Saturday, February 25, 2012

What is shari'a?

On Thursday I went to a theater evening produced by a friend, the second time I've been to a series of productions by this theater on Islam, aimed at helping non-Muslims and Muslims understand (and love!) Muslims. Both times, the audience is a great mix of people of all backgrounds, and there is a general sentiment of great love and acceptance (even though they may not understand everything).

This time it was an evening dedicated to explaining and exploring the idea of  shari'a. No thanks to mainstream media and hardline scholars like Haitham al-Haddad who speak without nuance and respect, many people get the idea that Muslims are out to conquer Europe and ultimately creating an Islamic state that will enforce stoning and go to war with Jews. One of the ways they try to do this is by slowly trying to implement shari'a as an addition or replacement of secular common or civil law.

Sharia4Belgium (I'm not shortening the title, the number '4' is actually part of their name), a Muslim group that recently caused some media uproar by storming a Dutch TV show dressed in traditional garb, waving black flags, and distributing eggs during a debate between Irshad Manji and Tofik Dibi, who both consider themselves Muslims. The incident is discussed here.

Irshad and Tofik were on the show to discuss about Muslims who are not seen as 'real' Muslims because of for example, being gay, or not believing in some of the more aggressive aspects of conventional Islam (and in my opinion, not Islamic at all, such as flogging people for drinking beer or not fasting, or stoning as a punishment for apostasy or adultery). But some members of Sharia4Belgium came all the way from Belgium to spit at Irshad and try to chase Tofik off-stage.

On the site of S4B itself, they see shari'a  as the 'law of God, designed for all ages, places and people to the end of time'. My own understanding of shari'a is also this, but I'm afraid that's where our common understanding diverges. While I refer to principles of shari'a such as justice, to be followed by everyone, everywhere, and always, they refer to one of many models of shari'a as the one they want to universalise -- models that were elaborated upon in the 7th to 8th century AD.

During the production, the host (an articulated and educated Islamologist) emphasised that shari'a is not written down as a book. There is no fixed interpretation, but instead encompasses specific and general principles from the Qur'an, elaborations from hadith, then all the different interpretations as elaborated by (male) scholars of fiqh (jurisprudence) through qiyas (analogy) and ijma (consensus), and finally, colonial civil law (often, British or French). A professor from Leiden also pointed out that much of what passes for shari'a law in Egypt is simply British and French laws which did not contradict principles of shari'a.

Confused? For example, let's look at laws governing Muslim marriage, divorce and death in Singapore and Malaysia. Both started out rather similarly, having British common law as its model. The English word for 'divorce' was replaced by the Arabic word, talaq. 'Divorcee' or 'widow' was replaced by the Malay word janda. 'Waiting period' was replaced by iddah, and the length of iddah is not even specified in law (the clause in Part VI.97 says this 'shall be calculated in accordance with the Muslim law').

But there are also other clauses that state certain things specific to some madhhab (schools of thought named after its corresponding main scholar) such as a bride requiring a guardian. This is not required in the Hanbali Hanafi school of thought, and the shari'a law of countries like Afghanistan. The shari'a family code in Morocco, the Moudawana, has also undergone several changes over decades to reduce the asymmetries of responsibilities and obligations of husbands and wives.

In other words, shari'a is implemented with different models in different countries. There are plenty of laws in the common law of non-Muslim countries which can be considered shari'a compliant, such as husbands paying alimony to their wives. Muslims want this, the country's common law has this, so what's the difference? Also, did anyone notice that the first laws to get a separate and parallel system involves women (marriage, divorce, inheritance)? Why have calls for shari'a never first targeted banking?

One man in the audience on Thursday asked "What can shari'a add to the current law in the Netherlands?" But meneer, it would not apply to you in the first place. It would apply to Muslims in "Western" countries who insist on having shari'a law for their marriages. Is it because the law of their land is contradictory to shari'a? Is there no mechanisms (e.g. wills, pre-nuptial agreements) to get what you want? And which model of shari'a do you want? Which aspects of life do you want governed? 

In some Malaysian states, men can be arrested for not going for Friday prayers, and in Aceh, women can be flogged for kissing. When law starts to regulate morality top-down, can you ever be sincere in doing anything anymore, or learn to self-regulate for that matter?

In short, the principles of shari'a (e.g. justice) are timeless, but the models are limited. Some rulings were created in the 7th century, some rulings are from the traditional laws of the land (e.g. stoning being an ancient practice) which are brought over to other countries under the guise of it being Islamic (e.g. stoning introduced to Aceh). I am very wary of Muslims in secular countries calling for shari'a because it often means transplanting another country's laws.

I think groups like Shariah4Belgium have to address underlying reasons for the social marginalisation (e.g. discrimination, lack of access to higher education and employment) of their members, instead of promoting the idea of an 'Islamic state'. This idea is often vague, and is often claimed to exist when there are physical manifestations of piety such as beards, turbans, keffiyehs, headscarves.

Fouad Belkacem, leader of Shariah4Belgium

The word shari'a appears in the Quran only 5 times, in 4 different forms. The root, sh-r-'a connotes a clear or visible path or law. God ordained for us a way of living that was the same for all other prophets before us (42:13, 42:21, 45:18), but there were certain laws that are specific to each group (5:48).

One idea that really put my own thoughts about shari'a into words was the concept of 'bottom-up' shari'a. Instead of a top-down approach (a la Iran) where Islamic law is imposed, a bottom-up approach involves trying to get people to behave in ways that embody the Qur'an -- how God wants us to be.

For example, that our actions should not disrupt the lives of others, but instead to help others ('amal saaleh). We help in soup kitchens, we teach children, we help those who need help. That we should create room for others, or create opportunities to help others progress (abraar). We give space for others' opinions, we consult, and we work together. 

Shari'a, as the law of God, does not exist when there is not enough physical and ideological space for everyone, it does not exist when those who are marginalised do not receive the help they need, it does not exist when people who believe in God find themselves threatened and insulted; but it exists when everyone starts doing good.

By any other name would be as delicious.

Many people I know have recently had babies, and I notice that there is a difference in the names given by different social circles. I have no data or anything to back this up; the following is just a general feel for name trends in the Malay Muslim community in Singapore over the years.

First, my grandparents generation. This is what my mother likes to call zaman jahiliyah (the age of ignorance), or a humorous contemporary use of a term which historically refers to pre-Islamic Arabia. What I know of this is mostly what I've seen on gravestones.

These names sometimes refer to characteristics of what men and women should be. Men should be strong and masculine (e.g. Jantan, Mamat), while women should be demure (e.g. Ayu), pretty, and sweet-smelling (hence flowers e.g. Mawar, Melati). But there are also names that didn't mean anything (e.g. Esah), or meant something negative (e.g. Buang, Momok -- I had a photo of this!)

Second, there are the names of my parents' generation, born post-war, and in the period of growing awareness of Islam, the building of more mosques, and access to religious education for both men and women. For men, many of it were very simply names of Prophets (e.g. Ibrahim, Yusuf, Harun) or well-known women in Islamic history (e.g. Khadijah, Aisyah, Fatimah).

Maybe I associate everything with my parents' generation as being classic, but I find these names so absolutely beautiful! They do bring to mind a time of respect, and uprightness. This was also the period where the previous generation grew more conscious of Islam. My grandfather for example, changed his name after coming back from his pilgrimage; instead of Eskom, he was known as Yasin (a chapter title in the Qur'an).

In my generation, names were often in Arabic, with Muhammad and Nur/Siti being incredibly common (especially when you look at a list of students in a class, Malay students populate the middle section of the list). I was even told many times when I was younger (and tended to ask questions to the point of annoying other people) that girls with the prefix 'Nur' or 'Siti' would definitely go to heaven. (Wow, that is easier than doing housework!)

There is a cluster of names with anglophone origins e.g. Lynn, Amelie, Sarah, Danial, that continue from the 80s to today. Danish (Isn't that an absolutely delicious pastry? Or someone from Denmark?) is also another name that appears countless times.

Spot the danish

Today, these anglo names remain popular, but mostly with a certain social class. Malays from another social class, who also tend towards more religiosity, are choosing Arabic names of lesser-known characters in Islamic history (won't name any because they're the names of my friends' babies haha!), but as far as I see, no one's chosen Sukaina yet though (she's probably not the kind of Muslim woman one is expected to be nowadays.)

Oh, and it would be best if you didn't search for 'Momok' in Google Images.

What names did your parents and grandparents have?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Talking to male privilege.

Here are a couple of funny anecdotes from the last week:

Scenario 1: Discussing my appearance with a White Dutch Guy:

Me: People speak Dutch to me.
WDG: You look like you could be from the East Indies.

The East Indies only exists in your colonial imagination, dear sir.

Scenario 2: Discussing harassment with another WDG.

Me: I haven't really been harassed here. But it's different, if I was visibly Muslim maybe it would be different.
WDG: Ah, but then to us, you're not a real Muslim!

Ah, but then maybe I don't care for the categories of 'real' and 'fake' Muslims.

Scenario 3: Discussing catering for guests from over 100 countries.

Me: We should definitely have warm lunches.
WDG: Yeah, I don't understand why so many people think that having sandwiches for lunch is weird. They're in Europe, they should eat European things!

Maybe making your guests comfortable is just... "not possible".

Haitham al-Haddad comes to Amsterdam.

What's new in extreme Muslims this week in NL: Haitham Al-Haddad. Described as a "shar'ia-scholar" and an "expert in Islamic law" in the Dutch media, Haitham is the latest reason for why Muslims who believe in justice have to speak up.

Haitham is a British-Palestinian scholar, based in London. He came to participate in a debate at the Vrij Universiteit of Amsterdam, which backed out from political pressure trying to ban him from the Netherlands. Finally the debate was held in the Balie, self-described as a "platform for the broad and liberal public".

For your reference, a video of the entire discussion at the Balie can be found here. I'm going to address some themes covered in the discussion. At some points it's quite annoying how he does not answer questions directly, but instead he gives weak analogies, distracting gestures, and repeats phrases to delay the debate such as "Listen to me" and "Let me finish my point".

Women, hijab (what else?), and stoning

It starts off very well, with Haitham refusing to have Naeeda Aurangzeb at the same table to speak to him earlier in the day when he speaks at NTR's radio show, because she does not cover her hair. When pressed by Ebru Umar, a woman in the audience at the Balie, to give a reason for this wanton display of disrespect, he said that it goes against what he advocates, which is for women to stay at home and take care of the family. In his eyes, this makes him a principled man. Never you mind that he can't impose this view on every woman around him, and eventually, Ebru makes it to the table after fruitlessly trying to ask him why he thinks he is superior to her.

Is this fitting of a Muslim's behaviour? Where is his respect for other human beings? Haitham will demand that people listen to him and he asks the media to not "cut and paste" his words, but he will not listen or even be near people he does not consider 'real Muslims' -- a definition that is no doubt, extremely narrow.

Such groups include Muslim women who do not wish to wear a headscarf -- whether regularly or not. When asked if all Muslim women should wear hijab, he says "yes, because otherwise they are not practising this Islamic practice" (at around 0:22 min), which is a uselessly circular argument.

  1. Hijab is an Islamic practice. 
  2. Muslim women should wear hijab.
  3. Muslim women who wear hijab practise this Islamic practice. 
  4. Muslim women who do not wear hijab do not practise this Islamic practice.

What's disappointing is the weakness of the arguments in the discussion. When Haitham affirms that he opposes the burqa ban, the discussion leader takes this as equivalent to imposing hijab. Argument fail. Both could have framed this issue a bit more clearly in terms of women's choices. Opposing the burqa ban could and should mean that we give women the choice to wear what they want. Not imposing the hijab could and should also have the same aim. Simply put: if we force everyone to do the same thing (against some people's wills), that's imposition and oppression.

Haitham then gives an interesting anecdote about "Western women" coming to him and asking how they can go to a Muslim country in order to be stoned. Whether this is true or not, one could liken this to someone asking for help to die -- perhaps in a case of euthanasia or assisted suicide (please tell me if this analogy sucks). The problem with Ebru saying that should would send these women "to a doctor" is that she falls into Haitham's trap of framing stoning in terms of one's freedom of choice.

Interestingly, he also makes an indirect link between women failing to fulfill their proper "roles" and a whole host of global problems like the economic recession, high rates of crime, etc. Way to go to give examples of women's role in fitna.

Apostasy, stealing, and death

Haitham likens apostasy as treason, and condones capital punishment for both. When pressed to explain why he thinks people can and should be killed for not believing in the "light" of Islam, he flippantly says "Death is a part of life" (circa 0:45) and that one should look at the reasons for killing. Beforehand, the discussion leader had said that stealing can be "good", or right, in certain cases. Haitham thinks this is ridiculous. But I have to go along with the discussion leader, because a poor or starving man is not the same as a rich man who steals.

Unfortunately, Haitham believes that we cannot have freedom of consciousness. Believing in something else, or leaving Islam, should be punished by death. Frankly, I'm tired of the death-to-apostates debate (less tired than of the hijab debate). Already, the Qur'an in many places allows for the freedom of belief, and there are many hadith that recount stories of people leaving Islam and coming back to it -- so how could they do so if they had been killed before? To me, it is against the very spirit of Islam itself to promote the ideology that anyone who leaves the one-and-true-religion should die for it.

Tolerance and acceptance

Haitham had been quoted to say that Muslims are at war with Jews. He evades responsibility for addressing such a statement by claiming that such things are suitable for the audience in a certain context, and in the Arabic language. He brings up that he has a close student who is a Jew, and an "aunty" who is Israeli, to presumably give himself credit for not being anti-Semitic.

I think he misses out a crucial point, which is that it is a Zionist faction of Israel which is basically leading the occupation in Palestine. Even the two Palestine women we met last week, who gave a talk in ISS, could differentiate this.

He says that a "firm stance is needed against those who are waging war on us" (circa 0:58). So he will accept that he is part of a broader Muslim community when it justifies his hateful comments, but then he will not accept that there is also a broader Muslim community in "the West" who do not look and behave the way he wants them to be?

Finally, he apologises if he has insulted any "race", but what about offending the poor (class), or women (gender)?

Sources of authority

The biggest problem I had with Haitham was his invitation for those who disagreed with him to read the Qur'an and see for themselves whether they would be moved by God's words or not. He fails to emphasise that much of what he is saying is based in at least two other sources that he mentioned very early on in the discussion -- hadith/sunna, or the Prophet's traditions, and fiqh, or jurisprudence -- two sources which are very much influenced by culture, unlike the Qur'an.

In this way, it would appear to non-Muslims that stoning, the killing of apostates, and the hatred of Jews, etc. are all found in the Qur'an. This is highly inaccurate.

More dangerously, he very clearly said that he can "speak on behalf of Allah" (circa 0:49), and that anyone insulting him or his religion is blasphemy (Wow, can you say God-complex?). He also does not doubt that there is "no truth outside Islam" (circa 0:27), but that begs the question of what is the Islam that he is talking about? An Islam based on the Qur'an and its guiding principle of justice, or an Islam based on many man-made sources and speculations?

It is a very real problem that people will listen to him and others like him who have a beard and a thobe, and sometimes a white cap. I have encountered many religious teachers who will dress for the occasion i.e. a suit and tie when speaking to non-Muslim audiences, and a traditional or Arab dress when speaking to Muslims. They are aware that their appearances matter, but are they aware that their words matter? That they must be responsible in what they say, because he does affect how Islam and Muslims are perceived in "the West".

Final thoughts

It was a less interesting debate than I thought it would be. It was a good thing that Tofik Dibi and Kustaw Bessems were on the table because they know about Islam and the situation of young Muslims in Europe, who are like themselves. But the non-Muslim discussion leader focused on and simplified the issues of stoning and hijab.

The purpose of the debate, which was to find out Haitham's views first, instead of banning him outright from NL, became a simple game of trying to trap him to say yes-and-no to certain issues -- which led to him having to dodge by saying "Let me finish", "You are not letting me speak", and "I will not answer that question because I have already answered it".

You need a strategy to talk to men like Haitham. You need to know that he believes in men and women being naturally different, with different roles. You need to know that he will not give his personal opinion, but will frame controversial issues like stoning and capital punishment as God's law, and you need to know that he will  dodge questions that require direct answers.

People like him need to be interrogated on his sources, and his source of authority. But since he already said that "fundamentally disagrees", I don't see how he is going to find "the way forward" and I doubt he is interested in actually finding a compromise between "the West" and "Islam", because he definitely thinks that one cannot straddle the black and white.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bottled tea.

I found this in the drinks section of Albert Heijn. On the two bottles on the left and right: Native American and Asian imagery. While I understand (somewhat painfully) why there would be images of cherry blossoms (common) and pomegranates (less common) on a bottle of green tea, and what-I-suppose-is-Navajo patterns on a bottle of iced peach/lemon tea?

Actually, the word Arizona gives a clue -- it's one of the hottest states in the USA. It also houses a significant Navajo population. When it's hot, people drink iced tea! The link however, is so weak that I would have accepted some attractive images of peaches or lemons instead.

Why are there irrelevant images on bottles of tea?

Friday, February 10, 2012

The intersectional workplace.

Sorry for the lack of posts -- I started an internship in Amsterdam, with an organisation that works to get children to be in charge of their own savings. In short, I'm really tired from the commuting (it's like high school all over again!) but I'm happy to report that fatigue does not dampen my obsession for seeing gender in everything.

When I read the Employee Manual given to me on the first day of work, there was one clause that caught my eye:
"As this is mostly a white male workplace, there will be issues of ego. This will have to be kept in check." (paraphrased with much liberty).
But I looked around and the office looked quite diverse: about 50-50 women and men, representatives from Western and Eastern Europe, North and South(east) Asia, and the Middle East. And the director of this NGO is a woman -- but not a white one at that.

Not my office

This false, idealistic, feeling of satisfaction at seeing such a gender- and ethnicity-balanced workplace was quickly replaced with a growing sense of invisibility. There was, once afternoon, a visit by two high-profile French men who work in well-known international organisations. Three of the white guys (I know, I'm terrible for lumping them together so to be specific, two Europeans and one Canadian) were busily making slides while two of us women ended up setting the table with plates of fruit and cookies. Haha.

Later, I found out that the paid staff were indeed practically all the white men, while almost all the women were interns -- including me. So we got to do the sai kang work of setting the table for lunch and clearing up, while these fabulously intellectual and enviably paid guys were hard at work making slides. I kid, these guys are actually really nice people. :)

Intuitive MS Powerpoint 2007, anyone?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Packing food.

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours in the morning at the Voedselbank, or the Food Bank, in The Hague. They receive deliveries of food everyday from supermarkets -- food that has reached or is approaching its expiry date -- which volunteers then repack into parcels to be handed out to those who need it.

What amazed me was the massive amount of processed, packaged food that was given away. Besides plastic bags of carrots and red onions, there were bottles and cans of fruit, sausages, beans, mayonnaise, mustard; fancy boxes of Christmas chocolates, fudge, and stroopwaffels; bags of chips and popcorn; instant sachets of soup, sauce and spices; coffee and tea!

Each volunteer is put in charge of unpacking the stuff from boxes, packing 2 or 3 items into the big green crates rolling down a conveyor belt, or making sure each packer has enough items to keep packing. Then, other volunteers pack the green crates into lorries, where they are repacked into boxes or given away as is.

Kids from the American School

It was worth the two bus rides and freezing cold weather!
Update: Food banks will now receive wild geese flesh, which is 'mainly eaten in expensive restaurants', to redistribute!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

No white dresses in Krimpen.

My friend, Y, who lives there for the moment, was looking for a white dress to wear to her wedding. (Which by the way, was last weekend and totally glorious!) But she couldn't find any white dresses in Krimpen.

What does a white dress signify? In marriages in many cultures, it symbolises the virginity of the bride. "Radiance" and "glow" of her face are also related to this, at least in a culture that I can claim some understanding of.

Y attributed this missing-white-dress phenomena to the many conservative Christians there. Since they know that practically no one nowadays 'saves themselves' for marriage (you know what I mean, right? I can't say it out loud, but I have to use euphemisms and hedge around it), they don't want to sell white dresses because these are only for virgins!

Of course there's no way to be counting the number of conservative Christians there and come to a conclusion based on significant statistics. But her story is a great example of how people's attitudes about some issues are not merely something personal, but also political. (As demonstrated by the recent steps taken to ban the niqab here in NL.)

So in Krimpen, there were only cream or grey dresses.


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