Blog Archive

Blog Archive – December, 2014

Books Old and New from My 2014 Desktop

December 30, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

OK; it’s yearend review time.  As for recommendations, send me yours.

Mine is not a list of new releases. Those who know me recognize that I’m moving backwards; (a positive move, I’d argue). That is to say, I’m not reading the latest Arab American novel or anything from NYT’s glorified bestseller list.

It’s not that I can’t keep up. (Indeed I can’t.)  I’m too occupied with volumes I ignored decades ago. Since the 1970s, I plodded through obligatory tomes by anthropology theorists, Nepal ethnographers, or misinformed, myopic Tibetologists, all in pursuit of academic ‘authority’.

I pored over student papers as well as countless scholarly articles on Himalayan cultural trivia until journalism liberated me. Only to land in a culture of phony political experts: people who after a week in Iraq or who’d never once visited joined the media chorus, first to support US embargo policies to crush Iraq, then to cheer an invasion to ‘liberate’ its people. Parallel to that I dared face the self-perpetuating gang of Zionist writers with its remarkable ability to reinvent Israeli rationale to fit each shift in Middle East existence and intimidate every US leader.

By the time American veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan began writing award-winning memoirs to redefine heroism and fashion history to US needs, I’d grasped the central role of literature in serving American ideals of righteousness and exceptionalism. No made-for-film war books for me.

So, what am I reading? First the work of two remarkable authors, both British, both living to the age of 94, both prodigious writers. It was their recent deaths—Doris Lessing in 2013 and P.D. James in 2014-- that signaled how little I knew about either. Lessing I remembered as writer of children caught in dystopian worlds. But I’d never opened her most notable book “The Golden Notebook”. Unprepared as I often am, I launched into it unsure where she would lead me, then slowly awakened to her brilliance and the book’s enduring place in women’s history. The character of “Golden Notebook”’s heroines is now deeply embedded in modern feminist thought. As for mystery writer P.D. James, I’m agreeably working my way through her novels nowadays, pausing to reread passages and ponder her mastery of the English language. I want to study her style, book by 20 book, through all of 2015 (while still pursuing brain science).

Another author I came to belatedly is British biologist Richard Dawkins, best known today for his controversial advocacy of atheism, (and his concomitant loathing of Muslims). I set aside that and pick up Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” first published in 1976! My goodness, how could this anthropologist have missed that? A brilliant idea, doubtless relevant to the advancement of theories in anthropology, the ‘selfish gene’ also led to the concept of ‘meme’. Today ‘meme’ seems to have unraveled itself from Dawkins to simply mean ‘replica’. A pity since the original concept is far more profound. Determined not to shortcut the scientific process via Wikipedia, I struggle through 400 pages to see how Dawkins arrived at his selfish gene.  

 “The World Is Flat” (2005) by journalist Thomas Friedman is a much easier idea to grasp, so easy that it has defied critical analysis and enjoys an unchallenged place in contemporary economic thought. Still, I ask: what respectable anthropologist can accept this formula? It annoys me that a journalist whose views on the Middle East I dislike so intensely, popularized this brilliant although biased idiom and demonstrates the economic transformation of our economy through the history of digitization and the internet. I await a new edition by someone who’ll demonstrate why Friedman’s 10-year old book is really “The Capitalist World Is Flat”. Friedman’s success is surely tied to his total embrace of the US-led global marketplace.

But I’ve found one thinker closer to my heart—Slavoj Zizek. He writes about everything, somehow applying philosophers Hegel and Nietzsche to the ills, injustices and innovations of our world:—police brutality, pornography of torture, anti-Muslim popularism, perpetuity of racism, Nintendo gaming, and so on. My kind of cultural analyst; I’m starting with his 2008 book “Violence”.

As for books still on my list Rabih Alahmeddine and Laila Lalami have novels for us to celebrate: “An Unnecessary Woman” and “The Moor’s Account”.

And here’s another closeted Arab American we can boast about. Remember the hit film “Thelma and Louise”? Its scriptwriter is Texas-based Callie Khouri who also directed “Mad Money” and “Nashville”. Yes, Khouri is one of us.  

Sending all my prayers to all for new adventures in good health and with worthy, joy-loving companions in 20015

[ Books Old and New from My 2014 Desktop ]

Ali Mazrui (1933-2014) 1997 essay “Islamic Values, The Liberal Ethic and the West”, part 3

December 28, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Part 3 Life Among the Believers

Many of the issues (outlined in parts 1 and 2) are bound up with religion. Westerners consider many problems or flaws of the Muslim world products of Islam and pride their societies and their governments on their purported secularism. But when it comes to separation of church and state, how long and wide is the distance between the two cultures?

    A central question is whether a theocracy can ever be democratized. British history since Henry VIII’s establishment of the Church of England in 1531 proves that it can be. The English theocracy was democratized first by making democracy stronger and later by making the theocracy weaker. The major democratic changes had to wait until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the vote was extended to new social classes and finally to women. The Islamic Republic of Iran is less than two decades old, but already there seem to be signs of softening theocracy and the beginnings of liberalization. Nor must we forget Muslim monarchies that have taken initial steps toward liberalization. Jordan has gone further than most others in legalizing opposition groups. But even Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states have begun to use the Islamic concept of shura (consultative assembly) as a guide to democracy.

    The West has sought to protect minority religions through secularism. It has not always worked. The Holocaust in secular Germany was the worst case. And even today, anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe is disturbing, as are anti-Muslim trends in France.

    The United States has had separation of church and state under the Constitution for over 200 years, but American politics is hardly completely secular. Only once has the electorate chosen a non-Protestant president – and the Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy won by such a narrow margin, amid such allegation of electoral fraud, that we will never know for certain whether a majority of Americans actually voted for him. Jews have distinguished themselves in many fields, but they have so far avoided competing for the White House, and there is still a fear of unleashing the demon of anti-Semitism among Christian fundamentalists. There are now more Muslims – an estimated six millions – than Jews in the United States, yet anti-Muslim feeling and the success of appeals to Christian sentiment among voters make it extremely unlikely that Americans will elect a Muslim head of state anytime in the foreseeable future. Even the appointment of a Muslim secretary of commerce, let alone an attorney general, is no more than a distant conjecture because of the political fallout that all administrations fear. When First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton entertained Muslim leaders at the White House last year to mark a special Islamic festival, a Wall Street Journal article cited that as evidence that friends of Hamas had penetrated the White House. In Western Europe, too, there are now millions of Muslims, but history is still awaiting the appointment of the first to a cabinet

position in Britain, France, or Germany.

    Islam, on the other hand, has tried to protect minority religions through

ecumenicalism throughout its history. Jews and Christians had special status as People of the Book – a fraternity of monotheists. Other religious minorities were later also accorded the status of protected minorities (dhimmis). The approach has had its successes. Jewish scholars rose to high positions in Muslim Spain. During the Ottoman Empire, Christians sometimes attained high political office: Suleiman I (1520-1566) had Christian ministers in his government, as did Selim III (1789-1807). The Moghul Empire integrated Hindus and Muslims into a consolidated Indian state; Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) carried furthest the Moghul policy of bringing Hindus into the government. In the 1990s Iraq has had a Chaldean Christian deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz. And Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a Coptic Christian, would never have been appointed secretary-general of the United Nations if not for his long and distinguished service in the foreign ministry of an otherwise Muslim government in Egypt.

    The Republic of Senegal in West Africa, which is nearly 95 percent Muslim, had a Roman Catholic president for two decades (1960-80). In his years presiding over that relatively open society, Léopold Sédar Senghor never once had to deal with anti-Christian disturbances in the streets of Dakar. His political opponents called him a wide range of derogatory names –hypocrite, stooge of the French, dictator, political prostitute – but virtually never taunted him for being a kafir (infidel).

    When Senghor became the first African head of state to retire voluntarily from office, Abdou Diouf, a Muslim, succeeded him, and he remains president today. But the ecumenical story of Senegal did not end there; the first lady is Catholic. Can one imagine an American president candidate confessing on Larry King Live, "Incidentally, my wife is a Shiite Muslim"? That would almost certainly mark the end of his hopes for the White House.

    One conclusion to be drawn from all this is that Westerners are far less secular in their political behavior than they think they are. Another is that Muslim societies historically have been more ecumenical, and therefore more humane, than their Western critics have recognized. Islamic ecumenicalism has sometimes protected religions minorities more effectively than Western secularism.

 

Between the Dazzling and the Depraved

Cultures should be judged not merely by the heights of achievement to which they have ascended but by the depths of brutality to which they have descended. The measure of cultures is not only their virtues but also their vices.

    In the twentieth century, Islam has not often proved fertile ground for

democracy and its virtues. On the other hand, Islamic culture has not been

hospitable to Nazism, fascism, or communism, unlike Christian culture (as in

Germany, Italy, Russia, Czechoslovakia), Buddhist culture (Japan before and

during World War II, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Vietnam, North Korea), or Confucian

culture (Mao’s China). The Muslim world has never yet given rise to systematic fascism and its organized brutalities. Hafiz al-Assad’s Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq have been guilty of large-scale violence, but fascism also requires an ideology of repression that has been absent in the two countries. And apart from the dubious case of Albania, communism has never independently taken hold in a Muslim culture.

    Muslims are often criticized for not producing the best, but they are seldom congratulated for an ethic that has averted the worst. There are no Muslim equivalents of Nazi extermination camps, nor Muslim conquests by genocide on the scale perpetrated by Europeans in the Americas and Australia, nor Muslim equivalents of Stalinist terror, Pol Pot’s killing fields, or the starvation and uprooting of tens of millions in the name of Five Year Plans. Nor are there Muslim versions of apartheid like that once approved by the South African Dutch Reformed Church, or of the ferocious racism of Japan before 1945, or of the racist culture of the Old South in the United States with its lynchings and brutalization of black people.

    Islam brings to the calculus of universal justice some protection from the abyss of human depravity. Historically, the religion and the civilization have been resistant to forces that contributed to the worst aspects of the twentieth century’s interludes of barbarism: racism, genocide, and violence within society.

    First, Islam has been relatively resistant to racism. The Koran confronts the issue of national and ethnic differences head on. The standard of excellence it sets has nothing to do with race, but is instead moral and religious worth – what the Koran calls "piety" and what Martin Luther King, Jr., called "the content of one’s character." An oft-quoted verse of the Koran reads: O people! We have created you from a male and a female, and have made you nations and tribes so that you may know one another. The noblest among you is the most pious. Allah is all-knowing.

 

In his farewell address, delivered on his last pilgrimage to Mecca in A.D. 632, Muhammad declared: "There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, and indeed, no superiority of a red man over a black man except through the piety and fear of God… Let those who are present convey this message to those who are absent."

    Unlike Christian churches, the mosque has never been segregated by race. One of Muhammad’s most beloved companions was an Ethiopian, Bilal Rabah, a freed slave who rose to great prominence in early Islam. Under Arab lineage systems and kinship traditions, racial intermarriage was not discouraged and the children were considered Arab regardless of who the mother was. These Arab ways influenced Muslim societies elsewhere. Of the four presidents of Egypt since the revolution of 1952, two had black African ancestors – Muhammad Nagib and Anwar al-Sadat.

    Islam has a doctrine of Chosen Language (Arabic) but no Chosen People. Since the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine I in A.D. 313, Christianity has been led if not dominated by Europeans. But the leadership of the Muslim world has changed hands several times: from the mainly Arab Umayyad dynasty (661-750) to the multiethnic Abbasid dynasty (750-1258) to the Ottoman Empire (1453-1922), dominated by the Turks. And this history is quite apart from such flourishing Muslim dynasties as the Moghuls of India and the Safavids of Persia or the sub-Saharan empires of Mali and Songhai. The diversification of Muslim leadership – in contrast to the Europeanization of Christian leadership – helped the cause of relative racial equality in Islamic culture.

    Partly because of Islam’s relatively nonracial nature, Islamic history has been free of systematic efforts to obliterate a people. Islam conquered by co-optation, intermarriage, and conversion rather than by genocide.

    Incidents in Muslim history, it is true, have caused large-scale loss of life. During Turkey’s attempt in 1915 to deport the entire Armenian population of about 1,750,000 to Syria and Palestine, hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps up to a million, died of starvation or were murdered on the way. But – though this does not exonerate Turkey or its responsibility for the deaths – Armenians had provoked Turkey by organizing volunteer battalions to help Russia fight against it in World War I. Nor is the expulsion of a people from a territory, however disastrous its consequences, equivalent to the Nazi Holocaust, which systematically took the lives of six million Jews and members of other despised groups. Movement of people between India and Pakistan after partitioning 1947 also resulted in thousands of deaths en route.

    Saddam Hussein’s use of poison gas against Kurdish villages in Iraq in 1988 is more clearly comparable to Nazi behavior. But Saddam’s action was the use of an illegitimate weapon in a civil war rather than a planned program to destroy the Kurdish people; it was an evil incident rather than a program of genocide. Many people feel that President Harry S Truman’s dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was also an evil episode. There is a difference between massacre and genocide. Massacres have been perpetrated in almost every country on earth, but only a few cultures have been guilty of genocide.

    Nor did Islam ever spawn an Inquisition in which the burning of heretics at the stake was sanctioned. Cultures that had condemned human beings to burn and celebrated as they died in the flames, even hundreds of years before, were more likely to tolerate the herding of a whole people of another faith into gas chambers. Islam has been a shield against such excesses of evil.

For More on Mazrui see a)b)  and check out his courageous and censored TV series The Africans: A Triple Heritage 

[ Ali Mazrui (1933-2014) 1997 essay “Islamic Values, The Liberal Ethic and the West”, part 3 ]


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