Friday, 23 July 2010

CrossTalk: Burqa Blowout!

Imam talent Hunt in Malaysia

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: In His Own Words

In his four decades at the forefront of public life, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been forthright in his views on the situation at home and abroad.
Here is a selection of his memorable quotes on a variety of topics:

Resentment and anger are bad for your blood pressure and your digestion - January 2000

Perpetrators don't have horns, don't have tails, they are as ordinary looking as you and I. The people who supported Hitler were not demons, they were often very respectable people - February 2006

Homosexuality and the Church
If God, as they say, is homophobic, I wouldn't worship that God - November 2007

The Nobel Peace Prize
A kid asked me a few years ago, "What do you do to get the prize?"
I said, "It's very easy, you just need three things - you must have an easy name, like Tutu for example, you must have a large nose and you must have sexy legs." - July 2009

One time I was in San Francisco when a lady rushed up, very warmly greeted me, and said, "Hello Archbishop Mandela." Sort of getting two for the price of one - March 2004

BBC Website: 22 July 2010 Last updated at 15:54 ET

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Burqa Bans From an American Muslim's Perspective

Huffington Post
by Sumbul Ali-Karamali
Author of "The Muslim Next Door: the Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing"

Posted: July 20, 2010 03:58 PM

Yesterday, Syria banned women wearing a full face veil from university campuses, both public and private. France, of course, voted last week to ban the full face veil (the niqab) from all public areas. The reason cited by both countries is that the face veil as a threat to their secular identity.

I am a practicing Muslim, and I dislike the niqab. But my reasons for disliking it are not xenophobic, as France's are, or fearful of overthrow by the conservative element, as Syria's are. I do not like the niqab because it compromises the public safety. It perpetuates the patriarchal, cultural idea that women must bear the responsibility for men's lustful urges. It hides women and leaves men unhampered. But the Qur'an states clearly that both men and women -- not just women -- should dress and behave modestly.

Yet, here's my conflict: I dislike the niqab; but, as a feminist, I firmly believe that governments have no business dictating to a woman what she should or should not wear. And I am sure that banning the full face veil is not the answer to addressing issues of equality, oppression, and freedom.

Why? Because all that will happen is that women who would have gone to university will now simply not go if they have to go unveiled. It's what happened in Turkey -- generations of Turkish women did not get an education or pursue careers because of Turkey's ban on the headscarf. More than that, bans simply cause people to dig in their heels and cling more tightly to what they perceive as their rights and religion. The BBC reports that some Muslim women in France who have never worn a face veil say that, if banned, they will start. Banning and denigrating a cultural tradition simply divides communities and engenders anger and resentment -- not constructive toward building a multicultural society.

Yet, the full face veil is not about religion, though its proponents insist that it is. The niqab is not Islamic and does not come from Islamic texts. The Qur'an does not, on the face of it, even require head-covering. (There is evidence that Muslim women even prayed with their heads uncovered in the early centuries of Islam.) The rules on women's dress come from the opinions and debates between male Islamic scholars living a thousand years ago.

In their debates, Islamic scholars considered factors like culture and hardship in interpreting what constitutes modesty. Some said that the head should be covered, but others did not. Very few said that the face should be covered, and all those who did so cited the protection of women (not sexual excitement) as the reason. That was a thousand or more years ago. Today, we have laws protecting women.

The great majority of Islamic scholars today say that the full face veil is a cultural relict and not an Islamic religious duty. When Islam was born in the 7th century, veiling already common in many cultures. It was a sign of high class status, not oppression, in the Persian Empire. It was common throughout Europe at the time, as well.

Veiling came to be associated with Islam later, partly because when missionaries (some wearing a head-covering themselves) went to Muslim countries, they informed Muslim women that they should take their head-coverings off and convert so that they could be liberated. If someone were to come to the United States and tell the women here that in order to get equal pay and a woman in the White House they needed to drop their culture and adopt someone else's culture, I don't think they'd go for it. The Muslim women didn't, either; they simply stuck more defiantly to their culture.

The world today is not so different. Many Muslim-majority countries gained their independence from colonization only in the mid-20th century. The rise of recent conservative Islamic movements is partly a result of the people in these countries trying to form their own nationalistic, cultural identities by distancing themselves from their former, Western rulers. That includes outward signs of "Islamic" identity, such as head-covering and, rarely, the niqab.

Much as I dislike the niqab, I don't think banning it is the answer. Most of the women donning the face veil in France are young and a quarter of them are converts. They comprise at most only eight-hundredths of a percent (0.08 percent) of the Muslim women in France. They believe the niqab is their religious duty.

I must note that just because a woman wears a niqab does not mean that she is oppressed. Take Wedad Lootah, a woman who wears niqab and is a sexual activist in the UAE and author of a book on sexual guidance for married couples. Or Hissa Hilal, a Saudi woman in niqab who writes scathing poetry criticizing extremist Saudi clerics and their fatwas.

Therefore, if you want to debate the validity of the face veil, do it on the terms of those who wear it and debate the issues that lie at the heart of it: What is a religious duty? What is required by Islam? Where is culture becoming confused with religion?

The debates and discussions must come from within the religion, not imposed from without. Denigrating another culture is never productive. Prominent imams have already spoken out against the idea of the niqab as a religious requirement. The answer is to use them to engage the community in debate.

Egypt play seeks to smash social taboos

By Ines Bel Aiba (AFP)

CAIRO — He wants to have phone sex, she wants to leave her house without a headscarf: a Cairo play seeks to confront Egypt's social taboos by laying bare the sexual frustrations and harassments that beset daily life.

In a makeshift theatre set up in the cafeteria of the Cairo Opera House, a group of amateur actors perform short sketches based on real-life experiences and inspired by Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues". "Everything you will see tonight is nothing compared to the reality," reads a sign held by Sondos Shabayek, one of the play's producers, before the performance begins.

The play is a product of the Bussy Project -- Bussy means 'look' in colloquial Egyptian -- a student-run organisation set up in 2006 at the American University in Cairo (AUC) which seeks to raise awareness about women's issues in Egypt. This year, Bussy left its crib at AUC for the first time hoping a different venue would show a wider audience "what is really happening out there," an organiser said.

Over the past five years, the student organisation has sought to push the boundaries by addressing highly sensitive issues such as circumcision, rape, paedophilia and sexual harassment through lectures, awareness campaigns and an annual play. This year's performance portrays a hypocritical and patriarchal society where outward religiosity conceals shameful secrets.

In one sketch, a pious young man presses his girlfriend to have telephone sex, arguing that "it is not 'haram' (forbidden by Islam) since it is by phone." A downhearted young woman steps on the stage, frustrated at not being able to show off her locks in public.

"Look how lovely my hair is! How I would love to leave my house without the hijab... but what would people say?" she sighs, staring at her tight-trousered silhouette in the mirror. The vast majority of Egyptian women don the Islamic headscarf in public, not by law, but rather due to social convention and/or pressure.

In another sketch entitled "I'm not your darling", an actress complains of not being taken seriously at work simply because she is a woman. She hates being regularly referred to as "honey" or "sweetheart" by her male colleagues. Sexual harassment in public areas, described as a "social cancer" by one local non-governmental organisation, is addressed from a male point of view.

His rage simmering below the surface, one male character describes how he likes to "satisfy himself" in public transport by rubbing up and masturbating against women, a common phenomenon particularly on Cairo's crammed buses. "I am not sick. And I am not the only one," he says sharply. "I was a respectable person. But I earn 400 pounds (70 dollars) per month, I will never be able to get married, what can I do?" he said, echoing a frustration felt by many young men.

The play is more sanitised than originally intended, as several theatre venues refused to let it show on their stages. Around 20 minutes of script were cut out "due to censorship and in order to avoid lawsuits later," actress and producer Mona al-Shimi told AFP.

"We approached many places, the reasons (for their rejection) were varied but the most common one was that the topics were too sensitive," she said. The audience had heckled the original version and some spectators stormed out in the middle of the performance. One of the scenes taken out had broached the subject of incest.

The actors decided to make a point of the censorship: they mimed the passages they were not allowed to say out loud. But the play found a fan in Egyptian mega-filmstar Khaled Abul Naga who attended one performance and vowed to support the theatre group's message.

"They deserve to have their play project properly produced, recorded and preserved," he told AFP, suggesting the play be put to DVD.

"With the censored parts left in?" interrupts one of the actresses.

"With the censored parts left in," he answers.

Copyright © 2010 AFP. All rights reserved

Discussing the Niqab with Tariq Ramadhan & Mona Eltahawy

Monday, 19 July 2010

Syria's niqab ban is part of a clash within Islam itself

Far from the heated debates of Europe, Syria has banned the niqab in classrooms, adding another layer to this complex story
by Faisal al Yafai, Monday 19 July 2010 10.29 BST

Quietly, away from the fanfare that accompanied the French vote on banning the niqab in public, and calls by Philip Hollobone to impose a ban in Britain, the Syrian government has instituted its own, more limited, ban, removing teachers who wear the full face veil from teaching in public schools.

At first glance, such a move might seem puzzling: Syria, with dozens of religious sects and a nominally secular government, has managed for decades to use a light touch, at least when it comes to personal faith.

But the rise of religion among the population has shaken the leadership: with overt displays of faith on the rise and a rare terrorist attack in Damascus two years ago attributed to Islamists, the government appears to be moving against hardline religious ideas.

The niqab ban in public schools is a fairly blunt instrument but, on such a small scale, it may be intended to send a message. Egypt, too, has instigated a similarly limited ban (for university exams), a move opposed by Islamists but upheld by the courts.

But Syria's struggle with Islamists and visible symbols of Islam is part of a wider clash, a clash within Islam itself. Political Islam is gaining ground across both the Arab world and Muslim-majority countries. What happens in this debate matters profoundly, because the same debate is taking place within Muslim communities in the west.

The debate, crudely put, is over the space between the personal and the political. Secular-minded governments have tried to keep faith out of state institutions; Islamists want their faith to guide those institutions. Personal space has also increasingly been politicised, with a rise in the wearing of the headscarf and the veil in Syria and in most Muslim-majority countries.

For the Syrian government this increased religiosity is a serious challenge to its secular, authoritarian rule. Those who look to faith to guide their lives want it to guide their leaders too. Islamists comprise the main opposition in the region: if there were free and fair elections tomorrow, the Islamists would win.

Yet even as defenders of secular rule find their arguments weakening among the general population, from the other direction even Islamists are being pressured to be more conservative. This pressure comes from Salafism, an austere, less flexible version of Islam that has rapidly gained ground over the past three decades.

Salafists tend to retreat into enclaves against what they perceive as the corruption of society. They often see organised politics as usurping divine authority. It is important to recognise that while Salafism is still a minority view in the Islamic world, its influence is felt widely. Islamists, wary of criticism from austere Salafists that they are too compromising on political authority, have sometimes reacted by moving to the right, to shore up their position as a viable opposition.

This is a complex, unfolding argument, with deep roots, but it is one we are scarcely attentive to in the west. Yet it matters, because the same currents affect Muslim communities in Europe and North America. What shape Islam in the west takes, how liberal, how participative, how beholden to faith identity Muslim communities become will be affected by this debate. (And not only Muslim communities: a rise in faith identity will be felt across the political spectrum.)

The French niqab ban is part of this argument, but it is far from clear that either ban will influence the debate in a positive direction. Syrian feminists have welcomed the ban, claiming it protects human rights and the secular public space. Much the same has been said about the French ban. Yet it is hard to see how the politicisation of what should be a personal issue can do anything other than give cause for alarm. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Book review of "The Sultan's Shadow," about a 19th-century Arab princess.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, July 11, 2010
The Washington Post


One Family's Rule at the Crossroads of East and West
By Christiane Bird
Random House. 374 pp. $28

Christiane Bird's account of the Al Busaidi sultans in Oman and Zanzibar during the 19th century is, she says, "a tale rich with modern-day themes: Islam vs. Christianity, religion vs. secularism, women's rights, human rights, multiculturalism, and a nation's right to construct its own destiny." In truth those themes are not quite so visible in "The Sultan's Shadow" as its author would have us believe, for despite her lucid prose and dogged research, the book never comes together into a coherent whole. Instead, it is an oddly arranged miscellany, some parts of which are exceptionally interesting, but she never manages to connect them to each other in a convincing fashion.

Part of the problem may simply be that she is trying to tell a complicated story that few in the West know anything about. At the outset, as she presents it, we are led to believe that this is the story of a sultan named Seyyid Said and his daughter, Seyyida Salme, a.k.a., Emily Ruete, and that story alone contains enough interest and drama to make a compelling book. Bird insists on dragging in so much peripheral or tangential material, however, that the reader too often becomes lost in side excursions as well as "the endless fray of alliances and betrayals that characterized life in the royal Al Busaidi family," all of them involving equally endless lists of Arabic names and surnames that cumulatively have the same numbing effect as the names in a 19th-century Russian novel.

Boiled down to its essence, the tale begins with the ascension of Seyyid Said to the Omani sultanate in the 1820s after a prolonged (and thoroughly confusing) period of violent squabbling that culminated in the murder of a rival. He seems to have been a remarkable man who "committed his share of atrocities when dealing with his enemies but was a just and liberal ruler at home, beloved by his people, especially as he grew older." The celebrated explorer Richard Burton called him "as shrewd, liberal and enlightened a prince as Arabia has ever produced," and an Italian physician who served him for a time said: "His constant love of justice, and distinguished clemency, the effects of which are felt, not only by his own subjects, but even by his domestic slaves, make us endeavor to forget the deep atrocity of that crime which places him on the throne."

The country where he took command today is "the Sultanate of Oman, a modern nation with clearly defined borders, but during Seyyid Said's time, ["Oman"] was used more loosely, to refer to a broad swath of territory centered on the country's northwestern mountains." Strategically located then as now, with direct access to the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, it was an important link for trade between East and West, which included the East African slave trade. This trafficking in human lives was then, and remains now, far less known than the West African trade that fed markets in the New World, but it was big business: "During the mid- to late 1800s, when Seyyid Said and his sons were in power, over a million Africans may have been abducted from East and Central Africa to Zanzibar, with between a third and a half then shipped farther north -- to Arabia, Turkey, Syria, the Persian Gulf, and India."

Slaves brought to Oman "were treated relatively well -- though there can be no such thing as a 'good' slave system." The traffic in slaves intensified after Said moved his capital to the island of Zanzibar, that "romantic land of lustrous white beaches and swaying dark green palm trees . . . twenty miles off the coast of East Africa," which he chose because it was "an ideal central refuge for the Indian Ocean traders, who stopped here to rest, repair their ships, and replenish their supplies," and because "it provided a safe anchorage year round." Before long it was discovered that Zanzibar had perfect conditions for growing cloves, which quickly became a central part of its economy and further enriched the Al Busaidi family. Harvesting cloves required skilled workers, which meant that experienced slaves were treated far better than those elsewhere, though scarcely so well as if they had been free. Among them were numerous concubines:

"Most ordinary Arabs in Zanzibar owned concubines, and they often had more children through these relationships than they did with their legitimate wives. Seyyid Said's family composition was the norm, not the exception. Every child born to an Arab father and a concubine was regarded as an Arab, and was treated, in theory at least, as the social equal of their freeborn siblings."

We don't know how many concubines served Seyyid Said's pleasure, but doubtless there were scores of them. One was Djilfidan, "a tall Circassian slave with knee-length, jet-black hair," who in August 1844 gave birth at Zanzibar to a daughter, Salme. Salme lived there throughout childhood and adolescence, developing "the outspoken, independent, and impulsive spirit that would get her into so much trouble later in life." She received a bit of education -- Arab girls usually got the short end of the educational stick -- but was given ample opportunity for healthy play: "She and her siblings were left largely on their own from dawn until dusk -- free to roam about the palace and its grounds, play tag among the clove trees, or go down to the beach to swim and sail boats."

Her father died suddenly in October 1856, leaving his 12-year-old daughter bereft and ending her innocence at a very early age. There ensued the predictable struggle to succeed him, which eventually was won by her brother Majid, "a gentle and amiable person who . . . lacked the charisma and force of character of his father, but was an effective and steady ruler." At a very early age, Salme was drawn into palace intrigue, not all of which turned out to her credit, and then "sometime after July 1865" she met, and soon fell in love with, "a tall, blond German businessman named Heinrich Ruete." This romantic entanglement of East and West was "an astonishing development for that time and place," and became all the more so when, the following year, she managed to escape from Zanzibar -- an act of "extraordinary courage" -- and to marry Ruete in May 1867, six months after giving birth to his child.

It was a happy marriage. The first child died at an early age, but three others were born later; Salme "was a devoted mother and throughout her life would make many decisions based almost exclusively on the welfare of her children." But Salme hated Hamburg, to which she and Ruete moved shortly after their marriage, and after her husband's death in 1870 in an accident, she felt completely lost. Her "position in Hamburg society devolved overnight from that of an exotic, mysterious princess married to a wealthy, well-respected businessman to that of a lonely and needy widow with three small children to support." She missed Zanzibar dreadfully, but her brother Seyyod Barghash, who had assumed the sultanate after Majid's death, refused to admit her to the island or to see her. She lived until 1924, but the last decades of her life were spent adrift, though somehow she managed to write a memoir, "Memoirs of an Arabian Princess," that appears to be an essentially reliable account of her highly unusual life.

This is the essence of the story, and it's a good one. Unfortunately, though, Bird insists on padding it out with far more than is really necessary about the roots of the Al Busaidi dynasty, the East African slave trade and, quite incredibly, the search for the source of the Nile. This last leads her into a digression of more than 50 pages in which the story of Salme is completely ignored while that of David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley is explored at length. This is, as is well known, an interesting story in and of itself, but its pertinence to the Al Busaidi story is marginal at best; it adds length to this book, but not depth. A few bold slashes of an editor's blue pencil would have made "The Sultan's Shadow" a far better book than it is.

Baroness Warsi gets heroine's welcome in Pakistan

Baroness Warsi, Britain's first Muslim cabinet minister, has returned to her Pakistani roots to be feted as a heroine in her grandmother's village.

Rob Crilly in Bewal
Published: 10:00PM BST 18 Jul 2010
The Telegraph UK

More than 2,000 people cheered and threw fragrant rose petals in the air – not the sort of reception usually afforded the chairman of the British Conservative Party ­– as she addressed them deep in rural Punjab.

"My grandmother, she was living in this village of Bewal and no one thought that her granddaughter would ever be a minister in the United Kingdom," she said in Urdu, to cries of "zindabad", which means live-long.

Her father left Pakistan in 1960, arriving in Britain with only £2 in his pocket.

He went from working in a mill to running a bed manufacturing business with a turnover of £2m, providing the inspiration for Baroness Warsi's Conservative politics.

Her appointment to the cabinet in May attracted banner headlines in Pakistan, where people are enthralled by her family's immigrant-to-minister story.

The capital Islamabad had been decked out with welcome banners ensuring a tumultuous welcome by the time she arrived in Bewal. Businessmen tossed handfuls of five-rupee notes in the air.

Baroness Warsi, 39, flanked by security guards armed with automatic weapons, said she was delighted to return to the village where her father began his journey.

But she also had a serious message for her audience, some of whom had arrived carrying visa applications for trips to Britain.

Having spelt out the principles that helped her get on in Britain, she called for Pakistanis to help their country in the same way.

"You could say that with all those principles we should go to the UK," she said. "I say you can bring those principles here.

Baroness Warsi has been given a roving brief in Cabinet and asked to use her Pakistani connections to help strengthen relations with Islamabad, and tackle the issue of immigration.

"Britain has always helped us a lot but now she has come here the relationship will be even better," said Malik Farkh, 60, who had waited for two hours in the sweltering heat to see her.

She is the third cabinet minister to visit Pakistan in the past six weeks, a reflection of the country's importance in terms of trade, immigration and the war in neighbouring Afghanistan.

A Bollywood debut for Osama bin Laden

by Shilpa Jamkhandikar
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; 5:38 AM

MUMBAI (Reuters) - Osama bin Laden is coming soon to a movie screen near you.

The al Qaeda leader is the subject of a Bollywood film "Tere Bin Laden" ("Without You Laden"), the story of an imaginative young television journalist who turns an encounter with a look-alike of Laden into his ticket to fame.

The journalist, played by Pakistani pop artist Ali Zafar, films a video with the look-alike, which goes viral quickly, and attempts to use his 15 minutes of fame to migrate to the United States after past attempts at getting a visa failed.

"The film looks to give a fresh perspective to the repercussions of 9/11 that a lot of people are facing but I want to do it through humor," director Abhishek Sharma told Reuters. "When he comes across a look-alike of bin Laden, he hits upon the idea of making a video. That video makes him famous and ironically, he has to use the U.S.'s biggest enemy to create a favorable impression of himself," Sharma said. This is not the first Bollywood film to focus on the September 11, 2001 attacks and their aftermath.

Over the past year, three big-budget films, including Shah Rukh Khan's "My Name is Khan" have focused on the subject. This is also not the first Bollywood film to focus on infamous personalities: A film on the last days of Hitler ran into controversy last month after Jewish groups protested, causing the lead actor to pull out of the film.

Previous films have also featured controversial personalities such as Indian outlaw Phoolan Devi and mafia don Dawood Ibrahim.

But Sharma says the low-budget "Tere Bin Laden," which opens across India on July 16, is not a serious film, and expects the audience to also treat it that way.

"It's a satire, and a mad comedy. I don't want to preach."

(Editing by Rina Chandran and Tony Tharakan)