Salafists and sectarianism: Twitter and communal conflict in the Middle East

Geneive Abdo writes: The widening divide between Shi‘a and Sunni believers has become one of the most important factors in destabilizing the Middle East, and there seems to be no end in sight. The blossoming of the Syrian war into a full-scale sectarian conflict between Shi‘a and Sunni Muslims and its spillover into parts of Iraq and Lebanon has re-ignited a debate among U.S. policymakers and Western analysts over whether fundamental doctrinal differences or political rivalry and socio-economic grievances lie behind the conflict.

Although actors on both sides are driving this conflict, it is today’s Salafists who are proving to be the dominant standard-bearers of anti-Shi‘a discourse — not taking into account the violent jihadists, whose popular appeal and staying power have yet to be demonstrated despite some spectacular and headline-grabbing territorial gains and terrorist acts. The Salafist movement has shown itself adroit at exploiting opportunities to advance its rhetorical and theological positions amid the religious re-examination and outright contestation among religious subgroups sparked by the recent Arab uprisings and their successful challenge to existing institutions of power in the region.

At the heart of the resurgent Salafist movement is the seemingly sudden emergence of a compelling message of a return to the ideas and morals of the era of the Prophet Mohammad at the expense of Islam’s subsequent rich tradition of religious interpretation. Given that the uprisings occurred on the heels of a surge in Shi‘a power in both Iraq and Lebanon, the Sunnis were predisposed to feel threatened. The sectarian war in Syria has been pivotal in providing a narrative for both sides in answering the fundamental questions within the world of Islam: Who is a Muslim, and who gets to decide? Although these are age-old questions within Islam, the violence that has ensued since the Arab uprisings over these very issues threatens to redraw the map of the Middle East and create instability for years to come.

The conflict over resolving these two questions is both a Shi‘a-Sunni debate as well as an internal conflict among the different strands of Sunni thought. While some scholars and specialists argue that the root of the conflict is the result of weakening or collapsed states in the aftermath of the Arab rebellions, this study will open a much-needed window on one of the fundamental causes — if not the fundamental cause — of today’s violence: Islam itself is being revised in the midst of political upheaval in the Middle East. Jihadists, Salafists, Shi’a militias, and other non-state actors are actively trying to redefine Islam as they see it.

The following study focuses on rising Salafist players who are intimately engaged in the public debate — not the radical jihadists who are fighting in Syria and Iraq but the non-violent Salafists who are successfully using social media and other such platforms to express their negative views of the Shi‘a and, by association, the Alawites and Iran. They are using social media to take advantage of conflicts throughout the region in order to raise their public profiles and influence public opinion. Although much media focus and attention is devoted to the radical jihadists, those Salafists who do not condone violence also have an important role in the future of destabilizing the Middle East. Uncovering and understanding their subculture, and in particular their public discourse, is vital to prudent and responsible policy formulation.

Penetrating and engaging with the world of contemporary Salafism presents a number of challenges to the researcher. However, as this study will show, new social media technologies taking hold around the world, in particular Twitter feeds, can offer valuable insight into Salafist ideas and practice and help identify leading personalities, uncover important relationships, and reveal significant discursive trends. “Social media has revolutionized the way that the world has understood the Syrian conflict and how that conflict has been waged,” asserted a study published by the United States Institute of Peace. “Syria has been at the cutting edge of the evolution of new uses of social media and the Internet by political actors, insurgent groups, journalists and researchers.” As skeptics of the power of social media have noted, Twitter cannot inspire revolutions and did not create the Arab uprisings, for example. The political and social conditions for revolution or violence must be present and do not emerge from cyberspace. These same critics argue that individuals are responsible for creating the Arab uprisings, not the tools available to them.

Nonetheless, Twitter and other forms of social media have proven to be valuable tools in influencing events on the ground once they are already underway, creating an interactive discussion between those in cyberspace and the foot soldiers on the ground.

In her new paper “Salafists and Sectarianism: Twitter and Communal Conflict in the Middle East,” Geneive Abdo shows that chief among the central threads of Salafist discourse in Arabic is an abiding belief that the Shi‘a are not real Muslims, and are out to extinguish Sunni believers who, in the Salafist view, are the only true Muslims. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS’s Islamic credentials still in dispute

The latest chapter in the backlash provoked by the Atlantic’s controversial article, “What ISIS really wants,” comes from Mehdi Hasan in a 5,000-word piece for the New Statesman.

The rise of Isis in Iraq and Syria has been a disaster for the public image of Islam – and a boon for the Islamophobia industry. Here, after all, is a group that calls itself Islamic State; that claims the support of Islamic texts to justify its medieval punishments, from the stoning of adulterers to the amputation of the hands of thieves; and that has a leader with a PhD in Islamic studies who declares himself to be a “caliph”, or ruler over all Muslims, and has even renamed himself in honour of the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr.

The consequences are, perhaps, as expected. In September 2014, a Zogby poll found that only 27 per cent of Americans had a favourable view of Islam – down from 35 per cent in 2010. By February 2015, more than a quarter of Americans (27 per cent) were telling the pollsters LifeWay Research that they believed that life under Isis rule “gives a true indication of what an Islamic society looks like”.

Yet what is much more worrying is that it isn’t just ill-informed, ignorant or bigoted members of the public who take such a view. “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” wrote Wood in his widely read 10,000-word cover report (“What Isis really wants”) in the March issue of Atlantic, in which he argued, “The religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

Hasan responds by saying we need to ask: “is Isis a recognisably ‘Islamic’ movement? Are Isis recruits motivated by religious fervour and faith?”

The answers he provides to these questions come in a form reminiscent of nineteenth century ethnography.

There is no need for us to understand the natives (those being the members of ISIS) by their own accounts — given the notorious duplicity of this murderous tribe, such accounts could hardly be relied upon. It is instead sufficient and wholly appropriate to look at ISIS through the eyes of observers — even observers who profess no direct knowledge of the organization.

Thus, the first piece of evidence of the lack of religiosity of ISIS comes from a former hostage, Didier François, who noted that hostages were not provided with a Quran.

Which demonstrates what? If, on the contrary, ISIS had been schooling its hostages in Islam, would this, for Hasan, buttress the assertion that the group is indeed very Islam? I doubt it.

Another field account Hasan offers comes from an American journalist:

In a recent despatch from Zarqa in Jordan, birthplace of the late AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and “one of the country’s most notorious hotbeds of Islamic radicalism”, Foreign Policy magazine’s David Kenner sat down with a group of young, male Isis supporters.

“None of them appeared to be particularly religious,” Kenner noted. “Not once did the conversation turn to matters of faith, and none budged from their seats when the call to prayer sounded. They appeared driven by anger at humiliations big and small – from the police officers who treated them like criminals outside their homes to the massacres of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq – rather than by a detailed exegesis of religious texts.”

As Hasan and others frequently note, there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. If one was to randomly listen in on conversations between groups of Muslims and also observe how often they pray, would this be a reliable way of determining who should or should not be described as very Islamic?

For good reasons, most non-Muslims would avoid referring to Muslims as people who call themselves Muslim, because in the religiously diverse world in which we live, the business of determining who does or does not authentically represent their own faith is an intra-faith issue.

Are Jehovah’s Witnesses genuinely Christian? Are Hasidic Jews more Jewish than secular Jewish Zionists?

These are questions best left to be argued about and between those who ascribe themselves these identities, because they are inherently subjective issues.

To call ISIS very Islamic seems to me much less a statement about Islam than it is a retort to those who assert that ISIS’s Islamic trappings are simply a facade.

*

Paradoxically there is often a secular slant to arguments about who does or does not legitimately represent any particular faith and this comes through the concept of religious fanaticism.

In societies where religion is generally viewed as a private matter, the religious fanatic is the person who is seen as taking their religion too seriously. This is a secular perception.

Mainstream religions tend to have greater tolerance for non-believers, those of weak faith, and the less devout. Indeed, the capacity for any religion to enlarge itself depends to some degree on its ability to be inclusive by lowering the bars to membership.

Those groups that get marginalized and dubbed fanatical, tend to be the ones who are also preoccupied with questions about religious purity, strict adherence to scripture and narrowly defined authenticity.

As understandable as it is that the vast majority of Muslims want to disavow ISIS and assert that it does not in any way represent Islam, denunciations of the literal application of Sharia law by others are heard much less frequently.

When an Iranian court implemented an order that a convict have one of his eyes gouged out last week, it would be very hard to argue that this was an un-Islamic implementation of law. On the contrary, it could reasonably be described as very Islamic — even if this approach to Sharia disturbs many Muslims.

Saudi Arabia’s delegation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last week defended the state’s escalating use of the death penalty by saying it is authorized under Sharia law. Saudi Arabia is frequently criticized for its appalling human rights record, but rarely is it accused of being un-Islamic.

Inside every religion there are power struggles and contested claims about who holds the most legitimate authority. But just as is the case in so many other facets of life, these are ultimately mundane expressions of egotism.

Flag-wavers of all descriptions see their flags (be they national or religious) as emblems of power a portion of which they are claiming as their own.

Hasan concludes:

To claim that Isis is Islamic is egregiously inaccurate and empirically unsustainable, not to mention insulting to the 1.6 billion non-violent adherents of Islam across the planet. Above all else, it is dangerous and self-defeating, as it provides Baghdadi and his minions with the propaganda prize and recruiting tool that they most crave.

He started out by asking whether ISIS recruits are motivated by religious fervour and faith and proceeded to demonstrate that they are not.

But if that’s really the case, how could claiming ISIS is Islamic actually serve as a recruiting tool?

Religious veneration always invokes a separation between the sacred and the adherent. The pristine religion is somehow imagined to exist independent from its followers, yet the fact is that religions are their adherents.

Islam is Muslims. Judaism is Jews. Christianity is Christians. Buddhism is Buddhists.

Religions come into existence and also die and it’s easy to tell when a religion has died. Its temples and sacred texts might survive and yet it has no human form.

ISIS is Islamic by a measure that probably isn’t worth disputing, but those who argue that it is not Islamic seem as deluded as those who view it as the epitome of Islam.

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From a private school in Cairo to ISIS killing fields in Syria

Mona El-Naggar reports: He winced at the mere mention of his son’s name, visibly overcome by an unceasing thought that he struggled to articulate. He looked down to hide the tears in his eyes.

“You have to understand, I am in pain,” said Yaken Aly, choking on the words: “My son is gone.”

Mr. Aly raised his son, Islam Yaken, in Heliopolis, a middle-class Cairo neighborhood with tended gardens and trendy coffee shops, and sent him to a private school, where he studied in French. As a young man, Mr. Yaken wanted to be a fitness instructor. He trained relentlessly, hoping that his effort would bring him success, girlfriends and wealth. But his goals never materialized. He left that life and found religion, extremism and, ultimately, his way into a photograph where he knelt beside a decapitated corpse on the killing fields of Syria, smiling.

“Surely, the holiday won’t be complete without a picture with one of the dogs’ corpses,” Mr. Yaken, now 22 and fighting for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, wrote in a Twitter post in July, during Ramadan.

The West is struggling to confront the rise of Islamic extremism and the brutality committed in the name of religion. But it is not alone in trying to understand how this has happened — why young men raised in homes that would never condone violence, let alone coldblooded murder, are joining the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. It is a phenomenon that is as much a threat to Muslim nations as to the West, if not more so, as thousands of young men volunteer as foot soldiers, ready to kill and willing to die. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS really is Islamic — get over it!

According to the logic of a few boneheads, if ISIS is Islamic, then the real problem isn’t with ISIS — it’s with Islam.

To refute that logic by refusing to call ISIS Islamic, is equally boneheaded, since it implies that conceding ISIS’s Islamic roots will inevitably then tarnish all Muslims.

Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa write: At the White House summit on “countering violent extremism,” President Obama declared that violent jihad in the name of Islam isn’t the work of “religious leaders” but rather “terrorists.” American-Muslim leaders, attending the summit, cheered and applauded, later taking selfies in front of the president’s seal.

But, as liberal Muslim feminist journalists who reject the vision of the Islamic State, we can say that the Islamic State, al Qaeda and the alphabet soup of Islamic militant groups, like HUM (Harkut-ul Mujahideen) and LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba), rely very much on the scholarship of “religious leaders,” from Ibn Tamiyyah in the 14th century to Sayyid Qutb in the 20th century, who very much have credibility and authority among too many Muslims as “religious leaders.”

A very nuanced and thorough Atlantic article by journalist Graeme Wood this week, arguing “The Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” set off a firestorm of “derision,” as labeled by an article at ThinkProgress, a media site affiliated with the Center for American Progress, a think tank started by former Democratic operative John Podesta. ThinkProgress religion reporter Jack Jenkins wrote that the Atlantic article elicited “staunch criticism and derision from many Muslims and academics who study Islam.”

Wood argues the Islamic State views itself as “a key agent of the coming Apocalypse.” He is absolutely right, and we have been seeing the symbols for months. After spending about 200 hours combined over the last few weeks, analyzing every word and symbol in the burning video of the Jordanian Air Force pilot and the execution video of the Coptic Christians, we can tell you that both videos reveal Islamic State strategists, propagandists and recruiters are very much grounded in a logical interpretation of the Quran, the hadith, or sayings and traditions of the prophet Muhammad, and fatwa, or religious rulings. [Continue reading…]

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No, Islam isn’t inherently violent, and the math proves it

M. Steven Fish writes: There is a widely held belief in the United States today that Islam is a religion that goads its followers to violence. And indeed, global terrorism today is disproportionately an Islamist phenomenon, as I show in my recent book. The headlines in the past months have been full of Islamist-fueled violence, such as ISIS killing its hostages, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and yesterday’s attack on a Copenhagen café.

And a cursory look at the data shows that from 1994-2008, I found that 204 high-casualty terrorist bombings occurred worldwide and that Islamists were responsible for 125, or 61 percent, of these incidents, accounting for 70 percent of all deaths.

I exclude from the data all terrorist incidents that occurred in Iraq after the American invasion, and I consider attacks on occupying military forces anywhere to be guerilla resistance, not terrorism. I also use a restrictive definition of “Islamist” and classify attacks by Chechen separatists as ethnonational rather than Islamist terrorism. In other words, even when we define both “terrorism” and “Islamist” restrictively, thereby limiting the number of incidents and casualties that can be blamed on Islamists, Islamists come out as the prime culprits.

So, all that would seem to suggest Islam is more violent, right?

Not so. Rewind fifty or a hundred years and it was communists, anarchists, fascists, and others who thought than any means justified their glorious ends. Even now, Islamists are by no means the sole perpetrators. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and Colombia’s “narcoterrorists” blow up civilians and have nothing to do with Islam. In the United States, law enforcement considers the “sovereign citizens movement” to be a greater threat than Islamist terrorists. However, Islamists do commit most of the terrorism globally these days.

Look more closely, though, and you’ll see they don’t attack in the West very often. Of the 125 attacks committed by Islamists that I studied, 77—62 percent — of them were committed in predominantly Muslim countries, and their victims were overwhelmingly other Muslims. Another 40 attacks took place in just three countries — Israel, India, and the Philippines. Only four of the 125 attacks happened in the Western Hemisphere or Europe. They were ghastly and dramatic, just as they were intended to be. But they were, and still are, rare.

That means the risk of an American being killed by any act of terrorism in a given year is roughly one in 3.5 million, and the chances are that the act of terrorism won’t be committed by an Islamist. [Continue reading…]

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‘Muslim practitioners must extend love toward entire creation of Allah,’ says Dalai Lama

Following Thursday’s annual National Prayer Breakfast, His Holiness the Dalai Lama attended a much smaller gathering of around a hundred American Muslims and American Buddhists, in Washington.

His Holiness began by discussing the challenges that many Muslims have faced since the Sept. 11 attacks. A few individuals’ behavior he said, should not generalize the entire religious tradition — “It’s not fair, not right” — and added that he was concerned about the bad image Islam was getting. It is a service, he explained, for Muslims to stand up and not be complacent or indifferent in this environment, especially when Islam has such global significance. Muslim faith is about loving everyone, he said. “Muslim practitioners must extend love toward entire creation of Allah,” he said. The audience interrupted in applause.

The Dalai Lama also shared an interaction he once had with President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks. On a human level, His Holiness said, Bush was a very nice person. “‘I love you,’” the Dalai Lama recalled saying to Bush, “‘but some of your policies, I have great reservation [about].’”

The event was sponsored by the Development Organization for Societies in Transition (DOST), a Washington, D.C., secular non-profit started by Muslims that does civic programing in northern Pakistan. The panel, moderated by DOST executive director John Pinna, was the second in the group’s ongoing series of conversations between the Muslim community and His Holiness. The first was an informal gathering with two dozen American Muslim leaders and the Dalai Lama two years ago. American Muslim leaders including CEO of Islamic Relief Anwar Khan, vice president of United States Institute for Peace Manal Omar and the executive director of Muflehun Humera Khan, joined His Holiness and His Eminence for a panel conversation on the idea of service.

Sheikh Al-Sahlani added that “The greatest victim of the terror of the last 20 years was the religion of Islam.” It is time, he said, for Muslims to fix their own house. The Dalai Lama nodded.

Peter Manseau recounts the period when Americans feared Buddhists: When Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, authorizing the evacuation of all those of Japanese descent from the West Coast to war relocation centers, the Buddhist faith practiced by many Japanese Americans was itself regarded as a potential threat.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the formal entry of the United States into World War II, the FBI compiled a list of suspected collaborators that included not only members of groups with political ties to Japan, but the leaders of Buddhist temples.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s Custodial Detention List used a classification system designating the supposed risk of individuals on an A-B-C scale, with an “A” assigned to those deserving greatest suspicion. In Hoover’s system, Buddhist priests were designated “A-1″: “dangerous enemy aliens” whose arrest was considered a matter of urgent concern. [Continue reading…]

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Satire shouldn’t promote ignorance

Alex Andreou writes: In the wake of recent attacks in France, a rule of thumb appears to be emerging: of course we should be free to mock Islam, but we should do it with respect. This might seem irreconcilable, but in practice is perfectly achievable.

Satire has been a tool for expanding the boundaries of free expression since Aristophanes. It does so most effectively by being hyper-aware of those boundaries, not ignorant of them. When it is done with the sole intention to offend it creates disharmony. When the intention is to entertain and challenge, the effect is quite the opposite.

Recently I played Arshad – a sort of cuddly version of Abu Hamza – in David Baddiel’s musical rendering of The Infidel: a farce in which a British Muslim discovers he is adopted and is actually Jewish, on the eve of his son’s nuptials to a fundamentalist’s daughter. The entire cast and creative team were obsessively attentive to religious detail, both Muslim and Jewish. Precisely how do women tie the niqab? What is the correct pronunciation and meaning of HaMotzi? With which hand would a Muslim hold the Qur’an, and how? Which way is the tallit worn, and why? Hours of research and discussion.

Backstage, after a particular scene in which we did a stylised cipher based on morning prayers, we folded our prayer mats carefully and put them away respectfully. They were just props, so why did it matter? Because they looked like prayer mats and seeing them discarded grated on members of the team who came from a Muslim background – even if they were not religious. Such instincts are deeply ingrained.

All this may seem precious, especially when one is about to launch into a ska musical number entitled Put a Fatwa on It, but it is not. The point is artistic control. You want to challenge an audience in precisely the way you intended – not because you are eating with the wrong hand. One is not careful out of a fear to offend, but out of a fear to offend randomly. Just because something is a legitimate target does not mean that one should have a go at it with a rocket launcher. Rockets inflict collateral damage. [Continue reading…]

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Don’t restart Europe’s wars of religion

Pankaj Mishra writes: On Jan. 7, the day jihadists attacked the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in France, I was in a small village in Anatolia, Turkey. I had barely registered the horrifying news when a friend forwarded me a tweet from New York Times columnist Roger Cohen. “The entire free world,” it read, “should respond, ruthlessly.”

For a few seconds I was pulled back into the Cold War when Turkey, a NATO member, was technically part of the “free world.” Even back then the category was porous: Ronald Reagan included in it the jihadists fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan.

The words seem more anachronistic a quarter century later. Our complex and often bewildering political landscape is only superficially similar to the world we knew then. Devout Anatolian masses rising from poverty have transformed Turkey politically and economically. I did not dare show Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons to the local villagers who pass my house several times every day en route to the mosque next door, let alone argue that the magazine had the right to publish them.

There is no disagreement, except from fanatics, about the viciousness of the murderers, and the need to bring their associates to justice. But the aftermath of the attacks revealed strikingly different ways of looking at the broader issues around them: Our views on free speech, secularism, and the nature of religious hurt turn out to be shaped by particular historical and socioeconomic circumstances. [Continue reading…]

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It’s not about whether you represent the Prophet, but how

Sajjad Rizvi writes: After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last week, much of our discussion has focused on whether anyone has the freedom to depict Mohamed. But this is misguided in my opinion.

Back in 2006, many Muslims were angered when a right-wing Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons that portrayed the Prophet Mohamed in a negative light. At the same time, many other Muslims were rather taken by a portrait of Mohamed as a young man that was making the rounds in the markets.

That image was understood to be an old image of Mohamed on one of his early trading journeys up to Syria. It had been sketched by the Christian monk Bahira, the legendary figure of early Islam, who confirmed the prophetic status of the young man.

The contrasting responses to these two sets of images suggest that the issue is not whether one represents Muhammad, but how.

A study of the scriptures does not confirm any prohibition on images. The Quranic proscription of idolatry, the story of Abraham as a idol-breaker, and the condemnation of the Golden Calf, are all specific elements of the prohibition of images as objects of worship. But they do not prevent anyone from producing images of men — even sacred ones. [Continue reading…]

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Criticizing Islam without being Islamophobic

Rally in Lahore, Pakistan, protesting against Charlie Hebdo cartoonists.

Rally in Lahore, Pakistan, protesting against Charlie Hebdo cartoonists.

If the text on the banner above had been faked by someone using Photoshop, one might imagine that this was some kind of Islamophobic satire. But it is not. These are Muslims who unwittingly satirize themselves. Nothing that can be said about them is more damning than what they say themselves.

I am not a Muslim, nor a scholar of Islam and thus have no competence to engage in a critique of Islamic doctrine. So when I talk about criticizing Islam, I’m not implying that I think it is doctrinally defective.

Islam, in my view, is just like any other religion, in the sense that it is an amorphous, complex entity, expressed collectively through the lives of everyone who calls themselves a Muslim. Islam equals 1.8 billion Muslims, almost a quarter of the world’s population, including as much diversity as the non-Muslim world.

Arguments about “good” Muslims and “bad” Muslims, authentic Islam and distorted Islam, radical Islam and moderate Islam, generally involve questions about how Muslims want to represent themselves or how they are represented by others. Like all representations, these have the tendency of projecting uniformity by masking complexity.

In the polarized atmosphere following 9/11 and once again following the Charle Hebdo attacks, at one extreme are those who say that the attacks reveal the true nature of Islam and at the other those who say the attacks and attackers have nothing to do with Islam. Each camp sees the other as promoting a lie.

Among those in the West who see anti-Muslim rhetoric escalating to a dangerous degree, the standard response has been to attribute this to an underlying racism and Islamophobia — both of which are of course clearly in evidence in Europe and North America — but the problem in making this analysis is that it tends to gloss over some glaringly obvious and disturbing facts.

The French gunmen chose as their target, individuals whose only “crime” was that they had insulted the Prophet Muhammad, and having accomplished their goal, loudly declared “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.” Even if they were alone in thinking this, it seems undeniable that in their own minds they believed that they were acting in defense of Islam.

But they were not alone. At a small demonstration in Peshawar, Pakistan, this week, protesters chanted “Long live Cherif Kouachi, long live Said Kouachi.” They branded the cartoonists, not the gunmen, as the terrorists. They marched behind a placard which said: “A strong message was needed and they [the Kouachis] delivered it. We salute the messengers. May they live long.”

Expressions of support for the attacks can be found in abundance online.

Today there are again protests across Pakistan against the cartoons in the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo.

But the Lebanese journalist, Nadim Koteich, points out bluntly what should be obvious to Muslims and non-Muslims alike:

Nothing insults Islam more than the Charlie Hebdo massacre.”

In a similar vein, Nervana Mahmoud laments: “We are more offended by cartoons than butcheries, crucifixion, slavery, flogging. That how twisted is our mindset!”

Meanwhile, Raif Badawi, a blogger in Saudi Arabia has received 50 lashes — the first installment in a sentence of 1,000 lashes — for “insulting Islam.”

Badawi’s “crime” is that he has expressed ideas like this: “States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.”

While the Paris attacks were widely condemned in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi rulers have been criticized for not condemning the cartoons and so the Badawi case serves as a way they can boost their religious credibility.

“They’re under pressure inside to punish people like him, especially among Salafis. It is a question of the legitimacy of the state. You have to remember those people are very influential at a street level,” Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security expert with close ties to the Saudi Interior Ministry, told Reuters.

In the West, the popular and visceral response to the Paris attacks was they represented a dire threat to free speech and thus free speech must be vigorously defended.

This then provoked a smaller but fairly vocal “yes, but…” reaction which focused on the need to oppose Islamophobia and to acknowledge that the cartoonists had been unnecessarily provocative.

One of the many problems with this backlash is that it prompts an eminently reasonable question: If now is not the time to be speaking in defense of free speech, when would such a need arise?

Slavoj Žižek refers to “the pathological fear of many Western liberal Leftists to be guilty of Islamophobia,” and I agree that such a fear exists.

Indeed, I would say that the only way a non-Muslim can genuinely show solidarity with Muslims right now is, paradoxically, by taking the risk of appearing Islamophobic.

Rather than treat Islam and Muslims like a delicate fruit which will bruise unless handled with the greatest care, it might actually be a sign of greater respect to assume that this religious tradition and its living representatives have enough resilience to withstand criticism from both the inside and the outside.

(And I’d apply the same argument to Jews and any other group that have a tendency of hiding behind their own sense of victimization.)

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What is the religion-terrorism connection?

John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed write: The religious language and symbolism that terrorists use tend to place religion at center stage. Many critics charge that global terrorism is attributable to Islam — a militant or violent religion — and terrorists who are particularly religious folks. For example, in a Washington Times commentary, author Sam Harris writes:

It is time we admitted that we are not at war with “terrorism”. We are at war with Islam. This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran. The only reason Muslim fundamentalism is a threat to us is because the fundamentals of Islam are a threat to us. Every American should read the Koran and discover the relentlessness with which non-Muslims are vilified in its pages. The idea that Islam is a “peaceful religion hijacked by extremists” is a dangerous fantasy — and it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge.

Lawrence Auster of FrontPage magazine echoes this sentiment. He writes: “The problem is not ‘radical’ Islam but Islam itself, from which it follows that we must seek to weaken and contain Islam…”

What do the data say? Does personal piety correlate with radical views? The answer is no. Large majorities of those with radical views and moderate views (94% and 90%, respectively) say that religion is an important part of their daily lives. And no significant difference exists between radicals and moderates in mosque attendance.

Gallup probed respondents further and actually asked those who condone and condemn extremist acts why they said what they did. The responses fly in the face of conventional wisdom. For example, in Indonesia, the largest Muslim majority country in the world, many of those who condemn terrorism cite humanitarian or religious justifications to support their response. For example, one woman says, “Killing one life is as sinful as killing the whole world,” paraphrasing verse 5:32 in the Quran.

On the other hand, not a single respondent in Indonesia who condones the attacks of 9/11 cites the Quran for justification. Instead, this group’s responses are markedly secular and worldly. For example, one Indonesian respondent says, “The US government is too controlling toward other countries, seems like colonizing”. The real difference between those who condone terrorist acts and all others is about politics, not piety.

How then do we explain extremists’ religious rhetoric? As our data clearly demonstrate, religion is the dominant ideology in today’s Arab and Muslim world, just as secular Arab nationalism was in the days of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Palestinian Liberation Organization — from its inception, a staunchly secular group — used secular Palestinian nationalism in its rhetoric to justify acts of violence and to recruit. Just as Arab nationalism was used in the 1960s, today religion is used to justify extremism and terrorism.

Examining the link between religion and terrorism requires a larger and more complex context. Throughout history, close ties have existed among religion, politics, and societies. Leaders have used and hijacked religion to recruit members, to justify their actions, and to glorify fighting and dying in a sacred struggle. [Continue reading…]

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Would Prophet Muhammad say ‘Je Suis Charlie’?

Khaled Diab asks: Would the prophet forgive Charlie Hebdo’s lampooning of him and his religion? If he were alive today, would he tweet his solidarity with the slain cartoonists?

My own reading of Muhammad’s life and history leads me to conclude that although the prophet may not have tweeted “#JeSuisCharlie,” he would have condemned these savage murders and even forgiven French satirists no matter what insult was directed his way.

While some might find my assertion hard to believe, it is backed up by Muhammad’s own actions and convictions. Although the prophet’s contemporary self-appointed defenders take offence on his behalf and believe they are doing his will by protesting perceived insults or punishing those who commit them, their actions could not be further from the truth.

During the vulnerable early years of Islam, the Islamic prophet endured and tolerated mockery and disdain. Even in victory, Muhammad wisely advised to exercise tolerance. Upon his triumphant return to Mecca, he forgave the inhabitants of the city which had been home to his fiercest enemies. He even pardoned a member of his inner circle, Abdullah Ibn Saad, who denounced the prophet as a charlatan.

More importantly, the Islam Muhammad preached recognised the pluralistic nature of society and guaranteed freedom of belief. Surat al-Baqara of the Quran reminds Muslims: “There shall be no compulsion in religion.” [Continue reading…]

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The power of any faith comes from within

Mustafa Akyol writes: The only source in Islamic law that all Muslims accept indisputably is the Quran. And, conspicuously, the Quran decrees no earthly punishment for blasphemy — or for apostasy (abandonment or renunciation of the faith), a related concept. Nor, for that matter, does the Quran command stoning, female circumcision or a ban on fine arts. All these doctrinal innovations, as it were, were brought into the literature of Islam as medieval scholars interpreted it, according to the norms of their time and milieu.

Tellingly, severe punishments for blasphemy and apostasy appeared when increasingly despotic Muslim empires needed to find a religious justification to eliminate political opponents.

One of the earliest “blasphemers” in Islam was the pious scholar Ghaylan al-Dimashqi, who was executed in the 8th century by the Umayyad Empire. His main “heresy” was to insist that rulers did not have the right to regard their power as “a gift of God,” and that they had to be aware of their responsibility to the people.

Before all that politically motivated expansion and toughening of Shariah, though, the Quran told early Muslims, who routinely faced the mockery of their faith by pagans: “God has told you in the Book that when you hear God’s revelations disbelieved in and mocked at, do not sit with them until they enter into some other discourse; surely then you would be like them.”

Just “do not sit with them” — that is the response the Quran suggests for mockery. Not violence. Not even censorship. [Continue reading…]

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In France, there is not a Muslim community, but a Muslim population

Olivier Roy writes: The attack against the Paris satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has re-launched an ongoing debate in France about the compatibility between Islam and the West. The issue is more fraught in Western Europe than in the United States because of the huge number of Muslims who are not only settled there, but who also have citizenship.

By a strange coincidence, on the same day of the deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo, we saw the long awaited release of the most recent novel by the bestselling French author Michel Houellebecq, titled “Submission.” The book imagines the victory of a moderate Muslim party in the 2022 French presidential and parliamentary elections.

The issue of the compatibility between Islam and French or Western political culture is no longer confined to the usual suspects: the populist right, conservative Christians or staunch secularists from the left. The issue has become emotional and now pervades the entire political spectrum. The Muslim population — which does not identify with the terrorists — now fears an anti-Muslim backlash.

Roughly speaking, two narratives are conflicting: the dominant one claims that Islam is the main issue, because it puts loyalty toward the faith community before loyalty to the nation, it does not accept criticism, does not compromise on norms and values and condones specific forms of violence like jihad. For the adherents of this narrative, the only solution is a theological reformation that would generate a “good” Islam that is a liberal, feminist and gay-friendly religion. Journalists and politicians are always tracking the “good Muslims” and summoning them to show their credentials as “moderate.”

On the other side, many Muslims, secular or believers, supported by a multiculturalist left, claim that radicalization does not come from Islam but from disenfranchised youth who are victims of racism and exclusion, and that the real issue is Islamophobia. They condemn terrorism while denouncing the backlash that could in turn radicalize more Muslim youth.

The problem is that both narratives presuppose the existence of a French “Muslim community” of which the terrorists are a sort of “vanguard.” [Continue reading…]

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Paris policeman’s brother: ‘Islam is a religion of love. My brother was killed by terrorists, by false Muslims’

The Guardian reports: Ahmed Merabet, the police officer gunned down in the Charlie Hebdo attack, was killed in an act of barbarity by “false Muslims” his brother said in a moving tribute on Saturday, where he also appealed for unity and tolerance.

Speaking for a group of relatives gathered in Paris, Malek Merabet said the terrorists who ignored his brother’s plea for mercy as he lay wounded on the street may have shared his Algerian roots, but had nothing else in common.

“My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims,” he said. “Islam is a religion of peace and love. As far as my brother’s death is concerned it was a waste. He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity.”

Malek reminded France that the country faced a battle against extremism, not against its Muslim citizens. “I address myself now to all the racists, Islamophobes and antisemites. One must not confuse extremists with Muslims. Mad people have neither colour or religion,” he said.

“I want to make another point: don’t tar everybody with the same brush, don’t burn mosques – or synagogues. You are attacking people. It won’t bring our dead back and it won’t appease the families.” [Continue reading…]

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The Koran does not forbid images of the Prophet

Christiane Gruber writes: In the wake of the massacre that took place in the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, I have been called upon as a scholar specializing in Islamic paintings of the Prophet to explain whether images of Muhammad are banned in Islam.

The short and simple answer is no. The Koran does not prohibit figural imagery. Rather, it castigates the worship of idols, which are understood as concrete embodiments of the polytheistic beliefs that Islam supplanted when it emerged as a purely monotheistic faith in the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century.

Moreover, the Hadith, or Sayings of the Prophet, present us with an ambiguous picture at best: At turns we read of artists dared to breathe life into their figures and, at others, of pillows ornamented with figural imagery.

If we turn to Islamic law, there does not exist a single legal decree, or fatwa, in the historical corpus that explicitly and decisively prohibits figural imagery, including images of the Prophet. While more recent online fatwas can surely be found, the decree that comes closest to articulating this type of ban was published online in 2001 by the Taliban, as they set out to destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

In their fatwa, the Taliban decreed that all non-Islamic statues and shrines in Afghanistan be destroyed. However, this very modern decree remains entirely silent on the issue of figural images and sculptures within Islam, which, conversely, had been praised as beneficial and educational by Muhammad ‘Abduh, a prominent jurist in 19th century Egypt.

In sum, a search for a ban on images of Muhammad in pre-modern Islamic textual sources will yield no clear and firm results whatsoever. [Continue reading…]

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Submission

I am powerless and my life is out of control.
I believe a higher power can restore my sanity.
I submit to the will of God, the only power that can guide my life.

OK. I neither believe in God nor am I an alcoholic, but I based the lines above on the first three steps of the twelve-step program created by Alcoholics Anonymous just to convey the fact that submission to the will of God is a practice (or aspiration) that shapes the lives of millions of Americans — people who might not necessarily describe themselves as religious.

Soumission (Submission) is the title of Michel Houellebecq’s new novel — a book which even before its release this week and before the Charlie Hebdo shootings took place, had stirred a huge amount of controversy in France since it depicts a not-too-distant future in which the French submit to Islamic rule.

Given that premise, it’s not hard to see why Houellebecq is being accused of pandering to the fears of the far right — of those who believe in the National Front’s slogan, “France for the French.” But while Houellebecq’s appetite for controversy is undeniable, he says he’s neither trying to defend secularism nor fuel Islamophobia.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Houellebecq says that he thought he was an atheist but was really an agnostic.

Usually that word serves as a screen for atheism but not, I think, in my case. When, in the light of what I know, I reexamine the question whether there is a creator, a cosmic order, that kind of thing, I realize that I don’t actually have an answer.

The Economist summarizes Soumission in this way:

The novel, which has not yet been translated into English, is narrated by François, a literature professor at the Sorbonne, who drifts between casual sex and microwaved ready-made meals in a state of wry detachment and ennui. Then, in an imaginary France of 2022, a political earthquake shakes him out of his torpor. The two mainstream parties, on the left and the right, are eliminated in the first round of a presidential election. This leaves French voters with the choice between Marine Le Pen’s populist National Front—and the Muslim Fraternity, a new party led by Mohammed Ben Abbes. Thanks to an anti-Le Pen front, Mr Ben Abbes is elected and thus begins Muslim rule.

After a period of disorder, France returns to a strange calm under its apparently moderate new Muslim president; and François, who fled briefly, returns to Paris. But the city, and his university, are unrecognisable. More women are veiled, and give up work to look after their menfolk (helping to bring down France’s unemployment rate). Polygamy is made legal. France embarks on a geopolitical project to merge Europe with Muslim Mediterranean states. Saudi Arabia has poured petrodollars into better pay for professors and posh apartments on the city’s left bank. And his own university has been rebranded the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne. Will François, an atheist, resist, or flee the new regime or compromise with it?

While this sounds like a graphic representation of Islamophobic fears prevalent not only in France but across much of Europe, Houellebecq says:

I tried to put myself in the place of a Muslim, and I realized that, in reality, they are in a totally schizophrenic situation. Because overall Muslims aren’t interested in economic issues, their big issues are what we nowadays call societal issues. On these issues, obviously, they are very far from the left and even further from the Green Party. Just think of gay marriage and you’ll see what I mean, but the same is true across the board. And one doesn’t really see why they’d vote for the right, much less for the extreme right, which utterly rejects them. So if a Muslim wants to vote, what’s he supposed to do? The truth is, he’s in an impossible situation. He has no representation whatsoever.

I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality, and that it is very much on the rise.

That hypothesis is central to the book, but we know that it has been discredited for many years by numerous researchers, who have shown that we are actually witnessing a progressive secularization of Islam, and that violence and radicalism should be understood as the death throes of Islamism. That is the argument made by Olivier Roy, and many other people who have worked on this question for more than twenty years.

This is not what I have observed, although in North and South America, Islam has benefited less than the evangelicals. This is not a French phenomenon, it’s almost global. I don’t know about Asia, but the case of Africa is interesting because there you have the two great religious powers on the rise — evangelical Christianity and Islam. I remain in many ways a Comtean, and I don’t believe that a society can survive without religion.

[I]n your book you describe, in a very blurry and vague way, various world events, and yet the reader never knows quite what these are. This takes us into the realm of fantasy, doesn’t it, into the politics of fear.

Yes, perhaps. Yes, the book has a scary side. I use scare tactics.

Like imagining the prospect of Islam taking over the country?

Actually, it’s not clear what we are meant to be afraid of, nativists or Muslims. I leave that unresolved.

Have you asked yourself what the effect might be of a novel based on such a hypothesis?

None. No effect whatsoever.

You don’t think it will help reinforce the image of France that I just described, in which Islam hangs overhead like the sword of Damocles, like the most frightening thing of all?

In any case, that’s pretty much all the media talks about, they couldn’t talk about it more. It would be impossible to talk about it more than they already do, so my book won’t have any effect.

Doesn’t it make you want to write about something else so as not to join the pack?

No, part of my work is to talk about what everyone is talking about, objectively. I belong to my own time.

[Y]our book describes the replacement of the Catholic religion by Islam.

No. My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people. Catholicism, by contrast, is doing rather well. I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. We’ve seen it happen before, it could happen again.

You who have become an agnostic, you can look on cheerfully and watch the destruction of Enlightenment philosophy?

Yes. It has to happen sometime and it might as well be now. In this sense, too, I am a Comtean. We are in what he calls the metaphysical stage, which began in the Middle Ages and whose whole point was to destroy the phase that preceded it. In itself, it can produce nothing, just emptiness and unhappiness. So yes, I am hostile to Enlightenment philosophy, I need to make that perfectly clear.

[I]f Catholicism doesn’t work, that’s because it’s already run its course, it seems to belong to the past, it has defeated itself. Islam is an image of the future. Why has the idea of the Nation stalled out? Because it’s been abused too long.

Some might be surprised that you chose to go in this direction when your last book was greeted as such a triumph that it silenced your critics.

The true answer is that, frankly, I didn’t choose. The book started with a conversion to Catholicism that should have taken place but didn’t.

Isn’t there something despairing about this gesture, which you didn’t really choose?

The despair comes from saying good-bye to a civilization, however ancient. But in the end the Koran turns out to be much better than I thought, now that I’ve reread it — or rather, read it. The most obvious conclusion is that the jihadists are bad Muslims. Obviously, as with all religious texts, there is room for interpretation, but an honest reading will conclude that a holy war of aggression is not generally sanctioned, prayer alone is valid. So you might say I’ve changed my opinion. That’s why I don’t feel that I’m writing out of fear.

In its crudest expressions, the Clash of Cultures discourse presents a Christian West threatened by Islam, but many of those who reject this narrative use one that is no less polarizing. It presents secular moderates challenged by Islamic extremists — it’s still Religion vs. The Enlightenment, superstition vs. reason.

Much as the West promotes the idea of religious freedom in the context of civil liberties, religion is meant to be a private affair that doesn’t intrude into the social sphere outside the carefully circumscribed territories of church, temple, and mosque. We expect religious freedom to be coupled with religious restraint.

The real struggle, it seems to me, is not ultimately philosophical and theological — it’s not about the existence or non-existence of God. It’s about values.

What count are not values that serve as emblems of identity (often wrapped around nationalism), but instead those that guide individual action and shape society.

We profess values which are libertarian and egalitarian and yet have created societies in which the guiding values are those of materialism, competition, and personal autonomy — values that are all socially corrosive.

Society is relentlessly being atomized, reduced to a social unit of one, captured in the lonely image of the selfie. This is what we’ve been sold and what we’ve bought, but I don’t think it’s what we want.

Spellbound by technological progress, we have neither expected nor demanded that material advances should lead to social advances — that better equipped societies should also be better functioning, happier, more caring societies.

What the false promise of materially sustained, individual autonomy has created is the expectation that the more control we possess over life, the better it will get. We imagine that we must either be in control or fall under control.

From this vantage point, the concept of submission provokes fears of domination, and yet what it really all it means is to come into alignment with the way things are.

Where religion intrudes and so often fails is through the forcible imposition of rigid representations of such an alignment. But submission itself means seeing we belong to life — something that cannot be possessed or controlled.

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Why some Arabs are rejecting strict interpretations of Sharia

BBC Trending reports: A growing social media conversation in Arabic is calling for the implementation of Sharia, or Islamic law, to be abandoned.

Discussing religious law is a sensitive topic in many Muslim countries. But on Twitter, a hashtag which translates as “why we reject implementing Sharia” has been used 5,000 times in 24 hours. The conversation is mainly taking place in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The debate is about whether religious law is suitable for the needs of Arab countries and modern legal systems.

Dr Alyaa Gad, an Egyptian doctor living in Switzerland, started the hashtag. “I have nothing against religion,” she tells BBC Trending, but says she is against “using it as a political system”. Islamists often call for legal systems to be reformed to be consistent with Sharia principles, and some want harsh interpretations of criminal punishments to be implemented. Dr Gad says she is worried about young people adopting the extremes of this kind of thinking. “You see it everywhere now, Islamic State is spreading mentally as well as physically” she told BBC Trending. [Continue reading…]

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