Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Of Mostar and Muslims seeking the grace of the Virgin Mary

I have had the privilege of visiting Islam’s holiest city Mecca a couple of times, admittedly as a young boy. I have prayed to holy men (and women) at mausoleums, including that of Singapore’s very own holy man Habib Noh. Beyond that, I have made offerings and given due respect to other deities located inside Hindu, Buddhist and Chinese temples all around the world.

In 2015, I added a new 'first' to my life. During my Eastern Europe adventures I climbed a mountain (alright, it was more like a hill!) to seek the Grace of Virgin Mary! Some may consider such a trek strange as I am a 'born and bred' Muslim. I don't agree. Islam encourages exploration, learning and understanding.

The statue of the Virgin Mary at the top of the hill at Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina
And no, it's not that I have become a Christian. It's simply because a short distance from the historical city of Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina is the pilgrimage site of Medjugorje.

Medjugorje was an experience but first a little about Mostar.

The city straddles the Neretva River. As it straddles the river, it also occupies the space where Islam and Christianity meet. The Bosnian city has a mix of Muslims, Catholics and Serb Orthodox among its population of about 100,000. During the civil war which engulfed the former Yugoslav Republic in the early 1990s this ethnic mix proved to be a deadly tinderbox.

Indeed, Mostar was the scene of heavy fighting between Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks during 1992-95. Even Mostar's most famous structure, the Stari Most or Old Bridge, built in 1556 by the Ottoman Turks was not spared the fighting. The bridge was willfully destroyed by Croatian forces in November 1993. The bridge was reconstructed in 2004 and inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site the following year.

Mostar is also blessed with natural beauty. Mountains, rivers and forested areas along with hospitable people are all nestled in one compact, medieval town. But it was Medjugorje's Virgin Mary who was the star attraction. Those familiar with Islam know the Virgin Mary is a blessed woman for Muslims too.

The Virgin Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in Islam's holy book, the Koran. Indeed, she is one of only eight humans who have a sura (chapter) named after them in the Koran. As if to emphasize Islam's belief of Mary being the most righteous of women, she is mentioned more often in the Koran than in the entire New Testament!

Thus, making the trip to the small town of Medjugorje about to witness the alleged miracle of Our Lady of Medjugorje was high on the agenda. The town is located about 25 kilometers southwest of Mostar.

The story begins in 1981, during a time Yugoslavia still respected Tito's memory, when six local children claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary. Over time, the fame of the allaged apparitions spread amongst the Catholics and the town of about 2,000 started receiving pilgrimages from all over the world, Singapore included. Since 1981, over 30 million Catholics have visited the pilgrimage site – and that despite the negative official position of the Vatican bureaucracy on the Medjugorje apparitions.

Having climbed the hill on a rainy day in order to meet the Virgin Mary and immersed myself among Christian pilgrims, I felt a more complete Muslim. After all, the Islam with which I am familiar encourages tolerance and understanding – ideals lost to the adventure seeking extremist killers raised on a diet of violent video games and social despondency.

Mostar has a history all of its own. If Sarajevo fought Orthodox Christian Serbs for survival, Mostar fought Catholic Croats for its existence. Though, like Sarajevo, Mostar is fighting hard to maintain its pre-civil war mix of a religiously diverse population. For travelers, the medieval town is a blissful combination of nature, food and history.

No visit to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina – the country's official name - is complete without experiencing Bosnia and Herzegovina individually. If Sarajevo is Bosnia then Mostar is Herzegovina.
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries in his career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at Follow Imran on twitter at @grandmoofti and Instragram at imranahmedsg.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Trump is good for Islam - no joke!

No, the title is not an error. Yes, the man who wishes to ban all non-resident Muslims from entering the United States is good for the Islamic world![i]

Why is it good for America's Republican party's presidential frontrunner to treat Muslims like a sub-human species? The answer is quite simple: disruption. Trump will give significantly disrupt the status quo, hopefully ushering in a new, better era.   

Trump - you the man! (Photo: Wikipedia)
Disruption is a concept more familiar to entrepreneurs and start-up entities: disruption. Disruption may be defined as a "disturbance or problems which interrupt an event, activity, or process." Industries ripe for disruptions are generally bloated, stagnant and slowly heading into oblivion.

Alright, no one argues Islam is heading towards extinction. Nonetheless, there is little doubt Islam requires a radical rethink about its place in the world and the religion's relevance to a globalized 'Digital Age' population.

Islam's traditional prism for viewing the world no longer works. By most measures, the Islamic world is isolated and backwards. The post-colonial Islamic world has desperately clung onto linkages, economic and military, with former colonial masters to maintain power and preserve the status quo. Hence, peacefully (yes, peacefully!) disrupting the present state of affairs will be no bad thing; peaceful disruption, not regime change engendered by American bombs and NATO soldiers.

The 2003 US led invasion of Iraq transformed one of the Islamic world's most secular and well integrated multi-religious societies into a war zone and crucible for Islamic extremists.
(Map: Wikipedia)
Theoretically, peaceful disruption provides more time for nations to adapt and modify – not creating vacuums for extremists like Daesh to conveniently step into. 

A Trump presidency will prompt some soul searching among political elites in most Islamic countries. Some might even be forced to dispense with the crutches of Western economic and military dependencies provided by Western nations.

In poorer Muslim nations such as Egypt and Pakistan, politicians will realize leadership comprises of more than receiving and dispensing financial aid from bilateral and multilateral agencies. For wealthier oil rich nations the choices will be more difficult. Oil riches and the lifestyle it engenders are predicated upon a dependency on Western nations. In fact, in several oil exporting Gulf states it is the US Federal Reserve Bank which dictates local monetary policy!

So the question vexing the Kings of oil rich Arab nations will be, "Shall we continue to sell oil to countries like the US in the face of ongoing humiliation and being treated as second class citizens of the world? We may have oodles of money and even property in the right zip codes but we pray in the wrong direction and to the crescent and not the cross."

It's not an easy question to answer when trillions of Dollars are at stake.

This is not the first wake-up call heeded by Islamic intellectuals. In the early post-colonial period, a group of left leaning secularists Muslim modernizers arose. People like Syria's Assad senior, Egypt's Nasser and Iraq's Saddam were ready to shun religion for socialist ideology. In the new millennium that era has been relegated to the annals of history.

The current environment appears ripe for a new wave of Muslim modernizers; for Islam's reinvigorated intelligentsia to address the problems faced by Muslims in the Internet Era. The new paradigm must emerge following meaningful debates about governance, transparency and civil rights.

Muslim faithful pray at the main mosque in snowbound Pristina, Kosovo. (Photo: Wikipedia)
1960s Westernizing secularists demonstrated that blindly aping Western liberal democratic societies is not an ideal solution for Muslim societies. Seamlessly synthesizing modernity and Islam will only work if the new structure respects the unique cultural traditions of different Muslim cultures and geographies.

A Trump presidency will call into question many of the assumptions about civil relations between many predominantly Muslim countries and the US dominated Western world. This reset may act as a catalyst for Islamic political and social elites to redraw their own social contract within their own nations.  

Many analysts argue the present status quo is sustainable due to inequitable wealth distribution and poor state delivered social services. The violence perpetrated by extremists, e.g. Daesh, Taliban and Al-Qaeeda, outside the established political structure suggests most Muslim countries are crying out for some form of change.  

A divided era reminiscent of the historic Crusades? (Illustration: Wikipedia) 
So, Mr Trump, your insensitive and racist rhetoric may actually be helping those against which you spew your hatred. The possible earthquake to the established 'business as usual' modus-operandi may force the Islamic world to stand on its own feet. For that, Mr Trump, the entire Muslim world thanks you and your multitudes of supporters disgorging your regular obscenities.

Now if I were an American Muslim living and working in America I may have a very different opinion of Trump's popularity!

[i] How such a blanket ban will work in practice is difficult to imagine. For example, will all Muslim crew members of a Singapore Airlines flight landing in the US be made to stay on the aircraft overnight? How will Muslim foreign diplomats and functionaries dealing with Washington go about their business? Ultimately, there may be so many exemptions that the ban becomes a mockery ... that is, of course, if any Muslims wish to visit the country voluntarily simply to be humiliated and possibly put themselves in harm's way. But that's a topic for another day.
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries in his career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at Follow Imran on twitter at @grandmoofti and Instragram at imranahmedsg. 

Monday, 1 February 2016

A winter’s day in Singapore

I was about to leave my apartment when I heard the wind howl. I walked to the window and brushed aside the curtains. There was frost on the trees outside. The occasional icicle was dripping water to the ground below. Not!

Living in the tropics a few degrees from the equator means we enjoy only two seasons in Singapore: wet and dry. Honestly, the dry season sometimes seems pretty wet too. Except perhaps last year when we coughed our lungs out due to the haze blowing across from Indonesia.

Come to think of it, in recent years we have added a new season to the Singapore calendar: the Haze Season!

But let's not dwell on embarrassing subjects – at least for Singapore and ASEAN diplomacy. Instead, let's focus on the monsoon season and its impact on the development of Singapore and the broader region.

Until the arrival of steamships in the mid-1800s all sea trade was dependent on the wind. Wind patterns dictated when and where sailors roamed. Without wind power a sailing ship was useless.

It was the monsoon wind which directed traffic to and from China and the spice rich islands of modern day Indonesia. Monsoon is derived from the Arabic word 'mawsim' or season. Not surprising as the Arabs had long mastered the art of seafaring and had built up extensive trade links with Southeast Asia several centuries before European explorers began mapping the region.

Spices such as nutmeg and clove depended on the Southwest and the Northeast Monsoon winds to move from Southeast Asia to other parts of the globe. The Southwest Monsoon, which typically lasts from May until October, helped ships sail from South Asia towards the East. The Northeast Monsoon from December to March blew in the opposite direction, allowing ships to return to South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula from farther East.

Singapore's strategic location near the Straits of Melaka helped transform Singapore into the trade hub it remains until this day. The spice trade, which revolved around the monsoon winds, necessitated sailing ships pass – if not dock – at Singapore during their often dangerous journeys. This traffic enabled Singapore to flourish as a commercial entrepot.

A view of ships in waters off the coast of Singapore
Being close to the equator defines not only Singapore's weather but also its identity. While I would love to be able to wear two (just two!) layers of clothing for a few weeks each year, I console myself by eating a few roti pratas instead. After all, it's due to the monsoon winds that we enjoy the rich multiplicities of food, culture and people on the island!   

Roti pratas, a quintessential Singaporean dish, alongside a bowl of curry. Singapore's food dishes represent the island's diverse ethnic and cultural mix
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries in his career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at Follow Imran on twitter at @grandmoofti and Instragram at imranahmedsg.