January 29, 2006

Karen Armstrong on "Qutbian Terrorism"

The following article is one I found through the blog, Isla Meets World. Karen Armstrong is the author, and the article was published last July in The Guardian. I debated briefly as to which blog I should put it in: my main blog, Dunner's, or this one; in this case, I chose my Learn About Islam blog because I felt the article presents a lot of correct information about Islam (especially in relation to the preconceived, incorrect notions of Islam that so many Western non-Muslims have about the religion). I have added some links to the original article to provide more information to my readers.

Last year I attended a conference in the US about security and intelligence in the so-called war on terror and was astonished to hear one of the more belligerent participants, who as far as I could tell had nothing but contempt for religion, strongly argue that as a purely practical expedient, politicians and the media must stop referring to "Muslim terrorism." It was obvious, he said, that the atrocities had nothing to do with Islam, and to suggest otherwise was not merely inaccurate but dangerously counterproductive.

Rhetoric is a powerful weapon in any conflict. We cannot hope to convert Osama bin Laden from his vicious ideology; our priority must be to stem the flow of young people into organisations such as al-Qaida, instead of alienating them by routinely coupling their religion with immoral violence. Incorrect statements about Islam have convinced too many in the Muslim world that the west is an implacable enemy. Yet, as we found at the conference, it is not easy to find an alternative for referring to this terrorism; however, the attempt can be a salutary exercise that reveals the complexity of what we are up against.

We need a phrase that is more exact than "Islamic terror". These acts may be committed by people who call themselves Muslims, but they violate essential Islamic principles. The Qur'an prohibits aggressive warfare, permits war only in self-defence and insists that the true Islamic values are peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. It also states firmly that there must be no coercion in religious matters, and for centuries Islam had a much better record of religious tolerance than Christianity.

Like the Bible, the Qur'an has its share of aggressive texts, but like all the great religions, its main thrust is towards kindliness and compassion. Islamic law outlaws war against any country in which Muslims are allowed to practice their religion freely, and forbids the use of fire, the destruction of buildings and the killing of innocent civilians in a military campaign. So although Muslims, like Christians or Jews, have all too often failed to live up to their ideals, it is not because of the religion per se.

We rarely, if ever, called the IRA bombings "Catholic" terrorism because we knew enough to realise that this was not essentially a religious campaign. Indeed, like the Irish republican movement, many fundamentalist movements worldwide are simply new forms of nationalism in a highly unorthodox religious guise. This is obviously the case with Zionist fundamentalism in Israel and the fervently patriotic Christian right in the US.

In the Muslim world, too, where the European nationalist ideology has always seemed an alien import, fundamentalisms are often more about a search for social identity and national self-definition than religion. They represent a widespread desire to return to the roots of the culture, before it was invaded and weakened by the colonial powers.

Because it is increasingly recognised that the terrorists in no way represent mainstream Islam, some prefer to call them jihadists, but this is not very satisfactory. Extremists and unscrupulous politicians have purloined the word for their own purposes, but the real meaning of jihad is not "holy war" but "struggle" or "effort." Muslims are commanded to make a massive attempt on all fronts - social, economic, intellectual, ethical and spiritual - to put the will of God into practice.

Sometimes a military effort may be a regrettable necessity in order to defend decent values, but an oft-quoted tradition has the Prophet Muhammad saying after a military victory: "We are coming back from the Lesser Jihad [ie the battle] and returning to the Greater Jihad" - the far more important, difficult and momentous struggle to reform our own society and our own hearts.

Jihad is thus a cherished spiritual value that, for most Muslims, has no connection with violence. Last year, at the University of Kentucky, I met a delightful young man called Jihad; his parents had given him that name in the hope that he would become not a holy warrior, but a truly spiritual man who would make the world a better place. The term jihadi terrorism is likely to be offensive, therefore, and will win no hearts or minds.

At our conference in Washington, many people favoured "Wahhabi terrorism". They pointed out that most of the hijackers on September 11 came from Saudi Arabia, where a peculiarly intolerant form of Islam known as Wahhabism was the state religion. They argued that this description would be popular with those many Muslims who tended to be hostile to the Saudis. I was not happy, however, because even though the narrow, sometimes bigoted vision of Wahhabism makes it a fruitful ground for extremism, the vast majority of Wahhabis do not commit acts of terror.

Sayyid QutbBin Laden was not inspired by Wahhabism but by the writings of the Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by President Nasser in 1966. Almost every fundamentalist movement in Sunni Islam has been strongly influenced by Qutb, so there is a good case for calling the violence that some of his followers commit "Qutbian terrorism." Qutb urged his followers to withdraw from the moral and spiritual barbarism of modern society and fight it to the death.

Western people should learn more about such thinkers as Qutb, and become aware of the many dramatically different shades of opinion in the Muslim world. There are too many lazy, unexamined assumptions about Islam, which tends to be regarded as an amorphous, monolithic entity. Remarks such as "They hate our freedom" may give some a righteous glow, but they are not useful, because they are rarely accompanied by a rigorous analysis of who exactly "they" are.

The story of Qutb is also instructive as a reminder that militant religiosity is often the product of social, economic and political factors. Qutb was imprisoned for 15 years in one of Nasser's vile concentration camps, where he and thousands of other members of the Muslim Brotherhood were subjected to physical and mental torture. He entered the camp as a moderate, but the prison made him a fundamentalist. Modern secularism, as he had experienced it under Nasser, seemed a great evil and a lethal assault on faith.

Precise intelligence is essential in any conflict. It is important to know who our enemies are, but equally crucial to know who they are not. It is even more vital to avoid turning potential friends into foes. By making the disciplined effort to name our enemies correctly, we will learn more about them, and come one step nearer, perhaps, to solving the seemingly intractable and increasingly perilous problems of our divided world.

January 28, 2006

See What the Booze Can Do

One aspect of Islam that I think is misunderstood is the reason why certain activities (e.g., pre-marital and homosexual sex), foods (e.g., pork) and beverages (e.g., alcohol) are prohibited. All of these things are listed as haram (forbidden) in the Qur'an. I think that the one common denominator for all of these various prohibitions is that Allah (swt), through the Qur'an, encourages us to lead healthy lives and to minimize the chances of us coming down with various diseases and ailments, let alone losing our lives too early. In this post, I'm going to refer to why alcohol is haram.

The Qur'an says:

"They ask thee concerning wine and gambling. Say: "In them is great sin, and some profit, for men; but the sin is greater than the profit." They ask thee how much they are to spend; Say: "What is beyond your needs." Thus doth Allah Make clear to you His Signs: In order that ye may consider-" (2:219)


"O ye who believe! Intoxicants and gambling, (dedication of) stones, and (divination by) arrows, are an abomination,- of Satan's handwork: eschew such (abomination), that ye may prosper. Satan's plan is (but) to excite enmity and hatred between you, with intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of Allah, and from prayer: will ye not then abstain?" (5:90-1)

We all know of incidents where the consumption of alcohol has caused harm to peoples' lives, whether to those who drink the alcohol themselves or to others whom they affect in one way or another. (I myself survived an accident after being hit by a drunk driver.) However, if you don't believe that drinking alcohol is bad enough, consider the following article, from the Herald Sun (Australia). This woman, Nicky Taylor, in conducting an experiment for BBC3, had literally lost her looks in one month's time.

You wanna drink? Go ahead and become a fat cow.

Nicky Taylor, BeforeNICKY Taylor, 39, is stumbling around a nightclub dance floor in the early hours of the morning, clutching a bottle of Smirnoff Ice.

In five hours, she has drunk equal to four bottles of wine in a potentially fatal mix of cocktails, spirits and beers.

She is drunk. She has vomited once, but Nicky carries on, determined to keep up with her female companions.

This ugly scene is not a typical night for Nicky. In an experiment for a British TV documentary, the single mother spent a month matching the bingers drink-for-drink to see what it did to her body and mind.

Over 30 days, going out five nights a week, Nicky consumed a staggering 516 units of alcohol -- 17.2 units a day. Guidelines say women should drink no more than two or three units a day, and a maximum of 14 a week.

One unit is 8g of alcohol, or a small glass (125ml) of wine, half a pint (284ml) of beer or a pub measure of spirits. But stronger beers may contain 2.5 alcohol units per half pint.

Nicky hopes her experiment will open people's eyes to the gravity of binge-drinking in the same way Morgan Spurlock's film Super Size Me (in which the American filmmaker ate McDonald's for 30 days) did to the dangers of junk food.

"What I discovered shocked me to the core," says Nicky, who was monitored by medical experts during the experiment.

She was chosen because her bosses wanted a responsible woman in her 30s. She went into it with gusto, but emerged depressed and exhausted. Her home and professional lives were suffering and she developed an increased risk of liver problems and alcoholism.

Her body fat increased from 37.4 per cent to 38.9 per cent, she put on more than 3kg, and her skin became so damaged she had the complexion of a 50-year-old.

Over time, with the dehydrating effects of alcohol no longer taking their toll, her skin will return to normal. But doctors said that in another five months she might have seen signs of cirrhosis.

"I lost my jaw line and I developed chipmunk cheeks," she said.

"I was drinking the equivalent of about 2000 calories a night and developed a big tyre of fat around my stomach. I also became really depressed."

Nicky describes meeting a generation of women for whom casual sex and alcohol-induced fighting is the norm.

"On average, to match the girls I was drinking with, who were in their 20s and 30s and worked in jobs ranging from city professions to nursing, I had to drink upwards of 30 units of alcohol a night. I never went out without having a big bowl of pasta to line my stomach," Nicky says.

"They all drink on empty stomachs so that the alcohol is absorbed more rapidly.

"On my first night out with student nurses Ceri, 30, and Lorna, 21, I drank in one night twice what the (British) Government recommends for a week.

Nicky Taylor, After"I ended up collapsing on the pavement and passing out in the back of a taxi. I never went anywhere without my film crew. But I dread to think what could have happened had I not had anyone looking after me."

The next day, with the hangover from hell, she went to a club with the same group of girls.

"I was so drunk I fell asleep in the club, but the girls kept waking me up to give me more. I ended up drinking 11 double vodkas," she says.

After another binge, her film crew "took great pleasure in reminding me of embarrassing things I'd done, such as dancing on a podium in a gay bar and dancing provocatively with an empty beer bottle."

January 23, 2006

Turning Muslim in Texas

A wonderful little video: Turning Muslim in Texas. This is a 24-minute British documentary that looks at the lives of seven white American reverts to Islam and their families. Softy that I am, I actually started to get a little teary-eyed when the one woman (not one of the intervieweees) announced that she wanted to take the shahadah right then and there. This is a MUST SEE!

January 06, 2006

Pondering the Ways and Whys of Islam

The following article appeared recently in the Monterey County (California) Herald. Although I'm not particularly fond of naming talks or articles "Entering (or Inside) the [Insert Group's Name Here] Mind," I liked what Mr. Provost had to say. It's refreshing to see a (presumed) non-Muslim giving accurate information about Islam to the public instead of misinformation presented by yet another hysterical Islamophobe.

Would David Koresh be considered a representative Christian? Are members of the IRA Christian terrorists?

These comparisons are worth pondering when looking at how Islam is often portrayed by the news media, according to John Provost, philosophy instructor for Monterey Peninsula College's Gentrain program, who spoke Wednesday at MPC on "Entering the Muslim Mind."

News reports of the fiery deaths that culminated in the FBI siege of Koresh's Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, and the ongoing war between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, didn't link Christianity and terrorism, he noted, but the actions of Muslim fanatics, and conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims, are joined in the phrase "Islamic terrorism."

That's a mistaken view, Provost said, and holding it won't help get a clear view of the problem or work toward a resolution of the conflict between Islam and western secularism.

The fact that a suicide bomber believes that his act makes him a martyr bound for heaven doesn't make that belief true, Provost said, and most Muslim scholars reject that doctrine as "a gross distortion of the Qur'an."

Martyrdom isn't foreign to Christianity either, he said, and suicide bombers represent "a dark side of Islam that is hard to explain."

But it is the hallmark of the fanatic to seize on a particular aspect of doctrine and apply a literal interpretation that justifies such an action, he said.

"We need to be careful how we speak about religion and politics," he said.

Islam, Judaism and Christianity all sprung out of the Middle East and all trace their lineage to Abraham, but as they have spread to other areas of the world, all three changed as they assimilated into other cultures, Provost said.

Islam began in Arab culture, and its sacred language is Arabic, but a Muslim in Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan or Afghanistan is not like a Muslim from Arabia, Iraq, Syria or Egypt. All adhere to the "Five Pillars of Islam" -- the fast of Ramadan, recitation of the creed that "There is no God but God and Mohammed is His prophet," prayer fives times a day, the giving of alms and making the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Islam does not recognize a separation of church and state, he said. Islam is society and culture, and therein lies the root of conflict and misunderstanding between Muslim and Westerner.

"How can you be Muslim in a modern, secular society?" Provost asked rhetorically. "It isn't easy. It's not easy to be Christian or Jewish either."

He noted that Islam enjoyed its Golden Age under the Caliphate, advancing in art, literature, philosophy, science, mathematics and medicine, while Europe floundered in the Dark Ages.

Islam then entered its own dark age as Europe became resurgent after the Renaissance, and by the 1800s, nearly all Muslim nations had been colonized by Europeans, Provost said. Now they are independent and trying to find their own way.

Europe's example, he noted, isn't particularly admired by Muslims, who cite the 100 million killed in the wars of the 20th century as a path they don't want to follow.

Muslims feel threatened by Western capitalism and culture, the flood of goods and ideas that they feel undermine their own civilization.

"You don't need troops to invade a country," Provost said. "You can do it with MTV, advertising, Marlboros, Levis, Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's."

Muslims find this cultural imperialism "very offensive. It destroys their culture and what they feel is important. It's why they feel attacked. There's a reason why they call us the Great Satan."

A strong belief system with rules and laws can be a source of comfort and support to those caught up in the rapid changes of modern life, he said.

While liberal westerners decry the status and treatment of women in Muslim countries, Provost said a study of Mohammed's writings shows a relatively progressive view of women for his time. It was he who first preached their rights to education, inheritance, property, a dowry as a hedge against divorce, and he limited marriage to four wives in a highly polygamous culture, and then only "if the husband could treat each wife the same."

The practical result, he said, is that 95 percent of Muslim marriages are monogamous.

While news media portray women clad in burqas, Muslim women in many countries dress as stylishly as any westerner. The Quran only requires "modesty," Provost said, not the complete cover-up that some adherents of Islam demand. Cultures change the observance of all religions.

It has been less than 100 years since American women got the vote, he noted, and Christianity allowed slavery for 1,900 years before it was abolished.

"To live up to the founders of your religion, you have to be changed. You have to walk the talk."