Tag Archive | 9/11

The Day the World Changed – Conversation – Edinburgh


Saturday 27 August, 9.30am – 10.30am

St John’s Church (Venue 127), Edinburgh

As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11 what is the legacy of that day and the conflict which ensued? Is the predicted ‘clash of civilisations’ being played out? We welcome Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the Cordoba Initiative in Manhattan and visionary leader of the so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ – who was at the eye of the storm last September as US public opinion wrestled with the bitterness of 9/11, the threatened burning of the Quran, overseas wars in Muslim countries and growing Islamophobia at home. Can the US exorcise the ghosts of 9/11? In conversation withProfessor Hugh Goddard from the Alwaleed network of centres promoting mutual understanding between the World of Islam and the West.

In partnership with the Prince Alwaleed Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World at the University of Edinburgh. www.alwaleed.ed.ac.uk

 For further details and tickets:  www.festivalofspirituality.org.uk


Islam at the Dinner Table: Baroness Warsi, Religious Illiteracy, Dichotomies and Road Safety

Baroness Warsi

Yesterday, Baroness Warsi, co-chairman of the Tory Party and the first Muslim woman to serve in the cabinet, warned that anti-Muslim prejudice is becoming normal in the UK. According to a BBC report on a speech she was to deliver later that day, the baroness warned “against dividing Muslims into moderates and extremist” saying that “such labels fuel misunderstanding”.

The report continued:

Baroness Warsi will say anti-Muslim prejudice is now seen by many Britons as normal and uncontroversial, and she will use her position to fight an “ongoing battle against bigotry”. In extracts of the speech, published in the Daily Telegraph, the peer blames “the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media”, for making Britain a less tolerant place for believers. […]

[…] Baroness Warsi is to say publicly what many Muslims privately complain about – that prejudice against them does not attract the social stigma attached to prejudice against other religious and ethnic groups.

[… In the past, Baroness Warsi] told the 2009 Conservative Party conference that anti-Muslim hatred had become Britain’s last socially acceptable form of bigotry, and claimed in a magazine article last October that taking a pop at the Muslim community in the media sold papers and didn’t really matter.”

In her speech, she is expected to say the description of Muslims as either moderate or extremist encourages false assumptions.

“It’s not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of ‘moderate’ Muslims leads; in the factory, where they’ve just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: ‘Not to worry, he’s only fairly Muslim’,” she will say.

“In the school, the kids say: ‘The family next door are Muslim but they’re not too bad’.

“And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a burka, the passers-by think: ‘That woman’s either oppressed or is making a political statement’.”

Baroness Warsi will say terror offences committed by a small number of Muslims should not be used to condemn all who follow Islam. But she will also urge Muslim communities to be clearer about their rejection of those who resort to violent acts.

“Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law,” she will say.

“They also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims.””

It’s bizarre to find myself saying this (in that Baroness Warsi is a Conservative), but I totally agree with her on this. I certainly find myself having conversations with I would say the vast majority of my friends, about Muslims, which we would never dream of having about other faith groups. I was talking to friends at the weekend, and I started to digress on my own personal thoughts about when this started to happen. When I did so, the traditional beacon of 9/11 appeared to be the turning point. However, for me at least, this was not a moment where conversations on Islam started to take an overall negative turn, but it was the first time that I can remember EVER having conversations about Islam at all.

Now there are perhaps two keys reasons for this: firstly, I went to school in Northern Ireland, where until recently, ‘Religious Education’, even up to GCSE Level, consisted of studying Christianity. You didn’t have to agree with it (although I do remember a certain lad getting into heated arguments with teachers about whether God existed or not, etc), but the subject matter was simply Christianity, in a few of its locally-represented forms; secondly, again, this was Northern Ireland… which a decade ago was certainly not the most ethnically diverse country on the planet. I remember there was a black kid in one of the years above me… and one of my best friends had an an Arabic-sounding surname, but that was about it as far as diversity went. Even when I was a committed Christian, I don’t think I ever really stopped to consider what ‘other’ people believed… just that they didn’t ‘believe in God’. It seems that my trips to Egypt and Tunisia, and pop-cultural references (such as the many “By Allah’s” in Aladdin) just went completely over my head. And it wasn’t just Islam… I can remember the topic of another good friend’s father’s religious beliefs coming up in conversation at one point, and the response came ‘He’s a Buddhist… they don’t believe in God’, and I never thought about it any further.

I wonder how similar this is to the experiences of other 20-somethings in the UK? Probably not… given that most other parts of the UK probably had ‘actual’ Religious Education… and because most places aren’t quite as boringly homogeneous as Northern Ireland was at the end of the 90s (although, in the Northern Irish case, maybe a little less ‘religious diversity’ might have been a good thing? In fact, with the influx of immigration from various parts of the EU and further afield, we have actually seen some groups of ‘Protestants’ and ‘Catholics’ putting aside their differences to do physical harm to these new arrivals… ‘delightful’, isn’t it?). However, I have no doubt that had I not decided to embark upon Religious Studies at University, purely out of curiosity, I would be buying into the contemporary pervasive attitudes towards Islam even more than I already (hopefully unconsciously) do.

This pervasive attitude has emerged in the wake of 9/11, other terror attacks, and other sensationalised statements and actions of small minorities. The only ‘Islam’ which the vast majority of the British population are presented with, and indeed the only Islam that they are remotely interested in, is a media-distorted version propagated by a small minority of extremists/fundamentalists. In a way, this pervasive Islamaphobia is exactly what the perpetrators of various terror attacks, and the preachers of extreme interpretations of Islam would have wished to create. How could things have turned out better for them? The ‘common man’ in the ‘West’ didn’t have any major attitudes towards Islam before terrorist atrocities, combined with biased and un-educated, deadline-driven media coverage (a charge from which the BBC is not exempt), and instant internet-based publicity platforms for extremists on all sides, started to form this negative opinion.

I am not going to start talking about religious toleration… or pluralism… or where we draw the line between ‘dinner-table’ conversations and ‘bigotry’. Firstly, this is because I have almost completed another post about everyone’s favourite pastor -Mr Terry Jones – but I left my laptop at home with the document on it… boo! And secondly, because I have a very inherently negative attitude towards most forms of inter-faith dialogue etc, where the ‘religious’ are seen as having something which the ‘nonreligious’ don’t… and therefore they should all band together and try to protect this very important thing which ‘unites’ them… when really the whole idea of a religious faith essentially precludes this unity. But… before I get drawn into this.. I will echo the sentiments I stated in my very first blog post, 18 months ago, that EDUCATION about religion is ‘absolutely necessary for the future co-operation, integration and progress of the human race as the world becomes smaller, and the stakes grow higher and higher.’

On this note, I am becoming more and more swayed by the idea that certain outspoken atheists are doing a pretty good job in educating the wider public about ‘religion’ in general. Obviously, they have their own agenda which may or may not be helpful, but the simple fact is that many, many ‘religious’ people know very little about the specific tenets and narratives of the ‘faith’ that they claim to belong to, and the information provided by atheistic texts etc (if accurate, which isn’t always the case) might at least spur them to read more widely into their faith, and the faith of others. It’s one way of getting people ‘interested’ in religion again, I guess.

But, back to Baroness Warsi. Dichotomising tendencies are an inherent human problem… we all do it, and we always will. But even if people are not educated in the idiosyncrasies of individual religions, political views etc we can try and espouse an ethos where we repeatedly and continuously question the reason why we hold the opinions that we do. Religion is not a monolith. Neither is Islam. Neither is Islam a dichotomy between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. If you ever hear someone trying to apply ‘common sense’ dichotomies like ‘black and white’ or ‘male and female’ to complex, human situations, you need to be suspicious. People are not either ‘religious’ or ‘nonreligious’… they are not either ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’… they are not either ‘moderate’ or ‘extreme’… the list goes on and on. Each person is an individual… whilst they may choose in certain circumstances to identify with certain groups or ideals, and whilst ‘we’ may categorise them , on occasion, dependent upon contextual variables, we tend to be much more ‘fuzzy’ than these rigid, contextualised categories allow.

Does anyone else remember Tufty the squirrel? I definitely have one of these badges kicking about in my parents’ house somewhere. Tufty advised on road safety… and his motto was, of course – “Stop! Look! and Listen!” Maybe we need to instigate a similar motto for people to use in situations where people with verbal diarrhea come out with dichotomising statements? Perhaps Baroness Warsi would like to design the mascot for this campaign?

Feel free to send in suggestions :P

Respect to you, President Obama: On the utter ridiculousness of objecting to Mosques in Lower Manhattan

I know this has been a regular item in the news for quite a while now, but after seeing President Obama’s great speech on the BBC News website today, I thought I should put in my oar also.

Here are the three main reasons why I think it is utterly ridiculous to object to a mosque being constructed a few blocks away from Ground Zero. If I think of any more later on I will add them on:

1. What does hallowed ground mean?

Obama states:

“We must all recognise and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan, Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”

Now, at this point we could get into a big discussion on the notion of the sacred and the profane… a debate which infuses the discipline of Religious Studies and shall probably continue to do until the end of time. This would, however, be tangential and somewhat academically dry. Whilst people may debate with me on the specifics, I don’t think anyone is going to argue that Ground Zero is not, in some sense, hallowed. But calling a piece of ground sacred or hallowed is simply a means of stating that it has great significance in the lives, hearts and minds of the community of people who hold this piece of ground to be hallowed. It is an acknowledgment that an event occurred at this site which binds people together through shared grief, pain and commitment to renewal and the national identity. This “hallowedness” may even have a spiritual element, and individuals may choose to interpret this “hallowedness” through their own religious stance, however no one person or religious group holds the monopoly to the “hallowedness” of this site. The site is, in a sense, sacred… it is, in a sense, hallowed… but it is hallowed to the nation and has an oxymoronic sense of national secular sacredness. This is a sacredness that is perhaps felt more strongly by American citizens… but it is the same sacredness that any human being will feel upon visiting the war graves of the Somme, or the memorial at Auschwitz even if they have no personal connection to the horrors that took place their themselves.

Religious people are entitled to interpret this feeling of hallowedness/sacredness through their religious beliefs. But they do not have the monopoly to claim that their interpretation is the only valid one. And there is nothing oxymoronic about an agnostic, atheist or nonreligious person experiencing and fully appreciating this hallowedness also. Ground Zero is a hallowed site. But most definitely not in an exclusively Christian sense. If people have a problem with one religious building being constructed in the near vicinity, then they should have a problem with ANY religious building in this area, and not the buildings of one particular religious tradition.

2. How near is “near”?

This is a fairly basic point but one which carries a lot of weight.

Where exactly do people draw the line? I believe, with President Obama, that “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country” [the USA]. However, even if someone was able to convince me that there was a justifiable reason for keeping mosques away from Ground Zero, how far exactly would be deemed far enough away to not cause offence?

According to the Washington Post (Bloomberg News), New York currently has more than 100 mosques (compared with just 10 in 1970). Of these mosques 17 are in Manhattan (see here). I suppose it was only a matter of time before people threw up a stink about this… but seriously, where do you draw the line? One block, 10 blocks, 20 blocks, a different island, a different city, a different state, a different country? Everyone has different subjective boundaries in their heads… but the fact is that there is a specifically designated memorial area at Ground Zero, and apart from this it is all down to individual idiosyncrasy.

I put it to those who object to a mosque being constructed in the vicinity of Ground Zero that their “sensitivity”, whilst being grounded in a real relationship to a traumatic event, is based largely on prejudice and misunderstanding and is a small step away from the “sensitivity” that would see mosque construction being opposed throughout the USA.

As President Obama said:

“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”

3. Finally, and most importantly, MUSLIM does not equal TERRORIST!!!

I can’t beleive that, in this day and age, I am still having to write this.Yes, the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks were Muslims. There is a lot of debate in the Islamic community as to whether they can even still be called Muslims for carrying out such a heinous crime. And of course there is a minority who believe that their actions were righteous. For a much fuller discussion on the matter of contemporary Islam and terrorism, please see the final section of my previous post “A Very, Very Short Introduction to Islam”. How Muslim or non-Muslim the terrorists were is not really the issue here… the fact is that equating Islam with terror is exactly the same as making sweeping statements like “All Catholics support the IRA” or “All Southerners are in the KKK”. Seriously, what if the 9/11 attack had been carried out by the IRA? I’m sure the USA wouldn’t have gone to war with the UK and the Republic of Ireland for harbouring terrorists, but would the reaction be the same if a group of Irish American Catholics wanted to build a chapel in the vicinity of Ground Zero? Well, who knows…

And lest we not forget, Muslims – whether American citizens or foreign workers – were also the victims of the 9/11 attacks. According to a 2002 BBC News article, there were an estimated 70 Muslims killed in the Twin Towers. Also, a blogger who seems to have done quite a bit of research conservatively estimates 28 innocent Muslims died that day. By objecting to the construction of a mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero, opponents of this development spit in the faces of the families of those innocent Muslims who died that day. If these opponents were truly representative of Western society, is it any wonder that terrorists feel justified in their actions? Sarah Palin, a fine example of this hatred and ill-education wrote “to build a mosque at Ground Zero is a stab in the heart of the families of the innocent victims of those horrific attacks”. I put it to you, Sarah, that your narrow-mindedness, prejudice and petty pandering to the lowest common denominator is a perfect example of one of the gravest ills affecting Western society today, and can only serve to perpetuate division, oppression, victimisation and an end to freedom and liberty.

This is not a defence of Islam. I have many issues with Islam as a religion, and I am very aware that calls to violence and aggression are present throughout the Qur’an, the Hadith and the founding principles and stories of the faith. But I am also aware that it is not my place to judge a group of people on the basis of the literature and traditions that they hold dear. Just as there will always be Christians who think homosexuality is an abomination, that the world was created in six days and that it is okay to bomb abortion clinics, just as there will always be atheists who would fight tooth and nail to remove all traces of religion from our cultures, leaving music, art, literature, philosophy etc as but pale shadows of what they once were, so too there will always be those in the Islamic community who believe in violence and terror as a valid means of protest against the “Western” way of living. Do we assume that the same debate that ensues in non-Muslim contexts surrounding these and other issues, does not occur within Muslim communities across the globe? Do we assume that Muslims not only all think in exactly the same way, and have exactly the same opinions on every issue, but that also our caricature of their beliefs, thoughts and practices is universally applicable in all times and places? Erm… no…

So, before you go calling for restrictions on “other” people’s freedom, at least give the above three points some thought.

If you still come out feeling justified in your opinion then let’s talk some more.

“The writ of the founders must endure.”

Respect to you, President Obama!

Informative Links

For an excellent satirical spoof on this story, see OUTRAGE OVER PLANS TO BUILD LIBRARY NEXT TO SARAH PALIN

For coverage on the worrying publicity generated by Pamela Geller, see The US blogger on a mission to halt ‘Islamic takeover’

A quite amusing, Taiwanese take on the whole thing

And a BRILLIANT, 12 minute berating of those who would object to this “Mosque” by Keith Olbermann

And an excellent article on tolerance in Lebanon: The Ground Zero Synagogue in Lebanon