Sunday, February 19, 2012

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.

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