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