I was really shocked
I don't think there is any religious reason why they should not be members

MOST people seem to know Nazia Iqbal as she tears down the corridors of Strathclyde University's student union. Those who don't know her find out soon enough as she zips past posters announcing Ibiza-style foam parties, £1.50 pints and free condoms. Her name and job – "equal opportunities officer" – are stamped on to her burgundy sweatshirt.

"We are high-visibility executives," the 19-year-old explains, only slightly out of breath, as she rushes to her next meeting, adjusting her head scarf as she does so. "We are here to be seen." Iqbal admits she isn't afraid to stick her neck out. And she is about to make a little bit of Scottish history by doing so.

Last week, the third-year pharmacy student formally applied to become a voting member of the country's single biggest place of worship, Glasgow Central Mosque. She, like an unknown number of women before her, was turned down. It was policy, she was told. Women don't get a say.

Iqbal didn't like that. There is nothing in the Koran that says Muslimahs – female Muslims – can't vote. There is nothing in the Mosque's constitution either that stops women from being fully fledged members. It is just that there aren't any, despite women both voting in – and successfully standing for – elections at several mosques in England and the United States.

"I find it quite absurd they wouldn't let me join," Iqbal said yesterday. "I was really shocked when I was knocked back. I just found it downright wrong that a committee – I am guessing a bunch of men – decided that women can't be members."

She and dozens of friends, mostly young Muslim women students, are now organising, through social networking site Facebook and Strathclyde's students' union. They have written to Scotland's charities watchdog claiming that Glasgow Central Mosque is in breach of anti-discrimination laws and, therefore, its charitable status should be in doubt.

Among those who attend the 2,500- capacity, gold-domed mosque – or the Jamiat Ittihad-Ul-Muslimin, to give it its proper name – there are whispers that a group of women in their late teens could be about to overturn decades of tradition. "This will really put the cat among the pigeons," said one Scottish-born male worshipper, who asked not to be named. "These girls have got them, the old guys. They have to got obey the laws of the land on discrimination."

Women have always been able to worship at the Jamiat, which opened in 1983 on its prime site overlooking the Clyde just south of the river. There are special areas set aside for them to pray and to wash (in contrast to a handful of small mosques in rural and suburban Scotland, where there is no room for segregated worshipping). But Glasgow Central Mosque has always been ruled by elderly men, most born in Pakistan, and all steeped in the male-only system of management adopted in the old country.

The move by Iqbal and her friends, through their Campaign for Women's Votes in Our Mosques, suddenly challenges that model like never before. The young women haven't dropped their faith. But they are eager to jettison attitudes to their gender that they believe are cultural, not religious, in origin.

"Women have had the vote for nearly a hundred years in this country," said Iqbal, who appears as comfortable quoting 18th-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft as the Koran. "What is feminism? I think it is the radical notion that women are people. But I am Muslim. I know Islam liberated women when it came 1,400 years ago. I don't know why the mosque is still stuck in the past.

"Having women voting in the mosque – or being voted on to its committee – would make a huge difference, it would be a chance to change the perception a lot of people have about Islam."

Fellow campaigner Nazia Hanif, who jokingly calls herself as "Nazia 2", believes she and her friends are on firm theological ground. "Islam has no space for any kind of discrimination or judgment," she said. "The only way God differentiates between us is by our piety, not our colour, gender, age or anything else.

"Islam has more than liberated us. An example I would give is divorce. A Muslim woman can ask for a divorce at any time and get it. Scottish law doesn't give you that. I think there are an awful lot of misconceptions about women and Islam."

Her solution: to have more women representing the faith. Across Scotland, an older generation of Muslim women is watching with interest, one or two, partly in mirth, calling the youngsters "Muslim Suffragettes".

First-generation female migrants from the Islamic world have had other battles to fight, outside the mosque. One is 48-year-old Farkanda Chaudhry, a justice of the peace and seasoned activist. How did she react to Iqbal and Hanif's move? "It is a generational thing," she said. "The younger women have bigger expectations, one of those expectations is being able to vote. Why is it they can vote in society but not vote in the mosque?

"The important thing to understand is that one of the things giving them their confidence is their faith. Most probably, the young women are quite in tune with their faith. What they are saying is this: 'Hold on a minute, my faith gives me rights, which are God-given, and I don't see them in practice'. They are not demanding anything that wasn't practised at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him."

Chaudhry's view was echoed by Hamira Khan, a 30-year-old Scots Muslim woman who chairs the Conservative Party's community cohesion task force north of the Border. She said: "I believe these young girls are the first to publicly wish to get involved in Glasgow Central Mosque and I think, 'good for them'.

"I know emotions are involved but I just hope this is a misunderstanding and that the ladies find a compromise with the existing committee, which, in turn, needs to understand the role of modern Muslim women in this country. There are a lot of benefits for the mosque in having women on board."

Iqbal, Hanif, Chaudhry and Khan all agree on one other thing: that the mosque is more than a place of worship. It is a place for the Muslim community to gather. Women, they reckon, could help transform the institution, which, despite its size, plays little role in Scottish public life, into a major focus for their faith and community. Iqbal would like to see youth facilities and a creche (prayers at the mosque are regularly disturbed by crying babies brought along by worshippers, she says). Hanif believes it should host a matrimonial introduction service, at least partly run by women, like those seen at similar big mosques in western cities such as London and Washington. Chaudhry reckons the mosque should have a drop-in cafe.

The "Muslim Suffragette" campaign comes just as a dispute threatens to end democracy at the Mosque altogether.

A group of "young reformers", mostly Scottish-born businessmen in their 30s, is in open conflict with the Mosque's ruling committee. Some of the younger generation have become so disillusioned with the old system that they want to abolish elections. One reformer, construction firm owner Saddaqat Khan, 34, summed up their view: Mosque officials, he said, should be chosen on their qualifications for doing the job, not as the result of a "popularity contest". But Khan, even if sceptical about Mosque elections, still wants to see women in positions of power in its administration.

The "Young Reformers" and "Old Guard" will fight it out at an extraordinary general meeting on Boxing Day, when all members will get a vote on the Mosque's future.

The official list of voting members will be closed this Saturday. Iqbal, and dozens of other women who have signed up for her campaign, have just a week to join up if they want to have any say in what is being billed as the most important event in the Mosque's history.

Officially, there seems to be nothing stopping them. Glasgow Central Mosque's president, former Labour councillor and justice of the peace Bashir Maan, 83, yesterday expressed surprise that any women had tried to pay their £10 membership fee and get a vote. "Women have never taken any interest," he said. "I don't think there is any religious reason why they should not be members. It might be a cultural tradition. Religion doesn't make any division between man and woman."

Practically, however, applications from women are being rejected. No mosque official could explain why. Maan is now looking into the issue.

Some leading Muslim men are right behind Iqbal, Hanif and their friends.

They include Osama Saeed, chief executive of the Scottish Government-backed Scottish-Islamic Foundation, who said: "There is no religious reason for the current situation – quite the opposite.

"There are famous cases in Islamic history of women standing up in the mosque and taking religious leaders to account. There is currently a democratic and consultative deficit, which does not help the mosque first and foremost. Because, practically also, the community is missing out on a reservoir of talent. It sounds glib to say women are half the community, but it is true.

I can say firmly that young Muslim women are today more switched on than their male counterparts. The mosque is missing out."

Back on one of the top floors of The Union, the headquarters of the University of Strathclyde Students' Association, Iqbal and Hanif are stressing how much respect they have for the elders who created the Jamiat. But they can't quite agree how to put it. "I want to say Glasgow Central Mosque is our pride," Hanif suggests. Iqbal isn't so sure. "I don't that it is our pride the way it currently is. It should be our pride, but it isn't," she says. Then Hanif finds the words. "We want to improve the mosque because it is our own, it is our honour. We don't want to destroy it. We want to be in it because we love it."

MEMRI's Reform Project

Complaints of Bias Can Go Both Ways in Egypt

Letter from Egypt
New York Times
December 16, 2009

On a side street in the far northeast Cairo suburb of Ain Shams, the door of a five-story former underwear factory is padlocked.

This is, or was supposed to be, the St. Mary and Anba Abraam Coptic Christian Church. The police closed it Nov. 24, 2008, when Muslims rioted against its consecration. Since then local Copts have had to commute to distant churches or worship in hiding at one another’s homes.

While Muslim leaders criticized the Nov. 29 vote in Switzerland that banned construction of minarets, the distinctive spires on mosques that are used for the call to prayer, they don’t support Christians who want to build churches in some Islamic countries. Restrictions in Egypt have exacerbated sectarian violence and discrimination, say Copts, a 2,000-year-old denomination that comprises about 10 percent of the population.

The day after the Swiss vote, Ali Gomaa, one of Egypt’s top Muslim clerics, called the decision “an attempt to insult the feelings of the Muslim community in and outside of Switzerland.” Copts quickly said that neither he nor any other Islamic leader mentioned the Christian situation in Egypt.

“Without the merest attempt to put our house in order, are we in any position to taunt others to put theirs?” Youssef Sidhom, editor in chief of the Cairo-based Egyptian Coptic weekly newspaper El-Watani, said by telephon. “They should be ashamed.” The contrast between criticism of the Swiss and silence about local parallels isn’t limited to Egypt. Censure of Switzerland, where about 5 percent of the population is Muslim, was widespread in Islamic countries where Christians face restrictions on practicing their faith.

“The decision of the Swiss people stood to be interpreted as xenophobic, prejudiced, discriminative and against the universal human rights values,” said the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which represents 57 Muslim-majority nations. Members include Saudi Arabia, where non-Muslims are arrested for worshiping privately; Maldives, the Indian Ocean atoll where citizenship is reserved for Muslims; Libya, which limits churches to one per denomination in cities; and Iran, where conversion from Islam is punished by death, according to a 2009 U.S. State Department report on religious freedom.

“The Copts are a minority. Why do they need more churches?” Harbi Muhammed Ali, a cafe owner in Ain Shams, said in an interview. “There are other churches around. If you have one car, do you need two?” As for Switzerland, “the West is always preaching human rights,” he said. “It’s their problem.”

Requests for interviews with officials of the government and at the state-controlled Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the country’s largest institution of Islamic learning, went unanswered. And requests for interviews at the Islamic conference’s Geneva office, which issued the criticism of the Swiss ban, were rejected because officials were too busy, said a person who answered the telephone there.

In Egypt, local officials oversee permits for church construction and renovation, which must receive endorsement from Muslims in the neighborhood and final approval from President Hosni Mubarak. “Church and human rights leaders complain that many local officials intentionally delay the permit process,” the U.S. State Department report said. “As a result, congregations have experienced lengthy delays, years in many cases, while waiting for new building permits.”

Ain Shams is a sprawling district of narrow lanes and multistory housing with a majority Muslim population. The rioting there began after Copts renovated the factory and said Mass, Muslim and Christian residents said. Rioters carried a banner that read “No to the church,” chanted “There is no god but God” and threw stones at the police who kept them at bay.

Today, only a wrought-iron cross design on the locked front door marks the place as a church. Just down the street, Muslim residents constructed a lime green Mosque of Light at the same time that the Copts were modifying their building.

“Of course, they closed us down, but the mosque is open,” said Hossama Sedik, 30, a Coptic day laborer. There are about 40 Coptic churches in Egyptian cities and scores more in towns and villages, especially in southern Egypt, along with even larger numbers of clandestine prayer houses, said Bishop Thomas, a Coptic priest who operates a retreat outside Cairo.

In October, Muslims hurled stones at Christian workers in Al-Badraman, a village south of the city, because they were going to raise the steeple and add a bell at a church, according to press reports. In 2007, riots erupted in Behma, another southern village, after word spread that Copts were going to build a church without a permit. About 27 Christian-owned houses and shops were torched.

Parallel to these incidents are clashes over such issues as conversion and alleged harassment of Muslim girls by Copts, and Coptic girls by Muslims. “It’s a challenge to hold onto the concept of love and peace,” said Thomas, 52.

After he founded his retreat 10 years ago, Muslims set up four small mosques, complete with minarets, just outside the four corners of the rectangular enclosure. “They make a point that if we are here, the Muslims must be, too,” he said.

Even so, he joined Muslims in denouncing the Swiss ban. “If I want freedom to build in Egypt, I must also want it in Switzerland,” he said.

Bloomberg News

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Studying Love Instead Of War -- What If?

President Obama has just officially ordered another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. We are now fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and have troops stationed in 147 other countries around the world. The US actually has 1.6 million troops and a little fewer than 300,000 now in the Middle East. Protectionism, resource grabbing, retaliation, fear; the list is endless for the 'reasons' we do War. The question is, though, why? During our evolution, how did we humans turn in the direction of hate and War instead of care and Love?

The negative emotions like fear, anger, jealousy, envy, pride - all of the seven deadly sins when you think about it - how come these run us instead of compassion, love, understanding, knowledge and care? How did we get to be a human population of fighters and not lovers? What are we doing? And better yet, what are we doing about it?

Do you remember the old folk ballad Down By the River Side - The one that has the line "I ain't gonna study war no more"? What if everyone studied Love instead? What would life be like if we humans had made a turn, somewhere deep in the past, that lead us down a path of love instead of fear and hate? Would we have been much more careful about population explosion, hunger, abuse, control issues and infanticide? Would we have cared for those we did have and cherished and cared for the earth in better ways? Would there be no 'us and them' in this scenario?

In today's society adversity seems to rule. Stress, anger, judgment, opposition, defensiveness, alienation, and loneliness are pervasive in our lives. The de-stabilization that is caused by an up-tight and frightened society is killing us. The statistics are everywhere - crime, suicide, health, addiction - research shows that since 9/11 the average person in the US has had much less frequency of sexual contact. Another new study shows that murder rates go higher as mistrust in government gets stronger.

I read an article recently about a group of chimpanzees that had never encountered man. They were found in 2003 in a deep jungle area of the Congo. This is a phenomenal thing in today's modern world. But more importantly, the researchers were amazed to find that the animals came forward, unafraid, and sat with them for hours on end. The humans studied these animals for months and came to discover that in this chimp society there was virtually no fighting, no infanticide, extensive sharing, no fear and obvious deep caring among members of the whole tribe. This is unlike any chimpanzee group researchers have studied in the past and opens the possibility that apes, and indeed possibly humans, once lived in a much more natural and paradise-like way. It seems so far out of our experiences to even consider that we might once have lived closer and much more lovingly than we do today.

We live in a very altered, false, manufactured society in which we increasingly feel marginalized, compartmentalized, and negated. Yet there are many places in life to find hope. And there are many ways in which we might all make a huge difference in the quality of our own lives, the lives of those we love, and even the lives of all of humanity. Adversity may force us to eventually care more profoundly for fellow humans but let's hope that there might be more immediate reasons for change now.

More questions, always more questions. How would you answer some of these?

What if everyone studied Love not War?
Even a little. Can you imagine what life would be like? It's mind-boggling.

What if we reacted with vulnerability rather than defensiveness?
It feels so good to fess-up when I'm wrong. I can cultivate those good feelings and this will help me drop defensiveness more often.

What if we easily and freely hugged more?
I become more innocent when I hug, like a child who still has undying faith in everything. Hugging can be an art form.

What if we focused our lives on 'giving' but each of us could lovingly 'receive' also?
I often feel as though it is easier to give than to receive but when a true breakthrough happens to me emotionally it is always when I am forced to receive. One goes with the other so learn and use the one that you have the most difficult time with.

What if we all studied intimacy techniques as though our lives depended on it?
What we would see is mothers nursing their babies much more and businesses actually making spaces for moms and children. We would value all generations. We would all listen and communicate more effectively. There would be a lot more Love.

What if we treated lovemaking as an art form that we expanded throughout our lives?
Awe, for us all to be masters and mistresses at this! Kama Sutra throughout the ages!

What if intimate conversations healed something in each of us every time we had them? What if everyone practiced deep compassion so much so that we all became naturals at it? What if we all told the truth, all the time? What if we stopped studying War and started studying Love? What would our world be like then? Shall we learn and practice together?

Suzie Heumann is the founder of She studies, writes, has authored three books and makes films about conscious sex, Tantra and the Kama Sutra. Check out Premium for the most comprehensive tantra training available on the Internet!
Published at: Posted: December 8, 2009 10:08 AM
Huffington Post, USA

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Ban the Burqa

Op-Ed Contributor
Published: July 2, 2009
New York Times

NEW YORK — I am a Muslim, I am a feminist and I detest the full-body veil, known as a niqab or burqa. It erases women from society and has nothing to do with Islam but everything to do with the hatred for women at the heart of the extremist ideology that preaches it.

We must not sacrifice women at the altar of political correctness or in the name of fighting a growingly powerful right wing that Muslims face in countries where they live as a minority.

As disagreeable as I often find French President Nicolas Sarkozy, he was right when he said recently, “The burqa is not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory.” It should not be welcome anywhere, I would add.

Yet his words have inspired attempts to defend the indefensible — the erasure of women.

Some have argued that Sarkozy’s right-leaning, anti-Muslim bias was behind his opposition to the burqa. But I would remind them of comments in 2006 by the then-British House of Commons leader Jack Straw, who said the burqa prevents communication. He was right, and he was hardly a right-winger — and yet he too was attacked for daring to speak out against the burqa.

The racism and discrimination that Muslim minorities face in many countries — such as France, which has the largest Muslim community in Europe, and Britain, where two members of the xenophobic British National Party were shamefully elected to the European Parliament — are very real.

But the best way to support Muslim women would be to say we oppose both racist Islamophobes and the burqa. We’ve been silent on too many things out of fear we’ll arm the right wing.

The best way to debunk the burqa as an expression of Muslim faith is to listen to Muslims who oppose it. At the time of Mr. Straw’s comments, a controversy erupted when a university dean in Egypt warned students they would not be able to stay at college dorms unless they removed their burqa. The dean cited security grounds, saying that men disguised as women in burqa could slip into the female dorms.

Soad Saleh, a professor of Islamic law and former dean of the women’s faculty of Islamic studies at Al-Azhar University — hardly a liberal, said the burqa had nothing to do with Islam. It was but an old Bedouin tradition.

It is sad to see a strange ambivalence toward the burqa from many of my fellow Muslims and others who claim to support us. They will take on everything — the right wing, Islamophobia, Mr. Straw, Mr. Sarkozy — rather than come out and plainly state that the burqa is an affront to Muslim women.

I blame such reluctance on the success of the ultra-conservative Salafi ideology — practiced most famously in Saudi Arabia — in leaving its imprimatur on Islam globally by persuading too many Muslims that it is the purest and highest form of our faith.

It’s one thing to argue about the burqa in a country like Saudi Arabia — where I lived for six years and where women are treated like children — but it is utterly dispiriting to have those same arguments in a country where women’s rights have long been enshrined. When I first saw a woman in a burqa in Copenhagen I was horrified.

I wore a headscarf for nine years. An argument I had on the Cairo subway with a woman who wore a burqa helped seal for good my refusal to defend it. Dressed in black from head to toe, the woman asked me why I did not wear the burqa. I pointed to my headscarf and asked her “Is this not enough?”

“If you wanted a piece of candy, would you choose an unwrapped piece or one that came in a wrapper?” she asked.

“I am not candy,” I answered. “Women are not candy.”

I have since heard arguments made for the burqa in which the woman is portrayed as a diamond ring or a precious stone that needs to be hidden to prove her “worth.” Unless we challenge it, the burqa — and by extension the erasure of women — becomes the pinnacle of piety.

It is not about comparing burqas to bikinis, as some claim. I used to compare my headscarf to a miniskirt, the two being essentially two sides to the same coin of a woman’s body. The burqa is something else altogether: A woman who wears it is erased.

A bizarre political correctness has tied the tongues of those who would normally rally to women’s rights. One blogger, a woman, lamented that “Sarkozy’s anti-burqa stance deprives women of identity.” It’s precisely the opposite: It’s the burqa that deprives a woman of identity.

Why do women in Muslim-minority communities wear the burqa? Sarkozy touched on one reason when he admitted his country’s integration model wasn’t working any more because it doesn’t give immigrants and their French-born children a fair chance.

But the Muslim community must ask itself the same question: Why the silence as some of our women fade into black either as a form of identity politics, a protest against the state or out of acquiescence to Salafism?

As a Muslim woman and a feminist I would ban the burqa.

Mona Eltahawy (see photo above presenting lecture) is an Egyptian-born commentator on Arab and Muslim issues.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Here's a thought - Humanists should be welcome on Thought for the Day – if they would only admit their own fundamental irrationality, Wednesday 18 November 2009
by Nick Spencer

When, nearly five years ago, thousands of Christians got excited about the BBC's broadcast of Jerry Springer – The Opera, some joker made the point that they shouldn't be blaming the BBC but rather the person in Dixons who sold them a TV set with only one channel and no off switch. Much the same could be said about the campaign to open up Thought for the Day to non-religious contributors.

The slot takes 150 seconds out of a programme that lasts three hours. It is carefully and, for the most part, successfully edited so as to prevent it from "stepping out of the pulpit and on to a soapbox." And it is intentionally religious.

Many of those who object to it would happily see all religion driven out of the public square and confined to the private realm. However, contemporary Britain is an increasingly plural democracy, in which we all live alongside people whose worldviews we may dislike and whose opinions we may abhor. Religious people exist. Religious views are real. To limit them to some invisible and entirely personal domain is neither attractive nor helpful.

The immediate response – that we don't want to abolish religious views, merely open up this "God-slot" to other, non-religious views – misses the point entirely. On the same count, if Tom objects to Woman's Hour (too female), Dick to You and Yours (too consumerist), and Harry to Match of the Day (too football obsessed), we should open each up so it is more inclusive.

But Match of the Day is about football. Opening it up to features on boxing or modern art would stop it from being about football. I may not especially like football but that does not mean that the programme will never entertain or even educate me. And if I am convinced it is a complete waste of time and an abuse of my license fee I can always switch over and watch The Culture Show.

Those who have been campaigning so long and so hard to open up Thought for the Day to non-religious items have vowed to carry on. We have not heard the end of this story. There is, however, a way through the impasse.

Humanism, the non-religious body that has made the most convincing case for a slot on the programme, insists with some vigour that it is not a religion. In one respect that is right. Religions are (in part) about people being "bound together" around a common vision of the good. Humanists may agree about what they do not believe, but it is hard to see what substantive vision they share. Talk of "shared human values" merely begs the question.

In another way, however, humanism is deeply religious. It may not rely on revelation or the supernatural but, like any serious worldview, it does depend on beliefs and moral convictions that cannot be proved. Humanists tend to be a little shy of admitting this, preferring to pretend that their belief system is "scientific", "rational" or "neutral". But the fact remains that if you have an opinion on the merits of assisted dying, or whether the Scottish government was right to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, or indeed why it is worth getting out of bed in the morning, you will be drawing on a worldview that is not demonstrably rational or neutral.

And that is the sticking point. As long as humanism hides under these fig leaves of science, rationality and neutrality, and insists it is not a religion, it is hard to see how it can legitimately demand a slice of the religious cake. If, however, those who hold such views are willing to abandon their fig leaves and embrace the vulnerability that goes with any religious faith position then there might be a role for them on this most contentious 2½ minutes of broadcasting.

* © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Saturday, 5 December 2009

A Muslim Debate on Interfaith Dialogue

Mountains and Minarets, Saturday 5 December 2009 14.00 GMT
Ian Buruma

Minarets are threatening because they rub salt in the wounds of those who feel the loss of their own faith

Switzerland has four mosques with minarets and a population of 350,000 nominal Muslims, mostly Europeans from Bosnia and Kosovo, of whom about 13% regularly go to prayer. Not a huge problem, one might have thought. Yet 57.5% of Swiss voters opted in a referendum for a constitutional ban on minarets, allegedly because of worries about "fundamentalism" and the "creeping Islamisation" of Switzerland.

Are the Swiss more bigoted than other Europeans? Probably not. Referendums are a measure of popular gut feelings, rather than considered opinion, and popular gut feelings are rarely liberal. Referendums on this issue in other European countries might well produce startlingly similar results.

To attribute the Swiss vote to ban minarets – an idea that was promoted by the right-wing Swiss People's Party, but by none of the other political parties – to "Islamophobia" is perhaps to miss the point. To be sure, a long history of mutual Christian-Muslim hostility, and recent cases of radical Islamist violence, have made many people fearful of Islam in a way that they are not of Hinduism, say, or Buddhism. And the minaret, piercing the sky like a missile, is easily caricatured as a fearsome image.

But if the Swiss and other Europeans were self-assured about their own identities, their Muslim fellow-citizens probably would not strike such fear in their hearts. And that might be the problem. It was not so long ago that the majority of citizens in the western world had their own unquestioned symbols of collective faith and identity. The church spires that grace many European cities still meant something to most people. Few people married outside their own faith.

Until recently, too, many Europeans believed in their kings and queens, flew their national flags, sang their national anthems, were taught heroic versions of their national histories. Home was home. Foreign travel was for soldiers, diplomats, and rich people. "Identity" was not yet seen as a problem.

Much has changed, thanks to global capitalism, European integration, the stigmatisation of national feeling by two catastrophic world wars, and, perhaps most importantly, the widespread loss of religious faith. Most of us live in a secular, liberal, disenchanted world. The lives of most Europeans are freer now than ever before. We are no longer told what to do or think by priests or our social superiors. When they try, we tend not to take any notice.

But there has been a price to pay for our newly liberated world. Freedom from faith and tradition has not always led to greater contentment, but, on the contrary, to widespread bewilderment, fear, and resentment. While demonstrations of collective identity have not entirely disappeared, they are largely confined to football stadiums, where celebration (and disappointment) can quickly boil over in violence and resentment.

Populist demagogues blame political, cultural, and commercial elites for the anxieties of the modern world. They are accused, not entirely without reason, of imposing mass immigration, economic crisis, and loss of national identity on ordinary citizens. But if the elites are hated for causing our modern malaise, the Muslims are envied for still having faith, for knowing who they are, for having something that is worth dying for.

It is unimportant that many European Muslims are just as disenchanted and secular as their non-Muslim fellow-citizens. It is the perception that counts. Those soaring minarets, those black headscarves, are threatening because they rub salt in the wounds of those who feel the loss of their own faith.

It is not surprising that anti-Muslim populism has found some of its most ferocious supporters among former leftists, for they, too, have lost their faith – in world revolution, or whatnot. Many of these leftists, before their turn to revolution, came from religious backgrounds. So they suffered a double loss. In their hostility to Islam, they like to talk about defending "Enlightenment values," whereas in fact they lament the collapse of faith, whether religious or secular.

There is, alas, no immediate cure for the kind of social ills exposed by the Swiss referendum. The Pope has an answer, of course. He would like people to return to the bosom of Rome. Evangelical preachers, too, have a recipe for salvation. Neo-conservatives, for their part, see the European malaise as a form of typical Old World decadence, a collective state of nihilism bred by welfare states and soft dependence on hard American power. Their answer is a revived western world, led by the United States, engaged in an armed crusade for democracy.

But, unless one is a Catholic, a born-again Christian, or a neo-con, none of these visions is promising. The best we can hope for is that liberal democracies will muddle through this period of unease – that demagogic temptations will be resisted, and violent impulses contained. After all, democracies have weathered worse crises in the past.

That said, it would surely help if we had fewer referendums. For, contrary to what some believe, they do not strengthen democracy. They weaken it by undermining our elected representatives, whose job is to exercise their good judgment rather than voice the gut feelings of an anxious, angry people.

• Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

The Price of Being Born Muslim

December 5, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

I am by no means an expert on the topic of Islam or Muslims. However, by accident of birth, being Muslim was thrust upon me.

My chances going in were not too bad — about a quarter of the world’s population is Muslim. I live with the title and try to make sense of the daily newsworthy events that keep my people in the news. It was not until the fourth grade that I even knew I was Muslim. I was in grade school in Karachi, Pakistan, checking out a library book — an illustrated Bible — when my friend pointed out to me that I had picked the “wrong” book.

He appeared to be a little upset by my choice, as did some of the other kids. Any deviations from the norm, I concluded, would raise unnecessary alarm. My friend, since then, has become a militant atheist, but that is a story for another time.

I continued along a peaceful yet godless path until 8th grade when another friend confronted me with a deep philosophical question: Was I a Sunni or a Shiite? Being Muslim, it appeared was not really as simple as I had thought — I would need to make some difficult choices. My friend gave me a well rehearsed summary of the pros of cons of each group (heavily biased in favor of being Shiite, of course, because he was one) and provided me with the choice.

At last, I could exercise my free will! I decided to be Shiite until my grandmother stepped in after a week and in a matter-of-fact manner said that I was a Sunni, not a Shiite, and these things “cannot be changed.” Many more years of peaceful indifference toward religious matters passed and I ended up a freshman at New York University. It was then that the conflicts associated with being Muslim came to light.

My suite-mate hypothesized, a week into living together, that the college must have been trying to do an experiment on me by making me live with a Jew, a Hindu and a Catholic. Muslims, it appeared, had a lot of enemies and, for the first time, being one appeared to have more to do with the conflicts rather than any particular philosophical doctrine.

The few Islamic Center meetings I attended at college would invariably extend into speeches about the Palestinian conflict, the Kashmir conflict, the Chechnya conflict, the Bosnian conflict. Somewhat dispassionate about such issues, I chose to define myself as an undefined creature with no real place in society — the secular Muslim.

Since 9/11 the nature of the dialogue has changed quite a bit. I experienced the strong backlash against Muslims. Medical school interviews in the weeks after 9/11 were uncomfortable and borderline racist. Even my closest friends appear to place me on the wrong side of a line of “danger.” Everyone is more aware of the fact that I have a Muslim name. The more cultured among them show a genuine curiosity about “our kind.” Others mask their fear with jokes and frustrated questions along the lines of: “Why every time a bomb goes off, a Muslim person is behind it?” Yet others try to be unnaturally polite, likely suppressing undesirable emotions.

But with this increased awareness of the Muslim, there is a lack of appreciation of the nuances within our group. The reality is that many Muslims are secular. We do not pray five times a day, do not read the Koran and have not spent much time inside a mosque. We only turn to Islam when a child is born, someone gets married or someone dies.

We certainly have no interest in participating in civilizational battles. We are, in fact, loathed by the religious minority. And yet we have no clear voice, no representation and no one in the Western world appears to be aware of our existence. Every time a terrorist attack occurs, we suffer the most.

We are trying to succeed in life, trying to be effective doctors, lawyers, business people, artists and other kinds of professionals, and it hurts us, not the jihadists, when society keeps us at more and more of a safe distance “just in case.”

To defeat the threat of radical Islam, I suggest that the answer lies among the people who are the least Muslim.

It is only the secular forces within Islam that can subdue the screams of radicalism. We are united by a lack of indoctrination, a belief in personal freedom and a similar accident of birth and we must unite to properly forge a positive and progressive future for Muslims worldwide.

Tariq Ahmad is a doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Closing the 'hijab murder' file

Khaled Diab, Thursday 12 November 2009 16.50 GMT

The life sentence imposed on Marwa al-Sherbini's killer shows that European Islamophobia exists but is not institutionalised

While justice can never resurrect the fallen, it can lay them to rest in dignity and help their loved ones better come to terms with their loss.

In the case of Marwa al-Sherbini, the 31-year-old Egyptian pharmacist who was brutally murdered in a German courtroom this summer, the life sentence handed down by a Dresden court to her racist murderer should help ease tensions surrounding the case, which seems to have been hijacked for political point scoring.

First, let me be clear. This was an ugly and disgusting crime and caused the untimely death of an intelligent mother whose loss has undoubtedly left a huge hole in the lives of her husband and her three-year-old son. Her murderer, Alexander (or Axel) Wiens, a 28-year-old German of Russian origin, was certainly a racist and Islamophobe of the first order whose blind, irrational hatred of Muslims is frighteningly common in far-right circles.

But it was the extent and fury of the reaction in Egypt that astounded me. Although it is understandable that public sympathy for al-Sherbini – whose story is set to be turned into a film – and a certain amount of anger would pour out, I was shocked by the fact that she became popularly known as "the martyr of terrorism" and her case was used by some to claim that European Muslims were a "persecuted" minority and Europe was irredeemably Islamophobic.

Rising anti-German sentiment in Egypt even led to calls for sanctions against Germany. For example, the Egyptian Pharmacists' Association, of which al-Sherbini was a member, unfairly called for a boycott of German drugs.

While this over-reaction probably has some roots in the very real discrimination some Muslims face in Europe and the popular anger at US-led western intervention in places like Iraq, and the heavy human toll this has inflicted, Egyptians should not have allowed the actions of a tiny minority to lead them to make unfair generalisations.

As fellow Cif commentator Nesrine Malik said at the time: "Muslims (me included) constantly protest that the actions of a few extremists should not be allowed to denigrate Islam and its adherents as a whole – but this is exactly what they are doing themselves in connection with Europeans and the actions of Axel W."

At the time of the murder, I was struck by the ironic parallel between the one-sided self-righteous indignation being expressed by some conservative Egyptian Muslims and the almost identical brand of righteous anger targeted at Muslims by the European far right.

For example, many Egyptians pointed to western prejudice against the hijab and how it was prohibited in government institutions by some European states, such as France, as examples of this alleged persecution. "But what about Muslim prejudice against bare heads?" I asked in an article at the time. "In the interest of fairness, why aren't more Muslims openly outraged by attempts to force women to wear the headscarf against their will, as in Saudi Arabia?"

In Egypt, few protests are raised when the mutaween, the Saudi morality police, routinely arrest and beat Saudi women who are out alone or not wearing a headscarf. In an extreme manifestation of their puritanical attitude, they even caused, in 2002, the death of 15 schoolgirls who were not allowed to flee a burning building because they were not dressed in decent Islamic fashion.

In addition, while European Muslims can and do face discrimination, this Egyptian criticism overlooks the fact that Muslims often have more freedom of conscience in Europe than they do in Egypt, and that non-Muslims can also be the victims of enormous prejudice in Egypt.

Copts have to deal with a lot of unofficial and even some institutionalised discrimination in Egypt, as I highlighted in a recent article.

On hearing that the German courts had given the murderer the stiffest possible sentence – life, without eligibility for early release – my first reaction was that this should help restore shaken confidence, though there have been some complaints that the sentence was too lenient.

Some of the people interviewed on al-Jazeera last night and posting on newspaper message boards today expressed the view that Wiens should have been tried in Egypt and sentenced to death. They are obviously unaware of European laws banning the extradition of suspects to countries where they may face capital punishment.

But the verdict has generally gone down well. For instance, Egypt's ambassador to Germany welcomed the court's ruling, while the independent al-Dostour newspaper called it a "victory for justice". This should demonstrate to the doubters that, though there may be racist and Islamophobic Germans and Europeans, discrimination against Muslims is not universal nor is it generally institutionalised.

SNP candidate praised radical Muslim as ‘preacher of peace’

From The Times November 12, 2009

A radical Muslim cleric alleged to have inspired the Fort Hood gunman has been praised in the past as “a preacher of peace” by a prominent SNP candidate with close links to Alex Salmond.

The FBI is investigating communications between Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people at the US Army base in Texas, and Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born Muslim cleric now based in Yemen. Mr Awlaki has a large following in Britain and counts prominent mainstream Muslims among his supporters.

In 2006 Osama Saeed, who has been selected as the SNP candidate for Glasgow Central for the next general election, wrote that Mr Awlaki “preached nothing but peace”. Last night Mr Saeed, who was researcher to Mr Salmond before he became the Scottish First Minister, distanced himself from Mr Awlaki, saying that he now felt “cheated” by the cleric.

Mr Saeed said: “I completely disagree with what he has said about Fort Hood, and a host of other matters which he has more recently written and spoken about.” Mr Awlaki, 38, who on his blog described Major Hasan as “a hero”, has been a regular visitor to Britain and delivers frequent lectures to audiences here by video or via the internet.

Counter-terrorism sources said last night that Mr Awlaki was barred from entering Britain on security grounds, while the anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation said that he was “perhaps the most influential pro-jihadist ideologue preaching in English today”. Despite his extremist reputation, the cleric has attracted widespread support from mainstream British Muslim groups and individuals.

Azad Ali, president of the Civil Service Islamic Society, wrote last November that Mr Awlaki was “one of my favourite speakers and scholars”. Mr Ali, whose society’s patron is Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, distanced himself from the cleric’s views last night. He said: “I reject them and disassociate myself from them completely.”

Mr Salmond came under attack two months ago over SNP links to the Scottish-Islamic Foundation, founded by Mr Saeed, after it emerged that the Scottish government had agreed to give the organisation taxpayers’ cash before it was legally established.

The Scottish government clawed back £128,000 paid to the foundation for a £1.4 million “IslamFest” event that was due to take place in Glasgow last June but was abandoned. An SNP spokesman said last night: “Anwar al-Awlaki formerly expressed moderate views — his more recent comments are disgraceful and have been condemned by all right-thinking people, including Azad Ali and Osama Saeed. Any attempt to smear any individual in the UK over this would be appalling.”

While some people such as Mr Saeed now distance themselves from Mr Awlaki, his lectures continue to be circulated widely. The Times acquired DVDs of his lectures at two Islamic bookshops in East London, while Jimas, a registered charity based in Ipswich, offers downloads of his sermons on its website.

This year a video lecture by Mr Awlaki was delivered at the East London mosque under the banner “The End of Time” with a poster depicting New York in flames. The mosque said that an outside group had used its facilities for the event.

Mr Awlaki was born in New Mexico in 1971 and holds a US passport. He was an imam at Rabat mosque in San Diego, where he encountered two of the September 11 hijackers, Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar.

The 9/11 Commission report said that Mr Awlaki “developed a close relationship” with the two hijackers but the cleric condemned the atrocities in interviews at the time. The preacher moved from there to be an imam at Falls Church, Virginia, where he is reported to have first met Major Hasan.

Tariq Ramadan Gets a Hero’s Welcome, and Cold Shoulders, at Religion Scholars Confab

By Allan Nadler
Published November 11, 2009, issue of November 20, 2009.

Swiss-born Muslim scholar and public intellectual Tariq Ramadan has for decades been a lightning rod for controversy. He was barred from entry to America by the Patriot Act’s “ideological exclusion provision,” and then on account of his financial contributions to two Hamas charities. Even so, he took center stage at the American Academy of Religion’s annual conference, this year held in Montreal — allowing him to attend.

The controversial scholar, barred from America, traveled to speak in Canada.The grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, Ramadan has long been suspected by progressive Muslims and secularists in Europe of radical Islamist tendencies despite his avowed agenda to “reform Islam.” The Canadian Jewish community’s wise silence about his numerous high-profile appearances notwithstanding, Ramadan has repeatedly singled out Jewish intellectuals as among his most damaging detractors. Most recently, in his new book, “What I Believe,” he unmistakably implied that Jews and the pro-Israel lobby were behind the revocation of his visa.

To mark Ramadan’s visit, the National Post, Canada’s conservative national daily, ran a column by liberal Muslim writer

Tarek Fatah called, “Montreal Welcomes an Islamist Extremist in Sheep’s Clothing.” Fatah’s article ended with a powerfully personal pledge: “Brother Tariq, your father Said Ramadan came to my birthplace Pakistan in 1948 as a Muslim Brotherhood emissary and was instrumental in turning a secular Muslim country into a hotbed of Islamic extremism. I will not let the son of Said Ramadan come to my adopted home Canada and do the same, without a fight. Your Islamist father ruined my birthplace; I will not let you ruin the place where I will die.”

On Montreal’s leading morning radio talk show, veteran journalist Denise Bombardier observed to host Denys Arcand that “while Israeli scholars are increasingly boycotted from college campuses, an Islamofascist like Ramadan is welcomed like a rock star.” And two progressive Canadian Muslim groups ran an ad in a Montreal daily, Le Devoir, denouncing Ramadan for his covert Islamist agenda and ties to antisemitic clerics.

The main and far warmer welcome was reserved for Ramadan’s address to four separate panels, including two packed plenary sessions at the private Annual Meeting of the AAR, the world’s largest learned society of scholars of religion. The American ban was denounced each time Ramadan was introduced, unsurprising since the AAR, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors, has been the most prominent petitioner for its reversal since 2004.

His battle for entry has been a matter of particular sensitivity to the academic community, since the initial revocation of his visa came after Ramadan accepted a prestigious chair in Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame. While this advocacy for Ramadan is ostensibly rooted in concern for academic freedom, his appearance at the Montreal conference, and the hero’s welcome accorded him at his plenary appearance and keynote address, suggested either a more than trivial political partisanship with Ramadan’s views or a naiveté about what he really represents.

In his talks, Ramadan repeated the need for what he calls “transformative” and “radical” reform of Islam, while in fact articulating a fundamentalist acceptance of the divinity of the Quran and the Hadiths (narratives about the prophet), as well as the exclusive authority of the Ulema (scholarly religious establishment), to offer normative Quranic interpretations. Such double-talk, combined with ultraconservative theological views, would be laughed out of the room were they offered by any of his liberal Christian colleagues.

Nevertheless, Ramadan repeatedly rejected the application of universally accepted tools of modern biblical scholarship to Islam’s sacred texts. And, with no serious critical challenge, he dubbed the democratization of the study of those texts “dangerous and unfair.” The passive, indeed mute, reception by critical modern scholars of religion to Ramadan’s repeated fundamentalist proclamations was nothing short of astonishing.

Participating on a star-studded panel chaired by CNN’s Reza Aslan and including award-winning journalist Robin Wright, Ramadan made remarks on the theme of “Islam and Modernity” that showed why the debate about his true beliefs is so intractable. Following Wright’s fine overview of the history of Islamic radicalism and the contemporary changes toward a “softer and less violent Islamism” in the numerous Islamic countries from which she has reported for decades, Ramadan bristled at the notion that violence should serve as any criterion in assessing Islam’s engagement with modernity. Rather, he insisted that “violence is not an issue for the vast majority in the Muslim world,” and that the proper way to understand reform in countries with Muslim majorities must be limited to analyzing those countries’ various interpretations of the Quran, Hadiths and Sharia (Islamic law).

A defining moment in Ramadan’s career was his famous televised debate, in November 2003, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, then French minister of the interior during a period of antisemitic attacks in France. Sarkozy attacked Ramadan for having accused “the Jews” of serving the interests of Israel over those of their countries of residence: “Your article was not just a blunder; it was a moral failure.”

Ramadan responded first by asserting that he had always opposed antisemitism, adding: “They call me a Muslim intellectual; I wrote about Jewish intellectuals. I don’t see any harm in that.” But Ramadan’s shocking response to Sarkozy’s next volley stole headlines throughout Europe. Asked to denounce his brother, Muslim Brotherhood leader Hani Ramadan (with whom Ramadan privately remains very close) for having written a piece justifying the stoning of adulterous women, Ramadan proposed a “moratorium on such practices.” An outraged Sarkozy declared: “A moratorium? What does that mean? We’re in 2003!”

The Sarkozy debacle was eerily repeated in Montreal, suggesting that little has changed for Ramadan. Asked by a self-described “feminist scholar of Islam” to suggest concrete ways of advancing the status of women in the Muslim world, he responded, without a hint of irony, “The best way to transform the position of women in Islam is to go back and look to the life of the prophet and how he treated his wives.” Sarkozy’s indignation echoed: “Wives? Polygamy? What does this mean? We’re in 2009!”

I asked Ramadan, in the final audience question after his keynote address, to rise above accusations of “doublespeak” and condemn unambiguously the rise in religiously sanctioned and state-supported antisemitism throughout the Muslim world. As always when the question of his ties to antisemitic organizations and clerics is raised, Ramadan became both indignant and personally belligerent. Responding to the term “doublespeak,” which has haunted Ramadan for two decades, he accused me of “double-hearing,” evoking hearty laughter from the majority of the crowd, who clearly had not read this response dozens of times in his writings. He continued by asserting that he has “always condemned antisemitism as anti-Islamic.” What this qualified rejection implies remains unclear beyond a chilling reminder that for Ramadan, moral and ethical judgments can be made only through the prism of Islamic values.

Ramadan’s Islamic “reform” has nothing in common with the 16th-century Christian Reformation’s challenging of fundamental religious doctrines and ecclesiastical institutions, and it certainly shares absolutely nothing with Reform Judaism, which left all of traditional Judaism open to radical revision.

Even his harshest critics — such as Denis MacShane in his introduction to the 2008 English translation of French secularist Caroline Fourest’s devastating book, “Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan” — at least offer the hope that Ramadan may be evolving and distancing himself from Islamist politics and religious fundamentalism. Sadly, his performances in Montreal suggest that he has not progressed an iota from his fundamentalist views about such issues as the divinity of the Quran, the nature of religious authority, antisemitism and the status of women.

The only evolution evident in Ramadan’s slick performances is his finely tuned taqiyya — the medieval Islamic tactic of strategic dissimulation. After all, it is no small matter to dupe so many thousands of scholars of religion. Or is it?

Allan Nadler, a regular Forward contributor, is Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Drew University. Contact Allan Nadler at

Friday, 23 October 2009

The Grand Mufti's Mission

The Grand Mufti's mission

By Michael Gerson
Friday, October 23, 2009

Sheik Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, possesses a wonderfully exotic title, a scholarly manner and the unique burden of issuing about 5,000 fatwas a week -- the judicial rulings that help guide the lives of the Muslim faithful. On a recent visit to the United States, he explained to me the process of "resolving issues of modern life." And modern life offers Gomaa and his team of subordinate muftis plenty of fodder for resolution, from the permissibility of organ transplants, to sports gambling, to smoking during Ramadan, to female judges, to the use of weapons of mass destruction, to mobile phone transmitters on the tops of minarets.

This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of Islam for many non-Muslim Americans, who must look back to Puritan Massachusetts for a time when hermeneutics -- the art of interpreting a holy text -- was such a consequential public matter. In the West, theological debates have long been confined to seminaries, causing nothing more serious than denominational splits. In Egypt, Gomaa is a theological celebrity. His office, the Dar al-Iftaa, is part of the Ministry of Justice. And though his rulings are nonbinding unless adopted into Egyptian law, they are widely influential.

Reform in the Arab world is not likely -- at least soon -- to reflect the Western privatization of theological beliefs. All of life is subject to sharia law, and most Arab governments gain at least a part of their legitimacy by reflecting it. At its worst -- but rarely -- this involves the classical Islamic punishments of stoning and amputation. At its best, sharia law plays an equivalent role to the rule of law, binding both rulers and ruled by the same objective standard of justice.

So it obviously matters greatly how sharia law is interpreted, and who does the interpreting. But Islam, for better or for worse, has no pope or traditional clergy. Instead, it has several schools of interpretation -- all of which view the Koran and the traditions of the prophet Muhammad as normative but reconcile local customs with Islam in different ways.

Some, on the Saudi Arabian model, view the 7th century as the purest Islamic ideal, which is difficult to reconcile with modernity, pluralism, democracy, women's rights and success in the modern world.

Sheik Gomaa represents a different approach. He can hardly be called a liberal. "The Egyptian people," he told me, "have chosen Islam to be their general framework for governance. That being the case, the Egyptian people will never accept homosexual marriage, or the use of illegal drugs, or the commission of homicide or joint suicide." Morality and its sources are absolute. "The Koran and the tradition are what we depend on," he insists. "They were true 1,400 years ago, they are true today, they will be true tomorrow."

But traditionalist Islam, in his view, is pragmatic in the way it applies these principles to "current reality." It is the job of Islamic scholars "to bridge the gap between the sources and life today." Some past interpretations "may have been corrupt -- we may find a better way. What we look to in tradition is methodology, not the exact results of 500 years ago." Gomaa focuses on "the intent of sharia to foster dignity and other core values," as well as "a commitment to the public interest."

"The end result is to improve the world, not destroy it," he said. As a result, Gomaa has made a number of rulings recognizing women's rights, restricting corporal punishment and forbidding terrorism.

"Let me give you an example of the approach from freedom," he told me. "The Prophet, in history, peace be upon him, wore clothes like what they wear in Sudan. The fact that the Prophet did that doesn't mean we all must dress that way. There are those who want to hold on to the past, not hold on to religion." Beneath Gomaa's interpretive approach is a strong assertion of the role of the traditional scholarly class within Islam. The issuing of fatwas by unqualified radicals has often led to religious chaos. Gomaa is a scholar of the first rank and believes that scholars, rooted in a long tradition of learning, should take the leading role in Islamic jurisprudence. His goal is not to liberalize Islam but to rescue orthodoxy from extremism.

This does not amount to a fully orbed theory of human liberty. But Gomaa stands for an important and encouraging principle: Radicalism is the shallowest view of Islam.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Islamic Humor: Divine TV Guide and Forcing Your Fate

Shaykh Yassir Chadly has been the imam (spiritual leader) at the Masjid-Al Iman a multi-cultural Sufi-oriented mosque in Oakland, California since 1992.

His unique blend of deep spiritual subjects combined with Sufi Folk traditions and his own distinctive sense of humor has made him an extremely popular lecturer around the Bay Area on subjects such as Islam, transformation and Sufism.

He is currently an adjunct professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and has taught workshops at The California Institute for Integral Studies teaching classes on Islam, Sufism, The poet Rumi, and Sufi Storytelling and the art of sermon.

As a Moroccan musician, he has recorded albums with Jazz artists Omar Sosa, Pharoah Sanders and Randy Weston and has recently released his first solo CD entitled “AJEEB!!” available on itunes. He has also composed and performed music for The Lines Ballet Company of San Francisco, The North Carolina Ballet Company and The Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre.

He has also presented lecture/demonstrations on Moroccan and Gnawa music at many venues including The Julia Morgan Theatre And The California Academy of Sciences.

In 2002 Yassir performed live at The Diablo Valley College Ethnic Storytelling Festival in Concord, California.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

For Peace to Prevail We Must Be At Peace Within Ourselves

Sri Satya Narayan Goenka (born 1924) is a leading lay teacher of Vipassanā meditation and a student of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. He has trained more than 700 assistant teachers and each year more than 100,000 people do Goenka sponsored Vipassana courses. Mr. Goenka is married to Ilaichidevi Goenka who sits as co-teacher with him. They have six sons.

SN Goenka emphasises that, "The Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught Dhamma - the way to liberation - which is universal" and presents his teachings as non-sectarian and open to people of all faiths or no faith. Goenka calls Vipassana meditation an experiential scientific practice, through which one can observe the constantly changing nature of the mind and body at the deepest level, a profound understanding that leads to a truly happy and peaceful life.

Monday, 5 October 2009

'The Case for God' by Karen Armstrong

October 4, 2009
Perpetual Revelations
The New York Times

By Karen Armstrong
406 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95

The Bush era was a difficult time for liberal religion in America. The events of 9/11 were not exactly an advertisement for the compatibility of faith and reason, faith and modernity, or faith and left-of-center politics. Nor was the domestic culture war that blazed up in their wake, which lent a “with us or against us” quality to nearly every God-related controversy. For many liberals, the only choices seemed to be secularism or fundamentalism, the new atheism or the old-time religion, Richard Dawkins or George W. Bush.

But now the wheel has turned, and liberal believers can breathe easier. Bush has retired to Texas, and his successor in the White House is the very model of a modern liberal Christian. Religious conservatism seems diminished and dispirited. The polarizing issues of the moment are health care and deficits, not abstinence education or intelligent design. And the new atheists seem to have temporarily run out of ways to call believers stupid.

The time, in other words, is ripe for a book like “The Case for God,” which wraps a rebuke to the more militant sort of atheism in an engaging survey of Western religious thought. Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned prolific popular historian, wants to rescue the idea of God from its cultured despisers and its more literal-minded adherents alike. To that end, she doesn’t just argue that her preferred approach to religion — which emphasizes the pursuit of an unknowable Deity, rather than the quest for theological correctness — is compatible with a liberal, scientific, technologically advanced society. She argues that it’s actually truer to the ancient traditions of Judaism, Islam and (especially) Christianity than is much of what currently passes for “conservative” religion. And the neglect of these traditions, she suggests, is “one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today.”

Both modern believers and modern atheists, Armstrong contends, have come to understand religion primarily as a set of propositions to be assented to, or a catalog of specific facts about the nature of God, the world and human life. But this approach to piety would be foreign to many premodern religious thinkers, including the greatest minds of the Christian past, from the early Fathers of the Church to medieval eminences like Thomas Aquinas.

These and other thinkers, she writes, understood faith primarily as a practice, rather than as a system — not as “something that people thought but something they did.” Their God was not a being to be defined or a proposition to be tested, but an ultimate reality to be approached through myth, ritual and “apophatic” theology, which practices “a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred” and emphasizes what we can’t know about the divine. And their religion was a set of skills, rather than a list of unalterable teachings — a “knack,” as the Taoists have it, for navigating the mysteries of human existence.

It’s a knack, Armstrong argues, that the Christian West has largely lost, and the rise of modern science is to blame. Not because science and religion are unalterably opposed, but because religious thinkers succumbed to a fatal case of science envy.

Instead of providing the usual portrait of empiricism triumphing over superstition, Armstrong depicts an extended seduction in which believers were persuaded to embrace the “natural theology” of Isaac Newton and William Paley, which seemed to provide scientific warrant for a belief in a creator God. Convinced that “the natural laws that scientists had discovered in the universe were tangible demonstrations of God’s providential care,” Western Christians abandoned the apophatic, mythic approach to faith in favor of a pseudo­scientific rigor — and then had nowhere to turn when Darwin’s theory of evolution arrived on the scene.

An Aquinas or an Augustine would have been unfazed by the idea of evolution. But their modern successors had convinced themselves that religious truth was a literal, all-or-nothing affair, in which doctrines were the equivalent of scientific precepts, and sacred texts needed to coincide exactly with the natural sciences. The resulting crisis produced the confusions of our own day, in which biblical literalists labor to reconcile the words of Genesis with the existence of the dinosaurs, while atheists ridicule Scripture for its failure to resemble a science textbook.

To escape this pointless debate, Armstrong counsels atheists to recognize that theism isn’t a rival scientific theory, and that it is “no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth — or lack of it — only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action.” Believers, meanwhile, are urged to recover the wisdom of their forebears, who understood that “revealed truth was symbolic, that Scripture could not be interpreted literally” and that “revelation was not an event that had happened once in the distant past but was an ongoing, creative process that required human ingenuity.”

This is an eloquent case for the ancient roots of the liberal approach to faith, and my summary does not do justice to its subtleties. But it deserves to be heavily qualified. Armstrong concedes that the religious story she’s telling highlights only a particular trend within monotheistic faith. The casual reader, however, would be forgiven for thinking that the leading lights of premodern Christianity were essentially liberal Episcopalians avant la lettre.

In reality, these Christian sages were fiercely dogmatic by any modern standard. They were not fundamentalists, reading every line of Scripture literally, and they were, as Armstrong says, “inventive, fearless and confident in their interpretation of faith.” But their inventiveness was grounded in shared doctrines and constrained by shared assumptions. Their theology was reticent in its claims about the ultimate nature of God but very specific about how God had revealed himself on earth. It’s true that Augustine, for instance, did not interpret the early books of Genesis literally. But he certainly endorsed a literal reading of Jesus’ resurrection — and he wouldn’t have been much of a Christian theologian if he hadn’t.

Which is to say that it’s considerably more difficult than Armstrong allows to separate thought from action, teaching from conduct, and dogma from practice in religious history. The dogmas tend to sustain the practices, and vice versa. It’s possible to gain some sort of “knack” for a religion without believing that all its dogmas are literally true: a spiritually inclined person can no doubt draw nourishment from the Roman Catholic Mass without believing that the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Christ. But without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment. Not every churchgoer will share Flannery O’Connor’s opinion that if the Eucharist is “a symbol, to hell with it.” But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery O’Connors, not Karen Armstrongs.

This explains why liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices that the liberal believer picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets for a more enlightened age. Such spiritual dilettant­ism has its charms, but it lacks the sturdy appeal of Western monotheism, which has always offered not only myth and ritual and symbolism (the pagans had those bases covered), but also scandalously literal claims — that the Jews really are God’s chosen people; that Christ really did rise from the dead; and that however much the author of the universe may surpass our understanding, we can live in hope that he loves the world enough to save it, and us, from the annihilating power of death.

Such literalism can be taken too far, and “The Case for God” argues, convincingly, that it needs to coexist with more mythic, mystic and philosophical forms of faith. Most people, though, are not mystics and philosophers, and they are hungry for myths that are not only resonant but true. Apophatic religion may be the most rigorous way to go in search of an elusive God. But for most believers, it will remain a poor substitute for the idea that God has come in search of us.

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The Times.

Saudi university critic loses job

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has sacked a senior cleric who criticised a new science and technology university which opened in September. The cleric, Sheikh Saad al-Shethry, said the mixing of sexes in any university was evil and a great sin.

He demanded the curriculum should be vetted by Islamic scholars to prevent teaching of "alien ideologies". The $7bn university near Jeddah, named after King Abdullah, is a key project of the reform-minded Saudi monarch.

In what is being seen as a rare intervention, a royal decree removed Sheikh Saad from Saudi Arabia's most senior council of religious scholars, or ulema. No reason was given publicly for the removal.

The timing follows the sheikh's stringent criticism of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), whose administration lies outside the control of the cleric-dominated ministry of education.

"The recommendation is to set up Sharia (Islamic law) committees at this university to oversee these studies and look into what violates the Sharia," Sheikh Saad was quoted saying last week in the Saudi press.

The government hopes the technologically advanced centre with its relaxed social constraints will help modernise the kingdom's deeply conservative society. In contrast to the strict rules outside the sprawling campus, women are allowed to drive and are not required to wear veils in classes.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2009/10/05 10:01:52 GMT


Egypt cleric 'to ban full veils'

Egypt's highest Muslim authority has said he will issue a religious edict against the growing trend for full women's veils, known as the niqab. Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi, dean of al-Azhar university, called full-face veiling a custom that has nothing to do with the Islamic faith.

Although most Muslim women in Egypt wear the Islamic headscarf, increasing numbers are adopting the niqab as well. The practice is widely associated with more radical trends of Islam.

The niqab question reportedly arose when Sheikh Tantawi was visiting a girls' school in Cairo at the weekend and asked one of the students to remove her niqab. The Egyptian newspaper al-Masri al-Yom quoted him expressing surprise at the girl's attire and telling her it was merely a tradition, with no connection to religion or the Koran.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2009/10/05 13:07:55 GMT


Thursday, 1 October 2009

Dictatorship Begins at Home

Harsh patriarchal rule in the home teaches deference and acceptance of subservience which begets harsh authoritarian rule in the nation.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Mohammad Rafi: The charming night has set

Suhaani raat dhal chuki
Na jaane tum kab aaoge

The charming night has set
Who knows when you will arrive?

Jahan ki rut badal chuki
Na jaane tum kab aaoge

Life’s direction has been stirred/moved
Who knows when you will arrive?

Nazaarein apni mastiyaan dikha dikhaake so gaye
Sitaarein apni roshni luta lutaake so gaye

The beauty surrounding me even sleeps after showing/alluring its trance
The stars have robbed and been robbed of their twilight and even gone to sleep

Har ek shamma jal chuki
Na jaane tum kab aaoge

Every light has been dimmed
Who knows when you will arrive?

Suhaani raat dhal chuki
Na jaane tum kab aaoge

The mesmarising night has set
Who knows when you will arrive?

Tadap rahe hai hum yahan
Tadap rahe hai hum yahan tumhaare intezaar mein

I am Yearning/pining/longing/ here
I am Yearning/pining/longing/ here – in this endless wait for you

Tumhaare intezaar mein
In this endless wait for you

Fiza ka rang aa chala hai
The wind/air full of romance is taking color

Mausam-e-bahaar mein
Mausam-e-bahaar mein
In the springful/prosperous weather

Hawa bhi rukh badal chuki
And now the wind has turned its direction

Na jaane tum kab aaoge
Who knows when you will arrive?

Suhaani raat dhal chuki
Na jaane tum kab aaoge

The charming night has set
Who knows when you will arrive?

Friday, 25 September 2009

Meda Ishq Vi Tu – You are also my Love

Celebrating Eid away from home (Scotland) was not easy for me but I was pleasantly surprised to have the good fortune of spending it with two new colleagues and friends and their families, Professor Naeem Inayatullah and Professor Asma Barlas who are both in the Politics Department at Ithaca College.

During our wonderful conversations the topic of music and ghazals came up. It was at this point that Naeem introduced me to Pathanay Khan’s ‘Meda Ishq Vi Tu’ – I had heard parts of Ghulam Farid’s Kafi (more on Ghulam Farid: with the ‘Radeef’ (refrain) on ‘Vi Tu’ – ‘are also you’, in the songs of Attaullah Khan EesaKhailvi. I also remember that I was once abruptly told to put off this song playing in my car because it was ‘idolatry’. The memory of that moment came flooding back after I heard Pathanay Khan’s beautiful rendition of this Kafi which has pushed me to re-examine this piece in light of my thoughts today. Is this really idolatry? Or is this truly about the Beloved (God)? So here is the Kafi and my simple commentary. I am also grateful to Saba who focused my attention to these ‘youtube’ clips without knowing that I was already thinking about this Kafi. I am taking some of the translations that I found on the web and adding my own translation. Leaving you all to ponder and reflect upon the words…

‘These knots, knots…my beloved, these knots by the hundreds

The material world, the difficulties, the pain, the splendor, oh how they have taken over my eyes and ended me in difficulty…knots…these knots

These eyes weep, they weep, complain, turmoil, recalling the troubles that emerge from you, these knots are attained, over and over again

Oh friend, Farid, they are surely blessed who are attached to the beloved’

Even though God ‘bestows’ knots, difficulties in the body and eyes of the believer there still remains a passion of attaching/associating oneself to the Beloved (God).

Translated by Asif J Naqshbandi
You Are My Ardour
You are my ardour, my friend, faith, creed.
You are my body, you are my spirit, heart, soul.
You’re the direction towards which I pray.
You are my Mecca, my mosque, my pulpit.
You are my holy books and my Koran.
You are my religious obligations,
My Hajj, charity, fasting, call to prayer.
You are my asceticism, worship,
My obedience and my piety.
You are my knowledge and you’re my gnosis .
You’re my remembrance, my contemplation
You are my tasting and my ecstasy.
You are my love, my sweet, my darling, my honey
You are my favorite, and my soulmate!
You’re my spiritual preceptor, my guide ,
You are my Shaykh and my Enlightened One
You are my hope, my wish, my gains, losses.
You’re all I see, my pride, my deliverance.
You’re my faith, my honour, modesty, glory
You’re my pain, sorrow, my crying, playing
You are my illness and my remedy.
You are what lulls me to a peaceful sleep.
You are my beauty and my fate, fortune, fame.
You are my looking, enquiring, seeking
You are my understanding, my knowing
You are my henna, my collyrium,
My rouge, my tobacco, my betel-leaf!
You are my terror, my passion, madness
You’re my crying and my lamentation.
You are my Alpha and my Omega,
My Inner, Outer, Hidden, Manifest.
If, O’Belovéd, you accept Farid
You are my Sovereign and my Sultan.

Who is the ‘you’? What does this ‘you’ really mean to us? If God is love then the entire material world, ritualized life must be imbued in that love which pushes us to consider how can such a passionate world view be physically manifested? Is this a wrong view of spirituality? Love can never be idolatry – love is always God.