Banning the Face Veil

This past month, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, shocked many by issuing a ban on students and teachers wearing the niqab, or face veil, in Al-Azhar University or its adjoining schools, specifically in all female settings. Tantawi’s decision to issue this ban stemmed from an interaction that he had with a secondary school student on one of his visits. According to many sources, Tantawi asked the girl why she was wearing the niqab in an all girl classroom and demanded she remove it. He added that niqab is not part of Islam, but is rather a cultural custom. His decree came soon after this interaction that was criticized by many in Egypt. There were then reports from female students who wear the niqab at Cairo University (not affiliated with Al-Azhar) that they were being prevented from entering the dormitories unless they removed their niqab. Continue reading

Interview with Arabic Students

Despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims do not live in Arabic-speaking countries, Arabic is still the language of Islam. As images of the prophet Muhammad are forbidden, Islam relies heavily on language to pass down ideas and stories from generation to generation. Language is, of course, open to multiple interpretations, mistranslations, and misunderstandings. For example, jihad, literally meaning “striving in the path of God,” can be understood as both an internal struggle to live a moral and virtuous life and an external struggle against injustice and oppression. But in English, unfortunately, the word is often translated to “holy war” and implies fanatical violence against non-believers of Islam. This is just one example why an in-depth knowledge of Arabic is important to both Muslims and non-Muslims.

More and more Americans, especially young people, are realizing the critical role of the Arabic language in breaking down misperceptions about Islam and in working with Muslim communities. As a result of 9/11, enrollment in Arabic in American colleges increased by 126.5% from 2002 to 2006. This fall, 225 students are taking Arabic at UW-Madison, up from 120 students in fall 2006 and the UW’s summer Arabic language program continues to grow. Earlier this month I talked to a few students in a first-semester Arabic class to see how their perceptions of Islam and the Muslim world might differ from others. Continue reading

One in Four are Muslim

From The Pew Forum

From The Pew Forum

A couple weeks ago, the US Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a study that has received a great deal of attention. According to a three-year study of over 232 countries, the population of Muslims worldwide is now 1.57 billion, which means that one out of every four people in the world is a Muslim. Although the number was above some of the researchers’ expectations, what really makes this study fascinating is what it discovered about the details of this overall population. Continue reading

A Swedish Perspective on the Muslim World

Michael Winiarski, a Transatlantic Media Fellow and Middle East correspondent for Sweden’s largest circulating daily newspaper, will become that newspaper’s Washington correspondent in January. Last month he gave a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison about the Swedish perspective on the Middle East, and answered a few of my questions. Continue reading

Hillary Clinton Visit to Kazan, Tatarstan

This is a guest post by Uli Schamiloglu, professor in Languages and Cultures of Asia and the Director of UW-Madison’s Middle East Studies Program.

On Wednesday, October 14, 2009 Hillary Clinton traveled to the city of Kazan, capital of the Muslim republic of Tatarstan. On October 9 the Tatar-Bashkir Service of Radio Liberty reported that Hillary Clinton would be visiting Kazan and meeting with local political and religious leaders. Continue reading

First Muslim Mayor of Rotterdam

Some people, both inside and outside the Muslim community, question whether Muslims should become involved in politics at all. The portrayal of the intersection of politics and religion in most mainstream media coverage of Islam leads to questions of where a Muslim politician’s loyalties might lie and whether personal faith might interfere with the job performance of an official who is supposed to act in the best interest of a broader population. It would seem that these questions should be asked of anyone of any faith who chooses to enter public office, but it seems that Muslims are singled out for special scrutiny.

These concerns are increasingly important as the number of Muslim politicians in the Western world increases. In the United States, for example, Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) became a highly visible example, especially when he asked to be sworn in on Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Qur’an. Of course the increased involvement of Muslims in Western politics is not limited to the United States. In fact, the rapidly growing Muslim presence in Europe makes it only natural that Muslim Europeans would want to go into politics to give voice to some of the concerns of not only Muslim but also non-Muslim constituents. One such example is the mayor of Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Ahmed Aboutaleb became the first Muslim immigrant to become mayor of a major Dutch city this past January. The appointment of Aboutaleb, a Moroccan-born immigrant, has created controversy in Rotterdam, which has witnessed serious clashes over the issue of immigration. Geert Wilders, leader of the right-wing Dutch Party for Freedom, is among the most vocal of those that have questioned Aboutaleb’s loyalties. Wilders has demanded that Aboutaleb give up his Moroccan passport as a gesture of his loyalty to the Netherlands. Muslims, on the other hand, are excited and hope he can begin to build the necessary bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims there. There are also non-Muslims who support Aboutaleb as mayor, but even they seem to believe it is important that he prioritize the issue of integrating Muslims into Europe over other topics.

The competing demands will not be easy to balance. Aboutaleb has already received criticism from some Muslims for expressing support over the firing of Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Islamic scholar, and from non-Muslims who question an official trip he made to Morocco in June. Whatever the concerns of both sides, however, Aboutaleb’s appointment represents an important step for Muslims in Europe and other Western nations. It is not just a question of integration, but also one of participation in the larger society.

What do you think of Muslim participation in politics? Should someone’s faith play a role in whether they are involved in politics or not? What does integration mean for Muslims in Europe? Please leave your comments.

Why Are Black People Converting?

blackmuslims23223Growing up in the United States, I was exposed to all different kinds of Muslims, especially those who chose to convert to Islam later in life. I have always been fascinated with the challenges that new Muslims face. Conversion seems like a very difficult decision in the context of American culture and the Western sociopolitical setting more generally, where Islam is often represented so negatively. Yet, even after 9/11, the interest in Islam and the number of converts around the world continues to grow. Continue reading

Islamic Civilization in Crisis?

"Light" in Arabic

"Light" in Arabic

I have often thought about the reasons for what seems to be unending turmoil in some Muslim communities. I can’t say that I have reached a clear answer–I doubt anyone has–but I do know that this is a question that occupies many, especially Muslims. Several possibilities are offered as explanations: the effects of colonization, the secularization of societies, conflict between tradition and modernity, and so on. However, Ali Allawi suggests in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that these factors only affect the outer world and that the real crisis lies in Islam’s inner world. Allawi’s article got my attention because he doesn’t discuss what he calls the outer world to the exclusion of the inner world; rather, he finds a way to show how both are intertwined. The fact that he is able to bring the two together is for me especially insightful because most discussions on this topic focus on one or the other, but never show the interplay between the two. Continue reading

Interview with Uli Schamiloglu

A member of the Inside Islam executive committee, Uli Schamiloglu is also a professor in Languages and Cultures of Asia (a department that he helped to create) and the Director of UW-Madison’s Middle East Studies Program, among many other things. I first met him in 2007 when he was a guest on the Here on Earth radio show to talk about Sunni-Shia conflict and lessons from WWI. He was so knowledgeable and articulate about the past and present in the Middle East that the show has invited him back a couple of times to launch our Inside Islam radio series and to comment on Obama’s outreach to Muslims and his speech in Cairo. Continue reading