Religious Right and Politics – From Iowa to Cairo


Guess where in the world candidates for political office are pandering to religious conservatives, using religious imagery in political advertisement and participating in political forums in houses of worship? Where some voters are unwilling to support candidates because they do not belong to the majority faith, dismissing a candidate because they are women, and using religious purity as a litmus test for eligibility? If you said Iowa, USA you will be correct. Cairo, Egypt also qualifies as the correct answer.

The nexus between politics and religion has been on the rise globally for quite some time now. It is an irony that it is the religious right in each country that often expresses the most misgivings about the rise of the religious right in other countries. In America, Republican presidential candidates, with support from the religious right, are the most vocal in their criticism of Islamist politics. On the other hand, Islamists are quick to conflate American hegemony in their region with a war against Islam. The mutual paranoia is palpable.

Elections are underway in Egypt for a new parliament. Openly vying for seats are political parties from the puritanical Salafis, to the conservative Ikhwanis (Muslim Brotherhood) and a plethora of smaller secular groups. After the first round of voting it appears that the religious right, Salafis and the Brotherhood together, will have majority control of the parliament. Similar Islamist victories in Tunisia and Morocco portend an unmistakable trend of increased intertwining of religion and politics in the region.

A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that while a majority of Muslims prefer a significant role for Islam in their politics, substantive differences persist across regions. Majorities in Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan and Nigeria favor changing current laws to allow religiously sanctioned capital punishment for adultery, stealing and apostasy. In contrast, Muslims living under secular democracies in Turkey or Lebanon overwhelmingly reject fundamentalism and self-identify themselves as modernists, even when actively practicing their faith.

As politics face a rightward religious tug across the globe, it will be hasty to stereotype the trend. In the U.S., although the Christian right exerts an enormous influence in politics but the state remains neutral towards religion, the occasional display of Christmas trees in government buildings notwithstanding. Such institutional separation between state and religion is lacking across the Middle East, most disconcertingly in Saudi Arabia and Iran. Will the wave of popular opinions that favor a greater role for Islam in politics inevitably lead to a theocratization of the nascent Middle Eastern democracies? Chances are good that the new democracies in Tunisia or Egypt are unlikely to resemble Saudi Arabia or Iran, but neither will they be Jeffersonian.

Reformist scholars of Islam have asserted that Sharia ought not to be codified as state law. The reasons are tantalizingly simple. A state is a political institution, not a religious authority. A state has to be neutral and beneficial towards all its citizens, not just those who belong to the majority. The Muslim belief in the divineness of Sharia is obviously not shared by people of other faiths. Moreover, the interpretation of Sharia is a fallible human endeavor, often leading to conflicting juristic opinions, which then leaves unanswered the question of whose Islam should the state endorse.

While public policy may reflect the values of the citizenry, it should not be promulgated in the name of any one religion. Even when religious values inform a certain policy, the primary reason for enacting public policy must be secular. A wall separating religion from statecraft is good for both religion and state. Once a state begins to enforce the laws of any religion then the coercive power of the state becomes the primary factor in the determining how religion gets practiced. The state loses credibility and faith loses spirituality. The Quran unequivocally states that there is no compulsion in matters related to religion.

Even in the rough and tumble world of Middle Eastern politics there are faint signs of hope. The Islamist leaders in Tunisia have spoken about the secular democracy of Turkey as their aspiring model. A New York Times report quoted a conservative party leader in Egypt saying, “We don’t accept tyranny in the name of religion any more than we accept tyranny in the name of the military.” The yearning for freedom may ultimately overcome parochial religiosity in politics. From Iowa to Cairo, the world watches with trepidation.

From Fear to Faith, From Grief to Understanding

From Fear to Faith, From Grief to Understanding
September 11, 2011
Delivered at Temple Israel, Tallahassee, FL on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of 9-11. Event hosted by the Interfaith Council of Tallahassee, FL.
By Parvez Ahmed

Good evening. Shalom, Peace and Salaam-

It is my great honor and pleasure to be here today.

Today is a day whose memories are seared into our individual and collective consciousness.

Today is a day that is profound and yet instructive.

Today is a day that is solemn but also a reminder of our capacity to triumph over tragedy.

Rabbi Alvin Fine in his celebrated poem, “Life is a Journey” wrote:

Birth is a beginning and death a destination.
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps, to wisdom;
From weakness to strength

From offense to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude,
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding –
From fear to faith…

The good Rabbi in poignant words reflected eternal truths. Such sentiments are not only part of his Jewish spirituality but are also at the heart of all other great religious traditions. Rabbi Fine could have read this from the pulpit at a mosque or a church and the congregation would have nodded approvingly.

Such commonality between the essential core of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, what we often call the Abrahamic traditions, ought to be our springboard to transform ourselves “From Fear to Faith, From Grief to Understanding.”

Grief, fear, ignorance, loneliness, pain, weakness and foolishness are all part of our human existence. These emotional responses sometimes are useful defense mechanisms, allowing us the means to cope with tragic situations. And yet if such feelings linger then they can also be debilitating.

And so with the passage of time and by reaching deep into our indomitable human spirit we hope to arrive at place where we develop understanding, gratitude, compassion and love. In this journey to rebuild and renew, we stand in need of God and we stand in need of each other.

On the 10th anniversary of the fateful terrorist attacks against our country, it is fair to ask - have we overcome our fears and regained our trust in humanity. Have we overcome our grief and gained new insights about the world we live in?

While we had no choice in being attacked we did and do have a choice on how we respond. Ten years ago we asked questions such as - Why us? Why they hate us? Where were you when you heard the news? What did you feel?

Today the relevant questions are we safer? Are we freer? Are we better off? And finally, where do we go from here?

The fact that there has been no large scale attack since 9-11 creates a perception that we are safer. And yet Americans continue to die at the hand of terrorists. Sometimes the terrorists are foreign born, such as the 9-11 attackers.

Sometimes they are people who we entrusted to protect us, such those who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma in 1995 or the Army major who gunned down his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in 2009. And sometimes the terrorists are our neighbors, such as the gunman who went on a rampage in Arizona killing several innocent people and nearly killing a U.S. Congressman.

Terror comes in many forms. While being vigilant we must also restrain ourselves from applying superficial narratives, which can do more harm than good.

The lingering fear of another attack has caused us to significantly change our lifestyle. In our effort to guard against any and all possible attacks, we have sacrificed essential liberties and accepted cosmetic security measures. Even if we accept the argument that we are safer, we are not the same America we used to be. In the words of my friend David Cole, professor at Georgetown University, we are less safe and less free. Benjamin Franklin’s prophecy that those who trade away liberty to be more safe deserve neither has sadly come true.

But are we better off today?

In 2001 the U.S. GDP per capita was second in the world and the U.S. economy the undisputed and unchallenged leader in the world. In 2011 U.S. GDP per capita is 9th in the world with several major economies closing in fast. China was ranked 129th in 2001 is now ranked 24th.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was around 9600 on September 10th 2001. On Friday the Dow closed at a little below 11,000. This represented an anemic 1.4% annual growth rate in the decade after 9-11. In the decade preceding 9-11 the Dow grew at the rate of about 22% per year.

In 2001 the U.S. had a 128 billion dollar budget surplus. In 2011 we have a 1.3 trillion dollar deficit. Gas was about $1.50 per gallon in 2001 and is nearly $3.60 per gallon today. Unemployment rate was 4.9% and today is it 9.1%, more than doubled.

It is true that not all of the economic problems are related to 9-11 or even connected to it. Much of the bleak picture is attributable to the economic recession and financial market troubles that started in 2007. Yet it is undeniable that the costs of 2 ½ wars (Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya) has crossed 1.24 trillion dollars and has had an indelible impact on our life at home and our image abroad.

The changing face of the world after 9-11, is most easily recognized every time we go to the airport to take a flight. The changing face of the world after 9-11 is most readily felt by the military families who bear the disproportionate burdens of keeping us safe. The human toll from the death of soldiers to soldiers returning with life altering wounds has been staggering and yet as a society we have mostly paid lip-service to their plight.

Today we are also less tolerant of each other and generally uncivil in our public discourse. One minority community, the American-Muslims, have been particularly challenged after 9-11. In addition to the things that worry all Americans, Muslims have to put up with increased scrutiny of their activities and constant second guessing of their motives, not to mention discrimination or profiling. Last year, a survey released by Time showed nearly six in ten Americans held an unfavorable view of Muslims. A Gallup poll released the same year revealed four in ten Americans admitting to “feeling at least ‘a little’ prejudice” towards Muslims.

The tragedy of 9-11 naturally evoked fear and many of our fellow citizens mistakenly felt that reducing the freedom of others will increase our safety. During difficult times we need the courage to understand others. Mutual respect is the cornerstone of great civilizations. All great religions of the world teach us this.

In the Jewish tradition, one of the basic teachings of Avot, understood to be Ethics of the Fathers, is the necessity of respecting others - respecting their space, their property, their right to opinions and their humanity. Respect for humans is a distinctive Torah value, as respecting human’s leads to appreciation and reverence of the Almighty Himself.

The Christian tradition asks that honor and dignity be afforded to everyone. "For in the image of God has God made man." (Genesis 9:6)

In the Islamic holy text the Quran we read – “O mankind! Surely We have created you of a male and a female, and made you tribes and families that you may know each other; surely the most honorable of you in the sight of Allah (God) is the most righteous of you; surely God is Knowing, Aware of all things.” [49:13].

And yet many times throughout history, people of faith have fallen short of these ideals. A small minority among all faith groups have developed a militant form of piety. The genesis of such militancy is the world view, common to extremists, that God is on their side. They fail to heed the common sense sentiment of Abraham Lincoln that rather than falsely claiming whose side God is on, it is far better that each one of us strive to be on God’s side.

Unfortunately many of my fellow Americans have mistakenly concluded a link between terrorism and my faith of Islam. A closer scrutiny reveals that such heinous actions are a misrepresentation of core religious teachings. The Quran emphasizes sanctity of life, “and do not take any human being's life (the life) which God has declared to be sacred.” (Chapter 6:151).

The Islamic traditions honor Christians and Jews as People of the Book and states, "Those who believe (in the Quran), and those who follow the Jewish (Scriptures), and the Christians, and the Sabians, and who believe in God and the last day and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve." (2:62)

Terrorism is not a result of any religious teaching. Equating terrorism with any religion makes a community of faith doubly vulnerable - to both the random acts of terror and the ensuing backlash.

All of us can make a difference. We must regain the best of our faith traditions and our core American values. In my faith tradition there is a famous saying: “Do you want to love God? Then start by respecting those you live with.”

Such inward introspection will help us live up to Rabbi Fine’s optimism that from within the depths of unimaginable tragedy can arise the best of our collective and common values.

I will leave you with a poem from my native India, from a poet named Tagore who in his Nobel Prize winning work the Gitanjali (Ode to God), wrote,

In desperate hope I go and search for her in all the corners of my room; I find her not.
My house is small and what has gone from it once, can never be regained.
But infinite is Thy mansion, my Lord, and seeking her I have to come to Thy door.
I stand under the golden canopy of Thine evening sky and I lift my eager eyes to seek Thy face.
I have come to the brink of eternity from which nothing can vanish--no hope, no happiness, no vision of a face seen through tears.
Oh Lord, dip my emptied life into that ocean, plunge it into its deepest fullness.
Let me for once feel the lost sweet touch - the allness of the universe

Thank you.

May God bless you. May God bless the United States of America.

Muslims in America at the 10th Anniversary of 9-11

This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Published in Khaleej Times, September 1, 2011.

Last year, during a raging controversy over the building of an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan, Time Magazine ran a cover story titled, "Is America Islamophobic?" Shortly thereafter, a poll released by Time showed nearly six in ten Americans held an unfavorable view of Muslims. A Gallup poll released the same year revealed four in ten Americans admitting to “feeling at least ‘a little’ prejudice” towards Muslims.

The Gallup poll indicated that these adverse attitudes are likely the result of most Americans (62 per cent) personally not knowing anyone who is Muslim. The incessant headlines about violence in the name of Islam have led nearly one in two Americans to erroneously conclude that the faith of Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence.

But beyond the headlines lurks another reality.

A recent study by the newly established Abu Dhabi Gallup Center concluded, "Muslim Americans are satisfied with their current lives and are more optimistic than other faith groups that things are getting better." Muslims in America continue to profess a positive attitude despite being misunderstood by many and demonised by a few.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, an American non-profit civil rights organization dedicated to combating bigotry, wrote in a recent report that "…certain Americans, [who have been] prodded into paranoia by clever activists, opportunistic politicians and guileful media players, seem downright eager to deny Muslims the guarantees of religious freedom and the presumption of innocence."

In New York, educator Debbie Almontaser was compelled to resign from a secular Arabic-English public school after she was misquoted in the New York Post, which "clever activists" exploited to insidiously imply she supported violence. However, when a similar cast of characters tried to rile up a controversy by selectively misquoting me to derail my nomination to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, they were effectively thwarted after influential leaders stood up to condemn the witch-hunt, which lead to the City Council voting in favor of my candidacy.

This year, extreme right-wing activists rallied voters in Oklahoma to pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting judges from making rulings based on sharia, the source of Islam's religious and moral laws. A federal judge blocked the implementation of this referendum, but more than a dozen states are considering "banning" sharia. Meanwhile Congressman Peter King of New York continues his series of unbalanced congressional hearings about the "radicalization" of American Muslims, which negatively stereotype the Muslim community with the imprimatur of the US government.

Despite the efforts to marginalize this community, Muslim life in America remains vibrant, youthful and nuanced. According to Gallup, the average age of American Muslims is significantly lower than people of other faiths. This youthfulness explains why Muslims are least likely to vote despite having the most positive attitude towards American democracy, although they also have the least positive view of law enforcement and US military engagement abroad.

One of the most common complaints about Muslims is that they do not condemn terrorism as much as they ought to. Following the London bombings in 2005, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, "To this day, no major Muslim cleric or religious body has ever issued a fatwa [a non-binding religious opinion] condemning Osama bin Laden." Such spurious statements help solidify the misperception of Muslims being sympathetic to terrorism. University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole and Professor Charles Kurzman from the University of North Carolina have documented many fatwas and statements from Muslim scholars and groups condemning terrorism. One only need enter the phrases, "Muslims Condemn Terrorism" or "Islamic Statements Against Terrorism", in any online search engine to read the multitude of statements against terrorism.

In fact the latest Gallup survey shows nine out of ten American Muslims saying that they do not sympathize with Al Qaeda and view themselves as loyal Americans. Survey results also show that Muslims are the least likely of all religious groups to say that there is ever any justification for attacking civilians. However, most of their fellow Americans do not see Muslims as being patriotic. To win the hearts and minds of their fellow Americans, Muslims must spend more time not only educating others about their faith but also increase their commitment to endeavors that promote the common good.

Recently, mainstream media and civic groups have begun to question the means and motives of the anti-Muslim network. A report from the Center for American Progress, a progressive research and advocacy organization, shows that from 2001 to 2007 a handful of wealthy donors poured nearly $42 million in financing anti-Muslim activities. Although the money trail is unprecedented, in many respects the challenges facing Muslims are no different from those faced by other religious minorities as they struggled to integrate in America. This gives hope because eventually the marginalized groups found acceptance and respect in mainstream society.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 30 August 2011,

How Islamic is “Islamic”?

How Islamic is “Islamic”?

A Malaysian political leader has asked political parties in his country to stop using the word “Islam” in their names so that, “nobody can make use of the religion for their political gains.” This progressive thought is ironically closer to the classical understanding of Islam’s sacred texts. For in the early century of Islam, use of the word “Islamic” (Islamiyyah in Arabic) was limited in its scope. When opining on the permissible (halal) and the impermissible (haram) the classical scholars eschewed the blanket usage of “Islamic” or “un-Islamic” often opting instead to using terms such as “valid”, “accepted”, and “allowable” or their antonyms.

Attaching Islam or Islamic to otherwise secular activities such as politics or art is a newer innovation whose proliferation is traceable to the identity movements that sprang up in the Muslim world in the 1960s and 70s. Even if one were to provide convincing raison d'ĂȘtre for the fields of Islamic Art or Finance, how does one explain Islamic Olympic Games, Islamic Music, Islamic Quizzes, etc.? In their quest to preserve identity, Muslims may have lost sight of the big picture.

The proponents of “Islamic-anything” perform a difficult juggling act. In his book “Islamic Finance”, Mahmoud El-Gamal outlines the dilemma faced by the Islamic finance industry, for example. On one hand the Islamic finance industry tries to be similar to conventional finance so as not to be in any jeopardy of national or international laws. On the other hand, the industry portrays itself to be different by using Arabic words to describe mundane secular contracts and attempting to conform to the sacred texts of Islam, even when such conformity is no more than form over function. This dilemma of being same and yet different is also faced by other Islamized disciplines.

Continuing with the example of Islamic finance, it is common knowledge that Islam prohibits riba (usury), gharar (excessively risky) and maysir (gambling) in financial transactions. But creating a separate industry called “Islamic Finance,” has not eliminated riba, gharar and maysir even in financial transactions branded “Islamic” or “Sharia-compliant.” Moreover, Islamic finance has not led to more equitable distributions of wealth or the elimination of the many vices that plague the finance industry. Thus, even in Muslim majority countries, the success of Islamic finance is limited, because users find little to differentiate it from conventional finance.

Since Islam makes no distinction between the sacred and the secular (defined in Webster as “of or relating to the worldly or temporal”), the rebranding of otherwise secular ideas in religious terms, is a contradiction. A cobbler once asked the Protestant reformer Martin Luther how he could serve God within his trade of shoe making. Luther did not ask the cobbler to make “Christian” shoes. He asked the cobbler to make the best shoe possible and sell it at a fair price. Thus affirming a theme consistently present in the sacred texts of almost all religions, namely that being fair and striving for excellence is part of being religiously righteous.

Islam cannot be of service to all humanity if Muslims confine discussions about Islam to issues related to identity only. Instead of being separate but equal, Muslims should integrate without assimilating. A Muslim women weightlifter is trying to do exactly that. Instead of competing in Islamic Games, she is competing in regular weightlifting competition but petitioning the respective sports bodies to allow her to compete wearing modest clothing including a headscarf.

Islamic games or Islamic political parties limit their participation to Muslims. It is natural for people of other faiths to feel excluded even when the limits are not explicit, much the same way Muslims will feel excluded if someone tried to organize “Christian Games.” The Quran in Chapter 49, verse 13, “We have created you from a male and female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other,” celebrates the plurality of people having a singularity of purpose - getting to know each. How can we know each other if we use identity to seclude us?

Our global struggles today are not between Islam and the rest but between the forces of divisiveness and the champions of inclusiveness, between general welfare for all and the preservation of privileged status for a handful. In such a struggle, Islam can be a force of moderation as long as Muslims treat Islam more as a system of values that can benefit all humanity and less as a “club” where people with certain cultural habits congregate. It is not coincidental that Turkey’s AKP party has grown in popularity despite practicing Muslims governing a secular state, while the identity-driven Islamists in the rest of the Muslim world struggle to find their voices in democratic politics.

Creating an apartheid system of Islamic versus un-Islamic will not address the bigger issues at stake. Subjecting secular endeavors of politics or finance to parochial tests of religiosity will neither benefit Muslims nor the rest of humanity. Rather Muslims should follow Luther’s advice of honestly making the best possible shoe and selling it at the fairest price possible. Actions that benefit the broadest cross section of people, best fulfills the Prophetic mission of being “rahmatul lil alamim” – a mercy to all humanity (creations to be exact).

A City of Hope

Our city of Jacksonville has made history by electing Alvin Brown to be our next Mayor. This should fill us up with civic pride and energize us. Jacksonville is our home and we love living here. All of us deserve a Mayor who can lead us to greater economic prosperity and social cohesion. The city must now unite behind Alvin Brown’s leadership and help him achieve the goals he set out to make Jacksonville a better city.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Alvin Brown, when Dr. Yazan Khatib hosted a fundraiser for Alvin. Several members of the American Muslim community attended the event. We all came away with the impression that Alvin was the most qualified and the most visionary candidate to lead Jacksonville at this time. We need a Mayor who understands that our best way forward is to increase economic and social opportunities for all. We need a Mayor who will unite the city. Alvin campaigned on that message and we in the city rallied behind him.

Listening to First Coast Connect this morning and reading the blogs on Florida Times Union, it is quite evident that our city is buzzing with excitement and this can only give all of us hope. In these difficult economic times, the positivity of Alvin Brown’s message can only help us. His campaign was uniting and uplifting.

Now comes the tough part of governing. I can only hope that our city’s first African American mayor will not suffer the kind of personal attacks that our nation’s first African American President is still suffering. We can have legitimate differences of opinions about policy. But the type of incivility that has come to characterize our national political discourse should never happen here in Jacksonville. If it does, we will all lose.

To his great credit, Mike Hogan ran a positive campaign. I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Hogan. He is a decent family man. While we disagreed over his policy choices we remained cordial in our conversations. I was very pleased to read Mr. Hogan’s appeal to his followers to unite behind our new Mayor.

Time and time again, the orderly process that characterizes American democracy is beautiful to behold. This American value of gracious in defeat but humble in victory is something I had to learn after arriving in America to do my graduate studies over two decades ago. American democracy remains a beacon of hope to the world. But we must practice it as best we can at home to keep inspiring people around the world.

Today is a proud day for Jacksonville. Let us celebrate. And then let us all get back to work.

Democracy is not merely the process of voting and elections. Democracy requires constant civic engagement and works best when it is also the rule of law that protects the interests of all and provides equal opportunity for all. “The motivating force of the theory of a Democratic way of life is still a belief that as individuals we live cooperatively, and, to the best of our ability, serve the community in which we live,” Eleanor Roosevelt.

Memo to Osama bin Laden, now dead

Published in Turkey's Today's Zaman, May 3, 2011. Also on Huffington Post. An edited version appears in the Florida Times Union.

Parvez Ahmed

Although rejoicing death is not part of the religious traditions of Muslims, Christians or Jews, I cannot help but feel a sense of joyful relief now that you are no longer capable of plotting your evil. Your elimination as a terrorist threat is a victory for peace and justice. Thousands of people from different nationalities, ethnicities and religions around the world have reacted with understandable emotions. Capital markets have reacted by bidding oil prices down and stock prices up, indicating that they are hopeful of greater stability in the Middle East.

You have caused untold misery to people who had no enmity with you. You have dragged the good name of Islam through the mud by wrapping your heinous actions with the banner of Islam. Your views and your methods have long been discredited by credible and mainstream Muslim scholars. But that did not persuade you from ceasing to poison the minds of gullible and vulnerable youths. You took our children brainwashed them into being maniacs and then used them as weapons against us. And in the end you did not even prove your self-proclaimed warrior mantle. You hid behind a woman and used her as a human shield. You are not a martyr. You are a criminal who deserves to be punished by death, under American, international and Sharia laws.

The cancer that you have left behind will still be with us. We will still have to deal with terrorists like you. But we hope that your death will inject rationality in the discourse about terrorism. It will allow our policy makers and leaders to see terrorism less as a political football and more as a criminal activity undertaken by mafia figures like you. Instead of criminalizing a faith, our leaders will use sensible method to go after the criminals without stigmatizing the faith group they belong to.

We are hopeful that your demise will bring some measure of comfort to all the families who have to contend daily with the loss of their loved ones. We are also hopeful that your departure provides renewed opportunities for building stronger bridges of understanding across faiths and cultures.

As peace loving Muslims, we unequivocally reject terrorism and reiterate that no grievances can ever justify the taking of innocent human lives. Islam strictly condemns religious extremism and the use of violence against innocent lives. Any group that imitates your methods is just as guilty as you are of crimes against their faith and all of humanity.

We are heartened by the fact that no Muslim country took the responsibility of your burial. It is permissible, in fact recommended in Islam to not afford terrorists full burial rites. Terrorists are considered deviants and thus denying them the opportunity for burial rites that seek mercy and forgiveness for the deceased are religiously accepted.

President Barack Obama has eloquently reminded the world that you were not a Muslim leader. He went on to say, "Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity."

In your death you have united us as Americans once more, the same way we were in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Today, like that ill-fated day, people of conscience are once again ready to rediscover the value of peaceful coexistence, so jaded by your rhetoric of war. Even when lamenting or protesting unfair and unjust conditions, we do not want to forget our Prophet's teachings of seeking peace and forgiveness even in the midst of our harshest hardships. Your fellow Arabs are increasingly rejecting your messianic worldview. In Egypt and Tunisia they have peacefully overthrown dictators. What your violence never achieved, their peace did.

It is my hope that your life and death serve as a lesson to all who ever contemplated using the shortcut of violence to satisfy their desires and needs. In your death as in your life, you have failed. You have dishonored your family and the over one billion Muslims from whom you hijacked the good name of Islam.

Editorial in Florida Times Union

April 25, 2011

There is nothing especially unusual about awards or appreciating the good works of outstanding individuals.

But it is unique to have the sponsoring organization celebrating the audience. That is what happened last Tuesday night during "An Evening of Gratitude" by the Muslim community.

The sentiments were so touching, the positive energy in the Hyatt Regency ballroom so powerful, that it left participants grasping for words.

The Islamic Center of Northeast Florida gave a series of awards at the benefit that in a broad sense were aimed at all the people of good will in the community.
And the sponsors made it clear that this good will did not start recently, but from those days about 30 years ago when there was just a handful of Muslims here.

Speakers from the Islamic Center said thanks for the support they have received from Christians, Jews, Hindus and many others. For instance, help was provided to purchase land for a mosque, for architectural work, for legal work.

And during the unfortunate opposition in the community to the appointment of Parvez Ahmed to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, many people of good will stood up and spoke out.

As Imam Joe Bradford said, Jacksonville's "gracious nature" turned negative energy into a positive.

John Delaney, president of the University of North Florida where Ahmed serves as a professor, said that his support was easy compared to the incredible patience and grace shown by Ahmed.

Mayor John Peyton said that Ahmed was "amazingly unflappable," that his grace was an inspiration during a grueling confirmation process.

"A lot of good came from this," Peyton said, by mobilizing the right-thinking people in the community.

But shouldn't the right-thinking people speak out? What a tragedy if they had not. Times-Union Editor Frank Denton described the coverage as the "journalism of hope."
To quote the Quran: "By no means shall you attain righteousness unless you give of that which you love" (3:92).

It was a beautiful night that made us proud to be living in Jacksonville.


Convergence of interests and values

Today's Zaman, Sunday, March 27, 2011

Convergence of interests and values
by Parvez Ahmed*

It happens once in a blue moon -- the convergence of Western military action with Arab and Muslim public opinion. The last time we witnessed such convergence was during the US-led interventions in the Balkans, which stopped an ethnic cleansing and eventually brought peace to a troubled region of the world. Contrary to assertions from some, Libya 2011 is not Iraq of 2003.

Whereas the war in Iraq lacked any international legitimacy, the military intervention in Libya has legal authority in the form of UN Security Council Resolution 1973. In addition, enforcement of the no-fly zone in Libya also has the support of the Arab League, symbolic as that support may be. But most importantly, unlike 2003, there are no mass demonstrations either in Arab or Western capitals opposing another Western military adventure in yet another Muslim majority country.

The lack of opposition should not be mistaken for a lack of concern. The history of Western military interventions in the region has been largely perceived as neocolonial imperialism. The fact that Iraq remains a bloody mess and Afghanistan a quagmire adds to the anxiety. And yet the hope that has sprung from the peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt gives us reason to believe that military intervention in Libya, as abhorrent as the idea may be, was the right thing to do in order to thwart the brutality of yet another Arab dictator. Something has fundamentally changed in the Arab and Muslim world. The rest of the world is now being forced, albeit reluctantly, to contend with that reality.

Speaking to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, US Sen. John Kerry gave voice to the optimism being felt by many, despite lingering concerns. “If liberation can be translated into lasting democracy, then the new Arab awakening will carry a vital message: simply, that ordinary people everywhere have the ability to determine for themselves how they are governed. The developments in Egypt and Tunisia also represent a dramatic blow against the extremism that we have been struggling with this past decade or more -- a blow against extremism that we could not have dealt ourselves.”

Sen. Kerry went on to say, “But just as the Berlin Wall could not be rebuilt, so we know that the old order of the Middle East cannot be restored.” To stop the restoration of the old order, military intervention in Libya became necessary. If the Muammar Gaddafi regime had overrun Benghazi, as they were poised to do, the Arab spring could have prematurely ended amidst deep suspicion that the West could have stopped the massacre but chose not to. This would have further emboldened the brutal repressions already under way from Yemen to Bahrain. In Yemen the defection of a senior military leader provides hope that if Western powers abandon their realpolitik and finally align their interests with their values, not only the people but also the extant power establishment may reject their brutal overlords.

Michael Gerson, speechwriter to former US President George W. Bush, in a recent op-ed to The Washington Post wrote: “When a government engages in genocide, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity -- effectively waging war against its own citizens -- other nations have the right and duty to intervene. In Libya, this abstract norm became a basis for action. The Obama administration deserves credit for its part in establishing this precedent.” The Arab spring has offered a Sputnik moment for US foreign policy. It appears that President Obama is slowly warming up to the idea that transformative change not only requires moral leadership of words but unfortunately necessitates the use of force when force becomes the only way to stop crimes against humanity. Rwanda still haunts us.

The reticence of emerging democratic powers such as Turkey, Brazil and India to join hands in this effort remains a source of concern. Although negotiations remain the preferred way to end this standoff, Gaddafi’s intransigence coupled with his threat to go door to door to clean out “rebels” offers scant hope for a peaceful resolution.
The extraordinary convergence of Western policy and Arab/Muslim public opinion needs further cementing. Sen. Kerry wants to introduce legislation to financially support “new and fledgling democracies in the region.” Sen. Kerry asserts, “We ought to be helping governments reform their security sectors, building transparency into the fabric of government ministries, strengthening the rule of law and helping leaders to incorporate the views of their public in the day-to-day work that they’re engaged in.”

Turkey, with its long history of democracy and its experience as part of its European Union accession process as well as with enacting changes that brings laws and policies to the standards expressed by Sen. Kerry, must play a pivotal role going forward. Only then can Turkey’s aspiration of zero problems with its neighbors become a sustainable policy.

Rep. King's unAmerican Hearings

Published in the Gainesville Sun, Tallahassee Democrat. Other newspapers around the state are also likely to publish this.

Ahmed, Romberg and Schlakman: Rep. King's unAmerican hearings
Published: Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 1:46 p.m.

Before assuming the chairmanship of the House Homeland Security Committee in January, U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) announced his intention to hold congressional hearings on "the radicalization" of the Muslim community. The hearings begin on Capitol Hill this week.

According to a recent poll, while a majority of Americans support King's hearings, a larger majority says the hearings should focus upon extremism generally rather than upon the American Muslim community exclusively.

Some have observed that leveraging Congress this way is, "akin to racial profiling...that would unfairly cast suspicion on an entire group," and that these hearings offend America's proud tradition of religious pluralism and inclusion.
Others say this harkens back to congressional hearings in the 1950s that afforded Senator Joseph McCarthy a platform to exploit the public's fears by brandishing lists of alleged communists in what he characterized as his patriotic quest to ferret out unAmerican activities, with little regard for civil rights and civil liberties.

King contends, "When I meet with law enforcement, they are constantly telling me how little cooperation they get from Muslim leaders." But law enforcement professionals may not be called to testify. Perhaps he is unwilling to subject his underlying premise to their scrutiny in open proceedings.

King also asserts that, "Over 80 percent of the mosques in this country are controlled by radical imams," but Pew survey data indicates Muslims are "decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes" and that Muslims in America are "largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate."

Moreover, a two-year study by Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy and the University of North Carolina concluded that American mosques actually deter the spread of extremism by building youth programs, sponsoring antiviolence forums and scrutinizing the curriculum being taught.

It was a Muslim street vendor who thwarted the Times Square bomber, and Muslims in Irvine, California, concerned about the conduct of a fellow Muslim and his apparent efforts to incite violence reported him to the police, only to learn that he was an FBI informant. The so-called underwear bomber was reported to authorities by his father, who worried that his son posed a threat, and placed the safety of others over his own paternal instincts.

Such examples of intervention prompted U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim elected to serve in the U.S. Congress, to note "about a third of all foiled al-Qaida-related plots in the U.S. relied on support or information provided by members of the Muslim community."

Can the Muslim community in America do more? Certainly, but this is not a one-way street. It will take more than congressional hearings to encourage American Muslims to be more proactive. Government officials must place additional emphasis upon developing relationships that build trust and confidence.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder tasked America's U.S. Attorneys to prioritize this kind of engagement. Pamela Marsh, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida, has taken a number of constructive steps toward this end. Secretary Janet Napolitano has established similar priorities for the Department of Homeland Security. So have others. However, many members of Congress haven’t even visited their local Islamic centers.

These issues are not limited to the federal government. State and local officials also have important roles to play.

The irony is that King's congressional hearings conceivably could result in more significant repercussions than Pastor Terry Jones' rather bizarre "International Burn A (Quran) Day," the fringe group event that was to take place at Dove World Church in Gainesville, FL, on September 11 last year, or his "International Judge the (Quran) Day" that is slated for March 20th.

While Pastor Jones' actions test the limits of free speech in America, King's congressional inquiry runs the risk of stigmatizing an entire community and carries the imprimatur of the U.S. government and misses a significant opportunity to explore meaningful and appropriate policy options to deter all forms of extremism by focusing exclusively on American Muslims.

The vast majority are presumably outraged when extremists commit heinous acts of terror in the name of Islam, and increasingly vulnerable to backlash in the aftermath.

Parvez Ahmed, is a Fulbright Scholar (2009-10) and associate professor at the University of North Florida and a frequent writer the American Muslim experience. Rabbi Jack Romberg leads Temple Israel (a Reform congregation in Tallahassee) and is a commentator on a range of social justice issues. Mark Schlakman is a lawyer and serves as senior program director at The Florida State University Center of Advancement of Human Rights.

Abuse of women is sadly endemic

Today's Zaman (Turkey). Feb 21, 2011

Abuse of Women is Sadly Endemic
Parvez Ahmed

Amidst all the euphoria about Egypt’s peaceful revolution, the news of CBS news reporter Lara Logan being sexually assaulted hits like a ton of bricks. The people of Egypt, especially its youth, have been such an inspiration that any hint of deviant behavior understandably elicits gasps and should provoke soul searching. Sadly the incident is not as isolated.

A 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights shows 98 percent of foreign women and 83 percent of Egyptian women reporting being sexually harassed. Six in 10 men admitted to such behavior. How is it that Muslim society’s, which often pontificate about conservative values and uses such mantra to advocate segregation, that women are denied the most basic of dignity?

The Islamic scripture is unequivocal that the proper treatment of women is a cornerstone in developing personal piety and societal harmony. In chapter 9 verse 71, the Quranic paradigm is clear, “The believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another: they enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey God and His Messenger. On them will God pour His Mercy: for God is Exalted in power, Wise.”

Expounding on the subject of gender relations, noted Islamic scholar Jamal Badawi writes, “Under no circumstances does the Quran encourage, allow or condone violence (against women). In extreme cases … it allows for a husband to administer a gentle pat to his wife that causes no physical harm to the body nor leaves any sort of mark. …. In the event that dispute cannot be resolved equitably between husband and wife, the Quran prescribes mediation between the parties through family intervention on behalf of both spouses.” Badawi is attempting to contextualize the Quranic verse 4:34. And yet many Muslim religious leaders do not place this verse into its proper context, making it ripe for abuse both at the hands of Muslim men and by those who blame Islam for all that ails the Muslim world.

Contradictions between the teaching in sacred texts and the reality on the ground are not limited to Egypt or the segregated and repressive Gulf States. In Turkey, 4 out of 10 women are physically abused by their husbands, according to a recent study titled "Domestic Violence against Women in Turkey."

To be fair, abuse of women is not exclusively a Muslim problem. The same day that the Lara Logan story broke, news media also reported that female members of the U.S. Navy were alleging cover up of widespread rape. A U.S. Justice Department study shows that 1 in 6 American women are raped during their lifetimes. Nearly half of all murders of women in the U.S. are committed by a romantic partner. Abuse of women is just as problematic in conservative Muslim societies as they are in the liberal West. This underscores the need for less finger-pointing and ought to provide the impetus to collectively address the issue.

The abuse women in Muslim societies are particularly jolting because of its stark contrast with the normative teachings of Islam. I often have the privilege of speaking to people of other faiths about Islam and Muslims. Such contradictions are what most troubles my audience and why they continue to harbor negative opinions about Islam and Muslims. Islamophobia cannot be overcome by merely preaching Islam. It will require Muslims to live Islam and their societies to reflect Islam’s values and ethics. While Muslim preachers rail against those who prevent women from wearing headscarves or hijab they are largely silent on the endemic abuse of women. While Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, are quick to defend segregation as a way to “protect” women they have taken few measures to stem the pervasive mistreatment of women in their own backyards.

In the general gloom and doom of the Middle East, once again it is the educated and enlightened Muslim youth that is providing a ray of hope. Visit the Facebook page titled, “Lara Logan: An apology from Egypt.” The messages of apology seem heartfelt. Many Egyptians are rightfully ashamed of this ignominy. My fervent hope is that they turn this moment of shame into motivation for positive change that eradicates this ‘social cancer.’ Can Arabs and Muslims once again turn their hopeful eyes towards Egypt leading the path to civilization? CNN producer and camerawoman Mary Rogers gives voice to the hope of many, “Perhaps it will be people power, the same people power that brought down a regime, that will successfully combat sexual harassment. But the only real protection women can have is when the attitudes of men change.”

[Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida.]