Unholy alliance: Muslim countries join forces with America’s religious right

Brian Whitaker writes: The United Nations will hold a three-day meeting in New York next month in a move towards ending the worldwide Aids epidemic by 2030. But preparations for the meeting were thrown into disarray last week when Egypt blocked 11 gay and transgender advocacy groups from attending.

In a letter to the UN, Egypt gave no reason for objecting to the groups’ participation but said it was acting on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which represents 57 predominantly Muslim countries.

The UN responded by emphasising the need for “nongovernmental organisations working on the ground” to contribute to the discussion, and to hear “the voices of people living with HIV and people most affected by the epidemic, including women and girls, sex workers, people who use drugs, gay men and other men who have sex with men and transgender people”.

Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the UN, also complained about the blocking action by Egypt and the OIC. “Given that transgender people are 49 times more likely to be living with HIV than the general population, their exclusion from the high-level meeting will only impede global progress in combating the HIV/Aids pandemic,” she said.

It is the second time in less than two months that something of this kind has happened at the UN. In March, Saudi Arabia – where the OIC has its headquarters – objected to a report from Juan Méndez, the UN special rapporteur on torture, who had been asked to consider how the prohibition of torture in international law could be applied “to the unique experiences of women, girls, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons”. [Continue reading…]

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Deeyah Khan: Terrorists want us to become like them — intolerant, hateful, and cruel

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With Iran-backed conversions, Shiites gain ground in Africa

The Wall Street Journal reports: Walking from classroom to classroom at the Ahl ul Bayt Linguistic Center, which teaches Arabic and Islam, director Ahmed Tijani pointed at his students, a mixture of teens and young adults.

“This one is Shiite, these ones are also Shiite,” he said. “And these ones, they are still Sunni.”

Mr. Tijani, whose office in the Cameroonian capital is decorated with an Iranian flag and a poster of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was also once a Sunni Muslim. Then he made the life-changing choice of enrolling at a similar Iranian-funded academy in the coastal city of Douala.

Since converting to Shiite Islam a decade ago, the 39-year-old educator has risen through the ranks, establishing this school in Yaoundé and even visiting Iran on a government-sponsored trip in 2012.

“There is a big difference between Shiite Islam and Sunni Islam,” he said. “Only the Shiites are spreading the truth.”

Such sectarian talk used to be exceedingly rare in much of Africa. So were actual Shiites. The few who could be found in Africa belonged to immigrant communities from Lebanon or the Indian subcontinent. Now, parts of the continent’s Sunni Muslim heartland are living through the biggest wave of Sunni-to-Shiite conversions since many Sunni tribes of southern Iraq adopted Shiism in the 19th century.

Hard figures are difficult to come by. But in Nigeria alone, Africa’s most populous nation, some 12% of its 90-million-strong Muslim population have identified themselves as Shiite in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, up from virtually zero in 1980. The number is 21% for the Muslims of Chad, 20% for Tanzania, and 8% for Ghana, according to the survey.

That demographic change is occurring just as the Muslim world becomes increasingly polarized along sectarian lines, with Saudi Arabia, a self-proclaimed standard-bearer of the Sunni cause, engaged in proxy struggles from Yemen to Syria to Bahrain against a rival axis led by Iran’s Shiite theocracy.

“The core of the Saudi-Iranian confrontation over power and territory is in the Middle East. But West African Shiites are of symbolic value to Iran, for it to be able to say that its vision of Islam is expanding rather than shrinking. They give Iran more of a claim that they’re able to speak for Muslims in the whole world,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of a book on the Shiite revival. [Continue reading…]

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Muslim leaders wage theological battle, stoking ISIS’ anger

The New York Times reports: As the military and political battle against the Islamic State escalates, Muslim imams and scholars in the West are fighting on another front — through theology.

Imam Suhaib Webb, a Muslim leader in Washington, has held live monthly video chats to refute the religious claims of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. In a dig at the extremists, he broadcast from ice cream parlors and called his talks “ISIS and ice cream.”

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, an American Muslim scholar based in Berkeley, Calif., has pleaded with Muslims not to be deceived by the “stupid young boys” of the Islamic State. Millions have watched excerpts from his sermon titled “The Crisis of ISIS,” in which he wept as he asked God not to blame other Muslims “for what these fools amongst us do.”

It is a religious rumble that barely makes headlines in the secular West since it is carried out at mosques and Islamic conferences and over social media.

The Islamic State, however, has taken notice.

The group recently threatened the lives of 11 Muslim imams and scholars in the West, calling them “apostates” who should be killed. The recent issue of the Islamic State’s online propaganda magazine, Dabiq, called them “obligatory targets,” and it said that supporters should use any weapons on hand to “make an example of them.”

The danger is real enough that the F.B.I. has contacted some of those named in the Islamic State’s magazine “to assist them in taking proper steps to ensure their safety,” said Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the F.B.I.’s field office in Washington. [Continue reading…]

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The time has come for a ‘Sexual Spring’ in the Arab world

Kacem El Ghazzali writes: When we say that nowadays to call for sexual freedom in Arab and Muslim societies is more dangerous than the demand to topple monarchies or dictatorial regimes, we are not playing with metaphor or attempting to gain sympathy. We are stating a bitter and painful fact of the reality in which we are living.

In Arab and Muslim milieus, sex is considered a means and not an end, hedged by many prickly restrictions that make it an objectionable matter and synonymous with sin. Its function within marriage is confined to procreation and nothing else, and all sexual activity outside the institution of marriage is banned legally and rejected socially. Innocent children born out of wedlock are socially rejected and considered foundlings.

This situation cannot be said to be characteristic of Arab societies only, but we experience these miseries in far darker and more intense ways than in other countries. This is especially so because of the dominance of machismo, which considers a man’s sexual adventures as heroics worthy of pride, while a woman who dares to give in to her sexual desires is destined to be killed — or at best beaten and expelled from home — because she has brought dishonor upon her family. [Continue reading…]

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A few miles from San Bernardino, a Muslim prom queen reigns

The New York Times reports: In the days after the December terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., when pictures of the hijab-wearing suspect filled television screens and newspapers, Zarifeh Shalabi’s mother and aunts stayed at home.

With their home just a few miles from the scene of the attack that left 14 dead, they worried about an anti-Muslim backlash. When they went shopping, Zarifeh, 17, said, other mothers pulled their children away when they saw the women wearing head scarves.

“We were more afraid that someone was going to hurt us,” Zarifeh said.

But this month, Zarifeh received the ultimate symbol of teenage acceptance: She was crowned prom queen after her non-Muslim friends campaigned for her by wearing hijabs in solidarity.

“We saw it as a chance to do something good, to represent something good,” said a friend, Sarahi Sanchez, who like Zarifeh is one of a few dozen peer mentors at Summit High School. “This was a way to prove we don’t have problems with bullying or racism.”

Zarifeh said her win “proved that not all Muslims are something to worry about.” [Continue reading…]

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Islam is reshaping Europe

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Robert Kaplan writes: Orientalism, through which one culture appropriated and dominated another, is slowly evaporating in a world of cosmopolitan interactions and comparative studies, as [Edward] Said intuited it might. Europe has responded by artificially reconstructing national-cultural identities on the extreme right and left, to counter the threat from the civilization it once dominated.

Although the idea of an end to history — with all its ethnic and territorial disputes — turns out to have been a fantasy, this realization is no excuse for a retreat into nationalism. The cultural purity that Europe craves in the face of the Muslim-refugee influx is simply impossible in a world of increasing human interactions.

“The West,” if it does have a meaning beyond geography, manifests a spirit of ever more inclusive liberalism. Just as in the 19th century there was no going back to feudalism, there is no going back now to nationalism, not without courting disaster. [Continue reading…]

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Islam’s forgotten bohemians

Nile Green writes: Every year, thousands of festivals around the tombs of Sufi saints in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh demonstrate the vitality of Sufi poetry. Dotted throughout town and countryside, the shrines where these saints are buried still form the focus for the spiritual lives of tens of millions of Muslims. Their doors and rituals are open to people of any religious background; as a result, Sufi shrines in India still play an important role in the religious life of many Hindus and Sikhs. The work of the great Baba Farid, a 13th-century Punjab Sufi poet, also exemplifies this long history of religious co-existence, as his poems form the oldest parts of the Sikh scriptures.

Farid’s poems are still recited in Sikh temples around the world. In one of the verses from his Adi Granth (the sacred scripture or ‘First Book’ of Sikhism), Farid declares in rustic and homely Punjabi:

Ap li-ay lar la-ay dar darves say.

Translation: Those tied to Truth’s robe are true tramps on the doorstep.

The seeker after Truth must become a wandering beggar. The word Farid uses is darves, or ‘dervish’ – literally, a vagrant who goes from door to door. Read again that alliterative line of Punjabi: Ap li-ay lar la-ay dar darves say. It has the simple rhythm of repetition, the call of love’s beggar traipsing from house to house.

What the German philosopher Max Weber described as the disenchantment of the world, modernity’s discrediting of the supernatural and magical, has not been good for these beggars, these mystical troubadours, especially among the Muslim middle classes. Their pilgrimage places, however, retain mass appeal, especially among the large populations of poor and uneducated people. That is why fundamentalists, whether the Pakistani Taliban, the Saudi government or ISIS, have destroyed so many Sufi shrines and places of pilgrimage. The poetry sung at those places celebrates and advances an Islam that rejects political power, an Islam incompatible with the ambitions of religious fundamentalism. It is an Islam antithetical to political Islam, which sees political power as the foundation of religion. Although not all forms of Sufi Islam are non-political, the Sufism of the dervishes renounced political power as the most significant impediment on the long road to their divine beloved. It is a spirit of Islam still very much alive. [Continue reading…]

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Why ISIS hates the Sufis and blows up their shrines

Nile Green writes:

The soul that denies true love as its motto
Were better unborn; its existence is dishonour.
So be drunk with love, for love is all there is.
Unless you deal with love, the way to God is closed.

These words were among the hundreds of poems written by Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi apostle of love. Such was Rumi’s status in previous centuries that his epic Masnavi was called ‘the Quran in Persian’. For those who have read his verse, it’s hard to understand how anyone could despise the beauty of Sufi Islam. Considering that the Sufis always presented themselves as the loyal heirs of the Prophet Mohammad, it’s even harder to understand why Muslims should despise them. And yet over the past century, wave after wave of Muslim reform and renewal movements have rejected almost every aspect of Sufi Islam. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – whose franchises have sentenced Sufis to death in Syria and bulldozed their shrines in Libya – is only the latest of these anti-Sufis.

Why?

Here are a few reasons. [Continue reading…]

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How politics has poisoned Islam

Mustafa Akyol writes: We Muslims like to believe that ours is “a religion of peace,” but today Islam looks more like a religion of conflict and bloodshed. From the civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen to internal tensions in Lebanon and Bahrain, to the dangerous rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Middle East is plagued by intra-Muslim strife that seems to go back to the ancient Sunni-Shiite rivalry.

Religion is not actually at the heart of these conflicts — invariably, politics is to blame. But the misuse of Islam and its history makes these political conflicts much worse as parties, governments and militias claim that they are fighting not over power or territory but on behalf of God. And when enemies are viewed as heretics rather than just opponents, peace becomes much harder to achieve.

This conflation of religion and politics poisons Islam itself, too, by overshadowing all the religion’s theological and moral teachings. The Quran’s emphasis on humility and compassion is sidelined by the arrogance and aggressiveness of conflicting groups. [Continue reading…]

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President Obama’s remarks at the Islamic Society of Baltimore on February 3

President Obama said: This is a moment when, as Americans, we have to truly listen to each other and learn from each other. And I believe it has to begin with a common understanding of some basic facts. And I express these facts, although they’d be obvious to many of the people in this place, because, unfortunately, it’s not facts that are communicated on a regular basis through our media.

So let’s start with this fact: For more than a thousand years, people have been drawn to Islam’s message of peace. And the very word itself, Islam, comes from salam — peace. The standard greeting is as-salamu alaykum — peace be upon you. And like so many faiths, Islam is rooted in a commitment to compassion and mercy and justice and charity. Whoever wants to enter paradise, the Prophet Muhammad taught, “let him treat people the way he would love to be treated.” (Applause.) For Christians like myself, I’m assuming that sounds familiar. (Laughter.)

The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are as diverse as humanity itself. They are Arabs and Africans. They’re from Latin America to Southeast Asia; Brazilians, Nigerians, Bangladeshis, Indonesians. They are white and brown and black. There’s a large African American Muslim community. That diversity is represented here today. A 14-year-old boy in Texas who’s Muslim spoke for many when he wrote to me and said, “We just want to live in peace.”

Here’s another fact: Islam has always been part of America. Starting in colonial times, many of the slaves brought here from Africa were Muslim. And even in their bondage, some kept their faith alive. A few even won their freedom and became known to many Americans. And when enshrining the freedom of religion in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, our Founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions.

Back then, Muslims were often called Mahometans. And Thomas Jefferson explained that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom he wrote was designed to protect all faiths — and I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson now — “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.” (Applause.)

Jefferson and John Adams had their own copies of the Koran. Benjamin Franklin wrote that “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” (Applause.) So this is not a new thing. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: For Mr. Obama, the remarks were also an admission of how little progress has been made since the speech in Cairo [in 2009], where he called for “a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground.” In his speech on Wednesday, he suggested that his hopes for a reconciliation had been dashed, but he called on all Americans to stick by the country’s founding ideals.

Muslims in the audience hailed the address.

“I think it was one of the best speeches he’s ever given,” said Representative André Carson, an Indiana Democrat. Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, said the speech “hit me in the heart” and was a vital antidote to growing intolerance.

“I have a 19-year-old daughter who is a Muslim and wants to contribute to her nation, and it bugs me that someone who says he wants to be president would want to exclude her,” Mr. Ellison said.

But Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, one of the country’s oldest and largest pro-Israel organizations, denounced Mr. Obama for visiting a mosque whose leaders, Mr. Klein said, have among other issues criticized Israeli military actions. “Going to such a mosque only encourages radical Muslims to harm Americans,” Mr. Klein said. [Continue reading…]

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Muslim leaders attend summit on protecting non-Muslims in their midst

Religion News Service reports: Hundreds of Muslim scholars will meet in Morocco next week to reassert the rights of non-Muslims living among them as Christians and other religious minorities flee extremism across the Middle East for safety and freedom elsewhere.

In these times, Muslims must affirm their tradition’s true teachings on tolerance, said Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, co-founder of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college in the U.S. The summit meeting, expected to attract more than 300 Muslim religious leaders, will hark back to the Charter of Medina, in which the Prophet Muhammad enumerated the rights of non-Muslims 1,400 years ago.

“The prophet was religiously persecuted, so he knew firsthand what it was to experience religious persecution,” said Yusuf, speaking on a pre-conference media call Thursday (Jan 21). “His religion ensured the rights of religious minorities,” and Islamic history reveals a generally strong record of tolerance. [Continue reading…]

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Ten ways on how not to think about the Iran/Saudi conflict

Omid Safi writes: In order to understand this conflict, do not start with Sunni/Shi‘a seventh century succession disputes to Prophet. This is a modern dispute, not one whose answers you are going to find in pre-modern books of religious history and theology. Think about how absurd it would be if we were discussing a political conflict between the U.S. and Russia, and instead of having political scientists we brought on people to talk about the historical genesis of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Probably the most succinct elaboration of this point came from Marc Lynch:

“The idea of an unending, primordial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites explains little about the ebbs and flows of regional politics. This is not a resurgence of a 1,400-year-old conflict.”

The attempt to explain the Iranian/Saudi conflict, or for that matter every Middle Eastern conflict, in purely religious terms is part of an ongoing Orientalist imagination that depicts these societies as ancient, unchanging, un-modern societies where religion is the sole determining factor (allegedly unlike an imagined “us,” who have managed to become modern and secular.) Watch this four-part series by the late, great Edward Said on how Orientalism operates (skip the introduction):

There is no disputing that religion is a factor in understanding the Middle East. In some conflicts, it might even be a primary factor. But it is never, ever the only factor. Most often it is the other factors (history, economics, ideology, demographics) that are much more important.

Religion, religious traditions, and human societies never stay static and unchanging. There is no such thing as an eternal, unchanging human tradition. [Continue reading…]

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John Kerry won’t call the Islamic State by its name anymore. Why that’s not a good idea.

Shadi Hamid and Will McCants write: Refusing to utter the Islamic State’s name … needlessly complicates the religious fight to discredit the organization. Muslims understandably feel that their religion is being hijacked. But there’s something odd about an American president or Secretary of State opining on what is and isn’t legitimately Islamic. Shouldn’t it go without saying that a murderous extremist group isn’t what Muslims are all about?

There is a place for Muslim apologetics — from Muslims. This is precisely what a group of prominent British figures did when they attempted to rebrand the Islamic State as “the Un-Islamic State.”

But when non-Muslim officials insert themselves into this debate, it sets a negative precedent. It lends itself easily to broader pronouncements on who the good, “moderate” Muslims are, in contrast to the “bad guys,” a category which presumably could include anyone who falls on the Islamist side of the spectrum, regardless of whether they’re actually “extreme.”

And when the West co-opts Muslim talking points about the “true” Islam, it makes it harder for Muslims in the Arab world to make the same claim. Western governments are widely loathed and lack credibility in the region, even when they take care to explain their policies. A 2006 study suggested Arab students’ views of American policy “worsened slightly” the longer they listened to U.S.-sponsored Radio Sawa and al-Hurra TV. When Western officials repeat religious criticisms of the Islamic State, they make it easier for the group’s sympathizers to dismiss the criticisms as mere imperial dictation. [Continue reading…]

Some regular readers here may have noticed that in headlines (the one above being an exception), I have stuck with ISIS, in spite of its official name change and the ongoing debate among outsiders over which is the most appropriate label. My choice has nothing to do with that debate. It’s based instead on the matter of usage.

Whichever happens to be the most commonly used label is “correct” by that virtue alone. That’s why even though ISIS is actually an ambiguous term, you will rarely find yourself in a conversation during which you’ll be asked to clarify whether you’re talking about the terrorist organization, ISIS, or the Egyptian goddess, Isis.

When it comes to determining who’s saying what, where, Google Trends is an indispensable tool.

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New York’s forgotten mosque

Wilson Fache writes: New York City is well known for its numerous ethnic quarters, like the tourist-packed Little Italy or the oddly authentic Chinatown. Far less well known however is a small neighbourhood that locals used to call “Little Syria”.

From the 19th to the first half of the 20th century, that enclave was the economic and cultural centre of the Arab diaspora in the US; that is before it was demolished in order to build a tunnel and then later, in the sixties, the World Trade Centre.

These few blocks were home to a large number of immigrants mainly coming from what was then known as “Greater Syria” (Bilad al-Sham), a region ruled by the Ottoman Empire that nowadays includes Syria as well as Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and a part of southern Turkey.

Civic associations like the Washington Street Historical Society have been advocating for years to raise awareness about the largely unknown quarter and preserve the few buildings that are left, such as St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church, which is located on Washington street.

For many years is was assumed that the neighbourhood was only ever inhabited by Christians. Since there was no record of a place of worship dedicated to another faith, it was assumed there had never been one. Then a few months ago, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver doing research on early Islam in the US came across an article entitled “Mohammedans now have a place of worship here”. [Continue reading…]

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