Posts Tagged ‘things that make me uncomfortable with Islam’

In the wake of the whole “Jihad Jane” controversy that seems to have taken the web by storm, I find it particularly interesting that a movie has emerged in the past month about a man who is mistaken for a terrorist. While I can name at least one person who didn’t appreciate the film’s merits, I think that there’s a little more to be said (a week later) about this Bollywood marvel.

Bear in mind that I am not agreeing with the glowing reviews (like this one) that Bolly-enthusiasts have given it. My Name is Khan is a flawed film from the outset with American audiences, I think, if just for the touchy subject matter — the plight of American Muslims and the discrimination they have suffered post-9/11 — or perhaps the medium. To quote Katie on this one: “Heaps of choral surges accompanying tacky panning views.”

I’m still divided.

Maybe it’s my distinct sense of camp inherited from my father (who has a developed love for the slapstick of Looney Tunes), but I fond at least the first half of the film compelling; if the goal of art (any art!) is to develop sympathy between the artist and the audience, mission accomplished. Rizvan Khan (“Khan…khan, with a ‘kh,’ from the epiglottis.”) was lovable and relatable as a man with Asperger’s syndrome can be; I personally think that the first half was moderately akin to an Indian Forrest Gump, and just as heartwarming. It takes a cold, cold heart indeed to watch a man with a mental disability overcoming the prejudices of everyday life (nothing Muslim at this point) and not feel like he should get the beautiful Indian single mom in the end.

I’m also going to skip the camp and slot it into the Forrest Gump unlikeliness category: for instance, there is the whole flood-in-Georgia sequence where every Indian Muslim that Rizvan knows shows up, chest-high in water, to save the tiny “Church of the Rock” in Wilhelmina, Georgia. Hm. Knocking that up as similar to Forrest meeting three separate presidents and winning the Medal of Honor.

That said…

My Name is Khan is also an incredibly dangerous film, and the camp masks that. Shown to American audiences, it might function as a mirror, pointing to our own sins in the wake of 9/11 and discriminating against a perceived Muslim “enemy,” when in reality we might have been learning to understand and distinguish what is Islam and what is Islamism. And the truth of the film is that I can’t deny the race riots I read about in the papers; in particular, I remember a group of non-Muslim Hispanics in South Florida being attacked on the street because they closely resembled Arabs. Sikhs, famous for their long beards and turbans (though not affiliated with Islam) also experienced widespread discrimination. These ugly things happened, and there is no denying them.

But Name takes a lot of liberties with the American public, which (I think) it gives a little too much credit.

1. Arabic. Before I started studying Arabic, I had absolutely one-hundred percent no idea what Arabic sounded like. No idea. Without tooting my own horn too much, I am an educated, relatively well-read, well-traveled, cultured individual; if you had spoken Arabic to me back then and told me to guess, I might have looked at the individual and guessed wildly at an number of languages. But when Rizvan attends a memorial service for the victims of 9/11 and begins to pray during a group moment of silence by reciting Surat al-Fatiha (basically, the Muslim Lord’s Prayer), candle in hand, only to have the crowd disperse, visibly disgusted by the presence a Muslim who is muttering Arabic….that’s a bit much. I’m pretty sure that would never happen, if just because ninety percent of the American public wouldn’t be able to recognize that it was a) Arabic, b) Muslim, and c) anything but a prayer in that context.

The name's Khan. Genghis Khan.

2. The Name. To me, (and again, I’m pulling the above-average American card), the name Khan doesn’t sound all that Muslim to me. And I’ve studied, known, befriended, loved, etc. etc. Muslims. Muhammad sounds Muslim. Mustafa sounds Muslim. So does Ahmed, Khalil, and Sherif. But Khan? That sounds like something out of a Star Trek movie. That sounds like a Mongol emperor that ruled half the world: a name like Khan and you expect it to be preceded by Genghis. To assume that Americans would assume that Khan is a Muslim name gives them a little too much credit for their knowledge of Indian Muslims. They would probably make a joke about “The Wrath of Khan” and Klingons before anything.

3. Evil White People. I understand the message. I do. I really, really do. But this movie exhibited the most God-awful, crazy, douchebag examples as happening every day. Every. Day. From Rizvan’s sister-in-law getting her hijab yanked off (that’s really awful), to the little kid getting beaten to death (awful to the power of ten), to the constant angry, sometimes tearful shouts of nativist jingoism: “Get out of my country” and “You people should never….” etc. etc. All instances of this kind of racism were perpetuated by caucasian whites. Not a single instance of a positive reaction.

I don’t mean that I expected white people to react well to 9/11; but some of us went out and bought a Qur’an. Some of us read up on Islam and tried to understand and distinguish between who a Muslim is, and who is a terrorist. Some of us learned Arabic and studied history and are applying to graduate programs in comparative Arabic-English literature. In short, I don’t like being lumped into the category of “Muslim-hater,” which is what this movie did. It said that all non-Muslims turned discriminatory against Muslims — even children.

But wait! What about Mama Jenny, the ever-so-lovable-African-American-woman-with-her-son-Funny-Haired-Joe, the one that takes in Rizvan and makes him wear a dress?

Hm. Aside from the perhaps not-deliberate lampooning of black Southern culture (I kept thinking that Mama Jenny seemed a little too cartoonish to keep me at ease), ultimately, she is a minority as well. The underlying message of the division of presidents — one that reacts with detainment, torture, and violence (Bush) and one that, after hearing Khan wants to see him, walks back to the podium to welcome him (Obama) is that minorities better understand Muslims than whites do. Even the film students are Indian, not white.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a lot to atone for, but there were some of us that did good.

4. Evil White People Among Us. The film might have highlighted American ignorance by pointing out that reactions were posited against those that looked Muslim or Arab, and might also have given light to the conflicted situation of those who suffered no discrimination because they lacked a “racialized” appearance. This might have put the narrative into a greater timeline of the (ongoing) struggle against racism in America. Or what about the conflict of newly converted American Muslims who look just like the boy next door, only they pray five times a day? Why is there no discussion of them? But instead, all the Muslims in the movie were foreign-born, foreign raised. Where were the American Muslims? There are a lot of them! Where were the American Muslims in the “downtown mosque” that Rizvan visits? To me, the movie seems to conflate Muslim identity as something racial; that to be Muslim, you must be a foreigner first.

*                        ***                        *

This film addresses an important topic, but the issues at stake are far more complicated than it is willing to portray. For instance, what is the point of having Rizvan meet the President? Naturally, it keeps the plot moving – and I understand the inherent value behind “keeping your word” – but ultimately, what is the outcome? Merely the awkward moment when Rizvan pulls out a picture of Sam and says, “He was not a terrorist, either.” But having met the President, having told him he is not a terrorist, having shown him the picture of his adopted son/best friend…what is President Obama supposed to have done at that point?

Nothing. The two walk off into the horizon as heroes, having proven their point.

That’s it?!

The more I think about it, the more I believe that the ending is probably the worst element of the movie, because it gives a triumphant ending to an ideology, rather than action. Suddenly, the recurring echo of Rizvan’s “We will overcome” as a theme seems a little too eerie, and makes me wonder who the “we” is. Too many elements collide too easily:

That, ladies and gentlemen, is dangerous – at least in the land of Egypt. It conforms a stereotype and rather than making amends, posits the superiority of the immigrant Muslim experience, rather than a real reconciliation. It makes me uneasy.

But maybe as I think about it more, I’ll come round. As for now, I’ve got to shoot off to class and teach a crowd of 15 about the animals.

Salaamat, peeps.


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I redirect you, Noble Reader, to Sociological Images, a website I’ve been following for some time. The following link is actually pretty offensive, as it includes a YouTube clip of Bill Maher’s “Burqa Fashion Show.” For those of you with the stomach for culturally insensitive (though pretty clever) humor, watch away. However, I would like to point out SI’s commentary, which I applaud:

Taken from "PostSecret"

The comedy is tasteless, at best. And it brings out two interesting assumptions: that measures of women’s liberation include (1) the right to show skin and/or your body’s shape and (2) the choice to express your individuality through your clothes.

But I do think it prompts us to interrogate our own assumptions about what women’s liberation looks like and if being able to choose your own style really is a good measure of it.

I’d bet that most Western women feel like being able to choose her clothes is a central part of her sense of freedom. Does that translate in this context? That is, if women were required to wear burqas, but could wear any burqa they like, does this mediate how oppressive the burqa seems to you? Conversely, does the seeming freedom that comes with choosing your clothes become less convincing once you think about it in this context?  I know this is tough to think about, but I think it’s an interesting thought experiment.

In the wake of my own statements about the Antwerp and French headscarf bans, as well as the flood of messages regarding the rather racy picture that I posted a week or so ago, I think this is a refreshing gulp of new air.

One of the things that I’m a big fan of is that SI’s statements throughout seem to highlight that most people have a knee-jerk reaction to the women’s liberation movement: one of the most-often repeated statements I’ve heard here from Egyptian women is that liberation, etc. requires the absolute right of the woman to choose between wearing the veil and not wearing it. I don’t agree with the statement that a woman needs to wear the veil to be a good Muslima, but I think the option and choice to do so should be applauded; just like saying a rosary every night or going to Mass every day isn’t a requirement of Catholicism, it sure as hell helps you to be a good Catholic.

Highlights (and scroll down in the links — the comments, for once, are worth reading)

“Lingerie as Liberating”: advertisement for a German lingerie commercial: woman admires herself in her unmentionables, only to cover herself up. The woman dresses up in lingerie, admiring herself, only to cover up in a burka.  But she is still “hot” underneath, affirming the idea that looking “hot” is what makes women both happy and liberated.  The idea that a woman might want to be FREE from capitulating to the male gaze (even if just an imagined one) is left unexplored.

“Questioning Definitions of Freedom”: article from which the PostSecret image is snagged. The person who sent in the postcard suggests that she’s not sure which is worse: the rigid and extreme standard of beauty in the U.S. and the way that women’s bodies are exposed to scrutiny or the idea of living underneath a burka that disallows certain freedoms, but frees you from evaluative eyes and the consequences of their negative appraisals.

I wonder about this, actually. I wrote earlier last month (or at least hinted) if the veil weren’t a kind of sexual objectification of women’s bodies. Interestingly, SI’s article above seems to conflate the two standards: that Western ideals of feminine beauty are equally, if not more, oppressive than the perceived “Islamic objectification” of women.

And finally:

The Burqa, Fashion, and Measures of Freedom: again, I must stress that this video (which I’ve been leading up to) is pretty tasteless, though clever. SI’s commentary works well in complement with it.

Also: does anyone know if Zarinas.com is a legit burqa fashion website? Cause I totally want to get my little sister a camouflage burqa!

More fuel for the fire of discussion. As I tell my students in an overly enthusiastic voice, “GO!”

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Yesterday was Coptic Christmas (6 December), and though the streets were filled with “Kul sena wenta tayyib”‘s to many of my misunderstanding neighbors (who, despite my constant explanations, don’t quite seem to understand how Christians can function on different calendars), the reverberations of the Qena province shootings in Nag3 Hamadi were felt all over the blogosphere — and in Cairo, where angry young Copts took to the street.

I redirect you here:

The Guardian: Gunmen kill seven after Coptic Midnight Mass

and here:

At Least Seven Killed After Coptic Christmas Mass

Two Muslim bystanders were also killed in addition to the five Copts.

The local bishop is supposed to be pleading with the local Christian community (and the national Coptic population) to keep calm and bear patiently. Apparently, this is to no avail, as in Middle Egypt, according to Tweeter “Pakinamamer,” (these tweets from less than two hours ago):

One christian tells me “the age of martyrdom is coming back … But we won’t change our religion w’eza kan 3agebhom”

Split among group. Police brought bus. Some hopped on it. Others say they “won’t be cowards. And must enter on foot.”

Brief clash w a group muslims. Police fled the scene. Bahjoura, where we’re going, experienced fierce clashes this morning …

Ok, police outnumbered. But gunfire dispersed them a bit. Back on track, towards bahjoura now where most of these live.

Clashes. Police firing in the air!!!

Police cars tagging along now. Trying to take batons and sticks.

Now attacking closed shops as we walk. Most of them carry wood from tree, from construction sites now.

Group of copts am walking with got batons and are attacking passing cars. Breaking windows. Obviously I chose the angry bunch. Around a 100

Walking towards share3 tahrir with christian youth where hospital (and clashes) are. Streets filled w broken glass. Army ppl w machine guns.

Church officials trying to calm christian youth down. Father kirolos forbidding them from going to jabal where burial will happen

Here, I should point out a number of things.

1. The Guardian is actually pretty keen on pointing out that the massacre is most likely in response to the alleged rape of a Muslim girl some weeks ago. According to The Free Copts, the accusation of “rape” is usually one that points to an undesired connection with Christianity; Muslims families accuse Copts of “rape” or abduction in the event of an undesired interest or (even worse) conversion to Christianity. I should also point out that The Free Copts is a pretty intent on Coptic rights at any cost. This may or may not be completely or partially true.

2. The Coptic response to this is equally outrageous. While the hierarchy has responded as well as it could (urging prayer and calmness, particularly Karillos telling everyone to remain patient), the youth seem to forget the words of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Put up again thy sword into its place: for all that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Matt 26:52).

“The era of martyrdom has come again.”

Good God. This country is a mess.

I sympathize with the Copts. In recent weeks I’ve really begun to see (and encounter) instances of absolute racism. Perhaps nothing akin to the United States’ darker moments in terms of “Copts and dogs forbidden,” but have spoken with a number of people and find their ignorance appalling.

What I find disheartening is also the unwillingness to understand on the part of both religions.

When I took Stearns’ course on the Qur’an in my sophomore year in college, I was surprised to discover in most Muslims’ critiques of Christianity what seemed like a deliberate misunderstanding of Christian doctrine. To illustrate: The Holy Trinity to medieval scholars was understood to mean God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Blessed Mother. Any Christian will tell you (even the most ignorant, fallen, I hate-the-Catholic-Church-convert-to-Atheism) that Mary, though incredibly important, has no place whatsoever with the Trinity. And yet the myth persists: just a few weeks ago, our well-meaning Somali neighbor came by with what he called “Christmas presents” — books on the conversion of Christians to Islam. My favorite was “Priests who Found Islam”; a rather misguided title that seems to think that all Christian sects have priests (they don’t) — which never quite seemed to address the elements that converted the said Christians, only that their lives were that much better.

Amin means well. I understand he was only doing his best for the sake of du3a: the betterment and perpetuation of Islam. This kind of proselytizing is totally legal here: however, the distribution of Christian literature is actively forbidden — by Copts or anyone else. In a secular state, this is genuinely disturbing.

I remember I had a conversation with John some time ago about how I had given up on theological arguments. People seldom change their opinion; especially with religion, most people stick to what they believe and don’t believe in the possibility of Truth outside of their own belief. Or, perhaps it is better to say that Truth is bigger than both belief and argument. I don’t think that makes me a relativist. I think it just means that I expect someone to take my faith as seriously and sincerely as I take theirs. Which means “Butt out, buster.”

There are a few Muslims from Manchester which do the ones that formerly lived here quite the injustice. A number of times I’ve walked past them, greeted them with a harmless “Good evening” or a “Hello” (either in English or in Arabic, since they’re from Britain), and am greeted with the following responses:

1. No response. They turn, look at me in the eye, and return to their conversation.

2. A stare, and then a very deliberate, “3laykum as-salaam wa-Rahmatallah wa-Barakatuhu” (And upon you be Peace, the Mercy of God, and His Blessings, the full response to Salaamu 3laykum, or Peace be with you — the generally Muslim greeting)

I have no problem with the salaam. Jesus said it, Kahlil Gibran did too. In fact, I say it everywhere except to them. Mainly because it does nothing but confirm their idiotic smugness. And perhaps it’s little of me, but it’s almost enough to wrap their doorhandles in bacon and soak their clothes in alcohol. I don’t mean that, of course, but I say it to illustrate a bit of my frustration.

In a way, it brings “sectarian violence” a little closer to home. When someone pushes their own religious behavior on you — pressures or intimidates or ignores you (neighbors!) into saying what they want you to say or do or act like, it makes you angry. It makes you want to do the opposite, in fact. A few weeks ago, I ranted on Fadhila’s insistence that I call Muhammad “the Prophet.” I don’t have a problem with that. Really. I have a problem with the pressure. When someone can’t even be religiously neutral in public (and just say “Good evening”), we have a problem. Little things make people angry and defensive, and it’s those things that need to be changed.

And how can the Copts not be angry, living here, stuck here, not going much of anywhere, when the secular establishment (supposedly democratic, supposedly religiously neutral) so flagrantly favors the Muslim population? When it stops churches from being remodeled? When it refuses to intercede on behalf of the Christian populous? Can you really blame them for being angry?

You can blame them for their violence, though, and shame to the rioters. “They shall know we are Christians by our Love.” There is no conquest, no blood wite, no revenge in Christianity. Ours is to turn the other cheek, and by that the world should know us. Can the Muslim majority not call us hypocrites otherwise — when Copts and Catholics and Christians are the ones that drink and smoke and riot in the streets and retaliate against others?


Enough. This country is a mess. Tonight I am a little heartbroken for the Mother of the World and her children. My prayers are for the souls of all seven of those killed — and the rest wounded. God save Egypt. And let us hope tomorrow will bring healing.

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَى وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا

Oh People! We have created you, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another (and not despise each other). Q 39:13.

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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?



Bikya’s article on the ban makes me SO ANGRY in that it fails to address similar issues within Egypt:

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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.


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.


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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