Friday, August 10, 2007

Don't call me oppressed

From the Winnipeg Free Press, Friday, August 10, 2007.

By Leila Aboulela

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- The West believes that Islam oppresses women. But as a Muslim, descended from generations of Muslims, I have a different story to tell. It starts like this: You say, "The sea is salty." I say, "But it is blue and full of fish." I am not objective about Islam, and although I am considerably Westernized, I can never truly see it through Western eyes. I am in this religion. It is in me. And articulating the intimacy of faith and the experience of worship to a Western audience is a challenge and a discovery.

* * *

My mother instilled a spiritual awareness in me from an early age. My grandmother told me stories from the Koran, and I grew up listening to adults discussing Islamic law. I don't remember when I learned that Allah existed just as I don't remember when I learned my name.

My earliest contact with the West came when I was seven and my parents enrolled my younger brother and me in the Khartoum American School in Sudan. For the first time in my life I entered a library, selected a book and took it home with me. It was the books I discovered then that made me fall in love with reading: Little House on the Prairie, A Wrinkle in Time, Harriet the Spy and Little Women.

I read them again and again, and even though I knew that the characters were not Muslim, I found Muslim values in those novels. I found spiritual journeys, and familiar depictions of the rigour and patience needed to discipline the ego.

I appreciate the West. I love its literature, its transparency and its energy. I admire its work ethic and its fairness. I need its technology and its medicine, and I want my children to have a Western education. At the same time, I am fulfilled in my religion. Nothing can compete with the elegance, authority and details of the Koran.

My personal life may be similar to that of a Western woman in the 1950s. I lived with my parents until I married. As was true for my cousins and friends, my wedding was the defining moment of my life and one of the happiest. It felt like the beginning of a story, the start of an adventure. The social life of young Muslim girls (and this is true for Arab Christian girls as well) is not unlike that of the March sisters in Little Women. The courtship rituals of modern-day Muslims can be found in a Jane Austen novel. I can't help seeing this as romantic and refreshing, innocence surviving today's tumultuous, often difficult reality.

I am not oppressed simply because I have, thank God, been spared the causes of oppression: poverty, war, destitution, abuse, illness and ignorance. I grew up in the Sudan of the 1970s, a time before civil war and economic collapse. My mother was a university professor, and my businessman father took us to Europe and spoke to me about Shakespeare. These things make a difference. I think it is ridiculous that women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, deeply shameful that young girls are still circumcised in Sudan and criminal that women in any part of the Muslim world can be denied health care or education. Change and progress, though, are happening, slowly but steadily, as Muslim societies acknowledge that their unjust traditions are rooted in a culture that can evolve, rather than in timeless religious values.

Neither Muslims nor Muslim societies are static; they move forward -- but they have their own trajectory. They cannot be replicas of the West. In 1985, when I graduated from the University of Khartoum, I was the only female student in my statistics honours class. When I visited the university a few months ago, the first thing that caught my eye was the sheer number of young women on campus -- nearly 40 per cent, compared with 20 per cent in my day.

Things have been improving in our personal lives, too. Polygamy is mostly out of fashion. Divorce, which has always been allowed by the sharia, has become easier and more socially acceptable. It is still the norm for single women to live with their families, but seeking work or education in another city is now a legitimate reason for leaving home. In recent years, divorced and widowed women have started to defy society by living alone. Although patriarchal pressure on the young is still strong, women older than 50 have considerably more clout and leeway to live as they please.

One of the results of greater education for Muslim women is that they now refuse to turn a blind eye and instead insist that prohibitions that apply to them must apply to their brothers and husbands as well. Among young educated Muslims, it is now rare to find the kind of marriage described by Naguib Mahfouz in the classic novel "Palace Walk," in which the husband is a pleasure-seeking philanderer roaming through Cairo's night life while his submissive wife is locked up at home.

But despite all this, the West will still consider an affluent, empowered, happy professional Muslim woman oppressed if she dons a veil. The West's distaste for the hijab is no surprise; Muslim liberals and progressives have also opposed the veil for centuries. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, banned it. In 1923, Hoda Shaarawi, the mother of the Egyptian feminist movement, removed her veil in Cairo's Central Station in a defining moment in Muslim women's history.

Yet over the years, Muslim women have gone back to wearing the veil or have remained loyal to their national dress, which usually includes some kind of head cover. Twenty years ago, when I was recently married and a graduate student at the London School of Economics, I, too, started to wear the hijab. I took this step with no pressure from my parents or my husband. It came after years of hesitation, years during which I held back out of fear that I would look ugly in a head scarf and that my progressive friends would make fun of me.

But I had so often gazed with longing at the girls at university who covered their hair, and I wanted to be like them. To me they seemed romantic, feminine, wrapped in some kind of mystique. I liked the look, but it was more than that. I was persuaded by the religious argument for the veil, which stresses modesty. I wanted to take a step in the right direction.

Recently, Muslim progressives have softened their stance against the veil. In some countries, the hijab's widespread popularity has made it almost the norm, rather than a gesture of defiance by a minority. Also, the veil has turned out to be a red herring; it has not stalled Muslim women's advancement, as was feared.

I hope that in time the West will come to look at the veil in a different light. It encourages me when a Western woman comments on my head scarf. When one says "That is a lovely colour" or asks "Is that batik?" I feel that she has reached out to me. She has seen that beyond the symbol is an item of clothing not unlike the veils that Western women once wore to church, or the bonnets Laura sported on the prairie. That mark of perceived female submissiveness is also an accessory that can be purchased in any department store in the West; it comes in gorgeous silks and beautiful hues.

So I say, the sea is salty, but it is also blue and full of fish.

Leila Aboulela is the author of two novels, The Translator and Minaret. Author e-mail:

Thoughts from a former firebomber

From the Winnipeg Free Press, Thursday, August 9, 2007.

By Mansour al-Nogaidan
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BURAIDAH, Saudi Arabia -- Islam needs a Reformation. It needs someone with the courage of Martin Luther.

This is the belief I've arrived at after a long and painful spiritual journey. It's not a popular conviction -- it has attracted angry criticism, including death threats, from many sides. But it was reinforced by Sept. 11, 2001, and in the years since, I've only become more convinced that it is critical to Islam's future.

Muslims are too rigid in our adherence to old, literal interpretations of the Koran. It's time for many verses -- especially those having to do with relations between Islam and other religions -- to be reinterpreted in favour of a more modern Islam. It's time to accept that God loves the faithful of all religions. It's time for Muslims to question our leaders and their strict teachings, to reach our own understanding of the prophet's words and to call for a bold renewal of our faith as a faith of goodwill, of peace and of light.

Islam needs someone with the courage of Martin Luther, who was behind the Protestant Reformation, Mansour al-Nogaidan writes.

I didn't always think this way. Once, I was one of the extremists who clung to literal interpretations of Islam and tried to force them on others. I was a jihadist.

I grew up in Saudi Arabia. When I was 16, I found myself assailed by doubts about the existence of God. I prayed to God to give me the strength to overcome them. I made a deal with Him: I would give up everything, devote myself to Him and live the way the prophet Muhammad and his companions had lived 1,400 years ago if He would rid me of my doubts.

I joined a hard-line Salafi group. I abandoned modern life and lived in a mud hut, apart from my family. Viewing modern education as corrupt and immoral, I joined a circle of scholars who taught the Islamic sciences in the classical way, just as they had been taught 1,200 years ago. My involvement with this group led me to violence, and landed me in prison. In 1991, I took part in firebombing video stores in Riyadh and a women's centre in my home town of Buraidah, seeing them as symbols of sin in a society that was marching rapidly toward modernization.

Yet all the while, my doubts remained. Was the Koran really the word of God? Had it really been revealed to Muhammad, or did he create it himself? But I never shared these doubts with anyone, because doubting Islam or the prophet is not tolerated in the Muslim society of my country.

By the time I turned 26, much of the turmoil in me had abated, and I made my peace with God. At the same time, my eyes were opened to the hypocrisy of so many who held themselves out as Muslim role models. I saw Islamic judges ignoring the marks of torture borne by my prison comrades. I learned of Islamic teachers who molested their students. I heard devout Muslims who never missed the five daily prayers lying with ease to people who did not share their extremist beliefs.

In 1999, when I was working as an imam at a Riyadh mosque, I happened upon two books that had a profound influence on me. One, written by a Palestinian scholar, was about the struggle between those who deal pragmatically with the Koran and those who take it and the hadith literally. The other was a book by a Moroccan philosopher about the formation of the Arab Muslim way of thinking.

The books inspired me to write an article for a Saudi newspaper arguing that Muslims have the right to question and criticize our religious leaders and not to take everything they tell us for granted. We owe it to ourselves, I wrote, to think pragmatically if our religion is to survive and thrive.

That article landed me in the center of a storm. Some men in my mosque refused to greet me. Others would no longer pray behind me. Under this pressure, I left the mosque.

I moved to the southern city of Abha, where I took a job as a writer and editor with a newly established newspaper. I went back to leading prayers at the paper's small mosque and to writing about my evolving philosophy. After I wrote articles stressing our right as Muslims to question our Saudi clerics and their interpretations and to come up with our own, officials from the kingdom's powerful religious establishment complained, and I was banned from writing.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, gave new life to what I had been saying. I went back to criticizing the rote manner in which we Muslims are fed our religion. I criticized al-Qaida's school of thought, which considers everyone who isn't a Salafi Muslim the enemy. I pointed to examples from Islamic history that stressed the need to get along with other religions. I tried to give a new interpretation to the verses that call for enmity between Muslims and Christians and Jews. I wrote that they do not apply to us today and that Islam calls for friendship among all religions.

I lost a lot of friends after that. Once again, the paper came under great pressure to ban my writing. And I became a favourite target on the Internet, where my writings were lambasted and labelled blasphemous.

Eventually I was fired. But by then, I had started to develop a different relationship with God. I felt that He was moving me toward another kind of belief, where all that matters is that we pray to God from the heart. I continued to pray, but I started to avoid the verses that contain violence or enmity and only used the ones that speak of God's mercy and grace and greatness. I remembered an incident when the prophet told a Bedouin who didn't know how to pray to let go of the verses and simply to think of God and get closer to Him by repeating, "God is good, God is great." Don't sweat the details, the prophet said.

I felt at peace, and no longer doubted the existence of God.

In December 2002, in a website interview, I criticized al-Qaida and declared that some of the Friday sermons were loathsome because of their attacks against non-Muslims. Within days, a fatwa was posted online, calling me an infidel and saying that I should be killed. Once again, I felt despair at the ways of the Muslim world. Two years later, I told al-Arabiya television that I thought God loves all faithful people of different religions. That earned me a fatwa from the mufti of Saudi Arabia declaring my infidelity.

But one evening not long after that, I heard a radio broadcast of the verse of light. Even though I had memorized the Koran at 15, I felt as though I was hearing this verse for the first time. God is light, it says, the universe is illuminated by His light. I felt the verse was speaking directly to me, sending me a message. This God of light, I thought, how could He be against any human? The God of light would not be happy to see people suffer, even if they had sinned and made mistakes along the way.

I had found my Islam. And I believe that others can find it, too. But first we need a Reformation similar to the Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther led against the Roman Catholic Church.

In the late 14th century, Islam had its own sort of Martin Luther. Ibn Taymiyya was an Islamic scholar from a hard-line Salafi sect who went through a spiritual crisis and came to believe that in time, God would close the gates of hell and grant all humans, regardless of their religion, entry to his everlasting paradise. Unlike Luther, however, Ibn Taymiyya never openly declared this revolutionary belief; he shared it only with a small, trusted circle of students.

Nevertheless, I find myself inspired by Luther's courageous uprising. I see what Islam needs -- a strong, charismatic personality who will lead us toward reform, and scholars who can convince Islamic communities of the need for a bold new interpretation of Islamic texts, to reconcile us with the wider world.

Mansour al-Nogaidan writes for the Bahraini

newspaper Al-Waqt.

-- Washington Post

Islam for dummies

From the Winnipeg Free Press, Wednesday, August 8, 2007.

Thumbnail sketch of the religion.

By John L. Esposito

WASHINGTON -- Nearly half of Americans have a generally unfavourable view of Islam, according to a 2006 Washington Post-ABC News poll, a number that has risen since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That climate makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that the majority of mainstream Muslims hate terrorism and violence as much as we do -- and makes it hard for non-Muslims to know where to begin to try to understand a great world faith.

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Pilgrims pray around the Kaaba inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, prior to Islam’s annual pilgrimage, known as the hajj.

Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam originated in the Middle East. As F.E. Peters shows in The Children of Abraham, the commonalities can be striking. Muslims worship the God of Abraham, as do Christians and Jews. Islam was seen as a continuation of the Abrahamic faith tradition, not a totally new religion. Muslims recognize the biblical prophets and believe in the holiness of God's revelations to Moses (in the Torah) and Jesus (in the Gospels). Indeed, Musa (Moses), Issa (Jesus) and Mariam (Mary) are common Muslim names.

Muslims believe in Islam's five pillars, which are straightforward and simple. To become a Muslim, one need only offer the faith's basic credo, "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God." This statement reflects the two main fundamentals of Islamic faith: belief in the one true God, which carries with it a refusal to worship anything else (not money, not career, not ego), and the crucial importance of Muhammad, God's messenger.

Muhammad is the central role model for Muslims -- much like Jesus is for Christians, except solely human. He is seen as the ideal husband, father and friend, the ultimate political leader, general, diplomat and judge. Understanding Muhammad's special place in Muslim hearts helps us appreciate the widespread anger of many mainstream Muslims -- not just extremists -- with the denigration of a Muhammad-like figure in Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, the controversial 2005 Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad in unflattering lights or Pope Benedict XVI's 2006 speech quoting a long-dead Byzantine emperor who accused the prophet of bringing "only evil and inhuman" things into the world. Karen Armstrong's Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time and Tariq Ramadan's In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad provide fresh, perceptive views on his modern-day relevance.

The three next pillars of Islam are prayer, which is to be performed five times daily; giving alms, in the form of an annual wealth tax that helps support the poor; and fasting during daylight in the holy month of Ramadan. The fifth pillar requires that Muslims perform the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least once.

We tend to equate Islam with the Arab world, but the largest Muslim communities are found in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Nigeria. Only about one in five of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims are Arabs. Islam is the second-largest religion in Europe and the third-largest in the United States.
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The treatment of women under Islam is also wildly diverse. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, women must be fully covered in public, cannot drive cars and struggle for the right to vote. But elsewhere, Muslim women freely enter politics, drive motorcycles and wear everything from saris to pantsuits. Women can get university educations and pursue professional careers in Egypt, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia; they have been heads of state in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Anyone who has followed the news from Iraq has heard a lot about Sunnis and Shiites, the faith's two major branches. About 85 per cent of the world's Muslims are Sunni, with about 15 per cent Shiite. The division stems from a bitter dispute after Muhammad's death over who should take over the leadership of the newly founded Muslim community. Sunnis believed that the most qualified person should succeed the prophet, but a minority thought that his descendants should carry his mantle. That minority was known as the followers or partisans (Shiites) of Ali; they believed that Muhammad had designated Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, as his heir. Historically, Shiites have viewed themselves as oppressed and disenfranchised under Sunni rule -- a longstanding grievance that has flared up again in recent years in such countries as Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Pakistan. Vali Nasr's The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future does a fine job of distinguishing between theology and politics in today's Sunni-Shiite rivalries.

Muslims also argue over what some refer to as Islam's sixth pillar, jihad. In the Koran, Islam's sacred text, jihad means "to strive or struggle" to realize God's will, to lead a virtuous life, to create a just society and to defend Islam and the Muslim community. But historically, Muslim rulers, backed by religious scholars, used the term to legitimize holy wars to expand their empires. Contemporary extremists -- most notably Osama bin Laden -- also appeal to Islam to bless their attacks. My book Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, tackles this theme, as does Fawaz Gerges' Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy.

The Gallup World Poll's helpful section on the Muslim world ( sheds some light on the views and aspirations of more than one billion Muslims. My years studying those attitudes suggest that Muslim hostility toward the West is mostly political, not religious, and that Muslims hope the West will show their faith more respect. In our post-9/11 world, the ability to distinguish between Islam itself and Muslim extremism will be critical. Only thus will we be able to avoid pushing away mainstream Muslims around the world, marginalizing Muslim citizens at home and alienating the allies we need to help us fight global terrorism.

John L. Esposito is a professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University and the author of "What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam." Author e-mail:

-- Washington Post

Letter Of The Day

Fri Aug 10 2007

The Turkish solution

Re: Islam for dummies, Aug. 8.

John L. Esposito's article in the Winnipeg Free Press was brought to my attention by a Canadian Muslim friend. We both find it important that Islam's peaceful and moderate face is recognized in Canada and elsewhere, and Muslim citizens are not marginalized. Harmony is crucial.

Esposito correctly diagnoses that the Western world should distinguish between Islam itself and extremism. Equally, he outlines the importance of embracing mainstream Muslims around the world. We need to avoid a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.

Here, halfway around the world, Turkey is a living example of how a nation, in the most volatile geography, can rise on its traditional roots and harmonize itself with Western secular liberal democracy. With the July 22 general election, the Turkish electorate displayed a monumental maturity and self-confidence by presenting a landslide victory and renewed mandate to our Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Although mislabelled as Islamic-rooted or Islamist, the AK Party is a centrist political party reflecting Turkey's aspiration for liberal democratic freedoms and market economy. Turkey's great experience of harmonizing its traditional values with those of the West is an inspiration to all Muslims around the world. The Turkish experiment is a major determinant of whether the Muslim world will further radicalize or harmonize. The Turkish way is the solution to the clash of civilizations.

For this experiment to succeed, the European Union has to shoulder its responsibilities and match Turkey's steps towards access to the EU. Moving the goalposts only discredits the EU democracy, further alienates its own Muslim population and limits the EU's global influence. Turkey's treatment by the EU is watched by 1.5 billion Muslims. Against terror, Esposito is correct; he warns against alienating allies in the fight against global terrorism. Turkey still expects full U.S. co-operation in dismantling the terrorist safe haven in northern Iraq. Turkey is steadfast against global terrorism, and has been waiting too long for its allies to do the same.


Ankara, Turkey

As American as my neighbour

From the Winnipeg Free Press, Tuesday, August 7, 2007.

By Mohja Kahf
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- A certain Middle Eastern religion is much maligned in the United States. Full of veils and mystery, it is widely seen as sexist. Often violent, sometimes manipulated by demagogues, it yet has sweetness at the core, and many people are turning to it in their search for meaning.

I'm talking about Christianity.

This Muslim squirms whenever secular friends -- tolerant toward believers in Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Native American spirituality -- dismiss Christians with snorts of contempt. "It's because the Christian right wants to take over this country," they protest.

That may be, but it doesn't justify trashing the religion and its spectrum of believers. Christianity has inspired Americans to the politics of abolition and civil rights, as well as to heinous acts. Christian values have motivated the Ku Klux Klan to burn houses, and Jimmy Carter to build them. You can't say that when Christianity informs politics, only bad things happen.

People of faith do not signify the apocalypse for democracy. And (here comes the Muslim agenda) that goes for believing Muslims as much as for other religious folk. Muslims, in a very specific way, are not strangers in your midst. We are kin. We carry pieces of your family story.

Muslims are the youngest sibling in the Semitic family of religions, and we typically get no respect from the older kids -- Judaism and Christianity. That our older sisters didn't stick our pictures in the family scrapbook doesn't make us less related, sweetheart. And our stories are no less legit just because we have a different angle on family history. Want to know what happened to Hagar after she fades from the Bible story of Abraham and Sarah? Sit, have coffee, we'll talk.

My cousin was president of a national student group, and reporters constantly ask her whether Muslim youth turn to religion to reject their American identity. She grew up in the South, with friends who went to Bible camp in the summer. "Would you ask a Baptist that question?" she says, smoothing her head veil.

Assimilation is overrated. And it's not what minority religions do in the United States. Did Irish-Catholics stop being Catholic when they arrived generations ago? People once believed that devout Catholics and Orthodox Jews could never be "true Americans." Today, I receive e-mails with solemn lists of why Muslims, "according to their own faith," can't possibly be "loyal Americans." The work of nut jobs. Yet purportedly sane people in Washington seem to think it's a valid question.

The Muslim spectrum contains many complex identities, from lapsed to ultra-orthodox. There's this wisdom going around that only the liberal sort are worthy of existence. No, my dears. Conservative Muslims have a right to breathe the air. Being devout, even if it means prostration prayer at airports, is not a criminal offence. And those stubborn unassimilated types may have a critique of the American social fabric that you should hear.

I grew up Islamist. That's right, not only conservative Muslim, but full-blown, caliphate-loving Islamist, among folk who take core Islamic values and put them to work in education and politics, much like evangelical Christians. One of the things about the United States that delighted my parents, and many Islamist immigrants, is that here, through patient daily jihad, they could actually teach their children Islam -- as opposed to motley customs that pass for Islam in the Old Countries.

Look, Islam never really "took" in the Arab world. The egalitarianism that the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) preached, for example, never much budged Arab tribalism. The Koran's sexual ethic, enjoining chaste behaviour and personal responsibility toward God on men and women both, not tribal ownership of women's sexuality, never uprooted the sexual double standard or the pagan honour code. Honour killing, as a recent fatwa by al-Azhar University's mufti reminds believers, is a pagan rite violating Islamic principles. Here in the United States, religious Muslims can practise Islam without those entrenched codes.

Muslims, pious ones even, will tell you that they believe in equality, too, and are no more sexist than you. Your sexism just takes forms so familiar that they're invisible; holding doors open for women doesn't seem nearly as sexist as walking protectively ahead of them.

Other American values are easily in synch with the Islam of the devout. Observant Muslims have long seen meritocracy, consultation of the people by the government and the idea that hard work should trump family name as refreshing affirmations of Islamic values. "America is Islam, without the Muslim 'brand name,' " goes a refrain from the pulpit of immigrant mosques. Usually followed by, "The Old Countries are Muslim in name, without Islamic values."

This is the Mayflower Compact of these new Pilgrims. That analogy may not sit well with African-Americans, whose ancestors didn't come voluntarily, and with Native Americans, because it links newcomers to those who devastated their lands. Nevertheless, this is one way immigrant Muslims see themselves in this land: as part of a long caravan of faiths seeking to build the beloved community. This American narrative merges with the Muslim concept of hijrah -- emigration for the sake of worshiping God freely.
Doctrinal differences abound, and each faith has its sacraments. Exploring these distinctions should be a source of delight, not of one-upmanship. In difference lie blessing and abundance. The Gospels detail many moments in Christ's life, but for Mary's own feelings in labour, you'll want a glimpse of the Koran -- and of Muslim hearts where the scene lives.

Pious Christian and Jewish values are not inherently in conflict with American civic life, as secular folk tend to forget. Devout immigrant Muslims don't belong? That ship has sailed. Myles Muhammad Standish and Harriet Halima Tubman are here. Not as strangers out of place, either. This is a letter to your beautiful heart: We are your blood.

Mohja Kahf is the author of the novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. Author e-mail:

-- Washington Post

Where Bush went wrong

From the Winnipeg Free Press, Sunday, August 5, 2007.

By Akbar Ahmed.

WASHINGTON -- Here's a bit of modern-day heresy: President George W. Bush actually has some rather sound instincts about the Muslim world. He has visited mosques more often than any of his predecessors, and he frequently talks of winning Muslim hearts and minds. So why are those hearts and minds so estranged today? What went wrong?

The problem is that Bush has relied on ill-informed advisers and out-of-touch experts. By substituting their false expertise for his own sensible intuitions, he has failed to understand the Muslim world -- which means he has failed to understand the arena in which the first post-9/11 presidency will be judged. Instead of seriously explaining Muslim societies that are profoundly split in complex ways, Bush's aides have offered a fatally flawed stereotype of Islam as monolithic and violent.

These missteps have helped squander the potential goodwill of people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- all countries that pose major threats to U.S. security, and all countries that once saw themselves as U.S. friends. (When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, I was the administrator in charge of south Waziristan, the lawless border region of Pakistan where Osama bin Laden is now said to be hiding, and I saw how Muslims appreciated U.S. support.) Today, rather than opening his hand to the people of Pakistan, Bush is marching in lockstep with the country's fading dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who is mockingly referred to as "Busharraf."

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Portrait of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, in Lahore.

Errors like this are tragic -- and avoidable. Galvanized by the need to help Americans better understand the Muslim world, I travelled last year to the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia, accompanied by a group of American researchers. We conducted questionnaires and interviews; we met with presidents, prime ministers, sheiks and students; we visited mosques, madrassas and universities. During our travels, we found something far more subtle than the Bush administration's caricature. Americans often hear of a faith neatly split between "moderates" and "extremists." In fact, we discovered three broad categories of Muslim responses to the modern world: the mystics, the modernists and the literalists.

The first category is the most tolerant and the least political, defined by a mystical and universalist worldview that embraces difference rather than resisting it. Muslims in this group look to sages such as the great Sufi poet Rumi for inspiration. "I go to a synagogue, church and a mosque, and I see the same spirit and the same altar," Rumi once said. You'll find today's mystics in such places as Iran, Morocco and Turkey.

Then there's the modernist position, one taken by Muslims who seek to adapt to Western modernity, synthesize it with their faith traditions and live in dialogue with it. Some of the most prominent Muslim thinkers in recent times have belonged to this school, such as Muhammad Abduh, the liberal Egyptian religious scholar who led a drive in the late 19th century to shake the dust off Islamic institutions and dogmas that he believed were lagging behind the times. Some of the most important Muslim politicians, such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the staunchly secularist founder of modern Turkey, have felt similar impatience with the faith's old ways. You'll still find plenty of modernists in Turkey today, as well as such countries as Jordan and Malaysia. In fact, a few decades ago it seemed that these forward-looking interpretations would become the dominant expression of Islam, and reform-minded Muslim countries seemed poised to join the community of nations.

For me, the quintessential modernist was Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. The urbane, sophisticated Jinnah believed ardently in women's rights and minority rights, and in 1947, he almost single-handedly created what was then the largest Muslim nation on Earth. For Pakistanis, he is George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson rolled into one. He founded a new country without compromising his principles or breaking the law, rejected hostage-takings, hijackings and assassinations, and he idolized Abraham Lincoln.

Jinnah is a far cry from our third category, the literalists. This group also arose in the 19th century, but it draws its ethos, attitudes and rhetoric from one central perception: that Islam is under attack. It sees Western ideas such as liberalism, women's rights and democracy as threats, not opportunities. In response to the incursions into the Muslim world of the great Western empires, this group sought to draw firm boundaries around Islam and prevent it from being infected by alien influences. The literalist worldview has inspired a range of Muslim activists, from the Taliban to mainstream political parties such as South Asia's Jamaat-i-Islami, which participate in elections while producing influential tracts on Islam. While this entire school's theology is profoundly traditional, only a tiny minority of the group advocates terrorism. The vast majority of Muslim literalists simply want to live according to what they see as the best traditions of their faith.

But you're more likely to see media images of bearded young men wearing skullcaps and yelling "God is great" and "Death to the Great Satan" than you are to see scholars at work. The angry activists are now on the ascendancy, according to our study. The reasons for their rise are complex: the incompetence and corruption of modernist Muslim leaders from Egypt to Pakistan to Southeast Asia; the widening gap between a crooked elite and the rest of the population; the absence of decent schools, economic opportunities and social welfare programs; and the failure of modernist leaders to douse burning regional conflicts such as Chechnya, Kashmir and Palestine.

So the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan poured gallons of fuel on a worldwide fire. Bush's wars gave the literalists support for their claim that Islam is under siege; the crude Muslim-bashing of some of Bush's supporters helps the literalists argue that Islam is also being attacked by the Western media, which many Muslims believe represents the thinking of the West's citizenry.

In this context, parodies of the prophet Muhammad or the cloddish Republican talking point branding Muslims as "Islamofascists" helped convince wavering Muslims that their faith was truly a target. Remember Jerry Falwell's post-9/11 abuse of the prophet, in which the late televangelist dismissed the man whom Muslims named as their foremost role model in our questionnaires as a "terrorist"? Such slurs helped boost Pakistani religious parties in the 2002 elections in Northwest Frontier Province, where the clerics had never before won more than a few seats. Overnight, the Taliban found a friendly base.

Americans who think that all Muslims hate the United States may be surprised to hear that many Muslims believe they have it precisely backward. Our questionnaires showed that Muslims worldwide viewed Islamophobia in the West as the No. 1 threat they faced. Many Muslims told us that the Western media depict them as terrorists or likens them to Nazis. Such widespread perceptions let literalist clerics argue that Islam must defend itself against a rapacious West -- something the mystics and modernists were incapable of doing.

Today, all these factors have coalesced to convince ordinary Muslims -- from Somalia to Indonesia -- that Islam is indeed threatened and that the United States is leading the charge. As a Muslim, I grieve the fact that modernist leaders such as Jinnah have become irrelevant. And as someone living in the United States, I fear that the danger of another terrorist strike is as high as ever.

Our study did suggest ways to make progress. With a wiser strategy and a mighty reduction of hubris, the United States could still improve its relations with the Muslim world. Americans need to accept that the Muslim literalists are here to stay, that their position is deeply felt and that it deserves to be engaged with. U.S. policymakers need to keep an eye on the mystics and modernists, too; they are not the problem, but continued attacks on Islam will push many of them into supporting the literalists.

To change the tenor of Washington's conversations with the Muslim world, symbolic gestures are important, such as Bush's visits to American mosques. But we need substantive action, too. For one thing, U.S. diplomats should make an effort to come out from their embassy fortresses and meet with cultural and religious leaders. That simple step would do much to make friends for America.

Beyond that, Washington's interaction with Muslim nations needs to be better thought out. We need to marginalize the violent fringe and build deeper ties with mainstream literalists who are suspicious of the West but shun violence. Take U.S. aid to Pakistan, which has added up to about $10 billion since 9/11. Much of this goes toward buying gunships and tanks, which ordinary Pakistanis say are used against them. In other words, U.S. aid is being used in ways that boost anti-Americanism -- hardly a smart policy. Instead, the United States should stipulate that half of its aid go to building up Pakistan's tattered educational structures, with a special focus on madrassas that eschew violence. Overnight, hearts and minds would begin to change; Muslims hold education especially dear, and if governments won't provide it, parents will be tempted to go to whomever will.

Bush does not have much time left, but he can still avert disaster. Above all, we should start with dialogue. We might wind up with friendship.

Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun chairman of Islamic studies at American University and the author, most recently, of Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization. Author e-mail:

-- Washington Post

Sunday, August 05, 2007

movie - The Bourne Ultimatum


This was the most anticipated film for myself and a lot of people, this year. It was pretty good but borrowed scenes from previous films, which took the wind out of the sails, to some extent.

The agency thinks Bourne is going to talk to the media about their secrets, so they begin to track him down again. Some scenes are similar to ones in the last movie. In the second film, there's car chase that results in the bad Russian agent getting all smashed up in a car and Bourne walks by without killing him. There's a similar scene here.

Whenever Bourne attacked his enemies with using hand-to-hand combat, even when he was outnumbered, the audience cheered.

One of the baddies died in a quiet sort of way that was anti-climatic for me, considering the effort they put into the scrap.

The film starts out with a newspaper reporter mentioning the name of CIA operation on his cell. Within minutes, the agency has him tracked by a team of agents. Key words are picked out of phone calls if they match terms in a "dictionary" and then the caller can be discreetly surveilled to see if the person is up to no good. This is the ultra-secret Echelon system in action which is real and has been around for about 40 years or so. It's fascinating but it also represents the thin edge of the wedge known as the police state, which the public will eventually demand as we are continuously told that we should be scared and that the umbrella protection of surveillance will protect us.

Director Paul Greengrass continues to incorporate the hand-held jery camera, which either adds an element of immediacy or is just plain annoying, depending on your perspective.

Some of the scenes are riveting. Witness Bourne directing the newspaper journalist through a croweded transit station, telling him to drop and tie his show laces right when the bag guys are zeroing in, only to throw them off the trail again.

I haven't read the Bourne books, but this film sounds a bit different from the book in that he's apparently on the hunt for Carlos the Jackal and it takes place 15 years since book 2. I could be wrong.

I wonder what will come along to be the next interesting spy film series. The Bourne Ultimatum makes the latest Die Hard film seem cartoonish in comparison.

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