Friday, 17 October 2008

Dispelling stereotypes: Moroccan-born Muslim becomes mayor of Dutch city

The selection (not election, mayors are still appointed in the Netherlands)of a Morrocan immigrant as mayor of the second-largest Dutch city Rotterdam shows that, in spite of the undeniable polarization and increased sense of antagonism in Dutch society following the assassination of cineast Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist of Moroccan origin, there is a glimmer of hope for successful integration into the adopted culture.

At 47 years of age, Ahmed Aboutaleb is a rising star of the Social Democrat party. As an 'alderman' (an awkward & medieval-sounding term, but there appears to be no alternative)in Amsterdam, he earned kudos for his handling of the van Gogh murder. Speaking in the Al-Kabir Mosque the day after the murder, he was not afraid of confronting discordant elements in the Muslim community. Insisting that immigrants should fully underwrite the core values of Dutch society or get on the next plane home, Aboutaleb was suddenly considered as 'potential cabinet material', although, when the next government was formed, he had to settle for deputy secretary of labour and social affairs.

The appointment is not uncontroversial, supporters of right-leaning parties, often running on the basis of covert or overt anti-immigration agendas, are dismayed over the fact that Aboutaleb still holds dual nationality. On the other hand, it has been suggested that if anybody should be capable of turning around Rotterdam's dismal record in integrating immigrants, it would be this tough-talking son of an imam and practicing Muslim with the can-do attitude.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Iran and the Iranians (2): Pushing boundaries

The limits of the possible and acceptable in the Islamic Republic of Iran are not only explored by men. Recently, actress Golshifteh Farahani, who stars in Body of Lies opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, challenged the mores of her home country by appearing unveiled at the film premier in New York.

The issue is now the subject of hot debates on Iranian websites, between those who support Farahani's decision and those who accuse her of 'selling out to Hollywood'. The actress is not the first high profile Iranian woman to put Islamic conventions to the test. In 2003, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi attended the award ceremony in Oslo without a veil.

Watch Golshifteh Farahani's Youtube interview

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Going to Extremes (1)

Surveying the Muslim world for new ideas, it is difficult to escape the impression that, apart from the 'diaspora' in Europe, North America, and even Australia, some of the most exciting developments are actually taking place on the geographical peripheries of the Dar al-Islam itself.

Intellectual circles -- it must be admitted that much of these innovations are confined to those segments of society with the highest levels of education -- in Northwest Africa have been at the forefront of these initiatives. For decades, Algerians like Malik Bennabi and Mohammed Arkoun, the Tunisian historian Mohamed Talbi, and Moroccan Marxist thinker Abdallah Laroui have been recognized as key contributors to the study of the intellectual history of the contemporary Muslim world. Equally comfortable in French and Arabic, their writings have found a readership in both the region itself and migrant communities from the Maghreb elsewhere.
Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri
The 'Andalusian Renaissance' proclaimed by the Moroccan philosopher Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri has received a favourable reception as far away as Indonesia. His advocacy of what could be considered a form of intellectual autarky motivated him to return to the legacy of Ibn Rushd, the thinker known to the West as Averroes who moved from Muslim Spain to Morocco and became not only famous as an authoritative commentator on the works of Aristotle, but deserves also recognition as an original philosopher who tried to reconcile rationalist thought and revelatory knowledge embodied in Sacred Scriptures. Quarrying this legacy, al-Jabiri and like-minded intellectuals are sometimes referred to as 'Neo-Ibn Rushdians'. The only drawback is that al-Jabiri publishes exclusively in Arabic and very few of his writings have been translated into English. Arab-Islamic Philosophy: A Contemporary Critique is a brief and illustrative introduction to his thought.

More recently a number of expatriate Moroccans representing a younger generation of intellectuals have added their voices to what is rapidly becoming a rather bold discourse.

Anouar Majid
In the United States, the literary scholar Anouar Majid wrote a book with the provocative title A Call for Heresy. Contributions such as these are not uncontroversial and draw sharp criticisms from more traditional Muslims as well as Islamists on the other side of the spectrum of contemporary Islamic thought. However, they are also evidence that critical thought is alive and well among present-day Muslims.

Oujda-born Fouad Laroui, an engineer and economist trained in Paris and Cambridge, who now teaches in Amsterdam, drew quite some attention with his 'personal refutation of Islamism', which has so far appeared in French and Dutch editions, but not (yet) in English. Aside from non-fiction, Laroui has also pubished novels and short story collections. Watch an interview (in Dutch) on youtube, where he explains the significance of Ibn Rushd.

Abdelwahab Meddeb
Paris-based writer Abdelwahab Meddeb, author of avant-gardist prose and translator of Sufi classics, caused a stir with his diagnosis of what is wrong with the Muslim world at present in Malady of Islam. He wants to show that there might be possibilities to take up other elements from Islamic tradition; elements that could be a kind of antidote to the poison of religious fundamentalism and that obey the principle of life rather than the bleak, misanthropic spirit of fundamentalist preaching.