Reformist Muslim

Exploring possibilities for the future of Islam and other thoughts

Location: London, United Kingdom

Sunday, June 04, 2006

moving on.

thanks to anyone who has read this blog. Almost a year and 117 posts later I've moved on. You can find me at, where I hope to be posting more on politics/sports/popular culture, as well as the subject of this blog. hope to see you their.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Dressing In Drag...In Pakistan!

This is required reading (and watching I assume - I'll be sure to check it out the next time I'm in Karachi). Also if the neocon drumbeat ever comes around to Pakistan (think! nuclear weapons, taleban type government in some provinces, bin laden sympathisers, state sponsor of terrorism, millitary dictatorship - oh how easy it is to make a seemingly rational claim for war), then Begum Nawazish should serve as conclusive proof that Pakistan does not need invading.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Civil Society In Musharraf's Pakistan

The military is so secure in its rule and the official politicians so useless that 'civil society' is booming. Private TV channels, like NGOs, have mushroomed and most views are permissible (I was interviewed for an hour by one of these on the "fate of the world communist movement") except a frontal assault on religion or the military and its networks that govern the country. If civil society posed any real threat to the elite, the plaudits it receives would rapidly turn to menace.

This is from a very interesting column by Tariq Ali on the World Social Forum's stop in Karachi. Particularly biting is his critique of NGO's operating in Pakistan. However in this post I would like to focus on his comments on Pakistani civil society.

In my opinion, liberal democracies are successful when there is a diverse and resilient civil society which resists authoritarianism. All governments have authoritarian tendencies, but whether or not they succeed in establishing and maintaining total control is dependent on if those concerned with society are significant enough a presence to prevent it from happening.

I believe this is one of the reasons why Fareed Zakaria's analysis of liberalism before democracy works. A period of liberal authoratarianism allows civil society to develop in a way which is not possible in countries which rush towards democracy before the basic elements of a stable and tolerant society are in place.

It is in this context, that I'm not as skeptical of the current role of Pakistani civil society as Tariq Ali. It is true that today that the TV media in particular are relatively reluctant to openly criticise the government and it's policies.

However in the past year, we have witnessed at least two events where an internal conflict amongst the elite has opened up. Firstly and tragically was the Earthquake, when the TV media in particular could not help but report on the hopeless inadequacy of the government in leading the response effort. Secondly, we saw the lampooning of Musharraf after the seeming failure of President Bush's visit to Pakistan to achieve anything other than some funny pictures and a meaningless speech.

Of course there are problems in Baluchistan, parliamentary politics is a farce and a catastrophic event would in all likelihood set civil society back another ten to twenty years. However for now, the fact that the WSF is in Pakistan at all, gives me reason to hope for what in many ways is still a very flawed country.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Is Democracy Western?

The belief in the allegedly "Western" nature of democracy is often linked to the early practice of voting and elections in Greece, especially in Athens. Democracy involves more than balloting, but even in the history of voting there would be a classificatory arbitrariness in defining civilizations in largely racial terms. ...[T]there is reluctance in taking note of the Greek intellectual links with other civilizations to the east or south of Greece, despite the greater interest that the Greeks themselves showed in talking to Iranians, or Indians, or Egyptians (rather than in chatting up the Ostrogoths).

The above quote is taken from this article by Amartya Sen (via 3QuarksDaily). He makes important arguments, addressing both non-Westerners and the West. For me the two key themes are,

a) Democracy isn't Western and
b) The West doesn't own democracy.

These overlap nicely to create a coherent critique of the false west/non-west dichotomy. That democracy isn’t just a western concept is an important argument for those who aren’t western.
Sen provides interesting examples, and these need to be emphasised, of leaders such as Mandela and Gandhi who combined modern notions of democracy with their own 'native' traditions which, which while not containing voting, were similar to a democratic system in many ways.

This is not to say all desi's should rely upon such a fusion (although I feel that those who don't are missing out). If some would like to become 100% westernised, that is their choice. However for those who want to continue some of their cultural heritage, adopting concepts such as public reason should not make them feel as if they are 'selling out', or being brainwashed to think in a certain way.

This is where the second point comes in. As Sen points out, seeing Iranian dissidents as 'ambassadors for Western values', is both incorrect and counter-productive. To take an example, why should the Afghan convert to Christianity not be executed for apostasy? I would suggest because as Muslims, we should not consider it either a humane or rational thing to do. This is not to say that the West has nothing to contribute to this discourse - they should make their voices heard. However this should preferably be done in the spirit of reflection rather than conversion.

Cross posted on Pickled Politics.

Friday, March 31, 2006

RSS Feed Now Setup

Click on the button on the left to get the feed's link to this blog's feed. For those of you not acquainted with RSS, Svend White had a good tutorial and lots of other useful tips a while back. The easiest way to setup a feed for your own blog is to go to

Friday, March 24, 2006

A Letter To Reformist Muslims

"It is conceivable, yes, that there are those in the West with as much sadomasochim (or courage, if you will), as the reformists of Islam; with as great a penchant for human rights as the reformists of Islam; with as great a willingness to face off against the edifice of a corrupt theology as the reformists of Islam. We must embrace them as our brothers, be they Latino, Black, or dare I say, white; be they Hindu, Jew, Christian, or dare I say, secular-humanist"
Click here to read the full piece

The extract is taken from an open letter written by Ali Eteraz to fellow reformist muslims. His argument is that while there may be some 'Westerners' with ulterior motives, to be successful the reform project has to accept those non-Muslims who show an interest in changing the world for the better.

Overcoming the threat of those with ill-intent, is a powerful idea which is applicable not just to non-Muslims. One finds it amongst those who are reluctant to let ijtihad devolve outside the exclusive preserve of religious scholars. There is an understandable fear that if religion is to be democratised then there would be widespread chaos which would undermine the basic tenets of Islam.

However as Ziauddin Sardar has eloquently put, when engaging with religion and making progress we must not be constrained by the banks of a river. Instead the future should be imagined as an ocean, where every assumption may be challenged and people can shape their own destiny.

Of course this may lead to the conversation within Islam occasionally veering towards areas which are uncomfortable. Mistakes will definitely be made, but this criticism makes the assumption that things are fine the way they are right now, they are not. In a way, Ali's piece demonstrates that for reformists to be both consistent and successful, we need to open their movement to those who are willing, just as we argue that the application of Islam should also become more open.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Cultural Baggage & Religious Modesty

The House of Lords decision in the Jilbab case has elicited a lot of comment. One of the more interesting pieces was written by Fareena Alam at the Guardian's Commentisfree. I'd like to pick up on one paragraph in particular.
For years, Muslims around me have said: "Islam must be separated from culture." While this slogan has deep and well-meaning roots - such as the struggle to teach people that honour killing, often justified with religious excuses, is a cultural practice that is unequivocally abhorred in Islam - the clash between culture and religion is ultimately a false one. This idea of a "pure Islam, free of cultural baggage" is a false one. Religion manifests itself in the realities of life. Must we all neutralise ourselves - even the aspects that do not contravene Islam, to be accepted as "pious"? What is this "one Islam" or "one voice" people call for, and who decides what it says?
I think this cuts to the root of the major clashes within Islam, not only today but for a very long time. For the fundamentalists, modesty is something which has an external standard, judged by God and having only one true interpretation. Therefore any element of culture which gets in the way, is baggage which needs to be discarded in order to obtain 'pure Islam'.

On the other hand for the liberals or more commonly the pragmatists, modesty without its social setting is devoid of both meaning and guidance. Therefore to judge what is modest, one has to take the surroundings into account. After all, if everyone in society thinks that my dress and behaviour is modest, then that is all that should count in determining whether I am modest. Evidence for this can be seen in the fact that women can wear whatever they want in the company of other women. To extend this further, it is possible that people wearing different clothes in different parts of the world can both be fulfilling the requirement for modesty.

The second view of modesty reaches when one reaches the extremes. For example while most people would feel comfortable with an outsider wearing shalwar kameez when in Pakistan, wearing a Burqa in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan simply because others wear it seems less acceptable. In any case the fact that it is limited to extremes means that it affects relatively few people.

The biggest problem comes from the fact that the majority of the world's population do not live in small isolated communities. For Muslims this is most acutely felt when in living in non-Muslim countries.

An obvious solution is to stick with the lowest common denominator so that you make sure that you remain within certain bounds. Unfortunately this has two problems - firstly it may make integration unnecessarily difficult, but more importantly, if someone chooses to wear clothes which are slightly different but still modest, they can be made to feel as if they are lesser Muslims or not as pious by those who stick with traditional clothing.

Tariq Ramadan has proposed a middle ground to this debate by calling for scholars of the text, to engage in a consultative process with experts of the context, ordinary economists, civil servants, politicians etc. This approach definitely has its merits in integrating traditional knowledge with contemporary secular knowledge. However I'm not sure if it deals with something as personal a decision as what is and is not modest. To conclude, I would agree with Fareena Alam that while religion seeks to make us better humans, that should never mean that it neutralise us as individual human beings.

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