Islam

By Joshua Shinbrot

Kurdish Peshmerga troops take part in intensive security deployment against the Islamic State in January 2015. Source: Flickr/Times Asi (https://flic.kr/p/qTtEd7)

Yazidi men and women are being massacred. Their girls are being sold as sex slaves. Their boys are being forcibly converted and indoctrinated to form a modern Janissary Corps of suicide bombers and executioners. ISIL (ISIS/Daesh/IS) has been attempting to exterminate the Yazidis for over a year, yet with few exceptions the world has remained silent. All major world leaders know, few care, and none will act. History offers a plethora of examples of the dire consequences of the silence and indifference exhibited by the President of the United States and the leaders of powerful European Countries. This type of apathy allowed for the genocidal murder of approximately 10,000,000 people in the twentieth century: 100,000 in Bosnia, 800,000 in Rwanda, 2,000,000 Armenians, over 1,000,000 Roma, and well over 6,000,000 Jews. ISIL’s ideology seeks to implement a radical seventh century interpretation of Islam by using 21st century weaponry to murder or subjugate all who refuse to embrace their ways. The group most threatened by ISIL is the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who overwhelmingly reject ISIL’s fanatical interpretation of the Islamic faith.

Today, ISIL is stronger than al-Qaeda was on September 11, 2001. It controls more territory, it is better funded, and it is more successful at recruiting westerners. ISIL’s genocide of the Yazidis is just the beginning. If we are to protect ourselves, our allies, the Yazidis, and Muslims threatened by ISIL, the United States needs to destroy the Islamic State and it must do this now. It’s time to level the territory controlled by ISIL and destroy the major transportation routes the group uses to supply and maintain itself.

President Obama has accurately referred to ISIL as a cancer. However, Obama has failed to properly treat the disease. This aggressive radical cancer requires an equally aggressive treatment. Chemotherapy kills cancer cells, but it kills a lot of normal, healthy cells too. There is no way to destroy ISIL without killing large numbers of innocent people. The Obama administration’s attempts to destroy Daesh have killed many innocent people, but it has failed to make substantial progress in the struggle against ISIL. Drone strikes may kill higher-ups in IS, but it seems that every time this occurs there are plenty of people waiting to take the place of the dead. A 2014 report by The Guardian regarding Obama’s “targeted killing” program indicates that “attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of 1,147 people.” That means 28 civilians were killed per targeted individual without any substantial strategic gain from their deaths. Those are 28 families who lost an innocent mother, father, brother or sister. Locals lose loved ones, but the terrorists are not defeated.

It is time to take noncombatant immunity seriously. The United States and its coalition partners have a responsibility to ensure that the innocent lives lost during hostilities actually serve to defeat ISIL. If the strategy advocated in this article were implemented, substantial numbers of civilians would be killed. Yet, ISIL would be defeated, the world would know that America will do what it takes to defeat extremism, and international norms against genocide would be strengthened.

Just War Theory demands more than ensuring the proportionality of noncombatant deaths during hostilities. The object of a war with ISIL needs to be the creation of a just and lasting peace. It will not be possible to achieve such a peace without a long-term American presence in Iraq. ISIL is creating a backwards society with apocalyptic aims. The United States and its allies have defeated warped ideologies before. It was accomplished in the post-war occupation and reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II.

Unlike in Iraq, the United States never turned its back on Japan and Germany. Even today, there is a massive American military presence in Germany (36,691 troops) and Japan (52,060 troops). If the United States and our coalition partners aggressively work towards post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq, in a few decades, the American military presence in Iraq may look much more like the American military presence in Germany or Japan. There is no simple, fast, or cheap way to resolve the “ISIS Crisis.” Failure to change the strategy for defeating ISIL will only raise the cost of victory over extremism in treasure and, more importantly, in blood.

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

The neighborhood of Eminönü in Istanbul, with Süleymaniye Mosque in the background. Source: Author's own photo.

In 2010, Samuli Schielke, an anthropologist working at Zentrum Morderner Orient in Berlin, wrote a paper concerning the anthropological study of Muslim societies that contained the following provocative assertion:

“There is too much Islam in the anthropology of Islam.”

According to Schielke, our studies of Muslim societies—anthropological or not—have often privileged the role of Islam so much that other facets of life become obscured. Indeed, when we premise our studies with titles such as “Muslims in …” or “The role of Islam in …,” we may inadvertently prioritize piety and tradition in our analytical foci—everything becomes all about Islam. The corollary to this is that we become less attuned to the ambiguities and contradictions that almost certainly come with the everyday practice of a perfectionist ethical ideal, in this case the practice of Islam. In doing so, we risk losing sight of the varied and idiosyncratic ways in which Islam can inform and mediate the everyday lives of Muslims.

An important premise to understand Schielke’s critique is to envision everyday life as an amalgamation of different but not separate “worlds.” For a Muslim, the world of Islam, with all its attendant normative ideals, will definitely constitute a part of his or her everyday life. Yet, one should be hard-pressed to say that Islam has an absolute monopoly on his or her subjective experience of the everyday. As Schielke observes in an Egyptian village, “the same people who repent their sins and think about the Afterlife also debate the previous evening’s football match, tell jokes, feel tired and glance at the opposite sex, even with religious stickers decorating the walls and the voice of the Qur’ân in the background.”

Ultimately, Islam is a lived tradition. This means that while Islam does contain a set of normative prescriptions about the ideal way to live, these norms have to be acted out in the context of everyday life, with its mishmash of multifarious, and at times, competing, demands and impulses. The majority of Muslims—like most of humankind—therefore cannot fulfill all the perfectionist ideals of their religion all the time. The result is that Islam-as-envisioned and Islam-as-lived will almost always be different, with the extent of this difference varying across individuals and communities.

This situating of Islam within the framework of everyday life builds upon Talad Asad’s famous characterization of Islam as a “discursive tradition”—a conceptual framework that locates in Islam both the coherence implied in tradition as well as the contestability implied by discourse. By considering the practice of Islam within the vicissitudes of the quotidian, the discursive nature of Islam is expanded: Islamic norms become mediated not only by the debates regarding the correct form of practice, but also the complex interplay of the individual emotions, communal dynamics and societal structures that govern everyday life.

In doing so, the practice of Islam becomes defined not what it is, but by the various interactions surrounding it. This therefore avoids what Shielke thinks is another problem associated with the anthropology of Islam—a preoccupation of trying to define what Islam is. For him, the definition of Islam is not a critical concern. Instead, as he writes, “if we want to understand what it means to live a Muslim life, then we need a grounded and nuanced understanding of what it means to live a life—more urgently than we need a sophisticated theory about what Islam is.”

In any case, while Schielke’s critique is directed within academic circles, his argument does have relevance for all of us. After all, the political salience of Islam is today at an all-time high due to the political turbulence in certain Muslim-majority countries, as well as the specter of Islamic extremism. Hence, even the most ardent hermit today will probably still hear about events and phenomena involving some aspect of Islam, whether real or imagined. As we observe these events then, we become no different from an anthropologist; our gaze onto a society or culture different from our own will be beset by the same vulnerabilities and biases that even specialists fall prey to.

Unfortunately, the cacophony about Islam and Muslims in our contemporary media is evidence that most of us have fallen prey to the very impulse that Schielke is critiquing: the need to reify something—a concept, a religion, a culture, or a community—and imbue it with explanatory value. Islam becomes the singular cause of this event, the principal vehicle of that social movement, and the dominant force in a certain someone’s world-view. In such a case, Schielke’s assertion can perhaps be expanded: there is too much Islam in public discourse about Islam.

The debate over the link between the Islamic State and Islam is perhaps reflective of our collective obsession with Islam. Some of us cannot stop pathologizing Islam, while others are fixated on defending it. In the context of the rise of the Islamic State, everyone now seems to have something to say about Islam—what it is, and what it should be.

Of course, I am not trying to imply that no one has the right to discuss what Islam is, or that Islam should be reduced to mere socio-political and economic processes. As a lived tradition, Islam definitely exerts an influence on how Muslims conduct their lives and is itself constitutive of what Muslims think of it. Nevertheless, just as how Shielke reminds us that Islam as a personal religion is part of the continuum of forces that surround the everyday life of a Muslim, Islam as a world religion should be seen as embedded within the constellation of processes and structures that condition and create our contemporary world.

Speaking of Islam as a lived tradition thus requires recognition of both its internal diversity and its contingency on entities external to itself. The next time you come across a piece of news related to the Middle East or any other Muslim-majority countries and societies then, hold back on “Islam” a little bit. There probably is more to them than just the reified behemoth we call “Islam.”

At the same time, even if Islam is involved in that piece of news, remember that Islam as it is lived—or any social phenomenon for that matter—never simply is; rather, it is always in the process of becoming.

By Ben Jury

Source: Patrik Nygren/Flickr

Ah, the new year. Whether you’re still regretting your overly priced New Year’s Eve Uber or putting off your New Year’s Resolution another day (or year), the writers and editors at the US-Middle East Youth Network are excited to bring you fresh insight on the latest news from the region. We’ve got a number of exciting projects lined up for this year, including collaborations with other universities across the country.

So much has changed in the last year throughout the region. The multilateral nuclear weapons deal with Iran, the ongoing refugee crisis throughout the Middle East and Europe, the terrorist attacks in Paris, and protests against trash and corruption in Lebanon are just a few of the headline grabbers from 2015. Perhaps It was also a watershed year in the war against the Islamic State. With ISIS’s loss of Ramadi’s center just a few days ago, the tide seems to be turning against the terrorist group, though its far too soon to tell what the future holds for ISIS.

Yet so much has remained the same. Five years on, President Obama’s 2009 call for a ‘New Deal’ between the United States and the Muslims of the world rings hollow. Five years on, the Syrian Civil War rages with no end in sight. Continued drone strikes in Yemen and other countries throughout the region put civilian lives in danger. American troops remain stationed in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and more than a dozen other Middle Eastern countries. All the while, private military contractors continue to operate and profit from continued presence in the region.

What we need now from U.S. policymakers and politicians is the resolution to make tangible steps towards Western military disengagement in the Middle East. Similarly, it’s high time that Western multinationals and governments ditch the military-industrial business model in the region and formulate a new strategy to support our supposed allies without treating them like second-class powers. Rather than using predatory and neo-colonial economic policy under the guise of spreading democracy and peace, Washington needs to reconsider its grand strategy for foreign policy abroad. President Obama has a little over a year left in office to realign American strategy towards more equitable and mutually prosperous relations with Muslim countries. It’s time to make good on these high-minded promises.

Whether or not you believe the United States is an empire in decline, it’s clear that America’s role in global politics is shifting. As we move towards a more multi-polar system with Russia, China, and other nations exerting more and more power within and beyond their regional centers, the old model of imperial politics must fade into obsolescence. Remaining a strong global power may well be Washington’s priority. Brute force and coercion aren’t the only ways of preserving American strength and influence in the world, much less in the region. Sending American boots on the ground will always be an unsustainable, quick fix solution to a perennial problem. MENA nations need to build up their own national security infrastructures to combat terrorism and domestic threats to their sovereignty, all the while remaining transparent. Diplomacy, soft power tactics, and fair-minded coalition building with regional actors will ensure the Iran keeps its promises better than anyone.

At the very least, a country’s foreign policy represents its vision for how the world should be. 2016 is a promising year for change, with a number of important elections (including the U.S. presidential election) and global summits. Yet the chance for meaningful change requires political courage. Change in the world, in the Middle East will require bottom-up organizing and active, meaningful participation by the people affected by policy changes. Chances of that happening on a systematic level are slim. After all, only 10% of New Year’s resolutions are successfully followed through with come December 31. Maybe this year, the West will seek a change and follow through.

 

By Kate Moran

Photo Credit: Flickr/GlobalPanorama

If you’re like millions of Americans, you were anxiously anticipating the Season 5 premiere of Homeland, which aired last night on Showtime. I too, couldn’t wait to tune in. For months, I’d been looking forward to Carrie Matheson’s return to primetime with her motley crew of CIA agents and agency assets.

But despite my love for the show, I’ve always been rather uncomfortable with Homeland’s portrayal of the Muslim world—from Arabs to Iranians and Pakistanis, the show’s most ubiquitous archetypes consist of angry, radicalized, bushy-browed men with hooked noses, and beautiful, veiled women who seem desperate to break free of the bondage of their fathers and brothers. It’s assumed that these caricatures are synonymous with Muslim culture at large.

And with the Season 5 premiere opening in predictable fashion—an ominous-looking man of clearly Middle Eastern descent skulks through a German train station and finds his way to a brothel—it got me thinking about the ways in which Western media and entertainment demonize minorities and perpetuate the cycle of marginalization that has led to a rise in Islamic extremist attacks in Europe.

Almost every crime and drama show produced in the post-9/11 era has contained some form of ethnic demonization—often blurring the lines between religion, culture, and nationality to forge a grotesque stereotype of “Muslim.” To those seeking to make a profit, misrepresentation of Muslims and an ever-increasing portrayal of a singular storyline—namely Muslim terrorist—is of no consequence. But what producers and screenwriters and even the actors themselves don’t realize—the vast majority of whom are not of Muslim heritage—is that the continued demonization and marginalization of Muslims in entertainment fuels extremist ideology and perpetuates a culture of “otherness” that is a main reason for the lone wolf attacks we’ve seen in recent months carried out by Islamist militants. Studies as early as 2007 show the negative effects of such social marginalization in EU member states; in every instance, increased marginalization was linked with upticks in violence by members of marginalized communities.

Sure, Homeland (and the dozens of shows like it) might make great television. But if these shows are also sowing seeds of extremism, is it worth it? A recent study published by Pew reveals that by 2050, Muslims will make up 30% of the global population, with 2.8 billion adherents. This number will essentially be on par with the global Christian population, which will comprise 2.9 billion followers at 31% of the population. By 2070, the world’s Muslim population will eclipse that of Christians. And in places like Europe, where birthrates have been rapidly dropping (and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future), these demographic shifts will appear even more drastic. By 2050, the Muslim population on the Continent will have doubled—to almost 10%; that’s 7.8 million believers.

Practically speaking, these numbers mean that continued marginalization and demonization of Muslim communities is a bad idea. This is neither new nor revolutionary information, but it seems to be the case that it must be reiterated nonetheless. Simply put, we are directly and significantly contributing to a culture of Islamic extremism in Europe and the United States by continuing to endorse and financially support the marginalization, discrimination, and misrepresentation of Muslims in our media and entertainment.

We cannot escape the implications of our actions; by watching television shows and movies that seek to portray Islam in a negative light and by failing to take a stand against blatant Islamophobia in our culture, we are paving the way for increased attacks—not just abroad, but in our own communities. By refusing to educate ourselves and provide a better path forward for the generations who will come after us, we are perpetuating a world order in which ignorance will fuel greater discrimination and greater violence. And this is why, despite my love and devotion to the first four seasons of Homeland, I won’t be tuning in to Season 5. Sorry, Carrie, but Islamophobia’s not cool. Instead, I’ll be putting my money (and my Netflix binge sessions) to better use by supporting filmmakers and arts projects that promote cross-cultural dialogue, not division, and who refuse to take the easy way out by relying on old, tired tropes that were never relevant in the first place.

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

Two Hui men performing their morning prayers at the Great Mosque of Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, China. Source: Nagarjun Kandukuru/Flickr.

Interestingly, it was only through reading an essay calling for the construction of a viable Muslim American culture that I got interested in the issue of Chinese Islam. Although this selection of cultural traditions might seem somewhat schizophrenic, I do believe that the essay—by Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, chairman of the Nawawi Foundation—made a worthwhile point regarding the intricate dance between cultural unity and cultural diversity from the perspective of Islam.

Asserting that “the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions were not at war with the world’s cultures and ethnicities but entertained an honest, accommodating, and generally positive view of the broad social endowments of other peoples and places,” Dr. Abd-Allah brought up the Chinese and East African Muslims as examples of how Islamic culture managed to balance “regional diversity within the overriding framework of the revealed law’s transcendental unity.” It is to this first example that I shall now turn to; if not to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity borne perhaps from my own affiliation with Chinese culture, then to take a potshot at our tendency to conceive of culture through neatly-defined boundaries and categories.

The presence of Islam in China dates all the way back to the Tang dynasty, when Arab and Persian merchants became the first Muslim settlers in China between the seventh and tenth centuries. The Mongol conquest of China in the thirteenth century that established the Yuan dynasty also brought many Muslims from the Middle East and Central Asia into China. Over the course of the succeeding centuries (and dynasties) in Chinese history, many of these Muslims and their descendants would gradually integrate into Chinese culture. This process of assimilation was occasionally punctuated by conflict, with some Chinese Muslims going on to instigate rebellions, especially during the Qing dynasty between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

That said, by the time of the Qing period, the literature produced by Chinese Muslim intellectuals already reflected the deep extent of the cultural cross-pollination between Chinese and Islamic cultures in China. This corpus of literature is known as the Han Kitāb, a combination of the Mandarin word for the Chinese language, hàn, with the Arabic word for book, kitāb. According to James Frankel, a scholar on the history of Islam in China, the Han Kitāb was concerned with educating both the Chinese Muslim and non-Muslim literati about Islam and they did so through in the language of Confucianism—one of the most dominant schools of ethical and philosophical thought in Chinese history. Frankel also asserted that the Chinese Muslim intellectuals who were behind the Han Kitāb regarded themselves as “simultaneously Chinese and Muslim” and were thus able to integrate Islamic and Confucian religious and philosophic concepts seamlessly in their work.

In order to understand how this synthesis of Islamic and Confucian thought was achieved, I shall first briefly describe the key tenets of Confucianism. Central to Confucian thought is the notion of the Way (dào), which refers to the ultimate reality that permeates all aspects of the universe. Adherence to the Way is the highest ethical ideal and this can only be realized through the individual cultivation of virtue (). According to the Confucians, respect for tradition, embodied within the rituals () of the ancient Chinese sage-kings, is the principal means of cultivating virtue. Similarly, learning is also highly prized as well. Sages (shèngrén) are those who are able to cultivate their virtue to the highest possible degree and thus play the role of moral exemplars, whose actions ought to be emulated.

The Han Kitāb situates Islam within the Confucian tradition by portraying the Prophet Muhammad as a sage. For instance, the Chinese Muslim scholar, Liu Zhi—the most prolific of the Han Kitāb scholars—asserted in his biography of the Prophet Muhammad (Tiānfāng zhìshèng shílǜ) that the Prophet is the “most sagely” of all types of sages. In doing so, as the historian Zvi Ben-Dor Benite wrote in his book, The Dao of Muhammad, “the quintessential category of the Muslim world—the prophet—is in the Chinese Muslim instance converted into the quintessential category of China’s intellectual elite—the sage.”

This portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad as a sage is important because it effectively legitimized the study of Islam within the Chinese intellectual landscape. If the Prophet Muhammad is indeed a sage, then his teachings—Islam—becomes a valid component of the Way that forms the primary subject of Confucian discourse, and more broadly, Chinese intellectual discourse. According to Benite, this is why the Chinese Muslim scholars have never invoked the hadith—the collection of the reported teachings, deeds and sayings of the Prophet—as the basis for one’s conduct. Instead, the Prophet Muhammad should be emulated simply because he is a sage.

Another point of convergence in the Han Kitāb between the Islamic and Confucian tradition is in the claim that Islamic rituals and practices are completely in line with those of the ancient Chinese sage-kings. Liu Zhi, in another book on Islamic ritual practice (Tiānfāng diǎnlǐ), stated that “observing and practicing the proprieties of Islam is like observing and practicing the teachings of the ancient sages and kings,” as Sachiko Murata, William Chittick, and Tu Weiming pointed out in their book, The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi. Not surprisingly, given that the various proprieties of Islam are codified under sharia law and that the teachings of the ancient sage-kings form the foundation of Confucian rituals, Liu Zhi also managed to link sharia law to Confucian ritual propriety. As Frankel highlighted, in the Tiānfāng diǎnlǐ, Liu Zhi called sharia the “Vehicle of Ritual […] for the one who is diligent in cultivating virtue.”

On the whole, the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad as the “most sagely” sage and Islam as part of the Way, as well as the framing of sharia as ritual to cultivate virtue, are some examples to showcase how the Han Kitāb could incorporate Islam with Confucianism. Obviously, since the Han Kitāb was the work of “a large group of Chinese Muslim literati” as Benite indicated, there are many more ways in which the synthesis between Islam and Confucianism was undertaken. Nonetheless, the ways that I have indicated above in this essay does provide a good sense of how the broad parameters of each tradition can be aligned with each other.

At a broader level, I would also posit that knowledge about the Han Kitāb and how Chinese Muslims have tried to indigenize Islam does have relevance beyond just trying to impress someone else with esoteric factoids. Learning about the intersections between the Islamic and Chinese cultural traditions and their synthesis provides us with yet another example of the malleability of our cultural traditions. In the same vein, it should also caution us against essentializing any culture—be it Islam, Confucianism, or something else altogether.

Indeed, the story of Islam and Confucianism, and how they came together, forms just a single trajectory in the very messy bundle of histories that make up the human condition. By considering—even just for a little bit—the myriad ways in which cultural traditions have been integrated, dissected, or even invented, we might perhaps better appreciate the remarkable messiness that underlies the human condition. After all, the fact that we each draw upon different bits of this gigantic mess to make sense of our lives does make this world a little more fun to learn about, doesn’t it?

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