Tag Archives: Islam

darwish

Quoted in the Guardian on banning Darwish in Saudia Arabia

Last week, the works of the celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish were removed from the Riyadh International Book Fair because they were ‘blasphemous’.  A spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture and Information said the books “violated the kingdom’s laws”.  This theological position comes about because in some of his work Darwish treats Judaism, Christianity and Islam as equivalents, which obviously upsets the fundamentalists.

I spoke to the Guardian about the ban and was quoted in their report:

But the writers’ group English PEN issued a stinging rebuttal to the move. “It is bizarre and disappointing that the government of Saudi Arabia has allowed a small group of people to censor one of the Islamic world’s most important modern poets. The Riyadh international book fair is supposed to promote culture and commerce in Saudi Arabia, but this incident has had precisely the opposite effect,” said its head of campaigns, Robert Sharp. He also pointed to the case of newspaper columnist Hamza Kashgari, who was imprisoned without trial in Saudi Arabia for two years after he posted a short series of tweets in which he imagined a dialogue with the Prophet Muhammad.

“Blasphemy laws stunt cultural development,” said Sharp. “If the government truly wishes Islamic art and culture to flourish in the Kingdom, it must urgently repeal these outdated laws.”

 

 

Free Speech, Offence, and Maajid Nawaz

Maajid Nawaz, the author of Radical and the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, has been at the centre of a controversy this week, after he tweeted a image from the satirical Jesus and Mo cartoon series.  Maajid had been a guest on the BBC’s The Big Questions debate show, where the illustration had been discussed.  He made the point that as a liberal Muslim, he found nothing offensive about the cartoon.

Cue an angry social media backlash.  Many people tweeted their condemnations and threats over what they perceived as a blasphemy.
Continue reading

The diversity of the hijab

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When I was at University and introducing myself to ideas of multiculturalism, orientalism and Samuel Huntington’s (at that time, relatively new) Clash of Civilisations thesis, I distinctly remember being surprised by the attire of a fellow student in the canteen. She wore a black hijab with a huge sequined YSL logo down the back. I remember being surprised that someone who wore such a conservative piece of clothing should also be concerned with such Western concepts as fashion labels.

Of course, that was me just being casually prejudiced on a number of different levels, and I learnt a lot from that short encounter with the back of that woman’s head. No culture or sub-culture has the monopoly on the chic, the fashionable, the well made, the comfortable; Fashion concerns are not the preserve of urban, anti-religious, counter-cultural types. And most importantly, it is possible that the hijab is more than a conservative, patriarchal garb. It can be a means for self-expression just like any other type of clothing.

Artist Sara Shamsavari’s photographs explore this last lesson. Her street photography, exhibited from tomorrow at the Royal Festival Hall, explores the myriad fashion decisions that follow a woman’s choice to wear a hijab or headscarf.

Looking at the photos, I am reminded of an article entitled ‘The Muslim Sartorialist‘ on the MENA focused blog, Aqoul:

Ever heard of the Sartorialist? It’s basically a photo blog done by a guy with a keen eye for fashion. He photographs people in trendy European and North American cities and adds little blurbs about why he thinks the outfits are interesting.

Now, I’ve always taken note of fashionable Muslim girls around me. They are masters of layering, texture and coordination. Whether it’s at the mall, a pretentious cafe or even my gym (where one stylish muhajabat routinely schools me on the treadmill), these ladies are not held back by their headscarves. Unfortunately, most of the photos you find on news sites are of women wearing frumpy hijabs, dowdy overcoats and ominous-looking ninja getups (as Lounsbury likes to call them). Western media is inundated with photos of shapeless baby-blue Afghan burkas and Saudi niqabs, so it’s hardly surprising that most non-Muslims think this style of dress is ubiquitous.

Sara Shamsavari is Iranian, which reminds me of Andrew Sullivan’s ‘Outing Iran‘ series from around the time of the 2009 elections and protests. No, not an assertion that everyone in Iran is gay. Just a recognition of the diversity of opinion and the radical art that is produced inside societies a d cultures we lazily consider to be monolithic.

There has been a lot of this kind of art in the UK in recent years. The London Olympics was a catalyst for this Kind of commissioning. One might even say that in 2013, this exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall is not particularly radical! I wonder whether London is the most appropriate place for this kind of exhibition. Perhaps it should tour to, oh, I don’t know… Bradford? Or Hampshire?

On Politics, Power and the Pulpit

Following the news that two members of Pussy Riot have been sent to remote penal colonies in Russia, UCB Radio asked me on to Paul Hammond’s show on to discuss ‘Politics and the Pulpit’.

Is a church an appropriate place for political messages?   There are two aspects to this question. The first is whether activists should protest in a Church.  Was the uninvited ‘hooliganism’ of Pussy Riot justified? I cited the example of Jesus himself, who caused havoc in the Temple in what was surely a political as well as spiritual protest (see, for example, Mark 11-15). Continue reading

Comparing Like for Like in the Blasphemy Debate

Yesterday I expressed some unease at the way the theological and philosophical debate about blasphemy obscures other reasons why there are protests in the Middle East. This article from Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times is an excellent example of what I mean:

“PISS CHRIST,” a famous photograph partly financed by taxpayers, depicted a crucifix immersed in what the artist said was his own urine. But conservative Christians did not riot on the Washington Mall.

“The Book of Mormon,” a huge hit on Broadway, mocks the church’s beliefs as hocus-pocus. But Mormons haven’t burned down any theaters.

So why do parts of the Islamic world erupt in violence over insults to the Prophet Muhammad?

Note how the two examples of religions tolerating satire are drawn from the US? Kristof then goes International to talk about the violence of Islam.

A more apt comparison would have been with how American Muslims react to satire and ridicule. I do not doubt they raise protest – just as Christians raised protest over the “Piss Christ” art – but they do not engage in violent protest. For one thing, the police are strong enough to put a stop to such violence. But also, society is strong enough that chaotic protests, effigy burning and death are non-existent. Kristof’s sleight-of-keyboard suggests he might be pursuing and ideological agenda, rather than honestly compare like-with-like.

A better example of how to tackle this point was given this morning by none other than Douglas Murray. The Spectator columnist is a known Muslim-baiter, but during his appearance on Sunday Morning Live today, he was keen to point out early on that the protests we have seen this week were isolated and localised to particular countries, and that it was wrong to treat all Muslims as a monolithic block.

Censoring Inflammatory YouTubes

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The ‘Innocence of Muslims’ nonsense also raises the questions on the other side of the controversy: should the American filmmakers have published the video? Should they have been are allowed to upload it to YouTube?

First: The principles of free speech are pretty clear cut in this case. The video is pretty awful, but does not call for violence towards anyone. So banning such a video would set a terrible precedent. It would allow the religious to censor criticism of their religion… And God knows, the Christian fundamentalists in the USA would relish that opportunity.

However, the question of whether the authors should have made the video is another matter. I wish they had not. They did it for hateful, disrespectful reasons. It comes from a bigoted mindset, and is designed to provoke and inflame. People who make that kind of art tend not to be very nice, interesting, or intelligent. But, to repeat the key point of the article I wrote about Günter Grass for the New Statesman, To say this is an act of artistic and moral criticism, not a statement on the principles of free speech.

Finally: should YouTube have removed the clip or suppressed it in certain countries? They did precisely this in Egypt, I believe. I think that this might be the most interesting part of the whole affair. On the one hand, YouTube is a private company, with its own Terms & Conditions that are distinct from the law of the land. If it wants to set a higher bar for free expression then I suppose it has the right to do that. On the other hand, YouTube has become so ubiquitous that It has become part of our public square, a shared communal space that is essential for democracy. Perhaps it has to act more like a government than a private company, and take a more permissive attitude to free expression.

Blasphemy and Cynical Plays for Power

I really shouldn’t let the weekend start without jotting a few notes about the ongoing unrest in the Middle East, provoked by the YouTube video “The Innocence of Muslims” and fuelled by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The protests have sparked another round of analysis of the the Muslim faith, with the predictable indictment of Islam as uniquely intolerant. The Onion published a very funny NSFW cartoon, blasphemous to all religions except Islam, with the headline ‘No-one Murdered Because of This Image’. Funny, yes, but not actually accurate as satire. The fundamentalist Hindus of India are not above threats and riots when their sacred images are appropriated. The internationally acclaimed artist MF Hussain spent his twilight years in exile because of threats made by his own countrymen, such was their dislike of his Mother India paintings. And Richard Gere’s effigy was burned by an angry mob after he kissed Shilpa Shetty.

The fact that Hindus riot too is instructive. When they do, it is at the encouragement of nationalists groups like Shiv Sena, who seek political power through demonisation and division. When Muslims riot, it is similarly due to local leaders seeking to win political support. Even the Salman Rushdie fatwā (also in the news this week due to the publication of Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton) was raised by Ayatollah Khomeini as part of a power-play. The old Ayatollah had been losing political support in the months leading up to Valentine’s Day 1989, when the infamous decree was issued. Continue reading

Oxford Skyline by Ed Webster

Call to Prayer, Eastern Spice

Its been a while since a good multicultural conundrum came along to bother us. For a while, I thought that the issue of the mosque in Oxford that wants to broadcast its call to prayer might be one such issue, but while reading a couple of articles in order to write a blog, I came across this quote from the Telegraph:

“We want to fix a loudspeaker to our minaret to broadcast our call to prayer. We would like to have three two-minute calls a day, but if that is not accepted then we would like to have it at least on Fridays.

“In Islamic counties the call is loud so people are reminded to come to prayer. We do not need the volume to be loud, that can be adjusted because our members have a time-table for the prayers. But we want to have the call in some form because it is our tradition.”

Now this doesn’t look like a culture clash to me, so much as groups engaging in a dialogue with a local authority, just as they should in a liberal democracy. It is being portrayed as an example of the Muslim community making unreasonable demands, when in fact it is merely a polite request, and a modest one at that. Its obvious that the Friday broadcast will be approved, and tolerated, and finally accepted as part of the city, just like football stadiums, nightclubs, and cathedral bells.

Some, such as Daniel Finkelstein in the Times today, complain that this particular addition to Oxford’s sound-scape amounts to an erosion of British, Christian culture. Yet I do not see the validity in this argument. First, we know that culture is a nebulous term and cannot be protected in the way Finkelstein suggests. Adding a new tradition for Oxford does not dilute or those already in existence – it is not as if noise is regulated by a carbon-like trading scheme. Nor is it the case, as Finkelstein seems to suggest, that the existence of a call to prayer will somehow undermine Anglicanism. Religions are not chain pubs trying to out-do one another with larger and brighter advertisements of cheap beer. The call to prayer will not tempt customers aways from the church down the road (and in any case, the wine they serve in the mosque is horrible).

If anything, a new sound in the mix causes us to notice and appreciate the others already there. In this sense, the muzezzin’s call is a piece of genuine Eastern spice.

Second, if anywhere in the country should have a Call to Prayer, its Oxford. The city of dreaming spires is well known for its theological heritage, from medieval times up to the present day. It has been a centre for the study of Islam, the Orient, and Arabic for centuries.

To my mind, only thing offensive about the Call to Prayer is the often poor quality loudspeakers through which it is piped. This is not an offence to culture, but to the good taste for which we British are so well known. Oxford City Council should ensure that funds are available for a decent sound-system, which can do justice to the full-flavoured tones of the vocallist. Either that, or some kind of scholarship so that young men and women can train to sing the call unamplified, like opera singers, choirboys, and (so long as we are talking traditions, here) town criers.

(Cross posted at the Liberal Conspiracy)

Ahmadinejad damages the Palestinian cause

The letters page in The Guardian gives severla lucid responses to President Ahmadinejad’s “wipe them from the map” comments. (via DSTPFW)

Dr Nur Masalha, the British-Palestinian author-academic, writes:

I believe we (Palestinian Muslims and Christians) should always make a clear distinction between our political struggle against institutionalised racism and ethnic cleaning in Palestine-Israel and the fact that we and the Israelis would, ultimately, have to live together as equal citizens under some form of secular democracy – and not wipe each other out.

We should concieve of all these global troubles as a civil war within the species of homo sapien. I repeat: The fundamentalists are the enemy, be it Ahmadinejad and his call for a new holocaust; or the ultra-Zionists who declare that the Arabs of Palestine have no right to live in the West Bank.

Robert Kilroy-Silk is a waste of space

Once again, real issues have been marred by people who do not know how to have an argument. I refer of course to the embarrassing piece of human discourse that was the Kilroy affair. The article at the centre of the argument was very bad, but in some ways the arguments against it were worse, because they lent credence to Robert Kilroy-Silk where absolutely none was due.

In years to come, historians will hold up the article as a prime example not of human ignorance or bigotry, but of human idiocy. It is likely that they will give short shrift to the article itself, which embarrasses itself with inaccuracies, sentence construction, and ignorance: Kilroy-Silk says that no-one can think of anything the Arabs have ever given us. To this, the long list of retorts begins with an ‘a’ for algebra, and continues from there.

His one vaguely pertinent point – that Arab states should not be supported – is given an entirely offensive new meaning by the fact that he confuses ‘Arab states’ with ‘Arabs.’ His “grammatical error” (if we assume that is what it was) betrays a general immaturity of thought – that to speak of a people, is to speak of their government, and vice-versa. It is not racist to criticise the policies of the state of Israel, the USA, or any of the Islamic middle-eastern states. I believe all deserve the criticism ten-fold. Indeed, it can never be racist to genuinely question the policies of anyone, or anything. However, it is the very definition of racism is to ascribe the policies of a few, to a whole race, for that is a prejudice. To rail against The Arabs, The Jews, The Americans is nonsensical, for they are groups of individuals about which we know very little except where they live.

It is therefore nonsense to say that Mr Kilroy-Silk has a right to free speech over this issue, because his article has nothing logical or interesting to say. It is as if he had declared that he was actually a Vauxhall Astra 1.6 convertible, and then someone said “Well, I disagree with him, but everyone has a right to their opinion.” With free speech comes the responsibility to string your words together in a proper order, a task at which Mr Kilroy-Silk has manifestly failed.

The right to free speech is also attached to the responsibility to research your topic. We should not expect everyone in the UK to understand that Iran is not an Arab state (indeed, their proximity makes this a forgivable mistake). However, such knowledge is a pre-requisite for someone such as Kilroy-Silk, who was commenting directly on the issue. The BBC took the ridiculous step of suspending Kilroy-Silk and his programme only after complaints were made. They should have sacked him immediately: not because they disagreed with the article, but for proving beyond reasonable doubt what a rubbish journalist he actually is. The Sunday Express should be vilified for printing what is unarguably shoddy journalism.

The editors at The Sunday Express are the chief culprits in this tale of human stupidity. Their response to the complaints was to remark that the article had been printed in April, and no one had complained! This is an argument that could be used to justify any of the holocausts that stain our history. If something is only made racist or wrong by the number of complaints received, then every unreported crime is acceptable… Perhaps during the article’s first publication, the complainants were reading a better newspaper. More likely, they were too busy complaining to the Express about something else.

Every day, the foolishness of our media, and the inability of our politicians to ever make a proper argument, draws me closer to my depressing conclusion: we still live in the dark ages, where false arguments justify false aims. Historians of the future will group this new century in with all its predecessors, and call it the pre-enlightenment age. They will not bother trying to learn anything from this era, for it is already stained with the mark of a village idiot. The controversy surrounding Robert Kilroy-Silk’s article is the latest in an infamous tradition of mad hatter tea-parties. Like the dormouse, we shall sleep through many more.