Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think, a new documentary film from Unity Productions Foundation, explores the expertly gathered opinions of Muslims around the globe as revealed in the world’s first major opinion poll, conducted by Gallup, the preeminent polling organization.
November 29, 2009
America vs. The Narrative
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
What should we make of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who apparently killed 13 innocent people at Fort Hood?
Here’s my take: Major Hasan may have been mentally unbalanced — I assume anyone who shoots up innocent people is. But the more you read about his support for Muslim suicide bombers, about how he showed up at a public-health seminar with a PowerPoint presentation titled “Why the War on Terror Is a War on Islam,” and about his contacts with Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni cleric famous for using the Web to support jihadist violence against America — the more it seems that Major Hasan was just another angry jihadist spurred to action by “The Narrative.”
What is scary is that even though he was born, raised and educated in America, The Narrative still got to him.
The Narrative is the cocktail of half-truths, propaganda and outright lies about America that have taken hold in the Arab-Muslim world since 9/11. Propagated by jihadist Web sites, mosque preachers, Arab intellectuals, satellite news stations and books — and tacitly endorsed by some Arab regimes — this narrative posits that America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand “American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy” to keep Muslims down.
Yes, after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny — in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.
Although most of the Muslims being killed today are being killed by jihadist suicide bombers in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Indonesia, you’d never know it from listening to their world. The dominant narrative there is that 9/11 was a kind of fraud: America’s unprovoked onslaught on Islam is the real story, and the Muslims are the real victims — of U.S. perfidy.
Have no doubt: we punched a fist into the Arab/Muslim world after 9/11, partly to send a message of deterrence, but primarily to destroy two tyrannical regimes — the Taliban and the Baathists — and to work with Afghans and Iraqis to build a different kind of politics. In the process, we did some stupid and bad things. But for every Abu Ghraib, our soldiers and diplomats perpetrated a million acts of kindness aimed at giving Arabs and Muslims a better chance to succeed with modernity and to elect their own leaders.
The Narrative was concocted by jihadists to obscure that.
It’s working. As a Jordanian-born counterterrorism expert, who asked to remain anonymous, said to me: “This narrative is now omnipresent in Arab and Muslim communities in the region and in migrant communities around the world. These communities are bombarded with this narrative in huge doses and on a daily basis. [It says] the West, and right now mostly the U.S. and Israel, is single-handedly and completely responsible for all the grievances of the Arab and the Muslim worlds. Ironically, the vast majority of the media outlets targeting these communities are Arab-government owned — mostly from the Gulf.”
This narrative suits Arab governments. It allows them to deflect onto America all of their people’s grievances over why their countries are falling behind. And it suits Al Qaeda, which doesn’t need much organization anymore — just push out The Narrative over the Web and satellite TV, let it heat up humiliated, frustrated or socially alienated Muslim males, and one or two will open fire on their own. See: Major Hasan.
“Liberal Arabs like me are as angry as a terrorist and as determined to change the status quo,” said my Jordanian friend. The only difference “is that while we choose education, knowledge and success to bring about change, a terrorist, having bought into the narrative, has a sense of powerlessness and helplessness, which are inculcated in us from childhood, that lead him to believe that there is only one way, and that is violence.”
What to do? Many Arab Muslims know that what ails their societies is more than the West, and that The Narrative is just an escape from looking honestly at themselves. But none of their leaders dare or care to open that discussion. In his Cairo speech last June, President Obama effectively built a connection with the Muslim mainstream. Maybe he could spark the debate by asking that same audience this question:
“Whenever something like Fort Hood happens you say, ‘This is not Islam.’ I believe that. But you keep telling us what Islam isn’t. You need to tell us what it is and show us how its positive interpretations are being promoted in your schools and mosques. If this is not Islam, then why is it that a million Muslims will pour into the streets to protest Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, but not one will take to the streets to protest Muslim suicide bombers who blow up other Muslims, real people, created in the image of God? You need to explain that to us — and to yourselves.”
From Friday's Globe and Mail
Published on Friday, Jan. 15, 2010 12:00AM EST
Last updated on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2010 3:49AM EST
.Canadians queuing for the latest, most invasive airport screening measures may not take a lot of succour from an anti-terror religious ruling signed by 20 Islamic leaders. But terror and acute perversions of religion are inextricably linked. The fatwa is a welcome intervention by a moderate clerical leadership which has, by its relative silence, too often ceded ground to overseas extremists.
The fatwa was issued by imams associated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada. It deserves praise and a wider audience not just for its existence, but for its contents. Its denunciation of attacks against Canada and the United States is unequivocal and unconditional. There is no attempt to cite scripture to find reasons to condemn murder; rather, it is a given that murder is evil.
The emphasis, rather, is on the duty to stop violence, and in the service of this aim, the writers quote one of the sayings of Mohammed: "When people see a wrong-doer and do nothing to stop him, they may well be visited by God with a punishment." They remind their audience that Muslims in Canada and the U.S. are more free to practice their religion than those in many majority Muslim countries, and that "there is no conflict between the Islamic values of freedom and justice and the Canadian / U.S. values of freedom and justice."
The number of Islamic leaders who spew hate in Canada is small. But young Canadian Muslims are still vulnerable to international recruitment by terrorist entrepreneurs with Internet savvy. And trouble-makers who claim to speak for Islam may live in their midst, as the case of the Toronto 18 shows.
Muslim leaders cannot turn a blind eye to these threats, and cannot assume that what is good and right will win the day. Nor can they neglect the reality that most recent terrorist plots against North American targets have been formulated by Muslims in the name of religion.
It is too easy for a minority, extremist view to drown out the reasonable majority. Repeated, public statements by Muslim leaders that terrorist attacks are against Islam are necessary to inoculate against the hateful few.
In that endeavour, the fatwa is an unusually potent tool of political outreach and persuasion: Islam is a multi-faceted, decentralized religion, with many streams of thought and forms of practice. Authority is diffuse, and many adherents respect no single terrestrial power. If enough leaders sign on to this one, more potential extremists will hear the message, choose the right path and dissuade others from choosing the wrong path. North America will be safer for all.
A look around the Science Museum exhibition, '1001 Inventions: Discover the Muslim Heritage in Our World'.
From about 700 to 1700, many of history's finest scientists and technologists were to be found in the Muslim world.
In Christian Europe the light of scientific inquiry had largely been extinguished with the collapse of the Roman empire. But it survived, and indeed blazed brightly, elsewhere.
From Moorish Spain across North Africa to Damascus, Baghdad, Persia and all the way to India, scientists in the Muslim world were at the forefront of developments in medicine, astronomy, engineering, hydraulics, mathematics, chemistry, map-making and exploration.
A new touring exhibition, hosted by the Science Museum in London, celebrates their achievements.
There is a whole area of science that is literally just lost in translation
Dr Susan Mossman, Science Museum
Salim Al-Hassani, a former professor of engineering at Umist (University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology) is a moving force behind the exhibition, 1001 Inventions.
He calls it "edutainment": a series of displays devoted to different aspects of science meant to be both educational and entertaining.
"We hope to inspire the younger generation to take up a career in science and technology and to be interested in improving the quality of societies," he says.
Mix of cultures
Visitors to the exhibition will be greeted by a 20 ft high replica of a spectacular clock designed in 1206 by the inventor Al-Jazari.
It incorporates elements from many cultures, representing the different cultural and scientific traditions which combined and flowed through the Muslim world.
Young people took the chance to explore the interactive exhibits
The clock's base is an elephant, representing India; inside the elephant the water-driven works of the clock derive from ancient Greece.
A Chinese dragon swings down from the top of the clock to mark the hours. At the top is a phoenix, representing ancient Egypt.
Sitting astride the elephant and inside the framework of the clock are automata, or puppets, wearing Arab turbans.
Elsewhere in the exhibition are displays devoted to water power, the spread of education (one of the world's first universities was founded by a Muslim woman, Fatima al-Fihri), Muslim architecture and its influence on the modern world and Muslim explorers and geographers.
There is a display of 10th Century surgeons' instruments, a lifesize model of a man called Abbas ibn Firnas, allegedly the first person to have flown with wings, and a model of the vast 100 yard-long junk commanded by the Muslim Chinese navigator, Zheng He.
Outside the main exhibition is a small display of exhibits drawn from the Science Museum's own collection.
They include a 10th Century alembic for distilling liquids, an astrolable for determining geographical position (and the direction of Mecca - important for Muslims uncertain which way to face when praying).
Also on display is an algebra textbook published in England in 1702, whose preface traces the development of algebra from its beginnings in India, through Persia, the Arab world and to Europe.
Dr Susan Mossman, project director at the museum, says: "There is a whole area of science that is literally just lost in translation.
"Arabic and Muslim culture particularly is a little-known story in Britain. This is a real opportunity to show that hidden story."
She says the hands-on exhibition suits the museum's style, which she describes as "heavy-duty scholarship produced in a user-friendly way and underpinned by academic research".
She adds: "We are opening people's eyes to a new area of knowledge - a cultural richness of science and technology that has perhaps been neglected in this country."
There is one big question the exhibition does not address: why, after so many centuries, did the Muslim world's scientific leadership falter? From the 16th Century onwards it was in Europe that modern science developed, and where scientific breakthroughs increasingly occurred.
Visitors are able to get close up to the replica of the 13th century clock
Prof Al-Hassani has his own theory, though there are others. Science flourished in the Muslim world for so long, he believes, because it was seen as expanding knowledge in the interests of society as a whole.
But in the later Middle Ages, the Muslim world came under attack from Europeans (in the Crusades) and the Mongols (who sacked Baghdad in 1258) and the Ottoman Turks overran the remnants of the Byzantine empire, setting up a formidably centralised state.
The need for defence against external enemies combined with a strong centralised government which put less value on individuals' scientific endeavour resulted in an intellectual climate in which science simply failed to flourish, he says.
The free exhibition runs from 21 January to 25 April with a break between 25 February and 12 March.
BERLIN - A first-time German director's film about Muslims struggling to come to terms with unwanted pregnancy, homosexuality and other challenges to their beliefs debuted Wednesday at the Berlin film festival.
"Shahada," or "Faith," is one of 20 movies in the festival's main competition. The first feature film from Burhan Qurbani, a 29-year-old German Muslim, it is competing alongside offerings from more established figures including Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer."
Qurbani said the movie is meant as "a call to dialogue."
Set in Berlin, it has three interlinked episodes - following the daughter of an imam who turns radical following an illegal abortion; a young Nigerian who struggles, in the end successfully, to reconcile his faith with feelings for another man; and a policeman racked by guilt over an accident in which he shot a woman.
"I wanted to show in my film that Muslims and Islam are not only one face, Arabic, (with a) beard, but it's really colorful," the director said of the variety of characters in his film.
The liberal imam of the movie, who preaches that the Qur'an is a book of love and is keen to reconcile with his daughter, is "designed as an ideal," Qurbani said. "He's what I would like to have as an imam in my ideal mosque."
He seeks reconciliation with his daughter, who starts out as a very Westernized young woman but "moves into total radicalism out of a feeling of isolation, out of a feeling of not being seen and accepted," said Maryam Zaree, who plays her.
Qurbani said his aim was to explore "stories that take our figures to the extreme limit of what is bearable for them."
The Berlin festival's top Golden Bear prize and other winners will be announced Saturday.
Muhammad gets a makeover A British campaign peddles the softer side of Islam
Globe and Mail Update
Published on Thursday, Jun. 10, 2010 7:08PM EDT
Last updated on Friday, Jun. 11, 2010 7:11AM EDT
.Which multinational brand has the biggest image problem these days? BP? Toyota? Goldman Sachs?
How about Islam? Say what you will about those other entities: They don’t have to deal with the public’s fear of terrorism.
Last month, an opinion poll conducted by the online research firm YouGuv found 50 per cent of Britons associate Islam with terrorism, 69 per cent believe the religion encourages the repression of women and 41 per cent don’t feel Muslims have a positive impact on British society.
While the specific numbers might vary from one country to another, the impressions are similar across the West. Last Sunday, during a rally in lower Manhattan opposing a mosque planned for the former World Trade site, protesters held up signs that read, “All I need to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11.” Sure, that’s like saying, “All I need to know about Christianity, I learned during the Crusades.” But it points to a bald fact: Islam has some work to do.
Which is why this week large posters began appearing on the London Underground and at city bus stops featuring three Britons who are seeking to put a different face on the religion. In the most genre-busting ad, a blonde woman without a head covering smiles prettily from the shores of a lake, accompanied by text which reads: “I believe in protecting the environment. So did Muhammad.” The woman is Kristiane Backer, a former MTV Europe host and convert to Islam who is identified as an “eco-Muslim.”
Another ad features a female barrister in a veil with the text, “I believe in women’s rights. So did Muhammad.” A third has a man who is identified as a worker with a homeless charity, stating, “I believe in social justice. So did Muhammad.” The campaign extends to a handful of taxis painted colourfully with quotes from the prophet. The ads point to a Website, InspiredByMuhammad.com, where a dozen short videos offer a progressive Islamic take on subjects such as animal welfare, charity, education, health, and coexistence.
“We wanted to highlight areas that are buzz terms at the moment,” explained Remona Aly, a spokesperson for the Exploring Islam Foundation, the small group of young Muslim professionals which created and is sponsoring the campaign. “The environment is a really hot topic at the moment, and people are not aware Muslims are encouraged to care for the environment by the prophetic teachings and also the Koranic teachings.”
Noting the Foundation’s motto is “mainstreaming Islam,” she added that the campaign uses bright colours – hot pink, orange, pastel blue – to counter the religion’s usual image. “We wanted it to be attractive and accessible. Often people associate negativity – gloom, gloomy colours, black – with Islam, so we purposefully made it colourful so it would be more attractive.”
If the campaign’s goal – rehabilitating the battered reputation of an ancient religion – is unusual, its tactics are torn from the pages of contemporary marketing textbooks. Most marketers these days try to appeal to consumers by leveraging shared values: In recent months, Coca-Cola has heavily promoted its environmental bona fides while Pepsi is sponsoring community improvement projects around North America.
“You can’t throw a brick without hitting a cause-marketing campaign,” noted Mara Einstein, an associate professor of media studies at Queens College in New York, and the author of Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. “At this point, it’s the price of admission.”
The approach of InspiredByMuhammad fits in that mould. “You could have been selling Dawn dishwashing liquid or you could have been selling Islam, it’s all the same thing,” she said.
“You’re using the same emotional needs of people wanting to do good, but you’re using that to sell almost any product, and I consider religion to be a product.”
This is not the first time a mainstream ad campaign has tried to persuade Britons that Islam isn’t dominated by terrorists. After the July, 2005, London bombings, an ad-hoc organization quickly responded with a campaign known as “Islam is Peace.” A video in that effort inter-cut the smiling faces of children with text stating: “Islam is not about hostility … Islam is not violence.”
Mentions of hostility and violence are absent from the new campaign, which is designed to be upbeat, confident and optimistic. Asked to name the root causes of the misconceptions about Islam, Ms. Aly replied: “We’re not really into the blame game. Obviously, the nature of media is that it talks about crises or bad news, so because of that, unfortunately some tiny extremist elements have been highlighted in the press.”
While some believe the best way to repair Islam’s image is to reform the religion itself, Ms. Aly said the foundation is not interested in debating hardliners. “We haven’t entered into any dialogue with extremists, because we reject any extremism and we reject violence along with our fellow Britons, because they’re against the values of Islam or against the prophetic values.”
But if the campaign’s aim is to educate people about Islam’s progressive values, Ms. Einstein believes it’s missing the mark. “I never would have read those ads that way. I read those ads as proselytizing, as evangelism,” she said.
“By putting a person on it, saying ‘I believe in social justice and so did Muhammad,’ you’re giving the viewer of that advertising someone to connect to, and that’s how you sell a faith,” she explained. “If you wanted to change the impression of Islam, I’d think you’d actually show the good work, and not the person who believes in it.”
Ms. Einstein cited a campaign by the United Methodist Church in the United States that shows members working in underdeveloped countries. “If you actually showed Muslims going to Haiti, and helping with the earthquake, that would say to me you’re trying to change the image of the faith.”
Ms. Aly replied: “We do not seek to preach or proselytize. We simply wish to provide accurate and accessible information about Islam for a mainstream audience in order to foster better understanding between the diverse communities in Britain.”
But as it seeks to clean itself up, Islam may face the same sort of problem as BP: that advertising alone can’t fix an image until the core reason for that bad impression – be it an oil spill or terrorism – is solved.
In an e-mail discussion, Islamic critic Irshad Manji scoffed at the British campaign. “Mainstream Muslim behaviour is the reason so many Brits have a negative view of Islam,” she wrote. “They have not adequately challenged their spokespeople – the Muslim Council of Britain, for example – to become inclusive and pluralistic [or less insular and dogmatic]. Posters and videos don’t change that situation; they only seek to spin a happy image of a corrupt reality. I say it of British Muslims no less than of BP: don’t tell me what you believe. Show me what you do, and that tells me what you believe.”
August 7, 2010
Across Nation, Mosque Projects Meet Opposition
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
While a high-profile battle rages over a mosque near ground zero in Manhattan, heated confrontations have also broken out in communities across the country where mosques are proposed for far less hallowed locations.
In Murfreesboro, Tenn., Republican candidates have denounced plans for a large Muslim center proposed near a subdivision, and hundreds of protesters have turned out for a march and a county meeting.
In late June, in Temecula, Calif., members of a local Tea Party group took dogs and picket signs to Friday prayers at a mosque that is seeking to build a new worship center on a vacant lot nearby.
In Sheboygan, Wis., a few Christian ministers led a noisy fight against a Muslim group that sought permission to open a mosque in a former health food store bought by a Muslim doctor.
At one time, neighbors who did not want mosques in their backyards said their concerns were over traffic, parking and noise — the same reasons they might object to a church or a synagogue. But now the gloves are off.
In all of the recent conflicts, opponents have said their problem is Islam itself. They quote passages from the Koran and argue that even the most Americanized Muslim secretly wants to replace the Constitution with Islamic Shariah law.
These local skirmishes make clear that there is now widespread debate about whether the best way to uphold America’s democratic values is to allow Muslims the same religious freedom enjoyed by other Americans, or to pull away the welcome mat from a faith seen as a singular threat.
“What’s different is the heat, the volume, the level of hostility,” said Ihsan Bagby, associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky. “It’s one thing to oppose a mosque because traffic might increase, but it’s different when you say these mosques are going to be nurturing terrorist bombers, that Islam is invading, that civilization is being undermined by Muslims.”
Feeding the resistance is a growing cottage industry of authors and bloggers — some of them former Muslims — who are invited to speak at rallies, sell their books and testify in churches. Their message is that Islam is inherently violent and incompatible with America.
But they have not gone unanswered. In each community, interfaith groups led by Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, rabbis and clergy members of other faiths have defended the mosques. Often, they have been slower to organize than the mosque opponents, but their numbers have usually been larger.
The mosque proposed for the site near ground zero in Lower Manhattan cleared a final hurdle last week before the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg hailed the decision with a forceful speech on religious liberty. While an array of religious groups supported the project, opponents included the Anti-Defamation League, an influential Jewish group, and prominent Republicans like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker.
A smaller controversy is occurring in Temecula, about 60 miles north of San Diego, involving a typical stew of religion, politics and anti-immigrant sentiment. A Muslim community has been there for about 12 years and expanded to 150 families who have outgrown their makeshift worship space in a warehouse, said Mahmoud Harmoush, the imam, a lecturer at California State University, San Bernardino. The group wants to build a 25,000-square-foot center, with space for classrooms and a playground, on a lot it bought in 2000.
Mr. Harmoush said the Muslim families had contributed to the local food bank, sent truckloads of supplies to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and participated in music nights and Thanksgiving events with the local interfaith council.
“We do all these activities and nobody notices,” he said. “Now that we have to build our center, everybody jumps to make it an issue.”
Recently, a small group of activists became alarmed about the mosque. Diana Serafin, a grandmother who lost her job in tech support this year, said she reached out to others she knew from attending Tea Party events and anti-immigration rallies. She said they read books by critics of Islam, including former Muslims like Walid Shoebat, Wafa Sultan and Manoucher Bakh. She also attended a meeting of the local chapter of ACT! for America, a Florida-based group that says its purpose is to defend Western civilization against Islam.
“As a mother and a grandmother, I worry,” Ms. Serafin said. “I learned that in 20 years with the rate of the birth population, we will be overtaken by Islam, and their goal is to get people in Congress and the Supreme Court to see that Shariah is implemented. My children and grandchildren will have to live under that.”
“I do believe everybody has a right to freedom of religion,” she said. “But Islam is not about a religion. It’s a political government, and it’s 100 percent against our Constitution.”
Ms. Serafin was among an estimated 20 to 30 people who turned out to protest the mosque, including some who intentionally took dogs to offend those Muslims who consider dogs to be ritually unclean. But they were outnumbered by at least 75 supporters. The City of Temecula recently postponed a hearing on whether to grant the mosque a permit.
Larry Slusser, a Mormon and the secretary of the Interfaith Council of Murietta and Temecula, went to the protest to support the Muslim group. “I know them,” he said. “They’re good people. They have no ill intent. They’re good Americans. They are leaders in their professions.”
Of the protesters, he said, “they have fear because they don’t know them.”
Religious freedom is also at stake, Mr. Slusser said, adding, “They’re Americans, they deserve to have a place to worship just like everybody else.”
There are about 1,900 mosques in the United States, which run the gamut from makeshift prayer rooms in storefronts and houses to large buildings with adjoining community centers, according to a preliminary survey by Mr. Bagby, who conducted a mosque study 10 years ago and is now undertaking another.
A two-year study by a group of academics on American Muslims and terrorism concluded that contemporary mosques are actually a deterrent to the spread of militant Islam and terrorism. The study was conducted by professors with Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the University of North Carolina. It disclosed that many mosque leaders had put significant effort into countering extremism by building youth programs, sponsoring antiviolence forums and scrutinizing teachers and texts.
Radicalization of alienated Muslim youths is a real threat, Mr. Bagby said. “But the youth we worry about,” he said, “are not the youth that come to the mosque.”
In central Tennessee, the mosque in Murfreesboro is the third one in the last year to encounter resistance. It became a political issue when Republican candidates for governor and Congress declared their opposition. (They were defeated in primary elections on Thursday.)
A group called Former Muslims United put up a billboard saying “Stop the Murfreesboro Mosque.” The group’s president is Nonie Darwish, also the founder of Arabs for Israel, who spoke against Islam in Murfreesboro at a fund-raising dinner for Christians United for Israel, an evangelical organization led by the Rev. John Hagee.
“A mosque is not just a place for worship,” Ms. Darwish said in an interview. “It’s a place where war is started, where commandments to do jihad start, where incitements against non-Muslims occur. It’s a place where ammunition was stored.”
Camie Ayash, a spokeswoman for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, lamented that people were listening to what she called “total disinformation” on Islam.
She said her group was stunned when what began as one person raising zoning questions about the new mosque evolved into mass protests with marchers waving signs about Shariah.
“A lot of Muslims came to the U.S. because they respect the Constitution,” she said. “There’s no conflict with the U.S. Constitution in Shariah law. If there were, Muslims wouldn’t be living here.”
In Wisconsin, the conflict over the mosque was settled when the Town Executive Council voted unanimously to give the Islamic Society of Sheboygan a permit to use the former health food store as a prayer space.
Dr. Mansoor Mirza, the physician who owns the property, said he was trying to take the long view of the controversy.
“Every new group coming to this country — Jews, Catholics, Irish, Germans, Japanese — has gone through this,” Dr. Mirza said. “Now I think it’s our turn to pay the price, and eventually we will be coming out of this, too.”
August 16, 2010
The Muslims in the Middle
By WILLIAM DALRYMPLE
PRESIDENT OBAMA’S eloquent endorsement on Friday of a planned Islamic cultural center near the World Trade Center, followed by his apparent retreat the next day, was just one of many paradoxes at the heart of the increasingly impassioned controversy.
We have seen the Anti-Defamation League, an organization dedicated to ending “unjust and unfair discrimination,” seek to discriminate against American Muslims. We have seen Newt Gingrich depict the organization behind the center — the Cordoba Initiative, which is dedicated to “improving Muslim-West relations” and interfaith dialogue — as a “deliberately insulting” and triumphalist force attempting to built a monument to Muslim victory near the site of the twin towers.
Most laughably, we have seen politicians like Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for New York governor, question whether Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the principal figure behind the project, might have links to “radical organizations.”
The problem with such claims goes far beyond the fate of a mosque in downtown Manhattan. They show a dangerously inadequate understanding of the many divisions, complexities and nuances within the Islamic world — a failure that hugely hampers Western efforts to fight violent Islamic extremism and to reconcile Americans with peaceful adherents of the world’s second-largest religion.
Most of us are perfectly capable of making distinctions within the Christian world. The fact that someone is a Boston Roman Catholic doesn’t mean he’s in league with Irish Republican Army bomb makers, just as not all Orthodox Christians have ties to Serbian war criminals or Southern Baptists to the murderers of abortion doctors.
Yet many of our leaders have a tendency to see the Islamic world as a single, terrifying monolith. Had the George W. Bush administration been more aware of the irreconcilable differences between the Salafist jihadists of Al Qaeda and the secular Baathists of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the United States might never have blundered into a disastrous war, and instead kept its focus on rebuilding post-Taliban Afghanistan while the hearts and minds of the Afghans were still open to persuasion.
Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative is one of America’s leading thinkers of Sufism, the mystical form of Islam, which in terms of goals and outlook couldn’t be farther from the violent Wahhabism of the jihadists. His videos and sermons preach love, the remembrance of God (or “zikr”) and reconciliation. His slightly New Agey rhetoric makes him sound, for better or worse, like a Muslim Deepak Chopra. But in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, he is an infidel-loving, grave-worshiping apostate; they no doubt regard him as a legitimate target for assassination.
For such moderate, pluralistic Sufi imams are the front line against the most violent forms of Islam. In the most radical parts of the Muslim world, Sufi leaders risk their lives for their tolerant beliefs, every bit as bravely as American troops on the ground in Baghdad and Kabul do. Sufism is the most pluralistic incarnation of Islam — accessible to the learned and the ignorant, the faithful and nonbelievers — and is thus a uniquely valuable bridge between East and West.
The great Sufi saints like the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi held that all existence and all religions were one, all manifestations of the same divine reality. What was important was not the empty ritual of the mosque, church, synagogue or temple, but the striving to understand that divinity can best be reached through the gateway of the human heart: that we all can find paradise within us, if we know where to look. In some ways Sufism, with its emphasis on love rather than judgment, represents the New Testament of Islam.
While the West remains blind to the divisions and distinctions within Islam, the challenge posed by the Sufi vision of the faith is not lost on the extremists. This was shown most violently on July 2, when the Pakistani Taliban organized a double-suicide bombing of the Data Darbar, the largest Sufi shrine in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city. The attack took place on a Thursday night, when the shrine was at its busiest; 42 people were killed and 175 were injured.
This was only the latest in a series of assaults against Pakistan’s Sufis. In May, Peeru’s Cafe in Lahore, a cultural center where I had recently performed with a troupe of Sufi musicians, was bombed in the middle of its annual festival. An important site in a tribal area of the northwest — the tomb of Haji Sahib of Turangzai, a Sufi persecuted under British colonial rule for his social work — has been forcibly turned into a Taliban headquarters. Two shrines near Peshawar, the mausoleum of Bahadar Baba and the shrine of Abu Saeed Baba, have been destroyed by rocket fire.
Symbolically, however, the most devastating Taliban attack occurred last spring at the shrine of the 17th-century poet-saint Rahman Baba, at the foot of the Khyber Pass in northwest Pakistan. For centuries, the complex has been a place for musicians and poets to gather, and Rahman Baba’s Sufi verses had long made him the national poet of the Pashtuns living on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. “I am a lover, and I deal in love,” wrote the saint. “Sow flowers,/ so your surroundings become a garden./ Don’t sow thorns; for they will prick your feet./ We are all one body./ Whoever tortures another, wounds himself.”
THEN, about a decade ago, a Saudi-financed religious school, or madrasa, was built at the end of the path leading to the shrine. Soon its students took it upon themselves to halt what they see as the un-Islamic practices of Rahman Baba’s admirers. When I last visited it in 2003, the shrine-keeper, Tila Mohammed, described how young students were coming regularly to complain that his shrine was a center of idolatry and immorality.
“My family have been singing here for generations,” he told me. “But now these madrasa students come and tell us that what we do is wrong. They tell women to stay at home. This used to be a place where people came to get peace of mind. Now when they come here they just encounter more problems.”
Then, one morning in early March 2009, a group of Pakistani Taliban arrived at the shrine before dawn and placed dynamite packages around the squinches supporting the shrine’s dome. In the ensuing explosion, the mausoleum was destroyed, but at least nobody was killed. The Pakistani Taliban quickly took credit, blaming the shrine’s administrators for allowing women to pray and seek healing there.
The good news is that Sufis, though mild, are also resilient. While the Wahhabis have become dominant in northern Pakistan ever since we chose to finance their fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, things are different in Sindh Province in southern Pakistan. Sufis are putting up a strong resistance on behalf of the pluralist, composite culture that emerged in the course of a thousand years of cohabitation between Hinduism and Islam.
Last year, when I visited a shrine of the saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in the town of Sehwan, I was astonished by the strength and the openness of the feelings against those puritan mullahs who criticize as heresy all homage to Sufi saints.
“I feel that it is my duty to protect both the Sufi saints, just as they have protected me,” one woman told me. “Today in our Pakistan there are so many of these mullahs and Wahhabis who say that to pay respect to the saints in their shrines is heresy. Those hypocrites! They sit there reading their law books and arguing about how long their beards should be, and fail to listen to the true message of the prophet.”
There are many like her; indeed, until recently Sufism was the dominant form of Islam in South Asia. And her point of view shows why the West would do well to view Sufis as natural allies against the extremists. A 2007 study by the RAND Corporation found that Sufis’ open, intellectual interpretation of Islam makes them ideal “partners in the effort to combat Islamist extremism.”
Sufism is an entirely indigenous, deeply rooted resistance movement against violent Islamic radicalism. Whether it can be harnessed to a political end is not clear. But the least we can do is to encourage the Sufis in our own societies. Men like Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf should be embraced as vital allies, and we should have only contempt for those who, through ignorance or political calculation, attempt to conflate them with the extremists.
The U.S. began as a haven for Christian outcasts. But what religion fits our current zeitgeist? The answer may be Islam.
Americans tend to think of their country as, at the very least, a nominally Christian nation. Didn't the Pilgrims come here for freedom to practice their Christian religion? Don't Christian values of righteousness under God, and freedom, reinforce America's democratic, capitalist ideals?
True enough. But there's a new religion on the block now, one that fits the current zeitgeist nicely. It's Islam.
Islam is the third-largest and fastest growing religious community in the United States. This is not just because of immigration. More than 50% of America's six million Muslims were born here. Statistics like these imply some basic agreement between core American values and the beliefs that Muslims hold. Americans who make the effort to look beyond popular stereotypes to learn the truth of Islam are surprised to find themselves on familiar ground.
Is America a Muslim nation? Here are seven reasons the answer may be yes.
Islam is monotheistic. Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians. They also revere the same prophets as Judaism and Christianity, from Abraham, the first monotheist, to Moses, the law giver and messenger of God, to Jesus--not leaving out Noah, Job, or Isaiah along the way. The concept of a Judeo-Christian tradition only came to the fore in the 1940s in America. Now, as a nation, we may be transcending it, turning to a more inclusive "Abrahamic" view.
In January, President Bush grouped mosques with churches and synagogues in his inaugural address. A few days later, when he posed for photographers at a meeting of several dozen religious figures, the Shi'ite imam Muhammad Qazwini, of Orange County, Calif., stood directly behind Bush's chair like a presiding angel, dressed in the robes and turban of his south Iraqi youth.
Islam is democratic in spirit. Islam advocates the right to vote and educate yourself and pursue a profession. The Qur'an, on which Islamic law is based, enjoins Muslims to govern themselves by discussion and consensus. In mosques, there is no particular priestly hierarchy. With Islam, each individual is responsible for the condition of her or his own soul. Everyone stands equal before God.
Americans, who mostly associate Islamic government with a handful of tyrants, may find this independent spirit surprising, supposing that Muslims are somehow predisposed to passive submission. Nothing could be further from the truth. The dictators reigning today in the Middle East are not the result of Islamic principles. They are more a result of global economics and the aftermath of European colonialism. Meanwhile, like everyone else, average Muslims the world over want a larger say in what goes on in the countries where they live. Those in America may actually succeed in it. In this way,America is closer in spirit to Islam than many Arab countries.
Islam contains an attractive mystical tradition. Mysticism is grounded in the individual search for God. Where better to do that than in America, land of individualists and spiritual seekers? And who might better benefit than Americans from the centuries-long tradition of teachers and students that characterize Islam. Surprising as it may seem, America's best-selling poet du jour is a Muslim mystic named Rumi, the 800-year-old Persian bard and founder of the Mevlevi Path, known in the West as the Whirling Dervishes. Even book packagers are now rushing him into print to meet and profit from mainstream demand for this visionary. Translators as various as Robert Bly, Coleman Barks, and Kabir and Camille Helminski have produced dozens of books of Rumi's verse and have only begun to bring his enormous output before the English-speaking world. This is a concrete poetry of ecstasy, where physical reality and the longing for God are joined by flashes of metaphor and insight that continue to speak across the centuries.
Islam is egalitarian. From New York to California, the only houses of worship that are routinely integrated today are the approximately 4,000 Muslim mosques. That is because Islam is predicated on a level playing field, especially when it comes to standing before God. The Pledge of Allegiance (one nation, "under God") and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (all people are "created equal") express themes that are also basic to Islam.
Islam is often viewed as an aggressive faith because of the concept of jihad, but this is actually a misunderstood term. Because Muslims believe that God wants a just world, they tend to be activists, and they emphasize that people are equal before God. These are two reasons why African Americans have been drawn in such large numbers to Islam. They now comprise about one-third of all Muslims in America.
Meanwhile, this egalitarian streak also plays itself out in relations between the sexes. Muhammad, Islam's prophet, actually was a reformer in his day.
Following the Qur'an, he limited the number of wives a man could have and strongly recommended against polygamy. The Qur'an laid out a set of marriage laws that guarantees married women their family names, their own possessions and capital, the right to agree upon whom they will marry, and the right to initiate divorce. In Islam's early period, women were professionals and property owners, as increasingly they are today. None of this may seem obvious to most Americans because of cultural overlays that at times make Islam appear to be a repressive faith toward women--but if you look more closely, you can see the egalitarian streak preserved in the Qur'an finding expression in contemporary terms. In today's Iran, for example, more women than men attend university, and in recent local elections there, 5,000 women ran for public office.
Islam shares America's new interest in food purity and diet. Muslims conduct a month long fast during the holy month of Ramadan, a practice that many Americans admire and even seek to emulate. I happened to spend quite a bit of time with a non-Muslim friend during Ramadan this year. After a month of being exposed to a practice that brings some annual control to human consumption, my friend let me know, in January, that he was "doing a little Ramadan" of his own. I asked what he meant. "Well, I'm not drinking anything or smoking anything for at least a month, and I'm going off coffee." Given this friend's normal intake of coffee, I could not believe my ears.
Muslims also observe dietary laws that restrict the kind of meat they can eat. These laws require that the permitted, or halal, meat is prepared in a manner that emphasizes cleanliness and a humane treatment of animals. These laws ride on the same trends that have made organic foods so popular.
Islam is tolerant of other faiths. Like America, Islam has a history of respecting other religions. In Muhammad's day, Christians, Sabeans, and Jews in Muslim lands retained their own courts and enjoyed considerable autonomy. As Islam spread east toward India and China, it came to view Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism as valid paths to salvation. As Islam spread north and west, Judaism especially benefited. The return of the Jews to Jerusalem, after centuries as outcasts, only came about after Muslims took the city in 638. The first thing the Muslims did there was to rescue the Temple Mount, which by then had been turned into a garbage heap.
Today, of course, the long discord between Israel and Palestine has acquired harsh religious overtones. Yet the fact remains that this is a battle for real estate, not a war between two faiths. Islam and Judaism revere the same prophetic lineage, back to Abraham, and no amount of bullets or barbed wire can change that. As The New York Times recently reported, while Muslim/Jewish tensions sometimes flare on university campuses, lately these same students have found ways to forge common links. For one thing, the two religions share similar dietary laws, including ritual slaughter and a prohibition on pork. Joining forces at Dartmouth this fall, the first kosher/halal dining hall is scheduled to open its doors this autumn. That isn't all: They're already planning a joint Thanksgiving dinner, with birds dressed at a nearby farm by a rabbi and an imam. If the American Pilgrims were watching now, they'd be rubbing their eyes with amazement. And, because they came here fleeing religious persecution, they might also understand.
Islam encourages the pursuit of religious freedom. The Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock is not the world's first story of religious emigration. Muhammad and his little band of 100 followers fled religious persecution, too, from Mecca in the year 622. They only survived by going to Madinah, an oasis a few hundred miles north, where they established a new community based on a religion they could only practice secretly back home. No wonder then that, in our own day, many Muslims have come here as pilgrims from oppression, leaving places like Kashmir, Bosnia, and Kosovo, where being a Muslim may radically shorten your life span. When the 20th century's list of emigrant exiles is added up, it will prove to be heavy with Muslims, that's for sure.
All in all, there seems to be a deep resonance between Islam and the United States. Although one is a world religion and the other is a sovereign nation, both are traditionally very strong on individual responsibility. Like New Hampshire's motto, "Live Free or Die," America is wedded to individual liberty and an ethic based on right action. For a Muslim, spiritual salvation depends on these. This is best expressed in a popular saying: Even when you think God isn't watching you, act as if he is.
Who knows? Perhaps it won't be long now before words like salat (Muslim prayer) and Ramadan join karma and Nirvana in Webster's Dictionary, and Muslims take their place in America's mainstream.
Michael Wolfe is the author of books of poetry, fiction, travel, and history. His most recent works are a pair of books from Grove Press on the pilgrimage to Mecca: "The Hajj" (1993), a first-person travel account, and "One Thousand Roads to Mecca" (1997), an anthology of 10 centuries of travelers writing about the Muslim pilgrimage. In April 1997, he hosted a televised account of the Hajj from Mecca for Ted Koppel's "Nightline" on ABC. He is currently at work on a four-hour television documentary on the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad.
September 18, 2010
Message to Muslims: I’m Sorry
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Many Americans have suggested that more moderate Muslims should stand up to extremists, speak out for tolerance, and apologize for sins committed by their brethren.
That’s reasonable advice, and as a moderate myself, I’m going to take it. (Throat clearing.) I hereby apologize to Muslims for the wave of bigotry and simple nuttiness that has lately been directed at you. The venom on the airwaves, equating Muslims with terrorists, should embarrass us more than you. Muslims are one of the last minorities in the United States that it is still possible to demean openly, and I apologize for the slurs.
I’m inspired by another journalistic apology. The Portland Press Herald in Maine published an innocuous front-page article and photo a week ago about 3,000 local Muslims praying together to mark the end of Ramadan. Readers were upset, because publication coincided with the ninth anniversary of 9/11, and they deluged the paper with protests.
So the newspaper published a groveling front-page apology for being too respectful of Muslims. “We sincerely apologize,” wrote the editor and publisher, Richard Connor, and he added: “we erred by at least not offering balance to the story and its prominent position on the front page.” As a blog by James Poniewozik of Time paraphrased it: “Sorry for Portraying Muslims as Human.”
I called Mr. Connor, and he seems like a nice guy. Surely his front page isn’t reserved for stories about Bad Muslims, with articles about Good Muslims going inside. Must coverage of law-abiding Muslims be “balanced” by a discussion of Muslim terrorists?
Ah, balance — who can be against that? But should reporting of Pope Benedict’s trip to Britain be “balanced” by a discussion of Catholic terrorists in Ireland? And what about journalism itself?
I interrupt this discussion of peaceful journalism in Maine to provide some “balance.” Journalists can also be terrorists, murderers and rapists. For example, radio journalists in Rwanda promoted genocide.
I apologize to Muslims for another reason. This isn’t about them, but about us. I want to defend Muslims from intolerance, but I also want to defend America against extremists engineering a spasm of religious hatred.
Granted, the reason for the nastiness isn’t hard to understand. Extremist Muslims have led to fear and repugnance toward Islam as a whole. Threats by Muslim crazies just in the last few days forced a Seattle cartoonist, Molly Norris, to go into hiding after she drew a cartoon about Muhammad that went viral.
And then there’s 9/11. When I recently compared today’s prejudice toward Muslims to the historical bigotry toward Catholics, Mormons, Jews and Asian-Americans, many readers protested that it was a false parallel. As one, Carla, put it on my blog: “Catholics and Jews did not come here and kill thousands of people.”
That’s true, but Japanese did attack Pearl Harbor and in the end killed far more Americans than Al Qaeda ever did. Consumed by our fears, we lumped together anyone of Japanese ancestry and rounded them up in internment camps. The threat was real, but so were the hysteria and the overreaction.
Radicals tend to empower radicals, creating a gulf of mutual misunderstanding and anger. Many Americans believe that Osama bin Laden is representative of Muslims, and many Afghans believe that the Rev. Terry Jones (who talked about burning Korans) is representative of Christians.
Many Americans honestly believe that Muslims are prone to violence, but humans are too complicated and diverse to lump into groups that we form invidious conclusions about. We’ve mostly learned that about blacks, Jews and other groups that suffered historic discrimination, but it’s still O.K. to make sweeping statements about “Muslims” as an undifferentiated mass.
In my travels, I’ve seen some of the worst of Islam: theocratic mullahs oppressing people in Iran; girls kept out of school in Afghanistan in the name of religion; girls subjected to genital mutilation in Africa in the name of Islam; warlords in Yemen and Sudan who wield AK-47s and claim to be doing God’s bidding.
But I’ve also seen the exact opposite: Muslim aid workers in Afghanistan who risk their lives to educate girls; a Pakistani imam who shelters rape victims; Muslim leaders who campaign against female genital mutilation and note that it is not really an Islamic practice; Pakistani Muslims who stand up for oppressed Christians and Hindus; and above all, the innumerable Muslim aid workers in Congo, Darfur, Bangladesh and so many other parts of the world who are inspired by the Koran to risk their lives to help others. Those Muslims have helped keep me alive, and they set a standard of compassion, peacefulness and altruism that we should all emulate.
I’m sickened when I hear such gentle souls lumped in with Qaeda terrorists, and when I hear the faith they hold sacred excoriated and mocked. To them and to others smeared, I apologize.
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March 5, 2011
Is Islam the Problem?
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
A wise visitor from outer space who dropped in on Earth a millennium ago might have assumed that the Americas would eventually be colonized not by primitive Europeans but by the more advanced Arab civilization — and that as a result we Americans would all be speaking Arabic today.
Yet after about 1200, the Middle East took a long break: it stagnated economically, and today it is marked by high levels of illiteracy and autocracy. So as the region erupts in protests seeking democracy, a basic question arises: What took so long? And, a politically incorrect question: Could the reason for the Middle East’s backwardness be Islam?
The sociologist Max Weber and other scholars have argued that Islam is inherently a poor foundation for capitalism, and some have pointed in particular to Islamic qualms about paying interest on loans.
But that doesn’t seem right. Other experts note that Islam in some ways is more pro-business than other major religions. The Prophet Muhammad was a successful merchant and much more sympathetic to the wealthy than Jesus was. And the Middle East was a global center of culture and commerce in, say, the 12th century: if Islam stifles business now, why didn’t it then?
As for hostility toward interest on loans, similar teachings are found in Jewish and Christian texts, and what the Koran bans isn’t interest as such but “riba,” an extreme form of usury that could lead to enslavement for failing to pay debts. Until the late 18th century, Muslims were as likely to be money-lenders in the Middle East as Christians or Jews. And today paying interest is routine even in the most conservative Muslim countries.
Many Arabs have an alternative theory about the reason for the region’s backwardness: Western colonialism. But that seems equally specious and has the sequencing wrong. “For all its discontents, the Middle East’s colonial period brought fundamental transformation, not stagnation; rising literacy and education, not spreading ignorance; and enrichment at unprecedented rates, not immiserization,” writes Timur Kuran, a Duke University economic historian, in a meticulously researched new book, “The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East.”
Professor Kuran’s book offers the best explanation yet for why the Middle East has lagged. After poring over ancient business records, Professor Kuran persuasively argues that what held the Middle East back wasn’t Islam as such, or colonialism, but rather various secondary Islamic legal practices that are no longer relevant today.
It’s a sophisticated argument that a column can’t do justice to, but for example, one impediment was inheritance law. Western systems most commonly passed all property intact to the eldest son, thus preserving large estates. In contrast, Islamic law stipulated a much fairer division of assets (including some to daughters), but this meant that large estates fragmented. One upshot was that private capital accumulation faltered and couldn’t support major investments to usher in an industrial revolution.
Professor Kuran also focuses on the Islamic partnership, which tended to be the vehicle for businesses. Islamic partnerships dissolved whenever any member died, and so they tended to include only a few partners — making it difficult to compete with European industrial and financial corporations backed by hundreds of shareholders.
The emergence of banks in Europe led long-term British interest rates to drop by two-thirds leading up to the Industrial Revolution. No such drop occurred in the Arab world until the colonial period.
These traditional impediments are no longer a problem in the 21st century. Muslim countries now have banks, corporations, and stock and bond markets, and inheritance law now isn’t an obstacle to capital accumulation. So if Professor Kuran’s diagnosis is correct, that should bode well for the region — and Turkey’s boom in recent years underscores the potential for a renaissance.
Yet one challenge is psychological. Many Arabs blame outsiders for their backwardness, and cope by rejecting modernity and the outside world. It’s a disgrace that an area that once produced outstanding science and culture (giving us words like algebra) now is an educational underachiever, especially for girls.
The crisis in the Arab world provides a chance for a new start. I hope we’ll have some tough, honest conversations on all sides about what went wrong — as a starting point for a new and more hopeful trajectory.
The Muslim Brotherhood has often used the slogan, “Islam is the solution.” And to the West, the unstated feeling upon looking across the bleak Middle East landscape has often been: “Islam is the problem.” Professor Kuran’s research suggests that, at least looking forward, the more correct view is: Islam isn’t the problem and it isn’t the solution, it’s simply a religion — meaning that the break is over, there are no excuses, and it’s time to move forward again.
I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.
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