Western Muslims: The neglected link

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite their under-utilisation and the suspicion they elicit, European and American Muslims can help bridge the chasm between “West” and “East”.

Tuesday 5 January 2016

As Marine campaigns to prove that Le Pen is mightier than the sword of Islam and Donald plays his Islamophobic Trump card, a sense of gloom has descended upon European and American Muslims and their sympathisers.

The latest poll by Brookings reflects the depth of mainstream hate and distrust in America: over three-fifths of those polled have unfavourable views of Islam, with this rising to a whopping 73% amongst Republican voters.

However, there is a sliver of a silver lining. Despite years of neo-con scaremongering, the vast majority of Americans do not subscribe to the “clash of civilisations” theory, with fewer than two-fifths believing that the values of Islamic and Western societies are incompatible.

As a longstanding critic of Samuel P Huntington’s simplistic theory, I am pleased with this finding. Interests clash, civilisation do not tend to. In fact, as I’ve argued numerous times before, the clash within civilisations is far greater than the conflicts between them.

Though Americans dislike Islam, over half of them expressed favourable views of Muslims, rising to two-thirds among Democrats. Those who knew a Muslim tended to be even better predisposed. For example, while only 22% of Republican voters who knew no Muslims viewed them favourably, this shot up to 59% for Republicans who were well-acquainted with some Muslims.

My own personal experiences back this up, especially in Europe. Europeans I know who live near Muslims or have actually visited a Muslim-majority country generally have a more positive view of Muslims than those who live in white suburbia.

Rula Jebreal.

Rula Jebreal.

“The presence of millions of Muslims living, working, voting in Europe and North America is a constant reminder that there is no clash between Islam and the West because Islam is part of the West,” contends New York-based Rula Jebreal, the prominent Palestinian-Italian journalist and novelist, who is the author of the compelling fictionalised autobiography Miral.

Although many on both sides of the divide see Islam and the West (Christendom) as being two discrete entities, I regard them as a single “mash of civilisations”. Islam is hardwired into Western civilisation through its philosophy, science, mathematics, medicine and more.

Even culturally, the West wouldn’t be the same without Islamic culture. Take just one man, the legendary though largely forgotten Ziryab, who single-handedly revolutionised European fashion, cuisine and music.

The same goes the other way around. Islam’s very roots were profoundly influenced by Christianity and Greco-Roman civilisation and philosophy. In modern times, the process of modernisation has largely been synonymous with Westernisation, first brought home in the minds of 19th-century Egyptians who moved to study and work in France. Even more recently, the Arab Spring drew large numbers of Western Arabs and Muslims back to their ancestral lands, especially Tunisia and Egypt.

Despite periodic animosity, this ancient link between Europe and the Middle East means that Europeans generally understand and sympathise with Muslims more, with Islamophobia largely the preserve of the far right – for now. “Here in America, however, Islamophobia has been mainstreamed,” notes Jebreal.

Throughout my long years as a journalist, I have drawn on my dual Arab and European heritage to highlight the nuances, ambiguities, diversities and subtleties of history, politics, culture and beliefs. This is out of a conviction that the devil, and demonisation, lie in sweeping generalisations, while the human and humanising reside in the detail. Simplistic narratives and solutions are appealing. However, in a complex world, reductionism lead to misdiagnosis and complications, fuelling ever greater mayhem and hatred.

Wajahat Ali

Wajahat Ali

And the growing prominence of Western Arabs and Muslims is helping in this humanising mission. “We see more people of colour and Muslims succeeding as journalists, story tellers, entrepreneurs, community activists,” explains Pakistani-American Wajahat Ali, a journalist and host with Al Jazeera America. “Tragedy and pain also compel urgency and inspire work. Post 9-11, you see a more proactive, progressive, engaged Muslim-American and Arab-American communities.”

Humour, from satire to parody, is a powerful tool in this effort, as it deploys laughter as a devastating weapon against bigotry. In my own writing, I have used satire to mock everything from far-right conspiracy theories about the Islamisation of the West to ISIS’s a-historical caliphate, which, unlike its predecessors does not tolerate science, literature, gay poetry or odes to wine.

Similarly, other Muslims, from stand-up comics to writers, have been employing gallows humour to draw attention to the plight of their community. For instance, when Donald Trump suggested that Muslims should carry special identification, Wajahat Ali quickly obliged and created his own Muslim ID card. In it, he described his ethnicity as “Bollywood” and his religion as “Sunny-side Sunni”.

Regardless of whether you employ reason or humour, it often feels futile, especially when hate seems to be gaining the upper hand. It seems to me that it is far easier to burn bridges, and scorch the surrounding earth, than it is to build them and plant the seeds of understanding and compassion.

Ayman Mohyeldin

Ayman Mohyeldin

This is a frustration shared by others. “The biggest challenge is overcoming the sheer scale of unawareness and miseducation  people in the US suffer from,” laments Ayman Mohyeldin, one of the few Arab-American journalists working in a high-profile position for a major US news network, NBC. “That can only be achieved through grassroots awareness and macro level visibility in the public sphere.”

“I don’t know if I made a difference,” admits Wajahat Ali. “I’ve been at this for 12 years and the level of anti-Muslim hysteria and bigotry is higher now than it was in 9-11.”

But this must not dissuade us from trying to reach out, even if the chasm is widening. “With every individual trying to blow up the bridge both from within and outside, there are 10 willing to build,” points out Ali.

“I am not willing to cede the ground to extremists on both sides ­– the jihadists and the Islamophobes,” insists a determined Rula Jebreal. “But in an age of 24/7 cable news and social media on phones, we don’t have much time on our side.”

And with fires blazing in the Middle East and the larva bubbling under the surface in Europe and America, I share this sense of urgency. “[We] need a multicultural coalition of the willing – a global justice league – to come together to bridge the divides,” proposed Wajahat Ali.

In my view, despite their under-utilisation and the suspicion they elicit on both sides of the growing divide, European and American Muslims are the best-positioned to play this role. They can help explain the so-called West to the so-called East and vice-versa, dispel the myth that some sort of “jihad” or “crusade” is in motion, and help replace animosity with co-operation.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 19 December 2015.

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Brussels: Radicalism, surrealism and multiculturalism

 
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By Khaled Diab

In many ways, radicals in Brussels are more a product of the local language war than they are of global holy war.

magritte golcondeWednesday 9 December 2015

Like a 21st-century reinterpretation of Belgian surrealist René Magritte’s famous Golconda, the sky over Brussels has been raining heavily armed soldiers and armoured personnel carriers, instead of the bowler-hatted gentlemen wearing raincoats in the original.

Though a familiar sight in cities undergoing a revolution, coup or popular uprising, images of the laid-back city of cosy cafes which I called home for many years under lockdown seemed too surreal to fathom – and an overreaction of mega-proportions. In response, Belgians mobilised their quirky dry wit and understated humour to poke fun at the quasi-Orwellian reality that had overtaken the streets by tweeting photos of cats.

The mood in the immigrant quarters of the capital was sombre. Already outraged by the Paris attacks, which were partially linked to the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek, described in the media as a “hotbed of extremism” and “jihad central”, Moroccans and other Muslims feel a mix of anxiety and fear.

“They are afraid of how society sees them,” describes Maher Hamoud, an Egyptian journalist and academic currently based in Brussels. In contrast to the Islamophobic narrative which claims that Muslims do not condemn Islamist terrorism, Hamoud has found that, even though he is himself a Muslim, that “they always open the topic and clearly condemn the attacks”.

Many fear a backlash. “It’s like I can’t do anything any more without feeling unsafe,” admits Kaoutar Bergallou, 16, who studies audiovisual arts in Anderlecht, a neighbourhood with large pockets of poverty and deprivation.

Meanwhile, many native Belgians also feel unsafe and threatened by the Muslim “other” in their midst. “We mustn’t just talk about the problems, but the causes of these problems,” asserts Hassan Al Hilou, 16, an Iraqi-Belgian student and entrepreneur who has started up an online platform for youth.

A growing proportion of Belgians are succumbing to the simplistic narrative that Islam(ism) is at the root of all evil. While Islam, like other religions, can be abused for violent, inhumane ends, this myopic assessment misses the vital issue of what draws young people to such cults in the first place.

Although each radical is driven towards radicalisation by a peculiar, complex set of motives, I am convinced that socio-economic and political marginalisation are major factors.

In many ways, radicals in Brussels are more a product of the local language war, which has hollowed out the state and turned it into a slow and reactive beast, than they are of global holy war.

The frontline of this conflict is Brussels, with its shocking inequalities. The presence of the EU, Nato and the daily arrival of tens of thousands of commuting professionals and civil servants, make the capital the third-richest region in Europe, per-capita.

However, the inner city has suffered enormously from the decades-old conflict between Flemings and Walloons, which has geared the country’s political machinery along ethno-nationalist lines and focused politics on the rivalry between these two communities to the detriment of everything else, including the needs of minorities. The devolution of power to the provinces and the exodus of the well-off to the suburbs and other towns has only amplified the problem for Brussels.

This means that though Brussels generates a huge proportion of Belgium’s GDP, little of that wealth stays in the capital. Today, the city has the highest unemployment rate in the country and one of the highest in Europe. Poverty is rampant and marginalisation rife. “There are young people who have lost hope,” observes Al Hilou.

Some cite examples of jihadists and terrorists who were from middle-class backgrounds or had no money troubles. For instance, they point to Paris attacks suspect and fugitive Salah Abdesalam, who used to run a bar with his brother.

But this misses the point. It is about social, not just economic, marginalisation and exclusion, not to mention aspirations to actual, not just notional, equality. Abdesalam was reportedly raised in Molenbeek, where youth grow up with the idea that either they will be unemployed or need to find a technical vocation to pay the bills. They also have to contend with discrimination and racism from mainstream society, not to mention the demonisation of their cultural heritage.

This may partly explain – though does not excuse – why Abdesalam turned to crime long before he considered terrorism. Social exclusion and growing contempt towards his community, not religious conviction, may also partly explain – but not excuse or justify – how a young man enamoured of drugs and alcohol abandoned his hedonism to pursue violent Islamist terrorism.

The media can raise awareness of these issues and politicians can strike at the root causes. However, despite exceptions, both seem to be generally failing in this mission. “The media frenzy and the politicians are just dirtying Brussels’ reputation,” opined Zouhair Ziani, 16, from Molenbeek, who is also studying audiovisual art.

To tackle this bad press, a group of classmates from Ziani’s school in Anderlecht released a video titled “I hope”, which has garnered much-needed positive media attention. In it, they express silently, by way of handheld signs, their mundane hopes. “Here, we live together, through the power of multiculturalism,” they assert defiantly, adding their hope that the “fear and hate” surrounding them does not destroy their friendships.

Social and community workers are also frustrated by this simplistic, binary narrative. “What bothers me and makes me despondent is all the whining about the left-wing ‘politically correct elite’,” complains Eric Gijssen, a video artist and social worker who works with marginalised youth. “But from what I can see Islam-bashing is the new ‘political correctness’.”

The vilification of Brussels also misses its beautiful and rich social tapestry, and discourages the well-off from moving there to enjoy its many delights and help revive the city. “Brussels is multicultural and will remain multicultural,” observes Ziani, lamenting that this “magical mixing of cultures” does not get through to the rest of the country.

Beyond Brussels’ villainous reputation lies a small metropolis of vibrant, energising diversity. Etched on to its native bilingualism, waves of immigrants have added to its rich patchwork.

But this tapestry is becoming patchier, as Belgium drifts towards polarisation, according to Badra Djait, an Algerian-Belgian academic and researcher into Islamic extremism and immigration. This is reflected in how, while mainstream Belgium had its gaze turned exclusively towards the atrocities in Paris, many Muslims were transfixed by the civilian carnage and death caused by French air strikes in Syria. “Images are important,” emphasises Djait. “Foreign fighters were originally drawn to Syria by the ugly pictures they saw of the Syrian president’s atrocities.”

Many youth workers fear that the government’s security-centric and heavy-handed handling of the situation, as well as institutionalised racism and ignorance, will only make matters worse. “Like this, they are cultivating radicalism on all sides, Islamophobic as much as Islamist,” says Bie Vancraeynest, the art director of a youth centre called Chicago which serves marginalised communities in the city centre. “Institutional racism has ensured that nobody in the police, state security, or the federal authorities understands these neighbourhoods or their inhabitants.”

And this relative cluelessness is manifested in the misguided, panicked setting of priorities. Despite the painful austerity measures, prime minister Charles Michel somehow managed to dig up an additional €400 million for tighter security and the “war against terrorism”, but did not whisper a word about unemployment, discrimination and urban decay.

But, ultimately, people who feel they are integrated and integral members of society are much more resilient towards radicalisation. This requires huge investment in deprived inner-city areas, improvements in education there, creating better prospects for minority and majority youth, who are becoming increasingly marginalised and radicalised, and combating exclusionary ideologies, whether they be Islamist or Islamophobic, through dialogue.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The National on 28 November 2015.

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Invading Europe without invaders

 
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By Khaled Diab

Any objective observer can see  that the refugees of today are not the invaders of history. So why are so many Europeans afraid of refugees?

Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word.  Photo: © Jure Eržen

Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word.
Photo: © Jure Eržen

Friday 9 October 2015

It has been wondrous to behold the massive outpouring of sympathy towards refugees in Europe. Every “refugees welcome” placard and act of solidarity has restored my faith a little in our human ability to do collective good. Those poignant acts of solidarity – from donations of meals and clothes to people offering their homes to those who have taken flight – which have shamed our leaders into action have been kindling to warm my heart during this winter of human misery.

But it strikes me that, as the mainstream has warmed to the refugees and their plight, the right has become more panicky and shrill, triggering the kind of fear and anxiety usually expressed by the defenceless towards ruthless conquerors.

Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word. Yet, across Europe, conservatives have been singing, in chorus, the refrain “Islamic invasion”.

“They’re not refugees. This is an invasion,” said Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, a bishop in southern Hungary, a country which has become a far-right hotbed in recent years and, stuck on a major transit route, has been building a wall to  keep the refugees out.

What is most remarkable is that Bishop Kiss-Rigo’s comments were a rebuke of his spiritual boss, Pope Francis I’s commendable appeal to European churches to take in refugees.

Much further west, similar calls to man the barricades could also be heard. “It’s an invasion that threatens our prosperity, our security, our culture and identity,” said Dutch far-right firebrand Geert Wilders, who once infamously called for the banning of the Quran.

When it comes to prosperity, the influx of refugees (equivalent to just 0.37% of the EU’s population since 2012) poses little to no threat, economists and other experts agree. An analysis by the Brookings Institute  reveals that the inflow of refugees actually has a net positive effect on host economies – and the OECD agrees.

If the European economy stands to benefit from the influx of refugees, why all the panic?

One reason is economic anxiety. Across Europe job insecurity has risen dramatically while youth unemployment in many countries is perilously high. In addition, the corrosion of the welfare state and severe austerity measures have left millions reeling in shock.

Rather than attribute Europe’s economic ills on the continent’s growing welfare state for the wealthy, the corporations exporting (or “outsourcing”) jobs for greater profit and financial sector mismanagement, far-right demagogues find it easier to blame the weak, and kick those who are already down. In addition, the periphery countries dealing with the brunt of the crisis are the poorest and least-equipped to do so.

Beyond economics, many Europeans are genuinely concerned about the potential danger to their security posed by refugees. While it seems far-fetched and even preposterous to people like me that those fleeing the combined terror of the Assad regime and ISIS will themselves turn to terrorism, many ordinary Europeans do not possess the luxury of that insight.

In addition, there is the slim chance that ISIS will play on these fears and send a handful of terrorists amid the flow of genuine refugees. In such an instance, all it need take is a single act of calculated terror to cause Fortress Europe to pull up the drawbridges it has recently slightly let down.

However, fears about security are subordinate to anxieties about culture and identity. Since World War II, Western Europe has witnessed a remarkable demographic transformation in which citizens from former colonies – and from Turkey, in the case of Germany – and their offspring now constitute a significant minority of the population.

Though many have related to this new multicultural reality as enriching and empowering, others have found it troublesome and threatening, particularly those who feel their culture is superior to those of the immigrants. When coupled with the corrosive effects of globalisation and rapid technological development, as well as the rapid demise of religion in many parts of Europe in recent decades, many feel adrift in an uncharted ocean.

Although fanatics capture the headlines and people’s imaginations, this death of religion has also been occurring among what Europe identifies as its Muslim minority, which was never defined so monolithically in the past. For example more than a fifth of “Muslims” in France don’t believe in Islam nor practise it.

One reason why anxiety towards Muslims carries an extra punch compared to other groups, such as Indians and Chinese, is the centuries-old mutual rivalry between neighbouring Islam and Christendom (nowadays referred to as the West).

Just as the crusades continue to cast a shadow over the Middle East, Islamic expansionism in the early centuries of Islam have left their mark on European identity, both negatively and positively.

This partly explains why an older Spanish gentleman told a friend of mine: “There is more than one way to re-conquer Spain.” This is despite the fact that it has been half a millennium since Spain completed its Reconquista and expelled the last Muslim king in Andalusia, Muhammad XII of Granada.

This Muslim menace is shrouded in the mists of time and subsequent might for the powerful former empires of western Europe, which partly explains why they have been able to absorb large Muslim populations. However, this is less the case in some parts of central and southeastern Europe, where the Ottomans dominated until relatively recently, and whose independence was won at a huge cost. But this should be something that unites them with the Syrians who, like many eastern and southern Europeans, were victims of the Ottoman empire too, especially once it shed its multicultural tolerance.

Remembered history, along with the resurgence of religiosity and its negligible Muslim minority, might help explain why Slovakia wished only to take in Christian Syrian refugees. After all, what is today Slovakia was a frontline in the constant wars between the Ottoman and the Habsburg empires, though Slovakia, except for a small sliver in the south, was never actually ruled by the Turks.

Populists and demagogues have been riding, and fanning, the wave of re-Christianisation and growing Islamophobia by playing the history card relentlessly. “When it comes to living together with Muslim communities, we are the only ones who have experience because we had the possibility to go through that experience for 150 years,” said Viktor Orban, Hungary’s far-right “Viktator”, evoking memories of the Ottoman carve-up of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary which empowered the peasantry but destroyed the ruling class.

This is a far cry from the earlier pronouncements by Orban, who is an atheist who now regularly talks about “Christian values”, that “Turkey is not a state at the edge of Europe anymore.” What Orban’s swinging rhetorical pendulum underlines is that there is no “clash of civilisations”, just clashes of interests and convenience.

Moreover, any sensible observer should be able to see clearly that the refugees of today are not the invaders of history. In our interconnected world, people need to conquer their fears and let sensibility and humanity reign.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 1 October 2015.

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The Islamic (re)conquista of the West

 
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By Khaled Diab

As a member of the advance guard sent out to plot the Islamisation of Europe, my mission is to pave the way for my migrant jihadi brothers and sisters.

This undercover jihadist practising taqiya to blend in with the infidel natives.

Despite this undercover jihadists best efforts to blend in with the infidel natives, he’s really out to destroy Western civilisation from within.

Tuesday 29 September 2015

We’ve all been fooled. We’ve been duped into believing that the millions of refugees streaming out of Syria were the result of the country’s civil war and the state’s collapse into anarchy.

In reality, they are foot soldiers cunningly disguised as distressed civilians, ordinary men, women and children. Their mission? Armed with the deadliest weapon known to man, the demographic time-bomb, they are mounting the (re)conquest of Europe and the Western world for Islam.

“The entire continent of Europe is being inundated with refugees at a rate unprecedented in world history,” wrote ultra-conservative pundit Robert Spencer, whose history reference material must be very different to those available to me. “This is no longer just a ‘refugee crisis.’ This is a hijrah.”

Now, if you’re an Arabic speaker, like myself, this thunderous warning may have you rubbing your chin in confusion.

Hijrah? Migration? “Well, yes, of course, it is migration,” you may think. “But I prefer not to call them ‘migrants’. It’s more accurate to say, ‘refugees’.”

But, no, no, no, Arabic speaker, learn your language properly. Hijrah means “jihad by emigration”.

Now forget it if your dictionary does not include this definition, Robert Spencer knows better than any stuffy reference work.

In Spencer’s esteemed view, “jihad by emigration” dates back to the very dawn of Islam, when Muhammad fled with his tiny band of followers from Mecca to Yathrib (later renamed Medina).

I was confused by how a religious minority fleeing persecution and threats to their lives (i.e. refugees) constitutes a form of “jihad”. My understanding of jihad is that it involves charging towards your enemy, not away from them.

But, of course, I would say that. I am, after all, a “Muslim” – even if I profess to be an atheist – and we Muslims are experts in the dark art of “taqiyya”. And what is that, you may wonder?

Spencer’s highly authoritative Jihad Watch website, one of the last dams struggling to hold back the Islamic tsunami, describes the concept of “taqiyya” in its succinct guide, Islam 101. “Systematic lying to the infidel, must be considered part and parcel of Islamic tactics,” it explains. “The natural attitude of a Muslim to the infidel world must be one of deception and omission.”

Now I have to confess that I (and my Muslim friends) had never heard of taqiyya until I started seeing it mentioned by rightwing pundits. Curious, I started to dig for more information.

According to the Islamic sources I could find, taqiyya, it turns out, is a Shia concept which dates back to the eighth century when the Shia (i.e. Party of Ali) were a small and vulnerable minority and the newly minted Abbasid caliphate persecuted them when they revolted in rejection of the dynasty’s legitimacy.

At that time of grave danger, the Sixth Shia Imam, Ja’far al-Sadiq, ruled that it was permissible to conceal one’s beliefs in order to avoid persecution or death – though not if it endangers the life of another person – as long as the believer remained true to the faith in their hearts.

It sounds rather like how many early Christians eluded persecution by hiding their faith and living as “crypto-Christians”, practising their religion in secret while sometimes even observing the rituals of another faith.

But what’s with this “what-aboutery”? Everyone knows that Christianity is completely different to Islam.

In fact, unintentionally and with a naturalness that sends a chill down my spine, I have just caught myself red-handed in the act of practising “taqiyya about taqiyya”, i.e. dissimulating about dissimulation.

Perhaps it is because I have been under deep cover for so long that my mind has grown soft and confused under the plush duvet of Western living, where I have slumbered for so many years in my centrally located, highly sought-after sleeper cell.

And it’s been a long slumber. As a member of the advance guard sent out to plot the Islamisation of Europe and to build a Eurabian utopia, my mission is to pave the way for my migrant jihadi brothers and sisters (“refugee” is the taqiyya term) – and finally they’re arriving.

In the process, I have built up a highly convincing profile to pull the wool over the eyes of an unsuspecting, naïve and trusting Europe. The cover I have chosen is that of a progressive, enlightened, feminist and secularist. I even indulge in all those sinful Western ways, am married to a blue-eyed European and have produced a blonde child, who I plan to train in the dark art of dissimulation in the hope that he surpasses his father while looking like the enemy.

Though we usually prefer the sword, we also recognise the value of the word – you know, to win hearts and minds. And that is why I pose as a journalist and writer. Despite my secular writings, some sharp and astute observers have seen through my deception and penetrated my façade, cleverly identifying me as a closeted “Islamofascist”.

Despite my pride in what I have achieved, fairness compels me to admit that I am small fry. The crowning achievement of our Secret Society for Islamisation (SecSI) has to be our man in the White House, Barack Hussein Obama.

You have to admire the masterfulness with which he has managed to manoeuvre himself to become the most powerful man in the infidel world, while pretending to be a devout Christian. But even this grand master sometimes lets his mask slip, such as when he invited to the White House that radical Muslim teen with the ignoble plan to kill time itself.

A Christian called Hussein? You fell for that? I hate to admit it but the birthers and the Tea Party were right. Fortunately for Western civilisation, they saw right through him and have been tirelessly and selflessly working to expose the truth.

Sadly, our man’s time in Washington is nearly up. With so much suspicion floating around us, we must now up our game. But we still have our trump card up our sleeves. Our next plot is to get a candidate with very un-Islamic hair, who is posing as an incurable Islamophobe, elected president. Then, the rest of the west will be ours.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 September 2015.

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Al-Aqsa: Spiritual battleground

 
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By Khaled Diab

For Muslims and Jews to share peacefully and justly the Holy Sanctuary/Temple Mount requires the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 25 September 2015

The growing familiarity of clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters inside the al-Aqsa Mosque has not weakened their impact on my Palestinian neighbours and friends in Jerusalem.

The picturesque, stone-lined alleyways of an already tense Old City are seething with anger and frustration, punctuated by Israeli surveillance helicopters that hang in the air. Even unreligious Palestinians who have never set foot inside churches or mosques are furious. They partly envisage their wider demise encapsulated by the struggle over the Noble Sanctuary, as they call it, or the Temple Mount, as it is known to Jews.

“We call on the international community, including Arab countries and Muslim states, to intervene immediately before Israel succeeds in launching a global holy war,” urged Hanan Ashrawi, the veteran Palestinian politician, activist and academic.

Though this largely secular conflict is far from being a “holy war”, as I have argued before, if Israel continues down its unilateral path on this issue, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The religious symbolism of the tensions around the holy site have sent tremors and shockwaves across the region and internationally. The clashes in the Noble Sanctuary, as it is known to Muslims, and the Temple Mount, as Jews refer to it, provoked a stern warning from neighbouring Jordan, with which Israel has a peace accord. “Anymore provocations in Jerusalem will affect the relationship between Jordan and Israel,” warned King Abdullah. “Jordan will have no choice but to take action, unfortunately.”

The European Union and the United States also expressed their concerns about the escalating situation. “It is crucial that all parties demonstrate calm and restraint and full respect for the status quo of the holy sites,” European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told reporters.

The “status quo” in question is one that has governed the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount since Israel conquered Jerusalem in 1967, whereby the Islamic Waqf and Jordan manage the site and control access to it, with limited non-Muslim visits permitted but worship banned.

But it is apprehension that the Israeli right intends to tear up this status quo that has fuelled the latest clashes – just as they did last year. Back then, Jordan recalled its ambassador to Israel and threatened to review its peace treaty with Israel following a Knesset debate, sponsored by the far-right parliamentarian Moshe Feiglin, on whether or not Israel should seize sovereignty of the holy site and allow Jewish worship there.

“Israelis are trying to establish a precedent by dividing [the Holy Sanctuary] into sections and time segments, so they can give Israeli settlers access to our mosque,” said Abdel-Aziz Abasi, who is a member of Mourabitoun, a group of Palestinian activists, which Israel recently banned, who see their role as guarding the compound against Jewish encroachment. “We will never agree to such a plan.”

Although relatively few Israelis actually visit the Temple Mount and have traditionally been content with the status quo, Religious Zionists and Jewish extremists have managed to make headway in recent years by framing the issue as one of religious freedom at Judaism’s holiest site.

Even the lunatic fringe, such as Yehuda Glick, who fantasises about constructing the Third Temple, is pursuing the civil liberties path. Appropriating language from the South African civil rights movement, Glick said at a demonstration during Ramadan: “We’re here to protest against the apartheid on the Temple Mount.”

But what the religious freedom argument airbrushes out is that this issue is about far more than the right to worship, especially in a situation where Israel regularly restricts Palestinian entry to al-Aqsa.

You could also say that the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount is simply a spiritual microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at large.

This jewel in the crown of Jerusalem’s old city, with its gold-plated Dome of the Rock dominating the skyline, contains many of the elements perpetuating the conflict, writ spiritual: control of and sovereignty over the land, asymmetric power, national identity, the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, movement restrictions, draconian laws, not to mention the status of Jerusalem.

Personally, I’m in favour of Jews, one day, worshipping on their religion’s most sacred, hallowed ground. And my view, though controversial today, is not unprecedented in the history of Islam. Following the surrender of Jerusalem to the Arab armies, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, allowed Jews, who had been expelled by the Byzantines, back into Jerusalem.

Omar ordered the cleaning of the Temple Mount, which had been used as a rubbish tip by the Byzantines, and, some historians posit, permitted Jews to worship there, a practice which continued for a century, into the Umayyad era.

One Jewish convert to Islam, Rabbi Kaab al-Ahbar, even located the foundation stone for the Muslim conquerors. It is even possible that Omar allowed the Jews to construct a synagogue on the mount and appointed a Jew as the first governor of Jerusalem, according to the 7th century Armenian historian Sebeos.

In the presumably enlightened 21st century, it should be possible for Muslims and Jews to share this holy site, which has no shortage of space, and rediscover the many long centuries of relatively peaceful coexistence they enjoyed. Perhaps, one day, in a possible future, Jews and Muslims will be able to share the Noble Sanctuary’s tranquil and soothing esplanade, which takes up about a sixth of the old city’s surface area, and where families picnic and children play football.

However, for that to happen requires the resolution of the underlying conflict. Without peace, it is impossible to think that Palestinians and Israelis will find the necessary good will and trust to compromise over this holiest of locations.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 16 September 2015.

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The road to hell is paved with pious intentions

 
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By Khaled Diab

The ban on eating and drinking in public in some Muslim countries is wrong. Piety cannot and must not be imposed by law.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Ramadan is a unique month. It is time of stark contrasts. Fasting and austerity during the day. Feasting and revelry once the sun goes down. It is paradoxically characterised both by enhanced spirituality, as many faithful withdraw from the world to worship and spiritually cleanse themselves, and greater materialism, as the average family’s consumption sky-rockets.

The holy month is marked by greater forgiveness and charity, but also heightened levels of impatience and anger, especially in the form of the “fasting furious” during rush hour. One unedifying aspect of Ramadan is when piety stops becoming a personal quest and becomes a question of public interest and even legislation.

This was recently illustrated in Morocco, where five people were arrested for eating and drinking in public, which is prohibited in the kingdom by law and carries a sentence of up to six months in prison.

Of course, Morocco is not alone. A number of Arab and Muslim countries have similar regulations in place, especially in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia has gone a step further and threatened to deport any non-Muslims found eating and drinking in public.

Even in countries that do not ban eating and drinking, overzealous individual officers can sometimes take the law into their own hands.

Although it was once unheard of in my native Egypt, where there is a vibrant parallel non-fasting culture, recent years have seen a number of incidents in which Egyptians were detained by police for breaking the fast in public. Controversy surrounding the alleged arrest of 25 people prompted Egypt’s interior ministry to reiterate that eating in public is legal during Ramadan.

And it is important that it stays this way. In fact, Egypt needs to go further, and lift the ridiculous ban it has on alcohol sales during Ramadan.

Some pious people will object. I’ve debated this issue with numerous conservatives. Some argue that it is about not putting temptation in the way of the faster. But, surely, a Muslim who can’t handle fasting around others who are eating doesn’t possess the spiritual stamina to fast.

Besides, the Moroccan arrests took place in a beach resort, which implies that the fasting locals could endure tourists in beachwear sipping cocktails on the beach, but thirsty locals are suddenly intolerable.

Another justification is that in a Muslim country people must respect Islamic values and rituals. “These people were arrested for not showing Ramadan the respect it deserves,” one interlocutor argued.

Well, those chanting “This is a Muslim country” should not mind at all that China is forcing Muslims to eat in public this year – after all, Ramadan conflicts with the country’s ostensibly communist ideology. Of course, this is an enormous violation of the rights of Chinese Muslims – but so is forcing people not to eat in public.

This highlights how this kind of coercive imposition of ideology is not just an Islamic ailment. In Israel, for example, it has surprised me how the country must go into forced lockdown on Yom Kippur and, every Shabbat, public transport comes to a grinding halt and traffic is banned from ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods.

Moreover, showing respect is a personal choice, not a legislative issue. Coercion results in the kind of “respect” people show to thugs and bullies. Respect is a two-way street. Just as liberals like me don’t force pious Muslims to drink alcohol, why do the pious believe it is their right to compel us to fast, or at least to pretend to do so in public?

Such pressure for citizens to exhibit public piety is counterproductive, as it promotes a spirit of hypocrisy – something which has undermined numerous Arab and Muslim societies. Do what you want in private but lie in public, is the implicit, underlying message.

More fundamentally, such coercion is a violation of the principle of religious freedom. And even if you exempt non-Muslims from this, this raises the problematic issue of dividing between citizens, which can raise tensions and fuel sectarianism. In addition, such exemptions still infringe on the rights of non-practicing Muslims not to practise their religion.

Beyond this, the road to hell is paved with pious intentions. If this logic works in Ramadan, why stop there? Shouldn’t the pious then have the right to impose their values on the rest of us all year round?

And this is happening before our eyes. Despite its reputation for tolerance, Morocco is becoming increasingly draconian. A telling example of this are the two women currently standing trial for “public indecency” for wearing miniskirts, who face the prospect of spending two years behind bars.

Luckily, tolerant Moroccans have not taken this lying down, and have come up with creative ways to protest, including a campaign to bare legs in solidarity and more than 27,000 have signed a petition telling the minister of justice that “wearing a skirt is not a crime”.

Such initiatives are not a campaign to spread “debauchery” and “immorality”, but seek to protect the freedom of everyone, even the pious. What the self-righteous pious don’t realise is that there are always those who are more pious and radical.

By showing intolerance towards those less pious than them, they open the door to the more extreme doing the same to them. Today, they fashion a self-righteous moral case against the length of a skirt. Tomorrow, others might persecute them for wearing the wrong length of beard or a “revealing” type of hijab.

The only way to guarantee that others tolerate you is to tolerate others, without exception.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 17 July 2015.

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Ramadan with a handicap

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

As a disabled person, there is no shame in admitting that you can’t fast. I will not lie or hide it to satisfy people’s prejudices.

Monday 13 July 2015

Ramadan is the most communal time of year in the Islamic calendar. That is why, as you fast and feast, I ask you to spare a thought for the many who are not able to join you for health reasons and who have their faith questioned by people who are keen to offer advice and pass judgement in the name of “help”.

Although the Quran clearly states that people with health problem are exempt from fasting and can, instead, either make it up once they recover or, if it is a chronic condition, feed the needy in a practice known as fitra. But people don’t seem to be as understanding as the religion of Islam itself. People with disabilities, breastfeeding mothers, pregnant women and people of weak health are all made to feel guilty for not fasting, with comments ranging from, “Why don’t you try a bit harder?” to, “What do doctors know? God will give you all the necessary strength.” This makes people exempt from fasting feel guilty or gluttonous.

I have met many people who hide the fact, even from their families, that they can’t fast because they feel ashamed and embarrassed. One young woman, who requested not to be named, informed me how her severe arthritis and other health problem prevented her from fasting because she had to take medication to ease the chronic pain. But in front of her siblings and relatives she pretended to be fasting and relied on her mother to smuggle food and drink to her in secret. When I asked her why she resorts to such deception when she is exempt from fasting, she explained that her disability is invisible and her pain is internal, so people, and even family members, fail to understand that, physically, she can’t endure the long hours of fasting and to save herself from their judgemental gazes, she opts to pretend that she is fasting. “I feel guilty as it is for not fasting and missing out on the full experience of Ramadan without people either pitying me or thinking I am just being lazy,” she confessed.

Last year, I came across the story of Ahbid Choudry, 34, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at the age of 13, which left him unable to walk and with a weakened immune system. Despite his severe condition, he decided to fast with the rest of his friends. “Doctors have told me not to but they’re the same doctors who told me I wouldn’t be here at 22, so their opinion doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “Fasting’s supposed to be a struggle and I enjoy the struggle.”

Choudry’s family were very concerned about his well-being, and deliberately chose not to wake him for the customary pre-dawn meal, known as suhoor, in the hope he would stop fasting. However, their son defied them just as he defied medical advice. Although Choudhry’s decision is admirable, I fear stories like his will encourage the public to question every disabled and health-vulnerable person’s decision not to fast.

But just because a person is visibly disabled and seems to be in a poor health, but they may actually be fitter and more capable of fasting than someone who seems, to the naked eye, healthy. For example,  people with cancer and diabetes are not easy to identify. That means that in some cases a disabled person who we think is not strong enough to fast can possibly do so if they are not on medication, whereas a seemingly healthy person may not be able to do so due to the medical treatment that they are receiving.

The UK has a population of 2.7 million Muslims, of whom an estimated 325,000 have diabetes, and it is precisely these people that are at higher risk of hypoglycaemia and dehydration during long fasts.

In an interview with the BBC two years ago, the Palestinian-American comedian and actress with cerebral palsy, Maysoon Zayid, who always chose to do Ramadan, admitted her defeat after 30 years. “One of my cerebral palsy symptoms is that I shake all the time, frustratingly, that shaking was finally getting the better of me,” she explained. “By noon, I no longer had the coordination and by the time I prematurely broke my fast at 20:00, I could barely breathe. I knew I had fasted my last.”

Having cerebral palsy means that, technically, Zayid is exempt but, like many disabled people who strive to be equal and participate in every aspect of life, the comedian challenged herself. Like Zayid, I defied my mother and doctor’s advice and fasted. When I did so, I was treated like a champ – my family were over the moon and I knew that, by fasting against the odds I had been born with, I was trying that much harder and would be rewarded for it. Plus, at the time, I was convinced that I was helping to change people’s perceptions of the disabled and challenging the usual stereotypes.

Now I realise that by not fasting and being open about it, I am actually doing more to challenge stereotypes and stigma,while raising awareness. There is no shame in admitting that physically you can’t fast and I will not lie or hide it. After all, it is God’s will that I can’t fast, so why would I defy it or lie about it. Sadly, many other disabled or ill people do feel shame and try to hide their sin which is not a sin. But they have no reason to do so, as the Quran instructs us not to take unnecessary risks.

Besides, there are so many other ways to make the most of Ramadan. The holy month is a time to get closer to your faith, devote more time to reading the Quran, praying, doing extra supplications and helping people in need. Doing charity work will not only help you stay healthy, it will also help someone who is genuinely suffering. In my view Ramadan is more than just about doing things for ourselves, such as fasting and praying. It should also be about what we do for others and how we ease their suffering and do not judge them.

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A ‘War on Error’ against radical anti-Islam

 
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By Khaled Diab

Given how many New Atheists, Christian fundamentalists and neo-cons share a distorted view of Islam and Muslims, it’s high time for a War on Error 

Tuesday 19 May 2015

What do the high priests of “New Atheism”, Christian fundamentalists and neo-conservatives have in common?

Though this may sound like the opening line to a joke, the punchline is actually not terribly funny, especially given its dire consequences. Even though New Atheists feel contempt for Christian fundamentalists, both parties share a deep distrust and a profound misunderstanding of Islam and the Muslim world.

This was amply illustrated in a recent e-mail exchange in which the well-known neuroscientist and New Atheist Sam Harris decided, uninvited, to pick an intellectual fight with America’s leading political dissident, the scholar Noam Chomsky. After reading the debate, I was left with the impression that Harris has a knack for speaking truth to the powerless, while Chomsky follows the true path of the dissident, of speaking truth to power.

Given how broad and, hence dangerous, these misperceptions are, I believe it is high time that we launch a “War on Error” to spread the values of sensibility and common sense.

Moral equivalence and moral relativism

One of the most popular methods used by some New Atheists – and which they paradoxically share with neo-cons and Christian fundamentalists – is to slam what they regard as the “moral (or ethical) relativism” of the presumably self-hating left and multiculturalists.

As someone with powerful humanist convictions, I would love nothing more than to live in a world in which the universal values of individual human rights, equality and tolerance of others are the norms.

However, my experience is that those who inveigh the loudest against “moral relativism” are the first to invoke it in the form of “moral equivalence”. When people like me try to use the same ethical yardstick for all, they explicitly or implicitly invoke American or Western exceptionalism.

Take Sam Harris, who employs both concepts in his exchange with Chomsky. He defends torture, which contravenes the universal values he claims to uphold, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as something that “may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror,” yet issues wholesale condemnations of the “cruelty,” “barbarity” and “approach to criminal justice” of Muslim society.

“Any honest witness to current events will realise that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilised democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments.,” Harris writes in his 2004 The End of Faith,” an excerpt he includes as part of the email debate with Chomsky .

In this, he sounds like prominent neo-cons and Cold War warriors. During the Reagan era, for instance, US ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick penned a scathing article in which she attacked what she claimed was the “myth of moral equivalence” between America and the Soviet Union.

Though Harris, a supporter of the Iraq war, repeatedly ignored Chomsky’s question about what he made of George W Bush’s belief that God guided him to invade Iraq and his description of the war there as a “Crusade”, forutnately, not all the intellectual leaders of New Atheism are so disingenuous. To his credit, Richard Dawkins was an outspoken and staunch opponent of perhaps the largest and deadliest military folly of this young century. “George Bush is a catastrophe for the world. And a dream for Bin Laden,” he concluded in no uncertain terms, at the time.

Shackled minds and the liberation of thought

“The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains but no religion, and those with religion but no brains.”

The citation above may sound like it was uttered by Richard Dawkins but it is actually a quotation taken from Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri (973-1057), the blind Syrian poet, philosopher, rationalist and hermit who was both a vegetarian and an early advocate of extreme birth control, i.e. not having children.

Despite his strident and uncompromising atheism, the Syrian was a highly respected scholar of his day, who is still admired in Syria, and lived to the ripe old age of 84. His life and ideas, as well as that of numerous other Arab and Muslim intellectuals throughout the ages, eloquently expresses how Islam and free thought are not necessarily incompatible, as many modern critics claim, and how this tradition continues into the modern day, despite the conservative backlash.

Equally eloquently, the posthumous beheading of statues and busts of al-Maari by the Nusra Front show how far modern-day jihadists and Islamists have strayed from this spirit of tolerance and acceptance, and how al-Maari was better off in the Syria of the 10th century than that of the 21st.

Islam, the root of all evil

Though he lived a millennium earlier, al-Ma’arri differed from New Atheism’s high priests in one significant respect – he regarded all religions, prophets and scriptures as being equally “fabrications” and “idle tales”. In contrast, some of his contemporary counterparts possess an inexplicable soft spot for their own religious heritage.

“I regard Islam as one of the great evils in the world,” self-described “secular Christian” Dawkins contends because “there is a belief that every word of the Quran is literally true.”

While I agree that this is highly problematic, Dawkins conveniently glosses over the fact that a quarter of the citizens of the world’s most powerful nation believes the Bible should be taken literally and another half believes it to be the word of God.

Sadly, Dawkins’ view of Islam as the greatest evil echoes that of the lunatic Christian right in America, and has an ancient pedigree in Christian thought. For instance, prominent evangelist Franklin Graham, shortly after 9/11, repeatedly described Islam as “wicked and evil”. “I don’t believe this is a wonderful, peaceful religion” and “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans.” Among evangelical Christians, 52% believe that “Islam is essentially a violent religion,” according to a 2013 poll.

Both Dawkins and Franklin, despite their undoubted mutual contempt, seem to draw from the same ancient roots of mutual distrust and rivalry between Christianity and Islam, eloquently illustrated by Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Muhammad is so evil that he must occupy one of the lowest circle of hell, where he suffers unspeakable torture. Likewise, far too many Muslims are convinced that there is a Christian crusade against Islam, which is clearly untrue.

Though it would be wonderful if all Christians were like a good-natured and eccentric Vicar of Dibley, the truth is that away from the West, wide-scale death and destruction have been wrought in the name of Christianity, from the ISIS of Christendom, the Lord’s Resistance Army, to the carnage of the anti-condom movement in Africa.

Fortunately, the New Atheists’ distorted views of Islam do not accurately reflect the views of the people for whom they are presumed to speak, given that just 20% of people who claim no faith or are agnostic believe that Islam is violent, according to the same Barna Group poll cited above. Similarly, the poll found that 62% of evangelical Christians have an unfavourable perception of Islam, compared with just 7 percent of agnostics or people with no faith.

Dreams of Nirvana

As a further sign of Dawkins’s religious naivety and that of  many others, great geographical distance seems to have warped people’s view of “Eastern religions”. “Hinduism and Buddhism offer much more sophisticated worldviews (or philosophies) and I see nothing wrong with these religions,” Dawkins claims, apparently oblivious to the deadly effects of Hindu and Buddhist violent nationalist and fundamentalist movements.

If even Buddhism, widely perceived as the true “religion of peace”, can be exploited for the purposes of hate, intolerance and persecution, this reveals an important truth: religions are faulty and imperfect, but so is the human condition.

What this suggests is that if Islam (and religion as a whole) died out tomorrow, we would not necessarily reach a state of enlightened secular Nirvana. The godless utopia could easily turn into a dystopia as well, as the Soviet experiment taught us.

Any ideology, even rationalism and atheism, can be twisted for the political gain of the few and to inflict unbelievable pain and suffering on the many.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 14 May 2015.

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Making halal sexy

 
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By Khaled Diab

Though halal sex may sound as logical as kosher bacon, it does make its own sense. Some Muslims are utilising the concept to break the taboo around sex.

Painting by Khoda-Dad Khan Zand, QAJAR IRAN, 1856-7. http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot/a-young-couple-in-a-garden-by-4580055-details.aspx?pos=5&intObjectID=4580055&sid=&page=7&lid=1

Romantic painting by Khoda-Dad Khan Zand, Qajar Iran, 1856-7. http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot/a-young-couple-in-a-garden-by-4580055-details.aspx?pos=5&intObjectID=4580055&sid=&page=7&lid=1

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Though Muslims attitudes to sex are as diverse as those found in any other global religious community, the image of contemporary Islam is certainly not sexy. This may explain why a news story about plans to open a halal sex shop in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city in one of its most conservative countries, went viral, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

While many assumed the misleading story actually meant that this was a concrete plan, or even that this shop had actually opened its doors, it remains only a wish – some critics claim wishful thinking – expressed by Abdelaziz Aouragh, the Moroccan-Dutch entrepreneur behind  El Asira, an erotic e-shop which describes itself as “halal”.

And El Asira is not the only erotic enterprise which carries such an Islamic label, quite a number have popped up in recent years. Over a year ago, Palestinian entrepreneur Ashraf Alkiswani launched Karaz, an e-store and online forum. “It’s not about just sex. It’s about love and the joy of expressing that love,” Alkiswani was quoted as saying at the time. “It’s about trying to build bridges across gaps that separate the husband from the wife by improving sexual harmony.”

Aouragh also described his motivations in similar terms, noting that “if couples don’t take the time to show the love for their partner nor themselves, they won’t be able to reach a deeper sensual, sexual or spiritual connection.”

Unlike Western erotic shops, neither El Asira nor Karaz sell sex toys but market various oils and creams which supposedly enhance foreplay and intensify pleasure during intercourse.

The notion that a sex shop can be “halal” – an Islamic concept similar to “kosher” – had many Muslims and non-Muslims bewildered.

At a certain level, describing erotica as “halal” is simply a branding exercise designed to tap the potentially lucrative and under-exploited erotic market in Muslim countries. “Considering we’re targeting a market of around 1.8 billion people, the potential is huge,” enthused Aouragh in a recent interview about El Asira’s new partnership with German erotica giant Beate Uhse.

But the “halal” label is not just about marketing, it is also about breaking the social taboo surrounding sexual pleasure prevalent in many conservative Muslim communities by demonstrating that sexuality is encouraged, not frowned up, in Islam. “I think Islam is more open [than Muslims are] to sex and issues surrounding sexuality,” Mohammed Abbasi, the co-director of the Association of British Muslims, the UK’s oldest Islamic organization, told me. “Islam is more about what people do in private is their business… whereas Muslims want to get involved in a person’s private life.”

To ensure that their products and sites are “halal”, both Aouragh and Alkiswani sought and gained the approval of numerous Islamic clerics and scholars. To the uninitiated and given the puritanism which pervades some current trends within Islam, this may sound weird and counterintuitive. “Religion or lack of it have nothing to do with sexuality,” Marwa Rakha, a prominent Egyptian relationship and dating expert, told me, noting that the main difference between many self-proclaimed “secular” and “religious” people is their attitude to pre-marital sex.

Historically, Islam possessed a relatively open attitude to sex. In medieval times, many Islamic scholars doubled as sex gurus. They penned countless manuals and guides, including one poetically titled The Perfumed Garden. Perhaps surprisingly, many highlighted the “importance of female fulfillment,” according to Kecia Ali, a professor of religion at Boston University, in her book Sexual Ethics and Islam.

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, the 11th-century philosopher and mystic whose opus is regarded by many as the “proof of Islam”, wrote widely about the importance of the female orgasm. “The husband should not be preoccupied with his own satisfaction,” the sage advised. “Simultaneity in the moment of orgasm is more delightful to her.” Likewise, the prophet Muhammad himself was reportedly a huge advocate of foreplay, urging his male followers to send “messengers” to their wives in the form of “kisses and caresses”.

Painting from Qajar Iran, 1850-1885. http://www.islamicpersia.org/2012/09/qajar-erotic-watercolor-art.html

Erotic painting from Qajar Iran, 1850-1885. http://www.islamicpersia.org/2012/09/qajar-erotic-watercolor-art.html

This traditional Islamic focus on the carnal partly explains, in the words of Kecia Ali, why “medieval Christian polemics against Islam viewed its sensualism as barbaric in comparison with the purity of Christianity”.

This view of Muslim society continued into the European colonial era. Many Orientalists from the straitlaced, uptight and prudish 19th century were of the view that “everything about the Orient… exuded dangerous sex, threatened hygiene and domestic seemliness with an ‘excessive freedom of intercourse’,” in the words of the late Edward Said, the Palestinian-American scholar who authored the groundbreaking Orientalism.

Paradoxically, this is how some Muslims, especially in the more conservative sections of society, see today’s West, while today’s Westerners, especially those who are unaware of the existence of liberal Muslims, often see Muslim societies as sexually repressed. While this is partly due to actual changes, such as the rise of political Islam and the setbacks endured by secularism, it is also a factor of the centuries-old tendency of Islam and Christendom (the West) to see each other as diametrically opposed, despite their enormous similarities.

Around the world, many Muslims are pushing back against the conservative and sexually repressive interpretation of their faith. “I think more Muslims are becoming more mature and open in their attitudes to sexuality, but at the same time there is a backlash from the more conservative sections of Muslims,” says Abbasi.

For instance, in Egypt, while many young people became more open and assertive about issues relating to sex, Salafists set up vigilante “morality” patrols in some parts of the country, which locals often defied robustly.

Islamic history, scripture and legal texts have become a major battleground between liberals and conservatives for the body, heart and soul of Islam. However, while helpful at certain levels, attempts to find an “authentic” version of Islam which is progressive enough to fit with modern norms is, like with other religious traditions, also problematic.

“The discourse of Islamic authenticity has had a stifling effect on intra-Muslim debates about sex and sexuality,” writes Kecia Ali, especially when it comes to sex outside of marriage, gender equality and homosexuality.

One side-effect of the reluctance to bring sex out of the closet is that many Muslims are left to their own devices, and must engage in a process of oft-discreet self-education. In addition to familial disinclination, there is also the poor quality of sex education in numerous Arab and Muslim countries.

“Education and awareness are weak in general in Egypt and many other Arab/Muslim societies,” explains Rakha. “Those in charge of the education process do not want generations of knowledgeable and curious children, teens, and adults… How can you control a population that understands its rights and freedoms?”

Rakha believes that, like charity, sexual awareness and maturity must begin at home. “The revolution has to come from the core of every family – otherwise it is not happening,” she maintains.

However, despite the existence of a rising number of open-minded families, many parents are unlikely to want to cede control of their offsprings’ love lives, either because this is what tradition demands or because governing access to sex is a powerful weapon of control. “Most families want their children virgins until they get married,” observes Rakha. “To fulfill this beautiful dream, they will minimize sexual education and awareness, lest the sex dragons awaken and ruin the plan.”

Some young Egyptians are rejecting these restrictions, but many do so behind their families’ backs. “They revolt in secrecy, adding a new number each second to the hypocritical population,” says Rakha.

But not everyone is revolting in secret, with some young people, intellectuals and activists openly calling for a sexual revolution. In Egypt, for instance, a vanguard of women intent on seizing their rights is playing a prominent role in this awakening, whether they are combating sexual harassment, insisting on dressing as they please in public, rejecting the hijab, fighting the stigma of being single, and even choosing to live on their own.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 May 2015.

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The Viking Allah

 
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By Khaled Diab

A mysterious ring in a dead Viking woman’s tomb shows how Northern Europeans came into contact with Muslims and Islam before even becoming Christian.

Viking Allah

Tuesday 7 April 2015

A ring with a cryptic inscription in a foreign tongue turns up in the ancient burial site of an enigmatic woman.

It is the kind of mystery that would have excited the imagination of JRR Tolkien. But this enigma does not unfold in Middle Earth but in the middle ages. The ring in question was unearthed in Sweden and intriguingly contained the Arabic inscription “For/To Allah”.

Recent scientific investigation revealed that what was assumed to be a precious stone containing the inscription was actually coloured glass. But the long-deceased owner wasn’t ripped off, as glass, though pretty common in the Middle East, was a rare and valuable material in Scandinavia at the time.

But how exactly did an Islamic ring end up on the finger of a Viking woman? Short of discovering time travel, we will never know for certain. Several theories have been put forward. One is that it was acquired in trade. In light of the pristine condition of the ring, the researchers behind the lates study posit the intriguing possibility that the ring’s owner may have been a Muslim herself or had travelled to Muslim lands.

With all the fears and fear-mongering about the “Islamisation of Europe”, including in Sweden, it seems outlandish that a native Norsewoman who lived over a millennium ago would be so comfortable with Islam that she would wear a ring with the Arabic word for God engraved on it, and this at a time when Christianity had barely penetrated the lands of Odin, Thor and Freya.

But it is not as bizarre as it may sound. Even though we unfairly tend to associate the Vikings today with raping, pillaging and burning, there were Nordic tribes who headed eastward, not as conquerors but as merchants (and sometimes mercenaries and slave traders). The euro may draw people to Europe today, but the mighty dirham pulled Europeans towards the Middle East a millennium ago.

Although a significant number of their descendants today complain about immigrants, these early Norse-people migrated east, drawn by the opulent riches and high tech of the Middle East, then the centre of global trade.

On their voyages, they encountered Arabs – to much mutual curiosity and dismay. Since Scandinavians were not great writers at the time, the picture we have is rather one-sided, as it is based on the prolific output of contemporary Arab chroniclers, who wrote to satisfy a large and popular market for travel writing.

Interestingly, Arab writers left us with a much more sympathetic and nuanced picture of the Vikings and their ways than Europeans did. In fact, modern scholars are drawing heavily on these ancient Arab accounts to fill in the holes in our knowledge of the Norse tribes. So, in addition to “threatening” Europe’s cultural heritage, it seems Muslims have also helped to preserve it.

One of the most detailed and fascinating accounts was penned by Ahmad ibn Fadlan (played by Antonio Banderas in the fictional Thirteenth Warrior), who was a tenth-century traveller and diplomat for the Abbasid Caliphate, which bears almost no resemblance to ISIS’s modern-day caliph-hate.

Although his writing tends to exhibit some of the cultural superiority and condescension we tend to associate with certain brands of Orientalism today – such as lumping together a complex tapestry of tribes and peoples into a single homogenous “other” – he also expresses sympathy and a willingness to understand these “Rus”, as he called them.

Like later stereotypes of the “Noble Savage”, Ibn Fadlan waxes lyrical, confessing: “I have never seen more perfect physiques than theirs – they are like palm trees, are fair and reddish.” Another Muslim traveller, the Persian Ibn Rustah, praised them for their heroicness and loyalty.

Interestingly, Ibn Fadlan witnessed many exhibitions of fornication and drunken behaviour, and yet, despite being an Islamic scholar, or Faqih, failed to pass, in a display of admirable academic neutrality, any moral judgement on what he described.

This may seem odd, given how puritanical Islamic scholars tend to be today. But when considering how freely alcohol flowed in the Abbasid caliphate, the odes to wine penned by Arab poets and the fact that medieval Islamic scholars often authored sex manuals, including one with the beautifully sensual title of The Perfumed Garden.

While Ibn Fadlan barely batted an eyelid at the intoxication around him, he was totally grossed out by the Vikings’ notions of hygiene. Probably perfumed and dressed in fine silks, from a dandy culture where daily bathing was a norm and ritual washing took place five times a day, his disgust is palpable. “They are the filthiest of all God’s creatures,” he declaimed. “They do not clean themselves after excreting or urinating or wash themselves when in a state of ritual impurity (i.e., after coitus) and do not wash their hands after food.”

There are also moments of mutual culture shock. Ibn Fadlan is taken aback by the raping and human sacrifice of a female slave in the ship burning funeral of a chieftain, which must have seemed barbaric to his Abrahamic sensibilities. The Vikings were also aghast by Islamic burial practices. “You Arabs are a foolish lot,” one remarked, “you purposely take those who are dearest to you and whom you hold in highest esteem and throw them under the earth, where they are eaten by the earth, by vermin and by worms.”

Some of the Vikings Ibn Fadlan encountered had converted to Islam, but many others were too attached to their native religions or held back because they would miss pork too much.

Given the fact she was buried and not burned, the mysterious Viking woman with the ring may have been one of these converts returned home, or a Norsewoman who had come into contact with Muslims during a voyage east.

This just goes to show that Islam has deeper roots in Europe, even its remoter corners, than most Europeans appreciate.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 2 April 2015.

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