Saturday, 14 January 2012

Mona Siddiqui on the Politics of Religious Freedom

Bunker Roy: Learning from a barefoot movement

Mona Eltahawy on the Feminist Label

Does Islam Forbid Even Studying Evolution?

By Nidhal Guessoum
Professor of Physics and Astronomy at American University of Sharjah, UAE
Published in the Huffington Post, Copyright, All Rights Reserved
Posted: 1/4/12 03:18 PM ET

A few weeks ago, a story broke in the media about British Muslim students "increasingly" refusing to attend biological evolution classes. Even medical students, it was reported, were part of that worrisome development. The story quickly went quasi-viral; even the BBC and Al-Jazeera International ran shows about it.

Before I discuss this, I must note that one should be careful not to take sensational stories for a general trend, thus one should ask how many Muslim students in the UK and elsewhere are opposing evolution classes.

Evolution, while largely rejected as a paradigm by Muslims, including highly educated ones, is nonetheless studied in countries like Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and the UAE. No case of students boycotting evolution classes in those countries has ever been reported. There have been occasional reports of students "resisting" the study of evolution in some western universities (in Holland, more specifically), but nothing widespread to make it a general trend. Perhaps Muslim students elsewhere are also rejecting evolution but pragmatically "compartmentalizing" its study as simply part of the curriculum, without turning it into a political issue.

Secondly, one must keep in mind other cultural aspects of this attitude by Muslim students in the west, issues of identity, minority, and law, as in the case of the hijab and niqab debates, for example. Or perhaps Muslim students consider evolution as a purely western theory, one which embodies a materialistic, atheistic philosophy; they then target it as an expression of a very different worldview. The rejection of evolution can perhaps be seen as an insistence on the part of a minority to its right to abide by its religious decrees (assuming this is established) even in educational curricula.

Surveys have shown Muslims almost everywhere largely rejecting the main concepts and results of the theory of evolution, particularly when it applies to humans. Even educated Muslims - and this is where today's Muslim culture stands out - consider evolution as "only a theory" and refuse to accept that we humans share common ancestors with apes, and that all creatures (animals and plants) came from an original cell.

In my recent book, I reported on surveys that I conducted at my own university among students and professors, where not only did 60 % of the respondents state that "evolution is an unproven theory", some 80 % of them either did not wish to see it taught or accepted that it be taught "but only as a theory".

Among physicians, a survey was conducted in 2005, where 29 of the 40 Muslim doctors agreed more with Intelligent Design than with the evolution. Currently, Salman Hameed has been leading a project investigating the views of Muslim physicians and medical students Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey; the preliminary results show that most Malaysian doctors reject the theory of evolution, particularly with regard to humans, though the picture is much more complex than one might infer from such stunning numbers.

Indeed, there is no uniform Islamic position on the theory of evolution. Ever since its earliest formulation by Darwin (and subsequent improvements on it), Muslim scholars have reacted to it with a variety of viewpoints, including sometimes a full acceptance of its scenario on the origin and history of humanity. In such cases, religious scholars insist on a theistic interpretation: God planned that whole evolution, by writing it in the laws of nature, and perhaps even "guided" it.

But there are also strongly creationist positions in today's Muslim culture, the clearest and strongest one being expressed by Harun Yahya and his group, who for the past decade or more have launched an aggressive campaign targeting Muslims throughout the world, including the UK and France, where lecture tours are organized and books (such as the infamous Atlas of Creation) are massively distributed either freely or in subsidized sales. A full review of the spectrum of Islamic positions can be found in my book, including a detailed critique of the claims made by Harun Yahya.

So if there is a large spectrum of Islamic position vis-a-vis evolution, why do those students claim that "it is against the teachings of the Qur'an"?

First, this attitude is a confusion of genres: the Qur'an should not be a reference against which any scientific theory or result is checked; the Qur'an is a book of spiritual, moral, and social guidance, and while it encourages people to explore the world and derive from it a worldview, one which conforms to its theistic teachings, it does not claim to present descriptions, much less explanations for how the world works.

Secondly, stating that evolution is "against the teachings of the Qur'an" stems from taking certain stories, particularly the creation story of Adam, literally and accepting the interpretations of the Holy Book by old scholars as the definitive meaning of those verses. As I've often told people, just as we do not reject the sun-centered model of the solar system just because the Qur'an says "the sun rises" and "the sun sets", we must not reject evolution just because the Book says "God created Adam from clay".

The openness of the Qur'an to (re-)interpretation was recently underlined by Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, perhaps the most influential Muslim scholar of the past few decades, who stated that: "If Darwin's theory is proven, we can find Qur'anic verses that will fit with it..."

The rejection of evolution in today's Muslim culture is then a reflection of the dominance of the literalistic, fundamentalist conceptions of Islam in many parts of the world, including among Muslim minorities in the west. And campaigns by Harun Yahya and the like are counter-productive and do not bode well for Muslims, whether with regard to science or modernity, more generally.

Last but not least, it is very unfortunate that Muslims keep claiming that knowledge and science occupy a high place in Islam but then many of them turn dogmatic, close-minded, and selective when they must at least learn a theory which challenges their old conceptions. How can knowledge and science be upheld and promoted when one insists on sticking to pre-adopted, un-informed positions?

Muslims everywhere must open their minds to all new ideas. They must be confident that their faith and worldview are robust enough to deal with modernity in its various facets; indeed, new viewpoints can help fine-tune beliefs and worldviews. Islam not only does not forbid studying evolution or any other theory; it welcomes new knowledge and deals with it objectively. Muslims are called upon to engage with science, philosophy, and art with confidence and open minds.

'The Secret Love Lives Of American Muslim Women': A Muslim Woman's Experience With Dating, Sex And Growing Up

By Madeleine Crum, Published in Huffington Post, All Rights Reserved, Copyright
First Posted: 1/5/12 08:25 AM ET Updated: 1/5/12 03:55 PM ET

The American perception of Muslim women is sadly narrow: We imagine heavily cloistered beauties, submissive to their male counterparts who, we assume, they married because of an agreement between parents rather than love. To expose readers to the true spectrum of Muslim American dating experiences, Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi compiled "Love, InshAlla: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women," [$15.95, Soft Skull Press] an anthology of romantic relationships, gay and straight, arranged and spontaneous, monogamous and not.

In this telling excerpt, "The Birds, the Bees, and My Hole," Zahra Noorbakhsh rehashes her mother's brusque sex talk and how it changed the way she perceived her male friends:

Finally. My first year of high school was over, and summer was here. My mother was dropping me off to go to the movies with Jen, Kim, Laura, and Ryan. Wait. Oh, crap, I had forgotten about Ryan! There he was, walking with my girlfriends to the ticket booth. I knew that if my mom saw him, she would never trust me again and would confine me to the house for the rest of the summer.

My parents were so strict that I couldn’t go anywhere without their practically doing a background check on everyone who would be there. Regardless of how chaste the event was, they had to be sure there wouldn’t be any boys present to tempt me down the path of loose women. The thing is, I was a late bloomer and had absolutely no interest in dating—what I knew of it, anyway, based on Molly Ringwald’s characters in John Hughes films like Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink. Though I could barely admit that I “liked” guys, my days of blissful ignorance about the world of dating were about to be over.

I had told my mom that it would be just my girlfriends and me at the movies. How could I forget that Ryan was coming? There was no adjective in the world that would make my mom see past my geeky, lanky, pasty, computer nerd, Mormon classmate Ryan’s Y chromosome. She was totally going to freak. She was going to remind me that we were Iranian Muslims, not Americans. These lectures always reminded me of when she’d explained to me in kindergarten that Christians believed in Santa and got presents, and we didn’t . . . so we simply didn’t. It just wasn’t fair.

There was no way she was going to let me go to the movies with a man. Ryan was only fourteen, but to my mom, he was a man. He could’ve been eight or forty; it was all the same. When I was in middle school, she didn’t approve of all the “men” exercising with me in gym class. She didn’t like that I was friends with so many of the “men” in my sixth-grade history class, or that girls and eleven-year-old “men” were playing coed T-ball at recess.

As we made our way through parking-lot traffic in our Danville, California, suburb, I strategized about ways to navigate our argument. I could already hear her in my head: Zahra, what do you mean this man is just your friend? A young girl is not friends with a man! It is not right. Mageh Kafir hasti? You want to be like these filthy American ladies who go home with dis guy and dat guy, and blah blah blah...?

This is such bullsh*t! I thought to myself.

I had a pretty good feminist rant stashed away that just might hit home: “Mom,” I’d begin, “you didn’t raise your eldest daughter to stay quiet and avoid making friends or talking to people because of creed or stature or even sex...” Wait, I can’t say “sex.” She’ll flip out. “Gender.” Remember “gender” . . . Forget it. Take the easy way out: Lie. Just lie and say you don’t know him. He’s not with you. You don’t even know whose friend he is.

I snapped back to reality when I realized how close we were to where my friends were now standing . . . without Ryan. I looked around, scanning the crowds feverishly, but couldn’t see him anywhere. Perfect!

“Zahra! Hey, Zahra!” It was Ryan, tapping on my window. “I got your ticket.”

Godamm*t, Ryan, you polite-a** Mormon, I thought. You don’t need to come say hi!

My mom rolled down the window.

“Is this your mom? Hi, my name’s Ryan! I’m a friend of Zahra’s. We’ve got Algebra together. Hey, Zahra, I got your ticket already and saved us seats. You saved me on my math test, so I figured I owe ya. Anyway, great to meet you, Mrs. Noorka-baba-kaka-kesh.”

He shook my mom’s hand, gave me my ticket, and ran into the theater, waving.

Thanks, Ryan. You just ended my summer and any hope I had of a normal adolescence. I couldn’t even look at my mother, so I kept staring straight ahead. I could feel her glaring at me.

“Zahra,” she began.

Here we go, I thought.

“Zahra, are you going to go?” she asked.

“What?” I asked, confused. Was this some kind of reverse psychology?

“Maman jaan, there’s traffic behind me—get your bag,” she complained.

I grabbed my bag, undid my seat belt, and reached for the door handle of salvation.

“Wait,” she said.

F**k! I waited too long.

A spot opened up in front of us, so she rolled in and parked the car. We sat in silence for what felt like forever. What the hell was going on? She didn’t seem mad. I didn’t know what to think or what to prepare for.

Maybe Ryan’s politeness impressed her, I thought. Maybe she’s going to take back everything she’s said about men. Maybe she’s going to apologize for all the times she yelled at me, because she now realizes how great my friends actually are. Wow. I really underestimated my mom. I guess the toughest thing about being the firstborn daughter of immigrant parents is that they have to catch up to you as they assimilate into a foreign culture.

Maybe I needed to initiate this dialogue, to tell her it was okay if she felt bad about all the mean things she’d said before about my guy friends or the “American ladies.”


“Zahra,” she cut me off, “I just wanted to tell you...” She had a distant look in her eyes, but then suddenly zeroed in on me with intense concentration.

“Zahra, you have a hole. And for the rest of your life, men will want to put their penis in your hole. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, who is your ‘friend.’ Even at the movies, maman jaan, wherever—it does not change. Ri-anne seems like a very nice man, but he is a man. And all he wants is your hole. So, I will pick you up here at five o’clock. Have fun, maman jaan,” she said.

I got out of the car and staggered toward the theater. I was horrified and astounded. I have a what?! A hole? Where? Was that what I had missed in sex ed the one day I had the flu? Was I the last girl on Earth to find out about my hole?

I’d never felt so completely clueless about or protective of my body in my entire life. I’d thought I had a pretty clear idea of sex. It didn’t look all that complicated: a lot of kissing and touching and groping and people mashing their bodies together under bedsheets. There were no “holes” in Sixteen Candles!

Suddenly, crossing the parking lot to the theater was like being a scared, limping animal in a wide-open meadow with sleazy holehunters lurking about. I couldn’t look a single guy in the face.

I busted my way through the double doors of the theater and accidentally made eye contact with the concessions guy, who was lasciviously filling up a large swirly snow cone and staring at me. I imagined him halting mid-ICEE, flinging it in the air, and then leaping across the counter, making a beeline for my hole.

I had to find my friends.

I saw Ryan sitting third-row center, with an empty seat saved for me next to him. Nothing about my relationship with him felt platonic anymore. I felt awkward and clumsy. I felt like... like... like I was on a date. Omigod, was this a date? My vision was
blurring. I couldn’t think fast enough.

He bought me my ticket.

He met my mother.

We’re sitting next to each other.

Did he ever really need help with algebra?

I sat through all of Johnny Mnemonic with my jeans pulled up to my waist and my legs crossed tightly together. Every time my legs started to relax and slide open, I felt like I was exposing my hole to the world, and clamped them back together again. The longer I held my legs together, the angrier I became at Ryan. Look at him, all stupid-faced and smiling, sitting there dipping his disgusting hands into the greasy popcorn. This movie sucks. Why is he smiling? He’s probably thinking about holes. Gross! All I knew at that point was that, date or not, he’d better not be thinking about my hole, or I was going to kick his a**.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Thatcher and Bhutto: Courage of Convictions

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Monday 9th January 2012

Mention the name Margaret Thatcher to many Scots and you won’t be surprised at how colourful the choice of words are in response. Last Friday I went to the opening night at the cinema of The Iron Lady, the movie starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. I was intrigued to watch this movie for all sorts of reasons. Prime Minister Cameron had earlier responded that the acting was top notch but wished that the movie had come out ‘another day’.

Regardless of what side of the political spectrum we find ourselves, the portrayal of a powerful women who fought through in a man’s world of politics was greatly moving. Watching the once powerful prime minister who led the Falklands war, turning frail and confused, suffering dementia, left me with mixed feelings and thoughts. It reminded me of the untimely death of Benazir Bhutto, the first Muslim prime minister of Pakistan, assassinated in 2007. In similar fashion to Thatcher, thoughts and feelings on Bhutto are not always positive. I remember reading Bhutto’s autobiography, ‘Daughter of the East’ in 4th year at Hillhead High School and being moved whilst reading how she wanted to continue the iron mantle of her Father against social injustice.

Yet this is the very nature of politics – friend or foe, we can easily highlight the best and worst in anyone but do we truly appreciate the significance of standing firm on a point of view, regardless of what that view is? As a Muslim I have been influenced by the many traditions that highlight Islam’s commitment to justice and peace yet I easily find such traditions supporting the actions of all types of political leanings. It is then not surprising that understandings of justice and peace often differ from one person to the other and differences may not always be tolerated. I am greatly challenged by the way in which Thatcher and Bhutto carried out the courage of their convictions, especially as women. As Eleanor Roosevelt once proclaimed, ‘When you have decided what you believe, what you feel must be done, have the courage to stand alone and be counted.’