Saudi Arabia's Shia press for rights
By Anees al-Qudaihi
BBC Arabic Service
Underlying tensions between Sunni and Shia in the Middle East have escalated to full-scale crises in the past few years in countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and, most recently, in Saudi Arabia.
Although they only represent 15% of the overall Saudi population of more than 25 million, Shia are the dominant population, according to the International Crisis Group, in key towns such as Qatif, Dammam, and al-Hasa, which are home to the largest oil fields and processing and refining facilities.
In February, clashes between Shia Muslims and the religious police in Madina, Islam's second holiest city, triggered a wave of unrest, resulting in the arrest of dozens of people.
Tensions were eased by King Abdullah's decision to release all the detainees but the situation remains volatile.
Many Shias in Saudi Arabia relate far more to fellow Shia in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Bahrain, than with fellow Saudis who follow the puritan Wahhabi school of Islam. Wahabbis often class the Shia as heretics, or even to have left the faith entirely.
And at a time when many Arab officials point to the predominantly Shia Iran as the most serious security threat they face, there is a general attitude in the Arabic media that suggests Saudi Shia are somehow led by or follow an Iranian agenda.
But Saudi Shias deny this and say they face unfair discrimination.
Accusations of discrimination are backed by many western governments, led by the United States, which repeatedly express their concerns about religious freedom in Saudi Arabia.
“ Activity by the opposition both at home and abroad are clear indications of the need for change and for an end to deeply rooted grievances which the Shias have suffered ”
Fouad Ibrahim Saudi opposition activist based in London
In 1913 King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, founder of the kingdom, promised Shia safety and freedom of worship when their representatives swore allegiance to his government.
But Tawfik al-Saif, a Saudi political activist, told the BBC that he does not think the promises were honoured.
"There are lots of problems each of which has the potential to trigger unrest. However, the Saudi elite, both the Shia and Sunni, is determined to stop public disorder whether motivated by internal or external agents."
Mr Saif believes that only if the government introduces wide-reaching political and social reforms can long-term stability be achieved.
Shias want equal opportunities in government and the military as well as freedom of worship.
They want to be able to build their own mosques, have their civil courts granted more power and to print their own religious books.
The Shia of Saudi Arabia have not been able to avoid the effects of instability in the region.
In 1979, the leaders of Iran's Islamic revolution called for change across the Middle East.
The calls lead to Shia protests Qatif, and dozens of people were killed.
During the 1980s, sectarian tensions led many Saudi Shia to go into exile, mainly to Iran, Syria, the UK and the United States.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 which brought that country's majority Shias to power, resulted in calls for equality in many countries in the Gulf.
Shia liberals, including left-wing intellectuals, are a relatively small minority within their community and are far less organised than the Islamists.
Nevertheless, religious activists have combined with their liberal coreligionists, as well as Sufis, to call for more respect for human rights in Saudi Arabia.
In its report, entitled The Shia Question in Saudi Arabia, the International Crisis Group said that King Abdullah, widely believed to have been at the forefront of efforts to engage Shia and promote their integration, may now be in a position to effect greater change.
But the leaders of a newly established opposition movement, Khalas (Deliverance), say that during the past 15 years there have been plenty opportunities for the government to reform its policy towards the Shia but they have been found wanting.
Dr Fouad Ibrahim, a Saudi activist based in London, says the recent murmurings in the Eastern Province could be described as a manifestation of disappointment among Shias who have waited for promised reforms for so long.
"Activity by the opposition both at home and abroad are clear indications of the need for change and for an end to deeply rooted grievances which the Shias have suffered," Dr Ibrahim told BBC.
Dr Ibrahim says the Saudi government has failed to integrate the Shia with other minorities, including the Ismaili community in the South and Sufis in the Hijaz.
But Mr Saif believes that while the Shia want an end to discrimination they are committed to negotiating a settlement to their grievances.
The article below highlights the drawbacks to the recent "religious defamation" resolution engineered by the Islamic states, which can go counter to the spirit of pluralism by potentially normatizing one interpretation by restricting criticism and nuance...
Religion and human rights
The meaning of freedom
Apr 2nd 2009
From The Economist print edition
Why freedom of speech must include the right to “defame” religions
Illustration by Peter Schrank
AT FIRST glance, the resolution on “religious defamation” adopted by the UN’s Human Rights Council on March 26th, mainly at the behest of Islamic countries, reads like another piece of harmless verbiage churned out by a toothless international bureaucracy. What is wrong with saying, as the resolution does, that some Muslims faced prejudice in the aftermath of September 2001? But a closer look at the resolution’s language, and the context in which it was adopted (with an unholy trio of Pakistan, Belarus and Venezuela acting as sponsors), makes clear that bigger issues are at stake.
The resolution says “defamation of religions” is a “serious affront to human dignity” which can “restrict the freedom” of those who are defamed, and may also lead to the incitement of violence. But there is an insidious blurring of categories here, which becomes plain when you compare this resolution with the more rigorous language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 in a spirit of revulsion over the evils of fascism. This asserts the right of human beings in ways that are now entrenched in the theory and (most of the time) the practice of liberal democracy. It upholds the right of people to live in freedom from persecution and arbitrary arrest; to hold any faith or none; to change religion; and to enjoy freedom of expression, which by any fair definition includes freedom to agree or disagree with the tenets of any religion.
In other words, it protects individuals—not religions, or any other set of beliefs. And this is a vital distinction. For it is not possible systematically to protect religions or their followers from offence without infringing the right of individuals.
What exactly is it the drafters of the council resolution are trying to outlaw? To judge from what happens in the countries that lobbied for the vote—like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan—they use the word “defamation” to mean something close to the crime of blasphemy, which is in turn defined as voicing dissent from the official reading of Islam. In many of the 56 member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which has led the drive to outlaw “defamation”, both non-Muslims and Muslims who voice dissent (even in technical matters of Koranic interpretation) are often victims of just the sort of persecution the 1948 declaration sought to outlaw. That is a real human-rights problem. And in the spirit of fairness, laws against blasphemy that remain on the statute books of some Western countries should also be struck off; only real, not imaginary, incitement of violence should be outlawed.
Good manners, please; not censorship
In much of the Muslim world, the West’s reaction to the attacks of September 2001, including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, has been misread as an attack on Islam itself. This is more than regrettable; it is dangerous. Western governments, and decent people everywhere, should try to ensure that the things they say do not entrench religious prejudice or incite acts of violence; being free to give offence does not mean you are wise to give offence. But no state, and certainly no body that calls itself a Human Rights Council, should trample on the right to free speech enshrined in the Universal Declaration. And in the end, given that all faiths have undergone persecution at some time, few people have more to gain from the protection of free speech than sincere religious believers.
The United States, with its tradition of combining strong religious beliefs and religious freedom, is well placed to make that case. Having taken a politically risky decision (see article) to re-engage with the Human Rights Council and seek election as one of its 47 members, America should now make the defence of real religious liberty one of its highest priorities.
August 31, 2009
Memo From Cairo
Hints of Pluralism in Egyptian Religious Debates
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
CAIRO — Writing in his weekly newspaper column, Gamal al-Banna said recently that God had created humans as fallible and therefore destined to sin. So even a scantily clad belly dancer, or for that matter a nude dancer, should not automatically be condemned as immoral, but should be judged by weighing that person’s sins against her good deeds.
This view is provocative in Egypt’s conservative society, where many argue that such thinking goes against the hard and fast rules of divine law. Within two hours of the article’s posting last week on the Web site of Al Masry al Youm, readers had left more than 30 comments — none supporting his position.
“So a woman can dance at night and pray in the morning; this is duplicity and ignorance,” wrote a reader who identified himself as Hany. “Fear God and do not preach impiety.”
Still, Mr. Banna was pleased because at least his ideas were being circulated. Mr. Banna, who is 88 years old and is the brother of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been preaching liberal Islamic views for decades.
But only now, he said, does he have the chance to be heard widely. It is not that a majority agrees with him; it is not that the tide is shifting to a more moderate interpretative view of religion; it is just that the rise of relatively independent media — like privately owned newspapers, satellite television channels and the Internet — has given him access to a broader audience.
And there is another reason: The most radical and least flexible thinkers no longer intimidate everyone with differing views into silence.
“Everything has its time,” Mr. Banna said, seated in his dusty office crammed with bookshelves that stretch from floor to ceiling.
It is a testament to how little public debate there has been over the value of pluralism, or more specifically of the role of religion in society, that so many see the mere chance to provoke as progress. But now, more than any time in many years, there are people willing to risk challenging conventional thinking, said writers, academics and religious thinkers like Mr. Banna.
“There is a relative development, enough to at least be able to present a different opinion that confronts the oppressive religious current which prevails in politics and on the street, and which has made the state try to outbid the religious groups,” said Gamal Asaad, a former member of Parliament and a Coptic intellectual.
It is difficult to say exactly why this is happening. Some of those who have begun to speak up say they are acting in spite of — and not with the encouragement of — the Egyptian government. Political analysts said that the government still tried to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but tolerated Islamic movement, to present itself as the guardian of conservative Muslim values.
Several factors have changed the public debate and erased some of the fear associated with challenging conventional orthodoxy, political analysts, academics and social activists said. These include a disillusionment and growing rejection of the more radical Islamic ideology associated with Al Qaeda, they said. At the same time, President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world has quieted the accusation that the United States is at war with Islam, making it easier for liberal Muslims to promote more Western secular ideas, Egyptian political analysts said.
“It is not a strategic or transformational change, but it is a relative change,” said Mr. Asaad, who emphasized that the dynamic was for Christians as well as Muslims in Egypt. “And the civil forces can unite to capitalize on this atmosphere and invest in it to raise it to become a more general atmosphere.”
Two events this summer highlighted the new willingness of a minority to confront the majority — and the overwhelming response by a still conservative community.
In June, a writers’ committee affiliated with the Ministry of Culture gave a prestigious award to Sayyid al-Qimni, a sharp critic of Islamic fundamentalism who in 2005 stopped writing, disavowed his own work and moved after receiving death threats for his writing.
Muhammad Salmawy, a committee member and president of the Egyptian Writers’ Union, said he thought Mr. Qimni had been honored in part because “he represents the secular direction and discusses religion on an objective basis and is against the religious current.”
What happened next followed a predictable path, but then veered. Islamic fundamentalists like Sheik Youssef al-Badri asked the government to revoke the award and moved to file a lawsuit against Mr. Qimni and the government.
“Salman Rushdie was less of a disaster than Sayyid al-Qimni,” said Mr. Badri in a television appearance on O TV, an independent Egyptian satellite channel. “Salman Rushdie, everyone attacked him because he destroyed Islam overtly. But Sayyid al-Qimni is attacking Islam and destroying it tactfully, tastefully and politely.”
But this time Mr. Qimni did not go into hiding. He appeared on the television show, sitting beside Sheik Badri as he defended himself.
A second development involved a religious minority, Bahais, who face discrimination in Egypt, where the only legally recognized faiths are Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Nine years ago the state stopped issuing identification records to Bahais unless they agreed to characterize themselves as members of one of the three recognized faiths. The documents are essential for access to all government services.
An independent group, The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, won a court order on behalf of the Bahais that forced the government to issue records leaving the religious identification blank. The first cards were issued this month. While the decision was aimed specifically at solving the problem faced by the Bahai community, the case tapped into the evolving debate, said the group’s executive director, Hossam Bahgat.
“It is an unprecedented move to recognize that one can be Egyptian and not adhere to one of these three religions,” Mr. Bahgat said. Still, he remains less than optimistic; most of the public reaction to the Bahais’ legal victory was negative, Mr. Bahgat said.
“It is known that you are apostates,” read one of many comments posted on Al Youm Al Sabei, an online newspaper.
But there has been at least a hint of diversity and debate in response to Mr. Banna’s remarks on belly dancers. Hours after they were posted, some readers began, however tentatively, to come to his defense. “Take it easy on the man,” an anonymous post said. “He did not issue a religious edict saying belly dancing is condoned. But he is saying that a person’s deeds will be weighed out because God is just. Is anything wrong with that?”
LONDON, Oct 24 (APP): A leading scholar has spoken of common roots of Muslim and European cultures and in discussing examples of their dynamic interactions has debunked claims of “clash of civilisation” in the wake of 9/11 events.
Dr.Kathryn Spellman Poots, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at The Aga Khan University, London campus, spoke on the topic of ‘Gender and Identity in Muslim Cultures: The interlacing of Europe and the Muslim World’ at the Houses of Parliament on Friday evening.
The event was organised by Conservative Muslim Forum which is headed by Lord Altaf Sheikh.
Dr.Poots explored the diversity of gender identities, expectations and realities in Muslim cultures. She challenged stereotypical understandings of gender relations in Muslim societies and highlighted multiple and changing constructs of gender roles both historically and in contemporary contexts.
She looked at various ways that Muslim women and men have reproduced, transgressed and challenged gender hierarchies by engaging in scholarship, activism and the creative arts.
She drew parallel between conservatism of Iranian women and their Libyan counterparts for whom the Government has decreed military service as compulsory and the liberalism among the Turkish women.
Dr.Poots said the British Muslims enjoy many greater rights than their counterparts in other Muslim countries specially those of the Middle East. She praised the measures adopted by the British Red Cross Society to collect blood from donors on the occasion of ‘Ashura’, the tenth of Muharram rather than allow the mourners to indulge in self-flagellation as an act of penance to mark the martyrdom of Hazrat Ali.
Speaking on the occasion Lord Sheikh said the British Muslims have done very well in every walk of life in the UK and hold key positions in the financial and IT sectors.
However, he expressed his disappointment over lack of general interest on the part of the UK Muslim community to join Police or the Armed Forces and said the community leaders ought to encourage young people to join these two professions as this will further help to contribute positively towards the British society.
Saudi authorities close two more Shia mosques
Mon, 09 Nov 2009 17:36:37 GMT
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The Ismaili Mosque in Khobar was closed by cement blocks.
The number of Shia mosques closed in Saudi Arabia has reached nine after authorities sealed shut two more mosques in the Kingdom's Eastern Province.
According to the Rasid News Network, security forces closed the only Ismaili mosque in Ras Tanura and have been preventing Shia citizens from performing daily prayers since last Friday.
The Shia mosque of Abqaiq was closed on the same day and some online sources reported the closure of another Shia mosque in Jubail.
Authorities also ordered all Shia mosques to be closed in the cities of Khobar, Dammam and Khafji last month and issued orders banning Shias from building mosques outside Najran and religious centers and cemeteries outside Qatif and Al-Hassa.
Shia Muslims, who comprise nearly one-fourth of the Saudi population, have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens in the Kingdom.
The Saudi government has been closing Shia mosques using various excuses, and has refused to issue building permits for the erection of new places of worship.
A recent report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) strongly lashed out at Saudi Arabia over its” systemic state discrimination" against Shia Muslims across the Kingdom, saying that the unfavorable treatment of Shia Muslims "extends from education and employment to the justice system."
The publication 500 Most Influential Muslims contains information about 500 most infuential Muslims based upon the diverse socio/economic/cultural/political criteria of the Umma. MHI is one of them. It can be accessed at:
Saturday, January 30, 2010 - A Glimpse of Islam in America
AIF will bring together representatives from different Islamic communities for a discussion about similarities, differences and how to work together.
Melissa Robinson - American Islamic Fellowship, Independent
Dr. Saeed Raees - Sunni
Fereydoun Taslimi - Quranist
Melody Moezzi - Progressive/Liberal
Andreyah James - Nation of Islam
Jannah Godlas - Sufism
Dorrah Nensey - Ismaili
•Nation of Islam
1. To raise audience awareness (both Muslim and Non-Muslim) of some of the many different expressions of Islam in the United States.
2. To familiarize the audience with some unique characteristics of these expressions of American Islam.
3. To share unique ways these various facets enhance the greater Islamic community as well as the society at large.
4. To demonstrate tolerance, respect, understanding, cooperation and value in the discussion of differences of faith and practice as fellow seekers of God's Mercy and Grace.
5. To spiritually enrich the panelists and audience in the discussion of faith and help us strengthen our faith/ submission to God and to serve our communities in more compassionate and grace-filled ways.
February 5 Discussion Meeting
Follow-up to A Glimpse of Islam in America Panel
Two Securities Building - 3500 Piedmont Rd, Atlanta, GA 30305 (map)
AIF will continue its dialogue from the January 30 Islamic Intrafaith Panel with a discussion about American Islam. The group will also look for ways to further the goals set during the panel discussion, which include raising awareness of different Islamic expressions in the United States, familiarizing people with some of the unique expressions of American Islam and sharing unique ways the various facets of American Islam can enrich both the greater Islamic community and society at large.
Thousands of Egyptian Muslims Show Up as "Human Shields" to Defend Coptic Christians From Terorism
Saturday 08 January 2011
by: Zaid Jilani | ThinkProgress | Report
On New Year’s Day, a devastating terrorist bombing at a Coptic church in Egypt killed 21 people and injured 79 others. Although the identity of the culprits was not known, it was assumed that they were Muslim extremists, intent on targeting those they saw as heretics. Religious tensions immediately rose in the country, and angry Copts stormed streets, battled with police, and even vandalized a nearby mosque. The riots and heightened tensions between the Muslim and Coptic communities was likely what the terrorists wanted — to divide the Egyptian community and create sectarian strife between different religious groups.
Yet by Coptic Christmas Eve, which took place Thursday night in Egypt, things had changed completely. As Egyptian Copts attended mass at churches across the country, “thousands” of Muslims, including “the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak,” joined them, acting as “human shields” to protect from terrorist attacks by extremists. The Muslims organized under the slogan “We either live together, or we die together,” inspired by Mohamed El-Sawy, an Egyptian artist:
Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside. From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.
“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea. Among those shields were movie stars Adel Imam and Yousra, popular preacher Amr Khaled, the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak, and thousands of citizens who have said they consider the attack one on Egypt as a whole. “This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”
Al Jazeera English covered the attacks and reported from the site of one of the solidarity events where Muslims and Christians stood side by side, protesting discrimination against Copts and calling for an end to violence. Watch it:
It is a frequent complaint among opinion makers in the United States that the global Muslim community does not condemn and prevent terrorism. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has even said that Islam needs a civil war similar to the one the United States fought in order to deal with its extremists. But the truth is that moderate and progressive Muslims all over the world are battling extremism. Here in the United States, one-third of al-Qaeda related terror plots have been broken up thanks to intelligence provided by Muslim Americans. It is up to the press to report these positive stories and not exaggerate the sway that extremists hold over the global Muslim community.
ZULFIKAR HIRJI IN CONVERSATION WITH SHENIZ JANMOHAMED AT “DIVERSITY AND PLURALISM IN ISLAM” LAUNCH
How do Muslims talk about their own diversity and deal with their internal differences? How did the perception arise that all Muslims are the same and why is it perpetuated? This Is Not A Reading Series presents an informed and engaging discussion between poet & spoken word artist Sheniz Janmohamed and author Zulfikar Hirji about how pluralism and diversity manifest themselves in Muslim contexts at the launch of Zulfikar’s new book, Diversity and Pluralism In Islam: Historical and Contemporary Discourses Amongst Muslims. Sheniz will launch the evening with an awe-inspiring reading of selections from her book, Bleeding Light (also available for purchase at the event).
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
The Gladstone Hotel, Ball Room
1214 Queen Street West
Doors open at 7:00; Event starts at 7:30
Admission is $5.00 or FREE with a book purchase
By MOHAMMED AZHAR ALI KHAN
Canada remains a model of mutual respect
The Toronto District School Board of Canada and the news network CNN stood out this month for fairness and refused to jump on the Islamophobia wagon.
For North American Muslims, enjoying equal rights with fellow North Americans but harassed by malicious allegations, these actions reflect the decency of the Canadian and American people and offer them hope.
In the Walid Shoebat saga, CNN performed its journalistic duty faithfully. It investigated Shoebat who has been raking money, sometimes a half a million dollars a year, speaking and writing denouncing Islam and calling American Muslims a threat to the United States. He spoke even at US government institutions, basing his expertise on Islam and terrorism on being a former Muslim and terrorist. He was born in Beit Sahour, close to Bethlehem, to a Palestinian father and an American mother. He claims that he bombed Bank Leumi’s former branch in Bethlehem and was jailed by Israelis before moving to the US. He said he converted to Christianity in 1993.
As CNN's Anderson Cooper stated in two reports, which included interviews with Shoebat, his claims are dubious. CNN found no evidence of the bombing of Bank Leumi’s former branch in Bethlehem or of Shoebat being a former Palestinian terrorist or ever being in Israeli jails. His relatives in his village denied his having being an activist. Hopefully, Americans will now see Shoebat as a self-serving Islam basher whose words are not to be trusted.
In the Canadian case, the Muslims’ freedom to worship was challenged.
For three years Muslim students of the Valley Park Middle School in Toronto have prayed on Friday noon in congregation. Canadian schools, universities, private offices and government institutions routinely make “reasonable accommodation” to meet the religious obligations of all Canadians. Sikhs, for example, are allowed to wear the kirpan. Prayer and/or meditation rooms are also provided at Canadian airports.
Suddenly, the Canadian Hindu Advocacy objected to the use of school premises for prayers. A Jewish Defense League spokesperson called for monitoring the prayers to ensure that the imam conducting such services doesn't preach intolerance. The president of Canadian Muslim Congress expressed concern that Ismailis and Ahmadis might not be invited to such prayers because they are not viewed as mainstream Muslims while another CMC official objected to girls praying in the back rows. CMC has said it might sue the school board. The International Campaign against Shariah Courts leader called the service a “political statement” by Muslims. A Canadian Council of Muslim Women official also called for monitoring the prayers.
Friday congregation prayers are obligatory on Muslims. All that the school did was to enable Muslim students to follow their faith. This is no more a political statement than are services at synagogues, churches or temples. As for “monitoring,” media, students and politicians of different faiths often attend Muslim Friday prayers at mosques to listen, exchange views or to just meet Muslims. No Muslim objects.
There is no evidence that Ismaili or Ahmadi students at the Toronto school, if any, wanted to join the prayers and were refused. Ismailis pray at their own jamaatkhanas and their prayer services are reserved only for Ismailis. Ahmadis visit mainstream mosques for funeral services of friends. They never pray, however, behind Shiite or Sunni imams. They pray only behind an Ahmadi who owes allegiance to Ahmadi prophets and caliphs. Mainstream Muslims, Ismailis and Ahmadis maintain excellent relations in Canada. But they pray among their own and, like Canadians of other faiths, neither join nor invite others for prayers. As to the claim that women have to pray in the back rows, this argument could be used to ban Muslim prayers throughout Canada — and the practices of many other faiths.
Most Canadians cherish freedom and do not want agitators to sow divisions and acrimony. Christian groups, the Hindu Canadian Alliance, the World Sikh Organization and Jewish Community Council support the right of Muslims, and all other Canadians, to freedom of religion. In many cities Muslims prayed at churches, at their invitation, before their mosques were built.
The Toronto District School Board has stood firm and reiterated that it upholds the religious freedom of all students and will continue to provide them with reasonable accommodation without discrimination or favor. It said Muslim students will continue to pray as they wish.
So Canada remains a model of mutual respect despite occasional efforts to sow dissension. Muslims are grateful for this blessing but they and all Canadians have to remain vigilant to safeguard their freedom and harmony.
— Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.
There is a rare glimmer of hope from Pakistan. A court on Saturday found Malik Mumtaz Qadri guilty of the assassination of Salman Taseer, the courageous and outspoken governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province who was gunned down in January.
Mr. Taseer defended the rights of women and minorities. He pressed hard to repeal the country’s outrageous blasphemy law that imposes a mandatory death sentence on anyone convicted of “insulting” Islam. Mr. Qadri, who was one of the governor’s bodyguards, admitted to the killing and said it was justified because of what he called Mr. Taseer’s “blasphemous” statements.
Mr. Qadri’s sentence of death, like all such rulings, is barbaric. There is little doubt that Mr. Taseer’s close ties to President Asif Ali Zardari and the ruling party gave the government extra incentive to bring the killer to trial.
But the fact that Judge Syed Pervez Ali Shah and the special prosecutor were willing to bring the case to a conclusion is a reminder that there are still people of courage in Pakistan. The government must protect them from retribution.
The reaction in Pakistan to the January killing was repugnant. Many people, including lawyers, cheered Mr. Qadri and showered him with rose petals at a court appearance while most of the country’s political leaders remained silent. After Saturday’s ruling, some of Mr. Qadri’s supporters burned tires and denounced the sentence.
Mr. Qadri is expected to appeal his conviction, so the test for Pakistan’s judicial system is far from over.
Pakistan’s leaders, and all of its people, are facing an even more profound choice: Do they want a country in which the zealots like Mr. Qadri can intimidate and murder anyone who dares to disagree with them? Or do they want a country in which tolerance and justice can prevail. That was Salman Taseer’s vision for Pakistan. It must not be forgotten.
This is an edited version of extracts from speeches delivered by Dr Reza Shah-Kazemi at Milad al-Nabi Celebrations held in Atlanta and San Francisco, USA, in 2007. It first appeared in The Ismaili, USA, 2008.
Dr. Shah-Kazemi opens this article with the narration of Prophet Muhammad’s invitation to a group of Christians in 631 CE to perform their rites in his own mosque. This remarkable event was reported by Ibn Ishaq and others. As Dr Shah-Kazemi says “one observes here a perfect example of how disagreement on the plane of dogma can co-exist with deep respect on the superior plane of religious devotion”. This is one of a series of acts of the Prophet which indicate the sanctity of religions which preceded Islam. Based on a reading of certain Qur’anic verses on the subjects of salvation, the Umma and religion, the author argues that “the essence of religion is immutable, only its forms vary”. He goes on to state that ”the universal message of the Qur’an invites the Muslim to manifest respect, tolerance and reverence for that same essence which resides at the core of all the revealed religions of mankind”.
In a sign of Tolerance, Salman al-Odah, left, the country's most popular puritanical cleric, accepted an invitation from Sufi cleric Abdallah Fadaaq, right, to attend a Sufi celebration. (Izzat Zeiny - Photo By Izzat Zeiny)
Network NewsX Profile
By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 2, 2006
JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- A hush came over the crowd as the young man sitting cross-legged on the floor picked up the microphone and sang, a cappella, a poem about Islam's prophet Muhammad. His eyes shut tight, his head covered by an orange-and-white turban, he crooned with barely contained ardor of how the world rejoiced and lights filled the skies the day the prophet was born.
The men attending the mawlid -- a celebration of the birth and life of Muhammad -- sat on colorful rugs, rocking gently back and forth, while the women, on the upper floor watching via a large projection screen, passed around boxes of tissues and wiped tears from their eyes.
The centuries-old mawlid, a mainstay of the more spiritual and often mystic Sufi Islam, was until recently viewed as heretical and banned by Saudi Arabia's official religious establishment, the ultraconservative Wahhabis. But a new atmosphere of increased religious tolerance has spurred a resurgence of Sufism and brought the once-underground Sufis and their rituals out in the open.
Analysts and some Sufis partly credit reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States for the atmosphere that has made the changes possible. When it was discovered that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, the kingdom's strict Wahhabi doctrine -- which had banned all other sects and schools of thought -- came under intense scrutiny from inside and outside the country. The newfound tolerance Sufis have come to enjoy is perhaps one of the most concrete outcomes of that shift.
"This is one of the blessings of September 11. It put the brakes on the [Wahhabi] practice of takfir , excommunicating everyone who didn't exactly follow their creed," said Sayed Habib Adnan, a 33-year-old Sufi teacher. The government "realized that maybe enforcing one religious belief over all others was not such a good idea."
When Adnan moved to Saudi Arabia from his native Yemen four years ago, Sufi gatherings were often clandestine, sometimes held in orchards outside the city, or in basements and without microphones, for fear of drawing attention. "I couldn't wear this," he said, pointing to his turban. "Or this," he said, pulling at his white cotton overcoat. "Or I would be branded a Sufi. You couldn't even say the word 'Sufi.' It was something underground, dangerous, like talking about drugs."
Sufis here say they are not a separate sect or followers of a separate religion, but adherents to a way of life based on the Muslim concept of ihsan . Muhammad explained ihsan to the angel Gabriel as "worshiping God as if you see Him. Because if you don't see Him, He sees you." Another Sufi characteristic is a strong belief in the power of blessings from the prophet, his close relatives and his companions.
Sufism had previously been predominant in Hejaz, the western region of Saudi Arabia, which includes Muhammad's birthplace, Mecca; Medina, where he is buried; and the Red Sea port city of Jiddah. Muslims prayed often at shrines where the prophet's daughter Fatima, his wife Khadija and his companions were buried. Mawlids were public affairs with entire cities decked out in lights, and parades and festivities commemorating the prophet's birthday and his ascension to Jerusalem.
When the al-Saud family that would later come to rule Saudi Arabia took over Hejaz in the 1920s, the Wahhabis banned mawlids as a form of heresy and destroyed the historic shrines of Khadija, Fatima and the prophet's companions, fearing they would lead to idolatry and polytheism.
Wahhabis, crucial allies in the Saud conquest of the disparate regions that became Saudi Arabia in 1932, were awarded control of religious affairs.
Discrimination against Sufis, among others, intensified after armed Wahhabi extremists took over Mecca's Grand Mosque in 1979, demanding that a more puritanical form of Islam be applied in the country. Though the government quelled the uprising and executed its leaders, authorities were shaken by the incident, and lest other Wahhabis defy them, they allowed them more rein.
Soon after, extremist clerics issued a religious edict, or fatwa, declaring Sufi's spiritual leader, Muhammad Alawi Malki, a nonbeliever. He was removed from his teaching position, banned from giving lessons at the Grand Mosque, where both his father and grandfather had taught, and interrogated by the religious police and the Interior Ministry. After Malki was later attacked by a throng of radicals incensed at his presence in the mosque, he could pray there only under armed guard.
Meanwhile, thousands of cassettes and booklets circulated calling Sufis "grave-lovers" and dangerous infidels who had to be stopped before they made a comeback. Their salons were raided, and those caught with Sufi literature were often arrested or jailed.
The tide finally turned in 2003, with the new atmosphere that took hold following the Sept. 11 attacks, when the future King Abdullah, then the crown prince, held a series of meetings to acknowledge the country's diverse sects and schools of thought. One of the guests was Sufi leader Malki. When he died the following year, Abdullah and the powerful defense and interior ministers attended his funeral. The rehabilitation of his legacy was almost complete.
"We were then upgraded from infidels, to people who are ignorant and practicing their religion wrong," said Wasif Kabli, a 59-year-old businessman.
But many Sufis complain that despite outward appearances, Wahhabis continue to destroy shrines in and around their holy places, their salons continue to be raided and their literature is still banned.
Wahhabis and Sufis view Islam from opposite directions. To Wahhabis, who emerged from the kingdom's stark, harsh desert, a believer's relationship can be only directly with God. To them, Sufis' celebrations of the prophet's life smack of idolatry, and supplications to him, his relatives and companions appear to replace or bypass the link with God.
Sufis answer that the prophet celebrated his own birthday by fasting on Mondays, that he himself offered to intervene with God on behalf of Muslims and that he could often be found in the evenings at the grave sites of his wives and companions.
Last month, on the occasion of the prophet's birthday, a crowd of more than 1,000 gathered to celebrate at a private residence. Sufi books, cassettes and DVDs were selling out in one corner of the large garden where the event was held. Adnan, the Sufi teacher, was one of four speakers who addressed the crowd. He asked: Why are we Sufis always on the defensive? "Nobody asks [soccer] fans for religious proof that sanctifies their gatherings at the stadium because of their devotion to their team," he said. "How come we are always asked for an explanation of our devotion to our beloved prophet?"
Muhammad Jastaniya, a 20-year-old economics major and part of a new wave of young Saudis who have embraced Sufism, said what drew him was the focus on God.
On a recent moonlit evening, Jastaniya sipped sugary mint tea with his friends on rugs spread on the rooftop of a Zawiya, or lodge where Sufis go to meditate, chant or sit in on lessons. The words 'God' and 'Muhammad' were written in green neon lights, and Islam's 99 names for God were stenciled in black paint around the wall. "To be a Sufi is to clear your heart of everything but God," he explained. "The Islam we were taught here is like a body without a soul. Sufism is the soul. It's not an alternative religion -- it can contain all Muslims."
That thought seems to be taking hold, even in faraway corners.
Salman al-Odah, the country's most popular puritanical cleric, who was jailed in the 1990s for opposing the presence of U.S. troops in the kingdom, accepted an invitation to visit Sufi cleric Abdallah Fadaaq's mawlid and lesson last week. The scene at Fadaaq's house was an obvious sign of conciliation.
Al-Odah sat with his hands neatly folded in his lap, wearing a red-and-white checkered headdress and clear wraparound glasses and sporting the short scraggly beard that indicates a conservative. Fadaaq, who at 39 is emerging as the new symbol of Hejazi Sufism, wore the white turban, the white overcoat and shawl typical of Sufis, wooden prayer beads resting on his lap. "It's true that there are differences between the way people practice their faith in this country, and this is an indication that people are using their minds and thinking, which is a good thing," Fadaaq said. "But what we should concentrate on are the expanses that bring us together, like the prophet. We must take advantage of what we have in common."
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