Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Backstory: What it means to be Muslim - They went to the same school in Saudi Arabia – so how did they turn out so differently?

By Mona Eltahawy, Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 2006

Yasir Kazi was the last person I wanted to sit next to on the plane taking us from the US to Copenhagen for the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow (MLT) conference last month. But airline ticket counter agents – and divine intervention perhaps – determined otherwise, for there he was, on the aisle seat of my row as we boarded a connecting flight from Iceland to Denmark.

I spotted him immediately at Kennedy Airport. His beard screamed "Muslim." No. More than that, it screamed the kind of judgmental Muslim who would give me a hard time because nothing about me screamed "Muslim." So I had an unfair advantage knowing he was Muslim: If he knew I was, perhaps he, too, would have wished a flight free of conversation with me.

We'd been called to Copenhagen to discuss the integration of Muslims in the West. But it was really the question "What does being a Muslim mean?" that boarded the plane and sat in the empty seat between Yasir and me. The brainchild of the not-for-profit New York-based American Society for Muslim Advancement and the multifaith Cordoba Initiative, the conference brought 100 Muslims of diverse backgrounds from 15 countries to Denmark to discuss how Muslims are faring in integrating in Western societies, in light of the clash of civilizations mentality that has set in since the terrorist attacks in London, Madrid, and New York.

But Yasir and I hadn't even landed yet. We'll get to Denmark later.

I'm a board member of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America. A core tenet of our mission is that anyone who calls him or herself a Muslim is a Muslim – no litmus test, no scorecard for ritual or dogma. Self identity is all we consider. Perhaps it really was divine intervention that I was seated by the window and Yasir by the aisle – that empty chair between us couldn't even begin to convey the space between our outlooks on religion and life.

"Are you going to the MLT conference?" he asked as he made way for me to take my seat. "I guessed you were from your Arabic jewelry." So something about me did scream "Muslim"? Or give a hint, at least? When he said his name, I realized he was someone rumored to be balking at even speaking to some of the liberal women attendees. So I hesitated, unsure whether to extend a hand to shake because some conservative Muslims don't want to touch a woman's hand.

After tentative conversation about the panels that awaited us at the conference and polite questions about our backgrounds – he's pursuing a PhD in Islamic studies at Yale, I'm a journalist – we found what appeared to be common ground: Saudi Arabia. But "never trust appearances" seemed to be the aphorism that we both were trying to prove. If you saw him (the Muslim man with the big beard) and me (the Muslim woman without the head scarf) would you figure he was the American and I the Egyptian?

It turned out we went to the same school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia – though a few years apart, and he in the boys' section which was several miles from the girls' section that I attended. Our brothers might have been in the same grade, and our fathers surely taught and worked together at the King Abdul-Aziz Medical School.

"It's a long way from Saudi Arabia to the Progressive Muslim Union of North America," Yasir said after our memories had drawn such mirror images. "Saudi Arabia is the reason I am what I am," I replied quickly. "Saudi Arabia is the reason I am what I am, too," he said.

How did one starting point lead to such different lives? That may sound like the inverse of the integration debate, but it's really the heart of it. It's not about Muslims' ability to talk to the "West." In Copenhagen, when a group exercise brought together at my table Muslims from Australia, Portugal, France, Belgium, Germany, and Canada, there was no monolithic "Muslim" and there was no monolithic "West." It was about Muslims' ability to talk to one another.

Yasir and I had to talk. In his view, "liberal" Muslims outnumbered "conservatives" at the conference. What a relief, I thought. I'm fed up with Muslim conferences at which conservative views are presented as the "real" Islam and against which liberal views must justify their validity.

But to Yasir's credit, he wasn't beyond making a joke out of the stereotypes that many of us hold of conservatives. A conference assignment was to talk to those we normally wouldn't talk to. So at a coffee break, there I was – a woman wearing T-shirt and jeans attempting to schmooze with Yasir, in his traditional Pakistani-style tunic and baggy pants, and his friend Abu Eesa Niamatullah, a British Muslim in a flowing white robe.

I asked them how they thought the conference was going. "I wasn't going to come at first," said Abu Eesa, founder of an educational institute and publishing house and author of a Muslim blog, who'd been outspoken in conference sessions about how he didn't think Muslims had a problem integrating. "I've been writing an essay called 'No to Integration, Yes to Disintegration.' "

Immediately Yasir jokingly interjected with a suggestion: "Explain to her what you mean by that. You know what she'll think."

Was Yasir joking about the assumption that Muslim men who have long beards blow things up? Now we're talking, Yasir!

It was true – I'd stereotyped the men with big beards.

"People always assume I'm very conservative, but I'm actually quite liberal," California Imam Tahir Anwar said in an exercise that had us place ourselves along a liberal-conservative continuum according to how others see us.

"Yeah, right!" was my gut reaction to Tahir, whose beard was even longer than Yasir's.

As a young man he'd wanted to be a US Air Force pilot, he said. His love for speed has him zooming around California highways, he confessed, where his car is the only one with the license plate "IMAM."

I couldn't resist confessing to him over lunch my "yeah, right" reaction to his assertion that he was quite liberal. He smiled like he was used to hearing that. It had been my gut reaction to his conservative appearance as well as the dismaying feeling that many Muslims are reluctant to embrace the liberal label with pride because it sounds somehow less authentic or wishy-washy.

During the exercise, I stepped forward and said that people assume I'm a liberal Muslim, I'm indeed a liberal and I'm proud of it and I wished more people would openly embrace the term.

At the end of the conference, I found out that my definition of a Muslim – that anyone, including an atheist, who identifies themselves as Muslim is a Muslim – had made me an atheist courtesy of some conservative Muslims who I'd debated with on the point. They'd stereotyped me right back, deciding I must be an atheist. You see why we need to talk?

"Believers are like the bricks of a building. They hold each other up." That saying of the prophet Muhammad was posted on an easel next to a panel on pluralism that included Yasir and his ideological and theological polar opposites.

At a coffee break soon after the panel, I ran into Yasir, fresh from an hour-long meeting with one of the liberal women I had heard he didn't want to meet. He looked stunned.

"But did you shake her hand?" asked another attendee after Yasir told us of the meeting.


It was my turn to be stunned: "You shake women's hands? I didn't offer mine on the plane because I wasn't sure."

Yasir stuck his hand out for a firm shake.

I plan on writing to Yasir to continue our conversation.

Maybe I'll even suggest that we write a book together on how Saudi Arabia made us who we are today.

Pakistan: The Intersection

Mona Eltahawy: Let's be frank: The Arab world would benefit from talking openly about sex Stifling this conversation can have deadly consequences

New York — From Monday's Globe and Mail Published on Friday, Aug. 14, 2009 5:22PM EDT Last updated on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2009 3:23AM EDT

Sex has ruffled many in the Arab world lately. About time.

Just this past week, Saudi Arabia shut down all local operations of a Lebanese TV station that broadcast an interview with a Saudi man who spoke frankly about sex.

When Mazen Abdul-Jawad, 32 and a divorced father of four, took Lebanon's LBC into his bedroom to boast that “everything happens in this room,” show his sex toys, explain that he lost his virginity at the age of 14 to a neighbour, and then host a sex chat with male friends, he was providing the sensational material that has made the show Bold Red Line notorious.

But this is ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, where the morality police can detain a man and a woman out in public unless the two can prove they're related. And yet there was Mr. Abdul-Jawad explaining how he hooks up with women by using the Bluetooth technology on his phone.

And so, it comes as no surprise that Mr. Abdul-Jawad has been vilified and has had to beg in media interviews for forgiveness from Saudi society for appearing on the show, which he claims manipulated and duped him. He could face a flogging sentence

However, Mr. Abdul-Jawad's “sex confessions” have only told the Arab world what it already knows: Deny it all you like and threaten to punish it, but unmarried men and women, as everywhere else, are having sex.

So who is talking about sex openly in the Arab world? Women.

Not surprising considering that it is women who suffer the most from double standards around sexuality in the region. Women must also face Islamists' attempts to silence the relatively relaxed attitudes toward married sex in the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed that stress sexual pleasure for both husbands and wives.

Wedad Lootah, marriage counsellor in the family guidance department of Dubai Courts in the United Arab Emirates, and Heba Kotb, an Egyptian sex therapist, are proponents of such a message.

Ms. Lootah, who covers her entire body including her face, is the author of Top Secret: Sexual Guidance for Married Couples , published earlier this year. Ms. Kotb, who wears a head scarf, is the host of a popular sex show broadcast widely across the Arab world.

Both women have received threats and condemnations, but they can continue their work because their conservative style of dress and their message, firmly based in Islamic teachings, give them permission and legitimacy.

But what of those who are having sex outside marriage? Who lie outside the box of husband-and-wife sex promoted by Ms. Lootah and Ms. Kotb, and who want to have a more constructive conversations about sex than shows like Bold Red Line allow?

They go online, where for the past few years young Arabs especially have migrated to express themselves in unprecedented ways. More than half of Saudi bloggers are women and they know that what is banned in the “real world” can find a place in the virtual one.

Consider the Arabic-language novel Al Akheroon ( The Others ), written under the pen name Siba al-Harz – a semi-autobiographical novel in the voice of a Shia lesbian Saudi woman. Banned in Saudi Arabia (I bought my copy in Beirut) it is available as a PDF online. Also online, you can read blogs by anonymous lesbian and gay Arabs and find support groups offering help for a minority fighting both religious and social discrimination.

As Arab economies tumble along with the global recession, the age at which people can afford to marry is getting higher. Religion might teach chastity, but the reality is otherwise, and unless we talk about sex in the Arab world more, the pitiful sex education on offer in most countries will continue to fail young people, especially women who pay the highest price for silence.

The Arab world cannot afford to stifle the conversation about sex. Arabs are just as vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV-AIDS and we owe it to ourselves to move sex talk beyond sensationalism and conservatism. Denial is deadly.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born columnist and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues.

iMuslims - Progressive Islam Online!

By Mona Eltahawy
The Jerusalem Report
Feb. 1, 2020 edition

You’ve seen their mugshots: a Nigerian charged with trying to blow up a plane on Christmas Day; five young American Muslims detained in Pakistan, apparently desperately seeking jihad.

You’ve heard they used the video-sharing site YouTube in search of Muslim militant groups fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan or to find “internet imams” spewing hate. Already we’re hearing dire warnings that radical groups are recruiting every Muslim within a foot of an internet connection.

I bet you haven’t heard of these mugshots: Iranian men in chadors and headscarves.

As part of the “Men in Headscarves” campaign, Iranian men – inside and outside Iran – have been posting pictures of themselves wearing the head and body coverings the Iranian regime imposes on women. Their pictures – one was even taken in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris – have spread on the social networking site Facebook and YouTube in support of Iranian student activist Majid Tavakoli.

Authorities arrested Tavakoli in December after he called for more democracy and urged his fellow students to reject “tyranny”. The next day, government newspapers published pictures of Tavakoli dressed in a chador and claimed he had tried to escape arrest disguised as a woman. The Iranian regime was trying to humiliate him but the “Men in Headscarves” had the last laugh.

Like everybody else who uses the internet, Muslims shop online and post embarrassing pictures of themselves on Facebook. Undoubtedly, violent radical groups such as al-Qaeda and others have used the internet to their advantage. That is not new, as U.S.-based monitoring groups who follow such sites will tell you.

But what is new is how young people have been using the internet to challenge authority (political, social as well as religious) in Muslim-majority countries or where Muslims live as minorities. The attempt to humiliate Tavakoli backfired as dozens not only rushed to his defense but used their pictures in headscarves and chadors to criticize the dress code Iran imposes on women.

I research and teach graduate-level courses on the impact of blogging and social media on mainstream media and society in the Middle East. Such new media offer unprecedented platforms for self-expression. Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society estimates there are 60,000 – 100,000 blogs in Iran and around 45,000 in the Arab world.

My students have interviewed bloggers and online activists whose exciting work is invariably overshadowed by news of angry, young Muslims online.

Do you know of the Egyptian blogger who helped convict police officers for the sodomy of a bus driver by posting footage of the crime on YouTube? How about the Saudi woman blogger who challenges her country’s restrictions on women (she is married to a former officer of the morality police, who often enforce those restrictions). Or the lesbian blogger who runs a support site for lesbian and bisexual women and the transgendered in Lebanon? And have you heard of the young Bahraini activist and blogger who champions the rights of migrant workers in a region where they are largely invisible?

Pick up Gary Bunt’s “iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam” and learn that for every online al-Qaeda recruiter there are thousands more Muslims reforming Islam online. In recognition of the power of the internet, religious institutions such as Sunni Islam’s al-Azhar in Egypt and Shiite Islam’s schools in Qom, Iran, have websites. Interpretations and commentaries on the Quran fill the internet and recreate the vibrant intellectual atmosphere that many Muslims lament we’d long ago lost.

Bunt says many Muslims identify more with a website than to a mosque or a particular sect. I know exactly what he’s talking about. The majority of American Muslims don’t go to mosque. Soon after I moved to the U.S. from Egypt, I found my community through the now defunct website MuslimWakeUp! which became a virtual home for liberal and progressive American Muslims. The site inspired progressive Muslim meetups in several cities across the country and new groups such as Muslims for Progressive Values.

Remember, it was the father of Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who warned the U.S. embassy in Nigeria that he feared his son was turning to extremism and it was the families of those young American Muslim men arrested in Pakistan as well as an American Muslim civil liberties group which alerted the FBI to those young men’s disappearance.

Not every Muslim online is learning how to make bombs or looking for jihad. If anything, by loosening the chains of authority the internet deals a blow to radical violence: it gives anyone online the chance to answer back. For every Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, there are dozens of Iranian men taunting the regime at the helm of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Join me and the rest of my “friends” – I have almost 5,000 – on Facebook as we argue over polygamy, burqas and being gay and Muslim. Every day I avidly follow several threads of comments running on my Facebook Wall, all showing a diversity of opinions you rarely see in news reports on Muslims: just today, several Pakistanis from around the world responded to an article I posted in which I cursed the Taliban for the bloodletting they’ve unleashed on Pakistan.

Or follow me on Twitter, where an American Muslim I follow summed up the sentiments of many towards the five young American Muslim men from Virginia: “I say we welcome these kids home from Pakistan with a swift kick in the ass. Who’s with me?”

Young Scottish Muslims seek voice

In the second part of a series on the conflicts facing Muslims in Europe, the BBC's Islamic affairs analyst, Roger Hardy, discovers strains between younger and older Muslims in Glasgow.

They are young, Muslim and Scottish - and will not take no for an answer.

I met Nazia Iqbal and two of her friends at the student union of Glasgow's Strathclyde University.

Ms Iqbal, who is the equal opportunities officer, has been making waves ever since she went to the city's Central Mosque and asked to become a voting member.

According to the mosque's constitution, Muslim men and women not only have the right to pray at the mosque - if they are over 18, they are entitled to become voting members and have a say in its running.

But Ms Iqbal, who is 20, was turned down, on the grounds that she is female.

Her response was to start a campaign on Facebook, and complain to the body that regulates Scottish charities.

To find out what was going on, I went to Friday prayers at the Central Mosque to meet one of the community's first-generation pioneers, Bashir Maan. Now 83, Mr Maan came to Glasgow as a young Pakistani student in the early 1950s. He became one of the best-known figures in the community and, after joining the Labour Party, the first Muslim councillor in Britain.

The mosque is an impressive structure, occupying a large site beside the River Clyde. It opened its doors in 1984 and can hold more than 2,000 worshippers.

Mr Maan agrees that the constitution opens up membership to both males and females - but criticises Ms Iqbal and her friends for being confrontational.

Some of the younger generation do not want to work with the "oldies", he told me - they think they know best.

For now, it is stalemate. Ms Iqbal has not become a member, the campaign goes on - and the regulatory body has yet to reach a decision.

Is haggis halal? What is so striking about Glasgow's Muslims is their attachment to a Scottish identity.

A young Islamic scholar, Sheikh Rizwan Mohammed, debates with his students whether Muslims can eat haggis - the Scottish national dish - or wear a kilt. (His answer is yes to both - provided the kilt is below the knee.)

Another example is Muslim involvement in politics.

My visit coincided with the British election campaign. In the constituency of Glasgow Central, two young Muslims, both in their 20s, were competing for the same seat. Anas Sarwar was standing as a Labour candidate for the seat previously held by his father, Mohammed.

One of his challengers, Osama Saeed, left the Labour Party in protest at the Iraq war and was the candidate for the Scottish National Party. The SNP wants independence for Scotland. In the event, Anas Sarwar retained the seat for Labour. But his party can no longer rely, as it could in the past, on unquestioning Muslim support.

Among the younger generation, it is not just students like Ms Iqbal who think it is time for change.

At the Andalus Centre, in a former office block in a Glasgow suburb, I met an energetic husband-and-wife team - Kishwar Sultana and Javed Ali.

They not only teach young Muslims the Koran, they take youngsters - girls as well as boys - kayaking and rock climbing.

The parents trust them, says Kishwar Sultana, because they are sensitive to the families' religion and culture.

I asked some of the mothers why they had chosen the centre rather than one of the mosques. They liked its approach to learning, they told me, and its welcoming atmosphere.

The implication is that the more traditional mosques - patriarchal and conservative - are less family-friendly.

"The Muslim community is stagnant," says Javed Ali. It needs new ideas and new leadership to move forward.

Roger Hardy's programme about Glasgow's Muslims, in the Heart and Soul series on the BBC World Service, is broadcast on Wednesday 12 May at 1232 and 1632, with repeats. Or you can
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Published: 2010/05/11 08:42:58 GMT