December 07, 2011

In Memory of Reason

A recent discussion with my blog-buddy Mimi coinciding with her comedy death threat (well, I thought it was funny, that's just me), had me thinking about the state of the global Islamic community (the "Umma").  Not just in the more grotesque stereotypes of some non-Muslims, but in hard fact.  I am a Muslim.  And there are some ugly truths that we need to face up to about ourselves.  Now Mimi is a very unusual and indeed difficult woman. But she is just a woman.  One little person, with some thoughts in her head that might be good or bad.  Why is it that so many people feel threatened by an expression of unorthodox opinion, or even just a question?

I address this mainly to my coreligionists.  But as many, maybe a majority of readers, aren't, I should give a brief explanation of Islamic history for those who don't know.  My fellow Muslims must forgive me, please, if I over-simplify or use non-standard descriptions.  This is an illustration of context, not a spiritual guide.  So, infidels, please pay attention: yesterday was 'Ashura.  The tenth day of the month of Muharram in the Hijri calendar.  It is a special day.  To explain why, we need to go back to the death of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).  On his death, it was decided that someone should succeed him as leader of the Faithful, the "khaleefa", in English "caliph", or successor.  Someone to act as the focal point and guide for the still vulnerable Muslim people.  

There was, in short, a disagreement.  Abu Bakr, the oldest friend, mentor and father in law, was chosen. Ali, the younger but equally dear friend, first cousin and son in law, was not.  Some felt this decision incorrect, and became known as "Shi'at Ali", or "Ali's Partisans", the origins of the people we know today as "Shi'a" or "Shi-ites".  There was no conflict as such, and the decision was nevertheless respected.  As were the subsequent decisions to appoint Omar (something of a controversial figure, to put it mildly, in Shi'a thinking),  then Othman (under whose authority the Qur'An was finally collected into a single written book agreed by all who had heard it first hand, that exists in original copy to this day).  Finally, Ali became the fourth "khalifa".  This appointment saw the first open conflict among the Muslims, and a rival sought to establish himself.  After the death of Ali by assassination (another story), things got messy.  The Shi'a supported an hereditary system for the caliphate, through the sons of Ali, who were also of course the grandsons and only descendants of Mohammed (pbuh).  But the other faction had established itself too.  Wars began.

So, now you're up to speed with the basics, back to 'Ashura.  On this day in history, Hussain, the son of Ali and supported as his successor by the Shi'a, was attacked by an opposing force near Kerbala in Iraq.  Most of their own supporters were defected or deceived into abandoning Hussain's camp, and vastly outnumbered,  Hussain and his cohort were slaughtered.  Ashura (derived from the Arabic word for ten, because of the date), is a day of mourning and regret, when Shia feel sorrow for the deaths of the Imam, and that his followers were not there to save him.  It is common among Shia to wear black, to have commemorative and funereal gatherings, and even to inflict physical chastisement on themselves as atonement for the failure of their forebears to protect their leader.  Although many died in the battle of Kerbala, it is the name of Hussain that is the central reference of Ashura.  He was believed to have fought bravely to the last, before being killed and his body defiled and decapitated.  "Oh Hussain!" is a cry you will hear from mourners on Ashura.

There you go, Ashura 1.1.  Apologies in particular to Shia friends who would like to say more about the significance of this day, but that's another conversation.  I need to explain why I'm talking about it at all.  Now the heathens are up to speed, I'd like to turn attention back to the brothers and sisters and ask, in the nicest possible way: what the hell is wrong with you people, really?

There's a new trend that seems to have established itself in several countries, of blowing up Shia as a special Ashura gift.  The first incidences of sectarian bombings of which I was ever aware, were from Pakistan, Karachi in particular.  I don't know when that started, or who started it, but it seems in my memory to be a pretty old tradition of sectarian hatred compared to the more headline-grabbing atrocities in Iraq over recent years, and now also exported to Afghanistan.  In some cases, particularly the latter two, there seems to be a political hand behind it - countries fighting by proxy with other people's sons.  Not naming any names (OK, it's Iran and Saudi Arabia), the war of sectarian ideal through influence, mosque-building, missionaries and propaganda, has grown into actual sectarian conflict.  

I wouldn't say that Saudi Arabia supports blowing up worshippers in Mazar-e-Sharif, Karachi or Baghdad, but there is certainly a role for which they have to answer, in creating and fostering an ideology of sectarian loathing.  And politically, both countries pick their teams, fund and arm them.  Before 2001, the Iranians had the Northern Alliance (and many Shia among them), and the Saudis had the Taliban.  After 2001, exporting extremism became gradually less fashionable in Saudi or Pakistani politics, but it's pretty hard to put an ideology back in the box when so many heavily-armed and lightly-brained individuals are already enjoying it.

The problem is, though, that it's not just politicians, kings, arms dealers and insecure would-be Islamic popes who make sectarian and ideological murder a reality.  It's the permissive environment in which they are allowed to operate.  It's you and me.  It's the emails on the one hand from my friend K, about freeing the Shia from oppression and murdering whatevers in Bahrain, and the others from my friend A, ridiculing the Ashura commemoration and praising the very people demonised by the others.  Sectarianism too easily becomes a badge, a party, a national allegiance, and a declaration of enmity.  When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I remember in one town of mixed Sunni/Shia population, that some people would not drink from a public water fountain after a Shia had used it.  That someone would rather go without water really says it all: the supernatural evil that one man can attribute to another for no good reason other than a point of view, is simply extraordinary.

Sunni on Shia and vice versa.  Muslim on non-Muslim.  Muslim on Jew on Christian and any inversion or combination you can imagine.  Everyone on Hindu, Hindu on everyone.  The ridiculing, de-humanising, derisive and visceral loathing inflicted by one man on another by reason solely of a difference in ideas.  A look through comments on this blog and others to which it links, will give plenty of examples.  And take my word for it, English language blogs contain a lot less sectarian speech in general than the Arabic ones.  The specialism in the English language blogs and forums, with their wider spread of nationalities and religions, is the atheist egomaniac: there is no religious viewpoint as intolerant and belittling of others, as the atheist.  In his own way, he's the mirror image of the smug, grinning extremist seen in every major religion - so self-affirming and patronising that he sees others barely above animals, mentally and spiritually deficient.  Every religion has them.  And atheism is very much a religion.  But Muslims, yes, we have those un-reflecting, unmerciful, intolerant, arrogant and judgmental maniacs, in spades.

So, in light of all of the above, it was a deliciously sour irony to my mind that someone should threaten to "strike [Mimi] down in the name of Allah" for a spiritual "reward", on the day of Ashura, and for a new wave of sectarian bombings to occur.  Although a day of mourning for Shia, and a day of fasting (for more obscure reasons) for some Sunna, it seems to me that there are still plenty around who will commemorate a day when we remember a tragic civil war among the Muslims, by calling for the murder of some Muslims, or worse, actually carrying it out.  I have to say that even in some Shia gatherings to mark the day, the mood seems to move easily from mourning, to some kind of expression of sectarian hatred, a call for retribution, a perpetuation of a sense of persecution and injustice.  The persecution and injustice is real for some of course, but that applies across all sects and religions.  Might not the occasion of Ashura, whatever one's sect, be a suitable occasion for all to join  together in saying "never again"?

I keep asking myself why new thought is considered so threatening, or why diversity of opinion even within traditional schools of Islam more than a millennium old, still seems to cause so much ill-feeling.  On the first point, I was invited the other day to sign something called "The Amman Message".  On the face of it, this is just the kind of message of unity and understanding that I would support: acceptance and even celebration of different views within Islam, respect for non-Muslims, a code against violence, etc.  But I didn't sign up.  Here's why: it has three main points.  The first says that Islam has eight major schools of jurisprudence (four Sunni, two Shi'a, Ibadhi, and Thahiri) that should be respected, plus the "true" Sufi tradition and Salafi tradition.  It doesn't define what is true and what is not in either of the latter, but I guess the later points are supposed to make this self-evident (e.g. non-violence etc).  None of these groups should ever declare the other to be apostate, or imply that they are not "real" Muslims.  The second point says that this diversity of opinion is a good thing, and as long as all believe in God, the Qur'An, the Prophet (pbuh), the angels, Judgement Day and the five pillars (attestation, prayer, fasting, charity and Haj), they are all Muslims.  Differing ideas beyond that are unimportant.

But the reason I couldn't sign up to it, is the third point.    It says that only those who are "qualified" within one of those eight schools of jurisprudence (I'm not sure where the two "traditions" mentioned, fall into this, but there are overlaps anyway), are entitled to speak for their religion.  It mentions specifically the authority to issue a "fatwa" which, as I have previously explained, is a formal ruling or opinion on religious interpretation (not a death sentence on Salman Rushdie).  But the implication is nevertheless clear: unless one "adheres" to one of these structured bodies of jurisprudence and is recognised by the established "scholars" within it, it is unacceptable to voice an opinion in public.  I have written more than once about how these "scholars" and the like have created churches and clerical titles for themselves and that I believe that to be un-Islamic.  But this issue is broader.  This declaration says you take orders from these guys, or you shut up.  That makes me very uncomfortable.  In a way, the third point also undermines the first: the first point is set out to emphasise inclusivity, saying that all the schools and traditions, despite their differences, should recognise each other as equally valid in Islam.  And yet in the context of this third point, that becomes not an expression of inclusion, but exclusion.  Conform, or be outside the "real" Islam.

The goals of the Amman Message are easy to understand and to accept.  They set out, clearly, to oppose sectarianism, and to stop the Bin Ladens of this world calling themselves leaders of the faithful and such like (the title of a caliph), and issuing religious edicts as new laws and obligations to pressure Muslims into support.  The Amman Message sets out to oppose and undermine extremism and violence against different sects, religions and so on.  That's a good thing.  Even better is that the Message itself (by the way "Message" or "Risaala" in this context, has very strong connotations of prophecy) is co-authored by the most respected religious leaders of all these sects and schools.  Even the Saudis are in there, which explains the care not to exclude the Salafi movement, even though they try hard to qualify its ideals.  The Iranians are not, but then much as they would like the world to think otherwise, the Iranian theologians are not the top trumps in Shi'ism: that title goes to Ayatullah Ali Al Sistani, in Iraq.  And he's a signatory.

The problem is that by trying to separate mainstream Islam from violent extremism, they also establish yet another declaration of intolerance towards debate and discussion.  There is no acceptance of reformist or revisionist thought, no real acknowledgement other than in name (the undefined "real") of Sufi thought, which is extremely varied, and no acceptance at all of the idea that a new or alternative perspective could be considered valid.  While trying to say "those who condemn other Muslims are not Muslims", they do the same themselves: "If you're not one of us, you're not a Muslim".  Full circle.  A movement for peace and against terrorism, in the name of inclusion and tolerance, sets out limits of tolerance and inclusion.  That's why it does not have  my signature.  One more reason is the hilarious dialogue box, asking "are you a [religious scholar]?" I resisted the temptation to tick "yes".  I mean, I've read a lot about religion and I try to learn more all the time.  So who's to say?  The problem is, I know what they mean, even if they shouldn't.

The fear of terrorism and intolerance seems to fuel intolerance itself, just as the fear of injustice, or anger at violent tragedy, seems to fuel the injustice and violent tragedy brought about by terrorists.  The fact that this declaration didn't happen until 2004 - when the Iraqi sectarian conflict was just getting started, and three years into the foreign intervention in Afghanistan post 9/11 - says a lot about how seriously as a whole, Muslims really take extremism.  Where was this declaration during the bombings of Karachi in the nineties, or prior to the attacks on New York and Washington in the many years that Al Qaida had already been active?  Where was the opposition to the Taliban's openly sectarian Salafist rule, or the sectarian hate speech coming from every quarter, be it Iranian radio broadcasts, amateur internet campaigns, or so-called scholars declaring others to be apostate?  Did it really have to be American worries about Iraqi internal cohesion under occupation, that stimulated the Umma to come up with such a campaign?

Here's an interesting thing to share: I came across the Amman Message when I was searching for details of a certain "scholar" who had been in trouble with the law for plotting to establish a theocracy in his country by overthrowing its government.  He was the signatory on behalf of one of these main schools.  Now that he's pardoned and no doubt, reformed, I'm sure he's just the guy to talk about tolerance.  The other angle on this is that, in 2011, I'm reading this message after an internet search in English about one of the signatories.  Why haven't I heard reference to this more often before?  As it happens, I was aware of it, but I can't recall any references to it in religious debate in Oman, Iraq or anywhere else I've been in the last seven years.  Nor even  on an internet forum.  Every major "scholar" from every major sect, and nobody thinks it's worth a reference? 

This seems to be another irony, that the very people who shout down unorthodox views, have their own very specific views of what orthodoxy must be.  As a Sufi scholar once put it "the ways to the truth are as many and varied as the souls on Earth".  I think he's probably right, although I'm not sure if the Amman Message's "true Sufism" includes him, so best to be careful.  There can't be any single document on the planet that's a more orthodox, plain-words expression of scholarly agreement than the Amman Message, but it doesn't seem to have hit much resonance among the masses.  Is it just that it's human nature to be individual and maintain a unique perspective?  We all feel the need to belong, certainly, but can we really be homogenised into one, consistent viewpoint?  Perhaps, in that respect, the Amman Message is just as futile as the extremists are self-defeating.  "Fighting for peace" is an oxymoron, perhaps in the metaphorical campaigning sense, as well as the literal one.

But holding a billion unique views is one thing, fighting over them another.  Why do we Muslims seem to go from zero to infamy in seconds?  Naturally, the statistical incidence of Muslims who are terrorists is extremely low.  Even the most high-handed, right-wing internet sniper in the Omani blogosphere will have to admit that, for all the things wrong with Omani society, he's probably met a lot of Muslims here, and none of them have murdered him for being a kaffir even if they did cut the queue in the petrol station.  I go back, though, to that question of permissive environment.  Most Muslims are not terrorists, but as I've mentioned before, I think far too many of us are passively accepting of an extremist ideology.

The stereotype of a violent Arab Muslim is inaccurate.  Most Muslims are not violent, and indeed, most Muslims are not Arabs.  Three quarters of Muslims are from the Indian Sub-Continent.  The largest single Muslim country is Indonesia.  India has more Muslims than the entire Arab world.  With that in mind, perhaps it's worth remembering, then, that most Muslims are poor.  Most live in countries struggling with corruption, social injustice, poverty and despair.  Not because, as the Evil Bobs of this world would have it, Islam makes people corrupt and unjust, but because those places have been that was for centuries.  It's arguable, I think, that poverty in Asia, the caste system in India, and the Islamic doctrine of equality between races and peoples and helping the poor, are the reasons that Islam has taken hold so firmly in many developing countries.  But, as with any perfect idea in the hands of man, it still relies on man for its implementation, and as is often the case, man falls short.

So that explains why the Amman Message is an unknown reference for most Muslims: most Muslims have never used the internet.  Most down own a television.  Many can't read, and most certainly don't buy a newspaper.  In such an environment, taking authority and guidance from a man of status is the default.  The "scholar" is the only man who can read.  The leader.  The respected pillar of the community.  I would argue that even when a community begins to prosper through development or migration, becomes literate and self-sustaining, those traditions remain.  Extremism is easy to sell to a hungry man.  It is also easy to sell to a man whose cultural traditions are of obedience to the paternalistic figure with the loudest voice and the longest beard, even though he may now have access to other voices.

But even if all of that is true, what about the rest of us?  What about the ones who lazily pick a side in whatever conflict is spooned up in the TV news?  What about the educated, well-fed, historically prosperous Muslims who use their Facebook pages to ask their friends for a gesture of sectarian loyalty?  Look at where it leads.  Look at what it really represents.  Whether it's Ashura or any other day, whether there's a bomb in Kadhimiya or a death threat to a blogger talking about definitions of marriage and sex, take a moment to think about it.  We are the ones with the freedom, the information, the choice, and with it the responsibility.  So I ask again, in the nicest possible way:  what the hell is wrong with you people?

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December 03, 2011

So About That Opera House....

I'll keep this brief (yeah, I know I've said this before, but...), but I have two big issues about this apparently raging controversy:

The first one is, as I feel Dhofari Gucci might be too polite to say, who cares what he thinks?  I, like DG, have every respect for Ahmed Al Khalili as a man who has dedicated his life, no doubt with great effort and conviction, to seeking truth and helping guide the people to a more moral existence.  May God reward him.  I have shaken his hand a couple of times here and there, and he strikes me as a rather gentle and modest man - something I've noticed about great man of religion from other faiths too, over the years.  

But nevertheless, is his opinion really so important?  I have written before about how I have great cynicism towards those who set themselves up as "muftis", "sheikhs", "scholars" and so forth - not because I doubt the effort and learning of one who makes this his life's work, but because of the implied role it gives them in society.  There is no occupation or social status of "mufti" or "scholar" mentioned in the Holy Qur'An, nor even in the most widely accepted traditions of the Prophet (pbuh).  A "sheikh" is either the elder of a tribe, or the man chosen to lead them in war.  Islam, I believe, dislikes titles.  On the contrary, it is a basic tenet of Islam that we have no priests, popes, vicars, gurus, lamas or similar such creations acting as intermediaries between us as individual Muslims, and God.  So even when a man makes himself (or worse, society makes him) into a respected full-time student of matters spiritual, does that really give him the right to speak as if his views or understanding are incontrovertible fact?

I lay the blame for this not at the person of "Sheikh" Ahmed, but more at the society (and I mean the Umma more generally, not Oman specifically), that has created such roles.  The very fact that a man has to ask on behalf of his mother (let's not look at that too closely either), and is prepared to make a decision apparently based solely on this one man's reply, is to me indefensible from a theological standpoint.  There are many people one might ask for an advice or an opinion, but relying on one, however clear his heart or great his library, is simply creating an Islamic church with doctrinal dogma growing beyond what we believe to be the world of God.  Listening to someone else's opinion, and treating it as an inherent part of religious understanding, is a mistake in my view.  Is music forbidden?  Personally, I doubt it, and there are many schools of thought on the matter, or at least on where the boundaries lie, but that's not the issue: the issue is that making one man responsible for everyone's view, is elevating him to a status that I believe to be itself forbidden, unequivocally, by the religion we claim to share.

There will be different views on all of the above of course, and I mean no personal insult to the individual or to anyone else.  But here's the second thing: why have an opera house at all?

I don't mean in respect of whether it's OK to have music venues, bars or other such non-traditional facilities built with the country's wealth as a matter of principle based on their content.  That will always be debatable, and let's debate it.  But I  mean the specific issue of building a big, expensive, eye-catching project that is not empirically a priority for the under-educated, under-paid, under-employed, under-served Omani majority.  A few comments on other blogs and forums have put the view that the opera house was a waste of money, and although not mentioned in the original discussion, they are nevertheless questions that have been raised by many.

When I wrote a few days ago about things that Oman should be proud of in marking National Day, I had meant to include this project.  Not because of the way the project worked (over a year late, inadequate access, signage and parking, and a budget to make your eyes water), but because of what it represents.

Of course on one level, it represents the personal passion of Sultan Qaboos for classical art forms.  In that respect, Oman has an opera house for the same reason as it has a symphony orchestra, the same reason Oman FM has always set aside time for classical music, the reason Oman now has a dedicated classical radio station, and that both the Al Bustan and a certain royal palace, have full-scale pipe organs.  His Majesty spent a formative part of his education in a music-loving house, and learned to understand and to love the richness and beauty of various classical forms of music.  It is a passion he wishes to share with his people and encourage among them, no doubt in his mind a representation of higher civilisation, a badge of intellect and social maturity to which the nation should be helped to aspire.  It seems to me that His Majesty has a rather different view on the morality of music than Ahmed Al Khalili.  Whoever is right, I am happy at least that neither view is repressed out of insincere conformity.

But to me, the Royal Opera House of Oman represents something beyond that.  When a government or a leader sets a budget, and looks at all the priorities for a nation, there is something beyond paying the bills, maximising the provision of services and planning for infrastructure requirements or even national defence.  There is the question of self-respect, community pride.  A question of representing all the progress and aspirations of a nation in something tangible.  Some leaders build big statues of themselves, or monuments to some past revolution.  Some take a more utilitarian approach, with a new park or planting a forest.  In a way, perhaps an opera house is a statue of Sultan Qaboos as it represents so directly and personally his own vision of what cultural progress means.  But it is open.  Just as the parks and corniches are.  Even if the performances are expensive, they vary, and a tour or just a view from the road as you drive by, is for everyone.  This is no mere vanity project, it is an invitation.

It reminds me in a way of the Beijing Olympics - that event mired in all sorts of controversy, inside and outside China (and at least an opera house was built without evicting anyone!).  But it was a statement.  In building that remarkable Bird's Nest, that extraordinary performance to open the Games, and of course the massive investment in China's own athletic performance, a country announced itself confident and come of age.  It was a tonic to the nation, an item of pride and self-esteem.  "We can invite the best of the World to come to us, and appreciate the joy and tradition of these games".  So said China with its Olympic Games.  So says Oman at the opera or the ballet.

Instead of complaining at the cost, or debating whether this or that form of entertainment is traditional or religiously compliant, I think perhaps Oman needs a different view of what this building is about.  Yes, there are many things this country needs, and more urgently than to hear Andrea Bocelli.  But just as someone struggling with a budget needs, once in a while, to pick up a tub of that expensive ice cream after a hard day, or take his wife out on their anniversary, financial priorities are not always solely about paying the bills.  They are also about embracing life, about just occasionally, saying "let's treat ourselves" to something a little out of the ordinary.  The daily grind, the pressures and stresses of making a living, will always be there.  But everyone needs to have something special on their birthday.  Oman got something beautiful, and beauty is a gift from God.