Why you should be Skeptical of Media Pundits’ Commentary

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

source:brietbart.com

source:brietbart.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Charity, Christianity, Democracy, Education, Egypt, Ethics, Middle East peace, modernity, United Nations, War on terror | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How to write about Islam?

Amidst all the noise about the end of the world scenarios being portrayed as a result of ISIS conquest of parts of Iraq and Syria and equally banal assertions that Islam is somehow inherently violent, and needs ‘reformation’, the common man out there is left confused. As someone studying Islam in America, I am at a loss for words, at times, and have to remind myself that unfortunately much of what we read and hear is from people who have no clue what they are talking about. Propaganda, vested interests, media hype make a clear political or sociological analysis of what is going on in the MiddleEast and the U.S. very hard, if not impossible.Blue mosque

What is the best way to write about Islam, then? Is it to be an ‘apologist’, and ‘defend’ Islam against all the attacks and criticisms? Though this approach is needed sometimes, it doesn’t sound very helpful, because there are genuine criticisms of Islam and Muslim societies that should be considered and weighted in, if one is writing in an honest manner. The alternative is to take a critical stance and call for a radical reform of Islam, as several atheists and former Muslims have done. The most egregious and distasteful manifestation are people like Irshad Manji and others like her, who are often seen coddling with the pro-Israeli or extreme Right-wingers in the U.S. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see how these two groups get along. The criticisms that they level are often steeped in broad stereotypes and an almost anti-intellectual approach to Islam and its rich intellectual and cultural heritage. The third way to write about Islam is to write it from a perspective of how Muslims themselves understand Islam and I will delve into this approach, in a bit of detail here.

For starters, what is Islam? Is it a ‘religion’, as we understand it? There is serious debate among scholars of religion about what constitutes religion. Is Islam a religion by the classical definition, or is it an ‘exceptional’ religion, in that many definitions of religion do not apply to it- by virtue of its origins, growth and universal appeal? A few scholars that have written extensively on Islam. Dr.Talal Asad is one such scholar, who I will quote extensively in this article. Asad reminds us that Islam has been studied by Anthropologists – he names Ernest Gellner in particular – as someone who has tried to present Islam as a totality. This Islamic totality, according to Gellner, is formed as a result of social forces, political ideas as well as historical facts. This view that is often informed by Orientalism, and is premised on an opposition between Islam and Christianity – with Christianity located in Europe, while Islam is situated in the Middle East, Asad contends. Even current media representations of Islam use these binaries to define a ‘modern’ West and a ‘backward’ ‘Muslim world’. There are several problems with this binary approach, not least of which is how does one speak of Muslims in the West? Are they ‘negotiating’ with modernity in the West, or are they excluded from modern notions by virtue of their religious beliefs? No easy answers to these questions. With this in mind, Asad reminds us that writing about just social interactions or social constructs such as ‘tribes’ is not very helpful, as this approach, adopted by scholars such as Gellner reifies the Islamic norms, social relations and other aspects.

Another problem with this approach that Gellner and others take is that religion, power and political authority are often represented as having fused in Islam, while this has not occurred in Christianity. This view is not wholly accurate since there is a vast diversity in how power and religion interacted, historically, argues Asad. The perspective that Gellner and Clifford Geertz take is not helpful in understanding the perspective of Islam as an analytical concept that is as much part of the present as it is a construction of the ‘past’. Further, this perspective grounded in history misses out on the diversity of Islamic practices in contemporary societies.

Asad’s key argument about Islam is that it should be treated as a ‘discursive tradition’. He says “No coherent anthropology of Islam can be founded on the notion of a determinate social blueprint, or on the idea of an integrated social totality in which social structure and religious ideology interact.” This means that all that Muslims do is not ‘Islam’. What Muslims around the world do is not necessarily a reflection of their religious traditions, just as much as all Christians’ actions are not a reflection of Christianity. He suggests that the only way for studying Islam and its Anthropology is how Muslims would do, i.e., examine how their actions relate or should relate to the founding texts – the Qur’an and Hadith. He further argues: “If one wants to write an anthropology of Islam one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept of a discursive tradition that includes and relates itself to the founding texts of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals. It is a tradition.” By tradition, he means: “A tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history.”

Finally, it is helpful to remember that the ‘Muslim world’ is just a conceptual ideal, not a ‘social reality’. Asad reminds us that “It is too often forgotten that “the world of Islam” is a concept for organizing historical narratives, not the name for a self-contained collective agent. This is not to say that historical narratives have no social effect—on the contrary. But the integrity of the world of Islam is essentially ideological, a discursive representation.” This should be kept in mind, when we speak of a group of people that are over 1.6 billion in number and are present around the world – in every conceivable corner of every country.

One might also be tempted to ask: Why isn’t India a part of the ‘Muslim world’, since there are over 150 million Muslims there, despite being a minority? This is something every person who writes about Islam should consider. Broad generalizations, stereotyping and inaccurate analysis won’t help. On the contrary, such analysis will only confuse us, rather than clarify what we are seeking to study and understand. To quote Asad again, he says that the fatality of character among Muslims in Islamic society that Geertz and other invoke is the object of ‘of a professional writing, not the unconscious of a subject that writes itself as Islam for the Western scholar to read.’ As with Orientalist representations, what others write about Islam says as much about the author, as it does about the Islam or the actors they describe. A profound insight that should help us think critically before writing about a much misunderstood and misrepresented faith.

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Why Gandhi is Relevant in 2014

Indians around the world celebrated Gandhi Jayanthi on October 2, his birth anniversary. It is a solemn day, often marked by social gatherings, politicians saying something banal about Gandhi’s life and legacy and talk-show hosts debating his life. While the question whether Gandhi’s life lessons are relevant is taken seriously by few, a vast majority seem to have created a myth around the Mahatma’s life and are happy to live by platitudes. I believe there is an urgent need to look at Gandhi’s life and the lessons he offered us.

Nehru_with_Gandhi_1942-Churchill Firstly, Gandhi’s life is a testament to the struggles that oppressed people have to go through to achieve freedom. Gandhi’s entire life can be seen as a struggle and his life, an example in sacrifice. As Arthur Herman writes in Gandhi and Churchill – The epic rivalry that destroyed an empire and forged our age, Gandhi had undergone a spiritual transformation in the decades he had spent in South Africa and had found his life mission. This mission was to ‘transform the character of his fellow Indians by bringing them closer to God.’ “By doing so, he intended to undercut the foundations of British rule in India and set his people free.” (p.215). Gandhi’s life mission was rooted in self-transformation and transformation of society at large, missions that most ‘value driven’ organizations and institutions espouse and aspire to.

Secondly, the techniques that Gandhi promoted – Satyagraha being the key one – is still being used by nonviolence activists around the world, from the U.S. to Palestine. As a model of resistance, nonviolent resistance and non-cooperation are tactics that forced the British Empire to the negotiating table, more than once. Time and again, Gandhi deployed this tactic, both in South Africa and in India and despite some failures, it did succeed. In a situation where a powerless people are faced with a majority, that is armed, mighty and powerful, passive resistance did prove useful. Whether it was fighting for the miners rights in Johannesburg in 1908 or for self-rule or Swaraj years later, in India – similar tactics were in play. Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian activist seems to have been using Gandhis’ methods for years now. Martin Luther King in the U.S. considered himself a protégé of Gandhi’s methods.

Thirdly, with globalization, increasing consumerism and a general increase in materialism in India, perhaps it is time for Gandhi’s message to make a comeback. While economically, the Mahatma proposed self-rule and self-reliance, it may be next to impossible to roll back the Neoliberal framework that came into play in the 1990s, with the opening of India’s economy.

Perhaps the greatest contribution that Gandhi made to the Indian ethos is that of embracing pluralism and rejecting casteism. As a self-conscious Hindu, he practiced his religion throughout his life, but was against caste and its de-humanizing influence on the Indian mind. An anecdote that Herman quotes in his book is relevant here. In 1916, Gandhi took in an untouchable family at the Sabarmati Ashram. As Herman says, this set off a domestic pitched battle, with Kasturba threatening to leave immediately. “However, Gandhi’s will prevailed. He had deliberately broken the greatest Hindu taboo of all, the prohibition against any contact with dalits or untouchables. It was part of his war against the India he detested most: the India hidebound by ceremony and meaningless tradition split by ancient religious feuds, festering in its own filth, the India without compassion or pity.” (p.221).

While Indians are justifiably proud of the progress that the country has made since 1947, much remains to be accomplished – not only in economic and monetary terms, but also in terms of achieving basic dignity for the poor and oppressed. While there is growing pride in India’s ascent on the global stage, this must be tempered with a realization that India is also home to the world’s largest number of poor people. A mission to Mars may have demonstrated to the world that India is home to capable Engineers, Scientists and technocrats, but facts such as the above demonstrate that India has a long way to go before being truly a ‘regional power’, much less a ‘super-power’. India is the inheritor of a great civilization, hat has contributed much to the world, but also has a lot to learn from the rest of the world. Recent attempts to vilify Gandhi and his life are a danger not only to India’s legacy but are also part of a campaign to distort Indian history. For sure, Gandhi was not a perfect human being, nor was his life perfect by any means. Nevertheless, his life and message were a moral force that moved millions. While we must not fall into the trap of worshipping our leaders uncritically – something that most contemporary Indians seem to be doing – we must, at the same time embrace the best that our tradition has to offer. Towards this, Gandhi’s life lessons are exemplars that can be emulated.

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How Not to Think of Lobbies in America

How does one think about a special interest group? Are they the ‘tail wagging the dog’? Or more realistically, just power-brokers who are go-in-betweens, managing perceptions, raising money and buying out influence, for those who they work? The answer is something in between. While I don’t agree that lobbies are all powerful, they do wield significant influence that cannot be denied. But they also operate within certain constraints, as Stephen Walt warns us in his article How not to think about the Israeli lobby. Recent failures of the Israeli lobby – including not being able to get the US into war in Syria – (until now) is an indication of its limited influence. It took nearly three years before the U.S. decided to intervene in Syria, and that too, only when ISIL is involved.

AIPACI spoke with a group of American students, quite recently, about ‘Israel Lobby and US Foreign policy’ a topic I am somewhat familiar with. Having researched this topic for over two years while at Syracuse University, I gave up and changed tracks. After a while, I was exhausted – both intellectually and emotionally at the developments (or lack thereof) in Palestine. It is a hard topic to research, especially if one is invested in some way – either intellectually or emotionally. As a bystander, I was not as invested in the topic, but morally; I felt (and still do) that all fair-minded people should intervene to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, though the two state solution may not exactly be the way to go. “Israel is like a piece of cheese, with the holes for settlements. How will you ever divide that into two countries”, said one of my favorite professors on campus. I believed him and still do. Though I harbored faith in the two state solution at one point, I don’t think it is practically feasible, given current realities on ground.

The American students I spoke to were critical, skeptical but at the same time optimistic that there is a solution to the crisis. With the Israel lobby question in mind, I did not have to struggle too hard to convince them that those in ‘real’ power had to make hard choices, some wise decisions and come to some consensus on what the way forward is. And to put things in context, I was speaking with students in the ‘Bible Belt,’ and that fundamentalist Christians are more pro-Israel than many American Jews, as this poll by Pew Research shows. The status quo won’t work is something these students realize. Even the most ardent pro-Israeli student in the room realized that the obstacles to ‘peace’ are internal to the Israeli establishment and this discourse is aided by American support. Peter Beinart’s question of whether the ‘liberal Zionists’ ideals’ of a free and democratic Israel that uphold human rights, justice are dead, is worth asking.

In a recent Op-Ed in New York Times, Mairav Zonszein argues that there is a vilification campaign going on in Israel against those who dare speak out against the state.Zonszein says “The vilification of the few Israelis who don’t subscribe to right-wing doctrine is not new. Similar acts of incitement occurred before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. But now they have multiplied, escalated and spread.” The discourse of ‘Us vs. them’ seems to have been incorporated by the Israeli establishment, very effectively and any dissent is labeled as anti-Semitism. The most recent ‘war in Gaza’ demonstrated this fact. Social media was abuzz with discussions, fights and arguments about whether Israel had the right to ‘defend’ itself against the rockets that Hamas fired.

The ‘winds of change’ are blowing, if recent developments are any indication. Peter Beinart, in his book The Crisis of Zionism argues that there the continued building of settlements in the West Bank imperil the very existence of Israel as a democratic Jewish state. Beinart says that the tradition of debate, open-dialogue that is inherent in Judaism is being hijacked by fundamentalist groups in Israel. While groups such as Americans for Peace Now, J-Street and dozens of others work to build up the ‘moderate’ voice that is liberal, accommodating of the Palestinian demands for recognition, the hawks seem to dominate the debate. These liberal groups are also growing in power and influence, if my discussion with the youngsters is any indication- and so is the public sentiment among American Jews- who are overwhelmingly liberal. On another note, Hamas just gave up control of Gaza to the Unity government a few days ago, according to news reports. As Rami Khouri reminds us, the challenge before us is whether the rival factions will unite. Further to this, I believe something more important than this is whether this unity will hold, and if Israel will recognize this unity. He calls this negligence to establish order within the ranks of PA and Hamas ‘ a criminal negligence’.

Finally, as Walt reminds us, it would help to remember that lobbies are special interests, that operate to achieve their ends. They may at times be the tail that wags the dog, but generally, as a rule; the dog is in control of the tail. Knowing this reality will help clarify any exaggerated claims – whether it is in the case of Israel or the NRA.

 

 

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Two models of Community Engagement – Co-optation or Exclusion?

Hamza Yusuf is arguably the most well-known American Muslim (after Muhammad Ali- the former heavyweight boxing champion) alive. As a spiritual leader, his influence goes beyond the Muslim community to the White House, and the Obama administration. He enjoys wide influence (and receives some criticism) but overall, he is a respected man, who is seen as representing Muslims in America, though some may argue on theological or other grounds about his positions on policy etc… On the other hand, Tariq Ramadhan, the Swiss Muslim scholar, who teaches at Oxford University is perhaps the most reviled Muslim intellectual in Europe. He has been called at various times: a Muslim brotherhood member, a terrorist sympathizer and worse. The treatment of these two leaders is emblematic – at least symbolically- of how the governments of these two regions treat Muslim leaders. While North America seems to have learnt to tolerate and even embrace its Muslim leaders, Europeans seem to not only shun, but actively cast a shadow of suspicion on its Muslim population and their leaders. What does this imply for leadership and prospects for Muslim engagement in both continents? I will try to address this question in this short piece.

Differing histories, divergent perceptions

Muslims in Europe and America are at opposite spectrums when it comes to many issues – level of education, where they stand in terms of per capita income, their personal histories. While American Muslims are- on an average- wealthier, better educated and tend to come from solidly middle class backgrounds, European Muslims are overwhelmingly from poorer backgrounds, lesser educated and seen as dependent on ‘welfare’ of the European system. While the backgrounds and histories of these groups of immigrants is very different, what makes American Muslims ( who are the most diverse racial and ethnic group in the country) unique is their internal diversity. According to a recent PEW Research study, American Muslims are the most diverse racial group in the U.S. This is not true of many Muslims in Europe. According to a recent article in The Economist, most immigrants to European countries tend to be from one or two dominant ethnic groups. The Turks in Germany, Moroccans in Spain etc. This makes it easy to stereotype them into a single category. The article mentions the assimilation of Muslims in the U.S, by pointing out that “The Islamic Boy Scouts had a stand, as did a Muslim liberal-arts college from California. People discussed how to erect mosques without infringing America’s arcane building regulations, or swapped business cards in the food court. The star turn was a Southern Baptist, Jimmy Carter (whose grandson is in the news, too: see page 42). The only overt hostility to Israel came from two Hasidic Jews in fur shtreimel hats, who had come from Brooklyn to announce their solidarity with the people of Gaza.”

Islamophobia is a growing phenomenon that has exacerbated in Europe and the U.S. after a few key incidents. In Europe, one can consider the Iranian Revolution, the Madrid train bombings in 2004 that killed almost 200 people, the Paris metro bombings earlier in 1995 and the recent London tube bombings as key turning points for the growth in ambivalence and negative attitudes towards Muslims, while in the U.S., September 11, 2001 stands out as the single paradigmatic event that changed everything for Muslims, argue Yvonne Haddad and Nazir Harb, in their paper Post-9/11 : Making Islam an American Religion. They argue that “When the government was trying to define the ‘enemy’ in the Global War on Terror, Muslims were placed under the microscope,” pointing to the institutionalized scrutiny that thousands of Muslims went through after 9/11 and that continues in some ways, even now.

The Economist article further says “America’s Muslims differ from Europe’s in both quantity and origin. The census does not ask about faith, but estimates put the number of Muslims in the country at around 1% of the population, compared with 4.5% in Britain and 5% in Germany. Moreover, American Islam is not dominated by a single sect or ethnicity. When the Pew Research Centre last tried to count, in 2011, it found Muslims from 77 countries in America. Most western European countries, by contrast, have one or two dominant groups—Algerians in France, Moroccans and Turks in Holland.” The article argues that mixing of religious traditions within Islam breeds tolerance – arguably true – in the case of U.S., while a dominance of one or two ethnicities does not promote it – as in the case of European countries.

In the U.S. the ‘Islamophobia industry’ has taken various forms, including attacks on the personal law that Muslims follow i.e., Shariah and positioning it as ‘medieval and barbaric’. There is a clear attempt to map Muslims as ‘moderate vs. extremists’ and cultivate the ‘moderate’ ones as being ‘loyal’ to the U.S. This false dichotomy and tactics to associate practice of Islam with violence and terrorism has been ongoing for a while and well-funded by extreme rightwing groups. The trend has been well documented by a Center for American Progress Report Fear Inc.

Coming back to the example of Tariq Ramadhan, who has argued for a nuanced understanding of violence and its role in our societies. As he argues in an Op-Ed in The Guardian, “The problem today is not one of “essential values”, but of the gap between these values and everyday social and political practice. Justice is applied variably depending on whether one is black, Asian or Muslim. Equal opportunity is often a myth. Young citizens from cultural and religious “minorities” run up against the wall of institutionalized racism. Rather than insisting that Muslims yield to a “duty to integrate”, society must shoulder its “duty of consistency”. It is up to British society to reconcile itself with its own self-professed values; it is up to politicians to practice what they preach.” For this, Ramadhan has been called a terrorist sympathizer, a Muslim brotherhood member and worse. If this is an indication of how the Europeans react to demands for reflection and critical thinking, then something is surely wrong. The problem in Europe seems to be one of excluding the Muslims and their leaders from public discourse. There have been some attempts by Muslim leaders in the US and Europe to amend some of stereotypes about them – the supposed anti-Semitism in some Muslim societies being the most egregious one- by visiting Auschwitz, as this newsitem shows. One must also remember that Jews, despite being a minority seem to be thriving, in an environment of Post WWII awareness of the horrors of Holocaust. Germany in particular is rather sensitive to any charges of ‘anti-semitism’ and this trend seems to be prevalent in Europe. There is no comparable movement to address Islamophobia, which seems to be growing by the day.  This is a welcome move as it would demonstrate, rather publicly that Muslims don’t have anything per se against the Jews. But such attempts seem to be few and far in-between and they could also be seen as reactionary, rather than proactively thought through.

As an example of the kind of discourse that French and (some) American media have created about him, see here, here. These are but two examples – a simple google search will demonstrate the amount of vitriol and negative propaganda against a leader, who is trying to showcase the diversity of opinion within the house of Islam in Europe. And mind you, he is a professor at Oxford University and an accomplished scholar. If such a scholar is reviled and guilt by association is used as a tool to link him with all forms of organizations, that are violent; it seems like there is a conscious attempt to delegitimize him as an individual and also as a leader of the community.

Further, as Talal Asad argues in his essay “Muslims as a ‘religious minority’ in Europe”, the very identity of Europe is built so as to exclude those who are not ‘European enough’, ethnic Muslims from other countries, for instance. This situation is exacerbated by a history of conflict between Europe and the East – Ottoman Empire for instance, that conquered a part of the continent. Despite the geographic proximity, Bosnia is not ‘one among the European nations’ though it is in Europe, it is not entirely European. The same holds true for Turkey’s attempts to enter the E.U. He quotes from a 1992 Time magazine article “ However it may be expressed, there is a feeling in Western Europe, rarely stated explicitly, that Muslims whose roots lie in Asia do not belong in the Western family, some of whose members spent centuries trying to drive the Turks out of a Europe they threatened to overwhelm. Turkish membership would dilute the E.C’s Europeanness”. This quote captures more than sufficiently the anxieties and the thinking that underlies the paranoia of ‘Muslims taking over Europe’. The current media representations about Muslims in Europe are not very helpful either, relying as they are on stereotypes of Muslims and fear mongering by even mainstream media about the immigrant threat etc.

American Muslim Leadership and co-optation by the establishment

‘Civil Religion’ is a framework that can help us understand how religion in general and Islam in particular has been coopted by the American state, to serve its purpose. Given the relatively high religiosity among people in the U.S. and a general tolerance of religious rhetoric, it is interesting to study how the ‘new religions’ have been accommodated in the American landscape. Before that, let us understand the notion of ‘civil religion’. Scholars such as Robert Bellah have pointed out that one can find a ‘civil religion’ in the U.S. that pervades our society, and it is more a cultural rather than a dogmatic view of religion (Bellah, 1967). Using the example of President John F Kennedy’s inauguration, where he used the word ‘God’ three times, Bellah asks: “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word “God” at all? .”(p.1). The answer, he argues, is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension. There has been a strong trend of accommodating religious rhetoric in politics, Bellah further adds. He further defines Civic Religion as: “This public religious dimension is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals that I am calling American civil religion[i].” Bellah says that Kennedy’s whole address can be seen as an address that argues for man’s obligation to others, and that this obligation transcends any political affiliation or hierarchy.

I would argue that there is a conscious attempt on part of the American Muslim groups to reach out to the political establishment – especially since 9/11 – in an attempt to gain legitimacy. Several scholars have made this argument too and it is a testament to this efforts that religious leaders and organizations have access to the White House, sections of the Obama Administration and some Congressmen and Senators. In turn, there has also been a conscious effort on part of the state apparatus to work with and embrace some of the organizations, who seem to legitimize the actions of the state. Historically, there has been an antagonistic relationship with muslim groups – think Nation of Islam and others in the 1960s’. It was with the arrival of new immigrants in the 1970s onwards that this trend shifted and there was a conscious effort on part of the state apparatus to reach out to the Muslim groups and vice versa.

Presently, American Muslim organizations tend to include messaging about religious tolerance, equality in an attempt to address this ‘Civil religion’ in America. While some scholars and activists have denounced this as ‘appeasement’ by the establishment, one can argue that this forms a bulwark against demonizing the entire community and could function as an important lever for negotiating the fragile relationship of Muslims and the state apparatus.

Bellah, like others such as Robert Wuthnow (2005) points out that trend of mixing religious messaging in the public sphere can be understood in a sense to be a deeply American tradition, an obligation of carrying out God’s will on earth. This, manifest destiny, he argues, was the spirit that motivated those who founded America and it has been present since. Bellah is right in examining this aspect of a strong sense of civic religion in the U.S., but the changing demographics, religious landscape in the country presents a different picture of religion in the U.S. than one of a uniformly religious country. Demographic, socio-economic changes in the last four to five decades have complicated the religious landscape in the country and this has also in effect made the situation more complex. The inclusion of Muslims in America can be argued for – and has been argued – using this very notion of Civil religion, apart from the constitutionally mandated notion of religious freedom. This notion is also one that allows Muslims to practice their religion freely – and issues such as the headscarf etc. seem to be nonissues in the U.S. (for the most part, at least). There are rare occasions when it does become an issue, but mostly, American Muslims are able to carry on with their lives, with no major hindrance.

So while Muslim leaders on both continents are grappling with similar issues – one of stereotyping, Islamophobia and also growing youth unrest and perception that the law enforcement authorities are not treating them well, the reactions and approaches taken by each are different. One can argue- based on what I have also learnt this from conversations with a dear friend who is German, being originally from a Muslim country – that no matter how ‘European’ one is, it is never enough. This includes assimilation efforts in terms of acquiring the native language, following the social customs of the adopted country etc.

The American approach seems to be one of co-optation and working with the establishment to gain legitimacy, while in Europe, this doesn’t seem to be possible. In Europe, the minorities and their leaders don’t seem to be welcome in the public sphere, and the only position they seem to be offered is one of the ‘other’, with no agency or will to determine their future.

[i] Bellah Robert, Civil Religion,. Accessible at http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm Accessed on Jan 29, 2013

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What can Islam offer to the World? Part 1

Most often, when journalists write about Islam, it is in connection with something negative. As Edward Said argued, many years ago in Orientalism, there is a tendency in the Western academia and media to focus on the stereotypes of Islam and the Muslim world, at the expense of the ‘reality’ that exists in the Muslim majority countries. At the same time, when groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda go about doing the most inhumane and barbaric acts in the name of Islam, it doesn’t help either. The ones bearing the brunt of these negative stereotypes are over a billion people – who for the most part – I would argue are not as blood thirsty, violent and bigoted as the media portrays them to be. In this vitiated and negative environment, where it is easy to blame everything on Islam and Muslims’ negative attitude towards progress, modernity; is it not necessary to step back and ask the question: What can Islam offer to the world? Not what it has offered, already, but what it can offer– in the here and now – and in the future. In this brief piece, I will focus on economic justice as one of the areas where Islam can offer some solutions.

social justice

Is a dispassionate debate possible and is it worth-while talking about the ‘benefits’ that the Islamic moral and economic system can bring about? While the debates about Islamic economics and its comparisons with the conventional economic system that is dominated by Neoliberal understandings is not possible in this short piece, I will focus specifically on the notion of economic resilience and community solidarity to bring home the thesis that I am proposing. In the context of the debates about inequality, poverty and violence, I am interested in finding out if Islamic systems of economics or social justice can offer some guidance to the world, at large?

            The question that I am interested in raising, and one that I heard in April, at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting is this : Can Islam offer anything to our world in the 21st century? And specifically, our economic world? This may offend some believers that is understandable. But for those who are not Muslim, the question of Islam’s relevance in today’s world is a very valid question. Especially, when there is an environment of extreme negative stereotyping of the faith – even those who are peaceful believers are forced to ask: What is going wrong? Are the political dynamics within Muslim majority countries so skewed that they cannot manage to live peacefully, or is something wrong with the cultural dynamics of these societies – following Samuel Huntington’s infamous ‘Clash of Civilizations’ hypothesis, that there is a perpetual tension between the ‘Muslim world’ and the rest of the world.

For those who are familiar with Islam’s glorious past, this question is not relevant; since Islam has already contributed much to current Science, Mathematics, Culture, Art, Music, Sports and every conceivable human enterprise. That is not the point. The point I am trying to raise is one of how Islam can continue to be a positive force in the world of 21st century. Given the popular and at times academic critiques of Islam as a ‘civilization’ that needs reform and one that needs to ‘catch up’ with the Western civilization, this question gains importance. I will borrow the concept that Dr. Jane Pollard, of the New Castle University used at the AAG presentation that she made: that of ‘Resilience’. She asked, and quite rightly, if the London’s financial district could learn something from the poor Somali refugees who inhabit the East side of London. These poor, displaced immigrants are hardly the paragons for financial literacy, but, she argued, their habits of philanthropy, supporting one another during times of distress, can teach us lessons in resilience. She shared results from her research that many of the 60 odd individuals that she interviewed give away about one third of their meagre salaries/earnings in tithing or charitable activities, often to help their relatives/friends who are in distress. This concept of resilience of poor individuals and communities can be applied to conceptualizing and building on how communities can survive and perhaps even thrive through trying times, harsh legal and other conditions, she argued.

            My question also gains salience in the context of growing globalization, growing heterogeneity as well as pluralism, around the world. What can Islam teach us about living amidst and with differences? For those who are not aware, Muslims are spread throughout the planet and in fact American Muslims are the most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in the U.S., according to research by the Pew Research group. Can Islam’s heterodoxy and pluralism be reinvigorated? Also, while pluralism within Islam is a fact in America, it may not be so evident in other countries, where there is more homogeneity and lack of diversity of opinion and tolerance.

 

Solidarity, community and faith

Using the notion of cosmopolitanism and cross-border territoriality, Pollard and her colleagues argue that “An alternative form of economic rationality is being constructed and practiced across diverse sociospatial contexts to produce what we term cosmopolitan financial geographies. Building from recent debates about territoriality, embeddedness, and relationality in economic geography, we respond to calls for a more complex treatment of agency, developing the concept of cosmopolitan legalities to capture the dynamic multiterritorial, relational governance of Islamic banking and finance (IBF) that melds Western and Islamic financial rules and practices through the embodied religious authority of Shari’a scholars.” This economic rationality is based on a global ethic of recognizing the Ummah or community of believers as one – irrespective of geographic boundaries. Taking a cue from her work, one can argue that globalization and flow of ideas, concepts and knowledge existed centuries before the term globalization emerged on the scene, with Western powers promoting it. Networks of knowledge and learning were already well established in the Muslim world, as I have written about, in my earlier post on Ibn Battuta, the peripatetic traveler. These networks were also, interestingly, networks of patronage, learning as well as charity. They formed an organic whole and the various parts of the Islamic system learnt, shared and benefited from the nodes of interaction that existed.

 

How can this exchange happen?

In our globally integrated and ‘embedded’ world, there are mechanisms for sharing of knowledge, insights and a genuine dialogue to occur, if parties are interested. This sort of exchange has been going on, at the level of nation-states, individuals, businesses and scholars. There are many scholars, who are working on comparative religion, sociology of knowledge, development studies and related disciplines that draw upon and build theories of knowledge, societal development and economic development that benefit all of mankind. As Abdullahi An’naim has argued in this short paper, Islamic concepts of zakat can be reimagined for addressing concerns of social justice. Issues of homelessness, poverty, extreme hunger and the like can be addressed through zakat and sadaqa, the religious norms of giving for Muslims throughout the world. In fact, Charity is the third ‘pillar’ of Islam and is fundamental to the practice of religion. With such a strong orientation towards social justice embedded in the faith and its practice, it may seem logical to see how Islamic economic and moral systems can be engaged in addressing some of the key problems before us. And this is precisely what thousands of NGOs, intellectuals and organizations are attempting, around the world.

As Lena Rethel has argued, if one were to look at purely the legitimacy aspects of Islamic finance, then there is no real difference between how Islamic finance tools are being built. They are just replacing the conventional tools, replicating one form of legitimacy with another, she says. This epistemological hegemony of legitimacy is counterproductive to producing a real alternative to the existing Neoliberal framework.

The key insight that Pollard’s research points to, is that we may perhaps have to focus more on microeconomics, looking at how small communities, individuals make decisions, rather than focusing solely on macroeconomic policies and programs. While there are lessons that macroeconomic planners may derive from these small scale projects, the key may be to look at the imbalances at the individual level and aim to build self-sustaining communities that are not as embedded in the current financial system.

Posted in Arab Philnathropy, Charity, Ethics, Middle East, Middle East peace, Morocco, philanthropy, Religion, Sociology, Sufism, United Nations, USA, War on terror | Leave a comment

Why argue against a $100 million campaign?

I don’t believe in kicking puppies. On the other hand, I believe that every worth cause, irrespective of geography, political affiliation should be supported. But when there is an egregious over-display of marketing tactics, brain-numbing imitation and exhortation to do acts of ‘charity’, I believe it is time to step back and question the premise on which the campaigns are based. The most recent meme of the ‘Ice Bucket challenge’ is a classic case of such a tactic. While it is great that ALS Foundation has raised some money through this – estimated at about $100 million, I believe that despite the phenomenal success, there are some serious issues with the campaign and its methodology. At the root of this campaign is a lot of narcissism and self-indulgence, which takes away from the actual aims of the campaign – to bring awareness about the disease and raise money. ice_bucket.jpg.CROP.promo-mediumlarge

            Firstly, the Ice Bucket challenge focuses on a , i.e., throwing water over oneself- and has become more important than awareness about the disease itself or even more than the primary purpose of why it was started, in the first place – to raise money. Agreed that the campaign has surpassed all expectations and raised about $100 mn, but the question remains: How much of the money raised will be used for pursuing research and development of the disease, hence actually impacting those effected by the disease, and how much is used up for other purposes – more marketing and publicity? Whilst the campaign’s success has already spawned similar imitations such as the Rice Bucket Challenge in India, the narcissism inherent in the campaign is actually a downer for many. The ‘challenge’ becomes more about the donor or the ‘challenger’ and less and less about the cause – ALS in this case- and the recipient or the disease that the campaign is trying to address. By taking away the discourse of the campaign from the disease and those who are suffering, and making it all about the participants, the Ice bucket challenge distracts from the real motivation for doing the act.

Secondly, there are limits to the amount of attention and celebrity endorsements that this campaign can garner. As this Op-Ed in the New York Times argues, celebrity branding of certain causes may not actually help it. Researchers Professor Dan Brockington, of The University of Manchester, Professor Spensor Henson, University of Sussex, and Dr Martin Scott, University of East Anglia, show this in their survey of over 1000 individuals in the United Kingdom (U.K). They show that over that 66% of those surveyed could not link any celebrity with a list of seven well-known charities and aid organizations (NGOs) the researchers mentioned. Further, they add :”Our survey found that while awareness of major NGOs brands was high, awareness of celebrity advocates for those brands was low,” they said in their article, published online in the International Journal of Cultural Studies. Marketing and Public Relations professionals often confuse brand visibility with brand loyalty and association. While many people would remember that Angelina Jolie does a lot for orphans around the world, the same number may not know that she is the UN’s global goodwill Ambassador. All celebrities who have supported the cause including Bill Gates, Justin Beiber and LeBron James seem to have contributed their bit to the cause. But how does one know if they did it more to promote themselves or the ‘cause’? While intentions cannot be measured and there is no foolproof way to figure out how much the celebrities actually do things for a cause and how much of their self-interest is involved; it is safe to say that celebrity endorsements are short-lived and people tend to forget, rather quickly. However, the ‘social’ aspect of this campaign has worked, and that is a valuable lesson for other charities to adopt – especially when it comes to fundraising techniques. Peer pressure in this case – to do good- may not be entirely wrong, after all.

            Finally, the Ice Bucket challenge represents a sort of ‘mimetic desire’, a concept that French philosopher Rene Girard has written about. This desire refers to an almost irrational desire to possess something that the ‘other’ has. And in effect, this irrationality guides much of consumer behavior. We want a fancy phone because our friend has one and it would be ‘desired’ by others, or a fancy car because it is desired by others. Although in the short-term the campaign has succeeded and it is a sign of the growing need of creativity and innovation in fund-raising, the long-term consequences of such tactics are likely to be negative. Among other things that can go wrong in the near future are donor fatigue, lack of genuine awareness of the disease and an almost mindless tendency to imitate others. These are not a good sign for a thoughtful campaign that address a very serious issue. At this level, the Ice Bucket Challenge falls short. Its success in raising money should not take away from the fact that it is based on a faulty, yet sexy premise – replacing the responsibility that is truly ours – to address a deadly disease- by an almost narcissistic drive to feel important and get a sense that we have done ‘something’, by doing something silly.

        Even though the Ice Bucket Challenge seems to about altruism, it also seems to be tapping into people’s narcissism and self-indulgence. This may be good for the ALF Foundation, but not good for philanthropy as a whole.This trend is indicating to donors and potential fund-raisers that the donor has to be ‘engaged’ in ways that could amount to ludicrous – just to get them to sign a check or donate money.

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