Monday, December 28, 2009
I don't think it's possible to design a security system that will eliminate all these sorts of dangers, any more than I think it's possible to keep out all illegal immigrants, or catch all child molesters. But this problem was complicated by the fact that the Feds arguably should have caught this particular young man. His parents had warned them about his interest in extremist Islam, and the British had already denied him a visa. It's also rather irritating that after all the time that the rest of us have spent taking off our shoes and throwing away our nail clippers, this young man was able to walk on to a plane with a bomb strapped to his leg. For those who wish to blame Obama, one can reply that all the security checking took place in Nigeria and Amsterdam. But if the British thought this guy was too dangerous to be let into their country, that should have been a good enough reason to keep him out of ours. So yes, the security was not as tight as it should have been, and Obama will probably do a few things to make things a bit tighter.
Be all that as it may, we need to recognize that although this is a real problem, it is not a big problem. The big argument now seems to be whether this guy is "linked" to Al-Qaeda in Yemen. The answer to that question is irrelevant. If he isn't linked, he's a lone nut who's no longer a danger once he is caught. If he is linked, the people who run Al-Qaeda are every bit as stupid as he is, and should be considered about as dangerous as the Lavender Hill Mob. This bomb did not go off for the exact same chemical reason that the Shoe bomber's bomb did not go off. If these guys couldn't learn from a mistake of that magnitude, they do not deserve to be taken seriously. The NYtimes estimates that there are about 100 active members of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, which makes them smaller than most American street gangs. So they are small in number, and stupid. Why are they the biggest threat we face, exactly? Why do we have to give up our privacy and our constitutional rights to be protected from these people?
The NYtimes correctly points out that although they are small in number, these Yemeni Al-Qaeda have an unknown number of sympathizers, and these sympathizers are the real danger. So what can we do to keep their numbers down? Make sure to make as clean a distinction as possible between Al-Qaeda and other Muslims, so as not to support the Al-Qaeda claim that the West is at war with Islam itself. Arabs are stereotyped as a proud people, but that stereotype is irrelevant here. People of all cultures are tempted by the argument "I might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb." Avoiding racial and cultural profiling is not just PC, it's the best strategy for letting this whole movement destroy itself.
P.S. I did feel a little twinge as wrote "Al Qaeda and other Muslims" above, as I was reminded of a conversation I had with a Muslim friend. His English was not that good, and my Turkish is non-existent, so I had a lot of trouble understanding his claim that there were no Muslim terrorists. When I mentioned Al Qaeda, he said that those people were not Muslims. I finally realized that he was using the word "Muslim" the way many Christians use the word "Christian": as referring only to those who actually follow the teachings of that religion. By that definition, he is quite right: There are no Muslim terrorists, or Christian ones, for that matter.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
There is nothing in the Koran that specifically forbids music. This prohibition comes entirely from controversial interpretations of the Hadith, the sayings of the prophet which were written down by those who interviewed people who had known Muhammad. I think that studying the Hadith is very worthwhile. Muhammad was an extraordinary human being, and one can learn a lot from seeing the skillful and creative way he dealt with the challenges that were given him. Perhaps more importantly for Muslims, it's impossible to understand the Koran (or any other text) unless one is familiar with the historical context in which it was written or spoken. However, Muslim scholars have never treated the Hadith with the same level of reverence as the Koran, and this is how it should be. There is a complex ranking system used for evaluating the reliability of the hadith, depending on who was speaking and who was writing them down. Also, It would be blasphemous to say that Muhammad's words, admirable though they are, should be given the same authority as the Koran. The Koran is the word of God, and it would be idolatry to forget that Muhammad's words are literally sacred only when God is speaking through him.
There are thus two equally effective ways for criticizing the Hadith scholarship that produced the ban on music. First of all, the three hadiths that are cited are both questionable and ambiguous. Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi has a detailed criticism of both the historical reliability and the anti-musical interpretation of these Hadith. In the first hadith, Muhammad criticizes idle talk, which for some reason is interpreted by a cleric named Ibn Mas`ud as referring to singing. In the other two hadiths, Muhammad allegedly speaks of an apocalyptic time in the future when the Ummah will be punished by Allah for doing a variety of sinful things. Amongst the activities listed are wearing silk, adultery, drinking alcohol, listening to female singers, and playing stringed instruments. Al-Qaradawi points out that there is not an unbroken line tracing these hadiths back to the prophet himself and thus they are questionable.
In Al-Qaradawi’s words: all these hadiths are declared ‘weak’ by the followers of Ibn Hazm, Malik, Ibn Hanbal, and Ash-Shafi`i. In his book, Al-Ahkam, Al-Qadi Abu Bakr Ibn Al-`Arabi says, “None of the hadiths maintaining that singing is prohibited are considered authentic (by the scholars of the Science of Hadith Methodology).” The same view is maintained by Al-Ghazali and Ibn An-Nahwi in Al-`Umdah. Ibn Tahir says, “Not even a single letter from all these Hadiths was proved to be authentic.”Ibn Hazm says, “All the hadiths narrated in this respect were invented and falsified.” Al-Qaradawi also points out that this text could be seen as a general description of license and excess, with the details of drink, music etc. added to show the kind of atmosphere created by excess. Just because all of these things together are forbidden, that does not mean that each of them would be.
Those who accept these hadiths as authentic and/or anti-musical must also account for the fact that there are numerous other hadiths in which Muhammad permits and encourages music. There are stories, for example that tells of some of Muhammad’s people who were celebrating by singing and dancing. When Muhammad’s counselors complained, Muhammad said that they should continue to sing and play. In one case, Muhammad specifically ordered that a singer be sent to accompany a wedding ceremony. There are also numerous historical documents describing musical celebrations by Muhammad’s people in Medina. The music-haters respond to this by saying that these documents only describe music made with voice and drums, and therefore what is forbidden is instrumental music, particularly stringed instruments. Apparently the assumption is that whatever isn’t specifically permitted is forbidden.
Al-Qaradawi points out however, that there is a famous passage in the Koran which says exactly the opposite, and gives a second way of the responding to these arguments. The Koran arguably forbids the whole procedure of inferring any sort of taboos and prohibitions from any hadith. To quote Al-Qaradawi again:
“We do have a good example to follow from one of our earlier pious scholars. Imam Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) who said: “It was not the habit of those who preceded us, the early pious Muslims, who set good example for the following generations, to say, 'This is halal, and this is haram. But, they would say, ‘I hate such-and-such, and maintain such-and-such, but as for halal and haram, this is what may be called inventing lies concerning Allah. Did not you hear Allah’s Statement that reads, 'Say: Have you considered what provision Allah has sent down for you, how you have made of it lawful and unlawful? Say: Has Allah permitted you, or do you invent a lie concerning Allah?” (Yunus: 59) For, the halal is what Allah and His Messenger made lawful, and the haram is what Allah and His Messenger made unlawful.”
And if I may provide one more argument of my own: If Allah wanted to institute a command as radical as banning music, isn’t it highly implausible that he would have buried it in a couple of highly questionable hadiths? He could have eliminated all doubt by simply saying “Don’t play music” in the text of the Koran itself.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
I wish I could find a way of keeping this link permanently on the top of my page. If there's anyone who knows how, please let me know on the comment page. Also if there's some way I could link to this image rather than the text above I would love to know that as well. For all the people who keep saying Muslims should speak up against terrorism: Many Muslims are doing so, but most people don't hear about it because Bombs are much more likely to hit the front page than are petitions. Click on this link and check them out.
Monday, December 7, 2009
Mr. Douthat, as an American of Albanian descent who happens to be Orthodox Christian, I am deeply offended by your simplistic, myopic portrayals of Europe's Muslim communities, but I am not surprised. Your writing on this subject, as with many others before this, is rife with Fox Network-inspired talking points and glitzy, contrived mots justes ('Eurabia', 'Clash of Civilizations' and 'dhimmitude'). This piece could have been written by any wide-eyed, fearful Evangelical Christian who's never left the deep south, and frankly, Mr. Douthat, it already has been - many, many times over. You paint with an extra-wide brush here about yet another large segment of humanity of which you seem to know next to nothing, and with which it would appear you have had zero meaningful contact. Europe is not now, nor has it ever been all Christian, all Western, all the time. Get to know Europe's indigenous Muslims in their countries of origin, Mr. Douthat, and have your eyes opened for you. Albania had more Jews in it after World War Two than it did before. I used to attend Albanian school on Fridays at the Albanian Islamic Center in Waterbury, Connecticut. My father used to drive me there - it was about forty-five minutes from our home. Like me, he felt it was important to maintain a connection to Albanian language and culture. After my language class was over, and patriotic songs sung, I used to sit in on the religion class, so that I could learn about Islam. I would even go up into the mosque to pray alongside my classmates - all American-born teenagers and children. The Imam was a wise older man who was aware that I was an Orthodox Christian (my Godparents were known and loved by many in this community). He always made me know that I was welcome to pray, in my own way, right alongside the other kids. I would watch their motions and prostrations as I silently said the Lord's Prayer, and made the sign of the cross. I enjoyed hearing the call to prayer, and listened attentively to the sermon (hutbe), which was always about loving and helping one another, forgiveness - much the same things as I'd hear in church on Sunday. In short, I understood from a very young age that Muslims weren't any different from Christians or Jews. The only time I ever saw any women with headscarves on was when they walked into the mosque to pray. Otherwise, once they were outside, the headscarves went into purses, the kids went into the car, and everyone went off to have pizza. Visit Albania and you will see the situation is identical there today. Because Albanians have suffered together through the ages, and share an ancient, unique language which binds them together, we have always felt ourselves to be Albanians first. Our people intermarry across religious lines, and have a strong tradition of the separation of church and state. Albania: statistically 65% Muslim and 35% Christian and 100% European and proud of it.
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Those alleged feminists who worked for the ban should have collaborated with Islamic feminists (yes, there are such things) to make the changes in the Islamic community they wanted. This ban will make it much harder to do that.
Much of the discussion on this topic relies on a fallacy that is so old it has a Latin name: the Tu quoque argument. "You do X, so how can you can complain that we do X?". Tu quoque arguments can always be turned back on the person who makes them "You complain when we do X, so how can you do X yourself?" Also the word "you' refers to a two different set of people each time it occurs in the sentence. The Muslims complaining about this are not the ones in the Saudia Arabian Government who do this. (I believe Saudia Arabia is actually the only Muslim country that bans the practice of other religions, but I could be wrong about this.)
Also, I am virtually certain that there is no country in Western Europe that actually recognizes Sharia law as part of their legal system in any way whatsoever. If anyone has any actual evidence of such recognition, I'd like to see it. No unsupported assertions please, just actual evidence, preferably with a link as reference.
The Archbishop of Canterbury proposed the possibility that Sharia courts might be permitted to arbitrate in civil disputes. Licensed private firms in both American and England are already permitted to do this; The Archbishop was just suggesting that Sharia courts be granted those licenses. This idea was attacked by almost everyone who heard about it, and was never carried out. I thought it was an acceptable idea at first, but after reading some objections by Islamic feminists, I realize that this strengthens patriarchal structures in Islamic cultures in ways that make liberalization of Islam difficult. These patriarchal structures are more cultural than Islamic, and many Muslims want to change them. Things like the minaret ban make it much harder for them to do so.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
After the Persians gave up on trying to conquer Europe, the eastern empire myth was continually reinforced by the fact that 1) Nobody wants to live in the Gobi desert and 2) Anyone who has learned how to survive in the Gobi desert is probably tough enough to grab any piece of real estate they want. Consequently, Europe was perennially threatened by tribes riding forth out of what is now Mongolia and into Europe: The Huns, the Mongols, the Seljuk Turks, the Ottoman Turks. The fact that the Arab Muslims managed to convert the last two groups, and stage an impressive invasion of their own, managed to tie this fear of Easterners to Islamophobia.
The main reason that the Gobi desert warriors were so dangerous is that they were brilliant horsemen. I believe they invented the stirrup, which greatly increased the flexibility of a mounted warrior, and there is lots of documentary footage showing that the Mongols are as good at horseback riding as they ever were. Towards the end of his career, Buffalo Bill added Mongolian horsemen to his Wild West Show, and renamed it "Rough Riders East and West." Now that the horse is essentially useless militarily, the Mongols have become the sweetest, most harmless people you are ever likely to meet. Nevertheless, Orientophobia has been transferred to other targets, and lives on in both literature and foreign policy.
Both Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia rely heavily on Orientophobic images derived from medieval epic literature. The human beings who fight for Sauron in the Lord of the Rings have black curly hair, dark skin, gold earrings, and ride on "Oliphaunts". The Orcs and Urukai are patterned after European superstitions about the Mongols, including cannibalism and the use of dragons in battle. The great Calormen empire that lies south of Narnia is inhabited by people who have turbans, scimitars, dark skin, and a poetic speaking style patterned after the Arabian Nights. In The Last Battle, Calormen conquers Narnia, which eventually ushers in Judgment Day. Both authors were temperamentally very tolerant people, and were careful to surgically remove these racist images from their historical context. Tolkien, sensitive to the dangers of racism against actual humans, mentions that the Oliphaunt riders must have been duped or misled by Sauron. (There is no danger of roving bands of skinheads beating up elves.) Tolkien also combined fear of the East with fear of industrial squalor to create a completely new and nonhistorical vision of Imperialistic evil. C.S. Lewis had the Calormens worshiping a god called Tash, who was very like the polytheistic gods that Muhammad was campaigning against.
When the Islamic empires were colonized by the West, the Islamic images of Orientophobia also faded into the background. Nevertheless, politicians and generals where still able to manipulate these fears for rhetorical effect. During World War I, The Germans were referred to as "Huns" (well, Germany is east of France). After World War II, the Communists replaced Islam as the Eastern Bugbear of choice, for it was clearly their intention to conquer the world. Once Communism collapsed, however, there was something even scarier to fear: Nothing. As Heidegger pointed out, Nameless Dread (which he called Angst) is much harder to deal with than any particular enemy. For several years after the Berlin wall fell, the question kept hovering in the background "What do we need all of these weapons for?". The only answer was "Well, the World is a pretty dangerous place."
And then we were rescued from Anxiety, and delivered into Fear, by 9/11. Here was our dear familiar enemy, The Evil Empire from the East, with all of the trappings we had been trained to respond to: The turbans, the beards, the violent attacks, the threat of world domination. The number of people who actually called for the latter was only in the low thousands, possibly even hundreds, but with so much Pavlovian training, the slightest stimulus could trigger a response.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
The men who overpowered airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center were not just "linked". They were organized and co-ordinated in essentially the same way that a football team or an army is co-ordinated. To conflate this kind of organization with a "link" that consisted of a few emails between an Imam and a single soldier is to be dangerously confused. One of the things that makes this kind of confusion even more likely is that no terrorist organization has done anything as remotely well co-ordinated since, and consequently there really isn't that much difference between terrorists and lone gunmen today. There is a difference in degree but today there is no real sharp way to draw the line. Al Qaeda once had almost completely political control of Afghanistan , which became their base of operations for something that resembled a genuine military campaign. That base was destroyed during the war with Afghanistan, and now Al Qaeda is nothing but a disorganized group of malcontents that share little more than a willingness to wear the same T-shirt.
The underlying assumption of the controversy around Fort Hood has been that if we see lots of similarities between Hasan and Al Qaeda, this must prove that Hasan is somehow part of the same Mass-movement as Al Qaeda, and therefore should be feared. What I am saying is the fact that there are so many similarities between Hasan and Al Qaeda shows that we should consider both to be ordinary criminals, not a major military threat. There is not that much difference between Hasan and the other nutcases blowing things up in the name of Islam, because all the so-called Jihadists are a rag tag bunch of losers, who had one lucky strike with the World Trade Center, and have no central organization worthy of the name. Those of us who grew up with the fear of Communism should remember (and some of us do) that in comparison to the Commies, these so-called threats to our security are a disorganized bunch of loonies, not a serious well-organized threat. They did and will continue to do some damage, but in comparison to Hurricane Katrina and Global warming they should be seen as a very low priority. These guys are about as organized as the Bloods and the Crips in LA, and probably less dangerous. They are certainly less organized than the Mafia.
Surprisingly,I have heard similar thoughts from two of NYtimes' token conservatives: John Tierney and Ross Douhat.
A year or so ago, Tierney pointed out that more people have died in bathtubs since 9/11 than have died from Terrorist attacks. Anybody want to allocate a billion dollars to keep America safe from the Axis of Bathtubs? There are probably "links" that connect all of those bathtubs to a few key manufacturers, some of whom might be Muslims. Should we throw out the constitutional right to privacy and put cameras on every bathtub in America? Call me wild and reckless, but I'm not willing to give up my constitutional rights to be that safe. For those who keep saying "Freedom doesn't come Free": You're right. The price of freedom is living with the possibility that occasionally crimes get committed, and people get hurt. A society in which everybody was constantly under surveillance might be a society with no crime, but it would also be a society with no freedom.
Ross Douhat wrote on the Anniversary of the falling of the Berlin Wall that " "Osama bin Laden is no Hitler, and Islamism isn’t in the same league as the last century’s totalitarianisms. Marxism and fascism seduced the West’s elite; Islamic radicalism seduces men like the Fort Hood shooter. Our enemies resort to terrorism because they’re weak, and because we’re so astonishingly strong." You never know who's going to end up agreeing with you.
We Americans got emotionally wounded by the 9/11 experience, and with good reason. That incident caught us unawares, (or with our "unawares" down, as it were), and did a spectacular amount of damage to America, both physically and emotionally. But now, several years later we need to put what happened in perspective. We need to recognize that these guys are at this point not significantly more organized than Hasan, and we should stop acting like they are the biggest threat we face. Some of them do think of themselves as striving towards world domination, but they have less chance of beating the US army than a flea has of winning a wrestling match with an elephant. They don't have the resources to conquer the world, and they don't have the mental discipline to hold on to power even if they had it. For obvious reasons, suicide bombers are not very good at focusing on long range plans.
The basic principle of mind is that everything is related to everything else, so finding links is always easy. Discussions about terrorism would produce a lot less heat, and a lot more light, if the participants spent less time looking for links and more time trying to make significant distinctions. We should stop using terms like "Islamofascism", which "links" all sorts of groups together simply because they might be dangerous to us. Instead we need to make distinctions like Sunni and Shiite, Salafi and Sufi, Farsi and Arabic, Wahhabi and Qutbist. Some people claim that the real danger is not Islam itself but Wahhabi Islam, which I think is on the right track. However, even that claim gives too much unity to this so-called "movement." Bin Laden sees himself as Wahhabi, but the head Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia have condemned him to death. Many of them have also issued detailed scholarly criticism of the idea that Islam permits violence against civilians. For more on this, see this website on The Wahhabi Myth As I understand it, the guys that are being described on this site also believe that women should not be allowed to uncover their faces, work outside the home or drive cars, which makes them bad guys in my book. But these attitudes are no threat to American security, and shouldn't be lumped together with the belief that Muslims have an obligation to violently attack non-Muslims. They both need to be dealt with, but they need to be dealt with in different ways. It's rather like seeing Iran as part of the same conspiracy as Al Qaeda, even though Al Qaeda in Iraq is blowing up Shiite Mosques. It's also rather like lumping Palestinian suicide bombers together with the suicide bombers who are seeking world Islamic domination. Palestinian suicide bombers don't want to dominate the world, they just want to acquire one particular piece of real estate they believe is rightfully theirs. This distinction doesn't justify the actions of either group, but it does show that it is dangerously confused to think of them as being "linked".
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
I)There are a lot of Muslims, even very conservative ones, who are openly repudiating the shooter. I visited the site of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Radical Imam "linked" to Hasan, who praised the shootings. By my estimation, The Muslim posters who criticized his stance outnumbered the supporters by about two to one. There are also several prominent Islamic organizations and clerics who have denounced the shootings, including a very conservative imam in Saudi Arabia. It's important to remember that, just because someone has hateful beliefs about women's rights to drive cars and show their faces in public, doesn't mean they think it's OK to murder people in the name of God. All this can be found at the City of Brass Blog, by Aziz Poonawalla. Poonawalla also quotes from an interview with al-Awlaki, back in the days when he was a moderate. An even more extensive list of Muslim organizations condemning extremism can be found at www.theamericanmuslim.org
I've always been a bit irritated by the cries of "Where's the Muslim Outrage" every time a Muslim nutjob blows something up. First of all, I haven't seen any Christian organizations speaking out against the abortion clinic murders,and no one seems angry about that. Secondly, there are two excellent reasons why most Muslims are hesitant to speak up against Muslim extremism 1) It's hard for Muslims to feel solidarity with a government that treats them as collateral damage. American government policy assumes that the danger of terrorism justifies harrasing innocent Muslims at airports, arresting and detaining them without trial, and killing them with robot drones. This is not the sort of behavior that inspires trust in those on the receiving end. 2)Speaking up against Muslim extremists greatly increases your chances of being killed by them. Muslim extremists have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims. Despite these factors however, more and more Muslims are denouncing the Fort Hood Shootings, and I applaud their courage. It must be difficult to be caught between two groups that violently disagree with each other, each of which is determined to dehumanize you if you show any signs of disagreeing with them.
II) A lot of people are complaining about the fact that maintaining "PC" attitudes has compromised our ability to protect ourselves against terrorism. I think this is a false controversy because:
ISLAMOPHOBIA IS MUCH MORE DANGEROUS THAN TERRORISM!!
ISLAMOPHOBIA IS MUCH MORE DANGEROUS THAN TERRORISM!!
ISLAMOPHOBIA IS MUCH MORE DANGEROUS THAN TERRORISM!!
Sorry to shout and repeat myself, but this is something that doesn't get said often or loudly enough. It's not just that terrorism is the lesser danger. Islamophobia is the thing that makes terrorism grow, and so fighting Islamophobia is the most effective way of fighting terrorism. I write this blog because I don't want to live in a country where guys in pickup trucks are running around shooting little girls in hijabs, and their fathers are responding by bombing pickup trucks. Islamophobia is the first step in that direction, just as man-on-the-street anti-semitism was the first step towards Auschwitz. You don't have to be a Muslim to condemn Islamophobia, just as you don't have to be Jewish to condemn Auschwitz.
Now to the real meat of this post: The dispute over whether Hasan is a "Lone Gunman" or a "Terrorist" or in David Brooks' words, was this "an isolated personal breakdown" or an "ideological assault". If we start with the Aristotelian category system (as Common Sense always does), the natural thing is to look for the essential properties that define each of these categories, and see which of these properties Hassan possesses. As new information came in, Muslims and others argued over whether Hasan was really a Muslim, whether he shouted "Alahu Akbar!" when he was shooting, whether he exchanged emails with Anwar al-Awlaki etc. David Brooks came up with what he saw as the most essential property of all: The embracing of a narrative that "has emerged on the fringes of the Muslim world. It is a narrative that sees human history as a war between Islam on the one side and Christianity and Judaism on the other. This narrative causes its adherents to shrink their circle of concern. They don’t see others as fully human. They come to believe others can be blamelessly murdered and that, in fact, it is admirable to do so."
One commenter on the NYTimes website correctly pointed out that because Brooks asserted that "the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy", he had bought into the exact same narrative himself. The only difference between Brooks and Hasan on this issue was which side of the narrative they each chose to play out. I would add that the fact that innocent Muslims are often seen as collateral damage shows that both sides embracing this narrative "shrink their circle of concern".
Brooks argues that Hasan must be seen as as a terrorist because he had this narrative in his head: end of story, and anyone who wanted to include any other narrative was not "serious". That is the problem with arguments using the Aristotelian category system: they ultimately boil down to assertions that "My intuitions can beat up your intuitions" as to the differences between accidental and essential properties." This is the main reason that the classical American Pragmatists (Peirce, James, and Dewey), adopted a method James called "cash value analysis". They claimed that the meaning of any assertion consists of nothing but the actions that accepting it would require. If there is no difference in action, there is no difference in meaning. Suppose we argue about whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable. Everyone recognizes that tomatoes have seeds, and thus are fruits from a biologist's point of view, and that they provide the kinds of nutrients that prompt nutritionists to classify them as vegetables. According to the pragmatists, that settles the matter. There is no point in asking whether the tomato is REALLY a Fruit or REALLY a vegetable, independent of these kinds of actions.
Similarly we need to ask ourselves "How would it effect our behavior, our goals, our actions if we labeled Hasan a terrorist or a loan gunman?" If we label him a terrorist, this could mean that we should strengthen the Patriot act, throw all Muslims out of the military, and cry out that Bush, unlike Obama, kept us safe from terrorism. If that's what you mean by terrorist, then I will argue against all of these actions. Such an argument has some real chance of being about the facts, rather than an empty question about definitions. Similarly, if we label him a lone gunman, we need to ask whether gun control laws ought to be tightened to stop crazed actions like this, and we need to stop comparing him to Osama Bin Laden and start comparing him to people like the Columbine Killers, the Korean student at Chapman University, and probably most importantly, the other shooters who have killed people at Fort Hood during the past few years. It seems to me that Hasan has much more in common with the latter than the former. The thing that made Bin Laden dangerous was the fact that he once had an organized military machine that had almost complete control of a foreign country. This enabled him to launch a well co-ordinated strike involving dozens or even hundreds of accomplices. The fact that Hasan and Bin Laden had the same narrative in their heads is an accidental, not an essential property, and therefore should not be used to put them in the same category. What goes on between their ears is not the problem, the problem is what actions they perform and/or are capable of performing. The actions that Hasan performed were those of a lone gunman, and that's what they would have been even if, like the Columbine killers, he had had two or three friends who had helped him. His appearance on the scene gives us no reason to either believe or disbelieve that terrorism is again on the march, or that we need to gird up our loins to prepare for another 9/11 style assault.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
"O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people." Qur'an 5:51
and claims this is proof that "Islam is against the rest of humanity".
The Author admits that "I have heard that particular Ayah explained as not applying to all Jews and Christians" , but adds "there is no general consensus about that in the various sects of Islam, nor is there anything to conclusively prove otherwise in Hadith or other sources, so it seems correct to take that literally."
He/She contrasts this with the following passage in the Bible
Philippians 2: 3,4
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Overall the tone on this post is quite reasonable and patient, although you might not think so from the quotes I've made here. This provides one more piece of evidence for my main criticism of this post: the phrase "take that literally", which I hear so much from those in the Abrahamic traditions. I think that phrase can only mean "whatever meaning pops into my head, when I read it 2000 years after it was written." Meaning is always determined by context, so if you want to know what any sentence means you have to know when it was said and what was happening at the time. When these phrases came to Muhammad, he was surrounded by Arabs of 3 different religions (Christians, Jews and Pagans) that were actively trying to kill him and his community. He had preached peace for the years prior to that, and his community needed to realize that in this case those teachings of peace had to be temporarily suspended to insure the survival of the community. There are several passages describing characteristics of "The Jews", "The Christians" or "The Pagans", which refer to specific actions performed by those particular Jewish, Christian, and Pagan Arabs, which show that these were the only Pagans, Jews and Christians he was referring to. Some translations of the Koran translate the word I refer to as "Pagan" with the word "Unbeliever", which causes even greater confusion. Many Christians think that this term refers to them as well, even though distinctions are made between Christians, Jews, and Unbelievers in the complete text. Ambiguity in translation causes almost as many problems as ambiguity of context.
The author of this post is quite right that there are some Muslims who interpret these passages as applying to all non-Muslims. I would encourage all Muslims to actively speak up against these interpretations of the Koran. All texts are subject to multiple interpretations, and a legitimate interpretation would have to harmonize with the overall message of the Koran. My interpretation above harmonizes with the famous "Let there be no compulsion in religion" sura, so it seem to me that it is the most rational one to accept.
The fact that there is more than one interpretation of a text does not mean that any interpretation is acceptable. There is no legitimate way you can accept Woody Allen's interpretion of the Talmud as saying that one should only avoid eating pork in certain restaurants. The most widely accepted "literal" interpretion of Sura 4:89 (that Apostates should be killed) is just plain wrong, even though many Muslims and Islamophobes interpret it that way. To see this, you don't have to recreate the context of 7th century Arabia. You only have to read two or three passages on either side of the quote. Taken 'literally", i.e. out of context, it means exactly the opposite of what it actually says. Check my post on Sura 4:89 for a further explanation.
P.S. I also don't think it was fair to compare Islam and Christianity by quoting the worst passage one can find in the Koran and the best passage in the Bible. There are plenty of passages in the Bible that are scarier than that (Esther ordering the slaughter of all of Haman's people). And if you look at the history of the Islamic empires, you'll see that the Muslims had a much better record for tolerance that the Christians (Compare Spain before and after Christian rule.)
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
The Liner notes of the recent Navras DVD Songs of the Mystics assert that Abida Parveen is “The only woman allowed to sing at the shrines of the Sufi saints.” There must be a story behind this, I thought. I was sure there must have been public denunciations of her by fundamentalist mullahs, which were answered in turn by Sufi mystics and music lovers, resulting in her being carried into the shrines on the shoulders of triumphant well-wishers. I thought that all I would have to do is line up the positive and negative quotes, and I’d have a great story about the triumph of common sense, art, and genuine religious feeling. The problem with this speculation was that this woman seemed to be as universally popular as the Dalai Lama. I couldn’t find anybody who criticized her, even on the most conservative Moslem websites, except for one polite suggestion that she wear a headscarf. Even more remarkable, she had been trained by Khyal vocalist Salamat Ali Khan. How was this woman able to change the mind of a man who for many years had refused to give musical instruction to his own daughter, who would grow up to become the popular Pakistani vocalist Riffat Sultana?
The answer turned out to be far more complicated than it first appears. Riffat informed me that her father’s early refusal to teach her had nothing to do with Islam. “There are some families that permit woman to sing and others that don’t,” she said. “My mother sang for friends and family, and she was very good. But my family gharana was a lineage of male singers, so we women were not permitted to sing in public.” And yet, the Navras DVD liner notes say that Parveen’s father also came from a lineage of male singers. Despite this, he had designated her as his musical successor when she was five years old, even though he had eligible male relatives. Apparently these rules, like most other South Asian traditions, can be bent or broken when necessary. Does this make it possible for women to express themselves in a culture that Westerners see as male-dominated?
The beginnings of an answer can be found in The Female voice in Sufi Ritual by Bengali Anthropologist Shemeen Burney Abbas. According to Abbas, some dargahs (Sufi shrines), do forbid women to sing. However, most dargahs permit women to sing for other women, many dargahs permit them to perform for everyone on special occasions, and many dargahs permit woman to perform regularly for everyone. There is in fact, a whole class of women who make their living by singing at dargahs for alms. They perform in a style called Sufiana-kalam, which is both similar to and significantly different from the male-dominated Qawwali. Both forms derive their texts from the teachings of the great Sufi mystics. But Qawwali usually begins with an invocation in Arabic or classical Persian before switching to a vernacular language such as Sindi or Punjabi. Sufiana-Kalam is sung in the local vernacular throughout. Qawwali singers create complicated improvisations. Sufiani-Kalam sticks to a well-known folk melody sung solo or in group unison. Qawwali is thus a sophisticated elitist form that makes room for artistic virtuosity, whereas Sufiani-Kalam is a folk form sung mostly by the poor and uneducated. The main reason that women of certain families are not allowed to sing thus appears to be a very non-Islamic one. Even though Islam officially rejects the caste system, people everywhere don’t like to be associated with those on the bottom of the economic ladder.
Abida Parveen’s studies of Khyal and Qawwali have enabled her to transform Sufiani-Kalam to a new level of improvised artistic virtuosity. Although not the first woman to sing in dargahs, her artistic innovations have made her the first to be treated with this kind of respect and reverence. She also performs her own unique versions of ghazals, qawwali, and other traditionally male-dominated styles, in ways which can be seen as truer to the original intentions of the poetry. Because the word “Islam” literally means submission, the great Sufi mystics believed that the essence of Islamic worship was visible in the lives of women, who regularly submit to the demands of husband and family. Consequently, they often wrote poetry from the point of view of women, comparing themselves, for example, to brides who lift the veil when they first see the face of Allah. When male Qawwali singers perform these songs, they often sing them in falsetto, an artifice which is obviously unnecessary for Parveen. One could say that when she performs these songs, she is a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. But in fact, what she expresses, both by her singing and her personal example, is that spiritual aspiration transcends all distinctions of class and gender.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
“When maulvis and maulanas ask me about this, I tell them, sometimes with irritation, that I can't explain it. I feel it. I feel it. If music is haraam then why has it reached such heights? Why does it make me soar towards heaven? The religion of music is one. All others are different. I tell the maulanas, this is the only haqeeqat (reality). This is the world. My namaaz is the seven shuddh and five komal surs. And if this is haraam, then I say: aur haraam karo, aur haraam karo (if music be a thing of sin, sin on)."
“I was once in an argument with some Shia maulavis in Iraq. They were all well-versed in their subject and were making several effective arguments about reasons why music ought to be damned. At first I was left speechless. Then I closed my eyes and began to sing Raga Bhairav: Allah-hee....Allah-hee....Allah-hee...I continued to raise the pitch. I opened my eyes and I asked them : 'Is this haraam? I'm calling God. I'm thinking of Him, I'm searching for Him. Isn't this namaaz? Why do you call my search haraam?' They fell silent.”
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Writing a review of a book or recording is much easier than writing about the reality that produced it—or in the case of Michael Muhammad Knight’s the Taqwacores, the reality the book produced. Knight’s book is full of surprises, but at least it sits there quietly in your hands and doesn’t protest any of your descriptions of it. Real-life Taqwacore musicians are an independent lot, and resist anyone’s attempt to create a pigeonhole for them. The New York Times and the Rolling Stone both said that Muslim Punk was created in response to Knight’s book. Marwan Kamel, whose band Al-Thawra takes its name from the Arabic translation of "The Revolution, explains that the truth is more complicated. “ We were not the first Muslim punk bands, even if we were the first Taqwacore bands. Punk bands have existed in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the rest of Southeast Asia since the 80's. The idea of "Muslim punk" isn't that important there, because the vast majority of people are Muslims. As Mike said in a conversation with me once, ‘What do you call Chinese food in China, it's just food.’ So, likewise Muslim punk is just punk for them.”
So what is Taqwacore, if not Muslim punk? I tried at first to answer that question quasi-scientifically, by sending out a generic questionnaire to several bands that identified themselves as Taqwacore. I got some friendly and informative responses, but some band’s reactions varied from suspicious to overtly hostile. “Look, there are plenty Muslims who don’t know s—t about Islam.” replied Saag Al-sistanti of the Saag Taqwacore Syndicate “Just like the back country good ol boys who don’t know s--t about the bible. But they still consider themselves Christian, and they are not put to a 'Christian Litmus Test'..... Are we not Muslim enough? Is that it?” He had my agenda wrong, but he was right that I had an unconscious agenda. I was trying to make Taqwacore represent a new Muslim ideology. Taqwacore is more interested in questioning all ideology than creating a new one. “We (the real-life taqwacores) are really just putting our identity conflict on display for the world to see” says Kamel, “Taqwacore means we can be complicated Muslims and complicated punks... as long as we stay true to ourselves.”
No one wanted to use ideology to divide or unite the “good” and “bad” Muslims. The Secret Trial Five is a Canadian All-female Taqwacore band, whose lead singer, Sena Hussain, is openly gay. I thought she would have felt some solidarity with gay Islamic reformer Irshad Manji, but instead Hussain criticized Manji for her support of “Apartheid states like Israel.” “I know some very conservative Muslims who treat me as a brother, even though I've made all kinds of crazy rebellious statements about religion” says Knight “They humble me with the way that they live their Islam. I've spoken at mosques and Islamic events and have been received with decency.” Real-life Muslims, unlike their media caricatures, often agree to disagree, and tolerate their differences even when their disagreement is strong and passionate.
When Michael Muhammad Knight painted camels on the side of his green bus and began his “Taqwatour” of both Punk Clubs and Moslem community centers, he traveled with five Taqwacore bands that shook up both Muslim and Punk Orthodoxy. Only the Secret Trial Five exemplified the raw angry adolescent energy of traditional hardcore punk. Al Thawra uses sophisticated sampling and mixing techniques that combine drum machines, violins, and middle-eastern instruments with what they call “heavy sludgy crust punk”. The Kominas use dramatic changes in tempo, orchestration, and musical style that create political playlets reminiscent of Brecht and Weil (Only louder, most of the time.) Vote Hezbollah repeatedly point out that their name is a joke, but their song “Poppy Fields” pulls no punches in its criticisms of American foreign policy. It features a gritty Tom Waits-style vocal, and closes with an impressively frantic hi-hat solo. Omar Waqar performed without his former band Diacritical, perhaps because certain members were ambivalent about being exclusively identified as Taqwacore. (There is a long discussion about this issue on his blog.) His style with that band was closer to being heavy metal than anything else, but his numerous other influences defy easy categorization. The evening’s entertainment was thus definitely not for the purist, whether punk or Muslim. Despite the Taqwatour’s deliberately controversial style, however, the mainstream American Muslim reaction was admirably restrained.
Perhaps the most crucial moment of the Taqwatour was their performance at the national convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Undeniably, they freaked out lots of people. The Secret Trial Five’s blog reports that many walked out when they heard the group’s “scratchy punk vocals”. There was an off-stage argument between the “head dude” and Mike Knight. The police were called, which inspired Knight to lead the crowd in a chant of “Pigs are Haram”. But hey, nobody threw any bombs, or stones, or crashed any airplanes into the side of the green bus. The Taqwatour set up a booth at the ISNA conference and the public reaction was summed up as “a few people looking at us funny…overall a controversy free day.” At the ISNA open mike, the Taqwatour shared the stage with Muslim rappers, beat boxers and poets who used almost as much profanity as they did. There are online videos of the event which show girls in hijabs smiling, screaming, and giving devil-horn hand gestures. The organizer of the event eventually admitted she made a judgment error in calling the police, and that it would have been better to have talked things out. It is not always a peaceful relationship, but the Taqwacore sensibility is an integral part of modern Moslem culture, and not just in America. The Dead Bhuttos live in Pakistan, and record in Punjabi. The Kominas have toured Pakistan. Personally, I’m looking forward to the time when Christian and Moslems parents can sit down together and mutually commiserate over their crazy Punk Rock children. If that won’t shatter old boundaries, I don’t know what will.
(The Myspace pages of these groups can be found through the search engines at www.myspace.com)
Thursday, October 15, 2009
One of Islam's great contributions to moral reasoning is that they use a three part distinction where most other religions use two. Instead of dividing actions into Good and Evil, Islam make a distinction between actions which are 1) Forbidden 2)Permitted and 3)Blessed. When someone has been wronged, they are permitted to ask for justice, but it is considered blessed to forgive.
I really like this distinction. When I was a Christian, I was frustrated by the fact Christianity required far more from us than anyone could ever possibly give. As Nietzsche and Ayn Rand pointed out, being a good Christian seemed to be a formula for self-mutilation. Muhammad perceptively realized that there are certain things that people must never do under any circumstances, such as murder or theft. However, he also realized that there was more to being a spiritual person that just being a respectable citizen. With the concept of blessed action, he gave people the opportunity to be called to moments of spiritual greatness, recognizing that this opportunity would encourage people to frequently rise above the minimum. It was one more example of his recognition of the principle that there should be no compulsion in religion. If you give people an opportunity to be exceptionally good, they will often take it. If you try to force them to be good, all you produce is backsliders and hypocrites. It's a shame that so many contemporary "Islamic" states have forgotten this.
Reading articles and comments on The Roman Polanski case reminded me of this distinction. Many people have pointed out that Polanski's victim has publically forgiven him, and said that she sees no reason to send him to jail. Others have replied by saying that this makes no difference. According to Western Law, he has committed a crime against the state, and therefore her forgiveness is irrelevant. I am told, however, that according to Sharia Law, if a criminal asks his victim for forgiveness, and the victim grants it, sentences can be reduced or eliminated. Is this why so many people say that Western and Islamic values are incompatible? Because Muslims are not as violent and vengeful as Westerners?
Sunday, October 11, 2009
In 2004, Michael Muhammad Knight wrote an extraordinary novel called the Taqwacores, which conceived the idea that Islam and Punk Rock “aren’t so far removed as you’d think. Both began in tremendous bursts of truth and vitality but seem to have lost something along the way---the energy perhaps, that comes with knowing the world has never seen such positive force and fury and never would again. Both have suffered from sell-outs and hypocrites, but also from true believers whose devotion had crippled their creative drive. Both are viewed by outsiders as unified cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth”.
If you’re not completely blown away by the audacity and insight of the passage quoted above, I suppose it’s possible you might not like the rest of the Taqwacores either. You also might not like the fact that this is probably the longest passage that can be quoted without deletions in a family magazine. Knight is an American scatological vagabond poet, in the tradition that began with Walt Whitman, and includes Hunter Thompson, William Burroughs, Henry Miller, and Allen Ginsberg. These writers all value experience over accomplishment and respectability, and thus are often heavily involved with drugs, sex and alcohol. Their attitude towards authority, and to the very idea of literary style, varies from indifference to hostility. The best of them, however, have styles which emerge from a single-minded devotion to telling the truth as they see it. When such a writer emerges from a social milieu whose story has not yet been told, there is an opportunity for greatness if the writer is up to it.
Knight is such a writer, and his milieu is the world of Moslem-American youth, suspended between two contradictory value systems they can neither fully accept or reject. On one hand there is Punk Rock, mixed heavily with the fratboy slob world portrayed by filmmakers like the Farrelly Brothers and Judd Apatow. On the other hand, there is the puritanical world of fundamentalist Islam, held up as an ideal by their parents and overseas relatives, and clearly out of sync with the ideals of self-determination (and self-gratification) taken for granted by most Americans. Because neither value systems works well for them, each of the characters in the Taqwacores is attempting to construct their own personal code with different fragments from each.
At one extreme is Umar, who embraces both puritanical “straight-edge” punk and orthodox Salafi Islam, but would be condemned by the latter because of his many tattoos, and his tendency to burst into obscenities when his housemates smoke dope in his pick-up truck. At the other extreme is Jehangir, who repeatedly declares that “Islam can take any shape you want it to.” He wraps his Mohawk in a turban when visiting his relatives in Pakistan, and uses marijuana and alcohol to continually keep himself in an ecstatic Sufi-like trance. There is Rabeya, whose face no one has ever seen because she always wears a burqua. She also sings Iggy Pop songs, reads Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, and blacks out passages she cannot accept in her copy of the Koran. In the middle of all of this is Yusuf, abstaining from drugs and alcohol, who is studying engineering because his parents told him to. He is also trying to resist being seduced by blonde dreadlocked Lynn, who once wanted to become a Muslim because she loves Rumi’s poetry. All of these people live together in a house with a hole knocked in the wall that faces towards Mecca, and a Saudi flag with a spray-painted “A” for anarchy.
Yusuf’s character is what distinguishes Knight from his literary forebears. Ginsberg, Miller, and Thompson were always the center of a self-created chaotic circus. Like Whitman, they celebrated themselves and sang themselves. Yusuf, in contrast, is the still center around which all other action revolves, clearly touched by it but not the initiator of it. It is as if Tropic of Cancer were written from the point of view of Henry Miller’s best friend. Nevertheless, Yusuf is not a mere passive observer, for he hopes and believes that somewhere in this spiritual chaos a new form of Islam is being born. This is what makes him a searcher, not just a spectator, and this search is what provides the subtle dramatic flow beneath the book’s episodic, free-form surface. Despite their differences, all the characters come together as Muslims when they pray. They may use pizza boxes instead of prayer rugs, and need sandalwood incense to cover the smell of beer and vomit in the living room. But Knight’s descriptions of the prayer scenes reveal something authentically spiritual that triumphantly coexists with the excess and the hedonism.There is also Jehangir’s love for a new style of music called Taqwacore—a name derived from the Arabic word for “blessed” and the punk genre called Hard Core. The evocative names of the Taqwacore bands—Burning Books for Cat Stevens, Osama Bin Laden’s Tunnel Diggers-- create a sense of curiosity and anticipation, which reaches a shattering climax when Jehangir produces a Taqwacore concert and meets his favorite bands face to face.
A westerner who reads this book will find his stereotypes about Muslims shattered and turned inside out. Could there be any truth to this portrayal? Young Muslims all over America think so. Many of them deluged Knight with letters, telling him that he spoke to them and for them, and asking where they could find recordings of Taqwacore music. And now for the punch line which begins the articles on Taqwacore in the New York Times and the Rolling Stone: Knight had to say that these bands were a product of his imagination, and many of his readers responded by starting Taqwacore bands of their own. Some even named their groups after the formerly imaginary bands in the book. A few years later, Knight was driving an Islamic green tour bus with five of these bands, nurturing the fruits of his own self-fulfilling prophecy. The reality which is Taqwacore music deserves, and will receive, an article of its own in my next column. But I wanted to devote this column to the book itself, because Michael Muhammad Knight is not only a force for social and musical change. He is also a literary talent of the highest order.
The Taqwacores is available at www.softskull.com
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
"Those planes were not the only thing those terrorists hijacked on 9/11. They also hijacked my religion. They call themselves Moslems, but they only bow to the gods of hate, fanaticism and bigotry.
I may look like a long-haired musician, but I know Islamic Logic. I studied the Koran as a child, and I continue to go back to it as a source of inspiration for my music. There is absolutely nothing in the Koran that forbids music. On the contrary, the Koran says that the prophet David was given the gift of singing and that when he sang the mountains swayed. Why would God give a prophet such a gift if it were evil? And the Hadith they cite as banning music criticizes things like “idle talk”, which obviously only refers to gossip, not music. I researched and studied this topic and spent two and a half hours discussing it with the most prominent Mullah in Peshawar. But instead of responding to my arguments, he just fell back on apocalyptic imagery. I saw through him, but I still treated him respectfully. In fact, he ended our discussion by entreating me ‘from the heart’ not to be angry with him, and asking me to come and see him again. Then he sang a song to me, and asked me to perform at my next concert. After 2 and a half hours of saying music was sinful, he was standing there singing to me.”
“The fact is, these mullahs don’t really believe what they are saying. They’re attacking music because they are afraid of losing their gig. They see a long-haired musician getting thirty thousand people at a concert, and they see us as intruding on their market share. In Pakistan, 50% of the population is under twenty-five, and they are the ones who are attracted to Rock music and videos. When I starting interviewing the students at the Madrassahs, all they wanted to talk about was Junoon’s music. They knew all the songs, and were asking for my autograph. But once the cameras came on, they all mouthed the same preprogrammed commentary, saying that music was forbidden.
“ The kids say what they say because they’re poor and they get free food and education from the Madrassahs. Their parents leave them there and say “raise them”. There’s no other social safety net, so the kids have no choice but to echo the party line. But when the mullahs aren’t watching, they watch satellite TV, discuss cricket matches, and do all the other things that normal kids do. If they were provided with any other economic opportunities, they wouldn’t be there. Even though all music is banned in Peshawar, there are three or four rock bands from there who have made videos that are running on satellite music channels in Pakistan. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t be sure, but I think the Mullahs are losing.”
Nevertheless, Ahmad strongly believes that a defeat for the extremists will result in a rejuvenation of Islam at its best.
“They are trying to recreate seventh century Arabia in our time, and they are not even recreating it accurately. They say that women shouldn’t work outside the home. But the Prophet Muhammad was married to a working businesswoman who was fifteen years older than he was. And she proposed to him.”
“They try to avenge any action they think is disrespectful of Islam. But here is a story that all Moslem children hear from their mothers. When the Prophet, peace be upon him, first began to preach his message, there were many people who reacted hostilely. There was a woman who used to see Muhammad walk by her house every day, and she always dumped garbage on him from her window. Not once did he protest this, or try to get revenge. One day he walked by and she didn’t dump garbage on him. So he went up to see her, and discovered that she was sick. He stayed with her, nursed her back to health, and eventually she converted to Islam. He used persuasion and gentleness, not anger and force. He knew that the only way to win over people is through truth, humility, and compassion. There are so many stories in which his followers wanted him to act aggressively, and he would say ‘the truth will prevail, as long as we’re true to ourselves’. The self-appointed spokesmen for Islam who claim they want to emulate Muhammad’s character erase this whole side of his story.”
“Being a Good Muslim is having faith in a higher power. Once you have that faith, it strengthens you against the fear of humiliation, poverty, and death. The Koran says only God has the power to exalt you. No one else has ultimate control over when you die or how much financial success you have. Once you accept this, it frees you from all the mind games we play with ourselves. It’s an empowerment which comes from submission. We think of submission as implying weakness, but it really means tuning in with the frequency of the universe. Once you’re in harmony with that frequency, then you can imagine your own destiny.”
“Strength of faith is not in veils or beards or trouser length, it’s a matter of the heart. This was perfectly expressed in a poem by Bulleh Shah, which I used as the lyric for my song Masjid/Mandir (the mosque and the temple) “destroy the mosque/tear down the temple/ break all that can be broken/but don't ever break anyone's heart / that's the true house of God.”
Information about Junoon recordings, concerts etc. can be found at www.junoon.com
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
This fact has nothing to do with the question of whether the Koran is the revealed word of God. Even if God did speak directly to Muhammad, there is still a serious intellectual challenge involved in figuring out how to apply what he said to individual life situations. Words get their meanings from the context in which they are said, and for the Koran that context no longer exists. To simply superimpose our own context on words said a thousand years earlier runs the risk of giving the words a completely new, and wrong, interpretation. That is what people do when they read the Koran without any knowledge of Islamic history, or without consulting scholars who are familiar with the nuances of the original Arabic.
The Hadith were preserved partly because Islamic scholars were aware of this problem. Some modern Islamic reformers want to throw out the Hadith, because only the Koran is the word of God. I agree with part of their intention, because many of the more extreme prohibitions advocated by fundamentalists are derived only from the Hadith. I think however that tremendous insight and benefits can come from reading the Hadith, and other aspects of Islamic history, as long as we remember this passage from the Koran.
Do you see that which God has provided for you? You make some of it Unlawful (Haram) and some of it Lawful (Halal). Did God allow you to do this? Or do you tell lies about God?
What this implies to many of us is that only the Koran should be used as a source for taboos and prohibitions, because only the Koran is the word of God. Most of the prohibitions imposed by fundamentalists (including my least favorite, the prohibition against music) have no basis in the Koran and are derived solely from the Hadith. We can however, reject these Hadith-inspired taboos, and still value the Hadith as a way of enabling us to more fully understand exactly what the Koran was saying.
However, once we have understood the Koran in its historical context, there is still the problem of how to apply its teachings to the present time. That requires careful reasoning (ijtihad) and careful use of analogies (qiyas). There are no exact parallels between what was happening in 6th century Arabia and what is happening now, so we have to using our wisdom to decide which parallels are legitimate analogies and which are false analogies. Do all rules about camels apply to cars? Do rules about swords apply to guns and atomic bombs? Obviously some rules do, and some don't, but the Koran cannot tell us which is which. We must puzzle it out using the wisdom that Allah gave us, come to the best answer we can, and be humble and open-minded when discussing our interpretations with those who disagree with us.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Those who believe that sacred texts can be followed literally are ignoring this distinction. They assume that because an action performed at a certain time was commanded by that text, that this same action will have the same moral worth whenever and wherever it is performed. Some actions such as murder and theft, have fairly rigid moral values regardless of when they are performed. But over thousands of years contexts can shift, and change the moral worth of actions. We have not only a right, but an obligation, to take these shifts into context when we make new moral decisions.
Some might think that this argument is just a convenient way of escaping moral responsibility, and there's no denying that sometimes this is true. A blanket statement of "Times are different now, we don't have to follow the old rules anymore", can be a lazy excuse for selfishness and lasciviousness. But fundamentalist literalists are guilty of another kind of laziness, which puts them in equal danger of violating the principles they claim to be defending. There are hard questions that need to be asked when making moral decisions, and refusing to think about them is every bit as lazy and morally dangerous. The example I will be using in this post comes from the Islamic tradition, but there are plenty of examples in other traditions as well.
As almost everyone knows these days, Muhammad forbade his followers to make pictures of him. There were two reasons for this. First of all, he was a genuinely modest man, and did not want people to treat him like a star. But far more importantly, he was deeply concerned that his followers would treat him as an intermediary between them and God, the way Jesus mediated between people and God for the Christians. He did not want to have people wander into a mosque someday and see a huge mosaic image of him staring down from the ceiling, the way Jesus looks down from Byzantine Cathedrals, or to carry lockets with his picture in them, the way Catholics carry pictures of Mary, Jesus and the saints. The most important principle of Islam is "There is no God but God", and each Muslim should have a direct relationship with God that is not mediated through any priest or Idol. God is, as the Koran says, as close to you as your jugular vein, and relying on intermediaries takes you away from him.
I think almost all Muslims agree that this was Muhammad's intention behind the banning of pictures of him. Is that intention being fulfilled by the current ban? I would argue that it is not. First of all, there is no reason to assume that this ban should apply to non-believers given the reasons it was made. Muhammad issued this command to his own followers. He did not tell them to go out and destroy pictures of him that were made by other people. There is no danger that non-believers would worship those pictures, so there is no reason to be concerned about them.
Furthermore, Muslims who protest cartoons and caricatures of Muhammad are doing exactly the opposite of what Muhammad intended with the original ban. Muhammad is now being treated as someone who is so special and holy that no one should ever make pictures of him. I realize that some of these protests may be made with the best of intentions. But I would suggest that Muslims who are worried about those cartoons are dangerously close to treating Muhammad as something like a God, rather than just the messenger of God. This is exactly the frame of mind that the original ban on pictures of him was designed to prevent. This change is very close to the difference between a bullet fired on a target range and one fired at an innocent person. Muhammad should be respected and admired, of course. He was an extraordinary human being. But banning pictures of him in the modern context seems uncomfortably like comparing him to the Old Testament God, whose face no one was aloud to see.
The difference between worship and admiration is one of state of mind, and I cannot see into the minds of other people. I would ask my Muslim friends, however, to look into their own souls and ask themselves this question. Is there a spiritual danger in the admiration of Muhammad? If so what are the best ways of guarding against it?
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
The first recorded instance of veiling for women is recorded in an Assyrian legal text from the 13th century BCE, which restricted its use to noble women and forbade prostitutes and common women from adopting it.
The interesting thing is that this legal text clearly considered the veil a privilege not a restriction, because it forbade lower class women from wearing it. It's important to remember that the same social practice can have a variety of meanings depending on the social context in which it occurs. I have read about a Muslim queen in pre-British India who always appeared in public in a veil. This woman was an absolute monarch, and did not wear the veil out of humility. Instead, her veil said " I am not your plaything, and you will not be permitted the pleasure of seeing my face. Your job is to listen to me when I give you orders, not fantasize about my beauty." Remember that the Old Testament says that no one was allowed to see the face of God. In this context, the veil of a powerful queen gave a very similar message.
I don't think that the veil has that meaning for any modern Muslim woman, but it also has a very different meaning now than it did Muhammad's time. The Koran actually requires only the wives of the prophet to wear the veil. According to Karen Armstrong, this rule arose because Muhammad always consulted his wives when he made an important decision, and took their advice very seriously. Consequently, people who wanted to persuade Muhammad of anything would often talk to his wives. Understandably, young men would often try to use flirtation as a persuasive tool, and this resulted in gossip. The purpose of the veil was to remove this flirtatious element in those communications. When the rest of the women in Muhammad's community heard about this, they demanded the right to wear the veil as well, and Muhammad said in effect, "sure, why not?". Once Islam began to acquire an empire, it encountered cultures (including Byzantine Christianity) which regularly veiled women, and this right to wear the veil gradually transformed into an obligation.
What does the veil mean today? Some women say that wearing a veil in a non-Muslim culture is an expression of national pride, not an expression of weakness. I've also talked to other Muslim women who REFUSE to wear the veil for a similar reason. They say the purpose of the veil is to make you less ostentatious, and because wearing the veil in the west draws unnecessary attention, it is therefore immodest. The important point both sides are making is one I will return to again and again: the exact same action can have a different meaning and moral significance when performed in a different context. That's why it's a mistake to treat the Koran, or the Bible, or any other sacred text, as a computer algorithim that should be followed mechanically the same way in every circumstance.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
They desire that you should disbelieve as they have disbelieved, so that you might be (all) alike; therefore take not from among them friends until they fly (their homes) in Allah's way; but if they turn back, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them, and take not from among them a friend or a helper. (4:89)
This is not, however, the only interpretation accepted by orthodox Muslims. Osama Abdallah attacks this interpretation at great length on his website www.answering-christianity.com and also cites several orthodox Islamic scholars as rejecting this interpretation. His response is based partly on Dr. Munir Munsey’s translation, which clarifies that the quote refers, not to apostates, but to hypocrites.
The hypocrites wish that you would reject faith just like they have. Then, you will (descend down to their level and) be equal to them. Therefore, do not choose them as friends unless they (emigrate and) leave their homes in the path of Allah. If they revert (to open hostility), then seize and slay them wherever you see them. Do not take them as friends or protectors, nor as helpers. (4:89)
The hypocrites are explicitly mentioned in the previous sura, so there is no question that they are the ones being discussed here. According to Abdallah, the hypocrites referred to in the quote were Jewish and Christian Arabs who pretended to convert to Islam for a while, then left and rejoined their own tribes. This would mean the people being discussed are not people who changed their minds and decided to leave Islam, but rather people who PRETENDED to convert to Islam. At the very least, this means that the injunction cannot apply people who were born Muslims and decided to convert to another religion. But more importantly, it does not refer to anyone who sincerely believes that they should convert to another religion. Consequently, this verse is fully consistent with the famous passage that says “Let there be no compulsion in religion.”
Abdallah says that these Jewish and Christian Arabs pretended to convert to Islam so they could make the religion look bad when they left. But I think a more likely explanation is that they were spies trying to gather military information. It is important to remember that the word ‘Muslim’ in the Koran refers to a small community under constant aggressive military attack. At that time, leaving Islam didn’t mean going down the street to another place of worship. It meant joining another army that was actively trying to kill Muhammad’s people. How would an American general in World War II respond to a soldier in his battalion who had joined the Nazis? Wouldn’t the most likely response be to have him shot?
However, Muhammad’s response was in fact much more lenient that my hypothetical general. The two passages that come immediately after this one show that this quote has been taken radically out of context.
Except for those (hypocrites) who find refuge with a nation with whom you have a treaty! Or unless they come to you such that their hearts cringe and neither allow them to fight you, nor their own people. Had Allah willed, He would have given them power over you, and they would have fought you. Therefore, if they stay aloof and do not fight you, or if they make overtures of peace, then Allah has given you no reason to commit aggression against them. (4:90) (My emphasis)
You will find other hypocrites who seek to stay safe from you, as well as from their people. But, (as soon) as they are tempted with a lure, they plunge headlong into mischief. If they do not stay neutral, and do not make overtures of peace towards you, and do not restrain their hands, then seize and slay them wherever you see them. In their case, we have given you a clear sanction. (4:91)
The first passage gives exceptions to the rule for killing hypocrites, which clearly show that if the hypocrites don’t cause trouble, they should not be hunted down and killed. If they are far away in another non-aggressive country, or if they have surrendered, or if they are not aggressively attacking Muhammad’s community, they should be ignored. The second passage does advise caution in dealing with the hypocrites who are still living within that community. But it also reiterates (in the contrapositive) the previous passage’s admonition that the hypocrites should be killed only if they are actively aiding the community’s enemies.
Thus the so-called “death to apostates” sura does not refer to sincere apostates at all, and does not advocate death except as a response to violent aggression. It’s amazing what taking a quote out of context can do.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
1)ACCEPTANCE/AGREEMENT: I have certain ideas and values which I accept as true and right, and try to live by. I carefully select those from the thoughts of other people and texts I respect. But I create a unique constellation of beliefs from those sources which is designed to make sense of the world as I experience it. I don’t expect anyone else to accept or agree with all of the ideals and values I accept, because no else has had exactly my set of experiences.
2) RESPECT: There are many ideals I could never accept, but which I still admire for their generosity of spirit, or ingenuity, or their ability to help other people to live well in their worlds. Mohamed El-Moctar El-Shinqiti describes Muhammad’s view toward religious commitment in way that leads me to respect it.
“ It is the responsibility of the individual believer to adhere to this morality in his personal life - a responsibility before God, not before people. No coercive means are to be used to impose Islamic morality. This is because any coercion of this kind will have negative consequences; it will corrupt the moral conscience of the individual by transforming him from a God-conscious believer to a state-fearing hypocrite. Islam wants the individual to be a servant of God, not a slave of the state.”
For this reason, this author claims that so-called Islamic republics, which force people to follow moral rules derived from the Koran and the Hadith, are perversions of Islam. He says that traditionally Moslem governments have accepted a rather libertarian view that “the primary responsibility of governments is to protect people's lives and possessions”, and that everything else should be left up to individual conscience.
I respect this view as a tremendous step forward from the ideal of forced conversion accepted by the Christians of Muhammad’s time (and later). I think it’s far preferable to say, as Muhammad apparently did, that “I have the one true faith, but it is God’s job to punish you, not mine, so I will use only persuasion, not force, to convert you.” But I could never accept this position, even though I respect it. One objection (among many others) is that I don’t believe that there is one truth for everyone, and that if there were such a truth, I think it highly unlikely that it would be contained in a single book revealed to only one people.
3) TOLERANCE: There are certain views which I could never respect because I believe that they are confused, contradictory, mean-spirited etc. Even though I see Muhammad’s view towards other religions as a step forward from the Christian view, I don’t respect the implied residue of smugness in the assumption that “ God is going to punish you, so I don’t have to.” Another example is the use of veils and hair covers for women. I find them creepily oppressive, and counterproductive to their stated goals. If you can’t see anything but a woman’s eyes, you don’t stop thinking about women. You just become obsessed with their eyes. (In Taliban-run Afghanistan, where women were not even allowed to show their eyes, they were also not allowed to wear squeaky shoes.)
These are the sort of things I would say to a Moslem who was defending the use of veils. Nevertheless, I am willing to tolerate the voluntary use of veils by adult women, and I think I am willing to tolerate the compulsory use of veils for underage women. People do have certain rights to raise their children as they see fit, even when the rest of us disagree with their decisions. Nevertheless, it’s not easy to figure out where to draw the line between 3) and
4) REFUSAL TO TOLERATE: There are certain actions, and perhaps even certain beliefs, which cannot be tolerated under any circumstance. Blowing up buildings in the name of God, for example. Should we tolerate the BELIEF that one ought to blow up buildings in the name of God? Aljazeera appears to be willing to do this, for it broadcasts Osama Bin Laden’s messages. But it also publishes articles like the one by Mohamed El-Moctar El-Shinqiti I am quoting here. Perhaps Aljazeera has a broader criterion for tolerance than I do.
I think that the debate these topic could be conducted with a lot more clarity and a lot less heat if we kept those distinctions in mind. It is very easy to conflate 1) and 2) when praising a point of view , and even easier to conflate 3) and 4) when criticizing one.
Many liberal thinkers believe that it’s very important right now to find aspects of Islam which are worthy of respect, no matter how difficult a search that might be. This is because we feel that it is a mistake to assert that all of Islam belongs in Category 4)—a mistake motivated by the west’s conditioned reflex to fear an evil empire in the East that will supposedly plunge us into a second darkness. The most effective way of short circuiting that response, and substituting a response based on an informed analysis of the facts, is to find things in Islam that can be respected. The sentences designed to inspire respect for Islam would appear in other contexts to be implying agreement with the principles of Islam. This is particularly embarrassing for Liberals, because Islam has many characteristics that Liberals frequently criticize in western conservatives. But if we keep the distinction between agreement and respect in mind, there is no inconsistency involved here.
Islamaphobia also makes it very easy to blur the line between 3) and 4) above. Because we obviously cannot tolerate people blowing up buildings, it becomes very tempting to assume that anything Moslems do which we find hateful is one more proof that Islam itself cannot be tolerated. Osama Bin Laden blows up buildings and thinks women should wear burqas. We cannot tolerate the blowing up of buildings, therefore we cannot tolerate people who think women should wear burqas. This is fallacious reasoning, so you don’t have to prove that any of the premises are false to reject the conclusion. Unfortunately, some liberals don’t realize this, so they try to argue that maybe there are good reasons for wearing burqas, and end up feeling rather foolish.
I would suggest arguing that burqas are indeed a counterproductive idea, but that they are still an idea that we can tolerate. This is a very important point to emphasize. When you write a book, you naturally see yourself as sitting together in a room with individuals who all respect the principles of rational discourse. You thus naturally feel there is something wrong with those people who get offended when their traditions are criticized. But it is very natural for a Moslem to assume that when a westerner criticizes a tradition he means “this a custom we cannot tolerate” i.e. we may very well decide to invade your country and stop you from following this custom. If books like Sam Harris’ the End of Faith are taken seriously by enough people, this inference might even be justified. The last thing we need right now is to have rationalists develop their own version of a fundamentalist faith which declares “Unless everybody thinks the same way as my group, the world is doomed.” I think it very likely that the NeoCons who pushed through the invasion of Iraq will start quoting Harris soon, if they haven’t already. Perhaps I haven’t read Harris carefully enough, and he would not approve of his ideas being used that way. But my guess is the NeoCons won’t read him that carefully, either.