Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Proposed Legislation in Alabama and Pennsylvania Targets the Sharīʿa

A wave of proposed legislation has targeted the sharīʿa in many states during the last several years. As many commentators have pointed out, what is really at stake in this legislation is identity politics, as opposed to an actual threat. 

In Alabama, an amendment to the state constitution will be considered in 2012. This amendment prohibits the enforcement of any "foreign law" that contradicts state law or the U.S. constitution. Unlike an earlier version, the amendment does not mention the sharīʿa, although it still targets it in spirit.

Rep. RoseMarie Swanger (R-Lebanon) recently proposed a similar bill (House Bill 2029) in the Pennsylvania legislature. Her bill targets any "foreign legal code or system" that contradicts state or federal law.

"I have read about some other states where foreign law has been creeping into the courts," Swanger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I'm thinking of the Near East, where women are not highly regarded and don't have the same rights as men. If those women come here, I want them to have the same rights that we have," she said.  Swanger worked with an organization called American Laws for American Courts to write the bill, which has been challenged by the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Like bills in other states, House Bill 2029 could create headaches for Orthodox Jews, Catholics and Muslims in Pennsylvania, who follow foreign laws in mundane issues like kosher food, drafting wills, divorces, immigration cases, etc.

In my view, the anti-sharīʿa discourse in the U.S. consists mainly of empty rhetoric rather than informed concern based on substantive arguments. While this may appear obvious to many readers, law makers like Swanger consistently demonstrate astounding ignorance about Islam. Another example: last year, according to Mother Jones magazine, Gerald Allen, a state senator, introduced a bill to ban sharīʿa in Alabama courts. His staffers copied the definition of sharīʿa used in the bill, nearly unchanged, directly from Wikipedia!

Aspiring presidential candidates like Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich continue to make inflammatory statements against the sharīʿa and American Muslims. Newt Gingrich called the sharīʿa a "mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and the world as we know it."  

I am not asking politicians to become experts on the sharīʿa, but rather I want to call them out for making ridiculous, misleading, exasperating statements about it, at a time when suspicion and division amongst American communities is highly counterproductive and damaging. Sadly, the level of ridiculousness has reached a point worthy of parody on The Simpsons, and the rhetoric against the creeping sharīʿa is likely to intensify during the upcoming election year.

Even worse, are violent, abominable acts which were recently perpetrated in Nigeria in the name of the sharīʿa. I will discuss these atrocities in an upcoming post.  

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Future of Warfare

Last week, NYU Law School held a forum related to drone technology, entitled "The Morality and Legality of Targeted Killings: From Bin Laden to al-Awlaki."

Some questions that were addressed included: "Does either the U.S. Constitution or international law permit targeted killings, whether or not the target is a U.S. national? Does it matter whether the US government engages in such acts only on a recognized battlefield (e.g., Afghanistan vs. Yemen or Pakistan), uses particular methods (unmanned drones vs. members of the U.S. military), or does so only with the consent of the territorial sovereign?"

Countries like the U.S., Russia, Israel, China, India, Pakistan and Mexico are increasingly relying on drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) for different purposes, including targeted assassinations. The Mexican government uses drones to survey drug traffickers. A separate aspect of drone technology is its potential to save lives on the battlefield by evacuating wounded soldiers more efficiently.

Some researchers are in the process of developing fully autonomous drones, which will operate independently without human guidance. It is not clear how long it will take until those drones are fully operational; one scientist argued that it would take at least 50 years to reach that point.

To many, this drone technology brings to mind dystopian science fiction like the works of Phillip K. Dick. An effort has recently been made to prevent an international drone arms race, although no treaty has been signed.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Life of Muhammad Asad

After reading some works of Talal Asad this semester, I was curious to learn about the life of his father, Muhammad Asad (d. 1992), which is portrayed in the documentary A Road to Mecca. (2008) The documentary is based on Muhammad Asad's autobiography, The Road to Mecca (1954).

Muhammad Asad was born a Jew in Lwow, now part of Poland in 1900; his name was originally Leopold Weiss. He first encountered the Near East when he visited a relative in Jerusalem in 1922. During his time there he expressed concerns about the consequences of building a Jewish state in Palestine; he debated Zionism with Chaim Weizmann.

Asad converted to Islam at the age of 26 and traveled throughout the Near East. He befriended King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia; he later met Muhammad Iqbal and campaigned for the establishment of Pakistan. He eventually acquired Pakistani citizenship, and served briefly as the Pakistani Minister Plenipotentiary to the United Nations. Asad translated the Quran to English, an endeavor that took 17 years to complete; his translation was published in 1980.

The documentary focused more on Muhammad Asad's life after his conversion to Islam, and less on his youth in Europe. As a young man, Asad wrote film scripts, worked as a journalist for a time. In short, his life story is fascinating. Al Jazeera English broadcasted A Road to Mecca in its entirety last week, but has since removed it from their website. The documentary is available for purchase from Icarus Films.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Will Saif al-Islam Surrender to the ICC?

Saif al-Islam al-Qadaffi is reportedly considering turning himself in to the International Criminal Court, which has issued a warrant for his arrest. He likely fears the possibility of a brutal, extrajudicial 'YouTube execution' if he remains in Libya.

Above: Saif al-Islam. via the The Daily Telegraph.
The Libyan NTC has opposed Saif al-Islam's extradition, preferring to try him in Libya if captured. The latter option would certainly lend credibility and legitimacy to the NTC; furthermore, an ICC trial could take many years. "Libya's new rulers might not be satisfied with the idea of him spending the next decade playing board games with Ratko Mladic," wrote Joshua Keating on Friday.

Many remain skeptical that Saif al-Islam is sincere about surrendering to the ICC. Let us suppose that Saif al-Islam, who is possibly hiding in the desert somewhere near the Libyan border, has the means to make his way to safety. By Monday, he might be able to board a plane without interception, as NATO military operations will have ended.

Aside from the Hague, where might Saif al-Islam be looking to go? While many countries do not recognize the ICC, the following countries are rumored to be the most likely options:

1. Sudan, Zimbabwe, or Algeria. None of these countries recognize the ICC; Zimbabwe enjoyed good relations with Colonel al-Qadaffi. Several al-Qadaffi family members are currently exiled in Algeria.

2. Venezuela. Chavez has not made any public offers to grant Saif al-Islam asylum, but has refused to recognize the new Libyan government. He was an old ally of the elder al-Qadaffi.

3. Niger or Mali. According to the Daily Telegraph, another one of al-Qadaffi's sons, Saadi al-Qadaffi, currently has asylum in Niger. However, Niger and Mali recognize the ICC.

While the symbolic value of capturing Saif al-Islam commands attention in the present, the more profound challenge lies elsewhere, namely building a transparent, democratic, accountable republic in Libya.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rosa Eskenazi

This weekend I saw My Sweet Canary, a documentary which explores the life of Rosa Eskenazi (189?-1980). Rosa Eskenazi was a famous Greek-Jewish rebetika singer. She was born into a destitute, low-class Sephardic family in Istanbul in the 1890s.
Her family later moved to Thessaloniki, which was still part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. Eskenazi was discovered while living in Kommotini (today part of Greece), and later became an international rebetika star.

                                   Rosa Askenazi sings a typical rebetiko song.

My Sweet Canary was shown as part of the New York Greek film festival, which continues until November 6th. The documentary follows three young musicians -- an Israeli, a Turk and Greek -- who travel through Greece and Turkey to uncover Eskenazi's life.

Rebetika is a genre that combines elements of shared culture from Anatolia (and the Balkans), dating back to the Ottoman period; rebetika songs draw on the Arab and Turkish makam system. Instruments typically used include the bouzouki, oud, baglamas, clarinet, santouri, tambouras, violin, guitar etc.

               Mehtap Demir performs "Rambi," a rebetiko song, in honor of Eskenazi.

Rebetika developed in Greece, brought by refugees who had departed Asia Minor after the Greco-Turkish war of 1923. I thought the documentary did a good job of presenting the latter event, which remains a highly sensitive issue today, while at the same time evoking the shared culture that existed in the region during the Ottoman period. Rebetika songs are typically performed in Greek and Turkish – or a mixture of the two; vocations like "ah maan" "ya allah," "ya leli" are commonly used. I thought it would have be interesting if the documentary had explored more cultural influences from Greece's northern neighbors, however the focus was mainly on Greece and Turkey.

As rebetika music gained popularity in the 1920s, it came to be associated with the urban lower classes; it was considered a seedy, disreputable genre. Songs dealt with subjects like alcohol and drug use, prison life, but also evoked the deep pain of refugees and immigrants who left Asia Minor for Greece in 1923. Thus rebetika is also known as the blues of Greece. It was banned in the 1930s under the Metaxas dictatorship, which considered it too backwards and oriental. It fell out of favor in 1950s, but was revived in the 1970s and remains very popular today, in Greece, the US, Israel, Europe, etc.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Will Jews Play a Role in Post-Revolutionary Libya?

I find nothing surprising about the story of David Gerbi, a Libyan-born Jew who attempted to return "home" and restore the dilapidated Dar al-Bishi synagogue in Tripoli. About a week later, Gerbi flew to Rome, where he resides, after a protest was convened over his presence. The main objections of the protestors included Gerbi's support for Zionism and his past relations/negotiations with al-Qadaffi. The Libyan Jewish diaspora is currently split regarding his visit.

Protestors objected to David Gerbi's presence. One sign reads, "David, go back to where you belong...there is no place for a Zionist among us!" (Aljazeera.net)

So, in the short-run, it seems unlikely that Jews will play a role in Libya. (thus the title of this blog post is largely rhetorical) However, it would be premature to dismiss the Arab Spring in Libya on the basis of Gerbi's experience, adopting old arguments about Libyans being too barbaric or anti-Semitic to allow Jews to participate in a democracy. There is no denying past violence and injustices committed against Libyan Jews. Nevertheless, we should not abandon the possibility of some kind of future Jewish political participation and return to Libya, which, however unlikely, remains intriguing.

Other aspects of Gerbi's visit are of interest to me. Gerbi's request to become a representative of the Libyan Jews on the Transitional National Council is still pending.

                          David Gerbi is interviewed via Skype after his visit to Libya. 

Also, the Qadaffi regime and the rebels were in a sense "competing" over the Libyan Jews this summer, seeking to incorporate them as a symbol of tolerance and diversity. Al-Qadaffi sent a delegation to Tel-Aviv this summer, desperate to repair his tarnished international image. (Saif al-Islam had invited Libyan Jews to return to Libya in 2004.) Rebels invited Raphael Luzon, a Jew born in Benghazi, who currently resides in the UK, to return to Libya and take part in politics.

“I said I would accept it once I see it is real democracy and the proposal is offered,” Luzon told the Jerusalem Post in August. “If I do it I do it for one matter: the historical matter. The first Arab country that proposed that a Jew run in a free election," he said.

Luzon was interviewed last week in Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat, where he discussed (among other things), David Gerbi's visit to Libya.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Joseph Schacht

Last week I came across an interesting biographical anecdote about Joseph Schacht, (d.1969) one of the most well known scholars of Islamic law of the 20th century. Part of an article written by the late Jeanette Wakin in memory of Schacht, the anecdote details how Schacht participated in colonial administrations as part of his research:
Always eager to widen his knowledge of Islamic law in practice, Schacht undertook a research trip to Northern Nigeria in 1950, the most important Muslim territory in the British West African colonies, under the auspices of the Colonial Office. He made several more extended research trips to Africa, especially East Africa from 1953 to 1964. In 1952, he was invited to be a visiting professor at the University of Algiers' Faculty of Law, still a French institution, and the next year was awarded an honorary LL.D. degree from that university. (p.7)
(The same anecdote is cited in a review article by David S. Powers. A response to Powers by W. Hallaq is forthcoming.)

Most obviously, this anecdote serves to remind us of Schacht's position relative to colonial power. It is worth thinking about how any scholarship on sharīʿa is "affected" by power. A further question interests me: how exactly did this research process work, i.e. under the auspices of colonial authorities? To what extent / how did the colonial bureaucracies oversee Schacht's research? For example, what forms did Schacht have to fill out? What were the requirements for receiving funding?

Of course, there is nothing unique Schacht's trip; W. Hallaq shows how British, Dutch and French Orientalists "proved to be quite helpful in the implementation of the government's and settlers' policies." (p.435) Plenty of other legal Orientalists worked in colonial administrations, such as Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (d.1936), who famously posed as a Muslim in order to conduct research in Mecca.

On a different note, some of Hurgronje's photos and sound recordings were were on display at a museum exhibit last year; they depict the Mecca of 1885:

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sharīʿa Courts in the U.S.: the Debate on Religious Arbitration

The past year has seen the rise of anti-sharīʿa sentiment in the U.S., backed by hostile rhetoric, generous funding and legislation in many states.

Commenting on the current situation, Eliyahu Stern, an Assistant Professor at Yale, recently published an op-ed in the New York Times. He argued that anti-sharīʿa legislation negates the ethic of tolerance, assimilation and alienates Muslim communities. As he points out,
the suggestion that sharīʿa threatens American security is disturbingly reminiscent of the accusation, in 19th-century Europe, that Jewish religious law was seditious. In 1807, Napoleon convened an assembly of rabbinic authorities to address the question of whether Jewish law prevented Jews from being loyal citizens of the republic. (They said that it did not.)
Several blogs reposted the article…I wish more people would heed such voices of moderation.

Some issues at the moment seem to include:

1. reputation -- "Sharīʿa" is associated with barbaric capital punishment, oppression of women, etc. Of course, somebody like Christopher Hitchens might argue that "there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said."

2. fears of sharīʿa infiltrating the U.S. court system -- Abe Foxman calls it "camouflaged bigotry," and politicians exploit these fears, etc.

Last month, the New York Times ran a piece on David Yerushalmi, a controversial lawyer who is a major force behind the anti-sharīʿa legislation. (also see a rebuttal to the New York Times article, published in Frontpage Magazine.)

Below, Yerushalmi, explainins the difference between sharīʿa and halakha. I think the video largely speaks for itself...

Honestly though, the current situation hardly qualifies as a genuine debate. As Andrea Elliott, an investigative reporter for the New York Times points out, it seems to be more of a shouting match.

One side warns that sharīʿa poses an existential threat. As Elliott explains,
what they say they're doing is trying to prevent sharīʿa from having the kind of influence seen in Europe, particularly in England, where the Muslim community is far less integrated and where there are sharīʿa tribunals.
The other side cries Islamophobia, and/or argues that there is no debate in the first place, since the legal system already allows for other religious courts (under the auspices of the Federal Arbitration Act), like the Jewish Beth Din of America, or Christian arbitration services, to act as private arbitrators in settling disputes.
As they point out, anti-sharīʿa legislation would create numerous unrelated issues, even interfering with Jewish courts in matters related to divorce, inheritance, child custody, etc.

Overall, it seems that the real issue at stake here -- clearly far from resolved -- is the role of religious arbitration courts in the U.S. legal system.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Anglo-Muhammadan Law in Colonial India

My main academic interest centers on how Islamic law was altered (read: ruptured, dismantled, reified, codified, desiccated, displaced, etc.) by the forces of colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th century.

This semester I wrote a paper on the development of Anglo-Muhammadan Law in colonial India in the 19th century.

It provides a really good example of the distorting effect that colonialism had on Islamic law -- something that is often forgotten.

Basically, Anglo-Muhammadan law was a (by)product of the colonial encounter. It was a fusion of elements of British common law, Islamic law, customary law, etc. that developed -- over a long period of time -- into an entirely new construct.

I think this is what makes Anglo Muhammadan Law so interesting. In other words, the British did not merely displace the legal system as it had existed under the Mughals. Rather, they selectively appropriated and interpreted elements of Islamic law to their own liking, creating something new in the process.

Charles Hamilton (d.1792) published a translation of part of al-Hidāya in 1791, which was originally authored by al-Marghīnānī, a well respected twelfth century Ḥanafī jurist.

Islamic law, as practiced in the pre-colonial period, was characterized by ikhtilāf, or a diversity of opinions.

Since Islamic texts rarely offered definitive answers, translation aimed to simplify their ambiguities. In fact, in order to deal with this diversity of contradictory opinions in al-Hidāya, Hamilton decided to prioritize the students' decisions over the teachers' decisions.

Translators also paraphrased Islamic texts, or cut out parts of them, or simply made unintentional errors. Since Hamilton took such extensive liberties in editing al-Hidāya, he actually created a new text, which assumed a new authority that it never had.

Since translated texts did not cover all issues, the British introduced precedent to the legal system. The decisions of Anglo-Muhammadan courts were recorded and published -- and through this process a literature about precedent accumulated.

One of the last acts of translation was renaming Anglo-Muhammadan law "Muhammadan law," which suggested (among other things) that the process of translation described above had never occurred.

Later, Anglo-Muhammadan became a lens which blurred interpretations of earlier Islamicate history / Islamic law.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Egypt's New Foreign Policy

Although the balance of power within Egyptian domestic politics is still very much up in the air, Egypt's post-revolutionary foreign policy is beginning to crystallize. Egypt's foreign policy under Mubarak played a somewhat minor - if any - role in fomenting the flames of revolution back in January and February. Certainly there was some modicum of popular discontent with the Mubarak regime's alliance with Israel and the United States, but these concerns certainly did not drive the revolution that forced Mubarak from power.

Egypt's foreign policy under the transitional government is breaking somewhat from the old alliances forged by the Mubarak regime. The most ovbious indicator of this break from the past is Egypt's role in negotiating a deal between Fatah and Hamas two weeks ago. Egypt had been attemtping to midwife an agreement between the two Palestinian factions for four years to no avail. There were accusations that Egypt was not an honest broker throughout the process, as it allegedly favored Fatah at the expense of Hamas. Yet not three months after the Egyptian transitional government took power, an agreement was struck between Hamas and Fatah through Egyptian mediation. Though it's difficult to know exactly what made the reconciliation possible at this moment, one is led to believe that Egypt's shifting foreign policy goals helped facilitate an agreement.

Egypt has also indicated it is open to closer relations with Iran. Egypt and Iran have not enjoyed diplomatic relations since 1979, when Anwar Sadat provided refuge for the deposed Shah. Iranian cargo ships are now allowed to pass through the Suez Canal, and there are even rumors that both countries are seeking to restore diplomatic relations and return their ambassadors.

The emerging strategic calculus on the part of the post-revolutionary Egyptian government is not entirely surprising. Throughout the last decade, many within Egypt have voiced dissatisfaction with its alliance with Israel, the US, and Saudi Arabia. Many claimed that these alliances limited Egypt's foreign policy options. It also arguably opened the door for countries like Turkey and Qatar to cement their status as independent mediators. As a consequence, these countries have acquired influence at Egypt's expense. How interesting, then, to see Turkey and Qatar invited to Cairo to share in the official announcement of Palestinian reconciliation two weeks ago. Of course, Egypt's options will be perpetually limited in a way that Turkey and Qatar's are not. As we were reminded time and time again throughout news coverage of Egypt's revolution, Egypt receives over $2 billion annually in US aid. Thus, there will surely be limits to Egyptian overtures to Iran and Hamas.

***I expect this to be my last blog entry, as I am graduating in a week. It's been a pleasure blogging for the department throughout the last two years. I'd like to thank Nadia Khalaf for managing the blog, as well as all the others in the department who have made this blog possible. I would also like to thank the readers. As for me, today I begin my long walk off into the sunset.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Myth of Al-Andalus

Next time somebody mentions al-Andalus (medieval Muslim Spain) as an example of interfaith utopia and tolerance ("la convivencia"), think again. What strikes me is how ubiquitous the myth of al-Andalus has become, and how it is continually adapted, reappearing in different contexts.

Architecture of the Cathedral of Cordoba, formerly a mosque.

The myth is of course associated with Bin Laden and the lamentation of the loss of Muslim Spain. Side note: the Islamic Commission of Spain issued a fatwa in 2005 condemning Osama Bin Laden.

In the wake of Bin Laden's death, this article by Gil Anidjar is definitely worth re-reading. The article originally appeared in Tikkun magazine in 2009.

Anidjar shows how the myth of a tolerant medieval Muslim Spain has been appropriated and exploited for different (political) purposes. He focuses on how the myth became popular as a self-righteous, self-legitimating narrative in the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accords.
The story [of Al-Andalus] offers the image of an isolated country, a solitary beacon of light and civilization in a dangerous world. The force of the story comes from the limited size of the window of hope it offers--a few hundred years of multicultural coexistence on a relatively small territory--and from the reasons given for its sad conclusion: Its end and failure were and remain Islam's fault.
Parts of the very same narrative that Anidjar critiques appeared in a recent Guardian report on Muslims in Spain, "In Search of the Spirit of Al-Andalus."

For example:
"Islam was the dominant religion, but other faiths were tolerated."
"This was a multicultural city before the reconquest."
"One of the most harmonious communities in Europe was al-Andalus." (note the use of Europe)
However, in Spain, there is currently a small movement of converts to Islam, who draw on (the history of) al-Andalus in order to build a (new) Spanish-Muslim identity.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The US Budget and Title VI

This is not a blog about American politics. Hence, I bet you are wondering why I plan to write about the US budget and how it affects us all at the Kevorkian Center. The answer lies in the fact that one of the victims of the bipartisan budget deal struck between President Obama and House Republicans last April happens to be Title VI of the Higher Education Act. According to this report, the deal cuts funding for Title VI by 40%, reducing the total amount of funds from $126 million to $76 million.

Title VI is the Department of Education program that funds Language Resource Centers across the United States, including New York University's Kevoriakian Center for Near Eastern Studies. This pool of money also funds the FLAS fellowships, which allow so many of us to pursue advanced level study in languages like Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. So many of us at the Kevorkian Center have benefiited enormously from FLAS fellowships. Not only do they facilitate language study during the regular academic year at NYU, they also allow many of us to study during the summer in the Middle East. As anyone who has tried to learn Arabic can attest, there is no way to reach a genuine level of advanced proficiency if you don't spend time living and studying amidst native speakers. Furthermore, the cost of independently financing language study halfway around the world makes these generous fellowships an absolute necessity for many of us.

It baffles me that lawmakers have chosen to cut these programs, practically rolling them back to pre-2001 levels. Out of all the things in the 2011 budget - which tops $3 trillion - why cut programs that give such tangible material assistance to graduate students learning languages like Arabic and Persian? Graduate school would literally be out of reach for many students without this funding. Here's to hoping that the Obama administration increases this funding in the fiscal year 2012 budget, which begins October 1st. If these levels become the new normal, lots of area studies programs and graduate students will be in serious trouble.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Koran by Heart: Something like a Review

First things first: it is hard to be a blogger without reliable internet. It's also very embarrassing not to have reliable internet in New York. How does that even make sense? Well, I'm not going to explain it here. But I will blame the delay between this 'review' and the day I saw the film in question (April 30th, at the Tribeca Film Festival) on that particular problem.

Moving on:

Let me first state the obvious: you should watch Koran by Heart. I heard it's going to be on HBO at some point - keep your eye on filmmaker Greg Barker for news there. The story pretty much makes itself - adorable, intelligent, charming children with beautiful voices, competition, long difficult journeys, language barriers, bonds between parents, etc. etc. Somewhere between my last year of high school and my first year of grad school I became the sort of person who cries at the mere mention of 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' even though I don't watch the show. So even as I sat there scribbling notes as fast as I could, tears were running down my face (for happy reasons! sad reasons! reasons I can't explain!). Thank God movie theaters are dark.

However, like most students in this field, I lost my ability to just shut up and let myself be entertained a long time ago. Just recently I walked into my youngest brother and sister's dance competition to see a team of primarily white suburban New Jersey girls performing a very intricate, skilled rendition of some sort of Bollywood/Bharatanatyam dance, plus requisite high kicks and triple turns...to Arabic music. In bright orange harem pants, belly shirts, and scarves. The oldest members of the team were teenagers, and they were all really, really good. Every detail perfectly executed and perfectly in sync. But ahh...the headache came immediately.

So here are my complaints about what was otherwise one of the most promising examples I've seen of a blooming genre in film, I'll call it Movies-to-Make-You-Like-Muslims- closely related to Movies-to-Explain-Islam, often with nobler intentions, though often equally misguided.

1) The three main characters in the film are ten year old children from Senegal, Tajikistan, and the Maldives. For some reason, we never see a city or town name for these places, though the footage from each child's home country is made to stand up against Cairo, an imposing cityscape that gets its own sped-up, frantic, urban-life montage. Since Nabiollah Saidov from Tajikistan travels within his country, we do get a sense of the difference between his own very rural area and the capital city where he hopes to attend boarding school. The audience never learns which particular island Rifdha Rasheed hails from in the Maldives. Since most people in the U.S. have likely not even heard of the Maldives, we can maybe offer Barker a pass for just letting American audiences know that it exists! In the Indian Ocean! - even if these audiences never learn, say, whether the Maldives is one island, two islands, or twenty six. But the footage from Djamil's home in Senegal really bugged me. It seemed somehow unfair, and too easily in line with stereotypical portrayals of Sub Saharan Africa. Senegal is represented by a village setting, and that setting alone - Egypt by its largest city, and that city alone.

2) The filmmakers also left out some rather important details. For example, though Rifdha is a very successful student who wants to be an explorer, and her mother clearly wants Rifdha to continue studying science in addition to religion, one moment of serious tension in the film comes when Rifdha's father says that his dream for his daughter is that she'll get a religious education and ultimately be a housewife. In a Q&A session after the film, one of the Associate Producers told us we should all know that Rifdha's mother works. Why wasn't that information in the film?

Secondly: While watching we learn that Nabiollah's rural, one-room school has been shut down as part of a government crackdown on "Islamic extremism" in Tajikistan. Again, in the Q&A after the film some audience members asked for clarification. Was this some sort of blanket crackdown? Did it have more to do with politics? Or was Nabiollah's teacher really promoting extremism? The answer turned out to be that the government in Tajikistan was simply shutting down all small, rural schools dependent on the instruction of only one teacher, since it is difficult for the state to supervise or control what happens in such classes.

I'm not sure why a documentary that was otherwise well-crafted, beautifully filmed, compelling, and clearly assembled by people familiar with the material needs to have these sort of slips - to me it looks like sloppiness, since I don't think it was their intention to portray Nabiollah's school as a bastion of extremism (the film actually includes a very sympathetic interview with Nabiollah's teacher after the shutdown), or to imply that Dakar looks like Djamil's village, or that Rifdha's father is certain to have the final word on her future (or that his word is uncomplicated and unchanging).

Oh, well.The children are adorable, their voices really are beautiful, and according to my latest searches, you can't watch them on YouTube. All complaints aside - I recommend it.

Just be prepared for a few awkward moments, one of which was entirely out of the filmmakers' control. Our little heroes are competing in last summer's Cairo-based annual international Qur'an reciting competition. The competition always happens during Ramadan, and the winners are always announced on Lailat al Qadr...by the President. Yes - Hosni Mubarak makes a cameo appearance. How quickly it has become strange to see him playing the role he always envisioned for himself: a benevolent father figure, watching over his children and grandchildren.

Nabiollah, the only one to recite at the awards ceremony, had this to say: "That's when I realized it was a big deal, because usually presidents don't come for small things."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Stories from Doha's Industrial Area

On one of our last days in Doha for the Terana Summit, we took a brief trip to the industrial area where migrant workers live. We arrived just as Friday prayers were ending and the market was beginning to fill with bodies. Men carried their prayer mats with them as they looked for ways to pass the afternoon, a rare chance to rest. The industrial area doesn't include a cinema, or really anything other than a few stores, some restaurants, and mosques. The fancy malls of commercial Doha - the Doha most visitors see - are forbidden to 'single men.' No one wants to be reminded of the workers who make that shiny fantasyland possible. I think the purpose of our own trip, arranged by our host, Georgetown Qatar, was just to let us look around a bit and see that somewhat-hidden, other side of Doha, but it so happened that there was a journalist in our midst.

Nadia Zaffar casually asked a few men about their experiences in Doha...and within minutes we were surrounded by a crowd of workers each trying to tell us his own story. Since I don't speak Urdu, and could really only catch the gist of what was being said (there was enough Arabic thrown in to know when the men were discussing a particularly awful supervisor, for example), my strongest impression was of a flood. It was a flood of complaints, of stories, of pain, even the odd joke. These men were overflowing.

Nadia captured some of what she heard in this short post. I hope you will take the time to read it.

Though most of the men we met that afternoon were from India, Pakistan, or Nepal, we did run into one Egyptian worker as we were leaving. "See you in Tahrir Square," he told us.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Tagheer Egypt can believe in?

Two months have passed since the mass uprising in Egypt toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Since then, the supreme military council has commissioned a committee to amend the constitution, and a referendum was held to approve these constitutional amendments. Yet despite the euphoria that swept the nation two months ago, there are many concerns that the revolution's momentum has been stumbling of late.

For instance, the supreme military council led by Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi has come under fire recently for supposedly dragging its feet in prosecuting former Mubarak cronies. Mubarak himself may be constrained by house arrest in Sharm el-Sheikh, but there is little doubt that the vast network of patronage that underpinned his rule has yet to be fully dismantled. Furthermore, the military council's recent warning that continued demonstrations and strikes will not be tolerated certainly hasn't won it many new fans. The same can be said about the arrest of a blogger who has dared to criticized the military council's leadership.

Another source of frustration are the constitutional amendments that many considered to have been rushed through. Though the referendum approved these amendments by a solid majority of 77%, many of the leaders who were at the forefront of the uprising campaigned vigorously against it them. Since these amendments call for elections by September, they naturally privilege the parties that are more organized at the moment. This would give a significant advantage to movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of the NDP. Conversely, holding elections so soon would pose a challenge to many of the younger, less organized movements that still have not formed adequate cohesion following the uprising. This is why many of them campaigned against the amendments.

The military has pledged to transfer power to a civilian government after elections are held in September. Yet it remains to be seen if an elected civilian government will carry the revolution to its completion, or whether it will be subject to the military at the end of the day. The 18-day uprising that ousted Mubarak was certainly an astonishing achievement in and of itself. Yet clearly, the revolution has a lot more work to do.

Inside Al Jazeera

One of the highlights of the Terana Summit, which whisked me away to Doha for the past week, was our trip to Al Jazeera. After the requisite tour of Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English, not to mention the 'museum area' featuring ancient (it's from the 90's!) Al Jazeera gear and the last effects of Al Jazeera journalists who died when American forces bombed the Baghdad bureau, we headed into a meeting room to chat with the new media team. I'll post a more detailed rundown of that conversation later.

For now, let me direct you to some videos (shot by yours truly) of the next discussion, featuring some more big-whig characters, like Satnam Matharu, the Director of International Relations and Communications, Aref Hijawi, Director of Programs at Al Jazeera Arabic and TV presenter/anchor Ghida Fakhry, who looks exactly as glamorous in person as she does on TV. She explained the relationship between Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English, something that has confused the channel's oldest and newest fans alike. Aref Hijawi spoke, er, shouted very candidly about the Palestine Papers, which he called Al Jazeera's biggest mistake to date.

The rest of the discussion was dominated by one of the lingering questions about Al Jazeera: is their main goal to report the news, or is it to influence what happens on the ground? What does it mean to be impartial? Do Al Jazeera reporters want to be impartial?
Another strand of that discussion revolved around whether it was fair to call Al Jazeera the "Fox News" of the Arabic-speaking world. Of course, the answer from everyone at Al Jazeera was a resounding 'no.' Matharu emphasized what he saw as the difference between Fox News and Al Jazeera: one imposes an ideology from top down, the other - if it encourages action - encourages action only through the voices of ordinary people and the reality on the ground. I began to wonder how a similar discussion with Fox News representatives might go....

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Assimilation in "Teherangeles"

Tablet Magazine recently published an interesting article about the Iranian Jewish community of Los Angeles. Themes include the departure of many Jews from Iran after the revolution of 1979, their arrival in Los Angeles, cultural differences between Iranian and Ashkenazi Jews in L.A., and the present state of the Jewish community.

Read the full article from Point of No Return via Tablet Magazine.

Check it out:

Many Persian families found their way to Sinai Temple, on Wilshire Boulevard, a popular stop for many Persian Jews arriving in Los Angeles after the revolution. By then, the Conservative synagogue had migrated from its original home near downtown to a modern building equidistant between Beverly Hills and Westwood. From the start, there were culture clashes between the Americans and the Persians. “They were breast-feeding their children in shul, during davening, and that was disturbing to a lot of people,” says Maurice Lamm, the rabbi emeritus of Beth Jacob, an Orthodox congregation in Beverly Hills. “So, Hillel Silverman, the rabbi there, was talking to me about how to handle it, and I said, don’t worry about it, let them come here.” Lamm offered David Shofet a room where he could hold a minyan and encouraged him to bring his father to Los Angeles. But Sinai’s associate rabbi Zvi Dershowitz, whose family fled Czechoslovakia a month before the Nazi invasion, campaigned to give his new congregants a home. “All I knew was that they were Jews, and we had to help,” Dershowitz explains now, waving away questions. But the clashes went on, growing almost senselessly petty. There were people upset that families were coming in late to services, that people were talking to each other in Farsi rather than English, that women were ululating at bar mitzvahs and weddings, and most infamously, that Persian regulars who were not synagogue members were taking home cookies after Friday night Oneg Shabbat services. Longstanding members resented the fact that the strangers weren’t trying to fit in.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

More on Tik...

While I wait for some videos to upload - painfully slowly - from some interesting conversations yesterday at Al Jazeera Headquarters here in Doha, I want to quickly point anyone who read my last post to some of the articles and interviews Tik has done since being released from detention in Syria on April 2nd.

Although I'm very happy that Tik is finally home, I'm not just highlighting these interviews because I know him or because he's a fellow Middlebury student or because I want to promote my former Arabic students, et cetera. His testimony is a very special opportunity for us to hear about the sort of things one sees and hears while being held in a Syrian prison. Tik is very aware of the protection his American passport afforded him, and careful to remind others of what happens to prisoners without that protection.

New links are regularly added to the Facebook page created when Tik first went missing: some in print, some audio and some video.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

What Has Bashar Assad Learned From Mubarak?

I don't know if the recent events in Syria will lead to regime change on the scale of what happened in Tunisia or Egypt. But judging from the way in which Mr. Assad has handled the protests, and the speech he delivered on Wednesday, it appears that he has not taken advantage of the opportunity to learn from Ben Ali's and Mubarak's mistakes.

Especially given the clumsy way in which Mubarak addressed the Egyptian protesters demands, one would think Assad could be a bit more tactful. Mubarak would repeatedly invoke foreign conspiracies and the vendettas of certain satellite television channels to belittle the demands of the protesters. He also thought that the excessive use of force would be able to squash the uprising before it reached its tipping point (remember those camels racing through Tahrir square?). He also frequently cited the 'progress' that Egypt had been making over the years in terms of economic and political reform, although always careful to throw in the caveat that it needed to happen quicker. Needless to say, that strategy did not fare well for him.

So how bizarre, then, to see Assad apparently following the same strategy. So far, the excessive use of force on the Syrian protesters in Dara'a have ended up generating more protests throughout the country. The hinting of vague, modest reforms sometime in the future will surely not satisfy the protester's demands. Rather, it will likely ensure that the protesters increase their demands. After all, that's been the pattern we have seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.

So how will Assad deal with these protests that are increasingly gathering strength throughout Syria? What lessons has he drawn from Ben Ali and Mubarak? Judging from yesterday's speech, one wonders if he has squandered the opportunity of having almost three whole months to prepare for this moment.

Nawal El-Saadawi and Lipstick Idiocy

Egyptian writer and activist Nawal El-Saadawi has been making the rounds in NYC the spring, including a lecture and book signing last week here at NYU.  Now, here in Dork World she is more than kind of a big deal, so let's just say a few of my friends/colleagues were riled up like, well, me at a beer garden.

But my favorite encounter was between El-Saadawi and a friend from my undergrad days back in Madison, Paul (who is currently a PhD student at Rutgers).  I'll just let the picture and summary of their dialogue speak for themselves:

Paul: I'm from Wisconsin, and it was really great hearing you talk about the interplay between the protests in Wisconsin and Egypt.
Nawal El-Saadawi: You live in New York, though, right? Why haven't you started a revolution here?
Paul: ummmm....

That's right folks. Nawal El-Saadawi shamed my friend for not having started a revolution in NYC.  Bottom line: Nawal comes correct.

I also credit El-Saadawi for my fairly recent decision to start wearing obnoxiously red lipstick on weekends. Last semester in one of my classes we read The Hidden Face of Eve, in which she scrutinizes the demands placed upon women to look a certain way - including the demand that lips "have to be painted an appropriate hue" (111).  Me, being the moron that I am, as I contemplated her criticisms of superficiality and notions of beauty, I ended up thinking to myself, "Hey, maybe I've been leaning too heavily on eyeliner...lipstick has its strengths, right?" Cut to Friday night, and I'm rocking some paint in the hue of "Eternal Flame." 

Problematize that, my friends.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Names in Headlines: Tik Root & others

A few weeks ago I realized that an Egyptian Youtube tribute to the international media mentioned Ahmed Abdallah, who I met in a strange and therefore memorable way when I was eighteen. I've had the idea of becoming a journalist on and off over the years – that was an on year. He gave the usual offers of help, left his card. For various reasons I won't mention here, I never used those contacts. It turns out he was among those who disappeared into the bowels of Egypt's state security system during the protests to emerge later, bruised and beaten. It would be a stretch to call Ahmed Abdallah a friend. Even so, it's unsettling, the first time a name in a headline corresponds with a name from your personal memories.

Later, friends and entirely unrelated people started posting a disturbing video of Abdallah Dawesteshy, an Alexandrian photographer who works with one of my friends. I interviewed him back in 2009 about music, change, history and social commentary. It is hard to reconcile my videos, filmed at his office in the Alexandrian library, with the dark and grainy one where he lies bleeding outside the city's state security center, a live bullet lodged somewhere in his chest. The injury kept him in the hospital for several days.

And then this headline appeared: "Middlebury student missing in Syria"

Last year, I was an Arabic teaching assistant at Middlebury College, which is also where I graduated in 2009. The group of students who were evacuated from Alexandria earlier this year were my students last year. The favorite topic of conversation, whether during our “conversation hours” or at other events, was study abroad. What was the program like? What was Alexandria like? What advice did I have for them?

The Middlebury program has changed a lot since I was there in its first year, so I didn't like to talk too much about my own experiences. But there was one piece of advice I was willing to repeat to anyone who would hear it: make your own connections with the city. Get out, escape the program if you have to. Follow your own interests; whatever clubs or activities or hobbies occupy your time at home should occupy you there as well.

I usually added that political activism is trickier, and they should be careful. But having watched many students go abroad, befriend the same dorm-mates who were hand-picked by our program administrators, and return complaining that they had missed having intellectual conversations (not due to limited vocabularies, but the limits of their conversational partners), I was concerned that too many students – even some of the brightest, most active and adventurous students – were allowing the parameters of the program to define their experiences in and impressions of Alexandria, or even Egypt as a whole.

I don't imagine my ranting had a large impact on anyone, but I was pleased when I saw that Tik and a few others, after being evacuated from Alexandria, only increased their connections with Alexandrians and (presumably) other Egyptians. I was actually hoping we could link this blog to the Mideastreports site Tik started with other returning students. For the moment, and for Tik's safety, friends have now made the site private and emptied the public Google documents that formed the basis of those reports.

I was never anyone's teacher, but I did watch Tik and other students grow over the course of a year, and I was especially proud of what I saw when they came back from Alexandria. Being a weepy sort, I even got a little teary when I saw Tik's photos and video footage from the demonstrations. I certainly applauded his decision to finish the year abroad, this time at a program in Damascus. I didn't expect him to become the first person-I-knew to go missing. No one did.

The latest news on Tik is that he is 'safe and well,' and that the Syrian authorities have located him. High-level authorities are working on Tik's case, and the story reached national media last Friday. But his parents have not been told where he is, or anything more specific about his condition. As his stepmother Andi Loyd said in a recent update, diplomacy is a slow-moving process.

Time moves especially slowly when you have unanswered questions: What was Tik doing when he was arrested? Why was he arrested? What did Syrian authorities make of this American student, likely speaking a a semester's worth of Egyptian colloquial Arabic, piled on a couple of years of Modern Standard Arabic? Why is the standard 'pressure from the State Department' not the magic key to an instantaneous release? Is his case at all influenced by or connected to that of Mohamed Radwan, the Egyptian-American also being detained in Syria?

Just one question is enough to slow time to a painful crawl. It's the one most likely playing over and over in his parents' minds: when will Tik come home?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Response to Comment: Peter T. King and Radicalization

Lila - You're right to point out that terrorism is a loaded term that has been used manipulatively in the US. I think a more precise definition should begin by looking at Robert Pape's work.

I am not convinced that terrorism should be equated exclusively with Islam. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a wide variety of hate groups operate in the U.S., and many of them are responsible for violent acts.

Maybe it would be better to abandon the categories of "radical" and "terrorist" altogether in favor of something more precise...I will try to work on a better definition of these terms in my next postings.

You correctly argue that Islamophobia is a serious issue in the US. Certainly there is no shortage of shockingly ignorant, hateful propaganda available which seeks to demonize Muslims. Furthermore, the relationship between the government (the Intelligence Community, law enforcement agencies, etc) and American Muslims is problematic. Government surveillance policies tend to alienate Muslim communities, rather than engaging with them and respecting their constitutional rights.

At the same time, I think it's a little disingenuous and too apologetic to focus exclusively on discrimination. I would argue that (domestic) terrorism remains a real security threat in the US. (examples: the failed Times Square bombing attempt, the shoe bomber, hate groups in the US, etc).

The real issue in my mind, which still remains unanswered, is how to address this appropriately. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU law school published a useful report on discrimination and radicalization in advance of the hearing. Peter T. King would have benefitted immensely from reading it!

Overall, I would argue that the Peter T. King hearing was counterproductive and ineffective in addressing these issues. The hearing was theatrical, emotional, and probably alienated and offended a good number of Muslim Americans. In other words, it did more harm than good, in addressing what I believe is a real security threat -- and again, one that is not exclusively related to Muslims. (That's basically what I meant by, "However, it is unclear whether the hearing was sufficiently productive in addressing the (very real) threat of terrorism.")

I know I still haven't fully responded to your comment, but I hope this helps.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

No-Fly Zone in Libya: Full Text of Latest UN Security Council Resolution

The UN Security council has authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, which permits airstrikes but prohibits "a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." Meanwhile, al-Qadaffi's forces gained ground against the rebels on Thursday.

The full resolution is not yet available at the UN website, however The Guardian has published the full text.

As a story published in The New York Times suggested, the implications of the resolution are far from clear. Is it too late for the rebels? How significant and forceful will the foreign intervention be? What will the consequences of the airstrikes be? Will they be sufficient to push al-Qadaffi from power? If not, then what will foreign intervention accomplish in the long term?

The vote, which came after rising calls for help from the Arab world and anguished debate in Washington, left unanswered many critical questions about who would take charge, what role the United States would play and whether there was still enough time to stop Colonel Qaddafi from recapturing Benghazi and crushing a rebellion that had once seemed likely to drive him from power. After the vote, President Obama met with the National Security Council to discuss the possible options, European officials said. He also spoke by telephone on Thursday evening with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, the White House said.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reactions to the Peter T. King Hearing on Radicalization in the American Muslim Community

On Thursday, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) oversaw a hearing on radicalization among Muslims in the US. Those that testified included the father of the man who opened fire at a military recruiting center in Arkansas in 2009.

Overall, King expressed his satisfaction in a press conference after the hearing, and his supporters agreed that homegrown radicalization is a serious threat ('an elephant in the room') that needs to be addressed.

However, it is unclear whether the hearing was sufficiently productive in addressing the (very real) threat of terrorism.

David A. Fahrenthold and Michelle Boorstein of the Washington post commented that the hearing was dramatic, but lacked substance.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D - Minn.), a Muslim, broke down during the hearing.

Commenting on the theatrics, Fahrenthold and Boorstein wrote:

But, this being Capitol Hill, there also were moments of pure theater and genuine acrimony. A
freshman Republican asked the Los Angeles County sheriff if he had been hoodwinked into
trusting a Muslim advocacy group that some regard with suspicion. And Democrats used much
of the hearing to angrily bash the idea of holding a hearing at all.

Opponents of the hearing, like Professor Liaquat Ali Khan of Washburn University cried Islamophobia/McCarthyism.

Rep.Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), worried about the adverse effects of the hearing:

“I cannot help but wonder how propaganda about this hearing’s focus on the American-Muslim community will be used by those who seek to inspire a new generation of suicide bombers.”

Michelle Boorstein published a piece today in the Washington Post blog about different American Muslim groups, and their reactions to the hearing:

She elaborated:
If King's hearing was about anything, it was about trying to empower a different group of Muslim leaders, people King and other conservatives view as more patriotic, more cooperative and more focused on rooting out terrorists, rather than on Islamophobia.

The difference can be summed up by contrasting part of the mission statement of the Council on American-Islamic Relations - an advocacy group King and other GOP lawmakers bashed repeatedly Thursday - and that of a coalition of groups of which Jasser's is a part.

CAIR says it seeks to "monitor local, national and international media in part, to challenge negative stereotypes, but also to applaud and encourage positive representations of Islam and Muslims." The mission statement of the American Islamic Leadership Coalition is to "come together to defend the U.S. Constitution" and to "protect American security.

On Friday, Corey Kilgannon of the New York Times went to King's home district in Long Island and interviewed the locals.

Commentators have also questioned King's views on the IRA. Researching that subject, I was interested to find that King is a published author; his most recent novel, Vale of Tears (2003) is a work of historical fiction featuring "Sean Cross," a congressman from Long Island. King expressed his concern with domestic terrorism in this novel.

In an interview in 2004, King elaborated:

Future terrorist attacks against New York are a very real possibility. Indeed, the scenario I lay out in Vale of Tears — Al Qaeda joining with local terrorists to attack trains — is exactly what appears to have happened in Madrid. No one can say with certainty why there hasn't been an attack since 9/11 but the likely reasons are (1) Al Qaeda attacks require great coordination and the president's aggressive foreign policy has disrupted al Qaeda; (2) the combination of the Patriot Act, interrogating prisoners at Guantanamo, and more aggressive law enforcement is paying off; and (3) NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly has done a truly phenomenal job to protect New York.

What are the protests in Iraq really about?

Most of the protests that have been sweeping the region have been directed against aging autocrats that have monopolized power for decades. How interesting, then, to see an increasingly active protest movement being organized in Iraq. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, reasonably free and fair elections were held in Iraq just last March. So what are these protests about?

On the most basic level, these protests have been driven by corruption and the lack of services the Iraqi government provides for its constituents. Eight years after the US-led invasion, many areas in Iraq still don't have sufficient electricity. Corruption is rampant, with Iraq ranking 175th out of 178 countries worldwide by Transparency International.

But as Mashriq Abbas notes in al-Hayat, these protests are about something even more fundamental: the very structure of the post-2003 political order. During the last eight years, Iraqi politics have been governed by a sectarian logic. The various ministries have at times been run as sectarian fiefdoms. One's relationship to vast networks of patronage often determine one's status, rather than one's merit or level of expertise.

Furthermore, although Iraq is governed by a parliamentary democracy, there really is no "government / opposition" dynamic in parliament. After elections, the various competing parliamentary blocs work out deals so that almost every bloc is somehow represented in the cabinet. This is done in the name of "national unity". Even Ayad Allawi, whose 'Iraqiyya' bloc won the most amount of seats in the elections last year, chose to take a made-up position in the new government rather than play the role of the opposition. The result has been a government with an ideologically incoherent political program. As a consequence, the government has not worked towards solving substantive issues like providing essential services to the people.

So since there is no "opposition" in Iraqi politics, but just a handful of parties struggling to get a piece of the pie in order to reinforce their patronage networks, there is often no voice to keep the government honest. This is the void that the protesters are filling. So the protest movement is not simply about corruption and lack of services. Although those are certainly the core issues, the more fundamental concern is the presence of an opposition party willing to speak up for those who don't have a seat at the table.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

<i>Sharīʿa</i> vs. <i>Fiqh</i>: an Essential Distinction

In my last post, I mentioned Vogel's discussion of codification of the sharīʿa in Saudi Arabia. This made me think of a separate methodological issue, which I have failed to mention until now.

One thing I explicitly want to avoid slipping into, is (implicitly) defining what is "genuinely" Islamic and what is un-Islamic. This is clearly irrelevant to my study of sharīʿa.

In studying the sharīʿa, one must endeavor, as Mahmoud Ayyub put it, to "remove his shoes before entering the mosque."*

I think this can be reasonably accomplished by distinguishing between sharīʿa and fiqh. Samuel L. Hayes III and Frank E. Vogel elaborate on this crucial distinction in Islamic Law and Finance: Religion, Risk and Return (1998):

A distinction is possible between the perfect, immutable Divine Law itself as revealed in the Qur'an and the Sunna, called sharīʿa (literally "the Way"), and the sum of human efforts to apprehend that law, some of which may be in error or at least in dispute, called fiqh (literally "understanding."

For example, while God knows His perfect Law in its last detail, human beings often differ about that Law, particularly in details. Many schools of thought see little point in differentiating between sharīʿa and fiqh, since they believe that fiqh is the only valid means to know the sharīʿa and that any apparent flaws in fiqh are divinely intended. Yet the distinction remains useful and valid.

The outsider who wishes to comment on Islamic legal phenomena in history without questioning either the perfection of the Divine Law or the truth of Muslim beliefs may find it indispensable.**

Overall, while remaining respectful, at the same time, (as I already mentioned), I do not see myself as an apologist for the sharīʿa.
*cited by Edmund Burke III, 1979 original phrase does not relate directly.
**Hayes and Vogel, 23. This distinction is a little simplistic, but enough to give the reader a general picture.

Should the <i>Sharīʿa</i> Be Codified in Saudi Arabia?

As I mentioned in my previous post, proponents of the Saudi codification project argue that the project will bring significant benefits.

Codification could help make the sharīʿa more relevant to 'modern' issues, such as adapting to the growth of the global Islamic finance industry; the Saudi legal system has recently come under fire numerous times for alleged human rights violations.

Overhauling the justice system could help relieve the strain on currently overburdened courts, in part by establishing new criminal, family, traffic, etc. courts. New, better-trained judges would help make trials more fair, consistent, transparent and help establish consensus in rulings on important issues.

Of course, there is significant resistance to change within the Kingdom. Codification risks interfering with the independence of judges, for example.

Frank Vogel's Islamic Law and Legal System: Studies of Saudi Arabia (2000) is a substantive study on the legal system in Saudi Arabia; Vogel spent five years there conducting research (1982-1987). (he retired from Harvard Law School in 2007.)

As Vogel makes clear, the debate on codification is nothing new and has long been perceived as threatening.

He elaborates:

As we have amply seen, codification not only runs afoul of a long-standing allocation of constitutional powers that makes the ʿūlamāʾ the legislators in private law and criminal law matters. It also offers offense to the deeply related notion that Islamic law is microcosmic in substance and application, a notion cherished by Saudi ʿūlamāʾ and by other Saudis, ruler and ruled.

However, as Vogel points out, there are historical examples which suggest that the sharīʿa could be codified in Saudi Arabia without losing its "ultimate ethical, textual roots:"

In the past Islamic legal systems existed that were much more macrocosmic in their practice, and [...] nowadays theories exist that attempt to legitimate modern democratic or liberal constitutional models as fully Islamic. Such findings as these make clear that Islamic law itself is not unalterably opposed to codification, and that there are many possible ways by which the Saudi system could evolve to include codification or a close substitute for it.*

*Vogel, 361-2.

Friday, March 4, 2011

<i>Sharīʿa</i>, <i>The Awl</i> and <i>Halakha</i>

Maria Bustillos recently published a piece in The Awl on the Tennessee sharīʿa bill. She points out how absurd sections of the bill are. She distinguishes between fiqh and sharīʿa (more on that in future posts), alludes to juridical pluralism, the effect of colonialism on the sharīʿa, etc.

For those unfamiliar with The Awl check out this article.

Bustillos' main source appears to be Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl's The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (2005). Overall, Bustillos makes comparisons to Christianity, but doesn't do enough to relate the sharīʿa to other religious traditions, namely Judaism. This brings me to a more general point.

While the anti-sharīʿa cases I have written about consist of polemic and discrimination against Muslims, a further problem is that the sharīʿa is all too often discussed as a monolithic, isolated entity. This is highly misleading, because it suggests strict boundaries which separate Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Historically, the reality was far more complex. Therefore, I call for more discussions in the news media to place the sharīʿa in relation to and in dialogue with other religious traditions.

To be fair, the similarities between religious traditions, say, Judaism and Islam, might seem painfully obvious and perhaps trivial to point out; however, my point is that these similarities merit further exploration because they tend to be severely underemphasized.

Rabbi Seth Adelson made a point about the Oklahoma sharīʿa case in November:

On Tuesday there was a ballot question in Oklahoma regarding shari’a law. Did you all hear about this? 70% of voters in Oklahoma voted to “ban” the use of Muslim law, known as Shari’a, by judges in Oklahoma. Now, there are obvious legal problems with this measure, and they will surely be worked through in court.

Shari’a, like halakhah, is an internal Muslim religious matter. It is not binding on non-Muslims, just like halakhah is not binding on non-Jews. The subjects that shari’a law addresses are similar to those addressed by halakhah - religious observances such as diet and prayer, areas of criminal law, torts, family law, and so forth. The Muslim courts that deal with shari’a are similar to what we call in Judaism a “beit din.” The very word shari’a means “the way” or “path,” which is exactly what halakhah means in Hebrew.

Now, how would we feel as Jews if New York State were to “ban” the use of halakhah? I know, it sounds ridiculous, right? But that is, more or less, what the state of Oklahoma has done. Until now, no judge in an Oklahoma court has used shari’a in a court decision, and this law would prevent them from doing so in the future.

Who's Watching Al-Arabiya?

Since 2003, the politics of Arabic language satellite television have been defined by the rivalry between the Qatar-based al-Jazeera and the Dubai-based/Saudi-funded al-Arabiya. Indeed, al-Arabiya's sole raison d'etre since its founding in 2003 is to counter al-Jazeera. Needless to say, the last eight years have seen some rather interesting media wars between the two.

A poll released last week will be sure to up the ante. The poll was conducted by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and focused on ascertaining which news sources Egyptians tuned into during the protests. The BBG is a Washington based group that apparently used regional subcontracting to carry out the actual polling of 502 Egyptians in Cairo and Alexandria. The results indicate that 65% of Egyptians turned to al-Arabiya to get the majority of their news during the uprising, while only 22% turned to al-Jazeera. I'm sorry, but these results are just not credible.

Anyone who has spent any time at all in an Arabic-speaking country where al-Jazeera is available realizes that it is by far the most popular satellite news channel in the Arab world. During my time in Cairo this past summer, al-Jazeera was simply ubiquitous. Even the World Cup (which I watched religiously) was broadcast on al-Jazeera Sport. I can't remember ever seeing anyone watch al-Arabiya.

Another reason why I have a hard time accepting the credibility of this poll is because its results indicate that Egyptians deemed Nile TV - Egypt's state channel - to be more credible than al-Jazeera. Now, it goes without saying that al-Jazeera certainly has its biases and limitations (doesn't everyone?). But to say that Egyptians put more trust in their state television channel than al-Jazeera is simply laughable. Until Mubarak was practically out the door, Nile TV was continuously downplaying the scale of the uprising in order to discourage popular support. Furthermore, the poll indicates that al-Hurra was more popular and more credible than al-Jazeera during the protests. I find this extremely hard to believe, to say the least.

So what's going on here? My guess is that a significant part has to do with al-Jazeera being blocked by the Egyptian authorities for a week during the uprising. The polling took place between February 4 and February 10. al-Jazeera was blocked during a good part of that period. I wish I could come up with a more sophisticated critique that focuses on the poll's methodological flaws, but it's been a while since I took statistics and econometrics as an undergraduate. Therefore, I'll just stick to my instinctual critique that this poll surely cannot be credible.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Banning the <i>Sharīʿa</i> in Tennessee, Codifying it in Saudi Arabia

Two recent articles about the sharīʿa are of particular interest.

A new bill would make practicing the sharīʿa a felony in Tennessee, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The bill is interesting in that it explicitly targets the sharīʿa and attempts to precisely define it. According to a Washington Post blog, the bill was introduced last week by Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) and state Rep. Judd Matheny (R-Tullahoma).

In my next post, I will take a more in depth look at this bill and the issues surrounding it. For now, here are some noteworthy excerpts, courtesy of Elizabeth Tenety of the Washington Post blog:

sharīʿa, as defined and understood by traditional and authoritative sharīʿa scholars and leaders, is a legal-political-military doctrinal system combined with certain religious beliefs; further, sharīʿa is based historically and traditionally on a full corpus of law and jurisprudence termed fiqh and usul al-fiqh, respectively, dealing with all aspects of a sharīʿa-adherent's personal and social life and political society.

sharīʿa as a political doctrine requires all its adherents to actively support the establishment of a political society based upon sharīʿa as foundational or supreme law and the replacement of any political entity not governed by sharīʿa with a sharīʿa political order.

sharīʿa requires all its adherents to actively and passively support the replacement of America's constitutional republic, including the representative government of this state with a political system based upon sharīʿa.


In Saudi Arabia, legal experts are working on a project to codify the sharīʿa. On Thursday, an article was published by the Media Line / Jerusalem Post, elaborating on the project. Overall, codification aims to render rulings in criminal, civil and domestic matters more consistent.

"Codifying Islamic law has nothing to do with Muslim identity, but doing this [codification] will be more adherent and meritorious to the Islamic law," explained Professor al-Shāmī, a supporter of the initiative, and Professor of Comparative Jurisprudence and Islamic Studies at The Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi.

Most interestingly, al-Shāmī compared the Saudi project to the Mecelle, i.e. the Ottoman civil code of the late 19th century which represented an effort to codify the sharīʿa.

"Islamic law can be codified, and has already been codified during the Ottoman dynasty. Many Muslim countries did the same as seen in Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. Although a codified sharīʿa is nearly ready for implementation, the kingdom is still struggling to find qualified judges and deal with resistance from current judges who believe only they can interpret Islamic law," he said.

More on this as well in my next post.