Monday, March 28, 2005

The ‘Danger’ of Tariq Ramadan: Is It Real ?

An edited and updated version of an op-ed originally published in the September 13, 2004 issue of Broadside, the official student newspaper of George Mason University.

As the summer came to a close, Tariq Ramadan (http://www.tariqramadan.com) (pictured right), a Swiss academic of international renown, was set to join the faculty at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

His family’s furniture and belongings had already been shipped from their home in Geneva to the United States and his children were already enrolled in school when the U.S. Department of State suddenly revoked his work visa. After months of delays, Ramadan resigned his position at Notre Dame.
(http://www.tariqramadan.com/articles/my_reasons_for_resigning_my_position_at_the_university_of_notre_dame-article155.html)
The Ramadan case has highlighted most clearly for Muslims, both in this country and the rest of the world, that the U.S. government’s policy toward “moderate” Islam is confused, at best. If Ramadan, who has written extensively on the idea of a Western vision of Islam and the need for religious reforms, is considered a danger to the U.S., exactly whom does the U.S. government consider a “Muslim moderate?” Acting on advice from the Department of Homeland Security, for reasons that have never been concretely stated, the revocation of his visa essentially prohibited Ramadan from beginning work at Notre Dame.

Ramadan, who has a doctorate in Arabic and Islamic studies and master’s degrees in philosophy and French literature from the University of Geneva, has been acclaimed as one of the most important Muslim thinkers of modern times by a host of organizations, including Time magazine. His exclusion from this country sends mixed signals to the greater Islamic world that the U.S. is trying to court so badly across the globe. Critics of Ramadan have alleged that he is anti-Semitic, infer that he is tied to al-Qaeda and say he is generally supportive of Islamic militancy. They inevitably mention that, starting with his grandfather, Hasan al-Banna, Ramadan’s family has had long history with militant political Islamic movements, namely the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, as if that “proves” Ramadan’s “terrorist credentials.”

Daniel Pipes (left), the equally controversial American academic, has called Ramadan a member of “Islamist royalty,” whose visa should have been revoked (http://www.danielpipes.org/article/2043.) Critics such as Pipes present, very selectively, pieces of Ramadan’s extensive writings and research as clear evidence that he is a real and present danger to U.S. national security. In addition to insinuating that he has connections to al-Qaeda, they also allege that Ramadan is a blind supporter of the militant National Islamic Front, which currently rules Sudan. The truth, however, is that Ramadan has frequently criticized violence and terrorism committed in the name of Islam and his lengthy and extensive body of work is proof of this. He has called for Muslims to return to the sources of their religion, namely the Qur’an and Ahadith traditions, in order to reach a deeper understanding of how to live their faith in the modern, contemporary world. He has spoken out for human rights, women’s rights and against persecution of Jews. His criticism of certain Israeli governmental policies or pro-Israeli academics in France is hardly reason enough to label him an anti-Semite, a term that seems to be tossed around with little thought by some. Could he more strongly condemn Palestinian militants? Yes. However, this does not justify his demonization by his critics.

Ramadan was supposed to be the keynote speaker at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists in late September 2004, which was co-sponsored by George Mason University’s Center for Global Studies (CGS) and chaired by CGS Director Peter Mandaville (right). Unfortunately, Ramadan was unable to attend in person, but he did address the conference via satellite and was able to share his vision of a pluralistic and contemporary Islam.

For more on the conference, see: http://gazette.gmu.edu/articles/index.php?id=6026.

In days when radical Muslims are murdering people across the globe and tarnishing the good names of their non-militant brethren, Ramadan’s voice of reason is badly needed. In a recent editorial published in numerous newspapers around the world, he wrote, “Promote, from where you are, the universal principles of justice and freedom and leave the societies elsewhere to find their own model of democracy based on their collective psychology and cultural heritage.” That sure sounds like the words of an al-Qaeda ideologue to me.

Ramadan is the future of Islam. He is one of the great, influential Muslim voices of the modern age and his works will be read, I think, in the coming centuries. At a time when Muslim communities are engaged in internal debates about what it means to be religious in the modern age, Ramadan has provided the framework for balancing Islam and the secular, democratic world prevalent in the West.

To understand exactly what Ramadan believes, visit his web site (linked in the first paragraph) where he has many articles, and also read his books. His latest book is Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, published by Oxford University Press. (http://www.us.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/ReligionTheology/Islam/?ci=019517111X&view=usa)

Friday, March 25, 2005

Sharon 101: Trading Gaza for the West Bank

The "Gaza Withdrawal" plan proposed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (right), a longtime champion of the settlement movement that has snatched up more and more Palestinian land since its inception in the late 1960s, has created a stir around the world. Could Israel really be willing to leave a substantial slice of Palestine to advance the peace process?

As recent reports have shown (http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=7741509), Israel's real goal has become apparent: give up Gaza, where less than 8,000 ultra-radical religious Zionists live, and try to hold on to as much of the West Bank as possible. With the de facto blessing of the United States, Sharon & Co. are ready to put this plan in motion. However, in another example of the confused U.S. policy on the issue of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land, U.S. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice recently criticized Israeli plans to expand the huge settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, located just outside of East Jerusalem (http://www.iht.com/articles/2005/03/25/news/mideast.html.)

Large West Bank settlement blocs such as Itamar, Kiryat Arba, and Ariel are among the territories that Sharon wishes to keep a hold of. The goal of keeping as much of "Eretz Yisrael" or Biblical Israel under direct Israeli control is the clear goal of Sharon and others on the country's right wing. Of course, no mention is made of the fact that large swaths of the territory claimed as "Biblical" Israel was in fact conquered by successive Israelite dynasties, including the Herodians and the Maccabees, and originally was not part of the Kingdoms of David and Solomon. Samaria, for example, as the northern West Bank is called in Zionist-speak, is the traditional home of the Samaritans, a small group that broke away from Judaism thousands of years ago. So, Zionist history in many ways is revisionist history. The Jewish people, while they certainly have a long history within the region, including with Jerusalem, are not the only group to have close ties with the disputed land. What's even more ironic is the fact that despite its population being largely secular, the main argument for establishing a Jewish homeland in the Middle East is based on religious history or history that is based on a certain understanding of religion.

In short, Sharon is betting that he can give up Gaza, withdrawing from a sliver of land that is nothing but a headache, where over a million Palestinians live amongst several thousand Israeli radicals, and still keep much of the West Bank. The death of Yasser Arafat and the lack of a central Palestinian leader has allowed Sharon to push forward a self-serving vision of "peace" that ultimately will not lead to a real cessation of hostilities between the two parties. The current President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), Mahmoud 'Abbas (left), a longtime member of the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership, is not the symbol that Arafat was. Thus, he has been unable to pressure all of the Palestinian political and paramilitary factions, such as HAMAS and breakaway groups from the PNA's main Fatah Party, into a formal ceasefire with the Israelis.

The increasing anger of radical factions amongst the West Bank Israeli settlers, which was a contributing factor to the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the murderous shooting spree of American Dr. Baruch Goldstein in 1994, is also clear proof that religious violence is not the sole area of Palestinian terrorists. In fact, people such as Goldstein and the deceased racist Rabbis Meir (left) and Binyamin Kahane (also Americans) are highly revered by an increasingly vocal radical right in Israeli politics.

The sanctification of religious violence, which is usually portrayed in the American media as the realm of HAMAS, is also common amongst the radical Israeli right. The Kahanes are the subject of numerous web sites that extol their racist ideology: http://www.kahane.org/main.shtml.

Sharon holds the upper hand in "peace" negotiations at the current time and the continued breakdown of Palestinian political authority and social institutions, coupled with the growing power of HAMAS and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, does not bode well for a two-state solution.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The War Over Middle East Studies

In recent months, there has been a bitter war over the future of Middle East studies at Columbia University in New York City: will pro-Zionist professors or pro-Palestinian professors control the destiny of the field? Criticism of allegedly pro-Palestinian professors such as Joseph Massad (right) and Hamid Dabashi (below left), who some former pro-Zionist students claim intimidated or ridiculed them for their support of Israel, has reached a boiling point. Massad, Dabashi, and other professors, supported by other current and former students (including Jewish and Israeli students) have countered that their critics are making up or heavily embelishing the facts.

For a detailed overview of the situation, see: http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20050404&s=sherman.


To view Professor Massad's profile, see:
http://www.columbia.edu/cu/mealac/faculty/massad/

To view Professor Dabashi's profile, see:
http://www.columbia.edu/cu/mealac/faculty/dabashi/

Jumping on the bandwagon of critics are self-appointed Middle East studies watchdogs like Daniel Pipes (right), a former member of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Martin Kramer, of Tel Aviv University and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Both Pipes and Kramer, along with their supporters, are avowedly pro-Zionist, though they tend to claim only to desire "fair" coverage of Middle East studies. Although they claim to desire "fair and balanced" Middle East studies departments, when one closely examines their speeches, articles, and blogs, it becomes apparent that what Pipes and Kramer desire is the muzzling of pro-Palestinian professors and to silence discourse that is critical of Israeli policies. Both are avowed critics of the late Edward W. Said (right), professor of literature at Columbia and one of the most eloquent spokesmen for the Palestinian cause before his untimely death in 2003; he also authored the landmark books Covering Islam and Orientalism, masterful critiques of West-centric studies of "the Orient," from a point of view that is superior and often arrogant. Both are also highly critical of Rashid Khalidi (left), the outspoken professor who holds the Edward W. Said endowed Chair of Arab Studies at Columbia. In short, they wish to "recapture" Columbia's Middle East studies program for the pro-Zionist camp. Their goal isn't to make sure both sides are presented, their goal is to ensure that Israel is presented in the best possible light.

Kramer (www.martinkramer.org) authored Ivory Towers on Sand, a critique of Middle East studies that alleges that there is a pro-Arab bias, and that the current crop of scholars is by and large out of touch with reality. Pipes is associated with Campus Watch (www.campus-watch.org), a self-appointed watchdog group that seeks to seek out and criticize academics who are not sympathetic to Israel, and maintains his own web site (www.danielpipes.org), while also publishing numerous articles in The New York Sun and other publications. Pipes and Kramer are also connected to the Middle East Forum (www.meforum.org), which states in its declaration of purpose, "The Forum holds that the United States has vital interests in the region. In particular, it believes in strong ties with Israel, Turkey, and other democracies as they emerge; works for human rights throughout the region; strives to weaken the forces of religious radicals; seeks a stable supply and a low price of oil; and promotes the peaceful settlement of regional and international disputes." The Middle East Forum's motto is "Promoting America's Interest," which in and of itself is not negative. However, its focus on being a policy wonk organization pushes its scholarship into the realm of polemic. Kramer is also a fellow at the pro-Zionist Washington Institute of Near East Policy.

Both Pipes and Kramer (left) are highly educated, and indeed both have held distinguished positions at insitutions of higher learning from the University of Chicago to Tel Aviv University to Princeton University. Both have also written decent works of scholarship; Pipes authored Slave Soldiers and Islam: The Genesis of a Military System, published by Yale University Press; Kramer edited Shi'ism, Resistance, and Revolution. However, both decided to focus their abilities and efforts on trying to influence public policy, both in the U.S. and Israel. Their scholarship for the most part has left the realm of academic discourse and has entered the hazy world of policy wonk quasi-scholarship. In short, Pipes and Kramer are less interested in pursuing legitimate research and seem to be overly concerned over the level of influence that they are able to wield over public policy.

Now, of course there are professors who are pro-Palestinian. There are also professors who are pro-Israeli. In and of itself, this is not a problem. A professor's views become an issue of concern when he or she allows them to influence their teaching or classroom discourse to such an extent as to deny the rights of their students to hold differing points of view. Everyone is entitled to their views on political and societal issues, however there is a delicate balance between opinionated scholarship and sheer polemic.

It is also true that scholars, from Pipes and Kramer, are capable of real work. They have shown themselves to be capable of producing quality research. However, just because they are capable of such quality, that doesn't always mean that they attempt to meet that standard in everything they do. So, one can carefully use materials by Pipes and Kramer, and other academics, but it is always important to examine closely how they are written. Bias can be subtle and even unintentional. If the writer fails to catch it, we the readers must, or be misled.

The main problem with people such as Pipes and Kramer is that beneath their scholarship is an overtly political goal. In other words, while masquerading as non-biased scholars, they are certainly every bit as biased as those they criticize. Both Pipes and Kramer are avowedly pro-Israeli and both have visions of "peace" that is little more than a plan for continued domination of Israel over the Palestinians. Pipes and Kramer don't want a real peace, instead they want Israel to maintain its military, economic, and social control over the Palestinians as has been the case since at least June 1967.

Shi'ism Triumphant in Iraq

An edited and updated version of an op-ed that originally ran in the February 14, 2005 issue of Broadside, the official student newspaper of George Mason University.

The official results from Iraq’s first truly democratic election in decades, which was held on January 30, were announced in February. Ignoring threats from Tawhid wal Jihad, the terrorist organization led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and allied to al-Qaeda, millions of Iraqis headed for the polls on election day, as sporadic violence broke out across the country. The message to the insurgents, and particularly al-Zarqawi’s terrorist brigades, who have murdered scores of Iraqis, beheaded dozens of foreigners, and been tentatively tied to the assassination of Grand Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim (left) in August 2003, was clear: the majority of Iraqis denounce your tactics and your days are numbered.

As many analysts had predicted, the United Iraqi Alliance, a bloc of candidates supported by Grand Ayatullah Sayyid ‘Ali al-Husayni as-Sistani (right), who heads the marja’iyya, the council of Iraq’s senior Shi’ite clerics, won just under 48 percent of the approximately 8.456 million votes cast. This bloc includes the country’s two most powerful Shi’ite religious political parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) headed by ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim (left) and Hizb al-Da’wa al-Islamiyya, also known as the Da’wa Party. The rebel seminary student Muqtada as-Sadr, who led revolts against Coalition forces and the Iraqi interim government in April and August 2004, declined to actively take part in the elections, but did not rule out future participation in politics.

For more on Sayyid as-Sistani, see: http://www.sistani.org and
http://www.najaf.org.

Coming in second was an alliance of Kurdish parties, who received 2.175 million votes or 26 percent, ensuring that the Kurds, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims, a place in future Iraqi governments. Trailing a distant third was slate of candidates allied to Iraq’s current Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the brusque secularist and former Ba’thist backed by the U.S., which received only 1.168 million votes.

Because the UIA failed to receive the two-thirds majority required to form a government, it will be necessary for them to form a national unity government with other factions, presumably Kurdish and Sunni groups from outside the Shi’ite community. However, despite this, the election marked the first time that Iraq’s Shi’ites have been able to translate their numeric majority into the political power that should come with it. Under the Ottoman Turks, who were avowedly Sunni, then the British colonial government, followed by an artificial monarchy and then the Ba’th Party, Iraqi Shi’ites have long been kept out of the political process.

Last month, that all changed. Since they made up at least 60-65 percent of Iraq’s population of 26 million, the Shi’ites were the natural frontrunners in any national, democratic election. Despite the opposition of a as-Sadr’s militant Mahdi militia (right), the vast majority of the country’s Shi’ites heeded the calls of the marja’iyya and particularly as-Sistani to participate fully in the elections. In fact, the senior cleric issued a religious decree or fatwa that declared it a religious requirement for Iraqi Shi’ites to participate, and with the official results in, it seems that his call was heard.

Although Grand Ayatullah as-Sistani has stated that any new Iraqi government had to recognize the preeminence of Islamic culture and values within the country, since the overwhelming majority of its population is Muslim, he has also rejected the idea that a theocracy such as that that exists in the Islamic Republic of Iran should be established. With this, as-Sistani seemed to be upholding the traditional role of the Shi’ite clergy as the protectors of Islamic values in the public sphere, but not as the actual temporal rulers of society.

Although he has called for the new Iraqi constitution to recognize the role of Islam in the country’s history and society, as-Sistani also made clear his support of the democratic process in choosing a new government. Some have argued that as-Sistani’s desire for a fully democratic election is solely based on his recognition that the Shi’ites are by far the largest group in Iraq, such criticism does little to discredit the senior cleric’s positions. In other words, his desire to ensure a prominent role for Iraq’s Shi’ite community, for the first time in the nation’s history, does not really lessen the significance of his support for the democratic process. In reality, most sectarian groups in democracies around the globe rest at least part of their support for the institution of a democratic form of government on their desires to achieve some representation for their own constituencies. As-Sistani’s desire to achieve the same does not differ significantly from theirs.

After the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq in the spring of 2003 and the subsequent forcible transition to democracy stewarded by the CPA, Iraqi Shi’ites were presented with their first opportunity at real political power. Throughout late 2003 and into the first half of 2004, as-Sadr (left) and his radical Mahdi militia (right), who supported the immediate establishment of an Islamic republic, presumably like that which exists in Iran, received a good deal of support. As-Sadr challenged the traditional Shi’ite hierarchy, presenting himself as an action-oriented alternative. However, it was the moderate voices in Iraq, led by the country’s senior Shi’ite clergy, headed by as-Sistani that have since reestablished their authority. As-Sistani and his allies in the mainstream Shi’ite Iraqi clergy have been steering a much more pragmatic course toward the recognition of Shi’ite political power in any new, democratically elected government.

After decades of being prevented from actively participating in the national government and nearly a quarter-century of violent suppression of their community by Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Shi’ite majority has flexed its muscles and spread its wings. However, despite being on the brink of newfound power, they also appear to be ready and willing to share the reigns of power in what may become the world’s newest democratic nation. Indeed, the Shi'ites seem poised to fill the prime minister's position, with Da'wa Party leader Ibrahim al-Jafari (left), and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani (right) will most likely get the presidency.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Welcome to My Blog

I decided to finally join the vast majority of my peers and start a blog. When deciding on a title and overarching theme for this blog, I settled on one of my primary academic interests: Middle Eastern history, politics, and the role of Muslim communities in the global community and how they influence world affairs. However, I will also use this forum to mention other current issues, particularly the role of religion in modern societies and the debate over values.

Although I may not post as often as I might like due to my responsibilities as a university student with several on-campus jobs, I plan to use this blog as a forum to place my thoughts on a variety of issues concerning the Middle East and the "Islamic World," in addition to other current issues.

I hope that will provide some sort of intelligent record of one person's thoughts on the subject(s).