Friday, 16 December 2011

Muslims are not betraying Islam in embracing liberal democracy

Ayaan Hirsi Ali … 'such ultra-secularists have caused only more defensiveness and hence rigidity in the Muslim world.' Photograph: Fred Ernst/AP

It is far better to propose Islam than impose it, for if there is no liberty there can be no genuine religiosity

by Mustafa Akyol, Monday 12 December 2011 10.12 GMT (all rights reserved, copyright)

Last week, during a book tour in London, I spoke to a large group of British Muslims on Islam and liberty. A few of the questions that I received from the audience indicated why discussion on this topic is much needed. "If the state gives the people the freedom to do what they want, then they will follow their temptations," said one Pakistani gentleman. "That's why the Saudi religious police, which you oppose, is a very good system."

In return, I asked him why he relies on state policing, and not individual responsibility, to uphold the morals of Islam. "Isn't is better to propose Islam rather than impose it," I added, "since state dictates can lead not to sincere piety but hypocrisy?"

Such questions are crucial for the future of the Islamic world, and particularly the Middle East, in which the Arab spring is likely to create a new political space for Islamists – such as the An-Nahda of Tunisia or the extensions of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Despite the dark picture drawn by some willful pessimists, including the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the entry of these Islamist parties to the democratic system is not a bad but a good step. (Their very exclusion has been the major source of the radicalisation within their ranks.) Moreover, these parties explicitly call for democracy, and not theocracies run by clerics.

However, as writer Fareed Zakaria warned aptly, there can well be illiberal democracies as well liberal ones. In other words, if individual liberty is not protected with constitutional liberalism, there is the risk of a majority coming to power via democratic elections and establishing a "tyranny of the majority".

The Middle East heavily bears this risk, and one of the reasons is the authoritarian decrees in classical Islamic law (sharia) that incumbent Islamists might wish to impose. For example, the sharia bans apostasy and penalises it with capital punishment. A Muslim who decides to become a Christian, in other words, can be given a death sentence – as it tragically happened in recent years in Afghanistan or Iran. Sharia verdicts against blasphemers (real or perceived), non-practising Muslims, and women can also be very oppressive.

Of course, this problem has been discussed intensely over the years, especially in the past decade, and secularist Muslims have found the solution in denouncing the sharia. (The most extreme among them, such as the self-declared "infidel" Ayaan Hirsi Ali, even denounced Islam all together.) But while they have raised some applause in the west, such ultra-secularists have caused only more defensiveness and hence rigidity in the Muslim world.

A better solution might be not to denounce Islamic law, but to reform it. This is not as impossible as some think, for much of this law is not divine but "man-made", and made according to pre-modern historical circumstances.

The ban on apostasy is good example. There is nothing in the Qur'an that justifies this ban, and like many other authoritarian decrees in the sharia, it comes from the post-Qur'anic literature, which reflects the political context of the early Muslim community. In other words, that community was almost constantly at war with lethal enemies, and apostasy in that context meant changing one's side in battle – something which we still penalise as high-treason. In today's world, however, apostasy is simply an exercise of religious freedom, and Muslims should see it as a right, not crime.

The more conservative Muslims who might find such calls for reform heretical should note that they were realised by none other than the late Ottoman empire, the latest Islamic superpower on earth. In the 19th century, the Ottomans engaged in an extensive modernisation effort, which included many political and legal reforms. Jews and Christians acquired the status of equal citizenship, the slave trade was banned, apostasy laws were rendered obsolete, a constitution was declared and an elected parliament was convened. To be sure, with all such reforms, the Ottomans did not abandon their respect for Islam. They only realised, as Ottoman statesman and Islamic scholar Ahmet Cevdet Pasha wrote, "as times change, laws should also change".

In my new book on Islam and liberty, I draw upon such oft-forgotten historical and theological sources to argue that Muslims need not need to betray their faith in order to embrace liberal democracy. By accepting other people's "freedom to sin", and "freedom from Islam", I even argue, they will be laying the right ground in which their own faith can flourish. For, as I said to that Pakistani gentleman in London, if there is no liberty, there is no genuine religiosity as well.

Can traditional Islam adapt to the needs of western Muslims?

by Nushin Arbabzadah, Friday 9 December 2011 09.00 GMT (all rights reserved, copyright)

As I listened to Arabic recitations at my father's funeral, I wondered how Islam could become more relevant to its diaspora

At my father's funeral the imam's voice echoed loudly through the speakers from behind the thick curtain that divided the congregation hall into a male and a female section. I listened hard, trying to understand his words. This ceremony, after all, was supposed to give me solace and help me find closure. I waited for the mercy and compassion that Muslims referred to every time they said "bismillah". But all I could understand from the recitation was the term shaitan, referring to the devil.

Soon I gave up on listening altogether. The imam might as well have spoken Korean, a language as unfamiliar to me as the Arabic in which the sermon was conducted. I wondered why was I not allowed to hear the words of God in my own language? Why did I have to study Qur'anic Arabic in order to understand what the imam was telling me at my father's funeral? For the first time in my life, I really needed religion to give me solace, but here I was, listening to an unfamiliar language where the word "devil" kept popping up, alarming rather than comforting me.

When the language finally switched to Persian, I hoped to get something out of the Hadith. But to my alarm, even though the Hadith and the imam's interpretation of them were in my language, I failed to understand how they related to the life and death of my father. We were in Hamburg, in the north of Europe, but the imam told a story that took us to the Arab lands of the eighth century, where a group of believers were hiding inside a cave. It was a tale of violence, an attempted mass murder, from which the believers were saved after God miraculously created a spider's net, covering the cave's front and misleading the prospective killers.

Two thoughts occurred to me. Firstly, exactly how was I supposed to relate to the cave, the spider and the desert in this cold German city with its 21st-century high-rise buildings made of glass? Secondly, what had this story to do with my father? I lost track of the Hadith and the next words that reached my ears were, "Not all German TV programmes are bad. Some of them are good." Aha!

I was in the women's part, seated on a chair and greeting a long line of complete strangers who stopped in front of me, before kneeling and whispering words of condolence. When the women kneeled, I noticed their huge, fancy handbags and realised that they were wearing full make-up, complete with foundation, lipstick, and colourful eye-shadows. Cheap Iranian-made Botox was equally conspicuous among women of a certain age, whose eyebrows almost reached the end of their temples with balloon-type cheeks covered in red blusher. I realised that for these Muslim ladies, my father's funeral was a social outing where Eve's daughters felt compelled to compete with each other with Botox, handbags and make-up. Had these women been allowed to be entertained outside weddings and funerals, they would not have turned my father's funeral into a fashion show.

In the women's section, I looked for a chador. The chadors were kept inside a wardrobe and when I opened its door, I discovered utter chaos. The chadors had been shoved into the wardrobe, piled on top of each. One had to go through many in order to find an appropriate one for a funeral.

The chador chaos for me represented the confusion in the minds of so many female Muslims who were the most pious believers and paradoxically also the ones who were excluded from a proper religious education. Their faith was blind, a combination of stories from hundreds of years ago mixed with some memorised Arabic suras and Hadith whose meaning was not entirely clear to them. The older ones muttered words in Arabic, kissed the piety banners with Arabic words embroidered on them, looking terrified.

Muslim clerics have a long way to go in order to make Islam relevant to the needs of the diasporic communities of the west. The religion has travelled hundreds of miles but the imams themselves have a hard time adjusting to the west, let alone being able to offer the community the comfort and guidance it needs in order to live peacefully between two civilisations that seem so hostile to one another. It's the blind leading the blind, I concluded, as I left the mosque, hoping to find solace in solitary contemplation conducted in my own language.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Veena Malik exposes the age-old Pakistani tension

My Own Point of View by Dr. Amanullah De Sondy

Facebook newsfeed seemed to be on fire when news broke that the Pakistani actress Veena Malik had posed nude for the cover of FHM magazine a few days ago with a tattoo stamped across her arm with the letters ISI (The Inter-Services Intelligence agency in Pakistan has recently come under attack for their alleged links to terrorist networks in the country). Subsequently it emerged that Malik was suing the magazine for depicting a nude image of her. The story has continued to escalate after Veena Malik’s father, a retired soldier, gave a statement to the British Daily Mail newspaper disowning his daughter, "I have severed all ties with her and I don't want her to have any share in whatever meager assets I have until she is cleared of the controversy and pledges not to visit India again".

In an attempt to resolve the tension, Veena Malik gave an interview to the BBC. Dawning a loose head covering to make a passionate claim that FHM readers were being duped into thinking that she posed nude and that she was not willing to sit back and accept this.

This is not the first time Veena Malik has hit the headlines in Pakistan. In October 2010 she entered ‘Bigg Boss’, an Indian reality tv show where contestants live in a house for around three months. Due to her popularity she was a finalist on the show. In the aftermath of her participation in ‘Bigg Boss’ she had a fiery exchange in March 2011 with a Pakistani Mufti who claimed she had been immoral and had brought shame to Pakistan. Her courage was to be commended, as Veena Malik was quick to respond to the Mufti by highlighting the fact that Pakistani women seem to be held accountable for all the ills of society.

Pakistanis seem to be divided along two general lines, those who seek a romantacised view of an ideal Islamic state and those who seek something Islamic but not as rigid that it controls their self expression. And yet bridging the divide seems to be the life and soul of Pakistan and Pakistanis who still cherish the qualities of Islam between modesty and submission. This is nothing new, the founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, wanted to establish a state that was inclusive to all, cutting short his call for a secular state as it was all too clear that Pakistan’s legitimacy was based on its religious claim. Jinnah was known as a pragmatist who worked closely with Sir Muhammad Iqbal (a poet, Islamic philosopher, academic) to find a way forward that would not let Pakistan be stuck emulating a stagnant historical Islamic Shari’a code and society. So even at the outset the founding fathers tried to build build bridges between different ways of living Islam.

The tension continued with the establishment of religious parties, such as Jammat Islami, headed by Mawlana Maududi (b.1903-d.1979) who wrote his infamous Urdu book ‘Purdah’ in which he highlighted his disgust at Pakistani women trying to emulate ‘western’ ways. Maududi’s conservative formula for clear gendered roles (men as breadwinners and women as housekeepers) still loom strong in Pakistani society and anti-western sentiment has fueled those who seek to limit self expression.

Pakistan seems to move two steps forward and three steps back in this quest for balance and on occasions it makes leaps that leave many baffled. Allow me to highlight just a few examples. Benazir Bhutto was the first Muslim woman leader of a Muslim country. An Oxford and Harvard graduate who led a country dominated by men only to be assassinated in 2007. In 2009, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that the transgendered community were entitled to equal benefit and equality in society. Yet Pakistani tv is still awash with heated and damning debates of the controversial Gay pride party held in June of this year at the US Embassy in Islamabad. And then let us not forget that one of the star’s of Pakistani T.V is Ali Saleem aka Begum Nawazish the cross-dressing drag queen who is known for her piercing and highly political interviews.

The tension is also explicit in the music and film industry with a 'push and pull' between those who wish to promote film and the arts and those who believe that they should not be part of their ideal ‘Islamic’ state. So - It is only in recent times that Pakistanis have started to invest properly in their movie industry. This has meant a new wave of more daring, critical and controversial themes in movies. Terrorism, mixed faith marriages, and reform in Islam are just some of the issues people have been making films about in recent years. The puritans of Pakistan have used many sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and passages of the Qur’an to curb music and films, but to no avail. Music and movies have always been a part of Pakistani culture. It is then no surprise that many run a mile from any discussion surrounding Pakistan, ‘South Asia’ is ‘safer’ when one concentrates on India.

I can't help but include a word on Madam Noor Jehan who is understood as one of the most prolific singers in the Indian subcontinent. Born as Allah Wasai in 1926 and died in 2000. Noor Jehan is certainly in the league of courageous Pakistani women such as Veena Malik and Benazir Bhutto yet would always shy away from talking politics in interviews. I guess Noor Jehan’s contribution to freedom of expression was through her selection of controversial poets in her songs. Faiz Ahmad Faiz (b.1911-d.1984) was a renowned Marxist/socialist who wrote the nazm ‘Mujhe se pehli si mohabbat meray mehboob na mang’, ‘don’t ask me for that ignorant past love no more, my beloved’. I think Faiz’s poetry expressed in the magical voice of Madam Noor Jehan sums up the Pakistani tension perfectly. In this love poem one begins to lose sight of everything looking into the eyes and demure of the lover (or possibly the ideal beloved – God). Yet the same gaze turns to a history and reality marred with metaphoric bodies oozing pus and ills of society that pushes one to realise the reality, or the search, of love in a world of deep tension between two extremes. Faiz’s poem ‘Bol’ (speak) continues to inspire Pakistanis to express themselves, from all sections of society.

‘Speak…for your lips are free
Speak…for your tongue is still yours
Your well built body…is but yours
Speak…your life is still yours
Look…in the shop of the blacksmith…
Bright are the flames…
The iron is red…
Appearing to open…
Is the locked mouth…
The depth/spread of those chains are/is widespread
Speak…this little time is indeed much…
Before the death of the body and the tongue…
By speaking is this truth alive…
Speak…say whatever it is you have to say’
Faiz Ahmad Faiz

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

What's Up With Muslims and Dogs? - Professor Ingrid Mattson of Hartford Seminary (USA)

Published in Huffington Post (Religion), December 13th 2011. All Rights Reserved, Copyright.

I'm not a big follower of reality television, but was happy to hear about TLC's new reality show "All-American Muslim." We know that personal contact is the best way to break down stereotypes, but with Muslims less than 2% of the U.S. population, many Americans will never get to know a Muslim. Meeting us through reality television might not be ideal, but it's better than nothing.

After watching "All-American Muslim" for a few weeks, I now believe that the show is good for our community beyond the way it might lessen prejudice against Muslims. The additional benefit is that the show has engaged our community in discussing some of the many challenges we face making distinctions between critical religious values and flexible cultural practices. In the fourth episode, the issue of Muslims having dogs in the home came up, and this is worth further discussion.

In this episode, newlywed Arab-American Shadia tells Jeff, her Irish-American convert husband, that she does not want his dog to move with them to their new home. Shadia has allergies, and her asthma is exacerbated by the dog's hair. This is an understandable and common dilemma. But Shadia bolsters her position with statements about the impermissibility for a Muslim to have dogs in the home. Her father will not pray in the house if the dog is there, she says, because dog hair is impure and a prayer space needs to be pure. Later, Shadia backs off from the religious argument, admitting that the main reason she doesn't want a dog in the house is "I wasn't raised with dogs; I'm not used to them." I appreciated this moment of honesty. The use of a religious norm as a trump card in an argument we want to win is a temptation we all face.

So what is the Islamic position about dogs? In fact, there are a variety of opinions according to different legal schools. The majority consider the saliva of dogs to be impure, while the Maliki school makes a distinction between domestic and wild dogs, only considering the saliva of the latter to be impure. The question for Muslims observant of other schools of law is, what are the implications of such an impurity?

These Muslims should remember that there are many other impurities present in our homes, mostly in the form of human waste, blood, and other bodily fluids. It is fairly common for such impurities to come in contact with our clothes, and we simply wash them off or change our clothes for prayer. When you have children at home, it sometimes seems you can never get away from human waste. But we manage it, often by designating a special space and clothing kept clean for prayer.

Some Muslims object to having a dog in the home because of a prophetic report that angels do not enter a home with dogs in it. If a Muslim accepts this report as authentic, it still requires an analysis of context to determine its meaning and legal application. Ordinary people are not recipients of divine revelation through angelic messengers, so it is possible that this statement, although in general form, might suggest a rule for the Prophet's home, not all homes. This interpretation is strengthened by the fact the Qur'an states that angels are always present, protecting us and recording our good and bad actions.

Whatever the implications of this report, there is no doubt that the Qur'an is positive about dogs. The Qur'an allows the use of hunting dogs, which is one of the reasons the Maliki school makes a distinction between domestic and wild dogs - since we can eat game that has been in a retriever's mouth. But most compelling is the Qur'anic description of a dog who kept company with righteous youths escaping religious persecution. The party finds shelter in a cave where God places them in a deep sleep; the Qur'an (18:18) says:

You would have thought them awake, but they were asleep And [God] turned them on their right sides then on their left sides And their dog stretched his forelegs across the threshold

This tender description of the dog guarding the cave makes it clear that the animal is good company for believers. Legal scholars might argue about the proper location of the dog - that he should stay on the threshold of the home, not inside - but home designs vary across cultures. In warm climates, an outdoor courtyard is a perfectly humane place for a dog - its physical and social needs can be met in the yard. This is not the case in cold climates, where people stay indoors most of the day for months at a time.

Extreme concern about the uncleanliness of dogs likely arose historically as Islam became more of an urban phenomenon. In medieval cities, as in modern cities in underdeveloped countries, crowding of people and animals leads to the rapid spread of disease and animal control is not a priority. A few run-ins with an aggressive or diseased animal can result in excessive caution, fear and negativity.

I have long felt badly that many Muslims fear dogs as a result of negative experiences and that they resort to confused religious reasoning to shun them. It is one of the reasons why I try to introduce my students and friends to my very sweet, very large dog Ziggy.

Ziggy came into our home to be like the dog in the cave: to keep company to my child who lies in exile from the world because of a debilitating illness. He has been nothing but a blessing - guarding the house while we sleep, forcing me to exercise daily, and showing us, as he happily follows our tiny cat around the yard, that if cats and dogs can get along so well, then we people have no excuse.

There is another reason why I love having my dog around. Ziggy came from Tennessee. He was rescued by an animal control officer who uses her own resources to save dogs who would otherwise be destroyed in a few days. Tina saves as many dogs as she can by bringing them home and putting them up for adoption on the internet. When I called Tina to speak about adopting Ziggy, she had 65 dogs she had rescued out in her yard. After being disheartened by some terrible things that have come out of Tennessee lately - mosque burnings and anti-Shari`ah legislation among them - I love looking at Ziggy and thinking about the woman with the thick southern accent and big heart who saved his life.

Follow Ingrid Mattson on Twitter: