Friday, 28 August 2009

Ramadhan 2009

A Sufi Muslim "whirling dervish" dances ahead of the pre-dawn meal - the suhour - the last meal before a day of Ramadan fasting in the Lebanese port city of Sidon.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The question: Can western feminism save Muslim women?, Tuesday 25 August 2009 12.00 BST
By Asma Barlas, professor of Politics and director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity, at Ithaca College, New York

"I don't think it is necessarily imperialistic to want Muslim women to have rights. After all, women's oppression is a global phenomenon and so it should also be a global concern; countenancing it in the name of religious or cultural differences just allows us to evade the responsibility of trying to do something about it.

But we should be clear that the US-led invasion of Afghanistan had nothing to do with the feminist sensibilities of George Bush (or Tony Blair). If Bush had been committed to women's welfare, his administration wouldn't have tried to undermine some of their hard-won rights in the US itself. The US "coalition" invaded Afghanistan to kill Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, not to save Afghan women. This is not to deny that Anglo-European men have long harboured the desire to be Muslim women's saviours; it is simply to point out that this desire becomes an alibi for imperialist ventures. Hence the ease with which Bush could package the Afghan war, which is a war for US global supremacy, as a war for Afghan women's freedom.

However, I do think that it is imperialist hubris to believe that the kind of power the US exercises can be benevolent, regardless of the personal charm of its new president, or that it is possible to bestow freedom through force or emancipate women from the men of their own culture. In fact, if after years of US war and occupation, "moderate" Afghans can only come up with an unspeakably ghastly law that would tie sex to food (allow a husband to starve a wife if she doesn't have sex with him), doesn't it testify to the limits of the US project of liberating Afghans? It should also tell us that the inveterate misogyny of tribal culture is not localised in the Taliban or their misogynistic interpretations of Islam.

Although it is not always productive to see the world from within the template of western history or values, I think we can learn some lessons from the history of western colonialism and, indeed, of civil rights movements in the west. One of the lessons is that whenever and wherever there was an expansion in racial or sexual or political rights or liberties, it was because the people themselves fought for them. In other words, rights weren't simply bestowed on people by the state or enforced by foreign occupiers. The old adage really is true, that real change cannot be compelled through force. This may be why the Qur'an (westernised "Koran") also forbids coercion in religion.

There is no reason to assume that change in Muslim societies can only be imposed from the outside; to the contrary, I believe it can and will come from Muslims themselves. However, for that to happen, enough Muslims will need to realise that much of what passes as Islam – whether it is wearing a burqa, sex-segregation in public/private, stoning to death, killing a woman in the name of "honour" or the several other heinous practices associated with Islam – are not mentioned in or sanctioned by the Qur'an. Of course, such a realisation cannot happen in the face of existing social structures in which women have to contend with the reality of male authority and Muslims with the absence of civil and political liberties in Muslim-majority states and anti-Islamic sentiment and racism in western societies. All these things will need to change and, clearly, it is not just up to Muslims to make these changes, especially with respect to the increasingly virulent anti-Islamic racism in Europe or the US.

As a Muslim who lives in the west, I am specially concerned about this last point. Just recently, I read a plaintive but inflammatory headline in the Telegraph, "Why must we bow to the intolerant ways of Islam?". The article is about Muslims but its author assumes that whatever they have taken it into their heads to do is "Islamic". Such arguments then become justifications for wanting to stamp out Islam in the name of assimilation or multiculturalism or combating extremism. Although Muslims are partly to blame for some negative reactions, I think it's important not to forget the long and deep historical roots of western fears of difference. Speaking of the UK, it would be good for people to read TB Macaulay's illuminating "Minute on Education" (1835) in which he declares that the purpose of the British in India should be to "form a class ... of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect". That may have been then but it's not unreasonable to see British multiculturalism or French laïcité as modern variations on the same theme."

Monday, 24 August 2009

Does Progressive Islam Need a Genealogy?

By Dr. Farish A. Noor ~ July 29th, 2009.

(Note: This is a summary of the paper given at the Conference on Progressive Islam and its Global Challenges organised by the Sharif Hidayatullah Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta over the weekend. – Farish)

History has the curious effect of rendering permanent, firm and stable things that are contingent and even radically so. More often than not the recourse to history is precisely a search for the sort of stability and certainty that many a political project needs, as if without the benefit of a long history behind it a new idea is rendered novel, contingent and possibly even dismissed as being out of place and out of time. But herein lies the irony of the situation: for in our search for origins and the false comfort of an immutable history, have we forgotten the fact that almost all the great ideas that have shaped the development of human civilisation were, at the point of their genesis, radically contingent and outside the frame of the ordinary as well? Its not for nothing that revolutionary ideas are historically revolutionary as well.

Which brings us of the past, present and future fate of this thing called ‘Progressive Islam’.

Progressive Islam is not a new school of thought or some fad that is a symptom of the post-modern times we live in. Progressive Muslims are not re-inventing Islam or re-writing the Quran and Hadith, anymore than progressive Christians, Hindus or Buddhists are reinventing Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism. What all these religious progressives have in common is the earnest wish to translate the meaning and ethical import of their respective faith and belief-systems into social and political realities that are keeping with the spirit of the times we live in, for fear of the fact that if the normative aspects of lived religiosity do not tally and concur with the ethical norms and the phenomenal discoveries of the modern age then religion will simply be reduced to a relic of the past and religiosity will be reduced to empty meaningless rituals.

Of course the development of progressive Islamic thought has a history to it, in as much as the development of progressive Christian thought can also look back to the past to seek assurances of dogmatic conformity and exemplary models to emulate. In the case of progressive Islam, progressive Muslims today look back to the models that were set by the likes of al-Ghazali, ibn Rushd, ibn Khaldun et al. It was ibn Khaldun who pioneered what would later come down to us as modern political sociology, in his landmark work the Muqadimmah. Ibn Khaldun’s emphasis on the role played by human reason and agency as the central motor to history was revolutionary at the time as it placed human beings at the centre of the phenomenal world, and relegated to the margin the effects of fate, chance and even divine intervention. It was Khaldun who insisted that the rise and fall of nations was due to human beings and their actions, rather than being fated or determined by metaphysical or supernatural forces.

Yet we also know that the works of men like Khaldun were never really rendered mainstream in Muslim intellectual culture and that Khaldun was later brought back to global prominence thanks to the works of non-Muslim European thinkers like Rosenthal instead. Likewise it was in Western Europe that Muslim rationalism flourished the most, where it served as one of the basis for the Western Enlightenment project and by doing so laid down some of the foundations of Modernity.

Thus for progressive Muslims today to claim that their efforts to liberate normative Muslim religiosity from the shackles of outdated tradition, patriarchy, neo-feudalism etc can be so easily traced back to a singular tradition of Muslim rationalism that is somehow meant to be linear and deterministic is a case of over-simplification at best. There are no historical reasons or evidence to prove that the road from al-Ghazali leads us directly and immediately to Muslim rationalism today. We may search the annals of the past to seek models of yore, but there have also been huge gaps between the past and the present when the tradition of Muslim rationalism was so weak as to appear almost dead and non-existent.

So what then are the uses of history and genealogy? If not to offer some solace in past models, what can history to for us today?

The answer to the question lies in part in what sort of history we are talking about and what we hope history will do for us. If ‘history’ is to be understood in the narrowest sense of being merely an accurate objective record of what happened where and why, then history is at best a record of data and dates, and little else. But if we were to attempt a different approach at reading history, one that is akin to the approach of Foucault where history is instead read as a history of power-relations, hierarchies and histories of silencing, marginalisation and foregrounding, then we may be getting somewhere.

For what we need to know more than ever is not whether there were rational progressive Muslim thinkers like al-Ghazali, ibn Rushd or ibn Khaldun, but rather how and why were their ideas deemed relevant and important at one stage and then dismissed, censured and erased at another. What kind of history we need is not merely a history of ideas but also a history of the institutions and opportunity structures that render some ideas palatable – or even vitally necessary – and other ideas repugnant at different stages of a society’s development. In short we need to ask who were the ones who rendered the tradition of Muslim rationalism redundant, dangerous and anathema to Islam, and why?

For this is the nature of the struggle that progressive Muslims (like their Christian, Hindu and Buddhist counterparts) are facing today: While progressive Muslim theologians, scholars and activists continue to try to break down the hegemony of outmoded forms and norms of thinking, they are being derided and condemned by their co-religionists as ‘enemies of the faith’ (and of course the secret agents of America, the global Zionist conspiracy, Western capitalism and other nasty things.) Yet as we have seen elsewhere and in other faith communities, the struggle to evolve and develop one’s outmoded forms of religious thinking can also bring about results as long as we understand that the struggle is a fundamentally political one. Apartheid in South Africa, for instance, was justified by conservative Christians on religious grounds, and it was challenged by progressive Christian activists who engaged with scripture but with the intention of challenging political realities at the same time.

Today Progressive Muslims need to do the same thing and realise that our struggle to liberate the public domain of Muslim society is a fundamentally political struggle that has to work with and also against institutionalised forms of power, control and hegemony. History may give us some models and examples of how this was attempted centuries ago by Muslims who were regarded as modern and progressive then, but history cannot win the struggle for us today.

Which brings me back to the question: Does progressive Islam need a history?

Well, in a sense all new ideas are at the outset ahistorical. At the moment of Islam’s genesis there was no history as there was no precedent. The day after the first Muslim was converted and the community came into being, Islam’s history was 24 hours old. Yet despite its newness Islam’s message was no less relevant for not having a past. As it is with Islam, so was it with all the faith systems that are built on revealed knowledge. All the major religious and belief systems of the world were likewise ahistorical at the outset, and their endurance, spread and survivability depended not upon history – for there was no determinism or teleology involved here – but rather thanks to the engagement with real structures of power, dominance and counter-hegemony.

Progressive Muslim intellectuals today should therefore be cautious about falling back on history as if history immediately affords an idea with a certain epistemic worth that it might otherwise not possess. For a start, even the most reactionary and conservative Muslim or Christian would also fall back on history for some sense of temporal grounding, and again the case of the use and abuse of Christian dogma as a justification for Apartheid comes to mind. Just because someone quotes historical facts to you does not mean that she or he is immediately correct: in effect the person might just have a good – albeit selective – memory!

The second related worry about relying too much on history would be that if history is going to be the bulwark for every transformative project of social liberation and advancement, then there can be no real radical, revolutionary changes to any society for every new development will immediately be subsumed under the register of historical continuity and sameness. Yet we forget that for religion to have its radical, transformative and liberating potential it also needs to retain its radical distance from social norms and conventions that are outdated and ossified. Progressive Islam needs to have teeth, and be able to bite off the redundant and oppressive aspects of normative Muslim life that have become so profoundly unjust that they no longer concur with the prevailing mood and ethics of our times. But no progressive tradition can have this transformative potential if it immediately situates itself in the comfort zone of historical continuity and sameness. Sometimes, it pays to be ahead of time or even out of time. And that was certainly the case with all the Prophets of the past.

Islam's 'enemy within'

Across the Sunni world, growing fear of Shia influence exposes the cultural schism that exists between the two traditions

Brian Whitaker, Monday 24 August 2009 15.30 BST

Six Shia Muslims have gone on trial in Jordan, accused of "promoting Shia ideology and instigating religious sectarianism". Their case – the first of its kind in Jordan – is being heard behind closed doors in a military court.

Jordan is a Sunni-majority country but has no law that prevents Shias from practising their faith and its constitution says very clearly that there shall be no discrimination "on grounds of race, language or religion".

There is no suggestion that the accused did anything more than a bit of missionary work – holding meetings, issuing membership cards and raising funds – but the case reflects a growing fear of Shia Islam among the Middle East's Sunni regimes.

In Egypt last June, Hassan Shehata, a Shia cleric, was reportedly arrested with dozens of his followers and 13 were said to have been detained on charges of spreading Shiism.

Egypt has had a small Shia community for centuries, though today it's probably less than 1% of the population. The sect is not officially recognised and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has documented periods of harassment by the authorities – arrests, interrogation, torture, etc – dating back to 1988.

The Sunni Arab regimes, most of which use religious credentials to bolster their claims to legitimacy, have become increasingly apprehensive during the last few years – mainly as a result of the Iraq war, which brought Shia Muslims to power in Baghdad, to rule alongside those already in place in Tehran.

From time to time there are also outbreaks of scaremongering in the media, very similar in tone to the western newspapers articles that claim Muslims are taking over Europe. One Egyptian magazine warned of "a real danger that Egypt and other Sunni countries might be converted to Shiism".

Shia Muslims in Sunni countries tend to be viewed as fifth-columnists with uncertain national loyalties. Shehata's arrest seems to have been prompted by two visits he made to Iran, though it also coincided with the capture of an alleged Hezbollah spy ring.

Shia Islam – which accounts for no more than 15% of all Muslims worldwide – has certainly been making a few converts among Sunnis. A Saudi Shia told me yesterday that he personally knew of half a dozen Jordanians who had converted. More widely, though, recent events have aroused curiosity about Shiism among Sunnis and, in some cases, admiration. Iran's uncompromising stance over its nuclear programme is contrasted favourably with the ineffectual peformance of Sunni Arab regimes. Similarly, Hezbollah's defiance of Israel in the 2006 Lebanon war.

But there's more to it than politics, as an article in Al-Ahram Weekly explains:

For Nabil Abdel-Fattah, who edits the State of Religion in Egypt annual report for the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Shia jurisprudence is dynamic, flexible and pragmatic – which makes it attractive to many a Sunni frustrated with lack of change: 'For many years Sunnis refrained from ijtihad [independent thought] and tended to adopt a hardline approach similar to the Saudi Wahhabi model.' For Sunnis this tendency, Abdel-Fattah elaborates, has led to a gap separating daily life from religious provisions, driving Sunnis to embrace Shiism.
Other factors include the erosion of spirituality from Sunni life, with no provision for anything comparable to the Passion of Christ, to which Egyptians arguably relate. [In contrast to Sunni – and especially Wahhabi – puritanism, many Shia practices are much more akin to Spanish or Italian Catholicism.]

Less obviously, the fact that millions of Egyptians have worked in the Gulf countries since the 1970s makes the population more open to different schools of thought.

Shia Islam's links with Iran (and, by implication, with the Iranian regime) have parallels in Judaism's association with Israel and Israeli government policies. As in debates about antisemitism, the line between politics and prejudice easily becomes confused.

Regardless of what the Iranian government does, though, Shia Muslims in Sunni countries have every right to practise their faith and, if they wish, to try to convert others.

It may worry the Sunni regimes but it also worries the Wahhabi/Salafi elements whose ideology has often gone unchallenged in the public discourse. Exposing Arab Muslims to alternative interpretations of their faith will open their eyes to new ideas and possibilities. And, in the long run, that can only be beneficial.