Friday, 21 May 2010

Depicting the Prophet Once More: Reactions to 'South Park' & 'Draw Muhammad Day'

It appears that those seeking gratuitous publicity cannot get enough from what they know fully well works like waving a red rag on a bull: depicting the Prophet Muhammad in cartoons. Once again the issue has generated widespread reactions on the internet and in the media.

The 'Draw Muhammad Day' initiative was triggered by the predictable threatening response of the radical Islamist website Revolution Muslim to the alleged representation of Muhammad in episode 200 of the hugely popular animated sitcom South Park. This was not intended as making a case for free speech. Rather, those hiding behind the initiative (so far they have not been willing to identity themselves) are fully aware their campaign will create a wildfire of reactions and easily snowball into a further antagonisation of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims -- and lest we forget, increasing tensions between Muslims of different persuasions.

A measured response was given by Hussein Rashid in a contribution to Religion Dispatches.

"Today is Draw Muhammad Day. Created in response to two idiots who reacted to a South Park episode, the event signifies that the right to do something should be seen as a license to do something. The South Park episode focused on the failure of censorship. Comedy Central, like the two buffoons from Revolution Muslim, missed the point and focused on the non-representation of Muhammad, causing the episode to be censored.

The response of the supporters of Draw Muhammad Day (DMD) is not to focus on the question of censorship, but on the depiction of Muhammad. In other words, they have chosen to support the two idiots of Revolution Muslim and talk about the depiction of Muhammad that did not actually appear in the episode. The result is that they have, as Shahed Amanullah points out in The Huffington Post, decided to actively insult the millions of Muslims who do not agree with Revolution Muslim and/or who actually understood the point of the South Park episode."

Taking on both sides, Hussein pointedly observes:
"Both RM and the folks behind DMD miss the depth of feeling many Muslims have for their religion and Prophet Muhammad. I think that Eboo Patel has it right in his article in Inside Higher Education; we need to do a better job about talking about religion on college campuses. I do not hold that any depiction of Muhammad is blasphemous, but to treat him as a political tool misses the point of what his life was about."

University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole, who achieved both fame and notoriety (depending on where you stand on the political spectrum in regards to US policy towards the Muslim world) with is Informed Comment blog  has also added his voice to the debate; widening the issue to other religious traditions by providing examples how other 'jerks' could find easy ways to hurt the sensitivities of Buddhist, Hindus, Christians and Jews, Cole rightly observed:

"The juvenile “draw Muhammad” day has generally been avoided by professional editorial cartoonists. One Islamophobic theme apparent in the writing on it is that Muslims are peculiar in their thin-skinned responses to such assaults on their religious sensibilities and that members of other religions never riot or protest. This assertion is not only bigoted but it is silly. So here are some other needlessly offensive cartoon-drawing days that could be adopted by the jerks bothering Muslims today, just to show that they are jerks toward other communities as well. All these subjects have produced vigorous protests or rioting and violence among members of other religious traditions. Me, I think when you know people have died in violence over some piece of thoughtlessness, it is the height of irresponsibility to repeat it for no good reason."
Another scholar, Professor Ebrahim Moosa of Duke University in North Carolina, made a more introspective observation on his facebook page:

"Start an Honor the Prophet Muhammad Facebook site. I am offended by blanket denouncements alleging Jews are behind this. Be a smart Muslim, not a dumb one. We have enough of the latter. Expose the offensive speech towards Muslims: strengthen your argument, don't raise your shrill voice. Religion, sex, color or sexualit...y does not foment bigotry, ignorance does. Don't we need a, Dumb Things Muslim Say page?"

The final word  goes to Hussein Rashid, who referred to the invocation of a well-known saying about Muhammad by another commentator (human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar) writing on the Muhammad cartoon issue: 'The Prophet forgave, he never angered, he did not meet kind with kind, but with kindness.'
Moreover, in the epigraph to his own website Islamicate, it says:
"islam doesn't speak, muslims do | "the ink of the scholar is worth more than the blood of the martyr" - Prophet Muhammad.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Death of an Averroist: Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri (1936-2010)

Only today I learned of the death of the Moroccan philosopher Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri (a.k.a. Mohammed Abed al-Jabri). The fact that it went largely unreported in Western media is indicative of the lack of interest in intellectual developments in the contemporary Muslim world. A similar observation was posted on the blog of the Angry Arab News Service:

 If you look at the Western press today, you would not know that the most important and renounced Arab contemporary thinker/ philosopher has died today. Muhammad `Abid Al-Jabiri is dead. This Moroccan thinker is by far the most discussed among Arab and Islamic intellectuals.

However, some websites did pay attention to al-Jabiri's passing away. One is the German blog Kritik der arabischen Vernunft, dedicated to al-Jabiri's philosophy, another one the -- also Germany-based -- website Qantara. Here are some excerpts from Sonja Hegasy's* obituary:

Mohammed Abed al-Jabri was without doubt one of the most significant social theorists of the Arab world. His dissertation on Ibn Khaldun, a pioneer of modern sociology, in 1970 brought him the first doctorate awarded by the University of Mohammed V in Rabat following Moroccan independence. It was the first of a total of over thirty works.

Al-Jabri was both a critical philosopher and a proponent of a left-wing programme of social policy. From 1959 onwards, he worked with the Moroccan opposition politician Mehdi Ben Barka in the Socialist
Union Nationale des Forces Populaires (UNFP). And he remained committed to education, initially as a teacher, then as a school inspector, a writer of school books, a university teachers and mentor.

Drawing on the history of non-orthodox Muslim movements, such as the Kharijites, Ismailis, Shiites or Sufis, he called for an oppositional mode of thought. Al-Jabri saw himself in the tradition of Immanuel Kant, in that he called on his readers to insist on their right to define the world on the basis of their observations, and not on the basis of pre-defined, traditional or out-of-date authorities.

According to al-Jabri, two main elements in the history of political ideas continue to have an influence in the Arab world and are responsible for its continuing stagnation: imitation rather than critical thought has become the main form of awareness, and rulers are counselled but they are not controlled. To counter that influence, Al-Jabri wanted to strengthen the rational, intellectual tradition in Muslim thought and drew on the Andalusian commentator of Aristotle, Averroes or Ibn Rushd, as his authority.

Here I have to add a caveat. While in the West, Ibn Rushd's reputation is indeed largely due to his commentaries on Aristotle, which were instrumental to the further development of late-medieval Scholasticism and the onset of the Renaissance, in the Muslim world his influence was based on his attempts to reconcile rational thinking with revelation, succinctly expounded in his 'Definitive Statement' (Fasl al-maqal fima bayna al-hikmah wa-al-shariah min al-ittisal).

But aside from the academic philosopher, there was also the public intellectual al-Jabiri, as Hegasy continues:

Al-Jabri's attack on conventional authority is as explosive socially as the works of the Egyptian Farag Foda, who was killed by an Islamist group in 1992, or those of the Sudanese scholar Mahmud Mohammed Taha, who was hanged in 1985.

It is because of this audacity that, according to Hegasy:

The Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi once wrote that, to judge from the heated debates in which students are everywhere continuously engaging, al-Jabri was probably the philosopher who was most read by young people in the Arab world.

This interest goes beyond the Arabic-speaking parts of the Muslim world. In Indonesia, for example, he has a large and  attentive audience among young Muslim intellectuals associated with a strand of thought known as Postra, an acronym for 'Post-Traditionalists' (progressive thinkers who engage critically with the Islamic heritage without dismissing its significance). Witness this 'In Memoriam' on the website of the country's Muslim Students Association (Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam, HMI).

In this detailed assessment al-Jabiri is said to belong to a category of intellectuals who is 'prone to be selective in invoking inspirations from both tradition and modernity in order to find a kind of authentic Arab modernity', which sets them apart from Salafi reformists and liberal thinkers:

The first and the second groups of Arab intellectuals do not reflect a creative engagement with tradition or modernity. Their project is merely reviving the tradition (turath) to be applied in the present or blindly adopting Western values and practices into Arabic contexts. The third group of intellectuals whose project is searching for an authentic modernity of Arab is more interesting because they are more creative and critical in dealing with both tradition and modernity.

Aside from al-Jabiri, the Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi fits into this category. Dismissing the latter's ideological positions as ' as too encyclopedic, cerebral and theoretical', the author considers al-Jabiri's epistemological approach more promising 'not only in terms of understanding the turath [Arab-Islamic intellectual heritage] and the present Arab situation, but also in terms of searching for the future identity of Arab modernity'.

However, also al-Jabiri's positions are not immune to criticism. In his advocacy for an Andalusian resurgence (see also my post of 11 October 2008) and promotion of Averroist philosophy, he appears to side with Western scholars who singled out the tenth-century theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali as the main culprit responsible for killing off the philosophical tradition in Islam. The South-African born Islamicist Ebrahim Moosa (now teaching at Duke University in North Carolina) disagrees:

Many scholars from the Muslim world also buy into the anti-Ghazali anti-Ashari libel, as the cause of the death of reason in Islam.  It is part of a trend in lazy scholarship, a ridiculous assumption that Mu'tazilite reason is compatible with modern modes of reasons, but it is all part of what I call a "scapegoat historiography." The latter is a kind of after the fact search for the causes of the decline of Muslim political fortunes in a post-empire world of the late 19th and early 20th century milieu.  Among the scapegoats, is Ghazali and a claim that he opened the door for a retrograde sufism to inhabit Muslim intellectual streams; don't ask me how!. All this is largely unproved but makes for great reformist stump speeches.  Among the folk who advance variants of these claims (I refuse to give it a respectability of a thesis!!) is Hasan Hanafi of Egypt, Hussein Atay of Turkey and in a more sophisticated way, the late Muhammad Abid al-Jabri of Morocco in his multiple writings. I tried to offer some push back to these claims in my Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination but it was certainly only in passing and clearly, not enough. 

As a result of the relative lack of attention, only very few of al-Jabiri's books - who wrote almost exclusively in Arabic -- have been translated into European languages. In the secondary literature on contemporary Muslim thought there is also still a paucity of works. Aside from chapters in surveys and handbooks, and two studies in German, the only English-language project I have come across was conducted in The Netherlands, but without any reference to a resulting publication.

*Sonja Hegasy contributed the chapter 'Ex Okzidente Lux: Der arabische Aufklaerer Mohammed Abed al-Jabri' to Kritik der arabischen Vernunft.

Here are some further reading suggestions for works available in English:

Arab-Islamic Philosophy: A Contemporary Critique (Middle East Monographs)The Formation of Arab Reason: Text, Tradition and the Construction of Modernity in the Arab World (Contemp. Arab Scholarship in the Social Sciences)Democracy, Human Rights and Law in Islamic Thought (Comtemporary Arab Sclarship in the Social Sciences)

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Fantasy Epics and the Muslim World

The Atlantic Monthly issue of 4 May 2010 contains an article on the comic The 99, a superheroes story inspired by Islamic history.  Click on the image below to read:

The 99 appears to be part of a broader phenomenon also issuing from elsewhere in the Muslim World. In fact, Urdu culture lays claim to having launched the very genre of  magical fantasy epics with the publication of Hoshruba, which allegedly can be traced back to two prose writers from late 19th-century Lucknow, one of northern India's main centres of traditional Islamic learning and literature.

This massive narrative is loosely based on The Adventures of Amir Hamza, a story cycle inspired by the biography of the Prophet Muhammad's uncle and very popular at the Court of Moghul Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605). An English translation, the first volume of which is published as Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism, is the brainchild of Musharraf Ali Farooqi, and forms part of the Urdu Project, an initiative that seeks to introduce translations from Urdu to the North American market. Click here to read an excerpt from the translation.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Religion, Politics and Civil Society in Turkey: Transforming the public space

For the better part of the twentieth century, Turkey was a country enforcing the strictest separation of religion and state in the Muslim world. From the 1920s until the mid-1980s, the state ideology of Kemalism -- named after the first president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal (a.k.a. Ataturk) -- ensured that any expressions of religiosity were not only out of bounds in politics, but actually kept out of the public sphere altogether. In particular the military positioned itself as the guardian of the constitutional limitations on any form of political Islam. However, in two decades or so, Turkey has developed into one of the most interesting 'places to watch' in regards to new ways in which Islam is allowed to feature in the public sphere. Now religion even has found a new place in Turkish political life.

Turgut Ozal
Ironically, it was in the wake of the 1980 coup d'etat that the military itself allowed the creation of what Hakan Yavuz calls a 'new opportunity space' by acknowledging the link between national and religious identity in the form of a 'Turkish-Islamic Synthesis' (TIS). This major shift in political thinking was actively advocated by Turgut Özal (1927-1993), who served as prime minister from 1983 until 1989 when he took over the presidency from General Kenan Evren, leader of the 1980 putsch and the most senior military official to condone the TIS. Although Özal was often hailed as the most influential political figure after Ataturk, it was only three years after his sudden death in 1993 that the so-called Refah or Welfare Party, an overtly Islamic political party, was able to take real political control, even though this was short-lived. Quickly banned following a 'velvet coup' by the armed forces in 1997, it resurfaced first as the Virtue Party (1998) and then, in 2001, as the Felicity Party. But it was not until a younger generation of politicians redrew the map of Turkish politics by establishing the Justice and Development Party ( AKP, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi ) that an Islam-inspired party managed to make more enduring inroads into the country's political landscape.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Since 2002, Turkey has been governed by the AKP party, first under Prime Minister Abdullah Gül and then under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (b. 1954), a former mayor of Istanbul and the real leader of the AKP (Gül first moved to the ministry of foreign affairs, before winning the presidential elections). In contrast to the Welfare, Virtue and Felicity Parties, the AKP does not promote an overtly Islamic agenda. Its ideological orientation has more parallels with Christian-Democratic parties in Western Europe than with its Islamist predecessors. Although Islam definitely provides AKP politicians with a moral compass, this is translated in decidedly pragmatic political programmes. Their prime focus is on economic policy, democratic reforms, active engagement in international diplomacy, mediation and conflict resolution. All these initiatives are geared towards securing EU-membership.

Aside from these drastic changes in political developments, perhaps an even more interesting development during the same time frame is the emergence of what can be called a Turkish 'civil Islam'. This is most prominently exemplified by the initatives deployed by the so-called Gülen Movement, led by Fethullah Gülen (b. 1941). This former mosque Imam gives direction to a somewhat amorphous and multifarious organisation involved in reshaping Turkish civil society through wide-ranging activities in the fields of education, media, charity and philantropy. His influence has been so pervasive that in a 2008 survey by Prospect Magazine, Gülen surfaced as the most influential global public intellectual. The movement does namely not limit its activities to only Turkey, but is also involved on the international scene, especially in Central Asia, Southeastern Europe, and Western countries with Turkish communities or substantial numbers of citizens of Turkish descent.

Fethullah Gulen with Pope John Paul II

One such international exponent is the UK-based Dialogue Society. Established in 1999, it recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary. During the first decade of its existence it has been highly successful in networking with the political establishment, supporting the foundation of a number of private schools, deploying initiatives towards community cohesion, and organising academic seminars, workshops, and round-table discussions in which politicians, civil servants, academics, social activists and journalists are brought togehter to discuss issues affecting pluralist societies such as those emerging in the UK, in particular in the London area.

The Dialogue Society also facilitates trips enabling participants in its various activities to gain first-hand experience of current developments in Turkey. During a recent visit to Istanbul, I was thus in a position to become acquainted with some of the projects initiated, supported or inspired by the Gülen Movement. Meetings and discussions were held with, for example, representatives of the charity organisation Kimse Yok Mu ('Is Anybody Out There?'), which had started out as a TV programme to raise funds for earthquake victims and quickly developed into a prominent disaster and poverty relief agency.

Media form a very important part in the network of Gülen Movement-associated organisations. These include the Samanyolu TV Station and Zaman Media group. Samanyolu operates a network of satellite stations in Kurdistan, Istanbul and the United States, where it broadcasts as Ebru TV.

The Zaman group publishes an English-language edition known as Today's Zaman. Numerous leading political commentators and academics, including Şahin Alpay,Kerim Balci and Ihsan Yilmaz write columns for this periodical.

 On the intellectual front, the Journalists and Writers Foundation connects a plethora of forums and platforms engaged in such activities as interfaith dialogue, gender issues, and the facilitation of relations between Turkey, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. One of its most prominent initiatives is the Abant Platform, envisaged as an alternative to the annual Davos World Economic Forum.

Perhaps the most visible aspect of the Gülen Movement is its worldwide network of private schools, ranging from nurseries and primary education to academically rigorous and highly successful high schools and colleges, and even universities, such as Fatih University on the outskirts of Istanbul. The entire system is privately funded, not only relying on fees, but also on large-scale donations from an increasingly affluent and assertive middle class, with roots in the socially conservative provincial cities and towns of Anatolia and the Black Sea area.

Alparslan Acikgenc
Reflective of this connection with a professional middle class is the fact that these primary and secondary schools are very much geared towards the three 'R's (reading, writing, arithmetic). On the tertiary level too, the curricula focus on the natural sciences, engineering, medicine and law. Fatih University, though, offers also courses in history and languages. Religion is markedly absent from all programmes. The explanation given for this is that it is assumed that religious and moral values are instilled in the home environment. Interestingly, though, very recently Fatih University was actually requested by the education ministry to start developing a programme in divinity. Responsibility for this new venture rests with the vice-rector, Alparslan Acikgenc. A philosopher trained at the University of Chicago under the direction of Fazlur Rahman, he taught at Middle Eastern Technical University (METU) in Ankara, where he supervised in ther late 1980s the PhD research of M. Amin Abdullah, rector of UIN Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta. Before being appointed to Fatih University in 1999, he spent eight years teaching in Malaysia.

Ihsan Yilmaz

(Photo above) Dr Ihsan Yilmaz during a frank discussion on the careful navigations required for operating a private university associated with the Gülen Movement in Turkey. (Photo below): Final reflection and discussions with political commentator Kerim Balci.

Kerim Balci (R) and Carool Kersten (L)

Recommended readings on recent developments in Turkey and on the Gülen Movement: