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April 16, 2014 / 16 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘muhammad’

Identity and Loyalty in Islam and the Middle East

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Westerners strive to solve problems. When people appear obstinate, we often indignantly say, “Are you part of the solution, or part of the problem?” This is alien to Middle Eastern and Islamic culture. Middle Easterners cope with problems for which they know there are no solutions-akin to living with a chronic illness.

Islam, for example, does not recognize the equality of all people. Muslims are the rightful rulers of the Muslim world. Non-Muslims who believe in God and who have a revelation from God before Islam do have the right to live in Muslim societies. They are called “dhimmis” which means, “protected people,” who can live in the Muslim world, albeit in positions of political and social inferiority. To be sure, they might become important. There have been Christian Foreign Ministers in Egypt (Butros Ghali) and Jordan (Marwan Mu’ashar), but Christians know they cannot hope to rule their countries. This is most clear in Egypt, where the Copts, native Christians descended from the ancient Egyptians, cannot aspire to become Egypt’s president because that position is reserved for a Muslim.

Lebanon is in constant upheaval in part because its French-inspired Constitution, written when Maronite Christians were the largest confessional group, decrees that the Lebanese President must be a Christian. The anomaly of the Head of State being a non-Muslim is a driving force in Lebanese civil strife. Muslims rationalize it by comparing their prophet Muhammad’s temporary peace agreement with his enemies, until he could regroup and defeat them.

This is also why Israel can never be accepted as a Jewish state. From the Muslim point of view, the land of Israel is Muslim territory because it was conquered by Muslims in 637 C.E., and will remain Muslim forever.

The only way this might change is if Muslim scholars themselves re-examine their sources and try to find ways within their tradition to come to grips with realities on the ground. Jews and Christians were forced to do this long ago as a result of political realities they had to face. But for now, it is hard to imagine that Muslims would do the same.

Religious Identity

In the West, religious and national/ethnic identities are usually separate and do not necessarily overlap. In the Muslim world, however, ethnicity/nationality and religious identity are almost completely intertwined. A Lebanese Maronite, for example, shares more in common with non-Lebanese Maronite, than with a Lebanese Muslim. Their language, food, and culture might be different, but their point of view, their “Maroniteness,” is the core of their identity. The same can be said for Lebanese Druze, Shiites, and Sunnis. Religion and political identity almost always trump everything else-including citizenship.

This puzzles Westerners for whom citizenship generally trumps, but in the Middle East, the boundaries of “countries” do not correspond with the history of the people living there. Many Sunni Jordanian families in Amman, for example, are intermarried with Sunni families from Damascus, which in Western terms is the capital of a different country.

Muslims and Christians fought a bitter civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s. Maronite Christians, who led the fighting on the Christian side, are aligned with the Roman Catholic Church. At that time, there was also a civil war in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants. Most Lebanese Muslims didn’t even know where Northern Ireland was, but they were very pro-Protestant because they believed they shared a common Catholic enemy.

If we in the West are to understand how and why Middle Easterners make political decisions, we must understand how they view themselves. Clearly, Shiite identity unites Shiites throughout the world, irrespective of ethnicity or nationality. Arab and Iranian Shiites might hate each other-they have good historical reason-but they also recognize that they have suffered and continue to suffer the same fate at the hands of the Sunnis.

Children Whose Parents Have Different Identities

In the United States, a child is a citizen if either parent is a citizen. Not so in the Middle East, where identity comes almost exclusively from the father. In Turkey, for example, Turks and Kurds freely intermarry. Intermarriage is so common that, from a Western point of view, one would think that Kurdish-Turkish difficulties should have abated as the groups blended together. But people take the identity of their fathers and if their father was a Kurd, they are Kurds, even if they have never lived in the traditional Kurdish area of southeastern Turkey, and even if they don’t speak Kurdish.

A friend in Turkey had a Kurdish grandfather who married a Turkish woman. Despite the fact that they lived in southeastern Anatolia where Kurds strongly predominate, their child-my friend’s father-was raised in an almost completely Turkish-speaking household. The family moved to Istanbul, a Turkish-speaking city. My friend’s father married a Turkish woman who also spoke no Kurdish; their son-my friend-knows almost none. He has children and grandchildren, absolutely none of whom speak Kurdish. This family has been living in a completely Turkish environment for five generations. From the Western point of view, they are clearly Turks. Despite that, my friend, when asked about his identity, responded without missing a beat, “We are Kurds, of course!”

This has caused even senior American diplomats to err. During a visit to Washington by the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurds were astounded to hear senior White House and State Department officials tell them they should not identify as Kurds, but rather as Iraqis. That is the equivalent of telling a man to stop thinking like a man and think like a penguin; the chances of success are infinitesimal.

Another example is the relationship between Iraqis and Kuwaitis. For generations, Iraqis from Basra in southern Iraq have married into Kuwaiti families. During both the U.S.-led coalition war in Kuwait in 1991, and the Iraq war in 2003, many people on both sides of the border were in political limbo, depending on who was winning. Women were particularly affected because they acquired their husbands’ citizenship upon marriage and if the country of their birth lost, they would lose citizenship in their native land.

If an American woman marries an Iranian or a Saudi, she becomes a citizen of her husband’s country. If the married couple wants to visit the husband’s homeland, she could only do so using a passport of her husband’s country. And once in the Middle East, she can only leave if the husband agrees.

Identity is not a matter of choice. A man is what his father is and a woman is what her husband is. It is extremely difficult-and often dangerous-to try to change that identity. Conversion from Islam, for example, is punishable by death.

Tribal Identities

To Western ears, the word “tribe” conjures up American Indians or nomads in tents. In the Middle East, however, the word “tribe” means large-group identity, usually of ancient origin. “Tribal” members can live in cities, be university professors, and even immigrate to the West, but they in some way still retain their tribal identity. Two of the largest tribal identities in the Middle East are Qays and Yemen, groups that trace their origins back to tribes in today’s Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the early days of Islam.

In 2007, when President Bush launched the Surge in Anbar-Western, Sunni-dominated Iraq-to put down the insurrection, there were 21 tribal groups: 18 opposed to the U.S. and 3 neutral. Within one year, we had eighteen on our side, and three waffling. What happened, and what does this tell us about the importance of the tribal structure in that area? President Bush ordered the Marines to restore order. The Marines learned the local social structure in the area, and after putting down the revolt, used that structure as a basis for giving people incentives to stay within the system.

The Surge succeeded because the Marines were the strongest “tribe.” The Marine “tribe” did not come to destroy the local order, but to make sure everyone got along. When local leaders realized it was in their interest to cooperate with the Marines, they quickly jumped in to be on the winning team-the team that would ensure that their local tribal structure remained intact. Goods and services were distributed through that tribal network of notables, which strengthened the social structure that worked within that local culture.

Then America abandoned Anbar, and Al-Qaeda and its affiliates were able to return to wreak havoc. Had the locals known that we would still back them up, even from the air, there would have been a much better chance that the fundamentalists would not have been able to return.

Clan/Family Identities

Extended family identities form an extremely important aspect of life in the Middle East. These relationships are much stronger than the so-called national identities based on borders created at the end of World War I.

One of the most respected Sunni aristocratic families of Damascus Syria-the al-’Azm family-has been prominent there since at least the 16th century. The family married into other prominent Sunni families throughout the Muslim world, including Istanbul. Were these families Turks or Arabs? It hardly mattered because they were all Sunnis. In the post-World War I era, when many states were created out of what had been the Ottoman Empire, Arab and Turkish nationalism became the rage and the borders of these newly created states were super-imposed on local identities. People carried documents declaring them citizens of this country or that, but their personal identities did not change, traditional marriage patterns continued and people on both sides of the new and arbitrary borders continued to marry and interact as they had for hundreds of years.

Another example of family relationship is the one between today’s Jerusalem-based Nashashibi and Husseini families, great rivals in Jerusalem.

Some years ago, I visited Naser al-Din al-Nashashibi in his ornate Jerusalem house in Sheikh Jarrah. Across the street was the mansion of the al-Husseini family. These bitter rivals loathed each other, not because they disagreed politically, but because they both wanted to be THE most notable family in Jerusalem. One Nashashibi ancestor had been the mayor of Jerusalem. One Husseini family member had been the notorious Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem and friend of Hitler. Nashashibi spewed venom and vindictiveness about the Husseinis. On a visit to the Husseinis, I heard the same about the Nashashibis. What was more important here, their national or religious identities-both were Sunni Muslims-or their personal rivalries? They both spent more time maligning each other than they did maligning Israel.

On the other hand, Nashashibi told a story about his uncle by marriage, Ismet Inonu the second President of Turkey. He said that his aunt had married Inonu, who insisted on calling the Nashashibis “Ok Atan” which is the Turkish translation of Nashashibi (meaning spear/arrow-thrower). Nashashibi was very proud of his uncle by marriage and aunt, he told us. I asked, “Is your family Arab, and part of your family Turkish?” He answered that his family was probably of Kurdish or Circassian origin, and had come from Egypt hundreds of years ago. So were they Arabs, Turks, Kurds, or Circassian? They were, he said, Sunni.

As for the Husseinis, they believed their origins to be from today’s Saudi Arabia. Neither, therefore, is originally what is today understood as Palestinian.

Sunni vs. Shiite

This brings us to what is probably the most important over-arching identity throughout the Muslim world-Sunnis vs. Shiites. As noted above, Middle Easterners accept that most problems cannot be solved, and that these problems come to the surface from time to time.

The Sunni-Shiite split occurred when their prophet Muhammad died in 632 C.E. Upon his death, Muslims had to decide who should rule in his place. The group that eventually became known as the Sunnis prevailed; they had been the aristocracy of Mecca. The losers-eventually known as Shiites-were those who supported Muhammad’s family, and thought they should be the rightful rulers of Islam.

Sunnis and Shiites are still fighting the battle that started almost 1400 years ago. Compare that to the American phrase, “That’s history,” meaning something that might have taken place last week. We look for ways to “let bygones be bygones,” shake hands, and move on. Middle Eastern culture has never developed ways to leave the past behind.

Sunnis-about 85% of the Muslim world-see Shiites at best as misguided and have often discriminated against and murdered them. Shiites quake in fear of the next onslaught. No wonder that when Israel marched in southern Lebanon in 1982, the Shiites greeted the IDF with flowers and rice, seeing the Israelis as liberators from the yoke of Sunni Palestinian and Lebanese oppression. As a battered minority, Shiites look for outside strong protectors.

Privately, many Shiites have learned to distrust the U.S., because in their experience the U.S. comes in, uses force, and then leaves. Why, the Shiites argue, should they throw their lot in with the Americans who do not stand up for them against their enemies? Are the Shiites happy now about President Obama’s attempt to negotiate with (Shiite) Iran, and abandoning America’s traditional allies-the Arab Sunni rulers of the Gulf and Egypt?

Not exactly. Shiites cannot understand American behavior, because America has proven to be unreliable (regarding the Gulf States and Egypt), and a harmless enemy (kowtowing to Iran, doing nothing to stop Putin, and abandoning its Polish and Czech allies by withdrawing ballistic missile defense radars). Adding to the confusion, Arab Shiites also see Iran as their oppressor, trying to make Arab Shiites into Persians. Thus they feel doubly abandoned. They cannot trust Iran, and now America is consorting with its enemy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, whom the Arab Shiites know hates America.

According to the great scholar Fouad Ajami, Arab Shiites are the stepchild of the Muslim world: hated by the Sunnis because they are Shiite, and despised by the Iranians because they are Arab.

After Regime Change

Clearly, these Arab Shiites need reliable external allies with similar existential problems. Could these allies include the ‘Alawites in Syria, the myriad Christian groups still resident in the Middle East, the Druze, or even Israel? ‘Alawites and Jews are there to stay, and the Arab Shiites know that. All these groups together suffered from the vicissitudes of the extreme Islamic Sunni fundamentalist wave shaking up the region. And what about the Kurds, who are also overwhelmingly Sunni, but are oppressed both in Turkey and in the Arab world? Could they too join such an informal alliance? Moreover, could all of these groups also find common cause-at least temporarily-with traditional Arab Sunni notables and chieftains who themselves are almost under attack by the Sunni Salafi extremists?

Could alliances-formal or otherwise-develop to defeat the scourge of Sunni Arab fundamentalism? In the long run this is a much more dangerous force than Iran, once regime change occurs there. Most likely, a new Iranian regime would no longer have such a cantankerous relationship with the outside world, and might revert to its traditional position of seeing the U.S. and others as allies. The vast majority of Iranians want nothing more than to stop being pariahs; they deeply want to be part of the modern world and overwhelmingly hate the regime.

After regime change, Iran would almost assuredly join the above-mentioned alliance against Sunni fundamentalism, and would no longer be a threat to its neighbors. The Arab regimes across the Gulf could breathe a sigh of relief.

Fantasy? Possibly. But understanding the Middle East and Islam as Middle Easterners and other Muslims do provides ways of addressing problems, even if they cannot be solved.

It is time to rethink how we understand the Middle East and Islam, and when we learn how to view the world as they do, consider ways to manage these problems in ways that make sense to the Middle Eastern mind. The Middle East has survived for millennia, and has learned how to cope with problems-but not solve them. This is alien to us, but it may be the only way to stop the murder and mayhem they are inflicting on each other now.

This article was originally published in inFocus Quarterly, Spring 2014, Volume VIII: Number 2. It is reprinted here with permission from the American Center for Democracy.

Saudis Outraged by McDonald’s Toy They Believe to be Insulting to Muhammed

Monday, May 28th, 2012

Saudi Arabians are angry at a McDonald’s toy which they say mocks their prophet Muhammad. According to a report appearing Sunday, May 27th on the Arabic news website, Kermalkom.com, the McDonald’s fast food restaurant “abused the Prophet Muhammad by placing his name at the base of a toy that is being distributed as part of the Happy Meal, a toy which steps on the name ‘Muhammad.’” The toy consists of a blue superhero figurine (apparently a Power Ranger Samurai; click here for pictures). It stands on one leg, and, when the lever is pressed, it pounds on the base with the other leg. According to the Saudis, the designs that appear all around the base, where the figurine stomps its foot, is really the name “Muhammad” written several times in circles.

The toy had been distributed a few days before Saudi children and their parents began to take note of the name. Soon thereafter, Saudi Muslims launched several campaigns against McDonald’s in “response to the savage attacks on the noble Prophet,” under banners like “Help your Prophet!” and “Together in support of the Prophet.”

Saudis, “demanding the strongest possible punishment for the restaurant” and insisting that “they will not be silent until this is realized,” further complained how such an obvious insult could pass the supervision of the management at McDonalds.

In response, “Saudi McDonald’s” has withdrawn the toy from all its restaurants, “in order to safeguard against any accusations or misunderstandings.”
Originally published by Gatestone Institute http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org

The Toulouse Massacre, Why Did It Happen?

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Last week, Mohammed Merah, a Muslim-Frenchman killed three Jewish children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France. Merah reportedly held one little girl, Myriam Monsonego, by her hair to shoot her in the head. Three days before that, Merah shot dead three French soldiers of North African heritage. Under siege in his apartment by French counter-terrorism squad, France 24 reported Merah told negotiators he was connected to al Qaeda and what he had done was “only the beginning”. He said that he was motivated by France’s ban on wearing the burqa and that “the Jews have killed our brothers and sisters in Palestine.” According to French officials, Merah expressed only one regret: “Not having claimed more victims,” and said he was proud of having “brought France to its knees.” As Merah himself confirmed it was “only the beginning,” it might be worth wondering: Why did Merah, born and raised in France to Algerian-French parents, commit such a ruthless massacre? Was he just an extreme fundamentalist who had taken Islamic teachings to the extreme, or is it basic Islamic fundamentals themselves that lead him to that? As a Muslim, and in an attempt to answer that question, I thought it prudent to look to the factual teaching of Islam on Jihad or “Holy war.”

Sahih Muslim, for example, is a historically renowned book that gathers teachings of Prophet Muhammad that are considered “Sahih,” as in “confirmed” and “authentic.”

In Sahih Muslim and in the Book of Jihad, the first chapter is entitled: “Regarding Permission to Make A Raid, Without An Ultimatum, Upon The Disbelievers Who Have Already Been Invited to Accept Islam” (Book 19, Number 4292):

“Ibn ‘Aun reported: I wrote to Nafi’ inquiring from him whether it was necessary to extend (to the disbelievers) an invitation to accept (Islam) before meeting them in fight. He wrote (in reply) to me that it was necessary in the early days of Islam. The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) made a raid upon Banu Mustaliq while they were unaware and their cattle were having a drink at the water. He killed those who fought and imprisoned others. On that very day, he captured Juwairiya bint al-Harith. Nafi’ said that this tradition was related to him by Abdullah b. Umar who (himself) was among the raiding troops.”

Merah’s un-alerted and un-provoked attack is thus perfectly with the Prophet’s teachings.

Nonetheless, where does Merah’s cold-blooded murder of children stand within the teachings of the prophet?

Chapter two of Sahih Muslim‘s book of Jihad speaks about Muhammad’s advice to his military commanders sent on expeditions (Book 19, Number 4294):

“It has been reported from Sulaiman b. Buraid through his father that when the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) appointed anyone as leader of an army or detachment he would especially exhort him to fear Allah and to be good to the Muslims who were with him. He would say: Fight in the name of Allah and in the way of Allah. Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war, do not embezzle the spoils; do not break your pledge; and do not mutilate (the dead) bodies; do not kill the children…”

The prophet’s exhortations not to kill women and children are re-enforced in another chapter, Chapter 8: “Prohibition of Killing Women and Children in War” (Book 19, Number 4319):

“It is narrated on the authority of ‘Abdullah that a woman was found killed in one of the battles fought by the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him). He disapproved of the killing of women and children.”

Sounds humane, right? Not so fast. Right after Chapter 8 comes Chapter 9, which reads: “Permissibility of Killing Women and Children in the Night Raids Provided It Is Not Deliberate” (Book 19, Number 4321):

“It is reported on the authority of Sa’b b. Jaththama that the Prophet of Allah (may peace be upon him), when asked about the women and children of the polytheists being killed during the night raid, said: They are from them.”

Merah killed three Jewish children who were “from them,” the “evil Jews.” As Merah explained to the France 24 news channel, while he was under siege by French counter-terrorism police, it had not been his original plan to kill those children, that he was originally planning to kill another French soldier but missed him, so he took the next possible target. Was Merah thinking that this made the murders “Not deliberate”?

While Merah fulfilled his wish by taking away the lives of infidels and their children, and was killed himself after that, he still succeeded in fulfilling an equally noble goal in Islamic warfare – creating “‘Terror,’ which is more far-reaching than the actual body count.”

PM Netanyahu Condemns Jerusalem Mufti’s Anti-Semitic Speech

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu inveighed against the comments made by Jerusalem Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Hussein that glorified the killing of Jews.

“These are heinous words that the world needs to condemn,” Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting. He called on Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein to investigate the PA religious leader for incitement after quoting an Islamic text attributed to Muhammad that calls for the killing of Jews.

In response, Hussein denied inciting the killing of Jews, saying he was merely quoting the Islamic text. “I can’t change the Hadith,” he retorted.

Energy minister and Yisrael Beiteinu MK Uzi Landau, reminded the cabinet that “this is not coming from Hamas, which we are used to – this is coming from Palestinian Authority television.”

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/pm-netanyahu-condemns-jerusalem-muftis-anti-semitic-speech/2012/01/22/

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