Monday, September 25, 2006

Learning from a girl named Nazira

Learning from a girl named Nazira
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Leaders and masses of the Muslim and Christian world should take a deep breath. It is unacceptable that so much controversy, bad feelings, insult and violence should erupt after the speech of Pope Benedict XVI given at the University of Regensburg on September 12 in Germany.

The pope infuriated the Muslim world by quoting the Byzantine

Emperor Manuel II telling a Persian intellectual in 1391: "Show me just what Mohammed [the Prophet of Islam] brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he has preached." The pope did not say that he agreed with these words.

Nevertheless the damage was done and, regardless of intentions, violence and anti-Christian feeling immediately soared throughout the Muslim world. One phrase from Benedict's lecture that was completely ignored by the mass media was: "The emperor must have known that Sura 2:256 [of the Koran] reads: 'There is no compulsion in religion.'" True, that is what Muslims believe, and Benedict XVI did not fail to point to it.

To give him the benefit of the doubt, one can say that he wanted to show how just Islam was during its birth, as opposed to the Islamic fanatics who have distorted Islam and waged senseless war in its name. By quoting the emperor, he might have wanted to show how ignorant the leaders of Byzantium were of the flourishing Muslim faith in Arabia. But that's certainly not how Muslims explained his remarks.

The pope has since apologized twice. On Sunday, he said: "At this time, I wish also to add that I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. There in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought."

But regardless of intentions and in light of his apology, let us stop for a moment to think objectively of all that is happening and being said in the Muslim and Christian worlds. The pope was quoting a Byzantine emperor speaking to an unnamed Persian intellectual, taken from an obscure document, 615 years ago, in 1391. It is unbelievable that we still have the energy to dig up these ancient arguments, use them to arouse emotions, riot like madmen, and foster hatred in both communities. It is equally repugnant that the pope would make such a miscalculated remark, knowing perfectly well how much disgust it would cause in Muslim communities around the world.

Equally guilty, however, are the Muslim leaders who responded to his remarks with church attacks and violent rallies around the world. God created the human mind to debate, study, analyze and explain. Isn't it the duty of Muslims, after all, to educate non-Muslims on the true nature of the religion of Mohammed? If the pope was misinformed, then Muslims are responsible for not explaining the true nature of their faith to the world, or marketing its true values. They are to blame for letting terrorists like Osama bin Laden hijack Islam and ruin its name.

This same pope, struggling to fit into the oversized shoes of his predecessor John Paul II, had condemned the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed earlier in the year, saying: "In the international context we are living at present, the Catholic Church continues convinced that, to foster peace and understanding between people and men, it is necessary and urgent that religions and their symbols be respected." He added, "Believers should be the object of provocations that wound their lives and religious sentiments." He also said, "For believers, as for all people of goodwill, the only path that can lead to peace and fraternity is respect for the convictions and religious practices of others."

He has also called on Christians "to open their arms and hearts" to Muslim immigrants and to dialogue on religious issues. He added that the Church's "inter-religious dialogue is a part of its commitment to the service of humanity in the modern world". He described this dialogue as "important and delicate". The pope has called for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and on July 14, the Vatican condemned Israel's attack on Lebanon.

Oriana Fallaci: No apology
For all of the reasons mentioned above, I would like to believe that the pope's insult was an unintentional mistake that will not be repeated. And for this reason, I want to forgive him. More dangerous than what the pope is saying, however, is the eulogy being made in the Western press to Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who died last week in Florence.

A rude woman by all accounts, Fallaci once interviewed ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini shortly after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in February 1979. She was annoyed by him forcing her to cover her head with a chador, as is common in Islamic tradition when meeting with a Muslim cleric. Provoking him with sensitive questions about politics and religion, she then famously asked: "How do you swim in a chador?" An infuriated Khomeini snapped back: "Our customs are none of your business. If you do not like Islamic dress you are not obliged to wear it." She said: "That's very kind of you, Imam. And since you said so, I am going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now."

The pope apologized for his mistake. He said he had not intended to offend the Muslims. Fallaci did not apologize. She died happy that she had been offending Muslims and insulting them for 30 years. And in bidding her farewell, the Western world is hailing her as a symbol of freedom of speech.

Fallaci wrote several books about Islam after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Among other things, she wrote that when occupying the Abbey of Montecassino in Italy in AD 883, "the Muslims amused themselves by sacrificing each night the virginity of a nun. Do you know where? On the altar of a cathedral." Her quotes are not footnoted, casting doubt on her seriousness in documentation. When the Muslims took Constantinople in 1453, she added, they "decapitated even newborns and extinguished candles in their little heads". She also wrote of "the dream that the sons of Allah have been nurturing for years, the dream of blowing up Giotto's Tower or the Tower of Pisa or the cupola of St Peter's or the Eiffel Tower or Westminster Abbey".

When terrorists using the name of Islam strike the heart of New York, or detonate bombs in the London Underground, this makes it more difficult to defend the Muslims against Fallaci, since she attributes these acts to all Muslims, and not the few who are fanatics. All her remarks, which have resurfaced in the past week on websites and editorials, show a grand hatred for Muslims.

One of the famous ones was: "Islamic racism that is the hatred of the infidel dogs reigns supreme and is never put on trial, never punished." She added that Muslims think "that biology is a shameless science because it is occupied with the human body and sex". Fallaci also said: "Muslims have killed 6,000 people to the glory of the Koran, in obedience to its verses." She said Muslims placed Jesus of Nazareth, whom she calls "our Jesus", in an Islamic paradise "where he drinks like a drunkard, screws like a sexual maniac". She said Muslims have "urinated on their monuments [in Italy] or soil the sacristies of their churches or toss their crucifixes out the window of a hospital".

Fallaci famously concluded: "Despite the massacres through which the sons of Allah have bloodied us and bloodied themselves for over 30 years, the war that Islam has declared against the West is a cultural war. They kill us in order to bend us, to intimidate us. Their goal is not to fill cemeteries, not to destroy skyscrapers. It is to destroy our soul, our ideas, our feelings and our dreams."

The remarks of Fallaci and the statements of the pope raise a million questions on who started this war with the Muslims. Was it the Muslims who declared war on the West, or the other way around? And it raises other questions on where the lines of free speech fall in the Western world. If we tolerate Benedict XVI, do we accept the rude and insulting remarks of Fallaci as balanced journalism? As far as the Muslim and Arab worlds are concerned, the answer to Fallaci is a certain "no". The status of the pope is debatable and up to each Muslim to decide, taking into account that he has apologized. And if we were to accept the Danish cartoons against the Prophet Mohammed, topped with Fallaci and Benedict XVI - or should we say Manuel II - then why does freedom of speech change from one subject to another?

The unthinkable thoughts of David Irving
I cite the example of David Irving, the famous British historian who is currently in jail for his views on the Holocaust. His 1977 book Hitler's War was the first of his two-part biography of Adolf Hitler. In it he described World War II from Hitler's point of view - a taboo throughout most of the Western world. Irving showed that Hitler was a rational, intelligent leader and human being whose main motivation was to increase the prosperity of Germany. It was British prime minister Winston Churchill who escalated the war after coming to power, stated Irving, not Hitler.

Irving did not deny the Holocaust but said Hitler did not order it or know of it, enraging the Jewish community around the world. Irving attributed the Holocaust to Hitler's right-hand man Heinrich Himmler.

Irving controversially remarked: "There were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. It makes no sense to transport people from Amsterdam, Vienna, and Brussels 500 kilometers to Auschwitz simply to liquidate them [when] it can be done 8 kilometers from the city where they live." The historian challenged any person to come up with an authentic written order by Hitler for the Holocaust.

Irving then wrote The War Path in 1978, with similar views on World War II. In 1987 he wrote a very ugly biography of Churchill, showing him as an alcoholic who sold out the British Empire and blamed him for "turning Britain against its natural ally, Germany".

By the 1980s, Irving was banned from entering Austria. In the 1990s he was banned from entering Germany as well. The same applied to South Africa, Australia, and Canada in 1992. In September 2004, New Zealand declared that he would not be allowed to enter the country to give lectures at the National Press Club. He defied the ban and tried to go but was arrested in Austria. In court he tried to change discourse, but Austrian authorities did not believe him and at the time of writing he still languishes in jail. He had tried to revoke ideas he had promoted for years by saying: "The Nazis did murder millions of Jews. I made a mistake by saying there were no gas chambers, I am absolutely without doubt that the Holocaust took place. I apologize for those few I might have offended."

Learning from Syrian history
It is a funny world with funny double standards indeed. To make things easier for everybody - especially the oversensitive millions in all faiths - it is safe to say that critical issues such as the Holocaust become red lines that should not be crossed. In saying that, we can assume that Fallaci, Benedict and Irving all committed mistakes.

Offending others for the sake of free speech should not be tolerated. Yes, the Holocaust did happen, and it would be a crime to say that it did not. But my own word of advice to the Muslim community is to think big and avoid the trappings of critical articles, comments here and there, or cartoons. Islam is much greater than these small, really small, issues.

Seventy years ago, in April 1928, a 20-year-old girl named Nazira Zayn al-Din wrote a book called Unveiling and Veiling, saying she had read, understood and interpreted the Holy Koran. Therefore, she said, she had the authority and analytical skills to challenge the teachings of Islam's clerics, men who were far older and wiser than she. Her interpretation of Islam, she boldly said, was that the veil was un-Islamic. If a woman was forced to wear the veil by her father, husband or brother, Zayn al-Din argued, then she should take him to court. Other ideas presented by her were that men and woman should mix socially because this develops moral progress, and that both sexes should be educated in the same classrooms. Men and women, she said, should equally be able to hold public office and vote in government elections.

They must be free to study the Koran themselves, and it should not be dictated on them by an oppressive older generation of clerics, she said. Finally, Zayn al-Din compared the "veiled" Muslim world to the "unveiled" one, saying the unveiled one was better because reason reigned, rather than religion.

Her book caused a thunderstorm in Syria and Lebanon. It was the most outrageous assault on traditional Islam, coming from Zayn al-Din, who was a Druze. The book went into a second edition within two months, and was translated into several languages. Great men from Islam, including the muftis of Beirut and Damascus, wrote against her, arguing that she did not have the authority to speak on Islam and dismiss the veil as un-Islamic. Nobody, however, accused her of treason or blasphemy. They accused her of bad vision resulting from bad Islamic education.

Some clerics banned her book. Some, however, such as the Syrian scholar Mohammad Kurd Ali, actually embraced it, buying 20 copies for the Arab Language Assembly and writing a favorable review.

But despite the uproar, which lasted for two years, the Syrians and the Muslim establishments did not let the issue get out of hand. They did not lead street demonstrations for weeks, as if the Muslim world had no other concern than Nazira Zayn al-Din. Zayn al-Din was still free to roam the streets of Syria and Lebanon, without being harassed or killed by those who hated her views. The leaders of Islam in 1927-30 were by far too busy to occupy themselves, and the Muslim community at large, with the ideas of a 20-year-old girl. They had to attend to their mosques, run their charity organizations, answer theological questions, cater to Muslim education, lead political issues, and fight the French.

Why, then, have the leaders of today's world abandoned every problem in the Muslim world to concentrate on the silly cartoons published in a Danish newspaper? Or to inject life into the statements of Manuel II? Yes, the cartoons were very wrong and very insulting, and yes, the pope committed a grand error by repeating what the Byzantine emperor had said. But as well, Muslims should have shown solidarity on other more important issues, such as Israel's digging beneath the al-Aqsa Mosque, invading Beirut in 1982, bombing Ramallah, massacring innocents in Jenin and Rafah, and building the Separation Barrier. More recently they should have united on the destruction of Lebanon.

The death of Palestinians is certainly more important to Muslims (or should be) than what an obscure Danish newspaper publishes, or the views of an until-now-unknown script by a forgotten Byzantine emperor. I am not saying that one should ignore the cartoons and the pope, but rather that one should only give them the attention they deserve, with no exaggerations, and concentrate on more concrete issues relating to the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The Prophet is one of the greatest names in history. He is too great to be affected by these ugly cartoons or the remarks of the pope. To quote Lawrence of Arabia, it is time for us to stop acting like a small people, a silly people, and start living up to our duties before history and mankind. After all, we have not contributed anything to human progress in the past 500 years. We should write and promote our history, then concentrate on science, arts, literature, and freedom of the mind. We should learn to talk to, rather than demonstrate against, those who think and act differently, and those who wrong us.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

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