Why Islam and Muslims Need a Fair Media

In an ideal world, journalism is a profession of incredible integrity. Good journalists are amongst the most dexterous and skilled people in the world—and also the most respected. We have all benefited from the work of indefatigable journalists who put life, limb, family and even sanity on the line for the truth. There is no sane, decent, and democratic polity possible without journalists who challenge power, relentlessly pursue and disseminate the truth, and then find the next story to tell .

The press once seemed to have a conscience, thanks to history’s painful social conflicts and questions of war and peace. The world has changed, however, and many of us may be in the time warp of old values. Like all institutions, the media has also suffered in terms of its reputation. Values are not what matter most, In an age of social media, where stories can go viral in much shorter spaces of time than before, one would think that it would become ever more important from an ethical point of view for stories to be contextualized and reported accurately.

The most   vulnerable victims of an increasingly invidious media are Islam and its adherents.     Muslims continue to be projected as uniformly fundamentalist, violent, and anti-secular. The terms Islamic or Muslim are regularly identified with extremism, militancy and jihads as if they are organically related. (Muslim extremist, Islamic terror, Islamic war, Muslim time bomb)

In addition to the media, scholarship often pays limited attention to the debates that Muslims have amongst themselves about Islam, what it means to be Muslim, how Muslims deal with differences amongst themselves and their diverse  understandings of Islam, . There is a strong voice of moderates from within the Muslim ranks that can be properly channelized by the media to give a rounded assessment of Islamic issues.

A lot of ink, an infinite number of film reels, and a frenetic churn of news stories bristling with violent tones on Islam   have fixated the Muslims as a stereotyped homogeneity.  There is a cottage industry of authors who keep burning midnight oil to ensure that the flashlights on bad Muslims keep blazing.

The development of a media and political culture that instinctively sees Islam as an ideological threat to Western liberal values, and equates its conservatism with violent extremism, is no accident, according to author and researcher Nathan Lean.

Lean, who wrote the book The Islamophobia Industry, believes that the massive multimillion-dollar industry began booming following the September 11, 2001 attacks, when “a cadre of bloggers, pseudo-scholars, religious leaders, and activists emerged touting special knowledge of Islam and Muslims.”

Sadly, journalism is   failing to perform its fundamental role of objective reporting and analysis and continues its job by rehashing tired old narratives of ‘radical Islam’ or a ‘fight within Islam.’ The truth is much more convoluted than that — and the entire world has a direct role in creating the dangerous reality that so many Muslims have to live with every single day. The   media shows remarkable consistency in employing an arsenal of semantic games and incendiary phrases to link most of the violence around the world with some form of Islamic ideology or some Islamic group. In fact the entire discourse is being orchestrated on predefined lines.   To put it in the words of Jim Morrison, “Whoever controls the media controls the mind”.  It is time journalists reaffirm their  commitment to the credo of Joseph Pulitzer III (1913-1993)the founder of the world’s  gold standards I journalism ,the Pulitzer Prizes We will illuminate dark places and, with a deep sense of responsibility, interpret these troubled times.

It is much easier for the media to reduce the complex debate on various issues confronting   Muslims  to a series of clichés, slogans and sound bites, rather than examining root causes .It is  easier still to champion the most extreme and bigoted critics of Islam while ignoring the voices of mainstream Muslim scholars, academics and activists.

From terrorists to dictators, incendiary literature to fabricated threats, Muslim identity is marred by almost every imaginable negative stereotype and menacing trope. Images of good Muslims, in every medium, are few and far between.

Societal understandings of “good Muslims” are just as narrow as its conception of the “bad Muslims” .Both characterizations are rooted in a common baseline, which gives rise to linear caricatures that overshadow representations of “good Muslims” as Olympians or scholars,    and even mayors of world-class cities.  Indeed, the hegemony of   “bad Muslim” has entirely eclipsed representations of “good Muslims”. Like the “bad Muslim”, the identity of “good Muslims” is also linked to terrorism; in their case, they being accused of not doing enough to stop it.

Muslims   are tagged with the affirmation of collective guilt that obliges them to disavow or apologies for entirely unrelated actors, or completely unconnected actions. Terrorism is not only conflated with Islam, but tied exclusively to it and nothing else.

Muslim bashing is in several cases a by-product of the new brand of journalism which sees news  value in  the ‘social weight’ of the message,  The media keeps beaming recurring images of  the  deep-seated communal ruptures that already exist in the walls of our society and are too well known. By reinforcing them it, wittingly and unwittingly, contributes to further deepening them.   .  The new media not only reflects the mood but is responsible for building it as well.  Media oxygen is provided only to those who say something communally inflammable .in such an environment the efforts of    pacifists and even of the moderated segments suffer great damage.

Religion has been simply reduced to a social or political construct, although for millions of people, it is a daily practice, and the very real framework of understanding that connects human lives to a spiritual reality. Their faith is the prism through which they view the world, and their religious communities are their central environments. It is difficult to overstate the importance of faith in the lives of so many.   Yet, often the only religious voices on the front page are those speaking messages of hatred or violence, especially in stories about conflict or social tensions. The media can carefully balance and moderate the coverage by injecting more reasoned and saner voices.

Good journalism , requires deep and rigorous academic studies,  attentive listening to diverse sources, dogged examination of data and other record particularly when it deals with faith sues s, and close observation of  policies and institutions . It takes time and skill, and requires   support of editors and other news leaders who live in the community and care about it. It does not necessarily guarantee publishers a return in eye-popping   audience numbers.

M. Scanlon’s now classic essay, The Difficulty of Tolerance, offers   an attractive affirmative answer: Tolerance is valuable for its own sake because of the attitude it allows us to bear towards our fellow citizens, an attitude of fraternity and solidarity that is deeper than the intractable disagreements that divide us.

It is worth quoting Dr S Radhakrishnan, the philosopher President of India:

“What counts is not creed but conduct. By their fruits ye shall know them and not by their beliefs. Religion is not correct belief but righteous living. The Hindu view that every method of spiritual growth, every path to the Truth is worthy of reverence has much to commend itself.” (The Hindu View of Life, 1962)

Given that such a tiny proportion of Muslims choose to take the path of violence, one wonders why is it that the larger Muslim community gets labelled as part of the problem.  It seems Muslims have more to do with their own inaction and inability to provide a counter narrative.

From Cairo    to Kuala Lumpur to the edges of the Islamic world, Islamic councils are more concerned with questions related to women’s dress and piety and sectarian conflicts than with talking about science, technology and innovation.

Unless the Muslim world and the Muslim communities start moving from the periphery to the mainstreams, the field will remain wide open for radicalists to carry the flag of Islam.

The extremists are often projected as lodestars primarily because Islamic orthodoxy has not been able to offer a humane and engaging alternative

The solution is not difficult .What is needed is meaningful engagement between the media and authentic caretakers   of Muslim faith. The media has to seek out the saner voices and not just line up opinions that suit its own narrative. Most important, it should reports facts faithfully. As C P Scot, the founder editor of The Guardian would repeatedly advise:”Comment is free, but fact is sacred”

The distorted images of Islam stem partly from a lack of understanding of Islam among non-Muslims and partly from the failure by Muslims to explain themselves. The results are predictable:   hatred feeds on hatred. Ignorance of Islam exists both among Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-Muslims, ignorant and misunderstanding Islam, fear it. They believe it threatens their most basic values. Fantasy, conjecture and stereotypes replace fact and reality. Similarly Muslims have their own misconceptions. They, reacting to the hate and fear of non –Muslims, create a kind of defensive posture within their societies and a combative environment built on militant rhetoric. In this heat and misunderstanding, the voices of peace and tolerance are drowned. We need sanity in all quarters to let the truth prevail.

For this to happen, the media will have to walk that extra mile. As John Pilger advises in his book Hidden Agendas, “It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths that surround it.”

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Media Muffling In Bangladesh

Little did the Bangladeshi journalist, Abdul Latif Morol, know that writing about a dead goat on Facebook would land him in jail. Last year, Morol, a local journalist from Khulna, over 200 kilometres south of Dhaka, posted, “Goat given by state minister in the morning dies in the evening.” Morol was put behind bars for a day under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act.

But things can go worse for journalists in this country, which ranks 146 out of 180 countries in the press freedom barometer, Reporters Sans Frontières’ ‘2017 World Press Freedom Index’. If the Digital Security Act, recently approved by the country’s cabinet to tackle cybercrime and protect national security, gets a nod in Parliament, journalists could also be convicted of espionage.

Various sections of this law impinge upon the right to freedom of speech and expression, thereby preventing journalists from gathering information against the government. For example, Section 32 of this proposed law says that secret recording of any information at any government, semi-government or autonomous institution would be considered spying, leading to 14 years in jail or a fine of 25 Lakh taka (Rs 19, 24,395) or both. These days, reporters collect information in various ways digitally – they take pictures, make videos and record interviews – all on their Smartphones. A law like this will create hurdles for objective reporting, local journalists allege.

After journalists came out in large numbers on the streets of Dhaka to protest against this assault on press freedom, ministers of the ruling Awami League government reassured them that Section 32, a non-bailable offence, would not interfere with their work and all stakeholders would be consulted before the law is passed. But journalists are not convinced because they have witnessed the high-handedness of the State earlier. At least, 25 journalists including Morol were booked under Section 57 of the ICT Act last year alone. After a huge uproar by the media, the government proposed to revoke Section 57 but ironically, provisions of this section have now been included in the newly proposed law.

For example, hurting religious sentiments and tarnishing the image of the State are punishable in this proposed law, just as they were considered to be offences in Section 57 of the ICT Act. As per Section 28 of the proposed law, one would face the maximum punishment of 10 years in jail or a fine up to 20 Lakh taka (Rs 15,46,936) or both for hurting religious sentiments; and Section 25 of the law prescribes a maximum punishment of five years in jail or a fine of up to 10 Lakh taka (Rs 7,70,220) or both for tarnishing the image of the State.

The irony is, such penalties are likely to be imposed on the press, which is already pro-Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the prime minister. The mainstream Bangladeshi media give wide coverage to her press conferences bashing the Khaleda Zia-led Opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, but it seldom asks tough questions on the increasing number of random enforced disappearances of journalists, activists and former diplomats who are critical of the government, and the arbitrary arrests and detention of political opponents.

In spite of enjoying such a pro-government approach of the press, Wajed, the self-proclaimed saviour of Bangladesh’s democracy, has made several attempts to curb its freedom in the past few years. Last year, The Jessore-based journalist and rights activist, Binoy Krishna Mallik, was arrested for holding a press conference to expose the alleged corruption of the local superintendent of police. In 2016, the senior journalist, Shafik Rehman, was arrested for allegedly plotting to abduct and kill Sajeeb Wazed Joy, the prime minister’s son. In 2014, the cabinet approved the national broadcasting policy, which prohibits electronic media from disseminating news, photographs, or videos that could tarnish the image of law enforcement agencies and armed forces or counter the government or impede national security.

Besides national security, Wajed is also trying to control freedom of speech in the name of nationalism. For example, Section 21 of the proposed Digital Security Act carries a life sentence or fine of up to three crore taka (Rs 23,568,607) or both for anyone spreading negative propaganda against the 1971 Liberation War or the Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, digitally, for a second time. Criticizing this provision, the United Nations treaty, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a party, stated that the laws that penalize the expression of opinions about historical facts are “incompatible” with the country’s obligations to respect the “freedom of opinion and expression”.

With the parliamentary elections scheduled in December this year, Wajed is leaving no stone unturned to remain in power for the third consecutive term. Her main Opposition, the BNP chairperson, Khaleda Zia, has been sentenced to five years in jail for graft. There are additional charges of arson and violence against her, which could mean more years in jail and no elections for her. Scores of BNP workers have been arbitrarily arrested by the police for demanding Zia’s release. If Wajed manages to bully the press too, it is certainly a clear victory for her. But this year’s elections could be a repeat of 2014 polls, which were widely condemned by the international community for not being “free and fair”.

A question which many liberal thinkers are asking now is, in this desperation to remain in power, has Wajed forgotten, Bangladesh was built upon the ‘liberal ethos’ by none other than her own father?

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The Future of Ancient Sites in the Middle East

The meeting last week of the world heritage committee of UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural body, in the steely corridors of the Bonn world conference centre in Germany, was less celebratory than usual, overshadowed by the mass destruction of cultural heritage across the Middle East, and in particular the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) campaign of destruction and desolation in Iraq and Syria.

UNESCO, opened the Bonn session with an address about the importance of protecting Iraq’s intangible cultural heritage. UNESCO has even published a special Iraq issue of its publication entitled World Heritage to coincide with the Bonn conference. But the most sombre moments of this conference were the additions of new sites to UNESCO’s ominous list of world heritage in danger.

UNESCO has now added Hatra, an ancient desert-city of the Parthians, to their list which already included two other Iraqi sites – Samarra, famous for its spiral tower, and Ashur, ancient capital of the Assyrians.

Hatra was attacked by ISIL earlier this year, at around the same time the organisation demolished the giant winged sphinxes and other ancient monuments at Nimrud, and filmed the destruction of antiquities housed in the Mosul museum.

High-Profile Acts of Destruction

But inscribing Hatra and other sites in the region, onto the list of world heritage in danger will do little, if anything, to stop ISIL’s plundering of ancient sites. In fact, emphasising the cultural significance of Hatra – which was previously little-known outside of academic circles – might even sharpen ISIL’s focus on the propaganda benefits of further high-profile acts of destruction.

And since there is little that can be achieved militarily to stop ISIL attacking ancient sites under its control – at best, airstrikes have been carried out against bulldozers used by ISIL to flatten some sites and to facilitate systematic looting – UNESCO and other cultural heritage protection institutions must look to new methods to staunch the losses.

One important strategy is the engagement of local communities in the protection of cultural heritage. The proposition is straightforward – by giving local communities a share of the profits from tourism and by demonstrating to them the long-term economic benefits of building a sustainable tourism industry on the foundations of cultural heritage sites, communities will be incentivised to protect heritage sites from looting, uncontrolled commercial development, and destruction on ideological grounds.

UNESCO has been leading the way, with the importance of community engagement emphasised in events at the Bonn session, and releasing a policy paper on the issue in November 2014.

At the national level, the efforts of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, and of archaeologists from the Egyptian Heritage Task Force, among other institutions in the region, have increasingly focused on involving local communities in the protection of ancient sites and the development of sustainable tourism.

Stirring up Resentment

As a necessarily speculative case-study, ISIL’s stated policy not to destroy Palmyra – the spectacularly preserved Roman oasis-town in eastern Syria that it captured in May – may be driven by a reluctance to alienate the local population in one of the most strategically important Syrian cities under ­­ISIL control.

Palmyra’s economy is reliant on tourism and, for those inhabitants still hoping to welcome tourists back to Palmyra one day, destroying the ancient site would at once deprive them of their livelihoods and stir up resentment against ISIL.

Even so, Palmyra’s future looks bleak. ISIL has apparently mined the area around the ancient site, blown up two nearby shrines, and smashed plaster copies of antiquities in the Palmyra museum – the originals had been evacuated by officials retreating ahead of the city’s fall to ISIL.

Nor should we rely too heavily on the assumption that ISIL is reluctant to alienate the inhabitants of Palmyra – immediately after capturing the town, ISIL was reported to have killed hundreds of people, including executing a number of Syrian soldiers in the ancient site itself.

The Future of Ancient Sites

Most recently, on July 2, ISIL destroyed a number of antiquities that had been left in Palmyra, including the priceless Lion of al-Lat, a 2,000-year-old stone statue of a pre-Islamic Arabian goddess.

While we cannot say for certain whether the relationship between the local community in Palmyra and the tourism industry has played a part in sparing that city’s ancient ruins so far, with so many other strategies exhausted and discarded, community engagement needs to be deployed in the cultural war against ISIL.

In contemplating the future of ancient sites in the Middle East, the officials attending the UNESCO world heritage committee meeting in Bonn will have been well aware of the disturbing developments in Palmyra, and in particular of the destruction of the Lion of al-Lat, which ISIL announced as the committee was in session.

They will not have need a reminder, but if they did, they needed only to look up at the flag of the city of Bonn, flying over the conference centre, and to the golden lion staring back at them.

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UN Farce: Saudi Arabia To Head Human Rights Council

All victims of human rights abuses should be able to look to the Human Rights Council as a forum and a springboard for action.

— Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, 12 March 2007, Opening of the 4th Human Rights Council Session.

Article 55 of United Nations Charter includes:

Universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.

IN DIAMETRICAL opposition to these fine founding aspirations, the UN has appointed Saudi Arabia’s envoy to the United Nations Human Rights Council to head (or should that be ‘behead’) an influential human rights panel. The appointment was seemingly made in June, but only came to light on September 17, due to documents obtained by UN Watch.

‘… Mr Faisal Bin Hassan Trad, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador at the UN in Geneva, was elected as chair of a panel of independent experts on the UN Human Rights Council.

As head of a five-strong group of diplomats, the influential role would give Mr Trad the power to select applicants from around the world for scores of expert roles in countries where the UN has a mandate on human rights.’

Such experts are often described as the ‘crown jewels’ of the HRC, according to UN Watch.

The ‘crown jewels’ have been handed to a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world. Saudi Arabia will head a Consultative Group of five Ambassadors empowered to select applicants globally for more than seventy-seven positions to deal with human rights violations and mandates.

In a spectacular new low for even a UN whose former secretary general, Kofi Annan, took eighteen months to admit publicly that the 2003 invasion of, bombardment and near destruction of, Iraq was illegal, UN Watch points out that the UN has chosen ‘a country that has beheaded more people this year than ISIS to be head of a key Human Rights panel…’

In May, just prior to the appointment, the Saudi government advertised for eight extra executioners to ‘… carry out an increasing number of death sentences, which are usually beheadings, carried out in public’.

Seemingly ‘no special qualifications are needed.’ The main function would be executing, but job description ‘also involves performing amputations…’

The advert was posted on the website of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Ministry of the Civil Service.

By June 15th this year executions reached 100, ‘far exceeding last year’s tally and putting (the country) on course for a new record’ according to The Independent (June 15.) The paper adds that the Kingdom is set to beat its own grisly, primitive record of 192 executions in 1995.

The paper notes that ‘…the rise in executions can be directly linked to the new King Salman and his recently-appointed inner circle …’

In August 2014, Human Rights Watch reported nineteen executions in seventeen days — including one for ‘sorcery.’ Adultery and apostasy can also be punished by death.

In a supreme irony, on the death of King Salman’s head-chopping predecessor, Salman’s half bother King Abdullah, in January (still current decapitation record holder) UK prime minister David Cameron ordered flags flown at half mast, including at the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, leading one MP to question: ‘On the day that flags at Whitehall are flying at half-mast for King Abdullah, how many public executions will there be?’

Cameron apparently had not read his own Foreign and Commonwealth Office Report citing Saudi as ‘a country of concern.’

Reacting to a swathe of criticism, a spokesperson for Westminster Abbey responded:

‘For us not to fly at half-mast would be to make a noticeably aggressive comment on the death of the King of a country to which the UK is allied in the fight against Islamic terrorism.’

The Abbey’s representative appears to have been either breathtakingly ignorant or stunningly uninformed. In December 2009 in a US Embassy cable the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, wrote that:

‘While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.’


‘… donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide … engagement is needed to … encourage the Saudi government to take more steps to stem the flow of funds from Saudi Arabia-based sources to terrorists and extremists worldwide.’

At home women are forbidden ‘from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling, accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian.’ (HRW Report, 2014.)

Saudi is also, of course, the only country in the world where women are forbidden to drive.

The country is currently preparing to behead twenty-one year old Ali Mohammed al-Nimr. He was arrested aged seventeen for participating in anti-government protests and possessing firearms — the latter charge has been consistently denied. Human rights groups are appalled at the sentence and the flimsy case against him, but pointing out that neither ‘factors are unusual in today’s Saudi Arabia.’

Following the beheading, al-Nimr’s headless body will be allegedly mounted ‘on to a crucifix for public viewing.’

What was that mantra issued unceasingly from US and UK government Departments in justification for blitzkriegs, invasions and slaughters in countries who ‘kill their own people’?

Numerous reports cite torture as being widespread, despite Saudi having subscribed to the UN Convention Against Torture.

There are protests at Saudi embassies across the world highlighting the case of blogger Raif Badawi, sentenced to a thousand lashes — fifty lashes a week after Friday prayers — and ten years in prison for blogging about free speech.

Since March, Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen — with no UN mandate — destroying schools, hospitals, homes, a hotel, public buildings, an Internally Displaced Persons camp, historical jewels, generating ‘a trail of civilian death and destruction’ which may have amounted to war crimes, according to Amnesty International. ‘Unlawful airstrikes’ have failed to distinguish between military targets and civilian objects. ‘Nowhere safe for civilians’, states Amnesty.

Further, the conflict … has killed close to 4,000 people, half of them civilians including hundreds of children, and displaced over one million since 25 March 2015. There has been:

‘… a flagrant disregard for civilian lives and fundamental principles of international humanitarian law (killing and injuring) hundreds of civilians not involved in the conflict, many of them children and women, in unlawful (disproportionate and indiscriminate) ground and air attacks.’

It is alleged that US-supplied cluster bombs have also been used. One hundred and seventeen states have joined the Convention to ban these lethal, indiscriminate munitions since December 2008. Saudi Arabia, of course, is not amongst them.

Saudi was also one of the countries which bombed Iraq in 2003, an action now widely accepted as illegal. It is perhaps indicative of their closeness to the US that the bombardment of Yemen is mirror-named from the Pentagon’s Silly Titles for Killing People lexicon: ‘Operation Decisive Storm.’ Iraq 1991 was, of course, ‘Operation Desert Storm’.

Saudi is also ranked 164th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. All in all, Saudi leading the Human Rights Council at the UN is straight out of another of George Orwell’s most nightmarish political fantasies.

Oh, and, of course, we are told that nineteen of the hijackers of the ‘plane that hit the World Trade Centre were Saudis — for which swathes of Afghanistan and region, Middle East and North Africa are still paying the bloodiest, genocidal price for the ‘War on Terror’ — whilst Saudi’s representatives stroll into the sunlight of the UN Human Rights body.

On the UN Human Right’s Council’s website is stated:

‘The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) represents the world’s commitment to universal ideals of human dignity. We have a unique mandate from the international community to promote and protect all human rights.’

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From Bulleh Shah and Shah Hussain to Amir Khusro, same-sex references abound in Islamic poetry

The uneasy relationship between homosexuality and the Muslim world is exemplified in the life and works of many Sufi saints.

“I think Bulleh Shah is fascinating but I fail to understand his relationship with his murshid,” said a 14-year-old student of mine who was acting in a school play on the life of Bulleh Shah. The play was an English adaption of Shahid Nadeem’s Bulla that has been performed on the platform of Ajoka several times and has received critical as well as mass acclaim. The play chronicles the life of the mystic poet from Kasur, using his poetry and folk tales about him, to present a semi-biographical account that revolves around his relationship with his murshid – his spiritual master, Shah Inayat.

I could understand the confusion of my student. To be honest, the relationship also baffles me. This is primarily because we live in a different time, and we understand Islam and its traditions in our own modernistic way. Modernism requires rigid categories, of sexuality, religion, identity, et cetera. Gay, straight and bi, are all distinct categories that do not overlap, just like Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Bulleh Shah of course had pre-modern notions of sexuality and religion. For him the rigid categories between religion, gender and sexuality did not exist. For example in the following verses he has no scruples in incorporating a Hindu deity into his Muslim ethos, blurring the distinction between Muslim and Hindu concept of God.

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Revealing the Muslim World’s ‘Forgotten’ Role in European History

Muslim travel writer Tharik Hussain, who has been uncovering some of Europe’s forgotten Islamic history for nearly two decades, has launched London’s first European Muslim Heritage Exhibition this week.

Hosted at the London Muslim Centre in the heart of Tower Hamlets, east of the capital, the exhibition has already attracted a diverse crowd of both Muslim and non-Muslim visitors, with a sold-out launch event.

The exhibition showcases a selection of photographs from Hussain’s travels across Europe – Spain, Bulgaria, Estonia, France and England, as part of his quest of uncovering the continent’s forgotten Muslim heritage.

Highlights in this section include a photo of a medieval Muslim tomb in the Balkans, today revered by both Christians and Muslims, one of a ninth century coin found in Estonia minted by the Muslim Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, and a man worshipping in the mosque that was home to Britain’s earliest indigenous Muslim community who were led by converted Victorian Lords and Ladies.

Speaking to Al Arabiya English on the launch night, Tharik explained how the exhibition serves a role in debunking the popular myth that the heritage of Europe is exclusively Judeo-Christian:

“A common story has developed throughout history that Muslims have not played a pivotal role in shaping European culture. The exhibition strives to re-orientate that misconception. It’s not about a triumph of one religion over another. Instead, it’s about seeking parity – that Islam like its Jewish and Christian counterparts, has contributed to European culture.”

“Not many people would know, for instance, that Muslims have in fact been part of Europe’s evolving cultural identity for 14 centuries.”

With the launch coinciding with the 21st anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide, the exhibition also had photographs commemorating one of Europe’s darkest events since World War II.

The images were captured by Bosnian photographer Jasmine Agovic during his decade-long tenure at the International Commission on missing persons.

Reflecting on the images, Tharik said: “Often Muslims are presented as the ‘Other’ in Europe and that’s no truer than today. Srebrenica reminds us what happens when that goes to the absolute extreme.”

European Muslim Heritage Exhibition

“On a day like today, whilst we should never forget, it’s also about offering hope…. Making sure the Muslim part of Europe’s narrative also makes it into popular culture so that future generations of Muslims do not have issues of ‘belonging’ here.”

Born in Bangladesh, Tharik Hussain grew up in Tower Hamlets. His interest in exploring European Muslim Heritage was sparked when he unexpectedly stumbled across a tomb during a stopover in Cyprus, belonging to a companion of the prophet Muhammad.

Since then, he’s been on a trail to uncover more Muslim connections to the continent. His journey recently took him to the US where he unveiled in his debut radio documentary “America’s Mosques; a story of integration” that the country’s oldest surviving mosque in New York City – The Brooklyn Moslem Mosque, was built by Tatar Muslims from countries like Lithuania, Belarus and Poland when they immigrated to the Big Apple at the turn of the last century.

Last June, the documentary, which aired on BBC World Service, won an award for the World’s Best Religious Program at the New York Festivals World’s Best Radio Programs Awards.

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Marvelling At Egypt’s Historic Civilization, Man-Made Structures

Fascinating structures of pyramids were strongly etched in our memories from history lessons in school. Words of caution from family and friends on hearing of our plan to visit Egypt couldn’t dent the deep craving we had for the land of Pharaohs. Sights of Egypt in Amitabh Bachchan’s “The Great Gambler” of the late seventies had been like a trailer to the historic country and we were excited with the thought of visiting.

Egypt was probably one of the earliest tourist destinations for worldwide travellers and continues to be so, for its pyramids have stood strong for 4666 years. So strong are these oldest man-made structures that efforts to move even an inch of one of its two and a half million hefty stones (on the biggest pyramid) will only go in vain. A smile on an immigration officer’s face as we arrived at Cairo International Airport after a five and half hour night flight from Mumbai was a pleasant and welcome gesture.

Life seemed to go on as usual at the popular Tahrir Square on the way TO THE HOTEL. Guide Hassanein mentioned that it was also known as the Martyr Square. Familiar scenes on the roads as we drove through streets exploring beautiful Cairo city after breakfast – like school buses ferrying kids to school, traffic snarls and owners upping the shutters of eateries and small shops – made us feel at home. A couple of places looked like our own Princess street, Mohammed Ali road or even Bombay central area.

Egyptian Museum with repositories of more than 120,000 artefacts seemed like an essential prerequisite to learn about the country’s historic civilization before heading to its popular monuments. Precious exhibits like the Mummies, Sarcophagi, the famous Tutankhamun’s treasure and the boy king’s golden death mask, ancient JEWELERY and pottery made it easier to connect to the land.

Live culture was evident at the Saladin Citadel, a short uphill drive to Mokattam hill after our sumptuous Egyptian lunch. The Citadel of Saladin, a huge fortress visible from afar inside the city, was a medieval Islamic fortification with a well-maintained complex of monuments like Alabaster Mosque of Mohammed Ali, the Citadel outdoor theatre, Al Gawhara Palace and the Military Museum. Free literature available here presented Islam as any other religion that was laid down to refine human NATURE for well-being. The Citadel was home of the Egyptian rulers for almost 700 years. Al Moqattam Hillprovided a vantage point for a panoramic view of Cairo.

Cairo was also home to a 4th century Orthodox Church in Old Cairo, which was our next destination. Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church was also called the Hanging Church because of the way its nave hung above the passages below, which were resting on the bastions of a Roman fortress gate house.

Though historic evidence has proven the relationship between India and Egypt, two of the oldest civilizations, Bollywood links seemed to draw parallels with the current GENERATION. Most of the shopkeepers at the popular Khan Al Khalili market in Cairo were keen to welcome us for discussing films, Amitabh Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor or Shah Rukh Khan. It’s interesting to note that the very first international passenger flight by Air India in 1948 was to Cairo. The 40-seater Lockheed L-749A Constellation “Malabar Princess” with roll-down flat beds and gourmet food used to further connect to Geneva and London.

Ancient (since 1382) Khan Al Khalili bazaar itself was an attraction with many inner lanes leading to shops selling a variety of local produce like fine Egyptian cotton, spices, leather goods and artefacts. At its entrance was the grand Saiyidna Hussain Mosque that became a landmark for our group to meet back after shopping in the busy market. It was time for coffee and Hassanein took us through the maze-like lanes to El Fishawy, a famous coffee shop. A few men and women on the way were smoking Shisha. Some sellers followed us, selling WATCHES, bracelets and rings. Egyptian Pharaoh Designs seemed like popular buys here. As in any local market in the East, bargaining was prevalent and the trick was to ask for 30 percent of the quoted price before rising to a mutual agreement.

The Great Pyramid of Giza and the popular face of the Sphinx were just an hour’s drive away from Cairo. We left the main city and drove onto the west bank of the Nile and were awestruck as three huge pyramids rose into our view from the Giza plateau. The entire area was surrounded by many mastabas or flat-roofed ancient tombs.

The Great Pyramid, built by King Cheops (IV Dynasty) in roughly 2650 BC, was spread on an area of 13 feddans (13.49 acres) and stood mighty at a height of 137m. Its 2.5 million blocks of huge stones have withstood nature’s fury because of the firm interlocking system created through groves. Our vocabulary ran blank in finding the right words to express our admiration for the precision and astounding ability of those ancient architects who thought of erecting these permanent mega structures at their beloved pharaoh’s final resting place. It seemed to be touching the sky as we looked up at the tip.

Two smaller pyramids stood next to the Great Pyramid. Two tourist buses arrived with one carrying Italian tourists. Some arrived in Tongas too. As we aimed to click one of the colourful horse-drawn Tongas carrying visitors against the backdrop of the pyramids, Tonga owner Ahmed was happy to display his knowledge of Bollywood by telling us that “The Great Gambler” was shot in the same location.

We smiled at the thought of Big B’s popularity SCALING along the pyramids in the minds of local Egyptians and moved toward the huge lion’s body with a mighty man’s head. Believed to be that of a Pharaoh, the Sphinx, which faced the rising sun on a short hill toward the edge of town, was one of the largest statues and definitely the oldest one. Estimated to be from the same period as that of the pyramids, it was believed to be guarding the royal tombs.

We left with a sense of gratitude knowing these marvellous monuments were kept intact for us and for future GENERATIONS to admire and enjoy. The Great Pyramids and the Sphinx of Gaza continue to mesmerize visitors.

Anand & Madhura Katti (husband & wife team) are award winning travel journalists based in Mumbai, India. They travel across the country and the world, attending many travel trade, hotel industry summits, and conferences. They also have contributed to many Indian newspapers and some overseas publications for 26 years.

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Reflections on the History and Memory of Andalusian and Ottoman Religious Belonging

The myth of Europa is, at basis, a parable of partition and estrangement. Zeus, camouflaged as a docile white bull, kidnaps the maiden Europa from her homeland in Phoenicia and whisks her away to Crete, where he offers her gifts and succour. Europa enters legend, and then history, by turning her back on her Levantine origins. She only becomes Zeus’ beloved by virtue of exile. More abstractly, the myth of Europa suggests that traces of “difference”—other places, other pasts—are integral to Europe’s very identity. It is unsurprising, then, that Europe has grappled constantly and ambivalently with questions of identity and difference. As a continent and a “civilization,” Europe has persistently achieved definition in relation to that which it has repudiated and held at a distance. Simultaneously, disavowed differences, akin to Europe’s Phoenician past, resolutely haunt and shadow the very core of European identity.

For centuries, Islam has constituted a durable, prominent object of contrast and renunciation against which Europe has achieved coherence—as Edward Said, among others, has famously argued. Islam’s role in delimiting the boundaries of Europe has increased dramatically in recent years. Most Muslim communities in western Europe—South Asians in the UK; Maghrebis in France, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands; Turks and Kurds in Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria—were first established on the basis of economically-driven immigration in the decades following World War II, and are now several generations old. However, in the wake of 11 September 2001 and a host of terrorist attacks in Europe, Muslim bodies, practices, and communities have become new markers of difference and estrangement from “European values” across the continent. Consequently, spaces associated with Islam and Muslims in Western Europe, from the storefronts of Bradford to the banlieues of Paris, from the cafés of Molenbeek to the mosques of Kreuzberg, now mark a frontier of “Europeanness” within Europe itself. Strikingly, scepticism over Islam often unites the otherwise fractious Right and Left. Whether as a threat to imagined national communities, the glories of European “civilization,” or the imperatives of multiculturalism and freedom of expression, Islam and Muslims are reliable bugbears across the political spectrum.

It is not difficult to point out the vested political interests, partiality, and bias that prop up ideological images of “clashing” European and Islamic civilizations. The erasures and amnesia that result from reductive images of Europe and Islam, however, are more difficult to negotiate. Few public commentators on the ostensible dilemmas surrounding European Muslims recall that Islam did not arrive in Europe today, or even yesterday. The history of Islam in the south-eastern and south-western appendages of the continent—the Iberian and Balkan peninsulas—is as substantial and varied as it is in many parts of the so-called Muslim world. Muslims first arrived in Iberia when the Umayyad military commander Tariq ibn-Ziyad crossed the straits of Gibraltar—a toponym derived from the Arabic phrase Jabal Tariq, “Mountain of Tariq” –in 711 CE. Muslim political power in the peninsula lasted until 1492, when Emir Muhammad XII of Granada, known popularly as Boabdil, capitulated to the Castilian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella; Phillip II’s expulsion of the moriscos, descendants of Iberian Muslims who still spoke Arabic and practiced Islam covertly, in 1609 marked a more decisive end to Islam in Iberia. Islam first gained a foothold in the Balkans with the Ottoman conquest of Thessaloniki from the Venetians in 1387 and, close on its heels, the Ottoman victory at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Although Ottoman sovereignty over its European provinces eroded in the 19th Century, culminating in the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913, Muslims were never decisively expelled from the Balkans in the manner that they were from Iberia. Balkan Muslims—speakers of Albanian, Pomak, Romani, Serbo-Croatian, and Turkish—are able to lay claims to “nativeness” that perniciously elude (post-) immigrant Muslim communities to the west.

In light of Muslims’ renascent status as the constitutive Others of Europe, it is high time to revisit al-Andalus and the Ottoman Empire, the two great Muslim polities and territories of European history. Fortunately, there is no shortage of recent scholarship on the parallel legacies of Andalusian and Ottoman Islam. This scholarship divides into two currents, which, following historian Pierre Nora, we can identify as history and memory. Broadly speaking, historical scholarship relies primarily on archival methods to address lacunae in knowledge of past events and modes of life without attending directly to the consequences of the past on the present and future. Scholarship on memory, by contrast, seeks to illuminate the multiple legacies and logics of the past as an aspect of social, cultural, and political life in the present; it therefore relies on ethnographic and sociological methods, as well as archival. Research on both the history and memory of Islam in Iberia and south-eastern Europe has flourished in recent years, despite a political environment that is frequently hostile to nuanced perspectives on the relationship between Europe and Islam.

Whether in key of history or the key of memory, much scholarship on the legacies of Andalusian and Ottoman Islam focuses on inter-confessional relations among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Two polar concepts orient much of this research: tolerance and tension, convivencia and conflict. Authors frequently pose a reductive, binary question: Was the Dhimmi [1] system—the nexus of legal, political, social, and cultural practices that defined the place of non-Muslims within Muslim polities—a means to harmony and mutual goodwill or a principle of oppression and discrimination? Polemical contemporary concerns often lurk beneath the surface of such dichotomous queries. Antagonists of Islam today relentlessly assert a trans-historical Muslim intolerance, while apologists of a variety of stripes pursue an equally essentialist image of timeless interreligious goodwill.

Fortunately, the historian’s imperative to bracket current debates when reconstructing the past can act as a salutary check on such reductive questions. Jamila Safran’s Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Islamic Iberia is an exemplary work in this vein. With meticulous attention to a neglected body of archival sources—the legal opinions (Masa’il) of Andalusian Umayyad jurists (Fuqaha’) who abided by the Maliki School of Sunni jurisprudence—Safran sketches a nuanced, detailed portrait of inter-communal life in al-Andalus. Neither inherent conflict nor seamless harmony is sufficient to describe the texture of daily life in the major cities of al-Andalus— especially Cordoba in the 9th and 10th Centuries—that she describes.

The Maliki jurists of al-Andalus considered a fascinating array of questions stemming from quotidian interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims. Some of the cases that Safran discusses are disarmingly familiar; others seem peculiar from a contemporary vantage. On one occasion, a Christian misrepresented himself as a Muslim and performed ritual prayer with a group of Muslims—should the prayer be considered invalid? Another jurist entertained a hypothetical question: Suppose that a Muslim and a Jew living in the same home perish when the house collapses, and the corpses are indistinguishable from each other—how should funerary rites be performed? Common public resources also created dilemmas. For instance, should Muslims avoid water from a well shared with a Jew or Christian who drinks wine? Questions of conversion and inter-communal marriage were especially persistent topics of speculation during the first centuries of Umayyad rule. What to make of the Christian woman who converts to Islam in order to secure a separation from her (Christian) husband? Should the Muslim judge, or qadi, annul the marriage? Slavery also presented a vexing issue: “A Christian or Jew could not own a Muslim slave; might a slave convert to Islam and hope that the forced sale to a different (Muslim) master might be an improvement (with prospects of eventual manumission)” (p. 109)? Conversions to Islam inevitably created new fault lines within families, with both material and social effects. Were deathbed conversions, which often had drastic effects on matters of inheritance, legitimate? More mundanely, should a Muslim accompany his Christian mother to church, or perform burial rites for his deceased Christian father? Each of these questions demanded creative forms of reasoning on the part of jurists. Rather than derive judgments automatically from the pristine precedents of tradition, Safran demonstrates that Andalusi judges and legal scholars adduced supple “guidelines for all manner of relationships and situations…and allowed for the accommodation of practices of which they disapproved” (p. 124).

Inevitably, the specificity of Safran’s sources creates pitfalls for generalizing about social life and inter-confessional relationships in al-Andalus, and she is admirably forthright about the limitations of her study. By its very nature, the archive of legal documentation privileges occasions of argument, dissent, and confusion over the sway and legitimacy of religious principles. A total reconstruction of the plenitude of inter-communal life is impossible from the jurisprudential archive alone. Nevertheless, Safran largely succeeds in her “experiment in the interpretation of Islamic legal texts as sources for understanding inter-communal relations in a specific legal and historical context” (p. 5). Her ample, provocative material illustrates that boundary-making and –breaking among Muslim and non-Muslim communities in al-Andalus was an ongoing, multiform process. Far from the abstract, essentialized categories of identity that underpin narratives of both civilisational clash and convivencia, the religious communities of Ummayad Iberia and the boundaries among them were incessantly made and remade in everyday life.

A diversity of protean relations between Muslims and non-Muslims also defined the other great European Muslim polity, the Ottoman Empire. This was especially true in the Balkans, where, for a variety of demographic, political, and socioeconomic reasons, conversion to Islam among the Christian peasants, or reaya, was relatively small in comparison to other areas of the Empire. As with al-Andalus, recent years have witnessed an upsurge in historical scholarship on the religious, political, and social dimensions of intercommunal life in the Ottoman Empire. In contrast to historical studies of Muslim Iberia, however, histories of the Ottoman religious communities—the millets—often double as apologia for the millet system itself. Ottoman historians conduct research and write in an implicitly polemical context, saturated by Orientalist and Islamophobic clichés that abet cynical debates over Turkey’s EU candidacy. It is unsurprising, then, that historical studies of the millet system are compelled to speak to contemporary concerns in a manner that research on al-Andalus is not.

The Ottoman Mosaic, a recent volume of essays on Ottoman-era interreligious and inter-communal life, epitomizes the present-day orientation of research on the millet system—indeed; the subtitle of the book is “Exploring Models for Peace by Re-Exploring the Past.” The collection’s guiding metaphor, the mosaic, encapsulates its perspective on inter-communal relations in the Ottoman Empire. Each millet is understood as a distinct element within a broader configuration; together, these diverse religious communities are thought to form a greater, harmonious whole. Although the volume’s individual contributions address a broad swath of themes and topics, from architecture and literature to transformations in Ottoman law on non-Muslim communities and citizens, they share a perspective on the millet system as just such a “mosaic.”

The introductory essay by the editors of The Ottoman Mosaic, Kemal Karpat and Yetkin Yildirim, establishes the tone and agenda for the collection as a whole. After summarizing the key features of the millet system as a method for organizing religious plurality in the Ottoman Empire, Karpat and Yildirim reach an unambiguous conclusion: “Historical examples of successful peaceful coexistence must be sought. The history of the Ottoman state and its foundation of tolerance, which is still evident in present-day Turkey, may provide just such an example. Faced with rampant ethno-religious conflict all over the world, the Ottoman Empire demonstrates what multi-religious civilizations can become: a land where people of different religions, cultures, and ethnicities can live together peacefully” (p. 23). The volume’s other authors share and expand on this enthusiastic assessment of Ottoman-era religious diversity, rooted in the millet system. In his individual contribution, Karpat extols the communal autonomy that the millet system safeguarded: “Under Ottoman rule, all ethnic and religious groups enjoyed extensive religious, cultural and linguistic rights and were governed by their own religious leaders. No group, however powerful, could impose its creed, language and culture on any of the others, however small” (p. 42). Ihsan Yilmaz’ essay on the legal principles and practices that undergirded the millet system—an interesting companion piece to Safran’s work on al-Andalus—makes a similar point about the autonomy of the non-Muslim millets. Although non-Muslims could, and did, appeal to Ottoman Sharia and kanun[2] law on occasion, they were under no obligation to do so, and were largely governed by their own, community-specific legal codes.

While the millet system established a high degree of autonomy for non-Muslim religious communities, it also informed and framed the character of the Empire as a whole. Linda Darling, for instance, argues that a religiously-plural image of the Ottoman Empire can be traced back to its early decades, at least to Sultan Mehmet II’s conquest of Istanbul in 1453: “The remarkable thing is that an obviously Muslim polity formed by conquest saw itself so strongly as an amalgam of Muslims, Christians, and Jews held together by justice” (p. 117). Occasionally, Ottoman rulers were extraordinarily welcoming to non-Muslims, as Nisya Ishman Allovi points out in her review of the Ottomans’ accommodation of Judaism. Here, the histories of Iberia and the Ottoman Empire are closely intertwined. Ferdinand and Isabella’s Alhambra Decree of 1492 ordered the expulsion of the peninsula’s Sephardim; Ottoman Sultan Beyazit II offered sanctuary to many of the refugees, and Spanish/Ladino-speaking Jewish communities soon thrived in many Ottoman cities, notably Thessaloniki, Izmir, and Istanbul.

Together, the essays that form The Ottoman Mosaic endorse the Ottoman Empire as an indispensable precedent for interreligious tolerance and convivencia today. There is nothing inherently wrong with this aspiration, of course, and I am generally sympathetic to its spirit. Nevertheless, the pitfalls and limitations of such an approach, which yokes historical research to contemporary political aims, demand acknowledgement. First, the recruitment of the millet system to inspire contemporary interreligious harmony risks whitewashing the asymmetrical, coercive aspects of interreligious relations in the Ottoman Empire, most notably the notorious institution of the devsirme, the forcible conversion and seizure of Christian boys from imperial peripheries—especially the Balkans—into the Janissary corps. More abstractly, the political expectations and effects of “tolerance” as an aspect of governance in contemporary liberal democracies are far removed from the limited, non-liberal modes of communal autonomy provided for by the millet system. Finally, and most importantly from the vantage of this essay, bygone interreligious and inter-communal relations in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire are not merely matters of history that can be grafted directly onto contemporary political projects—they also fuel multiple cultures of memory in the present.

Geographer Amy Mills’ evocative ethnography, Streets of Memory: Landscape, Tolerance, and National Identity in Istanbul, pursues contemporary memories of Istanbul’s dwindling non-Muslim communities—Jews, Armenians, and Greek Orthodox Christians—to devastating effect. Mills focuses specifically on the neighbourhood of Kuzguncuk, a village on the Asian shore of the Bosporus with a deep history of communal plurality and inter-communal interaction. By doing so, she is able to trace the ambivalent textures of memory in the city’s daily life—textures that, again, defy the binaries of conflict and convivencia, hatred and harmony.

A basic tension between nostalgia for a cosmopolitan urban past and Turkish national identity in the present animates Mills’ overarching argument. As she carefully delineates throughout the book, the consolidation of a homogeneous ethnonational Turkish identity after the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire had radical, transformative effects on the spatial and social dimensions of city life, especially in neighbourhoods such as Kuzguncuk, where the descendants of various Ottoman millets continued to live side-by-side. In the decades following the end of the Empire in 1923, Istanbul’s Greeks, Armenians, and Jews were the targets of systematic dispossession, marginalization, and eventual erasure. By the end of the 20th Century, these once-thriving communities were mere shadows of their former selves. Contemporary nostalgia for bygone, cosmopolitan forms of coexistence registers this history of dispossession, even as it also sanitizes the brutality to which the city’s “minorities” were often exposed.

With her keen geographer’s eye, Mills is especially sensitive to the manner in which specific spaces and places shape, and are shaped by, the legacies of Istanbul’s inter-communal past. In particular, she draws attention to the way in which the notion of the neighbourhood, or Mohalla, has become a central object of nostalgia and repository of memory in the city: “The Turkish word for neighbourhood is Mohalla, which, in its basic, meaning, is the residential space of the city. Mohalla also refers to a space of memory in Turkish popular culture defined by familiarity, belonging and tolerance in a local, urban space” (p. 36). As a Mohalla with a particularly rich inter-communal past, Kuzguncuk has been actively recruited to narratives of cosmopolitan nostalgia in recent decades. Several popular television soap operas take the neighbourhood as their setting, and celebrate its “authentic” character as an “urban space of belonging and familiarity” (p. 63). The “authentic,” if lapsed, cosmopolitanism of Kuzguncuk has fuelled a recent wave of gentrification, as young urban professionals who prefer a more intimate scale of urban life have sought out the neighbourhood in droves. Yet the emergence of Kuzguncuk as a definitive, desirable Mohalla that has maintained its authenticity in the sprawl of the global city is rife with sharp ironies. Mills argues that Kuzguncuk’s nostalgia-fuelled gentrification is a direct consequence of the earlier process of minority dispossession in the city. The bourgeoisie of Kuzguncuk today, who have capitalized on the lingering aura of the inter-communal Mohalla, rarely pause to consider who the previous owners of their very homes and real estate may have been. As Mills trenchantly observes, “the narrative of peace and tolerance embedded in the landscape of collective memory of the Mohalla works to support the national historical narrative of Istanbul life in that it obscures the traumas and events that pushed out the minority communities.  While the landscape acts like a real representation of history, it obscures the tensions of the past with a narrative of seamless community” (p. 82).

With the observation that a “narrative of peace and tolerance” is inseparable from the exclusionary, homogenizing impetus of nationalism, Mills forwards a radical critique of the politics of memory in contemporary Turkey. Numerous social scientists have argued that Turkish nation-building institutionalized forms of collective amnesia in relation to the Ottoman past and its legacy of religious and communal plurality. Mills’ ethnography, by contrast, illustrates that the very memory of interreligious harmony, rooted in a sanitized image of convivencia among the Ottoman millets, inoculates and sustains contemporary Turkish nationalism. National identity is not only premised on its exclusions and erasures, but also on the selective memory of communal and inter-communal pasts that no longer exist in the present.

In this respect, there are many provocative parallels between Turkey and the Iberian nation-states of Portugal and, especially, Spain. Memories of bygone religious difference simultaneously challenge and buttress contemporary national identity in both contexts. In Turkey, the Ottoman millets occupy this ambivalent role; in Iberia, Andalusian Islam informs nationalist images of religious otherness. English-language scholarship on Spain and Portugal has generally neglected the formative role of memories of al-Andalus in nation-building in both countries. Fortunately, however, Patricia Hertel’s The Crescent Remembered: Islam and Nationalism on the Iberian Peninsula—recently translated into English from the original German—has decisively filled this historiographic gap.

The originality of Hertel’s research stems from both its temporal and spatial purview. Rather than delve into the centuries of Muslim presence on the peninsula, as Safran does, Hertel pursues the afterlife of Islam as an object of memory in the Iberian Peninsula, especially in the 19th and 20th Centuries. As she illustrates through meticulous analyses of academic scholarship, political discourse, and popular commemorations, al-Andalus and the peninsula’s Muslim past served as “a reservoir of impressions, fantasies, and stereotypes which helped to shape self-image(s) and identity(s) within the society of the peninsula” (p. 4). Hertel’s work also represents the first explicit comparison of Spanish and Portuguese memories of al-Andalus. There is a broad, sharp contrast between these two national cultures of memory in relation to Islam—while both al-Andalus and the Reconquista are central to national identity and memory in Spain, they are relatively marginal to Portuguese self-conceptions, which pivot more on the glories of the Age of Exploration than triumph over Muslim antagonists.

Although Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula came to an end over five centuries ago with the capitulation of Granada, collective memories of al-Andalus have never been settled or unanimous. Rather than a fixed object, Hertel shows that the peninsula’s Muslim past has been subject to a variety of evaluations and interpretations depending on the imperatives of contrasting political projects and climates: “When nineteenth-century historians evoked Islam as a religious enemy, when romantically inspired scientists were enthused about the Muslim cultural heritage, and when colonial politicians used the past in their attempts to legitimize contemporary colonial rule, they were all actually dealing only superficially with Islam. The variable and often contradictory memories of the Islamic past were reflections of the search for a national identity” (p. 7). To a great degree, memories of Iberian Islam have been conditioned by Catholicism and its relationship to national identity in Spain and Portugal. On the whole, more conservative Catholic ideologues have tended to regard the Muslim past with greater dismissiveness and hostility. Nevertheless, the shifting relationship between national identity and the Muslim past has also witnessed unexpected moments of re-evaluation and rapprochement. For instance, during the dictatorships of Franco and Salazar, the Iberian Muslim past was subject to positive reassessments, even if these re-evaluations provided a fig leaf of justification for colonial rule over Muslims in Morocco (in Spain’s case) and Guinea, Mozambique, and elsewhere (in Portugal’s).

In Spain especially, Islam and al-Andalus have maintained an ambivalent relationship to national identity as a simultaneous source of disdain and pride. Spanish historians and politicians of a variety of ideological stripes have faced a vexing question: How to incorporate, and even celebrate, the accomplishments of a long era of Iberian history against which “Spain” itself has achieved definition? How to honour the Battle of Covadonga while also admiring the Alhambra? Hertel argues that a distinction between “culture” and “religion” often provided a solution to these dilemmas. For many, if not all, Spanish commentators on al-Andalus in the 19th and 20th Centuries, praise for the Islamic cultural heritage of the peninsula and criticism of Islam as a religion and political power went hand-in-hand. Architectural monuments such as the Alhambra and the Great Mosque of Cordoba were often the flashpoints for such debates: “Questions of exclusion and inclusion crystallized around the architecture. In Spain the architectural witnesses to the Muslim presence were undeniable…the origins of the structures had to be made ‘Spanish’ to legitimize their continued existence, conservation, and promotion” (p. 69). In order to make the Islamic architectural legacy congenial to Spanish national historiography, architecture itself was reinterpreted as an aspect of “cultural heritage” that had little to do with religion per se.

Hertel’s specific analyses of a plethora of Spanish and Portuguese authors on Islam, as well as her perspective on the role of folklore as a repository for collective fantasies about the Muslim past, make frequent, original contributions to the nascent understanding of Islam as an object of memory on the Iberian Peninsula. But it is her broader, somewhat more polemical argument that ultimately distinguishes the book. As she avers near the end of her exposition, her genealogy and archaeology of memories of al-Andalus and Islam decisively demonstrate that “Europe” and “Islam” should not be thought of as coherent, a priori entities that either clash or coexist. Rather, “the concepts of Europe and Islam…are part of a daily reality which must be understood in the context of history and shaped in our contemporary society” (p. 151).

With this observation, we return full circle to the concerns with which I began this essay. Although their themes and questions differ, the four works that I have discussed unanimously insist on a more nuanced perspective on the relationship between “Europe” and “Islam,” one that avoids the clichés of conflict and convivencia. As Safran and the contributors to The Ottoman Mosaic illustrate, the centuries-long history of Islam in Iberia and the Ottoman Balkans unsettles homogeneous ideological images of both Europe and Islam. Furthermore, the effects and traces of Muslim-European pasts persist as fraught memories in the present, as Mills and Hertel elucidate.

Broader recognition of these disavowed histories and memories would necessarily perturb notions of Europe itself in productive and urgent ways. With the histories and legacies al-Andalus and the Ottoman Empire in mind, perhaps we can finally take inspiration from the fact that Europa herself was originally an exile. Exiles, as I suggested at the outset, are necessarily defined by the traces of difference—forgotten pasts, distant places—that haunt their identities. Rather than seeking to exile contemporary forms of difference, as Europe’s xenophobes demand, we might celebrate Europa’s exilic nature. Such a celebration would acknowledge, rather than deny, the formative role of multiple “differences,” including Islam, as partial bases for European identity. Furthermore, it would necessarily contradict calls to exile Islam from European territories and self-conceptions. For, as we have seen, Muslims and Islam have occupied these physical and conceptual spaces at great length, in multiple ways.

[1] Literally, “protected peoples.” In most Muslim polities, Dhimmi status was conferred to the ahl al-Kitab or “Peoples of the Book”: Jews, Christians, and other monotheists such as Zoroastrians who recognized the legitimacy of a revealed text prior to the Qur’an. However, numerous Muslim thinkers have argued that the category of the Dhimmi is sufficiently capacious to include all religious communities living under Muslim rule.

[2] Kanun law—cognate with the English “canon” law, as both derive from the ancient Greek kanon—was a separate legal code that existed parallel to Ottoman Shari’a law. In general, kanun was elaborated and propagated by the Ottoman sovereigns, while Shari’a was strictly the domain of Muslim scholars and jurists, the Ulema and Fuqaha. Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent’s honorific, Kanuni or “Lawgiver,” gestures to the role of the Sublime Porte in creating kanun law.

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How a Rising Canada Shaped the Fall of The Last Muslim Empire

Many of the earliest Muslims in Canada were immigrants from the Ottoman Empire, but the two states are not known have any significant diplomatic relations between them. The Ottoman dynasty had already ruled for more than 500 years before Canada was created in 1867, and they preferred to deal directly with Britain, Canada’s “mother country”. This continued through the First World War—but with an interesting plot twist at the end.

In 1922, the dust of the First World War was still settling down. British, French, and Greek troops still held Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of the defeated Ottoman Empire, and virtually held Sultan Mehmed VI hostage. They were keen on holding this strategic city as a bargaining chip for the complex negotiations that they were involved in with different empires and minority groups in the aftermath of the war.

But elsewhere in Anatolia, Ottoman soldiers were uniting under the leadership of the soon-to-be-famous Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, eager to reclaim their country from its foreign occupiers. The Kemalists, as they were called, had declared a government that was independent of the sultan, recognizing that Mehmed VI was powerless in Constantinople. Kemal and his followers were determined to reunite the Anatolia (i.e. the Turkish peninsula) on the basis of Turkish nationalism, and they were able to exert enough military pressure on the Allies for them to be invited to the London Conference in 1921 in hopes that the two sides could come to some sort of an agreement. It didn’t happen.

The Kemalists captured town after town, slowly bringing all of Greek-occupied Anatolia under their control. By September of 1922, the Greeks were evacuating and Kemal was closing in on his ultimate goal: Constantinople. The famous writer Ernest Hemingway was The Toronto Star’s war correspondent on the ground at the time, covering these developments; he stood in awe at the retreat of 1.5 million Greek soldiers and settlers and was reminded by his Croatian landlady of the Turkish proverb that “it is not only the fault of the axe but of the tree as well”.

Alarm bells were going off in London, Paris, and elsewhere—including Ottawa. Atatürk said that he preferred to negotiate with the occupying forces rather than fight them, but also insisted that he could not wait forever. The British government pointed fingers at their Allies for being absent in the crisis that they had all helped to create, but ultimately they decided to ignore Ataturk’s warning. They believed they could rely on the dominions of the British Empire, such as Canada, to fight on their behalf, as Canada had enthusiastically done during the First World War. They were wrong.

Just four years after the end of the deadliest war in human history (up until that point), the public in Britain, Canada, and elsewhere in the empire was horrified to learn through the newspapers that they may be asked to go to war again to defend the British position in faraway Constantinople. The British government, led by arch-imperialists like Winston Churchill, was unaware of just how deeply this feeling was running throughout their empire. Shortly before midnight on September 15, 1922, a telegram was sent to Ottawa and the capitals of the other dominions, informing them of Britain’s decision to defend Constantinople and demanding military support.

Some of the dominions responded favourably, including Australia, New Zealand, and Newfoundland (which at the time had not yet joined the rest of Canada). South Africa was undecided. But it was Canada’s hesitation that hurt the British the most. On September 16, Churchill and another senior British politician sent out a press release warning the people of Britain—and dominions such as Canada—of the inspiration Muslims across the world might gain if Kemal’s efforts to reunite Turkey and oust the Allied occupiers were successful. The release was published in Canada’s major newspapers and elsewhere across the empire.

The move backfired. The horrors of the First World War were still fresh in the minds of the British and the Canadians. Even worse, the press release was published before Canada’s PM William Lyon Mackenzie King and other leaders had a chance to think of the implications of the telegram they had just received, and they were offended by the thought that leaders in Britain were trying to rush them into another war.

King had only become prime minister in 1921 (and would eventually be the longest-serving PM in Canada’s history) but the Chanak Crisis, as this came to be known, served as his first foreign policy test and he immediately indicated that it was time for things to change. Instead of immediately pledging to send troops, as was expected of him in London, King decided to not make any promises but insist that this was a question that parliament (i.e. the elected representatives of the Canadian people) had to decide. He faced quite a bit of criticism for this act of disloyalty to Britain, but he remained firm; by the time parliament was able to discuss the issue, the crisis had ended, as Britain and the Allies decided to agree to Kemal’s terms and evacuate themselves from Constantinople.

For the Ottoman Empire, Canada’s assertiveness in the Chanak Crisis was the nail in the coffin for a century that had rule Anatolia and much of Eastern Europe and the Middle East for the better part of six centuries. Kemal was not a leader of the Ottoman Empire, but of the Republic of Turkey. On November 11, 1922, the empire was officially abolished, and Sultan Mehmed VI was sent into exile six days later. He may have found some comfort in the fact that, after a very long struggle to save the doomed empire of his ancestors, it was abolished by its own people and relatively peacefully.

For Canada, a much younger nation, the Chanak Crisis had a completely different meaning. It had been Canada’s first instance of asserting an independent foreign policy, and a signal to Britain that the old days of pulling the strings on its dominions were gone. Historians suggest that Canada’s role in the Chanak Crisis contributed significantly to the Balfour Report of 1926, which declared that the dominions of the British Empire should be independent of direct control from London; the Statute of Westminster in 1931 famously codified this into law, thus giving (almost) complete autonomy to Ottawa.

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Teachings of Moderation and Balance in Islam

Moderation means to adopt a middle path between two extremes in all walks of life. Islam stresses moderation and balance in all aspects of life; in beliefs, worship, conduct, relationships, ideas, customs, transactions, daily activities and human desires. Principled moderation has been reiterated in the Quran whether explicitly or implicitly as a good character in Islam.

The Arabic words “Ummataw Wasata” have been used in praise of this Ummah. The word ‘Wasata’ is commonly translated as moderate. Therefore the characteristic of this Ummah is moderate behaviour in all aspects, whether of character or action. They are people who do not sway to extremes; neither are they negligent in acts of worship nor extremely ascetic like those who discard the world to live in mountains.

According to this verse, Mufti Shafi Usmani from Deobandi school of thought says, “The characteristic quality which confers superiority on the Islamic Ummah over others is its being Wasat- (a word which has been variously translated into English as “midmost, moderate, just, intermediary, middle, central or justly balanced”). In order to explain the implications of the word Wasat, commentators have usually made use of another Arabic adjective Mu’tadil (signifying “moderate or temperate”) and the noun I’tidal which means “being equal”; both the words come from the root ‘Adl which signifies “to be equal or to make equal” (Maariful Quran- Mufti Shafi Usmani)

Imam Razi comments on this verse 2:143, saying: The justly balanced (Wasat) in reality is the furthest point between two extremes. There is no doubt that the two poles of excess and extravagance are destructive, so to be moderate in character is to be furthest from them, which is to be just and virtuous. (Tafsir-e-Kabir by Imam Razi 2:143)

In his classical Arabic dictionary Ibn Manzur writes;

“Every praiseworthy characteristic has two blameworthy poles. Generosity is the middle between miserliness and extravagance. Courage is the middle between cowardice and recklessness. Humanity has been commanded to avoid every such blameworthy trait.” (Lisan al-Arab 15/209)

Wahb ibn Munnabih, a Yemenite Muslim traditionalist of Dhimar in Yemen, said, “Verily, everything has two ends and a middle path. If you hold one of the ends, the other will be skewed. If you hold the middle, the two ends will be balanced. You must seek the middle ground in all things. (Hilyat Al-Awliya 4818)

It is reported that Hadrat Hudhaifa (May Allah be pleased with him) said, “O people, remain straight upon the path and you will have taken a great lead, but if you swerve right or left then you will be led far astray.” (Sahih Bukhari 6853, Grade: Sahih)

Hadrat Ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) drew a line with his hand and said, “This is the straight path of Allah”. Then the Prophet drew lines to the right and left and said, “These are other paths and there is not a path among them but that a devil is upon it calling to its way.” Then the Prophet recited the [Quranic] verse, “Verily, this is the straight path, so follow it and do not follow other paths. (6:153) (Musnad Ahmad 4423, Grade: Sahih)

We should implement the teachings of moderation and balance in all walks of life, whether with regard to duties of faith or the duties of worldly life.

Allah Almighty said, “Seek the home of the Hereafter by that which Allah has given you, but do not forget your share of the world.” (28:77)

Hanzalah Al-Usayyidi reported, I said, “O Messenger of Allah, when we are in your presence and are reminded of Hellfire and Paradise, we feel as if we are seeing them with our very eyes, but when we leave you and attend to our wives, our children, and our business, most of these things slip from our minds.” The Prophet said,

“By Him in whose hand is my soul, if your state of mind remains the same as it is in my presence and you are always occupied with the remembrance of Allah, the angels will shake your hands in your beds and roads. O Hanzalah, rather time should be devoted to this and time should be devoted to that.” (Sahih Muslim 2750, Grade: Sahih)

Therefore in accordance with this teaching, we should be moderate in our acts of worship such as prayer, fasting, and even charity. For instance, our prayers should be recited in a moderate voice, neither too loud nor too soft.

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