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.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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Living in a selfie-centred world

 
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By Khaled Diab

The selfie fad has reached epidemic proportions, but we don’t live in more narcissistic times. Selfie-absorption is as old as civilisation itself.

Has modern technology made us more selfie-obsessed or have we always lived in a selfie-centred world?

Do we live in a more selfie-centred world than before?

Monday 23 March 2015

It was a miracle of selfie-preservation. A 14-year-old British schoolboy on a skiing holiday in Austria improbably survived, with only a few bruises and scratches, a 500-metre drop after slipping while shooting a selfie.

And if his phone survived the fall too, the teenager may just have snapped himself the kind of digital self-portrait that will make him the awe of his Facebook friends, and could even go viral.

But it is not just young people who are doing it. During a recent holiday in Thailand, I was overwhelmed by the profusion of selfie sticks. While giant representations of Buddha meditated peaceably in the background in a state of selfless Nirvana, the tourists in the foreground gave full expression to their selfie-ish impulses.

Egypt's President Sisi smiles as volunteers take a "selfie" with him during the closing session of Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) in Sharm el-SheikhBeyond the clicker-happy tourist, a cursory glance shows that selfies have become one of the greatest fads around, with celebrities and even politicians embracing them, including Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who recently found it an opportunity for national selfie-actualisation.

A group selfie at last year’s Oscar ceremony became the most re-tweeted image of all time – a picture that apparently spoke a billion dollars. And with the fuss about selfies at this year’s ceremony, it won’t be too long before we start hearing about a “best selfie” category being introduced at the Academy Awards.

The selfie tsunami has also swept Arab and Muslim countries. The young and savvy Indonesian Muslim convert-turned-popular-guru Felix Siauw caused widespread offence when he declared selfies to be haram because, echoing some of the seven cardinal sins, he maintained that they were expressions of pride and ostentation. This led outraged Indonesian social media users to post selfies of themselves under the hashtag #Selfie4Siauw.

Even Islam’s holiest sanctuaries have not been immune, which has set off alarm bells in conservative quarters. Selfie fever reached such a pitch among pilgrims to Mecca and Medina that it provoked the ire of some Saudi religious scholars.

Cat jihad selfieRadical, ultra-conservative Muslims go even further and liken the idle pursuit of selfies to idol-worship. For example, during their reign of terror in Afghanistan, the Taliban banned television, video and photography, which prompted one journalist to describe it as a “country without faces”.

As a sign of the changing times (or perhaps the end-times for millennialists), today’s crop of foreign jihadists does not seem to have got this memo, or perhaps they believe that the “greater jihad” is the jihad of the selfie.

Many combatants have posted selfies of themselves on social media bearing arms, training, swimming, as well as surreally endorsing consumer products, including Nutella, not to mention a sideline in images of “mewjahideen” kittens.

The jihadist selfie is helping to transform the Spartan and puritanical image of holy war circa 1980s mujahideen in Afghanistan to make it resemble a mix between a lads’ teen movie and an 18+ shoot’em-up video game.

Some observers believe there is a deliberate strategy behind these selfies, which are seen as being part of a drive to recruit more young foreign fighters by showing how “normal” and “cool” being an extremist jihadist is, by injecting a bit of Rambo-like glamour.

With even normally camera-shy Islamic extremists indulging in this photographic fad, it is little wonder that many view this trend as a sign of the narcissistic nature of 21st-century society.

But do we really live in a more selfie-centred world than our ancestors? I happen to think not. It is no coincidence that the modern psychological term for vanity and egotism is derived from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water (nature’s own selfie). 

I believe that this moralising is largely a manifestation of the romanticisation of bygone days when people were supposedly kinder, nobler and more selfie-less. For example, space pioneer Buzz Aldrin claimed he took “the best selfie ever” during a 1966 spacewalk.

This self-portrait of Robert Cornelius could be the world's first photographic selfie.

This self-portrait of Robert Cornelius could be the world’s first photographic selfie.

Though the word is new, the concept of the selfie is as old as photography itself. The first photographic portrait ever taken, in 1839, was a “selfie” – and required considerably more time and effort than today’s instantaneous results – while the selfie stick may be almost a century old.

Prior to the invention of photography, the world was still awash with selfies, in the form of self-portraits. Though the boom in artists painting themselves began during the Renaissance, self-portraits have an ancient pedigree. One of the oldest surviving self-portraits is a sculpture of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten’s chief sculptor Bak, standing beside his wife.

The traditional Islamic aversion to depicting human forms meant that self-portraits were rare, but there have been some examples. Perhaps the most ambitious was the Akbarnama (The Life of Akbar), which chronicles, with exquisite miniature paintings, the biography of the third Mughal emperor Akbar. Though Akbar did not paint these portraits himself, the book was the emperor’s idea and he commissioned the work.

Could this statue of Bak and his wife be the world's oldest existing selfie?

Could this statue of Bak and his wife be the world’s oldest existing selfie?

Arabs traditionally preferred word-based selfies, in the form of self-aggrandizing poetry. For example, in addition to his talent for writing panegyrics glorifying princes and kings, the legendary al-Mutanabi had a penchant for glorifying himself. In a poem chiding an ungrateful patron for not supporting him, the poet boasts that the blind and deaf appreciate his writing, and that his fame extends to the “steed, the night and the desert”, as well as “the sword, the spear, the paper and the pen”.

What this reveals is that modern technology has not made us more self-centred but has democratised our ability to express the more selfie-ish side of our nature, and on an unprecedented scale. What the ramifications of this are for the individual and for humanity has yet to be revealed, but once it is, be sure that someone will somehow make a selfie out of it.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 March 2015.

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Islam’s freedom of expression… and insult

 
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Muhammad’s self-appointed defenders take offence on his behalf, but the prophet would’ve tolerated Charlie Hebdo and condemned the savage murders.

707192-une-charlie-png

Tuesday 20 January 2015

After the brutal assassination of eight of its staff members and two visitors, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has vowed to continue its trademark irreverence and secular iconoclasm, which critics have accused, in turn, of being Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian.

Its first issue since the tragic massacre, which came out on Wednesday 14 January, features a cartoon of a tearful Prophet Muhammad holding a sign which reads “Je suis Charlie”, the famous twitter hashtag. The turbaned figure stands under the slogan “All is forgiven”. If the murderers had hoped to repress representations of their beloved prophet, their actions backfired spectacularly: 5 million copies were circulated of the latest edition, and its cover went viral.

As a staunch advocate of freedom of expression, I believe they have every right to run such a cartoon, even if it has upset the religious sensibilities of some Muslims. Egypt’s grand mufti, Shawqi Allam, who blasted the cartoon as racist, while a number of protests took place in various Muslim-majority lands, with the largest occurring in Chechnya.

In France, many Muslims attended the anti-extremism marches held across the country to mourn the deaths at Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish kosher supermarket where four were killed. Further afield, Arabs and Muslims have also held vigils in support of the victims at Charlie Hebdo, and numerous Arab cartoonists have paid tribute to their slain peers with hard-hitting and moving cartoons.

These contrasting reactions got me wondering about a hypothetical question: what would Muhammad make of this? Would the prophet forgive Charlie Hebdo’s lampooning of him and his religion, and would he, if he were alive today, tweet his solidarity with the slain cartoonists?

My own reading of history and of Muhammad’s life leads me to the conclusion that, were he around in the 21st century, the prophet may not have tweeted “#JeSuisCharlie”, but he would have condemned these savage murders and forgiven whatever insult was directed his way by French satirists.

Some will find my assertion hard to believe, but Muhammad’s own actions and convictions back me up on this. Although the prophet’s self-appointed contemporary defenders take offence on his behalf and believe they are doing his will when they protest perceived insults or punish those who commit them, this could not be further from the truth.

During the vulnerable early years of Islam, the Islamic prophet endured and tolerated mockery and disdain. Even in victory, Muhammad choose wisely to exercise tolerance. Upon his triumphant return to Mecca, he forgave the inhabitants of the city which had been home to his fiercest enemies, even pardoning Abdullah Ibn Saad who had been a member of his inner circle but later denounced the prophet as a charlatan.

More importantly, the Islam Muhammad preached recognised the pluralistic nature of society and guaranteed freedom of belief. Surat al-Baqara of the Quran reminds Muslims that “there shall be no compulsion in religion”.

Significantly, the constitution Muhammad drew up in Yathrib (Medina) included in its definition of the “Umma” all the oasis’s inhabitants, not just Muslims. These included both the “People of the Book”, i.e. Christians and Jews, but also, perhaps surprisingly, pagans, all of whom were granted equal political, cultural and religious rights as Muslims.

And in the early centuries of Islam there was so much freedom of thought and expression that it would put much of the current Muslim world to shame. Although many contemporary Muslims are convinced that ridiculing Islam and rejecting religion are Western innovations, this is more wishful thinking than historical fact.

In Christendom, Muhammad and Islam was derided from a rival religious vantage point: that the prophet of Islam was believed to be the false prophet of a fake religion. He was even condemned  to the ninth circle of Dante’s inferno where he supposedly stands “rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind”.

In contrast, within the Islamic world itself, Muhammad and Islam were criticised and mocked from a secular, rationalist, anti-religious perspective. One example is the religious sceptic and scholar Ibn al-Rawandi (827-911) who, despite his rejection of religion and Islam, lived a long life in the 8th-9th centuries.

Ibn al-Rawandi, who spent a significant part of his life in Baghdad, believed that the intellect and science supersede all else, that prophets were unnecessary, that religion was irrational, that Islamic tradition was illogical and that miracles were a hoax.

In neighbouring Syria, a few decades later, the Richard Dawkins of the Abbasid era was born. Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri (973-1058) was so contemptuous of religion that he divided the world into two types of people: “those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains”.

Al-Ma’ari also lived to a ripe age. And rather than being visited by assassins, he attracted many students and engaged with scholars of various persuasions, even when he decided to return to his hometown of Ma’arra to life ascetically in seclusion.

Although this tradition of free thought and scepticism has shrunk over the centuries, it still exists, and even witnessed a resurgence in the 20th century – and included the “dean of Arab literature” Taha Hussein – until the conservative Islamist current started to block it starting from the late 1970s/1980s.

The years since the revolutionary wave erupted in 2011 have seen secularists, sceptics and atheists mounting a comeback. But with some countries equating non-belief to terrorism and arresting atheists, theirs is a risky venture.

But these efforts are essential. Freedom of thought and expression were vital components of Islam’s golden age and lifting Arab and Muslim countries out of their current plight will require a return to that era of free inquiry.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 14 January 2015.

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Europe’s invisible “Islamisation”

 
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By Khaled Diab

The murderous Paris attacks have reignited fears of “Islamisation”. But Islamic civilisation is encoded in Europe’s cultural and intellectual DNA. 

Ziryab is the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

Ziryab is the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

Monday 12 January 2015

The brutal and tragic murders of 10 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, two police officers and four customers at a kosher supermarket by masked gunmen has triggered an outpouring of shock and grief, not only in France but around the world.

Large, spontaneous vigils filled the streets of many French cities, while social media was awash with solidarity and condemnation, including the hashtags #JeSuisCharlie and #NotInMyName, which was used by Muslims condemning the attacks.

On Sunday 11 January, this culminated in rallies across France which drew nearly 4 million people from all walks of life who walked shoulder to shoulder in solidarity against extremism.

Eyewitness accounts reveal that the attackers shouted “Allahu Akbar”, and the designer who was forced to let the assailants in says they told her they were with al-Qaeda. According to AFP, the police claim that one of the killers remarked: “We have avenged the prophet.”

Why Muhammad would need anyone to “avenge” him is beyond me. The prophet endured far more mockery, humiliation, insult and rejection during his lifetime without needing or ordering hitmen to defend his honour than that meted out by a group of equal-opportunities French cartoonists who despise and satirise all forms of organised religion.

Despite the massive show of solidarity, the collateral damage to French and European Muslims has already been done, even though one of the fallen police officers was a Muslim and the “hero” who saved a number of customers at the kosher supermarket was also of Muslim background.

Le Pen is mightier than the sword... of Islam.

Le Pen is mightier than the sword… of Islam.

The far-right Front National has already cynically and undignifiedly taken advantage of the tragedy. Declaring that Islamists have “declared war on France”, FN leader Marine Le Pen called for the reintroduction of the death penalty. Claiming that the atrocities were predictable, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, no friend of Charlie himself, engaged in classic fear-mongering: “This attack is probably the beginning of the beginning. It’s an episode in the war that is being waged against us by Islamism.”

Exhibiting shameless self-promotion, Jean-Marie has already launched his daughter’s presidential campaign by tweeting a poster in which he suggests that Le Pen is mightier than the sword… of Islam. The poster features a photo of Marine with the English caption: “Keep calm and vote Le Pen.” Ironically, this slogan is lifted from a anti-fascist British poster published at the outset of World War II.

The ethno-regionalist and xenophobic Bloc Identitaire which advocates “remigration” believes that “no-one can claim to fight against jihadism [and] not question the mass immigration and Islamisation of our country.”

But like Muslims who fantasise about an a-historical caliphate, conservative Europeans who dream of a bygone utopia of a Europe uncontaminated by Islam or immigration, miss the reality that the “Islamisation of the West” occurred centuries ago.

Islamic civilisation is so hardwired into Europe’s cultural, social and intellectual DNA that it would be impossible to expunge its influence. The same applies in the other direction, in light of Christendom’s and the West’s powerful influence on Arab and Islamic society.

In addition to the philosophy, science, literature and art of the Muslim world which profoundly shape the European Renaissance, Islamic culture had some far more unexpected and surprising influences on Western civilisation.

One man in particular, for whom no statues or memorials stand anywhere in Europe and very few Westerners have heard of, is possibly the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

In the ninth century, Ziryab, Cordoba’s most sought-after hipster, brought into vogue the idea of seasonal fashions, steering history’s catwalk towards the fashion slavery of the 21st century.

This Sultan of Style also added a fifth pair of strings to the Arab oud, paving the way to the European lute, which would become the modern guitar. He also introduced Europe to the idea of dining etiquette, from table cloths and crystal decanters to the three-course meal.

Fashion, fine food and rhythm are not what Europeans tend to associate with Muslims or Islam today. Instead, they are haunted by images of fundamentalists, not fun-loving eccentrics, and fanatics, not fans of refined culture.

As someone who is well aware of the destructive influence of violent Islamism in the Middle East, I can, at a certain level, sympathise with fears in the West over radicalisation. But Islamic extremism is mostly a threat to Muslim societies, not to Europe, as a minority has never, in history, imposed its will on a majority, except in the form of a military conqueror.

This exaggerated sense of threat can be seen in the enormous hysteria in segments of the media and among some politicians regarding the small trickle of European jihadists who have gone to fight in Syria. Although one gets the impression that Europe has sent forth a veritable Islamic army to the Levant, the real number is around 3,000 from across the continent, including the dead and returned, according to an estimate by Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s anti-terrorism chief.

While it is important to be vigilant and to find effective ways to deal with the threat posed by returning fighters, society must steer clear of stigmatising Europe’s already marginalised and distrusted Muslim communities.

This is because it is unfair to blame an entire group for the behaviour of a tiny minority and it is also counterproductive, as marginalisation is a significant, but not the only, factor in radicalisation.

In addition, the demonisation of minorities is what nurtures the truly threatening radicals in Europe’s midst: the far-right and neo-Nazis. Since the end of World War II, Western Europe has worked consciously to build and celebrate diversity. Despite its weaknesses and failings, Europe needs to cherish, build and strengthen its multicultural experiment.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 8 January 2015.

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The destruction of Mosul’s past, present and future

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

With ISIS’s destruction of Mosul’s heritage, it is no longer the “Pear of the North”. But it’s people will rise up and reclaim their ancient city.

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The leaning minaret of Mosul which stands at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri.

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

Wednesday 24 December 2014

In my previous article, I focused on the social and ethnic changes that have been forced on Mosul by the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), which will undoubtedly have long-term repercussions on the whole of Iraq and not just Mosul. ISIS has sought to radically reconstruct Mosul in every respect, razing, in the process, the previous social, political and economic structure.

The destruction of churches, mosques and other holy sites understandably received huge media attention internationally due to their symbolic importance. However, ISIS has also been systematically destroying much of Mosul’s cultural heritage but this has not received the same amount of coverage.

Nineveh was the largest city in the world and the capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire under King Sennacherib (705-681BC). Its ruins are located near the banks of the Tigris, where it once blossomed as an important trading city between East and West. It is believed to have first been settled in 6000 BC. Various conquerors — Persians, Arabs, Turks and others — have come and gone, each leaving an imprint that remained for centuries until the day ISIS chose to launch their operation of  “cultural and historical cleansing” in Mosul.

Major historical sites that stretch back millennia are being systematically wiped away. The determination to destroy the cultural and religious heritage is not enough for ISIS. There are also reports of looting of archaeological sites and the imposition of a “tax” on smugglers moving stolen artefacts. According to the head of the Baghdad Museum, Qais Hussein Rasheed, who was speaking at a UNESCO conference in Paris last September,  the largest example of looting so far took place at grand palace of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II which dates back to the 9th century BC. “Assyrian tablets were stolen and found in European cities,” he said. “Some of these items are cut up and sold piecemeal,” he added, in references to a tablet of a winged bull.  ISIS took over Mosul’s Monuments Museum which fell under their full control and has been shut to the public. Some locals have claimed that ISIS militants destroyed archaeological monuments at Mosul (Nineveh) Museum, including the famous winged Assyrian bull.

It is a frightful thought that such an ignorant and violent group are in charge of one of the world’s richest archaeological treasures. With at least 8,000 years of continuous habitation, Mosul is considered a jewel that embraces many heritage sites belonging to numerous religions and sects, with almost 2,000 of Iraq’s 12,000 registered archaeological sites being located there. In the first month of their invasion of Mosul, ISIS arrested the head of the Archaeology Department, Musa’ab Muhammed Jasim, for unknown reasons, though sources claim that he tried to defend the department from looting while some local residents have said that he was only detained for questioning and was released a few weeks later. These acts are clearly part of the same strategy of redefining Mosul’s cultural identity whilst profiting from its rich heritage. How ironic it is that ISIS, which demolishes historical and archaeological sites and artefacts for being heretical and supposedly against Islam, have no qualms about profiting from them.

ISIS has a unit called Katayib Taswiya (the Demolition Battalion) whose job is to identify what they view as ‘heretical’ mosques and sites for destruction. The battalion razes to the ground any mosques or churches built on tombs. If a graveyard has been built after the mosque’s construction, then they will destroy the graves. Even this was not enough for ISIS. Graves that have headstones that are not level with the ground have all been bulldozed, and even the dead did not escape these atrocities. The demolition battalion unit drew up a list of sites and statues that were deemed unsuitable for an ‘Islamic state’ and were to be destroyed. Among them were the much-loved statue of a figure representing an old Mosul profession: a man selling a liquorice drink, for which the city is famous. Until a few months ago, men walked the streets with a pouch of the drink slung over their shoulders and clanged copper goblets to advertise their presence, and sell the drink to people. This was soon stopped by ISIS as they forbade the practice of selling the drink, declaring the consumption of liquorice a sin. Naturally, the statue also had to go. The sculptor who made the statue in 1973, Talal Safawi, was distraught to see the liquorice seller statue, whom he regards as part of his body, destroyed.  This statue had survived four decades during which there had been three wars, a US invasion and wide-scale looting, yet it finally succumbed to the brutality of ISIS.

Other statues destroyed by ISIS included Mullah Othman al-Musili, a beloved 19th-century musician and poet, and the famous statue of a woman carrying a urn. Another was Abu Tammam, the famous Abbasid-era Arab poet, born in Syria who then lived and died in Mosul in the year 845AD, who ironically was a Muslim convert born to Christian parents. Another important shrine which was levelled to the ground is the much-talked-about ‘Girl’s Grave’ or ‘Ibn al-Atheer’s grave’. The ‘girl’s grave’ again is a very important feature of Mosul and for centuries it has been the subject of widespread speculation concerning the story behind it, as no one can be certain of the events that led to its creation. There are claims that the grave is that of the famous historian Ibn al-Atheer who died in Mosul in 630AD. However folktales say that centuries ago a pious girl in Mosul would go out caring for her goats and lambs, and one day she was surrounded by thieves and street bandits who wanted to rape her. After resisting their advances and calling out to God to take her and save her honour from being tarnished, the ground suddenly opened to swallow the girl as happy tears rolled down her face. People tried to pull her out but failed and she died instantly. The ‘girl’s grave’ became a symbol of God’s miracle and the piety of Mosul’s women. Perhaps ISIS did not want a monument that symbolised resistance, especially that of women. But no matter what they do or how far their brutality reaches, the people of Mosul will revolt and fight their tyrannical leaders.

The signs of resistance are slowly emerging. When ISIS indicated that it would be toppling the city’s ancient leaning minaret, which is older than the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy and is pictured on Iraq’s 10,000-dinar bank note, the people of Mosul were outraged. “The leaning minaret has no religious significance and is not a statue to be regarded as a heretical idol, so why are these foreign militants determined to wipe away Mosul’s cultural identity?” asked a local medical student who cannot be named for his own safety.  Residents gathered at the minaret and confronted ISIS, which has put a stop to the demolition of the minaret, at least for the time being.

Many have wondered why it took the people of Mosul so long to finally reject ISIS’s orders and why they defended the Leaning Minaret yet failed to do so with all the other mosques and churches. It is puzzling but I think the speculative climate of swirling rumours that Mosul has been living under for the past four months prevents them from knowing what is fact and what is fiction. Furthermore, they never would have imagined that a group that calls itself “Islamic” would ever destroy places of worship.

The biggest shock to the people of Mosul which signified a turning point in their attitude was the day ISIS destroyed the Prophet Jonah mosque (Jonah’s tomb). The imam of the mosque pleaded with ISIS to give him time to donate the rugs, fans and refrigerators to the poor people of the city rather than have blown up but he was met with firm refusal.  Residents treading through the ruins of the building found torn and burnt pages of the holy books, which they had been unable to save, scattered amongst the rubble. “They claim that having graves inside mosques is heretical but what about the Quran, why did they not remove the Quran from the mosque before destroying it?” a local resident asked.

What international media failed to understand is that the Prophet Jonah mosque is of vast value to all the people of Mosul and not just Muslims. It is more than a mosque but a place visited by all sects and religions. A Christian man who had to flee Mosul was in tears when he heard that ISIS had demolished the mosque: “When my wife and I were trying for a baby and failed, we visited Prophet Jonah’s tomb and prayed for a child. A few years later, we were granted a son. They have destroyed a place that gave me hope when I was at my lowest.”  The mosque was a place that almost every resident of Mosul had visited or contributed to. It was like a grand house which gathered everyone, regardless of their differences.  My own family had donated rugs to the mosque, as well as regular financial donations to help maintain it.

One of the names that are given to Mosul is ‘the city of the whale’ in reference to the Prophet Jonah, whose tomb has now been destroyed. Other names given to Mosul are al-Faiha (“the Paradise”), but now it has become a hell on Earth, and al-Hadbah (“the Humped”) due to the leaning Minaret. It is also known  al-Khaḍrah (“the Green”) in association with al-Khidr , a mystical figure (possibly St George) who is described in the Quran as a righteous servant of God possessing great wisdom or mystic knowledge and is  believed to have been last seen in Mosul.  It is sometimes described as “The Pearl of the North”, which helps explain why ISIS invaded the city in order to exploit its riches.

All these names are no longer indicative of the city’s reality. Sadly, it seems that ISIS have succeeded in redefining Mosul to the loss of its inhabitants and the world.

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

____

*The author’s name is a pseudonym.

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The dangers of a political crusade against Western jihadists

 
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By Khaled Diab

Inflammatory rhetoric and a solely punitive approach to Western jihadists is only likely to make matters worst, and could threaten multiculturalism.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

Monday 15 September 2014

David Cameron, the UK prime minister, has unveiled a controversial raft of measures which he claims will help counter the threat posed by British jihadists fighting in Syria and northern Iraq. These include barring these citizens from re-entering the UK, seizing the passports of suspects before they depart and internally exiling radicals. Other European countries are also considering similar measures. Norway, for example, has announced that it is studying mechanisms for revoking the citizenship of Norwegians who take part in terror operations abroad or join foreign militaries, which would potentially also include Jews volunteering for the Israeli army.

“Adhering to British values is not an option or a choice,” Cameron told the House of Commons. “It is a duty for all those who live in these islands so we will stand up for our values.”

A “duty”, it would seem, if you are a member of a minority, but not if you are a posh Tory. Then, you can ride roughshod over these values and the principles underlying the British legal system, and grant the government even more arbitrary powers to encroach on civil liberties. Fair trials and the presumption of innocence are surely sacred British values, or is Cameron proposing a return to the medieval Germanic practice of  “guilty until proven innocent”? His home secretary certainly is, having stripped at least 37 dual nationality Britons of their citizenship with the stroke of a pen, without any kind of due process.

Fortunately, the British establishment has balked at Cameron’s demagoguery, forcing him to backpedal somewhat from the strident statement of intent he gave on Friday 29 August.

Moreover, “it absolutely sticks in the craw”, to borrow one of the prime minister’s own expressions, and beggars belief that Cameron himself posed a far greater threat to British values and the safety of British citizens than a handful of jihadistst. After all, Cameron supported the illegal and bloody invasion of Iraq, against the will of millions of Britons. And this disastrous enterprise,  which triggered serious blowback, created the vacuum from which ISIS emerged and helped radicalise some Muslims towards Britain, could not have gone ahead without his party’s support.

Should Cameron voluntarily hand over his passport for so recklessly having undermined British values and the security of his fellow citizens? Should he refuse the jet-setting Tony Blair re-entry into the UK and exile him to the Hague?

The rank hypocrisy of politicians and bigots aside, I understand and sympathise with European anxieties, especially following the murder of a third Western hostage held by ISIS, British aid worker David Haines. I witnessed, in the 1990s, the disruptive influence of returning Egyptian jihadists – then from Western-sanctioned Afghanistan. As an agnostic-atheist who believes in secularism and multiculturalism, I observe with alarm the rise, in Syria and Iraq, of violent Islamists who make al-Qaeda look like boy scouts. Their murderous brutality, historical ignorance and cluelessness about religion is worthy of the highest contempt and mockery. But they are a catastrophe for the Middle East, not the West.

That said, Europeans fighting in Syria and Iraq do pose a potential threat to their home countries. However, the British legal system is already equipped with all the legislation necessary and the security services possess the power – too much power – to protect citizens against this threat and to punish perpetrators of atrocities, but this must only occur as a result of free and fair trials.

Moreover, a solely punitive approach is far from useful. In fact, radicalisation experts say it is counterproductive and dangerous. “Treating all foreign fighters as terrorists… risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” wrote Shiraz Maher and Peter Neumann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London. “It may sound tough, but it isn’t likely to be effective.”

Why? Because “their motivations for travelling to Syria are diverse, and it is wrong to think of them as a homogenous group,” explain Maher and Neumann.

In the fog of war, it is not only unclear just how many foreign fighters there are in Syria but also who they are fighting alongside and to what end. An ICSR report from the end of last year emphasised that the group affiliations for foreign fighters were known in only a fifth of cases. Of the remaining four-fifths, it is impossible to know how many are of the headline-grabbing ISIS variety of grizzly mass murderers, and how many are young idealists drawn to fight against a murderous dictator with moderate rebel groups, like generations of Europeans before them.

Even among those who go to wage jihad, many experience a change of heart once their abstract dreams are replaced by the gruesome reality. “We’re forced to stay and fight, what choice do we have? It’s sad,” one disillusioned jihadist who was afraid to return home admitted to ICSR.

This is the situation many disenchanted Arab jihadists found themselves in when their home countries stripped them of their nationality following the war in Afghanistan, forcing them further down the road to extremism and providing the nascent Al Qaeda with a core of fighters it would otherwise have been deprived of.

Egypt and some other Arab countries have since drawn lessons from this. Rather than banishing jihadists, they have put in place de-radicalisation programmes. Effective de-radicalisation initiatives can reap a threefold benefit in Europe: regaining productive citizens, mitigating a terrorist threat and providing the best advertisement against the lure of jihad for would-be hotheads.

Moreover, radicalisation is not something that only afflicts minorities. Segments of the European majorities are also being radicalised by economic and social insecurity, demagoguery and false narratives, just like Muslims, as reflected by the extremely troubling rise of the far-right and neo-Nazism.

In addition, radicalisation is partly generational. After an implicit post-war social pact in which youth expected to lead better lives than their parents, we have reached an impasse where young people are both worse off than baby-boomers and have dwindling prospects, with rampant unemployment, especially in the 18-25 age group, unaffordable housing, few pension prospects, etc.

And rather than sympathy, the plight of youth has brought them contempt. Contrary to popular belief, it is not older Europeans who are the worst victims of ageism but those under the age of 25 –  a problem that’s particularly acute in the UK and Scandinavia. This has led to huge disillusionment among youngsters, some of whom turn to various forms of radicalism. Minority youth have the additional burden of racial and cultural discrimination.

This reflects how vital it is that the problem of foreign jihadists, troubling as it is, is not blown out of all proportions by vested interest groups and bigots. No more than 500 Brits, by Cameron’s own estimate, have taken up arms in Syria (and mostly for unknown reasons). Yet the prime minister claimed outlandishly that this disparate group, which would barely make up a battalion in a regular army, was the single greatest threat facing the UK, bizarrely overlooking Ukraine and other major crises affecting Europe.

This kind of rhetoric, which panders to the far right and Islamophobic elements in European society, is reckless and potentially perilous. Stigmatising and vilifying minorities or certain ethnic groups can lead to ugly repression and persecution, as Europe’s own history shows and many parts of the contemporary Middle East are currently illustrating. In fact, what history seems to tell us is that when there’s a “problem” with a minority, one should look to the majority first because that’s where the real problem usually lies.

Although some critics are well-meaning and well-intentioned, many of the loudest voices declaring the failure of multiculturalism and demanding that minorities assimilate are those who never bought into diversity in the first place and harken back to an idealised, mythological past in which society was purer and nobler.

But multiculturalism hasn’t failed. Despite its many enemies and its learn-as-you-go approach, it has been generally a roaring success. Only two or three generations ago, western European countries were largely homogenous. Today, they are a cultural kaleidoscope of diversity in which disparate groups manage to live together in peace and relative harmony.

As the once-diverse Middle East increasingly sheds its cultural variety and persecution on the basis of ethnicity and religion grows, Britain and western Europe should cherish and safeguard the beauty of their newfound multicultural reality.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 September 2014.

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A successful caliphate in six simple steps

 
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By Khaled Diab

ISIS really doesn’t get what restoring the caliphate means. Here’s how in six simple steps, from Caliphornian wine to cultural melting pots.

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî Image source: Yorck Project

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî
Image source: Yorck Project

Tuesday 17 June 2014

To the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS),

I understand you wish to restore the caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But are you sure this is really what you want? As a secular, liberal Arab living in the 21st century, I’m not keen on turning back the clock in this way, but I think I’m better prepared for it than you.

Judging by your brutal and bloodthirsty behaviour and the twisted rulebook you’ve released, I have this sneaking suspicion that you have no idea what bringing back the caliphate actually means or involves. Let me give you a clue, it would entail thriving in diversity, penning odes to wine, investing in science, patronizing the arts… not to mention appointing a gay court poet.

For your benefit and other jihadist novices, here is my guide to how to build a successful caliphate – or “bring back glory of the Islamic Caliphate”, to quote you – in half a dozen simple steps:

  1. Caliphornian wine and Caliphornication

In spring if a houri-like sweetheart

Gives me a cup of wine on the edge of a green cornfield,

Though to the vulgar this would be blasphemy,

If I mentioned any other Paradise, I’d be worse than a dog.

Omar al-Khayyam (translated by Karim Emami)

ISIS has banned alcohol, as well as drugs and cigarettes, in the domain under its control. But what these fanatics seem to misunderstand is that alcohol may be prohibited religiously (haram) in Islam, but there was plenty of full-bodied Caliphornian wine around,  as the above verse by Omar al-Khayyam illustrates, which follows in the tradition of khamariyat, or wine poetry.

“Commanders of the faithful” they may have been but Caliphs were known to indulge in the unholy grape. These included the Umayyads and the Abbasids. Even Harun al-Rashid, who is regarded as the most “rightly guided” of the later caliphs, is reputed to have drunk. And even if al-Rashid himself did not partake, his court did, as mythologised in many stories of the 1,001 Arabian Nights, especially his gay court poet Abu Nuwas, who definitely preferred wine to girls.

Don’t cry for Leila and don’t rejoice over Hind

Instead drink to the rose from a rosy red wine.

A glass which, when tipped down the drinker’s throat,

Leaves its redness in both the eye and the cheek.

Camp, outrageous, irreverent and witty, Abu Nuwas was considered the greatest poet of his time and is still up there among the greats, despite the more puritanical age we live in, where his odes to male love would make a modern Muslim blush.

Come right in, boys. I’m

a mine of luxury – dig me.

Well-aged brilliant wines made by

monks in a monastery! shish-kebabs!

Roast chickens! Eat! Drink! Get happy!

and afterwards you can take turns

shampooing my tool.

During to the apparent jealousy of his mentor in Harun al-Rashid’s court, Ziryab, the Sultan of Style, fled to the rival Umayyad court in Cordoba, where, among other things, he taught Europeans how to become fashion slaves.

  1. Strength in diversity

Diversity and multiculturalism were the hallmark of Islam’s most successful caliphates and caliphs. In fact, the lightning speed with which the Arabs were able to conquer a vast empire was partly faciliated by the greater freedom and lower taxes they offered local populations compared to the bickering former imperial masters. This was coupled with an early form of welfare state established by the second caliph, the austere Umar Ibn al-Khattab who lived in a simple mud hut to be close to the poor and believed in social and economic equality.

Under the Umayyads, whether centred in Damascus or Cordoba, and the early Abbasids, Islam’s “golden age” was characterised, rather like today’s America, by a complex synthesis and symbiosis between the cultures which fell under Islamic control as well as neighbouring civilisations. It incorporated Christian, Jewish, ancient Greek, Byzantine, Persian and even Chinese ideas and added to them to create a new, dynamic whole. The Ottomans were also at their most successful when they tolerated and promoted diversity.

This is a far cry from the uniform puritanism ISIS seeks to impose on its self-described caliphate.

  1. Tolerance is a duty

The ISIS advance has resulted in the mass flight of Christians from northern Iraq. And the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul fears they will never return, while the ancient Assyrian community of Bartella wait in terror.

This fear is hardly surprising given the treatment ISIS has meted out on fellow Muslims, such as the mass executions of Shi’a soldiers, not to mention the oppressive rules ISIS has outlined for Muslims in its conquered territory.

This is very different from the ideals of religious tolerance which Islam’s various caliphates often aspired to, with probably the Umayyads and Ottomans in their heydays winning top prize in this category, and qualifying as the most enlightened of their age.

Even the traditional notion that non-Muslims are dhimmis (protected minorities) who are free to practise their faith but are inferior to Muslims contradicts the principles of equality embedded in Islam. This is amply illustrated in the Constitution of Medina drafted by Muhammad himself which stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and pagans all have the same political and cultural rights. So it would seem that Islam, as practised by its prophet, gave Muslims an advantage in the hereafter, not the here and now.

Moreover, the Quranic injunction on “no compulsion in religion” also means that ISIS has no right to force Muslims to pray, whether in the mosque or otherwise.

  1. Ijtihad and the greater jihad

ISIS and other violent jihadists not only conduct “holy war” incorrectly, inhumanely and for the wrong reasons, they also ignore the “greater jihad”, the struggle to build a better self and society.

In addition, their fixation on implementing “sharia” is baffling. This is partly because their interpretation of it is at odds with traditional scholarship. Moreover, sharia has differed significantly over time and place.

More fundamentally, the bulk of what is regarded as Islamic law today was reached through the reasoning of early Islamic scholars. Since we live in radically different times, it is high time to reopen the gates of ijtihad – which were sealed by the Abbasids in a bid to cement their authority – and to rethink and reinvent the Islamic legal system.

In its heyday, the Abbasid Caliphate’s capital Baghdad – which ISIS are perilously close to conquering – was a centre of science, culture, philosophy and invention. This was epitomised by the Bayt al-Hekma, which was a world-leading institute of learning until the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, devastating Abbasid society to a similar degree as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

  1. A woman’s place is in… public

ISIS has informed women that their place is in the home and that outdoors they must wear “full, wide Islamic dress”.

Well, they should start with themselves and wear the hijab too, since, if it is an obligation at all, it is one that applies to men too.

Although Islam is a typical patriarchal society, women’s place has never been solely in the home, except in a minority of cultures. It might shock ISIS to learn that the idea of cloistering women out of the public eye may not have been an Islamic idea at all but one borrowed from the Byzantines.

Women played a key role in the spread of Islam by the word, such as Khadija and Aisha, and by the sword, such as Hind bint Utbah and Asma’a bint Abi Bakr – sort of Kill Bill characters of the medieval world – who were instrumental in the defeat of the Byzantine forces in one of the most decisive battles in history.

In addition, women made important contributions to science, philosophy and society throughout Islamic history – a role that has been under-researched but is eliciting more interest today. They even ran empires, albeit discretely.

Most importantly, Islam’s attitudes to women have varied according to local culture. Iraqi and especially Syrian women have been on a long road towards emancipation, and even the faithful among them see no contradiction between their religion and gender equality.

  1. Secularism is the solution

Muhammad never nominated a successor (caliph) nor spelt out a method for identifying one, hence Islam does not prescribe, nor does it need a caliphate. In addition, the caliphate often led to instability due to the absence of clear rules for the transfer of power, and contributed to the absolutists attitudes the region’s leaders traditionally have to power.

In addition, the prophet never established an “Islamic state”. In fact, his rule of Medina was incredibly secular. Moreover, Islam’s greatest successes were achieved by rulers who were largely secular, especially when compared to their times.

In fact, it could be argued that the only truly Islamic state, is a spiritual state, a state of mind.

Contrary to what Islamists tell us, secularism is the solution – but I don’t mind if you call it a “caliphate”.

In fact, if you build a caliphate like this, I can guarantee you, judging by the interest on Twitter, that you’ll be drawing immigrants from all over the Muslim world.

____

This piece was republished on BuzzFeed on 20 June 2014.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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The Christian Allah

 
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By Khaled Diab

Muslim and Christian bigots who don’t speak Arabic believe that “Allah” is only for Muslims. They are wrong: Allah is God and God is Allah.

"Allah" pre-dates Islam. The word was used by the Arabs to refer to the chief god of Mecca who was venerated around the black stone of the Ka’aba.

“Allah” pre-dates Islam. The word was used by the Arabs to refer to the chief god of Mecca who was venerated around the black stone of the Ka’aba.

Monday 7 October 2013

Malaysia is quite literally embroiled in a holy war of words – and the word in question is “Allah”. The government there wants to ban Christians from using what it regards as a word which should be used only by Muslims.

In 2008, the government threatened to revoke the publishing licence of the Catholic Herald, if the newspaper did not stop referring to God as Allah. This would be problematic, as it would force the newspaper to misquote the centuries-old Malay version of the Bible, and the local alternative, Tuhan, is used to refer specifically to “the Lord”.

Fortunately, Malaysia’s high court displayed more sense and ruled in the newspaper’s favour. Unfortunately, the authorities insisted on throwing sensibility to the wind and launched an appeal, which the appeal court began hearing in September, and is due to deliver a verdict on in October.

As is so often the case, the dispute is the symptom of deeper troubles. Despite the fact that Malaysians, in their kaleidoscope of religious and racial diversity, tend to “talk conflict, but they walk cohesion,” as one academic put it, the country has been experiencing rising tensions between its various groups.

In addition, though it is perhaps the world’s longest-ruling party, Barisan Nasional (the National Front) has seen its support base dwindle in recent years. In May, Barisan, whose three race-based parties play on sectarian grounds outside of elections, gained less than half of the popular vote.

Despite statistical evidence to the contrary, Prime Minister Najib Razak blamed the erosion on a “Chinese tsunami”. In addition, the Malaysian government has been under growing pressure from Islamic parties, and this has led the government, as has occurred elsewhere, to play the piety card and engage in identity politics.

But is there any validity to the case for limiting Allah to Muslims? Absolutely not.

The controversy is partly fuelled by confusion. Most Malaysians do not speak Arabic and so some of the Muslims among them may be under the false impression that “Allah” is exclusively Islamic.

But they are mistaken. “Allah’ is simply the Arabic word for “God”, or even “god”.

The word itself – which is probably a contraction of the Arabic al-illah (the God) – pre-dates Islam. It was used by the Arabs to refer to the chief god of Mecca, whom they believed to be the creator of the world and the giver of rain and was venerated around the black stone of the Ka’aba.

With the advent of Islam, Allah topped the list of the 99 names of God. But even under Islam, the word “Allah” has not lost its general sense. For example, the beginning of the shehada, or Islamic creed, tells us that: “La illaha ila Allah”, or “There is no god but God”. The word is also used in the plural form, ‘alleha‘, to refer to the Egyptian and Greek pantheons, for example.

It should then come as no surprise that Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews have, for centuries, referred to God as Allah. In Egypt, for instance, Copts say “Allah mahaba” or “God is love” and I have met Christians whose name is Abdullah (Servant of God).

The fact that Arab and Maltese Christians worship “Allah” while Malaysian Christians have gone to court to defend their right to do so is likely to confuse many conservatives and anti-Muslims in the West.

This is reflected in the controversy in January when a Colorado school allowed pupils to recite the pledge of allegiance in Arabic, sparking anger that the kids were expressing their loyalty to “one nation under Allah”.

But this is just plain ridiculous: Allah is God and God is Allah.

That is why it sometimes irritates me when English translations of the Qur’an talk of Allah, not God. After all, English translations of the Bible do not tend to use the Aramaic or Hebrew words for God but employ a Germanic one, which derives from guthan, meaning “That which is invoked”.

But some conservative Christians will invoke in their defence that Muslims pray to a different deity to them and so this must be distinguished. But this is nonsense of the highest order. Though they may disagree on certain ideological and doctrinal issues, and even a little on the nature of God, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all worship the same monotheistic deity.

In fact, it is not a stretch to say that the three religions are essentially branches of the same faith, as has been suggested by numerous scholars and writers. That is why Muslims refer to the “People of the Book”, and all three religions trace their roots back to Abraham, whom they believe to be their common patriarch.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 3 October 2013.

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Egypt’s popular peace front

 
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By Khaled Diab

With the prospect of reconciliation a long way off and to prevent civil war, Egyptians need to form a united front against  all political violence.

Thursday 22 August 2013

Even from a distance, the unfolding tragedy in Egypt has a nightmare quality. Once upon a time, the only danger I associated with Egypt was the risk of getting run over crossing a busy thoroughfare. In fact, after moving to Egypt from the UK as a teenager, I used to wonder how Egyptians managed to avert violence so effectively.

Today mundane Cairo landmarks I’ve long been familiar with have been transformed into urban battlegrounds, with gunfire shattering people’s hopes and aspirations. And for what? So that some men who believe they should rule Egypt because they have God on their side can struggle for control of the state with other men who run Egypt because they have guns by their side.

As part of this supposedly existential battle, in the khaki corner, the country’s self-described guardians, defenders and uber-patriots have decided to fight terror with greater terror, tried to shoot down ideas with bullets, and massacred hundreds of unarmed citizens exercising their democratic right to protest, ostensibly to protect democracy.

People whom I had admired for their belief in freedom, their tenacity in keeping the revolution going and their one-time opposition to both the army and the Islamists terrify me with their newfound admiration for Egypt’s tormentors for the past 60 years and their glorification of all the blood-letting.

In the green corner, men who claim they are not afraid to do the Lord’s work and have decided vengeance is theirs and not His, have been marauding through the streets, firing their guns, burning churches and generally terrorising the population to the extent that, for the first time in 2.5 years, Egyptians have actually heeded a curfew and stayed indoors. With Brothers like that, who needs enemies?!

Caught in the crossfire are millions of ordinary Egyptians who have been compelled to choose sides and buy into the existential narrative. Otherwise sensible and rational people have been defending the indefensible with a troubling passion.

The word “terrorists” is rolling far too easily off too many lips. Although I saw many people I disagreed with in the Raba’a encampment while I was in Egypt recently, I didn’t see one who would make even a passable impersonation of a “terrorist”, even though I had been concerned by reports that thugs there were detaining and beating up Egyptian journalists.

That is not to say there weren’t arms there. It is possible there were, but they were very well-hidden out of sight and none of the protesters I saw carried weapons. So this much is clear to me, the vast majority of the demonstrators were peaceful. Which begs the question: why was their encampment forcibly uprooted and so many murdered so brutally?

In the spirit of democracy and freedom, should they not have been left there to express their views freely? In fact, simply leaving them there was actually in the regime’s advantage, since it revealed just how limited the support for the Muslim Brotherhood actually was, and it was dissipating by the day.

In addition, letting the Brothers participate in the political game not only made good principles, it also made good sense. In opposition, they had the lifeline of untested mystique. In mainstream politics, they got the rope to hang themselves in a noose fashioned from their incompetence fanaticism and factionalism.

Even if the protests needed to be disbanded, what happened to the smarter ideas of only allowing people out and not in, or of cutting off supplies? Surely, going in with literally all guns blazing was the dumbest of all the available options. As is the current talk of banning the Brotherhood, which is both unprincipled and unsound, because driving the movement underground would make it far more dangerous than leaving it out in the open.

On the other side of the fence, even moderate supporters of Morsi and the Brotherhood also defend the indefensible. The Muslim Brotherhood’s stubborn refusal to compromise, despite having been the ones who originally compromised the revolution by agreeing to be the army’s fig leaf in order to get their bums on the seats of power, is everyone’s fault but theirs. Morsi and his Brothers’ anti-democratic, authoritarian behaviour – as well as the movements’ democratic discourse abroad and its autocratic Shari’a discourse at home – are really just democracy in disguise, or under a veil, these supporters posit.

Months of threats and incitements against the anti-Morsi population, not to mention the sudden appearance of a substantial arsenal of weapons, including machine guns, and the willingness to use them, have been excused and downplayed. But if they truly do care about their fellow Muslims and believe we’re all brothers, why are they doing their damnedest to push the country towards civil war?

Some have even gone so far as to blame the torching of churches up and down the country on the victims themselves, the Copts, a largely vulnerable and powerless minority that has been, in recent years, held hostage by an increasingly muscular and exclusionary Islamist discourse.

And how exactly was it their fault? Because of their involvement in the 30 June protests and their alleged role in toppling Morsi. Never mind that the vast majority of the millions who came out against the deposed president were Muslims, many even former Brotherhood supporters and voters.

Even amid this ugliness, there have been moments of utter, tear-jerking beauty, such as the Muslims who have come out in force, again, to protect local churches with human shields of decency, respect and love, just as Christians protected Muslim worshippers during the 2011 revolution. Or the drawing by a Christian girl of a worried mosque comforting a weeping church.

Nevertheless, in such an atmosphere of distrust, hatred and recrimination, there is a lot of pressure to take sides – and that appears to be exactly what the military and the Brotherhood want. And in this clash of the Titans, it is ordinary people who get crushed underfoot and die so that two competing elites can live. In fact, judging by the carnage, both the military top brass and the Brotherhood’s leadership have a wanton disregard for the lives of Egyptians.

What are Egyptians with a conscience supposed to do in such an atmosphere? Which side should those of us who believe in humanity take when both sides behave so inhumanely? How can we save Egypt from these dark forces?

Even though I usually sit on the sidelines and reflect, if I were in Egypt right now, I would be possessed with an urge to go out on the streets, even if on my own, chanting, “Not in my name”, neither the military nor the Brothers. “Human wrongs can never be human rights.” “No more killing in the name of nationalism or God.” It is hight time for sensible Egyptians – the silenced and intimidated majority who toppled three authoritarian leaders in their quest for bread, dignity and social justice – to take a side: the side of justice and humanity.

However, I realise that many Egyptians don’t want to “sit on the fence”, as they see it, which is the easy option. Personally, I see it as the more difficult one, and is akin to standing in the no-man’s-land separating two armies and shouting, “Don’t shoot!” But partisan or not, one thing all Egyptians should agree on is that violence must be rejected, and the only way out of this impasse is through peaceful means… Or a hell like Syria’s potentially awaits us, and none of us wants Egypt to become a magnet for foreign jihadists or a state-run slaughterhouse.

To avert this, we need to form a united front against violence, whether committed by Islamists or the state. This could include a Friday of Peace, a silent march to mourn all the dead and fallen, no matter who they were, and to reject all forms of violence, no matter the justification, as well as regular protests against atrocities committed by all sides.

Egyptians of all backgrounds should take to the streets to make clear that, though they may disagree fundamentally with one another, they will only defend their beliefs peacefully. People must make clear that they believe in the preciousness of every human life, and in the pragmatic, life-saving, once thoroughly Egyptian notion of live and let live.

The era of artificial national unity is over. But we don’t need to be a unified nation to prosper, and aspirations to becoming a single hand have tended to lead to a crushing, stifling, conformist hegemony. Divided we can also stand tall and strong, if we agree to disagree and accept that the way forward is compromise and consensus, not winner takes all.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated and extended version of an article which first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 19 August 2013.

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How iSlam made the West cool

 
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Those who fear Muslim influence should raise a glass to the Sultan of Style when they freshen up, don the latest fashions or enjoy dining out.

Friday 31 May 2013

Medieval Muslim ‘jamming’. Image: Yorck Project

In the wake of the Woolwich machete attack against an off-duty British army drummer, the stabbing in Paris of a French soldier and the Boston marathon attack, anti-Muslim sentiments have, as might be expected, increased in Europe and the United States.

In the UK, for example, the far-right British National Party (BNP)  which had such a disastrous showing at recent local elections that it has urged it members to “do our bit for Britain and our race” by breeding more  and English Defence League has been mobilising overtime to capitalise on the fallout.

The BNP leader Nick Griffin called ominously on supporters to “join the British resistance“, while another senior party official suggested that the men behind the London murder should be executed. Meanwhile, anti-Muslim hate crimes are running at 10 times their usual rate, according to a British government hotline.

The United States has also experienced a backlash in what Salon dubbed as the “return of the anti-Muslim bigots“. There have been hate crimes as well as suggestions for blanket spying on Muslims.

On both sides of the Atlantic, there has been growing fear of the “Islamisation” of society, while the notion that Muslims stand opposed to Western values is gaining traction. This is reflected in a new cross-border survey, which shows that majorities in a number of Western societies regard Islam as a threat.

As I’ve argued before, and despite my concerns over Islamic radicalism and extremism, Islam is not alien to Western civilisation but an integral part of it. In fact, Islam and the Muslim influence are deeply woven into the West’s social and civilisational fabric.

Readers may well have come across historical explanations of the contributions Muslims made to modern sciences, philosophy, medicine, agriculture, sociology and other areas of learning. Here, I’d like to explore how Muslims helped make the West “cool,” shaped our modern tastes and sensibilities and gave us many things we regard as quintessentially Western, such as the café.

In fact, I’d like to introduce just one man, Ziryab (Blackbird), the Sultan of Style, who, given his contribution to European chic, should have statues erected to him in Milan, Paris, London and New York. Although you may never have heard of this dandy ninth century Muslim, his genius touches the most private and intimate moments of all our lives  modern etiquette would be positively vulgar without his tasteful influence.

Born Abul Hassan Ali Ibn Nafie in modern-day Iraq in 789 AD, he joined the court of the legendary Haroun al-Rashid (also of 1,001 Arabian Nights’ fame) where he was the student of a gifted musician. But after stepping too hard on the toes of his mentor, he hot-heeled it to the rising star of Baghdad’s cultural and scientific rival, Cordoba in Andalusia.

There, he joined the court of the Umayyad Prince of Cordoba Abdel-Rahman II. Islamic Cordoba was a beautiful and manicured metropolis of imposing public buildings, although it still lacked its most famous landmark, the 10th century Great Mosque (the Mezquita, as it is known today).

It boasted about 1,000 mosques, 600 public baths, several hundred public schools and a university, not to mention the grand aqueducts in the surrounding countryside that fed the complex irrigation system introduced to the area by the Arabs.

Although he lived a few centuries before the Renaissance, Ziryab was a true ‘Renaissance man’. In addition to being a polymath with knowledge in astronomy, geography, meteorology and botany, he was also a visionary trendsetter.

As an accomplished singer and musician  he was reputed to have memorized a repertoire of more than 10,000 songs   Ziryab added a fifth string to the Arab oud, creating the lute (which is also etymologically derived from the Arabic al-oud) that would, through the Spanish, spread across Europe.

Ziryab also rearranged musical theory, setting free the metrical and rhythmical parameters, creating new ways of expression (known as mwashah, zajal and nawbah). This musical genius established the world’s first known conservatory where aspiring young musicians learnt harmony and composition and were encouraged to develop musical theory further.

But one thing above all else constitutes Ziryab’s gravest or greatest legacy, depending on your standpoint, to posterity. “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months,” Oscar Wilde, that Ziryab-like Englishman, once retorted. But who, Mr. Wilde, was it that first came up with the revolutionary idea of seasonally shedding our clothes?

Ziryab’s earth-shattering innovation was to submit fashion to the cycle of the seasons. This trendsetter came up with the then outlandish idea that people should wear different styles  and not just more layers or an overcoat  in summer and in winter. He even invented in-between seasons.

This hip Muslim brought a similar orderly flare to food. When people think of haute cuisine, their minds tend to go all Français. French may be the lingua franca of food  with its entrées, appetizers, aperitifs, desserts, etc.  and the French have given us much to savour. However, the modern dining experience was forged in Arabic.

Before Ziryab came along, dining was a freestyle event, even at court. People ate savoury with sweet, fruit with meat, all in one big heap. Abundance, and not order, was the key to successful banquets. But our man revolutionized all that.

Perhaps his highly refined sensibilities were offended by what he saw as a feeding frenzy, or maybe he thought that different tastes should be relished individually. Whatever the reason, our gastronome extraordinaire set about to tame his peers’ eating habits by inventing the multi-course meal. To make the fine dining experience that much more exquisite, Ziryab also invented the drinking glass (fashioned out of glass and crystal).

And, to round off the complete fashion experience, this all-round man also found time to develop a new type of deodorant and invented an early form of toothpaste which became all the rage in Iberia, as well as a type of shampoo. In addition to introducing new hairstyles to the longhaired Cordobans, he also popularised shaving  perhaps foreseeing the bad press beards would get in the 21st century.

Next time you brush your teeth, don the latest fashions, enjoy a delicious three-course meal or raise a glass, don’t forget to toast, or at least spare a thought for, old Ziryab, that uncrowned Sultan of Style  and remember that Muslims have had a cool, and not just a chilling, influence on Western society.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 28 May 2013.

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