Thursday, 12 February 2009

The Urgency of Being a Progressive Muslim Averroes In Memoriam

The Urgency of Being a Progressive Muslim Averroes In Memoriam
By: Zuhairi Misrawi

Last December several cultural and philosophical institutions commemorated the death of an imminent Muslim philosopher, Averroes (Ibnu Rushd). The Goethe institute headquarter in Berlin-Germany also granted the Averroes award to Muhammad Arkoun who was observed to carry on Averroes’ thought in enlightening the Muslim world mainly through the historical reconstruction of religions (Alhayat, 11/12).

At the end of 1999, the Institute of Egyptian Philosophy led by Hassan Hanafi held a philosophical symposium titled, “Nine centuries commemorating Ibnu Rushd (Averroes); the pioneer of Arabic rationalism.” This symposium was visited by several thinkers from across the Arab world - Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco. The writer who coincidentally became an active participant in that symposium caught the message that Averroes had come up from his grave!

As far as the writer knows, there has never been another scientific forum discussing Averroes like this symposium. It indicates that gradually a collective awareness has emerged which appreciates progressive thought within the classical tradition. Averroes is designated as a symbol of the revival of Arabic philosophy and rationalism. He is considered as a philosopher who has developed a reasonable relation between religion and philosophy and Athif ‘Iraqi had described him as the last Arab philosopher!

The next question is this: what is the significance of commemorating Averroes for Muslims, especially Indonesian Muslims? To the writer, it has a deep significance for Averroes’ thoughts are essentially not strange to the pesantren (Islamic boarding school) circle. Most of the pesantren teach one of the most important books written by Averroes, Bidayat al-Mujtahid wa Nihayat al-Muqtashid. For Islamic philosophical observers, Averroes is an inspiration toward the open “gate of philosophy” which has been locked tightly within Islamic tradition.


We should note a profound sorrow in the religious landscape. In 2003 several important events were a disgrace to religion, namely religious conflict, terrorism in the name of religion, religious politicization in which people are labeled as infidels in the name of religion and so on. Religion has been used by various groups to disseminate hatred and suspicion, and it is even used to sow discord within communities. Here, religion is used for momentary interest. It’s flexibility and benefits have been lost.

These facts require that the Muslim community take an important role in materializing more peaceful religious views. Progressive views illustrating Islamic ethical moral are needed. Islamic teachings should inspire the actualization of views supporting justice, equality, diversity and civilization.

Actually Averroes as a philosopher, doctor, and ulema has shown us how to be progressive Muslims. To him, a good Muslim is a Muslim who can represent the era he lives in. Therefore, his views are always refreshing for our religious insight as reflected below. Firstly, in terms of the pluralism of ijtihad (individual religious interpretation). Averroes was a religious judge (qadhi) in Seville (1169) and the head of religious judges in Cordova (1182). In his capacity as the man who had authority in religious matters, he did not automatically use that authority as the iron hand to summarize a law decisively. Instead he emphasized the urgency of ijtihad in the domain of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).

Andalusia which is generally influenced by the Maliki school of thought did not automatically drive him to side with the Imam Malik School. His view, as mentioned in Bidayat al-Mujtahid wa Nihayat al-Muqtashid, was that every fiqh matter should be observed trough the perspective of four Islamic school of thoughts: Syafi’ie, Hambali, Hanafi and Maliki. To Abid al-Jabiry (1998), Averroes actually wished to give a precious lesson that the most important thing in fiqh is to analyze the ethical moral dimension behind the law as well as the urgency of understanding ijtihad’s process. This means that each law should consider the public benefit. Will it be a benefit or a hazard? Here is the importance of a plural ijtihad which accomplishes people’s interest in general.

Second is the freedom of thought and the tradition of the critics. Averroes lived in the Dark Age and the repression of freedom of thought. At that time, philosophy was buried alive especially after the fatwa (instruction) of infidel (kafir) and confused (mutahafit) by Imam al-Ghazali in Tahafut al-falasifah. Averroes criticized several books which prohibited philosophy by writing a book, Tahafut al-Tahafut. He issued a fatwa, “the importance of thinking and philosophizing”, as written satirically in Fashl al-Maqal fi ma bayn al-Hikmah wa al-Syari’ah min al-Ittishal. To him, the position of philosophy and thought is equal to sharia. Both are brothers and roads to the truth. He added that the theological problem should not be approached textually only, but it should be approached by philosophy, through interpretation (takwil) based on demonstrative analogy (al-qiyas al-burhany). Based on that, Averroes refused to consider philosophers as infidels, since philosophy and thought are an authentic part of Islam. Muhammad Arkoun considers Averroes to be the pioneer of enlightened rationalism and faith (ra’id al-fikr al-‘aqlany wa al-iman al-mustanir), since iman (faith) does not repress freedom of thought according to Averroes.

Thirdly is the interfaith dialog. Averroes wished that philosophy could be a bridge to accept truth from the others of different religions. He wrote in Fashl al-Maqal, “If we find truth from others with different religion, we must accept and respect him. On the contrary whenever we find mistake, so we have to remind and forgive him.” He observed that religious diversity is not a barrier to build a dialog. Therefore, he read and commented upon Aristotelian philosophy which originated from outside Muslim tradition. According to Youhanna Qalta, a priest in al-Sujud church, Egypt, Averroes opened the heart of Christians to welcome other religions.

Fourthly, there is the issue of control over ruler’s policy. The important idea originated by Averroes is control over ruler’s policy. He observed that authoritarianism tended to kill collective interest. Therefore, he always opposed the caliph. Furthermore he often greeted the caliph by saying “Hi brother”. He paid a high price when subsequently he endured inquisition (mihnah fikriyyah) and was exiled by the Caliph to Lucena, an Atlantic island, in 1195. The most important of all his teachings was the need to control rulers.


It is amazing that Averroes thoughts were formulated so long ago. He was a rare and unique thinker. He still absorbed multiple meanings of Islam within the almost uniform tradition while writing under a system of absolute monarchy.

Averroes could revive the religious spirit in our recent religiosity. The awareness of ijtihad, freedom of thinking, interfaith dialog and control over public policy are growing constantly. Indeed, Averroes reminds us of the importance of being progressive Muslims, that is of being Muslims who are aware of their role in the social domain, not only in the private one.

Zuhairi Misrawi, Director of Institute of Progressive Islamic Studies (LSIP) and Coordinator of Emancipatorist Islam, P3M, Jakarta.

Exploding the Fatwa Myths

Kenan Malik

The Rushdie affair demonstrates that speech must be as free as possible in a plural society

Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa transformed the Rushdie affair into a global conflict with historical repercussions. It also helped shroud it in myths about what caused it and about the lessons to be drawn from it. Twenty years on it is time we laid to rest the myths of the Rushdie affair.

Myth 1: The controversy over Rushdie's novel was driven by religion. It wasn't. It was a political conflict. The Satanic Verses first became an issue in India because an election was due in November 1988, two months after the publication of the novel. No politician wanted to alienate any section of India's 150-million strong Muslim community just before an election. Hardline Islamist groups used Rushdie's book to try to win political concessions. The novel subsequently became an issue in Britain as it turned into a weapon in the faction fights between various Islamic groups in this country.

Even more important was the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for supremacy in the Islamic world. From the 1970s onwards, Saudi Arabia had used oil money to fund Salafi organisation and mosques worldwide to cement its position as spokesman for the umma. Then came the Iranian revolution of 1979 that overthrew the Shah, established an Islamic republic, made Tehran the capital of Muslim radicalism, Ayatollah Khomeini its spiritual leader, and posed a direct challenge to Riyadh.

The Rushdie affair became a key part of that conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudis set up the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, the principal anti-Rushdie group in Britain. Riyadh provided the funding and its co-chairman was a Saudi diplomat. The fatwa was an attempt by Iran to wrestle the initiative back from the Saudis, especially at a time when the country had lost face by being forced to pull out of its bloody eight-year war with Iraq and when political reformists were gaining the upper hand in Tehran.

Myth 2: All Muslims were offended by The Satanic Verses. They weren't. Until the fatwa the campaign against The Satanic Verses was largely confined to the subcontinent and Britain. Aside from the involvement of Saudi Arabia, there was little enthusiasm for a campaign against novel in the Arab world or in Turkey, or among Muslim communities in France or Germany. When Saudi Arabia tried at the end of 1988 to get the novel banned in Muslim countries worldwide, few responded except those with large subcontinental populations, such as South Africa or Malaysia.

Even Iran did not ban the novel. Today, Ghayasuddin Siddiqui is a founding trustee of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. Twenty years ago his views about Islam and secularism were very different, being then a great admirer of the Iranian Revolution. He was in Tehran in the autumn of 1988 and was party to plenty of discussions about The Satanic Verses, in street cafes and government ministries. "There was little hostility to the novel", he remembers. "It was widely discussed. There were even some good reviews in the press."

Myth 3: The campaign against The Satanic Verses was about defending the dignity of the Muslim community. It wasn't. Rushdie's critics no more spoke for the Muslim community than Rushdie himself did. Both represented different strands of opinion within Muslim communities. Rushdie gave voice to a radical, secular sentiment that in the 1980s was deeply entrenched. Rushdie's critics spoke for some of the most conservative strands.

Their campaign against The Satanic Verses was not to protect the Muslim communities from unconscionable attack from anti-Muslim bigots but to protect their own privileged position within those communities from political attack from radical critics, to assert their right to be the true voice of Islam by denying legitimacy to such critics. As the philosopher Shabbir Akhtar, who became a spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques after the book-burning demonstration, put it in his book Be Careful with Muhammad!, "Islamic doctrine wisely discourages inappropriate kinds of curiosity; and orthodoxy encourages 'safe' thoughts." He himself refused "to countenance any subtlety of mind or will that might undermine Islam." People like Akhtar succeeded in their mission at least in part because secular liberals embraced them as the "authentic" voice of the Muslim community.

Myth 4: The Rushdie affair demonstrates the need for greater regulation on speech in a plural society. In fact it demonstrates the very opposite. It is precisely because we live in a plural society that expression needs to be as free as possible. In a plural society, it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And we should deal with those clashes rather than suppress them. Important because any kind of social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities.

"If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict", the sociologist Tariq Modood has suggested, "They mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others' fundamental beliefs to criticism." But to limit such criticism is to limit the democratic process and the possibilities of social progress. Human beings, as Rushdie put it in his essay "In Good Faith", written a year after the fatwa, "understand themselves and shape their futures by arguing and challenging and questioning and saying the unsayable; not by bowing the knee whether to gods or to men."

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Turkey and Islam

Turkey's Turn From the West

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Turkey is a special Muslim country. Of the more than 50 majority-Muslim nations, it is the only one that is a NATO ally, is in accession talks with the European Union, is a liberal democracy and has normal relations with Israel. Under its current government by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), however, Turkey is losing these special qualities. Liberal political trends are disappearing, E.U. accession talks have stalled, ties with anti-Western states such as Iran are improving and relations with Israel are deteriorating. On Thursday, for example, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan walked out of a panel at Davos, Switzerland, after chiding Israeli President Shimon Peres for "killing people." If Turkey fails in these areas or wavers in its commitment to transatlantic structures such as NATO, it cannot expect to be President Obama's favorite Muslim country.

Consider the domestic situation in Turkey and its effect on relations with the European Union. Although Turkey started accession talks, that train has come to a halt. French objections to Turkish membership slowed the process, but the impact of the AKP's slide from liberal values cannot be ignored. After six years of AKP rule, the people of Turkey are less free and less equal, as various news and other reports on media freedom and gender equality show. In April 2007, for instance, the AKP passed an Internet law that has led to a ban on YouTube, making Turkey the only European country to shut down access to the popular site. On the U.N. Development Program's gender-empowerment index, Turkey has slipped to 90th from 63rd in 2002, the year the AKP came to power, putting it behind even Saudi Arabia. It is difficult to take seriously the AKP's claim to be a liberal party when Saudi women are considered more politically, economically and socially empowered than Turkish women.

Then there is foreign policy. Take Turkey's status as a NATO ally of the United States: Ankara's rapprochement with Tehran has gone so far since 2002 that it is doubtful whether Turkey would side with the United States in dealing with the issue of a nuclear Iran. In December, Erdogan told a Washington crowd that "countries that oppose Iran's nuclear weapons should themselves not have nuclear weapons."

The AKP's commitment to U.S. positions is even weaker on other issues, including Hamas. During the recent Israeli operations in Gaza, Erdogan questioned the validity of Israel's U.N. seat while saying that he wants to represent Hamas on international platforms. Three days before moderate Arab allies of Washington, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, gathered on Jan. 19 in Kuwait to discuss an end to the Gaza conflict, Erdogan's officials met with Iran, Syria and Sudan in Qatar, effectively upstaging the moderates. Amazingly, Turkey is now taking a harder line on the Arab-Israeli conflict than even Saudi Arabia.

For years, Turkey has had normal relations with Israel, including strong military, tourist, and cultural and commercial ties. The Turks did not emphasize religion or ideology in their relationship with the Jewish state, so Israelis felt comfortable visiting, doing business and vacationing in Turkey. But Erdogan's recent anti-Israeli statements -- he even suggested that God would punish Israel -- have made normal relations a thing of the past. On Jan. 4, 200,000 Turks turned out in freezing rain in Istanbul to wish death to Israel; on Jan. 7, an Israeli girls' volleyball team was attacked by a Turkish audience chanting, "Muslim policemen, bring us the Jews, so we can slaughter them."

Emerging anti-Semitism also challenges Turkey's special status. Anti-Semitism is not hard-wired into Turkish society -- rather its seeds are being spread by the political leadership. Erdogan has pumped up such sentiments by suggesting Jewish culpability for the conflict in Gaza and alleging that Jewish-controlled media outlets were misrepresenting the facts. Moreover, on Jan. 6, while demanding remorse for Israel's Gaza operations, Erdogan said to Turkish Jews, "Did we not accept you in the Ottoman Empire?" Turkey's tiny, well-integrated Jewish community is being threatened: Jewish businesses are being boycotted, and instances of violence have been reported. These are shameful developments in a land that has provided a home for Jews since 1492, when the Ottomans opened their arms to Jewish people fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. The Ottoman sultans must be spinning in their graves.

The erosion of Turkey's liberalism under the AKP is alienating Turkey from the West. If Turkish foreign policy is based on solidarity with Islamist regimes or causes, Ankara cannot hope to be considered a serious NATO ally. Likewise, if the AKP discriminates against women, forgoes normal relations with Israel, curbs media freedoms or loses interest in joining Europe, it will hardly endear itself to the United States. And if Erdogan's AKP keeps serving a menu of illiberalism at home and religion in foreign policy, Turkey will no longer be special -- and that would be unfortunate.

Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is the author of "Islam Secularism and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who Is a Turk?"

Mohammed Khatami: Iran

Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2009

Mohammed Khatami
By Alyssa Fetini,8599,1878393,00.html

After his two-term stint as President of Iran that ended in 2005, Mohammed Khatami appears reluctantly ready for act three. Known as the most liberal but least effective President since the Iranian revolution, Khatami put an end to months of widespread speculation surrounding his political comeback on Feb 8th by announcing his plan to run against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran's Presidential election in June.

Though Iran's bleak economic climate, surging inflation and international isolation are ripe grounds for an upset victory for Khatami, his legacy as an innovative reformist who introduced women into the political mainstream and welcomed dialogue with the West has already been marred once by a failure to successfully follow through on reforms in the face of opposition by hard-line critics.

Fast Facts:

� Born in 1943 in the Yazd province of central Iran. As the son of a revered Ayatollah, Khatami grew up in a strictly religious household. He has achieved the third-highest level of Islamic clerical rank.

� He is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.

� Though his interest in Western philosophy was unusual among Iranians at the time, Khatami pursued an undergraduate degree in the field at Esfahan University.

� After completing his mandatory two-year stint in the Iranian Army, Khatami went on to become the editor-in-chief of the popular Iranian newspaper, the Kayhan Daily and later was appointed to the Iranian Parliament.

� He was forced to step down from his post as head of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in 1992 after conservative clerics criticized his liberal stance on press freedoms.

� Elected President in landslide victories in 1997 and 2001. Ran on a moderate platform that focused on increased social freedom, a stronger democratic process and extensive economic reform. He was especially popular with the country's women and youth and received the endorsement of outgoing president Hashemi Rafsanjani during his first campaign.

� Agreed to a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment to appease the West.

� Despite the overwhelming support from the public for his policies, the Ayatollah Khameni's disapproval of Khatami's reform plans led to a deterioration of political and social freedoms towards the end of his second term, stalemating the rest of his political agenda.

� Despite being badly burned the last time around, Khatami will run on a reformist platform for the 2009 election- seeking to improve Iran's standing on the global stage, both politically and economically, and loosen governmental control over social and religious freedoms.

Quotes About:

"We welcome this turn of events."
—David Bar-Illan, an aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, on Khatami's 1997 election. (NYT, May 26th, 1997)

"This is a man who went on public buses. He's the kind of baby-kissing politician we're used to here in the United States. He rolled up his sleeves publicly and gave blood. He tries to straddle the world of Islam and Islamic clericalism, and the world of the people."
—Elaine Sciolino, New York Times correspondent, on Khatami's groundbreaking reelection campaign. (BBC, June 6th 2001)

"Khatami represents moderation in the Muslim world."
—Lebanon's late former President, Rafik Hariri (AFP, May13, 2003)

"He didn't know about the challenges, about the difficulties of this process of reform, but this time he knows very well about... the obstacles in front of the reform process and the difficulties of implementing the reform process in Iran."
—Elaheh Koolaee, a member of Iran's Parliament during Khatami's first administration, on his evolution as a candidate. (Wall Street Journal, February 9th, 2009)

"Khatami is running to counter Ahmadinejad's foreign policy, domestic policy, all his policies."
—Mohammad Ali Abtahi, former vice-President of Iran, on Khatami's objectives for his latest Presidential campaign. (Washington Post, February 9th, 2009)

Quotes By:

I would have preferred to serve the Revolution in another position."
—On his reluctance to run for re-election in 2001 after suffering crippling opposition from hard-line conservatives during his first term. (BBC, May 4th 2001)

"A crime, a disaster, it cannot be justified."
—On the September 11th attacks (The Independent, May 12th, 2003)

"If this nation says that they do not want us, we will leave."
—Responding to criticism of his inaction during his presidency. (CNN, June 12th, 2003)

"We have repeated so many times, myself the Supreme Leader and other officials, that we are not following the path of pursuing nuclear weapons. It's not important what machinery we have, it's important that we are not pursuing nuclear weapons."
—On Iran's nuclear ambitions. (Reuters, November 12th 2004)

"My policies might not have borne any fruit, but I still believe that they were and are useful."
—Defending the failed agenda he pursued during his presidency. (Washington Post, February 9th, 2009)

'I am the West!' - Moving Closer to a Bridging the Divide

Prominent British Muslims are being recruited to star in a government-backed advertising campaign aimed at preventing people in Pakistan from engaging in extremist activity, the Guardian has learned.

The three-month public relations offensive, called I Am the West, consists of television commercials and high-profile events in regions such as Peshawar and Mirpur. It is being funded by the Foreign Office which is paying up to £400,000 for a pilot project.

Starring in the first three adverts are Sadiq Khan, the communities minister, Jehangir Malik, the UK manager of Islamic Relief, English cricketer Moeen Ali and the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Chaudry Abdul Rashid, who is from Mirpur. Mirpuris represent around 70% of Britain's Pakistani population.

According to a project synopsis, the target audience is 15-25-year-old males who are "less than well-educated and worldly wise, but potentially susceptible to extremist doctrines". If successful, it will be implemented in Egypt, Yemen and Indonesia.

The original proposal to the Foreign Office came from Deen International, an organisation set up specifically for the project and headed by Khurshid Ahmed, chair of the British Muslim Forum.

Last night Ahmed told the Guardian that the idea arose from the attempted terrorist attacks on Glasgow airport. "I did a number of visits to Pakistan to look at attitudes. Levels of hostility were increasing and there was lots of misunderstanding about how the situation was being described in the media out there."

The pilot involves nine 30-second television commercials, supported by radio commercials, scheduled across a number of channels, including PTV, Geo TV and Khyber, which is specific to the Peshwari area. They are due to appear on Pakistani TV screens next Monday.

The central theme of I Am the West is to assert that there is no contradiction in being a Muslim and being British. The synopsis says: "Muslims are equally proud of being both and certainly espouse the belief that violent extremism is not propagated in their name."

The campaign has four key aims: to ensure Pakistanis realise the west is not "anti-Islamic", that British society is not "anti-Islam", to demonstrate the extent to which Muslims are integrated into British society and to stimulate and facilitate "constructive debate" on the compatibility of liberal and Muslim values.