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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Islam, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. The French burqa ban

On 1 July 2014, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) announced its latest judgment affirming France’s ban on full-face veil (burqa law) in public (SAS v. France). Almost a decade after the 2005 controversial decision by the Grand Chamber to uphold Turkey’s headscarf ban in Universities (Leyla Sahin v. Turkey), the ECHR made it clear that Muslim women’s individual rights of religious freedom (Article 9) will not be protected. Although the Court’s main arguments were not the same in each case, both judgments are equally questionable from the point of view of protecting religious freedom and of the exclusion of Muslim women from public space.

The recent judgment was brought to the ECHR by an unnamed French woman known only as “SAS” against the law introduced in 2011 that makes it illegal for anyone to cover their face in a public place. Although the legislation includes hoods, face-masks, and helmets, it is understood to be the first legislation against the full-face veil in Europe. A similar ban was also passed in Belgium after the French law. France was also the first country to ban the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols” – directed at the wearing of the headscarf in public high schools — in 2004. Since then several European countries have established policies restricting Muslim religious dress.

The French law targeted all public places, defined as anywhere not the home. Penalties for violating the law include fines and citizenship lessons designed to remind the offender of the “republican values of tolerance and respect for human dignity, and to raise awareness of her penal and civil responsibility and duties imposed life in society.”

SAS argued the ban on the full-face veil violated several articles of the European Convention and was “inhumane and degrading, against the right of respect for family and private life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of speech and discriminatory.” She did not challenge the requirement to remove scarves, veils and turbans for security checks, also upheld by the ECHR. The ECHR rejected her argument and accepted the main argument made by the government: that the state has a legitimate interest in promoting a certain idea of “living together.”

By now, it is clear that Article 9 of the European Convention does not protect freedom of religion when the subject is a woman and the religion is Islam. While this may seem harsh, consider the ECHR’s 2011 judgment in Lautsi v. Italy, which found the display of the crucifix in Italian state schools compatible with secularism.

In Lautsi case, the Court argued that the symbol did not significantly impact the denominational neutrality of Italian schools because the crucifix is part of Italian culture. Human rights scholars have not missed the contrast between the Italian case and the earlier 2005 decision in Leyla Sahin v Turkey where the Court found that the wearing of the headscarf by students was not compatible with the principle of laicité or secularism.

The Court did not make a value judgment in SAS case about Islam, women’ rights in Islamic societies, or gender equality, as it did in earlier cases where they upheld bans on the wearing of the headscarf by teachers and students in France, Turkey and Switzerland. In all cases involving Islamic dress codes, the ECHR emphasized the “margin of appreciation” rule, which permits the court to defer to national laws.

The ECHR acted politically and opportunistically not to challenge France’s strong Republicanism and principles of laicité, sacrificing the rights of the small minority of Muslims who wear the full-face veil. Rather than protecting the individual freedom of the 2000 women, the ECHR protected the majority view of France.

The ECHR is the most powerful supra national human rights court and its decisions have widespread impact. Several countries in Europe, such as Denmark, Norway, Spain, Austria, and even the UK, have already started to discuss whether to create similar laws banning the burqa in public places. This raises concerns that cases related to the cultural behavior and religious practices of minorities could shift public opinion dangerously away from the principles of multiculturalism, democracy, human rights and religious tolerance.

Libyan girl wearing a niqab, by ليبي صح. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Libyan girl wearing a niqab, by ليبي صح. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The most recent law bans the full-face veil, but tomorrow, the prohibitions may be against halal food, circumcision, the location of a mosque or the visibility of a minaret; even religious education might be banned for reasons of public health, security or cultural integration. Muslims, Roma, and to some extent Jews and Sikhs, are already struggling to be accepted as equal citizens in Europe, where right wing extremism is rising, in a situation of economic crisis.

The ECHR should be extremely careful in its decisions, given the growth of nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe.Considering this context, the EHCR’s main argument in this latest judgment is worrisome, since it accepted France’s view that covering the face in public runs counter to the society’s notion of “living together,” even though this is not one of the principles of the European Convention.

The Court recognized that the concept of “living together” was problematic (Para 122). And, even in using the “wide margin of appreciation” rule, the Court acknowledged that it should “engage in a careful examination” to avoid majority’s subordination of minorities. Considering the Court’s own rules, the main reasoning for the full face veil ban—“living together” seems to be inconsistent with the Court’s own jurisprudence.

Further concerns were raised about Islamophobic remarks during the adoption debate of the French Burqa Law, and evidence that prejudice and intolerance against Muslims in French society influenced the adoption of the law. Such concerns were more strongly raised by the two dissenting opinions. The dissent found the Court’s insensitivity to what’s needed to ensure tolerance between the vast majority and a small minority could increase tensions (Para 14). The dissenting opinion was especially critical of prioritizing “living together,” not even a Convention principle, over “concrete individual rights” guaranteed by the Convention.

While the integration of Muslims and other immigrants across Europe is a legitimate concern, it is vitally important the ECHR’s constructive role. The decision in SAS v France is a dangerous jurisprudential opening for future cases involving the religious and cultural practices of minorities. The French burqa law has created discomfort among Muslims. By upholding the law, the European court deepens the mistrust between the majority of citizens and religious minorities.

Headline image credit: Arabic woman in Muslim religious dress, © Vadmary, via iStock Photo..

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2. Is Islamic history in danger of becoming irrelevant?

By Paul Cobb


Recently the jihadist insurgent group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) underwent a re-branding of sorts when one of its leaders, known by the sobriquet Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was proclaimed caliph by the group’s members. In keeping with the horizonless pretentions that such a title theoretically conveys, the group dropped their geographical focus and embraced a more universalist outlook, settling for the name of the ‘Islamic State’.

As a few observers have noted, the title of caliph comes freighted with a long and complicated history. That history begins in the seventh century AD, when the title was adopted to denote those leaders of the Muslim community who were recognized as the Prophet Muhammad’s “successors”— not prophets themselves of course, but men who were expected, in the Prophet’s absence, to know how to guide the community spiritually as well as politically. Later in the medieval period, classical Islamic political theory sought to carefully define the pool from which caliphs might be drawn and to stipulate specific criteria that a caliph must possess, such as lineage, probity, moral standing and so on. Save for his most ardent followers, Muslims have found al-Baghdadi — with his penchant for Rolex watches and theatrical career reinventions — sorely wanting in such caliphal credentials.

He’s not the only one of course. Over the span of Islamic history, the title of caliph has been adopted by numerous (and sometimes competing) dynasties, rebels, and pretenders. The last ruler to bear the title in any significant way was the Ottoman Abdülmecid II, who lost the title when he was exiled in 1924. And even then it was an honorific supported only by myths of Ottoman legitimacy. But it’s doubtful that al-Baghdadi gives the Ottomans much thought. For he is really tapping into a much more recent dream of reviving the caliphate embraced by various Islamist groups since the early 20th century, who saw it as a precondition for reviving the Muslim community or to combat Western imperialism. Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate is thus a modern confection, despite its medieval trappings.

That an Islamic fundamentalist (to use a contested term of its own) like al-Baghdadi should make an appeal to the past to legitimate himself, and that he should do so without any thoughtful reference to Islamic history, is of course the most banal of observations to make about his activities, or about those of any fundamentalist. And perhaps that is the most interesting point about this episode. For the utterly commonplace nature of examples like al-Baghdadi’s clumsy claim to be caliph suggest that Islamic history today is in danger of becoming irrelevant.

Caliph Abdulmecid II, the last Caliph before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Caliph Abdulmecid II, the last Caliph before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

This is not because Islamic history has no bearing upon the present Islamic world, but because present-day agendas that make use of that history prefer to cherry-pick, deform, and obliterate the complicated bits to provide easy narratives for their own ends. Al-Baghdadi’s claim, for example, leaps over 1400 years of more nuanced Islamic history in which the institution of the caliphate shaped Muslim lives in diverse ways, and in which regional upstarts had little legitimate claim. But he is hardly alone in avoiding inconvenient truths — contemporary comment on Middle Eastern affairs routinely employs the same strategy.

We can see just such a history-shy approach in coverage of the sectarian conflicts between Shi’i and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The struggle between Sunnis and Shi’ites, we are usually told, has its origins in a contest over religious authority in the seventh century between the partisans of the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali and those Muslims who believed the incumbent caliphs of the day were better guides and leaders for the community. And so Shi’ites and Sunnis, we are led to believe, have been fighting ever since. It is as if the past fourteen centuries of history, with its record of coexistence, migrations, imperial designs, and nation-building have no part in the matter, to say nothing of the past century or less of authoritarian regimes, identity-politics, and colonial mischief.

We see the inconvenient truths of Islamic history also being ignored in the widespread discourse of crusading and counter-crusading that occasionally infects comment on contemporary conflicts, as if holy war is the default mode for Muslims fighting non-Muslims or vice-versa. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi can wrap himself in black robes and proclaim himself Caliph Ibrahim of the Islamic State, when seventh-century conflicts seem like thorough explanations for twenty-first century struggles, or when a terrorist and mass-murderer like the Norwegian Anders Breivik can see himself as a latter-day Knight Templar, then we are sadly living in a world in which the medieval is allowed to seep uncritically into the contemporary as a way to provide easy answers to very complicated problems.

But we should be wary of such easy answers. Syria and Iraq will not be saved by a caliph. And crusaders would have found the motivations of today’s empire-builders sickening. History properly appreciated should instead lead us to acknowledge the specificity, and indeed oddness, of our modern contexts and the complexity of our contemporary motivations. It should, one hopes, lead to that conclusion reached famously by Mark Twain: that history doesn’t repeat itself, even if sometimes it rhymes.

Paul M. Cobb is Chair and Professor of Islamic History in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania.  He is the translator of The Book of Contemplation: Islam and the Crusades and has written a number of other works, most recently The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades.

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Image credit: Caliph Abdulmecid II, by the Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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3. What is the Islamic state and its prospects?

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By James Gelvin


ISIS—now just the “Islamic State” (IS)–is the latest incarnation of the jihadi movement in Iraq. The first incarnation of that movement, Tawhid wal-Jihad, was founded in 2003-4 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi was not an Iraqi: as his name denotes, he came from Zarqa in Jordan. He was responsible for establishing a group affiliated with al-Qaeda in response to the American invasion of Iraq. Over time, this particular group began to evolve as it took on alliances with other jihadi groups, with non-jihadi groups, and as it separated from groups with which it had been aligned. Tawhid wal-Jihad thus evolved into al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had strained relations with “al-Qaeda central.” These strains were caused by the same factors that have created strains between IS and al-Qaeda central. Zarqawi had adopted the tactic of sparking a sectarian war in Iraq by blowing up the Golden Mosque in Samarra, thus instigating Shi’i retaliations against Iraq’s Sunni community, which, in turn, would get mobilized, radicalized, and strike back, joining al-Qaeda’s jihad

What this demonstrates is a long term problem al-Qaeda central has had with its affiliates. Al-Qaeda has always been extraordinarily weak on organization and extraordinarily strong on ideology, which is the glue that holds the organization together.

The ideology of al-Qaeda can be broken down into two parts: First, the Islamic world is at war with a transnational Crusader-Zionist alliance and it is that alliance–the “far enemy”–and not the individual despots who rule the Muslim world–the “near enemy”–which is Islam’s true enemy and which should be the target of al-Qaeda’s jihad. Second, al-Qaeda believes that the state system that has been imposed on the Muslim world was part of a conspiracy hatched by the Crusader-Zionist alliance to keep the Muslim world weak and divided. Therefore, state boundaries are to be ignored.

These two points, then, are the foundation for the al-Qaeda philosophy. It is the philosophy in which Zarqawi believed and it is also the philosophy in which the current head of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, believes as well.

Islamic states (dark green), states where Islam is the official religion (light green), secular states (blue) and other (orange), among countries with Muslim majority. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Islamic states (dark green), states where Islam is the official religion (light green), secular states (blue) and other (orange), among countries with Muslim majority. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

We don’t know much about al-Baghdadi. We know his name is a lie–he was not born in Baghdad, as his name denotes, but rather in Samarra. We know he was born in 1971 and has some sort of degree from Baghdad University. We also know he was imprisoned by the Americans in Camp Bucca in Iraq. It may have been there that he was radicalized, or perhaps upon making the acquaintance of al-Zarqawi.

Over time, al-Qaeda in Iraq evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq which, in turn, evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This took place in 2012 when Baghdadi claimed that an already existing al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, was, in fact, part of his organization. This was unacceptable to the head of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. Al-Jawlani took the dispute to Ayman al-Zawahiri who ruled in his favor. Zawahiri declared Jabhat al-Nusra to be the true al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, ordered al-Baghdadi to return to Iraq, and when al-Baghdadi refused al-Zawahiri severed ties with him and his organization.

There is a certain irony in this, inasmuch as Jabhat al-Nusra does not adhere to the al-Qaeda ideology, which is the only thing that holds the organization together. On the other hand, IS, for the most part does, although al-Qaeda purists believe al-Baghdadi jumped the gun when he declared a caliphate in Syria and Iraq with himself as caliph—a move that is as likely to split the al-Qaeda/jihadi movement as it is to unify it under a single leader. Whereas al-Baghdadi believes there should be no national boundaries dividing Syria and Iraq, al-Jawlani restricts his group’s activities to Syria. Whereas the goals of al-Baghdadi (and al-Qaeda) are much broader than bringing down an individual despot, Jabhat al-Nusra’s goal is the removal of Bashar al-Assad. And whereas al-Baghdadi (and al-Qaeda) believe in a strict, salafist interpretation of Islamic law, Jabhat al-Nusra has taken a much more temperate position in the territories it controls. The enforcement of a strict interpretation of Islamic law–from the veiling of women to the prohibition of alcohol and cigarettes to the use of hudud punishments and even crucifixions—has made IS extremely unpopular wherever it has established itself in Syria.

The recent strategy of IS has been to reestablish a caliphate, starting with the (oil-rich) territory stretching from Raqqa to as far south in Iraq as they can go. This is a strategy evolved out of al-Qaeda first articulated by Abu Musab al-Suri. For al-Suri (who believed 9/11 was a mistake), al-Qaeda’s next step was to create “emirates” in un-policed frontier areas of the Muslim world from which an al-Qaeda affiliate might “vex and exhaust” the enemy. For al-Qaeda, this would be the intermediate step that will eventually lead to a unification of the entire Muslim world. What would happen next was never made clear—Al-Qaeda has always been more definitive about what it is against rather than what it is for.

IS has demonstrated in the recent period that it is capable of dramatic military moves, particularly when it is assisted by professional military officers, such as the former Baathist officers who planned the attack on Mosul. This represents a potential problem for IS: After all, the jailors are unlikely to remain in a coalition with those they jailed after they accomplish an immediate goal. But this is not the limit of IS’s problems. Mao Zedong once wrote that in order to have an effective guerrilla organization you have to “swim like the fish in the sea”–in other words, you have to make yourself popular with the local inhabitants of an area who you wish to control and who are necessary to feed and protect you. Wherever it has taken over, IS has proved itself to be extraordinarily unpopular. The only reason IS was able to move as rapidly as it did was because the Iraqi army simply melted away rather than risking their lives for the immensely unpopular government of Nouri al-Maliki.

However it scored its victory, it should be remembered that taking territory is very different from holding territory. It should also be remembered that by taking and attempting to hold territory in Iraq, ISIS has concentrated itself and set itself up as a target.

IS has other problems as well. It is fighting on multiple fronts. In Syria, it is battling most of the rest of the opposition movement. It is also a surprisingly small organization–8,000-10,000 fighters (although recent victories might enable it to attract new recruits). The Americans used 80,000 troops in its initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was still unable to control the country. In addition, we should not forget the ease with which the French ousted similar groups from Timbuktu and other areas in northern Mali last year. As battle-hardened as the press claims them to be, groups like IS are no match for a professional army.

Portions of this article ran in a translated interview on Tasnim News.

James L. Gelvin is a Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, The Modern Middle East: A History and The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War.

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4. Is there an American culture of Ramadan?

By Abdullahi An-Na‘im


Immigrant Muslims continue to rely on the Ramadan culture of their regional origins (whether African, Middle East, South Asian, etc.). What is the culture of Ramadan for American Muslims? Is that culture already present, or do American Muslims have to invent it? Whether pre-existing or to be invented, where does that culture come from? Does having or cultivating a culture of Ramadan diminish or enhance American cultural citizenship? Can the same question be raised for a culture of Thanksgiving or Christmas?

I am not suggesting by raising such questions that there is a single monolithic culture of Ramadan for all American Muslims, but mean to argue that American Muslims should reflect on how to socialize their children a common core of values and practices around Ramadan for this holy month to be as enriching for the children as it has been their parents. Part of the inquiry should also be how to avoid aspects of the culture of Ramadan for the parents which will be negative or counterproductive for their children. To begin this conversation, let me begin by presenting what I believe my own culture of Ramadan has been growing up along the Nile in Northern Sudan.

Ramadan Prayer. Photo by Thamer Al-Hassan. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Ramadan Prayer. Photo by Thamer Al-Hassan. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Fasting for a Muslim is total abstention from taking any food, drink, or having sex from dawn to sunset. Religiously valid fasting requires a completely voluntary and deliberate decision and intent (niya) to fast that is formed prior to the dawn of the day one is fasting. This intent to fast is entirely a matter of internal consciousness and free choice, but has two highly significant implications. On the one hand, the entirely voluntary nature of fasting and all Islamic religious practices is that the state cannot interfere with the choices Muslims make. That means that the state must be neutral regarding religious doctrine (i.e. secular) and cannot claim to be Islamic, or pretend that it can enforce Sharia because that would encroach on the ability of Muslims to act on their individual conviction and choice. On the other hand, abstention from food, drink, and sex with the required free and autonomous intent to fast must also be accompanied by maintaining appropriate decorum by avoiding harming other people, hurting their feelings, or using abusive language. Moreover, the more affirmative good a person does while fasting, as opposed to simply refraining from causing harm, the more religious benefit she or he achieves. The Prophet repeatedly cautioned against the futility of fasting, as abstention without realizing any religious benefit because of failure to observe the etiquettes (adab) of fasting.

The practice of fasting draws on much more than a religious mandate. There is a whole culture of Ramadan that sustains the practice, including the communal expectations and rewards of social conformity beyond the commands of religious piety. A culture of Ramadan defines and affirms the religious practice, including all the sounds and smells of the season, the shifting of the rhythm of social life to the carnival of evenings of sweet food and special drinks. Fasting the days of Ramadan entitles me to participate in the carnival of the evenings and sanctions my belonging to the community of believers.

As children we used to be excited with special activities, different foods, and delicious unusual drinks in the evenings, with slight apprehension for our own disrupted meals during the day, when grownups were too dehydrated and hungry to cook for us while they fasted. Although children are not allowed to fast until they reach puberty, so we used to dare each other to fast a few days, but often break the fast when we get hungry. Our social code of honor tolerated breaking the fast as children, but imposed harsh stigma and shame upon those who pretend to fast but cheat by eating or drinking in secret. I also remember my parents telling me not to fast because I was a child, but once I began fasting a day, I must keep fasting until sunset because breaking the fast may become a habit. Those were some of the values of the culture of Ramadan I grew up with.

Other values of the culture of Ramadan draws on what we observed in the behavior of our elders. As I recall, it was unthinkable for adults to speak of their ambivalence about fasting Ramadan. Yes, it was also clear to us that our parents were struggling to be productive and take care of us despite the hardship of fasting. All these mixed feelings were so deeply engrained into our consciousness as children that we grew up with a complex combination of love and apprehension of Ramadan. We were also socialized into the values of self-discipline and management of ambiguity and the ambivalence of religious piety and social conformity. When we became old enough to fast regularly, failing to fast was so alien and abhorrent to us, utterly out of the question. This deeply engrained aversion of failure to observe Ramadan may have been more social than religious, but it was social because fasting is one of the essential requirements of Islam.

Another social ritual of Ramadan is arguing about the sighting of the new moon, which signifies both the beginning and ending of the month of fasting. At one level, the debate has always about whether Ramadan should begin, or should end, because a new moon is confirmed. Who has the authority to confirm, however, is a highly charged political question within each country, and contested regional politics across the Muslim world. At another level, the underlying issue is whether to follow the literal language of the Quran and Hadith (physical sighting) or rely on astronomical calculations and trust human judgment and scientific advances. If either side concede the position of the other, that will have far reaching consequences in every aspect of religious doctrine and practice, indeed the totally of Sharia can be transformed as a result of the prevalence of one view or the other among Muslims globally. The debate over the sighting of the new moon also has some immediate practical implications for the ability of American Muslims to negotiate for religious accommodation in their work schedule by giving their employers (or school authorities) advance notice of religious holidays.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory Law, associated professor in the Emory College of Arts and Sciences, senior fellow of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, and senior faculty fellow of the Emory University Center for Ethics. An internationally recognized scholar of Islam and human rights, An-Na’im is the author of six books, including What Is an American Muslim?: Embracing Faith and Citizenship. He is the former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch/Africa.

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5. Not learning from history: unwinnable wars and nation building, two millennia ago

By Ian Worthington


Recent events in Iraq, as the militant group ISIS (or ISIL) strives to establish an Islamic state in the country that threatens to undo everything that western involvement achieved there after 9/11, illustrates well the volatility of the entire region and the interplay of religion and politics. Sunnis who felt cast aside to the periphery of political affairs by the Shiite government are rallying to ISIS. American-trained Iraqi forces (at a cost of several billions of dollars) have proved ineffectual, and who knows if the Iraqi government could fall, and what the country will look like — and be doing — in a year’s or even a matter of months’ time.

For well over a decade we have witnessed Western involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, ostensibly to benefit the wellbeing of the native peoples and in the case of Iraq, to stamp out the exploitive and murderous dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The result was going to be the introduction of democracy for an oppressed nation; the diverse factions and different religious faiths would unite, and ties with the West would thus enter a new (and grateful) phase. But the Iraqi war that Donald Rumsfeld confidently asserted would take only six weeks and certainly not more than six months took far longer than that and cost an inexcusable number of lives. And the strategies to what might be called nation building failed miserably. The last few weeks are proving that. The campaign in Afghanistan likewise hasn’t met its objectives. Taliban influence remains strong and even growing, and as the death count for military and civilian personnel bloodily grew, people realized Afghanistan was the unwinnable war. So the question is inevitable: will Afghanistan go the way of Iraq as well?

There is a lot to be said for the phrase “history repeats itself,” and a lot of lessons to be learned from history. Although analogies have sometimes been made to the earlier and unsuccessful British and Russian involvement in Afghanistan, Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the former Persian Empire and Central Asia over two millennia ago need to be studied more. He was the first western conqueror in the east, and the problems he faced in dealing with a diverse subject population and the strategies he took to what might be called nation building shed light on contemporary events in culturally dissimilar regions of today’s world.

The Macedonian empire of the later fourth century BC was the largest empire in antiquity before the Roman, stretching from Greece to India (present-day Pakistan) including Syria, the Levantine coast, and Egypt. Yet it took less than 40 years to form thanks to Philip II of Macedonia and especially his son Alexander (the Great). Alexander’s conquests in Asia opened up economic and cultural contacts, spread Greek culture, and made the Greeks aware that they were part of a world far bigger than the Mediterranean. When Alexander crossed the Hellespont in spring 334 and landed on Asian soil he had a clear strategy in mind: to replace the Persian Empire with one of his own. A decade later in some spectacular battles and sieges against numerically greater foes, he had done just that. In 323 he was all set to invade Arabia when he died, just short of his 33rd birthday, at Babylon.

Detail of the Alexander Mosaic, representing Alexander the Great on his horse. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Detail of the Alexander Mosaic, representing Alexander the Great on his horse. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But as Alexander discovered to his detriment, and as makers of modern strategy know all too well, defeated in battle doesn’t mean conquered. Moreover, he hadn’t anticipated how he was going to rule a large and culturally diverse subject population, whose religious beliefs and social customs weren’t always understood by the invaders and even disregarded. When the last Great King of Persia, Darius III, was murdered, Alexander faced a dilemma: how to rule? There had never been a Macedonian king who was also ruler of Persia before. Alexander had to learn what to do on his feet, without a rulebook or foreign policy experts.

He couldn’t proclaim himself Great King as that would create stiff opposition from his men, who wanted only a traditional Macedonian warrior king. So he opted for a new title, King of Asia, and even a new style of dress, a combination of Macedonian and Persian clothing. In doing so he pleased no one — his men thought he had gone too far and the Persians not enough. Alexander also didn’t grasp — or didn’t bother about — the personal connection between the Zoroastrian God of Light, Ahura Mazda, and the Great Kings, whose right to rule was anchored in that connection. The religious significance of the great Persian palace centers were disregarded by the westerners, who saw them only as seats of power and home to vast treasuries. Then in what is now Afghanistan, Alexander banned the Bactrians’ custom of putting out their elderly and infirm to be eaten alive by dogs kept for this purpose. A barbaric practice to us, for sure, but another instance of high-handedness and imposition of western morality in a foreign land.

It is little wonder that Alexander was always seen as the invader, that his attempts to integrate his various subject peoples into his army and administration failed, and that “conquered” areas such as India and Afghanistan revolted as soon as he left so they could go back to how things used to be. Unwinnable wars indeed, then and now. Alexander’s dilemma of West meeting East set a pattern for history. He unashamedly set out to rule a great empire by force, and failed. Today, the West might embroil itself elsewhere to help spread democracy, but those best intentions can fall apart without understanding the peoples with whom you’re dealing. The problems Alexander faced in dealing with a multi-cultural subject population arguably can inform makers of strategy in culturally different regions of today’s world. But at the end of the day politics and religion are so tightly interwoven and misunderstood, and animosity towards the invader, be it Alexander then or the West now, so great, that for anyone from the West to talk of imposing stability and a new order is hubris. Iraq now is proving that, no different from the Persian Empire to outside rule two millennia ago.

Ian Worthington is Curators’ Professor of History and Adjunct Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Missouri. He is the author of numerous books about ancient Greece, including Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece and By the Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire.

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6. Guantanamo Boy: a review

Perera, Anna. 2011. Guantanamo Boy. Chicago: Albert Whitman.
(first published in the UK, 2009)
Advance Reader Copy supplied by the publisher.  Due on shelves in August.
"We must remember that once we divide the world into good and bad, then we have to join one camp or the other, and, as you've found out, life's a bit more complex than that."
Funny (or not so funny) - in searching for related links, further information and other reviews on Guantanamo Boy, I actually found myself wondering (worrying?) if my every passing stop along the Internet seeking information related to Guantanamo Bay will be tracked by some government official in a cubicle somewhere.  Just the fact that such a thought crossed my mind, is an indication of the intense fear, distrust and paranoia that is gripping our world because of terrorism.  With that worldwide fear and paranoia as a backdrop for Guantanamo Boy, Anna Perera has crafted an entirely plausible story about a 15-year-old British boy, Khalid, from Rochdale, a large town in Greater Manchester, England.

Khalid is much like any other boy from his town, interested in good grades, his mates, soccer ("footy"), girls, and online gaming.  Though his family is Muslim, Khalid is a casual practitioner.  When his family visits Pakistan to assist an aunt, Khalid's father inexplicably disappears.  Khalid goes to check the address where his father was last seen, threading his way through a street protest enroute.  Unable to find his father, he returns to his aunt's home where he is later kidnapped in the late night hours,

Surely only his dad could be coming through the door without knocking this time of night?

But he's badly mistaken. Blocking the hallway is a gang of fierce-looking men dressed in dark shalwar kameez.  Black cloths wrapped around their heads.  Black gloves on their hands.  Two angry blue eyes, the rest brown, burn into Khalid as the figures move towards him like cartoon gangsters with square bodies.  Confused by the image, he staggers, bumping backwards into the wall.  Arms up to stop them getting nearer.  Too shocked and terrified to react as they shoulder him to the kitchen and close the door before pushing him to his knees and waving a gun at him as if he's a violent criminal.  Then vice-like hands clamp his mouth tight until they plaster it with duct tape.  No chance to wonder what the hell is going on, let alone scream out loud.
And so begins Khalid's descent into a frightening labyrinth of secret prisons, interrogation rooms, and finally Guantanamo Bay detention center.
A few lengthy passages are didactic in nature, but they are few in number. Khalid's unique perspective as a boy, a British citizen and non-practicing Muslim of Pakistani descent, offers a superb vantage point into the previously termed War on Terror. His sensibilities are Western, his concerns are adolescent, his perspective is that of  outsider - he has known discrimination in England, he is too Western for his Pakistani relatives, he has little in common with his fellow inmates.  Khalid is the perfect protagonist for this third-person narrative.

Heart-wrenching and frighteningly enlightening, Guantanmo Boy is not without bright spots - the power of small acts of kindness, the love of family,

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7. Ten Things I Hate About Me

Ten Things I Hate About MeTen Things I Hate About Me Randa Abdel-Fattah

Jamilah's dyed her hair blonde, wears colored contact lenses, and goes by Jamie at school. It's easier that way, if no one knows who she really is. Her school is full of racists and passing makes her life nicer--people see her instead of a Muslim stereotype. But she likes her Lebanese culture. She likes playing her darabuka drums in her band at Madrassa. Sadly, in hiding her heritage, she's hidden everything about herself. She thinks that people see the real her, but they see a girl with no self-esteem, a pushover.

I loved Jamilah's struggle with herself, her family, her friends at school and her friends at madrassa. I also really loved her family-- her activist sister, her slacker brother, her awesome aunt, and her father who is trying so hard to do the best he can as a single parent. (I especially loved her sister.)

It's a great book about self-acceptance against the odds. While I loved the look into Lebanese-Australian culture, I think Jamilah's struggles with defining and presenting herself are universal teen struggles.

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8. Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. - Review


Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. by Medeia Sharif
Publication Date: 8 July 2011 by Flux Books
ISBN 10/13: 0738723231  |  9780738723235

Category: Young Adult Realistic Fiction
Keywords: Ramadan, Muslim, blending cultures, religion
Format: Paperback



Kimberly's Review:

Almira Abdul is trying her best to honor Ramadan, an entire month where she is not allowed to eat from sunrise to sunset. While her family is not overly religious, and she has only been to a mosque twice, she feels that it's a good challenge for her... She thinks she can stand to lose a couple pounds.

What happens though is more than just food temptation! Her crush, Peter, starts noticing her at the same time her best friend starts noticing him! And while her traditional grandfather is teaching her to drive, he's also showing her how things would be if they weren't living in America.

Almira is a hilarious character. Her voice is unique and her inner dialogue charming. A few times I laughed out loud to the reference to her love of chocolate or her great infatuation of Rob Pattinson (and therefore her hatred of Kristen Stewart.)

Pop references aside, this is no light book. Almira is suffering from what many minority teenagers have difficulty with--how to blend in with the American culture while still holding onto her family's beliefs. It's not just about Ramadan. Her grandfather is a strong and aggressive character, representing the old ways. Her mother and father are somewhere in between.

Almira's friends are a diverse bunch of characters. Each has their own distinct personality and culture too. The conversations between Almira and her friends over AIM are hilarious. And let's not even get started on the new bomb shell of a girl that just started their school...

Sharif does a fantastic job navigating these touchy waters. Almira's voice is touching, desperate and loving. She is torn, observant and just doing the best she can. When there's drama at the end of the novel, Almira's sadness and panic came through brilliantly. This really feels like a high school teenager's account of her one month during Ramadan. 

I really enjoyed this book. I didn't know what to expect from the back synopsis, but it's an adventure I'm glad I didn't miss. Kudos to Sharif whose story made me sit down in a quiet corner, with no distractions, and quietly ate up Almira's journey. To be honest, I wouldn't have normally picked this book up, let alone read it! (Or seek it out for that matter. I went to three Borders and two Barnes and Nobles with no luck. I had to buy it on amazon.) But it's well worth it!

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9. The suspicious revolution: an interview with Talal Asad

By Nathan Schneider Not long after his return from Cairo, where he was doing fieldwork, I spoke with Talal Asad at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, where he is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology. Distinguished indeed: with books like Genealogies of Religion and Formations of the Secular, as well as numerous articles, Asad’s work has been formative for current scholarly conversation about religion and secularity, stressing both

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10. 9/11 and the dysfunctional “aughts”

By Richard Landes In the years before 2000, as the director of the ephemeral Center for Millennial Studies, I scanned the global horizon for signs of apocalyptic activity, that is, for movements of people who believed that now was the time of a total global transformation. As I did so, I became aware of such currents of belief among Muslims, some specifically linked to the year 2000, all predominantly expressing the most dangerous of all apocalyptic

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11. Hussein ibn Ali killed at Karbala

This Day in World History - October 10 marks a signal date in Islamic history. On that day, Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was defeated and killed at Karbala, in modern Iraq. His death cemented deep and lasting division among Muslims that persist to this day. In Iran, where the population is overwhelmingly Shia, the death of Hussein—“leader of the martyrs”—is regularly commemorated in passion plays.

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12. Egypt’s President Sadat addresses Israeli Knesset

This Day in World History

November 20, 1977

Egypt’s President Sadat addresses Israeli Knesset

On November 20, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat made an historic speech before Israel’s Knesset, or Parliament, becoming the first leader of an Arab nation to speak there. He was also the first of Israel’s Arab neighbors to publicly say anything like these words: “Today I tell you, and I declare it to the whole world, that we accept to live with you in permanent peace based on justice.”

By 1977, Israel and the nearby Arab states had fought four wars in less than 30 years. Sadat himself had been a principal architect of the most recent conflict, the Yom Kippur War of 1973. That conflict ended when Egypt, Syria, and Israel accepted a United Nations–imposed cease-fire. This time, though, the uneasy peace was not followed by yet another war. Sadat failed in peace talks to regain control of the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had occupied in 1967. To break the deadlock, on November 9, 1977, he stunned the world by telling Egypt’s Parliament that he was willing to travel to Israel to negotiate peace. No Arab state had ever recognized Israel’s existence, let alone sent a leader to the Jewish state. Israel quickly accepted his offer, and arrangements for the historic visit were made.

Sadat’s bold move set in course discussions that resulted in the Camp David Accords the following September, and a peace treaty in early 1979—the first treaty signed by Israel and an Arab nation. Both Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin received Nobel Peace Prizes for their historic agreement. While Sadat was hailed across the world, he was less well received in the Arab world, however. The Arab League denounced Egypt in September of 1978, and Sadat was assassinated in his homeland by radical Islamists because of his overtures to Israel and the western world.

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13. Roger Gaetani: The Powells.com Interview

Roger Gaetani is an editor, writer, and educator who lives in Bloomington, Indiana. He serves as the vice president for World Wisdom, an independent publishing company focused on religious and philosophical texts. With Jean-Louis Michon, he edited the World Wisdom anthology on Sufism, Sufism: Love and Wisdom. He directed and produced the DVD compilation of [...]

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14. A religion reading list from Oxford World’s Classics

By Kirsty Doole


Religion has provided the world with some of the most influential and important written works ever known. Here is a reading list made up of just a small selection of the texts we carry in the series, covering religions across the globe.

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People – Bede

Bede’s most famous work was finished in 731, and deals with the history of Christianity in England, most notably, the tension between Roman and Celtic forms of Christianity. It is one of the most important texts in English history. As well as providing the authoritative Colgrave translation of the Ecclesiastical History, the Oxford World’s Classics edition includes a translation of the Greater Chronicle, in which Bede discusses the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, Bede’s Letter to Egbert gives further reflections on the English Church just before his death.

The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James

This work is William (brother of Henry) James’s classic survey of religious belief in its most personal aspects. Covering such topics as how we define evil to ourselves, the difference between a healthy and a divided mind, the value of saintly behaviour, and what animates and characterizes the mental landscape of sudden conversion, The Varieties of Religious Experience is a key text examining the relationship between belief and culture. At the time James wrote it, faith in organized religion and dogmatic theology was fading away, and the search for an authentic religion rooted in personality and subjectivity was something deemed an urgent necessity. With psychological insight, philosophical rigour, and a determination not to jump to the conclusion that in tracing religion’s mental causes we necessarily diminish its truth or value, in the Varieties James wrote a truly foundational text for modern belief.

Saint Augustine of Hippo On Christian Teaching – Saint Augustine

This is one of Saint Augustine’s most important works on the classical tradition. Written to enable students to have the skills to interpret the Bible, it provides an outline of Christian theology. It also contains a detailed discussion of moral problems. Further to that, Augustine attempts to determine what elements of classical education are desirable for a Christian, and suggests ways in which Ciceronian rhetorical principles may help in communicating faith.

The Book of Common Prayer

Along with the King James Bible, the words of the Book of Common Prayer have permeated deep into the English language all over the worldFor countless people, it has provided the framework for  a wedding ceremony or a funeral. Yet this familiarity also hides a violent and controversial history. When it was first written, the Book of Common Prayer provoked riots, and it was banned before eventually being translated into a host of global languages. This edition presents the work in three different states: the first edition of 1549, which brought the Reformation into people’s homes; the Elizabethan prayer book of 1559, familiar to Shakespeare and Milton; and the edition of 1662, which embodies the religious temper of the nation down to modern times.

The Qur’an

The Qur’an, the Muslim Holy Book, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over 1400 year ago. It is the supreme authority in Islam and the source of all Islamic teaching; it is both a sacred text and a book of guidance, that sets out the creed, rituals, ethics, and laws of Islam. The greatest literary masterpiece in Arabic, the message of the Qur’an was directly addressed to all people regardless of class, gender, or age, and this translation aims to be equally accessible to everyone.

Natural Theology – William Paley

Natural Theology is arguably as central to those who believe in Intelligent Design as Darwin’s Origin of Species is to those who come down on the side of evolutionary theory. In it, William Paley set out to prove the existence of God from the evidence of the order and beauty of the natural world. It famously starts by comparing our world to a watch, whose design is self-evident, before going on to provide examples from biology, anatomy, and astronomy in order to demonstrate the intricacy and ingenuity of design that could only come from a wise and benevolent deity. Paley’s work was both hugely successful, and extremely controversial, and Charles Darwin was greatly influenced by the book’s accessible style and structure.

The Bhagavad Gita

‘I have heard the supreme mystery, yoga, from Krishna, from the lord of yoga himself.’

So ends the Bhagavad Gita, the best known and most widely read Hindu religious text in the Western world. It is the most famous episode from the great Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata. Across eighteen chapters Krishna’s teaching leads the warrior Arjuna from confusion to understanding, raising and developing many key themes from the history of Indian religions in the process.

It considers religious and social duty, the nature of action and of sacrifice, the means to liberation, and the relationship between God and human. It culminates in an awe-inspiring vision of Krishna as an omnipotent God, disposer and destroyer of the universe.

Kirsty Doole is Publicity Manager for Oxford World’s Classics.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter, Facebook, or here on the OUPblog. Subscribe to only Oxford World’s Classics articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.

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Image credit: Saint Augustine of Hippo. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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15. 15 facts on African religions

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African religions cover a diverse landscape of ethnic groups, languages, cultures, and worldviews. Here, Jacob K. Olupona, author of African Religions: A Very Short Introduction shares an interesting list of 15 facts on African religions.

By Jacob K. Olupona

  1. African traditional religion refers to the indigenous or autochthonous religions of the African people. It deals with their cosmology, ritual practices, symbols, arts, society, and so on. Because religion is a way of life, it relates to culture and society as they affect the worldview of the African people.
  2. Traditional African religions are not stagnant but highly dynamic and constantly reacting to various shifting influences such as old age, modernity, and technological advances.
  3. Traditional African religions are less of faith traditions and more of lived traditions. They are less concerned with doctrines and much more so with rituals, ceremonies, and lived practices.
  4. When addressing religion in Africa, scholars often speak of a “triple heritage,” that is the triple legacy of indigenous religion, Islam, and Christianity that are often found side by side in many African societies.
  5. While those who identify as practitioners of traditional African religions are often in the minority, many who identify as Muslims or Christians are involved in traditional religions to one degree or another.
  6. Though many Africans have converted to Islam and Christianity, these religions still inform the social, economic, and political life in African societies.
  7. Traditional African religions have gone global! The Trans-Atlantic slave trade led to the growth of African-inspired traditions in the Americas such as Candomblé in Brazil, Santería in Cuba, or Vodun in Haïti. Furthermore, many in places like the US and the UK have converted to various traditional African religions, and the importance of the diaspora for these religions is growing rapidly. African religions have also become a major attraction for those in the diaspora who travel to Africa on pilgrimages because of the global reach of these traditions.
  8. Religion_distribution_Africa_crop

  9. There are quite a number of revival groups and movements whose main aim is to ensure that the tenants and practice of African indigenous religion that are threatened survive. These can be found all over the Americas and Europe.
  10. The concerns for health, wealth, and procreation are very central to the core of African religions. That is why they have developed institutions for healing, for commerce, and for the general well-being of their own practitioners and adherents of other religions as well.
  11. Indigenous African religions are not based on conversion like Islam and Christianity. They tend to propagate peaceful coexistence, and they promote good relations with members of other religious traditions that surround them.
  12. Today as a minority tradition, it has suffered immensely from human rights abuses. This is based on misconceptions that these religions are antithetical to modernity. Indeed indigenous African religions have provided the blueprint for robust conversations and thinking about community relations, interfaith dialogue, civil society, and civil religion.
  13. Women play a key role in the practice of these traditions, and the internal gender relations and dynamics are very profound. There are many female goddesses along with their male counterparts. There are female priestesses, diviners, and other figures, and many feminist scholars have drawn from these traditions to advocate for women’s rights and the place of the feminine in African societies. The traditional approach of indigenous African religions to gender is one of complementarity in which a confluence of male and female forces must operate in harmony.
  14. Indigenous African religions contain a great deal of wisdom and insight on how human beings can best live within and interact with the environment. Given our current impending ecological crisis, indigenous African religions have a great deal to offer both African countries and the world at large.
  15. African indigenous religions provide strong linkages between the life of humans and the world of the ancestors. Humans are thus able to maintain constant and symbiotic relations with their ancestors who are understood to be intimately concerned and involved in their descendants’ everyday affairs.
  16. Unlike other world religions that have written scriptures, oral sources form the core of indigenous African religions. These oral sources are intricately interwoven into arts, political and social structure, and material culture. The oral nature of these traditions allows for a great deal of adaptability and variation within and between indigenous African religions. At the same time, forms of orature – such as the Ifa tradition amongst the Yoruba can form important sources for understanding the tenants and worldview of these religions that can serve as analogs to scriptures such as the Bible or the Qur’an.

Jacob K. Olupona is Professor of African Religious Traditions at Harvard Divinity School, with a joint appointment as Professor of African and African American Studies in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. A noted scholar of indigenous African religions, his books include African Religions: A Very Short Introduction, City of 201 Gods: Ilé-Ifè in Time, Space, and the Imagination, Òrìsà Devotion as World Religion: The Globalization of Yorùbá Religious Culture, co-edited with Terry Rey, and Kingship, Religion, and Rituals in a Nigerian Community: A Phenomenological Study of Ondo Yoruba Festivals. In 2007, he was awarded the Nigerian National Order of Merit, one of Nigeria’s most prestigious honors.

The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday, subscribe to Very Short Introductions articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS, and like Very Short Introductions on Facebook.

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Image Credit: A map of the Africa, showing the major religions distributed as of today. Map shows only the religion as a whole excluding denominations or sects of the religions, and is colored by how the religions are distributed not by main religion of country etc. By T.L. Miles via Wikimedia Commons via the Public Domain.

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16. Islam and the Nobel Prize

Physicist turned science writer, Gordon Fraser, most recent book Cosmic Anger: Abdus Salam - The First Muslim Nobel Scientist, is a biography of Salam who despite wining the Nobel Prize was excommunicated and branded as a heretic in his own country. A staunch Muslim, he was ashamed of the decline of science in the heritage of Islam, and struggled doggedly to restore it to its former glory. Undermined by his excommunication, these valiant efforts were doomed. In the article below Fraser looks at the history of Muslim winners of the Nobel Prize.

Amid all the international reaction to Israel’s offensive in Gaza, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has stirred up more controversy in Iran. In December the Iranian authorities closed the Tehran office of Ms Ebadi’s Human Rights Defenders Centre, saying it had operated for eight years without permission. Whatever the context, the perception of a Nobel Prize in Islamic countries often appears to clash with the traditional veneration in which it is held elsewhere.

The Iranian lawyer’s Nobel acknowledged ‘her efforts for democracy and human rights. She has focused especially on the struggle for the rights of women and children.’ While people around the world applauded this recognition, others maintained that it was an insult to and part of a continuing conspiracy against Islam. In a statement carried by the Iranian Jomhuri Eslami newspaper, a group from a major seminary said ‘The decision by the Western oppressive societies to award the prize to Ebadi was done in order to ridicule Islam.’ How can what is supposed to be one of the world’s highest honours also be perceived as insult and ridicule?

Shirin Ebadi is one of the few Muslims to have been honoured by the Nobel authorities. The first was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who shared the Peace Prize with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978 for their unexpected Middle East peace overture. In 1981 Sadat was assassinated by Egyptian hard-liners who condemned his rapprochement with Israel. So much for Nobel honor.

One year after Sadat’s award, in 1979 the Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam (1926-1996) became the first Muslim to win a Nobel Science Prize, and the first Pakistani to win any Nobel. The achievement was greeted in the West with the customary apotheosis. But the accolade in Salam’s home country was very different. Salam belonged to the fringe Ahmadi sect of Islam, which was formally excommunicated in 1977 for its belief in a 19th-century promised messiah. Salam, once the Pakistan President’s chief scientific adviser, was ostracized. Revivalist Muslim voices criticized his Nobel award as a desperate attempt to restore Ahmadi credibility. In a grotesque eructation of prejudice and hate, the award was scorned as a deliberate insult to Islam.

After his funeral in 1996, Salam’s tombstone in Rabwah, Pakistan was inscribed ‘Abdus Salam, the First Muslim Nobel Laureate’ (innocently ignoring Sadat’s 1978 award). Soon the grave was visited by contemptuous outsiders and the inscription edited - and the error magnified - by an imperious hammer and chisel to read ‘Abdus Salam, the First … Nobel Laureate’. The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, and the now absurd epitaph was daubed with black paint.

After Salam’s award, the 1988 Nobel Literature Prize went to the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), whose initial literary success in the 1960s and 70s created a new hub of Arabic culture. This became overshadowed by his controversial Awlad Haratina (Children of the Alley) which was banned in much of the Arab world after reactionary Islamic scholars declared its portrayal of religious figures to be blasphemous. In the darkness of such bigotry, writers who can still write are deemed more dangerous than what they actually publish. In 1994 Mahfouz almost died after being knifed in the neck, and was left unable to work.

In 1994 Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shared the Peace Prize with Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres for their resolute but eventually futile efforts towards resolving the perennial Israel-Palestine conflict. Such a pairing of names which not that long before had been sworn enemies soon created a new conflict of its own, and in 1995 Rabin was assassinated in his own country, a macabre reflection of the Sadat episode.

(On a less controversial note, in 1999, the Egyptian scientist Ahmed Zewail was awarded the Nobel Chemistry Prize for his work in using laser beams to track chemical reactions, ‘freeze-framing’ their evolution. 2005, Mohamad ElBaradei, the Egyptian Director General of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), and the IAEA itself received the Peace Prize for their efforts in preventing nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and for promoting its safe use for peaceful aims. In 2006, Muhammad Yunus from Bangladesh received the Peace Prize for his idea of ‘micro-credits’ – mini-loans to help disadvantaged people haul themselves out of poverty.)

The world’s 800 million Muslims make up about ten per cent of the world’s population, but have garnered just a handful of Nobel awards, many of them generating more controversy than honour. Jews make up a small fraction of one per cent of the world’s population, but have won hundreds of Nobel prizes. This track record alone is enough to convince ultraconservative Muslims that the Nobel dice are loaded. But why such disparity and dissent?

The West has grown to view the Orient from afar through a thick prism which distorts the transmitted image. For more than a thousand years, the membrane between Islam and the West, inflamed by lack of understanding, has been rubbed raw by mutual hypersensitivity, and the ulcerated wound periodically erupts. It appears to be especially sensitive to Nobel Prizes.

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17. Several Fronts, Two Universes, One Discourse

Tariq Ramadan is a very public figure, named one of Time magazine’s most important innovators of the twenty-first century, he is among the leading Islamic thinkers in the West.  But he has also been a lightening rod for controversy.  In his new book, What I Believe, he attempts to set the record straight, laying out the basic ideas he stands for in clear and accessible prose.  In the excerpt below we learn a bit about Ramadan’s stance as a thinker straddling two worlds.

My discourse faces many-sided opposition, and this obviously prevents it from being fully heard in its substance, its subtleties, and its vision for the future.  Some of the criticisms expressed are of course sincere and raise legitimate questions – which I will try to answer in the present work – but others are clearly biased and attempt to pass off their selective, prejudiced hearing as “doublespeak” one should be wary of.  I have long been criticizing their deliberate deafness and their ideological “double hearing”: I am determined to go ahead, without wasting my time over such strategic diversions, and remain faithful to my vision, my principles, and my project.

I mean to build bridges between two universes of reference, between two (highly debatable) constructions termed Western and Islamic “civilizations” (as if those were closed, monolithic entities), and between citizens within Western societies themselves.  My aim is to show, in theory and in practice, that one can be both fully Muslim and Western and that beyond our different affiliations we share many common principles and values through which it is possible to “live together” within contemporary pluralistic, multicultural societies where various religions coexist.

The essence of that approach and of the accompanying theses originated much earlier than 9/11.  Neither did it come as a response to Samuel Huntington’s mid-1990s positions about the “clash of civilizations” (which anyway have been largely misinterpreted).  As early as the late 1980s, then in my 1992 book Muslims in the Secular State, I sated the first fundamentals of my beliefs about the compatibility of values and the possibility for individuals and citizens of different cultures and religions to coexist positively (and not just pacifically).  Unlike what I have observed among some intellectuals and leaders, including some Muslim thinkers and religious representatives, those views were by no means a response to current events nor a change of mind produced by the post 9/11 trauma.  They represent a very old stance which was confirmed, developed, and clarified in the course of time.  Its substance can be found in my first books and articles in 1987-1989; those views were then built on and expanded in every book I wrote up to the present synthesis.  A Muslim’s religious discourse, and the mediator’s role itself, bring about negative reactions in both universes of reference.  What makes things more difficult is that I do not merely shed light on overlapping areas and common points between the two universes of reference but that I also call intellectuals, politicians

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18. What Do Angels Look Like?

Guardians, messengers, protectors…what are angels? In Angels: A History, David Albert Jones, Director of the Centre for Bioethics and Emerging Technologies at St Mary’s University College, explores the enduring power of angels over the human imagination. He argues that they teach us something about our own existence, whether or not we believe in theirs. In this excerpt from the book, Professor Jones talks about what different religious texts tells us about what angels look like.

Ancient Depictions of the Cherubim

The Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures include a very severe warning about carving images: ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath’ (Exodus 20: 4). Nevertheless the same book describes how to carve two cherubim with wings facing one another to overshadow the ‘mercy seat’ to sit on top of the ark (Exodus 25: 20–1). This is nicely ironic, as the ark is the box that holds the tablets on which are written the Ten Commandments— which say you should not make images.

When Solomon built a temple to house the ark, in the sanctuary he placed two cherubim, each 10 cubits high with a 10 cubit wingspan—that is, around 17.5 feet (5.3 metres) high and the same distance across (1 Kings 6: 24). The wings of the cherubim were outstretched, so that the tip of one touched the wall and the tip of the other touched the other cherub. Unfortunately the ark was later lost (as any film-goer will know!). The ark was taken or hidden or destroyed when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 586 BCE. When the Temple was rebuilt after the exile there were no ark and no giant cherubim. It is, therefore, very difficult to know what the cherubim looked like. Some have imagined that cherubim looked like the winged bulls (the ‘shedu’) of the Assyrians or like a sphinx or a griffin (there is a scholarly theory that the words cherubim and griffin are related, but this is disputed). This idea is also based on the role of the cherubim as guards of the sanctuary. In other ancient cultures the shedu, griffin, or sphinx has this role.

The book of Ezekiel describes the cherubim as having wings outstretched and with faces of a man, an eagle, an ox, and a lion (Ezekiel 1: 10; see also Ezekiel 10: 14). However, Ezekiel does not say the cherubim have the body of an animal. Furthermore, the imagery of Ezekiel is deliberately exaggerated and may not reflect the Temple as it was. The other biblical accounts do not mention animal body parts in relation to cherubim. The cherubim on top of the ark face one another, and their wings ‘overshadow’ the mercy seat. This posture does not have parallels with images of shedu or other animal guards and Jewish writers from the third century CE suggest that these cherubs had human form (though not necessarily a human face).

It is certain that there were carved cherubim above the ark and in the sanctuary of Solomon’s Temple before the exile (586 BCE), but unfortunately these were lost or destroyed centuries before Jesus was born, and no image of them remains. What is more, the descriptions in the Bible do not give a clear picture of what they looked like. According to Josephus, no one in his day knew what cherubim were supposed to look like. There is a break, then, between these ancient images of the cherubim and the images of angels painted by later artists.

Wings and Halos

The traditional depiction of angels has been shaped largely by Christian artists. This is in part because both in Judaism and in Islam there has been a reluctance to depict angels. Images of angels found in Islamic manuscripts from medieval Persia or in Ottoman cu

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19. God’s Polity: Faith and Power

Bernard Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Easter Studies Emeritus at Princeton University.  His new book, Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East, illuminates the role of religion in the Middle East, revealing how it has shaped society for good and for ill.  In the excerpt below, which looks at Islamic government, we learn about the long history of religion intertwining with governmental authority.

Every civilization formulates its own idea of good government, and creates institutions through which it endeavors to put that idea into effect. Since classical antiquity these institutions in the West have usually included some form of council or assembly, through which qualified members of the polity participate in the formation, conduct, and, on occasion, replacement of the government. The polity may be variously defined; so, too, may be the qualifications that entitle a member of the polity to participate in its governance. Sometimes, as in the ancient Greek city, the participation of citizens may be direct. More often qualified participants will, by some agreed-upon and recurring procedure, choose some form among their own numbers to represent them. These assemblies are of many different kinds, with differently defined electorates and functions, often with some role in the making of decisions, the enactment of laws, and the levying of taxes.

The effective functioning of such bodies was made possible by the principle embodied in Roman law, and in systems derived from it, of the legal person – that is to say, a corporate entity that for legal purposes is treated as an individual, able to own, buy or sell property, enter into contracts and obligations, and appear as either plaintiff or defendant in both civil and criminal proceedings. There are signs that such bodies existed in a pre-Islamic Arabia. They disappeared with the advent of Islam, and from the time of the Prophet until the first introduction of Western institutions in the Islamic world there was no equivalent among the Muslim people of the Athenian boule, the Roman Senate, the Jewish Sanhedrin, the Icelandic Althing or the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot, or any of the innumerable parliaments, councils, synods, diets, chambers, and assemblies of every kind that flourished all over Christendom.

One obstacle to the emergence of such bodies was the absence of any legal recognition of corporate persons. There were some limited moves in the direction of recognition. Islamic commercial law recognizes various forms of partnership for limited business purposes. A waaf, a pious foundation, once settled is independent of its settlor and can in theory continue indefinitely, with the right to own, acquire, and alienate property. But these never developed beyond their original purposes, and at no point reached anything resembling the governmental, ecclesiastical, and private corporate entities of the West.

Thus almost all aspects of Muslim government have an intensely personal character. In principle, at least, there is no state, but only a ruler; no court, but only a judge. There is not even a city with defined powers, limits, and functions, but only an assemblage of neighborhoods, mostly defined by family, tribal, ethnic, or religious criteria, and governed by officials, usually military, appointed by the sovereign. Even the famous Ottoman imperial divan – the divan-i humayun – described by many Western visitors as a council, could more accurately be described as a meeting, on fixed days during the week, of high political, administrative, judicial, financial, and military officers, presided over in earlier times by the sultan, in later times by the grand vizier. Matters brought before the meeting were referred to the relevant member of the divan, who might make a recommendation. The final respon

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20. Ypulse Essentials: Botox for Teens, Mattel's Monster High, Universal and MTV Call Truce

Universal, MTV call truce for the VMAs (Though Viacom-owned MTV.com recently lost the rights to stream videos by Universal artists — like Justin Bieber, who's up for Best New Artist — the label will allow the site to publish its... Read the rest of this post

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21. The Oxford Comment: Episode 4 – RELIGION! (Part 1)



In this two-part series, Michelle and Lauren explore some of the most hot-button issues in religion this past year.

Subscribe and review this podcast on iTunes!

Featured in Part 1:

Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ramadan Debate: Is Islam a Religion a Peace?

Highlights and exclusive interviews with Hitchens, Ramadan, & New York Times National Religion Correspondent  Laurie Goodstein

Read more and watch a video courtesy of the 92nd St Y HERE.

*     *     *     *     *

Nick Mafi, Oxford University Press employee extraordinaire

*     *     *     *     *

David Sehat, author of The Myth of American Religious Freedom

*     *     *     *     *

The Ben Daniels Band

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22. Infidels and Etymologists

A NOTE ON UNFAITHFUL ENGLISH SPELLING AND THE HISTORY OF THE WORD GIAOUR

By Anatoly Liberman


Today hardly anyone would have remembered the meaning of the word giaour “infidel” (the spellchecker does not know it and, most helpfully, suggests glamour and Igor among four variants) but for the title of Byron’s once immensely popular 1813 poem: many editions; ten thousand copies sold on the first day, an unprecedented event in the history of 19th-century publishing.  Nowadays, at best a handful of specialists in English romanticism and reluctant graduate students read it or anything else by this author—an unfortunate development.  Yet if the word is still familiar to the English speaking public, it happens only thanks to Byron.

At the end of the 19th century, there was a heated discussion about the pronunciation of initial g- in giaour, and, as usual in such cases, conflicting suggestions about the origin of the word turned up.  The OED had just approached the volume with giaour, and its verdict was eagerly awaited.  Alas, no dictionary will save us from the ambiguity of initial g in Modern English.  Only j can be relied upon: no one doubts how to pronounce jam, jet, jerk, jitters, Joe, or jumble, even when for historical reasons that make little sense to modern speakers j- renders what should have been y-, as in Jerusalem, Jericho, Jordan, and the like.  But g- before i and e is a nightmare.  We have begin (and Shakespeare often used this verb without the prefix and wrote gin, appearing in some of our editions with an apostrophe:’gin) and gin (the beverage), get and gem (alongside Jemima); gill (in a fish), gill “ravine” (both with “hard” g) and gill “half a pint,” as well as gill “lass,” that is, Jill (both with “soft” g).  To increase the confusion, we are offered gild, guilt, age, ridge, wedge and Wedgwood (for completeness’ sake, compare rajah and the odd-looking transliteration hajj “pilgrimage’).  It was deemed necessary to abbreviate refrigerator to fridge: frige, on an analogy with rage or fringe, did not suffice.  If I received the mandate to reform English spelling, one of my first executive orders would have abolished this mess.  Not hungry for power, except for power over words, and shirking administrative duties to the extent it is possible on a modern day campus, I think this is the one post I am longing for.  But the coveted mandate will never come my way, and judging by what is happening in this area, nobody will.  With regard to spelling, we are doomed to remain in the17th century at the latest.

There is no way of finding out how Byron pronounced giaour, though he probably said it with j-, as was more comm

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23. Is the Brotherhood part of Egypt’s future, or just its past?

By Geneive Abdo


Over the past several weeks, leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have placed on public display the lessons they have learned as Egypt’s officially banned but most influential social and political movement by trying to pre-empt alarmist declarations that the country is now headed for an Iran-style theocracy.

Members of the venerable Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by an Egyptian school teacher to revitalize Islam and oppose British colonial rule, have so far stated no plans to run a candidate in the next presidential election, and they surprised many by their halting participation in the transitional government, after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. They also have made it clear that they have no desire to seek a majority in the Egyptian parliament, when free elections are held, as promised by Egypt’s current military rulers. In fact, the Brotherhood has voiced its commitment to work with all groups within the opposition – including the secular-leaning youth who inspired the revolution – without demanding a leading role for itself.

These gestures have produced two reactions from Western governments and other international actors heavily invested in Egypt’s future: Some simply see this as evidence that there is no reason to fear the Brotherhood will become a dominant force in the next government.

Others view the Brotherhood’s public declarations with skepticism, saying the promises are designed simply to head off any anxiety over the future influence and scope of the religious-based movement. For example, British Minister David Cameron, who last week became the first foreign leader to visit Egypt after Mubarak’s downfall, refused to meet Brotherhood leaders, saying he wanted the people to see there are political alternatives to “extreme” Islamist opposition. Such simplistic characterization of the Muslim Brotherhood simply echoes Mubarak’s long-term tactic to scare the West into supporting his authoritarian rule as the best alternative to Islamic extremism.

But the future on the horizon for the Brotherhood lies most likely somewhere between these divergent views. Now that Egyptians have freed themselves from decades of restraint and fear, a liberalized party system will logically follow, reflecting the values, aspirations and religious beliefs of Egyptian society as a whole.

What the outside world seems to have missed during the many decades since the Brotherhood was banned is the fact that the movement has never been a political and social force somehow detached from Egyptian society. Rather, the widespread popularity of the movement – which is fragmented along generational lines – can be best explained by the extent to which it reflects the views of a vast swathe of Egyptians.

The Brotherhood has waited patiently for society to evolve beyond the Free Officers movement of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Beginning in the early 1990s, it was clear that Islamization was taking hold in Egypt. In my book, No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam, which documented the societal transformation from a secular to more religious Egypt during the 1990s, I made it clear that the Brotherhood was on the rise. This was in part responsible for the Brotherhood’s strong showing in parliamentary elections in 2005, when they ran candidates as independents because Egyptian law prohibits religiously-based parties to run candidates in elections.

The question now is wh

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24. Shari’a Law and the Archbishop of Canterbury

Shari’a in the West is a collection of essays, edited by Rex Adhar and Nicholas Aroney, written by leading scholars from a range of countries, academic fields, and political and faith positions in reaction to some public lectures given by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales regarding the practice of Shari’a Law in the Western world. The excerpt below is taken from John Milbank’s essay ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury: The Man and the Theology Behind the Shari’a Lecture’ and focuses on the Muslim reaction to Dr Williams’s speech.

Over the first two weeks of February 2008 in the United Kingdom, a sizable controversy was stirred up by a lecture given to the Royal Courts of Justice by the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt Rev Rowan Williams, entitled ‘Civil and Religious Law in England: A Religious Perspective’, and a prior interview which he gave to the BBC Radio 4 news programme, ‘The World at One’. In the course of both the talk and the interview, the Archbishop suggested that certain extensions of Shari’a law in Britain were both ‘unavoidable’ and also desirable from the double point of view of civil cohesion and the defence of the ‘group rights’ of religious bodies.

Public reactions to this pronouncement were both swift and overwhelmingly negative. The Prime Minister distanced himself from the remarks, declaring that there could be but one common law for all in Britain, which must be based upon ‘British values’. Most political leaders from all the main British political parties more or less followed suit. The popular press suggested that the Archbishop was clearly as mad as his hirsute appearance had always led them to suppose, while the quality press by and large accused him of extreme political naivety, obscurity, and misplaced academicism. Certain commentators at the higher end of the media spectrum dissented from the latter verdict, and allowed that Dr Williams had bravely raised issues of great future importance. They also conceded to him that some supplementary elements of the religious law of all three monotheistic traditions were already incorporated by British justice and that further extensions of this accommodation should not be ruled out.

Yet, with near unanimity they declared that he had gone too far in apparently condoning parallel legal systems with an option for people to have certain cases considered either by a civil or religious tribunal. Any such possibility was also condemned by the Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, the Rt Rev Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, and this was discretely echoed by the majority of even the Anglican bench of bishops. It was reported that only three per cent of the members of the Synod which helps to govern the Anglican Church in England favoured the Archbishop’s opinion, while up and down the country, on the Sunday following the initial furore, priests found themselves forced in their sermons to make some sort of allusion to it, and were only received well by their congregations if they wholeheartedly confirmed their support for one common law for all people resident in England. The population at large, encouraged by some sections of the media, predictably associated the word ‘Shari’a’ with the chopping-off of hands and the punishment of raped women as fornicators—a reaction which, it seems, the Archbishop’s advisors had predicted and warned him against.

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25. Michael Scheuer sits down with Stephen Colbert



Michael Scheuer was the chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999 and remained a counterterrorism analyst until 2004. He is the author of many books, including the bestselling Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terrorism. His latest book is the biography Osama bin Laden, a much-needed corrective, hard-headed, closely reasoned portrait that tracks the man’s evolution from peaceful Saudi dissident to America’s Most Wanted.

Among the extensive media attention both the book and Scheuer have received so far, he was interviewed on The Colbert Report just this week.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Michael Scheuer
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive


Interested in knowing more? See:

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