Thursday, June 30, 2005

recalling frantz fanon

Recent events have made me want to go back to reading Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks. The brother was a genius. Or at least he had a deep and far-ranging analysis of the ways in which white supremacy drives both black folks and white folks crazy. The style is sometimes hard to follow in the sense that he doesn't give us a systematic explanation or perspective. Instead, he presents the reader with flashes of experiences. And if you see yourself in them, fine. If you don't see yourself in them, that's fine too.

The way he puts it:

Many Negroes will not find themselves in what follows. This is equally true of many whites. But the fact that I feel a foreigner in the worlds of the schizophrenic or the sexual cripple in no way diminishes their reality. The attitudes that I propose to describe are real. I have encountered them innumerable times.

His other main work, Wretched of the Earth also deals with some of the same questions, except in the context of a national resistance movement against colonial oppression (the Algerian Revolution).

Some Quotes from Black Skin, White Masks

Some excerpts from Wretched of the Earth and related literature

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

piri thomas

Here is Piri Thomas' website
Actually, Down These Mean Streets was in certain respects as important to me as the Autobiography of Malcolm X. One of the more bizzare and striking passages in the book is when he and his brother argue about whether or not they are black. If I have more time I might quote the passage in another entry.

I"ve met Piri a couple of times. The first time was in college when I was active in the campus Latino student organization and I did alot of the coordination work to bring him on campus. The second time I was just in the audience at one of his "flows" and walked and talked with him a little bit afterwards.

nigger-reecan blues by willie perdomo

A long time ago, I remember seeing a show on PBS which showed various short art films or otherwise avant-garde performances. And on one episode of this show, I caught a film of Willie Perdomo doing "Nigger-Reecan" blues. I think it blew my mind to find out that there was someone out there who could relate to race in anywhere near the same way that I could. It's kind of funny from a certain point of view. In terms of my personal life, I think the poem was very much an important catalyst for me riding an entire train of thought. But now when I look back to the original poem, it doesn't impress me the way it once did. At one time, I very much needed to hear it, but right now I'm at a different place.

Nigger-Reecan Blues
Willie Perdomo (for Piri Thomas)

Hey, Willie. What are you, man?
No, silly. You know what I mean: What are you?
I am you. You are me. We the same. Can't you feel our veins drinking the
same blood?
-But who said you was a Porta Reecan?
-Tu eres Puerto Riqueno, brother.
-Maybe Indian like Gandhi Indian.
-I thought you was a Black man.
-Is one of your parents white?
-You sure you ain't a mix of something like
-Portuguese and Chinese?
-Naaaahhh. . .You ain't no Porta Reecan.
-I keep telling you: The boy is a Black man with an accent.
If you look closely you will see that your spirits are standing right next to
our songs. You soy Boricua! You soy Africano! I ain't lyin'. Pero mi pelo es
kinky y kurly y mi skin no es negra pero it can pass. ..
-Hey, yo. I don't care what you say - you Black.
I ain't Black! Everytime I go downtown la madam blankeeta de madesson
avenue sees that I'm standing right next to her and she holds her purse just
a bit tighter. I can't even catch a taxi late at night and the newspapers say
that if I'm not in front of a gun, chances are that I'll be behind one. I wonder
why. . .
-Cuz you Black, nigger.
I ain't Black, man. I had a conversation with my professor. Went like this:
-Where are you from, Willie?
-I'm from Harlem.
-Ohh! Are you Black?
-No, but-
-Do you play much basketball?
Te lo estoy diciendo, brother. Ese hombre es un moreno!
Mira yo no soy moreno! I just come out of Jerry's Den and the
spray off my new shape-up sails around the corner, up to the Harlem
River and off to New Jersey. I'm lookin' slim and I'm lookin' trim
and when my homeboy Davi saw me, he said: "Como, Papo. Te
parece como
un moreno, brother. Word up, bro. You look like a stone black
-I told you - you was Black.
Damn! I ain't even Black and here I am sufferin' from the young
Black man's plight/the old whtie man's burden/and I ain't even
Black, man/a Black man/I am not/Boricua I am/ain't never really
was/Black/like me. . .

-Leave that boy alone. He got the Nigger-Reecan Blues
I'm a Spic!
I'm a Nigger!
Spic! Spic! No different than a Nigger!
Neglected, rejected, oppressed and depressed
From banana boats to tenements
Street gangs to regiments. . .
Spic! Spic! I ain't nooooo different than a Nigger.

30 days - "muslim like me"

Morgan Spurlock, the creator of Supersize Me, has recently created a show for FX called 30 days where the premise is that he would follow an individual who would be put into a radically new situation, and the cameras would follow this person for a 30 day period to see what they learned.

Tonight's episode is supposed to show, evangelical Christian, David Stacy as he lives with a Pakistani and sees what it is like to be Muslim for 30 days.

Debbie Schlussel (who seems like an Ann Coulter clone in certain respects) has written a piece trashing the episode accusing Spurlock of having Islamist leanings (?) but if you look at the rest of her archives it is pretty clear that Schlussel's world view is basically distorted by antipathy towards Muslims. So it is not surprising that she would be motivated to discount anything which showed Muslims in a positive light.

In any case, the show should be interesting.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

the sword of damocles

There once was a king whose name was Dionysius. He was so unjust and cruel that he won himself the name of tyrant. He knew that almost everybody hated him, and so he was always in dread lest some one should take his life.

But he was very rich, and he lived in a fine palace where there were many beautiful and costly things, and he was waited upon by a host of servants who were always ready to do his bidding. One day a friend of his, whose name was Damocles, said to him
-"How happy you must be! You have here everything that any man could wish."
"Perhaps you would like to trade places with me," said the tyrant.
"No, not that, O king!" said Damocles; "but I think that, if I could only have your riches and your pleasures for one day, I should not want any greater happiness."
"Very well," said the tyrant. "You shall have them."

And so, the next day, Damocles was led into the palace, and all the servants were bidden to treat him as their master. He sat down at a table in the banquet hall, and rich foods were placed before him. Nothing was wanting that could give him pleasure. There were costly wines, and beautiful flowers, and rare perfumes, and delightful music. He rested among soft cushions, and felt that he was the happiest man in all the world.

Then he chanced to raise his eyes toward the ceiling. What was it that was dangling above him, with it's point almost touching his head? It was a sharp sword, and it was hung by only a single horsehair. What if the hair should break? There was danger every moment that it would do so.

The smile faded from the lips of Damocles. His face became very pale. His hands trembled. He wanted no more food; he could drink no more wine; he took no more delight in the music. He longed to be out of the palace, and away, he cared not where.

"What is the matter?" said the tyrant.
"That sword! That sword!" cried Damocles. He was so badly frightened that he dared not move.
"Yes," said Dionysius, "I know there is a sword above your head, and that it may fall at any moment. But why should that trouble you? I have a sword over my head all the time. I am every moment in dread lest something may cause me to lose my life."
"Let me go," said Damocles.
"I now see that I was mistaken, and that the rich and powerful are not so happy as they seem. Let me go back to my old home in the poor little cottage amon the

And so long as he lived, he never again wanted to be rich, or to change places with the king.

I like this story. I remember reading some version of it a long time ago, when I wore a younger man's underwear. For the longest time I just saw it as some kind of cautionary tale about the hidden risks and dangers which go along with power and authority. Then more recently I thought of it as a counter-revolutionary fable/myth, told to try to convince the people not to rise up against rich tyrants oppressing them.

But currently, in my own life, on a small scale, I've decided to accept my own seat under the sword so I'm trying to be more optimistic and hopeful. I'm trying not to be as gloomy or as cynical as the above interpretations suggest. Actually I think a more balanced and constructive approach to leadership is suggested by the following hadith from Bukhari:

Volume 9, Book 89, Number 261:
Narrated 'Abdur-Rahman bin Samura:
Allah's Apostle said, "O 'Abdur-Rahman bin Samura! Do not seek to be a ruler, for if you are given authority on your demand, you will be held responsible for it, but if you are given it without asking for it, then you will be helped (by Allah) in it. If you ever take an oath to do something and later on you find that something else is better, then do what is better and make expiation for your oath."

There are good ways to be a leader and bad ways. And maybe even the best leaders still get a sword dangling above their head, but maybe it's lighter? Or the thread is thicker? We'll see. Keep in me in your dua.

arabs in brazil

Here is an interesting piece about Arabs in Brazil. Apparently Brazil is the country with the most Arabs outside of the Middle East and many Arab-Brazilians have become an integral part of the society.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

marvin x: first muslim american poet

Here is the preface, written by Dr. Mohja Kahf, for an upcoming book on Marvin X

louis reyes rivera

Here is an interview with Puerto Rican Afro-Latino poet, Louis Reyes Rivera from the Chickenbones: A journal website.

Known as the "Janitor of History," poet/essayist Louis Reyes Rivera has been studying his craft since 1960 and teaching it since 1969. The recipient of over 20 awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award (1995), a Special Congressional Recognition Award (1988), and the CCNY 125th Anniversary Medal (1973), Rivera has assisted in the publication of well over 200 books, including John Oliver Killens' Great Black Russian (Wayne State U., 1989), Adal Maldonado's Portraits of the Puerto Rican Experience (IPRUS, 1984), and Bum Rush The Page: A Def Poetry Jam (Crown Publishers, 2001).

Considered by many as a necessary bridge between the African and Latino American communities, he is a professor of Pan-African, African-American, Caribbean and Puerto Rican literature and history whose essays and poems have appeared in numerous publications, including Areyto, Boletin, The City Sun, African Voices, and in five award-winning collections: In Defense of Mumia; ALOUD: Live from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Of Sons And Lovers, Bum Rush The Page, and his own Scattered Scripture.

the lynching resolution

Here is the actual text of the recent lynching resolution from the US Senate along with some historical statistics about lynching in the US by state plus a list of the 20 Senators (19 Republican and one DEMOCRAT) who didn't sign the resolution.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

us admits to torturing prisoners

US admits torturing prisoners

GENEVA: Washington has for the first time acknowledged to the UN that prisoners were tortured at US detention centres in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq, a UN source said.

The acknowledgement was made in a report submitted to the UN Committee Against Torture, said a member of the 10-person panel, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"They are no longer trying to duck this and have respected their obligation to inform the UN," the committee member said. "They will have to explain themselves. Nothing should be kept in the dark."

Australian David Hicks is among hundreds of foreign terror suspects being held at Guantanamo in Cuba.

The UN said it was the first time it had received such a frank admission of torture from the US.

The committee, which monitors respect for the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, is gathering information from the US ahead of hearings in May.

The US has signed up to the convention. The document from Washington will not be made formally public until the hearings.

"They said it was a question of isolated cases, that there was nothing systematic and that the guilty were in the process of being punished," the committee member said.

The report said the torturers were low-ranking soldiers and their acts were not approved by their superiors.

Mistreated detainees have died in the detention centres. Scores of US military personnel have been investigated, and several tried and convicted, for abuse.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said UN human rights experts should be allowed into Guantanamo.

"The Secretary-General hopes that this matter can be resolved to allow the experts full access to wherever they need to go," a spokeswoman for Mr Annan said.

The only independent body allowed in is the Red Cross. It usually keeps its findings confidential.

Mr Annan's call came a day after four top UN human rights experts slammed Washington for not opening the prison to inspection.


"you can't handle the truth"

I just saw A Few Good Men (again) last night. It was a entertaining courtroom drama about violence between US soldiers and much of the action took place at the Guantanamo base in Cuba. I think Jack Nicholson's speech at the is the most compelling defense of evil I've ever seen on film.

In the real world, the Jack Nicholsons are alot more clever, and there are alot more of them. And it takes more than Tom Cruise swooping in to save the day. Remember, its not about the lone hero. It's about the masses of people taking small steps in the right direction.

Here is a story from the Houston Chronicle about the fact that the UN has been asking to visit and inspect Guantanamo since early 2002 and have been getting the runaround from the US government
U.N. group says Guantanamo torture reports are credible

the last temptation of christ

I just saw The Last Temptation of Christ last night. When it came out there was a great deal of contraversy associated with the film, especially for Christians living in the West, because the film portrayed Jesus (as) saying and doing a number of things which departed in radical ways from the traditional Christian understanding of Christ.

Although the film didn't exactly portray a "Muslim" Christ either, there were some interesting aspects to the film from a Muslim perspective. The Last Temptation portrayed Jesus in a much more human and vulnerable light, unsure of what he was going to say or do for most of the film.

Secondly, apparently Peter Gabriel (who was in charge of the film's score) wanted to give the music an authentic feel so he used contemporary Middle Eastern musicians, from Turkey, Ethiopia, Egypt, Senegal, and even Pakistan (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan). I don't know if the filmmakers made this choice consciously or not, but an interesting result is that during parts of the film, including the last Supper scene you can actually hear Baba Maal singing words from the adhan in Arabic! [La ilaha illa Allah - no god but Allah (God)]

Another provocative point is how the film deals with the crucifixion. Jesus is shown to be nailed to the cross but as he is hanging up there an angel appears to him:

Your father is the God of Mercy, not punishment. He saw you and said, 'Aren't you his Guardian Angel? Well, go down and save him. He's suffered enough.' Remember when he told Abraham to sacrifice his son? Just as Abraham lifted his knife, God saved Isaac. If he saved Abraham's son, don't you think he'd want to save his own? He tested you, and he's pleased. He doesn't want your blood. He said, "Let him die in a dream. But let him have his life." Come with me.

All this pain is a dream?

Just a dream.

I don't have to be sacrificed.

No. No you don't.

In terms of the movie, this angel is really the devil trying to divert Jesus from the true mission, but of course from a Muslim perspective, the angel's words actually ring true. Jesus didn't really have to be sacrificed and God has a long track record of saving his prophets in their moments of adversity: saving Abraham from the fire, Daniel from the lions, Jonah from the whale, etc.

There are even a number of Old Testament passages which (in contrast to typical Christian claims that "without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin") state that God doesn't want or require sacrices and that he cares more for the state of the heart. (Psalm 51:16-17, Psalm 40:6, Micah 6:6-8, Hosea 6:6)

And finally, another incredible moment in the film is the point when Jesus (after being rescued from the cross) meets Paul preaching in the street:

Look around you! Look at these people.Do you see the suffering and unhappiness in this world? Their only hope is the Resurrected Jesus. I don't care whether you're Jesus or not. The Resurrected Jesus will save the world -- that's what matters.

The world can't be saved by lies.

I created the truth. I make it out of longing and faith. I don't struggle to find truth -- I build it. If it's necessary to crucify you to save the world, then I'll crucify you. And I'll resurrect you too, whether you like it or not.

I won't let you. I'll tell everyone the truth.

Shout all you want. Who'll believe you? You started all this, now it can't be stopped. The faithful will grab you and call you a blasphemer and throw you in a fire.

No, that wouldn't happen.

How do you know? You don't know how much people need God. You don't know what a joy it is to hold the cross, to put hope in the hearts of men, to suffer, to be killed -- all for the sake of Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God. Messiah.

Jesus is listening intently now.

Not you. Not for your sake.(pause) I'm glad I met you. Now I can forget you. My Jesus is much more powerful.

Of course, for most Muslims (and many other Biblical scholars for that matter), Paul bears the primary responsibility for founding Christianity and moving it away from Christ's original teachings. And some of that is obviously reflected in the above exchange.

All in all, I would say that the movie is a very interesting experience especially if you are fairly familiar with the regular Christian version of events and are not easily offended. Reading Nikos Kazantzakis' original novel is even better. But if you don't have time/money for either, you can actually read the Screenplay of The Last Temptation of Christ online as well.

Friday, June 24, 2005

islam has a progressive tradition

This is a brief article by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf called "Islam has a progressive tradition too" and it is interesting to me because of the way in which Thomas Cleary is mentioned. If you stop and think about all the languages Cleary knows and the amount of effort he has put into sympathetically translating "Oriental" texts, his work is big step towards counter-acting the whole clash of civilizations mentality fostered by folks like Huntington.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

i ching and the tao of islam

Seek knowledge, even as far as China
-well known saying attributed to the prophet Muhammad

I've been reading the I Ching these days. I have a couple of different translations. One of them is the "Taoist I Ching" by Thomas Cleary (who has also translated the Quran, the sayings of the prophet [saaws] and a collection of the sayings of Ali [ra] called "Living and Dying with Grace).

The I Ching is used by some people as a form of divination, but Cleary suggests that this is a corruption and a misunderstanding of its original purpose as a book of wisdom.

In fact, one could speculate that the I Ching could be a "kitab", i.e. a version of a revealed book given to one of the earlier prophets. Some might object that the concepts of Chinese religion don't seem to fit into an Islamic framework, there are a number of works out there which strongly make the opposite case. The most popular work along these lines has got to be Tao of Islam by Sachiko Murata (also a favorite among many bloggers on the Su-Shi webring)

The book persuasively makes the point that in the Islamic tradition there are many different examples of pairs of opposites which are held in some kind of tension which is not dissimilar to the Chinese idea of Yin and Yang. (Heaven and Earth, the Pen and the Tablet, the Right and Left hand of God, Immanence and Transcendence, Mercy and Wrath, Male and Female, Khalifatullah and Abdullah,etc.) So perhaps Chinese thought isn't incompatible with Islam and its just a matter of properly "translating" the concepts from one "language" to another.

(And here is a second review for Tao of Islam by Muhammad Legenhausen)

Actually a similar point is made by another work by Sachiko Murata, Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light which contains translations of certain historically significant texts by Chinese Muslims but also discusses how the Muslims chose to borrow some of the pre-existing concepts of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism in order to explain and express Islamic teachings.

And thirdly, there is also Sufism and Taoism: A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts by Murata's teacher, Toshihiko Izutsu, which compares and contrasts the thought of Lao-Tzu with that of Ibn Al-Arabi.

All these works serve to bridge the apparent superficial differences between Islamic and Chinese thought. And I would suggest, point to the possibility that many of the classics of Chinese philosophy might be kitabs which can be read fruitfully by Muslims for their benefit.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

race and sex

liberty lynching
Things get strange when matters of race and sex intersect with one another. And issues get especially charged when a man of color is accused of attacking a woman. Recently I had a conversation with a female (self-identified feminist) who said that she always believes the woman. (We were talking about a white woman we both knew who had made certain accusations against her Indian ex-boyfriend) But especially since the whole issue of lynching had been on my mind these days I made a point of telling her that sometimes women lie and that you need to have a more balanced perspective. There is a long history of certain people using protection of "feminine virtue" as a club to reinforce racist stereotypes and practices. I'm not saying this with the intent of delegitimzing valid concerns and interests of women. Men can certainly be pigs most of the time. But that doesn't necessarily mean that men are every bit as evil as their ex-girlfriends say or that women are always blameless. The truth is usually more complex...

The whole situation is tricky. For example, the argument is often made that certain nationalist, or politically progressive groups tend to be patriarchal and sexist. (e.g. Black Panthers, the Nation, etc.) But it is also true that feminism can tend towards racism. In fact, according to the DadsNow website (DadsNow is a men's rights organization, so I would take what they say with a grain of salt but the claim is interesting nonetheless) the origins of radical feminism in the United States actually lie in the WKKK (Women's Klu Klux Klan).

WKKK women basically went around talking about what black men might do to them, and white men preached of the sanctity of "white womanhood". The sexually hypercharged imagery, together with economic desires of slave-owners, made widespread violence and discrimination against blacks acceptable and even necessary in the public eye. Women got what they wanted by motivating men with horrid sexual imagery about blacks, and men took up their dirty duties protecting the sanctity of "white womanhood".

The WKKK had over 4 million members by 1925, a substantial organization in those days. In Indiana, an estimated 32% of white native-born women were members of the WKKK.. Their work was largely promulgated through networks in the Protestant Church, the Y.W.C.A., and a variety of "vice squad organizations" which blamed all vice on men, but never questioned women's part in it.

By the 1920's, a congressional investigation into the KKK concluded that a woman named Elizabeth Tyler was the "true power" behind the KKK -- the grand dragon serving as little more than a figurehead. Tyler had achieved controlling power by catering to the weaknesses of men, and being the leading fundraiser of the WKKK and even the KKK itself.

And of course, another well-known connection between feminism and racism lies in the fact that Margaret Sanger (the founder of Planned Parenthood) was also a believer in eugenics. So historically the push for greater reproductive control by women was linked with a racist desire to "purify" the population of undesireable elements.

None of the above should be taken as an argument against feminism. We should all work towards creating a world which is fair and just to everyone, especially women. But at the same time, while we are doing so, we should be careful not to get there by demonizing other groups of people.


wow I went to high school with this cat. I knew him back when he was Henry. Now he's Heru the pan-African spoken word artist. I'm not hatin' or anything. Everyone goes through changes. It's just cool to find out a little bit about what he's been up to all this time.

afro-asian crosscurrents in contemporary hip-hop

These days I have been thinking alot about the I Ching (I'll probably write about it more in a different entry) but as I was reading about the subject online I came across this article about numerous ways in which elements from Asian culture appear in hip-hop along with talking about fertile cross-fertilizations between Asian- and African-Americans.

The article is called Afro-Asian Crosscurrents in Contemporary Hip Hop by Ellie M. Hisama

Interactions between African Americans and Asian Americans are, however, multi-faceted, and involve much more than acts of bias, distrust, and violence. Vijay Prashad investigates the political and cultural connections between Blacks and Asians over five centuries, uncovering a history of anti-racist struggle fueled by activists such as Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama.2 Robin D. G. Kelley has coined the term “polycultural”—derived from the term “polyrhythmic”—to describe products of different living cultures. In contrast to multiculturalism, which “implies that cultures are fixed, discrete entities that exist side by side—a kind of zoological approach to culture,” 3 polyculturalism acknowledges the simultaneous existence of different cultural lineages in a single person. It recognizes the past and present solidarity between people of color.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

an open letter from latinos to african american sisters and brothers

This beautiful statement of unity and positivity has been circulating rather widely online but I decided to use the version of: An Open Letter to African American Sisters and Brothers by Elizabeth Martinez (and signed by a number of Latino activists and intellectuals) from off of the Al-Jazeera website.

Monday, June 20, 2005

interesting weekend...

So I went on a trip to a competition in Milwaukee this weekend. A very sweet friend of mine gave me a four-leaf clover for luck. I don't "believe in" four-leaf clovers but I thought it was a really nice gesture so I took it, put it in a plastic baggie which I kept in my wallet...

So on Friday, when we were on the expressway on the way to the competition we hit a pothole and one of the front tires comes loose from the car, bouncing 20 feet in the air, and then bouncing across several lanes of traffic. The driver was able to maintain control and we reached a median strip on the expressway. We called several towtruck companies who said they wouldn't pick the car up from the expressway but we eventually found one who could. Our group of four was too big to all go in the tow truck so we split up. Two people went with the car in the tow truck to a mechanic where we could try to get it repaired. And the other two of us played a live-action version of Frogger and dodged expressway traffic to get to the street level, and then wandered around the "inner city" of Chicago looking for a public bathroom. Then we got on the L to meet up with the rest of our group downtown. We stopped to eat. Then walked several blocks in search of Union Station and wandered around a good chunk of time before we learned that the train we had planned to take wasn't running any more that night (one teammate had a friend in Evanston and so we were trying to reach their house for the night). So then we had to backtrack to an L station to find an alternate route to the suburbs. To make a long story slightly shorter, we were eventually able to make it to Evanston and crashed there. The next day we had to buy Amtrak tickets for the rest of the distance (which we had planned to drive). So instead of arriving at our destination at 6pm Friday we ended up arriving 10am on Saturday (So we missed some of the preliminary events on Friday evening)

Now comes the competition itself. Our team actually did really well. We made it to the finals. Except that in the finals, when it was my turn to go on, I got an excessive time penalty called which made the difference between winning the competition (and $500) and coming in second place (and getting "nothing"). A number of people told me that something fishy had gone on with the time keeping and so we got more of a penalty than we should have and so we deserved to win. (In fact, they actually had announced our team as the winners of the competition and it was only later that a "correction" was issued) The fact that there were even people on other teams who agreed that we were robbed made me feel better but we still don't get the $500 (which the team could have used).

On a really bizarre note, the afterparty for the competition was held in a bar named Mecca! One of my teammates remarked that in other parts of the country (like DC) the "Muslims" (including Sunni, Shia, Nation or 5%-ers) would have been more active and protested the choice of name but in this city apparently that wasn't the case here in Milwaukee.

Anyway, after a full weekend, we hit the road again on Sunday, taking the train to get back to Chicago where the tire had fallen off. Took the L and a bus to get back to where the car had been fixed. And went the rest of the way by car to go back home.

And on a final note regarding the trip, somewhere along the way I lost my cell phone and I'm still in the midst of trying to get it back.

I'm generally not one to complain so I'm not going to say whether I've been lucky or unlucky this weekend. But it was certainly an adventure.

a moment of silence before i start this poem

After having a very poetry-filled weekend, I thought I would share the following piece by Emmanuel Ortiz called: A moment of silence before I start this poem

Ortiz's piece, along with Suheir Hammad's piece first writing since have got to be my favorite 9/11 poems.

Emmanuel Ortiz is a third-generation Chicano/Puerto Rican/Irish-American community organizer and spoken word poet residing in Minneapolis, MN. He is the author of a chapbook of poems, The Word is a Machete, and his poetry has appeared in numerous publications.In addition to other activities, he is the coordinator of Guerrilla Wordfare, a Twin Cities-based grassroots project bringing together artists of color to address socio-political issues and raise funds for progressive organizing in communities of color through art as a tool of social change.

this just in: it is wrong to lynch people

So in its ever so timely manner of doing things, the senate finally passed a resolution to apologize for the complicity of past Senates in lynching black folks.

Basically, in between 1882 and 1968 nearly 5000 blacks had been lynched in these United States of America. Sometimes under cover of night by angry mobs but other times they happened in the middle of the afternoon where the men, accompanied with their wives and children would watch and bring along their picnic baskets. Several hundred bills were introduced in the House to try to put an end to the practice of lynching but they were all filibustered by southern senators and so they never became law.

So here is a Seattle Times Editorial to provide some historical perspective

And here is a piece in the Clarion Ledger which reminds us that we still have miles to go before we sleep. Basically, even today, there were apparently some (Republican) Senators who give the impression of not wanting to be on the record in public support of the resolution.

the blog is more powerful than the sword...

Here is a BBC News piece entitled Bloggers' 'victory' over Iraq war memos on the role that blogs have played in recent current events (specifically the whole Downing Street Memo issue).

the downing street memo

Many believe the infamous Downing Street Memo is the smoking gun which can be used to impeach Bush... the proof that he lied about the reasons for the Iraq War.

Here is for more information about the memo and what people out there are doing about it.

And Here is the Wikipedia page on the memo

Friday, June 17, 2005

but it would be a good idea

Reporter to M.K. Gandhi: What do you think of Western Civilization?
M.K. Gandhi to Reporter: I think it would be a good idea.

The above comment came up in the course of a late-night conversation on which civilization is the most "culturally advanced" (whatever that means).

It seems to me that it is rather difficult to come up with truly objective standards for the level of progress achieved by a certain group of people. My take on it is that people make what they value and value what they make. If they are Westerners who value speed and efficiency then they will invent microwave ovens and digital watches. And then they will proceed to pat themselves on the back for inventing microwave ovens and digital watches. If they are Middle Easterners or Indians and value spirituality then they will found major religious traditions and then pat themselves on the back for founding major religious traditions.

(It never ceases to trip me out that between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, not to mention those that follow nearby religions like the followers of Elijah Muhammad, Rastafarians, Hebrew Israelites, Mormons, Mandeans, Karites, Jehovah's Witnesses, Bahais, Druzes, Samaritans, Noachides etc. most Earthlings are in religions which are connected to Abraham somehow. And then between Buddhism, Hinduism, the Sikh faith and the Jain religion, most of the rest follow religious paths coming out of India.)

For some reason, those digital watches are looking less and less impressive.

I remember certain intellectuals trying to make a sharp distinction between civilization and technology. It's one thing to have neat gadgets but the real hallmark of civilization lies in how people are treated.

Other Gandhi Quotes

Thursday, June 16, 2005

star wars: an islamic perspective

Irfan Rydhan put together a paper on the connection between Star Wars and Islam (which incorporated some info from Planet Grenada) but you might be interested in seeing the final product or checking out other links and projects on his website.

So the paper is Star Wars: An Islamic Perspective

And the homepage for Jam Productions (An International Video and Film Company) is here.

and also...

The Islamic Artists Society seems to have a good set of links as well.

for instance...

following up with the literary theme... you might want to check out Writeous Sister, Aaminah Hernandez
Moorish Girl (Who seems more interested in Middle Eastern/Arab literary topics than things specifically religious)
Brother Dasham at
and the folks at Rendering Islam
(all either on my blogroll in my links area) to check out what Muslims are doing on the cultural front.

on the road again 2

This weekend I plan to be competing in a poetry slam so after Friday there probably won't be too many entries till Sunday or so.

Going back to an earlier discussion about the formation of an American Muslim culture: I think it would be great if more Muslims decided to create journals, readings, or other kinds of forums to promote our own creative endeavours. The slams have their positive aspects (open, free, democratic) but they also have their negative elements mixed in as well and I sometimes wish there were more alternatives. It would probably be easiest to start with a talent show or a small reading/writing group and move on from there. Bring Muslim poets and writers to perform at your events. etc. They are certainly out there and it would be good to support them.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

the reyes brothers

The Godfather of Latin Rap, Mellow Man Ace (Ulpiano Sergio Reyes) and his brother Sen Dog of Cypress Hill (Senen Reyes) will soon be coming out with an album this summer called The Reyes Brothers. Its sort of sad from a certain point of view. They are easily the two biggest Afro-Cuban rappers out there. I used to listen to them when I was younger. But now, I really can't expect much enlightenment from them, spiritual, political or otherwise. Just some grooves and beats.

On the other hand, Sen has appeared on Mellow Man Ace's "Brother with Two Tongues" album and they also both appeared on the Silencio=Muerte: Red, Hot + Latin album (which was made to raise money towards AIDS/HIV research). And their projects together have actually turned out pretty well. (Without too much weed smoke).

ladybug mecca

Before the Fugees... there was Digable Planets... another 3-person crew with good beats, a loosely spiritual (specifically Five Percent Nation of Islam) lyrical landscape, two dudes, and a beautiful woman. They won a Grammy with their first album, Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space). Their second album, Blowout Comb, made less of a splash. And the group essentially broke up to work on their own projects.

But recently, according to, in an interview with Ladybug Mecca (who is of Brazilian heritage) she is coming out with a solo album, and she has also been performing with the other members of Digable Planets at a few dates and will soon start to work on a third DP album.

Monday, June 13, 2005

immortal technique

Here is a website for politically-minded Afro-Peruvian rapper Immortal Technique. (includes pictures, interviews, soundclips and more)

cuba without castro

An interesting Associated Press article by Todd Lewan about what will happen to Cuba after Fidel is out of the picture. It suggests changes will happen but that they won't be as sweeping or as radical as some people might imagine.

Quoting Antonio Jorge, economics guru and professor of political economy at Florida International University:

"Cubans have never been pure, savage capitalists, the way Americans are," Jorge says, wistfully. "People forget that. Cuba will have to be rebuilt in the model of a Scandinavian country — say, Sweden." In other words, a socialist-leaning state?

shut down guantanamo!

Taipai Times: Guantanamo Bay prison should be shut down, Republican senator says
Alter-Net: After Guantanamo

Ok, it's one thing to hear Amnesty International or even Jimmy Carter suggesting that the prison at Guantanamo should be shut down. But recently the REPUBLICAN US Senator Mel Martinez is joining the chorus. Maybe someone should take a hint.

yo soy un hombre sincero...

my heart is full of muslims
trapped on a us base
growing out of cuban soil

Sunday, June 12, 2005

benito juarez and quran desecration at guantanamo

From La Voz de Aztlan site:
Toilet flushing of Holy Qu'ran at Guantanamo manifests a deep problem of America

history of islamic spain

Here is a page of links on Spanish history (including Granada) also from the DNN site.

latin america watch

Here is the Latin America Watch section of the DNN (Dajjal Netwwork News) website. DNN is a little conspiracy-theory minded but that doesn't mean they don't have good information on their site. (And I just added the DNN homepage to my set of links)

jose padilla

Here is a recent Z-Net piece marking the 4th anniversary of Jose Padilla's imprisonment as an "enemy combatant".

In Justice John Paul Stevens scathing dissent (to the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the Padilla case) Stevens articulates the gravity of Padilla vs. Rumsfeld. He said the Padilla case poses “a unique and unprecedented threat to the freedom of every American citizen…At stake is nothing less than the essence of a free society…For if this nation is to remain true to the ideals symbolized by its flag, it must not wield the tools of tyrants even to resist an assault by the forces of tyranny.”

the men will look like the women...

And the sun will rise in the west and set down in the east
And when it came time for the end...
And when it came time for the end...
And when it came time for the end...
The men will look like the women
And the women like the men
"Mean Machine" - The Last Poets

In the apocalyptic spoken word piece Mean Machine, the Last Poets allude to the hadith where men looking like women and women looking like men is seen as one of the signs of the last days. It isn't completely clear how this sign ought to be interpreted, and I actually don't intend to suggest that it includes the subsequent discussion in this entry, but it seemed like an intriguing springboard from which to introduce the next topic.

For reasons I don't particularly want to get into at the moment, I've been thinking alot about transgendered individuals and the difficulties they face. What some might find surprising, especially given the kinds of typical accusations made against Muslims when it comes to sexual matters, is that even many religiously conservative Muslims can be quite sympathetic when it comes to transgendered individuals (It might be useful to keep in mind that transgenderism is different from homosexuality and is also different from cross-dressing. Transgendered individuals don't just want to perform certain acts or wear certain clothes but instead they often feel like they were born in a body of the wrong gender... their "inside" doesn't match their "outside".) Here is one story about events in Iran along these lines. And another on Kuwait (So one is from a shia perspective and the other gives a sunni view)

Friday, June 10, 2005

michael jackson: off the wall

You can laugh and criticize Michael Jackson if you wanna
Woody Allen, molested and married his step-daughter
Same press kickin dirt on Michael's name
Show Woody and Soon-Yi at the playoff game, holdin hands
Sit back and just bug, think about that
Would he get that type of dap if his name was Woody Black?
"Mr. Nigga" - Mos Def

It sometimes amazes me to stop and consider the sorts of "crimes and misdemeanors" scandals and indiscretions celebrities are guilty of. Some celebrities are found doing the most outrageous things and still end up with their careers and reputations relatively intact. While others get the book thrown at them and retreat into relative obscurity. I wonder what the pattern is? I think Mos Def makes a good point and that often it can be racial. For example, consider the LA Times story: Michael Jackson's Hidden Accuser: Racism

But on the other hand R. Kelly is still a free man. Why don't they let Mumia or Jamil al-Amin out and put R. Kelly in jail? (Where is Pontius Pilate when you really need him?)


This is old news, but in case you didn't know before Jermaine Jackson is Muslim He has been since 1989. In fact his conversion is probably one source of the urban legend which suggested that it was Michael who converted. At least one member of the Jackson family isn't totally off the wall.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

do people have a right not to be offended?

Just a question which I wanted to put out there based on a recent conversation I had last night. It seems that in a lot of countries, the laws give slightly more weight to protecting people's feelings over the right to voice one's own opinion. So for example, in Germany, there are relatively strict bans on free speech when it comes to neo-Nazis or holocaust revisionism (e.g. saying that only 3 million Jews died in the holocaust instead of 6 million). In other countries, there are laws against blasphemy. But in the US, both types of speech are likely to receive first amendment protection.

So my question is where Muslims should focus their efforts in terms of offensive speech in the US or the West. Every once in a while, we hear about this or that offensive website, or this or that offensive comment by an evangelical missionary or a neo-con or a shock dj. So should we try to use whatever influence we have to try to silence such speech (pre-emptively if possible). Or should we develop a thicker skin, expect people to go on saying offensive things, but then focus on counteracting speech with more speech, engage with the larger society; and try to develop more effective ways of putting a Muslim perspective out there.

To give an example of each approach:

A few months ago, a Swedish museum displayed a painting depicting a couple making love while covered in Quranic verses. There were protests against the painting and it was eventually removed (silenced)

When the 1998 movie The Siege came out (It was about how the acts of terrorists in New York led to Muslims/Arabs being put in interment camps) instead of calling for protests against the movie, a mosques and Islamic centers started having open houses.

In the long run, can we afford trying to silence everyone with a mean thing to say about Islam?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

more on evangelicals at the air force academy

Here is a follow-up from NPR on the recent issues with evangelicals exerting too much influence in the Air Force academy. High ranking military officers seem to be using their power to prosyletize their evangelical beliefs among the soldiers under their command. And it seems to be perpetuating itself in stubborn ways. And its not even just about anti-Islamic sentiment (which is obviously a part of it) but its even directed against other Christians too.

Monday, June 06, 2005

the best laid plans...

Oh well, I called this morning to double-check regarding the Shaykh's visit and found out that his visit is being postponed.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

more amir sulaiman

The Muslim Student's Association at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville has a blog and in a 'recent' entry they have footage of a performance by the poet Amir Sulaiman.

need a recharge...

Inspired by the recent discussion on muslimahsoul's blog about honesty... in the interests of candor, I should say that I've been feeling a bit down for a while... Like I really need a spiritual recharge. I feel like I've let myself get caught up and distracted by too many irrelevant/irreverent things. Some time ago I met with some local Shadhilis in the area for dhikr and they were really nice people but I soon got busy with other things and stopped going for several months now. Their Shaykh, Sidi Muhammad Sa'id al-Jamal ash-Shadhuli is nearby for a couple of days and I had been planning to go see him, but I've almost let his entire visit slip past me. InshaAllah I'll catch the tail end tomorrow and will be more motivated. But it almost feels like it would just be a band aid. Somehow I need to make a real recommitment, take the rust off.

But then the trick is how to actually go about doing that. Is it a matter of joining the "right" Islamic organization? Participating in the "right" activity? I know Hamza Yusuf came out with a short booklet called "An Agenda to Change Our Condition" which contains a basic program to follow to strengthen ones iman and taqwa. But I wonder if these kinds of approaches are even the right ones. Is it about an internal decision, or is it about external actions? The environment? A combination of things?

church sign


Saturday, June 04, 2005

more M-Team

Here is a page where you can actually hear some Mujahideen Team tracks.
And here is an interview with them which reveals more of their background and perspective.

Friday, June 03, 2005

yo! pbs raps

So the current topic of the Progressive Blogger Union is media reform. I'm not sure how much I have to say about it. I occasionally think about the negative impacts that certain business considerations have on the music which is produced these days. Why it happens isn't all that deep or difficult to understand. The purpose of the music industry isn't to produce high-quality innovative music or promote creative talented artists. The purpose of the music industry is to sell product and make a profit. And given the amount of money it costs to promote an artist (advertising, record distribution, etc.) the industry would prefer not to take risks. So that's why we get mostly boy bands, Britney-clones and Puffy.

Somehow we need to strengthen other mechanisms for promoting and distributing music which would mitigate these forces. File-sharing on computers is one move towards a solution. So is the growing ease of burning and reproducing CDs. Perhaps motivated individuals could also use public access cable stations to provide an free, less commercial alternative to eMpTyV.

In Cuba, many hip-hop groups actually receive a certain amount of support from the government (there is a Cuban Rap Agency). Perhaps in a different world there might be away for "underground" or "alternative" hip-hop groups in the US to attract funding and support based on creativity artistic merit instead of being based on the capcity to attract the dollars of suburban teenagers who want to live out romanticized ghetto fantasies.

Unfortunately by the time that hip-hop (like jazz and blues before it) has become respectable enough that those who play it are considered suitable for government funding, the culture will probably have moved on to something new.

Industry Rule 4080: Record company people are shady
- Q-Tip, "Check the Rhyme"

boricua rappers drop anti-imperialist album

An interesting music review of Clash of Civilizations, the latest album from the Latino Muslim rap group, Mujahideen Team (or M-team). The review comes from the MIM webpage. If anyone has actually heard the album or heard the group perform, feel free to comment.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

tradition, progress and reform

I feel like I've been obsessed with this question in different ways so I'm probably repeating myself but I think I finally figured out the most concise way to phrase the issue:
When people say "progressive Muslims" do they mean starting with Islam's concern for social justice and going out to reform the larger society? Or do they mean starting with the values of the larger society and "reforming Islam"?

I think that's the fundamental question and that's part the tug-of-war between the folks on the Living Tradition blog (on my blogroll) for example, and the people at the Progressive Muslim Union of North America or the Muslim Wake Up! site (who often still have interesting things to say but sometimes leave one with the nagging suspicion that something isn't quite right)

It's not that Muslims are divided into two camps over this question. It is probably more accurate to think of it as a kind of soft tension, or two tendancies. And I'm sure there are people who sit at every point in the continuum. But still, from time to time the tension is stronger than usual and grows more acrimonious. And I wonder if there are ways of resolving the question which won't lead to "Reform Muslims" and "Orthodox Muslims" and "Conservative Muslims" etc.

get ready for the pro-peace mobilization in washington, dc on september 24

For a while now I've been trying to see what information has been available online in terms of progressive actiivity being carried out by Muslims in the United States. (And I've been trying to share some of that information on this blog) One such prominent activist is Mahdi Bray who has been working through MAS (the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation). Their next big upcoming event...

In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, Most Merciful

Groups Join in Press Conference Announcing Event

(Washington, DC, 05/31/05) - On September 24, 2005, the largest anti-war demonstration in more than a year will take place. As the popularity of President George W. Bush’s administration declines, and as the war and occupation in Iraq has proved to be “unwinnable,” the anti-war movement will have a major show of opposition in the streets of Washington, DC, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The press conference will announce new tactics and plans for the anti-war movement, which now represents the majority opinion in the United States.

The press conference will feature former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who will address the political and legal ramifications of the war in Iraq, including the rights of those who have been incarcerated by U.S. invasion forces. He will also discuss his call for holding U.S. officials accountable for their criminal acts and violations of international law, including the use of torture and extra-judicial killings.

MAS Freedom Foundation encourages everyone to come out and be a part of this historical press conference.

TIME: 9:30 a.m.
WHERE: First Amendment Room of the National Press Club, 529 14th St., NW, 13th Floor, Washington, DC.

Speakers at the event will include:
- Ramsey Clark, former U.S. attorney general
- Mahdi Bray, Executive Director, Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation
- Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, attorney and co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice
- Rev. Graylan Hagler, Senior Minister, Plymouth Congregational Church
- Brian Becker, National Coordinator, A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition
- Ben Dupuy, General Secretary, National Popular Party of Haiti (PPN)
- Hussein Agrama, Free Palestine Alliance
- Michael Berg, father of Nicholas Berg (message)
- Vanessa Dixon, DC Healthcare Coalition
- Macrina Cardenas, Mexico Solidarity Network
- Chuck Kaufman, Nicaragua Network
- Student and youth organizers


Imam Mahdi Bray is a long time civil and human rights activist. (A past member of Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). He is currently the Executive Director of the Muslim American Society (MAS) Freedom Foundation, and the President of the Coordinating Council of Muslim Organizations (CCMO). He also serves on the Board of Directors of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice and the Interfaith Alliance, America’s largest interfaith organization with over 150,000 members, and also on the advisory board of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. He is a Washington, DC, television and radio talk show host. He has served as a major consultant and a political advisor to Bonner & Associates, Washington’s largest grassroots lobbying firm, the National Center for Housing Management, Alexandria City Redevelopment & Housing Authority, Community Relations Department, The City of Norfolk, Virginia, Department of Community Improvement, and the Independent Voter League. He has also served as Political Advisor and Strategist to several national, state, and local political campaigns. He is also the author of The Masjid Voter’s Guide and The Political Guide for Masjid Activists. Also, Imam Mahdi Bray is one of the main organizers for the “No War on Iraq” movement. He has also served as a liaison between the President’s White House Faith-Based Initiative Program and congressional affairs on behalf of the Muslim Community.

second interview with lily munir

Here is a second interview with Lily Zakiyah Munir from her Qalandar website. She talks about her background, some of her experience organizing as a Muslim activist in Indonesia, women's rights, and the role of the Wahabi movement.

lily munir on indonesian islamic liberation theology

The following interview is from the Muslim Wake Up website

Lily Zakiyah Munir is a leading Indonesian Muslim human rights activist. She is the director of the Jakarta-based Centre for Pesantren and Democracy Studies that works with the ‘ulama and students of Indonesian Islamic boarding schools or pesantrens. In this interview speaks to Yoginder Sikand about her work and her vision of an Indonesian Islamic liberation theology.

Q: In recent years, particularly after the events of 11 September, 2001 and the rise of numerous anti-American Islamist groups in Indonesia, there is much talk about ‘liberal Islam’ flourishing in Indonesia. Some institutions seeking to promote ‘liberal Islam’ are now being liberally funded by certain conservative Western organizations, some of which are known for their close links with the American administration. How do you look at the ‘liberal Islam’ project that these groups seek to promote?

A: I share many liberal values myself, and of course I am opposed to extremism and narrow understandings of religion. My answer to your question would be that the liberal Islam project as it is developing in Indonesia today is not a homogenous one. It is characterized by considerable diversity and hence it is difficult to make generalizations about it.

My point is simple. If liberal Islam aims at protecting the rights of the poor and the marginalized then I welcome it. But if, as in the case of some foreign agencies that are now funding certain ‘liberal’ Islamic programmes in Indonesia, the underlying agenda is to create space for liberal free-market economics and the exploitation of our country by multinational corporations and dampen any critique of imperialism and neocolonialism, then I cannot agree with it. If it remains silent on the corruption of local and global elites and, instead, trains its ire only on the Islamist extremists, as is sometimes the case, I think this is a very one-sided approach. We have to be balanced in our critique. You cannot criticize and oppose only the radical Islamists while ignoring the oppression of the elites, Western imperialism and neocolonialism and the global system of capitalist exploitation.

Q: So would you say that the ‘liberal Islam’ project is largely an elitist venture?

A: In some ways, yes. Funding for such projects generally comes from Western agencies, and goes to Indonesian NGOs, which are mostly led by middle-class activists. This is not emerging as a spontaneous movement from among the marginalized. This elitism is also reflected in many of the causes that several ‘liberal Islam’ groups take up and the issues that they ignore. So, they usually focus on countering extremist Islamist groups and also take up issues such as gender, pluralism and democracy. I don’t say these issues are not important. Of course they are, but what is equally significant is that in the process other vital issues are, deliberately or otherwise, often left out, issues such as imperialism, unbridled capitalist exploitation, the World Bank-IMF-led form of ‘development’ that is only further widening inequalities and increasing poverty in Indonesia, and the growing influence of Christian fundamentalism globally and so on. And to add to this we have this terrible cultural in vasion coming in from the West, spreading crass consumerism and hedonism and mindlessly mimicking American pop culture, in the process destroying our rich local cultures. These are equally major challenges as is radical Islamism, but I find few advocates of ‘liberal Islam’ taking up these issues as well.

When they talk of democracy, it is limited generally to procedural or formal democracy—the one person one vote system of bourgeoise democracy—which, as we know, is not sufficient to bring about genuine economic and social democracy and social justice. This sort of formal democracy does not really challenge the established elites and the Western-dominated global system of exploitation. So, we need to talk about substantive democracy, democratic values such as social justice and protection of human rights from violation not only by radical Islamists but also by the state and by the dominant Western countries.

Another issue that I would like to draw your attention to is that some ‘liberal Islam’ groups that get funds from certain Western agencies seem to have bought into an elitist free-market discourse. For instance, the support given by some of them to the recent scrapping of the oil subsidy in Indonesia under World Bank-IMF pressure that has hit the poor the most.

So, this sort of ‘liberal Islamic’ discourse that is today being very vigorously promoted by certain conservative, even right-wing Western agencies in Indonesia, and perhaps elsewhere, too, is carefully tailored to suit the interests of the West and of local elites, because the poor hardly fit into their scheme of things. My own position is that yes, we need to be critical of Islamist extremists but we also need to simultaneously critique and oppose Western imperialism, Christian extremism and so on.

Q: So, what you are saying is that the basic agenda behind many Western agencies who are today sponsoring ‘liberal Islam’ projects in Indonesia is to stave off the challenge of anti-Western Islamist groups, and not to really bring about any structural changes?

A: Exactly. They certainly won’t sponsor any projects that might challenge free-market capitalism, multinational corporations that have such a stranglehold over the Indonesian economy or American hegemony! You won’t find them funding projects to critique hedonism and consumerism! Now, since it is unfortunately difficult for most Indonesian NGOs to get local funds, they generally rely on Western agencies that have their own agendas.
I think we really need to be careful that when taking foreign funds we don’t serve an anti-people agenda. It really is up to our own conscience how we use the money. There is always the danger that idealistic youth who really want to change the system and do something concrete for the poor might get co-opted, with access to foreign funds, trips abroad and foreign jaunts organized by NGOs funded by Western agencies. And once that happens it is rare for them to speak out against the structures that generate poverty and exploitation and the domination of loca l and global elites.

Q: In the writings and activities of certain Western-funded ‘liberal Islamic’ groups in Indonesia Islamist radicalism is seen simply as an ideological ‘deviation’ whose genesis is located in ‘deviant’ interpretations of Islam, rather than in concrete social structures. Do you agree?

A: Yes, I agree with you to a large extent. The issue of Islamist radicalism is often seen in a sociological vacuum, as if it comes out of nowhere. The fact, however, is that Islamist radicalism cannot be understood without situating it in the context of the broader political economy, and as resulting from certain local and global social, economic, cultural and political structures and processes of domination and exclusion. There can be no smoke without fire. So, unless these structures and processes are tackled, how can you expect radicalism to disappear?

Focusing only on the phenomenon of radicalism and ignoring its underlying structural causes will only exacerbate the problem and delay and further complicate its solution. Of course, dominant elites, both in Indonesia and in the West, do not want to recognize this as they themselves are deeply implicated in these structures that give rise to the phenomenon of radicalism as a reaction or response, and that is why you will find that many among them would insist that Islamist radicalism is a result simply a deviant understanding of Islam and that it has nothing to do with exploitation, predatory capitalism, western consumerist culture, or imperialism and so on. And then one must also remember that extremism and terrorism are not easily defined, and it all depends on who does the defining and why. So, one must ask, how and why does Saddam Hussain come to be defined as a ‘terrorist’, while America’s brutal invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan (where I just spent six months), which has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people, does not qualify to be called an act of terror?

Q: Being associated with several socially engaged Muslim groups in Indonesia how do you look at the question of interfaith relations?

A: My own understanding of Islam leads me to believe in the necessity of promoting interfaith dialogue and harmony. Several moderate Islamic groups in the country are actively involved in trying to promote better relations between Muslims and people of other faiths. Often, interfaith dialogue work takes the form of religious leaders meeting with each other and discussing their respective faiths and trying to discover their commonalities. Now, while that is important, I think the interfaith agenda needs to be broadened, so that people of different faiths, inspired by their own religions, can work together for common social goals, such as for social justice for all, or critiquing all forms of religious extremism or struggling together against the exploitation of local and global elites.
Unfortunately, for some Muslims—and the same can be said in the case of other communities as well—religious identity is sought to be constructed in opposition to or even on the basis of hatred for the religious ‘other’. I think this is a very wrong and un-Islamic approach. In this regard I would like to mention the very different position adopted by a leading Indonesian scholar, the late Kiai ‘Abdullah Siddiq, who used to talk of three levels of ‘brotherhood’ or ukhuwwah: ukhuwwah islamiya or Islamic brotherhood, ukhuwwah wataniya, brotherhood based on common nation, and ukhuwwa bashariya or brotherhood based on the fact of being creatures of God, which includes both Muslims as well as all others. So, what he stressed was a consciousness of being fellow creatures of God despite our different religions. This is related to the Qur’anic statement that God has created us into different nations so that we can know each other and that the best among us is he or she who does good and devotes himself or herself to God. And what happens when, as the Qur’an exhorts, we begin to know each other? We begin to shed our hatreds, which then turn into mutual appreciation and love. And if you don’t get to know each other, then you go the Taliban or the Zionist way and begin to hate each other, which is against God’s Will.

This understanding of interfaith relations requires a fundamental transformation in the way in which we understand our own religions. Unfortunately, many of us understand them simply as a bundle of rituals and doctrines and make an unwarranted rigid distinction between the ‘religious’ and the ‘mundane’, as if the two were opposed to each other. While rituals and doctrines are undoubtedly important, equally so is the ethical imperative that the different religions contain of struggling for social justice, and eliminating poverty and suffering. These are important not only in themselves, but also for a proper religious life. If you are materially secure you can be at peace with God and with other human beings. So that is why I think religious activists must also work for satisfying people’s basic needs. This is why Muslims generally pray to God asking Him to bless them in this world as well as in the Hereafter.

Q: In contrast to my own country, India, I find Indonesian Islamic scholars far more willing to relate Islam to modern concerns. I think the Indonesian case has no parallels elsewhere in the Muslim world. What do you feel?

A: Yes, I would agree, albeit with some qualifications. Today, we have a growing number of Islamic intellectuals as well as traditionally-trained ‘ulama who are seriously discussing a range of contemporary issues, from gender justice and religious pluralism to democracy and extremism. You also have some scholars who are talking about ‘social fiqh’, offering new perspectives on a range of social issues, such as education, women’s rights politics and economics that go beyond the understanding of Islam as being limited simply to rituals. However, I must admit that only a few of them have any awareness of political economy, of issues such as global capitalism and imperialism or the politics of culture or consumerism. Also missing is a sufficiently grounded critique of the state and the international system. Many of our scholars continue in the same traditionalist mould. So, for instance, they would answer that the solution to our economic woes is simply by instituting the zakat levy or by banning interest, although obviously that is hardly sufficient to mend the ills of the global economy.

Another problem is that in recent years many ‘ulama, including from the organization with which I am associated, the Nahdlatul ‘Ulama, the largest Islamic organization in the world, have taken to politics. I am not saying that this is bad per se, because with political power you can influence political decisions, but there is always the danger of getting cut off from the concerns of the masses. Instead of caring for the poor or doing serious intellectual work they are looking out for political positions. And, to make matters worse, you have ‘ulama who have been co-opted by the system, who love their big cars and houses, who buy into the logic of consumerist capitalism, and have no critical perspective on it. So all that also severely impacts on the level of contemporary Islamic discourse in Indonesia.
Q: Some Indonesian scholars have also made interesting contributions to the ongoing debates on the status of Muslim women. What are your views on this?

A: Yes, a number of our ‘ulama have taken up this issue and have made some interesting developments in the direction of gender justice, although many remain wedded to the patriarchal notions. My own position, as an advocate of gender justice, is that what we should be seeking is substantive, as opposed to simply formal, equality. So, let men lead the prayers in the mosques, but let women’s role in shaping the family be recognized. I am not concerned with the form of family leadership but its substance. So, today, we have a number of families whose principal bread-earner is the woman, and so, some argue that logically she should be regarded as the head or at least the co-head of the family, because, they say, male leadership is conditional on providing for the family and is not categorical. I support this stance, and this demand was put forward to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which, however, struck it down.

While we are today witnessing the emergence of new and more progressive understandings of Islam on the gender question we still have to contend with the challenge of patriarchal notions that are sought to be given an ‘Islamic’ guise in the name of revival of tradition, as exemplified, for instance, in the agenda of the radical Islamist groups. For them, the hijab becomes a symbol of Islam, not men’s beards, so they demand that women don the hijab while they remain silent on men wearing jeans and T-shirts, not seeing this as threatening Islam. I myself wear the hijab, but I resent the way in which some Muslim groups reduce it simply into a meaningless symbol. For instance, there was this government official who issued an ordinance that women in his town had to wear hijab and later organized a ‘Muslimah Fashion Show’, with hijab-clad women parading on the ramp. Or, for instance, this other government official who imposed hijab on all Muslim women in his area, and whose wife, who usually wore fancy Western clothes when traveling outside, went around distributing hijabs to poor women. This man was later arrested for massive corruption! And you also have the development of a fashion industry centred on the hijab that caters to the elites, with fancy and exorbitantly priced hijabs on sale in special boutiques, which really robs the hijab of its essence as a social leveler. I think this tendency to reduce shari’ah to the hijab is really pathetic. This obsession with the form, as distinct from the spirit, of the shari’ah often ends up missing out on basic issues of economic and social justice.
A contemporary understanding of the Qur’an and the shari’ah would entail focusing on their underlying spirit rather than simply going by their letter alone. Using this approach one could argue for changes in certain laws related to what is called the mu’amilat or social transactions, though, of course, there can be no change in religious rituals (‘ibadat). So, for instance, some Indonesian feminist Islamic scholars believe that women and men should have equal inheritance rights. They recognize that the Qur’an prescribes for daughters half the share of sons, but they argue that this law has to be seen in the context of seventh century Arabia, when not many women engaged in economic activities outside the home and when men were the principal bread-earners.
A contemporary understanding of the Qur’an and the shari’ah would entail focusing on their underlying spirit rather than simply going by their letter alone. Using this approach one could argue for changes in certain laws related to what is called the mu’amilat or social transactions, though, of course, there can be no change in religious rituals (‘ibadat). So, for instance, some Indonesian feminist Islamic scholars believe that women and men should have equal inheritance rights. They recognize that the Qur’an prescribes for daughters half the share of sons, but they argue that this law has to be seen in the context of seventh century Arabia, when not many women engaged in economic activities outside the home and when men were the principal bread-earners. By giving them a share of the inheritance the Qur’an sought to provide women with justice. That means the underlying intention of the inheritance rules must be justice, and today, if we are to do justice to women they should get the same share as men, because many women now work outside the home and contribute to the household expenses. This means that by sticking to the letter of the Qur’an and ignoring its underlying spirit we may not be able to fulfill the intention of the Qur’an, which is justice.

Another startling difference between Indonesia and many other Muslim countries is that here you will find women working in almost every sector of the economy, including even hijab –clad women. The majority of the Indonesian ‘ulama allow for this, even in cases where unrelated women and men work together, provided they maintain their modesty. This is not a problem at all for most of them, unlike in some other Muslim countries.
Q: How do you see the demand being made by radical Islamist groups in Indonesia today that Indonesia should be declared a formal Islamic state and be ruled according to the shari’ah?

A: It really depends on what one means by the shari’ah. Many people think of shari’ah as cutting off the hands of thieves or forcing women to veil and men to grow their beards. Now, that is a mechanical, literalist and textual approach to shari’ah, which does not take into account local context. How can you cut off the hands of people who steal because of poverty when you have not fulfilled the Islamic mandate of eradicating poverty and establishing social justice? This sort of approach will only alienate people from Islam. I have seen this in Afghanistan, from where I have just returned, where the Taliban, in their misplaced zeal, banned girls from school, killed scores of Shi’as, outlawed chess and kite-flying, all because of their rigid approach to traditional fiqh, with little or no appreciation for the underlying spirit of the Qur’an, which teaches love, compassion and social justice. By focusing only on the external symbols of the shari’ah, the extremists miss out on its spirit, including one of its basic concerns, social justice.

I think when many people say they want shari’ah rule what they mean is that they want an alternative to the present corrupt and sternly hierarchical and iniquitous order. They may not necessarily also support all the laws that are associated with the historical shari’ah. This is why I think we need to make a distinction between shari’ah, as divine path, and the historical shari’ah or fiqh, including laws developed by the ‘ulama over time, many of which are human products and amenable to change according to changing contexts. For this we really need a contextual understanding of the Qur’an, so that we can develop more appropriate ways of implementing its underlying value system, which may depart in some significant respects from traditional notions, such as on women’s rights or inter-community relations.

That said, I must also say that I understand some of the reasons that lead some people to radicalism, although that does not mean I condone it. They rightly see growing social inequalities, unemployment, Western cultural invasion and so on as menacing threats, but they resort to violent means to end these, while I believe these should be countered through generating mass awareness, through demonstrations or through the media. It is, however, important not to exaggerate the strength of radical Islamist groups in Indonesia, as some Western reporters do. In actual fact, as the election results show, they do not command the support of more than a very small minority of Indonesians.

Q: The literalist and traditionalist understandings of fiqh that you talk about were developed in the Middle East, in a very different cultural context. Do you think it is possible to develop new ways of understanding fiqh suited to the Indonesian cultural context?

A: Certainly. Islam is a universal religion and is not an Arab religion, and hence its appeal transcends a particular culture. Unfortunately, some ‘ulama tend to conflate Islam with Arab culture, which is wrong. We need to distinguish Islam, as a religion of surrender to God and social justice with a universal appeal and message, from Arab culture. To be a Muslim one does not have to blindly adopt every aspect of Arab culture. I see no harm in adopting or adapting to local cultures provided they do not go against any Islamic beliefs. And this is precisely what the first Sufis who came to Indonesia sought to do.

I think it is important for progressive Muslims to enter the shari’ah debate and not allow extremists to monopolise it. We need to expand our understanding of the shari’ah from mere symbol to substance, from the letter of the law to its underlying aims or what is called in Arabic the maqasid-i shari’ah, which include such fundamental issues as equality and social justice and struggling against oppression and injustice. We need to think of ways of incorporating the question of social and economic justice into contemporary shari’ah-based discourses. This draws inspiration from the central notion of Islam of tauhid or the oneness of God, which suggests that only Allah is the Master, and that no one else can be your master. This calls for a tauhidi society, a society where there is social and economic equality. Islamic equality is meant not just in the mosque, but in the economic, social and political realms as well, which means a burning concern for the rights of all of God’s creatures, men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims. This understanding of Islam then helps lead you on to immerse yourself in the struggle for social justice, and you begin to question the ritualistic understandings of Islam that many of us have. You now begin to ask how is it that Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country in the world, is also among the most corrupt, when corruption is definitely un-Islamic? Or, then, you begin to ask, how is it that economic inequalities in Indonesia are one of the most extreme in the world, when Islam preaches social equality? In other words, what we need today is an Islamic theology of liberation that is sensitive to the context of contemporary Indonesia.

Yoginder Singh Sikand is a Reader in the Department of Islamic Studies at Hamdard University, New Delhi and editor of Qalandar, an online magazine devoted to a discussion of issues related to Islam and Inter-Faith Relations in South Asia. He received a Ph.D. in history from the University of London and has published numerous books and authored over 250 articles on Islamic studies-related topics.

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