Friday, 8 May 2009

Lifting the veil is touchy topic in Egypt

By Nadia abou el Magd and Matt Bradley, Foreign Correspondents
The Egypt National News

CAIRO // Afaf al Sayed spent 10 years feeling like she was staring at life from inside a coffin. That is how she remembers the period between 1983 and 1992, when she wore a niqab, a variation on the Islamic veil worn by women that shrouds the entire face save for the eyes.

“There are small details that are still painful when I think about them after all those years,” said Ms al Sayed, 45, who is now the head of Heya, a feminist women’s organisation.

“I think during these years, I stopped looking at myself in the mirror, until one day, I did, and it was a horrible moment in my life,” she said. “I screamed at myself: ‘Who is this thing?’ I shut myself up in my room for three days, then I emerged after taking off these black things and the life I was burying myself behind. I felt born again, and started enjoying freedom, life and light again.”

Ms al Sayed’s decision is one that Egypt’s ministry of awqaf, or religious endowments, would like to propagate. Since late 2008, the ministry has pushed a quiet and controversial campaign to “educate” women that the niqab is a cultural norm inherited from pre-Islamic Bedouin traditions, rather from any religious obligation.

But opponents say the ministry’s programme amounts to a thinly veiled attempt to pander to political pressure from the West, where the niqab has emerged as a symbol of Islam’s oppression of women.

Common to both arguments is the perception that cultural coercion from abroad – religious programming beamed in by satellite from the Gulf states on one hand and liberal cultural values from the West on the other – is conspiring to influence Egypt’s traditionally moderate practice of the Islamic faith.

“What’s happening in Egypt is the law of American city hall. It’s being translated and enforced on all aspects of life,” said Sheikh Youssef al Badry, a conservative Islamic scholar. “The niqab is a must. They don’t want the niqab because they want to spread prostitution and illicit desires so that society will be disrupted.”

Ministry officials say the niqab’s popularity in Egypt comes directly from satellite channels, such as Al Nas, Al Rahma and Al Hikma, whose “satellite sheikhs” evangelise a more austere form of religious practice throughout the region.

Afal al Sayed, 45, head of the Egyptian feminist organisation Heya, wore a niqab for 10 years before deciding to stop.

“Unfortunately, this impression came through a cultural invasion, through satellite stations that spread Wahhabi or Gulf thought,” said Salem Abdel Gelil, an official at the awqaf ministry and the head of the niqab education campaign.

“They disseminate day and night that the niqab is a religious obligation.”

Mr Gelil’s campaign began late last year, when the ministry published a booklet, to be distributed throughout the country’s 50,000 government-managed mosques. The book’s publication followed another controversial decision in March 2008 by the ministry of health that required more than 9,000 “Munaqabat” health professionals in state-owned hospitals to expose their faces and hands at work.

Now, Mr Gelil is taking a more hands-on approach to spreading his message. In the past two weeks, he has conducted two “question-and-answer” sessions with the 14 munaqabat women who work at his own ministry. So far, none of the women has hung up their niqabs, but Mr Gelil remains sanguine.

“The result has been promising, thank God,” he said. “The 14 women who wear niqab and work in the ministry declared that this is a tradition, not a religion. They are still in the niqab because the role of the ministry is not to tell people not to wear it, but to raise awareness.”

If Mr Gelil’s idea of “raising awareness” means convincing women to expose their faces in public, however, he may have a difficult time.

The niqab is not an Egyptian tradition, but wearing it is a decision many women do not take lightly.

“I took the veil out of love for God and to please him. I was taught that the body of a Muslim woman is awrah [private] and should be covered,” said Hoda al Bendari, 39, who has worn the niqab for three years and who works as a manicurist for veiled women. “No book, not the president himself, could convince me to take off my niqab, which will be taken off only after I die.”

Women such as Ms al Bendari can find strong textual justification for their decision, said Sheikh al Badry, who emphasised that Islam imposes its strictures on no one. Muslim women come to the niqab willingly after the rigorous study of their faith, he said.

Among several justifications for the niqab that can be found in the hadiths, the Prophet Mohammed’s sayings and deeds, one states that Muslim women should expose their faces and hands while visiting Mecca for the Haj or pilgrimage. The passage strongly implies that such body parts should be covered at all other times, said Sheikh al Badry.

Beyond such “proof”, he said, Muslim thought teaches that women are weaker than men, who will tend to prey on women’s lust.

“Women are awrah and they are weak human beings,” said Sheikh al Badry. “The man is as a wolf, who, when he is alone with a woman, may hunt her. That’s why Islam goes with the principle that prevention is better than the cure.”

Other Egyptian religious authorities support the ministry’s efforts while acknowledging the challenges inherent in any government-led attempt to alter deeply entrenched cultural norms.

Gamal al Banna, the younger brother of Hassan al Banna who founded Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, said Islam should be practised in the way it was conceived: as a force of liberation for women.

“Neither hijab [veil] nor niqab are from God. Quite simply, hijab was present 2,000 years before Islam from the laws of Hammurabi,” he said, referring to a set of laws from the ancient Babylonian empire. “That is why we say that hijab was imposed on Islam, and not that Islam imposed the hijab.”

Mr al Banna said the hadiths offered by Sheikh al Badry – whom he said “should be put in a museum” – are spurious because they are not taken from the Quran.

“This is all nonsense,” said Mr al Banna, adding that the Quran mentions the word “hijab” only once to refer to the curtains that divided the Prophet Mohammed’s home from the mosque to which it was connected. “The niqab is a shame. It covers and destroys women’s personalities. How can she work or do anything with this cursed niqab?”

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Swine flu: can Muslims claim the moral high ground?

Is swine flu a punishment from God for those who eat pork? Some in the Muslim world are making religious capital from a global crisis, Thursday 7 May 2009 10.30 BST
Nesrine Malik

The Egyption authorities have decreed that all pigs in the country be rounded up and destroyed, like the filthy, noxious, virulent swine that they are. But country's pigs, bred by Egypt's Christian minority, are a source of income for many, and clashes have ensued with police over the perceived scapegoating.

For non-pork-eating Muslims, the emergence of swine flu is not as much offensive as it is a confirmation of the legitimacy of the Quranic ban on consuming pork. As Khaled Diab pointed out, eating pork is the very final indulgence of the irreligious. If a Muslim does so, he or she is considered to have crossed the Rubicon, more irretrievably so than if he or she were a habitual alcohol drinker or serial fornicator.

The reaction forms part of a predictable pattern. During the mad cow disease outbreak, the assertion was that there was a clear Islamic prohibition on feeding herbivores meat and that the disease was caused by animal cannibalism. Everything from treating animals with respect and kindness to patience when cooking was invoked to prove Islam's prescience. An analysis of where things went wrong is the hallmark of a secure and confident, chip-on-the-shoulder-free civilisation, but it is the gloating spirit that inspires distaste.

This is part of a wider tendency to see random events through a religious lens, often in a rather self-serving way. Tsunami, earthquakes, hurricanes and disease are all part of a divinely accurate system of reward and punishment.

In Islam, there is a useful notion of "ibtila'a" (best translated as "trial", effectively the testing believers' faith through adversity), which, if one suffers and maintains one's faith succesfully, is a sign of God's love. Indeed, a popular joke in the Arab world is that the region's dictatorial leaders are a sign of God's love as a hadith states "The greatest reward comes from the greatest trial. When Allah loves people, he tests them, and whoever accepts it gains the pleasure of Allah and whoever complains earns his wrath." (al-Tirmidhi, 2396; Ibn Maajah, 4031).

On an individual level, this concept is helpful in moments of crisis for it may help a worshipper to reach for deeper levels of calm and reassurance when the temptation is to breakdown altogether, a sort of "why do bad things happen to good people" unguent.

This is not applied on a universal scale however. When others (ie non Muslims) suffer adversity, it is heavenly punishment for straying from the straight and narrow and represents an opportunity for cultural or ideological oneupmanship. The logic can also be extended to other Muslims who do not share one's conservative values. After the 2004 tsunami, as the world was gripped in collective horror at the scale of the disaster, Sheikh Fawzan al-Fawzan of Saudi Arabia said that the tsunami was a punishment for the sexual sins committed in the beach resorts of the afflicted areas.

When Muslims in an ostensibly observant nation suffer, official sources, imams in pulpits and pious heads of state, solemnly resign themselves to a catastrophe that is a test from God. I was in Riyadh in 2003 when the Alhamra bombings took place and recall how constantly referring to the attacks as a "test" conveniently stymied any further examination of the causes and level of the terrorist threat. The litmus test appears to be to what extent consorting with non-Muslim elements or indulging in un-Islamic practices can be identified and how politically expedient the judgment might be. Parties unaligned with governments also indulge in their own exploitation of random events to take the moral highground; in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquke, religious groups claimed the carnage was divine retribution for Musharraf's pro-US policy. It is only a test if the victim is holier than thou.

Muslims who do not consume pork are not immune to the illness nor are they morally superior. We should have a more global community-based approach towards combating the threat and resist the tendency to draw smug conclusions. In a world globalised by an ever more free exchange of goods and people, an ibtila'a on any nation is a curse on all our houses.

Can the Pope Bring the Peace?

New York Times
Published: May 5, 2009

SYMBOLIC gestures are the tools of any leader’s trade, but nowhere do they spell the difference between life and death quite like the Middle East. For example, the visit in 2000 by Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister, to Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the site of two Islamic shrines, helped set off the second intifada.

Thus when Pope Benedict XVI visits Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories starting on Friday, the world may be excused for holding its breath. In his four years on the job, this pope has not always demonstrated a deft symbolic touch. If he simply manages to get back to Rome without starting a war, some might declare the trip a success.

Yet Benedict can, and should, do much more. Granted, the pope is not a politician, and this trip is more a pilgrimage than a diplomatic mission. Nonetheless, Benedict can make a unique contribution to the peace process at a moment when it obviously needs the help.

The reason for this is that popes enjoy a tremendous advantage over Western politicians in engaging the Middle East. This is the realm of “theopolitics,” where religious convictions always shape policy choices. A pope can engage those convictions in a way that secular trouble-shooters like former Senator George Mitchell, President Obama’s envoy to the Middle East, never could.

To be sure, Benedict doesn’t have the same reputation as a healer that his predecessor, John Paul II, had. The late pope was seen as a friend of both Jews and Muslims, while Benedict has had problems with both faiths. Diplomatically speaking, however, that’s far preferable to being perceived as a nemesis to one or the other. Even Benedict’s recent run of bad press in the West stemming from his comments on condoms and AIDS has an upside. It may make him a more sympathetic figure for devout Jews and Muslims, who know what it’s like to be on the wrong side of Western secular taboos.

If he plays his cards right, Benedict could move things forward in four ways.

First, the pope can emphasize that the “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reflects a global moral consensus. He arrives at a moment of growing despair, after the new Israeli government seemed to cast doubt on its commitment to Palestinian statehood. Wielding the bully pulpit of the papacy, Benedict can stress that respecting the natural right of Palestinians to sovereignty isn’t about statecraft but about justice.

Yes, while in Israel Benedict will have to mend fences after his controversial decision in January to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop. He should not allow damage control, however, to blur his message about the urgency of a just peace.

Second, Benedict can insist that the Palestinians reject extremist elements within their leadership — an application of his broader push for a reformed Islam that respects both faith and reason. On that front, the pope has momentum. Since he angered Muslims in 2006 by citing a Byzantine emperor with nasty things to say about Muhammad, Benedict has improved his pitch, suggesting that Christianity and Islam ought to be natural allies against forms of secularism hostile to religion. Last month, for example, the Vatican signed a memorandum of understanding with the Arab League.

Benedict can now spend some of that capital, pressing Palestinians to embrace religious freedom, and Israel’s right to exist, as the price of admission to any Christian-Muslim partnership.

Third, Benedict can energize support for Christians in the Holy Land, who are poised on the brink of extinction. During the British mandate in Palestine, Christians were around 20 percent of the population; today they’re under 2 percent because of tremendous emigration.

Historically, Arab Christians have promoted a pluralistic vision of society, standing between resurgent Islamic fundamentalism and ultranationalist strains in Judaism. If they disappear, prospects for peace become dimmer. The pope must assure these believers that global Christianity will not abandon them.

Fourth, Benedict can advance the end game of the peace process by urging the leaders he meets with to bring Iran on board in all regional discussions. The Vatican has been holding talks with Iran’s Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, a government-affiliated body, for two decades. Moreover, Roman Catholicism and Shiite Islam, which dominates Iran, have a natural affinity: a strong clerical hierarchy, popular devotions and saintly intercessors, and a core theology of martyrdom. Benedict could open the door, leaving it up to the Iranians to walk through.

In the Middle East, religion is either part of the problem or part of the solution. The drama of the pope’s voyage comes down to which way he nudges things along.

John L. Allen Jr. is the senior correspondent of The National Catholic Reporter.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Music and Sound: A Universal Theology of Love?

Ustad Zakir Hussain (Hindi: ज़ाकिर हुसैन, Urdu: زاکِر حسین), (born 9 March 1951), is a famous Grammy Award winning Indian tabla player. He is widely considered the world's best tabla player. He has also won national as well as international awards and recognitions for his contribution to the world of music. (See:

Monday, 4 May 2009

Restoring the Beautiful Within Us All

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Tuesday 5th May 2009
Amanullah De Sondy

The Scottish Government has announced a project to encourage the restoration of derelict castles to boost tourism. This initiative was unveiled by the Culture minister Mike Russell at Barholm Castle in Dumfries and Galloway. It's exciting news for me because it was only a few weeks ago that I visited a Scottish castle I 'd not been to before. Dumbarton Castle is nestled on top of a 73-metre rock overlooking the beauty of the River Clyde. It makes me wonder how many other beautiful castles I’ve missed out on.

My mind also goes back to my ancestral home – Sialkot, in Pakistan, a city said to be over 5,000 years old. I remember on my last visit being mesmerised by the ancient monuments and buildings in the city but was saddened to see that most were derelict and in need of restoration. For example Sialkot Fort, was constructed during the second century by the King of South Asia, Raja Salban but today it lies in ruins. (see:

I believe that the past is only restored by us when it is a proud addition to our present culture and society. The ability to create the ugly and the beautiful is within us all. This could be through our restoration of old photos, castles, forts or even religious scripture. For me, religious scripture, specifically the Qur’an, cannot be expected to endure in itself for itself but requires Muslims to maintain and restore the beauty within it, in the world they live in. Indeed, this can also be said of any religious scripture. I consider the work of God going hand in hand with the work of human beings.

As the famous Sialkoti philosopher and founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal said, “You did create the night, but I made the lamp. You did create clay, but I made the cup. You did create the deserts, mountains and forests, I produced the orchards, gardens and groves. It is I who made the glass out of stone, and it is I who turn a poison into an antidote.” Maybe Iqbal's teaching us that a beautiful world requires a little effort of restoration and maintenance from all of us.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Who'd be female under Islamic law?

In Muslim states, violence against women is validated. A dark age is upon us

Monday, 4 May 2009
(The Independent Newspaper Online Edition)

I am a Muslim woman and, like my late mother, free, independent, sensuous, educated, liberal, contrary and confrontational when provoked, both feminine and feminist. I style and colour my hair, wear lovely things and perfumes, appear on public platforms with men who are not related to me, shake their hands, embrace some I know well, take care of my family.

I defend Muslims persecuted by their enemies and their own kith and kin. I pray, fast, give to charity and try to be a decent human being. I also drink wine and do not lie about that, unlike so many other "good" Muslims. I am the kind of Muslim woman who maddens reactionary Muslim men and their asinine female followers. What a badge of honour.

Female oppression in Islamic countries is manifestly getting worse. Islam, as practiced by millions today, has lost its compassion and integrity and is entering one of the darkest of dark ages. Here is this month's short list of unbearable stories (imagine how many more there are which will never be known):

Iranian painter Delara Darabi, only 22 and in prison since she was 17, accused of murdering an elderly relative, was hanged last week even though she had been given a temporary stay of execution by the chief justice of the country. She phoned her mother on the day of her hanging to beg for help and the phone was snatched by a prison official who told them: "We will easily execute your daughter and there's nothing you can do about it." Her paintings reveal the cruelty to which she was subjected.

Meanwhile Roxana Saberi, a 32- year-old broadcast journalist whose father is Iranian, is incarcerated in Tehran's Evin prison, accused of spying for the US. She denies this and says she has been framed because she was seen buying a bottle of wine. This intelligent, beautiful and defiant woman is on hunger strike. Over in Saudi Arabia, an eight-year-old child has just divorced a 50-year-old man. Her father, no doubt a very devout man, sold his daughter for about £9,000.

I have been reading Disfigured, the story of Rania Al-Baz, a Saudi TV anchor, the first woman to have such a job, who was so badly beaten up by her abusive husband that she had to have 13 operations to re-make her once gorgeous face. Domestic violence destroys females in all countries, but in Muslim states, it is validated by laws and values. As Al-Baz writes, "It is appalling to realise that a woman cannot walk down the street without men staring at her openly. For them she is nothing but a body without a mind, something that moves and does not think. Women are banned from studying law, from civil engineering and from the sacrosanct area of oil."

Small optimistic signs do periodically appear in this harsh desert, says Quanta A Ahmed, a doctor who worked in Saudi Arabia and then wrote her account, In the Land of Invisible Women. She describes the love she finds between some husbands and wives, idealists who think better rights will come one day.

That faith in the future is echoed by Norah al-Faiz, the Deputy Minister for Women's Education, chosen in this week's Time magazine list of the world's most influential people. They hope because they must, I guess, even though they can see the brute forces lining up on the horizon ready to crush them by any means necessary. This country has spread its anti-female Wahabi Islam across the globe, its second most important export after oil.

In Afghanistan Ayman Udas was a singer and songwriter who wore lipstick and appeared on TV, defying her family. She was a divorced mother of two who had remarried. Ten days after this she was shot dead, allegedly by her brothers, who must think they are upright moral upholders with places reserved in paradise. In March President Karzai gave monstrous tribal leaders what they demanded, absolute control over wives by husbands and the right to rape them on the marital bed. Protests by brave women in that country and international outrage has forced him to step back from this commitment but there is concern that he is too weak to hold out, and once again women will become the personal and political playthings of men.

Let's to Pakistan then shall we, the country that once elected a woman head of state. The divinely beautiful Swat Valley has, for reasons of political expediency, been handed over to the Taliban, and there they have blown up over a hundred schools for girls and regularly flog young females on the streets. The girls are shrouded and forbidden to scream because the female voice has the potential to arouse desire. Or pity perhaps.

I am aware that my words will help confirm the pernicious prejudices that fester in the minds of those who despise Islam. Yet to conceal or excuse the violations would be to condone and encourage them. There have been enlightened times when some Muslim civilisations honoured and cherished females. This is not one of them. Across the West – for a host of reasons – millions of Muslims are embracing backward practices. In the UK young girls – some so young that they are still in push chairs – are covered up in hijabs. Disgracefully, there are always vocal Muslim women who seek to justify honour killings, forced marriages, inequality, polygamy and childhood betrothals. Why are large numbers of Muslim men so terrorised by the female body and spirit? Why do Muslim women encourage this savage paranoia?

I look out of my study at the common and see a wife fully burkaed on a sunny day. She sits still. Her children and husband run around, laughing, playing cricket. She sits still, dead, buried, a ghost. She is complicit in her own degradation, as are countless others. Their acquiescence in a free democracy is a crime against their sisters who have no such choices in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Al-Baz says: "I am a disruptive presence because I give women ideas." Me too. To transgress against diehard obscurantists and their unholy rules is an inescapable sacred duty. Yet how pathetic that sounds. Progressive believers tilt at windmills driven by ferocious winds of self-righteousness. Our arms and legs weaken and we are brought to our knees. I fear there is only worse to come.

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan's 'immoral entertainment'

Quilliam's unfair attack on the Islam Channel, Friday 1 May 2009 17.30 BST
By Mehdi Hasan

The Islam Channel is far from perfect, but it doesn't deserve to be singled out in the latest Quilliam Foundation 'alert' (see:

Is channel 813 on Sky really a hotbed of extremism, terrorism and antisemitism?

This, for the non-Muslims and non-channel-surfers among you, is the Islam Channel, one of this country's most prominent and popular free-to-air, English language Muslim satellite channels.

This week the channel found itself accused of allowing its various presenters and guests to promote "intolerant and bigoted interpretations of Islam" and even condone "terrorist attacks on British troops" in an "alert" issued by the Quilliam Foundation – the so-called counter-extremism thinktank set up, ironically, by a bunch of former extremists.

Let's be clear. The Islam Channel, like every other media institution, Muslim or otherwise, is far from perfect. In recent years, it has been fined £30,000 by the regulator OFCOM for repeated breaches of its broadcast code and had to pay out £25,000 to its former presenter Yvonne Ridley after losing a case of unfair dismissal and sexual discrimination.

Nonetheless, I am one of those who has welcomed the arrival of specialised, niche channels for religious and ethnic minorities in recent years. The Islam Channel (813), like Peace TV (820), Noor TV (819) and a plethora of similar stations in the nether regions of Sky's electronic programme guide, are part of what I would perhaps call the Abraham Lincoln school of satellite broadcasting: of the Muslims, by the Muslims, for the Muslims.

As a viewer who also happens to be a British Muslim, I do therefore tune into the Islam Channel myself, on occasion, and – to be quite honest – have yet to see a single example of incitement to violence or terror. To suggest or imply otherwise, as the Quilliam Foundation does, is rather asinine. At worst, there may be the odd rather somnolent phone-in show, featuring a rotating bevy of Muslim scholars from the subcontinent, some with a tenuous grasp of the English language – but none of this comes even close to promoting or condoning Islamist extremism, violent or otherwise.

The Islam Channel also takes great pains to ensure critics of Islamism, and even Islam, appear on its discussion shows – when I agreed to go on one such programme last summer to talk about a Channel 4 Dispatches film that I had commissioned on Islamophobia, I found myself debating the self proclaimed "neoconservative", Douglas Murray, director of the rightwing Centre for Social Cohesion and a critic of the channel and its presenters, as well as the very concept of Islamophobia.

Such discussions and debates, in which a multiplicity of diverse views are expressed on the channel, including those that challenge both Islamism and Islam itself, are curiously not mentioned at all in this week's Quilliam alert – despite the fact that the Quilliam Foundation staff currently includes former Centre for Social Cohesion researcher, James Brandon.

Does that mean that the Islam Channel is entirely innocent of the charges levelled by Ed Husain and co?

Not quite.

Scanning the names of the various presenters and guests highlighted in the Quilliam alert, one name in particular set off alarm bells in my mind: Yasir Qadhi.

"Shaykh" Qadhi is a Texas-born Sunni Muslim preacher of Indo-Pak origin and a graduate of the Wahhabi-dominated Islamic University of Madinah in Saudi Arabia.

He is also – how should I put this? – not a fan of the one in five Muslims across the world who call themselves Shias. His anti-Shia diatribes are around on the web for all to hear.

Here are some highlights:

"With regard to the Shias, really they are the most lying sect of Islam. In other words, it is a part of their religion."

"The Shias are allowed to lie. It is their religion to lie."

"Shism is filth ... They allow prostitution … they allow lying."

"Beware of them [the Shias] and avoid them."

"Any Muslim that knows of their [Shia] beliefs, he should have pure anger and hatred …"

"Anyone who believes in those [Shia] beliefs is a kafir."

Now, if these aren't clear examples of hate speech , then I am not sure what is.

I do find it odd, in an era of such depressingly unprecedented Sunni-Shia bloodletting and internecine strife, that such a bigoted, intolerant and sectarian individual turns out to be a regular and prominent speaker on Britain's Islam Channel.

Unless, perhaps, they are planning to rename themselves only as the "Sunni Channel".