Saturday, May 8, 2010

Silence or condittional condemnation\05\07\story_7-5-2010_pg3_3

Friday, May 07, 2010
VIEW: Silence or conditional condemnation —Dr Mahjabeen Islam
Ours is a nation with many Joseph Goebbels. We rattle on in convoluted, minute details and in the effort to convince others, delude only ourselves, unfortunately so deeply that we lose the beginning of lies and the death of the truth

Unstinted condemnation with no ifs, ands, or buts. That really is what live consciences do, but stretched by money, pulled by power, crushed for survival or encased in apathy, as a nation and an ummah, we are either mute or babbling.

As though life and world politics were not tough enough, we now have a Pakistani-American, Faisal Shahzad, trying to blow up an SUV in Times Square.

Those embedded deeply in faith, practicing the details of the Sunnah with mid-calf pyjamas and beards-but-no-moustaches frequently forget the most basic litmus test of Islam: the premise of intention. Shahzad faces terrorism and explosive charges. These include “attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and transporting an explosive device with the intent to kill”. The key word here is “intent”. The Quran in Surah Nisa (4:135) says succinctly: “Testify to the truth even if it goes against yourselves, your parents or your relatives.” This verse has interminable depth and it nudges you to listen to and strengthen your moral compass, for going against oneself and one’s parents is mighty hard to do.

With the construction of the Times Square bomb there could have been significant destruction and death, had it detonated. New York City has billboards all over urging people: “If you see something, say something.” And that is what street vendor Lance Orton did when he saw that the illegally parked SUV’s engine was running and smoke was emanating from it. Muslim-American and Pakistani-American organisations were quick to condemn. But at times like these there is a predictable dead silence in Pakistan. The elephant in the room is always ignored, looked around or looked through — if one can do all those things even metaphorically with an enormity such as an elephant.

Interestingly, the Friday sermon is set up such that it is not complete unless current socio-political issues are discussed. And this is the bane of mosques not just in Pakistan but even here in North America. The imams or spiritual leaders of mosques are so totally clueless about the importance of linking socio-political issues with Islam and what it says about a particular issue that when earth-shattering events occur (for example the assassination of Benazir Bhutto), the imam is found talking about some obscure, entirely unrelated issue.

Muslims are ridiculed, and I might add, rightfully so when we continually claim that “Islam means peace”, but all around us are bombs and killings by wild-eyed beasts audaciously claiming connection with the magnificence that Islam is. It is one thing for some of us to quote the Quran that “killing an innocent is like killing all of humanity and saving one is like saving all of humanity” (5:32) but it is quite another to have the corner on the market on killing non-combatants.

So the religious leaders and imams of Pakistan were silent. And the feeling that “good, the US deserves it” could be heard across the seven seas. But what has happened to our moral compass? True that drones raining bombs on innocents is beyond reprehensible, but like Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur wrote in these pages recently, two wrongs do not make a right. What does your religion say? What does your heart say?

The carnage that the US spreads in Afghanistan and Iraq, the dehumanisation of the Palestinians by Israel and the rape of the Kashmiri nation by India can never be entirely encompassed in the feebleness of words and no grieving will ever suffice. And yet justifying all acts of terror against innocent American civilians based on the injustice perpetrated by governments is firstly unjust in and of itself, and secondly, is not achieving the intended goal.

While Pakistani imams put blinders on, the leaders babbled. Instead of spending millions on mehndis, Pakistani politicians would be wise to invest in some leadership and media training. Perhaps some psychotherapy might be in order so that this reflexive conspiracy-theory-explaining-all could be dealt with. Most felt that Shahzad was being used by entities to indict and damage Pakistan. Others, including Interior Minister Rehman Malik, were borderline ludicrous: Shahzad they said was now an American and so he was “the US’s problem”. Excuse me? Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had the nerve to say in an official interview that Shahzad’s, and attacks such as his, may well be retaliation for American drone attacks in Pakistan. “We should not be so naïve to think that they will not react,” he said. Interestingly, the Pakistani government overtly condemns the drones but has given a wink and a nod to the American government to bomb the alleged terrorist strongholds with impunity. Have we no shame?

Very interestingly, nowhere does one notice straight condemnation. Ours is a nation with many Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s infamous information minister. We rattle on in convoluted, minute details and in the effort to convince others, delude only ourselves, unfortunately so deeply that we lose the beginning of lies and the death of the truth.

Promote the good and forbid the evil (Amar Bil Maroof wa Nahi Anil Munkar) is one of the foundational principles of Islam. In its elaboration we are to physically stop the wrong if we are able, if not we are to verbally do so and if that is not possible we are to at the minimum think that this is wrong. The last option is the weakest manifestation of faith.

Historically, when do Muslims protest? As a general rule when Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is disrespected. But is that all we are urged by God and the Prophet (PBUH) to do? Is this all that our minds encompass and allow? How can we reduce the breadth of such an all-encompassing faith to only one item? Do we realise that ours is a faith that has stark accountability and the promise of justice in this world and the next?

With the two angels on each shoulder and God above as well as our record being handed to us on the Day of Judgement, how can those of us who hang our hats on religion justify our monocular brand of practice? And remember if we protest the veracity of the record, a time and place video waits to shame us. As I age and come across the Muslims from across the spectrum I notice, as is apparent in other faiths as well, that the ultra-right comes with inbuilt blinders and the darkest of sunglasses. And ironically they are controlling the Muslim conversation. And even more ironically, they are the squeaky-wheel minority.

The silent majority must un-press the mute button. If religion does not guide you, let your heart, let your mind. All of us in our own ways must protest terrorism, for no religion or creed, especially Islam, condones the slaughter of innocents.

And if we do not, then we should not bemoan the wholesale hijacking of Islam, the maligning of Pakistan or the endangering of Muslim-Americans. Silence means consent. And conditional condemnation is psychobabble.

Mahjabeen Islam is a freelance columnist, family physician and addictionist with a practice in Toledo, Ohio. She can be reached at

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Changing the Muslim Conversation

Thursday, April 29, 2010
VIEW: Changing the Muslim conversation —Mahjabeen Islam
In the pre-modern era, religious scholars controlled the discussion; now anyone even vaguely familiar with the Quran and prophetic tradition can write a book and gain credibility. Specifically, authorship does not connote authority

So is Abu-Talha Al-Amreeki going
to be speaking for me now? A 20-year old, formerly known as Zachary Adam Chesser, is now media-commissioned to be the loudest responder to the South Park incident satirising Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). On cursory examination, why should he not be? If you posted bloodied photos of Theo van Gogh (murdered in 2004 for making a film critical of Islam), with the threat that South Park’s creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone would share the same fate, you would grab the spotlight too.

Will we always sit up to the squeakiest wheel? Have Muslims, especially Muslim-Americans undergone a wholesale abdication and left the conversation to a loner previously interested in Goth and satanic bands with now radicalism as a primary interest? And ‘Sheikh’ Osama bin Laden as his motivating idol?

I watched the South Park cartoon and must admit was more amused than offended. There is a refrain throughout this episode that Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) face cannot be shown. Other religious figures, especially Moses, are shown irreverently as well, but this is a cartoon! Finally, they settle on showing Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in a bear costume. No sooner is the cartoon aired that Abu Talha Al-Amreeki posted the threats on his website as well as in interviews and the networks went crazy. As he had, I thought. When asked whether he was threatening the lives of Trey and Stone he said that their work was threatening their lives.

In his lifetime, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was targeted on a daily basis by a hateful woman who dropped garbage on him as he walked by. When the smelly load did not appear one day he went to her home to determine the reason, only to find her unwell. The other more poignant event is that of Taif where Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), during his attempt to spread the message of Islam was mocked, jeered and pelted with stones to the point that the blood congealed in his sandals and he almost fainted. According to an authentic Hadith, on his return from Taif, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “Why should I pray for the destruction of the people of Taif? I do hope that their posterity will be among the believers in the one Allah.”

Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) is probably the most accurately documented life in history. These and other events of his life portray his tolerance and forbearance in face of insult. And his amazing perspective and forgiveness.

In the hierarchy, our love is to be for God, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and then parents. The respect for Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is made incumbent on all Muslims, which includes that Muslims are not to portray the likeness of Muhammad (PBUH).

The Quran reverberates: “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). It would be utopia if people of all persuasions had the magnanimity and basic courtesy to respect all religious and culturally important figures. One does not have to be a deep religious scholar to say with complete credence that killing, or even threatening someone for insulting the Prophet of Islam (PBUH), goes against the very basic tenet shared with the Abrahamic faiths: thou shalt not kill. What my non-Muslim neighbour, the television or an article does with Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is not a fight I am supposed to fight. I move on or hit delete.

In a Christian-Muslim-Jewish dialogue, Dr Sherman Jackson, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, detangles the issue of “Who Speaks for Islam” very skilfully. He traces the history of authority in Islam. Islam, he says, has no problem with pluralism and that, in pre-modern times, Islamic jurists had the authority but no power and the situation stood much like the current day American model of the separation of church and state. The problem began with the development of the modern nation-state in which the authority of the religious scholars could be successfully marginalised. And the paradigm shifted when activists wanted power to affect the socio-political order.

Currently, Dr Jackson says, classical jurists are competing with modern activists in representing Islam. In these pantheon activists, heroic acts, and authors of whatever book on Islam and Muslims, are considered to have authority. The heroic stand is taken by Osama bin Laden. In the pre-modern era, religious scholars controlled the discussion; now anyone even vaguely familiar with the Quran and Prophetic tradition can write a book and gain credibility. Specifically, authorship does not connote authority.

Dr Jackson expands on the role of the West and how Anwar Awlaki, the man who allegedly inspired Major Hasan in the Fort Hood incident, was converted by the West into an authority. He is referred to as a cleric when, in actuality, Awlaki’s credentials are unknown.

So why, I ask you, is Abou Talha Al-Amreeki not written off as just another lunatic? Are his blue eyes and flowing brown beard giving him credibility even though Revolution Muslim has all of 12 followers? Muslims in general and the media in particular are misdirected. The ones offended by South Park must choose their battles, no pun intended. The media, following journalistic ethics, ought to do basic homework and interview representative organisations such as CAIR, Council of American-Islamic Relations and MPAC, Muslim Public Affairs Council, or individuals of scholarly credentials such as Dr Sherman Jackson, Dr Akbar Ahmed of American University or Dalia Mogahed (former President Obama’s adviser on Muslim relations), among many others all across North America.

Incidents like South Park unnecessarily endanger us all. Together we can change that if we alter the interaction by marginalising the violent and discoursing with the deserved. And, of course, keeping response to offence in perspective.

Mahjabeen Islam is a family physician, addictionist and freelance columnist with a practice in Toledo, Ohio. She can be
reached at

My name is Islam

Tuesday, April 20, 2010
VIEW: My name is Islam —Mahjabeen Islam
It seems to me that American vision will be forever jaundiced and my regular self will be painted and attired and then sneered and shouted at. And worse yet, my Pakistan has no place for me

Mine is a name that causes virtual whiplashes. I can hear them say “Dr Islam? Are you kidding me?!” The sophisticated ones bite their tongues; the bold ones, when I introduce myself, extend their hand and say, “Then I am Dr Christian!”

One would have expected tolerance and interfaith harmony to have plummeted post-9/11, with gradual improvement thereafter. But the tincture of time is not working here, quite the opposite; catalysed by the Great Recession, emotions are a-simmer and thin veneers fall fast.

I have partially borrowed the title of this article from the Bollywood production ‘My name is Khan’ in which megastar Shahrukh Khan does a terrific representation of Asperger’s syndrome. The refrain in the film is ‘My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist’ and not only is Asperger’s syndrome detailed accurately in the film, it successfully addresses issues such as home-grown terrorism and the steadily escalating antipathy toward anyone remotely resembling a Muslim.

And it resonated with me. For now, on an almost a daily basis, there is thinly veiled contempt, a poke or a jibe. Time was, even after 9/11, that people were pleasantly surprised that I was a Muslim. Expecting horns on my head, flowing robes or at least a headscarf, I know I evoked surprise for being so boringly average. But now I seem to be responsible for the Iraq fiasco, the Afghanistan invasion and of course the shooting at Fort Hood — to name only a few American and Muslim misadventures.

A 70-year old elderly white female, a patient of mine for the last 20 years, while checking out after her visit and planning her next appointment, wags her finger (I was standing right next to her) and says, “No fighting, no fighting, you stay in your country and I will stay in mine.” I know that somewhere along the genealogy line I am linked to Job. Not a word did I breathe; not for paucity of thought or fury.

How many people do I advertise to that I have lived in the US longer than my native Pakistan? What will it take to convince non-Muslim Americans that I do not spend my evenings and weekends participating in hot domestic-terrorism meetings? How many columns and events does it take to repeat that terrorism is roundly condemned by Islam, both the religion and little me?

Perhaps my patient has some room for misgivings — at least in her mind. Even before 9/11 I used to have copies of the Quran in my waiting room. After all, I figured if the Gideons can place Bibles in every hotel room, I certainly should try to enlighten with the message of the Quran. And of course after 9/11 it became required reading. Many Muslims and marketing gurus would consider it near-suicidal to have Islamic literature in a medical-office waiting room. And yet in my naïve activism-cum-spirituality I have this “He will provide for all living things” theory that perpetuates my risk-taking behaviours.

“I went to Vegas and noticed at the airports that there are not that many Arabs wearing Arabic clothes anymore, have you noticed?” asked my 76 year old black patient. I had not noticed, I said, there is a profusion in the mall when I go. “In the mall, but not at the airports!” he bellowed. “I guess they don't want to get arrested, flying while Muslim,” I tried to explain, illustrating with the imams that had gotten arrested for praying at Minneapolis airport. “So you are trying to shirk your religious duty because you are afraid?” his tone got strident, almost mocking. Well no, a group of South Asian and Arab-appearing men were arrested for praying in a Las Vegas parking lot with police radios saying that “objects were kissing the ground”. So damned if you pray and damned if you don't! Instead of healing I was, yet again, the defence attorney for all the Muslims of the world.

The other very favourite phrase is “why don't you go back to where you came from?” I haven't been told that to my face, not yet, in any case, but many Muslims have. To think that all that come to the US come for the American dream is nothing short of arrogant delusion. I for one came for post-graduate training and while I was tentative about staying or returning to Pakistan, years passed and I had dropped roots. Returning to my native Pakistan because the going got a little tough is unfortunately impracticable with American-born children.

And if roots were still pulled, what do physicians face in Pakistan? Especially the straight-laced, honest types, unaware of which palms to grease or what strings to pull — harassment, kidnapping or penury?

And who gets to measure my patriotism and decide that it is deficient? I live in a ritzy Republican neighbourhood; my contemporary home stands out among the wan and conservative beiges and browns. And if that and the intermittent string of brown guests were not bad enough, I was audacious to have been the sole supporter of Obama in the subdivision. The day that I took my yard sign out, my neighbour across the street glared so hard that if looks could kill, the sign and I would have evaporated. He ignored my cheery hello and responded with two McCain-Palin signs and American flags in every square inch of the yard it seemed. And only three days later, the Obama sign was crumpled and flattened — not something I could have relegated to the reckless wind.

I know that I put the casual observer’s brain a bit on overdrive. The English is accented but understandable, the persona regular but the name, oh the name! It seems to me though that the American vision will be forever jaundiced and my regular self will be painted and attired and then sneered and shouted at. And worse yet, my Pakistan has no place for me. Not alive in any case.

Mahjabeen Islam is a family physician, addictionist and freelance columnist with a practice in Toledo, Ohio. She can be reached at