Friday 28 October 2011

So, what do you think of your husband's brutal crackdown, Mrs Assad?

Vogue magazine famously called her a "rose in the desert", while Paris Match proclaimed she was the "element of light in a country full of shadow zones". But when Syria's glamorous First Lady invited a group of aid workers to discuss the security situation with her last month, she appeared to have lost her gloss.

During the meeting, British-born Asma al-Assad – who grew up in Acton and attended a Church of England school in west London – came face to face with aid workers who had witnessed at first hand the brutality of her husband's regime. Yet according to one volunteer who was present, the former investment banker and mother of President Bashar al-Assad's three children appeared utterly unmoved when she heard about the plight of protesters.

"We told her about the killing of protesters," said the man, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. "We told her about the security forces attacking demonstrators. About them taking wounded people from cars and preventing people from getting to hospital ... There was no reaction. She didn't react at all. It was just like I was telling a normal story, something that happens every day."

Syrians working with aid agencies to try to help the thousands injured as Mr Assad's security forces unleash tanks, guns and airpower to crush a seven-month uprising against his rule had hoped for a lot more. The First Lady's office contacted them and said she wanted to hear about the difficulties they faced in the field. She met the humanitarians in Damascus.

"She asked us about the risks of working under the current conditions," he added. But when she was told about the abuses of power being committed by her husband's notorious secret police, Mrs Assad's blank face left them unimpressed. "She sees everything happening here. Everything is all over the news. It's impossible she doesn't know," said the volunteer. Yet even if Mrs Assad does know about the worst of the violence and the 3,000 civilians human rights groups accuse the regime of killing, many people who have met her question what she could possibly do about it.

"Whatever her own views, she is completely hamstrung," said Chris Doyle, the director of the Council of Arab-British Understanding. "There is no way the regime would allow her any room to voice dissent or leave the country. You can forget it."

Mrs Assad, who achieved a first class degree in computer science from King's College University, was brought up in Britain by her Syrian-born parents, who were close friends of Hafez al-Assad, the former President of Syria. She started dating Bashar al-Assad in her twenties, and they eventually married in 2000, when she moved to Syria for the first time.

According to one prominent Western biographer of the Assad family, Bashar chose Asma against the determined opposition of his sister and mother. "He had lots of beautiful girlfriends before her," said the journalist, who asked not to be named. "He faced opposition when he wanted Asma because she was Sunni and he is Alawite. Here was Bashar al-Assad marrying outside the clan."

She championed several development initiatives, and delivered genuine change by helping to create NGOs in Syria, as well as highlighting the plight of disabled children and laying the groundwork for plans to rehabilitate dozens of Syria's ramshackle museums.

For some, she is the modern, made-up face of a former pariah state; to others, an aloof, 21st-century Marie Antoinette. Either way, nothing perhaps crystallised the fate of Syria's First Lady better than the disastrously-timed interview run by Vogue magazine in its March issue this year.

Amid obsequious descriptions of Chanel jewellery and her matey banter with Brad Pitt during the Hollywood star's 2009 visit to Syria, the article described how the Assad household was run on "wildly democratic principles". According to Mrs Assad: "we all vote on what we want, and where."

Naturally, many outraged Syrians were left asking why the Assads could not extend them the same courtesy.


Thursday 27 October 2011

A Muslim is a brother of (another) Muslim.....

Ibn `Umar (May Allah be pleased with him) reported: The Messenger of Allah (SAW) said:

“A Muslim is a brother of (another) Muslim, he neither wrongs him nor does hand him over to one who does him wrong. If anyone fulfils his brother’s needs, Allah will fulfil his needs; if one relieves a Muslim of his troubles, Allah will relieve his troubles on the Day of Resurrection”

[Narrated in Bukhari and Muslim]

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Making the First Move

I was teaching a review session for my chemistry students the other day when one of my students (a post-bacc in her late 30’s) approached me.

“Lisa, I don’t mean this to be offensive so please don’t take it as such. But I really wish there were more Muslims that do what you do.”

With a half-smile and some confusion, I replied, “What do you mean?”

“It’s just refreshing to see a Muslim going out of her way for me.”

She proceeded to tell me the story of how her brother was a victim of the 9/11 attacks. I cannot even begin to attempt to paraphrase the complexity and emotion of her words so I won’t.

At this point, she was almost in tears, and said

“I mean, I see a lot of Muslims every day who aren’t terrorists, but I don’t see them as anything else. It’s just nice to finally have a relationship with a Muslim.”

She then apologized for ranting, changed the subject, and proceeded to ask about the titration question we had just gone over. But I couldn’t seem to focus on that.

As a convert, I often wonder if I am, in fact, being a “good Muslim.” For so long, I took that to mean praying five times a day and fasting during Ramadan, but it has grown to mean so much more. Having left the comforts of MSA-life behind, I now often find myself as the only Muslim in the room. Whether I’m doing experiments in the lab or teaching a group of first-year chemistry students, my responsibility to be an example on behalf of all Muslims has recently become more evident. I mean, it would certainly be easier if people did not directly associate my actions with my Islam, but I am well aware that this isn’t the case.

Is it fair? No. Is it reality? Yes.

The Muslim community needs to step up its game. We want people to stop having issues with us, but we don’t want to do anything to engage them. (And no. Shoving dawah pamphlets in people’s faces does not qualify as community engagement.) We are such multi-faceted people with unique talents and skills that, theoretically, we should be able to connect with a large, diverse population of people. But instead of making the first move, we sit and wait for “the other” to come to us. And when they don’t, we hide behind this fact and blame them for their lack of willingness to learn about our religion.

As part of our respective communities, we need to do things to connect with all people, Muslims and non-Muslims. And this doesn’t even need to be done on a grand level- some of the simplest things we do can facilitate the beginning of conversations that really need to take place if we ever want to be understood. Community service and random acts of kindness are a great place to start. People notice when you do something for them because, regardless of how big or small you may think your actions are, you put their needs ahead of your own. Actions like these speak much louder than any pamphlet ever could.

We shouldn’t be content with simply being recognized for not doing something bad. We should strive to be known for the good things that we do for the benefit of others. May Allah give us all the courage to make the first moves in reaching out to those with whom we come in contact and may He allow for us to foster a sense of understanding and acceptance of all people in our respective communities. Ameen.

Friday 21 October 2011

Department of Homeland Security officer disciplined over anti-Muslim hate comments on Facebook

A veteran officer with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Chicago is being disciplined after posting hundreds of racist and derogatory comments on Facebook.

His name is Roy Egan. Not only were Officer Egan's racial and religious rants open for anyone to see, for years he openly identified himself by name on Facebook and listed his employer as U.S. Homeland Security-TSA, the Transportation Security Administration.

For the past nine years, Egan has worked as a TSA baggage screener at O'Hare Airport. The 46-year-old has noted on his Facebook page, "I look for bad stuff going on airplanes."

But it wasn't Egan's personal data that caught the eye of the I-Team. It was his public postings calling "Islam a cult that glorifies death...and a filthy religion." It is a theme Egan repeated in postings just about every day: that Muslims should be exterminated.

In the garage at Egan's southwest suburban home, the I-Team questioned the nine-year TSA officer about his anti-Muslim statements.

Goudie: You posted those, didn't you?
Egan: It was common stuff I picked off the web and made comments on.
Goudie: What does it say that a TSA officer is saying these kinds of things about Muslims?
Egan: I don't refer to it in my job.

Egan's job is to screen baggage at O'Hare. Since 9/11, the treatment of Muslim travelers and allegations of Middle Eastern profiling, have dogged Homeland Security agencies.

Officer Egan recently posted, "does anything at all make you smile more than a Muslim burning by his own hateful hand." He maintains such beliefs don't interfere with his work.


Thursday 20 October 2011

Hadith of the day: Forgiveness

"Allah the Almighty has said: 'O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me, and hope in Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds in the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I shall forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with an earthful of sins and were you then to face Me, without having associated anything with Me, I shall grant you an earthful of pardon.'" [Al-Tirmidhi]

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Attaining knowledge...

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “Do not attain learning in order to express pride before the ulema (scholars), nor by its help quarrel with foolish people, nor through it try to overwhelm meetings, but he who does so, his destination is fire.”

[As narrated in Ibn Majah]

Saturday 15 October 2011

Duty to parents

God has commanded man to be dutiful to his parents.His mother bore him in

hardship upon hardship,and his weaning lasted two years.(God therefore,commands:)

"Give thanks to Me and to your parents.To Me is your

ultimate return."

Sura Luqman 31:14

Thursday 13 October 2011

UK Muslims Turn Polygamous to Duck Affairs

A growing number of second and third generation Muslims in Britain are reverting to polygamous marriages to avoid having sinful affairs that contradict with the teachings of Islam.

"I love both of them. Obviously you can love one more than the other,” Imran (not his real name), a second generation British Muslim who has two wives, told the BBC News Online on Monday, September 26.

"I spend one day and one night with one, and one day one night with the other," he added.

Imran, who currently runs his own successful business manufacturing Indian desserts, was born and brought up in Birmingham.

At the age of 18, his first marriage was arranged to marry his first wife.

Falling in love with another woman after seven years of his first marriage, the young Muslim chose to marry her to be a second wife instead of having an affair, which is forbidden under Islam.

"It's better than a man being married and then having mistresses on the side when we can do it legitimately and it's perfectly allowed," he says.

"God has created us the way we are, that mankind desires more in wealth in sexual desires.

"The main thing is as long as you are 'just' among them, Islamically what can be more right than that, if you are taking care of them, fulfilling their rights," he says.

Though Imran kept the news about his second wife a secret for a while, he later conveyed the secret to his first wife who gradually accepted the new situation.

Now, Imran says both wives get along together. They even go shopping together with all his children.

Imran is not a sole case.

Khola Hassan, a lecturer in Islamic Law and volunteer on the UK Shari`ah Council, says she has witnessed a sense of a right to polygamy develop, particularly amongst the third generation British Muslims.

Hassan believes that the number of polygamous marriages has increased remarkably over the past 15 years.

British Muslims are estimated at nearly two million.

The number of polygamous British Muslims is not known as British laws bans the practice.

To avoid the ban, Muslims legally marry the first wife, while the other is usually married through a religious ceremony supervised by the UK Shari`ah Council.


Though Islam permits polygamy, many Muslim scholars say that the practice has to be justified to avoid any injustice to either wife.

"If it's purely done for sexual gratification then that in itself is not a valid reason," Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra, a member of the Muslim Council of Britain, says.

Sheikh Mogra puts conditions for marrying a second wife.

The Muslim scholar said that the practice was first allowed following a battle in which many Muslim men martyred.

In order to safeguard their widows and children, many Muslim men were encouraged to take a second wife to sustain them.

Yet, Morga say that Islamic conditions for taking a second wife are clear that if a man cannot treat his wives fairly, justly and equally then he can only marry one woman.

"The moment it becomes secretive, or you start treating one less well than the other then you are contradicting the conditions that the Qur’an sets out."

Islam sees polygamy as a realistic answer to some social woes like adulterous affairs and lamentable living conditions of a widow or a divorced woman.

A Muslim man who seeks a second or a third wife should, however, make sure that he would treat them all on an equal footing, even in terms of compassion.

The Noble Qur'an says that though polygamy is lawful it is very hard for a man to guarantee such fairness.

cannot treat his wives source

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Family planning and Islam

MANY people, especially women, have asked me if family planning is permissible in Islam. They say the imams and ulema say the Quran prohibits family planning and quote a verse which says, “And kill not your children for fear of poverty — We provide for them and for you. Surely the killing of them is a great wrong” (17:31).

In no way does this verse refer to family planning because it is talking of ‘killing’ and you kill one who exists. No law in the world will permit killing one who is already born and hence the Quran rightly condemns the killing of children. Some people suggest that the verse in question refers to the practice of burying girl children alive and when asked they would say they could not provide for them and hence Allah responds that He provides for them.

Imam Razi suggests the verse refers to both male and female children being kept ignorant. Thus killing them has not been used as in killing the body but the mind which is as bad as killing the body. The word used here is ‘awlad’ i.e. children, which includes both male and female.

Imam Razi’s suggestion seems to be quite reasonable and in fact a large family means children cannot be properly educated by poor parents and hence parents ‘kill’ them mentally by keeping them ignorant.

They cannot even clothe them properly nor can they provide proper living space. In such circumstances one cannot raise quality human beings, and quantity does not matter much. That said, we should understand that at the time of the revelation of the Quran, the problem of family planning did not exist, nor did the need for population control.

It is a modern problem which has arisen in our time. Most nation states in the developing world do not have the economic means to support large populations, and when we say supporting large populations it does not mean only feeding them but also includes education and the provision of proper health services. These are the basic duties of modern nation states.

In fact, in view of the paucity of resources, it has become necessary to adopt family planning. When the Quran was being revealed there was neither any properly organised state nor education nor health services being provided by a state agency.
It is important to note that the Quran, which shows eight ways to spend zakat, does not include education or health which is so essential for the state to provide today. Thus what Imam Razi suggests is not only very correct but also enhances the importance of family planning in modern times as a small family can support better education and health services.

It would be interesting to note that as for verse 4:3 (which is used by Muslims for justification of polygamy) Imam Shafi’i interprets it rather differently. It ends with the words alla ta’ulu, which is generally translated as ‘you may not do injustice’ i.e. do not marry more than one woman so that you may not do injustice. But Imam Shafi’i renders it as ‘so that you do not have a large family’. The Quran has already mentioned that ‘if you fear injustice then marry only one’ woman and so there was no need to repeat it. That is why Imam Shafi’i feels it should be translated as ‘so that you do not have a large family’.

It can be seen that in understanding the Quran even very eminent imams and great scholars differed with one another. One should not impose one single meaning of a verse on all Muslims. The Quran could be interpreted differently by different people in their own context and circumstances, as has historically been the practice. Family planning being a modern need, one should not reject it out of hand and quote Quranic verses out of context.

Family planning does not mean killing children after they are born but to plan the birth of children in a way that parents can bear all the expenses for their education, health, living space, upkeep, etc. in a proper manner. The Quran also suggests that a child be suckled for two years, and it is well known that as long as the mother suckles she may not conceive. Thus, indirectly, the Quran suggests spacing between children.

In hadith literature, we find that the Prophet (PBUH) permitted prevention of conceiving in certain circumstances. When a person asked the Prophet for permission for ‘azl (withdrawal) as he was going for a long journey along with his wife and he did not wish his wife to conceive, the Messenger of Allah allowed him. In those days this was the only known method for planning the birth of a child. Today there are several more methods available.

Imam Ghazali allows even termination of pregnancy if the mother’s life is in danger and suggests several methods for termination. He even allows termination of pregnancy on health grounds or if the mother’s beauty is in danger, provided it is in consultation with her husband. Some scholars referring to the verse 23:14 conclude that one can terminate pregnancy up to three months after conception as the Quran, in this verse, describes the stages of development of the sperm planted in the mother’s womb; it takes three months for life to begin.

However, many ulema today oppose the termination of pregnancy. Whatever the case one cannot declare family planning as prohibited in Islam as it in no way amounts to killing a child. Even the termination of a pregnancy is allowed in order to properly plan the birth of a child according to one’s financial resources.


Monday 10 October 2011

Heroic Tale of Holocaust, With a Twist

The stories of the Holocaust have been documented, distorted, clarified and filtered through memory. Yet new stories keep coming, occasionally altering the grand, incomplete mosaic of Holocaust history.

One of them, dramatized in a French film released here last week, focuses on an unlikely savior of Jews during the Nazi occupation of France: the rector of a Paris mosque.

Muslims, it seems, rescued Jews from the Nazis.

“Les Hommes Libres” (“Free Men”) is a tale of courage not found in French textbooks. According to the story, Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the founder and rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, provided refuge and certificates of Muslim identity to a small number of Jews to allow them to evade arrest and deportation.

It was simpler than it sounds. In the early 1940s France was home to a large population of North Africans, including thousands of Sephardic Jews. The Jews spoke Arabic and shared many of the same traditions and everyday habits as the Arabs. Neither Muslims nor Jews ate pork. Both Muslim and Jewish men were circumcised. Muslim and Jewish names were often similar.

The mosque, a tiled, walled fortress the size of a city block on the Left Bank, served as a place to pray, certainly, but also as an oasis of calm where visitors were fed and clothed and could bathe, and where they could talk freely and rest in the garden.

It was possible for a Jew to pass.

“This film is an event,” said Benjamin Stora, France’s pre-eminent historian on North Africa and a consultant on the film. “Much has been written about Muslim collaboration with the Nazis. But it has not been widely known that Muslims helped Jews. There are still stories to be told, to be written.”

The film, directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi, is described as fiction inspired by real events and built around the stories of two real-life figures (along with a made-up black marketeer). The veteran French actor Michael Lonsdale plays Benghabrit, an Algerian-born religious leader and a clever political maneuverer who gave tours of the mosque to German officers and their wives even as he apparently used it to help Jews.

Mahmoud Shalaby, a Palestinian actor living in Israel, plays Salim — originally Simon — Hilali, who was Paris’s most popular Arabic-language singer, a Jew who survived the Holocaust by posing as a Muslim. (To make the assumed identity credible, Benghabrit had the name of Hilali’s grandfather engraved on a tombstone in the Muslim cemetery in the Paris suburb of Bobigny, according to French obituaries about the singer. In one tense scene in the film a German soldier intent on proving that Hilali is a Jew, takes him to the cemetery to identify it.)

The historical record remains incomplete, because documentation is sketchy. Help was provided to Jews on an ad hoc basis and was not part of any organized movement by the mosque. The number of Jews who benefited is not known. The most graphic account, never corroborated, was given by Albert Assouline, a North African Jew who escaped from a German prison camp. He claimed that more than 1,700 resistance fighters — including Jews but also a lesser number of Muslims and Christians — found refuge in the mosque’s underground caverns, and that the rector provided many Jews with certificates of Muslim identity.

In his 2006 book, “Among the Righteous,” Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, uncovered stories of Arabs who saved Jews during the Holocaust, and included a chapter on the Grand Mosque. Dalil Boubakeur, the current rector, confirmed to him that some Jews — up to 100 perhaps — were given Muslim identity papers by the mosque, without specifying a number. Mr. Boubakeur said individual Muslims brought Jews they knew to the mosque for help, and the chief imam, not Benghabrit, was the man responsible.

Mr. Boubakeur showed Mr. Satloff a copy of a typewritten 1940 Foreign Ministry document from the French Archives. It stated that the occupation authorities suspected mosque personnel of delivering false Muslim identity papers to Jews. “The imam was summoned, in a threatening manner, to put an end to all such practices,” the document said.

Mr. Satloff said in a telephone interview: “One has to separate the myth from the fact. The number of Jews protected by the mosque was probably in the dozens, not the hundreds. But it is a story that carries a powerful political message and deserves to be told.”

A 1991 television documentary “Une Résistance Oubliée: La Mosquée de Paris” (“A Forgotten Resistance: The Mosque of Paris”) by Derri Berkani , and a children’s book “The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Saved Jews During the Holocaust,” published in 2007, also explore the events.

The latest film was made in an empty palace in Morocco, with the support of the Moroccan government. The Paris mosque refused to grant permission for any filming. “We’re a place of worship,” Mr. Boubakeur said in an interview. “There are prayers five times a day. Shooting a film would have been disruptive.”

Benghabrit fell out of favor with fellow Muslims because he opposed Algerian independence and stayed loyal to France’s occupation of his native country. He died in 1954.

In doing research for the film, Mr. Ferroukhi and even Mr. Stora learned new stories. At one screening a woman asked him why the film did not mention the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European origin who had been saved by the mosque. Mr. Stora said he explained that the mosque didn’t intervene on behalf of Ashkenazi Jews, who did not speak Arabic or know Arab culture.

“She told me: ‘That’s not true. My mother was protected and saved by a certificate from the mosque,’ ” Mr. Stora said.

On Wednesday, the day of the film’s release here, hundreds of students from three racially and ethnically mixed Paris-area high schools were invited to a special screening and question-and-answer session with Mr. Ferroukhi and some of his actors.

Some asked banal questions. Where did you find the old cars? (From an antique car rental agency.) Others reacted with curiosity and disbelief, wanting to know how much of the film was based on fact, and how it could have been possible that Jews mingled easily with Muslims. Some were stunned to hear that the Nazis persecuted only the Jews, and left the Muslims alone.

Reviews here were mixed on the film, which is to be released in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Belgium. (American rights have been sold as well.) The daily Le Figaro said it “reconstitutes an atmosphere and a period marvelously.” The weekly L’Express called it “ideal for a school outing, less for an evening at the movies.”

Mr. Ferroukhi does not care. He said he was lobbying the Culture and Education Ministries to get the film shown in schools. “It pays homage to the people of our history who have been invisible,” he said. “It shows another reality, that Muslims and Jews existed in peace. We have to remember that — with pride.”


Sunday 9 October 2011

Pakistan's blasphemy laws have left even judges in fear of their lives

So he's going to swing – perhaps. On Saturday a Pakistani judge sentenced Mumtaz Qadri, the police bodyguard who assassinated the Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, to death by hanging. The young policeman smiled and thanked God. "My dream has come true," he reportedly said.

It was a predictably theatrical turn from Qadri, a former nobody who murdered Taseer in cowardly fashion – shooting the governor 27 times in the back – and who has since revelled in the notoriety of his blood-stained celebrity. Equally predictable, alas, was the reaction on the streets outside.

Close to the courtroom in Rawalpindi, angry young men attacked a monument to the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, defacing her image on the spot where she died in a suicide bombing in 2007. Down in Lahore, turbaned men with long sticks surged through the ancient Anarkali bazaar, thrashing traders who refused to shutter their shops in sympathy for Qadri.

Meanwhile the clerics engineering the protests – old men with soft palms and tinder-dry beards – issued po-faced statements decrying the sentence. Qadri was a good Muslim, they insisted, and Taseer got what he deserved. The governor had offended them by advocating reforms to Pakistan's antiquated blasphemy laws. In particularly they hated him for defending Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother-of-five sentenced to death under those laws last November. He deserved to die, they said.

Taseer's wife and children, in contrast, were silent. They stayed at home, busy worrying about their son and sibling, Shahbaz. The 27-year-old was kidnapped in August as he purred through Lahore in a sports Mercedes – his father's old car, in fact. Word has it he is being held in the tribal badlands of Waziristan; whether his captors are religious extremists, common criminals, or both, remains unclear.

The family is also reeling from character assaults. When Taseer was still alive, conservatives circulated photos of his children, lifted from their Facebook pages, showing them engaged in objectionable activity, such as dating and swimming in a swimming pool. After Taseer died, Qadri's lawyers aired allegations about his sex life, drinking habits and apparent taste for pork – proof, they said, of a licentiousness that justified his cold-blooded murder.

The distasteful spectacle is partly a product of Pakistan's social gulf. The Taseers inhabit the gilded bubble of a tiny elite whose westernised lives play out in Hello!-style photospreads of society magazines. In fact the Taseers own one of the most popular magazines. But it also goes to the heart of a bigger ideological crisis.

In theory, Pakistan is a country that welcomes all creeds and castes. But in practice it is proving to be anything but. Ask Faryal Bhatti, a teenage girl recently expelled from school for the crime of bad spelling.

A week ago last Thursday, the 13-year-old Christian girl was sitting an Urdu exam which involved a poem about the prophet Muhammad when she dropped a dot on the Urdu word naat (a devotional hymn to the prophet), accidentally turning it intolanaat, or damnation. Spotting the error, her teacher scolded her, beat her and reported the matter to the principal. The news soon flamed through her community in Havelian, 30 miles north of Islamabad.

Mullahs raged against Bhatti in their sermons; a school inquiry was hastily convened to examine the matter. Bhatti was expelled; her mother, a government nurse, was banished to another town, and the family has since fled Havelian in fear of their lives. All over a missing dot.

What accounts for such madness? In some parts Taseer's death has inspired a McCarthyite atmosphere in which nobody wants to seen to be soft on blasphemy. But there is also a more profound reason. Devotion to the prophet Muhammad is central to the faith of the Barelvi Sunnis, who make up the majority of Pakistani Muslims. Even a whiff of insult to the prophet can whip up feverish anger.

The core problem, in fact, is that the blasphemy furore exposes the fragility of the Pakistani state – ideological, legal and security-wise. The mixing of religion and politics has long troubled Pakistan, but over the past 30 years that dangerous cocktail has been spiked by the army's policy of nurturing extremists – hence men like Qadri who believe they have a right to kill in the name of God.

Meanwhile President Asif Ali Zardari's government has shown zero leadership when it comes to reforming the blasphemy law – in fact, cowardly ministers have run a mile from any suggestion of change. And those who do dare to stand up for progress – or just the rule of law – live in fear of the next Qadri-style hit.

In truth, Taseer's baby-faced killer is unlikely to be hanged any time soon. A lengthy appeals process is just starting, and the Zardari government has imposed an unofficial moratorium on capital punishment. But the judge who sentenced him, Pervez Ali Shah, faces perhaps shorter odds.

Judges who rule the "wrong" way on blasphemy face immense dangers in Pakistan. In 1997 extremists burst into the chambers of a high court judge who acquitted an accused blasphemer three years earlier, and shot him dead. Justice Shah will be fearing a repeat.

Reporters at Qadri's hearing on Saturday noted that the judge slipped from the courtroom via the back door. He knows he is a marked man. Now only time will tell if the discredited Pakistani state can stand up for at least one good man.


Friday 7 October 2011

How to react to calamities

“If Allah strikes me with calamity I will thank Allah for four things:

1) That the test was not in my deen.

2) The calamity could have been worse.

3) It is an expiation for my sins.

4) Any loss after losing the Prophet (salla Allah ‘alihi wasallam) is nothing"

(Quote from Umar Ibn Al-Khattab on how he reacted to calamities)

Thursday 6 October 2011

In uphill effort, Muslims seek Israeli converts

JERUSALEM: In an unprecedented endeavor, a few Muslim believers are crossing the Holy Land’s volatile boundaries of culture, faith and politics to bring Islam to Israel’s Jews — hoping, improbably, that some will be willing to renounce their religion for a new one.

The bearded men approach Jews in and around the Old City of Jerusalem and try, in polite and fluent Hebrew, to convert them.

“I must tell you about the true faith,” said one missionary in a cobblestone plaza outside Jerusalem’s Old City. He carried a knapsack full of pamphlets about Islam in several languages, including Hebrew. “You can do with it what you want. But telling you is our duty.”

Most people, he said, brush him off and keep walking.

A computer programr educated at an Israeli college, he sported a scraggly beard, loose pants and a long shirt typical of the purist Muslims known as Salafis. He gave his name only as Abu Hassan.

There are no signs the endeavor has met with any success. Only about a dozen Muslims are involved. Most of the handful of Jews who convert do so to marry Muslim men, rather than from proselytizing. Still, the act of spreading Islam in Hebrew is profound, reflecting a striking confidence on the part of some Muslims, members of Israel’s Arab minority.

It also reflects the influence of conservative Islamic trends that emphasize spreading the religion, transmitted through web forums and satellite channels from Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Abu Hassan said that in years of conflict with Israel, Muslims, embattled and angry, neglected their responsibility to preach their faith to nonbelievers, including Jews.

“Muslims did not want to talk, and Jews did not want to listen. But Jews also need to hear the truth,” he said.

Yitzhak Reiter, a professor at the Jerusalem Center for Israel Studies, said he had not seen anything similar in 30 years of studying local Islam. “This is the first time that someone has tried to convert Jews to Islam in the state of Israel,” he said.

The efforts seem to have attracted no public notice so far. But the missionaries are treading on a potentially explosive taboo. Centuries of persecution and aggressive conversion attempts by Christian and Muslim majorities have made Jews, numbering 13 million people worldwide, deeply hostile to proselytizing. Israeli law places some restrictions on missionary activity, forbidding targeting minors or offering financial incentives, but does not outlaw it altogether.

The Holy Land’s Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities all hold strong religious, tribal and ethnic bonds and deeply resist conversion. The result is a sort of loose understanding not to push the boundaries.

Azzam Khatib, a top Muslim official in Jerusalem, said the efforts to proselytize in Hebrew were not mainstream, but acceptable: “Whoever wants to join, they are welcome — but without any pressure.”

Four years ago, Abu Hassan said, an Israeli Jew approached him with questions about Islam. At the time, he was distributing Islamic material to foreign tourists around the Old City.

Abu Hassan realized there was almost no missionary Muslim literature in Hebrew, so he and a few associates put together a Hebrew booklet. Since then, he said, they have distributed several thousand copies, he said.

Titled “The Path to Happiness,” the booklet invites the reader to “think, and take advantage of this invaluable opportunity in which we are trying to take your hand and lead you to the eternal light.”

The missionaries are wary of revealing personal details, fearing harassment. Somebody has already hacked Abu Hassan’s cell phone, changing his voice mail message to a string of Hebrew curses against him and Muhammad, the Muslim prophet.

Most of those Abu Hassan engages ignore him, he said. Many are derisive, some verbally abusive. At one point Israeli intelligence agents questioned him about his funding, he said. He told them it came from donations in mosques.

“People curse me. But I do my job, and this is my job as a Muslim. I must explain gently, and in a nice way, about Allah,” he said.

He dodged questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying only that historically the “best times” for Jews came under Islamic rule and suggesting peace would come if Jews accepted Islam.

Abu Hassan and his companions are informally linked to a small, three-year-old organization known as the Mercy Committee for New Muslims, founded by Emad Younes, a charismatic, blue-eyed preacher from the north Israel town of Ara.

Younes said the committee is not primarily aimed at winning converts. It helps those who do convert adapt to life as Muslims and seeks to explain a moderate version of Islam to non-Muslims, particularly Israeli Jews, by distributing promotional material.

The number of converts remains tiny.

Israel’s Justice Ministry, which registers converts, could not say how many Jews become Muslims. It said 400 and 500 of Israel’s nearly 8 million people change their faith every year — many of them Christians joining different Christian sects. Reiter, the professor, said his research suggested about 20 converts a year to Islam, almost all women marrying Muslim men.

Younes of the Mercy Committee said most new converts were indeed women married to Muslims, and the majority were originally from the former Soviet Union, part of the 1990s wave of Eastern European immigration to Israel. The newcomers are less susceptible to taboos against intermarriage and conversion.

At a recent gathering for new Muslims, 55 converts came with their families — five of them native-born Israeli Jews, all of them women, Younes said.

One woman, a 20-year-old, converted in June to marry her Muslim husband.

“The Muslims greeted me with love I never got from my parents, and the women here say, ‘You’re one of us now,’” she said, giving only her new Arabic first name, Yasmin.

Yasmin lives in the Arab town of Taibeh in central Israel, a short drive from the traditional Jewish home in which she grew up. But she can’t go back since her family, too, has disowned her.

“I have nothing now but my husband and Islam,” she said.


Tuesday 4 October 2011

Will Israel still exist in 2048?

The bigger and longer-term question relates not to the existence, or even the viability of a Palestinian state – which should be a given. The demographics, economics and politics all point the same way. It relates to the future, and long-term survival, of Israel. In short, will Israel, as the Jewish state, still be around to celebrate its centenary in 2048?

Let me make it absolutely clear: the question is not whether Israel should continue to exist. That is beyond doubt. It is a legally constituted state with full UN recognition. It is a stable, albeit fractious, democracy and has survived more than 60 years in a distinctly hostile neighbourhood. It has created a thriving economy, with intensive agriculture and advanced industry, from almost nothing. It has a rich cultural life. It is not alone in having borders that are not finally demarcated and are regarded by some as illegal. The fact that it has enemies who withhold recognition does not negate its legitimacy.

No, the question is not whether Israel should survive, but whether it can and will survive. And here there must be room at the very least for doubt. A string of recent developments contains hints that the state of Israel, as currently constituted, may not be a permanent feature of the international scene.

One is the new porousness of its borders. Despite massive spending on security and recent, controversial, efforts to erect physical barriers along what Israel defines as its border with the Palestinian Authority, its other frontiers have become, or threaten to become, porous. On several weekends in May and June, Palestinians in Syria breached the border with Israel. They did not use overwhelming force. Numbers were enough, against Israeli troops – rightly – reluctant to mow down dozens of young people.

The incursions appeared to be encouraged, if not actually incited, by the Syrian authorities seeking a diversion from their own difficulties. They have since ceased; but the threat remains, and could soon escalate were the situation in Syria to deteriorate. If, in the worst case, Syria descended into civil war, chaos could present an even greater danger to Israel because there would be no one in Damascus with the authority to call the crowds of frustrated young Palestinians back.

Something similar, perhaps even less tractable, applies in the south, on Israel's border with Egypt. Sinai is a vast territory and hard to patrol. Security on the Egyptian side has already deteriorated as a by-product of the fall of the Mubarak regime, and there have been attacks on Israeli convoys in the Negev. If unrest in Syria and Egypt were to extend to Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, the consequences for Israel's security could be even worse.

Add to these growing security problems the demographics – very young and fast-increasing populations in the countries all around – and it is clear that present trends will not easily be reversed. It is just about possible to imagine Israel resorting to the sort of impenetrable fortifications that extend along stretches of the US frontier with Mexico, but the investment would be huge, the message one of isolation, and the effect on daily life in Israel almost entirely negative.

A second reason why Israelis might be justified in having qualms about their future relates to the political aftermath of the Arab Spring. For a long time the fear was that any change in Arab countries would bring Islamist regimes to power, with fiercely anti-Israel agendas. That still cannot be ruled out. But what has happened so far could have more insidious consequences for Israel. Not only is the Jewish state losing its kudos as the sole democracy in the region, but those Arab leaders who actively supported peace have lost, or are losing, power, and the US is giving up on intervention.

One hope was that the emergence of more democratic regimes around Israel might foster a climate of normalisation and mutual respect. That may yet happen. But another effect is that leaders will have to be more responsive to the wishes of their people. As can already be discerned with Egypt, this may not bode well for stability in Arab-Israel relations. With the Arab Spring also bolstering the self-confidence of the Palestinians – a factor in Mr Abbas's decision to take his case to the UN last week – the political balance in the region is shifting.

A third reason for doubt about Israel's future lies within the Jewish state itself. With the early pioneering spirit fading, and even the Holocaust – dare one hazard – less of a unifying force, Israel is not the same country it was 60, 30, even 10 years ago. And demography means that it will continue to change, with the Arab, Orthodox Jewish and second-generation Russian populations increasing much faster than other groups. The Israel of the next 30 years is likely to be more divided, less productive, more inward-looking and more hawkish than it is today – but without the financial means and unquestioning sense of duty that inspired young people to defend their homeland by force of arms.

Recent mass protests against inequality and the cost of middle-class living also suggest that the social solidarity that has prevailed hitherto could break down. In such circumstances, it must be asked how much longer Israel can maintain the unity it has always presented against what it terms the "existential threat".

An Israel whose borders are leaky, which is surrounded by states that are at once chaotic and assertive, and whose citizens are less able or willing than they were to fight, could face real serious questions about its viability. The choice then might be between a fortress state, explicitly protected by nuclear weapons, and a state so weak that association, or federation, with the burgeoning independent Palestine would become plausible: the so-called one-state solution by other means.

In either event, those with other options – the younger, more educated, more cosmopolitan sections of the population – might well seek their future elsewhere, leaving the homeland of their ancestors' dreams a husk of its former self. The emotive call, "Next year in Jerusalem" would be the wistful vestige of a noble ambition overtaken by cruel demographic and geopolitical reality.


Sunday 2 October 2011

Saturday 1 October 2011

Struggling For Acceptance

Coming to Islam was difficult for me. I had long sensed the truth in principles like Tawheed, the ‘Oneness’ of God, and in the veracity of the Holy Qur’an. Yet I was a product of my environment and therefore privileged, selfish, and self-absorbed. I thought only of the things I would lose when I converted: friends, love affairs, respect from colleagues, and of course reading a book in the dark corner of a bar while nursing a cold beer on a hot day. These things were part of what I based my identity on, so I felt I would be losing myself if and when I became Muslim.

Somewhere inside this bundle of self-absorption focusing on loss was the very real fear that even when I did declare myself a Muslim, I would never live up to others’ expectations. After all, the group of Muslim friends I was blessed with seemed to shoulder their responsibilities with no effort at all. I felt I could never project the dignity and self-assurance they did when going into a masjid. Most of all, I felt like I couldn’t live up to what Allah subhanahu wa ta`la (exalted is He) expected of me.

Though Islam teaches us that the deen (lifstyle) is the perfect balance between asceticism and sensory overload, I knew that praying five times every day and fasting during the month of Ramadan would be unbelievably challenging. If I were so sure about Islam being the truth, then any hesitation I had in jumping in headfirst, would prove my lack of dedication and love for Allah (swt) and his Messenger ﷺ , peace be upon him. I mispronounced an important part of my prayers for almost a year, and when I discovered my mistake I was inconsolable. If I cared so much, if I were really a Muslim, then why couldn’t I do everything perfectly or at least put in the effort to not make such a silly and awful mistake?

When I finally did take my shahadah (declaration of Muslim faith) and began to share this with friends and family, the response from some loved ones was harsh and alienating. I felt myself slipping into despair. How could I ever balance my obligations and not lose everything as a result? My identity was in turmoil.

The turning point was when I stood in front of an Israeli soldier holding my passport. I had travelled hours with my friend through the West Bank in order to visit the Holy Sanctuary in Jerusalem and pray at Al-Aqsa. As Jerusalem is under military occupation, there are several checkpoints to enter the area. It was a long and sweltering journey, but I had little reason to complain – my Palestinian friends who lived in Nablus and Ramallah hadn’t been allowed to visit Jerusalem in years, and I felt guilty that I had the privilege just because of my nationality. Yet things were not going to be so easy after all! Here I was with my friend Urmy – who I had just met the day before- stuck at the last checkpoint within sight of a flashing gold dome. The soldier looked at the passport and then at my face with amused skepticism. “You are Muslim?” he asked.

Alhamduillah, yes.” I answered.

“Was your father a Muslim?”

I answered in the negative. He laughed, tossed my passport back at me, and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. I had been to Palestine before and calmly faced Israeli soldiers with composure in nearly every sort of stressful situation, but never like this. I was glad that I was wearing sunglasses, because as he waved me away and motioned for the line to move along, the tears came quickly of their own accord. I was dumbstruck. I covered my mouth with my hand to hide my anguish and tried not to collapse where I stood. And Allah listens to those who pray.

“Wait, wait – you can’t do that!” my friend Urmy immediately swept in, armed with righteous anger. She had been born into Islam and we hardly knew each other, but her hand on my back and firm confidence in her voice helped me remain standing. “She’s a Muslim!”

“Her father is not Muslim, so she is not a Muslim,” the soldier said with a smile.

“How dare you!” she cried, putting her arm around my shoulder. “Who gave you that kind of authority?” As her voice rose, a crowd began to gather. Muslims from all over the world had come to visit the Holy Sanctuary and pray at Al-Aqsa. They were all from different backgrounds and spoke different languages. To my wonder and astonishment, they began to argue with the soldier on my behalf.

“Can’t you see how upset you are making her?” chided a south-Asian man.

“Let her go instead of me!” said another with an accent from West Africa.

“You can’t decide who is and isn’t Muslim!” a woman cried.

Someone pressed a tissue into my hand and I wiped my face. The soldier was looking nervous as the crowd began to grow larger. He was arguing loudly with all of them, but another soldier thought it wiser to get an official from the Waqf – the Jordanian delegation that manages the area – to come out. He arrived and said in a very kind voice, “Will you recite theshahadah?” I nodded yes and blurted it out between sniffles. He turned to my friend and asked her the same, and she too recited it for him. He gestured for us to pass the checkpoint. Urmy trembled with frustration, but I felt as though I had lost a giant weight off my shoulders.

I will never forget the incredible kindness emanating from my fellow Muslims that day. It is not easy to find the courage to stand up for what is right, but for these upright strangers, it seemed effortless. I felt as though Allah swt had bestowed upon me an incredible mercy and blessing with this lesson. I had been afraid that my history and privilege would not only keep me from being accepted by Allah swt and his Ummah, but would also keep me from accepting myself as a Muslim.

I see now that it does not matter whom my parents were, what color my skin is, or what my passport says. So long as I witness that there was no god worthy of my worship but God and Muhammad is his Messenger, I am a Muslim.

This incident set me on the road towards self-acceptance and finding my place in Islam. The relationship between Urmy and I has deepened into sisterhood, and I found more and more support from the Ummah as I went along. That support is heaven sent and has greatly helped me develop as a Muslim. I would never say my character flaws have been ironed out because of my conversion, but I can more easily pinpoint them as sources of suffering and find that Islam offers the perfect tools needed to tackle my nafs.

I was afraid that I had to be perfect to become Muslim. Now I realize that balancing this struggle is at the root of submission to God. As long as I make the effort, I see the rewards tumble into my life threefold. It takes perspective and patience to interpret the blessings sometimes, as I still struggle through Ramadan and my five-daily-prayers, but I am beyond grateful.

I once thought that Islam would mean me losing things – now I see that I have gained countless blessings in this life and the key to paradise in the next.