Friday, 12 March 2010
This photo from my friend Mona Eltahawy via her friend Hijabman of women and men praying side by side at Masjid Istiqlal in Indonesia, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia with the world's largest Muslim population.
Scottish Mosques have much to learn from Mosques around the world...
Tantawi was a religious leader, but also a servant of the regime. True reform can only come with independent thinking
guardian.co.uk, Friday 12 March 2010 16.40 GMT
by Irfan al-Alawi
Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, supreme sheikh of the internationally-known Islamic religious university of al-Azhar in Cairo, died this week in Saudi Arabia, aged 81. His remains have been interred in Jannat al-Baqi, the blessed cemetery of the relatives and companions of the Prophet Muhammad, in Medina.
There is a disturbing cause for irony in the trivial fact of Tantawi's burial. Jannat al-Baqi is today a vast, empty space, from which the fanatical Wahhabis, who took over Mecca and Medina in 1924, removed the tombs and markers honoring the distinguished early Muslims whose graves were there. Wahhabism, which became and remains the state religion of Saudi Arabia, condemns monuments for the dead, and even intercessory prayers for the deceased, as forms of idolatry. In reality, erection of tombs and visits to them had been Muslim customs for more than 1,400 years.
In addition, foreigners are not typically granted space in Jannat al-Baqi. Westerners might imagine Tantawi earned this honour because of his piety, but he was not a defender of traditional Islamic spirituality. Rather, he was a religious functionary, who served the Egyptian state no less than the ideological interests of the Saudis and other fundamentalists. In 2002, Tantawi changed his position on terrorism against civilians, by endorsing suicide attacks, and two years later he delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Yasir Arafat, a Marxist who was never identified with religious study.
Tantawi became known last year as a symbol of change in the Islamic lands, when he banned female students at al-Azhar from wearing the niqab, the face-veil. Tantawi condemned niqab as a folk custom without a basis in Islam – and as Muslims around the world know, only Saudi Arabia maintains a widespread imposition of the face-veil on women when they leave their homes. In recent times, the niqab has been universal in the Saudi kingdom, but since the accession to the throne of King Abdullah in 2005, and the beginning of a slow and less than effectual programme of social reforms, women in the western coastal region of Hejaz, including Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina, have sought to revert to their pre-Wahhabi freedom from face covering. Women travelling in the hajj pilgrimage to the holy cities do not wear niqab, and women in the old, Ottoman-ruled Hejaz had never accepted the practice.
Tantawi was a moderate in the same way King Abdullah is a moderate; compared with the radicalism of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the hard-line Wahhabi clerics, both appear to be in the vanguard of an Islamic renaissance. Prior to his order prohibiting niqab at al-Azhar, Tantawi condemned female genital mutilation (FGM), which he also described as unconnected to Islam. But both niqab and FGM have been supported by radicals among Muslims.
Opposition to the un-Islamic niqab and FGM is to be applauded, but much more is needed from the head of al-Azhar, and from Muslim faith leaders in general, than these minimal actions. Although the niqab ban at the university provoked demonstrations by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and caused even more controversy when it was extended by the Egyptian government to public universities, such progressive opinions are diluted when they are viewed as politically dictated by rulers who do not otherwise restrain corruption in their countries.
Rather than a cleric who will fulfil the orders of Egypt's secular president, Hosni Mubarak, without question, al-Azhar needs educators who will revive the spirit of inquiry, debate, and analysis among Islamic scholars. The Muslim imagination has been stifled by the influence of excessive oil wealth, the arrogance of leaders who govern without accountability, and the ignorance of fanatics who believe that knowing a few verses of Qur'an or hadiths – the oral commentaries of the Prophet Muhammad – makes them outstanding religious leaders. In the third Islamic century – corresponding to the ninth century, CE – the African Muslim scholar al-Jahiz noted critically, "every Muslim thinks he is a theologian, and that nobody else is better" at defending the religion. Sadly, this situation remains a constant in Muslim life.
The revitalisation of Islamic thought will begin when al-Azhar is no longer a battleground between the Mubarak government and the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, but, rather, a humanistic centre of learning independent of political and ideological demands. Wavering, along with Mubarak, between suppression and appeasement of fundamentalism, Tantawi failed to reinforce the Islamic principle that, as Muhammad himself is believed to have said, "the differences among scholars of religion are a blessing and a mercy". The prophet of Islam also declared, according to a well-established hadith, "My Companions are like the stars in the night sky – following any one of them you will be rightly-guided."
Muhammad Sayed Tantawi lived during a time of great challenge for Islam: the challenge to reaffirm faith while adapting to a new order of society. While he sometimes appeared as a source of enlightenment, he was finally too fond of access to power. Perhaps for him, King Abdullah was a more comforting protector than President Mubarak. But the road to Islamic fulfilment will be followed, as it was in the past, by those unafraid to separate themselves from political castes and official institutions, who search their own hearts, as well as the precedents of the Muslim intellect, for a reaffirming courage and determination. At al-Azhar, in the country of Egypt, and in the Muslim lands as a whole, personalities have yet to appear who can be justifiably compared with the great minds of the Islamic past, especially the wise Sufis. Tantawi has come and gone, and left scant traces of his passage in the sands of the Middle Eastern deserts.
Thursday, 11 March 2010
March 10, 2010
Op-Ed Columnist - New York Times
By MAUREEN DOWD
I was tempted to turn my abaya into a black masquerade cloak and sneak into Mecca, just hop over the Tropic of Cancer to the Red Sea and crash the ultimate heaven’s gate.
Sir Richard Burton, the 19th-century British adventurer, translator of “The Arabian Nights” and the “Kama Sutra” and self-described “amateur barbarian,” was an illicit pilgrim to the sacred black granite cube. He wore Arab garb and infiltrated the holiest place in Islam, the Kaaba, the “center of the Earth,” as he called it, in the Saudi city where the Prophet Muhammad was born.
But in the end, it seemed disrespectful, not to mention dangerous.
So on my odyssey to Saudi Arabia, I tried to learn about the religion that smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11 in a less sneaky way. And that’s when the paradox sunk in: It was nearly impossible for me to experience Islam in the cradle of Islam.
You don’t have to be a Catholic to go to the Vatican. You don’t have to be Jewish to go to the Western Wall (although if you’re a woman, you’re squeezed into a slice of it at the side). You don’t have to be Buddhist to hear the Dalai Lama speak — and have your picture snapped with him afterward.
A friend who often travels to Saudi Arabia for business said he thought that Medina, the site of Muhammad’s tomb, was beginning to “loosen up” for non-Muslims. (As the second holiest city in Islam, maybe they needed to try harder.) But the Saudis nixed a trip there.
I assumed I at least could go to a mosque at prayer time, as long as I wore an abaya and hijab, took off my shoes, and stayed in the back in a cramped, segregated women’s section. The magnificent Blue Mosque in Istanbul, once the center of one of the greatest Muslim empires, is a huge tourist draw.
But at the Jidda Hilton, I was told that non-Muslims could not visit mosques — not even the one on the hotel grounds.
A Saudi woman in Jidda told me that the best way to absorb Islam was to listen to the call for prayer while standing on the corniche by the Red Sea at sunset.
That was indeed moving, but I didn’t feel any better equipped to understand the complexities of Islam that even Saudis continually debate — and where radical Islam fits in. Or to get elucidation on how, as Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria put it, “the veil is not the same as the suicide belt.”
Couldn’t Mecca, I asked the royals, be opened to non-Muslims during the off-season? The phrase off-season, as it turns out, is not conducive to an interfaith dialogue. But couldn’t they build a center to promote Islamic understanding in Mecca or Medina?
Saudis understandably have zero interest in outraging the rest of the Muslim world by letting members of other faiths observe their deeply private rituals and gawk at the parade of religious costumes fashioned from loose white sheets.
(Osama bin Laden’s jihad, after all, began with anger about American troops being deployed to Saudi Arabia during the first gulf war, which he considered a profanity against sacred ground.)
Still, I pressed on with Prince Saud al-Faisal. With his tinted aviator glasses and sometimes sly demeanor, the Saudi foreign minister has the air of a Hollywood mogul — if moguls wore thobes.
I noted that when 15 Saudi hijackers joined four more proponents of radical jihad and flew into the twin towers, Islam had been hijacked as well. He nodded.
King Abdullah’s formal title is “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.” And Saudis are very eager to remove the restrictions on visas and enhanced airport security measures slapped in place by America after 9/11.
So isn’t there a way for Saudi Arabia to shed light on Islam and reclaim it from the radicals?
“Well, at least leave one place closed for the moment,” he said, looking askance at the mere question. “We only have Mecca now and Medina. Everything else is wide open now.”
Wide open is not a description that applies to anything in Saudi Arabia. Besides, I said, there were objections when I tried to go to a mosque.
“Well, you know, it depends who you ask,” he said. “Somebody in the hotel who doesn’t want to run into trouble may tell you no. Mecca is a special case. It’s written in the holy book that only Muslims can enter it because of an incident in the past where somebody desecrated the mosque in Mecca.
“But for other mosques to be entered, there is absolutely no reason why not. If you go to a mosque and you want to see the mosque and somebody prevents you, you can go to the emir of the region and ask to see the mosque and he will take you there.”
Sure. Just call the emir. I bet he’s listed.
In the end, I did see the hajj. When I got home, I went to the Imax theater at the Smithsonian and bought a ticket to “Journey to Mecca.” I was surprised when the movie said that the Kaaba was built by “Abraham, the father of the Jews” — a reminder that the faiths have a lot to learn from each other.
Wednesday, 10 March 2010
Professor Amanullah De Sondy, Assistant Professor of World Religions, Department of Philosophy and Religion will present a paper on 'Exploring Qur'anic Masculinity and Masculinities' at Cornell University on Thursday 11th March at 4:30pm (110 White Hall).
The paper will outline and discuss the images of masculinity that are performed, displayed and constructed in the Qur'anic world. In turn exploring if they support monolithic/hegemonic notions of an Islamic masculinity or are exemplary for gender/sexual pluralism. Opening a timely debate on the challenges and implications posed by Qur'anic masculinities on the study of Islam and Muslims.
This public lecture is sponsored by the Religious Studies program and the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University and will be Chaired by Professor Daniel Boucher, Associate Professor of East Asian Religions and Director of Religious Studies at Cornell University. All Welcome.
Tuesday, 9 March 2010
I'm posting my translation of this Qawalli again from Aziz Mian which focuses one to consider what is life and what are the essentials. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed translating it. It captures the flavor of great Indian Subcontinent Muslim thinkers, Allama Iqbal and Mirza Ghalib, to give us a further insight on the heritage of South Asian Islam.
Pareeshaan, ho kay meri khak akhir dil na bun ja’ay
Jo mushkil ub hai ya Rabb, wohi mushkil na bun ja’ay
Urooj Adam-e khaki sey unjum seh’mey ja’tay hai
Kay yeh toota huwa tara, bahay kamil na bun ja’ay
Mera maqam ursh tha, lekin ub farsh hai
Kitni bulandi’o sey gi’raya gaya ho mein
Aasman sey utaara ga’ya, utaara ga’ya ray
Worry, fear, that my nothingness does not develop into a heart
Dear Lord, the problems surrounding me now,
I fear that they become my only problem
The beauty of Adam’s nothingness, the galaxy, earth, have been humbled
That this broken star, how on earth it can become whole?
The place was the heavens, but now it is the floor
From such an immense distance I was thrown down
I was grounded from the beloved’s sky
Mein to A’dum, ya ni agaya dam
Yeh dum atha raha
A’dum ata raha
Adam mein jub tak dum na tha
Yeh khak tha, Adam na tha
Adam mein akay dam huwa
Yeh khak sey Adam huwa
Yeh bay’t sara dam ka hai
Yeh dham usi hum dum ka hai
Aasman sey utaara ga’ya, utaara ga’ya ray
Adam, meaning soul was placed
The life kept coming
Adam lived on
Until Adam had no life, there was nothing
Only until Adam had that soul
That being came from nothing
Everything is to do with that life, soul
This promise, life, soul is only because of the Beloved (God)
Adam sey hu’i na farmani
Jannat sey utha dana pani
Daana ho kar nadaan bana ek daanay peh itni na dani
Kata shaytaan ki
Adam ko penka bagh-e-jannat sey
Aasmaan sey uthara gaya
Only then was his life removed from heaven
Lifeless he was, innocent he was, that he made a mistake
The error was surely of Satan
Which led to Adam being thrown from heaven
Thrown down from the Beloved’s sky
Aasmaan sey kyo athara gaya?
Jub Na tha kuch to khuda tha
Aur kuch na ho tha to? Khuda tha
Dub’oya mujh ko ho’nay ney
Ho ney nay duboya
Yaha na ho na, ho na hai
Na ho hona e’nay ho na
La’i hai aag a’i thaza ley chuli chalay
Apni khushi na a’i, na upni khushi chulay
Zindagi maut ka nishana hai
Sab ko ek din yaha sey jana hai
Agar behray ma’anish sey nay eh kutra joda ho ta
Na yeh dunya bani ho’ti
Na yeh alum bana ho tha
Woh bunda kis ko kehta, array aur woh kis ka Khuda ho tha?
Aasmaan sey uthara gaya
Why was Adam thrown down from the sky?
When there was nothing there was only God (Mirza Ghalib’s poetry, 19th century Mughal Poet)
And if there was nothing then there would only be God
I drowned only in my being
It was being that drowned me
Here, not to be, is to be
Life comes and goes at his own whim, at its own wish and desire
Life is a key symbol of death
Everyone one day has to leave this earth
If on that great day had being not been conjoined into human life by God
Would this world even exist?
Would the worlds have even existed?
That man, who would he have called God? And whose God would He have been? (i.e, human life is all about God, human beings are but to glorify God’s infinite beauty and greatness)
Thrown down from the Beloved’s sky
Dil ki nishad kya thi, nighahay Jamaal mein
Ek a’ina tur toot gaya dekh paal mein
Dunya hai khwab, haasilay dunya kayaal hai
Insaan khwab dekh raha hai kayaal mein
Aasmaan sey uthara gaya
What was the hearts desire in the beauty that the eyes see?
That same mirror trashes in its perfect upkeep
Life is but a dream, we try to gain, attain life but, the world is but a dream
Human beings are watching a dream
Zindagi kya, kisi muflis ki taba hai jis mein
Hur gari dard kay peh’mund laga kur tay hai
Zindagi kya, kisi humsa’ay sey manga huwa zewar to nahi
Ek darka sa laga rehta hai, koh janay ka
Zindagi deh kay mara gaya
Life, is something of the bankrupt
Every moment the chimes of pain are ticking
Life is not jewelery sought from a neighbor
A fear is always around of losing it
By giving life to me I was killed
Zindagi kya hai? (Allama Iqbal’s Poetry)
Upnay mun mein dhoob kur baja surakhay zindagi
Tu agar mera nahi bunta to na bun, upna to bun
Zindagi kya hai?
Azghat ka pemanay lutf-o Itifaaq
Ek hum aan ki…wasl-o firaaq
Sulh’o nama, sarh ho ka wifaaq
Zindagi yousuf, zulaykha, lela
Eid, ki mein chaudvin ki raat ki dulhan
Sagar, roop, phool bun
Khudrat mein rukhwali hu’i
Thitli-o ki rasmasti cha’u mein pali hu’i
Buth’ta rashi, raqs, moosiki, kitaab, e-sha’iri, chandni,
Aasmani, zafrani, lajwanti,
Zindagi kya hai? Zindagi murtay hu’ay patho pey boondo ki dhanak
Subhay sarmati ki kiran
Shaam’e’bahar ki dhanak
Bhol thitli ki uraan
Awaz ki lapak
Sarungi ki lachuk
She’her-e tun mein pool walo ki gali hai zindagi
Dharkanay afaaq mein champa gali hai zindagi
What is life?
To be drowned in your self yet unaware of selfhood
Even if you cannot be mine, then be your own
What is life?
A messenger desiring reconciliation
To bring together that which is distanced
Assurances, peace statements,
Life is a parable, story
Life is Joseph and Zulaykha, their desire, their love (Potipher’s Wife)
Eid, the moon, that bridal glow
The shoreline, the waves, the flowers
Life is the way nature guards itself
Life is the bloom that emerges from the shade of the butterfly
Life is a dance, music, books, poetry, moonlight
Life is the sky, colors, a sensitive women
Life is the glow that still emerges from dying leaves
Life is the sharpness, beauty of the morning sunlight
Life is the greatness, spring of the evening
The flight of the butterfly
The mesmerising effect of the voice that surrounds us
The spring of the Sarangi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarangi)
In the city of the heart, the streets that sell flowers is indeed life
Naam jis sey maut se uth tha hai seenay mein doh’wa
Farq-e hasti par tarap uth thi hai desh’at ki ghama
Dil pey rukh deyta hai kauf-e margh o’baray garam
Bholnay lugti hai seh’mi zindagi ki had’iya
Koi nurm awaaz, Koi daastaan, ati nahi
Aray maut yaad a’ja’ay to raato ko neend athi nahi
Zindagi deh kay mara gaya
Zindagi deh kay mara gaya
Zindagi deh kay mara gaya
And death? What is death?
The name with which smoke, fear, emerges from the inner self, chest
The anxiety that emerges in the happiness of life, with the reality of gloom
It places in the heart the fear of great heat
When you begin to forget your wilted life and the bones of life
At this point, even the softest of voices, any fable, tale or story, does not console
Oh the sleepless nights when one remembers death
By giving life to me I was killed
By giving life to me I was killed
By giving life to me I was killed
Monday, 8 March 2010
Iran's leading female poet has told the BBC she has been barred from leaving the country by the government. Simin Behbahani, 82, said she was about to fly to France when her passport was confiscated at Tehran airport.
The human rights activist has written poems in support of the opposition campaign against disputed elections in June last year. Last week Iran detained international award winning film director Jafar Panahi and members of his family.
"The moment I was due to get on the plane, a man came and took my passport away from me and said that I was banned from going abroad," she told the BBC's Persian service. They questioned her for hours asking questions and then ordered her to appear before a court, she said. She was on her way to Paris to present a paper on feminism and read a poem at conference.
Mrs Behbahani is close to the Nobel Peace Prize winning human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who has been living in exile since elections in June. Supporters of reformist figures Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi say that the elections in June were rigged in favour of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Iranian protest movement has developed into the biggest challenge to the government since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Thousands of people have been arrested and dozens killed.
Opposition supporters have faced increasing pressure from the authorities, with some hardliners labelling them as "mohareb" - enemies of God who can be sentenced to death under Iran's Sharia law. At least nine have so far been sentenced to death and two people have reportedly been hung.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2010/03/08 14:52:38 GMT
© BBC MMX
Sunday, 7 March 2010
"The silent majority of Muslims want to find a voice and not to leave the voice of Islam only to the conservative, so-called observant Muslims. We have arrived at the moment when there's enough people who have not spoken who feel it's time to speak, that I think we'll see quite the transformation, and we'll hear a whole variety of issues… and I think among them is a critique of a certain kind of Islam that even in some remote way lends support to terrorism." Professor Leila Ahmed, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity, Harvard University.
Monday, 8 March 2010
The Independent, UK
I am but Muslim lite, a non-conformist believer who will not be told what and how by sanctimonious religious sentinels for whom religion is a long list of rules to be obeyed by bovine followers. Readers know I am often critical of Muslim people and nations. Bad things that happen to us cannot all be attributed to "Islamophobia", a nebulous and imprecise concept that, like anti-Semitism, can be used to besmirch and sully and silence criticism.
But this week even I, even I, can see that for the British establishment Muslims are contemptible creatures, devalued humans. As I prayed before starting this column I felt tears stinging my eyes and my face was burning as if I had been slapped many times over. Do they expect me to turn the other cheek? Millions of other Muslims must have felt what I did. And some may well go on to do things they shouldn't. Their acts will intensify anti-Muslim prejudices and will be used to justify injustice. The cycle is vicious and unrelenting.
Once again at weddings and birthday parties, in quiet, tranquil mosques, at dinner tables across the land, including those of millionaire Muslims, I am hearing murmurs of trepidation and disquiet – voices kept low, sometimes vanishing into whispers, just in case; you never know if they will break down the door. These people are, like myself, well incorporated into the nation's busy life. Some own restaurants and businesses, others work in the City or law firms and chambers. At one gathering a frightfully posh, Muslim public school boy (aged 14), an excellent cricketer, said in his jagged, breaking voice: "I will never live in this country after finishing my education. They hate us. They'll put us all in prison. Nothing we do is OK. Do you think I am wrong Mrs Yasmin?" No I don't, though his hot young blood makes him intemperate.
Where do I start? Well, with the PM who takes himself to the moral high ground at every opportunity, to orate and berate as he did when called in by the placid Chilcot panel. The son of a preacher man, John Ebenezer Brown, Gordon has the manse gene. Unlike the shape-shifter Blair, he is authentically himself, driven by embedded values, and I admire that. But, like his predecessor, he is shockingly indifferent to the agony of the people most affected by the Iraq war, a war Brown still says was "the right" thing to do for the "right reasons". His only regret? They should have thought a bit more about what to do next after they had defeated Saddam and pulled down his statues.
Not a word about the countless Iraqis killed when we bombed indiscriminately in civilian areas, no word of sorrow, however hollow or feigned, about the dead children or those now born in that blighted land with two heads and other grotesque abnormalities. John Simpson's recent BBC report described the rising number of such births in Fallujah, picked for the cruelest collective punishment by America.
Are they not children, Mr Brown? You still cry for your own baby, who died so young. For Muslims, that only confirms native Iraqis are grains of sand to those who executed the imperial war. Martinique intellectual and liberationist Aimee Cesaire wrote: "Colonisation works to de-civilise the coloniser, to brutalise him ... to degrade him." We saw how with Brown, whose empathy is withheld from Iraqis, Muslim victims tortured with the connivance of our secret services and perhaps from all citizens who pray to Allah.
Meanwhile at Isleworth Crown Court, Judge John Denniss is industriously sentencing demonstrators who gathered near the Israeli embassy to rail against that state's attack on Gaza, one of the worst acts of state terrorism in recent history. Our government said nothing then, and were therefore complicit. Protesters came from all backgrounds but the vast majority of those arrested were young Muslim men. Dozens are being sent down for insignificant acts of bravado. Some were about to go to university, to train as dentists and the like. Their homes were raided, families cowed and terrified. Joanna Gilmore, an academic expert on public demonstrations, says never before have such disproportionate sentences been handed out, not even with the volatile anti-globalisation protests. Denniss intends his punishments to be a deterrent. To deter us from what? Having the temerity to believe we live in a democracy and are free to march?
And then the crypto-fascist, Aryan Geert Wilders, is invited into the Lords by UKIP and crossbench peers to show his vile anti-Islam film in the name of freedom of expression. Freedom my arse. It is just another entertaining episode of Muslim-baiting. I dare the same peers to now invite David Irving, the Holocaust denier, to share his thoughts freely in the Lords, and get Omar Bakri over from the Lebanon with films of himself making fiery speeches on what to do with infidels. Again Muslims are made to understand that different standards apply to others. We are on trial, always, and always must expect to lose.
I am here accusing the most powerful in government, parliament and the judiciary, not those individual MPs, peers and judges who try to do the right thing. To them we are immensely grateful, and to the extraordinary lawyers, activists, journalists, artists, writers and ordinary Britons fighting ceaselessly for our liberties. We just witnessed Helena Kennedy in court passionately defending Cossor Ali, accused of providing active support to her convicted terrorist husband. The jury, scrupulously fair, bless them, acquitted the young woman. Muslims involved in crime and violent Islamicism must be tried and punished. But their acts do not give lawmakers and law keepers of this land licence to strip the rest of us of our humanity and inviolable democratic entitlements.
During the dark days of the conflict in Northern Ireland, the Irish in Britain were often treated unjustly by parliament, police, judges like Lord Denning, and vast sections of the media. Under Thatcher, miners and trades unionists were mercilessly "tamed", too. But this time, with Muslims, the establishment has surpassed its previous disgraceful record. They steal our human and civil rights and don't even try to behave with a modicum of honour during and after war. The same people call upon us to be more "British" but treat us as lesser citizens. Deal or No Deal? You tell me.
February 28, 2010
By EFRAIM KARSH
WE may scoff at the idea that the Olympic Games have anything to do with the “endeavor to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace,” as the Olympic charter enshrines as its ideal. But at least nations across the world were able to put aside differences for two weeks of friendly competition in Vancouver.
A mundane achievement, perhaps, but it’s one that’s beyond the grasp of the Islamic world. The Islamic Solidarity Games, the Olympics of the Muslim world, which were to be held in Iran in April, have been called off by the Arab states because Tehran inscribed “Persian Gulf” on the tournament’s official logo and medals.
It’s a small but telling controversy. It puts the lie to the idea of the Islamic world as a bloc united by religious values that are hostile to the West. It also gives clues as to how the United States and its allies should handle two of their most urgent foreign policy matters: the Iranian nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This is not the first time that Arabs have challenged the internationally accepted name of the waterway that separates Persia (or Iran, as it has been called since 1935) from the Arabian Peninsula. Pan-Arabist thought — which dominated Arab political life for most of the 20th century — insisted on the creation of a unified vast empire “from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arab Gulf,” provoking sharp confrontations with Iran since the late 1960s.
The Islamic regime in Tehran, which came to power in 1979 dismissing nationalism as an imperialist plot aimed at weakening the worldwide Muslim community (or umma), initially displayed less interest in the gulf’s Persian identity than in the spread of its Islamist message. “The Iranian revolution is not exclusively that of Iran, because Islam does not belong to any particular people,” insisted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. “The struggle will continue until the calls ‘there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah’ are echoed all over the world.”
Yet like Stalin, who responded to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 by urging his people to fight for the motherland rather than for the Communist ideals with which they had been indoctrinated, Khomeini reverted to nationalist rhetoric to rally his subjects after the Iraqi invasion of 1980. He also used the war to justify a string of military and diplomatic actions against the smaller Arab states like Qatar and Kuwait aimed at asserting Iran’s supremacy in the gulf.
In this history of a single body of water, one sees a perfect example of the so-called Islamic Paradox that dates from the seventh century. For although the Prophet Muhammad took great pains to underscore the equality of all believers regardless of ethnicity, categorically forbidding any fighting among the believers, his precepts have been constantly and blatantly violated.
It took a mere 24 years after the Prophet’s death for the head of the universal Islamic community, the caliph Uthman, to be murdered by political rivals. This opened the floodgates to incessant infighting within the House of Islam, which has never ceased. Likewise, there has been no overarching Islamic solidarity transcending the multitude of parochial loyalties — to one’s clan, tribe, village, family or nation. Thus, for example, not only do Arabs consider themselves superior to all other Muslims, but inhabitants of Hijaz, the northwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula and Islam’s birthplace, regard themselves the only true Arabs, and tend to be highly disparaging of all other Arabic-speaking communities.
Nor, for that matter, has the House of Islam ever formed a unified front vis-à-vis the House of War (as Muslims call the rest of the world). Even during the Crusades, the supposed height of the “clash of civilizations,” Christian and Muslim rulers freely collaborated across the religious divide, often finding themselves aligned with members of the rival religion against their co-religionists. While the legendary Saladin himself was busy eradicating the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, for example, he was closely aligned with the Byzantine Empire, the foremost representative of Christendom’s claim to universalism.
This pattern of pragmatic cooperation reached its peak during the 19th century, when the Ottoman Empire relied on Western economic and military support to survive. (The Charge of the Light Brigade of 1854 was, at its heart, part of a French-British effort to keep the Ottomans from falling under Russian hegemony.) It has also become a central feature of 20th- and 21st-century Middle Eastern politics.
Muslim and Arab rulers have always, in their intrigues, sought the support and protection of the “infidel” powers they so vilify. President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, the champion of pan-Arabism who had built his reputation on standing up to “Western imperialism,” imported more than 10,000 Soviet troops into Egypt when his “War of Attrition” against Israel in the late 1960s went sour.
Similarly, Ayatollah Khomeini bought weapons from even the “Great Satan,” the United States. Saddam Hussein used Western support to survive his war against Iran in the 1980s. And Osama bin Laden and the rest of the Afghan mujahedeen accepted weapons and money from the United States, with the Islamic state of Pakistan as the middleman, in their struggle against the Soviet occupation.
Yet, since it is far easier to unite people through a common hatred than through a shared loyalty, Islamic solidarity has been repeatedly invoked as an instrument for achieving the self-interested ends of those who proclaimed it. Little wonder the covenant of Hamas insists, “When our enemies usurp some Islamic lands, jihad becomes a duty binding on all Muslims.”
So, if the Muslim bloc is just as fractious as any other group of seemingly aligned nations, what does it mean for United States policy in the Islamic world?
For one, it should give us more impetus to take a harder line with Iran. Just as the Muslim governments couldn’t muster the minimum sense of commonality for holding an all-Islamic sports tournament, so they would be unlikely to rush to Iran’s aid in the event of sanctions, or even a military strike.
Beyond the customary lip service about Western imperialism and “Crusaderism,” most other Muslim countries would be quietly relieved to see the extremist regime checked. It’s worth noting that the two dominant Arab states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have been at the forefront of recent international efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
As for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the idea that bringing peace between the two parties will bring about a flowering of cooperation in the region and take away one of Al Qaeda’s primary gripes against the West totally misreads history and present-day politics. Muslim states threaten Israel’s existence not so much out of concern for the Palestinians, but rather as part of a holy war to prevent the loss of a part of the House of Islam.
In these circumstances, one can only welcome the latest changes in the Obama administration’s Middle Eastern policy, which combine a tougher stance on Iran’s nuclear subterfuge with a less imperious approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s two-track plan — discussion with Tehran while at the same time lining up meaningful sanctions — is fine as far as it goes. But a military strike must remain a serious option: there is no peaceful way to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, stemming as they do from its imperialist brand of national-Islamism.
Likewise, there is no way for the Obama administration to resolve the 100-year war between Arabs and Jews unless all sides are convinced that peace is in each of their best interests. Any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is far less important than a regional agreement in which every Islamic nation can make peace with the idea of Jewish statehood in the House of Islam.
And that, depressingly, is going to be a lot harder to pull off than even the Islamic Solidarity Games.
Efraim Karsh, the head of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King’s College London, is the author of "Islamic Imperialism: A History" and the forthcoming “Palestine Betrayed.”