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Posts Tagged ‘Islam’

This just in on the 5:30 PM EST news:

The awful, terrible, disrespectful, ignorant-based, senseless, idiotic “International Burn a Koran” Day, sponsored by and fathered by Pastor Terry Jones, has been called off.

الحمد لله!

In a press release, Jones has agreed to cancel his “event” after being put in contact with Faisel Rauf, the imam of the proposed Cordoba Islamic Center (of “Ground Zero” fame and controversy), who (he claims) agreed to move the mosque’s location if the burning were cancelled.

I’m so happy that he’s saying he’s not going through with it. Thank GOD.

Read about it at the NYT

The VOA has a remarkably prompt article on it as well, albeit with spelling errors.

Also, President Obama has condemned the “event” as being a “recruiting bonanza for al-Qaeda,” noting that images of Christian-Americans burning the Islamic holy book would do nothing but incite violence against Americans internationally across the Islamic world.

The State Department also released a notice via e-mail to registered American expatriates in Egypt:

The Department of State is issuing this Travel Alert to caution U.S. citizens of the potential for anti-U.S. demonstrations in many countries in response to stated plans by a church in Florida to burn Qur’ans on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Demonstrations, some violent, have already taken place in several countries, including Afghanistan and Indonesia, in response to media reports of the church’s plans. The potential for further protests and demonstrations, some of which may turn violent, remains high.  We urge you to pay attention to local reaction to the situation, and to avoid areas where demonstrations may take place.

I should point out that the State Department  issues these warnings as a matter of mundane routine; we were even issued warnings in the aftermath of the Egyptian defeat against Algeria this past year, when Egyptian’s were throwing rocks and spray painting Algerian Air offices. But I wouldn’t in the slightest be surprised if there were protests in Cairo had this thing actually gone through.

This whole disgraceful affair might finally be at an end, and I’m happy at that.

Let’s just hope it really is at an end.

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Did I get your attention? Good.

Piggy-backing on gender theory again, turns out that the pinup niqabiyya that I posted way back wasn’t the only painting that the artist did — rather, there’s a whole “calendar” of them — and rather than a symptom of bizarre gender perceptions, it was meant as a “critique.” I give you, from the bowels of yesterday’s Daily Beast:

The Rise of Islamo-Erotica

The gallery is interesting, but potentially offensive, and definitely NSFW.

Britney Spears. No, really. In niqab.

This Chicago-based photographer had his exhibition closed due to intense protests from Muslim students at Harper College in Illinois. “You believe that your work is protected by the freedom of speech,” says Normandie. “But it is removed the same way it would be in Iran or in the Middle East.”

His series Hejab portrays Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, doing a tango with a veiled semi-nude figure. “The clerics in Iran forced Iran and the women of Iran to a tango,” says Normandie, who has used his work to criticize the Iranian regime for what he perceives as the complete subjugation of women.

Another Iranian artist, Makan Emdai, has used his work to ridicule the objectification of women both in the West and their repression in the East. A series called Islamo-erotica depicts women wearing long black dresses in revealing pinup poses. The paintings include a female exposing her bottom while sitting in a martini glass, one straddling a gun, and another with her skirt blowing up, a la Marilyn Monroe.

“It is about sexism everywhere,” says Emadi, who is based in Los Angeles. “On one side of the world sexuality is a common selling point and in another it is denied.”

(Credit Betwa Sharma of The Daily Beast)

What’s remarkable is that these aren’t your run-of-the-mill Westerners crying “Hijab! She’s oppressed!” but rather Irani and Muslim artists who are utilizing art for critical purposes, rather than objectification itself. I recognize that this is something of an interesting paradox, because the re-publication of the images is also an objectification, kind of like publishing a criticism of pornography that requires publication of the pornography it is criticizing.

Not something I would hang up in my living room (or elsewhere), but I think that the idea behind it is pretty cool. And pretty ballsy, too.

That said, I think that the idea is also kind of moot. The kind of community that would be going to see a gallery exhibition of this sort of work really wouldn’t be critical of it. They’d pat the artist on the back and say, “Ooo, what you’re doing is edgy and cool and critical of the establishment.” And it is. But the trouble is that this is not the mainstream thing. Religious leaders are not going to see this stuff in galleries, and if they do or agree with it, the argument will be that the art itself commits the sin it condemns (true). Art should cause people to think, and so I post it for you, gentle reader. As a result, the community surrounding this sort of thing will either A) hang it up in some dive bar for the boys to point and laugh and fantasize about (thus obscuring the purpose of the artist) or B) serve to stroke the egos of the self-righteous, who don’t need “Islamo-erotica” to say that cultural attitudes toward sexuality and gender in Muslim countries are a little strange sometimes.

Conclusion: not necessary, people.

I’m not opposed to the niqab. The hijab. Nothing. As long as it’s the woman’s choice (and not her culture’s). No compulsion, peeps.

But what, pray tell, is the point of putting Britney Spears or Megan Fox in a niqab, anyway — art or elsewhere? The criticism isn’t clear enough, I think. And it needs to be when it comes to women’s rights.

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Rumi tuned me in yesterday to the controversy surrounding the Swiss popular vote to ban minarets. As usual, there’s what he termed “twitrage” about the decision, though for me, it raises some interesting questions about churches here.

Naturally, I’m outraged.

Interestingly, the character known to me only as “Sandmonkey” (see his amazingly crazy rants here) twittered in response to the ban: “Switzerland is banning the phalic extension of a mosque. Not building the mosque itself. Muslim countries do that, to churches.”

Kind of what I think.

Fadhila posted a really level-headed article by Tariq Ramadan of The Guardian on the ban’s motivation by fear: the Swiss fear “Islamization,” and that a variety of Islamic symbols are targeted as a result of fear — which is implied to be the product of ignorance among non-Muslims. I’m a fan of Ramadan’s articles in general (not his one on Benedict XVI, though), but I think that his assertion that the Swiss have voted “not against towers, but Muslims” is taking the matter entirely too far. And again, I’m outraged. I really am. I hate having to censor myself, I hate that I can’t hear church bells. I hate that being Christian in a Muslim country makes me feel a little under siege. And I don’t want anyone to experience that — ever — in any other country. But I’m not really asking if it’s really ethical, because we all know it’s not; I’m asking if we’re at all surprised at the decision.

When Hamas won the majority vote in the Palestinian legislative assembly in 2006, the rest of the world trembled a little, fearing that the election of the party would escalate the already simmering issue of Palestine. During the Bush administration, the atmosphere surrounding such election results was made to sound like evil was slowly taking over; that within years, the US would become embroiled not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in some tragic, painful conflict in Palestine. But no one interfered. Interference would mean compromising the electoral principle that, when people vote, they vote for a reason: neither the United States nor anyone else could eliminate that fact. Does the same principle apply? (Serious question)

When authors cannot freely publish critical books without incurring death threats and are forced into years of hiding (Salman Rushdie)…

When the publication of the positive portrayals of Islam in The Jewel of Medina (about the life of Aisha) is cancelled and delayed for fear of outcry against the publisher and threats against the author

When the director of (an albeit tasteless) film criticizing the verse from the Qur’an that a man has a right to beat his wife if she is disobedient is murdered in reaction to its release

Protestors outside the Danish embassy in London, c. 2006 following the cartoon controversy

When protesters to the Danish cartoon controversy react with violence against the cartoon depiction of Muhammad, portraying Islam as a violent religion….

When filmmakers are afraid to destroy the Ka’aba in a stupid blockbuster about the end of the world but are more than willing to topple the Basilica of St. Peter’s…

When underage girls in Antwerp feel as though they need to veil and be accompanied by their brothers to be socially accepted by their classmates…

When the display of Christian icons, crosses (even on one’s person!), or the open worship of Christianity is expressly forbidden by law and carries a prison sentence…

When all this happens, are we surprised by Ramadan’s assertion that such a controversy is “fuelled by fear”?

Of course it’s fueled by fear. Fear that we cannot criticize, fear that we cannot unveil, fear that we cannot protect our right to free speech. The public face of Islam is one that advocates itself as the True Faith and a unifying religion of peace; and yet, these items are at odds with the idea of free speech contained within liberal democracy. Shari’a law does do permit public worship of other religions, it requires other adherents to pay taxes: where Christianity conceives itself as a separate political identity (“Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…”), Islam is conceived as an umma, a nation of believers that is spread in a diaspora across the world, to be governed ideally by a caliph under shari’a law. Hence, as Bernard Lewis notes:

The penalty for apostasy, in Islamic law, is death. Islam is conceived as a polity, not just as a religious community. It follows therefore that apostasy is treason. It is a withdrawal, a denial of allegiance as well as of religious belief and loyalty. Any sustained and principled opposition to the existing regime or order almost inevitably involves such a withdrawal.

I too am a little afraid. When such potentials are so essential to the practice of the religion, what is the religion itself? Is Islam really how the theologians would have it? Or is it how the people practice it — how it is visible, perceived, and read?

Isn’t that always the question in religion?

——-

Later:

Bikya’s article on the ban makes me SO ANGRY in that it fails to address similar issues within Egypt:
http://bikyamasr.com/?p=6196

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Since leaving Middlebury College, I’ve missed a lot of things. Fall, in particular. I’ve missed the autumn rains and the snow, the smell of wood burning, strolling arm-in-arm with that special someone, the taste of Vermont apples (although there are some pretty tasty ones from Lebanon here). I miss the sunset over the mountains in the West and the sunrise over the mountains in the East. But most of all, I miss the bells.

Fr. Justin Baker, bless his crazy cowboy heart, was the first to start it at St. Mary’s eight years ago: he set the bell tower to ring out the Angelus, and most everyone in Middlebury flipped — in particular, the neighbors, who weren’t thrilled to have a five straight minutes of bells from the largest church in town sounding from mountain to mountain. Despite the complaints, though, the bells remained, and the complaints died down.

The Angelus is a pretty old-school Catholic tradition; it commemorates the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Mother that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and Christ would be born. Pretty much every Catholic Church in existence sounded the Angelus pre-Vatican II, until the practice was declared voluntary and gradually fell out of favor in more diversified communities. I first encountered the Angelus at TAC a couple of summers ago, when (in my more rebellious days) I had no idea what it was. Fr. Beaudin kept up the tradition after FJ left (or perhaps never turned off the timer), and I loved waking up to the sound, even if I just fell back asleep. It was a rather nice punctuation to the day, though I’ve sort of accustomed myself to the absence of church bells since being in Egypt (both times), and acclimatized myself to the adhan here. No church bells. Why? They’re illegal.

To my mind, the Angelus is kind of a toned-down adhan in both form and function. It reminds the believers of prayer, bringing them from the rolling hum of the day and back to the Divine. A few days ago, I went off on my own perceived imbalance of free speech here: today, I’d like to explain my sadness over the silence at six o’clock, twelve, and six again — when no bells sound.

85 and rising

There’s a lot of noise in Egypt. More than most people in America (or the suburbs) are used to. We play our music too loud or make too much noise at a barbeque and the neighbors complain. Here, everyone just turns up the volume that much more. It’s a case study in noise escalation at its finest.

At the base of all these sounds is the adhan; as I’ve noted elsewhere, the five-times-a-day call to prayer, sung out by every mosque in the city. Though saying it’s only five times a day is kind of a misdirection: in reality there’s an optional prayer (before the pre-dawn one) that gets a kind of “whispered” shout over loudspeakers, and an accompanying iqama — a call to prayer that’s repeated about fifteen minutes or so after the main adhan to signal that the men are lining up in the mosque. That totals to twelve calls to prayer– a grand total of 72 “Allahu akbar”s. Some adhans last a good ten minutes, too, depending on how drawn out the muezzin makes it. And a lot of muezzins draw it out. I once clocked the mosque across the street: the muezzin chanted for nine and a half minutes, largely due to long pauses between phrases.

Objectively speaking, the adhan can be stunningly beautiful; unfortunately, however, most decide to blast it from oversquelching, often back-feeding megaphones that detract from the muezzin’s particular skill. If the volume were perhaps lowered by an eighth on nine-tenths of these speakers, the effect would be (aesthetically) all the more stunning. Cairo’s noise level has been such that, in some areas, it amounts to almost 85 decibels. It got the NY Times’ attention here, anyway. I’m pretty sure there can’t be too much of a practical aspect to it anymore; the only thing there are more of on my street (which is a pretty average Egyptian street) aside from mosques are ahwas, so I don’t think anyone’s going to miss prayers even if the muezzin whispered the adhan. Word would get out, I’m sure.

To my mind, the best prayer calls have been shouted; once, the loudspeaker for Mesgid al-Saddiq (the mosque across from my building) broke, and the muezzin was forced to make the call from the steps of the mosque. It was breathtaking.

Not with a whimper, but a bang

To those not accustomed to living in a Muslim country, let me clarify that Friday is to Muslims what Sunday is to Christians: it’s congregation day. It’s when you dust off the Friday galabiyya and saunter off to the mosque, best prayer-beads in hand. It’s the day where you sit and listen to someone lecture you on your religion and offer you advice — the sermon called the khutba.

Traditionally, the khutba is delivered with a certain amount of “shidda.” Shidda is a word that can describe any number of emotions: passion being the lightest of them, anger and force being the heavier ones. Think of a good hellfire sermon: that’s pretty much the force that you get with a good khutba, but through loudspeakers mounted on the street level, which always metaphorically (and sometimes literally) rattle the windows and shake the shutters. It’s pretty difficult to escape.

I’m pretty used to the Friday sermon — to the point where I can sleep through it or watch movies through it. Yet, every time I’ve complained about this (not frequently) I seem to come under fire, Lord knows why. Yes, I moved to a Muslim country. No, I don’t expect them to stop. But why can’t we ring church bells?

Churches have bells, of course, but only certain churches — like the monastery of Abu Mina in the middle of the desert. And only certain churches are permitted to ring their bells at certain times — like Sacre Coeur on Easter Sunday. They require permission.

“In your face religion”

One of the most outraging articles I’ve ever read was posted some weeks ago on Bikya Masr on the murder of a 60 year-old Copt in Assyut, where sectarian violence is at its worst, and tensions are still quite high between Christians and Muslims. Here’s the part that really got to me:

Permission for churches is controversial in Egypt, where by law the president must give final say in the use of a certain space for religious purposes. Rights groups argue that because the president delegates authority in the matter to local officials, Copts have been forced to use illegal places for worship.

Many Muslims argue that it is not the idea of having Christian places of worship that bother them, it is the manner and place where they are established. Mona, a 62-year-old mother, asked why a church is being built directly in front of a mosque.

“What is the point of that? They [Christians] know that it will create tensions among the population and this sort of in-your-face religion needs to end,” she argued.

Seriously? Do have to describe why Mona’s statement is completely insane?

Now, I’ve been rolling that around for quite some time. I’ve polled people on the subject, in fact, after I cooled down for a while. While there are some exceptions (“What’s the problem with bells? We have the call to prayer.”), they are few and far between. Khalid, one of the folks at the restaurant where I now have my 8 LE dinners also pointed out that shari’a explicitly forbids the building of new churches or the ringing of bells. This is keeping in accordance with such historical examples as the pact of ‘Umar II, which forbid the reconstruction of churches and the conversion of Muslims to Christianity.

Hm.

Banning the adhan in Oxford

Fadhila’s often told me how, for the most part, it’s quite the inverse in Great Britain, where the Great Mosque of East London is only allowed to sound three of the five standard calls to prayer. When I asked if the fagr, the pre-dawn prayer, were among them, she laughed at me. No: it wasn’t permitted.

In all fairness, this isn’t acceptable to my mind, either. The issue of the adhan in England, however, poses several problems both socially and politically that the ringing of church bells does not. Dismissing the aesthetic idea (“A minaret is not English” or that the call to prayer is not as “aesthetically pleasing” as the ringing of bells or some other such froo-froo nonsense), there are a number of reasons why the two calls (angelus and adhan) are not the same.

First of all, there is the obvious issue of potential gheto-izing the area surrounding the mosque, forcing non-Muslim residents out and more Muslim residents in. While not a crime against democracy (people will live where they want to live, will they not?), it does seem something of a step backwards — and somewhat self-isolating. This seems to me to be the religious equivalent of immigrants not learning English or failing to integrate fully into an Anglophone society — which is not the point of immigration.

Additionally, there is the problem with the representative slice of the population. The call to prayer is pretty overpowering. But to have a loudspeaker intruding into the lives and homes of a majority non-Muslim population carries the same kind of absurdity to me that removing the words “IN GOD WE TRUST” from a nation of theists does. In a democracy, the majority rules. In Oxford, perhaps Muslims should turn down their loudspeakers just a little. Such a thing is neighborly.

But the situation in Great Britain is vastly different than the situation here in Egypt. They vary in that Britain hasn’t forbid the construction of mosques. The city of Oxford didn’t tell people to take their prayers inside and not be visible. Bishops are advocating for them. People are saying yes and no, but not because they’re Muslims; because they don’t want to be bothered. People in Egypt are used to the noise: the call to prayer rings out regularly, why not add a little more noise? In GB, church bells are less common, and you’re lucky to get the Angelus from the local traditionalist Catholic parish: you want to throw in something really, really, really noisy into a neighborhood not used to it? I’ll give you Fr. Justin’s number.

Furthermore, official government policy doesn’t back the Christian majority and lag for periods of twenty years when it comes to a building permit. But Egypt does. That despite the claims to free practice of religion, Copts and Catholics and Protestants can’t ring church bells. They can’t repair outer walls. Hell, they can’t even install a toilet.

Reciprocity

I want to move to close with a few thoughts on reciprocity. In the course of bouncing all over the internet for some support, I managed to find this, written by a pretty conservative Brit (I think?) that hits on quite a few good points — though I don’t agree with him entirely, or even at all, on some things (in particular, I don’t like his “antijihadi rhetoric,” which strikes me as ignorant) — but there are a few good hits in the highlights:

In Mecca, churches are illegal. The Bible and the cross are illegal. Priests are illegal. Preaching Christianity and other faiths is punishable by imprisonment, torture and death. Converting to Christianity or another faith is punishable by imprisonment, torture and death. In short, the heartland of Islam is one of the most appalling hellholes of religious intolerance in the world today.

[…]

The king of Saudi Arabia has announced that he is ready to support the construction of a mosque and Islamic cultural center in Moscow, a city with only four mosques for its more than two million Muslims. In response and probably to block this, Orthodox Christians in Russia have called for opening a church in Saudi Arabia.

After the Saudi offer was reported, three Russian Orthodox groups — the Moscow section of the Union of Orthodox Citizens, the Radonezh Society, and the Byzantine Club — released an open letter to Saudi King Abdullah suggesting that there should be another mosque in Moscow only after a Russian Orthodox church was opened in Mecca.

Jean-Louis Cardinal Toran, the head of the Papal Council on Inter-religious Dialogue, agrees: “If Muslims consider it correct to have a large and beautiful mosque in Rome, then it is equally correct for Christians to have a church in Riyadh.”

The British writer Adrian Morgan raises the same point:

Yet when one sees the number of mosques being erected in Britain, often with money from Saudi Arabia, I wonder why no Far Left individual raises the question of hypocrisy. Saudi Arabia funds the export of Islam around the world (even to Nepal), yet prevents any Bibles from being brought into their kingdom. No churches are allowed to be built in Saudi Arabia, and migrant workers who hold unofficial Christian services have been jailed.

[…]

It’s probably better to look at it like a free trade issue. If a country is dumping its religion into other countries while prohibiting the entry of other religions into its own country, then sanctions and punitive tariffs must be applied to break down those unfair barriers. The restrictions on muslims under such sanctions would not be absolute. For example, the moratorium on mosque building can be lifted at any time by allowing free building of churches in Mecca.

Road sign denoting different roads for Muslims and non-Muslims in Saudi when transiting through Mecca

While I applaud these insights, Centurean2 conflates the idea of Saudi Arabia with Islam: that Islam is a politically entity that ideologically and religiously centers in Mecca. And while this is true to an extent (of course, with the hajj, Mecca and Medina are revered sites in Islam), the Saudis speak no more for a giant, overarching Islam than the President of the United States speaks for a giant, overarching Christianity. The significant difference being, however, that Saudi Arabia is a self-proclaimed theocracy, rather than a carefully defined democracy that has ambitions of secularism; Saudi’s adherence to a strict version os shari’a law comes off as pretty blatantly a violation of human rights. Saudi quite loudly claims to be a perfect shari’i government, not a perfect democracy. While I make no claims that any Western democracy is perfect in its practice of being blind to religion, it at least aspires to it, whereas the KSA doesn’t. And I suppose there is something strangely honest in that kind of human rights violation.

My point is that, if you’re going to call yourself a republic, or a democracy, you’d better shape up to the name. Britain better do it by letting the adhan ring out or, following the example of France, banning ALL religion (that’s hyperbole). And Egypt should do it by letting the bells ring.

And on earth, peace, and goodwill toward men

Back to bells.

Three weeks ago, around sunset, I was writing something long forgotten about when suddenly, my ears perked up. Three strikes on a distant bells. A pause. Three strikes again. What was it? Why did that feel so familiar?

The Angelus! Someone was ringing the Angelus!

I jumped up and burst into Tom’s room and onto the balcony, Tom looking up from his bed.

“Bells!” I cried. “They’re ringing bells! There’s a church ringing out the Angelus!”

Onto the balcony, and the sound continued. Three strikes. It had to be it! Where was it coming from? Cleopatra? The Jesuit Center? The church in Ibrahimiyya? I had no idea; and why tonight, why were they sounding them tonight?

I was ecstatic. It was like listening to the voice of someone long lost.

“What’s an angelus?” Tom asked. And as I turned to him to explain, the adhan drowned bells and explanation out.

As we turned to go inside where we could talk, I whispered a Hail Mary. At least that can’t be taken away.

And I suppose absence makes the heart grow fonder.

I haven’t heard them since.

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Longest post ever. I assure you, it’s good.

Ever since writing about the Antwerp headscarf ban (mentioned in The Economist some time ago by the wise Charlemagne), I’ve been turning over the ethics of freedom of choice and couple of the more controversial topics concerning Islam. It’s high time that I wrote about them.

Here begins a mini-series of posts. I have no doubt in my mind that what I’m going to say here will very likely make some people angry, but I want you to rest assured: I’m quite open on these subjects, and I’m simply trying to understand how they can be resolved as a function of both principles — both democracy and Islam. I want to be clear: they are not opposing forces. Ideally (and both in their ideal forms), they merge rather nicely. However, to reiterate my dear friend Fadhila’s observation, “Islam is perfect, not Muslims.” The same applies to the American brand of democratic idealism, to Christianity, and any ideology that might be worth naming: those self-same imperfections in the gap are really what make things difficult for all parties.

And so, rather than these being my observations of Islam, these are really my personal observations of Muslims, and a few of the meditations that those interactions.

“You have your religion, and I have mine”

I’m not a Muslim; I’m a Roman Catholic.

I like incense, I like hymns, I like kneeling to take communion. Which, I believe — beyond reason — is the actual whole Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Who is God. I believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ His Only Son, I believe in a Trinitarian God and I believe that God, though God (and not needing to do things) has done a number of vastly un-Godly things: like Himself His only Begotten Son so as to provide an appropriate sacrifice for the sins of Mankind and for Himself. Like resting on the Seventh Day (NB: I think that it’s easier to say that God did all of that (because He could if He wanted!) then say that God can’t have rested or incarnated Himself or become Three-in-One and One-in-Three, because, let’s call a spade a spade here: He can. We might not understand it, but He can. He can dig a bottomless well and stand at the bottom. He can even find the end of infinity. He’s God; stop asking questions).

That’s my act of faith, and I think that the act of having faith is actually that: it’s quite unreasonable. It’s laying aside logic and putting your money on something you have absolutely no proof over. I try to stay away from theological arguments because, truth be told, I’m not going to convince anyone, no matter how logically I put it to them.

Muslim offenders

With that in mind, I recently tweeted about the up-and-coming biopic on Muhammad, pointing out that I was rather doubtful that it would draw anything but criticism from any and all Islamic parties. Read about Barry Osborne’s potential flick it here on BikyaMasr.

To understand exactly how serious the upcoming controversy, I refer you to the Wikipedia article on a similar (much beloved, very respectful) movie, Al-Risala (“The Message”), produced to critical and public acclaim in 1976:

On March 9, 1977, a group led by Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, seized several buildings and took 134 hostages in Washington, D.C.[2] The takeover led to the fatal shootings of a journalist and a police officer, and the non-fatal shooting of Marion Barry, who would become mayor of Washington, D.C. two years later. One of their demands was to prevent the release of the film. One of the hostage-takers specifically said, according to an on-site reporter, that “he wanted a guarantee from the whole world it will never be shown or they would execute some of the hostages…”

Dude: seriously?

The Message sported a score by Maurice Jarre (think: Doctor Zhivago) and avoided all depictions of Muhammad, his wives and his sons-in-law. The closest it ever comes to even remotely portraying him (or any of them) are a few shadows — maybe a staff or a sword (Ali’s double-pronged Zulfiqar). It’s much-beloved even today by Egyptians especially, and is seen by many as walking a nice middle path between “Western” art and halal portrayal. Probably because the director (Moustapha Akkad) was a practicing Muslim. Cool.

Let’s get back to that.

Apparently, German director Roland Emmerich was debating a Ka’aba explosion scene in his rather mediocre-sounding 2012, the much criticized film about the “potential” Mayan end of the world. Here’s what really got me:

Emmerich, who fathered such films as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and Stargate, told scifiwire.com that he wanted to create a scene where he would blow up Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, but decided against it for fear of having a fatwa issued against him.

His decision to preserve the sanctity of Mecca was a wise decision. It would not have added to the film in terms of plot or content and probably would have been received as the West flexing its empirical muscles over the Arab world, whether justifiably so or not. However, one has to question Emmerich’s understanding of culture and religion as he reluctantly withdrew the proposed Mecca-exploding scene, adding that, “we have to all, in the western world, think about this. You can actually let Christian symbols fall apart, but if you would do this with [an] Arab symbol, you would have … a fatwa, and that sounds a little bit like what the state of this world is.”

I don’t understand this. At all. Why not the Ka’aba?

I can understand Akkad producing a film that was very careful about his representation of Islam’s greatest (and Seal) of the Prophets; he is, after all, a Muslim. But for a non-Muslim director to wince because he is afraid of a fatwa…?!

Books offend people. Movies offend people. The whole idea behind freedom of speech is that you have that license to do so. What I object to is not necessarily that Emmerich didn’t blow up the Ka’aba in his most recent film (which, if he did, I would have considered in bad taste anyway), but rather his reasons for backing down: he was afraid.

It’s not even like 2012 was even a movie about blowing up the Ka’aba. It was about the end of the world, and to Emmerich as a filmmaker, the end of the world involves blowing things up. It’s not the Ka’aba itself, and if you want to talk holy sites, the Vatican gets blown up in 2012. It’s a plot device. It’s a screen shot for shock effect! It’s almost incidental! For crying out loud, it’s not like it’s a whole movie about blowing up a holy site (anyone hear of Angels and Demons?).

To quote the Gateway Pundit’s interview of Catholic League president Bill Donohue, “When we got word recently that the movie ‘2012’ depicts the Vatican being blown up, along with the famous statue from Rio, Christ the Redeemer, we were unmoved. Why? Because this occurs during the end of the world in a massive destruction. This kind of sensationalism, we reasoned, is standard fare for director Roland Emmerich: he is the guru of the ‘blow ‘em up’ genre of movies.”

But it’s fear that keeps us from this. Fear that we might have to go in hiding because some nutty Irani ayatollah has issued a fatwa on us, calling on every good Muslim to execute us, and everyone who has translated our works to meet the same fate. I’m actually kind of disgusted at the potential of any religion to do that (and my own has no clean hands, I’m aware).

Peace and blessings be upon him! (But he’s not my prophet)

Offense is good, it forces us to question, to defend what we believe in. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be necessary, but what the 2012 and Salman Rushdie controversies point out to me is a discomfort with the idea of free speech. Muslims around the world are crying out against the arrest of Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who used his personal website to encourage Muslims around the world (around the world!) to kill U.S. troops in Iraq, as a violation of democratic freedom of speech.

I’m not saying that Awlaki speaks for Islam. No one speaks for Islam. But listen up, pal: Muslim, Christian, black, white, or purple, you can’t go around encouraging people to take up the sword; you can be against the war all you want, but you can’t tell people to kill other people in a public forum. That’s called assault. That’s called aggravation. Rights have limits, and even in the Land of the Free itself, you can’t say (even kidding) that you plan to murder the President, or that there’s a bomb on a plane — even if you’re just kidding. It’s illegal — and for good reason. Your right to speak freely ends where the other peoples’ begins.

This whole rant was really set off by someone telling me to call Muhammad the Prophet Muhammad. Her reasons for telling me so were simple enough: we should have respect for him. But to that, I answer: He is not my prophet. I never thought he was a prophet, my own religion expressly forbids regarding him as a prophet. I’m not a Muslim; I’m a Roman Catholic. I like incense, I like hymns, I like kneeling to take communion. Which, I believe — beyond reason — is the actual whole Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Who is God. I believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ His Only Son, the Holy Spirit that unites them all in one giant Trinitarian mystery that I don’t even attempt to pick apart, but still have faith is somehow (quite incomprehensibly) true. I’m not trying to change anyone’s opinion here, that’s just what I believe.

What I don’t like is the should. We should refer to Muhammad as “The Prophet.”

No. I don’t believe he was. Asking me to do so amounts to stepping over my side of the line.

I’ve been stopped from calling Jesus Christ the Son of God by Muslims, I’ve been told that referring to Mary as the Blessed Mother of God is offensive to some people; I’ve gotten into arguments over how stupid I am for believing in the Trinity. Priests in Egypt are not allowed to proselytize, Muslims are forbidden to convert to Christianity, churches forbidden to ring out the Angelus three times a day. The government drags its feet about allowing Copts and Catholics to construct churches, and everywhere in Middle Egypt, there is outcry about an “in your face attitude” that uppity Christians have about when they do get to build or repair a church. And then riots ensue, and people freak about having Christians in the community. “There goes the neighborhood.”

I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying I’m offended. I don’t go around asking people to refer to Jesus as the Son of God, or Mary as the Blessed Mother. I just want the same courtesy of neutral titles extended to me. I’m not saying that that’s the “official Islamic stance.” In fact, the entire time, I’ve grown more apologetic; I’ve been the one to avoid talking about it. I explain it away because I’ve spent the better part of four years studying it, reading about it, going to mosques, and learning Arabic. You know what, though? It doesn’t work that way. Someone telling me to shush every time I say “when the Son of God was born” to explain the significance of Christmas or mention that Jesus was crucified, DIED, and resurrected on Easter Sunday…their blasphemy is my belief. My being told to shut up is really starting to offend me. I’m not going to shut up about it.

Let’s make this personal for a moment. Let’s say I should refer to him as The Prophet. Out of respect. I should perhaps say after his name “Peace and blessings be upon him!” (respect, right?). I should perhaps avoid reading Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and avoid being seen with it, because it offends people. I should read the Qur’an, I should maybe avoid being in rooms alone with women. I also shouldn’t drink, eat pork, or pray without ritual ablutions.

Oh, and by the way, I probably should convert to Islam, just while I’m at it.

No: I don’t think so.

I’m not asking you to eat pork; I’m asking not to be judged for eating it myself. You don’t like wine? Don’t drink it. Islam is predicated on the fact that no one (no one) can know the true deen a person possesses. Perhaps what I do is enough; perhaps you are not held to the same standard, being who you are. Perhaps I am wrong and you are right. Either way, I don’t think that popular practice or even sharia (which sharia?) should prescribe how I live my own religious life, though.

I really, really, really dig most Muslims I know. I love quite a few of them quite dearly (here’s to you, Fadhila, Halima, and all the Penacobas!), but I’m not going to call him the Prophet Muhammad on principle. I’ve read the Qur’an — even attempted the Arabic — I love listening to it. I think the Burda is gorgeous, and I find great value in learning from Islam: it enriches my own perception of Christianity as a historical religion. I respect the historical man, and I would like to point out Holy Mother Church’s praises:

Catechism of the Catholic Church, S. 841 The Church’s relationship with the Muslims. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”

Can’t we get a little for giving a little?

Peace and blessings be upon him, the Prophet of Islam!

But he’s not my prophet.

*                         *                             *

لَكُمْ دِينُكُمْ وَلِيَ دِينِ (Q 109:6)

“To you, your religion; to me, my own.”

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By now, the whole internet is abuzz with the recent controversies surrounding the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University, Muhammed Tantawi, who has hinted at the rather surprising stance of “banning’ the niqab (the full-face veil) in public institutions. Read Bikya Masr on the subject here.

My father found out about this one before I did; he called me up a few days ago to say, “Hey, Egypt’s banning the burka.

In disbelief I said, “Ridiculous. I just passed five women on the street with them on.”

Clarification for the folks back home: the niqab covers not only the hair and neck and shoulders, but the face as well– typically, they’re black. The ninja-like appearance has led Kenyans to call niqabis “ninjas.” No joke.

Little did I know. Tantawi, known for his rather liberal attitude, reportedly gave a niqabi a metaphorical lashing when she repeatedly refused to remove the veil; he kept insisting (to his right) that he knew “more than the people that gave birth to her,” and that the niqab was NOT a part of Islam. When she finally took it off, Tantawi is reported to have said, “And you look like this? What would you have done if you were even a little bit pretty?” (In theory, the niqab guards men against the temptation of a beautiful woman’s face — basically, Tantawi was shutting her self-image down)

Naturally, “the West” is jumping on top of this; I recall one article on the subject of feminism in the Middle East starting out: “The Oriental Woman is fascinating. Is she veiled? Is she not veiled? Is she oppressed? Is she liberated?” And what with Sarkozy’s remarks about how the niqab is a symbol of the oppression of a historically downtrodden “oriental woman,” and with British bank robbers donning the gear — both as an incitement of hate and a concealment of identity — it’s not surprising that something like that makes people nervous.

Yesterday, I round-tabled the issue on a group of fifteen girls and (sadly) one guy. All of them Muslim, all of the girls hijabis (wearers of the hijab, which covers the hair). In addition to making me very proud — they fought and struggled their way through English over the past few weeks and yesterday, they made indications of hitting proficiency in their expression of ideas — there was almost universal disapproval of Tantawi’s behavior. The  “liberated” woman is capable and more than able to make her own decisions; that she can cover up or uncover herself as she pleases.

I’m going to pass you along at this point to The Economist from a few weeks ago; Charlemagne had a good column related to the Antwerp headscarf ban controversy. The section I was most shocked by:

By 2008, discussion was how to wear the scarf. Not whether. In 2007-8 there were 15 girls who came with long robes, gloves, and only their faces showing. Scarves became longer and longer. I had a lot of confrontations with those girls, I said to them: “you’re spoiling the educational project.” I said to them: “you’re stigmatising yourselves. You’re breaking with society by wearing those clothes.”

They always said, “you’re stigmatising us”. In 2007 and 2008 I banned gloves, very long robes. Even that was hard for the girls. We saw girls starting to wear veils who had not before, and asked them why. They said they did not feel very comfortable without a scarf, I must be accepted. We had girls who wore scarves at school, but teachers saw them outside the school without scarves.

There was a sense that girls wearing veils were showing they were more pious. My view was each girl had the right to wear a scarf, to preserve equality. The last two years, there was a sense of a heavy, oppressive atmosphere over the schoolyard.

Karin Heremins, the headmistress of the last school in Antwerp to ban the headscarf, noted that the introduction of extremely visible, extremely conservative elements created an “oppressive atmosphere” over the schoolyard; to my mind, comparable to having visible gang members — students are aware of their presence because it’s visible.

Now, before I get eaten alive by that comparison, think about this: we’re talking minors. Kids. Kids are not nearly as mature as adults. Women can wear what they like, in my mind. However, it’s a kind of a reverse-Catholic schoolgirl-skirt: nice girls at school wear short skirts because everyone else does —  because they don’t feel “in” or “cool” if they don’t. The ones with long skirts are stigmatized as square. In comparison, in Antwerp’s case, the same kind of clique-fashion mentality has hijacked the headscarf. The headscarf is a beautiful piece of clothing and represents something beautiful (the desire to conceal, the desire to withhold something for only the most intimate in a woman’s life), and reducing it to an on-again, off-again item destroys it.

Interestingly, the girls in my class all had identical stories about the first time they put on the hijab; their parents sat them down and said, “You can do this, you have a right to, but you also have a right not to. And if you put this on, you cannot take it off.” The argument was that people would talk.

Hind, who’s very, very, very vocal in class, was at pains to stress that there is no compulsion in Islam; that no one can make you do anything in Islam (except pray, which parents are permitted to spank their kids over). They can only “advise” you.

Can a fourteen year-old girl contemplating something all her friends are doing really make that kind of decision? Imagine telling her to get a tattoo; there’s a reason why you can’t until you’re eighteen.

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harassment It’s about time that I tackled one of the more difficult subjects that invariably every American writes about at some point: harassment. I hesitate to bring it up mainly because I’ve heard so many stories that, by this point, I would simply be laundry-listing incident after incident– each progressively (and regrettably) worse than the last. At the same time, though, I know that one has to discuss it, otherwise one risks becoming a part of (and a perpetuator of) the problem itself. My thanks in advance to Rumi for the informative Eid post, and apologies for shamelessly stealing his links.

For the last three nights, crowds of young Egyptians (shabaab) have roamed the streets, set free by their families after the evening meal to roam. And by roam, I mean overwhelmed and flooded; the streets were completely clogged with young men, teens, and tweenish boys, linked arm-in-arm (a custom of friendship here, not of homosexuality), blasting a million different songs from a million different speakerphones, hollering at each other. Scrawny kids in tight, glittery shirts in pink and purple–complete with rhinestones and senseless tiny hoods– blue jeans with a dozen zippers, acid washes, and huge, AirJordan style patent leather sneakers. Hair cut against the scalp with hair gel poured into it for the “cool” look. And everywhere, clouds of bad imitation designer perfume hung in the air.

Of course, there’s no accounting for fashion. Mahmoud tells me that girls with cropped or boyish hair are not just unattractive– they’re downright ugly. The Western media puts forth an idea of beauty that seems to revolve around figure-skaters and ballerinas; lithe, willowy types that wear clothes on the runway well. Here, such women get told that they need to fatten up or they’ll never have sons — or any children — and I think are held in something like contempt. And getting back to fashion — none of my Egyptian friends understand the recent trends of “boho chic” or grunge fashions; to them, girls get made up (almost clownishly sometimes) when they go out.

Imagine, if you will, armies of these boys wandering the streets. Literally, phalanxes of them, all astride. And as they pass you, they scream out any number of things:

– Hi! What’syourname. (It’s all strung together purposely; imagine it said really quickly with no question inflection)
– Welcome in Egypt? Hello!
– Hi! Howreyou? Howreyou?
– Fook you. Fook you! (Personal favorite)
– You…so stubid. So stubid. (Kid last night on the tram. I grabbed his ear and he ran away)

And once they’ve braved you — they’ve done the ritual tap to the foreigner — they turn back to their friends as if they’d recited the lyrics to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” from beginning to end, and congratulate themselves as if you didn’t exist.

The worst are the hisses.

Imagine a cat hissing. That’s the sound you make to say “Hey! Dude!” but mainly it gets used on the Corniche by idling shabaab to catcall girls; “You so beautiful, ” or “Muzza! Muzza!” (kind of like “babe”).

What continuously shocks me is that older women (who are present) do not intervene. In a culture that has such concerns for female honor, the idea of approaching a Western woman and propositioning her — of pulling out your penis and masturbating in public, of physically assaulting her or pressing against her — begs a number of contradictions that I cannot begin to get into: it makes me so angry. These incidents seem to have just gotten worse over the years, as well. In particular, I’m puzzled by an odd cultural double standard; there seems to be an acceptance of Western sexual mores when it’s convenient (i.e., when an Egyptian teenager is horny) but a rejection when someone else seizes advantage of them (i.e., an American has an American girl spend the night). Protect women, veil them — but only in certain circumstances.

At the risk of conflating religion and society, I’d like to bring up something that Michael Muhammad Knight mentioned in The Taqwacores (read it): if men are so weak as to warrant women praying behind them or secluded away on balconies (in mosques), why aren’t the men the ones that are sequestered off? Why seal the women off from the world if the men themselves are the problem?

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