A Moderate Voice of Islam

Here is King Abdullah II of Jordan in the Washington Post:

Our religion calls us to live and work for justice and to promote tolerance. Daily, we share God’s blessing: Salaam Aleikum — “Peace be upon you.”

This is the true voice of Islam, but it is not the voice that Americans always hear. Instead, they hear the hatred spewed by groups mistakenly called Islamic fundamentalists. In fact, there is nothing fundamentally Islamic about these extremists. They are religious totalitarians, in a long line of extremists of various faiths who seek power by intimidation, violence and thuggery.

Among the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims, extremists are, of course, a tiny minority. For decades, many Muslims thought that because they had nothing to do with this criminal fringe, they could ignore it. Sept. 11, 2001, changed that kind of thinking. The idea that anyone would exploit our religion to sanction the killing of innocents outraged Muslims everywhere.

Yet we must do even more to make sure the real voice of Islam is heard. Today Muslims must speak out boldly in defense of a dynamic, moderate Islam — an Islam that upholds the sanctity of human life, reaches out to the oppressed, respects men and women alike, and insists on the fellowship of all humankind. This is the true Islam of the Prophet, and the Islam that terrorists seek to destroy.

Eid Mubarak

A Happy Eid to you, dear readers. Today is Eid-ul-Fitr here in Atlanta, the day celebrating the end of Ramazan, the month of fasting.

So I have Eid here today, while my wife in New Jersey will have hers tomorrow. What’s the deal with that? I have no idea. Eid is celebrated on the new moon of a lunar calendar. Therefore, the day of the Eid would be different in different regions of the world. However, as far as I remember, there are always differences in opinion on the date of the Eid even in the same country. In Pakistan, for example, there was a government-appointed religious body which decided the start of each lunar month. The people of the Frontier province (inhabited mainly by Pashtuns, the major ethnic group of Afghanistan) always had Eid a day earlier, even if it was astronomically impossible for the new moon to appear that day. In the US, the decision for Eid is taken by each mosque independently. This usually led to huge confusion. So three major Muslim groups (ISNA, ICNA and Warris Muhammad’s group) formed a joint committee which among other things decides on the moonsighting. (Aside: Warris Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad, converted the bulk of the Nation of Islam to orthodox Islam in the 1970s.) So, the Shura Council has decided on Dec 6, while our mosque here in Atlanta decided on Dec 5 probably to coincide with the Saudis.

History of Abrahamic Religions

I am interested in finding out more about the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Not from the point of view of their followers, but from good scholarly sources which discuss independent sources for the history of the early periods of these religions as well as the history of the Bible and the Quran (based on analysis of their text as well as the history of their compilation etc.) I would like to know what events in the Bible we can confirm independently, for example. I understand that we cannot independently say anything one way or the other about quite a few of the events in the Bible as well as early Muslim history.

A couple of articles related to the Quran were in the NY Times and the Atlantic some time ago. However, one of the biggest problems I have found when searching for material on this topic is that of the author’s bias. There are usually two kinds of people writing in this area: those whose aim is to refute the religion (for example, here), and those who want to defend it (an example is here). Usually, both these groups make outrageous claims. As someone who believes in one’s religion but is not overly religious, I find both approaches highly problematic and not intellectually honest.

I suppose doing research and writing on Islam in this context has also become very difficult in recent years due to the profileration of fatwas for blasphemy that got started with Salman Rushdie. It probably is much easier to write about the history of Judaism and Christianity.

If anyone (Bill Allison, are you reading?) has any reading recommendations, please let me know.

What Sort of Muslim Are You?

I decided to ignore the results of my last beliefnet quiz and took the “What sort of a Muslim are you?” quiz. Here are the results:

You are a secular Muslim.

You are a cultural or secular Muslim. You might identify yourself with the Muslim community, but like Kareem Abdul Jabbar, you have no problems with beer commercials. Islam provides you with more of a social setting or community than a set of religious beliefs. You may live by many of the basic principles of Islam, but you do not necessarily choose to attribute them to Islam. You are probably not too comfortable with many of the social restrictions often associated with Muslim organizations or societies.

Interesting. Though I am not really religious, this obviously does not describe my feelings about religion. But then what else do you expect from an online multichoice quiz!

Muslims, the West and Media

Aziz Poonawalla has a series (1, 2, 3) of posts on the silence of the media in showing the non-extremist Muslim majority. First, some quotes from Aziz:

Let me assure him [Steven Den Beste] and you that as a Muslim, I don’t really CARE how Islam is perceived by non-Muslims. I care how Islam is perceived by Muslims.

And just because he thinks Muslims are silent doesn’t mean they are. In fact they have strong voices, and there is a level of debate raging in the Islamic world that is completely missed by insulated commentators in the US.

… In fact, the effort that Muslims would have to make in order to get media coverage to satisfy the opinion of Steven and others like him who rely exclusively on western media for information about the Islamic world, would be wasted. Positive coverage lasts only as long as the next tragedy. That energy would be better spent – and is being better spent – inwards.

… This stereotype [of Muslim silence] also penetrates deeply into traditional media, with William F Buckley’s essay “Are we owed an apology?” (Muslims do NOT owe anyone an apology for 9-11) being a prominent example.

From Muhabajah.com, is this comprehensive list of links and resources on Islamic perspectives against terrorism (hirabah), essays by prominent Islamic intellectuals and clerics condemning terrorism, statements by muslim leaders, and even a section on muslim military personnel.

In addition to these, there is also this statement condemning 9-11 by the leaders of the American Muslim Alliance, the American Muslim Council, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Muslim American Society, the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Circle of North America, the Muslim Alliance in North America, and American Muslims for Jerusalem.

Aziz’s main points, for the purposes of the discussion here, and my comments follow.

1. The Western media does not present a balanced picture of Muslims.
True, and the reason is not hostility to Muslims. It is the fact that news is business and to make a profit, the media needs shock, surprise and scandal, something that enhances ratings. We should also remember that most news on TV really is news-tainment (news+entertainment). Since the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, a number of Muslim leaders/spokespersons have been on the news. A large number have condemned the terrorist attacks, yet the media has concentrated more attention on anti-semitic statements and terrorist sympathizers. That is as it would be for any news about any group. Since we know that, Muslim leaders should have taken some initiative in using this system to their advantage. How? Well, with gimmicks, with public display of patriotism, etc. You ask: isn’t that insincere? No, I am not saying they should do something they do not feel, rather they should have publicly done things, for example sporting US flags at a public gathering of Muslims, which probably a lot of Muslims did do at the individual level.

2. Therefore, the general population in the US does not find out about the moderate Muslims.
The general population does not know much about Islam or Muslims because they do not come in contact with Muslims in their lives. Their only exposure is about the terrorist acts and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It is a tough task to educate them. And you cannot convince everyone. As long as there are terrorist acts by Muslims, the image will remain negative to some extent. However, it is not just the extremists who are at fault here. A lot of Muslims in the US live a segregated life. They do work with all kinds of people, but they often don’t socialize with them. Hence, even in big cities where you would expect interaction of Muslims with the rest of the population, the average Joe is completely ignorant.

Another problematic area is Muslim leaders and organizations. In general, they are more extreme in their outlook than the average Muslim. We have to realize that these organizations claim to represent us. We can deny that terrorists like Osama Bin Laden have anything to do with Islam/Muslims. We can deny that some of the extreme Muslim organizations represent us. But the fact is that membership of a group (based on religion in this case) means that others will see us with the prism of that group. That is how people are. We always generalize and stereotype. (This does not however mean that we need to apologize for any terrorist acts.) Hence, we need to take control of the debate. We need to nudge and force the Muslim organizations towards our concerns.

In addition, Muslim organizations are very much focussed on foreign policy and especially on the Palestinian issue. I am all for a state for the Palestinians, but I think that is not very important for American Muslims. The Muslim organizations here should concentrate more on things of interest and concerns to US Muslims. If Muslims feel that they do need to lobby in the foregin policy arena, that work should be completely separated from the domestic organizations.

3. Aziz is not interested in the PR campaign required to rectify #1 and #2 and thinks it would be a waste of time and energy.
While the general point of Aziz that an inward focus will be more beneficial is correct, I think he is wrong in believing that explaining Islam to the general population is a waste of time. We live in an open, tolerant and diverse society. Interaction between different groups of people should be encouraged and would require some explaining of cultural/religious mores. The US society has moved far beyond the racism of the 19th century and the Japanese internment camps of World War II. The reaction of the general public as well as the leaders (especially President Bush) towards Muslims in the aftermath of Sept 11 was very commendable (with a few exceptions.) Most of the harrassment of Muslims, according to anecdotal evidence, was verbal. However, I think there is a chance of another major terrorist attack on US soil in the future. I hope and pray that it does not happen. But if it does, the likelihood of some severe reaction against Muslims in the US is high. How bad (or even good) that reaction would be will depend on the level of communication and understanding of Muslims and the larger community. Since Muslims are not so numerous and geographically spread out in the US that a large percentage of the US population would know one and since there are some nutcases calling themselves Muslims who blow up innocent people, Muslims do need the media to spread a positive image of themselves and their religion. If it takes gamesmanship, gimmicks, etc. along with a real message, so be it.

Gujrat Riots

Aziz Poonawalla (yes, him again) has the best collection of links to stories about the Hindu-Muslim riots in the Indian province of Gujrat earlier in the year.

Suman Palit responds to Aziz with the “root causes” of the hatred of the Hindu fundamentalists for their local Muslims. I don’t agree with his interpretation though. He goes back a thousand years to the Muslim (Afghan/Central Asian) conquest of India. If we go back that far, everyone will have reasons to hate everyone else.

Aziz has dealt point-by-point with Suman’s post. It’s so comprehensive, I don’t have to bother writing my own response.

Beliefnet’s Belief-O-Matic

I found it interesting that the top-most faith in the quiz I took yesterday was Reform Judaism. I asked my wife, brother and sister about the quiz. Their top-most faith also came out to be Judaism, orthodox in one case and reform in the rest. However, the rest of their ranking was very different.

I guess it has to do with the fact that Judaism and Islam have a lot in common. They have similar rules and beliefs. Thus, I find it really sad that there is a conflict between the adherents of these two great religions. From talking to some of my Israeli and Jewish friends, it does seem that they have some misunderstandings about Islam (caveat: this is a generalization from my experience, so it might not be true for everyone). Also, there are anti-Semitic feelings among Muslims (the same caveat applies here.) That in fact is a topic in itself which I would like to talk about in a separate post once I am back in Atlanta.


What religion are you?
The top score on the list below represents the faith that Belief-O-Matic, in its less than infinite wisdom, thinks most closely matches your beliefs. However, even a score of 100% does not mean that your views are all shared by this faith, or vice versa.

Belief-O-Matic then lists another 26 faiths in order of how much they have in common with your professed beliefs. The higher a faith appears on this list, the more closely it aligns with your thinking.

1. Reform Judaism (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (100%)
3. Liberal Quakers (99%)
4. Secular Humanism (84%)
5. Bahái Faith (81%)
6. Neo-Pagan (81%)
7. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (77%)
8. Sikhism (77%)
9. Orthodox Judaism (71%)
10. New Age (69%)
11. Islam (66%)
12. Jainism (66%)
13. Mahayana Buddhism (64%)
14. Theravada Buddhism (64%)
15. Nontheist (56%)
16. Orthodox Quaker (53%)
17. Taoism (53%)
18. New Thought (47%)
19. Scientology (45%)
20. Hinduism (40%)
21. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (37%)
22. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (32%)
23. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (30%)
24. Seventh Day Adventist (27%)
25. Jehovah’s Witness (26%)
26. Eastern Orthodox (22%)
27. Roman Catholic (22%)

The Arab-Israel Conflict

I recently finished reading the book Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001 by Benny Morris. It’s a long read (more than 700 pages) with a comprehensive history of the conflict starting in 1881 and ending with the election of Sharon. Benny Morris gives a very balanced and nuanced account of the conflict.

I realized after reading him that both Arabs and Israel have committed atrocities and mistakes at various times. Some people who come off really badly in the book are Amin Al-Husseini (the Nazi supporting Palestinian leader), Arafat, Sharon (especially his actions during the war in Lebanon, where he comes off as undermining Israeli democracy as well) and to some extent Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion’s statements regarding transfer of Arabs out of Palestine (I’ll use Palestine when I refer to the British mandate) and his and some earlier Zionist leaders’ ideas about Greater Israel (encompassing at least all of Palestine) don’t really endear them to me.

It is also clear that both sides missed opportunities for peace. For example, Col. Zaim of Syria asked to meet Ben-Gurion to negotiate a peace settlement in 1949, but Ben-Gurion refused to even meet and kept his cabinet ignorant about the offer. Similarly, peace overtures by King Abdullah of Jordan in 1949 and Sadaat of Egypt in 1971 got nowhere with Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. However, the Palestinian leadership always took a very inflexible stance until the 1990s. This inflexibility meant they missed all opportunities for a state of their own. They could have gotten 80% of Palestine in 1937 (Peel Commission) and 44% in 1947 (UN partition plan), but they never even considered these plans.

In my opinion, the conflict between Jews and Arabs was inevitable. They both wanted the same piece of land. Jewish immigration to the land of Israel was necessary because of their persecution in Europe. And though they had historical ties going back millenia to the land of Israel and there had been a continuous Jewish presence there, the area was largely inhabited by Arabs in the 19th century. According to Benny Morris, in 1881 there were only about 15,000 Jews in a total population of 457,000 (about 3.3%). In 1918, it had changed to 59,000 out of 747,000 (7.9%). By 1931, they constituted 16.6% (175,000) of the population (1,055,000). By 1939, 30.1% of the population was Jewish (460,000 out of 1,530,000). The Peel Commission had suggested the population transfer of about 1,250 Jews and 225,000 Arabs to the Jewish and Arab states respectively in 1937. Similarly, Israel under the UN partition plan would have had a population of 500,000 Jews and 400,000 Arabs (another 100,000 Jews lived in Jerusalam’s international zone.) From these figures, it seems to me that the Jewsih and Arab populations were very mixed and it would have been really difficult to draw borders to separate them. Transfer seems like an obvious solution but the only times peaceful population transfers have occured in recent world history is when the transfer is mutual or when the population being transferred is thoroughly defeated in war. Neither held true for the Palestinian Arabs until the defeat of the Arabs in the 1948 war. Looking at the population figures above, I can understand some of the Arab outrage at Jewish immigration. I don’t understand their use of violence or their rejection of all compromise however. Another striking thing from the pre-1948 period is that the Jewish population did not use violence except in retaliation to Arab attacks. They bought land from Arab landlords who were sometimes leaders pontificating against Jewish settlement.

Looking at the 1948 war, it is clear that the Arab states really were after a land grab rather than helping their Palestinian brothers. For example, Jordan never really attacked any area allocated to Israel in the UN plan. The real losers in 1948 were the Palestinians. They probably didn’t consider themselves a Palestinian nation at the time. Here, I would like to address the point of some critics that there has never been a Palestinian state or Palestinian people. That is true historically, however there were Arabs in Palestine and their sense of belonging to a nation was developed over time (crystallizing in the 1960s), just like any other nation. As an example, one can also say that there never was a Pakistani state or a Pakistani nation until 1947. True enough, but the separate identity of Muslims in India developed over time and led to the creation of Pakistan and hence Pakistani people as well.

I also had the feeling of deja vu while reading this book. Everything happens twice, first by one side then by the other. For example, the demolition of terrorists’ homes was started by the British in the 1936-39 Arab rebellion. The drive-by shooting and bombing of marketplaces originated with the LHI and IZL terrorist groups. And Arabs were the ones worried about the demographics in the 1930s and Israelis are now.

Unlike Aziz Poonawalla, I don’t think a binational state will work. There is too much hatred on both sides. It might have been possible in the 1930s-40s but a lot has happened in the meantime. Again, the example of Pakistan is instructive. Until about mid-1940s, a federation/confederation comprising the whole of India (now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) was likely. But it did not happen and by 1946 most of the Muslim leadership wanted a separate state (which was created in 1947.) Later, in 1970 the Awami League political party won the elections in a unified Pakistan (East Pakistan is now Bangladesh.) It wanted a very loose federation of East and West Pakistan, but the military government did not transfer power to them and cracked down on the Awami League (which was based in East Pakistan.) A civil war ensued and Bangladesh was born. Even though there was widespread frustation in East Pakistan against West Pakistan’s domination, it was the military crackdown that ended all hope of reconciliation or compromise.

At present, I don’t see any solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A Palestinian state is a necessary part of the solution, but the current Palestinian leadership does not have the vision or the will to pursue it and is hell-bent on terrorism. Also, popular opinion in Israel will not be conducive to negotiation and compromise until the terrorist attacks cease or at least become somewhat rare. Violence though has its own life. Once a conflict gets really violent, it is almost impossible to return to a peaceful state. There are too many thugs and criminals who make their living, so to speak, on that violence. The current crop of Israeli and Palestinian leaders look too much to the past. In my pessimistic opinion, they can’t make peace; and it will get worse before it gets better. The next crop of leaders will be more extremist and will thrive on mutual hatred. Hopefully, that’s as low as it will get and it will get better after that. Sometimes when I am optimistic, I think a solution could be found soon. The election of Amram Mitzna as the Israeli Labor party leader has provided some hope. Now, where is his Palestinian counterpart to replace Arafat?

Wahabis as Born-Again

Bin Gregory notes that:

Wahhabism is the ideology of discontent. A study just waiting to be conducted is to compare affilliation with wahhabism to lack of religious upbringing [outside of the gulf, of course]. My own observation is that wahhabism appeals more to those who were irreligious in their youth and are then “converted”, and those who come from irreligious households, where it plays into that perennial youthful vice of condemning your elders. It’s hard to imagine the appeal of a creed that says the last thousand years of Islamic practice are corrupt to anyone with respect for the piety of their forefathers.

This is an interesting take on Wahabism. As a Muslim, I can offer some anecdotal evidence about this. The extremist and/or Wahabi strain of Islam, in my personal experience, is found mostly among people who are born-again Muslims. They can be Muslims born and raised in the West who found religion as a sort of rebellion from the mild religion/culture of their parents. They can be immigrants from Muslim countries who found religion as a reaction against Western society. There are also increasingly people in Muslim countries who are finding an extreme form of Islam somewhat late in life after a somewhat irreligious existence.

As I was growing up I have seen the emergence of extremist political Islam and have seen it become somewhat fashionable among especially the middle class to adhere to stricter and more extremist views of Islam. I think one of the reasons extremism is spreading in the Muslim world is that the field has been left open for extremist leaders. There are not many moderate Muslim intellectuals and leaders spreading their message or spending money at even a fraction of what the Wahabis do.

This post is getting long. So I’ll discuss my thoughts on the reasons for the emergence of extremist Islam, especially from the perspective of Pakistan (where I was born and raised), in a later post.

(Via Bill Allison’s excellent blog Ideofact. I especially recommend his series on Syed Qutb, the last post on which can be found here.)