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City of Brass

Typically, it is quite difficult for me to fast outside of the month of Ramadan…I love my coffee WAY too much (it’s now decaffeinated, though). But, there are a few days during which I am happy to do so. Two of those days are here.

They are the ninth and tenth day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. The tenth day, Ashura (which is tomorrow), is a very special day, especially for Shi’i Muslims, as they commemorate the assassination of Imam Hussein, the son of Imam Ali and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). That event is a very sad one for me, also, as I am very much in love with the family of the Prophet (pbuh).

Yet, it is also a special time because of the event which it commemorates: the Exodus of the Children of Israel out of Egypt. During the time of the Prophet (pbuh), he encouraged us to fast the 9th and 10th day of Muharram to mark the victory of the people of God over the cruelty of Pharoah. Thus, I am fasting to mark that event, and that is why our beloved Aziz went on vacation (honoring me and Willow with guest posting for a while). 

The fact that Muslims fast for the Exodus may come as a surprise to many, but it should not. We are wholly part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and we honor and adore all of the Hebrew Prophets (pbut). Yet, this year’s Ashura is an especially painful one, because of the carnage of Gaza.

As Muslims the world over fast for Moses, why can’t the peoples of the Holy Land come to grips that we are more alike than we are different, that we have lived together in peace and can do so again, that our blood is equal and should not be spilled on the holy soil of the Holy Land?

As I fast, I send this prayer to the Lord: that He makes the killing stop and that both sides can once and for all enjoy peace, security, and prosperity. Amen. 

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Recently at Talk Islam, we’ve been having a discussion about the Islamic attitude toward environmental conservation. It started when blogger Umar Lee, an anti-conservationist, posted this entry at his blog. When Talk Islam blogger Thabet called Lee’s attitude “ignorance dressed up as piety”, the following debate ensued:

Willow: Yup. I find it especially sad considering “those who spoil the
earth” are mentioned time and again in the Quran as being among the
unjust.

Oh well.

Umar: Well, the point is,. that thee are many things that Greens support
that are not conducive to Muslim lifestyles. “Zero Population Growth”
and international family planning are central to green efforts and that
is not very family friendly or in line with the sunnah as we have been
ordered to increase. This also puts many greens in line with many
eugenicists and white racists who fear the population growth amongst
certain groups and see it as a threat to the status quo.

Willow we should preserve the creation of Allah and use it for our
benefit; but not worship it as many do. Animals are to be used for the
benefit of humanity and eaten and not gawked at and to be called “mans
best friend” or what not.

As for gas guzzlers well they may not be the best but I can think of
many other things that people on the left are normally silent about
that are much worse and kill a lot more humans a lot faster ( such as
alcohol, drugs, pornography, and deviant sexual behaviors). There is
also the fact that if you are a large Muslim family what are you
supposed to drive around in? A mini cooper?

Thabet you are taking the tone of the condescending arrogant left
who believes that anyone who disagrees with them is ignorant and that
is part of the reason so many Americans vote against their own economic
interests.Because, like me, they see the artificiality and shallowness
of the Woody Allen, latte, tofu, and gentrification set who are all
worked up over green issues but could care less about the poor people
they displace in their own communities.

Willow: In order to preserve it, we can’t corrupt it. You’re creating a
false dichotomy-as if there are only two choices: dominate the earth (a
Christian concept, not an Islamic one) or worship it (a pagan concept,
not an Islamic one). The Quran and hadith are very clear about the
custodianship of the earth. We’re not allowed to hunt for sport; only
to feed ourselves. We’re not allowed to pollute the drinking water or
farmland of others. In Bukhari there is even a hadith in which the
Prophet rebukes one of his followers for setting fire to an anthill
instead of moving his resting-place away from it.

You’re using stereotype and ridicule instead of an argument based on
the sunnah. Show me where the Prophet negligently wasted natural
resources, and then we can have a debate.

Furthermore, on a practical level it should be evident to anyone
that oil wealth and the political struggle for oil are helping to
destroy the Muslim Middle East. You’ve spoken recently about
Gaza-imagine how the political geography would be different if Saudi
Arabia was not in the US’s pocket.

“Be merciful to the earth, so the One above the heaven will be merciful to you.” -ahadith of al Tabarani and al Hakim

Thabet: Umar,it may help you feel good about yourself to paint me as a tofu
eating, latte drinking, sandal wearer, but you are simply relying on a
personal prejudice against “greens” dressed up in the language of
religion or populism (as you do above). That is why I called your post
‘ignorant’.

As Willow says, you have created a false dichotomy. I think you’re
right to criticise the ‘environmental movement’ as elitist and
hypocritical, and usually only interested in self-promotion, but that
doesn’t mean the issues raised are false.

The funny thing about your response is that it is Muslim peoples in
places like Bangladesh, SE Asia, or sub-Saharan Africa that face the
problems of rising sea water levels, desertification, depletion of
resources, etc — all so you can eat your beef steak and drive your 4
litre SUV in keeping with your “Muslim lifestyle” (which is an
interesting choice of terminology).

(Btw, I hate tofu, do not drink coffee and eat meat. Though I do confess to owning a pair of sandals.)

Umar: Both of you seem to read something that is not here. I never said we
should harm the environment or purely exploit it. We should take care
of the earth because we need it for our survival but we should do this
in a balanced manner. I never said anything to the contrary. The Green
Movement, with its Zero Population growth and support for International
Planned Parenthood,I do not see as something Muslims can get down with.

BTW, I have never owned an SUV, have lived most of my adult life in
urban areas without a car, do not own a vehicle now ( I lease a
taxi),and probably have not eaten a steak in a year ( but eat beef on
the regular). I grew up wearing hand me downs, as the kids in my house
do, and I accumulate very little by choice other than books so, in all
actuality, I live a lifestyle probably greener than most of these
jet-setting Prius driving Greens.

Willow: What’s The Green Movement, capitalized? I recycle, but I don’t believe in universal Chinese-style population control.

My beef with the anti-environmentalist argument that
“environmentalism hurts the poor” is that it is not only false but
extremely US-centric. Anyone who’s spent time in a really polluted
country knows that pollution hits the poor first and hardest. They’re
the ones who have to deal with lung cancer, birth defects and
water-born illnesses while the rich hole up in their global green zones
with bottled water and air purifiers. I lived for a year in a factory
district in Cairo, and believe you me, environmental pollution was
nothing abstract to the people who’d grown up there. Babies were born
underweight because the air was so polluted it was like their mothers
were smoking 2 packs a day. Childhood lukemia was sky-high. I knew two
people who dropped dead of heart failure in their mid-thirties. It was
so bad that the workers in the factory, many of whom suffered from
serious lung and heart conditions, went on strike last year to demand
healthcare and cleaner working conditions.

If people like you keep scoffing at conservation efforts and insist
environmentalism is all about Priuses and lattes (my first car was a
1.3 cc Hyundai, which achieves the same thing for 1/4 the money), it
won’t be long before the working classes in this country are facing
similar environmentally-driven health and welfare issues.

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This is a guest post by Muslim comics writer and essayist G. Willow Wilson.

One of my literary heroes, Neil Gaiman, is an ardent supporter of free speech. In this entry of his blog, he discusses an issue that has set the comics industry on fire in recent months: the question of whether fictional depictions of child pornography are protected speech. (Child pornography involving live children is not; about that I think we can all vigorously concur.) Gaiman concludes that we must protect all speech, no matter how vile, because the law cannot draw a line between art and smut.

The debate brought me back to the infamous Danish cartoon scandal of 2005. Like many thinking Muslims, I was forced by the controversy to fight a war on two fronts: against religious violence on one hand, and against hate speech on the other. I condemned the threats of death and violence made by my angry coreligionists, but I also condemned the cartoons.

Among my fellow comics creators, my position was considered reactionary. Why couldn’t I recognize that the man behind the Muhammad cartoons was An Artist, excercising the noblest of ideals, Freedom Of Speech? Was not art inherently worthy? Why did I insist on holding An Artist morally responsible for the ideas his art promoted?

The answer was–is–quite simple: because an artist is morally responsible for the ideas his art promotes. Free speech does not mean all speech is just or good. When an artist promotes (or worse, invents) ugly stereotypes, he or she is responsible for helping create cultural consensus about the people, ideas or activities s/he stereotypes. And consensus is dangerous.

I recently looked over a gallery of cartoons that appeared in World War II-era Germany. And I found this. (H/T The German Propaganda Archive) He looked oddly familiar. Hadn’t I seen him somewhere before? Ah yes: here. Man, they could be brothers. I don’t think anyone would dispute that the ‘artist’ of the first cartoon was responsible for perpetuating Nazi consensus against the Jews. He may not have fired a single bullet or locked a single gas chamber, but he helped ease the minds and lend confidence to the hearts of those who did. Yet western leftists lined up in solidarity with the ‘artist’ of the second cartoon, which perpetuates a near-identical consensus against Muslims. Right down to the hooked nose, maniacal gaze, and scruffy facial hair. Someone–probably many someones–looked at that cartoon, looked at an Iraqi civilian with his legs blown off, and didn’t care.

When you defend hate speech, you defend hatred. Whether you like it or not, whether you deal with it or not, whether you admit it or not. I refuse to defend hate speech. I refuse to call it art. There is only one reason I do not call for it to be censored: if we start censoring hate speech, we give the government a precedent to censor anything. Gaiman is right–the law cannot draw fine lines.

So the hate-cartoonists and (fictional!) child-pornographers are free to continue Being Artists. The fashionable are free to worship them, rationalize them, and split hairs for them. And I am free to be a curmudgeon, who continues to insist that art is not merely a right–it is a moral responsibility.

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(This is a guest post by my friend and Islamsphere scion Ali Eteraz)

I woke up this morning and found a comprehensive Middle East peace plan being offered by Saudi Arabia in the pages of the Washington Post.

Putting aside whether or not the proposed Arab peace initiative of 2002 is viable or progressive, I couldn’t help but notice the four bullet points that conclude the article. Says the article:

Obama ought to pursue a comprehensive policy that deals with all the hot spots in the Middle East. He should:

Call for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Shebaa Farms in Lebanon. This would remove the issue of “national liberation” from the arsenal of Hezbollah’s propaganda and mitigate Syrian and Iranian interference in Lebanon.

Work with the U.N. Security Council for a resolution guaranteeing Iraq’s territorial integrity. This would dampen Iraqi politicians’ ambitions for dismembering Iraq and force them to negotiate for national reconciliation, putting their interests as Iraqis before their interests as Arabs, Kurds, Shiites or Sunnis. It would also stop any ambitions — economic or territorial — that Iraq’s neighbors may be considering.

Encourage Israeli-Syrian negotiations for peace. This would engage Syria and diminish Iranian obstructionism. It would also force Palestinian groups based in Syria to follow the Syrian example.

Declare America’s intention to work for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, with a security umbrella and other incentives for countries that sign up and a sanctions regime for those that don’t. This would remove the issue of double standards that the Iranian government uses to raise support among its people for its nuclear policy. It would also resolve the security concerns with which Israel’s leaders justify their possession of nuclear weapons.

Notice something?

Each one contains either a direct or indirect reference to Iran. It is only the second bullet where Iran is not named but even there the “ambitions” of “Iraq’s neighbors” can only refer to one country.

Number three is interesting because Iran is redefined as the country engaged in “obstructionism.” Four, however, is crucial, because it directly criticizes Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

There has been a debate raging among academics whether it makes sense to understand the middle east in terms of this Saudi-Iranian competition. Vali Nasr, from the Naval Academy, who wrote the book on Shia revival and conflicts within Islam, has argued for this kind of evaluation. Hamid Dabashi, from Columbia university, believes that promoting conflicts within Islam is simply made up. I don’t think my views particularly matter in this debate but if I had to pick I would say that neither is correct since given the autocratic and oligarchic nature of Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively, there is no way of knowing what is really happening.

Ali Eteraz is a writer and columnist for The Huffington Post and for The Guardian magazine.

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