Fadlallah speaks to the Sunnis

This post on Abu Aardvark yesterday is definitely worth reading. It’s his live-blogged account of a discussion on Al-Jazeera yesterday between program host Ahmed Mansour and Lebanon’s highest Shiite religious authority Sayed Mohamed Husayn Fadlallah. As Marc writes there,

    It never used to be seen as unusual for someone like Fadlallah to be featured on al-Jazeera, but in the current state of Sunni-Shia hysteria I guess it’s worth noting.
    It’s also an absolutely fascinating encounter, one of the most interesting I’ve seen since this whole Shia-Sunni business got going (note: all that follows is liveblogging, not from transcript, so apologies if some of the wording isn’t exactly right). Mansour sympathizes with the Sunni insurgency – he was the reporter whose reporting from Falluja in 2004 caused such problems for the American campaign there. He pushed Fadlallah hard, in his polite but dogged way, on the position of the Shia in Arab politics. A lot of major tropes in current Sunni-Shia tensions were raised openly, with no screaming. This chance for a major Shia personality to directly address a vast Sunni audience, and to air sensitive issues openly in a calm setting, was a good example of what a platform like al-Jazeera can offer – sure, some people will complain about some of the points which were made being inflammatory or offensive, but the point is that all of those points are already very much out there anyway, and at least here they could be rebutted or debated.
    … Fadlallah firmly denounced Sunni-Shia bloodshed of any kind, and called on all intra-Muslim killing to stop. But he also aired complaints about the “takfiris” (his word [ML]; means something like “hardline Sunni repudiators of Shiites” ~HC) who openly called for the killing of Shia Muslims. Fadlallah’s bottom line: the Muslim umma needs to understand that the problems are not between Sunni and Shia but between Islam and the American administration.
    Overall, a simply fascinating exchange. No time to analyze it any further, but well worth everyone’s attention.

It does sound like an interesting program. We don’t have t.v. here. If anyone can point me to a downloadable version or a trancsript of it, that would be great.
Update, Fri a.m. Cairo time:
Thanks to the kind soul who sent me the fairly lengthy BBC-monitoring account of the program, which you can now read here.

About that Jefferson Koran

Yes, “Virgil,” it’s true: There is a Jefferson Koran.
When and why?
In the University of Virginia’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library rests the original Virginia Gazette Daybook – a fascinating account book of that bookseller’s customers in the Virginia Colony capital town of Williamsburg.
For October 5th, 1765, the Gazette Daybook clearly records a purchase by the second customer of the day: a 22-year-old law student named Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson made a single purchase: George Sale’s two-volume translation and introduction to “The Koran, Commonly Called the Alcoran of Mohammed.”
In a recent article in Early American Literature, Kevin Hayes suggests that Jefferson had multiple reasons for buying a Koran, ranging from preparations for the bar exam, to his broader interests in natural law to the history of religion.
(As may pleasantly surprise some), the most frequently cited source in Jefferson’s legal writings was Pufendorf’s 1672 classic, Of the Law of Nature and Nations.
As Pufendorf cites multiple precedents from the Koran on various civil and international legal issues, It was quite “natural” for Jefferson as an advanced student of laws, not just of one nation but of the world, to study the Koran, especially one which included detailed comparative comment by a distinguished British lawyer, George Sale.
The following introductory passage from Sale no doubt was a selling point to Jefferson:

If the religious and civil Institutions of foreign nations are worth our knowledge, those of Mohammed, the lawgiver of the Arabians, and founder of an empire which in less than a century spread itself over a greater part of the world than the Romans were ever masters…. Since students of law study legal precedent from ancient Rome, they should also study precedent from a society with an even greater reach than Rome.

Flash Forward:
241 years and 3 months later from the day Jefferson first purchased it, Jefferson’s Koran was delivered from its current home at the Library of Congress to the House of Representatives. There, it served as the holy book upon which America’s first Congressperson of the Muslim faith, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, took his ceremonial oath of office.
I already wrote here about the controversy over Ellison’s desire to use a Koran for his ceremonial oath, and specifically about Virgil Goode’s bizarre letter and contentious press conference about Ellison’s wishes.
Among the press conference lowlights, Virgil Goode declared that he wouldn’t use the “Q-Ran” for his oath taking; denied he was a racist, characterized all Muslims as inherent threats to American values; ducked the core question of whether Ellison has the right to take an oath on whatever book he wishes, and refused to apologize to Ellison or anyone else.
In my annotated transcription of Virgil’s “bad” performance, I suggested that Congressman Goode might benefit from re-studying his basic Virginia civics, particularly the most famous person ever from his district – Thomas Jefferson.
On Jefferson’s tombstone at his Monticello home, Jefferson’s requested epitath cites three great accomplishments in his life:

Author of the Declartion of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.

That Jefferson was America’s third President is not mentioned.

Continue reading “About that Jefferson Koran”

Women’s activism in Hizbullah and Hamas

The latest issue of ISIM Review has two very interesting articles that start to probe the role of women within, respectively, Hizbullah and Hamas.
Big appreciation to ISIM, the Netherlands-based International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, that (1) they produce such a fascinating periodical, and (2) they make the whole text of the articles available online. (Even if only in a slightly hard-to-use PDF format. But hey, it’s an still an excellent contribution to the global knowledge-base.)
In this piece, Lara Deeb looks at the changing way in which, since the 1970s, women’s roles have been portrayed in the annual Ashura rituals that are an important feature of Shiite community life in Lebanon (and elsewhere); and she tracks these shifts with the increased role that Lebanese Shiite women– primarily, I think, Hizbullah women– have been playing in public life.
Along the way she makes some thoughtful comments on the relationship between piety and modernity:

    The activist lesson of Karbala [ that is, the battle of 680 CE that’s commemorated in the Ashura rituals], in its application in daily life, provides a framework for these expressions of [female] piety, and indeed, insists on public activity as a part of piety. In this context, to be pious according to such standards is a large part of being modern. Women who did not express piety “properly” were considered “backward” and in need of education to bring them into their proper role in the progressivist narrative of community development.
    While it can be argued that this is true to a certain extent for both women and men, public piety marks women most visibly…

Of course, this portrayal of what has been happening among Lebanese Shiite women challenges many western notions about the relationship between (our form of) “modernity” and public expressions of piety, which we hold to be generally an antithetical one. To be “modern” in the west is often taken to involve being scantily clad, secular, and even profane. Deeb gives us a timely reminder that that there are many different versions and visions of “modernity.”
And then in this article, which is titled “Religious Mediators in Palestine”, Nahda Shehada examines the networks of pious Muslim women (mainly, Hamas women) in Palestine who have an increasingly respected role as what Shehada terms “sub-mediators” as well as the pious religious men who acts as qudah (i.e., religious judges.)
The context in which these networks of religious mediators have grown up in the occupied Palestinian territories in recent years has been, as she writes, one of the breakdown of nearly all earlier traditional mechanisms of conflict resolution as well as the abortion of the emergence of any well-functioning “Palestinian Authority” judicial apparatus.
The women whom Shehada identifies as sub-mediators are the da’iyyat (female social/religious mobilizers) within primarily Hamas, but also in Islamic Jihad. I imagine that back in March when I traveled around Jabaliyeh camp in the Gaza Strip for half a day with Sister Maha, visiting various Hamas-related activists in their homes, as related here, that Maha was acting as a da’iyya.
Also, in my article, go back and see how Jameela Shanti, MP, described the contribution that Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had made by stressing the need for women’s engagement in public affairs. This seems largely analogous to what Lara Deeb wrote about Hizbullah’s framing of the need for female public engagement by the Lebanese Shiite women.
Shehada gives an intriguing description of the role the da’iyyat play:

    These voluntary activists often come from a middle class background and enjoy a high level of education; most have a BA or higher degree in a variety of specializations such as medicine, agriculture, architecture, and, obviously, Islamic studies. Despite denying any explicit political commitment, a number of informants indicate that they are attached to the social infrastructure of the main Islamic political party (Hamas) or, to a lesser degree, of the Islamic Jihad movement.
    In the course of their activism, da‘iyyat meet hundreds of women from various regions, generations, statuses, and classes. They often take the lead in introducing women from different backgrounds to each other and design shared teaching programmes and various activities for different communities, which indicates the importance of social networking for their activism. Part of their daily agenda is to follow their “clients” to their homes; they regularly pay visits, both at times of crisis and of celebration. Their female “clients,” in response, make them privy to their intimate problems as well as more “public” conflicts. This might be the most interesting question in the study of the roles and actions of da‘iyyat, their modes of intervention in the social conflicts submitted to them by their female “clients.” The preliminary data indicate that the motivation for their intervention in social conflicts is not public status; rather, their intervention is veiled behind their religious activity. They seem to prefer confining themselves to the role of sub-mediators between the parties to a dispute and the principal mediators, i.e., those “wise” men who share with them both their religious background and willingness to resolve communal conflicts. Studying their activism may therefore provide us with further insights regarding the careful gender division of labour, political vs. nonpolitical activism, and the public-private division.
    The variety of cases in which da‘iyyat intervene is vast: domestic disputes, sexual harassment and assaults, adultery, inheritance, financial disputes, land disputes, etc. The male leaders of the community do not seem to feel threatened by their activism, unlike their reaction to other outspoken feminist activists. Despite their advocacy for women’s rights (regardless of what that means), their religious background and Islamic perspective ensure them a positive reception in the community. The interventions of the da‘iyyat, may, I believe, (as in the case of their counterparts, the qudah) fill the gap left by the increasing vulnerability of the formal justice system of the Palestinian Authority. Further, the fact that these new actors have gradually earned the people’s trust may also signify a degree of scepticism with regard to the neutrality, influence, and legitimacy of other informal systems.
    The da‘iyyat have a particular method of dealing with community disputes including those related to political conflicts between Hamas and Fatah. For example, in 2004, a sixteen-year-old young man was arrested by the preventive security force (one of the many security branches functioning in Gaza) on the basis of his membership of Hamas and his involvement in preparing crude bullets. His mother was one of the followers of Dr. Salma, who is one of the most active da‘iyya in Gaza. Dr. Salma, who does not deny her sympathy for Hamas, however has good relations with Fatah (then the ruling party) through her kinship with a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Islamic Endowment (awqaf). She approached him with the argument that the first half should not imprison the second half of the nation. This is Dr. Salma’s conception of the polarised political matrix in Gaza between Fatah and Hamas. The man, on his part, approached the top security head to release the boy, astonishingly using the same argument as Dr. Salma: “it is unfair for one half of the nation, which dominates the political scene, to imprison the other half.” After several attempts by the Shaykh of awqaf, the boy was released and returned to his mother. What is significant and requires deeper theorization, which unfortunately is beyond the scope of this short article, is Dr. Salma’s advice to the mother: “Our God works for our good, even if His decisions seem to be illogical to us. Your boy may or may not come back. We should work hard to release him, but if we cannot do so, we have to look beyond our agony. God may want to teach us how to be patient, compliant, and accommodating through such tests.” Thus, while doing her best to release the boy, Dr. Salma’s advice to the mother was that of acceptance and confession. This approach is not unique in the discourse of da‘iyyat. They teach their followers to work hard to improve their living conditions, but at the same time they train them to accept the hardships of being truly pious.

This last-noted little observation is really intriguing. It’s almost like the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment to the fruits of one’s labors, don’t you think? Anyway, within whatever tradition it’s expressed, it seems like a very helpful piece of teaching that could strengthen the ability of people living under very stressful conditions to become more resilient, and to absorb and transcend the many difficulties they face in their daily lives.
… Altogether, some fascinating material from two very promising-looking scholars there. Again, thanks to ISIM for putting this up on the web (as well as sending me a paper copy.) I should add that there are a LOT of other interesting articles in this issue, too.

Patrick Lang: “The Best Defense…”

On 9/11, the Miller Center at the University of Virginia featured a talk by Colonel Patrick Lang – who returned here by reputation as a voice of reason, experience, “independence,” and wit regarding the Middle East. He did not disappoint.
Miller Center lectures are a rather unique phenomena here. First, they are popular. For this one, I arrived five minutes “early” (e.g. very late) – to be escorted to the fourth and last overflow room. Not bad for forums that ordinarily are simulcast on the net. Yet Miller audiences are hardly filled with bright-eyed students; the Miller Center is off the main “grounds” (campus) and students rarely comprise more than a handful amid the throngs. Instead, these sessions draw from the extraordinary community of retired policy professionals who seem to be flocking here to Hoo’ville.
Colonel Lang himself is “retired” from full-time government service, having served with distinction in the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Beret) and then at the highest levels of U.S. Military Intelligence. His training includes a Masters Degree in Middle East studies from Utah, and he served in the mid-1970’s as the first Professor of Arabic at West Point. Today, he combines ongoing consulting and training projects with frequent media appearances, ranging from PBS to CBS to BBC. For more, see his bio and publications highlights, via this link on his blog.
Colonel Lang “sticks out” in Washington for his informed willingness to take on what passes for “received wisdom” regarding the Middle East. His publications include the memorable “Drinking the Koolaid” in Middle East Policy. It’s still an important, sobering read. Quite far afield from Graham Allison’s realist “rational choice” decision-making model, Lang attributes the disastrous decision to invade Iraq to a loss of nerve among policy makers and analysts. Instead of honorably sticking to their convictions, even if it meant “falling on their swords,” career-preserving senior policy makers were more inclined to drink from a Jonestown-like vat of poisonous illusions. “Succumbing to the prevailing group-think” drawn up by the small core of neoconservative “vulcans,” Lang’s former intelligence colleagues “drank the koolaid” and said nothing, leaving them henceforth among the “walking dead” in Washington.
Speaking here on 9/11, Lang’s comments were wide-ranging and stimulating; he didn’t stick narrowly to his talk title on Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah, but he had much to suggest related to all three. I offer a few highlights here:
On Military Options against Iran:
Here Lang summarized his now widely cited National Interest article from earlier this spring. (Issue #83 – no link available). Even though Lang and co-author Larry Johnson seem to accept standard worst-case assessments of Iran’s nuclear aspirations, their article makes a compelling case that there are no “realistic” military options to attack Iran, by land or air, conventional, or exotic. Air assaults, whether by Israel or the US, are a “mirage” – unlikely to succeed for long, while incurring the risks of severe retaliations by Iranian assets.
To Lang, these dangers are obvious. Yet spelling them out serves the purpose of going on record so that neoconservatives in the future cannot claim – as they did with Iraq – that the disaster could not have been foreseen. This time, we’ve been warned.
On the greatest source of conflict within Islam:
If I understood him correctly, Lang was not as concerned about a battle between extremists and political pietists, deeming the “pietists” overwhelmingly still in the ascendant. Instead, Lang’s “bigest concern” for the Muslim world was over the “revolution” in the Shia-Sunni equation. The old order of “Sunnis rule and Shias survive” is now in question. Lang depicted Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear option as the latest extension of a long-forming Shia effort to resist domination from the Sunni realm.
Yet Lang did emphasize that Muslims of all stripes come together in resentment towards Israel — as a direct affront to the well being of the faith. To accept the existence of Israel means having to admit that the Islamic world has been truncated, that part of the “realm of God” had been given back. Hizbullah thus has become widely popular among all Muslims, not just among Shia, for its demonstrated capacity to resist both Zionists and the modern day crusaders.
Iran’s support for Hizbullah:
Lang deems Iran’s support for Lebanon’s Hizbullah as “first and foremost” useful for Iran’s pursuit of respect and leadership within the Islamic world. Yet Iranian financial assistance for Lebanon has shrewdly earned friends among Arab Christians and Sunnis too. In this light, Iran’s low-key strategy has been quite successful; hardly a rat-hole, such “success” draws more support.
On Why Hizbullah beat Israel:

Continue reading “Patrick Lang: “The Best Defense…””

Islam and Democracy discussion

On Thursday, I was honored to participate in a long round-table discussion on “Religion and Democracy” that was co-sponsored by Ferdowsi University in Mashhad, Iran and the center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, DC. The session I was part of was held in a conference room at the Education Ministry in Teheran.

What follows here is a description of the substance of some of the most striking presentations made at the conference by Iranian participants. Please note that this account is a copy of what I wrote toward the end of this earlier JWN post. But I wanted to put this description up as a post on its own so that interested readers can join in a description on the Comments board that is limited purely to the substance of what I described there.

What follows also includes some of my own immediate reflections on what I heard.

If you want to read a bit about the fascinating back-story behind the holding of the conference, then go to that earlier post.

The participants in the Teheran session included CSID President Abdel-Aziz Sachedina, a distinguished professor of Islamic studies at the University of Virginia; Abdelkarim Soroush, a political philosopher who works in Germany now, but was previously at Princeton, Harvard, etc; Mohsen Kadivar, a tall, gentle-looking figure in mullah’s robes who teaches at Tarbiat Modares University in Teheran; Forough Jahanbakhsh, who teaches at Queen’s University in Toronto (and was the only other female participant); Ali Paya, a professor in Teheran who chaired the sessions and did much of the translating; and around a dozen others.

(Kadivar has his own website which certainly looks worth a lengthy visit. It has a good section in English, and one in Arabic, as well as all the Farsi material. In the Bio info in the English-language section, you can read that “Kadivar was arrested for the first time in May 1978 ? the last year of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi Shah’s reign in Iran… 20 years later, the unconstitutional Cleric Court of Iran found him guilty of campaigning against the Islamic Republic because of the statements he had made in an interview with the banned Khordad Daily … [and] he was sentenced to spend 18 months in Evin Prison, Tehran, and was released on July 17, 2000. He is still campaigning for the reform of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”)

The proceedings were all bilingual, with the presentations given in either
English or Farsi and then afterwards rendered orally into the other language.
Here, I’m relying mainly on the notes I took during the session, though
I’ll also refer to the abstracts of the presentations distributed by the
conference organizers… Longer versions of the presentations will later
be published as a book, though I believe some of them may be available before
that on the CSID’s website.

Now, read more about Thursday’s session…

Continue reading “Islam and Democracy discussion”