December 28, 2006

Born of Fire

From "The Economist," 19 December 2006

Our correspondent travels to Somalia and Afghanistan in search of jinn.

THERE is a cleft in a stone hill outside Qardho, in northern Somalia, which even the hardest gunmen and frankincense merchants avoid. In the cool dark, out of the bleached sunshine, there is a pit, a kind of Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole, which is said to swirl down into the world of jinn. Locals say jinn—genies, that is—fade in and out above the pit. Sometimes they shift into forms of ostriches and run out over the desert scrub.

The Bible holds that God created angels and then made man in his own image. The Koran states that Allah fashioned angels from light and then made jinn from smokeless fire. Man was formed later, out of clay. Jinn disappointed Allah, not least by climbing to the highest vaults of the sky and eavesdropping on the angels. Yet Allah did not annihilate them. No flood closed over their heads. Jinn were willed into existence, like man, to worship Allah and were preserved on earth for that purpose, living in a parallel world, set at such an angle that jinn can see men, but men cannot see jinn.

Less educated Muslims remain fearful of jinn. Hardly a week passes in the Muslim world without a strange story concerning them. Often the tales are foolish and melancholy. In August, for instance, Muslims in the Kikandwa district of central Uganda grew feverish over reports of jinn haunting and raping women in the district. So when a young woman stumbled out of the forest one day, unkempt and deranged, she was denounced as a jinn. Villagers beat her almost to death. Police finished the job with six bullets at close range. The young woman called out for her children in her last moments. An investigation revealed her to be from a neighbouring district. She had spent days without food or water, searching for her missing husband. Editorials in Ugandan newspapers called on the government formally to deny the existence of jinn.

That would be divisive. Although a few Islamic scholars have over the ages denied the existence of jinn, the consensus is that good Muslims should believe in them. Some Islamic jurists consider marriage between jinn and humans to be lawful. There is a similar provision for the inheritance of jinn property. Sex during menstruation is an invitation to jinn and can result in a woman bearing a jinn child. According to the Koran, the Prophet Muhammad preached to bands of jinn. Some converted to Islam. This is how jinn describe their condition in the Koran:

"And among us [jinn] there are righteous folk and among us there are those far from that. We are sects, having different rules. And we know that we cannot escape from Allah in the earth, nor can we escape by flight. And when we heard the guidance [of the Koran], we believed therein, and who so believeth in his Lord, he feareth neither loss nor oppression. And there are among us some who have surrendered to Allah and there are among us some who are unjust." (72:11-14)

In Somalia and Afghanistan clerics matter-of-factly described to your correspondent the range of jinn they had encountered, from the saintly to the demonic; those that can fly, those that crawl, plodding jinn, invisible jinn, gul with vampiric tendencies (from which the English word ghoul is taken), and shape-shifters recognisable in human form because their feet are turned backwards. Occasionally the clerics fell into a trance. Afterwards they claimed their apparently bare rooms had filled with jinn seeking favours or release from amulet charms.

A parallel universe

Although Somalia and Afghanistan have different religious traditions (Somalia being more relaxed), jinn belief is strong in both countries. War-ravaged, with similarly rudimentary education systems, both have a tradition of shrines venerating local saints where women can pray. Women are supposed to be more open to jinn, particularly illiterate rural women: by some accounts education is a noise, a roaring of thought, which jinn cannot bear. Sometimes women turn supposed jinn possession to their own advantage and become fortune-tellers. Among the most popular questions asked of such women is: “Will my husband take a second wife?” The shrines are often little more than a carved niche in a rock, with colourful prayer flags tied to nearby trees. Jinn are said to be attracted to the ancient geography of shrines, many of which predate Islam; as some have it, the shrines were attracted to the jinn.

Islam teaches that jinn resemble men in many ways: they have free will, are mortal, face judgment and fill hell together. Jinn and men marry, have children, eat, play, sleep and husband their own animals. Islamic scholars are in disagreement over whether jinn are physical or insubstantial in their bodies. Some clerics have described jinn as bestial, giant, hideous, hairy, ursine. Supposed yeti sightings in Pakistan's Chitral are believed by locals to be of jinn. These kinds of jinn can be killed with date or plum stones fired from a sling.

But to more scholarly clerics jinn are little more than an energy, a pulse form of quantum physics perhaps, alive at the margins of sleep or madness, and more often in the whispering of a single unwelcome thought. An extension of this electric description of jinn is that they are not beings at all but thoughts that were in the world before the existence of man. Jinn reflect the sensibilities of those imagining them, just as in Assyrian times they were taken to be the spirits responsible for manias, who melted into the light at dawn.

When a donkey brays

The English word genie, from an unrelated French root, is now too soft and gooey with Disney's Aladdin to catch the acid qualities attributed to jinn. Sepideh Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, a specialist on Afghanistan who has undertaken anthropological research on jinn belief, reckons she may once have been in the presence of jinn. She was riding with others in the Afghan province of Badakhshan. It was towards dusk. They came down into a valley forested at the bottom. The horses tensed. “Suddenly from out of the trees I felt myself being watched by non-human entities.” A cold fear overcame her, “the fear of losing the faculty of reason”. A Kabul cleric describes this sort of feeling as a shock at the existence of otherness. Animals sense it also: when a donkey brays, it is said to be seeing a jinn.

Unbelieving jinn, those who resisted the Koran, are shaytan, demons, “firewood for hell”. Many Muslims see the devil as a jinn. Some reckon the snake in the Garden of Eden was a shape-shifting jinn. All this may yet play a part in the war on terrorism. Factions in Somalia and Afghanistan have accused their enemies of being backed not only by the CIA but by malevolent jinn. One theory in Afghanistan holds that the mujahideen, “two-legged wolves”, scared the jinn out into the world, causing disharmony. It is jinn, they say, who whisper into the ears of suicide-bombers.

Sheikh Mubarak Ali Gilani, a Pakistani cleric connected with a jihadist group, Jamaat al-Fuqra, has given warning to America that its missiles will be misdirected by jinn. It was all very different in the days of King Solomon, who was said to have had control over jinn and used them as masons in building the temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish influence over jinn is strong. It is probably no coincidence that the inscription on Aladdin's lamp, which bound the jinn, was engraved with Hebraic characters. Believers in abduction by aliens like to think jinn are aliens; some of the more confrontational Muslim clerics dismiss claimed apparations of the Virgin Mary as the work of jinn.

The story of Ahmed Shah Masoud, the commander of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, clearly shows up the link between jinn and myth-making. Masoud resisted the Soviet Union and the Taliban from his base in the Panjshir valley until he was assassinated by al-Qaeda operatives on September 9th 2001. According to local legend, Muslim jinn were on his side. One of his fighters was said to have slain a dragon in a mountain lake during the Soviet occupation and to have brought the dragon's jewel to Masoud, with the help of Muslim jinn. In murdering Masoud, some Panjshiris say, Osama bin Laden declared war on Muslim jinn also. This is obvious, they say, from Mr bin Laden's insistence on division and violence.

Your correspondent spent a night with Masoud's former bodyguards in the Panjshir. The men were employed to look after Masoud's tomb. His office was locked. The bodyguards sat cross-legged on the floor of a room opposite. A kerosene lantern flickered. Machineguns were propped against the bed-rolls. A few men went outside. The first winter snow was falling on the jagged peaks that towered up on all sides. It was fiercely cold. A dog limped below, ears flat, tail between its legs. It whimpered. The men looked at the dog. “The jinn is still here,” one said. “Bismillah,” responded the others. They pointed out jinn settlements just below the snow-line on the mountain slopes. Inside, over plates of mutton and grey rice, tea, snuff and Korean cigarettes, they told the story of how the cook had been possessed by a jinn the week before. He was a devout man, they said, a non-smoker and illiterate. “He fell ill. When he recovered, he found he could speak and write in many languages. The jinn that was in him was well-travelled but also pushy. It demanded a cigarette, then another, and then it became impatient and swallowed lighted cigarettes whole.”

In Somalia, the port of Bossaso is famous for its sorcerers. Some of its ruling class claim to have intermarried with jinn long ago. On a recent visit your correspondent was taken to a metal shed at the edge of a slum where jinn were supposed to be banished from taking human form. The air inside the shed was thick with frankincense. There was a man cloaked in red cloth kneeling on the ground. A jinn was in him, a sorceress running the ceremony said, and indeed the man wore an eerie expression, as though a part of him was obscured. Young men jumped up and down around him, chanting and beating drums. The gunmen accompanying your correspondent were too scared to step into the shed. Later, walking away from the shed in hot sunshine, one of the gunmen insisted that he could see a jinn scavenging for bones in the dirt. There did not appear to be anything there.


If it ain't one thing...'s another. SE Asia's at the start of its "winter" monsoon season (properly known as the "northeastern monsoon," because the winds bringing in the rain blow to the northeast). Unlike the so-called "monsoon" season in the American west, with its duststorms and thunderstorms, the monsoon in Singapore is the real deal. A week ago Tuesday, Singapore had the third highest rainfall in the past 75 years for a 24-hour period. (We got more rain in that one day than we did all of last December.) That rain caused minor flooding and a couple of mud slides in S'pore, but significant flooding in southern peninsular Malaysia (primarily from the state of Melaka on down through Johor). There's also been some very heavy flooding on the Indonesian island of Sumatra (to our west), with over 100 dead and hundreds of thousands evacuated. (Sumatra, if you'll recall, was the island devestated by the tsunami two years ago.) Back here in S'pore, we received another all-day drencher this past Tuesday, although conditions weren't quite as bad as last week. (Although... JD at the doctor's clinic Tuesday night, getting weighed: Doctor: "You've gained 4kg (about 9 lbs) in the past month." Me: "My pants are soaked from the rain.")

Then there was the earthquake just south of Taiwan late Tuesday night. This quake damaged two underwater cables on the Pacific Ocean floor, making internet traffic in eastern Asia (from Japan to Australia) *very* sporadic yesterday and today. I've been very lucky to visit what websites I can. Also, two TV channels were knocked off the air yesterday, although one I don't receive and the other (the Hallmark Channel) I rarely watch. Even now (Thursday morning, as I write this), connecting to some websites (especially American websites) is very much hit-and-miss. Visiting websites that are westward (toward Europe) is somewhat easier. So if you've had trouble visiting my blog recently (and traffic was down by about half yesterday and today), that's the reason why. (Update: Eleven hours after I wrote this, I'm now finally logged into Blogger to post this; I wasn't able to log in all day long.)

Updates: Alhamdulillah, internet access finally started improving significantly on the third day after the earthquake (Friday). Also, the weather service here in S'pore has said that this December is the wettest since 1869, when meteoroligical measurements began here. As of the 28th, 765.9 mm (3.01") of rain has fallen. Still, we haven't yet matched the wettest month ever. That was January 1893, with a total of 818.6 mm (3.22"). However, there's still 31.5 hours left in the month. ;)


While there aren't that many people who beg for money here in S'pore, I was struck by a dilemma last night at one of the bus/MRT interchanges. In a very short distance there were four people asking for money. Whom might I give some money to? The young mother with the crying baby? The blind man who has a slight hunchback selling tissues? (He's a daily fixture at this particular interchange.) The busker singing and playing the guitar? (Another daily fixture.) Or a young man who has a severe disability with his legs? (Imagine sitting flat on the ground with your legs out in front of you; now, instead of your calves and feet being straight ahead, they're turned out, left and right, away from each other at 90 degree angles to his thighs. That's how this poor guy was sitting.)

Born of Fire

In the past two months, I've been reading The Economist somewhat consistently. In this week's (Dec. 23rd) edition, there's an interesting two-page article on - of all things - Jinn! Actually, what I've noticed in these past few weeks is that The Economist regularly discusses various Islamic issues and current events involving Islam and/or Muslims. (The average issue will have anywhere between one to seven articles on these topics; this week's issue has at least three articles). And while The Economist's editorial board doesn't always get it right regarding Islam, they're much more often "right" than "wrong." (For example, regarding the recent UK controversy regarding the niqab in the UK, The Economist argued against a ban.) The article about Jinn is located here, although I'm going to reprint it in my next post, insha'allah.

BTW, my ustaz has told some rather interesting stories about women possessed by jinn and a few of the exorcisms he's performed. Repeat after me: "Ah 'udhu billahi min-ash-shaitan-ir-rajim."

December 24, 2006

The Lady Caliphs

I came across this video via Muslim Apple's blog. It's a feature from ESPN's Sportscenter on the W. Deen Muhammad HS (Atlanta) Lady Caliphs basketball team. The video (run time: 7:01) focuses on both the team and the coach, Fard Abdur-Rahman. The team, two years prior to the making of this video, had an abominable season of 0-20. (I know the feeling all too well; my HS swim team my freshman year had a similar 0-whatever season.) Moreover, the team had been treated with typical American bigotry and Islamophobia. However, with Brother Fard's guidance, the team had gone in the 2005-6 season to a 21-1 record and a "Sweet 16" finish in the Georgia state basketball championship (this, despite being a school with only 87 students).

And let's not forget that these girls compete with sweatpants and hijab on - yet another nail in the coffin for the idea that Muslim girls/women can't compete effectively in sports unless they dress immodestly.

December 20, 2006

Blaming Islam: Examining the Religion Building Enterprise

The following is an excellent essay by Dr. Louay Safi, entitled "Blaming Islam: Examining the Religion Building Enterprise" (published 3 December 2006). This summary of a much longer article (26 pages) examines how Orientalist viewpoints have found new life in neo-con political thought, and how this in turn has affected relations between the American government and Muslims worldwide. The full version of the essay seems to focus much more intensely on the infamous RAND report, Civil Democratic Islam: Partners Resources and Strategies, written by Cheryl Benard in 2003 (although I haven't had the chance to read through the entire full-length essay just yet). Dr. Safi concludes with a number of recommendations that, if implemented, would be greatly helpful, insha'allah, in easing tensions between the American government and the Muslim world; however, I have severe doubts that any of them would ever be implemented (especially by the current administration).

Blaming Islam for the lack of democratic and scientific developments in Muslim countries is not a new idea but an old enterprise, rooted in the nineteenth and twentieth century European Orientalism. The late Edward Said succeeded, in the 1980s, in unmasking Orientalist notions within Western academia and exposing its false pretense. In his seminal work, Orientalism, Said demonstrated that Orientalist views of Islam were used to justify the European colonial ambitions in the Muslim world. Said’s monumental work was pivotal for the eventual transformation of Middle Eastern studies in Europe and the United States, as it forced the academia to embrace more scholarly and objective methods when studying the Muslim world.

Specialists who were intent on presenting Islam and Muslims in a negative light were unhappy with the positive portrayal, as were those who previously considered their work to be objective. Many were particularly disturbed by the rise of authentic voices that presented Islam as a vibrant religion, whose followers share many of the values and concerns of the West. Led by Princeton University historian, Bernard Lewis, they attempted to refute Said’s work and defend Orientalism. But Said’s thesis was profound, and Orientalists never fully recovered.

The September 11th terrorist attacks on mainland United States gave a new momentum to the Orientalist spirit. Bernard Lewis once again led the effort to revive Orientalist notions with the publishing of his 2002 book, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. Using subtle arguments, he indeed placed the blame on Islam and Islamic traditions for the failure of Middle Eastern societies to develop and modernize like the West. Lewis’ book has since been followed by an avalanche of similar articles and publications, mostly by neoconservative journalists and pundits, who reinforce Lewis’ thesis and even blame Islam for the rise of terrorism as well as the rising tension between the West and the Muslim world.

The blame game is led today by neoconservative pundits who often present Islam as the new villain to be confronted by American military power. They have consistently presented Muslims as incapable of democratic rule, and who espouse values that are antithetical to world peace and religious tolerance.

To ensure that their views are not challenged by the academic community, neoconservatives are working hard to undermine academic freedom by intimidating scholars that present a balanced view of the Middle East. Martin Kramer’s Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, a diatribe against Middle East Studies in U.S. universities, and Daniel Pipes’ Campus Watch, an organization devoted to smearing professors critical of U.S. foreign policy and Israeli’s treatment of Palestinians, are two such examples. This campaign is one that aims to intimidate free thinking on Middle East politics and silence voices that challenge their perspective.

Although many of the anti-Islam writers and neoconservative pundits play on the fear of the general public by publishing books for a general audience, others have been done for policymakers under the cover of respected institutions and think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the RAND Corporation. Readers should note that this activity began in 1992 when Defense Department staffers I. Lewis Libby and Paul Wolfowitz drafted the “Defense Policy Guidance.” and was followed more discretely and in more depth in a report, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” published in 2000 by the Project for the New American Century.

The neoconservative attitudes of, and approach to, Islam and the Middle East is well illustrated by a widely publicized report written by Cheryl Benard and published by the RAND Corporation in late 2003 under the title Civil and Democratic Islam. Like other neoconservatives, Benard blames the rise of intolerance, anti-democratic tendencies, and terrorism on all Muslim individuals and groups that closely adhere to Islamic values and practices. RAND openly advocates “religion building” as the only way to counter terrorism and anti-Americanism.

Religion building is an invitation to world powers to reform Islam. It is a call for reinterpreting Islam and restructuring Muslim societies so as to counter the rise of militancy in Muslim societies. There is no contention over the need for reform, and the need for cultural and social reforms in Muslim societies and communities is well articulated by Muslim intellectuals long before Islam became the main focus of Western reporters and pundits. Indeed, reform has been underway for more than a century now, and Muslims have been engaged in an internal struggle to redefine modern Islamic societies in ways that aim at empowering civil society and ensuring democratic control.

The contention is rather over how reform is to be achieved, and who is more capable of leading the reform. The contention is over whether reform can or should be imposed by outsiders who have little understanding of Muslim societies and vague sense of the nuances of local cultures, and who call on world powers to use their political and military clout to impose sociopolitical design on Muslim societies and communities. A call for external intervention to restructure the Islamic faith and rebuild Muslim societies is faulty, and is guilty of misreading Islam and ignoring the sociopolitical reality that gives rise to global terrorism.

Religion building is perilous, complex, ill-conceived, and practically untenable. It is a distraction and a blatant attempt to avoid any serious evaluation of the responsibility of world powers for the radicalization of Muslim politics. The rise of radical Islam cannot be explained purely on the level of religious doctrine. Radicalization of Muslim politics is directly connected to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Muslim societies. Authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes that suppress open debate and silence opposition have long enjoyed the support of successive U.S. administrations.

On balance, Islam has been a positive force, rather than a villain to be arrested and chastised, in the development of the modern Middle East. The focus on radical groups perpetrating violence in the name of Islam prevents some analysts from appreciating the centrality of Islamic notions and values in the progress toward a more open society and vibrant culture. A full assessment that takes into account the impact of Islamic reform on Muslim society would illustrate that pessimism toward Islam, reflected in RAND’s Civil Democratic Islam and similar documents, is unwarranted.

While urging support to one group and opposition to another, neoconservative pundits remain oblivious to the connection of the various ideological groups to the larger population in Muslim societies and to one another. The United States, as an external political actor that is increasingly perceived by Muslims as biased and uneven-handed, cannot positively affect political development by rendering support on the basis of artificial religious preferences. Rather, it must base its positions on intrinsic values and political principles. In actuality, Benard’s recommendations are nothing but a recycling of the very old foreign policies that got us where we are today and that have led to the radicalization of the Middle East.

The United States has tried in the past to put its weight behind Muslim secularists. The result has been the aggravation of the internal political balance and the radicalization of the societies where the U.S. took sides on the basis of superficial criteria and short-term interests. It was the very approach of siding with modernists against socialists and traditionalists that got the United States into trouble with the Iranians, the Lebanese, and, most recently, the Palestinians.

The report is conspicuously silent on the effects of U.S. foreign policy, which has been frequently characterized by Muslims as one of inconsistency and double standards – one that supports friendly dictators and corrupt, but useful, regimes in the Muslim world, while pushing for democratic reform in Eastern Europe; one that defends human rights in China, but ignores them in the Middle East; and one that protests Palestinian violence against Israel, but remains silent in the face of Israeli violence in Palestine. Indeed, the politicization of Islam and the rise of anti-Americanism are directly linked to the very efforts that aim at marginalizing Islam and forcing Western secularism on Muslim society.

RAND’s Civil Democratic Islam is a case in point and illustrates the tendency to treat Islam as an anomaly to be evaluated on the basis of different standards than the one used to evaluate Christianity, Judaism, and other world religions. The author of Civil Democratic Islam has surprisingly chosen religious identity rather than political values to distinguish foes from friends. While Civil Democratic Islam declares democracy and civil rights to be its ostensible goals, it surprisingly stresses religious doctrine and lifestyle to distinguish democratically oriented Muslims. Benard can hardly say the same thing about similar practices among Christians and Jews. The author would not use the same terms to describe Joe Lieberman, the U.S. senator from Connecticut, who is also a practicing orthodox Jew.

Containing radical groups and ensuring more friendly and cooperative relations with the Muslim world requires a drastic shift in policy and attitude. Rather than searching for “lifestyle” criteria to separate friends from foes, the United States’ position should be based on principles and values. The United States should support and cooperate with political forces in the Middle East that uphold the values of freedom, equality, and tolerance of ethnic and religious diversity, and should embrace those who display commitment to democracy and the rule of the law, regardless of their religion, religious doctrines, and their “lifestyle.”

Rather than using lifestyle and religious criteria to assign guilt, the U.S. government needs to extend its founding principles to followers of all religions, and ensure that it does not use different standards for dealing with different religions. The United States must be consistent in pursuing its support for democracy and human rights, and must ensure that the principles of right and justice that guide its relations with Europe also apply to its relations with Muslim societies.

American Muslims can be of great help in fighting terrorism and extremism, and in bridging the deepening divide between the United States and the Muslim world. American Muslims have deep understanding of both Muslim and American cultures, and are well-positioned to help reconcile Islam and the West. American Muslims have already made remarkable achievements at reconciling Islamic values with the founding principles of the United States, and have managed to develop good and important experiences as to how Islamic values can bear on modern living. They can be instrumental in sharing their experiences of aligning Islamic values and education with democratic institutions and practices with coreligionists in Muslim countries. But for that to happen in more effective ways, American Muslims need to be involved in policy making and implementation, rather than allowing themselves to be marginalized and chastised.

In addition to involving American Muslim leaders in consultation on policies relating to Islam, the Muslim world, and the war on terror, civil society and government organizations should: (1) engage Muslim leaders who represent social and political groups that are committed to democracy, instead of relying completely or exclusively on the views of experts who do not have firsthand contact or experience with Muslim groups; (2) ensure that U.S. foreign policy is always respectful of democratic principles and values, the rule of law, and protection of human rights; (3) apply the same set of principles and values to all people, regardless of their religious and ethnic affiliation; (4) withdraw support from authoritarian regimes, and send a clear message by requiring an open political system and free and fair elections as a precondition for economic cooperation; (5) have a clear position regarding Islam, and avoid sending mixed messages to Muslim communities and societies.

* This article is a condensed summary of a more elaborate paper on the question. For full version of the arguments, please refer to Dr. Safi’s paper at

Dr. Louay M. Safi serves as the executive director of ISNA Leadership Development Center, an Indiana-based organization dedicated to enhancing leadership awareness and skills among American Muslim leaders, and a founding board member of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. He writes and lectures on issues relating to Islam, American Muslims, democracy, human rights, leadership, and world peace. His commentaries are available at his Blog:

December 17, 2006

December 16, 2006

Sama Sama

Every now and then, Milady asks me to run across the street to this one Malay-food restaurant. I've gone over there a number of times over the past two years, but it seems like, no matter how many times I go over there, the guys who work there (Malay Malaysians) can never get over the fact that I can speak a tiny bit of Malay. Now I've gotten a tremendous amount of grief over the past three-plus years from Milady and her parents because I haven't really tried to learn Malay, although I do have a tiny vocabulary and know most of the greetings and courtesies. That's what happens at this restaurant: Ang Moh here speaks a few Malay courtesies and these guys flip. Around Eid, I went over to the restaurant and one guy gave me several greetings; I gave him the correct responses. For example, he said, "Hari raya eid ul fitri," and I responded, "Eid mubarak!" He looked at the other workers, pointed at me and made a face as if to say, "Get a load of this guy! He knows what to say." Today, I gave one guy some money to pay for the food and he says, "Terimah kasih" (thank you). I say, "Sama sama" (you're welcome). His boss, who's looking on, laughs! (The Ang Moh knows what to say yet again. Can you believe it?) I swear, if I were to speak fluent Malay to these guys, they'd probably drop dead on the spot from the shock! ;)

December 14, 2006

"It's a Glory for All Muslim Women!"

Back in September 2005, I began writing several posts about the controversy surrounding Sania Mirza and her clothing on the tennis court. In the comments to one of those posts, I began discussing whether women tennis players would be hampered if they wore, say, sweat pants on the tennis court, comparing the issue to baseball players who wear both pants and long-sleeved shirts as part of their uniform. My conclusion then was that, no, both men and women playing tennis really wouldn't have their performance negatively affected by wearing more modest clothing.

Enter Ruqaya Al Ghasara, a 24-year-old Bahraini sprinter who took the gold in the Women's 200m and the bronze in the Women's 100m sprints at the Asian Games, currently playing in Doha, Qatar. Ruqaya is different from most sprinters, though, in that she's an observant Muslim and won while having covered her legs, arms and hair.

The debate whether Muslim women can succeed at high-profile track and field competitions without compromising their beliefs on attire may have been buried for good at the Khalifa Stadium yesterday [December 11] when Bahrain’s Ruqaya al-Ghasara sped to a spectacular 200m gold at the Asian Games. “It’s a glory for all Muslim women,” she declared after crossing the finish in 23.19 seconds, adding an extra emotional dimension to her achievement by falling to her knees and kissing the turf.

It marked the first time in the history of the Asian games that a Muslim woman kitted in a full tracksuit and a hijab has won a track gold medal and that too in the draining 200m sprint which calls for a tremendous burst of energy and mental resolve.

"I want to say I'm very thankful for being a Muslim; it's a blessing," said the sports management student. "Wearing conservative clothes has encouraged me. Wearing a veil proves that Muslim women face no obstacles and encourages them to participate in sport."

"Wearing traditional Muslim dress has encouraged me. It's not an obstacle – quite the opposite. Wearing the hijab shows that there are no obstacles. I've set my best times wearing the hijab and even qualified for Osaka in it," she said, referring to the Japanese city which is hosting next year's world championships."

Congratulations, Ruqaya!

Ruqaya Steals the Thunder
Veil No Bar to Glory for Muslim Women Says Doha Champion
True to Her Faith

December 3, 2006

The "Empire" Strikes Back (?)

The modern day version of the "He-Man Women Haters' Club"...

...and just as childish too. Yo, Spanky, don't OD on them Cheetos!

November 29, 2006

Welcome to America, Kid!

There's a rather funny/scary account of a Polish teenager who spent some time in North Carolina as a foreign exchange student. The problem was, the host family was an extreme Christian fundamentalist family. How extreme? Check out these passages:

"...every Monday my host family would gather around the kitchen table to talk about sex. My host parents hadn't had sex for the last 17 years because -- so they told me -- they were devoting their lives to God. They also wanted to know whether I drank alcohol. I admitted that I liked beer and wine. They told me I had the devil in my heart.

"My host parents treated me like a five-year-old. They gave me lollipops. They woke me every Sunday morning at 6:15 a.m., saying 'Michael, it's time to go to church.' I hated that sentence. When I didn't want to go to church one morning, because I had hardly slept, they didn't allow me to have any coffee.

"One day I was talking to my host parents about my mother, who is separated from my father. They were appalled -- my mother's heart was just as possessed by the devil as mine, they exclaimed. God wanted her to stay with her husband, they said.

"...the religious zealots finally brought up a subject which had clearly been on their minds for a long time: They wanted me to help them set up a Fundamentalist Baptist church in my home country of Poland. It was God's will, they said. They tried to slip the topic casually into conversation, but it really shocked me -- I realized that was the only reason they had welcomed me into their family. They had already started construction work in Krakow -- I was to help them with translations and with spreading their faith via the media."

The rest of the story can be read here.

November 21, 2006

What Makes a Muslim Radical?

Interesting, brief survey on the Foreign Policy website by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed. The differences between "moderate" Muslims and "radical" Muslims are extremely slight. This doesn't surprise me in the respect that comments aimed at the "radical" Muslims or "Islamists" I often find to be rather offensive and, yes, I do consider myself to be "moderate." Non-Muslims should be much more tactful when talking about Islam and the Muslim world (a point lost on many Americans). The last survey question asked, What else can the West do to improve relations?, I actually agree with both answers.

Ask any foreign-policy expert how the West will know it is winning the war on terror, and the likely response will be, “When the Islamic world rejects radicalism.” But just who are Muslim radicals, and what fuels their fury? Every politician has a theory: Radicals are religious fundamentalists. They are poor. They are full of hopelessness and hate. But those theories are wrong.

Based on a new Gallup World Poll of more than 9,000 interviews in nine Muslim countries, we find that Muslim radicals have more in common with their moderate brethren than is often assumed. If the West wants to reach the extremists, and empower the moderate Muslim majority, it must first recognize who it’s up against.

Religion an important part of your daily life
Radicals: 92%
Moderates: 91%

Attended religious service in last 7 days
Radicals: 56%
Moderates: 59%*

* Difference is statistically insignificant given the +/- 3% margin of error.

Because terrorists often hijack Islamic precepts for their own ends, pundits and politicians in the West sometimes portray Islam as a religion of terrorism. They often charge that religious fervor triggers radical and violent views. But the data say otherwise: There is no significant difference in religiosity between moderates and radicals. In fact, radicals are no more likely to attend religious services regularly than are moderates.

Primary school or less
Radicals: 23%
Moderates: 34%

Secondary school through university
Radicals: 44%
Moderates: 38%

Low or very low income
Radicals: 22%
Moderates: 31%

Above-average or very high income
Radicals: 25%
Moderates: 21%

It’s no secret that many in the Muslim world suffer from crippling poverty and lack of education. But are radicals any poorer than their fellow Muslims? We found the opposite: There is indeed a key difference between radicals and moderates when it comes to income and education, but it is the radicals who earn more and who stay in school longer.

Where do you expect to be in the next 5 years?
Worse off
Radicals: 7%
Moderates: 7%

Better off
Radicals: 53%
Moderates: 44%

Whenever a suicide bomber completes a deadly mission, the act is often attributed to hopelessness—the inability to find a job, earn a living, or support a family. But the politically radical are not more “hopeless” than the mainstream. More radicals expressed satisfaction with their financial situation and quality of life than their moderate counterparts, and a majority of them expected to be better off in the years to come.

Most admired aspects about the West
Western technology (top response for both groups)
Radicals: 30%
Moderates: 31%

Liberty/Democracy/Freedom of Speech (second-most common response)
Radicals: 22%
Moderates: 22%

The war on terror is premised on a key question: Why do they hate us? The common answer from Washington is that Muslim radicals hate our way of life, our freedom, and our democracy. Not so. Both moderates and radicals in the Muslim world admire the West, in particular its technology, democratic system, and freedom of speech.

What can the West do to improve relations?
Respect Islam (top response for both groups)
Radicals: 39%
Moderates: 36%

What else can the West do to improve relations?
Radicals (Refrain from interfering or imposing its beliefs and policies): 17%
Moderates (Economic development/Jobs): 22%

What, then, separates a Muslim moderate from a Muslim radical? Although almost all Muslims believe the West should show more respect for Islam, radicals are more likely to feel that the West threatens and attempts to control their way of life. Moderates, on the other hand, are more eager to build ties with the West through economic development. This divergence of responses offers policymakers a key opportunity to develop strategies to prevent the moderate mainstream from sliding away, and to check the persuasive power of those who would do us harm.

Respondents who said 9/11 was unjustified (1 or 2 on a 5-point scale, where 1 is totally unjustified and 5 is completely justified) are classified as moderates. Respondents who said 9/11 was justified (4 or 5 on the same scale) are classified as radicals. The data for this poll were obtained during 2005-06 from Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Approximately 1,000 in-home interviews were conducted in each country. The sampling mix of urban and rural areas is the statistical equivalent of surveying each nation’s adult population, with a statistical sampling error rate of +/- 3 percent.

John L. Esposito is professor of religion and international affairs and founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Dalia Mogahed is executive director of Muslim studies for the Gallup Organization. They are working on a forthcoming book titled, Can You Hear Me?: Listening to the Voices of a Billion Muslims, to be published by Gallup Press in September 2007.

November 19, 2006

Wary of Arab voices, West promotes Malay views on Islam

I came across this story recently in The Halal Journal, a Malaysian magazine that focuses on various aspects of "halalness" (primarily with regard to halal food, but also on Islamic finance, environmentalism, etc.). Reuters published the story in late September, but this was the first time I came across the article.

I have mixed emotions about this idea of translating the works of Malay Muslims in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, etc., into English. It's not that the works of the Malay Muslims shouldn't be translated; I think that the ummah would benefit if more works on Islam worldwide were translated into numerous languages, including but not limited to English. Ideas such as Islam Hadhari deserve a wider audience than just the greater Malay community here in SE Asia.

However, what worries me are the motives these foundations and governments have in doing these self-funded translations. The article claims "Arab radicalism," but that's an extremely weak argument in my book. Islam <> "Arab radicalism." Moreover, I'm also concerned about other aspects of the translations: Who chooses what is to be translated and what are the criterion for those choices? (Don't tell me there won't be an agenda in the selection of what should be translated, especially when government funding is involved.) How accurate will the translations be? Will these be MEMRI-style hachet jobs? I'm extremely, extremely leery of non-Muslims being involved in this type of work.

Western governments and institutions, eager to dilute what they see as Arab radicalism, are actively encouraging the translation of works by Malay-speaking Muslims from across Southeast Asia. Drawn to the region's history of pluralism and its recent experience with democracy, supporters say Islamic thought from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand has a lot to offer the modern world -- if only language were not a barrier. But some experts say the traditions of Islam, its heart and head rooted in the Arab Middle East, and the insular nature of the approximately 234 million Malay Muslims themselves, could blunt the effort's impact.

"There is very progressive thought in Indonesia, but it doesn't get out," said Robin Bush, of the U.S.-based Asia Foundation, which helped launch the budding translation movement. The perception is Southeast Asia is much more complex, historically and culturally" than the Arab world, said Bush, deputy head of the Asia Foundation's Indonesia office.

Funding for the effort has also come from such organizations as the Ford Foundation, with additional support from Western embassies.

"Too much of the Islamic tradition derives from the Middle East, from so many centuries ago," said Lily Zakiyah Munir, a Jakarta-based intellectual promoting Malay Muslim writings. We want to show the relevance of contemporary (religious) issues ... and promote the humanitarian side of the religion," she said.

Few Malay-Muslims write in English or Arabic and even fewer Muslims outside the region know the Malay languages. Later plans call for translations directly into Arabic. Among those produced so far are "Understanding Women in Islam: An Indonesian Perspective," by Syafiq Hasym, and "Indonesia, Islam, and Democracy," by Azyumardi Azra. Both books are said to highlight modernist elements in Southeast Asian Islam: the relatively prominent role for women in public life; and general support for democratic norms and practices.

Proponents also say Islam's history of gradual spread throughout the region, by commercial interests and cultural advance rather than battle, makes it an effective counterweight to the traditions of the tumultuous Arab world.

"Indonesia is a moderate Muslim country and these views can be very helpful in contrast to the militant voice of Arab Muslims today," said a diplomat from one Western country that helped fund the translations.

But Vali Nasr, an expert on contemporary Islam at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterrey, California, said such works were unlikely to find acceptance among Arab Muslims. "Arabs are perfectly happy to export their ideas, but they are not very good at importing," he said by telephone.

What's more, important developments in Southeast Asian Muslim societies, such as the advance of pluralistic democracy, were never seen as universal prescriptions.

"Indonesia and Malaysia have their own form of Islam that is much more integrated into the globalized world, but it was only for local consumption. They don't claim to be a spokesman for Islam, and the Arabs don't want them. It's not a linguistic problem," Nasr said.

November 7, 2006

Muslim Veil Also Can Be Free Choice

The following letter to the editor appeared in the Arizona Republic (Phoenix) yesterday (Nov. 6), written by Sister Nicole Hadley of Mesa. It's pretty good and she makes an interesting analogy at the end: the niqab as a "flag" of liberty and freedom.

The House of Commons leader Jack Straw has been widely criticized - and commended - for proclaiming the veil worn by some Muslim women a hindrance to full assimilation into society.

As an American Muslim woman, I see this as an extremely ignorant statement. I am a Caucasian Muslim raised in America, and I am about as "American as apple pie."

In accordance with my religious beliefs, I cover my hair, but does that make me any less American? Would Straw ask me to assimilate into my own country?

Granted, Straw's comment was in reference to the veil that covers the face and not the hair, but we have to be careful when speaking about taking away people's rights. When one right is taken away, where does it stop? If covering the face is taken away for the sake of "assimilation," will covering the hair be next?

I think I speak for all Muslim women when I say that I appreciate the fact that Prime Minister Tony Blair said that covering is a matter of choice for women. This should remain a choice that every woman has the right to make for herself, whether she originates from a Western, Middle Eastern or Asian country.

If the goal really is assimilation, then what better way for an immigrant to assimilate into a Western nation than to embrace its laws of freedom of religion? Many immigrants come to the West fleeing religious persecution in their own countries.

Women in the United States and the United Kingdom have the right to dress the way that best suits their identities. We should be proud of the fact that women do not have to endure religious persecution here, and hold this triumph up high for the world to see and take as its example.

By exercising their religious right to cover as they please, Muslim women in the West are brandishing their flag of liberty. This is the pride of America - freedom.

November 4, 2006


"If you are part of a society that votes, then do so. There may be no candidates and no measures you want to vote for…but there are certain to be ones you want to vote against. In case of doubt, vote against. By this rule you will rarely go wrong. If this is too blind for your taste, consult some well-meaning fool (there is always one around) and ask his advice. Then vote the other way. This enables you to be a good citizen (if such is your wish) without spending the enormous amount of time on it that truly intelligent exercise of franchise requires."
-- The Notebooks of Lazarus Long (Robert A. Heinlein)

(Graphics h/t to TBogg (above) and Patriotboy (below).)

October 23, 2006

Bush's Crusade

There's an interesting guest post over at Jesus' General that argues that President Bush's various references to religion regarding the so-called "war on terror" indicates a semi-conscious but real belief in Bush's mind that America is actually waging a war on Islam (not that that's any real surprise to most Muslims, I'm sure). An excerpt:

So if terrorism isn’t a real target in this war, nor is the ideology behind those who engage in terrorism, what’s left? Apparently, Islam and Muslims are what’s left — after all, non-Muslim terrorists aren’t pursued with the same zeal and rhetoric as the administration and its Christian supporters use against Muslims. Perhaps the more extreme versions of Islam and their Muslim practitioners will always be primary focus, but Islam as a whole and Muslims in general seem to be the principle targets of the Republican Party’s self-fulfilling War on Terror.

Given how much prejudice there is in America towards Muslims, and how much support has been expressed for imposing a subordinate standard of civil rights on Muslims, this doesn’t seem like an entirely implausible option. I’m sure that there are other possibilities, but given the facts on the ground it would be difficult to successfully argue for them.

The religion of those targeted by the Bush administration is not the only issue — the religion of those pursuing their war of aggression is an important factor as well. For many Americans, religion is political and politics is religious. They recognize no valid distinction between True Patriotism and True Religion, between the best political policies for America and the only valid religion for all human beings. Because of this, religious language will necessarily creep into political discourse — preventing it would require erecting a wall between religious theology and political ideology which simply cannot exist for them.

Theological beliefs structure, inform, and determine the course of political decision-making which can be difficult for more secularly-minded people to fully comprehend (even those who are themselves religious on a personal level). Thus any discussion of the War on Terror will necessarily include references to religion and religious terminology — not simply because religion is a motivating factor, but because these people cannot think in categories and concepts that are not religious in nature. Enemies are demonic, not simply mistaken or misguided. Wars are crusades because rather than having merely political causes, they are part of God’s agenda for humanity.

When Bush speaks about the War on Terror as a “Crusade,” he may be doing so because he really is targeting Islam and because he simply can’t avoid religious terminology. It appears, then, that we are being given a glimpse into the true workings of such people’s minds and we should not dismiss such evidence as irrelevant, unimportant, or “much ado about nothing.”

October 13, 2006

Arab Heroes of the Holocaust

There was an interesting article in WaPo's "Lost History Department" Sunday regarding the Arab heroes of the Jewish Holocaust during WW2. The article starts off with a review of how some Arab countries and leaders currently deny the Holocaust, but the bulk of the article states that, while there were large numbers of Arabs who did nothing while the Germans rounded up the Jews of North Africa or, worse, collaborated with the Germans in rounding up and guarding the Jews in various labor camps, there are a number of noteworthy stories about Arabs in North Africa and Europe who helped to save some Jews from the Germans. What follows are some excerpts from the article that I think deserves greater exposure:

Neither Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to Holocaust victims, nor any other Holocaust memorial has ever recognized an Arab rescuer. It is time for that to change. It is also time for Arabs to recall and embrace these episodes in their history. That may not change the minds of the most radical Arab leaders or populations, but for some it could make the Holocaust a source of pride, worthy of remembrance -- rather than avoidance or denial.

The Holocaust was an Arab story, too. From the beginning of World War II, Nazi plans to persecute and eventually exterminate Jews extended throughout the area that Germany and its allies hoped to conquer. That included a great Arab expanse, from Casablanca to Tripoli and on to Cairo, home to more than half a million Jews.

Though Germany and its allies controlled this region only briefly, they made substantial headway toward their goal. From June 1940 to May 1943, the Nazis, their Vichy French collaborators and their Italian fascist allies applied in Arab lands many of the precursors to the Final Solution. These included not only laws depriving Jews of property, education, livelihood, residence and free movement, but also torture, slave labor, deportation and execution.

There were no death camps, but many thousands of Jews were consigned to more than 100 brutal labor camps, many solely for Jews. Recall Maj. Strasser's warning to Ilsa, the wife of the Czech underground leader, in the 1942 film "Casablanca": "It is possible the French authorities will find a reason to put him in the concentration camp here." Indeed, the Arab lands of Algeria and Morocco were the site of the first concentration camps ever liberated by Allied troops.

About 1 percent of Jews in North Africa (4,000 to 5,000) perished under Axis control in Arab lands, compared with more than half of European Jews. These Jews were lucky to be on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, where the fighting ended relatively early and where boats -- not just cattle cars -- would have been needed to take them to the ovens in Europe. But if U.S. and British troops had not pushed Axis forces from the African continent by May 1943, the Jews of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and perhaps even Egypt and Palestine almost certainly would have met the same fate as those in Europe.

The Arabs in these lands were not too different from Europeans: With war waging around them, most stood by and did nothing; many participated fully and willingly in the persecution of Jews; and a brave few even helped save Jews.


Arabs welcomed Jews into their homes, guarded Jews' valuables so Germans could not confiscate them, shared with Jews their meager rations and warned Jewish leaders of coming SS raids. The sultan of Morocco and the bey of Tunis provided moral support and, at times, practical help to Jewish subjects. In Vichy-controlled Algiers, mosque preachers gave Friday sermons forbidding believers from serving as conservators of confiscated Jewish property. In the words of Yaacov Zrivy, from a small town near Sfax, Tunisia, "The Arabs watched over the Jews."

I found remarkable stories of rescue, too. In the rolling hills west of Tunis, 60 Jewish internees escaped from an Axis labor camp and banged on the farm door of a man named Si Ali Sakkat, who courageously hid them until liberation by the Allies. In the Tunisian coastal town of Mahdia, a dashing local notable named Khaled Abdelwahhab scooped up several families in the middle of the night and whisked them to his countryside estate to protect one of the women from the predations of a German officer bent on rape.

And there is strong evidence that the most influential Arab in Europe -- Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris -- saved as many as 100 Jews by having the mosque's administrative personnel give them certificates of Muslim identity, with which they could evade arrest and deportation. These men, and others, were true heroes.

According to the Koran: "Whoever saves one life, saves the entire world." This passage echoes the Talmud's injunction, "If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world."

Arabs need to hear these stories -- both of heroes and of villains. They especially need to hear them from their own teachers, preachers and leaders. If they do, they may respond as did that one Arab prince who visited the Holocaust museum. "What we saw today," he commented after his tour, "must help us change evil into good and hate into love and war into peace."

October 8, 2006

Great Moments in Presidential Speeches

These are hysterical (some of the speeches repeat). From Letterman. Run times: 0:39, 0:33, 0:35, and 0:36.

October 6, 2006

"Conviction" as the Weakest Form of Faith

I'm sorry for the long delay in posting anything. I started a new job last week that's sucked up more time than I expected, and I've been rather tired and occasionally ill from fasting this Ramadan. However, as some of you may have seen, I've continued to visit other blogs and made the occasional comment here and there. Yesterday, I made a comment at Safia Speaks, a blog I was unfamiliar with as it doesn't appear on many, if any(?), of the blogrolls of people whom I visit. Anyway, Safia wrote about a recent "conference" in Denmark in "honor" of the one-year anniversary of the Danish cartoons that defamed the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Irshad Manji and Wafa Sultan were attendees, and some of Safia's post and the comments were with regard to these two women (in addition to Danish MP Naser Khader, who was born in Syria and seems to be a bird of the feather).

In the comments, a certain "Ignoramus" (seriously, that's his/her nick) wrote, "Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't being Muslim a matter of conviction ?" His/her thought was, "I'm a member of the People's Church of Denmark (like most everyone else) if I declare myself a Christian, who in the world has the right to say I'm not, no matter what I do or don't ? ... I can call myself a Christian and not celebrate Xmas, never go to church etc. It's an inner thing y'know. Belief in Allah and His Prophet are convictions. Salad , zakat and hajj are actions: you can do these w/out conviction. ... If he says he's a Muslim I'll take his word for it, when you say _you're_ a Muslim, I'll take _your_ word for it."

My response to his initial comment was:

No; you're wrong. Islam, as a word, means "Submission," submission to the Will of Allah (swt) as expressed through the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). To submit to the Will of Allah (swt) means to practice your faith; for example, by following the five pillars of Islam and avoiding those things in life that are haram (forbidden). To merely express the "conviction," to say "I'm a Muslim," is the least form of faith. For the likes of Irshad, Naser, et al, to claim they are Muslim (if they really do), then not to follow the precepts of Islam, merely exposes them as hypocrites (and Allah (swt) has said that they will face their own punishments in the hereafter). We know that people slip into and out of a state of Islam throughout their lives and, insha'allah, people like Irshad, Naser, et al, may realize the errors of their ways before it is too late. But to act in the matter of a hypocrite as many of these people do will not impress the Muslim community one bit. Non-Muslims love the likes of Irshad because of her hypocrisy; this is what they want Muslims to be. Muslims know better.

I think this is a problem for many non-Muslims: their knowledge of Islam and Muslim personalities is so limited that they have little to no understanding of whom many of these people are or what they stand for. You and I, the knowledgeable Muslims, know that the likes of Manji and Sultan have severely warped understandings of Islam, let alone whether they are really Muslims (something not my right to decide). But I feel it is our duty - not merely our right, but a duty - to take away their voice as representatives of Islam. Not literally, of course. I'm not saying these people should be physically assaulted in any way; however, with airtime on radio and TV as limited as it is, we Muslims need to be the ones whom the media approaches for information, not the likes of Manji, Sultan, et al, whom the West adores because they don't know any better.


On a completely separate note, I also want to add that Danya has written an excellent post: Thoughts on Hijab: Post-Kharabsheh. Check it out.

September 22, 2006

Ramadhan/Singapore Slingers

I know there's a bit of confusion among American Muslims as to when Ramadhan starts. Here in Singapore, because the weather is often overcast, relying upon moon sightings to determine the start and end of Islamic months is not really feasible. As a result, MUIS (the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore), uses the method of counting days. (I believe the other countries in this area (Indonesia, Malaysia, etc.) follow the same method.) So, to let my American brothers and sisters in Islam know, we will start fasting on Sunday, the 24th. Ramadhan will be for 30 days this year and ends, insha'allah, on Monday, October 23rd. Obviously, Eid will be on Tuesday, October 24th. At this time, Singapore is 12 hours ahead of the East Coast (i.e., it's now about 3:30 p.m. here, Friday afternoon, which makes it 3:30 a.m., very early Friday morning back home), so adjust accordingly.

Singapore Slingers LogoSingapore Slingers
Singapore has joined the Australian National Basketball League, winning their first game in the team's history by beating the Adelaide 36ers, 98 to 91. I happened to catch about the last minute of the game on TV last night.

Singapore is the first Asian city/country to join the NBL and, insha'allah, hopefully won't be the last. A couple years ago, there was an episode of a local TV show that asked why Singapore didn't have a sporting culture. I had responded to that question by writing a letter to the editor of the Straits Times, although it was never published.

Singapore does have a small sporting culture, but you'd never know it by reading the newspapers. In S'pore, there are two main English language dailies, The Straits Times and The New Paper. The former is your typical, serious paper, similar in size and tone to any major American newspaper (e.g., Phoenix's The Arizona Republic); The New Paper is more of a gossipy tabloid. Of the two, The New Paper has the larger sports section, but focuses almost exclusively on European soccer, F1, and horse racing (there's a local race track and gambling is popular here). The Straits Times' sports section is 1/3 to 1/2 the size of The New Paper's, and covers mostly European soccer. Neither paper devotes any significant effort to covering local sports. The S League (the local soccer league) gets what little ink there is for local coverage; in the past few months, the Straits Times has only made a tiny effort at covering sports at the secondary school level (something that would get tons of ink back home).

Anyway, as a person who enjoys watching, participating in, and reading about sports, Singapore is very much a backwater compared to the US or even Korea. One of the ideas that I proposed in my Letter to the Editor was the creation of a basketball league wherein there would be a team from each of the major cities in SE Asia (somewhat similar to the way SE Asian countries send a national team every other year to compete in the Tiger Cup, a regional and popular soccer tournament). Perhaps in time, insha'allah, the NBL could continue its northward expansion to include other Asian cities in the league (KL, Manila?).

So, I've got a new team to watch and cheer for, although the name...ugh. The colors are OK (red, white and gold), the logo's OK (see above), but the name...dumb.

September 20, 2006

Worlds Apart

A TV program Milady and I have started to watch regularly now is Worlds Apart, a National Geographic Channel series that, ironically, doesn't play on Singapore's NG Channel but another called AXN. The series takes American families and places them in various countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. I find the show interesting for several reasons. One, of course, is because the show gives a brief but interesting look at different cultures around the world. (I grew up reading NG and loved their stories about foreign cultures; it's one of the reasons why I became externally focused on life outside the U.S. instead of being so withdrawn and isolationist, like many Americans.)

Second, I find it very interesting to see how the Americans react, trying to adapt to the various cultures and (frequently) failing miserably. It's amazing to see how quickly these people undergo culture shock; for some, the breaking point is only a few days into the visit (the families stay with a host village for ten days at the most). This post is about some of my observations with regard to these reactions, especially as they relate to gender and family roles (father, mother, child).

Of the five episodes or so that I've seen so far, most of the men seem to enjoy their experiences abroad. I think this is for two reasons. One: The cultures these American men find themselves in are much more patriarchal than American culture. (You can really see how feminism has affected (afflicted?) American culture with some of the families being very egalitarian if not matriarchal. One wife warned her husband not to think that he could continue to enjoy his new-found independence when he returned to the U.S. She planned to rule the roost once more as soon as they got back home.) Two: In many of these societies, the men are required to do a fair amount of physical labor, and I think the American guys are enjoying the work, using their bodies. Many developed economies now rely heavily upon work that is sedentary in nature. I remember the first job I had that required me to sit at a desk for my entire shift: my body hated it. I had worked for a number of years prior doing jobs that required me to stand, walk around, or do heavy physical labor (e.g., delivering furniture). Now, as a lecturer, I have a job that requires both sitting (often preparing for classes on a computer) and standing, walking around a classroom during class. I think these guys are doing heavy work once more and saying, "Wow, this is fun again." (Of course, whether they would say that after years of labor would be another question.) The only guy who didn't seem to enjoy his experience was a black man from St. Louis on last night's episode. I think there were a number of things he didn't appreciate about Mongolian culture at first, although he seemed more comfortable toward the end of his stay.

Many of the women don't do as well away from home as their husbands. That's not to say that all of them have done poorly. So far that I've seen, two women seemed to have positive experiences: the wife of the St. Louis family mentioned above and another woman (from Massachusetts?) who went to Panama and looked like she absolutely loved her experience (her sister, who came to visit for the second half of the stay, was the complete opposite). However, some of the women have broken down and suffered from severe culture shock. This doesn't surprise me as it jives with my own experiences observing American and Canadian expatriate women here in Asia. Many (but certainly not all) of the expatriate women I've known haven't done well overseas, and most have gone back home within a year or so. (Many, but certainly not all, expatriate men seem to last longer overseas, frequently staying for a number of years if not getting married to a local woman, like me, and becoming a PR.) I think many of the wives (and two girlfriends) on the show are shocked not only by the patriarchal society they've found themselves in, with their designated gender roles, but that they have significant work loads of their own to do, whether it's butchering the animals that their husbands have just slaughtered, cooking the food over a fire (no doubt a first for many of these women), or wielding a machete to cut down small trees to build their own huts. For these women, the shock leads to a very sudden nervous breakdown although, to their credit, the women often recover quickly and cope well with the remainder of their stay.

The kids have been a mixed bag. According to the Worlds Apart website, they will accept families that have children between the ages of 6 through 18. Perhaps not surprisingly, the children who have adapted the best are the younger ones, the pre-teens. They're still in child learning mode and take the new cultures in stride. Chop down that tree with this machete? No problem. Climb up this tree to get some betel nuts? The boy struggles for a while, learning how to climb, but perseveres and makes it all the way to the top. The teenagers (mostly girls) think more like adults. They're not terribly interested in learning or adapting, but trying to make the time pass as quickly as possible so they can return home to their friends. I'm more optimistic for the younger kids, that they will have learned deeply-ingrained life lessons from the trip: a respect for other cultures and countries, less arrogance in a belief of American and/or Western superiority, an understanding that people around the world have different values and ways of living. The teenagers I have less hope for.

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is how the Americans react to native food. It's not just that the Americans are exposed to foods that they would almost certainly never eat back home (e.g., armadillo), but that the native peoples slaughter and butcher their own foods, sometimes using body parts in very practical ways (the Mongolians packed a sheep's stomach with a home-made cheese that, as a container, would keep the cheese fresh throughout the upcoming winter). Of course, the slaughtering and butchering has come as a shock to many of the families. (It wouldn't surprise me if many Americans - and kids in particular - have no idea where the meat they eat comes from.) One woman (the woman who came to visit her older sister's family in Panama), who ran a vegetarian restaurant back home, reacted strongly when her brother-in-law speared a wild pig that had been caught for a celebratory feast. Still, there have been some amusing moments. In Mongolia, a young black boy looked askance at the idea of eating a sheep's eyeball, but gladly ate the eyelid. "Tastes like chicken."

I've thought about how Milady and I would fare if we were on a show like Worlds Apart. I think, for the most part, that both of us would do decently in that type of situation. Granted, life in Korea and Singapore is much, much more modern and sophisticated than the places where these families are sent. Most of the living conditions on the show are very primitive. And I think food would be an issue for both of us to a degree. As Muslims, we would find some of the foods offered to be haram, not only due to the issue of pork, but also because, for every animal I've seen slaughtered on this show, the killing has been done in a non-halal manner. On the other hand, Milady is more gastronomically adventurous than I am. :) She likes her "spicy beef lungs," and I say "yuck." ("Tastes like chicken," I'm sure.) I walk by the big container of decapitated fish heads (used for "fish maw soup") at the grocery store, and I say "yuck." I see the back half of a fish (that's been chopped in two) sitting in a small bucket of water at my mother-in-law's place, and I say "yuck." But I wouldn't be surprised if Milady could slaughter (in a halal manner), prepare and eat most halal food that would be offered to her in another country without batting an eye because I think she's more down-to-earth than many of the women I see on Worlds Apart, and I love her for that.

BTW, according to the website, Milady and I wouldn't qualify for the show because we don't have any kids yet (insha'allah). However, that didn't stop me from suggesting to two of my sisters that they try to be on the show. Now that would be a hoot. ;)

September 15, 2006

Juan Cole on Pope Benedict's Erroneous Speech About Islam

I came across some excerpts from Pope Benedict's recent speech a few days ago, primarily on red blogs that were cheering the Pope's statements about Islam, neither (the Pope and the bloggers) knowing that what the Pope had said was, in fact, erroneous. I hadn't had the time to write about these errors, but I've found that Professor Cole at Informed Comment has already done so. What follows is his entire post on the matter; he has done a very good job in correcting the Pope's errors. So much for papal infallibility. ;)

Pope Benedict's speech at Regensburg University, which mentioned Islam and jihad, has provoked a firestorm of controversy.

The address is more complex and subtle than the press on it represents. But let me just signal that what is most troubling of all is that the Pope gets several things about Islam wrong, just as a matter of fact.

He notes that the text he discusses, a polemic against Islam by a Byzantine emperor, cites Qur'an 2:256: "There is no compulsion in religion." Benedict maintains that this is an early verse, when Muhammad was without power.

His allegation is incorrect. Surah 2 is a Medinan surah revealed when Muhammad was already established as the leader of the city of Yathrib (later known as Medina or "the city" of the Prophet). The pope imagines that a young Muhammad in Mecca before 622 (lacking power) permitted freedom of conscience, but later in life ordered that his religion be spread by the sword. But since Surah 2 is in fact from the Medina period when Muhammad was in power, that theory does not hold water.

In fact, the Qur'an at no point urges that religious faith be imposed on anyone by force. This is what it says about the religions:

' [2:62] Those who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians-- any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.'

See my comments On the Quran and peace.

The idea of holy war or jihad (which is about defending the community or at most about establishing rule by Muslims, not about imposing the faith on individuals by force) is also not a Quranic doctrine. The doctrine was elaborated much later, on the Umayyad-Byzantine frontier, long after the Prophet's death. In fact, in early Islam it was hard to join, and Christians who asked to become Muslim were routinely turned away. The tyrannical governor of Iraq, al-Hajjaj, was notorious for this rejection of applicants, because he got higher taxes on non-Muslims. Arab Muslims had conquered Iraq, which was then largely pagan, Zoroastrian, Christian and Jewish. But they weren't seeking converts and certainly weren't imposing their religion.

The pope was trying to make the point that coercion of conscience is incompatible with genuine, reasoned faith. He used Islam as a symbol of the coercive demand for unreasoned faith.

But he has been misled by the medieval polemic on which he depended.

In fact, the Quran also urges reasoned faith and also forbids coercion in religion. The only violence urged in the Quran is in self-defense of the Muslim community against the attempts of the pagan Meccans to wipe it out.

The pope says that in Islam, God is so transcendant that he is beyond reason and therefore cannot be expected to act reasonably. He contrasts this conception of God with that of the Gospel of John, where God is the Logos, the Reason inherent in the universe.

But there have been many schools of Islamic theology and philosophy. The Mu'tazilite school maintained exactly what the Pope is saying, that God must act in accordance with reason and the good as humans know them. The Mu'tazilite approach is still popular in Zaidism and in Twelver Shiism of the Iraqi and Iranian sort. The Ash'ari school, in contrast, insisted that God was beyond human reason and therefore could not be judged rationally. (I think the Pope would find that Tertullian and perhaps also John Calvin would be more sympathetic to this view within Christianity than he is).

As for the Quran, it constantly appeals to reason in knowing God, and in refuting idolatry and paganism, and asks, "do you not reason?" "do you not understand?" (a fala ta`qilun?)

Of course, Christianity itself has a long history of imposing coerced faith on people, including on pagans in the late Roman Empire, who were forcibly converted. And then there were the episodes of the Crusades.

Another irony is that reasoned, scholastic Christianity has an important heritage drom Islam itself. In the 10th century, there was little scholasticism in Christian theology. The influence of Muslim thinkers such as Averroes and Ibn Rushd reemphasized the use of Aristotle and Plato in Christian theology. Indeed, there was a point where Christian theologians in Paris had divided into partisans of Averroes or of Ibn Rushd, and they conducted vigorous polemics with one another.

Finally, that Byzantine emperor that the Pope quoted, Manuel II? The Byzantines had been weakened by Latin predations during the fourth Crusade, so it was in a way Rome that had sought coercion first. And, he ended his days as a vassal of the Ottoman Empire.

The Pope was wrong on the facts. He should apologize to the Muslims and get better advisers on Christian-Muslim relations.

Can You Say "Propaganda?"

I got a real big kick out of the Fox News Commercial that blowhard Bill O'Reilly promoted during his interview with Arianna Huffington. The "Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan Thank America" is such pompous propaganda that I couldn't help but laugh at it. It also makes me wonder about the intelligence of those Americans who willingly, blindly suck up such drivel (i.e., those people who watch Fox News). Speaking of which, I looked around the Fox News website, trying to find a copy of the video by itself, but it's not there. Could it be that Fox is too embarrassed (or cynical) to put their nonsense on their own website?

Huffington had a great response for O'Reilly: When asked what she thought of the commercial, she said, "I want to know who is paying for it." O'Reilly, of course, said that the "Iraqi Kurdistan government" paid for the ad, with a little help (I'm sure) from their American neo-con friends.

Click on the title link to go to the Quicktime copy of the interview; also, Crooks and Liars has a WMV copy plus additional comments.

September 14, 2006

On Jihadis and Iran

Another interesting article (an op/ed piece, actually) out of WaPo today, by David Ignatius on the makeup of Jihadis and Iran (all emphases are mine):

[Marc] Sageman [a former CIA case officer stationed in Pakistan who later became a psychiatrist] argues in his book, "Understanding Terror Networks," that we are facing something closer to a cult network than an organized global adversary. Like many cults through history, the Muslim terrorists thrive by channeling and perverting the idealism of young people. As a forensic psychiatrist, he analyzed data on about 400 jihadists. He found that they weren't poor, desperate sociopaths but restless young men who found identity by joining the terrorist underground. Ninety percent came from intact families; 63 percent had gone to college; 75 percent were professionals or semi-professionals; 73 percent were married.

What transformed these young Sunni Muslim men was the fellowship of the jihad and the militant role models they found in people such as Osama bin Laden.
The terrorist training camps in Afghanistan were a kind of elite finishing school --

Sageman likened it to getting into Harvard. The Sept. 11 hijackers weren't psychotic killers; none of the 19 had criminal records. In terms of their psychological profiles, says Sageman, they were as healthy as the general population.

The implication of Sageman's analysis is that the Sunni jihadism of al-Qaeda and its spinoff groups is a generational phenomenon. Unless new grievances spawn new recruits, it will gradually ebb over time. In other words, this is a fire that will gradually burn itself out unless we keep pumping in more oxygen. Nothing in Sageman's analysis implies that America should be any less aggressive in defending itself against terrorism. But he does argue that we should choose our offensive battles wisely and avoid glamorizing the jihadist network further through our rhetoric or actions.

Sageman's focus on the generational arc of violence got me thinking about my recent trip to Iran. The revolutionary intensity hasn't disappeared there, but it is certainly further down the curve than is the Sunni world. When I attended Friday prayers at Tehran University, I was struck by how old the people shouting "death to America" were. I would guess the average age was well over 40. The generation of the Iranian revolution is getting long in the tooth. The only sure way to ignite revolutionary zealotry in the younger generation would be for America to go to war with Iran -- something I dearly hope we can avoid.

... As I explained in an earlier column, Tehran is a city of crazy drivers who nearly collide at every intersection. But the police are quite strict about requiring seat belts -- something I don't often see in the Muslim world. Even fatalistic taxi drivers buckle up. ...

Now I submit to you: A nation that is wearing seat belts is probably not a mortal enemy of the United States.

... unless we make big mistakes, we should not find ourselves condemned to a permanent war, much less a clash of civilizations.

Assalamu 'alaikum, Teach!

From the teacher every boy wishes was his to the teacher every Muslim student prays won't be theirs. From the Washington Post:

A substitute teacher was charged with disorderly conduct Monday after she allegedly lashed out at a group of Gaithersburg high school students for using words in Arabic while practicing a commemorative speech to mark the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Montgomery County police say Carol J. McVey, 49, began screaming at the group of Gaithersburg High School students and one of their teachers for saying "assalamu alaikum" -- a greeting that means "peace be with you" -- while they rehearsed the speech in a classroom. The students were working on a speech that they intended to deliver at a memorial service at Kingsview Middle School that day.

Police said McVey, of Olney, began yelling at the students and their teacher. "Islam doesn't mean peace, it means killing everyone for peace," she told them, according to a charging document.

The students and one of their teachers left the classroom in fear after the outburst, police said, and McVey followed them down the hall, where her alleged tirade intensified. "Because of you our families died in New York!" she allegedly yelled, threatening to go to the principal's office to ask that Kulsum Malik, the teacher who was with the students, be told to leave, the charging document said. Police spokeswoman Lucille Baur said she didn't know whether Malik or any of the students working on the speech are Muslim.

When McVey reached the office of Assistant Principal Laurie Bricker and began yelling again, Bricker asked her to leave. As the administrator was telling McVey to go, McVey began to argue that it was Malik who should be asked to leave, police said. As an officer assigned to the high school began escorting McVey out, she allegedly resisted, saying she wanted to get Malik's information in order "to report her," according to the charging document.

On her way out, McVey "yelled at a Hispanic teacher about the inappropriateness of speaking to students in languages other than English," police said.

McVey was also charged with resisting arrest, disrupting school activities and trespassing, which are all misdemeanors. She was released on her own recognizance.

My, my, what are they teaching the children in schools today? I think McVey (hmmm, a relative?) needs a little counselling on Islam before she's allowed back in a classroom.