Bridging the Divides: Muslims in Europe

11 September 2015
Praying Imam

Praying Imam

Islam is ‘incompatible’ with Western civilization is what we hear at the start of a new film Journey into Europe that looks at the much-hyped dilemma in much of Western Europe. The film deals with cascading phases of recent history: From the inclusive times of Muslim Spain to Ottoman Empire; and from the colonization to twentieth century immigration of Muslims into European lands. This film comes at a time when Islamophobia as a political and cultural attitude is on the rise; and Muslim extremists are asserting their political power and dictating domestic agenda in many parts of the world. Caught between these two extremes are the majority of Muslims, who, while united by their faith, are neither a monolith nor hold uniform views about organized religion or its political dimensions. The diversity within Muslims is an oft-ignored reality. Even more invisible is the variegated history of Islam and its adherents.


This is why Journey into Europe — a handiwork of Dr. Akbar S. Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University — is both important and relevant to the current crises brewing across European countries. A Pew Research Center study tells us Western countries with significant Muslim populations are getting worried. Since 2011, the general population that is ‘very concerned’ about Islamic extremism has increased. For instance, after the murders of the Charlie Hebdo staffers, two-thirds in France are ‘very concerned,’ 29% more than the 2011 poll. In Spain, 61% are very worried about the extremist threat; and roughly half in Italy (53%) and UK (52%) and 46% of Germans are apprehensive. Their worries have increased in the past few years. (more…)

Negotiating Freedom of Expression

23 July 2015

The unresolved debate on freedom of expression was reignited when Islamic militants killed 14 staffers of French magazine Charlie Hebdo last January, ostensibly for the cartoons that offended Muslim sentiments. Earlier this year, two secular bloggers were hacked to death in Bangladesh. In other countries such as Russia and Iran, writers and journalists languish in prisons on similar charges. The intersection of faith, politics, and history has influenced the global debates on the “limits” to freedom. In June, the Center for International Media Assistance, in collaboration with Media Diversity Institute, held a panel discussion on the limitations on the state of media in multicultural societies. An all-women panel, a rarity in itself, included Razia Iqbal (BBC), Courtney C. Radsch (CPJ), Milica Pesic (MDI), and a well-known academic Verica Rupar.

Negotiating freedom of expression and respect for diversity is a delicate balancing act. The current crisis – of “Western” values versus Islamic teachings – is far beyond the problem of media ethics. Razia Iqbal at CIMA raised crucial questions about the social responsibility of journalists. For instance, is freedom of expression sacred, or is it a subjective construct located in the context of every country? The responses were spirited. Some felt that freedom of expression was linked to other rights such as privacy; and therefore it ought to be viewed in a subjective context. Panelists agreed that freedom of expression was a universal right, but that under certain circumstances, limitations were understandable. Journalists have to act in public interest, as they give voice to and act as public watchdogs on behalf of society. Therefore, media persons have to exercise discretion in deciding what to print or broadcast. That is at the core of the idea of “social responsibility.”

Should journalists practice self-censorship and stay away from certain issues in multicultural societies? One panelist noted that journalism does not exist outside the boundaries of a given society; thus, it should reflect the inherent multiculturalism of a particular context. But this leads to self-censorship. The case of Egypt, among others, is instructive, as unprecedented self-censorship is taking place there due to the pressures exerted by the state and lack of legal protection available to journalists. Multiculturalism entails respect for free speech and the availability of public space to enable diverse groups to air their views. Violence changes this dynamic—perhaps for good. This is why Charlie Hebdo’s editor has announced that the magazine will no longer publish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad.


Raza Rumi: They Tried to Silence Me Once and For All

11 February 2015

I spoke with Clarion about fighting for fredom of speech when the price for failure is death.

Raza Rumi9

Raza Ahmad Rumi is a Pakistani policy analyst, journalist and an author. He has been a leading voice in Pakistan’s public arena against extremism and human rights violations. 

In March 2014, he survived an assassination attempt in which his driver lost his life. Within weeks, he left Pakistan and has been affiliated with the New America Foundation and the United States Institute of Peace. 

He graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project’s Research Fellow Elliot Friedland about Pakistan, free speech and blasphemy legislation.


Clarion Project: You are a writer. What challenges have you personally faced due to what you write about extremism in Pakistan?

Raza Rumi: When you write about growing radicalization and extremism and call for introspection, critique the role of clergy, then your writings are edited so as not to ruffle too many feathers. At times, one is labelled as anti-Muslim and anti-Islam for demanding a rational discourse on religion and its public manifestations.

Earlier, this opprobrium was restricted to verbal abuse and attacks, but now it has taken a dangerous turn with the increase of blasphemy law victims and in my case an assassination attempt.

Though I must clarify that writings in English draw less attention than those in the vernacular languages, I got into serious trouble due to my views aired on the mainstream Urdu broadcast media. My public engagement with media, academia/think tanks and civil society was too much for the extremists (backed by elements within the state) to handle. So they tried to silence me once for all.

An angry mob riots in Pakistan.


Islam Needs Reformation from Within

18 January 2015

“Would you permit me to teach my children that God is greater, more just, and more merciful than all the (religious) scholars on earth combined? And that His standards are different from the standards of those trading the religion” — Nizar Qabbani, Syrian poet.

Much has been said about the French magazine Charlie Hebdo and its slain cartoonists and their provocative cartoons about Muslims. Satirical representations of the Muslims in Europe do merge with racism and evoke destructive passions. But the barbaric killing of journalists exercising their right of free speech is beyond condemnable. It strikes at the heart of press freedom.

Muslim communities in most Western countries view themselves as besieged collectives. Issues of integration, racism and the colonial baggage resonate each day. But in the past two decades especially with the rise of violent extremism as global phenomena, these complexities have become even more intractable.

By brutally killing staffers of Charlie Hebdo magazine, the violent extremists have offended their faith far more than the perceived blasphemy of the magazine. Theirs is a political ideology — of using terror as a weapon — to avenge a history, to settle grievances and to assert power through violence.

Billions of men and women who practice Islam often have little input in shaping such narratives of hatred. Such violent ideas emanate from the minority schools of thought within Islam, which rationalize the killing of ‘infidels’ and their ‘associates’. This ideology is the same that hounded Salman Rushdie, and killed Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam for a film.

Ironically, the main targets of this ideology have been Muslims themselves. From the mass killings of Hazara Shias in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the ongoing killing spree in Syria and Iraq, it is the Muslims that bear the brunt of this violent mindset.

Dozens of Sufi shrines and hundreds of schools have been blown up in Pakistan by extremists. Most of the 50,000 Pakistanis killed in the last decade were Muslims. And in this day and age this ideology prevents the majority of Pakistanis to access YouTube simply because somewhere, someone lampooned the holy figure of Islam.


Blasphemy Divide: Insults to Religion Remain a Capital Crime in Muslim Lands

8 January 2015

Excerpt of My statements:

“The issue of blasphemy is about the political insecurity of the Muslims, and about the Muslim public reaction to the so-called injustices committed by the West,” said Raza Rumi, the editor of Pakistan’s Friday Times newspaper who survived an assassination attempt by Islamist extremists last year and is now a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington.

“The ironic thing is that in the Quran, there is no punishment for blasphemy at all. It is a political law, based on what Islamic jurists said many centuries after the prophet.”

See full article here

‘Europe faces a huge challenge in dealing with its Muslim citizens’

31 October 2014

I talked to Akbar S. Ahmed  about the perception of Islam and Muslims in the West


MannequinsMannequins dressed in brightly coloured headscarves at a shop in Cite, France

Raza Rumi: With the rise of ISIS, a global debate has ensued about Islam and its followers. ISIS adherents term their acts in sync with Sharia. What are your views on ISIS and its ideology?

Akbar S. Ahmed: Let me make some generalizations here based in research and reflection. ISIS can only be understood in the context of the collapse of relations between tribes and central governments and the implosion of tribal society. I go into this process in detail in my book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a War on Tribal Islam in which I examine 40 case studies in detail across the Muslim world. In Pakistan we have seen something like ISIS with the emergence of the TTP, in West Africa with Boko Haram and Al Shabab in East Africa. Muslim tribes typically live by a code of behavior that emphasizes honor, hospitality, courage and especially revenge. This code has provided a kind of stability for centuries despite the fact that certain aspects of it such as taking revenge are against Islam. Yet after independence these tribes were integrated into modern states and the relationship between them and central governments has often been tumultuous. Today, in a trend seen especially since 9/11, Muslim tribal society is in chaos and the code of revenge especially is completely out of control. Support for ISIS comes from tribal groups in both Syria and Iraq who have been oppressed both by central governments in Damascus and Baghdad. There is nothing Islamic about what they are doing, but their actions can be explained through the mutation of the code of revenge. When they kill western hostages, for example, they say explicitly this is to take revenge for airstrikes. Similarly, the TTP has taken similar action against Pakistani soldiers in revenge, they say, for drone strikes. There has been simply too much suffering in these societies as ordinary people are confronted with airstrikes, drones, suicide bombers, and tribal feuds. In order to remedy the situation and bring stability and peace, we must all have a clear idea what is going wrong. We must not confuse the minority of militants with the larger tribal society from which they come—as has too frequently been done. We must work toward a situation where the tribal people of Muslim countries feel they are treated as full citizens of the state with respect for their human rights and opportunities for economic development. It is only then that the violent forces in these societies will be effectively checked.


Malala Yousufzai – A symbol of Pakistan’s Resistance to Bigotry

13 October 2014

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