Is religious nationalism relevant today?

Is Zionism relevant today? Or for that matter Hindutva or Islamism?  Whether it is India, with its ruling party – the BJP, which has a strong Hindu revivalist motif or Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power, after a debacle of sorts, religion and religious parties continue to challenge our understanding of politics and public life. The question that is of interest to me is: Are these religious nationalist parties relevant? Is the idea of religious nationalism – by which I mean a political party or group that uses strong religious symbolism to create its nationalistic identity – relevant? What sort of a world does this lead to and more crucially, can we all live with a ‘plural’ understanding of what it means to be a citizen of a country?

Recent scholarship has challenged our understanding of public religions. For instance, Jose Casanova, a prominent scholar of sociology of religion has written extensively about the phenomenon of ‘Public Religions in the Modern World,’ where he argues that our understanding of privatization of religion perhaps needs revision, given that it evolved in the context of Western Europe’s enlightenment. The battles fought between the Church and the ‘enlightened’ were real – and often bloody- before the Church gave in and realized that religion had to be a ‘private’ issue. But we are once again, seeing the ‘return to religion,’ across the world. Or is it that religion never really left the public sphere, but scholars and observers just didn’t write about it or frame the discussion of religion using that understanding?

Casanova himself argues that his own understanding of public religion was flawed primarily because it was ‘Western-centric’ and also that there needs to be a more ‘global comparative’ component to transnational religions. This means that one cannot directly apply the ideas of how religion is supposed to operate in the West on the non-Western world.  As he suggests, religion and ‘secularism’ themselves are constructs that emerged in a Western model of society and one that may call for reexamination, given the historical development of how this model of the world has changed.

As a Muslim who grew up in India, I am always surprised in ways that my own understanding of Islam – as a force for social organization – differs from that of others who grew up in Muslim majority countries. I have had discussions, debates and arguments with folk who want to see Islam as a ‘perfect’ system that doesn’t need change. I fail to understand how they don’t see their ‘Islam’ as a constructed reality, not an immutable and unchanging idea. Which ‘Islam’ one follows is truly a matter of one’s social circumstance? And I don’t mean to simplify this by alluding to the cliché of ‘extreme’ or Salafi Islam and ‘Sufi’ Islam – that is Islam for Dummies and I will spare you more of those simplistic generalizations.

When I hear of Hindu nationalists trying to ‘save Indian culture’ or Islamists trying to ‘preserve Islam’ or Zionists trying to be the guardians of Israel, they are all talking about roughly the same thing – how do we project and preserve our version of our religion in the public domain. While many Western style democracies (including India and Israel) allow for ‘pluralism’, the challenge really is preserving this plurality of voices. Each time a leader or idea is criticized; there is often a hue and cry, as if the entire religious edifice is being questioned. Questioning Mr.Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India is not questioning Hinduism. Hindutva is not Hinduism. It is a political manifestation (and a rather recent one) of what some Hindus think it is.

Similarly, calling to doubt the ways that Zionism operates today doesn’t mean that one is attacking Judaism – the problem with religious nationalism is that it wants us to conflate the groups ideology with that of the nation – and vice versa. This is where the real danger is. This uni-dimensional narrative of ‘One India’ or ‘One nation’ leaves out the many narratives that have shaped the nation. This muzzling of power to dominate the narrative is what most religious nationalist organizations attempt. While there is no real reason to discriminate against them, only for this reason, there is a need for caution and vigilance. As much as I dislike the aggressive nature of Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to grab power, it is a fact that they are part of the political framework of Egypt (or at least were). To deny them participation in the public sphere is to deny them a constitutionally mandated freedom. The same applies to political parties in India or religious groups in the U.S. – as odious as their rhetoric may be.

RSS

This brings us back to the question I started with: Is religious nationalism relevant today? I think not. While religion gives us meaning, and I certainly don’t have a problem with that, politics in today’s world should be about a vision for our society, as a whole. Not just for one’s community or group. This narrowing of vision can lead to what William Connolly has called ‘miniaturization of human beings.’  While religion can be a force for social good– through philanthropy, social activism etc- there is also danger in this identity based politics can become majoritarian. I am fine with religion and OK with politics. To mix them in together seems to be a heady cocktail, most modern nation-states cannot tolerate, too well. We have Egypt, Israel and to some extent India as examples, before us.

Top ten books I read this year

I read a lot of books this year. Like a LOT. Part of the reason is that I am preparing for my prelim exams (part of the PhD process) where you prove to your committee that you know your stuff. Additionally, I presented a few papers at a few conferences, many of them outside my ‘field’ of research. This meant reading new scholars, people that I didn’t know much about. Also, I went back to some books that I had read in the past, to revisit them and have a ‘conversation’ with them, so to say. Here is a short list of about ten books I read – all of them related to religion and philanthropy – two areas of intersection, that come together in my own work. In no particular order of importance, I list them here, with a short blurb. Good books are like a good conversation with a person you wouldn’t (normally) meet. Also, the fact that some of these books have endured the test of time are a

testament to the wisdom they contain.beyond the veil

  1. Beyond the Veil – This is one of the most provocative, mind-bending books I read this year. I was also fortunate to meet Dr. Fatima Mernissi in Morocco, during my visit this summer. She is considered the pioneer of Islamic Feminism and she makes some ground-breaking arguments in this book. The key argument is that Islam is an egalitarian religion, with respect to women’s rights and it gives them equal opportunities to partake in public life. The problem of women’s rights seem to have arisen with the manipulation of hadith and sacred texts by later day scholars, who sought to keep the patriarchic societal framework ongoing. She argues that Islam views gender segregation as a key component of maintaining social harmony, as female sexuality is viewed as an active ingredient, rather than as a passive one.
  2. Zealot – This is a fascinating book that offers a perspective that is not well known to most people, except scholars of religion – that Jesus the man was a political figure, who was made apolitical by Christians, after his death, to make his message more acceptable. This is an interesting book by Reza Aslan that also generated quite a bit of controversy, after an interview on Fox news. In case you missed it, you can watch it here. My connection with Reza is also that I did some research for him last year, and also got to meet him in person.
  3. The Conservative Soul – If you are looking for a book that explains the current debates in American conservatism, pick up this book. Andrew Sullivan is one of the most prominent bloggers in the U.S., who initially supported George W Bush and his war on Iraq, but later became critical of it. The book is a conversation with the reader on where conservatism stands today, and what its future looks like. While the book is a bit polemical, it could have done with a bit wider reporting of the conservative movement and more nuanced scholarship. He could have looked at Red State Religion, a fascinating book by Robert Wuthnow, for instance. Overall, this is a popular book that brings a lot of discussions to the fore, but there are flaws in it, as the NYT review point out. Would I still recommend it? Absolutely yet.
  4. The Sociological Imagination – This book, written by C Wright Mills, a motorbike riding Sociologist from the 1960s is sure to make you pause and re-think the way much Social science analysis is carried out. Mills’ key argument in the book is that we need more ‘Sociological imagination’ in analyzing our society. A purely ‘rational’ model of analyzing situations won’t work, he suggests.

The key argument of the book is that Social Sciences must evolve a new lens or a vision for analyzing the world and this must include History, biography (of the individual) as well as social conditions. A merely one-dimensional analysis or study of the individual does not yield the right picture or a complete understanding of what is going on in the world.

He argues that for a complete and true picture of social reality, one must try to connect the personal struggles of the individual with that of the broader society. While not many people do this, he believes that this is the right way to study social sciences. Pointing towards the need for this he says: “What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and what may be happening within themselves. It is this quality, I am going to contend that journalists and scholars, artists and scientists and editors are coming to expect of what may be called the Sociological Imagination”. Inter-disciplinary research, which is a mantra on college campuses nowadays, was what Mills called for.

  1. Habits of the Heart – This book is considered a classic in American Sociology by Robert Bellah et al. Habits of the heart tells us the story of four Americans – Brian Palmer: the corporate exec. Joe Gorman: The communitarian in MA, Margaret Oldham, a therapist and Wayne Bauer: Community organizer in CA- a hippie of the 60s’.

He says “Brian, Joe, Margaret, Wayne each represent American voices familiar to all of us. One of the reasons for the arguments they would have is that they draw from different traditions. Yet beneath the sharp disagreements, there is more than a little consensus about the relationship between the individual and society, between private and public good. This is because, in spite of their differences, they all to some degree share a common vocabulary, which we propose to call the “first language” of American individualism in contrast to alternative “second languages” which most of us also have.( P.20). Based on over 200 interviews, they offer a typology, based on four types of character among Americans: the independent citizen, the entrepreneur, the manager, and the therapist.

The book complicates the notion of individualism and suggests that is it not all bad. The individualism of a Cowboy or that of a firefighter may be seen as being purely selfish, but it is selfishness at the service of others, argue Bellah et al. “One accepts the necessity of remaining alone in order to serve the values of the group. And this obligation to aloneness is an important key to the American moral imagination.” The growing sense of individualism and lack of collective identity among Americans is a problem, the authors suggest. In response to this, a number of scholars such as Amitai Etzioni and others have come up with models for working out ‘communitarian’ ideals that would ultimately bind people, together

6. The Ulama in Contemporary Islam – This book is a new interpretation of the role of Ulema, or religious scholars in Islam. Mohammed Zaman offers us an insight into the ways and means that the Ulema in India used, to resist colonial occupation in pre-Independence India. He makes the case by looking at archives, historical work as well as commentaries of the Qur’an, written by various scholars, belonging to different strands of Islamic thought – the Ahl I Hadith, the Tablighi Jamat etc.. each one of which approached the Qur’an and Sunnah in a particular way.

7.A History of Islam in America – This is a scholarly examination of a topic that has been written about, from many perspectives. Ghaneabassiri offers an in-depth look at the origins and growth of the American Muslim community and places their history in relation to that of America. As a scholar of religion, his perspective is quite nuanced and he offers a penetrating analysis, which is hard to dispute. He argues that there are three million Muslims in the U.S, per Pew and Gallup poll results (pg.2). Given the enormous diversity found within the Muslim population in the U.S, no one narrative can capture the varying experiences of American Muslims, as there is no single American Muslim experience. “Muslims who found themselves in this country whether as slaves, immigrants, or converts have had to define themselves and to interpret their varying religious undertakings and practices in relation to the dominant laws, conceptions of religion, and political and cultural structures that have shaped American society through the years.” ( pg.3

8. Islam and the Blackamerican – Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Blackamerican is a tour de force for understanding the question of Black Americans in America. He offers a compelling narrative, grounded in American History, Qur’an, Hadith and other Islamic texts that offer us the story of what he calls the ‘ideological encounter between Islam and Blackamericans, from the proto-Islamic black-nationalistic spin-off movements of the early twentieth century through the rise and preponderance of orthodox Sunni Islam by the century’s end.’ Jackson offers us insights into how issues of racial inequality in early period of development of Blackamerican consciousness were replaced with concerns of problems of the Muslim world – Palestine, Kashmir and Egypt. He does a nice job of tracing the relations between ‘immigrant’ Muslims and the Blackamerican Muslims, while placing it in the context of theological debates and the power relations that emerged out of ‘orthodoxy’ in Islamic tradition.

9.Making Social science Matter – This book by Bent Flyvbjerg offers a compelling reason to reject completely ‘rational’ explanations in favor of those that are intuitive. He calls this methodology as ‘phronesis’, based upon the methods of intuitive and arational analysis developed by Aristotle. This style of reasoning is needed in today’s world, as it is becoming increasingly complex, multi-layered. Further, this method of analysis is important, as the main strength of social science is its reflexivity and ability to offer a critical perspective. This does not necessarily include prediction, which is what pure science is supposed to do, he suggests.

10.Strategic Giving – This is a great book if you want to understand the transformation of philanthropy in America, both from a donor and recipient’s perspective. I was privileged to attend a summer fellowship with Dr. Peter Frumkin, who teaches at Upenn, so also know the backstory to how this book was written. This is a great study of the growth and transformation of American philanthropy and in the book, Frumkin offers an in-depth investigation of how foundations changed, over a period of time, and how this can be seen as a part of the change of American landscape of giving. His argument is that one should look at philanthropy as a value driven enterprise, rather than just purely instrumental. Hence the use of the word ‘strategic’. His framework in suggesting this is a prism of giving, a five point mantra, if you will of giving. These five elements of giving include: deciding which vehicle to use for giving away the donor’s money; clarifying the purpose of the gift; setting a time frame for giving; choosing the level of donor engagement with grant recipients; and assessing the impact the contributions will have.

Why you should be Skeptical of Media Pundits’ Commentary

Are the pundits (or experts) on TV actually making us more ignorant? I am starting to wonder if all this explosion of ‘experts’ around us is really helping us understand the complex issues in front of us, or are they ‘dumbing down’ things, in order to reach us, and in essence not really helping us ‘know’ and ‘learn’? With the proliferation of social media, TV and 24 hour news channels, it is easier for everyone to have an opinion about everything. Even if we don’t know anything about a topic, it is quite possible to have an idea about that topic – I would even say that this current flood of ‘knowledge’ around us forces us to have an opinion, however ill informed. I am guilty of this, myself and catch myself having an ‘opinion’ on a random topic that I don’t know much about.

source:brietbart.com
source:brietbart.com

Are we are living in an age of illusions – where the ‘illusion of knowledge’ is very real, while the actual knowledge of the topic or subject may be minimal. The most egregious form of ‘knowledge sharing’ is the 2 minute interviews on TV. In fact, there has been much criticism about this form of discussion. How much can you realistically aim to teach or inform someone about complex topics such as the unemployment in America, War in Iraq or Global Warming? While TV anchors force their interviewees to churn out wisdom in sound bites, are they not really asking these ‘experts’ to dumb down, so that the lay person can really ‘get it’ in two minutes? Whose responsibility is it, then, to inform and educate the public – that of the public scholar or the media houses?

This brings us to the question of ‘what is knowledge’? Knowledge can simply be defined as what is agreed upon by people in a society. While observation and logical deductions form the tools of creating knowledge, they must also be validated by the ‘experts’ in the particular field, before it becomes ‘knowledge’, as Earl Babbie(2011) reminds us. “In general a scientific assertion must have both logical and empirical support: it must make sense and it must not contradict actual observation.” (p.4). This means that what our society determines is actually very critical, if not the only relevant criterion, to what we consider authentic ‘knowledge’.

Let us use one example to illustrate a point I am trying to make. Recent debates about Islam in the US media are also an example of what is going wrong, when it comes to ‘knowledge’ about Islam. A recent Pew Survey shows that 42% of Americans believe that Islam, more than other religion promotes violence. While the findings of the survey may be true – that is a whole different argument – what I am concerned is how terms are defined and how this comes to constitute what we ‘learn’, in other words, the epistemology behind it.

What the surveys do not tell us is how they define violence. This should be balanced with ‘facts’ such as structural violence, which are defined as ‘hunger and poverty’ are growing enormously in the US alone. Is poverty ‘structural violence’ as I have argued above, in which case the US society would be very high in this form of violence? And in comparison, many of the answers that we see in this survey may not hold true, even if we were to compare societies by religious belief.

While surveys are surely useful in aggregating opinions and ideas of large numbers of people, these very surveys can be quite problematic too. False respondents, social desirability and interviewer distortion are some of the methodological difficulties in survey research and in using the data that is collected. Also, surveys do not tell the ‘full story’ from the perspective of the group that is researched. Data and numbers can only inform us partially and only in a very dry, scientific manner, that may be misleading at times. So, while data alone cannot help us understand religion, we realize that tradition and metaphysics are crucial tools too. So, the real question is – what do we really ‘learn’ from such efforts? Not the entire story, I would argue.

Another problem with study of religion is that of tradition. While scientific research and methods often disregard values and tradition, as being anachronistic to research methods, one cannot ignore the force of traditions in studying religion. This does not mean we need to disregard tradition completely. While a purely positivistic paradigm of research may reject tradition and values outright, a constructivist may regard them as valid and often required. But for one who is practicing religion, tradition is part and parcel of the practice. I speak here of most Abrahamic religions, and perhaps some Eastern faiths too – Hinduism and Buddhism included. So, how do we incorporate tradition with the modern notions of how contemporary religious people see themselves? Speaking of Islam as an example, Talal Asad (1986) has argued that there is a need for studying Islam as a discursive tradition, i.e., a tradition that is evolving and adapting to the circumstances around it. Additionally, the work of Anthropologists who have studied Islam- scholars like Ernest Gellner and Clifford Geertz place representation of Islam in the social structure that is ‘entirely in terms of dramatic roles and this tends to exclude other conceptions”. By this, he means that Islam can be reduced to a battle of ‘big traditions’ of the city with the ‘small traditions’ of the villages. Asad says that Gellner’s Muslim protagonists do not speak, they only behave. Asad’s biggest critique of both these scholars, and by extension of a way of writing about Islam is that it ignores indigenous discourses i.e., how Muslims themselves talk about Islam and how they understand it. Their own notions of ‘knowledge’ about Islam are ignored. Pundits usually rattle off numbers, statistics and latest ‘reports’ by think tanks to prove their point, without telling us the weakness of this data and the many fault lines that exist there. Traditions, values and understandings of norms – that are crucial to behavior are often ignored or ‘essentialized’, making simple the complex and ever changing dynamic of how groups behave and negotiate with their circumstances.

Another recent example of the fuzzy logic that media pundits use to convince people is on Politico. Here, the authors points to data shared by Fareed Zakaria, who has argued that ISIS holds about one third of Syrian territory. This is blatantly untrue, argue Weiss and Itani. They further say “Most troubling is Zakaria’s fuzzy math about the opposition, its ideology and the terrain it is said to control. He writes: “The Islamic State controls about one-third of the country, and the other militias control a little less than 20 percent. But the largest and most effective of these non-Islamic State groups are al-Qaeda-affiliated and also deadly enemies of the United States. The non-jihadi groups collectively control less than 5 percent of Syria. These data points are dubious and misleading. A look at reliable maps of ISIL-dominant zones in Syria indicates that the terrorist army holds much of the Euphrates River Valley and Raqqa province, as well as parts of Aleppo province.” This seems – at face value – to be a more sound argument, based in facts rather than the one that Zakaria has made. Which facts do we choose and why? Not easy answers, unless we know a whole lot about the issue and the sources of research that are being presented before us, as ‘valid proof’.

While all that I have said should not mean we should totally disregard ‘experts’ on TV, who can be thoughtful and knowledgeable people – their comments should be treated for what they are – appetizers for us to start our meal of knowledge – rather than treat their summary remarks as the entrée. Doing so will only ensure we remain hungry for more knowledge! And at worst, our limited knowledge will blind us to the realities of the world that we do not see, in our own ignorance, and the illusion of knowledge.

The illusion of knowledge is tempting. Indifference and ignorance aren’t sexy, anymore.

Musings on Amtrak: Seth Meyers, Lynchburg and my travel disability

I am off to India by way of Morocco. This is a modest attempt at following one of my heroes – Ibn Battuta – a Moroccan traveler and scholar, who lived in the 14th century. Why is he my hero? for that you must watch this fascinating talk. In short, this scholar-traveler did about 73,000 kilometers on Camels and Ships– yes, you read that right, this was before the Steam engine was invented. And he lived in India for a good 12 years. I am following his footsteps, in a very modest way- though in reverse.

ibn_battuta_216

            I boarded the train to Washington D.C. this morning, from Philadelphia with three pieces of luggage, feeling a bit ‘disabled’ with my lack of ability to move freely. And yes, you guessed it right, I sat in the ‘disabled’ seats right in the front – with lots of legroom – ah, relief at last. I eyed my surroundings to make sure there weren’t another other ‘genuinely’ disabled folk. Thankfully there weren’t any. I did a double-take to make sure I wasn’t breaking rules. I hate breaking rules, when there is no need. If there is a genuine need, and I feel morally obliged to- I break them- with impunity. Nelson Mandela did, so did Gandhi. So, I must be in good company. Anyway I sat down, feeling a bit self-assured.

            A few minutes later, the moral inspector in me started poking me to get up and move back. ‘What if there are three disabled people at the next station’ said the little voice in my head. As I often do, I moved back. Just two seats behind. I couldn’t lift the heavy luggage I had to put it overhead, so just put it on the next seat and sat down, looking out of the window and thinking about my upcoming adventures. Not as frightful and risky as undertaken by Mr. Battuta, but exciting, nevertheless.

            The conductor came. He saw that I had placed my bag on the next seat and asked me to put it on top or ‘move to the front’ i.e., to the disabled seats. Bummer, I told him I couldn’t lift it easily so he asked me to move. So I did. Back to square one. My instincts were right. I was happy to be back to my former location. I should’ve let my initial inertia guide me. Anyway. Nothing lost. In the meanwhile, an older black lady was sitting on the adjacent seats – an Iraq war veteran, who had all sorts of paraphernalia on her. She seemed to want to take a nap, so I did not intrude her. Under normal circumstances, I would have at least said hello and made small talk. She seemed to be an older lady – about 60 or so, and came on a wheelchair, that was sitting right in front of her. The little voice in my head asked me ‘How will she get off’? Will she call the conductor, or do I need to help her get off? Also, how is it to travel as a disabled person? If just three pieces of luggage are making me so ‘disabled’ how the hell to really disabled people manage to get around? Tough luck indeed. God bless the disabled. And the veterans.

            I flipped open the Acela travel magazine with a Seth Meyers photo on the cover – sharp, well dressed, in all blue. I love blue- one of my favorite colors – so I went straight to the cover story on Mr.Meyers. I read with interest how he came to be the person he is. His ‘authenticity’ seems to be the ‘secret’ behind his humor. I suppose it is for most great comedians – Ali G, Charlie Chaplin and Muhammad Ali – though Ali was more of a boxer than a comedian. But I rank him highly as a comedian – more than others would. But that is me.Sorry to be so opinionated. I have been this was since I was four years old. My (late) mom told me so. As I am growing older, Iam trying to be less so, and be more open to other ideas. But I suppose we are all created a certain way. And we must live with who we are. I am trying my best to live with myself. Sometimes it can be hard, for the most part, I am an ok guy. Nice enough to others, but not to myself. I need to learn to be nice to myself. Take my luggage situation for instance.

            My current ‘luggage disability’ owes to a favor I am doing for a friend – whose 16 yr old son requested me to buy a certain electronic equipment – which I agreed to, without knowing how bulky it would be. My heart sank when the shipment came. I didn’t imagine I would have to lug this monstrosity all the way thousands of miles. Along with my luggage. Beat that. Being nice can be a bit hard at times and with my penchant for traveling light, this is the worst thing that could happen. But what to do, I have promised a 16 yr old kid – who I have never met – a gift and I have to keep up my word. So, here I am sitting, with three pieces of luggage, instead of two and feeling sort of sorry for myself. Perhaps I should stop moaning and get on with it. Like a true traveler.

                        I have also noticed that I suddenly become philosophical when I travel. My reservoir of profoundness seems to burst forth when I am on the move. Is it just me, or does it happen with others too? I need to ask a few dear friends about this- only if I remember to. Made a note of that in my journal. One thought that came to me is a hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad) that life should be lived as if we are travelers – in the sense that we are passing through life – and not getting too attached to people or places. I have tried to incorporate some of this in my life, but I guess attachment is a human weakness. Hard to completely be detached – as most religions in the world teach us – Hinduism has a very strong element of this detachment philosophy too. ‘World rejection’ is the word that Sociologists of religion use to describe this phenomenon.

            I flipped through my phone and noticed on Twitter that Anthony Bourdain said something thoughtful about the ongoing ‘War’ on Gaza. More like Israeli assault on the folk there. Four kids were killed, while playing on the beach and Israeli President Shimon Peres apologized this morning for this. What about the other 200 odd deaths? They were all ‘collateral damage’ I suppose. I am growing sick of the media coverage, the hatred and venom from people on social media. And the valiant efforts of some people trying to post pictures of Jews and Muslims hugging are also somewhat disingenuous. This is NOT a religious conflict, except that some ultra-orthodox Jews are making it a zero-sum game by insisting that God gave the land to them. I think this is about land – and should be viewed as such- and as good intentioned as these efforts are at showing that Jews and Muslims can break bread (and fasts) together, they don’t help much. They only dumb down the arguments and make the reader look stupid. But I guess in America one needs this level of discourse too. Most Americans can’t place Palestine/Israel on a map.

            Finally, there was an ad for Lynchburg, Virginia – a town close to where I live. Why doesn’t Lynchburg change its name? to something live Loveburg or something. I mean, the term ‘lynching’ apparently came after the practice of lynching that took place in the town – many ages ago- wouldn’t that be a good case for re-branding a town’s name? If that isn’t a good reason, I don’t know what is.

And yes, like Ibn Battuta, I intended to stop by Mecca for Umrah, but unfortunately that will have to wait. I need a visa, unlike Mr.Battuta, who traveled within the Islamic empire of his day, sans passport, visa or the hassles of security checks. In some ways we surely seem to have regressed, as a species. Freedom of movement is restricted these days. So is the freedom to really think for oneself. It takes a great effort and courage to speak one’s mind it seems. Too much censorship, self-censorship around us going on. Are we really free, as we imagine? Free to travel, think and live? As a former PR man, I am suspicious of all the branding and advertising of this ‘freedom’ we speak of. More on this later.

Lessons in Foreign Policy from Food Cart Vendors

“Cairo, very good city. You go there?” queried the young Egyptian juice vendor, as I was attempting to buy a mixed berry juice, while waiting for my turn to enter the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Another food cart vendor, who was a Syrian pointed out the similarities in spices in India and the Arab world. “We got lots of spices from India. Spices tie us together. We are brothers in spice,” he joked when I asked him to pour more hot sauce on the Shawarma that he was preparing for me. He even did the Indian head nod, in an effort to make me feel ‘at home’, I must confess that it irritated me a bit – it doesn’t feel great to be at the receiving end of a stereotype.falafel3

Later, it was a Bangladeshi worker at a pizza joint who remarked “Indira Gandhi very good. Sheikh Hasina not good,” summing up his understanding of Indian politics. Given that his Hindi was extremely limited and my Bengali is virtually nonexistent, we still managed to talk about various things, as I gorged on the mushroom Pizza on the streets of Manhattan. Despite my new Bangladeshi friend’s understanding of Indian politics being over three decades old, he seemed to have gleamed the broader trends in Indian politics – that there is some level of democracy, no matter how imperfect and (lesser) outright corruption than Bangladesh. I had to remind him that India is no paradise, he was insistent that “India very good. Indian people good people.”

            This was the United Nations of people – an Egyptian, Bangladeshi, Syrian all feeding a hungry Indian on the streets of New York city. While I have always loved the Big Apple for its diversity, openness and positive energy, it can be, at times quite exhausting; I have never lived there long enough to understand how people bring their own understandings of the world and create a city that is a microcosm of the world. But through these exchanges, people were revealing themselves and their modus operandi – of shared cultures, foods, political observations, habits of heart and idiosyncrasies. And through this, they were finding a common ground to communicate – despite the barriers of language.

                        While Americans are famous for not traveling outside of the country, they are often exposed to people from different cultures and lands. This may, in some cases lead to jingoism and a false sense of entitlement. As I read somewhere a few weeks ago, “Americans like Mexican food, Mexican Music and Mexican culture – just not Mexican people.” There is a great effort to remove those who are living as undocumented workers in the U.S. and the sense that immigrants are taking over ‘our jobs’ seems to have become all pervasive. This sense of entitlement and fear of the ‘other’ is unfortunately prevalent and seems to be gaining ground among certain political actors in the U.S.

            The final visit of the day was to the National September 11 memorial, just a few blocks from where I had had the fresh fruit juice. I enjoyed the exhibits, though it was a bit overwhelming, both visually and in terms of the displays themselves. I noticed half way through the visit that the brochure did not have any Arabic language. There were instructions in about eight or so international languages, but to leave out one of the most widely read and spoken languages in the world seemed a rather odd omission. I walked out of the museum wondering if those who made that decision to consciously leave out the language knew as much about the world as these food cart vendors, and if they appreciated others humanity as much as these strangers from strange lands.

 

 

Music and the Mullahs – can the twain meet?

The debates about the use of music in Islamic practices specifically and music as entertainment are perhaps as old as Islam itself. These debates are not new reminds a scholar of Amnan Shiloah (1997). In the absence of clear injunctions about music in the Qur’an, secondary texts such as Hadith and other texts written by scholars of Islam have become important in interpreting the role of music in Islam and how permissible it is. Given that many Muslims around the world do take their religion seriously, when it comes to matters of practice, this is an important issue that needs to be addressed. With rap and metal being used by revolutionaries in Egypt, Tunisia – to get their message across, Sufis organizing music festivals in Morocco, mainstream actors and actresses dancing to Bollywood tunes in India and Pakistan, is music really haram? I will try to address this intricate and complex argument here.

Let’s start with the basics. Music is not totally forbidden in Islam. Even the most die-hard Salafi will admit that the Prophet Muhammad ( peace be upon him) was known to enjoy some music from dhaf, a drum like instrument, on special occasions. Shiloah says “Some authorities, for instance, tolerated a rudimentary form of cantillation and functional song, but banned any instrumental accompaniment; others allowed the use of a frame-drum but without discs, forbidding all other instruments, particularly those be-longing to the cordophone family. The mystic orders, for whom music and dance held a vital part in the performing of spiritual and ecstatic rites, were seriously concerned with the debate and participated ardently in the polemics.” This debate is really not part of daily life, with tolerance being the norm in most Muslim societies. It is only in extreme cases such as Saudi Arabia – where public performances are banned that this debate gains salience. Shiloah shows that the first authoritative attack on music came from Ibn abi al Dunya (823-894) A.D., who was in the court of Caliph Al Muta’did (892-902). Dunya’s argument in his book Dhimm al Malahi and the use of the concept of Malahi or distraction (from religious obligations) is key to the development of the notion that music is a distraction from religious observance (since it was associated with gambling, drinking and merriment). On the other hand, Sufis and those mystics who saw benefits of Sama and the use of music argued that music stirred the emotions to worship and brought the believer closer to Allah. As Shiloah further argues “ Another early Sufi scholar al-Sarrij (d. 988) who set forth the true principles of sufism in his Book of the Sparks, distinguished between the sama of the vulgar and that of the elect, which includes various degree.”Sufis were pious, practicing Muslims, for whom music was but one way of expressing their spirituality. The modern day subversion of Sufism for commercial purposes is another matter, and I will address that in another article.

Growing up in India in the 1990s’, the early musical influences in my life were Michael Jackson, Bryan Adams, Backstreet boys and a plethora of Indian musicians including Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Adnan Sami, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Sabri Brothers and others. Though my father enjoyed Bollywood music and we heard lots of Qawwali on Fridays, music was somewhat of a taboo, despite being loosely accepted. I remember my father disconnecting the cable TV at home because MTV was too ‘rebellious’ and ‘decadent’ in his opinion. My mother was the more liberal among my parents, who had a greater level of tolerance for things that were not too orthodox or ideas that would be considered rebellious. As I grew up and became more cognizant of the world around me, I realized that indeed Music and the Mullahs – orthodox leaders of Islam- did not get along too well. My father was a Mullah himself, though he did not practice as a religious leader full time, but was trained in theology and finer points of religion, but so was my mother. So, at an earlier age, I got my first education in the value of interpretation of religious laws and social norms – much of it did depend on human agency and aql, or reasoning. While media portrays extremists such as the Taliban as the authoritative agents of interpreting laws on Islam, there is a vast range of interpretations of whether music is permissible or not – from those who embrace Music fully to those who negate it.

Contemporary Music culture around the ‘Muslim world’

Across the ‘Muslim world’ – defined as any country with a significant Muslim population – one can find a rich and thriving music scene – the Qawwals in the Indian subcontinent, the Sufi singers in Turkey, traditional singers and Griot singers in Senegal, Africa. Even if it is not devotional music, music is tolerated in many forms, as long as there is no lewdness or immodesty involved. Youssou Ndour, a griot singer from Senegal is one of the latest global sensations, who has taken the music world by storm and has also taken a firm stand on music in Islam. The success of his album Egypt, around the world, which is chronicled in a film I bring what I love is a testament to the broad appeal of his music, both within and outside of the Muslim world. Another globally renowned singer is the late Nusrat Fatehali Khan, a Pakistan qawwali singer, who branched into mainstream music and is known for his melodious voice as well as his rendering of spiritual classics such as Allahu Allahu. Then there are others like Sami Yusuf, who have captured the imagination of the faithful with their rendering of religious songs. His music is for the Western Muslim, educated, well-traveled and often well-heeled. The market for the faithful is making space for techno-savvy beats and slick music videos, it seems.

          This is not the entire picture, as there are egregious bans on music performances in some other parts of the Muslim world. When certain legislators or governments in the Muslim world ban music, it is coming from a sense of duty to ‘preserve’ religion. In this logic, anything that the prophet Muhammad did not do it not permissible and this includes music, which he perused in a rather limited way. While there are prophetic traditions that permit music, the line of agreement it thin. There is a tension between the two human tendencies – of Rahmah (grace and beneficence) and hawa or desire, which can translate into personal opinion in practice, argues Fatima Mernissi in her book Islam and Democracy – Fear of the modern world (1992). This tension manifests in all debates that we hear about the clash of creativity and the need to conform to the current rules or authority. Artistic expression in all ways, including music falls into this category of tensions, one that can be interpreted as being ‘wayward’ or out of Islamic bounds by those in power, who can accuse artists and performers of promoting hawa or desire – an evil notion indeed. And when the state is based on maintaining order, this becomes less tolerable. The ‘collective good’ becomes more important than individual agency or freedom and hence some sorts of creativity gets banned. Mernissi further argues that since many of the Muslim majority countries have not fully signed onto the principles of Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guarantee human freedom in all its manifestations, this can lead to a lot of tensions.

           

Conclusion

            The Fes festival of Music in Morocco is considered one of the biggest music festival in the world. As the festival website says, “The aim of this Festival is to harness the arts and spirituality in the service of human and social development, and the relationship between peoples and cultures,” so to this extent, music has become, over the centuries a common language. There is a rich tradition of poetry in the Persian Gulf too, considered the bastion of orthodox Sunni Islam. In fact, there are popular TV shows like the Millionaire Poet, which has been a hit for the past few years. In effect, the Arabian tradition is all about celebrating the spoken word in various forms. During my stint at a PR firm in Dubai, I managed the account for Dubai International Poetry Festival, a celebration of poetry and performing arts – which included several Sama preformances as well.

The power of music to bring people together endures. This has not stopped the youth from using music to express their anger, sense of freedom and demands to the leaders of the country and to their own countrymen. If there is one thing that can be said confidently, it is that music is an expression of the deepest passions and cannot be curtailed by laws or religious edits. While the mystic traditions such as Sufi orders used music for religious purposes and justified it, other puritanical scholars were harsh in their condemnation of music. This tension has continued to this day and we see the same debates being played out, in various forms. If anything, this debate shows the plurality of interpretation of the laws concerning music and the various ways different Muslim societies have chosen to interpret them. With increased connectivity, greater access to media and proliferation of cheap media technologies, one can only imagine that music, in all its variants will continue to grow and proliferate. While the Mullahs may not be able to ban music everywhere, there are bound to be movements who will try to stop the use of music for religious as well as entertainment purposes. But at the same time, one must not forget that those who are opposed to such puritanical and rigid interpretations are also fighting a battle – and are often in the majority. With the success of stalwarts like Nusrat Fatehali Khan, Sami Yusuf and others, perhaps the Mullahs will realize that music can actually serve faith in a positive way and it can be a force for good. In the meanwhile, we can hope that tolerance prevails.

 

References

Shiloah, A.(1997).Music and Religion in Islam, Acta Musicological, Vol 69. P.143-155.

 

Mernissi, F.(1992) Islam and Democracy – Fear of the modern world, Perseus Books, Cambridge: MA.

Can democracy take root in the Arab world?

As Syria burns, Iraq implodes and Tunisia and Libya struggle to democratize, one question remains central to framing discussions of participatory governance – Is democracy possible in the ‘Muslim world’? Is democracy an ‘internal wound,’ that has been left to fester for too long, within the Arab/Muslim world, as Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi argues? She says, pointing to Islamic history that, since the advent of Islam, there have been two traditions within Islam – the intellectual and philosophical tradition of the falasifa, of the Hellenized philosophers and the Sufis of Persian and Indian traditions and on the other hand, the Kharijite tradition of political subversion – which has been violent and bloody. This tradition continues, as we look around the Arab world and the struggles for power that are ongoing.

 As Mernissi says “The two traditions raised the same issues that are today told are imports from the West, issues that Islam has never resolved: that of ta’a (obedience to the Imam or leader of the community) and that of individual freedom. Political Islam resolved these issues neither in theory nor in practice, for the idea of representation was never effected, although the idea that the Imam is chosen by the community is deeply rooted in the Sunni Islam.” (1992, p.21). This choosing of the Imam by the majority is a democratic element that has been part of Islamic history, no matter how one reads it. The first caliph and those onwards, till Ali were chosen by consensus of the community, though it was not an ideal participatory voting mechanism, as we know it today. Some of these age-old tensions are still playing out, in many ways. This could be considered a part of the power-struggle within the house of Islam, at the risk of sounding orientalist. But there is a grain of truth to this.

I explored some of these questions a few years ago, when I took part in a two semester course called Democracy in the Middle East at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, as part of my MA in International Relations. This was in 2009, when life was stable in the Middle East and it would be a while till the word ‘Arab Spring’ would become part of everyday lexicon. Some of the bigger questions that we grappled with, as part of the seminar, taught by Dr. Miriam Elman were: Is Islam compatible with democracy, Are the countries of Middle East and North Africa inherently not able to adapt democratic means of governance and to what extent has history played a role in the way things are.

            Vicky Langhour (2002) points to the arguments made by some scholars that substantive democracy may need to be stalled in the authoritarian countries of the Middle class till there is a solid middle class that can demand legitimate democracy. This is operating on the assumption that the only alternative to the existing autocratic regimes is that of Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood, Al’nahda etc…) who are as bad, if not worse than the current authoritarian rulers for democracy – so goes the argument. She says: “The suggestion that substantive democratization be put off until middle classes develop is of limited usefulness. On the one hand, its assumption that middle classes do not support Islamists is belied by Islamist successes in the elections within middle-class professional syndicates; on the other, the growth of strong middle classes in several Arab countries has not made regimes any more willing to devolve power democratically. Western pressure is needed to push Arab autocracies toward a phased-in democratic opening designed to strengthen opposition parties.” The wide spectrum of Islamists from MB to Hamas to Hezbollah all demonstrate the various stripes in which these parties come. The question really is : Is the West willing to acknowledge Hamas as a legitimate party, once it is elected democratically. Now that Hamas does rule the Gaza strip, it is still not treated as an equal partner in dialogue by Israel. So, how does one deal with such hypocrisy from those who purport to promote ‘democracy’? This is a legitimate question and one that is being asked in the Muslim majority countries. Langhour suggests using economic incentives such as trade agreements and other incentives to push Arab governments to move in a certain direction – in terms of allowing greater participation among the political parties etc. But the West certainly cannot pull strings now, as it has in the past, given the recent wave of anti-Western sentiment and ongoing civil war in Syria and Iraq.

 

Is the Middle East exceptional, in some way?

Eva Bellin (2004) asks the question if the countries of the Middle East are in some way exceptional, in being resistant to democracy – by virtue of culture or economic development? No, she says and adds “The Middle East and North Africa are in no way unique in their poor endowment with the prerequisites of democracy. Other regions similarly deprived have nonetheless managed to make the transition. Civil society is notoriously weak in sub-Saharan Africa, yet twenty-three out of forty-two countries carried out some measure of democratic transition between 1988 and 1994. The commanding heights of the economy were entirely under state control in eastern Europe prior to the fall of the Berlin wall, yet the vast majority of countries in this region successfully carried through a transition during the 1990s.” She says that there isn’t one or even many preconditions for democracy, as it is a complex process. The question she asks is why there has not been even an attempt towards democratization. Given that she wrote this piece in 2004, that question has been answered now, with the Arab Spring and democratization of Tunisia and Libya, though the latter is struggling to keep it up. Drawing an insight from successful revolutions, she argues (based on Theda Skocpol’s thesis) that “Democratic transition can be carried out successfully only when the state’s coercive apparatus lacks the will or capacity to crush it. Where that coercive apparatus remains intact and opposed to political reform, democratic transition will not occur.”One can apply this reasoning to Egypt and Tunisia and see why the former failed as a successful revolution and the latter succeeded.

            In conclusion, it could be said that democracy needs not only an ecosystem in the form of civil society, an educated class of people who want change but also some preconditions – which are by themselves not necessary to guarantee it, but may facilitate its arrival. Finally, there is something to be said about the role of super-powers and the neighbors in a country. To what extent are their influences playing into the formation of alliances and networks of people is crucial to understand, as well. Also, it may be wise to remember Mernissi’s reminder that “the Gharib (West) is still Ajib (strange). The strange is always fascinating and as in the tales of the Arabian nights, one never knows that foot to stand on when faced with the unusual. Something that fascinates you, but you don’t understand, can eventually destroy you. Western democracy, although it seems to carry within it the seeds of life, is too linked in our history with the seeds of death. But the death of whom? Of the authoritarian technocrats or the powerless intellectuals? Of the officials who are the watchdogs or the people who raise the challenge?” (p.21).

Mernissi’s is a positive and hopeful vision of the future of democracy in the Arab world. She ends her book using an allegory of the Simorgh from Farid Attar’s classic Poem The Conference of the Birds, a classic written in the 12th century, an equivalent of the modern day classic Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. “The Simorgh is us” she says, arguing that the realization of all the best ideals of a Western liberal democracy and Islamic state are better individuals and a better community. Once we realize this, then the end result would be perfect, she seems to be saying. This is a vision that cannot be wrong or faulted. And in the years and decades to come, one can hope that it is realized by all those who are concerned about the future of the Middle East and its people.

 

References

Mernissi, F.(1992). Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. Peresus Books. Cambridge, MA

Langhour, V (2002). An Exit from Arab Autocracy. Journal of Democracy. Vol 13, No.2

Bellin, E (2004). The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective. Comparative Politics. Vol. 34. No.4