Saturday, 30 April 2016

Let the Scholar Speak, Even if it Scares You | Samar Habib |

When ebbing from altruistic motives, scholarship is an epic adventure into the unknown. Habib tells the story of the courage that is at the heart of a true research adventure and why we need scholars to continue to be adventurous and courageous. But as in every epic, the scholar faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles and adversaries on the path of truth and in the effort to formulate and disseminate new knowledge. 

The Myth of Radical Muslims

The dual consciousness of Muslims - by Farid Hafez - 17/12/2015

Published at
All Rights Reserved, Copyright -
Muslims today can no longer think, or ultimately exist, outside the widespread lore about Islam, which links them to discussions about terror, violence and the separation of religion and society. They can never be free of the neverending stream of projections about Islam. An essay by Farid Hafez
Has anything changed for Muslims, since the latest in a long line of so-called jihadist terrorist attacks claimed the lives of 130 people on 13 November 2015? As in the aftermath of any terrorist act, there have been debates on Islam as a religion and on ″its″ role in the attacks. Europe has responded not only with tighter security measures, including calling a state of emergency in France, but also by declaring war.

The attack in Paris was probably not the last: European societies must now face the kind of day-to-day life that has long since become normal elsewhere, complete with attacks and dead civilians. In future, European societies in general and their Muslims in particular will have to deal with issues such as trade-offs between security and freedom. Muslims will continue to discuss what reaction is the most sensible and expedient. Distancing themselves from the attacks? Or condemning them? Do we need the umpteenth fatwa against terrorism in general and Daesh in particular? And if so, who actually needs it?

The European citizens who ascribe to Islam a fundamental affinity for violence? Or the young Muslims who are seeking religious orientation in the face of racial exclusion and the piecemeal return to their Islam? Presumably we will be revisiting these questions again and again in the near future.

What's the impact on Muslims?

In this article, though, I would like to touch on something else that is in reality ubiquitous but scarcely ever addressed explicitly. Namely: what impact does such debate have on Muslims? What traces does it leave behind, what scars are inflicted on the Muslim self-image as a result of this discussion about Islam and terrorism? To illustrate, let′s start with a Facebook post. Recently, a well-educated, politically active adult Muslim woman posted on the occasion of the birth of her child:

"I gave birth to a boy in the Christian hospital XY, with nuns as nurses and a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf at the reception desk; I named him for the most beautiful person and prophet XY, with the most beautiful character and an exemplary life story. Above my bed hung a cross and a picture of the Virgin Mary and her son, the prophet Jesus. Religious symbols? For me, it was the perfect accompaniment for a wonderful new life!"

he post was probably prompted by the announcement by the editor-in-chief of an Austrian newspaper just a few days before that he was considering reviving the headscarf ban debate, at the suggestion of a representative of the Christian Democratic Party.

The post raises many questions: what causes a woman who is giving birth to new life for the first time and is likely to feel emotions of indescribable happiness to cast this unique experience in a political context? What is happening in the mind of this person? The answer to this question may lead us to one of the biggest challenges faced by Muslims today all over the world and especially in the West: Muslims are trapped in the discursive spider web of a pervasive discourse on Islam.

By this, I mean that it is no longer conceivable for Muslims today to think, or ultimately to exist, outside the widespread lore about Islam, which links them to discussions about terror, violence and the separation of religion and society. Simply to exist. To be a human being. To experience a birth without having to interpret the cross, the nuns and Muslim nurses apart from their humanity. To experience and live through a birth. To be free of everything that is constantly projected onto them.

Dual consciousness

In ″The Souls of Black Folk″, the pre-eminent African-American thinker W.E.B. DuBois (1868–1963) describes a condition he dubs "double consciousness", by which blacks are only able to see themselves through the eyes of others (whites). They can thus never regard themselves as fully fledged human beings because they are always caught up in a dichotomy, wanting to be human – i.e. normal – but being black – and thus outside the norm.

The submissive subject tries to evade this discursive pressure by making himself invisible. Psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon spoke in relation to Algeria of the desire of the formerly colonised subjects to be white.

Many passed down this inferiority complex to their children, encouraging them to make life easier for themselves by becoming invisible, as Jean-Paul Sartre shows in his preface to Fanon's ″The Wretched of the Earth″. Today there are many Muslims who try to make themselves invisible because they want to be humans, in other words, normal.

And then there are those who publicly avow Islam and thus take on all the challenges and discursive conflicts that this entails. In their effort to counter the hegemonic discourse, they overlook how trapped they are in exactly this discursive web. They have to take a stand. They cannot remain silent. Because silence could be taken as tacit consent to this or that terrorist attack.

Trend towards self-discipline

Recently, a former class representative wrote on the Facebook wall of a Muslim girl who used to be a pupil of his: "To remain silent on the terror in Paris (and elsewhere) means to accept or even to endorse it". If Muslims avow their faith, they are then compelled to answer for it. If they make themselves invisible, they escape that pressure.

In a second stage, this discursive pressure leads to Muslims beginning to discipline themselves. Parents avoid giving their children toy guns in order not to be perceived as radical. Mothers and in particular fathers do not allow their young daughters to wear a headscarf on the way to the mosque, so as not to attract disparaging glances from those who regard this as a sign of subjugation.
Parents begin to bring up their children according to standards that attempt to counter the negative stereotypes, conspiracy theories and horrific imaginings that are part of the discourse.

Caught in the discursive web, it would seem difficult to breathe the air of freedom, to be human, to live a life apart from all the allegations, innuendo and suspicion. And yet it is this very freedom that is the first and most fundamental condition for thinking and living as a human being. In dignity.

© 2015
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

What I Learned Having Sex as a Young Woman in Pakistan

By Zahra Haider
April 26, 2016 
Published at Vice.Com (All Rights Reserved, Copyright)
Pakistan is an Islamic Republic with the highest porn-watching population in the world. That statement in and of itself signifies a particular aspect about Pakistani culture: we are horny and desperate for sex, but God forbid we actually engage in it. Sex in Pakistan is considered a taboo topic. Men generally aren't judged for it in our patriarchal society but if a woman from a middle-class family or underprivileged background is caught having premarital sex, serious shit goes down.

Women from poorer backgrounds could be victims of various forms of premarital punishment. Punishing women for premarital sex started with former President Zia-ul-Haq's dictatorship or "Islamization," which incorporated Zina (stoning to death), and Hudood (punishments such as whipping, amputation, honor killing) into Pakistani law. His government dismissed women's rape accusations, instead labelling them as fornicators and sending them to jail. These draconian forms of punishment are slowly dying out, but still linger in the mentalities of fundamentalists, imams, and police officers. Shariah Law can also be blamed for many gender discriminatory policies in Muslim societies, such as the lack of support for freedom of speech, women's rights, and, ultimately, human rights.

Even though I had engaged in sexual relations with almost a dozen people before coming to Canada for college in 2012, it wasn't something I was open about, and looking back I realize my sexuality was still pretty deeply repressed. Due to all these restrictions on us during the horniest years of our lives, in statistically the horniest country (see the above porn stats) in the world, we were forced to get creative during post-pubescent adolescence.

Achieving an orgasm was done in various ways, including but not limited to: having sex in a car with tinted windows and parked in the middle of nowhere; sneaking into my sexual partner's home in the middle of the night; sneaking into my partner's father's office, which happened to have a bedroom (WTF?). All this was done while making sure that no one in the house was on the prowl to notify my single father who would've freaked out (sorry, daddy). Hotel rooms were especially helpful.

Islamabad, where I grew up, only has two hotels, one being the Marriott, at approximately $150-$200 a night—which, for a teenager who had to bear the brunt of the currency conversion, was a ridiculously high sum. But alas, in Pakistan, even paying for a sexual sanctuary isn't enough. The person who booked the room (the guy) would have to go up first, while the other waited about fifteen minutes to ensure no one from the concierge or security caught on to the fact we were about to have wild, rampant pre-marital sex.

And then if you were caught, you had to deal with a shitstorm of rage. My aunt's boyfriend was beaten to a pulp by my grandfather to "protect her honor." And when my own parents found out about my own tryst, they threw a completely irrational and melodramatic fit about how I was destroying my future and forbade me from ever speaking to the guy again (after notifying his parents and my school). 

Attempting to embrace my sexuality through my clothing was impossible too, because I had to wear baggy, unflattering t-shirts that diverted attention away from the shape of my breasts.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Speech by President Michael D. Higgins at the Opening of the Ruzbihan Qur’an Exhibition

Chester Beatty Library, 14th April, 2016

A Dhaoine Uaisle,
A chairde Gael,

Tá áthas orm a bheith anseo i Leabharlann Chester Beatty anocht. Tugann an foras céimiúil seo an deis dúinn éagsúlachtí ealaíne agus chultúrtha an domhain a fhiosrú. Tugann sí léargas dúinn ar chultúr na lámhscríbhinne i sibhialtachtaí éagsúla, agus ar an mbealach a chuir an cine daonna iad féin i láthair. Is íontach an rud é go bhfuil a leithéid de sheóid, a bhfuil suntas domhanda a baint lei, ar fáil dúinn ar fad anseo i gcroílár Bhaile Átha Cliath.

It is my great pleasure to open this important exhibition of the Chester Beatty Library, Lapis and Gold: The Ruzbihan Qur’an.  May I thank your Director, Fionnuala Croke, as well as the Library’s Board of Trustees, for the kind invitation to share with you in the wonder of what is a magnificently illuminated manuscript of Islam’s most sacred book.

This Museum stands out as a window opened – with access at the heart of Dublin - onto the culture of the manuscript, that most refined form of human expression shared by many civilisations. I am delighted, therefore, to have this opportunity to acknowledge the importance of the Chester Beatty Library in making available to all, Irish people and visitors to our country alike, without charge, its wonderful collection of rare books, manuscripts, prints, calligraphies, icons, miniature paintings and objets d’art from the Islamic, East Asian and Western worlds.

It is a collection that means so much to people across the world. For example, when she visited Ireland, ten years ago, the Empress of Japan was keen to view both the Book of Kells, in Trinity College, and the magnificent Japanese painted scrolls and manuscripts on display here.  It is even more important to all our citizens to know what a resource is available to them and particularly at a time when an informed understanding of the Islamic world is key to our shared future.

This collection bequeathed to us by Sir Alfred Chester Beatty is, therefore, a national treasure of universal value - a most compelling invitation to engage with other cultures and traditions through the brilliance of their artistic and spiritual production.

As Minister for the Arts of Culture in the 1990s, I had the privilege to suggest funding assistance from European funding being available in addition to Irish provision for the transfer of the Library from its initial location in Ballsbridge to this Clock Tower Building in the garden of Dublin Castle, which was most successfully restored and extended by a modern exhibition block.  The administrative measures that were required were assisted greatly by the Board of Trustees and in particular by the late Mr. Justice Brian Walsh.  Shortly after the Library moved into its new premises, it was awarded, in 2002, the prestigious “European Museum of the Year Award”, in recognition of the quality of its displays and interpretation.

Dr. Michael Ryan was an enthusiast for the changes and the staff at the Chester Beatty have placed us all in their debt, as indeed they do to-day.  Visitors to this museum, and their number have steadily increased since the early 2000’s, are sure to gain a deeper understanding of both the extraordinary creativity and the intellectual accomplishment of the different traditions and cultures that make up our world. They are invited to wonder at the infinite variations of human imagination and skill, to admire the feats of illustration and calligraphic techniques that form literate culture. All of them also certainly will marvel at the connection between beauty and the sacred that manifests itself at the heart of all of the great civilisations represented here.

The art of illumination offers, of course, a captivating embodiment of this deep connection between form and meaning. In Islamic Qur'ans as in sacred manuscripts from other traditions, the function of illumination is not just to signal and differentiate various sections in the text, but also to remind the reader of the majesty of the holy text, to heighten the intensity of the believer's encounter with it - to glorify, to dignify, to amplify.

This is typically the case with the book around which we are gathered this evening - the Ruzbihan Qur’an. This Qur'an is one of the Chester Beatty Library’s finest manuscripts, but it is not one that easily yields the secrets of its fabrication. Indeed, this beautiful book raises a number of questions, addressed for us in this exhibition.

Although it is undated, it is believed that the Ruzbihan Qur’an was produced in the sixteenth century, most probably in the city of Shiraz, in South Western Iran. As its name tells us, it is presumably the work of Ruzbihan Muhammad al-Tab’i al-Shirazi, an illustrious scribe who is known to have been born in the second half of the fifteenth century into a family of calligraphers and illuminators. One of the few Shirazi calligraphers who signed their work, Ruzbihan al-Tab‘i al-Shirazi had a prolific output over the period 1514–47, which included not just Qur’ans such as this one, but also copies of secular writings.

Some enigmas remain, however, as to the craftmanship and authorship of the Ruzbihan Qur’an. The research presented in this exhibition has revealed, for example, that the striking illuminations we are admiring today may have undergone alteration at some point in the manuscript’s long history. Some of the pigments examined   under high magnification are, it seems, highly unusual in a sixteenth-century Persian palette, and would be the result of later work.

Who, then, is the author of the Ruzbihan Qur’an? Were Ruzbihan the calligrapher and Ruzbihan the illuminator one and the same person? Is this manuscript the creation of one man or that of several artists and craftsmen over a long period of time? Then, too, for whom was this copy of the Qur’an crafted?

We know that by the sixteenth century, Shiraz had become a major centre for the commerce of illustrated and illuminated books produced in family-run scriptoria. The city also produced precious court Qur’ans. The rich illuminations of the Ruzbihan Qur’an suggest a commission by a powerful figure rather than a commercial production, but the identity of that dignitary remains to be discovered.

Most of those questions and hypotheses raised by the Ruzbihan Qur’an are ones that are, to some extent or another, relevant to the study of many other ancient manuscripts – those captivating traces of old and glorious civilisations; treasures that were passed from hand to hand across the centuries.
May I, then, and it is one of the reasons I feel privileged to be here, is the opportunity it gives me to salute the work of Dr Elaine Wright, Curator of the Islamic Collections, and her team, for advancing knowledge on this outstanding piece in the Library's collection. Dr Wright and her colleagues did not just carry out much needed conservation work on this precious, time-worn Qur’an, but they also took the opportunity of the manuscript’s disbinding to undertake an in-depth study that has yielded important findings.

I am happy to note that, thanks to European funding, yet again, their research has benefitted from the expertise of scientists from Perugia and Paris. This, I believe, can be deemed an inspiring example of European cooperation around cultural objects of universal significance.

It is also worth recalling the significance of the Ruzbihan Qur'an in its association with Persia and Shiraz. Located between India and the Arab world, Persia was indeed the land of such renowned poets, philosophers and mystics as Zoroaster, Hafez, and the great Avicenna. It was a place where multiple influences – the heroic epics of Ancient Persia, Zoroastrian myths, platonic ideas, and Islamic thought – met and cross-fertilised. Islamic Persia was, in other words, as the eminent orientalist Henry Corbin put it:
“A world both intermediate and mediating... an entire spiritual universe, an arena for the history of religions.”
Such insights are of profound significance in today's world, where advocates of a distorted and hateful version of Islam are persecuting those of other persuasions, first and foremost other Muslims, and seeking, in their fanatical fury, to destroy the cultural traces of previous civilisations. That the epicentre of such devastation – which reaches out to Africa, Asia, and even to the heart of our European cities – should affect one of the cradles of civilisation, the holy lands of Iraq and Syria, is particularly tragic.

Making available works of such grace and sophistication as the Ruzbihan Qur'an to global audiences, at this particular historical juncture, is therefore a most powerful statement – and I would like to commend, once again, all those involved in creating this important exhibition.

May I, in conclusion, respect that I am convinced that for Irish and European audiences, the opportunity to encounter Islamic and Persian culture directly is so very important, in a context where Islamophobia and other insidious forms of prejudice against Muslims are rampant throughout Europe. Such prejudice is often fuelled by an ignorance of the politics and history of the  Middle East, a blindness to the many ways in which our Muslim citizens and residents have enriched and continue to enrich European life, and they constitute a misrepresentation of the tenets of the Islamic faith itself.

Agus muid ag ceiliúradh Chóráin Ruzbihan, mar atá muid inniu, caithfimid an sibhialtacht saibhir, ilghnéitheach, as a dtánaigh sé a cheiliúradh chomh maith. Is gá dúinn a chuimhniú gurb as buaicphointe fealsúnacht an Oirthir a tháinig an lámhscríbhínn seo, ionas go gcosnóimid muid féin ó insint réaduchtach ar an chreideamh agus ar an chultúr.  Is gá dúinn a chuimhniú chomh maith go dtagann sibhialtachtaí faoi bhláth trí eolas a bheith acú ar chultúir a dtáinig rompú, trína bheith sásta tuairimí agus tionchair nua a chuimsiú, agus tríd an léann agus na healaíona a chothú.

[To celebrate the Ruzbihan Qur'an, as we are doing today, is therefore also to celebrate the rich and diverse influences that underpinned the complex civilisation of which it is the product. It is to recall a high point of Eastern philosophy so as to better guard ourselves from any reductive version of religion and culture. It is to proclaim that civilisations flourish and thrive through the creative appropriation of their past, an openness to newcomers and new influences, and the nurturing of knowledge and the arts.]

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.