Monday, June 28, 2010

A gun slinging nation

VIEW: A gun-slinging nation —Dr Mahjabeen Islam
Friday, June 25, 2010

When a government is entirely incapable of providing security to its citizens, it takes up arms to protect itself, and when the going gets tough those arms are used

Pakistanis have developed a markedly predatory character, on an individual, community and national level. Democracy is neonatal yet, and as scores are not settled in the ballot box, bullets are so much more efficient it seems.

We do not have an effective population control programme and it seems to me that people at large know this for they are doing their bit in subscribing to the Malthusian theory of population. Political economist Thomas Malthus theorised that population growth is stemmed by famine, disease and natural disasters. Taking the law into their own hands and gunning down tens to hundreds at a time, Pakistanis have added predatory practices to the Malthusian theory.

Listening to the news, especially anything related to Pakistan, is an exercise in adrenaline surges. Rarely does a day go by that some sort of violence does not occur on a significant scale in Pakistan. On individual levels, one hears of revenge killings or the calm motorcycle murders in Karachi in which one or two walk into a medical clinic, empty their revolvers into a doctor’s head, jump back on the motorcycle and vaporise into the crowd.

Assault rifles are used when vindictive families clash and, after all is said and shot, dozens lie dead on both sides. And, of course, the ever-present sword of Damocles, terrorism, in which suicide vests, combined with assault weapons, wreak havoc in one part of the country or another.

There was a time when one saw rifles slung on the shoulders of soldiers. With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, tanks on street corners of Pakistani cities became commonplace and Kalashnikovs proliferated on the shoulders of chowkidars. And now it is not a status symbol to have rifle-wielding guards. Pakistanis feel that it is as necessary, perhaps, as food and water.

With poor governance, rampant corruption, a collapsing economy and an extremely high-strung nation, the chicken-or-the-egg theory applies. When a government is entirely incapable of providing security to its citizens, it takes up arms to protect itself, and when the going gets tough those arms are used. And now that the population is armed to the teeth, disarming it is going to be a mammoth project and one that the government is not only unprepared to undertake, it seems to see no need to do it.

This mind-boggling disinterest on the part of the government is borne out by a de-weaponising plan that is as ineffective as the redundancy in which it is described. This is not a time for bureaucratic retardation and lines and points of methods and plans, none of which have even been given semblance of shape.

Pakistan’s National Report on the Implementation of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW), June 2010, submitted to the UN by the interior ministry, states under the heading ‘Legal, regulatory and administrative framework’, in minuscule part:

“Production, import, export, transit and transfer of all weapons, including SALW, is strictly regulated under law. The laws and regulations are kept under constant review in order to ensure their relevance to new developments.

A very well defined and effective national system of export, import or authorisation of SALW exists in the country. Production of weapons for export is totally government controlled and falls under the purview of a specialised ministry, i.e. the ministry of defence.”

This is just a sample of the government’s tall claims and one wonders what the author was smoking while writing it, knowing of course that perverse corruption and unbridled power serve as the opium of the government for it to be so out of touch with the ground realities.

While winding up the budget debate in parliament, Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh said that ministers with six cars ought to be ashamed. Though he got desk-rapping applause for this, Speaker Fehmida Mirza appeared markedly uncomfortable and one wonders with what conscience parliamentarians applaud when many probably hit the six-car mark with ease.

SALW in Pakistan are produced firstly by state-owned enterprise, second by private manufacturers who operate under state license and regulation and, lastly, the Darra Adam Khel/Bara gun cottage industry, which is not under any state supervision. Weapons manufactured in Darra Adam Khel and Landi Kotal closely mimic the original, be they AK-47s or M-16s with apparently only the weight of the gun setting it apart from the lighter-weight original. The gunsmiths in Darra Adam Khel manufacture guns hidden in ballpoint pens and walking sticks as well!

Production and availability are not the problem anymore; proliferation is vast and reaches all segments of society. The Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf website makes an effective suggestion about tracking gun-ownership by linking it to the NADRA locator. But that time has now sadly passed and probably has future importance when only very limited security agencies should be allowed to possess weapons.

The urgent need of the hour is to create a simple, viable and rapidly effective programme to disarm the civilian population. All arms of the government, the executive, legislature and judiciary must get on the same page now. Immediate brainstorming sessions must be held at all levels to develop and execute a plan that disarms and, at the same time, provides effective security to the population. This is certainly easier said than done, but it must be done or else our fall threatens to be precipitous and collectively fatal.

Prosecution for gun-ownership and uniform application of punishment should be announced, dependable and harsh. Only the police and armed forces need to possess weapons.

Presidential and prime ministerial bulletproof limousines and their security details could feed and clothe entire villages with ease. They also belie the hoarse screams of, “The day of death is fixed, that is our faith, and we do not fear death.”

There must be an equalisation of yardsticks. We cannot apply one to the widowed teacher who walks warily to school, wrapped in layers in the searing heat to avoid leering male eyes and another to the air-conditioned vroom of ministers with their fake degrees.

In a recent television discussion, commentator Javed Jabbar calmly spoke of the inevitable, which according to him was a peaceful or violent revolution. “Peaceful revolution is the better way but the way things are going, we are now walking towards the violent one,” he contended. I dread to think what would happen if civilian guns turned on their perceived oppressors. So let us de-ostrich ourselves and de-weaponise the citizenry now; maybe we can keep that inevitable change a peaceful one.

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

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The continual killing of physicians

VIEW: The continual killing of physicians —Dr Mahjabeen Islam
Friday June 18, 2010

There is something seriously wrong with a society that harasses those who stand for justice. If I protest the killing of Ahmedis, then I am labelled as one. And now watch me metamorphose into a Shia
What do you do with a nation that has been killing its physicians for the last 10 years? Not in the name of vigilantism and avenging malpractice or the egregious deaths of patients but for insane ideologies that fault a physician for being Shia. Or worse: Ahmedi.

The spectrum of consent is vast: on the one end are those who do not know or care and on the other those who actively orchestrate the targeted murders. And the government versus the people ping-pong continues. No photo-ops are sacrificed and the promises are nauseating in their emptiness.

It all began 25 years ago as extremism, a la Ziaul Haq, permeated the Pakistani psyche. When slowly but surely the Arabisation of Pakistan began. When we found it blasphemous to say Khuda hafiz and substituted it with Allah hafiz. When the colourful and totally modest shalwar-kameez-dupatta combo had to be substituted with the austere, frequently grey or brown, jilbab-hijab-niqab trio. Harassment of Shias, and especially Shia physicians, had begun, and then, as now, the government had better things to do.

About 80 doctors were murdered in a crescendo of target killing in 2000, and the majority were Shias. Many worked in the underserved and overpopulated areas of Karachi. It seems to me that there may not have been a subsequent reprieve, just an exodus of Shia physicians.

Ahmedi is, of course, almost an expletive in Pakistan. In the recent past, in Punjab, Ahmedi physicians have been murdered in broad daylight. And, for all the legal recourse that the return of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry allegedly brought, no suo motus occurred, no one was apprehended and no trials were set.

Pakistan was built on the doctrine of Islam, an ideology that is based most fundamentally on justice. There is something seriously wrong with a society that harasses those who stand for justice. If I protest the killing of Ahmedis, then I am labelled as one. And now watch me metamorphose into a Shia.

The second wave of target killings is sadly now. There have been days in which six have been killed. A press release of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) on June 8, 2010 is very telling.

“A meeting was held at PMA House, Karachi, which was attended by CCPO Mr Waseem Ahmed, Mr Raja Umer Khattak, SSP Investigation, senior leadership of PMA, doctors of the city, members of the PMA Karachi, PMA Centre and Pakistan Islamic Medical Association (PIMA). The CCPO informed the doctors that the police department knew which groups were involved in the killings and the people behind the killers. He further said that he and his men were going to apprehend them in the next 24hours. He further committed that if he were unable to protect the lives of the citizens and the doctors he would proudly resign from the post and go home.

“He elaborated in detail the motives of these target killings and the proliferation of unlicensed arms in the city. Mentioning this, he said every day more than 10 search arrests are made but due to pressure and ill implementation of specific laws such criminals go free, though he assured that despite all this he would deliver positive results soon.

“In his statement, Dr Idrees Adhi, the President PMA, was agitated and saddened on the apathy of government officials. He added that there are so many doctors in the government holding important portfolios, for example, the governor of Sindh, interior minister and health minister of Sindh but none of them had taken notice of the situation and issued a statement in this regard.”

Now, for the CCPO Mr Waseem Ahmed to make brazen statements such as having prior knowledge of the criminals and the inability to apprehend them due to ‘pressure’ baffles the mind and defies response. Considering the continuance of the murders and his lofty promises, it seems it is resignation time.

In this meeting to protest the repeated murders of physicians, it is to be noted, though euphemistically omitted in the press release, that all 20 doctors participated. The fear and panic that grips the nation has permeated physician minds and the “discretion is the better part of valour” paranoid copout has taken hold.

Governor Ishratul Ibad and Dr Farooq Sattar, in a meeting with President Zardari, appeared appropriately grim. Cocooned in his mansions and Mercedes, Mr Zardari smiled and smiled. Is a smile his version of the infamous Pakistani prescription of ‘sub theek ho jaye ga’?

Thirty-year-old Dr Babar Mannan was working in Hussaini Health Home in the Irani Camp locality of Orangi Town when two young men barged in and emptied their guns on him. In another recent episode, motorbike gunmen intercepted Dr Haider Abbas near Metroville III, killing him on the spot. In the same wave of madness, Dr Junaid Shakir and Dr Hasan Haider were killed in New Karachi and Railway Colony respectively.

Sad, and seemingly powerless, physicians on the Dow Medical College alumni list mourn the victims. Dr Tariq Chundrigar writes poignantly: “A childhood friend of mine used to run a dental clinic in Nazimabad. He shared the clinic with a GP. This tireless, never out of temper gentleman had a following of patients that warmed one’s heart. One day, in 1989, someone walked into the GP’s clinic, pretending to be a doctor, put a gun to his head and shot him twice. And calmly walked out, to a waiting motorcycle, and rode off. Closer to home and heart, I am sure you all remember Raza Jafri. A more brilliant mind I have not seen. I spoke to a fellow surgeon and was shocked when he told me that he actually identified Raza’s remains on the stretcher in a small private hospital in Gulshan. This was late 2000.”

The Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA) is also busy preparing for its summer extravaganza. No time for condemnations.

The US constitution guarantees the right to bear arms; Pakistan’s does not. De-weaponisation must be immediate, without ifs, ands, buts, smiles and promises. Perhaps the Supreme Court needs to step in for a government that is as usual ineffective, unwilling and incapable of protecting its citizens.

Pakistan’s literacy rate is abysmal as it is. And no society is in a position to destroy its greatest asset: intellectual capital.

Mahjabeen Islam is a columnist, family physician and addictionist with a practice in Toledo, Ohio. She can be reached at\06\18\story_18-6-2010_pg3_3

Monday, June 14, 2010

Of pens and names

Friday June 11, 2010

VIEW: Of pens and names —Dr Mahjabeen Islam

The written word, in the hands of the majority, can achieve what partisan governments or extremist ideologies cannot, especially when it can be transported across the world in the blink of an eye

I write because it gives me a high. If, in the process, some cobwebs in the reader’s mind and mine can be cleared, it is just an added bonus. “How can you be an addictionist, you do not drink or do drugs!” said an outraged colleague when he found out that I was practising as one. Amused, I reminded him that a doctor did not have to suffer all the diseases that they treated; after all, a nun-obstetrician delivered my first child. Just as with addictive substances such as alcohol, narcotics and cocaine, not only do I get a rush after writing an article, I go back for more. The only difference is that the readers’ feedback takes the process from a personal issue to a micro-step towards changing mindsets.

How we interact with one another is very directly related, I believe, to how we were raised. Certain hot-button phrases in recent articles and the heavily Muslim premise of others have triggered a barrage of e-mails from my Indian friends. There are some that are courteous, the majority, however, spews hate and calls my Prophet (PBUH) and me names. I will never forget one of them: it was so packed with expletives that I broke out in a sweat.

I try to acknowledge all my e-mails, especially from the readers of my articles, but when the rhetoric and the venom are terminal, they hit the trash folder. There are some articles that seem to hit the reader’s sweet spot. And then the appreciative deluge hits. And when the article is about sensitive socio-political issues, my gratification is deep.

One learns the depth and beauty of certain issues that are addressed in Islam only by close personal experience. God swears by the pen in Surah Qalam (68:1): “By the pen and what the angels write in the records of men,” and then in the beautiful Surah Alaq (96:4) “Read for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught man the use of the pen — taught man what he did not know.” And in the most majestic of ways that only the Quran can, Surah Luqman (31:27) showcases God’s infinite glory: “And if all the trees on earth were pens and the sea were ink, with seven more seas yet added to it, the words of God would not be exhausted, for verily God is Almighty, Wise.”

The Quran, combined with the famous Hadith, “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr,” underscores the importance of knowledge and the written word and develops the concept of “jihad of the pen”. A pervasive misunderstanding is equating jihad with battle when that is the minor jihad. Jihad-ul-Akbar or the greater jihad is that against the nafs or one’s baser instincts. And jihad of the pen has a unique place in targeting the epicentre of all actions — the mind.

With the internet revolution and disseminating articles and messages of peace and sanity, it is possible to break even steel webs of the mind. Sometimes it seems that Chicken Little was right and the sky is falling down. Especially in Pakistan. Or on Pakistan, perhaps. Collectively the citizens of the world are operating at such a high stress level that we fail to realise that the movements of any stripe that aim to destroy and reign do not have the support of the mass of humanity, the majority of which scrapes to make both ends meet.

It behoves those that write and read to have virtual and actual discussions about the plethora of issues that affect us, be they local, national or international. At the risk of annoying the recipient, send your friends and family articles that pique your interest, write letters to the editor of the local paper for it is only when these solos combine to form a chorus that envelops the world that there can be a global citizen protest when travesties occur. And worldwide kudos for acts of courage and compassion.

The UN has lost its credibility; multiple resolutions remain un-implemented, while others are passed by governments that have hijacked the entire process and are not representative of the sentiment of their own people. The written word, in the hands of the majority, can achieve what partisan governments or extremist ideologies cannot, especially when it can be transported across the world in the blink of an eye.

My last name of course has had issues. My first name has been no exception. A great fan of Persian poetry, my father, God bless his soul, decided on a tongue twister. And it has taken its toll on tongues indeed. Soon after arrival in the US, I was introduced to a car saleslady: “This is Mahjabeen.” “Magic Beans?” she exclaimed, her eyes wide. Friends in my residency programme remind me of that and intermittently call me that till today. To most non-Pakistani Americans, the word ‘Mahjabeen’ causes silence or stuttering. Some friends, in typical American style, have taken it upon themselves to shorten it to “Marge”. Arabs do not realise that the name is Mah, which means moon and Jabeen, which means forehead; they change it to ‘Muhhajabeen’, meaning one that observes hijab. And I fail on both counts — wrong meaning, no hijab.

I did observe hijab for nine months a few years ago. But my vanity got the better of me, so that jihad against my nafs clearly failed.

I was complaining about the massacre of ‘Mahjabeen’ one day and an Indian Gujarati lady said, ever so sweetly, “I do not see what the problem is with pronouncing your name, MayZabeen!”

In 1996, I was to be introduced to a large gathering and an elderly Arab gentleman confronted by having to pronounce my name, hesitated and then said, “And this is Mujahideen Islam!” I was a bit discomfited then but feel now that maybe there is one jihad I can try to do. In my own small way — jihad of the pen.

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

Are we an unjust people?

Are we an unjust people?
Friday June 4, 2010\06\04\story_4-6-2010_pg3_3

Are we an unjust people? —Dr Mahjabeen Islam

Our heroes are not Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Jinnah. We are a nation adrift. We idolise looters and plunderers, we follow the morally corrupt, and we are roused to frenzy by the hypocritical voices of hate, garbed in beards and turbans, hijabs and niqabs

It is like the pot, read Pakistanis, calling the kettle, read Israelis, black. Over 100 Ahmedis were massacred while praying and the protest from the Pakistani nation was individual, muted, minimal, and quickly forgotten. Just a few days later, Israel kills 20 activists in the Freedom Flotilla and Pakistanis were aflame in cities across the nation, pelting stones at police, burning cars and property. Protestors in Karachi included fully veiled women with children facing water cannons and police batons. Is there something wrong with this picture, or is it just me?

I wondered why the news anchors kept calling the Ahmedi mosque a “house of worship”, got a clue, researched it and realised with utter disgust that calling an Ahmedi a Muslim and their houses of worship ‘mosques’ would indict the journalist under Pakistan’s ludicrous Blasphemy Law. The patron saint of legislating Ahmedis as non-Muslim was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, all for glaring, personal political motive. Saudi Arabia aided and abetted this then, and its Wahabi/Salafi philosophy of hate continues it. Bhutto’s move for political expediency occurred in 1974 and if it was heresy that the ultra-right was afraid of, it was successful in incriminating Pakistan in the state-sponsored homicide of its own people.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) may have taken responsibility for the massacre, but there is no shortage of hate-mongers in Pakistan. Muslims and Pakistanis protest when they are profiled in the west. When mosques are targeted, we go on overdrive with screams of “this is a hate crime”. But at home we give august reception to flakes like Amir Liaquat Hussain who whips up thousands of 21-year-olds, in a single sitting, to rise and kill those that are wajibul qatl (the ones that must rightfully be killed). Within two days of one such tirade, an Ahmedi doctor who served a large segment of an underprivileged population was mercilessly murdered, and his killers escaped with impunity. After another hate speech, an Ahmedi physician couple was brutally murdered. And yes guess again, the killers were not brought to justice.

Our nation’s ethos is moulded by two glorious men: Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. In this anti-Ahmedi vendetta, we must wonder what they would think. Would the mercy and fine sense of justice of the most perfect of all men, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), condone the murder of even one Ahmedi? Would the pluralism and principles of Jinnah turn a blind eye to the horrifying massacre of Ahmedis while they knelt to God?

But our heroes are not Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Jinnah. We are a nation adrift. We idolise looters and plunderers, we follow the morally corrupt, and we are roused to frenzy by the hypocritical voices of hate, garbed in beards and turbans, hijabs and niqabs.

Any number of Palestinians can be killed and no one cares; one Israeli or in this case 20 Turks die and there is global protest. Similarly, Pakistanis kill 100 praying Ahmedis and no one cares, but when Israel kills 20 activists, Pakistanis are infuriated. So you are expendable if you are a Palestinian or an Ahmedi, and Pakistanis can kill one another, no problem, Israel cannot. The ‘halal for me to drink, haram for you to drink’ premise.

The art of political expediency must be learned from Pakistani politicians, in the vein of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Officials and leaders of major political parties took quite some time to decide how best to appear mealy-mouthed in condemning the attacks. And Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Qazi Hussain Ahmad might as well have been dead themselves or in bliss, who knows. Shahbaz Sharif took the cake: in worried, soft mumblings, he referred to the victims as “woh jo mar gaye hain”. Even if he could not dare, terrified as he appeared of committing political suicide, call the victims shaheed, could he not have had the basic decency to have referred to them in a more polite manner such as jaan bahaq perhaps? You see these are the stars that lead the nation. And the Sharif brothers were long-term guests of the Saudi nation. Blood is expendable; favours must not be forgotten.

While there is an active and violent anti-Ahmedi movement, it is vital for the Pakistani nation to understand that those that believe in the Day of Judgement and “God’s justice is finer than the weight of an atom” (Quran 99:7), that ours is a complicit silence. Turning a blind eye and a deaf ear, just because the neighbourhood imam has brainwashed us to hate Ahmedis, is making us culpable of a major sin under “amar bil maroof wa nahin anal munkar” (promote the good and forbid the evil, Quran 31: 17). Regardless of the evil myopia of the ultra-right, each sane, adult Muslim will be called to account for this disconnect: murder and condoning it is a major sin and ostracising and killing those that deny Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) being the last prophet is not a pillar of faith.

Pakistan as a nation must face that it stands in complicit silence and tacit agreement with all that brutalise its minorities. The greatest loss of self-respect is when one falls in one’s own estimation. Pakistanis hate each other, harbour fanatics, kill their brothers and condone murder.

The civilian population should be disarmed immediately. Perhaps with the rising food, petrol and gas prices, there can be a food-for-weapons programme. Hate-mongering and spreading discord among people should be prosecuted in the court system in an effective and exemplary manner, with punishment that makes the collective hair of the nation stand on end.

The PPP must redeem its founder and have the moral courage to reverse the legislation that classified Ahmedis as non-Muslims. Anyone that recites the kalma is classified as a Muslim, the rest is between them and God. No Muslim is in a position to classify another as non-Muslim.

The vile scourge of terrorism will not end until each and every citizen plays his/her part. We must first believe that it is wrong to take a life, that jihad is first against one’s nafs (base instincts) and the other only in self-defence and never against unarmed non-combatants.

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

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Review of Akbar Ahmed's Journey into America

Review of Akbar Ahmed's Journey into America:The Challenge of Islam

Friday May 28, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Muslims in the American frame – by Dr Mahjabeen Islam

Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam
By Akbar Ahmed
Brookings Institution Press; Pp 528; $ 29.95

With the word ‘Muslim’ now
synonymous with terrorism, Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam by Akbar Ahmed is a vital read. The cover of the book is in itself heavy with controversial symbolism. Silhouetted against a gorgeous sunrise, the flame of the Statue of Liberty seems to be reaching for the crescent and star.
In what he terms a ‘Muslim Odyssey’, Akbar Ahmed and his team of anthropological researchers travelled across the US over one year to 75 cities and 100 mosques, homes and schools to sample Muslim and non-Muslim sentiment on a variety of issues. The scope of this study is daunting. Over and above, the author wraps it all in a readable format. And though Dr Akbar Ahmed is an academic and the book dense with information, it remains user-friendly to the end.
To understand the pickle that Muslims find themselves in, what with the general sentiment being that Islam has been hijacked by a rogue-fringe, Ahmed lays the foundation with a superb explanation of the development of American identity. Primordial identity is rooted, he says, in the seminal landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth. Puritans like Edward Winslow, who arrived on the Mayflower, and John Winthrop, who came later on the Arbella from England, embodied the primordial identity. The premise of primordial identity was that God had granted the US to Christians, so they could build an ideal community patterned directly on the teachings of the Bible.
Roger Williams is credited with the development of pluralist identity a century before the founding fathers, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin were advocating religious freedom. In the Providence Agreement, Williams stated, “The state should allow all religions, including the Turkish [Islamic] one.”
Predator identity and the concept of zero tolerance developed under Josiah Winslow, the son of Edward Winslow. “Within half a century of the Mayflower’s landing, the native tribes would be decimated in New England. They would be killed by the settlers and their descendants, ravaged by disease or sold into slavery.”
The founding fathers forged the pluralist identity and Ahmed quotes George Washington’s famous words, “The bosom of America was to open to receive the oppressed and persecuted of all nations, whom we shall welcome, to all our rights and privileges; they may be Mahometans, Jews or Christians of any sect or they may be atheists.” Presidents Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt “helped redefine primordial identity by fusing it with predator identity”.
Akbar Ahmed explains how World War II realigned the American identity but also saw the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of them US citizens. John F Kennedy inaugurated the new flowering of a pluralist US. The Immigration and Nationality Act reversed decades of immigration policies designed to block non-whites from the US and granted millions of Asians, Africans and Latin Americans the opportunity to experience the American dream.
“On September 11, 2001, Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia who had been attracted to pluralist America woke to find they had tumbled from their comfortable positions in the professional middle class. These Muslims had not studied enough history to know that this was but another side of American society. From the time of the earliest settlers, Americans have reacted with ferocity to any threat. The policy of zero tolerance is embedded in the deep structures of their society. Muslims saw that their beloved pluralist America had morphed into a minatory predator and were baffled,” writes Ahmed.
I have quoted this paragraph verbatim for it crystallises the mayhem that rules our lives post-9/11. Ahmed details the Bush-Cheney terms and how “they twisted the law to their predatory vision”. The war in Iraq was based on the created threat of weapons of mass destruction and the terrorist threat enacted the Patriot Act. “The spirit and content of the Bush administration’s harsh actions were in keeping with the old predator identity of Josiah Winslow and Andrew Jackson, except that now the targets would be Muslims. Dick Cheney became the poster-child of the predator identity.”
After the reader grasps, with epiphany like clarity, the genesis of Islamophobia, Ahmed details his odyssey across the land. Strident verbal abuse at ‘Hikma’, a group of Muslim students in Los Angeles, contrasts with the many events of soothing warmth. In almost a sine curve fashion, the book details the various Muslim mindsets in prisons, among African-Americans, Latino-Americans, South Asians, converts to Islam and many others. Individual stories underscore the pride, pain and perplexity that run in American-Muslims.
Throughout the book, the author juxtaposes the perspective of the Muslim-American with the non-Muslim one. The ease with which Akbar Ahmed details history and comfortably jumps to modern-day rappers and youth icons testify to his skill as an anthropologist.
Ahmed describes meetings with literalist Muslims, also known as Salafi or Wahabi, detailing their concrete view of socio-politics in much the same way that they interpret Islam. In the section on ‘Homegrown Terrorists’, the author is aghast at the tone of CNN interviewer Wolf Blitzer: “Here was a top media personality asking me if there was a ‘perverse’ school of Islamic thought that required Muslims to go to strip clubs and enjoy lap dancing while at the same time getting ready to kill” and whether Major Nidal Hassan was an ‘Islamic jihadist terrorist’ or just someone who had gone ‘berserk’. The author’s sad resignation can be noted in this line: “The debate about Muslims had gone on for years, yet this latest combination of terms proved that Americans were nowhere close to understanding Muslims and Muslims to explaining themselves satisfactorily.”
The expanse and depth of Journey into America is difficult to accurately portray. Muslims and non-Muslims, especially in leadership positions, must own a copy, dog-ear it and return to it for the treasure house of information and sharp analysis that it is. It will be the talk of the town and you would not want to be left out.

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

Revisiting the Friday Sermon

Friday May 21, 2010

VIEW: Revisiting the Friday sermon –Dr Mahjabeen Islam

The best and the brightest with an interest in Islam should be given scholarships in Islamic universities and then incentivised financially to take up spiritual leadership as a profession

It is important to be solution oriented, I know. ‘The power of the Friday sermon’ (Daily Times, May 14, 2010) took the entire article to detail the golden opportunity that is missed by imams the world over to inhibit the start of disenchantment and the development of extremism. Now we can springboard for solutions.

The situation with mosques in Pakistan is very different from that in North America and it is thus important to customise the solution.

In Pakistan, with the exception perhaps of the very large mosques, most are the foci of prayer alone. Many have attached schools or madrassas. The criteria for leading congregational prayer according to a Hadith (narrated by Abu Masud Al-Ansari and reported by Muslim) are first, knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah, and then seniority.

The mosques in Pakistan remain largely unregulated and the majority is manned by imams who are only capable of leading prayers or have memorised the Quran. It is a micro-minority that has true religious training and a good grasp of the Quran, the Sunnah, Hadith, shariah, fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), ethics, philosophy and economic and social issues.

With a congregation that is a captive audience every Friday, it is vital that governmental regulation monitors the content of the Friday sermon as well as what is taught in the madrassas. Specific guidelines must be formatted and implemented. This is a relatively immediate solution.

What will really change the situation will take a decade, maybe a generation. Pakistani society must pull itself up by its bootstraps and change its view of imams. Throwing around slurs such as “fundos” and “jamaati” and channelling bright and wealthy students to become doctors and engineers and the less advantaged toward becoming imams is, needless to say, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The cycle of economic disadvantage being perpetuated also needs to be broken. The best and the brightest with an interest in Islam should be given scholarships in Islamic universities and then incentivised financially to take up spiritual leadership as a profession. When the poorest and the least educated become imams and are given half an hour or more every Friday to spout off at will, without perspectives or controls, extremism can only grow.

In North America the situation has a different yet equally tragic face. Imams are largely imported from the Muslim world and they may be well schooled in religion but they are oblivious to current day socio-politics. A distraught Arab-American woman went with her husband to a North American imam for desperate counselling: “My husband is gay,” she said and her husband did not deny it. “Sister, do not worry. Put on some nice nightclothes and rent a hotel room and everything will be alright,” was the imam’s reply. They divorced soon thereafter. Not that they would not have anyway, but the content and tenor of the imam’s counselling leaves a lot to be desired, you will agree.

Understanding issues that befuddle the youth is again an area that most North American imams are terrible at. There are questions about homosexuality, dating Muslims, drug abuse, incest, domestic violence and sometimes just adjustment and acceptance. Many an imam in the US has only one answer to these questions: “haram!” If they were dealing with the village idiot that might fly but in our complex society it only serves to alienate and depress an already struggling Muslim youth.

Many North American mosques have imams deliver lectures in the language of the majority community of the mosque. Some are advanced enough that headphones with a live translation into English are provided. How attractive is that ambience to American-born youth?

Heavy accents in English and literal translations from their native tongues are terribly inhibiting. A Pakistani youth may understand the Pakistanised English of the imam but his or her full attention cannot be guaranteed in this situation. Already the sermon is out-of-touch; the accent makes it stratospheric.

In North America mosques and Islamic Centres must decide what the role of the imam shall be. Will he only lead the prayers or will he be the spiritual leader of the Centre as well? And it is not just in Toledo Ohio where imams get contentious with the Boards and Councils of Islamic Centres and make ludicrous statements like “it is humanly not possible to lead all five prayers in the mosque”. This is happening all over, and frequently if not always the imam lives either connected to the mosque or a stone’s throw away. And this is not peculiar to one particular nationality — an Arab here and a South Asian in San Jose where my very Americanised uncle opens the mosque for the dawn prayer, gives the azaan and many a time leads the prayer of two to three people, while the imam snores in his home one storey above!

A job description of imams should again be preferably templated in a central authority and then distributed for use across the continent. Imams, like the rest of us, bring a great deal of mental baggage with them from their countries of origin. And a lot of it is related to women. Gender roles, especially as detailed in Islam, should not just be understood, they must be applied to the North American context.

Policy regarding the treatment of women in a mosque is shaped by the imam. If the Salafi brand of Islam is followed, Muslim women are gowned, gloved and shoved into hallways to pray, or cloistered in cluttered rooms with closed circuit television to pray among wailing babies and rambunctious toddlers. All the while the men pray in a hushed environ.

Imams are supposed to be role models for the congregation. A squeaky clean personal life, unsoiled by clandestine marital alliances, violation of employment contracts, working all the hours that they are paid for and not arrogating sinless priesthood upon themselves or ownership of the mosque would be good first steps toward the role-model persona. Their Friday sermons must be read, preapproved by the Boards of the mosques and placed on the mosque website for further education of the congregation.

And the most important change will happen only when American-born youth choose to become imams, educated in institutions here. Muslim parents must facilitate this, rather than pushing their disinterested progeny into the default profession: medicine.

In Pakistan as well as in North America, Muslims must focus on the roles, character, qualifications and politics of the men that have millions captive to their sermon on Fridays the world over. The change though initially slow would eventually be exponential. And you will agree it is about time.

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

The Power of the Friday Sermon
Friday May 14, 2010
VIEW: The power of the Friday sermon —Dr Mahjabeen Islam

If a disenchanted, angry and possibly economically distraught young man does attend the Friday prayer and for a half hour is compelled to listen to an imam, the opportunity for preaching Islam’s message of “killing non-combatants is haram” becomes a golden one

Imagine tens of millions of Muslims as captive audiences to imams for a half hour every Friday all across the globe. The Friday sermon is so much a part of the prayer itself that one cannot talk, text or phone during it.

Through the ages the Juma prayer has been ingrained as part of the Friday schedule of observant Muslim men. And yet most daydream during the sermon, shutting out the frequently out-of-touch imam. With the rapidly escalating state of global insecurity perpetrated by fringe-fanatics, it behoves the larger Muslim population to go into overdrive and find very quickly what it is that we can do to stem this tide of lunacy in the name of Islam.

Feeling similarly violated after the London train bombings in 2005, I felt I had an epiphany: Project Friday Khutba I called it. The premise is a simple statement in every Friday sermon plainly calling terrorism haram (forbidden). The Friday sermon is governed by rules: there must be a quotation from the Quran, one from the Hadith, and by most schools of thought some reflection on areas of current day socio-politics.

To understand the impact of this better, first, the current state of imams the world over deserves attention. In Pakistan and probably most of the Muslim world, bright achieving children become professionals: doctors, engineers, architects, accountants and the like. As a general rule, imams, mullahs and maulvis are unfortunately a default profession. Some of them are products of orphanages and thus there is the added layer of the pathology of an absent family life.

Unlike clergy schools in Christianity and Judaism, the basic prerequisite of being an imam in the Muslim world may only be that of being hafiz (having memorised the Quran). The non-religious education of an imam may be either non-existent or minuscule, up to the tenth grade, usually not university level.

The North American situation is similarly bleak. Most imams are imports from the Arab and Muslim world, with thick accents in English and little understanding of the North American Muslim socio-politics. Some are graduates of Al-Azhar in Egypt or the International Islamic University in Islamabad, but mindsets do not change with BAs or even PhDs. Egocentricity, myopia, self-aggrandisement, frank materialism, hidden agendas, strong male chauvinism and intense patriarchy characterise the majority of imams in North America. There is also a perverse penchant for four marriages, the public one under American or Canadian law and a couple others under their distorted interpretation of Islamic law. For shame!

The intense interest in sex is so transparent that during taraweeh (the evening prayer in Ramadan), the sole subject across the continent is how intercourse is allowed during the nights of Ramadan. And to these specimens we have given over our religion and the spiritual leadership of the Muslim masses!

In Surah Juma (62:9) the Quran says, “O you who believe! When the call for prayer is given on [Friday] the day of congregation, rush towards the remembrance of Allah and stop buying and selling; this is better for you if you understand.” As per a Hadith, women are exempted due to childcare constraints but I figure that if I am a wage-earner and monitor a medical schedule and do not have little children to tend at home, Friday prayer becomes mandatory on me as well, for the Quran always supersedes a Hadith. I digress only to prove that Friday prayer at the mosque is equivalently imposed on both genders. And that swells the population that the imams have access to.

If you draw upon memory you will agree that in the most major of world events, imams slickly go ostrich. It is true that a lot of them are totally clueless and have not heard about what is going on. Others feel that if they put on their robes and sit in the pulpit and act important and talk about minutiae like how not to close your eyes when you are standing for prayer, the elephant in the mosque, I mean the room, will miraculously go away.

“Sister, sister we do not have no terrorists in the mosque!” I was told dismissively when I approached a couple of imams to implement what is perfectly doable after the London train bombings. I thought machines had x-ray vision; here they were claiming to know the minds of their entire congregations?

If a disenchanted, angry and possibly economically distraught young man does attend the Friday prayer and for a half hour is compelled to listen to an imam, the opportunity for preaching Islam’s message of “killing non-combatants is haram” becomes a golden one.

Dire economic straits seem to rule the world over as well as a deep well of fury against the West for the perceived injustices in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and now Pakistan. One does not need both for an explosive future; one is more than enough to capitalise and build on.

The premise is “diloan mein kehney sunney sey kudoorat aa hi jati hai, safai laakh ho lekin adavat aa hi jati hai” (listening to and talking about things does cause misgivings, regardless of rationalisations an enmity does build up).

All of us develop in the crucible of our own very personal worldview. With Faisal Shahzad an ideological pull seems to have done it. With the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the same seems to apply, for it was his father that alerted the authorities of his leanings. Neither of them were economically disadvantaged, though talk has it Shahzad’s home was foreclosed a year before the event.

Islam is a deeds-based religion and for those of us so inclined it is necessary to do a quick inventory and see how we fit on the world stage and what it is that we can do to prevent the crazies from wresting our religion. Umar ibn al-Khattab advised to “do your hisab (accounting) before it is done for you”. On a collective level, as an ummah we need to make it mandatory on ourselves to determine the causes of this lunacy and develop ideas to deal with it.

No imam holds divinity in the eyes of God. Imams serve the mosque and are answerable to mosque councils and boards. Their job descriptions should be documented, their sermons prepared in advance and reviewed and each sermon should clearly state that terrorism is haram and that “killing one is like killing all of humanity” (Quran, Maidah, 5:32).

On July 17, 2005, 500 imams in Britain issued a fatwa (religious decree) condemning the use of violence and destruction of innocent lives, saying suicide bombings were “vehemently prohibited”.

On July 28, 2005, the Fiqh Council of North America together with 120 religious organisations and leaders in North America issued a fatwa that unequivocally labels terrorism and cooperation with its perpetrators as haram in Islam. And with each insult this condemnation chorus continues.

What is needed by the Fiqh Council of North America and imams the world over is to go a few steps further. They, Muslim governments and congregations themselves, should do some house-cleaning of imams that are equivocal about violence or openly promote it. And use the Friday sermon to wash the brains of the flock of any extremist ideology that might be taking root.

Allama Iqbal poetically translated verse 11 of Surah Ra’ad that “God does not change the condition of a people unless they themselves make the decision to change” with: “Khuda ney aaj tak us qaum ki halat nahin badli na ho jis ko khayal khud apni halat key badalney ka.”

Muslims in general and Pakistanis in particular have been brought to a precipice it seems. We need to de-escalate quickly. The message in the Friday sermon can be effective and powerfully reverberating, being all the while clothed in the beautiful tranquillity of Islam.

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