The truth about Islamic reformations

 
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By Khaled Diab

Islam needs a reformation for Muslim societies to develop and prosper, is one of those rare convictions shared by both Islamophiles and Islamophobes. Tunisia has done just that: radically reformed its brand of Islam and established a vibrant democracy to boot, yet prosperity eludes it. Why?

This protester spray paints the question: “What are you waiting for?”
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

 Thursday 18 January 2018

Seven years after the downfall of Tunisia’s long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians have been out on the streets once again, in one of the most sustained waves of protest since the 2010/11 revolution.

Paraphrasing the calls demanding the removal of the president in January 2011, the demonstrators of January 2018 have been chanting: “The people want to topple the budget.”

The 2018 budget fuelling public anger led to spikes in value-added tax and social security contributions and a planned slashing of the budget deficit demanded by the IMF, which will cause Tunisia’s poor continued pain. In a bid to counter public anger, the government of President Beji Caid Essebsi unveiled plans to reform medical care, housing and increase aid to the poor.

But the upheavals in Tunisia should, by right, not be happening, according to the received wisdom. Public intellectuals and media celebrities in the West, as well as many Muslim reformers, have been informing us for many years that Islam desperately needs a reformation. This would enable Muslims to shake off benighted Islamic dogma and embrace democracy, heralding an era of freedom and prosperity.

For example, more than a dozen years ago, Thomas Friedman, the guru of hollow, superficial punditry, urged Muslims to embark on a Lutheranesque Reformation to create “an Islam different from the lifeless, anti-modern, anti-Western fundamentalism being imposed in Iran and propagated by the Saudi Wahhabi clerics” – never mind that Martin Luther was a fundamentalist zealot and his reformation plunged Europe into generations of war and conflict.

Friedman also believed that America could expedite this reform process towards an Islamic enlightenment by bombing Iraq and resurrecting it as a beacon of freedom, free markets and democracy –  and we all saw how well that worked out.

Although American ordnance and weapons, unsurprisingly, set Iraq back generations, some countries have found their own way towards democracy and a reformed Islam without the need for trillion-dollar American wars.

Tunisia has, over the past seven years, built up a vibrant and functioning democracy, which has not only avoided the nightmare counter-revolutions and wars which have consumed other countries in the region whose people dared to dream of a better tomorrow, but it also guarantees an impressive range of fundamental freedoms for Tunisian citizens.

Moreover, Tunisia boasts more female representatives than the United States: almost a third of seats in Tunisia’s parliament is held by women, compared with under a fifth in the American Congress. In addition, Tunisia possesses an essential plank of social democracy which has been almost completely dismantled in America: a vibrant trade unions movement.

As for reinventing Islam, Tunisia has been doing that for the past century and a half, which has led to a distinctly Tunisian brand of the religion. In the 19th century, numerous Tunisian intellectuals and activists sought ways to reconcile their faith with modernity and science. In the 1950s, the government led by liberation leader Habib Bourguiba secularised the country and introduced a radical reformist personal status law which equalised the relationship between men and women and banned polygamy.

Fears that reforms would be slowed or reversed by the revolution have proved unfounded. Rather than Islamise society, Tunisian society has secularised the country’s main Islamic party Ennahdha, which has gone from an overtly Islamist platform to reinvent itself as a party of ‘Muslim democrats’.

In recent months, Tunisia has rolled out an impressive package of reforms which will have profound implications on the local brand of Islam, and perhaps Islam in other parts of the Muslim world.

Tunisia’s parliament pushed through landmark legislation to outlaw all forms of violence against women, from street harassment to domestic violence, as well as the scrapping of the controversial practice of allowing a rapist to escape punishment by marrying his victim.

In addition, the government has removed the bureaucratic hurdle that prevented Muslim women from marrying outside their religion. Most ambitiously of all, Tunisia is pursuing legislation that will grant women equal inheritance rights to men, which has provoked the ire of the conservative Muslim establishment elsewhere, including Sunni Islam’s leading institution, Al Azhar.

Despite this impressive political, social, cultural and religious progress, Tunisia’s economic fortunes have not kept pace, the treasure at the end of Friedman’s freedom rainbow has failed to materialise. The economy still grows, but more sluggishly than before, while inflation and unemployment remain high.

So how come Tunisia has not been able to cash in on its reforms?

In my new book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, I offer an explanation for this apparent paradox. At one level, this is because reformations do not lead to socio-economic development but are, instead, the product of it.

In addition, religious, social and political reforms are what you might call the software of development, and Tunisia has given itself a major upgrade in these areas. However, the software is useless without the appropriate hardware. What use is having the operating system for a supercomputer when you only possess a punch-card mainframe to run it on?

And the economic hardware requirements today are exponentially higher than they were when Europe had its Reformation, Counter-Reformation and Enlightenment. Whereas back then, when Christendom was pirating the latest software from Islamic culture and competing to smash Islam’s monopoly on global trade, the hardware requirements, in terms of resources and infrastructure, were relatively modest, today that is no longer the case.

As a small illustration, the OECD group of industrialised states spent, in 2009, $874 billion on research and development. To put that in context, the gross domestic product of Egypt, the most populous Arab country, was $336 billion in 2016, while Tunisia’s is a mere $42 billion, less than half Google’s annual revenue.

And that is just annual spending on R&D. That does not include the huge amounts the West and other advanced economies invest in education, not to mention the generations-long construction of legacy intellectual and technological capital.

Gaining Tunisia and the wider region, not to mention other poorer countries, access to the phenomenal levels of necessary resources will require both a pooling of regional wealth as well as radical policies to address global interstate inequalities. In the absence of enlightened mechanisms for wealth and knowledge sharing and redistribution, we are likely to see the burgeoning of regional and global conflicts that may make the current upheavals seem minor in comparison.

Of course, whether or not democratisation and enlightenment lead to prosperity, they are noble goals to pursue in their own right for the sake of freedom, fairness, justice, knowledge and human dignity. However, if they do not deliver on the economic bottomline, these advances are fragile and can quickly be shattered by popular discontent and populist authoritarian forces. If human enlightenment is to survive, let alone thrive, we need global solutions, not local illusions.

 

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Give Donald Trump a Nobel prize

 
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By Khaled Diab

It is outrageous that the fake news media is not outraged that Donald Trump has been left empty handed at this year’s Nobel awards. This oversight must be rectified next year.

Obama got a prize after eight months, but not Trump.
Photo: Nobel Institute

Friday 6 October 2017

Not only did the Norwegian Nobel Committee pre-emptively award Barack Hussein Obama the Nobel peace prize only eight or so months into his presidency, it has betrayed its liberal bias against Donald Trump. In addition to slapping him in the face, it has undermined his foreign policies by awarding this year’s peace prize to his enemies.

I mean the prize was awarded simultaneously with Trump’s announcement of the “calm before the storm” regarding the Iran nuclear deal. How much more blatant can it get?

And the insult does not end there. The acronym for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons (ICAN) suspiciously echoes Obama’s successful campaign slogan, “Yes, we can.”

I would not be at all surprised that Donald Trump is fuming right now at this double slight and thinking about where the Nobel Committee and the liberal media can stick that award. Yes, they can – truly so.

As a limp-wristed progressive who was opposed to prematurely awarding a peace prize to Obama, whose foreign policy change was cosmetic, I cannot advocate that Trump be awarded the peace prize, as he cooks up conflicts on multiple fronts.

However, there is an award which Trump richly deserves, and I would like to take this opportunity to nominate the American president for next year’s Nobel prize in literature. In fact, I believe Trump should have already been awarded this year’s prize.

Naturally, as a writer and as a reader, I can see why Kazuo Ishiguro deserves respect and how the Japanese-British novelist has “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”.

Nevertheless, with all due respect, while Ishiguro’s pen uncovers the abyss, Donald Trump actually embodies and embraces it. The US president possesses an innovative ability to surpass fiction and actually live it.

The reality TV star’s apparently improbable rise to power is a story whose magical freakism would stretch the credibility of any fiction writer to the limit, yet Trump managed it in real life – whatever that currently means.

Moreover, during his time in office, the US president has demonstrated a singular inability to discern fact from fiction, conspiracy theories from actual conspiracies, facts from alternative facts and truth from post-truth. His detachment from reality would be the envy of any lifelong dictator, but Trump has managed this despotic dissonance in a few short months – perhaps his long career as business monarch prepared him for this fantastical feat.

More impressively still, Donald Trump has managed to persuade millions of his supporters of a number of elaborate, far-fetched fictions, perhaps the most astounding of which is that a self-centred, self-absorbed, selfish billionaire out to enrich himself through public office is somehow the president of the common man and woman who is draining the swamp, making America great again and putting America first.

Awarding Trump the Nobel prize in literature would also continue the creative path beaten by the Swedish Academy last year when it unexpectedly named Bob Dylan its Nobel laureate. If an American rocker can win the Nobel prize in literature, why not an American politician, tycoon and reality TV star?

Naturally, Trump is not the sole political candidate for this prestigious award. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un should be considered as a co-laureate. Both face stiff competition from the likes of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan.

I suspect some readers will disagree with my choice of category and will insist that Donald Trump deserves a Nobel in physics, for the quantum leap he has made in transforming reality into simultaneously a truth and a lie, fact and fiction (faction or fict). Despite his denial of science, Trump demonstrates the possible existence of multiple universes, and that we are suspended in the alternate reality where pink elephants fall out of the sky and explode into a candyfloss mushroom cloud.

Regardless of those alternative possible nominations, I insist that Trump most deserves the literature prize, and I hope the Swedish Academy will award it to him next year – if we are all still here, of course.

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What happens when science fiction crosses into science fact?

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Cloaking devices are the stuff of magic realms and deep-space exploration, not real life. Think again! Making photonic chips invisible to one another could pave the way to computing at the speed of light.

A beamsplitter for silicon photonics chips that is ne-fiftieth the width of a human hair. Image: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering

A beamsplitter for silicon photonics chips that is ne-fiftieth the width of a human hair. Image: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering

Thursday 24 November 2016

Researchers at the University of Utah have developed a cloaking device for truly tiny photonic integrated devices — the building blocks of photonic computer chips that run on light instead of electrical current. While that still sounds fairly fantastical and fanciful, it’s a huge breakthrough for the computer industry, data centres and mobile device-makers, not to mention the environment.

It paves the way for efficient photonic chips which shuttle data around as light photons instead of electrons. This breakthrough in nanophotonic cloaking, making neighbouring devices invisible to one another, was published in the latest edition of the science journal, Nature Communications.

Photonic chips will wind up being much faster, consume less power and give off less heat than today’s silicon-based chips. Think of the possibilities for foresighted entrepreneurs.

Potentially billions of photonic devices could be stuffed inside a chip, each with a specific function in much the same way as transistors work in today’s microchips. One set of devices could perform powerful calculations or programmed simulations while another group processes requests and others maintain everyday functions and updates.

Back-chatting chips

But light is no-one’s slave and cramming so many of these microscopic photonic devices too close together causes leakage. When light leaks the resulting back-chat or cross-talk acts like radio interference. Not good.

Spacing them further apart solves the problem, but this makes the chips too large, especially for mobile devices. The lab guys worked out that using a special nanopatterned, silicon-based coating between photonic devices acts like a “cloak”.

The principle is similar to the Harry Potter invisibility cloak, says Utah’s Rajesh Menon who led the research. It’s like a barrier it pushes the light back into the original device. It is being fooled into thinking there is nothing on the other side.”

10 to 100 times less power

One of the obvious benefits of chips using light photons instead of electrons to transfer data is the energy savings, anywhere from 10 to 100 times less power consumed, according to the Utah team.

Data centres like Google and Facebook will no doubt like the sound of this, but the afterglow of nano-sized photonic devices could light up a range of sectors, from app-makers to serious games to green tech.

In the United States alone, data centres consume around 70 billion kilowatt hours (2014 figures), which is some 1.8% of total electricity consumption, according to research by the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. With the growth in cloud computing and other rapid IT developments, that power usage is expected to rise another 4% by 2020.

By going from electronics to photonics we can make computers much more efficient and ultimately make a big impact on carbon emissions and energy usage for all kinds of things,” concludes Menon.

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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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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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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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إعترافات ملحد مصري

 
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بقلم خالد دياب

رغم عدم الإعتراف بهم، الملحدين ايضاً اولاد بلد ويجب على الدولة والمجتمع ان يعطوهم حقوقهم. 

الأحد 20 اكتوبر 2013

English version

صدق أو لا تصدق، أنا أحد أعضاء أكثر أقلية غير معترف بها فى مصر. لا، لست قبطيا و لا بهائيا. أنا آجنوستى-ملحد أو ملحد-أجنوستى. باختصار، أنا لا أدرى أذا كان الله موجود لكن الدين، من وجهة نظرى المتواضعة، من صنع الإنسان و ليس مرسلاً من السماء.

أذا كان هناك أله، فقد أحدث “الأنفجار العظيم” ثم أختبأ ليشاهد نتيجة عمل القوانين المبهرة التى صنعها لتحكم الكون. هو لا يتدخل في ادارة تفاصيل حياتنا التافهة على رقعة الأرض الحقيرة هذه. نحن لسنا فى مركز مخططه.

هذه أول مرة أعلن فيها عن عدم إيمانى فى جريدة مصرية و سيغضب ذلك بعض القراء وسيجرح مشاعر البعض الأخر. وذلك ليس فى نيتى. مع أنى لا أريد أن أسئ لمعتقدات اى أحد، أعتقد أنه من حقى أيضا أن أعبر عن أعمق قناعاتى التى وصلت أليها بعد سنين من الشك و التساؤل والتردد والتفكير.

عندما يجد الناس الإيمان، نسمع عن تلقي وحي أو عن لحظات تصحو فيها وترى نورا. لا أعلم أن كان هذا صحيحا حيث أنى لم أختبر أى صحوة دينية أبدا. ولكن عندما تفقد دينك، هو شئ أقرب لنزيف بطئ أو الوصول لحالة مزمنة من الوهن قد يتخللها بعض الفترات من التحسن ولكن النهاية قريبة، بما فيها البحث في النفس و تدمير للنفس.

لعلنى شعرت بأقوى حالات الإيمان (والأكثر طفولة) فى بلد غير مسلم ثم فقدته في بلد مسلم، مع أنى لم أهجره تماما ألا بعد رحيلى عن مصر للمرة الثانية. كانت البداية عبارة عن شكوك طفولية حول سبب عدم دخول أصدقائى الإنجليز للجنة عندما يموتون، ثم تطور الأمر لأسئلة حول وضع المرأة والجنس بالإضافة للتناقضات والأخطاء العلمية فى القرآن.

 كما راودتني أسئلة ميتافيزيقية  وفلسفية مثل: لماذا يخلق إله عادل ومحب كائن معيب ثم يضعه تحت اختبار يعرف هذا الإله الغير محدود  نتيجته مقدما؟ بالطبع لا أدعى أن الإسلام ينفرد بذلك، بل تنطبق نفس الأسئلة وأسئلة مشابهة على باقي الأديان.

 أعتقد أن الكثير من المؤمنين سينتابهم الفزع والقلق عند قراءة المقال هذا. ربما سيحزنوا على ضلالي ويتعجبوا من نفسي الجوفاء والفراغ العميق بها. لكن على العكس أنا لا أشعر أن الحادى ترك ثقباً بحجم الله فى قلبى. ولا أنى لاجئ روحاني هائم في مخيمات الأرواح المنفية.

هناك الكثير من الأشياء حولنا التي تملأ مشاعري بالدهشة والغموض. من العلوم والتكنولوجيا التي تقوم “بمعجزات” حديثة ولا نهائية الى النظريات الفيزيائية التي تتسم بجمال في ميتافيزيقيتها. ومن “جزيئات الله” للاعتقاد المجنون بوجود شلال من الأكوان حولنا.

البعض الأخر يعتقد أن الملحد يفقد بوصلته الأخلاقية عندما يتجرد من الدين وأنه يعانى من وجوده في متاهة من العدمية نتيجة استئصال أخلاقه. فى الواقع هذه الفكرة مهينة للإنسانية لأنها مبنية على افتراض أننا أطفال أشقياء لابد من إجبارنا على عمل الصواب والبعد عن الخطأ. الفارق الاساسى بين القواعد الأخلاقية للمؤمن والملحد أن الملحد لديه حرية أكثر لاستخدام العقل فى اختياره للأخلاقيات التي يقرر التمسك بها أو تركها.

اعتقاداتي بأكملها هى ملكي وحدي ولا أنتظر من أحد أن يعتنقها، لأن إيماني ليس دعويا. أنا أعتقد أن كل شخص يجب أن يجد طريقه ويقرر بنفسه ما يريد أن يؤمن به. كل ما أطلبه أن يكف الآخرين عن الدفع بمعتقداتهم فى حلقى أو أن يحاولوا إلغاء معتقداتي، كما فعل العديد من الإسلاميين طوال السنوات الماضية.

 بينما أحترم المعتقدات الدينية للآخرين وأعجب بهؤلاء الذين يملكون التدين والخلق المحب، هناك الكثيرين ممن لا يفعلون مثلى ولا يعطوني نفس الحقوق. ومع أن القانون المصري لا يجرم الإلحاد بوضوح، هناك آليات لملاحقة الملحدين. منمها القانونان المبهمان والمبتكران والمرعبان في نفس الوقت الخاصين بازدراء الأديان والحسبة، ويستخدمهما المحامين الإسلاميين والدولة لملاحقة الملحدين بل أيضا لملاحقة المسلمين المختلفين معهم فى الرأي.

ما لم أتمكن من استيعابه هو كيفية “شعور” دين عمره قرون بالازدراء ولماذا يحتاج الإسلام ناس يوكلوا انفسهم مدافعين عنه في حين أن القرآن نقسه يطالب غير المسلمين بالشك والتساؤل وحتى بالسخرية. في الواقع أي دين يعتقد أن حقائقه دالة وقاطعة الثبوت في حد ذاتها لا يحتاج أيا من أتباعه أن يجبروا الآخرين على اعتناقه.

هناك من سينبذ كلامي على أنه إدعاءات شخص أبتعد كثيرا عن أصوله وعاش بالخارج لمدة طويلة. ومع أني لا أشك أن المراحل التى قضيتها في أوروبا عرضتني لأساليب تفكير مختلفة، لكن أبتعادى عن الدين حدث معظمه أثناء وجودي بمصر على الرغم من جمال المظاهر الدينية العديدة التي أعجبت بها هنا، من الأجواء الإحتفالية المفرطة فى رمضان لنسك الرهبنة في الصحراء.

 من حسن حظي أنه كان بإمكاني قطع صلاتي بالدين فى وسط أقل حدة وورع. حيث أن البعض لم تتوفر له تلك الرفاهية وأنا أعرف العديد من الملحدين والأجنوستيين الذين يخفون حقيقة معتقداتهم عن عائلاتهم خشية من فقدانهم لأحبابهم.

قد يكون من المغرى للبعض أن يرونى شاذا أوحتى مكروها، لكنى أؤكد لهم أنى لست الوحيد. مع أنى كنت صوتا نادرا حينما خرجت من القمقم لأول مرة، لكن الثورة شجعت العديد من الملحدين أن يعبروا عن أفكارهم، حتى وأن كان ذلك محفوفاً بمخاطر فادحة مثل النفي أو النبذ والملاحقة القضائية – مخاطر أصبحت محصنا منها حيث أنى فقط أزور مصر ولا اقيم هناك.

 أما الذين ستغريهم فكرة أن الثورة جائت بأفكار منحلة، أؤكد لهم أن الملحدين كانوا دائما متواجدين بمصر – وفى العلن – و لعبوا أيضا دورا مهما فى تكوين هوية مصر. في الواقع، حتى سبعينات القرن الماضى لعبوا الملحدين ومن أبحروا في تيارات عدم الإيمان دوراً بارزاً في الفكر والثقافة في مصر.

على سبيل المثال، كان رائد الاشتراكية فى مصر سلامة موسى يؤمن أن الناس يجب أن تعتمد فقط على عقولها وأن كل منا يجب أن يأخذ مصيره بيديه. ومن المعروف أن مصطفى محمود، مقدم البرامج التليفزيونية الشهير الذي مزج بين الدين والعلم، كان أيضا ملحدا ثم وجد طريقه للإيمان مرة أخرى، مع انه صرح بأن أعماله الأولى التي أنتقد فبها الدين كانت هي طريقته لاختبار إيمانه.

أحد أعظم فلاسفة مصر الوجوديين في القرن العشرين، عبد الرحمن بدوى، كتب في الأربعينات من القرن الماضي موسوعة عن الملحدين على مر التاريخ الإسلامى. وكان هناك الكثير منهم مثل “داوكنز” الدولة العباسية ابن الراوندى.

يشير البعض إلى أن عدد الملحدين في مصر يفوق عدد المسيحيين. أن صح ذلك يصبح الإلحاد ثاني أكبر معتقد في المجتمع. لن نعرف في المستقبل القريب عددهم، حيث لا يعترف بالملحدين أو يحصيهم أحد. والتمييز الذي يتعرضون له دفع الكثير منهم أن يخفوا وجودهم. لكن من المؤكد أن بجانب الإيمان كان دائما الإلحاد جزء أساسي من نسيج مصر الإجتماعى وإنكار ذلك لا يولد سوى النفاق.

 حان الوقت لنعترف بكامل حقوق الملحدين بما في ذلك حقهم في حرية الإعتقاد بما يشاؤا وحقهم فى ألا يصنفوا على أنهم أتباع أيا من الأديان السماوية الثلاثة وكافة حقوقهم المدنية مثل باقى المصريين.

 فوق كل شئ، نريد أن ينظر لنا بمساواة كمواطنين وليس كأهداف للملاحقة القضائية والأسوأ من ذلك… للاضطهاد.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

نشر هذا المقال في The Daily News Egypt في 15 اغسطس 2013. الترجمة العربية من خلال باسم رؤوف

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Confessions of an Egyptian infidel

 
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By Khaled Diab

Though never officially recognised, atheists and agnostics have always been part of Egypt. Society now needs to grant us our right not to believe.

Monday 19 August 2013

إقراء بالعربي

Believe it or not, I am a member of Egypt’s least-recognised minority. No, I’m not a Copt or a convert or a Bahá’í even. I am an agnostic atheist, or an atheistic agnostic. Basically, I don’t know whether or not God exists, but religion, in my humble view, is clearly manmade and not heaven-sent.

If there is a god, he set off the Big Bang and then took cover to view the handiwork of the magnificent laws he set in motion to govern the universe. He is not an interventionist micro-manager who, for some unfathomable reason, decided to place us, insignificant flecks on the back of an insignificant speck that we are, at the centre of his entire scheme.

This is the first time I’ve made such a declaration of faith, or faithlessness, in an Egyptian newspaper, and it is bound to outrage some readers and cause offence to others. That is not my intention. Although I do not wish to insult people’s most intimate beliefs, I believe I also have a right to express my heartfelt convictions, and ones which I arrived at after years of doubt, questioning, hesitation and thought.

When it comes to finding religion, we hear of epiphanies, moments when someone suddenly wakes up and sees the light. I don’t know if this is true, since I’ve never experienced a religious awakening. When it comes to losing your religion, as REM might put it, it’s more like a slow bleed or a debilitating terminal condition in which there can be periods of recovery but the end is not far off; it involves soul-searching and soul-destruction.

I felt perhaps my strongest (and youngest) faith in a non-Muslim country and lost it in a Muslim country, though I did not fully abandon it until I left Egypt again. It began with childhood doubts over why all my English friends would be going to hell when they eventually died, which matured into questions over the status of women and sexuality, as well as the contradictions and scientific errors in the Quran.

That’s not to mention the more metaphysical and philosophical questions, such as why a just and loving God would intentionally create a flawed being whom he places in a test which the omnipresent, omniscient deity already knows the outcome? Of course, I’m not singling out Islam – the same and similar questions apply to other religions.

Many believers, I imagine, will read the above with a mix of horror and even concern. They will perhaps grieve for my lost soul and wonder what emptiness and hollowness lie inside. But, on the contrary, I don’t feel that my loss of faith has left me with a God-sized hole in my heart. Nor am I like a spiritual refugee slumming it out in some frontier camp for exiled souls.

There is so much around us to instil a sense of wonder and mystique, from the science and technology that can perform endless modern-day “miracles” to the physics theories that are metaphysical in their beauty, from the God particle to the zany notion that a cascade of multiverses exists.

Others assume that deprived of religion, the non-believer loses his or her moral compass, suffers a lobotomy of his morals and exists in an ethics-free nihilistic haze. But this notion is frankly insulting to humanity as it is built on the assumption that we are errant children who have to be coerced into doing right and avoiding wrong. The main difference between the morality of the faithful and faithless is that the non-believer is much freer to exercise reason to decide which ethics to uphold and which to jettison.

My convictions are entirely my own and I don’t expect others to adopt them. Mine is not a proselytising “faith”. I believe that everyone should find their own path and decide for themselves what they wish to believe in. All I ask is that others refrain from shoving their beliefs down my throat or try nullifying mine, as numerous Islamists have done over the years.

While I respect people’s religious beliefs and admire those of a forgiving and loving spiritual disposition, there are many who do not, or would not accord me the same right. Although Egyptian law does not explicitly outlaw atheism, there are other mechanisms for targeting non-believers. These include the vague, innovative and frightening legal concepts of “insulting” and “ridiculing” religion, as well as hisbah, which have been used by crusading Islamist lawyers and the state to target non-believers but far more often believers with a different interpretation of their faith.

What I’ve never been able to get my head around is how any centuries-old religion could feel insult, and why Islam would need self-appointed defenders when the Quran itself challenges non-Muslims to doubt, question and even mock. In fact, any faith which believes its truths are self-evident does not need any of its followers to coerce and intimidate others into obedience.

There are those who will dismiss what I say as the ranting of someone who has moved too far away from his roots and lived abroad for too long. Although I do not doubt that the phases I have spent in Europe have exposed me to alternative way of thinking, most of my drift away from religion occurred in Egypt, despite the numerous beautiful aspects I admire about faith here, from the festive excesses of Ramadan to the monastic frugalities of the desert.

Fortunately for me, I was able to sever my ties with religion in a less intense, demanding and pious environment. Others have not had that luxury, and I know quite a few atheists and agnostics who hide their true beliefs from their families or are discreet about them out of fear of losing their loved ones.

It might be tempting for some to view me as an aberration, even an abomination, but I can assure them I am by far not alone.  Although I was a rare voice when I first came out of the closet, the revolution has emboldened many more non-believers to speak their  mind, even when it comes at the great personal risk of ostracism and prosecution, risks I am relatively immune to now that I only visit Egypt.

For those who may be tempted to think that the revolution has brought with it decadent ideas, let me stress that non-believers have always been around in Egypt – often openly – and have played important roles in shaping the country’s identity. In fact, up until the 1970s, atheists and those who sailed close to the wind of non-belief were prominent in the country’s intelligentsia.

For example, the pioneer of socialism in Egypt, Salama Moussa, believed that people must depend only on their minds and that each of us must “take his destiny into his own hands.” It is widely reputed that Mustafa Mahmoud, the popular TV presenter who blended religion with science, was an atheist who found God, though he himself claimed that his earlier works criticising religion were his way of testing his faith.

One of Egypt’s greatest philosophers of the 20th century, the existentialist Abdel Rahman Badawi, wrote, in the 1940s, an encyclopaedia of atheists throughout Islamic history. And there have been plenty of those, such as the Dawkins of the Abbasid era Ibn Al-Rawandi.

There are even atheists who speculate that the number of non-believers in Egypt could potentially exceed the number of Christians. If true, that would make non-belief the second largest faith community.

For the foreseeable future, we will not know as nobody has bothered to recognise or count them, and the discrimination they face has led many to lead an underground existence. But what is certain is that, alongside belief, non-belief has always been an integral part of Egypt’s social fabric, and denying they exist only breeds hypocrisy.

It is time that atheists and agnostics have their rights recognised in full, including their right to freely believe what they want, their right not to be described as a member of one of the three heavenly faiths, and their right, along with other Egyptians, to access civil courts.

Above all, we need to be regarded as equal citizens and not as targets for prosecution… or worse, persecution.

 

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 15 August 2013.

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Islamism is the illusion

 
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By Khaled Diab

Islamism is not the solution but is built on an illusion. Islam’s past strength was actually a secular one based on free thought.

Saturday 17 August 2013

SONY DSC“The people want to apply God’s law,” one group of male protesters chanted.

“Islamic, Islamic, Egypt rejects secularism,” a group of women sang in rhyming Arabic prose, their tone that of a wedding party.

As if that wasn’t enough, all over the Raba’a al-Adawiya encampment, what seems to be a current hit on the Islamist charts was urging everyone within earshot of a loudspeaker to “Tell the world that Egypt is Islamic.”

But that is not exactly the message that has been reaching the international community from the pro-Morsi camp. Although only a single letter separates the two in Arabic, there is a world of difference between the democratic legitimacy (Shari’ya) the Muslim Brotherhood asks of the world and the Shari’a protesters were loudly demanding.

“I want to defend my religion and my country’s Islamic identity,” Mohamed Eissa, 20, told me, adding that he wanted Egypt to implement Shari’a. And what about democracy, I wondered? “If we apply Shari’a, we will have the best democracy in the world,” he claimed.

I doubt many non-Islamists when they think of Morsi’s “democratic legitimacy” would ever associate that with implementing Shari’a, as countries which have done so sit near the bottom of the league in terms of freedoms and rights.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As I stood there in Raba’a, a scarce secular soul, I pondered a question I have asked myself repeatedly: what exactly is the point of the Islamist project in a Muslim society?

After all, Egypt already implements Shari’a in its personal and family law, with all the gender and other inequalities that involves. In addition, there is absolutely nothing to stop a devout Muslim from practising every facet of his or her faith.

In contrast, Egypt has no civilian family courts for those who wish to run their personal affairs according to modern, secular standards. Moreover, though freedom of expression is a constitutional right, this freedom has been severely curtailed in recent years by the obscure, vague and innovative legal concept of “insulting religion”.

But does centuries-old Islam, the world’s second largest religion, really need self-appointed defenders to shield it from “insult”, when the Qur’an itself welcomes doubt, questioning and even ridicule?

And why do these self-appointed defenders of the faith contradict the example of the prophet they claim to emulate? For instance, Muhammad pardoned one of his scribes, Abdullah Ibn Saad, even after he claimed that the Qur’an was invented and Muhammad was a false prophet.

These examples highlight how Islamism, rather than providing the solution, as it claims, is actually built on an illusion.

Islamist discourse, on the whole, holds that the reason for the Muslim world’s decline is its deviation from Islamic law and values. That explains why Hassan al-Banna, despite his attempts to inject some elements of modernity into traditional Islamic thought, fixated on questions of morality and Shari’a. One of his ideological descendants, Sayyid Qutb, went so far as to invent the dangerous idea that Muslims were living a period of modern “Jahiliyyah” (pre-Islamic ignorance).

But by misdiagnosing the malaise afflicting society, Islamists have prescribed totally the wrong medicine, with severe and debilitating side effects.

Any objective, dispassionate reading of Islamic history reveals that Islam’s former glory was actually built on a largely secular foundation. In addition, the start of its decline coincided with the victory of rigid dogma and orthodoxy – represented by the likes of the “father of Salafism” Ibn Taymiyyah in the 14th century – over reason and intellect.

Muhammad himself never established anything resembling what we would call an “Islamic state” today. His secular-sounding Constitution of Medina actually defines Jews, Christians and pagans – i.e. every member of Medina’s society – as being full and equal members of the Ummah.

During what is widely regarded as Islam’s “golden age”, the political and social mechanisms governing the lives of Muslims were generally secular. Though the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs derived their claim to legitimacy from Islam, they were essentially secular rulers, presiding over secular governments. They were autocratic, not theocratic.

In fact, their honorific title “commanders of the faithful”suggests that caliphs derived their authority from their Muslim (and other) subjects and not from Islam itself. Moreover, most enlightened caliphs were derided by conservatives and traditionalists as immoral and decadent.

Take Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph and stuff of legends. Under his rule, the sciences, culture and the arts flourished, despite clergy’s disapproval of the company he and his libertine son, al-Amin kept, including the outrageous and camp court poet, Abu Nuwas, considered the greatest poet of his time.

Freethinking philosophy also flourished during this era, both under the Abbasids and the Umayyads. The Muʿtazilah, for example, held that rationality, expressed through reasoned debate known as “kalam”, are the “final arbiter” that trumps “sacred precedent”.

In such a climate, it is unsurprising that non-belief was accepted and atheistic scholars, such as Ibn al-Rawandi were published, only to have their works destroyed by later, less tolerant generations.

The reasons for Islam’s subsequent relative decline are manifold: the loss of dominance over global trade, the Mongol invasions, intellectual stagnation, infighting and factionalism, colonialism, and more.

However, deviation from some imagined “pure” moral state is not one of the factors, and belief in this illusory mirage will delay effective reform. In the 21st century, the best system that encompasses the spirit of past Muslim success is enlightened secularism. That might explain why the renowned 19th-century reformer Muhammad Abduh once said that in France he saw “Islam without Muslims”.

 

Note: This article was written before the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi encampments occurred.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The National on 15 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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