Friday, March 14, 2014

Saudi officials shut down display at book fair

Dr. Madwai Al-Rasheed -- March 13, 2014

Saudi Arabia boasts about the annual Riyadh International Book Fair, where Saudis can explore a flourishing book market, meet authors and engage in intellectual discussion. Every year, however, the book fair is transformed from an intellectual market into something more resembling a battle for the hearts and minds of Saudis. The gathering has become an arena in which multiple actors want to assert their presence, control the event and dictate what Saudis should and should not read. During the 2014 book fair, this struggle resulted in visitors on March 7 posting photos online of the destruction inflicted the night before on the booth of the Arab Network for Research and Publishing, a relatively new press based in Beirut.

Many writers and readers look forward to the annual book event, which breaks up the monotony of intellectual life in the kingdom and allows them to enjoy a different kind of consumption. The government promotes the book fair under the auspices of the Ministry of Information, while security agents, accompanied by members of the Committee for Promoting Virtue and Prohibiting Vice, otherwise known as the religious police, search for books to confiscate and destroy. They also look for any signs of mingling between the sexes and flirtatious behavior deemed to undermine public order.

A group of young Saudi intellectuals, including Judge Abdulaziz al-Qasim and the journalist Nawaf al-Qudaimi, established the Arab Network for Research and Publishing to promote books offering new perspectives on society, religion and politics. As the press' director, Qudaimi worked hard to create a significant collection of books written by Saudis and other Arabs, all presenting new interpretations of history and religious tradition with a view toward reconstructing consciousness and promoting an examination of past and current knowledge. The press also translates books from other languages, primarily academic English books on Saudi Arabia and other countries. Days before the book fair, Qudaimi had begun to promote the press' 2014 list, tweeting short promotional materials and summaries of the awaited titles. He was granted permission to display the publishing house’s collection in a designated corner at the Riyadh book fair.

The press' books arrived and were displayed as expected. Qudaimi's early publicity effort was so successful that a number of Saudis were looking forward to purchasing copies of their favorite volumes. They were disappointed, however, when they arrived to find the ransacking of the press’ display a day after the book fair opened its doors. Books and papers were scattered and thrown from the tables set up for their exhibition. Thus, the press was only able to display its collection for a very short time before being closed down. 

Among Saudi liberals speculating about the reasons behind the raid, the majority prefer to blame the religious police, absolving the regime from any wrongdoing. This is an easy way out for them, because they would like to think of the regime as a bastion of enlightenment working against a tide of religious conservatism, bigotry and radicalization. They have exhausted this myth, however, and instead live under the illusion that King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz is a reformer, working hard to open Saudi Arabia to new ideas and curb the influence of radical groups across the society. They cheered when a recent royal decree promised to punish radical groups and designate them as terrorists. The raid at the book fair affirms the myth's collapse.

The raid not only proves that reform in Saudi Arabia is in short supply, but confirms that the regime is not serious about fighting terrorism. Freedom of expression is not by any means an unlimited right, but it is a precondition for open debate, including tackling the roots of violence. Without people being able to engage in free debate, read alternative interpretations and expose themselves to new ideas, the regime is fighting a lost cause. In fact, the raid proves that the government does not want to create the intellectual conditions for new ways of thinking and behaving.

The raided publications hardly contain any radical ideas, blasphemy or immoral material. In fact, several volumes deconstruct the roots of Wahhabi teachings, in particular those that would perpetuate repression at the personal and political levels, promote violence and suppress people’s rights. Many authors are critical of old Wahhabi teachings that promote rejection of democracy and civil and political rights.

A common theme runs through many books in which some authors search for ways to free the Islamic tradition from the authority of religious scholars whose interpretations have become sacred, especially in Saudi Arabia. Rather than exporting Wahhabi ideas, these Saudi authors draw on the work of modernist scholars in North Africa and elsewhere to reconstruct Islamic interpretations suitable for modern society. Many volumes offer a serious critique of Islamists in Saudi Arabia, highlighting their shortcomings in preparing people for demanding their rights.

The book fair raid indicates that such a collection of books has been designated a threat to Saudi national security. The regime, however, cannot fight terrorism simply by arresting terrorists and criminalizing radical language that might incite violence. It should allow people to engage in alternative ways of emancipating themselves and freeing their conscience from the oppressive preaching that still dominates the country. The regime knows very well, however, that this freedom is inevitably bound to sweep away the political repression that sustains, finances and nourishes those whose main objective is to control the hearts and minds of citizens. As a regime founded on a holy marriage with Wahhabism, one of the most rigid Islamic traditions, considered by some as Islam par excellence, it knows all too well that its survival is dependent on Wahhabism remaining a revered corpus of religious thought.

The Saudi regime is keen to prepare Saudis for the afterlife, but the raided books aim to prepare them for this life, hence they were targeted in a way that demonstrates how dangerous this perspective is viewed. Books that praise the pious rulers of the country, congratulate them on their development projects and commend their support of Islamic causes are well-guarded on the book fair’s shelves. Also those publications that teach one how to ablute during water shortages remain abundant, but those that prepare people to pursue their rights as citizens or deconstruct mythologized history are banned.

No historical or political change can be forthcoming without a paradigm shift that dismantles traditional ways of thinking and replaces them with new perspectives. The regime fears this shift and is determined to suppress its slow birth. The Saudi regime is fighting a losing battle in the age of new media, during which books can circulate in electronic form. Its raid only sparked curiosity and increased people's determination to search for the destroyed publications online.

The iron curtain has already fallen, and Saudi authors are themselves the new archaeologists with sturdy trowels for excavating a fossilized body of religious and political thought. The famous 10th-century Arab poet Abu al-Tayib al-Mutanabi said that the sword is mightier than the pen, but weak and troubled regimes, such as the Saudis', seem to fear the pen more than the sword. 

Dr. Madawi Al-Rasheed is a columnist for Al-Monitor and a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalization, religious trans-nationalism and gender. On Twitter: @MadawiDr

Thursday, March 13, 2014

El-Tawhid Juma Circle Mosques statement regarding Abu Eesa


March 13, 2014

El-Tawhid Juma Circle Mosques (Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Vancouver, Halifax, and Calgary) would like to express their solidarity with all those who have been harmed by al-Maghrib Institute's Abu Eesa Niamatullah's sexist "jokes," regardless of gender-identity, in celebration of International Women's Day and the vicious sarcasm that followed in which he expressed explicit violence against women. His language harms everyone who is vulnerable to gendered violence and that includes straight male allies.

We are not simply disgusted by his words, but are also concerned by the near lack of clear statements of condemnation from other religious leaders. At the time of the release of this statement, the only unequivocal statements from a religious leader is from Ahmed Kutty of The Islamic Institute of Toronto, otherwise we have only heard the voices of professionals who are also lay community leaders such as Rabia Chaudry and Samar Kaukab Ahmad. Comments on Facebook buried in longer discussions, unspecific statements on the Prophet's good character, or a few tweets do not suffice to demonstrate censure for his language and concern for those who have been harmed. The vulnerable should not be forced to scour the ground for scraps of support. We do not believe these religious scholars fully grasp that their lack of clear condemnation sends exactly the same message as Abu Eesa's violent language: You cannot count on your religious communities to keep you safe.

The Prophet of God, alayhi salam, never spoke to women in such a manner. In fact, he explicitly condemned men who used such language toward women. We believe that our beloved Prophet understood that violent language is a form of violence itself and begets physical violence in the community at large. All Muslims must speak up in the Prophet's name and in the name of an Islam that is safe for all those who lack power and authority in the broader community. We are all called, in our own distinct communities, to uphold the explicit guidance from God to act beautifully in this world and fight oppression. The Prophet, alayhi salam, shared a powerful principle of social justice by commanding us to act when we see wrongdoing. If we cannot do that, then speak out. If we cannot do that, then pray. And prayer, he said, is the weakest form of faith in when combatting oppression.

Laury Silvers (Co-Founder, ETJC; Coordinating Imam, Toronto Unity Mosque)
El-Farouk Khaki (Co-Founder ETJC; Coordinating Imam, Toronto Unity Mosque)
Troy Jackson (Co-Founder, President, ETJC)
Krista Riley (Founder, Coordinating Imam, Montreal Unity Mosque)
Bariza Umar (Founder, Coordinating Imam, Montreal Unity Mosque)
Terna Hamida Tilley-Gyado (Founder, Coordinating Imam, Boston Unity Mosque)
Gul Khaki (Coordinating Member, Vancouver Unity Mosque)
Rahat Kurd (Coordinating Member, Vancouver Unity Mosque)
Nasser Hamadeh (Coordinating Member, Vancouver Unity Mosque)
Adnan Hussein (Coordinator, Halifax Unity Mosque)
Tanda Chmilovska (Coordinator, Calgary Unity Mosque)
Shayma Johnson (Coordinator, Calgary Unity Mosque)

ETJC Mosques create spaces for prayer, reflection, and discussion founded on the certainty that all human beings, without exception, are equal to one another socially and ritually. We stand for radical tawhid. Absolute Oneness. Absolute Equality. That is our Islam. Nothing else.

Speak Good or Remain Silent: A Response to the Recent Remarks of a Muslim Teacher

by Shaikh Ahmad Kutty 

March 13, 2014

Everything that is done in our society to bring more equity into it is a worthy cause for Muslims, including International Women’s Day, for, irrespective of ideological backgrounds, we must support social justice. This is the lesson of Hilf al-Fudul or the Pact of Virtue that the Prophet spoke so highly of. He said, “if I were called to a cause similar to that I would respond to it no matter who calls for it.”

“Speak that which is good or remain silent.”

These are the words of the Prophet (peace be upon him) that immediately came to mind on perusing some of the comments and counter comments on social media regarding the highly derogatory remarks made recently by one of the Instructors of al-Maghrib Institute. His words demean women and cannot be excused or brushed aside as an innocent joke or an attempt at humor.

I advise the brother to retract his words and apologize unconditionally. Let me explain why.

Words heal or hurt; they may elevate our spiritual status or they may pull us down. Humans by nature can easily fall into temptation by using words carelessly, thus hurting themselves and others in the process. Hence, the Prophet’s valuable advice to use words wisely and beneficially or restrain ourselves and remain silent.

The Prophet always measured his words so that by the end of his sermons, listeners would retain simply the main points. He warned against the irresponsible use of one’s tongue.

While advising his companion, the Prophet said, “Hold off the tongue!” When the latter asked, “will I be accountable for my words?”, he said, “most people find themselves in hellfire because of the misuse of their tongues.”

The companions imbibed this Prophetic wisdom well. Ali said, “wounds inflicted by spears can be healed; however, not so the wounds inflicted by tongues.” Abu Bakr: “There is nothing I need to restrain more than my own tongue!” Another said, “My tongue is a predatory beast; if I unleash it, it may bounce back and devour me!”

There is a great deal of wisdom in the spiritual discipline of observing silence. This practice should only be broken when we have something good to say or when we need to rectify a wrong or redress an injustice.

Sadly, our social atmosphere today is increasingly poisoned by the careless use and even the misuse of our words. We are prone to innuendos, easy sarcasms, smears and stereotyping. We indulge in name calling, labeling and vilifying or taking a quick shot at those we dislike or disagree with.

We must cure ourselves of these vices or diseases, as Imam Ghazali describes them, if only we care about preserving the health of our spiritual heart..

What about banter? Isn’t there a place in Islam for humor and lighthearted joking?

The Prophet, peace be upon him, was always jovial and never shied away from humor. However, he made sure to avoid words that were hurtful and derogatory; he also advised his followers to stay clear of them at all times. His beloved wife Aishah once described Safiyah as ‘the one with short hands’. The Prophet responded with “ you have used such words that would even pollute the water of the ocean.”

If there is anything good to come out of this, it is this: those who are seen to speak on behalf of Islam – scholars, leaders, and workers alike – would do well to practice the discipline of silence.

I believe the comments made by the instructor mentioned above were offensive and hurtful, no matter how one may try to rationalize it. As there is no dearth of misogyny parading as genuine Islam among Muslims, we need to stay clear of words and expressions that may be demeaning or derogatory even with the best of intentions. And we have a duty to side with everyone who is for standing up for the rights of those whose rights have been denied. Muslims must never bury our heads like ostriches in the sand, blaming others or being apologetic for our crimes or faults. We cannot change others; we can only change ourselves.

Unless Muslims take responsibility to redress the grievances of Muslim women and give women their equally respectable place in our community by following the example of our beloved Prophet, peace be upon him, we will never be able to bring about a genuine Islamic renaissance.

Everything that is done in our society to bring more equity into it is a worthy cause for Muslims, including International Women’s Day, for, irrespective of ideological backgrounds, we must support social justice. This is the lesson of Hilf al-Fudul or the Pact of Virtue that the Prophet spoke so highly of. He said, “if I were called to a cause similar to that I would respond to it no matter who calls for it.”

The Prophet never said that if he were called to join a noble cause, he wouldn’t do so if those advocating it were pagans or atheists. The reminder here is that when it comes to causes which will bring about increased social justice, Muslims are to join hands with all who take part. And there is indeed a crisis in the inequitable ways women and girls are treated around the world. As those who belong to the ummah of a Prophet who actively addressed and challenged this inequity, we should be unequivocal about our stance on this issue. This includes Muslim women AND Muslim men.

Once this wisdom is learned, I would advise the brother to go for a spiritual retreat and practice the discipline of silence. I would assure him that he will never regret it. By doing so, he would help himself and thus will be able to serve the cause of Islam better.

I pray to Allah to grant us rectitude in words and actions and forgive us our sins, major and minor, outward and inward, that which we recognize and that which we are not aware of.

Overlooked victims: Why America needs an initiative to lift its young Muslim boys

Young Muslim American men are stereotyped, vilified and marginalized, disrupting not only their “educational outcomes and psychosocial well-being, but also their sense of nation and belonging.” W.E.B. DuBois, the African-American civil rights activist and writer, asked, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Muslim American men today are posing the same question. READ MORE.....

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

LISTEN ONTARIO NOON: Help based on ethnicity. Does it help or stigmatize students?

Help based on ethnicity. Does it help or stigmatize students?

A task force in Toronto is recommending special help for students of Somali descent.

Is it racist or discriminatory to give special help to students based on ethnicity?


Sunday, March 9, 2014

On-line petition for an inquiry on the murdered and missing Aboriginal women

In response to the news that the federal government will not invoke a national inquiry on the 600 plus lives of Aboriginal women, some may wish to participate in an on-line petition to government initiated by Holly Jarettt, the cousin of Loretta Saunders, whose body was found in NB in mid February.  To do so, just click the link: