Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Myopic Worldview

Tuesday, 23 October 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

BRITISH novelist Martin Amis has joined the growing ranks of Muslim bashers. It reinforces the belief of many Muslims that the West is all too willing to discard its long-cherished values for some simple low-down revenge.
For those of you who don't know Amis, let me explain. He's the darling of British fiction who holds a high place in literary circles and when not writing he's teaching British youth his own values. He is a professor at Manchester University. An interview that Amis gave 14 months ago has surfaced recently. In that interview he said he has the "urge to say the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation - further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they're from the Mideast or from Pakistan... Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community..."
Wow. He must hate all 1.6 billion of us.
I'm not sure how in Amis' view of the world that I did something that warrants a travel ban, being strip-searched and deported. But it must have been pretty bad.
Amis reflects the "hang ‘em at the airport" attitude, a phrase coined by a Los Angeles police chief in the early 1970s when hijackings were occurring on a weekly basis in the United States. His attitude reflects the curious belief among many Westerners: Who needs due process and the right to a fair trial when a good old-fashioned lynching will do the trick?
After his comments exposed him for the man he is, Amis went on British television to defend himself. His explanation of his Islamphobia were the key words of "urge to say." As long as he cloaked his comments in an "urge to say" all is well and good and why is everybody so upset? It's an urge, an impulse. He argues that we should not deny our emotions. It's perfectly acceptable to lash out at a group of people when a few nut cases blow up innocent people.
But it's a coward's response to believe that the average reader is dumb enough not to get the message. As if "urge to say" makes hate speech and denial of basic human rights somehow more acceptable.
Amis went on the Channel 4 News in the United Kingdom the other night in his attempt to explain that he was only speaking of an "urge" and wasn't really advocating mass deportations, strip-searches and the general persecution of Muslims worldwide. No, he wanted to make the distinction that he was talking about Islamists and not Islam. His problem in the interview was that he never explained what his interpretation of an Islamist is.
Being an Islamist is different things to different people. To Amis, an Islamist smells like a terrorist. I don't generally call myself an Islamist, but what if I did? To me, that sounds like a nationalist, a patriot, a student and advocate of Islam. I know many people who identify themselves as Islamists in direct response to Westerners trying to make it a dirty word. Why shouldn't we be Islamists? It's nothing to be ashamed of.
Amis vaguely went on to say that being an Islamist is an ideology within Islam and that he felt morally superior to Islamists. What that ideology is, I wouldn't have a clue and I got the impression from Amis he doesn't either. And the real terror comes from the fact that Amis is teaching British students his view of the world.
There are people like Amis all over the world and they are little better than some so-called Muslim clerics urging suicide bombers to attain martyrdom by killing innocents and the neo-conservatives in Washington who have ripped to shreds the US Constitution and Bill of Rights in the name of freedom and security.
What appalls me most is the willingness of a large group of people to abandon their values in the name of freedom and security. Or maybe it's to keep freedom and security for themselves and not share it with the rest of the world. The neo-conservatives are a tiny minority who don't reflect the goodness in the traditional Western values just as violent militants don't share the same values as the overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide. But unfortunately, those with the loudest voices get the most attention.
There will always be people like Martin Amis who are willing to vent their need for revenge and be all-too-willing to sacrifice the things they hold so dear to them. And that is where I feel morally superior to people like him. I won't give up my Islamic values of peace and tolerance to respond to his hate.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Half-Hearted Efforts

Thursday, 18 October 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

DURING the past couple of weeks newspapers in the United Kingdom have been full of reports of the trial of Mohammed Hamid, who is accused of recruiting young Muslim men to bomb London's subways and encouraging them to become martyrs. I cringe every time I read these stories because it only further taints the good work of Muslims worldwide.
Lost in these sensational reports that often foment xenophobia among Britons are quiet efforts by Muslims and Christians alike during Eid to bring about peace and understanding between different faiths. I put an emphasis on "quiet." After all, it's been six years since 9/11 and Muslims, Christians and some Jews are still taking tentative steps towards establishing peace and fostering understanding. It's a cliche but so true that it bears repeating: Action speaks louder than words.
Last week, 138 Muslim scholars sent an open letter to Christian leaders calling for greater understanding between Muslims and Christians. The letter was sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, and Pope Benedict. The Royal Aal Al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan organized the letter campaign. I appreciate these efforts and wait to see what kind of response comes from Dr. Williams and the Pope.
The reality is that these kinds of efforts seem almost timid. I don't want to denigrate the good intentions of these Muslim scholars or what I expect would be a positive reply from Christian leaders. I hope that this opens broad dialogue that puts an end to suspicion and distrust and helps us find common ground in our faith in God.
But if there is ever a time for Muslims and Christians to be bolder in bridging the gap, it's now; during the Eid festivities and the upcoming Christmas holidays.
In the United States, Imams in many mosques open their doors once a month to people of other faiths to visit and learn about Islam. This should be a worldwide effort in which not only mosques are opened regularly to other faiths but our homes as well during Ramadan and Eid. By demonstrating to others firsthand the joy of Ramadan and Eid, non-Muslims will not only respect Islam and what the holidays mean to us but will not be hesitant to join us in celebration. Imagine the progress we can make if on our visits to local parks and playgrounds to spread out our feasts for Eid that our children invite their non-Muslim acquaintances to join them. A strong foundation for tolerance would be established and our children will not feel isolated during their holidays.
By the same token, in a society that is dominated by Muslims, we should demonstrate understanding and respect for non-Muslim holy days. Isn't this a better way of D'awah? Isn't demonstrating tolerance a primary attribute of Islamic D'awah? If we look at the actions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), we find that on many occasions he dealt with his Christian and Jewish neighbors with respect, such as providing them with gifts such as meat from a slaughtered sheep. This was a profound example of generosity during a period of extreme poverty.
Last week, the management of New York's Empire State Building, reportedly once a target for destruction by Al-Qaeda, lit the building green to celebrate Eid. The 1,454-foot-tall building already celebrates Christmas, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and the Irish festival of St. Patrick's Day by changing the color of its evening lights. Now the celebration of Eid will join these non-Muslim events annually.
As a Muslim it pleases me and makes me feel good to witness this change. I welcome these changes heartily, but I am also impatient to get on with broader and bolder steps. As the trial of Mohammed Hamid dominates the headlines in the UK, Muslims look to Christian leaders to remind people not to generalize or stereotype Muslims for the actions of a few.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fueling the Fire

Tuesday, 09 October 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

SAUDIS are sensitive, particularly in the post-9/11 world, about their image and take great care in presenting Saudi Arabia as an ally of the United States and correctly represent their serious efforts to fight terrorism within its own borders as well as other countries. I point this out because I left the cinema over the weekend with mixed feelings after watching "The Kingdom," the American-made film featuring Jamie Foxx, Ashraf Barhom and Jennifer Garner. Foxx and Garner portray a pair of FBI agents who join Saudi police and military investigators to identify and capture a band of terrorists who bombed a fictional residential compound in Riyadh that left about 100 people dead. Barhom plays Saudi Col. Faris Al-Ghazi, the liaison between the Saudi government and the FBI.
Director Peter Berg got much of Saudi Arabia right and some of it wrong. I suppose that is to be expected. I give him credit for trying to provide a balanced portrait of our country. The Saudi characters, usually played by Syrians and Egyptians, come off well although no one speaks with a perfect Saudi accent or even tries to.
And the film starts off promising enough, giving us a brief, but compelling, history of the Kingdom and a dramatic, if not painful, depiction of the bombing of the compound. But it soon becomes apparent that we are watching an action movie with little thought to the political nature and relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Some of it is an outright distortion of the political equations between the two countries. For example, the film makes it clear that Saudi Arabia does not want FBI agents on its soil, fearing that it will inflame further the terrorists and their sympathizers. At one point early in the film Foxx's character meets with the fictional Saudi ambassador to the United States and threatens him if his team is not permitted to conduct an investigation in Riyadh. Saudis have cooperated for years with the United States by inviting and providing assistance to US investigators in crimes committed by terrorists against US citizens. There has always been a bilateral agreement between the two countries. In reality, there is no need of threats.
Worse, however, is the imagery and selective editing Berg uses to foreshadow terrorists acts. Often before the story changes to the terrorists' point of view, we see scenes of mosques at sunset and the call for prayer. Whenever these evil men are prepared to attack innocent civilians or the FBI agents themselves they repeatedly utter "Allah-o-Akbar."
We already know that so-called Muslims who use their religion to commit murder have forever tainted in the minds of Westerners "Allah-o-Akbar" and similar expressions, but the film seems to go out of its way to reinforce this stereotype. I suppose that could be one reason why some Muslim clerics were denied permission to board a flight in the US early this year. They were praying in the airport lounge before take-off and some Americans became jittery over "Allah-o-Akbar" and reported them to the authorities. This film only adds fuel to the fire.
I can quibble over other misrepresentations. Egyptians place their prayer mats on the walls of the homes. Saudis don't, although you wouldn't know it by watching the movie. And, according to the film, Saudis can break into families' home and threaten them at gunpoint. No Saudi law authority would do such a thing without having female personnel present to escort women from the home. ‘The Kingdom' falls into a typical action movie with lots of bloodshed and violence, so the opportunity to tell a more subtle, important story of Saudi-US relations is squandered.
Yet despite these flaws the performance of Ashraf Barhom stands out as a highlight, if not an inspiration. Playing Col. Al-Ghazi, Barhom, ironically an Arab-Israeli, humanizes Saudis with his wit and intelligence. There is an extended scene showing the home life of his family that drives the point home that Saudi families are just like any other family.
We will see more films telling Saudi stories without Saudi actors. I understand there were Saudi consultants on the film. Naturally not all of their suggestions would have to be implemented. It was Peter Berg's story to tell and I respect that.
But I'm disappointed, although not surprised, that the filmmakers were not permitted to make the movie in Riyadh, according to the director. By extending cooperation and allowing the movie to be shot in Saudi Arabia, it might have given Saudis more control, or perhaps more influence, on how they were portrayed on the screen. This film was shot in Abu Dhabi and Arizona in the United States. Given the chance, a film crew allowed to work in Riyadh could have furthered the understanding between the West and us by using Saudi crewmembers and even actors.
In an interview with a United Kingdom newspaper, Jennifer Garner noted that she knows more about Saudi Arabia now that she has completed the film. She characterized Saudi women as oppressed and banned from driving and receiving no education. She never stepped foot in Saudi Arabia yet her appearance in the film apparently makes her an expert on Saudi affairs. But she does nothing but perpetuate the stereotype. Perhaps this could have been avoided if she actually spent some of her time in the Kingdom.
When the next film crew seeks permission to make a movie in Saudi Arabia, I hope Saudi authorities will consider it.

Extreme Overview

Tuesday, 02 October 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

A SUPERMARKET chain in the United Kingdom recently adopted a policy that allows its Muslim employees to refuse to ring up sales of alcohol by having a non-Muslim clerk stand in to scan the items.
When a customer comes through the queue with bottles or cans of alcohol, the Muslim clerk simply raises his hand and another clerk steps in to make the sale. After the sale is completed, the substitute then leaves and the Muslim returns to his duties. This is a noble effort by supermarket management to be sensitive to Islamic religious practices and to accommodate its employees. But immigrant Muslims are sending the wrong message in their over-enthusiasm to follow Islam.
I am here in the United Kingdom to pursue my doctorate degree. I've only been here for two weeks and I have seen many Muslims going about their daily lives. Many appear to have adapted to their new environment very well. I admire the young women especially who maintain a respectful presence, wear their hijab and remain Muslims in every way.
Others, I'm afraid, have isolated themselves in their faith. During an orientation session one morning I was surprised to find a young woman wearing an abaya and niqab. I was surprised to see this because while I wear the same thing while home in Jeddah, I don't wear it here. This young woman is isolating herself from her fellow students and even the professors and tutors who are charged with her academic studies.
This is her right, of course, but I remember another orientation session where the speaker urged students to mingle with each other, make friends and learn what other cultures and religions have to offer. To study, study, study and not get out in the world will only short-change yourself in the end. A university education is not just about academics, especially for students from overseas. It's to learn of other cultures and religions. The experiences of life in a foreign country are almost as important as studying for a degree.
The lonely student in her abaya is a microcosm of life in the United Kingdom. And much like this student, the Muslim supermarket employees refusing to accept alcohol at their workstation also are isolating themselves and failing to adapt to their environment. To be clear, I am not a religious expert, but to my limited knowledge if a Muslim is not selling alcohol for their own profit, but as an employee for a business, there is nothing un-Islamic about this practice especially if he is in a bad need of this job.
As an employee of a company they have signed a contract to carry out the duties required by the employer. Obviously, if you are working as a clerk in a supermarket in a Western country you will be required to accept all purchases made at the store as well as stock shelves. By refusing, the employer is forced to accommodate the employee with special considerations not given to other workers.
To the credit of local mosque leaders in the United Kingdom, they have condemned the behavior of these Muslim supermarket employees, noting they are "over-enthusiastic" and are failing to assimilate into the culture they chose to live in. And yes, they choose to be here. They acquired a visa, brought their families, and many hope to become citizens. Then, why this over-zealous effort?
Not long ago there was some controversy in the United States when Muslim Somali taxi drivers refused to take passengers in their cabs from the airport if they were bringing alcohol with them. Many conservative American media commentators were outraged that immigrants failed to assimilate into American society. One American Muslim cleric pointed out that these newly-arrived Muslim immigrants were just trying to learn how to navigate through a new and very open society and had erred on the side of caution. That seems reasonable to me, but I wonder about Muslims who are educated and have been in the West long enough to know that you don't give up your Islamic principles simply by stocking alcohol on a supermarket shelf or scanning the price code at the checkout line.
These workers are not consuming or selling alcohol for profit. They chose to work for the employer and they should abide by the rules that everyone must follow.
As for my sister in the abaya, I know that she will sacrifice not a single thing as a Muslim if she wears something that is more colorful than a completely black abaya and niqab. It is what's in her heart and her relationship with God that counts.