Friday, 17 October 2014

Ethnicity and Religion: Navid Kermani's visit to Iraq

The German-Iranian academic, writer and intellectual Navid Kermani spent a week traveling in war-torn Iraq. Here are some excerpts from his interview with the Muslim world news website Qantara about his findings. It paints a depressing picture of what once was a cosmopolitan country.

Relations [among Iraqis] are increasingly characterised by ethnicity. The old multicultural Baghdad – up until the 1940s, the Jews represented the largest and leading intellectual population group in the city – this multicultural Baghdad no longer exists. Now, people rely on the other members of their denominational group. Solidarity prevails within the group; people help each other. On the other hand, people are less likely to help members of other denominations. The sense of togetherness has dwindled to almost nothing.
Regarding the role of religion, in this instance Islam, Kermani stresses the prominent role played by people from 'secular' backgrounds (by which he means scientists and professionals), including members of the former Baathist regime, who use and manipulate religion for their own political objectives and who are willing to associate with organisations such as ISIS for these purposes.
One should take the religious façade seriously. Many European jihadis, many jihadis active on the ground and Wahhabism, which has contributed to the fact that this ideology was able to spread: all of that is religious; it should be taken seriously. It's a religious thought process. However, this process is turning against its own tradition. It is – and this is the protestant element involved – doing away with tradition in order to return to the basic scripture. It is, therefore, an anti-traditional movement.
To read the whole interview, click here.

For more on Navid Kermani and his work, visit  his website.

Links to some of his publications can be found by clicking on the widget below.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Critical Muslims of the Past: A History of Philosophy in the Islamic World without Gaps

Although this blog is primarily geared towards contemporary Muslim thinking and present-day critical Muslims, I want to draw attention to a mega project of a former colleague at King's College London, historian of philosophy Peter Adamson, who remains a visiting professor at the College, but is now based at the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich.

Over the past few years, he has built up a collection of podcasts, which have now been put online as part of his History of Philosophy without any gaps. Although focusing on classical Greek and Roman philosophy, because of Adamson's personal interest in early Arab philosophy, it also includes an extensive section on the history of philosophy in the Islamic World, which can be accessed here

The material is now being developed into a book series, the first volume of which has recently appeared under the title Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps. In an earlier instance, he has also edited a volume on Arab philosophy. For further details click on the image below:

Hereunder is an impression of his audiovisual presentation of philosophy on youtube.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Iran executes 'heretic': innovative thinking about religion still a capital offense

Mohsen Amir-Aslani
In some Muslim countries, entertaining your own ideas or engaging in re-interpretations of religious texts and tenets is still a liability. Unfortunately, quite recently other countries than the 'usual suspects' such as - in this case -- Iran or Saudi Arabia, are also tightening the screws on religious freedom. Not only Egypt, but also supposedly more tolerant majority Muslim states such as Turkey and even Indonesia have made a turn for the worse (click here for an article on that subject).

In the present instance, after a tortuous nine-year ordeal, Iranian Mohsen Amir Aslani was sentenced to death and executed on account of insulting the Prophet Jonah and engaging in unlawful interpretations of the Qur'an.
Amir-Aslani was hanged last week for making “innovations in the religion” and “spreading corruption on earth”, but human rights activists said he was a prisoner of conscience who was put to death because of his religious beliefs. He had interpreted Jonah’s story in the Qur’an as a symbolic tale.
“Mohsen held sessions in his own house dedicated to reciting the Qur’an and interpreting it. He had his own understandings [of the religion] and had published his views in the form of a booklet and made it available to his fans,” an unnamed source told the New York-based group, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI).
Possibly because of the weakness of their case, authorities also added 'illicit' sexual activities to the list of charges -- notwithstanding the equally flimsy evidence for those accusations. While this shows the shaky legal foundations for heresy or apostasy cases even in countries such as Iran,  'deviant beliefs' and 'unlawful innovations' (the technical terms are takhayyul, bid'a, khurafat) remain capital offenses, and are used to prevent people from exercising universal human rights such as the freedom of belief, turning the concomitant freedom of expression into real liabilities in some Muslim countries.

To read the full article on Mohsen Amir-Aslani click here

Monday, 25 August 2014

Terrorism, Saudis, and the Trivialization of Life

This is a guest contribution by Abdullah Hamidaddin, a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs and presently a PhD candidate at King's College London. His book Harmonious Being is discussed in this earlier post

Abdullah M. Hamidaddin
n the heart of every terrorist is a trivialization of life; his own or the innocent’s or both. Some terrorists come with a disposition for criminality and trivialize the lives of others for lack of empathy. Such people hold on dearly to their own lives and those they cares for – family – but can become butchers when the matter is about other people’s lives. They may seem religious, but they are nothing but criminals using a religious language. And in many ways it is only language which differentiates a criminal who uses religious or revolutionary language and the butchers in the Mexican drug cartels. On the other hand some terrorists are ideologues. They trivialize life because they are convinced that it does not merit care, or because there are things worth to die for and also to kill thousands of others. Here they learn to trivialize life, they read theory after theory on the matter, and then they teach others. Here all lives are trivialized; one’s own life, those dear and also others. Such terrorists who adopt an ideology that trivializes life (and glorifies death) are the most dangerous type. They are the fuel that sustains terrorism. A criminal terrorist will withdraw once he/she realizes that the costs outweigh the benefits. The ideologue terrorist will continue until he/she is killed or incarcerated.

Those who combat terrorism in Saudi Arabia face a major hurdle. The ideology of trivializing life is very popular. It is true that only a few members of Saudi society turn towards terrorism, but a significant segment of that society believes in many of the founding ideas of terrorism particularly the ideology of trivializing life. This becomes apparent by following or participating in Saudi debates on terrorism, even though the new terrorism laws enacted made many Saudis less willing to speak their minds on terrorism. They want to condone it or justify but they fear that it may constitute promotion of terrorism as defined by the way and lead them to imprisonment. But there had been a recent frank debate on Hamas and Palestinian military resistance and the ideas expressed say much about the popularity of the ideology of trivializing life. Though the debate was about Hamas it spoke our local reality; though it was about an event outside Saudi Arabia it reflected  a local mindset.

Following the debate on resistance can give us a glimpse on some of the highlights of the ideology of trivializing life which sustains terrorism. At the heart of that debate you find a culture of adoration to death. The debates did not focus on the military or political feasibility of resistance rather on the necessity to die and the triviality of life regardless of the gains. Some of the common phrases were: “to die as martyrs is better than to live without pride”; “what is the point of them living if it is under a siege”; “what is bad about a whole nation dying for its dignity”; “what do they have to live for anyhow”; “why is death a problem?” “it is not important how many of us are killed, what matters is that we kill from them and strike fear in their hearts”; “our dead will go to heaven so it is not a problem.”

Had we heard this from someone living in Gaza it would be understood. He/she would be living in exceptionally harsh situations and thus is expected to think about life and death in an exceptional even suicidal mode. Living under an occupation can make one hate their enemies to the point of hating their own lives and those one cares for.

Had those been said by soldier, it would have also been understood. He/she is trained to kill; to violently confront; to die. His training extracts from him respect for human life. A soldier in the end is a killing machine.
What is freighting however is to see such phrases coming out from Saudis of all backgrounds and social classes. I almost feel that some of their grievances about the deaths of Gazans is more about stirring Western conscience and less about actually being sad over them. It is almost as if they are thrilled about human loss or at least uncaring but are compelled to show a sad face. It is indeed horrific to hear such logic from the religious, the intellectual, the layman, the old and the young. All celebrate death in their own ranks – the ranks of the Palestinians actually - as much as they celebrate death in the ranks of their enemies – the Israelis.

I need to take a moment to differentiate between the undesired necessity of death to protect one’s life, dignity, rights, land and nation on one hand and the celebration of death on the other. I do not argue against the necessity of death in extreme conditions (though I still consider it evil), but I argue against celebrating it and welcoming it. We also need to differentiate between holding on to life and loving life. We do hold on to life, no doubt. But sometimes I feel it is an instinctive response; similar to that of a car or an ant. We also fight for our lives, but perhaps in the same way as an amoeba protects its own life. Yet, we – or many of us – do not love life. We do not hold it to be sacred. On the contrary we love death and sacralise it; we consider death the ultimate goodness and we may even ridicule those who love life or call for holding it sacred.  

All nations consider those killed for a grand cause to be martyrs. All nations give the family the news of the death of a dear one. And all nations cry and lament their losses. But we have a peculiar and odd phenomenon which is that we give the news as if it’s good piece of news. Many of us are actually happy to hear the news of martyrdom. Some families reject receiving condolences because they consider it to be a happy occasion. Of course there is sadness. We cannot avoid being sad. But we celebrate death. Some families even envy other families who are strong enough in their faith to the point where they announce their happiness when receiving the news of martyrdom.

We need a better understanding of this mindset. We need to understand its roots. Where did the ideology of trivializing life/death come from? The Quran speaks of Jihad as something people hate: "Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you" (Q 2.216). Yet now we have people speaking about Jihad and about being killed as something they love. Is it the Marxist resistance movements which also trivialized the life of the individual for the sake of the life of the collective? There is a lot of evidence that local radical, Arab nationalists, and Islamic movements were influenced by Marxist resistance literature. So perhaps it was imported and then ‘Islamized’ by mixing it with Qur’anic verses, Hadiths and historical stories of Muslim heroism. Being Islamized is a crisis, as before that, such ideas would have been considered a pragmatic tool to encourage resistance. But when Islamists adopted it, it became an ultimate value, a religious principle, it became above everything. There is also a second crisis which is that this principle was included in our educational programs and built into the DNA of our culture and now a whole society is socialized on it.

To look for ISIS or Al-Qaeda or all forms of terrorism one needs to look into the whole of society. In a way we all belong to ISIS. We are all terrorists. We have all grown up to be soldiers for the ‘cause’ – whatever that is; soldiers who know how to obey not to think; how to hate not to love; how to fight not to make peace; how to confront not to maneuver; how to die not to live. Such knowledge is a foundation of terrorism.
We repeatedly hear that it is futile to confront terrorism if the religious clerics who are assigned the duty of confronting religious terrorism are themselves radical. But the problem in my view is deeper. Society fights terrorism but in its depth is a terrorist. The terrorist is not in discord with his society rather a loyal member of his society’s culture. The terrorist is one who disobeyed his society but not who left his society’s culture. 

This article was originally published, in an edited form and in Arabic, by Al-Hayat Newspaper and can be read here.

Another article on a related theme written by the same author for Al-Arabiya News appeared under the title 'How to Kill ISIS with the Right Discourse'.

Following him on twitter @amiQ1

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Sadik al-Azm on the crisis in Syria: Self-Criticism or Self-Defeating Critique?

Sadik Jalal al-Azm
Syria's leading philosopher, Sadik al-Azm, has written an insightful analysis of the situation in Syria, which -- from 2011 onward -- has gone from bad to worse. Known as one of the most incisive minds of contemporary Arab thinking, Sadik al-Azm made name with penetrating writings, including Self-Criticism After the Defeat, where he criticizes the general intellectual mood in the Arab world, and 'Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse' which challenges Edward Said's account of the relationship between the Muslim world and the West, again holding up what must be an uncomfortable mirror for many Arab intellectuals and cultural critics. An earlier response to the uprising in Syria can be found here.

While the article's subtitle, 'understanding the unthinkable war', points up the sheer impossibility of making sense of what is pitching Syrians against each other in the present conflict, it seems that as he develops his argument, al-Azm falls victim to the very failings he seeks to highlight: The loss of an overarching sense of 'Syrianness', leaving in its place a polarized fragmentation into other senses of belonging, now increasingly of a sectarian character, which -- with a nod to Ibn Khaldun's notion of asabiyya -- are by many taken to be of a more primordial nature. There is a poignant contrast between the beginning of the essay:
The people’s intifada in Syria, against the military regime and police state of the Assad family, took me by surprise. I was fearful at first that the regime would crush it almost instantly, given its legendary ferocity and repressiveness. Like other Syrian intellectuals, I felt total impotence before this devouring monster, which precluded any thought of an imminent, or even possible, collective “no.”
I was surprised by the revolution, but I should not have been. Daily experiences and recurrent observations foretold a crisis that many Syrians tried hard to deny. And deny we did. Let me explain.
After the violent suppression of the Damascus Spring in 2001–2002 and again after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut in 2005, which led to the humiliating withdrawal of Assad’s troops from Lebanon, angst spread throughout Syria. [...]
Like many in Damascus, I found myself beginning, almost unconsciously, to weigh every word according to the religious affiliations of passing acquaintances and close friends alike. Social engagements lost spontaneity. Confidence and trust evaporated, and offense was taken more quickly than ever before. An unusual dose of suspicion seeped into the Syrian intelligentsia’s traditional solidarity against oppression.
 ..and its closing paragraphs:
The solution can come only with the termination of political Alawitism. This is pretty much the way the Taef Agreement, in 1989, brought the Lebanese civil war to an end—by jettisoning political Maronitism and its predominance over Lebanon. In Syria’s case, that means the end of the dynasty, the end of Alawi supremacy, the end of the sway of the minority, and the rebirth of the republic. The West does have a role to play. Instead of letting Syria bleed, the West needs to help end Assad’s grip on the country and its future and negotiate political accommodation for Alawis within a democratic framework that will necessarily favor the Sunni majority. The West will inevitably intervene because the great powers will not permit Syria to fall into the hands of jihadi Islam. The question is whether that intervention will be guided by a proper understanding of the war.
As I write, no one claims to know where Syria is heading or what will end the bloody struggle. Still, I am certain that the Assad and Alawi dynasties will never rule again.
To read the full article, click here