Islamic Factor in Middle East/Mediterranean Protests?

On December 17, 2010, Muhamed Bouazizi, a 26-year old fruit vendor from the economically deprived Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid set himself ablaze (dying from his burns three weeks later) after a female police officer and her two colleagues vandalized his fruit cart, confiscated his scales, and allegedly assaulted him in the middle of the street. Mr. Bouazizi, supporting a family of five, had been harassed by authorities in the past for his street vending and was enraged by the latest incident. After being refused a meeting with authorities at the governor’s office Mr. Bouazizi poured paint thinner on his body and lit himself on fire.

Just over a month later, the then-President of Tunisia has resigned and fled the country in the wake of widespread protests. Mr. Bouazizi’s bold act has inspired others around the Middle East/Mediterranean region to follow suit and take to the streets in demanding regime change from their own corrupt governments. Albania, Egypt, Yemen, and most recently, Jordan–all of which are Muslim majority countries–have seen tens of thousands of people protesting against widespread fraud, a lack of economic opportunities, and general illegitimate rule. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen is calling it Tunisian Dominoes. Additional protests may be looming in other countries, since at least 7 others have also set themselves on fire in protest of the economic conditions in Algeria and Mauritania.

Although less than half of those who have burned themselves have perished, the majority (all young men) were believed to have been intending to die from their acts. And while suicide is forbidden by nearly every Islamic scholar, outspoken opposition and action against injustice is an Islamic tradition. One of the most widely-referenced hadiths cites the Prophet Muhammad as saying,

“Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart; and that is the weakest of faith.”

Countless examples in Islamic history highlight Muslims rising up against illegitimate rule. One of the most important non-violent Indian leaders spearheading the resistance to British rule was Muslim. While less well-known than Mahatma Gandhi, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (a.k.a. Badshah Khan) was a lifelong pacifist, close friend of Gandhi, and instrumental in the non-violent Indian uprising of the 1930’s and 1940’s in present-day N.W.F.P. of Pakistan. In 1929, Badshah Khan, an ethnic Pashtun, recruited over 200,000 men and women to join his non-violent army known as the “Red Shirts.” Under the official name of the Khudai Khidmatgar (KK or Servants of God), the Red Shirts led strikes, political rallies, and other opposition efforts and were instrumental in their efforts to defeat the British and gain independence.

And while Islamophobic pundits cite corrupt and despotic Arab leaders as evidence for what they call “Islam’s backwardness,” there are also numerous passages in the Qur’an that explicitly condemn injustice. In one such surah, or chapter, God encourages humans to teach “Truth,” “Patience,” and “Constancy” [Al-Asr 103:3].

Muslims all over the Middle East/Mediterranean are demanding change from corrupt leaders. While mainstream media may not be highlighting some of the socio-religious underpinnings of these uprisings around the region, it should be remembered that Islamic law, history, and culture are reflective and supportive of the protesters’ sentiment and actions.

What do you think about the recent protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Albania, and Yemen? What relationship do you see between the uprisings and Islam?

A Muslim Woman Who Challenges Stereotypes

Dr. Hawa Abdi

Among the many stereotypes about Islam is the idea that Muslim women are oppressed and cannot make change and that Muslims never stand up to violenceDr. Hawa Abdi contradicts both stereotypes. She challenged an extremist group within her own country and, along with her daughters, was named Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year. I decided to write about her because of her courage to challenge those in her community who are not acting within the true spirit of Islam.

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Female Fans Fight for Rights

Sihem Bouyahia is an activist and student in Algiers, Algeria, and is an alumnae of the 2009-2010 National Democratic Institute’s Young Women’s Leadership Academy, held in part by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As a girl I always dreamt of attending a soccer game instead of watching my favourite players on TV. But in the North African region and specifically in Algeria, access to soccer stadiums is limited as far as women are concerned, despite there being no national law banning such access. Nor is attending games an illicit activity in the Islamic religion. For instance, in an Arab and Muslim country such as Egypt, women are free to attend any soccer game. Why is it not the case in my country?

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Senegal: Conversation at Gaston Berger University

In January 2009, several UW-Madison professors visited Senegal, where a Muslim majority and a Christian minority peacefully coexist. You can watch an overview of this trip in part one of this series, and the professors’ conversation with a prominent Imam in part two. The group also stopped at Gaston Berger University in Saint Louis where they talked to Senegalese friends about the country’s religious tolerance.

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Senegal: An Imam in Saint Louis

senegalA former French colony in western Africa, Senegal is a country where a Muslim majority and a Christian minority live peacefully together and pride themselves on interfaith harmony. Several UW-Madison faculty and staff members visited Senegal in January, 2009, to find out what makes Senegal a model for interfaith peace. You can read an overview of the trip and its results here.

The UW-Madison group interviewed a prominent Imam in Saint Louis. Following his father’s footstep, the 83-year-old Imam became a scholar and teacher at age 16. He started running a school well before Senegal became independent. Because his school was not involved in political activities, just in Qur’anic teaching, the colonial power left it alone. Continue reading

Senegal: Model for Interfaith Peace

Larry Nesper

Larry Nesper

A former French colony in western Africa, Senegal is a Muslim-dominated country where a Christian minority is well respected and has lived peacefully with the Muslim majority for ages. What has made Senegal so successful in maintaining interfaith peace and avoiding the religious tensions that plague other countries? A group of professors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison traveled to Senegal last year to look for answers. In the next several weeks, you will read a series of their interviews from the trip. As an introductory overview, anthropology professor Larry Nesper, talked with me recently. You can watch our full conversation by clicking on the video below. Continue reading

Violence in Nigeria

In last week’s post about Muslim-Christian tensions in Egypt, I highlighted that I am troubled by the way that two connected faiths that call for tolerance are often manipulated for specific purposes. As a follow up to that post, I wanted to write about the violence last week between Christians and Muslims in Jos, which stands on the dividing line between predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria and predominantly Christian southern Nigeria. This is another unfortunate example in which religion is  manipulated and used to cover other longstanding problems between groups, rather than addressing those problems directly, problems which many times result from poverty, oppression by both groups, and unemployment.

The violence in Jos began on Sunday, January 17th, and has resulted in the deaths of hundreds. There are varying reports on what triggered the current wave of violence. The New York Times reports it began when Muslim youth attacked a church; The Christian Science Monitor says that it broke out after Christians protested the building of a mosque and Muslim protesters attacked a church; and Human Rights Watch indicates that some leaders say the violence resulted from a disagreement over the rebuilding of a Muslim home in a Christian neighborhood that was destroyed in 2008. Whatever the exact cause of this latest violence, it is important to note that unfortunately this is not the first time that this level of violence has occurred. There were violent riots in 2001 and 2008. Continue reading

Islam and Women in Niger

Even though 98% of its population practices Islam, the Western African country of Niger is a secular state, protected by laws mostly inherited from the French. In recent years, the government has adopted some woman-friendly policies but rejected a few as well. What’s behind those rejections? What role does Islam play in the politics of women’s rights laws? Alice Kang, a PhD candidate in the UW-Madison Department of Political Science and a former SKJ Fellow through Global Studies, spent a year in Niger to look for answers. She sat down with Inside Islam to share her findings.

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Islam and Politics

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” Antonio says to Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Religion is often used and misused by politicians to gain power. To understand the intricate relationship between Islam and politics, Brandon Kendhammer, a PhD candidate in political science at UW-Madison, went to Northern Nigeria and studied the implementation of sharia law in the region since the country’s democratic transition in 1999. He sat down with Inside Islam recently to share his experience and research findings. You can watch the whole interview by clicking on the video below. Continue reading

Review of “Reclaiming Islam”

Mosque in Duisberg, Germany. Photo from Archi Press

Mosque in Duisberg, Germany. Photo from Archi Press

I recently listened to a show from “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” a sister program to Inside Islam’s Here on Earth on Wisconsin Public Radio. The show titled “Reclaiming Islam” aired on June 12th, 2009, and featured a number of interesting guests: Reza Aslan, Tissa Hami, Christopher Caldwell, Youssou N’Dour & Chai Vasarhelyi, and Kamran Pasha (who will be joining Inside Islam on July 21st). I was impressed by both the vastness of the content and the coherence of the idea that underlay all of the guests’ contributions: the diversity of how Muslims relate to Islam. Echoing our message here on Inside Islam, “To the Best of Our Knowledge” nicely showed that there is no one manifestation of Islam and no one medium to explore what it means to be Muslim. Continue reading