Saturday, 26 September 2009

The New Shiite Manifesto of Ahmad al-Katib

Yesterday I was introduced to Ahmad al-Katib and I am now somewhat embarrassed having to admit that until then I did not know who he is. But after our brief initial conversation, I have become intrigued by his views and I look forward to learning more from him about his thoughts on the Shi'a tradition.

Ahmed al-Katib (this is the nom de plume under which he publishes his writings) was born in Karbala, a town in southern Iraq which is home to the shrine of Imam al-Husayn, the martyred son of Imam Ali ibn Abu Talib and a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. He received a traditional Shi'ite Islamic education at the renowned Hawza or 'seminary' of Najaf -- Karbala's 'sister city' and burial place of Imam Ali, but because of his dissenting opinions regarding key aspects of Shi'ite doctrine, he was never given an ijaza -- the equivalent of an academic degree.

During the 1980s, al-Katib lived in Iran, where he not only founded and directed an Arabic-language radio station opposing and challenging Saddam Hussein's regime during the dragged-out Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), but also continued his studies into the Shi'a Islamic heritage. Based on his research in Tehran and at the Hawza's in Qom and Mashhad, he articulated a very critical rereading of received knowledge in the Shi'a tradition, questioning the core of its doctrinal positions.

Al-Katib's critique hinges on his skepticism regarding the veracity of the notion of the so-called 'Hidden Imam'. The accepted view among Shi'a Muslims is that the last of the twelve Imams recognised by the Imami or Ithna'ashariya Shi'ites, who is assumed to have been born in 869/9CE, did not die but went into 'Occultation' or Ghayba. However, on the basis of his own examination of available sources on the history of the Imams, al-Katib comes to the very radical conclusion that there is no hard evidence of the birth of this alleged Last Imam, Muhammad ibn al-Hasan, also known as the Al-Mahdi; the messianic figure said to return at the End of Times.

According to al-Katib, by casting doubt on the very existence of this Last Imam, the entire Shi'ite theory of the Imamate or legitimate succession of the Prophet Muhammad is undermined. This also affects the claims made by successive generations of Shi'a clerics to being the guardians or custodians of this legitimate authority, otherwise known as Wilayat al-Faqih (Arabic) or Velayat-e Faqih (Persian). Because the Supreme Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Khamenei, lay claim to this guardianship, al-Katib's position in Iran became untenable and in 1990 he moved to London, where he still lives and works. Not surprisingly, many Shi'ites have responded negatively to his ideas; as he told me: 'there have been at least a hundred books written against me'.

Most of Ahmed al-Katib's publications are only available in Arabic and Persian, but an English translation of The Development of Shiite Political Thought is accessible online and he has summarized his findings in a 'new Shiite Manifesto'.

Youtube is hosting a series of videos of an interview (in Arabic) with Ahmed al-Katib. He maintains a blog at:

Saturday, 12 September 2009

The Ethos of Islam in the 21st Century

The October 2009 edition of current affairs magazine The New Internationalist will explore the future of Islamic culture.

On 8 September, ASIA HOUSE hosted an event which provided a little preview of what can be expected. In the framework of its Understanding Islam Series, a panel of three UK-based Muslim intellectuals moderated by journalist Hadani Ditmars, Co-Editor of the New Internationalist and author of Dancing in the No-fly Zone: A Woman's Journey Through Iraq, engaged with the theme 'Knowledge is Light: the Ethos of Islam in the 21st Century'.

Political scientist Nafeez Ahmed, executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development (IPRD) (Its website appears currently to be down) and author of a number of books on both the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings and their aftermath, used the occasion to expound his views on the combined efforts of Western intelligence services and corporate interests connected with the oil and gas industry to manipulate politics in Iraq, Afghanistan and Central Asia using the 'War on Terror' as a cover. While addressing very important issues and rightly highlighting the more sinister aspects of big business influencing international policy-making, his narrative was in way somewhat dated: reminiscent of the ideology-laden leftist rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s against the military-industrial complex, updated with the by now equally stale conjectures of conspiracy theorists (as becomes also evident from the titles of some of his books which appear to rehash the same points: The War on Freedom: How and Why America was Attacked, September 11, 2001; The War On Truth: 9/11, Disinformation And The Anatomy Of Terrorism and Behind the War on Terror: Western Secret Strategy and the Struggle for Iraq)

A much more refreshing take on the ethos of Islam and the future of culture in the Muslim world and - perhaps just as important -- among the Muslim communities in Europe and North America, was given by the Indian-born poet and film-maker Mahmood Jamal. He made a case for a bold and courageous questioning of the Islamic tenets, rightly arguing that 'doubt' is almost a sine qua non to keep a culture fresh and retain its vitality. He concluded with a declamation from his collection of poems Sugar-Coated Pill.

You want to speak of War
I want to speak of Peace.
You say Punish
I say Forgive
You speak of God’s Wrath
I speak of His Mercy
Your Quran is a Weapon
My Quran is a Gift
You speak of the Muslim brotherhood
I speak of the brotherhood of Man
You like to Warn others
I like to Welcome them
You like to speak of Hell
I like to speak of Heaven.
You talk of Lamentation
I talk of Celebration.
You worship the Law
I worship the Divine.

You want Silence
I want Music
You want Death
I want Life
You speak of Power
I speak of Love.
You search out Evil
I warm to the Good
You dream of the Sword
I sing of the Rose petal
You say the world is a Desert
I say the world is a Garden
You prefer the Plain
I prefer the Adorned
You want to Destroy
I want to Build
You want to go Back
I want to move Forward
You are busy Denying
I am busy Affirming
Yet there might be one thing
on which we see eye to eye
You want Justice
So do I.

Polymath and prolific author Ziauddin Sardar was conspicuously brief in his comments, only noting that in addition to compassion, which Nafeez Ahmed had very correctly highlighted as a much more important theme in Islamic teachings than the antagonism towards other religions, it is the complex notion of Tawhid or 'Oneness' which holds center stage in Quran. This should not only be understood as referring to the radical monotheism of Islam, stressing the unity and unicity of God or the transcendent, but also to the integrity of creation.
This brought Sardar also to a different reading of khilafa. Instead of interpreting it as an injunction to the establishment of a caliphate or formation of an Islamic state -- used as the affirmation of the inseparability of religion and politics, Sardar suggest returning to the etymology of the word: the vicegerency over creation entrusted to man by God. Such an understanding, turning man into a trustee, would also be helpful in enhancing the awareness of the ecological questions facing mankind -- issues that are not featuring prominently in the thought of most Muslim ideologues. (See also his blogging the Quran).

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Geert Wilders, Tariq Ramadan and the future of Islam in Europe

With the recent upheaval around the removal of Tariq Ramadan from his posts as advisor to the Rotterdam Municipality and visiting professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam (see post of 18 August 2009), there has also been renewed attention for the 'phenomenon' Geert Wilders and his PVV (Party for Freedom and Progress).

In an op-ed piece for the leading national daily NRC Handelsblad, Ian Buruma, author of Murder in Amsterdam, a book on the assassination of Theo van Gogh and Occidentalism, a study of Anti-Western rhetoric and discourse, questions whether those sympathetic to Wilders' positions are fully aware of the implications of such implicit support and cautions against possible consequences. Buruma also points to the often ignored fact that Wilders' views on foreigners and immigration are no longer confined to what is conventionally regarded as his support base: the political right:

"The fear of being overwhelmed by foreigners is usually associated with the right. Historically this is true. The so-called saviours of our civilisation - against the Bolsheviks, the Jews or the decadent elites - have usually come from right-wing circles.

The perceived threat of Islam has changed this. They may consider themselves too chic to associate themselves directly with Wilders, but these days it is often people from a left-wing background who rail the most against Islam"

[In this context I should also mention thatNRC Handelsblad has reported a speculative but interesting contribution by anthropologist Lizzy van Leeuwen, arguing that Wilders' political agenda is in part informed by 'unresolved issues' resulting from his own ethnic origins. The full article on Wilder's roots in the former Dutch East Indies can be found in De Groene Amsterdammer.]

Buruma's article contains also a number of welcome caveats, warning against depictions of 'Islam' as a monolithic bloc and an attempt to come to a more balanced assessment of Tariq Ramadan. Here are some excerpts.

"The alarming image of Eurabia, which Wilders and others like him are holding up to their voters, is often based on a categorical confusion. A recent article in an American publication referred to criminal behaviour but young immigrants in Amsterdam as a 'war against the West', as if rioting there was part of a worldwide jihad. Religious orthodoxy, or neo-orthodoxy, is also often equated with ideological extremism, as if there was potential assassin behind every bearded Wahabi, every veiled woman"

"...the strict, purist form of Islam propagated and funded by Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with the traditions of Anatolia or the Rif mountains. This kind of neo-orthodoxy appeals above all to second generation immigrants, those who were born in Europe but don’t quite feel ‘at home’ there yet. Wahabist purism is not an old tradition, let alone Moroccan. It is a relatively modern ‘born again’-type religion that is propagated over the internet, often in English, and appeals to people who don’t feel at home anywhere."

"The political extremism of groups like Al Qaeda isn’t traditional either. Most conservative Muslims disapprove of Osama Bin Laden’s religious pretences. Political Islam has been influenced by many ideas in the past one-hundred years, including Marxism. I’m not saying this to defend political Islam, which is certainly dangerous. But the danger would be even greater if we look at the fight against violent political Islam the way Wilders does: as a clash of civilisations, a Kulturkampf against Islam as a whole."

"Of course the link between Islam and violence is not always imagined. People are being killed in the name of jihad. Some neo-orthodox Muslims are recruited for the Holy War. It is worrisome that some European Muslims, especially the young, sympathise with such holy warriors. And the violent threats against critics of Islam are an essential problem that the government needs to be firm against. Still, it will always be necessary to distinguish between religion and revolution, between orthodoxy and violence. There is no room for this distinction in Wilder's statements."

"You can say a lot of things about Tariq Ramadan, the Islamic philosopher who was just fired as an adviser to the city of Rotterdam: vanity, intellectually wooliness, opportunism. But he has never pleaded for an Islamic state in Europe, let alone a violent revolution. He wants European Muslims to behave as democratic citizens. Certainly, he propagates an orthodox interpretation of Islam, but the tries to combine this with his mainly leftish political ideas. Politics, says Ramadan, should be inspired by the ethical impulse of faith. He may not always be tolerant, but he will always be a democrat.

"And yet Ramadan has now become another hate symbol among people who agree with Wilders. That is hardly surprising. If you start from the premise that Islam is a threat to Western society, and any openness towards Muslims in Europe is a cowardly collaboration with evil, then the kind of rapprochement which Ramadan is talking about becomes impossible."

One of Buruma's most important conclusions is that as a "consequence of the popularity of Wilders’ world image many highly educated immigrants no longer feel welcome in the Netherlands." As this blog consistently seeks to argue the development of alternative Islamic discourses by critical Muslims often takes place in the relative safety of academic and media freedom provided in Europe and North America. The ripple effect of curtailing these opportunities (intentionally or inadvertedly) can thus have dire consequences for any significant change in the political and intellectual climate in the Muslim world.

For the full version of Buruma's article, click here

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Southeast Asia's confident Muslims

In his introductory remarks to the launch of his most recent publication Indonesia Riding: Islam, Democracy and the Rise of Indonesia as a Major Power, author Dr. Nasir Tamara made it a point to note that the appearance of 'Islam' as the first word in the book's subtitle was not a coincidence, but rather meant to underscore the significance of Islam in the recent political history of Indonesia. Tamara, a Sorbonne-educated scholar and leading Indonesian journalist, argues that the religion factor is a key constituent element of what he considers -- in spite of its ups and downs -- the success story of Indonesia's democratization process.

Indonesia Risingis the outcome of a research project entitled Moderate Islam in Indonesia, Indonesian Presidency under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, which Tamara executed as a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (INSEAS) in Singapore (Cf. also the commentary in the Financial Times of 9 July published under the same title). After the rocky presidencies of Abdurrahman Wahid (a.k.a. Gus Dur) and Megawati Sukarnoputri, and in spite of the scepticism of many when taking the disrupting activities and violent attacks by Muslim radicals into account, Tamara maintains that the policies of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) are starting to sort tangible effects.

In the opening pages of his book he backs this up by invoking the comment made by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton during her visit to Indonesia earlier this year that 'if you want to know if Islam, democracy, modernity and women's rights can coexist, go to Indonesia'. Tamara feels further strengthened in his claim of Indonesia's rising stature on the global scene by President Obama's decision to sent Secretary Clinton to Jakarta on her first international assessment mission - not to mention his own personal interest in things Indonesian dating back to the primary school years he spent there.

Although his own study focuses on Indonesia, amplifying its role as an exemplatory Muslim state, Tamara does note that the developments in that country are part of a much broader phenomenon affecting the Muslim world, as his visits to Morocco, Turkey, and -- yes -- Iran had shown him (the same countries I have singled out for another research project on the recent intellectual history of the Muslim world).

I believe Nasir Tamara's assertive position also forms parts of another more regional phenomenon: the growing self-confidence displayed by Southeast Asian Muslims. In a 2002 interview with Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria, the current Secretary General of ASEAN and former Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs, Surin Pitsuwan (interesting in itself that a Muslim can serve as the chief diplomat of a Buddhist kingdom), stated that: 'For all Islam's history, Southeast Asia was considered a backwater. But the flows of globalization now need to be reversed. Islam must learn not from the Center but rather the periphery'. Two years later, the Malaysian Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Datu Seri Rais Yatim came out against the 'Arabisation' of Malay culture in an interview in the newspaper The Star, encouraging his countrymen to 'challenge those who condemn deep-rooted practices of the Malay community as UnIslamic'.

As the main protagonist of Tamara's narrative argued himself in a speech delivered at the LSE in March 2009, Indonesia has a bridge function to play, connecting the Muslim world, Asia and the West. Also during SBY's second term in office as president of the largest Muslim nation in the world, the eyes of those interested in alternative Islamic discourses will continue to focus on developments in Indonesia.