Hijacking the Hijab – the Religious and Liberal Paradigms



As a consequence of this dogmatic approach to the hijab in certain Muslim-majority lands, we have heads turn at a woman in a burqa and not so much as a blink of an eye at a nun who adorns herself in a robe – the argument being (and at times rightly so) that while the former is enforced, the latter is voluntary.

When Raphael Lemkin went in search of a word that would provide the archetype to define the most heinous of crimes against humanity, skeptics of language trivialised his efforts arguing that, “a word is a word is a word.” Yet, notwithstanding the weighty arguments put forward by his critics, the coinage of Lemkin’s term “genocide” has achieved, at least linguistically if not practically, what he had hoped such a word would achieve – a definitive impact of intense human suffering on those who hear it. And while the subtleties of semantic choices may differ significantly from men and women’s sartorial choices, with respect to the donning of the Muslim headscarf and the current debates surrounding it, would it be cogent to claim that – a headscarf is a headscarf is a headscarf?

Although part of very different journeys, these semantic and sartorial selections do share certain commonalities: my Armenian friends for example hold a deep emotional attachment to the term genocide, contending that the Armenian massacres of the early 20th century must be considered genocide. Equally, for Muslim women who wear the headscarf, it is not just another piece of clothing but an important and powerful external symbol of self-identity. Unfortunately however, it is a symbol that has become vexed with difficulties having become associated with emblems of female servitude, marginalisation and oppression. Therefore, it is imperative to delineate and demystify a religious icon that is meant to denote the virtues of modesty from the abrasive ideas it has come to be aligned to.

Paradoxically, it is Muslim-majority countries that have taken the lead in perpetuating the heresies of an otherwise everyday symbol characterising a person’s distinctive individuality and confined to the realm of that person. Pictures of women being forced to wear full-face burqas or veils bonded in the shackles of male subjugation and being relegated to the four walls of their homes have immortalised the Muslim woman as an object eternally subservient to a superior sex. Yet, as other Muslim women, like myself, who choose to wear the headscarf of their own freewill would testify, the entrenchment of such perceptions in secular societies are far removed from the original verities of its purpose. As a consequence of this dogmatic approach to the hijab in certain Muslim-majority lands, we have heads turn at a woman in a burqa and not so much as a blink of an eye at a nun who adorns herself in a robe – the argument being (and at times rightly so) that while the former is enforced, the latter is voluntary.

To be sure, the Muslim woman in a headscarf has evolved over the decades and embraced a variety of competing views. They are no neat camps in which women in headscarves may be divided, they cut across a large cross section of society and the external expression of the scarf itself differs widely. Some are convinced the Quranic injunction includes the covering of the face while others vociferously oppose this. Thus, even within Muslim women themselves, there is no clear consensus of what constitutes an accurate depiction of a headscarf that adequately fulfills religious requirements. Having grown up in Pakistan and lived in the Middle East, the US and in Paris (now residing permanently in the UK), I have been privy to a staggering variety not just of the hijab but also of the societies in which it is worn. In the backdrop of this broad-ranging experience, I feel the headscarf debate within Muslim communities has stagnated on technicalities, at times entirely overlooking the headscarf’s actual purpose while the discourse in secular societies like France has transformed a complex question of self identification to one of compatibility with an ultraliberal republic.

These contesting viewpoints are detrimental in their own respects. Two things are clear: First, that in as much as you categorically cannot force a Muslim woman to wear the hijab – the Quran testifying to this in Chapter 2, Verse 257 stating that, “There is no compulsion in religion” – you cannot compel a Muslim woman not to wear the hijab. In this sense, those Islamist fundamentalists who subject women to wearing the veil and the French republic that wishes to take the right to wear a headscarf away from Muslim women bear an uncanny and ironic semblance to each other. Second, the existing discourse within Muslim communities must transcend the overemphasis on the external expressions of the hijab and focus on its internal values of modesty and righteousness. Stereotyping on both ends of the spectrum linger – at times those who wear the headscarf become self righteous and critical of those women who choose not to – while those who choose not to wear one at times pigeon hole women who do.

As a woman who chooses to wear the headscarf (while not believing that my faith requires me to cover my face) I feel the real journey is the hijab’s inward focus on the virtues of modesty and righteousness. The external expressions of the hijab must mirror these virtues in order to be complete – as God says in Chapter 7 Verse 26, “O ye Children of Adam! We have bestowed raiment upon you to cover your shame, as well as to be an adornment to you. But the raiment of righteousness – that is the best.” Thus, with religious and secular oppressors and the development of societal stereotypes having shaped the trajectory of a timeless issue, and the far right now arguing that the hijab promotes passive extremism, the contours of the original verities of the hijab must be redrawn. Within this new sphere, both religious and liberal zealots must revaluate their positions, perhaps bearing in mind that Virgin Mary who is always depicted with her head covered is also considered exemplary for Muslim men and women in the Quran.



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Je Suis Humanity: Beyond Scriptural Heresy


As the gruesome scenes from Brussels emerged on Tuesday, they bore an uncanny resonance to feelings I brought home from my recent trip to Pakistan. Visiting the country I grew up in for the first time following the dreadful Peshawar school attack in December 2014, I felt that the school children massacre had reshaped the contours of terror that have sketched an already fragmented and pillaged landscape. As family members who were recently the targets of a terrorist assault on their home and business premises revealed, more than ever today, living with the extremist scourge had become concomitant with living in Pakistan.

And throughout my 15-day sojourn in the country, this feeling came home with a growing sense of profundity and poignancy. The tree-lined boulevards, the bustling market places, packed restaurants and chic retail outlets sit juxtaposed with small children begging barefooted on the streets, random kidnappings from otherwise affluent districts and vile sermons spilling out of mosques in major cities. It has become a country of lit festivals and hardline clerics, of corruption and philanthropy, of major fashion high streets and full-veiled women. It has become a country of confounding contrasts. The hotel that just offered you a surreally peaceful spring afternoon savouring the delights of a lush meal, may well be a hotel that has been privy to a major bombing, sitting like a fort at the heart of the city.

The pictures that came out of Paris last year and Brussels a few days ago seem to herald the beginnings of such duality: places frequented in the everyday-ings of life being targeted and brought down. A frightening prospect being widely shared across mainstream media that this may well signal the “new norm” in Europe. In addition to the outpouring of grief and messages of condolences from across the globe, the reactions to the atrocities in Brussels were also not uncommon. Pundits on both sides of the political spectrum took to social media either offering apologetic defences of Islam or lambasting the Muslim faith as being inherently and incurably violent. While such standpoints may well be either emotive or knee-jerk, they cloud the ability to wade through what has become an increasingly complicated geopolitical and to a lesser degree, ideological situation.

Amid the plethora of contesting viewpoints attributing blame to state and non-state actors, a common assumption appears to linger – that Islam is at the root of the rising tide of extremism. However, to suggest that scripture alone inspires Islamist militants would be to submit to an overly simplistic conclusion of a dreadfully thorny and complex predicament. The Quranic passages ordaining the killing of infidels (9:5) (frequently referred to as the verse of the sword) and smiting the necks of disbelievers (47:5) are often cited as the foundation whereupon extremist ideology has been constructed. The merits of such claims can be refuted by examining just one verse from the Quran – Chapter 3, Verse 8 details how to interpret the Quran, enumerating that it contains two kinds of verses: context-independent verses that form the “basis of the Book” and are enduring in their application, and context-dependent verses that were revealed for specific situations. The Quran unequivocally condemns cherry-picked textual fidelity designed to further individual ends, saying that, “…those in whose hearts is perversity pursue such thereof as are susceptible of different interpretations, seeking discord and seeking wrong interpretation of it.” Moreover, permission to fight has only been granted to a party who is being wronged in self defense (22:40) (Muslims are never granted permission to attack) and in perhaps the greatest testament to preserving multifaith identities permission to fight was granted to protect not just mosques but equally churches, synagogues and temples (22:41). To this extent, the Quran lays down rules of war in as much as the Geneva Conventions regulate warfare, but to claim that international law is inherently violent on that basis would be to advance a hollow and ludicrous argument, its insincerity and fractured purpose overtly self-evident.

It begs the question then whether extremists are really relying on this hand-picked allegiance to a few particular verses of the Quran that are clearly context-dependent and were revealed and applied only at a time when war had been openly declared on Muslims? Is this truly where they find their sole inspiration? In a witty and insightful talk at Saint Anthony’s College Oxford on the evening of the Paris attacks, Karen Armstrong made the case for motivations of extremists to be largely political. She spoke of how two young Britons going to fight in Syria had ordered Quran for dummies and Islam for dummies online, and how a hostage released by ISIS last year revealed that when the call to prayer sounded, none of his captives got up to pray – and when asked for a copy of the Quran, no one had one handy.

Studying the history of the rise of various extremists seems to cement these views. The Afghan and Pakistan Taliban for example were borne directly out of the Soviet War in Afghanistan, employed by the US as freedom fighters at the time. Hilary Clinton has admitted on record that you harvest what you sow. The history of the creation of ISIS has also been traced to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It appears that the big questions of where ISIS came from in the first place and who is funding them are being willfully ignored. There appears to be a lack of a genuine and honest commitment to getting to the root cause of the extremist paradigm and work towards plausible solutions. In an article in the Independent last year, Tom Brooks-Pollock highlighted how the major financiers of ISIS were oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The paradox was profound then when news reports emerged of Britain’s secret vote trading deal with the Saudis, allowing both countries to be elevated to the UN Human Rights Council. For Saudi Arabia to have a UK-backed seat at one of UN’s most influential human rights bodies is not only an oxymoron from the perspective of the Kingdom being a major sponsor of ISIS but also given its alarming human rights record – just this January carrying out 47 executions.

Taking by way of analogy Kelsen’s jurisprudential theory of the grundnorm – that according to him was the basic norm wherefrom stemmed all legal and moral norms – we would argue that a universal grundnorm that is the source of all morality ought to be rooted in humanity i.e. humanity must define morality. Cherry-picked grieving to heinous crimes committed by extremists worldwide appears to suggest that the notion of a grundnorm grounded in humanity is nothing more than ambitiously utopian. While the world mourns with great fervour the atrocities at Charlie Hebdo, the November 13th Paris attacks and the Brussels bombings, there is little or no mention of the equally odious assaults carried out by ISIS and Boko Haram just days preceding each of these incidents. The attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo came as Boko Haram massacred more than 2000 women and children in Baga, Nigeria. Deadly explosions in Lebanon’s capital preceded the Paris attacks in November and the Brussels attacks come just days after a suicide bomber struck at the heart of Istanbul, Turkey’s bustling tourist hub. The selective fashion in which mainstream media channels its outpouring of grief has prompted resentment and even outrage in Muslim communities who feel their lives are less dear than others. Aryn Baker writing in Time last November echoes these sentiments as she asks, “Beirut wonders if some terror attacks mean more than others.”

Without a genuine and firm commitment towards tackling the causes of the extremist scourge, re-thinking our alliances with despotic regimes as trading partners and showing measured, egalitarian responses to incidents of extremism, the pandemic of the terrorist threat will only intensify making the surreal Pakistan experience ripple even more strongly in Europe. The seemingly just world orders have been traditionally unjust in their pursuit of justice, paradoxically pursuing a path of “unjust justice” with only their vested interests in mind, surpassing any measure of r heresy. We castigate Muslim-majority countries’ human rights record on the one hand yet make clandestine deals with them on the other ensuring them a place on a major international human rights body in order to secure lucrative trade flows. Today if we are to defeat the menace of terrorism, the universal grundnorm must be reformed to echo an unbiased morality rooted in humanity. With this moral compass in mind, the pursuit of justice must be revisited – in the lack whereof not only the plague of extremism will be further fuelled but also all secular ideals will be progressively turned on their heads.

Ayesha Malik is a Contributing Editor of “islawmix” – a project incubated at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and aimed at bringing clarity to Islamic law in the news. She is also the Deputy Editor of the Law and Human Rights Section of the Review of Religions Magazine, a journal focusing on comparative religion since 1902. Her writings have appeared in the Oxford Human Rights Hub Blog, the Harvard Human Rights Journal Online and the Cambridge Review of International Affairs Blog. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

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Is Britain Dangerously Diverse?


Can Britain be said to have become dangerously diverse since it opened its shores to migrants, particularly from Commonwealth countries, following the end of the Second World War? That appears to be the message implicit in the former racial equality chief’s statements published in the Times on January 27th, which reported him as saying that, “Muslims are not like us”, and that the British public should, “accept that they will not integrate in the same way.” Trevor Phillips’, the former head of the racial equalities watchdog, remarks betray a painfully simplistic characterisation of a profoundly complex situation. They also raise thorny questions, including amongst others, whether foreign settlers in Britain pose an existential threat to British identity?

Pertinently, Mr. Phillips comments lead us to ask how “integration” and “multiculturalism” are to be defined. While having become household terms within the discourse on immigration, their household meanings reveal a mere fraction of their more nuanced denotations. Multiculturalism for example, at its simplest and most superficial level, pertains to a demographic condition. However, detailed empirical studies from legal and social psychology perspectives demonstrate that as a phenomenon multiculturalism has political, philosophical, anthropological and psychological dimensions. Favourable and unfavourable views on multiculturalism abound – yet it seems that the latter have been gathering pace over the past decade. Increasingly, othering discourse is creeping into the political rhetoric – with Prime Minister David Cameron making statements such as this: “We’ve…tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.”

Thus, as Sarah Song, writing in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy suggests, that, “the greatest challenge to multiculturalism may not be philosophical but political.” Indeed, in the unfolding migrant crisis more than ever today, there has been a retreat in those championing ‘multicultural justice’. Notably, among these is the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who in April 2014 castigated multiculturalism for bringing Sharia law and honour killings to British society. Paving the way through the maze of narratives surrounding multiculturalism – the communitarian and liberal egalitarian defences along with the political critiques thereof – psychologists at the London School of Economics suggest an alternative, organic approach to understanding multiculturalism. Caroline Howarth and Eleni Andreouli argue that instead of assuming or imposing one particular form of definition of multiculturalism, “successful social policy and public debate need to rest on a more in-depth understanding of how lay people construe and relate to multiculturalism in the context of their everyday lives.” What Howarth and Andreouli underscore is that in the lack of comprehending the big questions of multiculturalism and integration as experienced “on the ground” within the “lived realities of cultural diversity”, academic and political discourses are imperilled to become, “disconnected from real life experiences and actual intergroup relations.”

So, what are the lived realities of cultural diversity? As a Muslim migrant to this country and having married into a family of Muslim immigrants who have lived in Britain for the past 30 years, there exists a community of communities even within Muslims residing in Britain. There exist hundreds of Muslim migrants who have acculturated to this country, and who like my husband’s family, and myself strive to contribute positively to the diversity of British society. Having lived in a quintessentially English village in Surrey for the past three decades, the doors of my husband’s parental home have always been open to neighbours coming to sample Asian cuisine – and we regularly join hands in philanthropic pursuits, we come together to celebrate and better understand our differences through interfaith meetings and dialogues, we distribute and exchange sweets on religious festivals and we have over the course of the past seven years been offering free horse riding lessons at our riding school to families and children from neighbouring villages. I know scores of Muslim migrants who like my husband have either come to this country when they were babies or have been born and raised here – who have graduated from some of the most prestigious institutions in Britain and who are, within their respective professional domains, as either engineers, doctors, lawyers, journalists or other vocations – making meaningful contributions to British society. The British identity is concomitant with their thinking and way of living.

To be sure, the notion of integration is fraught with complexities and critics of multiculturalism argue that the façade of multiculturalism provides an adequate means of violating rights of vulnerable minorities within culturally diverse communities. Yes, we have problems such as female genital mutilation and these need to be addressed – but not through insular political jargon that will only serve to exacerbate these conditions and have a regressive effect on the actual victims. It is unfortunate that we champion a globalised world – yet continue to perpetuate insular foreign policies, entirely inward and nationalist in their outlook. We celebrate diversity and yet stifle the roots thereof by spreading isolating and demeaning rhetoric to the likes of Mr. Phillips and Mr. Cameron’s. After all, how else is diversity to be preserved but through the preservation of different cultures? A radical form of integration – which would entail largely or wholly embracing the dominant culture – would ironically stifle diversity by putting an end to norms and practices native to different cultures, that are not antithetical to the human spirit and that enrich the fabric of society. Caught in the middle of this merry-go-round of deepening far right politics and the corresponding rise of extremists, are peaceful, well integrated, law abiding, educated Muslims wanting simply to get on with their lives much like anyone else in this country. Until we rid ourselves of these hegemonic double standards, we will continue to demonise human diversity while letting the actual demons thrive.

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The uncanny chillness of the Charsadda attack


I remember singing along to an oft-recited Hindi poem as part of a 13-member peace delegation to India in the summer of 2001. One couplet always resonated with me deeply, reminiscing the loss of humanity, its words ran something like this: “Mandir, masjid, Girja-ghar nay baant diya baghwaan ko – Dharti baanti, saghar baanta, mat baanto insaan ko” (i.e. Temples, mosques, cathedrals have all divided God – We divided nations, we divided seas, lets not divide man). Today, these words are a poignantly chilling reminder of a nation whose schools have entered the grotesque hall of shame joining churches and mosques wherein the blood of hundreds of innocent civilians has flown.

The recent attack on the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda last week that killed at least 30 people – mostly children and teachers – has renewed the still relatively fresh wounds from the deadly Peshawar school massacre in December 2014 when armed gunmen besieged the Army Public School killing almost 140 people – mostly children. The ghastliness of the attacks transcends the capabilities of linguistics – bringing to mind the words of Margaret Atwood who once proclaimed, “All writers feel struck by the limitations of language” – and the appalling and barbaric slaughter of school children attending an otherwise normal day in school is wholly impenetrable to words. How do you describe the indiscriminate carnage and savage butchery of young children?

Khalifa Umar Mansoor’s faction of the Pakistani Taliban took responsibility for the attack – the Peshawar school assault also having been claimed by him. Two days after the Bacha Khan massacre, Mansoor released a video vowing to target schools across the country, calling them “nurseries” that produce apostates that challenge God’s sovereignty. The Taliban Commander said that schools, colleges and universities all would not be spared, asserting that his faction will “demolish their foundations.” The defiant message from Mansoor demonstrates how the Pakistani Government’s strategy in tackling the Taliban is not only failing but is in fact emboldening extremists. Army offensives have only fanned militants to retaliate and negotiated peace deals have broken down.

Four days following the attack in Charsadda, threatening graffiti appeared on the walls of a girls school in the outskirts of Faisalabad warning that if the school was to commence classes from Monday, January 26th, it would be blown up. Pro-ISIS graffiti has also been spotted in places in Gilgit and Peshawar welcoming the self-proclaimed caliphate of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Meanwhile, a study by the Pew Research Center revealed last year that Pakistan was the only country out of the 11 surveyed where the majority offered no definite opinion on ISIS – unlike the majority e.g. in Jordan where 94% of people held unfavourable views about ISIS.

As I try and make sense of Charsadda, I can’t help reflecting over the time I went to school in Pakistan. My memories of my school days are some of my fondest: they epitomise an inherently carefree existence, which symbolised equally learning in the classroom and the innocent mischievousness of young adolescents getting enthralled by the idea of skipping class to sneak to the school canteen or racing down corridors only to run straight into a senior administrator. I was fortunate to have been schooled in a less conventional environment when my mother, a schoolteacher, partnered with two of her long-standing colleagues and intellectuals to start her own school with a liberal mandate in Islamabad. By contrast, I have also witnessed village school children in some of the most rural areas in Pakistan enthusiastically doing homework with chalk and slates under lantern lights.

And as I reminisce over these multitude of school experiences in Pakistan and slip back into my shoes as a young school girl in Islamabad, it is gut wrenching and unfathomable to imagine a day where school children like myself and my classmates could be privy to the macabre scenes that unfolded in Peshawar and Charsadda. It is equally inconceivable to think of the young Malala Yousafzai being shot in the head by the Taliban as she returned home from school one afternoon. When the Pakistan Army launched its offensive against the Taliban in 2009, the militant group responded through a wave of deadly suicide blasts that besieged all major cities in Pakistan, causing schools to close down for several weeks. Working for a commercial litigation practice in Lahore at the time, I would drive down a major road in the heart of the city every morning to get to work – crossing a kindergarten school on the way. And every morning I would see young toddlers being escorted in through a barrage of sand bags and barbed wires by their mothers, and I would wonder what world view was being shaped in their innocent, yet vulnerable minds?

It is a worldview no mother would ever want her children to grow up with. Today, when I think of my own 21-month old, it is hard for me to imagine sending him to school under such precarious circumstances. My heart and mind are often with children growing up and going to school in Pakistan. As they confront their daily challenges in pursuing a fundamental freedom, I am compelled to think that what is happening in Pakistan is a deeper and more disturbing form of massacre – a massacre of morality – a depravity that is resulting in a wider genocide of common humanity. And unless Pakistanis stop it in its tracks, it will beleaguer and obliterate all sense of human dignity, ethics and virtue from their country.

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Mr. Cameron: Democratic or Dogmatic?


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These have been troubling times for adherents of the Islamic faith with the rising tide of extremism along with an increasing number of Muslim scholars and clerics attempting to monopolise a singular path to salvation. Most Muslim-majority countries have adopted constitutional clauses mandating that all legislation must conform to Islamic law. Pertinently, as a study by the Pew Research Center recently revealed, in most Muslim-majority countries – even those relatively more multicultural like Malaysia – religious police enforce Islamic norms. There appears to be a pandemic of moral and religious patrol across the Muslim-majority world – often with grotesque consequences such as sectarianism, executions and suicide bombings.

The irony and shock to some extent was profound then when the Prime Minister of this country, David Cameron, announced on 18 January on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that he would be creating new rules that would make it mandatory for immigrants to know the English Language and abolish segregation in public places. It betrayed a profound analogy to hardliners who have taken the charge of policing religious norms – the question was screaming out loud – is Mr. Cameron not, too, assuming the mantle of enforcing what are in his mind liberal norms? How different does that make him from the dogmatic religious clergy?

The Prime Minister’s statements brought to mind the words of Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century Arab historian, who once said that, Government is an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself.” Mr. Cameron’s plans to introduce the English Language as a mandatory pre-requisite to settlement in the United Kingdom will no doubt often create scenarios wherein immigrant mothers wishing to join their partners in the UK will be faced with the possibility of not being able to do so simply because their English is not good enough. To be sure, having a good working knowledge of today’s lingua franca while maybe considered essential, Mr. Cameron could institutionalise language-learning centers geared specifically towards providing immigrants English language lessons, employing staff suited to meet the needs of the diversity of immigrants. Measures such as these would not only ensure that foreign settlers in Britain acquire knowledge of the language but also interact with other well-integrated migrants from similar ethnic backgrounds. In any event, to be able to obtain a British passport, migrants must demonstrate a level of proficiency not just of the English language but of British history and customs as well. As a migrant myself who will need to pass these tests a few years from now, I would imagine the rules currently in place should have been sufficient in themselves.

Second on his list of proposals is to ban segregation in public places. Notwithstanding the enduring debate on “safe spaces” for women that provide a place of healing, support and even innovation and inspiration to many women, particularly those having suffered traumas like rape, Britain has long been a pro-choice country and has hailed the values of diversity, plurality and multiculturalism. Indeed, its increasing multicultural and multi faith fabric bears testimony to this. And hence Mr. Cameron’s desire to abolish segregation unilaterally without actually engaging with British women who identify themselves as Muslims is profoundly antithetical to Mr. Cameron’s own commitment to the principles of pluralism. Paradoxically, Mr. Cameron is it seems breaching the values of pluralism in the name of pluralism itself. To that extent, the Prime Minister ironically bears an uncanny semblance to the self-appointed enforcers of religious norms, who do so in the name of religion. In a rights-protecting, free-speech-defending, diversity-celebrating country, that should be sacrilegious to say the least.

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Of Serendipity and Starry Nights


Decembers are a poignant time of year, as we reflect on the receding shores of time, it is as if with each year one wave of our life disappears into the distant horizon. This December, my reflection took me down the path of adolescent nostalgia – by returning me to my childhood meditation over starry nights. Growing up in Pakistan and being raised by a single mother, I have spent many a night staring into the Islamabad night sky. Until one evening during my moments of soliloquy to the night sky, a moment of epiphany occurred: even the night sky – dark and sinister – has stars. Thus, in contrast to the blackness of the sky that I associated with the bumps along my personal journey, stars at the time symbolised hope and positivity and a certain cheerfulness.

Analogising this reminiscence of starry nights to today’s world, I look back at 2015 as depicting a particularly dark year. What appears to be emerging is an increasingly fractured and polarised world. The increasing perplexity of terrorist attacks and the corresponding rise in Islamophobia, with unrest and anarchy rife in the Middle East, the war against ISIS, the growing tide of sectarianism in Muslim-majority lands, the rise of ideological extremists – one advocating a militant form of, what is, Islam in their view (militant Islamism) and the other going down the path of Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, Pamela Geller and the like (or what I call Trumpism). Between this disdainful exchange between militant Islamism and Trumpism, the values of human dignity and civic virtue that are common to humanity are paradoxically being eroded to an unrecognisable degree.

While I don’t believe an apologetic Muslim rhetoric is required to counter episodes of Islamic extremism given the geopolitical forces that have shaped its contours in the past three decades, I believe an emphatic, academic and theological counter narrative is needed in response to the pernicious extremist narrative taking hold. The moderate Muslim voice – scholars, educators, activists, professionals and all peaceful law-abiding citizens alike must take the mantle of providing this counter narrative within their respective spheres of expertise and social and professional circles. And while this is a call to action for the moderate Muslim voice, it is equally a call to the media to ensure such a voice receives a channel that safeguards non-partisan scholarship. Unless the media takes a proactive role in providing such an impartial mechanism where the moderate Muslim voice does galvanise, all will be lost like echoes bouncing off empty walls.

And hence my quest to mobilise the moderate Muslim voice is a bit like looking for stars in the night sky. These stars may be human or literary – but it is time for them to emit their light. The most powerful beacon comes from the Quran itself, wherein God, entirely antithetical to ISIS’s actions and theological premise, provides that the Prophet is merely an admonisher and has no authority to compel people to believe, “Thou art not at all a warder over them.” The general thrust of the Quranic message may be summed by the thirty-fourth verse of Chapter 41, commanding the believers to repel evil with that which is best. Perhaps the greatest advocacy of preserving and peacefully co-existing within multifaith communities comes from the Quran itself – quite ironically in light of current world events – Chapter 22, verse 40 reads, “For had it not been for Allah’s repelling some men by means of others, cloisters and churches and oratories and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft mentioned, would assuredly have been pulled down.”

To be sure, we are not just fighting radicals donning arms, the radical clergy in Muslim-majority countries, particularly Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – and now spreading to others like Bangladesh and Malaysia, that has led to the development of a virulent interpretation of religion remains an equally formidable adversary. These so-called scholars of Islam are hardliners that continue to capture the imagination of many vulnerable followers – the phenomenon is described well by Khaled Abou El Fadl, Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law who, quoting Sohail Hashmi writes that, “…interpretive communities do form around texts, and at times, they may hold the moral insights of the text hostage.” The uncompromising fashion in which hardliner clerics have slapped their interpretations of Quranic discernments onto “Islam” is a quintessential example of holding its insights captive. Importantly, what Fadl and Hashmi both underscore is that, as Muslim intellectuals we must admit that the morality of the Qur’an exceeded the morality of its interpreters.”

Thus, part of the journey of the moderate Muslim voice should be to transcend ideological barriers and embrace the diversity and plurality of peoples. This spirit of celebrating multiculturalism and fostering social cooperation is endorsed in the Quran, God stating quite clearly that, “If thy Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people…” and in another place adding that God grouped people in various tribes and nations so that they “may know one another.” Therefore, as Fadl expounds that, “the reality of human diversity is part of the divine wisdom and an intentional purpose of creation.” Within classical Islamic jurisprudence, commentators have failed to explore this Quranic discourse on diversity and hence the onus is on contemporary scholars and jurists to take up this cause. In order to undertake this journey in any meaningful manner, Muslims must first shed their self-righteous egos and their leaning propensity towards determining who in their view is a good Muslim, or even a Muslim in the first place. Let it be God’s exclusive dominion to sanction the same – indeed, the jurisprudential notion of the rights of God (huquq Allah) testifies to this – i.e. only God may determine retribution for any violation of rights due to Him and only He may forgive any transgressions. In fact, the rights owed to people (huquq al ibad) take precedence over the rights owed to God – a notion well established in Islamic jurisprudence.

Hence, as we endeavour to embark on this journey of searching for stars in the night sky, let us remember the Islamic metaphysical journey of finding opportunity in adversity, of having the fortitude to perceive the majesty of a bougainvillea flower sprouting from a thorn, of remembering that night turns into day and of displaying the courage to think that the sun does shine through otherwise rain-filled clouds – it is this depth of perception and inner strength that possesses the resilience to transform dark night skies into meteor showers. And it is this steadfastness that transcends barriers – reminding us that while serendipity may be a good thing at times, we mustn’t wait for it to work its magic.


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Is Secularism Sacred?

In his recent piece in The Times, Matt Ridley speaks of how Muslims are “turning away from Islam.” In a scathing and passionate article, he chastises jihadism and militant Islam and suggests humanism and secularism as antidotes to the same. I stand with Mr. Ridley in rebuking all forms of extremism and violent jihad and share his views that these must be seriously tackled. However, I take issue with the manner in which Mr. Ridley seems to paint 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide with the same brush. His powerful narrative places militant Islamism concomitant with Islam, effectively disenfranchising the more than a billion moderate Muslim voices worldwide – that not only condemn terrorism but are in fact victims of it.

Let’s put Mr. Ridley’s claims in perspective. He argues that, “The fastest growing belief system in the world is non-belief,” adding that the, “humanists are winning, even against Islam.” The gest of his arguments runs something like this: that atheism is on the rise globally, with an increasing number of people turning away from religion, in particular Islam; that this phenomenon is panning out in spite of the fact that atheists do not proselytise; that estimates forecast a decline in fertility rates amongst Muslim populations that have until now determined their increased market share; that atheists are persecuted in Muslim-majority lands; that jihadists are inspired by a desire, “to prevent the Muslim diaspora [from] sliding into western secularism” and that secularism can ultimately win against jihadism.

Mr. Ridley either intentionally or unintentionally indulges in classic “othering” discourse – the “them” against “us” approach – “Islam” against the “West.” His account is a quintessential example of partisan scholarship – one that entrenches misplaced stereotypes within society and paves the way towards a civilisational divide. There is no informed or reasoned analysis on the causes of terrorism, the geopolitical factors that have shaped its trajectory and importantly how Muslims, too, are victims of extremism. Is terrorism really a religious cult? Why do people like Mr. Ridley forget that the Taliban were really a creation of the Americans, known as freedom fighters at the time, and engaged to fight the Soviets during the Soviet War in Afghanistan – something Hilary Clinton has admitted on national television. Clinton sums it up quite well – you harvest what you sow. Moreover, it is also an open secret that the so-called Islamic State, who took responsibility for the recent attacks in Paris, was a creation of the Iraq War. As such, the motivations of terrorists are not quite religious as Mr. Ridley contends; they are more political than anything else. The Paris assassins shouted how France should not have gone into Syria, as they carried out their cold-blooded acts of murder. Karen Armstrong, in her recent talk at Saint Anthony’s College Oxford, outlined how each of the two British men who went to fight in Syria recently, ordered ‘Islam for Dummies’ on Amazon. This alone, makes a travesty of the claim that extremists hold intensely religious passions.

Furthermore, Mr. Ridley’s predictions that atheism will ultimately overtake Islam must be taken with a pinch of salt. His assertions sit in contradiction with a report published earlier this year by the Pew Research Center that reveals how by 2050 Islam is forecasted to be the fastest growing religion – the Muslim population estimated to increase by 73% in the next 35 years. It states how Muslims will grow from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.76 billion in 2050, with Islam being the only religion to surpass the global rate of population expansion. It would also place Islam for the first time at par with Christianity in numbers. By contrast, the study suggests that while the number of non-believers including atheists and agnostics will rise in countries such as the United States and France, the total rise in non-believers is estimated at a 100 million – rising merely from 1.1 billion in 2010 to 1.2 billion in 2050 – and by those numbers, this would actually mean a drop in the total population of atheists – from 16% of the total population in 2010 to 13% of the total population globally in 2050.

While I celebrate the secular values of democracy and the rule of law, these ideals do not suffice on their own if their overriding premise is not justice. Secular jurisprudence testifies to this, John Rawls arguing for example that, “legitimacy is only the minimal standard of political acceptability; a political order can be legitimate without being just,” adding that it is justice that provides, “the maximum moral standard: the full description of how a society’s main institutions should be ordered.” If secular ideals were sufficient on their own, we would not have lost 60 million people in the mass destruction of the Second World War – a war that was clearly not fought for any religious reasons. Hence, I am not convinced that secularism is as sacred as Mr. Ridley makes it out to be. Such overly simplistic, lop sided rhetoric reduce his scholarship to the ranting of an angry man, which does not behoove a person of Mr. Ridley’s intellect and educational background. When extremists kill, humanity suffers – not a particular cultural or religious demographic. Since 2003, in Pakistan alone, more than 20,000 civilians have perished in terrorism related violence. Similarly, thousands have lost their lives in Nigeria in terrorist attacks carried out by Boko Haram, a group claimed to be deadlier than ISIS. Even still, people like Mr. Ridley continue to assert that extremists are somehow more of a threat to the West than they are to the rest of the world. If anything, Muslims themselves are the biggest victims of extremism, and unless we unite against terrorism by considering it a global problem, it will only fuel more extremists on both sides of the religious and political spectra. And if secularism – the long championed beacon of liberty cannot unite us in this cause, then it is as dogmatic as radical ideology.

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Does Terrorism have a Religion?


I had just come out of an enriching and thought provoking discussion on whether religion is really violent in Saint Anthony’s College Oxford, delivered by the witty yet incredibly persuasive Karen Armstrong, when news of the deadly attacks in Paris swept across the media. Terrorism has no religion Armstrong had said, espousing that it was perhaps just as difficult to define the term terrorism, as it was to define religion. And notwithstanding these difficulties of what these terms actually mean, it is becoming increasingly clear that the motives of terrorism are predominantly political. Unsurprisingly, we heard the Paris attackers shouting how France should not have gone into Syria, as they besieged hundreds of innocent Parisians through indiscriminate firing.

What these latest terrorist attacks confirm is that terrorism has in fact bred a new form of perverse neo-religious dogmatism, one that inverts Divinity on its head in so far as it challenges the core human values common to all faiths and denominations. If we are to even conceive of winning this so-called war against terrorism, we need to widely promote and practice non-partisan scholarship and journalism that rejects the preaching of a hateful and intolerant worldview that makes a travesty of the celebration of diversity and plurality shared not just by religious scriptures but also the values of human dignity and civic virtue common to humanity. As I mourn and makes sense of Paris, for me it begs the question whether it is the Jeffrey Taylors, Pamela Gellers and Geert Wilders of the world on the one hand – and radical Islamist groups such as Isis and Boko Haram and extremist Muslim fatwa-givers on the other – that are left to effectively shape the contours of the ideological landscape of our world today? To embrace such a polarised worldview would be to submit to the grotesque caricatures of ideology constructed by such fundamentalists on both sides of the spectrum. To be sure, an increasingly insular journalism is paving the way towards a civilisational divide. It is time for responsible journalism to take the mantle of promoting peoples’ freedom of expression.

Virtues and goals common to humanity are not dead – they are alive at the grassroots where diverse communities and cultures come together in peace and harmony and yearn to grow and thrive. They are alive when I as a Muslim woman can live peacefully in an English village and befriend Christians, Jews and Buddhists alike from my neighbouring community. They are alive when we knock at each other’s doors over Christmas, Hanukah and Eid (the Muslim spiritual festival) to exchange gifts. They are alive when we come together from all denominations in philanthropic pursuits and stand together in condemning extremism. They are alive when we queue up to donate blood regardless of creed, colour, cast or religion. They are alive when we join hands to partake in interfaith dialogues and community building initiatives. Yet, the unfailing resolve of ideological extremists on both sides of the spectrum continues to construct their ugly caricatures of ideology, undermining these shared notions of human dignity and civic virtue, effectively disenfranchising the unheard majority and paving the way to the creation of an increasingly polarised world.

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Malaysia’s Dangerous Path Towards “Allah”

The Malaysian Court of Appeal has ruled that the usage of the word Allah is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity

The Malaysian Court of Appeal has ruled recently that the word “Allah” falls unreservedly within the Muslim faith, precluding the Catholic Church in the country from using the term in its newsletter, The Herald. The appeal, which was led by the Attorney General of Malaysia on behalf of the Malaysian Government, emanated from a 2009 decision of the High Court wherein The Herald had called for a judicial review of the power of the Home Minister to place conditions on the use of the word “Allah” before renewing its publication license. The High Court had held in favour of The Herald, and while the decision was generally lauded for its liberal appeal, it sparked off numerous attacks on churches and mosques.

The Chief Justice of the Court of Appeal, reversing the 2009 decision opined that, “The usage of the word Allah is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity. The usage of the word will cause confusion in the community.” This demarcation of so-called Muslim jurisdiction over the word “Allah” is not only deeply flawed but also antithetical to the term’s etymological origins. Notwithstanding the divergence of opinion among scholars with respect to the word’s Syriac, Hebrew or Aramaic roots, the word “Allah” has been used to denote a supreme being since pre-Islamic times. Archaeologists have discovered inscriptions on tombs and in the ruins of churches in the Middle East where Aramaic and Arabic speaking Jews and Christians lived, with proper names often being compounded with “Allah.”

Moreover, since the first centuries of Islam, Jews, Christians and Muslims alike have routinely employed “Allah” in their citations and translations of the Bible. The term “Allah” has been used not only in Arabic translations of the Bible, but also in other languages across the Middle East, Africa and most of Asia. The first Malay rendering of the Bible dates back to 1629, when a Dutch tradesman translated the Gospel of Mathew into Malay, using the word “Allah” to denote God.

Thus, Malaysia’s usurpation of the term “Allah” runs deeper than a mere linguistic spat and epitomizes an insidious political and religious ideology that pervades the Malaysian political and constitutional fabric. The Government’s eagerness to appeal the High Court’s 2009 decision demonstrates that Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ailing coalition that suffered its worst result in more than half a century in power in elections this May, has used the divisive “Allah” issue to re-solidify its political stronghold among Sunni Malays, which constitute two-thirds of the country’s population.

Malaysia’s path towards initiating a religio-lexical crusade masquerading as protecting public discord and the interests of Islam bears an uncanny semblance to Pakistan’s treatment of religious minorities, notably the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (a minority Muslim sect (also referred to as Qadianis) deemed heretical by mainstream Muslims). The Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1993, in a controversial decision, imposed restrictions on the community’s use of the terms “Azan” (meaning the call for prayer) and “Masjid” (an Urdu term used to denote a mosque), ruling that such terms were peculiar to Islam. The apex court went so far as to hold that these terms formed part of Islam’s intellectual property and that the State could prevent their usage by other religious communities.

In choosing a path that echoes Pakistan’s deepening sectarian tension, the Malaysian court’s decision signals the increasing dilution of its multicultural society. A state-sanctioned affirmative action programme according special rights to ethnic Malays has already been in place since the 70s that has led to the marginalization of Malaysia’s minorities. Pertinently, the ruling, aside from appropriating a term that is not Islam’s birthright from the country’s Christians, raises vexed questions with respect to what it entails for Ahmadis in Malaysia, who have routinely had their mosques and buildings raided and their villages ransacked. A council-erected sign outside one of their buildings reads, “Qadianis are not Muslims.”

This rising global trend of impudence and intolerance on the part of Muslim jurists and scholars is deeply disconcerting. It is a trend that finds its home not in terrorist hotbeds but in malignant political and religious ideologies. The world’s preoccupation with militant Islam has brushed to the periphery the pervasiveness of such ideologies that are becoming increasingly rampant in countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh. These countries are pursuing a dangerous path towards a divinity winged with paradox. They can learn from Pakistan’s example that has spiraled into national anarchy at the hands of the oxymoron of this divinity, and work towards constructing a more inclusive multicultural and multi-religious fabric before such ideologies run wild.

This article first appeared in the Oxford Human Rights Hub and can be accessed here.

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In Memoriam: Dr. Abdus Salam

 “I hardly know another scientist who invokes the same deep admiration, from the widest possible scientific community, as does Salam.”

(K. R. Sreenivasan)

The two-bedroom derelict bungalow appears rundown and abandoned. Situated in the small shantytown of Jhang in Pakistan, the home that lies in disrepair bears a tired signpost on its exterior, which reads, inter alia, “National Monument.” The existence of a symbol of national heritage in its current state of neglect is made all the more paradoxical with the revelation that it is the birthplace of the nation’s most illustrious son – Dr. Abdus Salam.

From these humble beginnings in Jhang, Salam, who earned the accolade of being Pakistan’s first – and only – Noble Laureate, winning the Noble Prize in physics in 1979 for predicting the existence of the Higgs Boson (the so-called “God particle”) as part of his work on electro-weak unification of forces, remains largely ignored and marginalized in his motherland. The 17th anniversary of his passing on November 21st passed by unnoticed, a chilling reminder that the legacy of this great physicist in his home soil, in as much as his birthplace, continues to be eroded through the sands of time. Last July, when experiments undertaken in the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva tentatively confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson, a major scientific breakthrough hailed by the international community, Pakistan failed to pay even so much as lip service to its national prodigy, a news report by CNN lamenting, “… imagine a world where a merchant of death is rewarded while a scientific visionary is disowned and forgotten…”

Far from bowing its head in shame, Pakistan single-mindedly pursues a national policy of erasing Salam’s name from its textbooks. The so-called heresy that invites such blatant subjugation is Salam’s religious affiliation. Salam was a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a minority Muslim sect denounced as profane by mainstream Muslims. Ahmadis were constitutionally cast out of the fold of Islam in 1973 – the act making Pakistan the only country in the world to render a constitutional definition of who constitutes a “Muslim.”

Despite the national sting Salam was subjected to, he remained deeply patriotic, never renouncing his nationality and remaining devoted to advancing the cause of the destitute in Pakistan. Having returned from Cambridge in 1951 after writing his PhD in record time, Salam who had envisioned the formation of a research centre for physics in Pakistan, quickly realised that his aspirations were fanciful amid the prevailing drought of scientific advancement and a leaning propensity towards religiosity and schism. At Government College upon his return, he was given the choice of either becoming the warden of the college hostel, taking care of the college finances or looking after the college soccer team. Salam chose soccer. To add insult to injury, a wave of anti-Ahmadi riots broke out in 1953, with religious zealots demanding the ouster of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Sir Muhammad Zaffrullah Khan, (one of Pakistan’s most prominent Ahmadis who went on to serve as the President of the International Court of Justice in The Hague). The riots threatened to spread and rumours were heard of Salam’s murder in the College by a mob, forcing Salam to leave his homeland and take up a lectureship at Cambridge in 1954.

Salam’s vision for a research centre for physics was realised by the formation of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy, which Salam founded in 1964 after a proposal by him to found such a centre in Pakistan was rejected by Ayub Khan’s Finance Minister, “as an underhand attempt to set up an international five-star hotel for the entertainment of the elite of the world scientific community!” The ICTP was equipped with a mandate to advance scientific expertise and skills in the developing world – a philosophy for which the ICTP remains a major driving force in the world today –Pakistan throwing away an invaluable opportunity to be its host to petty accusations.

The inspiration for the ICTP found root in Salam’s commitment to fostering scientific discovery in the Third World and his fervent desire to eradicate poverty and suffering. The widening wedge between the North and South deeply perplexed Salam, who remained an ardent advocate for this divide to be bridged by the South embracing a path towards scientific and technological development. He donated his entire Noble prize money worth 66,000 USD towards establishing a fund for Pakistani students of science to pursue higher studies abroad.

Notwithstanding his international reputation in physics, Salam’s passions were always guided and tempered by his profound sense of spirituality. He saw no dichotomy between religion and science, as, in an interview to the Manchester Guardian in 1989, Salam elucidated that the realms of religion occupied man’s inner world that could only be demystified by faith while those of science spread across man’s outer world that was guided by reason. In holding and expounding these views, Salam belonged to the minute class of scientists who were not atheists or agnostics. In a paper titled, “Renaissance of Sciences in Arab and Islamic Lands,” Salam quoting The Holy Qur’an wrote, “Thou seest not, in the creation of the All-Merciful an imperfection. Return thy gaze, seest thou any flaw. Then return thy gaze, again and again. Thy gaze, comes back to the dazzled aweary.”

Salam was therefore a man of God in as much as he was a man of science. His humility, his devotion to the cause of the poor and his deep interest in literature gave the scientific community a man that remains largely unsurpassed in disposition and intellect. While the world remembers this great man with deep fondness and respect, the country he loved so dearly continues to push his achievements to the periphery. His abandoned birthplace, regarded as a national monument but left deserted and untended to, echoes the legacy Salam earned in his beloved homeland even in death – the epitaph of his tombstone being defaced on the orders of a local magistrate. Rest in peace, Salam. In the words of Don Mclean, “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” Your country surely was not.

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