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Culture & Religion

Archive | Culture & Religion

For Iraq, will it be Sunni Caliphate or Shiite Imamate? Either way, Moderates Lose

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Ahmed Saad/Reuters

Iraq is in turmoil, and a full-fledged sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites appears imminent. The United States will need to interject forces yet again due to the incompetence of the Iraqi armed forces. The misrule of Nouri al-Maliki has also been exposed. However, beyond all that, something else is worth discussing here. The message and motives of ISIS have clearly shown that they intend to impose a Muslim caliphate.

This has set off alarm bells. A caliphate largely run by Muslim extremists poses a threat to Western hegemony in the region, moderate Muslim rule as well as the misrule of regional despots. Obviously, everyone should be alarmed by the success of ISIS.

The fact that ISIS dislikes Shiite rule in Iraq further adds a new dimension to the age-old question: Sunni caliphate or Shiite imamate? Which one is the better self-rule option for Muslims, and more importantly, for preserving the peace of the entire region? Many experts on the region would argue neither, but that debate is for another day.

For centuries, Christendom tried to eliminate the caliphate, and failed. However, towards the start of the Modern World, the secular West did manage to remove the caliphate. Centuries have passed since then, and most present-day Muslims feel detached from the days of the caliphate. Even though calls for restoration of a caliphate, be it by violent or peaceful means, are made every now and then (ISIS is a case in point), many Muslims don’t consider it a viable option.

The recent conflict can be compared to the Iran-Iraq War. Back then, Iran viewed the conflict as the struggle of a religious Shiite state against a godless Arab Socialist regime of Saddam Hussein, whereas the latter projected the war as a by-product of the ever-expanding encroachment of Persians on Arab culture.

Times have changed. Previously, Sunnis were viewed by the West as a moderate community of Muslims, whereas Shiites were the fanatics who chanted: “Death to America! Death to Israel!” Today, the Western climate seems pro-Shiite, and Sunnis are viewed as the problem.

This sectarian conflict has historical roots. A tiny group of people believed that the caliphate rightfully belonged to Ali, and it should not have gone to Abu Bakr, Umar and Usman. Having emerged as a matter of political disagreement, Shiism soon took the shape of a religious group within Islam, organizing itself under the doctrine of imamah.

For Shiites, the divine imams are infallible and incorruptible. They are immune to human flaws. In this regard, Shiite imamate is comparable to the Catholic model of the Pope — a supreme leader, who is above the flaws and faults of the world, and passes on the leadership sans the hysteria of mass elections.

As such, there is good room for democratic aspirations in the Sunni model of caliphate: the caliph is supposed to be guided by the interests of the common masses. Accountability to the people is a concept that is central to the idea of the Sunni caliphate. But this democratic spirit is absent in Shiite imamate, which is based on absolute theocracy.

It must be noted, though, that the Ayatollahs are not divine imams themselves. According to Shiism, the last divine imam of Shiism, Mehndi, left this world back in the eighth century, and will be back at an appropriate time.

Sunni caliphate differs from Shiite imamate in both ideological and practical terms. The former has potential for democratic reforms (of course, this does not mean ISIS will be keen on becoming a democratic body anytime soon), whereas the latter has a theocratic structure that offers unlimited socio-political powers to its divine imam.

All said and done, the concept of political leadership is just the tip of the iceberg, and the sects have many differences. Bloodshed and anarchy will help neither side, and this is where the role of both Shiite and Sunni scholars becomes important. Caliphate and/or imamate cannot be imposed by means of guns and bombs; consensus and civilized debates seem to be a much better option.

Islam is unique in the sense that it offers a good deal of personal and political freedom to its adherents, and both Sunnis and Shiites need to realize that political leadership can be discussed only when political unity has been achieved.

Saudi Arabia’s Sectarian Challenge

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BroadArrow/Wikimedia
BroadArrow/Wikimedia

BroadArrow/Wikimedia

Last month, two Saudi Shi’ites received death sentences for allegedly committing crimes that caused no deaths or injuries, marking the harshest punishments issued by Saudi Arabia’s government against Shi’ite activists in the Eastern Province (EP) since sectarian unrest erupted in this strategically vital region of the Kingdom during 2011. In an effort to quell its citizens’ aspirations for political and social reform, the government has since spent $130 billion on public sector programs throughout the Kingdom.

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Habsburg Nostalgia: Europe’s Most Embarrassing Anachronism?

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Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty Images
Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty Images

Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty Images

In a recently published piece entitled “The House of Habsburg, Revisited,” the author, Simon Winder, engages in a thoughtful yet hyperbolic polemic ridiculing the recent resurgence of interest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Central Europe. His argument in a nutshell is that, while the Austrian Empire was backward and oppressive, it nevertheless provided a sense of security and rule of law for the eleven different nationalities inhabiting this vast state in Central Europe.

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An Ayatollah in Iran Takes an Unorthodox Step in Support of Baha’is

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Bahá’í World News Service
Bahá’í World News Service

Bahá’í World News Service

A few weeks ago, a senior clergyman in Iran, Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi Tehrani, did the unthinkable. He joined a gathering of human rights activists commemorating the sixth anniversary of the incarceration of the seven-person leadership group of the Baha’i community of Iran. Earlier, in April, Tehrani announced that he had created a calligraphic work from a passage from the sacred scriptures of the Baha’i Faith.

To acknowledge, let alone honor, Baha’i scriptures is unprecedented among Iran’s Shia clergy and, in the eyes of many clerics, amounts to blasphemy. Indeed, as recently as July 29 of last year, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, reissued a religious edict urging Iranians to avoid associating with members of the “deviant sect,” well-known terminology used to refer to the Baha’i Faith. Hence, joining the meeting of human rights activists added exponentially to the Ayatollah’s already stunningly bold creation of the calligraphic work.

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The Rise and Fall of Political Islam in Egypt

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Associated Press
Associated Press

Associated Press

“Political Islam is a product of modernity as much as a response to it.” – Mohammed Ayoob

Islam emerged in elitist and starkly divided tribal societies that had over time corrupted the prevalent status quo. Beginning as a movement rallying for greater inclusiveness, unity and equality under the umbrella of one god regardless of lineage, wealth, age, or gender, it quickly transformed into a uniting factor for different tribal groups that ousted the classist beliefs and practises of the hierarchical and powerful Bedouin tribe in Arabia.

It served as an active call for addressing the social and economic problems prevalent at the time; political for those who wielded power and influence, empowering for those who had none. Islam’s origins were driven by ideals of justice and egalitarianism, rejecting the prevalent inequalities in the distribution of power among humans. Despite the evolution of Islam, Islamic ideals, Islamic objectives, and Islamic principles throughout history, questions pertaining to governance, legitimacy, the rights and duties of the ruler and the ruled, and the conditionality of the allegiance has, and continues to remain an issue of concern to Muslims, and Muslim societies.

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Saudi Arabia’s Escalating Campaign against Shia Muslims

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Reuters
Reuters

Reuters

Although Saudi Arabia’s campaign against Shia Muslims has become apparent and undeniable since the Arab Spring movement in 2011, the Kingdom has run a vicious and segregationist policy against Shia Muslims ever since its founding father, King Ibn Saud, assumed the self-proclaimed reign of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It would be almost impossible to draw an exhaustive list of the many violations which the Shia community have suffered in Saudi Arabia alone. However, one has only to look at Al Saud’s open calls for regional bloodshed against the Shia community to grasp the sheer magnitude and tyrannical nature of the Kingdom’s anti-Shia policy.

No one should forget the spite expressed by the leader of the congregation at the Grand Mosque (Masjid-ul-Haraam) in Mecca, Adel Al Kalbani, which shocked even his interviewer on BBC Arabic Television in May 2009 when he declared that all Shia Muslims were apostate, unbelievers, and as such should be hunted down and killed. Knowing that Al Kalbani was appointed to his position by the King himself, one can only surmise that the cleric was merely expressing the state’s sentiment and forthcoming policy against all Shia Muslims, whether within or outside the borders of the Kingdom. Al Kalbani suggested that all Saudi Shia should be forced to leave the Kingdom, “as for repatriating the Shia, we can possibly discuss it.” He stressed that no members of the Shia community should be entitled to political representation at the Supreme Council of Ulama, even though they are citizens.

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Activists in Bahrain denounce anti-Shia Policies

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Al Jazeera English

Early last week political activists affiliated with Bahrain’s opposition groups delivered a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon calling for his office to take a stand against Bahrain’s systematic targeting of the Shia community.

Al Jazeera English

Al Jazeera English

Ever since Bahrainis rose against the government in 2011, emboldened by the Arab Spring, to demand social and judicial reforms be implemented, the state has targeted the Shia community, using repression and oppression to silence calls for freedom and social justice. Threatened by Bahrain’s Shiite majority, the ruling family, who are themselves Sunni Muslims, have transposed their fear of change onto the people, keen to ignite anti-Shia sentiment as they believe only this strategy will allow them to maintain their grip on power.

What the regime has failed to understand is that activists are not seeking to use their faith as a springboard for political advancement. What they have tirelessly campaigned for, however, is complete social inclusion, beyond race, political affiliation or faith. Home to an estimated 361,696 Shia Muslims (which represents over 85% of Bahrain’s total population) the state simply cannot continue to hold an entire people under such shackles of fear. Persecuted by the security forces, vilified by the media, Bahrain’s Shiite community is awaiting vindication.

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After Morsi, Injustice Persists for Egypt’s Copts

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Coptic Christians protesting in 2011. Photo: Omar Robert Hamilton

Across the street from my cousin’s apartment in Rod al-Farag, an area of Cairo’s popular Shubra district, hangs a large banner depicting the late Coptic Pope, Shenouda III.

Coptic Christians protesting in 2011. Photo: Omar Robert Hamilton

Coptic Christians protesting in 2011. Photo: Omar Robert Hamilton

The caption is not a quintessential spiritual saying, or biblical quote, but a message directed at the Muslim residents of the area. “To all Muslims” the note reads, “thank you for your support in times of grief.” Comparable signs of harmony were voiced during Shenouda’s funeral, three days after his passing. In a tribute to the deceased Pope, a senior cleric said, “it is because of him that we have national unity with our Muslim brothers.”

The words recollected the efforts Shenouda had made to bolster interfaith ties in the country. One of the measures he carried out during his pontificate was a ban preventing the Copts from visiting Jerusalem. “Except with our brothers the Muslims, following its liberation [of Jerusalem].” Conversely, at the same time of his passing, violence against Egypt’s Christians was on the rise again. The broad union, that had unified Muslims and Christians in the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, also, has mostly ended.

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Are Muslims Anti-Science?

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Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Tim O'Brien

“Seek knowledge, even if you have to go all the way to China!.”

Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Tim O’Brien

The above is one of the most well-known and oft-quoted statements of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Even though its origins are questionable and not entirely verifiable, it has served as an inspiration for scientific thought and rational ideas in the Islamic world for centuries. Sadly, present-day Muslims seem to be detached from that very rational and scientific learning that once was a hallmark of the Islamic world. According to Science Watch, out of the top 20 countries in terms of overall scientific output, Turkey is the only Muslim representative, with a modest rank of 19. A civilization that had a humble beginning but soon reached the pinnacle of scientific and social learning seems to have come full circle. What exactly has gone wrong?

Pre-Islamic Arabian tribes had their own share of superstitions and lame beliefs: a solar eclipse occurred when a prominent personality died; birds flying in a particular direction signified an impending omen; certain numbers had mystical prowess; and so on. When Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) announced his Prophethood to the world, he also declared such beliefs as irrational and incorrect. As a result, with the rise of Islam, superstition took a back-seat and eventually, scientific learning became the way of the world. Yet, shortly after the decline of the Islamic Golden Age, Muslims went back to the superstitious and irrational lifestyle that they had abandoned in favor of Islamic iconoclasm. The spirit of inquiry was replaced by blind beliefs, and the result can be assessed from the dismal state of contemporary Muslims when it comes to scientific learning.

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Balochistan’s Inherent Value

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Typical village in the Dhrun National Park, Balochistan. Photo: Nasha Ila

The vast mountainous desert region in Pakistan’s southwest is known as Balochistan which covers 347,190 square kilometers and constitutes 44% of Pakistan’s total landmass.

Typical village in the Dhrun National Park, Balochistan. Photo: Nasha Ila

In the North and Northwest lies the Durand line, dividing Balochistan and Afghanistan. To the West is the Iranian border, and in the North & East is the Indus River, which separates Balochistan from Sindh & Punjab respectively. South of Balochistan is the Arabian Sea, where the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz provides the shortest shipping route from the Middle & Near East to Central Asia.

Balochistan has acted as a key strategic region essential to maintaining control of the surrounding regions. Soon after the British exodus from British-India and the subsequent partition of British- India, the newly formed Pakistan quickly annexed the region. Since the division of Balochistan through creation of the Durand line, the indigenous Baloch population has also been divided. Since its inception, the population of Pakistan has been mired in poverty and corruption. Pakistan has notoriously allocated funds and resources for their military rather than the development of civil infrastructure and social services. Additionally, Pakistan’s central government has deprived Balochistan of any benefits from the wealth of natural resources in the region. Despite an abundance of natural resources and substantial potential for development, Balochis live in poverty and the region is underdeveloped.

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Nowruz, a Harbinger of Cultural Diplomacy

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Nowruz celebration. Photo: Kourosh Ziabari

The Persian New Year, which coincided with the commencement of the Vernal Equinox, has arrived and people across Iran and in parts of Central and West Asia and the Middle East are celebrating this ancient festival, which marks the beginning of the new solar year.

Nowruz celebration. Photo: Kourosh Ziabari

Nowruz, meaning the “New Day,” refers to a set of festivities and rites that mark the arrival of spring and the Persian New Year. It is not simply an ordinary event of celebration and rejoicing or a national custom. Rather it is an historical and interregional tradition which dates back to some 3,000 years ago and connects people of different ethnic, lingual and national backgrounds and promotes regional peace and friendship.

Today, Nowruz has been recognized by the international community as a worldwide cultural event with significant social and political implications. Even though many nations observe and enshrine this festival, its origins and roots belong to Iranians, so leaders from different Western countries seize the opportunity of Nowruz every year to reach out to the Iranian people and send political messages to them. For instance, the U.S. presidents in the recent years have regularly recorded video messages addressed to the Iranian people on the occasion of the Persian New Year. This message includes their plans and ambitions for strengthening and repairing the long-marred relations between Iran and the United States.

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Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Visit to the Port of Massawa

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Sheikh Said Island, Massawa, 1963. Photo: Richard Lyman

Preparing for teaching my classes at Haile Selassie Secondary School required a lot of reading.

Sheikh Said Island, Massawa, 1963. Photo: Richard Lyman

Most of my students did not have textbooks nor did I have a syllabus to follow. Marty Benjamin, my housemate, and I compared notes and discovered that between the two of us we were asked to teach every subject except home economics, physical education, Amharic and morals because our Indian colleagues refused to teach more than one subject area. We were responsible for all the other classes.

Early on in my stay in Gondar I discovered that the only things family and friends could send me that would not be “lost” in the Ethiopian postal system were books. My mother kept me well supplied with books for teaching and recreational reading. In a previous entry “Peace Corps Diary: 1962-1964 Part 17” I discussed how I enjoyed Alan Morehead’s Blue Nile. Reading another book she sent, Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief, made me feel like a young child who was reading some illicit work under the covers at night with the aid of a flashlight. That was because I was led to believe that it was banned in Ethiopia because of its scathing satirical portrayal of a mythical progressive African leader, Seth.

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Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 19

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Hebe and Larry at Abu Samuel. Marty Benjamin is on the left

In 1962 the Haile Selassie Secondary School in Gondar, Ethiopia had a diverse teaching staff.

Hebe and Larry at Abu Samuel. Marty Benjamin is on the left

In addition to many Ethiopians there were Indians, Peace Corps teachers and a couple from Britain, Pamela (Hebe) and Larry Marsdon. Larry was a New Zealander and Hebe was English. We were told her nickname, “Hebe,” (cup bearer to the gods) was from her time as one of the senior stewardesses on British European Airways (BEA). Although now middle aged, she was a very beautiful woman. Larry was a consummate story teller and led us to believe that during the war he had been on a British navy submarine. Maybe so? They always invited us PC teachers to their raucous and memorable parties and they socialized with those in power in Gondar and thus were a source of many rumors and, at times, actual news.

It was not until I returned to the states that I could begin to understand their behavior. Hebe and Larry would enter into vociferous argument and if a hapless bystander would innocently take the side of one or the other, Hebe and Larry would jointly “attack” the third party. It all became clear in 1966 when Dallas (one of my fellow PC teachers) and his wife, June visited from Madison, Wisconsin. We decided to go see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It was only a short time into the movie before Dallas leaned over and said with amazement “We know these people!” Sure enough George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Liz Taylor) were Larry and Hebe Marsdon. As we watched George and Martha devour the hapless young couple Nick and Honey we could only think back to what we witnessed in Ethiopia.

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For Sochi’s 20,000+ Muslims, Thanks But No Thanks

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The Olympic rings at Bolshoy arena, Sochi, Russia, February 14, 2014. Atos International/Flickr

The Sochi Olympics proved to be a big success. It was exactly what Russia and especially what Vladimir Putin wanted.

The Olympic rings at Bolshoy arena, Sochi, Russia, February 14, 2014. Atos International/Flickr

Right from the opening ceremony itself, the entire event was a megalith in terms of popularity and success. If one wanted to catch a glimpse of Russia’s glorious past as well as its vibrant art, this year’s Winter Olympics were worth watching. However, they were not without their share of controversy. Take, for example, the case of the Pussy Riot protest performance. So success on one hand and chaos on the other. A mixed bag, probably? However, Russia’s mixed bag had one key element missing. The plight of the Muslims of Sochi.

Once the city was awarded the Winter Olympics, Sochi underwent a massive reconstruction. Roads, bridges, train stations, schools, hospitals, luxury hotels, Olympics’ villages, post offices, and a floating archipelago — yeah, Sochi got all that within the short span of the past six years.

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Lack of Accountability in Myanmar

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Some 90,000 Rohingya now find themselves squeezed into camps near the state capital Sittwe, living in cramped barrack-type shelters. Photo: Mathias Eick

I recently read about yet another vicious attack on Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority. This time, the venue was Du Chee Ya Tan village in the Rakhine state, close to Bangladesh.

Some 90,000 Rohingya now find themselves squeezed into camps near the state capital Sittwe, living in cramped barrack-type shelters. Photo: Mathias Eick

If you think that the rioters shamelessly justified their actions by claiming that the victims were illegal Bengalis trying to sneak into Myanmar, you are correct. For the past many years in Myanmar angry Buddhist mobs have attacked groups of Rohingya Muslims. The carnage follows: killing, raping and looting. This time, news sources claim that members of the Rohingya community had dared to protest against atrocities committed by local Rakhine officials. The protesters were rewarded with brutal acts of violence.

To make matters worse, each time there is an attack on the Rohingya community, the Burmese riot police and army are present in the vicinity, but they choose to be spectators. Of course, the state media claims that nothing happened, and that there were hardly any noticeable instances of violence. The United Nations has described the Rohingya as friendless. In 2012, sectarian violence killed hundreds of Rohingya men and women and has left over 140,000 homeless as entire neighborhoods were razed. According to Human Rights Watch, planned campaigns of ethnic cleansing were conducted. Because the aggressors were local political and religious warlords, the government has chosen to ignore these crimes.

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