Saturday, 24 April 2010

Islamic Sexshop online

NRC Handelsblad was the first to report on it, now it has also been picked up by the Qantara, the Germany-based website offering news on the Muslim world and Muslim communities in the West.

Abdelaziz Aouragh opened the world's first halal shop for sexual enhancement products. It is but one indication that many young Muslims are charting their own course in managing adherence to a faith whose sexual morals historically have been interpreted by arch conservatives.

Aouragh, a 29-year old Amsterdam-born practicing Muslim of Moroccan heritage with the instincts of a Dutch trader, hardly fits the profile of a purveyor of sex articles such as capsules that "increase male performance, desire and pleasure," pills to heighten women's desire, stimulators for him and her and cocoa butter, water and silicon-based lubricants.

Not knowing whether his religion would allow the trade in sex products, Aouragh visited an imam, who in turn consulted a Saudi sheik. It was allowed, he learned, as long as the products were halal and meant to improve sex within marriage. "There is even a fatwa on the subject."

Yet, in a faith community perceived as repressive of women and severely restrictive of intimate gender relations, Aouragh's online El Asira webshop – the world's first halal (religiously-endorsed) shop for sexual enhancement products – is a booming success. So popular in fact, that Aouragh had to take the shop offline four days after its launch and move it to a new Internet service provider because his original California-based host GreenGeeks was unable to accommodate the traffic volume it generated – 60,000 hits a day.

El Asira – Arabic for The Society – is but one indication that many young Muslims like their counterparts in other monotheistic religions are charting their own course in managing adherence to a faith whose sexual morals historically have been interpreted by arch conservatives.

While Aouragh errs on the side of caution relying on conservative interpretations by Saudi religious authorities, a host of contemporary Muslim artists, many of them women, have recently opted to paint naked models despite widespread belief by Muslims that the Koran bans nudity as well as life-like portraits of human beings. "We are promoting this dialogue," Aouragh says although he asserts that Muslim artists who portray nudity lack a correct understanding of Islam.

While earning money and building an empire, Aouragh hopes that his business will contribute to cross-cultural understanding. "Everybody is talking about Islam in a negative way. I am trying to get something positive out of the dark," he says. The El Asira website adds: "Muslims have to deal with stereotypical prejudices by some non-Muslims on the topic of sexuality within the Islam. We want to share with other Muslims in a positive way our contribution to a broader view of sexuality and eroticism within the Muslim community for Muslims themselves, as for others."

Initiatives like these are not limited to the West. In Morocco women host discrete 'tupperware parties' catering to the needs and desires of their friends. Read more on casawaves.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

US ban on Tariq Ramadan lifted

Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-Egyptian Muslim publicist and academic who was banned from entering the United States for six years has made his first visit to the United States since 2004. In that year Ramadan had accepted a job to become a tenured professor at the University of Notre Dame, but nine days before he was set to arrive, the Bush administration revoked his visa,invoking a provision of the PATRIOT Act. Now the Obama administration has reversed this as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lifted the travel ban earlier this year. This week, Ramadan arrived in New York for a visit and media appearances.

Initially the media did not give it very much coverage. According to The New Yorker's George Packer who hosted Ramadan during a discussion in Greenwich Village the only other print medium to pay attention to the event was the Jewish periodical Tablet. In his own blog, Packer showed himself a critical observer, as noted how Ramadan struggled to establish a rapport with the audience:

Ramadan seemed wrong-footed in those opening remarks. He didn’t have a sense of where he was, of his American audience. It was as if he were speaking to disaffected young second-generation immigrants in a working-class mosque in Lille or Leicester, which is how he spends much of his time. Multiple identities, the value of diversity—not exactly news in this city, in this country. Many of his sentences amounted to buzz words strung together, without reaching a point. It seemed a missed opportunity: his first address in America since becoming an international figure, and he hadn’t prepared, hadn’t thought it through.

Even more significant is his assessment that Ramadan is 'not a philosopher, or an original thinker', but that he has only been cast in that role 'by recent historical crises and his own ambition'. In Packer's view, Ramadan's positions on most issues are those of 'garden-variety European leftism', while he tries to act as a 'reconciler' when it comes to the place of Islam in the West. Although admitting that here Ramadan is at his best, Packer maintains that: 'I don’t think this calling leaves him with very much to say to audiences here. An American Tariq Ramadan would likelier be talking to groups of young blacks or Hispanics.'

Contrary to many critics who have accused Ramadan of being double-tongued or two-faced, Packer thinks
he 'has no hidden agenda, he’s an open book, and it’s essentially moderate'. However, he found Ramadan much less forthcoming about the tensions between an open society and Islamic revivalism, conjecturing that in this respect Ramadan is hampered by his pedigree, accusing his maternal grandfather, Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna, of holding totalitarian and anti-Semitic views. On these grounds he concluded that Ramadan was 'building a worthy bridge on a rotten foundation'.

For an extensive TV interview on the Democracy Now! programme, click here

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Mapping of Britain's Islamic 'Blogosphere' draws criticism

A study of the extent and allegely also the content of Islamic blogs in the UK, commissioned by the country's Home Office to its Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) has been criticized by observers for its lack of profundity and rigour.

Executed within the framework of the UK government's overall Counter-Terrorism Strategy (CONTEST)*, the resulting report, entitled Estimating network size and tracking information dissemination among Islamic Blogs was released in March 2010, although the data collection was completed in April 2008.

In a commentary on a headline article appearing in The Guardian of 23 March 2010, Brian Whittaker questions the value of the exercise and less than exciting conclusions of the report's author, Dr. David Stevens of the University of Nottingham.

Even more incisive is the critique by blogger Jillian York, who is associated with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. York's criticism zeroes in on Stevens' reliance on link analysis and keywords, with no apparent attention for content. Based on her experience at the Berkman Center, York argues that this kind of research cannot be carried out without a 'human touch'. There a study of the Arabic-language blogosphere covering more than 35,000 blogs, led to a mapping of 6,000 sites, '4,000 of which were hand-coded by Arabic-speaking researchers'. Compared to that approach, the Home Office project seems indeed rather shallow. York also rightly questions the credentials of author David Stevens. Apparently a specialist in Anglo-American normative political philosophy, one wonders indeed why he was selected to conduct this research, and not a more recognized figure from the field of Islamic Studies who actually specialises in 'cyber Islam', such as Gary Bunt from the University of Wales at Lampeter, who has a track record of publications on the subject, and whose website Virtually Islamic already contains a wealth of information.

* The full policy document can be found here

For a recent study of the role of media in today's Muslim societies and communities, which also adds a useful comparative perspective, see the special issue of the academic journal Contemporary Islam of April 2010.