Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Christmas in Babylon

There is cruel irony in the reality that Iraqi Christians have probably never felt as persecuted or under threat as they are following the country's liberation by 100,000 American troops. An invasion billed as a liberating event for the Iraqi people has become the noose around the neck of many ordinary Iraqis.
Detail from he Ishtar Gate at Babylon

Press reports about the subdued Christmas celebrations, especially following an earlier attack on a Syrian Orthodox Christian church tend not to highlight Christian-Muslim amity prior to the US invasion. Today, Christian-Muslim harmony takes a back seat to almost daily outbreaks of intra-Muslim Sunni-Shia violence.
Several years after the demise of Saddam Hussein, ordinary Iraqis must be wondering whether the price paid to become a 'beacon of democracy' was worthwhile.
The average Iraqi may not have felt stifled by the inability to speak freely or criticize Saddam's ruthless government. However, Iraqis were generally safe walking the streets and leading a simple life.
Following the US invasion, all segments of society, women in particular, have been hard hit by the rise of political violence.
Winners have emerged from the new Iraq. The Shia community is one.
Previously discouraged from indulging in certain practices and barred from the corridors of power (as were Sunni extremists), Shias are now a free people. They only need protect themselves from bombs and violence perpetrated by Sunni foes, including Al-Qaeeda types.

Does anyone really know what the Iraq war was about: oil? Saddam Hussein? Weapons of mass destruction?
The cause may not be clear but at least one outcome is certain. The Iraq invasion has done more to solidify a distinct Muslim consciousness and a collective feeling of 'persecution' by the world at large.
The radicalization of European youth, including the London and Madrid bombings, has more to do with Iraq than Afghanistan. The Iraq war fits neatly within Osama's Pan-Islamist ideology. Al-Qaeeda could not have asked for a better publicity stunt.
Unfortunately, the damage from the Iraq war is done. It is time to move forward and advance an agenda of reconciliation. World nations must shift away from playing into Al-Qaeeda's divisive global agenda.  The US withdrawal from (a shattered and divided) Iraq is a step in the right direction.
But that is not enough.
Muslims must confront the radical ideologies which have infused themselves into mainstream Islam. Without introspection, Islam will continue to blame external powers such as Israel and the US as the source of all evil. Muslim scholars have a duty to restore the Islamic faith; a responsibility to enlighten.
Surely, the devil does not only reside in Tel Aviv and Washington. The devil also finds a home within each one of us.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

The five rules of life

While reviewing some of my Sufi literature (normally gathering dust on my bookshelves) I came across the following quotation. It made an impression on me and I wished to share it with my readers. I hope you find it as insightful as I do.
Take advantage of five things before five others occur: your youth before your old age, your health before your sickness, your wealth before your poverty, your leisure before your work, and your life before your death.
The Prophet Mohammad as quoted by Ibn Said in 'The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife' written by Al-Ghazali.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Singaporean Pirs, Sufism and the myth of monolithic Islam

Singapore's declaration of the Naghore Durgha sufi shrine as a listed property is part of an effort to protect the island's history. The shrine is under the custody of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS).
Singapore's Naghore Durgha shrine in 2005, in dire need of restoration
The world may associate Sufism with Rumi's poetry or Konya's whirling dervishes, but Sufi Islam is much more.
Sufi holy men were instrumental in synthesizing Islam with the local cultures that Islam came into contact with around the world. Consequently, Sufis often made Islam acceptable to local cultural traditions. Theirs is perceived to be a less austere form of Islam, relative to the wahabi beliefs propagated by certain national religious authorities.
Through their travels and 'everyman' practices Sufis saints were critical in spreading Islam in areas as diverse as Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. To this day, many Sufi orders exist as dynamic centres of theological learning.

The tomb of Khoja Afaq near Kasghar, Xinjiang, China
Not surprisingly, Islamic extremists have begun to view Sufi orders as a key threat to their version of Islam. The Pakistan Taliban has set its sights on intimidating ordinary Pakistanis steeped in the traditions of Pirs and Fakirs. Just as it is difficult for modern India to legislate away centuries of the Hindu caste system, it is almost impossible for Pakistani Islamic extremists to paint sufi practices as un-Islamic.  
The importance of Sufism cuts both ways.
Following the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic by Ataturk, he immediately set about outlawing the many Sufi establishments sprinkled around the Anatolian peninsula. Like today's extremists, Ataturk understood the importance Sufi traditions play in perpetuating Islamic beliefs.
Despite bearing the full force of the Turkish state since 1926, Turkish Sufi orders continue to thrive to this day.
The real battle for Islam is not being fought in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan or North Waziristan but around the many Sufi mazaars or shrines found in every nook and cranny of Pakistan. If extremist Islam is to be defeated then, by definition, the rich traditions of Sufi Islam must prosper. 
Sufi saint Shah Rukhn-e-Alam's shrine built between 1320-24 in Multan, Pakistan
Now, if the Islamic world were defined as strictly as wahabis would have us, then at the stroke of a pen, many Indonesian Muslims would become unbelievers. To strict wahabis, there is no place for many Indonesian cultural traditions within Islam.
There is little place for religious or cultural arrogance within Islam.
The restoration of a Sufi shrine in Singapore is recognition of the country's diverse Muslim community, a recognition not granted by the state's strait jacketed Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA). It is time the Singapore authorities review the relevance of legislation drafted in the 1960s for contemporary Singapore.
AMLA, by accident or design, imposes by fiat Malay cultural traditions upon a heterogeneous Muslim population.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Mullahs, Iqbal, idol worshipping and renouncing the faith

During the last few centuries the Islamic world lost its way; sometime, somewhere, somehow.
Like a traveller who takes one wrong turn and then a series of unknown turns to 'correct' her course but ultimately finds hopelessly lost, the Islamic world appears to have no clue where it is heading.
However, a road map is available. There are streets signs, street maps and even friends available to help. What is important is that a direction be chosen so that the desired objective can be achieved.
And so begins the first crucial debate for the Islamic world, what is the objective, divinely ordained or otherwise?
Revivalists wish to return to the glory age of the Islamic world, when only the French Pyrenees protected Catholic France from turning green. Or to the golden age of the Ottoman Empire, when hordes of the faithful were besieging the gates of Vienna and Austrian bakers warned their fellow citizens by baking crescent shaped bread, the croissant.
Revivalists are interested in exercising power in the material world, especially to enforce their particular versions of sharia.
On the other hand, Modernists are keen to adopt all the trappings of 'westernization' and stand ready to discard almost all aspects of their historical traditions, religious or cultural. Modernists equate progress with western practices, which are seen as the key to worldly success.
In reality, the majority of Muslims fall squarely in between the two extreme poles of revivalism and modernism.
The average Muslim, be they Malay, Syrian, Pakistani or Sri Lankan, is simply concerned about the welfare of his family. The annihilation of Israel or flying a Muslim flag over Spain are not high on his agenda.
Why is this subject suddenly of interest to me? Well, I am rereading a fascinating book I first read in 1985, 'Iqbal – a Critical Study.' The book examines Dr. Allama Muhammad Iqbal's (1877 – 1938) philosophy as enunciated in his many poems and other scholarly works. 
Allama Dr. Iqbal's tomb located near the Lahore Fort complex in Lahore, Pakistan

Iqbal makes refreshing reading, especially at a time when there is philosophical chaos within the Islamic world. Dr. Iqbal was a real Islamic scholar, the sort whose voice is currently threatened by exploding bombs and screaming jihadis.
Real Islamic scholars are humanists in the broader sense of the word. Just as Goethe or Milton's writings touch not only Christians but anyone who appreciates good writing, Iqbal speaks to more than just Muslims.
 "An unbeliever before his idol with a waking heart is better than the religious man asleep in his mosque."
It is no wonder that today's semi-literate mullahs find Iqbal's ideas threatening. It is for the same reason that Muslims must return to the vision of thinkers such as Iqbal. For if we do not then we may as well consider renouncing our faith!
"If to be a Muslim in these days means to quarrel with one another, I shall then convert the Muslims into non-Muslims."**
* Academics may (and do) debate characterizations of revivalists and modernists constantly. My objective is to encourage readers to contemplate the ideas for themselves, not to define clearly demarcated boxes in which both sets of Muslims can neatly be placed. As always, the real world never conforms to easy categorizations. 
** Iqbal as quoted in 'Iqbal – a Critical Study,' Farhan Publishers, Lahore. 1977. p. 169.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Intelligence, eyes in the sky, shopkeepers and the Afghan war

Shopkeepers and conspiracy theories normally do not go hand in hand. But in Afghanistan anything is possible. So when the west's favourite Afghan son, president Karzai, decided it was time to indulge in that oldest of Afghan survival tactics, i.e. switching allegiances, an unlikely story came together.
Surely, when one of the world's most xenophobic and least understood parts of the world, i.e. Afghanistan, suddenly comes to dominate the international community's security agenda, accidents are bound to happen.
This particular accident has been nine years in the making.
The foundation was laid in late 2001 when US troops supported the Afghan Northern Alliance forces in overthrowing the then Afghan Taliban government. Many will rightly argue that in actual fact the groundwork was laid in December 1979, the date the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support the Afghan wing of the global communist movement, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan.
Soviet spetsnaz (special forces) prepare for an Afghani mission in the 1980s

After approximately ten years of increasing involvement and ever changing military tactics, Soviet leader Gorbachev decided it was time to bandage the Soviet Union's 'bleeding wound.' Ten years after the US invasion and more than a hundred thousand soldiers later, US forces are also preparing for a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding the popular wisdom of history repeating itself, history never repeats itself perfectly. However, history does teach us that for wars to end there are just two options: an annihilation of one of the combatants; or some form of negotiated compromise between the two main protagonists.
Ten years and fighting, the annihilation of the Taliban seems unlikely.
For a multitude of reasons, Washington's modern centurions and their mighty war machines are unable to subdue marauding bands of bearded barbarians (aka the Taliban).
Discipline, training, laser guided weaponry and an unlimited budget have not been enough to win the war. Consequently, 'back-channel' negotiations between the two forces have been ongoing for some months.
Observers may wonder who speaks for the Afghan republic, i.e. Karzai, the US, or the various NATO generals operating around the country. The Taliban, on the other hand, as a 'rag-tag bunch of bearded bandits' may propose any number of mullahs to negotiate on their behalf.
And so it was that one of the Afghan Taliban's top leaders, Mullah Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, spoke words of peace with Afghan leaders recently. It is alleged the Taliban's former civil aviation minister even met with Afghan president Karzai.
From his 'base' in Quetta, Pakistan, Mullah Mansour was flown to Afghanistan by a specially arranged NATO airplane. Additionally, in the true spirit of peace talks, Afghan authorities 'donated' hundreds of thousands of US dollars to the mullah to help him decide how enthusiastically to proceed with the negotiations.
All security analysts are aware that billions of dollars are spent annually by the US and other western nations on their sophisticated and extensive intelligence establishments.
Undoubtedly, the intelligence dollars represent money well spent. The best and brightest Pashto and Balochi speaking agents keep the US homeland safe.
If there is ever any doubt about an intelligence operation, then employ the failsafe tactic of shooting off a few drones into Pakistan. If the drones do not work, then implement the accepted and internationally popular strategy of blaming the Pakistani security establishment for clandestinely supporting Islamic militants.
Spot the difference - Soviet soldier in the 1980s or American in the 2000s?

With all the money, men and hardware behind the western operation in Afghanistan, one can rest easy that the US and western intelligence knew the man they were speaking with to be Mullah Mansour. Surely, the mullah's screening was at least as rigorous as required for a Muslim from a 'high risk' country obtaining a visit visa to a western nation?
Months into the negotiations, and probably a few million dollars too, it turns out that our man Mullah Mansour was not a senior Taliban member after all. It seems all the 'intelligence signatures' collated by the CIA, MI6 and the Afghan authorities were 'misinterpreted.'
The good mullah posing as a top Taliban leader is merely a shopkeeper in Quetta, Pakistan.
The Grand Moofti speculates that 'Pretender Mullah Mansour' has recently sold his Quetta shop. Most likely, he is now leading a quiet retired life in his home village located somewhere in Eastern Afghanistan. A few dollars go a long way in eastern Afghanistan.
Clearly, this particular mullah is no longer a member of the so-called Quetta Shura.  
In the land of the blind, the Taliban's one-eyed Mullah Omar remains the King. And no matter how many remotely controlled electric eyes the west may have focused on Afghanistan, a good old fashioned charlatan with a beard and a turban is all that was required to fool the best and the brightest.