The Sultan’s Shaikhs and Salafis

Update: Syria’s tame mufti Hassoun has said there is no truth to the news which I repeat below, that Buti, Hassoun and other clerics met with the minister of Awqaf and decided to cancel taraweeh prayers. I heard the false report from someone in Syria. Obviously a rumour was circulating.

When I lived in Syria in the 1990s people would speak very respectfully about Shaikh Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, a Damascus-based cleric and a traditionalist. I could never quite understand why. I attended his mosque once after an American bombing run on sanctions-starved Iraq; on that occasion Buti blamed the deaths in Iraq on ‘a lack of love between the Muslims.’ Perhaps some of the congregation imagined this was a veiled criticism of the Arab leaders. People called al-Buti honest and fearless.

I had a conversation with someone who taught archeology at Damascus University. This academic arranged a debate on human origins, the scientific versus the religious view. The debate went very well until Shaikh Buti arrived, with entourage. The cleric encouraged noisy religious chanting until the debate had been entirely disrupted, at which point he declared ‘this is a victory for belief over unbelief’ and had himself carried away on the shoulders of his admirers. A great victory indeed.

Throughout the Syrian uprising, Buti has told Syria’s Muslims to trust the regime that is murdering them. He has repeatedly condemned peaceful demonstrations for dignity and rights. He has accused the protestors who set out from Friday mosques of not knowing how to pray. I accuse Buti of not knowing how to think, or feel, and of having no moral sense. Yesterday, following the most savage massacres yet perpetrated by the regime, Buti released a ‘fatwa’ cancelling the taraweeh prayers which are held every evening during Ramadan. The truth could not be clearer: this ‘honest, fearless’ cleric is even willing to cancel prayers when he is ordered to by the state. He is to religion what Dunya TV and Syria Comment are to objective reporting; what the shabeeha are to domestic security. Many of Syria’s Christian leaders, meanwhile, have taken the most unChristian step of joining in state propaganda against unarmed Syrian citizens even as these citizens – of all sects – are tortured, maimed and humiliated.

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All Things Considered

I was a guest on BBC Wales’s All Things Considered, a religious programme, talking about Christians in the Arab world in the light of the Arab revolutions. Also talking are the Right Reverend Bill Musk, based in Tunisia, Bishop Angelos, who serves the Coptic community in London, and the Reverend Christopher Gillam, who admires the Syrian regime and overemphasises Syrian Christian opposition to the uprising. Apologies for my voice, which was heavy with cold.

Gillam’s problem may be that he only speaks to ‘official’ Christians. Here‘s an article on Christian opposition to the regime. I like this quote: “The Christian churches have been bought, and have allowed themselves to be bought,” criticizes Otmar Oehring, a human rights expert with the Aachen-based Catholic aid organization Missio. “They’re ignoring the fact that so many people are dying.”

Outside/ Inside

Hama 2011 (Reuters)

For days Syrian security forces stayed out of Hama; not even traffic police were seen in the city. During these days, no armed gangs emerged from the shadows to terrorise and loot. Christians and Alawis were not rounded up and shot. Nobody was whipped for wearing an unIslamic haircut. All that happened was day and night demonstrations against the regime swelled into crowds of hundreds of thousands – men and women, adults and children.

Perhaps the security forces stayed out of the city on the request of Hama’s governor, and perhaps that’s why he was sacked. Now security forces have entered the city and brought plenty of insecurity in their wake. At least sixteen Hamwis were killed yesterday.

Slaughter in this city – over sixty protestors were murdered there a few weeks ago – reminds Syrians of the greatest wound in their contemporary history: the Hama massacre in 1982, when 10,000 were killed at the lowest estimate, by aerial and artillery bombardment and in house to house murder sprees. There are reports that poison gas was used, and of dismemberments and rapes, but no-one really knows. No journalists slipped inside the city. There was no satellite TV, no internet, no mobile phones. Still, a thousand stories escaped the net, and every Syrian has heard some; stories whispered, not told. Hama, ‘the events’, is the great taboo.

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The Brotherhood

Al Jazeera’s Empire on the history and politics of the Muslim Brotherhood.

After decades in the political wilderness, the Muslim Brotherhood became an integral part of the popular upheavals that swept through the Arab world – and while they may not have initiated the recent revolution in Egypt, the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime leaves a power vacuum that the Brotherhood are now well-positioned to fill. How will the Muslim Brotherhood reconcile their ideology with democracy?

A Different Kind of Dominoes

AFP photo

I ended my last post like this:

Perhaps in six months’ time non-Arab commentators will decide that the Tunisian revolution was a mere anomaly in an eternally stagnant Arab world. But they’ll be wrong. The revolution will exert a long-term pervasiveness throughout Arab culture, as the Iranian revolution did before it. It will change the air the Arabs breathe and the dreams the Arabs dream.

Well, it seems I was wrong on the timescale. I should have said six minutes. Today several commentators are indeed arguing that the Tunisian revolution is anomalous. Robert Fisk is pessimistic, contending that the Tunisian people are no match for the combined forces of the Tunisian elite and Western imperialism. Perhaps events will prove him right.  Steve Walt fears that those expecting immediate regime change from the Ocean to the Gulf will be rapidly disappointed.

His point is a good one. In the frontline states with Israel, foreign policy issues increase in importance because they have the potential to immediately translate into security issues. The Syrian regime, for instance, may be unpopular for its corruption, bureaucracy, and stifling of dissent, but its foreign policy is broadly in line with Syrian opinion – and in Syria this matters a great deal. The Western clients are more vulnerable to protest, not least because they’re more linked into the ‘globalised’ economy and are thus more vulnerable to dramatic fluctuations in the price of essential goods. Yet even in Jordan legitimate fears of an Israeli intervention (perhaps an attempt to fulfill the Jordan-is-Palestine fantasy) could damp down effervescence. The public in many countries seems too split by sect, ethnicity or tribe to coordinate unified protest. And of course the regimes will now be battening down for fear of Tunisian contagion.

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Zionist Dialectics: Past and Future

Excerpted from Israeli Exceptionalism (Palgrave: 2009).

by M. Shahid Alam

My God! Is this the end? Is this the goal for which our fathers
have striven and for whose sake all generations have suffered?
Is this the dream of a return to Zion which our people have
dreamt for centuries: that we now come to Zion to stain its soil
with innocent blood?”

Ahad Ha’am, 1921

This study has employed a dialectical framework for analyzing the destabilizing logic of Zionism. We have examined this logic as it has unfolded through time, driven by the vision of an exclusionary colonialism, drawing into its circuit – aligned with it and against it – nations, peoples, forces, and civilizations whose actions and interactions impinge on the trajectory of Zionism, and, in turn, who are changed by this trajectory.

It would be a bit simplistic to examine the field of interactions among the different actors in this historic drama on the essentialist assumption that these actors and their interests are unchanging. Instead, we need to explore the complex ways in which the Zionists have worked – and, often have succeeded – to alter the behavior of the other political actors in this drama: and, how, in turn, the Zionists respond to these changes. Most importantly, we need to explore all the ways in which the Zionists have succeeded in mobilizing the resources of the United States and other Western powers to serve their specific objectives.

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From “Islamist Watch” to Islamic Mimbar: the Politics of Hypocrisy

Raheel Raza leads a group of Muslims in prayer in Canada

By Huma Dar

On Thursday, June 10, 2010, Jerome Taylor, the Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Independent posted an article headlined, “First Woman to Lead Friday Prayers in UK.” Two-thirds of the way down this article, we find that:

“Ms Raza’s appearance in Oxford is a repeat of a similar prayer session in 2008 which was led by Amina Wadud, an American-born convert and Muslim feminist. But this is the first time a Muslim-born woman will lead a mixed prayer service in Britain.”

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Clan, State, Islamic Polity

Abdelwahab el-Affendi

Could the root causes of the Arab-Muslim ‘malaise’ be cultural? That’s what journalist Brian Whitaker suggests in his book ‘What’s Really Wrong With the Middle East’. The thesis sounds suspicious, but Whitaker isn’t a cheap Orientalist, and he uses interviews with Arabs as his raw material. The key issues his informants keep pointing to are indeed the issues that, wherever you meet them, young Arabs complain about. These include an undue emphasis on submission and obedience in the education system, at work, and in the home, the social valorisation of conformity, and a corrupt public space.

The personal is the political. The problem in every sphere is one of overbearing authority, and it’s true that this is ultimately family-based, ultimately the result of overly-narrow personal identifications. In fact, I would argue that tribalism, nepotism, sectarianism, even forced marriage and honour killing, are all manifestations of the tyranny of the clan. And the tyranny of the clan is the result of bad governance.

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Zionists Against Zion?

By M. Shahid Alam

Zionists have worked hard and cleverly for their successes, but their cause has been greatly advanced at each stage by the logic of their colonial project aimed at the creation of a Jewish settler state at the very center of the Islamicate.

Most importantly, Zionism created a geopolitical realignment of great importance. It brought together two strands of the Western world, previously at odds – Christians and Jews – to join their forces against the Islamicate.

At every stage in its history, Israel has ratcheted its power by unleashing forces, even negative forces, that it has then turned to its advantage. Power, intelligence and luck have played into this.

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The Price of ‘Existing’ as a Muslim Today

In the classic French novel, Adolphe, Benjamin Constant writes: 


There are things that for a long time remain unsaid, but once they are spoken, one never ceases to repeat them.

How true this is of so many of the things we keep inside for a time. Think, for example, of how an argument with a loved one often reveals the things that we have felt, but carefully hidden from them. Once spoken, those words repeat themselves with a frequency that suggests that we are seeking vengeance for the time they spent in silence.

The same is true of our secret prejudices, which often remain unsaid until the moment ‘feels right’ or circumstances seemingly produce the ‘necessity’ for their articulation.

It appears that circumstances today have produced a space in which articulating anti-Islamic sentiment both ‘feels right’ and ‘necessary’. It is an environment marked by series of events invoked as evidence in the ever-growing case against Islam.

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