My personal thoughts on Islamic Topics, not a form of ijtihad rather than applying my mind.

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Location: Cairo, Egypt

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Crime of obeying God!

Newspapers all over the world are replete with articles about the sentence for Egyptian Blogger Abdel Karim Nabil Suleiman, who blogged under the name of Karim Amer.

The last entry on his unfortunate blog dates back to October 28, 2006 where he mentions that he received a summons to appear at the police station for an investigation. The charges against him, he writes, are the ghost of Al Azhar haunting him, despite him receiving his dismissal paper from Al Azhar university already. He mentions other luminaries and intellectuals that were touched by Al Azhar’s curse, as he calls it, and who were forced to either abandon their ideas or flee the country or paid with their life, such as Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, Dr. Ahmed Sobhy Mansour, Nawal El Saadawi or Ahmed El Shahawy and the late Farag Fouda. He writes that this only strengthens his courage and resolve.

Since that last entry he has been arrested and detained and has no doubt gone through hell. We have all seen enough videos on YouTube of what goes on in Egyptian Police Stations to know that his detention there was probably a nightmare – to say the least. Visits from his family and lawyers were forbidden.

The charges against Karim were those of insulting Islam, harming the peace and insulting President Hosni Mubarak.

According to the articles of the international press – for some strange reason the Egyptian press has remained rather silent about Karim – he is supposed to have said: "I don't see what I have done, I expressed my opinion...the intention was not anything like these charges."

Let us take a look at his blog and see what he wrote and whether or not he indeed insulted Islam or harmed the peace.

Karim starts blogging in February 2004 about love, hardly harming peace unless his own peace of mind. In June 2004 he writes about honour killings and how the hymen is an affliction women are cursed with and how this insignificant piece of skin becomes a curse. Strangely enough just this week Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, issued a fatwa making hymen reconstruction surgery for women who have lost their virginity before marriage as halal.

In his next posts also in June 2004, Karim criticised the use of religion to suppress women in all spheres of life. He objects to not educating girls, of not allowing them to work in certain professions and fields. He condemns female circumcision and genital mutilation as yet another form of repression. He criticises marrying off girls at an early age and is very passionate about discontinuing domestic violence. All his criticism has been dealt with before by Al Azhar and the Grand Mufti. Just this month Egypt's top Grand Mufti declared that Islam does not bar women from becoming heads of state.
So if this position is theoretically open to women, what other position could be forbidden?

Al Azhar held many symposiums on the education of Muslim women, which affirmed women’s rights to education. Al Azhar even went as far as saying that misleading social norms and traditions which impede the development of Muslim women should be corrected.

In a recent conference in Cairo, sponsored by a German human rights group and held under the patronage of the Grand Mufti of Egypt, ten of the highest ranking scholars from all over the world met. Their final statement pronounced the custom of female genital mutilation (FGM) as a punishable aggression, an attack on women and a crime against humanity. As a result, the custom can no longer be practiced by Muslims.
The conference appeals to all Muslims to stop practicing this habit, according to Islam's teachings which prohibit inflicting harm on any human being.

In his next post Karim writes about the increasing phenomenon of black niqabs on the streets. He criticises them and calls them black shrouds. That too neither insults Islam nor Al Azhar. Just recently Mohammad Hamdi Zaqzouq, Egypt's Religious Affairs Minister said that the niqab is not a religious object. Zaqzouq said: "Nor is the niqab a duty deriving from the Sharia. I know I will be criticised for my words but I think some Muslims are committing a fundamental error, focusing on external and superficial aspects, without exploring more relevant themes, and hence providing a distorted image of Islam."
Zaqzouq went a few steps further a few weeks later by rejecting the appointment of niqab-clad women to work as counsellors in his ministry on the grounds that this would just promote "the culture of the niqab". According to Zaqzouq: "The niqab is a matter of custom and not the faith -- it has nothing to do with the religion".

So far so good! Until now I have not seen anything that insulted Islam or even went against any of Al Azhar’s decisions, fatwas, conferences, symposiums or teachings.

Karim blogged sporadically, about once or twice a month for the next few months. He wrote about his neighbour, about Chechnya and more about love and he even started writing poetry. He wrote about Biblotheca Alexandria and about Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, about educating women, about decreasing women illiteracy, how language can be used to disguise intentions and about escaping reality. He also wrote about dictators such as Saddam Hussein and George Bush and about the behaviour of a certain group of young Muslims who have been brainwashed into taking matters into their own hands to implement an Islamic society. He describes how they harass people on the streets, allow themselves to stop music, separate girls and boys and generally promote what they perceive as honourable Islamic values and combat what they perceive as vice. He criticises the blind following of so-called enlightened individuals who have a magic hold on many young people by means of lectures distributed via cassette tapes. He writes about the elections, about Ayman Nour, the Kefaya Movement, about Nawal Sadawi and Inas El Deghedi, a female movie director with many controversial and highly critical films.

I went through the entire blog. It took me a couple of days, but I seriously read each and every blog entry. I had to find out why he will be robbed of four years of his life. Why he was denied the right to complete his education. Why he was dismissed from University. Why he was silenced and used as an example to perhaps frighten other bloggers into silence.

The posts that allegedly insult al Azhar only appeared much later. In November 2004 he wrote a long entry about the segregation in al Azhar between female and male students and how this heightens tension. He explicitly describes the questions asked in fiqh classes about sexual matters and how this whole separation leads to all sorts of sick fantasies.

In November 2005 he wrote another entry about the cooperation between mosque and state, in other words between Al Azhar and the government and adds pictures of President Hosni Mubarak in various meetings with top clerics, and of Gamal Mubarak meeting Pope Shenouda, pictures - mind you - that have been posted all over newspapers. The post discusses the relationship between figures of state and clerics (Muslim and Christian) in a historical context and how the two exchanged legitimacy and power from that relationship. Again nothing that cannot be found in various history books. The contention probably comes from extending the link to modern times and writing about a group calling themselves “Ansar Al Sunna” and how this radical and fanatic group was supporting the President in the elections, as per ads they published condemning other candidates and portraying the President as a just and impartial figure akin to the ancient concept of Amir-ul-mu’minin (Prince of the believers).

The next contention comes from his analysis of the failure of Sheikh Al Tantawi to obtain the support of the clerical staff of Al Azhar to support the President in his election campaign, on the grounds that they are men of religion and teachers and shouldn’t be getting involved in politics, another fact that was published in various opposition papers. His only crime here could perhaps be writing passionately about the hypocrisy of politicising religion.

In August he wrote an open letter to the President. He posed many questions to him about forgeries in elections, about his long time rule, about whether or not he intends to fight discrimination in Egypt on religious grounds, about providing job opportunities for young graduates and about the rumours of appointing Gamal Mubarak as a successor. All his questions come from the President’s own campaign speeches and slogans or from articles previously published in opposition papers. Again nothing new here! Perhaps the only thing was that he actually urged the President to reconsider running. But that was also nothing new. The Kefaya Movement has made that its slogan.

In another post in August 2005 he criticised the statement made by Al Azhar to allow enrolment of Coptic students under the condition that they memorise the Qur’an. Personally I can see the double standards evident in such a permit.

In March 2006 he blogged about receiving a letter from Al Azhar temporarily barring him from continuing his education there. He then wrote about Taha Hussein, Abdallah Al Qussaimy and Ahmed Sobhi Mansour who were all expelled from the university at some point, either as teachers or students, for wanting a reform and for asking for it. This very emotional post discusses his decision of not leaving the university but rather waiting to be expelled. He argues that if everyone left a problem without trying to solve it or attempting at least to draw attention to it then nothing will ever be corrected. He further explains that Al Azhar is a state university funded by taxes collected from both Muslims and Copts and that it was high time to stop its discriminating practices, both on gender and religious grounds.

In a following post he described the disciplinary council he was summoned to attend for his writings on the internet. He attended it accompanied by Raymon Youssef, a writer for Copts United, and Mamdouh Nakhla, a lawyer and director of AL Kalima (Words for Human Rights). The accusations levelled against Karim transformed personal writings to slandering Al Azhar, labelled his criticism and call for reform as hate inciting and apostasy.

In March 2006 he got summoned to the Dean’s office and the accusations continued - and so did his blogging, which then took on a political bent. He wrote more about demonstrations, the charade democracy, persecution of demonstrators, police brutality against demonstrators, about religious fanaticism on the rise and about curbing freedoms. Again nothing new that couldn’t have been read in various opposition papers before.

Perhaps the only thing that could be taken against Karim on religious grounds is a post titled “No God but Man”
. The post, unlike its title though, deals with the law and whether or not the law is there to curb freedoms rather than guarantee them and concludes with a metaphor that the law becomes a god to enforce certain powers reserved for certain humans.

Amazingly, Chapter Three of the Egyptian Constitution
which deals with Public Freedoms, Rights and Duties says in Article 47: “Freedom of opinion shall be guaranteed. Every individual shall have the right to express his opinion and to publicise it verbally, in writing, by photography or by other means of expression within the limits of the law. Self criticism and constructive criticism shall guarantee the safety of the national structure. “

This is exactly what Karim has done. He exercised his freedom of opinion. He took his right of expressing his opinion seriously and believed enough in it to write it on the internet in a publicly accessible blog. In my opinion Karim lived up to both his own true self and principles as well as his religion. In his profile
Karim wrote that he was looking forward to helping humanity against all forms of discriminations. The Qur’an implores believers to speak up against injustice, which is precisely what Karim has done.

Once again a religious institution is confusing itself with God: instead of seeing that they are part of the problem, they interpret any criticism of the institution as criticism of Allah, whereas Karim only did what Allah has told every Muslim to do: [4:135]: “O you who believe! be maintainers of justice, bearers of witness of Allah's sake, though it may be against your own selves or (your) parents or near relatives; if he be rich or poor, Allah is nearer to them both in compassion; therefore do not follow (your) low desires, lest you deviate; and if you swerve or turn aside, then surely Allah is aware of what you do.”

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Shshsh - don't laugh! We're Muslims!!

From little mosque on the prairie to a little masquerade on the prairie
to a little laughter on the prairie ...

I received the article "Little Masquerade on the Prairie" by Tarek Fatah and Farzana Hassan of the MCC, which was published in The Toronto SUN in my email.

The article sharply criticised the show "Little Mosque on the Prairie" aired by CBC. The criticism ranged from not being funny, to being shallow, to painting a false picture of the Muslim community in Canada and that it does not reflect the diversity of Canada's Muslim society.

For me the criticism that the show focuses "singularly on the most conservative segments of the Muslim community" and that it shows "conservative Muslims vs. ultra-conservative Muslims" really made me laugh, for I do not agree with this assessment at all. It is hardly conservative when a young Muslim woman sits out there at night on the steps (even if they are the steps of a mosque) talking to a young man (even if he is an imam) without a chaperone / mehrem (a male relative). It is definitely not ultra-conservative to show a Muslim wife being "disobedient" to her husband and withdrawing marital relations until a conflict is solved.

Strangely enough on another, more traditional, Muslim mailing list, the equally harsh criticism against the show was because it portrays too many progressive Muslims, showed a husband kissing his unveiled wife in public, presented unorthodox verbal exchanges and discussions thereby encouraging women to speak up against and defy their fathers and husbands. Furthermore, it accused the show of reducing Muslims to sad caricatures and many a time the dialogue bordering on blasphemy. I guess that nobody can please everybody and it all boils down to one’s sense of humour and more so to one’s definition of words such as progressive, orthodox and conservative.

I on my part found the four episodes to be a breath of fresh air, showing that Muslims can indeed laugh about themselves and do possess a sense of humour. I watched them all on

The insider jokes might sometimes go above the head of a lot of viewers who do not have sufficient information about Islam, like for example one of the female characters saying something to the effect that this or that can be found in Sura 115 of the Qur'an, which obviously does not exist, since the Qur'an only has 114 Suras or the play on words calling it Halal-oween.

Personally I find the accusation that the script-writer is playing "a deft hand in attempting to sanitize what really goes on in the typical Canadian mosque" namely the "hijacking of Islam, by politicized clerics affiliated with Saudi Arabia or Iran", to be rather ludicrous and if anything at all I think that the humour in it was missed. The conservative character "Baber" is not really representative of the kind of clerics affiliated with the virulent string of Wahabi Islam, but rather an elderly family man who is desperately trying to control his nuclear family, and perhaps by extension the small Muslim community in that little town. He is portrayed in such a way that his attempts of control – even his discussions with the new and much younger imam about issues such as women praying in the same open space like the men or having an open day at the mosque – end up being exposed as pathetic and laughable.

As an example in episode 4, he started off being very much opposed to celebrating Halloween on the grounds that it is un-Islamic and for witches and by being totally against his children participating in any of the events associated with it, like trick & treat. He ended up having to go as a Muslim escort for his teenage daughter and enjoying himself even more than his children. I for one, found myself feeling sorry for him at times. Despite his apparent conservatism, he does, like any other doting father, have a soft spot for his daughter and indeed even repeatedly goes against his own traditional beliefs when it comes to her.

Muslim lives, especially in non-Muslim countries, do indeed not revolve around mosques, but for crying out loud, this is a comedy not a documentary or a reality show. And ideally the mosque should provide a lot more services to a community than only providing prayer space or room for Friday sermons.
The New York Times
portrayed a progressive imam, Mr. Shata, who said that he wishes to return the function of a mosque and its imam to what it used to be, by providing a space for interactions and other services. He for one runs some sort of a Muslim dating service from his mosque and chaperones prospective brides and grooms. He lectures at the mosque, settles disputes, makes house-calls to his community members whispering the call to prayer in the ears of newborn babies and “spends hours listening to women’s worries and confessions, their intimate secrets and frank questions about everything from menstruation to infidelity.”

The show does attempt to show some of the good - if not ideal - sides, like the discussions between the various community members regarding issues of conflict, presenting various opinions ranging from conservative to progressive. It also shows the "ideal" relationship, that should be, between the imam and the small town's priest, where their respective religions do not stand in the way of helping one another out, even if only by listening and offering a shoulder or a cup of tea and thereby co-existing friendly and peacefully. In some ways it also touches upon some of the complicated matters that could lead to convoluted fiqh questions, like for example if a man was gay, does that still necessitate a woman to cover her hair in his presence, despite the fact that it will in no way make any difference to him at all?

The cherry on top of this article was the statement: "Indeed all of the depictions point to an Islamist agenda that seeks to justify inequities that pervade Muslim communities under the pretext of progress."

Oh please! To imply that a comedy show has a political objective and some hidden agenda, predictably using the catchphrase of Islamist for emphasis, is really a bit too much and for me only shows seeing all sort of 'comical' conspiracies where none exist. A sense of humour is a very personal thing. What people choose to find funny or not is a personal choice, but if someone fails to see through the show to see it as a comedy, as is intended, then I must wonder about a possible own hidden agenda.

I am happy I watched the four episodes aired so far and I will be watching the next ones to come, provided they are uploaded somewhere like the previous ones. Personally I think that Zarqa Nawaz has managed to create a show that is both entertaining and also helpful in removing the fear of the unknown, those Muslims, who in a lot of other places, especially after 9/11 and in too many Hollywood movies are all lumped together and depicted as uncultured, ignorant brutes, terrorists, fanatics or worse.

recent poll measuring the level of "Islamophobia" in each nation
reported Canadians to be least prejudice against Muslims. Only 6.5% of the two thousand Canadians surveyed, said they wouldn’t like to have a Muslim neighbour. Perhaps it is shows like “Little Mosque on the Prairie” that help in removing deep-seated prejudices and show that at the end of the day Muslims are as human as everyone else, fighting their own demons of temptations and misunderstandings and rigid interpretations and long ingrained traditions, all that while trying to find a middle ground between keeping and practicing their faith and fitting in and making a new home in a country of their choice.

And if someone would make a "Little Gurdwara on the East Coast" or a "Little Mandir on the Oil Sands", I would most probably like to watch them as well, as I have no clue about what Sikhs or Hindus might or might not find funny or how being in the temples could be shown in a way that breaks the ice and removes prejudices.

In the New York Times article, Mr. Shata said: "The surprise for me was that the qualities I thought would not make a good sheik — simplicity and humour and being close to people — those are the most important qualities. People love those who smile and laugh. They need someone who lives among them and knows their pain."

Zarqa Nawaz, thank you for making me laugh!