New Age Islam
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Islamic World News ( 16 March 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Why liberal Muslims feel betrayed?

Our skewed world view won't let us see the real Pakistan by Jason Burke

Living Under Sharia: The Plight of Women in Saudi Arabia by M. A. Khan

Proposal at U.N. rights council to criminalize 'defamation of Islam'

Can a woman wear a niqab in court? by Alia Hogben

 ‘Religion In Our Time’ In The Context Of Asia by Chandra Muzaffar

Bin Laden accuses Arab leaders

Firebrand risks jail in call for jihad cash

Compiled by New Age Islam News Bureau




It's little wonder liberal Muslims feel betrayed

Nick Cohen, March 15, 2009


No political movement can hope to win arguments if it turns the best and bravest into its foes. For the most courageous British Muslims, the Labour government and wider liberal society already seem slippery and hypocritical. Soon, they will be irredeemably tainted.


Take Ansar Ullah, a Bengali leftist from the old school. Like many secularists of his generation, his life has been dominated by the struggle against Jamaat-e-Islami. The party's name is rarely mentioned in our public life, although its supporters in the Muslim Council of Britain and the Islamic Foundation are on the radio almost daily. The Bengali equivalents of British Observer readers know it all too well. They regard Jamaat as we regard the BNP: the sworn and potentially deadly enemy of all their best principles.


To stop the breakaway of its effective colony during the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence, the Pakistani army began by massacring the male students at University of Dhaka and forcing the women to be soldiers' sex slaves. It targeted intellectuals and political opponents and, inevitably, the Hindu minority. Jamaat was on Pakistan's side. Journalists at the time, and the researchers from the Bangladeshi War Crimes Fact Finding Committee since, claimed that a militia staffed by Jamaat members murdered 150 academics and journalists, including the BBC's man in Dhaka, Nizamuddin Ahmed.


The allegation that Jamaat would want to exterminate liberals was hardly far-fetched. Maulana Mawdudi, its founder, has as a great a claim as Sayyid Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood, to be the first to argue for a totalitarian Islamic empire. "The establishment of an ideological Islamic state requires the Earth," he said. "Not just a portion, but the entire planet."


Ullah told me with considerable satisfaction how Jamaat had been thrashed in the last Bangladeshi elections. Then he turned to politics in his native Britain and all the pleasure vanished from his voice.


There seems no decent limit to the willingness of the British state to flatter Jamaat. After Prince Charles visited its stronghold at the East London Mosque last year, the Queen was so pleased she featured footage of his tour in her Christmas message. When Lord Phillips, the lord chief justice, declared that in his learned opinion sharia could apply to Muslim women, he made the announcement in the mosque's conference centre, an understandable choice of venue, since Jamaat is one of the most misogynist organisations in the country.


I might have explained to Ullah that Charles Windsor was the most reactionary member of a reactionary family and that the English judiciary is nowhere near as liberal as the Daily Mail believes, but I could not explain away the behaviour of the Labour government.


On the one hand, Hazel Blears has proved she is not a fair-weather feminist or selective anti-fascist. She will argue for freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and gay and women's rights regardless of her opponents' colour or creed. On the other, Jack Straw and Gordon Brown engage in serpentine contortions as they attempt to cover all bases and keep potential voters in Labour's inner-city seats happy. In the confusion between the principled position of Blears and the desire of her colleagues and the civil service to appease, the government has created a "tackling violent extremism" strategy that panders to extremists.


Author Ed Husain, who made the journey from Jamaat and Hizb ut-Tahrir to liberalism, tells me that a senior Jamaat supporter is now an adviser on religious policy. In the past, he saw him in the East London Mosque. Now, he sees him in Whitehall. Last week, the Observer ran the story of how Daud Abdullah, a member of the government's Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, had signed a declaration in Istanbul opposing the ceasefire in Gaza and advocating attacks on Royal Navy ships if they imposed an arms blockade.


On the same day, the Conservative think-tank Policy Exchange issued a report on how the government's counter-terrorism strategy was backfiring because the state showed no willingness to discriminate between reactionaries and moderates. Many of its examples were familiar – the West Midlands Police and Crown Prosecution Service attacking Channel 4 for exposing a homophobic preacher who preferred theocracy to democracy and the Met making a far-right ideologue an adviser on "countering extremism", even though he was the subject of an Interpol "red notice" at the time.


The evident dangers to national security and to the interests of British Muslims who want to enjoy the benefits of liberal democracy do not trouble the cynics of the political left. They assume that if they mouth the necessary pieties and scratch the right backs, the votes will pile up in our Tammany Halls.


But disreputable manoeuvres come at a price and Labour does not notice how its tactics repel thoughtful people from the Muslim world. The pioneer in rejecting treacherous friends was Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The death threats from Islamists her espousal of feminism brought earned her nothing but insults from Dutch leftists and English liberals. She ended up working for a conservative institute in Washington because her natural allies would not offer her their protection and support.


Ullah unconsciously picked up on her exasperation when he told me he was a Labour party member who found the behaviour of his government mystifying. "They never want to talk to people like me," he said. When I asked Shiraz Maher, the co-author of the Policy Exchange report, why he had not offered his work to the leftish Fabians or Institute for Public Policy Research, he guffawed. They would never print what he wrote. For this Muslin liberal, the left was no longer a home but an obstacle.


Ed Husain did not laugh but exploded with anger. "Where is the centre-left movement combating extremism?" he thundered. "Who on the left stands on the side of Muslims who want to support secularism and pluralism? Do they think that fascists only have white skins?"


I had no answer for him, but sensed that his furious questions were a better indicator of the bankrupting of the long period of Labour dominance than any opinion poll.


• Nick Cohen's essays, waiting for the Estonians, have just been published by 4th Estate



Our skewed world view won't let us see the real Pakistan

The west can no longer afford to impose its values and notions of democracy on countries that neither want nor need them

Jason Burke, 15 March 2009


First for the good news: Pakistan is not about to explode. The Islamic militants are not going to take power tomorrow; the nuclear weapons are not about to be trafficked to al-Qaida; the army is not about to send the Afghan Taliban to invade India; a civil war is unlikely.


The bad news is that Pakistan poses us questions that are much more profound than those we would face if this nation of 170m, the world's second biggest Muslim state, were simply a failed state. If Pakistan collapsed, we would be faced by a serious security challenge. But the resilience of Pakistan and the nation's continuing collective refusal to do what the west would like it to together pose questions with implications far beyond simple security concerns. They are about our ability to influence events in far-off places, our capacity to analyse and understand the behaviour and perceived interests of other nations and cultures, about our ability to deal with difference, about how we see the world.


Pakistan has very grave problems. In the last two years, I have reported on bloody ethnic and political riots, on violent demonstrations, from the front line of a vicious war against radical Islamic insurgents. I spent a day with Benazir Bhutto a week before she was assassinated and covered the series of murderous attacks committed at home and abroad by militant groups based in Pakistan with shadowy connections to its security services. There is an economic crisis and social problems - illiteracy, domestic violence, drug addiction - of grotesque proportions. Osama bin Laden is probably on Pakistani soil.


For many developing nations, all this would signal the state's total disintegration. This partly explains why Pakistan's collapse is so often predicted. The nation's meltdown was forecast when its eastern half seceded to become Bangladesh in 1971, during the violence that preceded General Zia ul-Haq's coup in 1977, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, when Zia was killed in 1988, during the horrific sectarian violence of the early Nineties, through sundry ethnic insurgencies, after 9/11, after the 2007 death of Bhutto and now after yet another political crisis. These predictions have been consistently proved wrong. The most recent will be too. Yesterday, tempers were already calming.


Some of the perpetual international hysteria is stoked by the Pakistanis themselves. Successive governments have perfected the art of negotiating by pointing a gun to their own heads. They know that their nation's strategic importance guarantees the financial life support they need from the international community. More broadly, our understanding of Pakistan is skewed. This is in part due to centuries of historical baggage. Though few would quote Emile Zola on contemporary France, Winston Churchill, who as a young man fought on the North-West Frontier, is regularly cited to explain today's insurgency. This legacy also includes stereotypes of "Mad Mullahs" running amok, an image fuelled by television footage that highlights ranting demonstrators from Pakistan's Islamist parties though they have never won more than 14% in an election.


For many Britons, Pakistan represents "the other" - chaotic, distant, exotic, dirty, hot, fanatical and threatening. Yet at the same time, Pakistan seems very familiar. There is the English language, cricket, kebabs and curries and figures such as Imran Khan. There are a million-odd Britons of Pakistani-descent who over four decades have largely integrated far better in the UK than often suggested.


It is the tension between these two largely imaginary Pakistanis that leads to such strong reactions in Britain. We see the country as plunged in a struggle between the frighteningly foreign and the familiar, between fanaticism and western democracy, values, our vision of the world and how it should be ordered. Yet while we are fretting about Pakistan's imminent disintegration, we are blind to the really important change.


Recent years have seen the consolidation of a new Pakistani identity between these two extremes. It is nationalist, conservative in religious and social terms and much more aggressive in asserting what are seen, rightly or wrongly, as local "Pakistani" interests. It is a mix of patriotic chauvinism and moderate Islamism that is currently heavily informed by a distorted view of the world sadly all too familiar across the entire Muslim world. This means that for many Pakistanis, the west is rapacious and hostile. Admiration for the British and desire for holidays in London have been replaced by a view of the UK as "America's poodle" and dreams of Dubai or Malaysia. The 9/11 attacks are seen, even by senior army officers, as a put-up job by Mossad, the CIA or both. The Indians, the old enemy, are seen as running riot in Afghanistan where the Taliban are "freedom fighters". AQ Khan, the nuclear scientist seen as a bomb-selling criminal by the West, is a hero. Democracy is seen as the best system, but only if democracy results in governments that take decisions that reflect the sentiments of most Pakistanis, not just those of the Anglophone, westernised elite among whom western policy-makers, politicians and journalists tend to chose their interlocutors.


This view of the world is most common among the new, urban middle classes in Pakistan, much larger after a decade of fast and uneven economic growth. It is this class that provides the bulk of the country's military officers and bureaucrats. This in part explains the Pakistani security establishment's dogged support for elements within the Taliban. The infamous ISI spy agency is largely staffed by soldiers and the army is a reflection of society. For the ISI, as for many Pakistanis, supporting certain insurgent factions in Afghanistan is seen as the rational choice. If this trend continues, it poses us problems rather different from those posed by a failed state. Instead, you have a nuclear armed nation with a large population that is increasingly vocal and which sees the world very differently from us.


We face a related problem in Afghanistan where we are still hoping to build the state we want the Afghans to want, rather than the state that they actually want. Ask many Afghans which state they hope their own will resemble in a few decades and the answer is "Iran". Dozens of interviews with senior western generals, diplomats and officials in Kabul last week have shown me how deeply the years of conflict and "nation-building" have dented confidence in our ability to transplant western values. Our interest in Afghanistan has been reduced to preventing it from becoming a platform for threats to the west. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the west has glimpsed the limits to its power and to the supposedly universal attraction of its values.


The west's dreams of a comfortable post-Cold War era have been rudely shaken. We have been forced reluctantly to accept the independence and influence of China and Russia. These are countries that we recognise as difficult international actors pursuing agendas popular with substantial proportions of their citizens. Other countries, particularly those less troubled than Pakistan or Afghanistan, are likely soon to join that list.


This poses a critical challenge in foreign policy. Worrying about the imminent collapse of Pakistan is not going to help us find answers to the really difficult questions that Pakistan poses.



Living Under Sharia: The Plight of Women in Saudi Arabia

M. A. Khan


Islamic legal code, the Sharia, continues to make grounds in the West. Sharia Court, operational in Canada since 1991, was abolished in 2006 in the face of intense campaign from human rights activists. Although widely practiced by the Muslim community over the year, Sharia Court received official recognition in the U.K. for dealing with civil and some criminal cases (domestic violence etc.) in 2007. Since some 40% British Muslims want the establishment of Sharia Court with a fewer of them opposed to it, this is possibly the first-step in the gradual process of establishing full-fledged Islamic legal codes in Britain. As Muslim immigrants in the West, from Europe to North America, are showing increasing support for Sharia, demand for Sharia Court in other Western countries will definitely intensify in light of this British concession.


What people in the West must make themselves aware of is that Sharia laws are extremely discriminatory, indeed humiliating and degrading, toward non-Muslims. It is also highly discriminatory and humiliating toward Muslim women. In order to get a grasp of the nature of Sharia law, one may have a look at Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iran and Saudi Arabia, where Sharia laws are applied to varying strictness. In the wake of the just-concluded International Women’s Day, this essay will attempt to make it clear what Sharia law means for Muslim women.


When Australian Mufti Taj al-Din al-Hilali raised furor in 2006 by calling unveiled women “uncovered meat” to suggest that eighteen such white women, raped (some even gang-raped) by Muslim youths in a Sydney neighbourhood in 2000, actually invited the horrendous act upon themselves. Most Australians and Westerners have viewed it as utterance of a deranged ignorant cleric, not representing the Islamic creed and community. However, an investigation of the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia—the birth-place and heartland of Islam—reveals a strong Islamic rational behind the Mufti’s assertion.


Saudi Arabia, the sacred land of Islamic devotion, is the best place for evaluating the status of women in Islam, where Islamic holy laws—the Sharia, which should ideally guide Islamic societies for eternity—are implemented most rigorously amongst Islamic countries. The Saudi Basic Law says:


     General Principle, Article 1: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state; its religion is Islam; and its constitution is the Holy Quran and Prophet’s Sunnah (traditions)”

     System of Government, Article 7: “Government derives its power from the Holy Quran and the Prophet's Sunnah”

     Rights and Duties, Article 23: “The state protects the Islamic and caters to the application of Shari'ah; it enjoins good and forbid evil and undertakes the duty of call to Islam.”


Welcome to the Islamic heartland of Saudi Arabia: it’s a man’s world. Free Western women are truly “uncovered meat” here. Here, women almost invariably invite rapes; it’s rarely a fault of men, the rapists.


The Quran, which contains the unchanged words of the Islamic God (Allah) to guide the Muslim life and society for eternity, commands the “wives and daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed” [Q 33:59].


This is the last verse revealed by Allah to finalize the dress-code for Muslim women when they go out. It made veiling an obligatory eternal law of Allah. Women must be responsible and veil themselves not to attract molestation by men.


Due to changes brought about in Muslim countries during the European colonial period and pressures from the outside world (the U.N., Human Rights Groups and Western nations), most Muslim countries have relaxed this divine anti-women law. But many Arab countries apply it—Saudi Arabia being the strictest. In an ideal Islamic society, the divine laws of Allah cannot be violated under any circumstances. So, when a Girls School in Saudi Arabia caught fire in 2002, the Religious Police—the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—beat the unveiled girls to prevent them from leaving the compound on blaze. Unveiled women (Hilali’s “uncovered meat”) must not venture out; as a result, fifteen girls were burned alive to charred bodies.


Islamic law commands strict segregation of unrelated men and women, even within the confines of home [Q 24:31]. In 2007, a group of Saudi youths caught a woman with an unrelated man in a car and gang-raped her fourteen times. The Saudi Court convicted her of violating the segregation law and sentenced to six months’ jail and 200 lashes. The rapists were given light sentences of one to five years of imprisonment. When appealed, her punishment was doubled. Judge Dr. Ibrahim bin Salih al-Khudairi of the Riyadh Appeals Court later even regretted for not sentencing her to death.


Strict Islamic societies demand that Muslim women maintain their purity, both physically and mentally. When a Saudi girl was found chatting with boys over Face book, her father beat her before shooting to death.


A woman, shot by her husband the first and second time, rejected a Social Worker’s advice to file a complaint as it required the presence of her obligatory male guardian, her husband; without him, her testimony would not be accepted, whilst the Religious Police might accuse her of “mixing” with the opposite sex, a criminal offence. “The third time her husband shot her, she died of her wounds,” the Social Worker told a 2008 Human Rights Watch (HRW) Report on Saudi Arabia (see also here).


Prophet Muhammad had set an ideal example for Islamic societies by marrying his 6-year-old niece, Aisha, at the ripe age of 52; he consummated the marriage three years later. Recently an 8-year-old Saudi girl was given to marriage by her father to a 58-year-old man. The girl’s divorced mother petitioned to the court to annul the marriage. It was rejected on the ground that only the girl can seek divorce only after reaching her puberty. She is old enough to get married, but not to seek divorce.


These are but a few examples of such incidences from the highly restrictive and secretive Saudi Kingdom that get into the media spotlight. A woman cannot go out alone, even if veiled. She must be escorted by a male relative. The HRW Report, cited above, found that Saudi women are treated as “Perpetual Minors”: they are disallowed by law to study, work, travel, marry, testify in court, legalise a contract or undergo medical treatment without the assent of a close male relative—father, husband, grandfather, brother or son.


A man can divorce his wife as he wishes; Muhammad bin Laden, father of Osama, accumulated more than twenty wives—married and divorced—in his house. Since a Muslim man can only take four wives at a time, he would divorce one of the four wives, not attractive any more, to add a new one in his harem. The divorced wives stayed in his house as unwanted slaves; men are divinely sanctioned to keep unlimited number of slave-concubines in Islam [Q 70:29–30, 23:5–6].


American Women in Saudi


The condition of Saudi women can be best understood from the experiences of Western women in the kingdom. American woman Monica Stowers met a young Saudi man, Nizar Radwan, at the University of Dallas and married in the early 1980s. The couple moved to Saudi Arabia with their two infant kids. Stowers was in shock; Nizar already had a wife, which he kept secret. She protested and wanted to return to America with the kids. The Saudi Court gave the children’s custody to father, because the mother was an infidel, a Christian. She left Saudi Arabia alone hoping that the U.S. Government would help in acquiring the custody of her children, which never came.


She returned to Saudi in 1990, met her son Rasheed at the airport, picked daughter Amjad from school and headed to the U.S. Embassy, hoping to find refuge there. She had the biggest shock of her life: when she pleaded for help, the Embassy officials called two marines to kick her out. She was arrested by the Saudi police and imprisoned.


Amjad was sodomized by her half-brother (Rasheed was also sodomized by the same half-brother, as well as by his uncle) and married off by her father at age 12. She ran away and was divorced by her husband. In 2003, Amjad, 20, along with her mother and brother (all American citizens), was living in miserable condition in an abandoned Saudi school, not permitted to leave the country. Meanwhile, the members of her father's family travel to America freely.


Similar or worse is the story of Alia and Aisha al-Gheshayan: their Saudi father Khalid al-Gheshayan abducted them from their mother’s home in Chicago in 1986 when they were 7 and 3, respectively, and smuggled to Saudi Arabia. Barred from leaving the Saudi Kingdom, as of 2002, Alia, 23, was married off to a cousin of her father, while plans were in place to marry off Aisha, 19. Their mother had lobbied with four successive State Department officials and members of Congress, but failed to get any help in bringing her daughters home.


In February 2008, a 37-year-old American businesswoman, married mother of three, was thrown in jail by the Saudi Religious Police for sitting with a male colleague at a Starbucks in Riyadh.


Such totally innocent American citizens are condemned to jail or life-long misery and horror is Saudi Kingdom. The U.S. Government does not dare protest these gross violations of human rights of U.S. citizens by the Saudi authority. On the contrary, Saudi citizens, who commit grave crimes in American soil, are let go almost scot-free. Saudi Princess Buniah al-Saud shoved her Indonesian maid down a flight-stairs in Orlando (Florida) Airport in 2001. She was repeatedly beaten previously and kept as a virtual slave. The princess was allowed to leave America while her case on charges of felony was pending. She was eventually let go by paying $ 1,000 fine upon pleading guilty.

Other foreign women


Dr. Sami Alrabaa, a former Muslim—who has taught in universities in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and America—lists many harrowing tales of sufferance of foreign women in Saudi Arabia in his book, “Karin in Saudi Arabia”.


Karin, a German woman, fell in love with a Saudi man while briefly living in Saudi Arabia. The bestial Religious Police arrested her for going on a drive downtown alone in a taxi. Upon arrest, she was raped and thrown in prison. Her German-Saudi baby son was taken away and she was deported to Cyprus without passport and money.


Nisrin, a Bangladeshi woman, married a Saudi man. Saudis belong to an important tribe; they cannot just marry anyone, definitely not a lowly Bangladeshi. The marriage was annulled. The Religious Police raped her before deporting.


Luckier, young Moroccan woman Muna managed to smuggle herself and baby after one-night marriage with Sultan, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.


Tragic are stories of Mimi and Najat; they were brutally stoned to death.


Mimi, a Filipina house-maid, worked in Karin's lover’s house. Denounced by his wife, she was picked up by the Religious Police and stoned to death.


When such treatments are meted out to foreign women, including from powerful countries like America and Germay, it would not be difficult to grasp the treatment and cruelty the Saudi women suffer in the holy kingdom. Here is a story of a Saudi woman. Deaf-and-dumb Najat was arrested by the Religious Police, suspected of being a prostitute, as she waited for her brother in front of a shop-window. The Police Chief quickly passed sentence on Najat that "[She] was working as a prostitute and was caught in the very act of picking up a client. We advise that she be stoned to death..." Riyadh’s governor, Prince Salman, approved the punishment; Najat was publicly stoned to death the following Friday.


In the introduction of his book, Alrabaa writes,

“When I delivered the manuscript of this book to friends outside of Saudi Arabia, asking them to read it over, their response was uniform: they shook their heads in disbelief. Nobody in the civilized world seemed able to fathom the extent of the arbitrariness and atrocities to which victims in Saudi Arabia are subjected. To them, it was incredible. Some remarked that I was telling stories about the actions of monsters from another planet. They could not believe that any human could act as a Saudi corrupted by power does.”


In order to understand the kind of restrictive life women live in Saudi Arabia, one must read Inside the Kingdom by Swiss-born Carmen Bin Laden (who married a brother of Osama bin Laden and later divorced), sketching her rather liberal life there, owing to her belonging to the great bin Laden family.


But no such restrictions apply to men. Nesrine Malik, a young Muslim woman from Britain, writes of her experience of harassment in Saudi Arabia that “My sisters and I have been chased by cars full of youths many times through the streets of Riyadh, harassed through car windows and had telephone numbers expertly tossed in our laps when we had made the mistake of leaving the car window open.”

Ed Hussain, a reformed British Islamist and former member of Hizb-ut Tahrir, wrote of his experience of living in Saudi Arabia, that “In supermarkets I only had to be away from Faye (his wife) for five minutes and Saudi men would hiss or whisper obscenities as they walked past. When Faye discussed her experiences with local women at the British Council they said: ‘Welcome to Saudi Arabia.’”


He heard of a Filipino worker, who had brought his new bride to live with him in Jeddah. The couple took a taxi after visiting the Balad Shopping District. On the way, the Saudi driver complained that the car was not working and asked the man to push it. As the man came out, the driver sped away with the man’s wife. There was no clue about her whereabouts.


“We had heard stories of the abduction of women from taxis by sex-deprived Saudi youths. At a Saudi friend’s wedding at a luxurious hotel in Jeddah, women dared not step out of their hotel rooms and walk to the banqueting hall for fear of abduction by the bodyguards of a Saudi prince who also happened to be staying there,” wrote Hussain.

Prophet Muhammad’s child-wife Aisha had said, “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women…” [Bukhari 7:72:715]. The plight of Muslim women has remained the same at the birthplace, the heartland, of Islam.



Can a woman wear a niqab in court?

By ALIA HOGBEN, March 15, 2009


I keep hoping for some period of quiescence when issues relating to Muslims and Islam will not be in the news. No such luck.


I was planning to write about the wonderful conference in Malaysia where women and men from 47 countries meet to start a global movement for equality of Muslim women in the family.


This is no easy task, but the power of women coming together to create change in their lives is exciting and empowering. The forces against them are some governments who, in collaboration with well financed Islamists, insist on an extreme patriarchal version of society, the family and the role of women.


I have never used the term "Islamist," as to me it is derogatory to my religion, but I now use it with considerable care to describe those who use Islam as a political tool. It is the abuse of my faith that I object to.


However, instead of the Malaysian conference, I feel I must write about an issue closer to home.


A current court case of sexual assault is taking place in Toronto. The complainant is a Muslim woman who is charging two men with sexual assault. Instead of focusing on the welfare of a woman in a traumatic situation facing her alleged abusers in the court, the issue in the news is about whether the woman can wear the niqab (or burqa) which covers her face fully, except for her eyes.


The woman's argument is that it is her religious right to wear the niqab. She is asking for this because she is fearful of the two men.


The judge's ruling that she must show her face has been appealed to the Ontario Supreme court for a final decision.


As always, a seemingly simple issue raises major issues about religious right, the right of the accused, pluralism and religious/cultural accommodation.


The appeal was heard yesterday and to make matters more interesting, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has asked for intervener status at the court. Their statement is that they need to explain about religious rights to the judge.


The battle lines are drawn and it is almost impossible to voice an opinion that will not draw the ire of one side or the other.

It is not easy to state a clear-cut opinion as there are nuances to the issue, such as the woman's right to choose her clothing and to express her piety as she sees fit.


On the other hand, what gets lost among the arguments is the fact that covering one's face is not a religious requirement.


Even in strict Saudi Arabia, women cannot cover their faces for the pilgrimage, and yet this is demanded by some extreme conservative Muslims, and whether one agrees or not, the Toronto woman is choosing this conservative interpretation for herself.


The judge's reasoning -that she must show her face in the court - was based on the fact that she showed her face for her driver's license, and therefore her face is seen by anyone who needs proof of her identity. He also argues that showing her face is necessary so that the accused and their lawyers can assess her demeanour through the cues that facial expressions may provide.


The difficulty for someone like me is that, as a woman, I must respect the woman's choice and I cannot tell the woman she must show her face. For all I know, this woman maybe fully integrated into Canadian society.


However, before someone screams prejudice at me, I know I generalize when I say that wearing the veil -creating a separation between a woman and all others, which is not required by Islam - may, in many instances, restrict full participation in Canadian society.


Some Muslims are creating an identity very distinct and almost in opposition to other Canadians. The increase of identity markers, such as the niqab, is leading to self-segregation.


Surely it is very important that all of us be active members of our society. We cannot fight racism and discrimination nor demand changes, if we are not involved as full citizens.


The Malaysian scholar, Farish Noor, discusses the ways Muslims have created a "dialectical opposition," a dichotomy which creates a separation between "us and them."


Without underplaying the paranoia of the West that Islam and Muslims are a hidden menace, he argues that work needs to be done within the Muslim communities. Farish Noor thinks that "years of radical thinking amongst some Islamist movements was the reinforcement and perpetuation of the myth of Islam as a threat to the West."


He explains how we Muslims can maintain our identity and have the right to "defend our rights, articulate our demands, communicate our anxieties, and aspire to success in a way that is inclusive and non-confrontational."


He says, we Muslims must relearn the norms and rules of dialogue and communication.


"We have exiled ourselves from the rest of humanity" he says.


"The Muslim world has every right and duty to communicate our anger, pain, frustration and fears to the rest of the world, but it must be done with intelligence, with honesty, and with compassion not just for Muslims, but for all humanity."


As you can see, all matters Muslim get linked, from the niqab to the state of the communities.


I don't envy the Ontario Supreme Court judge who has to make this Solomon-like decision. He has a great deal to consider: the woman's rights, the rights of the accused, the needs of the court, the degree of accommodation and the precedent being set.



Proposal at U.N. rights council to criminalize 'defamation of Islam'

Geneva, March 11, 2009 — UN Watch, a human rights monitoring organization based in Geneva, denounced a new U.N. resolution circulated today by Islamic states that would define any questioning of Islamic dogma as a human rights violation, intimidate dissenting voices, and encourage the forced imposition of Sharia law. (See full U.N. text below.)


UN Watch obtained a copy of the Pakistani-authored proposal after it was distributed today among Geneva diplomats attending the current session of the UN Human Rights Council. Entitled "Combating defamation of religions," it mentions only Islam.


"While non-binding," said UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer, "the resolution constitutes a dangerous threat to free speech everywhere.  It would ban any perceived offense to Islamic sensitivities as a 'serious affront to human dignity' and a violation of religious freedom, and would pressure U.N. member states -- at the 'local, national, regional and international levels' -- to erode the free speech guarantees in their 'legal and constitutional systems.'"


"This is an Orwellian text that distorts the meaning of human rights, free speech, and religious freedom, and marks a giant step backwards for liberty and democracy worldwide," said Neuer.


"The first to suffer will be moderate Muslims in the countries that are behind this resolution, like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan, where state-sanctioned blasphemy laws stifle religious freedom and outlaw conversions from Islam to other faiths," said Neuer.


"Next to suffer from this U.N.-sanctioned McCarthyism will be writers and journalists in the democratic West, with the resolution targeting the media for the 'deliberate stereotyping of religions, their adherents and sacred persons.'"


"Ultimately, the very notion of individual human rights is at stake, because the sponsors of this resolution seek not to protect individuals from harm, but rather to shield a specific set of beliefs from any question, debate, or critical inquiry," said Neuer.


"The very term 'defamation of religion' is a distortion. The legal concept of defamation protects the reputations of individuals, not beliefs. It also requires an examination of the truth or falsity of the challenged remarks -- a determination that no one, especially not the UN, is capable of undertaking concerning any religion."


 "Tragically, given that Islamic states completely dominate the Human Rights Council with the support of non-democratic members like Russia, China, and Cuba, adoption of the Orwellian resolution is a forgone conclusion, and all that U.S. and E.U. diplomats can do is try to win over a handful of Latin American states into the opposition camp."



Following is a copy of the draft U.N. Human Rights Council resolution obtained by UN Watch. Prepared by Pakistan on behalf of the Islamic group, the text was circulated today to Geneva diplomats in advance of a council vote scheduled for the end of March. Emphasis added.


Human Rights Council Resolution

A/HRC/10/L... Combating Defamation of Religions


Reaffirming the pledge made by all States, under the Charter of the United Nations, to promote and encourage universal respect for and observance of all human rights and fundamental freedoms without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion,


Reaffirming also that all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated,


Recalling the 2005 World Summit Outcome adopted by the General Assembly in its resolution 60/1 of 24 October 2005, in which the Assembly emphasized the responsibilities of all States, in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations, to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind and acknowledged the importance of respect and understanding for religious and cultural diversity throughout the world,


Recognizing the valuable contribution of all religions to modern civilization and the contribution that dialogue among civilizations can make towards improved awareness and understanding of the common values shared by all humankind,


Welcoming the resolve expressed in the United Nations Millennium Declaration adopted by the General Assembly on 8 September 20006 to take measures to eliminate the increasing acts of racism and xenophobia in many societies and to promote greater harmony and tolerance in all societies, and looking forward to its effective implementation at all levels,


Underlining in this regard the importance of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, welcoming the progress achieved in implementing them, and emphasizing that they constitute a solid foundation for the elimination of all scourges and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance,


Welcoming all international and regional initiatives to promote cross-cultural and interfaith harmony, including the Alliance of Civilizations and the International Dialogue on Interfaith Cooperation and their valuable efforts towards the promotion of a culture of peace and dialogue at all levels,


Welcoming further the reports of the Special Reporter submitted to the Council at its fourth, sixth and ninth sessions that highlight the serious nature of the defamation of all religions and the need to complement legal strategies;


Noting with deep concern the instances of intolerance, discrimination and acts of violence against followers of certain faiths, occurring in many parts of the world, in addition to the negative projection of certain religions in the media and the introduction and enforcement of laws and administrative measures that specifically discriminate against and target persons with certain ethnic and religious backgrounds, particularly Muslim minorities following the events of 11 September 2001, and that threaten to impede their full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms,


Stressing that defamation of religions is a serious affront to human dignity leading to restriction on the freedom of religion of their adherents and incitement to religious hatred and violence,


Noting with concern that defamation of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general, could lead to social disharmony and violations of human rights, and alarmed at the inaction of some States to combat this burgeoning trend and the resulting discriminatory practices against adherents of certain religions and in this context stressing the need to effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred in general and against Islam and Muslims in particular,


Convinced that respect for cultural, ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity, as well as dialogue among and within civilizations, is essential for global peace and understanding while manifestations of cultural and ethnic prejudice, religious intolerance and xenophobia generate hatred and violence among peoples and nations,


Underlining the important role of education in the promotion of tolerance, this involves acceptance by the public of and its respect for diversity,


Noting various regional and national initiatives to combat religious and racial intolerance against specific groups and communities and emphasizing, in this context, the need to adopt a comprehensive and non-discriminatory approach to ensure respect for all races and religions,


Recalling its resolution 7/19 of 27 March 2008 and UNGA resolution 63/154 of 18 December 2008,


1. Takes note of the report of the High Commissioner on the compilation of existing legislation and jurisprudence concerning defamation of and contempt of religions and the report of the Special Reporter on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance presented during the 9th session of the Human Rights Council;


2. Expresses deep concern at the negative stereotyping and defamation of religions and manifestations of intolerance and discrimination in matters of religion or belief, still evident in the world, which have led to intolerance against the followers of these religions;


3. Strongly deplores all acts of psychological and physical violence and assaults, and incitement thereto, against persons on the basis of their religion or belief, and such acts directed against their businesses, properties, cultural centres and places of worship, as well as targeting of holy sites, religious symbols and venerated personalities of all religions;


4. Expresses deep concern at the continued serious instances of deliberate stereotyping of religions, their adherents and sacred persons in the media, as well as programmes and agendas pursued by extremist organizations and groups aimed at creating and perpetuating stereotypes about certain religions, in particular when condoned by Governments;


5. Notes with deep concern the intensification of the overall campaign of defamation of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general, including the ethnic and religious profiling of Muslim minorities in the aftermath of the tragic events of 11 September 2001; )


6. Recognizes that, in the context of the fight against terrorism, defamation of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general have, become aggravating factors that contribute to the denial of fundamental rights and freedoms of members of target groups, as well as to their economic and social exclusion;


7. Expresses deep concern in this respect that Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism and in this regard regrets the laws or administrative measures specifically designed to control and monitor Muslim minorities, thereby stigmatizing them and legitimizing the discrimination they experience;


8. Deplores the use of the print, audio-visual and electronic media, including the Internet, and any other means to incite acts of violence, xenophobia or related intolerance and discrimination towards any religion, as well as targeting of religious symbols and venerated persons;


9. Emphasizes that, as stipulated in international human rights law including articles 19 and 29 of UDHR and 19 and 20 of ICCPR, everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference, and has the right to freedom of expression, the exercise of which carries with it special duties and responsibilities and may therefore be subject to limitations as are provided for by law and are necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others, protection of national security or of public order, public health or morals, and general welfare;


10. Reaffirms that General Comment 15 of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in which the Committee stipulated that the prohibition of the dissemination of all ideas based upon racial superiority or hatred is compatible with freedom of opinion and expression, is equally applicable to the question of incitement to religious hatred;


11. Strongly condemns all manifestations and acts of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance against national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and migrants and the stereotypes often applied to them, including on the basis of religion or belief, and urges all States to apply and, where required, reinforce existing laws when such xenophobic or intolerant acts, manifestations or expressions occur, in order to deny impunity for those who commit such acts;


12. Urges all States to provide, within their respective legal and constitutional systems, adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general, and to take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and beliefs;


13. Underscores the need to combat defamation of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general, by strategizing and harmonizing actions at the local, national, regional and international levels through education and awareness building;


14. Calls upon all States to exert the utmost efforts, in accordance with their national legislation and in conformity with international human rights and humanitarian law, to ensure that religious places, sites, shrines and symbols are fully respected and protected, and to take additional measures in cases where they are vulnerable to desecration or destruction;


15. Calls for strengthening international efforts to foster a global dialogue for the promotion of a culture of tolerance and peace at all levels, based on respect for human rights and diversity of religions and beliefs, and urges States, non-governmental organizations, religious leaders as well as the print and electronic media to support and foster such a dialogue;


16. Appreciates the High Commissioner for Human Rights for holding a seminar on freedom of expression and advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence in October 2008, and requests her to continue to build on this initiative, with a view to concretely contributing to the prevention and elimination of all such forms of incitement and the consequences of negative stereotyping of religions or beliefs, and their adherents, on the human rights of those individuals and their communities;


17. Requests the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance to report on all manifestations of defamation of religions, and in particular on the serious implications of Islamophobia, on the enjoyment of all rights by their followers, to the Council during its 12th Session;


18. Requests the High Commissioner for Human Rights to report to the Council at its 12th Session on the implementation of the present resolution, including on the possible correlation between defamation of religions and the upsurge in incitement, intolerance and hatred in many parts of the world.




 Religion In Our Time’ In The Context Of Asia

By Chandra Muzaffar, 14 March, 2009


I shall reflect on the topic, ‘Religion in our Time’ in the context of Asia --- the womb that gave birth to all the religions of the world. My observations will be confined to contemporary Asia. They will revolve around two questions.


1) How do most Asians understand their respective religions?


2) Has any religious community in Asia succeeded in establishing a harmonious relationship between religion and society?


It is important to emphasize at the outset that for the majority of Asians religion is important. Even in a country like China where state policy had at one time --- especially during the period of the Cultural Revolution --- targeted religion, there is a religious revivalism of sorts. While religious revivalism is taking place in certain countries and within certain strata of society, it is equally true that in many parts of the continent the masses have always remained attached to religion even if their elites are secular.


What does this attachment to religion mean for most Asians? There are perhaps four dimensions to it which we may want to note.


Four Dimensions


One, religion means identity to a lot of people. It is a way of defining oneself, of naming oneself. Of course, religion is not the only identity marker for any religious community in Asia. Even in Iran, the only nation in the world that had undergone a popular revolution in the name of religion in the modern era, one’s religious identity competes with one’s national identity and perhaps even with one’s Persian identity which goes beyond Iran as a nation state. At a certain point in time, one’s religious identity may be one’s primary identity; at another moment it may evolve into one’s secondary identity. While there may be certain givens in one’s religious identity, such as a belief or a ritual, the larger environment also often shapes one’s understanding of one’s identity. For instance, if a religious community feels that it is under siege or that its values are being challenged by another culture, it may become more conscious of the need to defend its identity and its integrity.


Two, related to identity --- though not synonymous with it --- are the rituals, practices, forms and symbols of a religion to which most believers are attached, in one way or another. Practices such as fasting or symbols such as the cross are vital to a religion. When one adheres to prescribed religious practices one perceives oneself, and is perceived by others, as a faithful member of the religious community in question. It is because of the centrality of religious practices and symbols that communities seek to defend and protect them whatever the costs and consequences.


Three, for many Asians religion is also the source of morality. It is the ultimate measure of right and wrong. Religious standards and precepts determine good and evil. One judges a person’s private behaviour as well as his public conduct on the basis of values and principles embodied in religion. Thus, a Muslim who consumes alcohol is, in the eyes of fellow Muslims, someone who has done something wrong just as a serial rapist is an evil person from the perspective of all religions.


Four --- and perhaps most fundamental --- at a personal, intimate level, religion means faith in God, in a Divine Being, in a Transcendent Reality. It is faith in God, whatever the name one assigns to God, which is the bedrock of religion. In those most difficult moments of life, it is this faith that provides solace and sustenance. It is through faith in God and in God’s Love and Mercy that the believing person overcomes the sorrow of the loss of a loved one or comes to terms with the ordeal and anguish of a terminal illness.


While these four dimensions are important for most religious practitioners in Asia, for a lot of Muslims there is perhaps a fifth dimension that is also critical. What is that dimension? Islam for Muslims should also be the basis of law and public policy, of government and state. Why do many Muslims feel this way about their religion? I shall suggest five reasons though there may be many other explanations as well.


Five Reasons


The foundational principle in Islam --- there is no god but God --- is not just a statement of belief, the acknowledgement of which requires the Muslim to submit or to surrender totally to God. It is a principle that embodies an entire worldview, a worldview anchored in the oneness of God or Tawhid. No sphere of human existence is separable from Tawhid. What this means is that state and society, government and politics, the economy and culture, law and policy have to be based upon, and guided by, Tawhidic values or values such as justice and compassion, dignity and love, equality and unity which are all enshrined in the Noble Qur’an. Indeed, Tawhid, the Oneness of God, is the basic premise for the unity of the universes, the unity between the human being and his natural environment, the unity of humankind, the unity of the sexes, and the unity of the family. At another level, it is Tawhid that unites the material and the spiritual, life and death, this world and the next. Within such a worldview, divorcing life from God, or society from the Divine, would be anathema.


There is another reason why Muslims are so concerned about making their faith in God the basis of state and society. The Prophet Muhammad (May peace be upon him) himself had established a community in Medina which possessed some of the rudimentary characteristics of a state. A charter was formulated which sought to regulate relations between different communities, laws were enacted, public roles were assigned to individuals to manage the affairs of the community and even emissaries were dispatched to neighbouring kingdoms and states. Because Muhammad was more than a Prophet or Messenger of God --- he was a political leader, a military commander and a law giver --- Muslims have invariably associated state power and governance with the essential message of Islam.


This view of what Islam stands for was reinforced by the evolution of the shariah as a code of conduct a few decades after the death of the Prophet. Through laws and precepts, the shariah gave concrete expression to some of the values and principles contained in the Qur’an and in the example of the Prophet (the Sunnah). In the course of time, it emerged as a body of jurisprudence commanding its own autonomous authority on a whole gamut of issues affecting the life of a Muslim. In fact, the shariah today has become almost sacrosanct as Muslims in a number of countries clamour for its introduction --- especially its penal code ---in their quest for the establishment of so-called genuine Islamic states.


If there is any psychological force that propels this quest, it is the collective Muslim memory of what their civilization had accomplished in past centuries. Many Muslims know that there was a time when Islamic civilization was at the forefront of almost every sphere of human activity. Their past convinces them that their religion will once again reach the pinnacle. It is partly because of their civilizational memory that Muslims are persuaded that Islam is capable of addressing contemporary challenges.


At the same time however they are aware that their civilization has been vanquished. Ironically, defeat at the hands of the West was in a sense one of the factors that prompted Muslim scholars to visualize an ‘Islamic State’ as the antidote to Western colonial empires. It is significant that it was in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1924, as a result of both colonial military power and colonial intrigue, which the Muslim intellectual Mustafa Raziq introduced the term ‘Islamic State’ --- a term that has no precedent in Muslim history. It is worth noting in this regard that the community-cum-state that the Prophet established in Medina was not described as an ‘Islamic polity’. The contemporary yearning for an ‘Islamic state’ is therefore --- to a certain extent at least --- a response to Western hegemony.


I have attempted to explain why many Muslims understand the role of religion in society in terms that are somewhat different from the majority of non-Muslims. The reasons, it is apparent, are complex. But both Muslims and non-Muslims, it should be reiterated, are attached to religion, and have been witness to its expanding role in present-day Asia.


With that as the backdrop let me now turn to my second question. I shall begin with non-Muslim majority states. Three states have been chosen at random. Each state will be discussed briefly, and in alphabetical order.



China’s rapid economic development has begun to generate serious problems. The environment has deteriorated. The gap between the rich and poor and between regions is widening. Corruption is rampant at certain levels of society. Greed is pervasive especially at the upper echelons.


The state itself and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have pledged to address these challenges. Even if they are ameliorated to an extent, one cannot expect the powers-that-be to create a new moral ethos which will help to curb materialistic greed or stark selfishness. Neither the ideological thrust of the state which is obsessed with high growth development nor its bureaucratic structure would allow it to play such a role.


Religious groups are in a better position to undertake a moral mission of this kind. While there is a little bit of discussion in small intellectual circles about how Buddhism or Confucianism view greed or corruption, the vast majority of those who have turned to religion in recent years tend to focus upon religious rituals and practices. It is unlikely that a socially engaged Confucianism or Buddhism will emerge in China in the foreseeable future. Will we see the birth of a socially engaged Christianity or Islam? It is equally doubtful.


This is why it is still unclear how religion will impact upon development and society in China in the coming years.



Compared to China, religion has been more prominent in Indian public life since Independence in 1947.


However, the Indian Constitution was --- and remains --- avowedly secular. For the first 15 to 20 years of Independence, Indian politics was also largely secular. Indian secularism, it should be emphasized, did not imply antagonism towards, or disrespect for, religion. On the contrary, India’s secular leaders strove to protect the interests of both the majority Hindu and minority Muslim communities. While leadership was secular, the Hindu and Muslim masses and followers of other religions remained devoted to faith and practice.


It was mainly because the people were religious that Indian politicians began to manipulate religious sentiments for electoral support from the seventies onwards. The ruling Indian National Congress was perhaps the first to play the religious card. It exploited Sikh, Muslim and Hindu grievances as and when it suited its interests. The Congress’s inability to resolve fundamental socio-economic challenges --- the most significant of which was abject grassroots poverty --- was perhaps one of the main reasons why it began to resort to the exploitation of religion in electoral politics.


Soon other political parties got into the act. The Bharatiya Janata Party( BJP), a Hindu nationalist party, was bold and brazen in its belligerent attacks upon the Muslim minority, on the one hand, and its stark appeal to Hindu chauvinism, on the other. Within a decade and a half, in 1998, the BJP with its ideology of Hindutva was able to muster enough electoral support to come to power in New Delhi at the helm of an inter-party coalition. It promised to restore lost Hindu glory by revising school texts with the aim of giving Hindu kingdoms and empires pride of place. Rebuilding Hindu temples which were allegedly demolished to make way for Muslim mosques during the time when much of India was under Muslim rule, was yet another of the BJP’s pledges. In general, the BJP’s Hindutva meant projecting the Hindu face of India through history, culture and education.


The rise of Hindutva was not simply because of the inherent appeal of Hinduism to the majority community. The failure of the Congress to govern effectively was perhaps a more crucial factor. Apart from the persistence of abject poverty, elite corruption and abuse of power at district level had become widespread under Congress rule. The vote for the BJP was in that sense a protest vote. At the same time, certain communal stances adopted by elements within the Muslim community worked to the BJP’s advantage. New regional coalitions and inter-caste alliances had also emerged, benefiting the BJP and its allies.


But the BJP was defeated in the 2004 General Election and the Congress is now backing in power with the support of the communists. A number of reasons explain the BJP’s defeat. The party had pursued an even more aggressive neo-liberal capitalist agenda than the Congress which made the poor even more destitute and widened further the chasm between the rich and poor. The disenfranchised revolted through the ballot box. The BJP’s chauvinistic policies which had contributed indirectly to inter-religious riots --- such as the Gujarat riot in 2002 --- alienated a huge chunk of the population, including a significant segment of the Hindu electorate. Besides, the Congress had presented the voters with a broad based platform and had succeeded in forging alliances with regional and national parties that boosted its standing.


The BJP’s defeat shows that religious chauvinism and extremism can be checked through the electoral process. There are strengths within the democratic system which can be mobilised to counter negative religious trends. Nonetheless, the fact remains that religion is now a potent force in Indian politics. How India’s secular state structure deals with this force is one of the critical questions that will shape the future of the Indian polity.


As an aside, the BJP brings to mind another earlier attempt by no less a personality than Mahatma Gandhi to emphasize the universal, inclusive dimension of Hinduism and thereby forge ties with Muslims, Christians and other religious groups through an all-embracing inter-faith movement dedicated to the liberation of India from British rule. Why it is that such an approach to inter-religious cooperation has not struck root in independent India and instead it is Hindutva that now claims to speak on behalf of the religion?


Sri Lanka


Like India, Sri Lanka also began its post-colonial journey in 1948 as a secular state. Its early leaders, both Sinhala and Tamil, were secular in outlook. However, by the mid-fifties ethnic sentiments which were already quite pronounced in the body politic long before Independence, re-emerged with a vengeance.


In this regard, it is worth observing that though the assassin of Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike in 1959 was a Buddhist monk, Buddhism as such was not yet a force in Sri Lankan politics. Be that as it may, the assassination was an early indication of the symbiotic relationship between Sinhala nationalism and the Buddhist monkhood.


As the Sri Lankan economy declined in the seventies and political instability increased, ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhala community and the Tamil minority escalated. The Tamils, especially the Tamils of the Jaffna Peninsula in the north of the island, felt that they had been marginalized and discriminated in politics, public administration and in matters pertaining to language and culture by the Sinhala government. Sinhala identity, they contended, was becoming synonymous with Sri Lankan national identity. The Sinhala community, on the other hand, viewed the Tamils as an economically stronger and better educated community that wielded considerable influence upon national affairs. From the Sinhala standpoint, the Tamil minority was well entrenched and secure and their grievances were often exaggerated.


The Sinhala-Tamil conflict reached its crescendo in July 1983. A full-scale civil war erupted between a largely Sinhala government and a Jaffna Tamil rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam( LTTE). The LTTE demanded---and continues to demand--- the establishment of a separate Tamil homeland. The civil war has continued on and off for the last 24 years.


Caught in the cauldron of the civil war, Sinhala Buddhist monks decided to set up their own political party in 2004. Called the Jathika Hela Urumaya or Pure Sinhala National Heritage, the party believes in the supremacy of the Buddhist religion and the Sinhala majority, and is against any peace negotiations with the LTTE. Though it vows to protect the religious minorities, in reality it adopts an aggressive posture against Hindus, Christians and Muslims. It is particularly antagonistic towards the Tamils and has urged the military to finish off the LTTE.


In the April 2004 Parliamentary Election, the party won 9 seats. War weariness, disillusionment with existing political parties and the parlous state of the economy have been cited as some of the reasons for the credible performance of the Heritage party. Most of the support for the ‘monks’ party appears to have come from the Sri Lankan middle class.


Sri Lanka illustrates the nexus that obtains between religion and nationalism or rather it reveals how at times nationalism drives religion. There is a hint of this in Indian politics too. The Sri Lankan situation also shows that ethnic conflicts whose root causes may have nothing to do with religion may sometimes find expression through religion.


Having looked at three non-Muslim majority societies, let me now examine three Muslim majority states with the same query in mind: what sort of role does religion play in Afghanistan, Indonesia and Iran? The three countries have also been selected randomly and are discussed in alphabetical order.



If there was a single event in contemporary Afghanistan that was decisive in shaping the relationship between religion and society, it was the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979. The invasion ignited the formation of a mass resistance movement that centred around Islam. The resisters or freedom fighters (Mujahideen) saw themselves as defenders of the faith fighting an infidel army that was occupying their land. The label ‘infidel’ had an import of its own since the occupying army belonged to an atheistic state that espoused an atheistic ideology, namely, communism.


Though the majority of the freedom fighters were Afghans, there were also Muslims from dozens of other countries who regarded the liberation of Afghanistan as a ‘jihad’ (a struggle in the path of God). Their participation in the resistance was facilitated, it was alleged, by the CIA which provided both financial and logistical support. In fact, for the CIA and the US Administration the freedom fighters had to vanquish the Soviet army since Afghanistan was a critical battleground in the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union. After a 10 year struggle, the Afghan resistance won. The Soviet army was defeated and shortly afterwards the cold war came to an end, climaxing in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.


It is not just in its implications for global politics and international relations that the Afghan resistance is historically significant. It also gave birth to a transnational Muslim movement with certain ideological characteristics. A commitment to liberation from occupation aside, sections of the movement was strongly influenced by Wahabism, a conservative, puritanical strain within Islam that originated in Arabia in the 18th century. Wahabism, in its present form, advocates a dogmatic adherence to the literal meaning of the Qur’anic text; relegates women to second class status; excludes non-Muslims from the protection of the state; and targets Shiites and Sufis as heretics. Wahabi dogmatism, needless to say, is antithetical to Islamic teachings.


Wahabism was disseminated through the Afghan resistance since as we have noted numerous Muslim nationalities were involved in the struggle. Before Afghanistan, Wahabism was confined largely to Saudi Arabia. Once it was transformed into a transnational ideology, it developed an international constituency. But because its approach to Islam is exclusive and bigoted, Wahabism has tarnished the religion.


Though the present Afghan leadership is not Wahabist, Wahabi thinking is still pervasive within Afghan society. The Taliban for instance which was part of the resistance to Soviet occupation and ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 when it was ousted by US and NATO forces, subscribes to Wahabism. Today, it constitutes the core of the resistance to US-NATO occupation of Afghanistan. By casting itself as a resister, the Taliban has acquired a degree of credibility. Similarly, Osama bin Laden, the head of Al-Qaeda, and the alleged mastermind behind the 9-11 episode, is also, from all accounts, a Wahabist. He was closely associated with the Taliban leadership when it was in power. Since he is viewed as an ardent opponent of US global hegemony he too commands a constituency and is perceived as a credible leader in certain circles. It is obvious that it is resistance to hegemony and occupation that provides a veneer of legitimacy to Wahabism.


Afghanistan’s significance to the contemporary Muslim world and global politics is tied to these two phenomena. One it has emerged as the arena of resistance to first Soviet occupation with its communist ideology and now to US-NATO occupation with its unstated goal of safeguarding global capitalism. Two, it is from the Afghan resistance that a distorted and perverted notion of Islam in the form of Wahabism has spread to other parts of the Muslim world.



Indonesia shares with Afghanistan a long and intimate historical relationship with Islam. Islamic movements played a pivotal role in the struggle against Dutch colonial rule. After Independence in 1945, one of the most hotly debated issues was the role that Islam would play in building a nation ninety percent of whose population was Muslim. Though a section of the elite wanted the shariah as the basis of the new Indonesian state, the founding fathers eventually settled for a vision of the nation that was not linked to any particular religion. The Panca Sila --- Five Principles --- was accepted as the nation’s ideology, with belief in the one God as the first principle. Islam, together with Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism and Protestantism were adopted as official religions. (Confucianism has now been added to the list).


Whatever the constitutional structure, at the level of the masses, political parties with an Islamic orientation proved to be immensely popular. In the 1955 parliamentary election for instance, the Masjumi and the Nahdatul Ulama (NU), together with a smaller Islamic party commanded more votes than the nationalist or communist parties. The Masjumi in particular presented a contemporary interpretation of Islam which emphasised social justice and freedom and appealed to a broad cross-section of the populace.


However the Indonesian President, Sukarno, and the vested interests that backed him were afraid that the Masjumi would undermine their position and sought to curb its influence. The party was banned in 1960. Then in 1965, right-wing generals in the powerful Indonesian armed forces staged a bloody coup which marginalised not only progressive Islamic elements but also the Indonesian communists and nationalists. Sukarno himself was overthrown. The coup had the strong support --- perhaps even the active collaboration --- of the CIA and the US government.


The post coup President, General Suharto, was determined to ensure that Islamic parties had no role in ‘the new order’. Islamic organizations were only allowed to undertake social and cultural activities --- under state surveillance. Consequently, Islamic grassroots programs flourished giving rise to powerful mass social movements like the restructured NU and the Muhammadiyyah. Since they were prohibited from seeking political power, both these movements --- NU with 40 million members and the Muhammadiyyah with 35 million --- focused upon strengthening universal Islamic values and principles at the grassroots, and in the process, helped to transform popular understanding of, and approaches towards, the religion.


After the fall of Suharto in 1998, and the restoration of democratic processes, a plethora of political parties have re-emerged. The vast majority of the 48 parties that participated in the 1999 legislative election and the 24 parties that took part in the 2004 election did not commit themselves to shariah rule or the imposition of the Islamic penal code, or hudud , as most political parties elsewhere that claim to be ideologically orientated towards Islam tend to do. The few that espoused an explicit Islamic program fared badly in the two polls. In fact, the top five performers in 1999 and 2004 sought to present Islam --- with varying degrees of emphasis --- as a universal, inclusive and accommodative faith that is in line with economic development and social change.


If there is any support for shariah and hudud it is in certain districts and provinces, such as Acheh. The Islamic laws that have been implemented in these places seem to revolve around personal and sexual morality. There is also of course a fringe within the Indonesian Muslim community that has resorted to violence in pursuit of its Islamic agenda. Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of Indonesian Muslims reject the politics of violence and terror, as demonstrated in a number of elections and opinion polls since 1998.


This does not mean that the situation will not change in the future. If economic disparities are not resolved, or if corruption becomes more serious, or if there is political chaos, it is not inconceivable that a less flexible, more rigid approach to Islam will gain more adherents. After all, it was because of economic turmoil and political instability in the late nineties that some Muslim groups turned to political terror.


The global environment is also bound to impact upon the attitudes of Indonesian Muslims. It is significant that almost all the terrorists convicted in the Bali bombing of October 2002 cited the injustices perpetrated by the US and Israel against Muslims in the Middle East --- especially the plight of the Palestinians --- as one of the principal reasons why they had sought radical solutions. Often, it is through the interplay of domestic and global factors ---one reinforcing the other --- that despair, frustration and anger reach a crescendo and lead to violence.



There are similarities and dissimilarities between Indonesia and Iran in their relationship to Islam. Iran owes a monumental debt to Islamic civilization which more than any other civilization has shaped Iranian society in the last thousand years or so. In defending Iranian sovereignty and independence against Western encroachments (Iran never became a formal colony of any Western power) in the early part of the twentieth century, Islam and Muslim religious elites played a significant role. At the same time however the suppression of Islamic movements by the Iranian monarch, Shah Pahlavi, in the sixties and seventies was much more severe and brutal than what transpired in Indonesia.


It was partly because the suppression was so severe that the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was so popular. While Islamic groups were at the core, the Revolution brought together a whole spectrum of dissident movements including communists, socialists, liberals and secular nationalists. Even among the Islamic groups there was considerable diversity. The most important were the traditional religious elites led by Ayatollah Khomeini --- the leader of the Revolution itself. There was also an Islamic group with a liberal-democratic orientation associated with Mehdi Bazargan, the first Prime Minister after the Revolution. A third group with a Left outlook was inspired by the speeches and writings of Ali Shariati.


Within 5 or 6 years, the traditional elites had succeeded in establishing total control over power and politics. How did this happen? Part of the explanation is linked to Khomeini’s role as the dominant, charismatic leader of the Revolution who was revered by the entire nation. But there were other reasons too. The traditional religious elites evoked a lot of sympathy from the people when some of their leading lights were assassinated allegedly by secular Left elements. As a group they were better organized, more focused on their ultimate goals, and most of all, commanded tremendous grassroots respect, compared to other actors in the Revolution. There was also an important external factor that helped the traditional religious elites to consolidate their power. Because Iraq under Saddam Hussein went to war against Iran without any provocation whatsoever in 1980, the Iranian people began to feel that they were under siege and that the values and identity of an unique Islamic revolution were in jeopardy. What aggravated this feeling was the wholehearted support that a number of Arab kingdoms and republics extended to Iraq. The US and other Western powers were also determined to ensure that Saddam defeated and destroyed the nascent Islamic republic. Financial and military assistance were made available to the Iraqi side by the US and some of its allies. Even the Soviet Union was more inclined towards the Iraqi leadership partly because of the latter’s secular, Baathist socialist orientation. Attacked from all sides, the Iranian people --- as it happens very often in other similar situations --- became even more supportive of the traditional religious elites at the core of the national leadership. They were perceived as the only ones who could be relied upon to defend Iranian identity and integrity.


It is true that the traditional religious elites were resolute in their defence of the integrity and sovereignty of the Islamic revolution and nation. Given the magnitude of the external threats against Iran and the immensity of the domestic challenges to the leadership in the eighties, it is remarkable that the elites --- and the people at large --- succeeded in protecting the Revolution. The religious elites also introduced significant changes to the economy from nationalising oil to redistributing incomes to strengthening rural cooperatives and welfare foundations which were all aimed at achieving a more just and equitable social order. At the same time however, power became more centralized in the hands of the religious elites especially since the Constitution itself allowed for a Supreme Leader to supervise all executive, legislative and even judicial functions aided by a council of eminent jurists, the Wilayat-al-Faqih. What this centralization of power meant was that in the ultimate analysis the elected President and the elected Legislature (the Majlis) were subservient to a religious supremo and to an elite religious stratum.


The adverse consequences of this centralization of power, in effect religious authoritarianism, were felt in almost every sphere of society. Dissent was circumscribed and survived only on the sufferance of the religious elite. Accountability was observed more in its breach than its adherence. Corruption became more entrenched. Women were subjected to a variety of restrictions and regulations pertaining to their attire and to their public and political roles. Controls were also imposed upon inter-gender interaction and socialization. There were also curbs upon those cultural and artistic expressions that were deemed antithetical to Islam and the Revolution.


It was because of increasing religious authoritarianism that a reform movement of sorts was born which sought to demonstrate that Islam is opposed to dictatorship and cherishes freedom and individual liberties. The end of the Iraq-Iran war in 1988 and the death of Khomeini the following year provided some scope for Islamic reformist thinking. Iranian youth who constitute a huge slice of the population and women propelled this movement forward culminating in the election of a reform minded cleric, Mohamad Khatami, as president of the republic in 1997. He was re-elected in 2001. Khatami relaxed some of the controls upon the print media, provided more latitude for film-makers and television producers and encouraged the growth of independent civil society groups. But he could not make much headway. The authoritarian religious elites who felt threatened by his reforms stymied his moves. A high level of unemployment --- almost 14 percent of the workforce had no jobs --- and a woefully inadequate delivery system also dented Khatami’s credibility.


From 2002, the US Administration abetted by the Israeli government also increased pressure upon the Khatami leadership. In his State of the Union message in January of that year, President George Bush described Iran as part of ‘an axis of evil’ for allegedly colluding with terrorists and for its nuclear ambitions. Indeed, the US-led targeting of Iran’s nuclear program which the Washington and Tel Aviv are convinced is designed to manufacture nuclear weapons --- a charge which Tehran has strenuously denied --- has strengthened the hand of religious authoritarians who had always been contemptuous of Khatami’s openness and his willingness to dialogue with the West.


This was reflected in the 2005 presidential election which brought to the fore the hardliner, Mahmoud Ahmednejad. He was perceived by the Iranian masses as someone who had the guts to stand up to the US and Israel in a situation where dialogue and engagement with the US and the West --- they felt --- would jeopardize Iranian sovereignty. It is a matter of some significance that as the US and Israeli governments become more bellicose towards Iran, the support for religious elites and others who are seen as capable of protecting the Iranian nation has increased right across the board while the popularity of reformers like Khatami has diminished considerably.


Iran underscores two important characteristics of the Muslim world today. One, in Iran as in so many other contemporary Muslim societies, a struggle is going on between authoritarian often conservative religious groups with an exclusive outlook on the one hand and democratically inclined, reform oriented Islamic groups with an inclusive, universal approach on the other. Two, when the US, Israel or some of their other allies pursue their self-serving agendas vis-a-vis certain Muslim countries, it is often the authoritarian groups that benefit from their interference and manipulation to the detriment of the reform oriented elements.



Based upon our reflections on six Asian countries --- three with non-Muslim majorities and three with Muslim majorities --- we are now in a position to draw some tentative conclusions.


1) In a number of countries, at the time of Independence, the ruling elites were secular and religion was not central to politics. Because of socio-economic challenges, electoral politics and flawed governance, segments of society have over time turned more and more to religion which serves as an identity marker, a source of morality and an embodiment of the ideal.


2) The reconciliation between, or harmonisation of, religion and state is a major issue in a number of Muslim and non-Muslim societies. In some instances, it is a question of how religion will transform existing secular structures while in other cases it is a question of how the understanding of religion itself will be transformed by the secular environment.


3) In a few situations, the nexus between ethnic or cultural identity, on the one hand, and religion, on the other, has been manipulated or exploited to fuel communal conflicts. In these and other cases, religion often is not the primary cause of conflict but is absorbed into conflicts and sometimes exacerbates them.


4) The perpetuation of global domination by the US and its allies and the injustices it generates within the Muslim world (ummah) has induced a fringe within the ummah to resort to acts of terror which in turn has distorted perceptions of Islam among both Muslims and non-Muslims. Equally important, the US-Israeli agenda has been detrimental to reform movements within the ummah seeking to develop a more inclusive, universal vision of Islam.


5) In those instances when religious groups have succeeded to acquire power, the emphasis appears to be on protecting identity expressed through regulations pertaining to women or gender interaction or manifested in changes to prevailing conceptions of history and culture. Often, religion on the throne of power has led to authoritarianism arising from a desire to impose a certain doctrinal interpretation upon the rest of society. At the same time however, there are in all religions democratic approaches to the understanding and practice of faith which are sometimes part of the internal struggle within the tradition.


Our presentation has revealed that the role of religion in Asia at this juncture of history is far more complex than what the mainstream media suggests. This complexity is related to a large extent to the re-emergence of religion as an important player in the public arena.


(Chandra Muzaffar is a leading Malaysian intellectual. He is associated with the Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, and also runs the Just World Trust in Kuala Lumpur. He can be contacted on for details about the Just World Trust, see



Bin Laden accuses Arab leaders


Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, has said in an audio tape obtained by Al Jazeera that some Arab leaders were "complicit" with Israel during its offensive in Gaza.


Bin Laden said in the tape aired on Saturday that Arab leaders were "hypocrites", and that "liberating Jerusalem needed honest Arab leadership" to fight and liberate the Arab people.


"It has become clear that some Arab leaders were complicit with the crusade zionist alliance against our people. These are the leaders that America calls moderate," bin Laden said.




He said that "Gaza's holocaust" was a "historic event and a tragedy" adding that the Arab world needed a "devoted committee of scholars from the Islamic world to establish an advisory body" on the future of the region, "not leadership that is formed by hypocrites".


Al-Qaeda's leader also called for support for the mujahidin in Iraq and said that his network of fighters would "go to Jordan from the sea to the river to liberate Palestine".


The tape, whose authenticity could not be verified, was the second by the al-Qaeda leader in two months in which he has focused on the Gaza offensive.


In an audio tape posted on an internet site on January 14, he called on Muslims across the world to take revenge against Israel for the war on the coastal territory.


He said that the onslaught had been timed to take advantage of the dying days of the presidency of George Bush, the former US president.


The 22-day Israeli offensive on Gaza over the New Year, killed more than 1,300 Palestinians.



Firebrand risks jail in call for jihad cash

March 15, 2009


Islamist extremist Anjem Choudary has been caught on tape urging an audience to raise funds for the 'mujaheddin'

OUTWARDLY he presents an innocuous image as a be-spectacled father of three trained in the law. But Anjem Choudary is now considered by many politicians and religious leaders as the most dangerous Islamist extremist in Britain.


He has previously made no secret of his demands that the country be placed under sharia - Islamic law. This would mean all women would have to wear veils, adulterers would be stoned to death and drunks whipped in public.


Last Tuesday Choudary and his small but obsessive group of followers turned their bile on British troops parading through Luton after their return from service in Iraq.


While his placard-waving “students” fomented a near-riot by branding the men and women of the Royal Anglian Regiment as “butchers” and “cowards”, Choudary, who was not present, did not shrink from fanning the flames of outrage.

Within hours of the ugly confrontation in Luton, he had posted a message on the Islam4UK website, calling the troops “pompous” and accusing them of murdering women and children in Iraq.


He later gave a glimpse of his vision of Britain in a newspaper interview, calling for the “black flag of Allah” to be raised over Downing Street.


In the absence of his former guru, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed - a firebrand preacher banned from Britain - and with Abu Hamza, the hook-handed cleric of Finsbury Park mosque, in jail, Choudary appears to have installed himself as the country’s most vocal Islamist.


He has always been at pains to keep his public proselytising within the boundaries of British law.


Now Choudary, 41, a founder member of the British wing of Al-Muhajiroun, an extremist group, has been caught on tape urging an audience to raise funds for the “mujaheddin” - a phrase usually associated with insurgents in Iraq and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.


Under the Terrorism Act 2000, it is an offence to “invite another to provide money or other property” for the purposes of terrorism. Offenders risk a prison sentence of up to 14 years.


Last year Abu Izzadeen, another radical preacher, was one of several men jailed after their sermons at the Regent’s Park mosque in London were found to be inciting terrorism and calling for its funding.


Last night Patrick Mercer, the Tory MP, asked for a police investigation into Choudary’s activities.


“He is certainly subverting and suborning vulnerable youngsters with a view to turning them into mujaheddin,” said Mercer.


Cracking down on extremists such as Choudary - who reportedly lived a typically debauched student lifestyle before turning to radical Islam in the mid-1990s - is proving more difficult than some had first imagined.


In 2004 Al-Muhajiroun was disbanded by Bakri and Choudary, allegedly for fear of being prosecuted. Immediately afterwards, two offshoots from the group were created - Al-Ghuraaba and the Saviour Sect - both led by Choudary and understood to contain the same followers.


Both of these groups were banned by Tony Blair after the 7/7 bombings. Since then they appear to have sprung up again under the names of Islam4UK and Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaah.


Certainly Choudary, who lives on benefits at the taxpayers’ expense, seems to enjoy his burgeoning notoriety, which he has stoked with inflammatory statements.


In 2006 he organised a rally in central London against Danish cartoons that had been deemed insulting to Islam. Three extremists, all followers of Choudary, were later jailed for incitement to murder.