Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Perceptions on Anti-Shari’a Legislation

Perceptions on Anti-Shari’a Legislation

The understanding of Islamic Law (Shari’a) is something that is normally done in universities as postgraduate education. Typically, one who studied Islamic law would have built a foundation of understanding of what Shari’a is and its historical, social, and economic implications (to name but a few). In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks there has been a dramatic upsurge in Anti-Islam paranoia (which can be directly related to the fear mongering of special interest groups) and this paranoia has begun to manifest itself with physical, social and political attacks on Muslims.

Of particular note has been the Anti-Shari’a bill legislation presented in several states, the justification of which is to prevent the “Islaminization” of America. The proponents of such legislation argue that Islamic law is not only contrary to American values but that it opposes the American Constitution and the rights and liberties provided therein. These proponents however have little to know true understanding of Shari’a or its depth in Islamic culture and instead choose to argue very limited, inflammatory reference points meant to capitalize on its sensationalism. Mathew Shmitz pointed out the illusionary aspects of such legislation, which only demonstrates is sensational nature, rather than effectiveness.

“We face a grave threat, they say, one that will swamp every article of our Constitution and sweep away all our laws. Unless, of course, we adopt their anti-sharia laws. But — and here’s the magic part — these laws, they claim, actually do nothing at all, other than instruct judges to do what they already were supposed to do.”

Robert Vischer further opined that such legislation was actually acting against such constitutional freedoms as religious liberty.

“Anti-Sharia legislation does not defend against theocracy but calls into question our society’s fundamental commitments to meaningful religious liberty and meaningful access to the courts. These commitments have been relied on by generations of Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews, and to try to remove them for Muslims both is unjust to Muslims and sets a dangerous precedent for other religious groups.”

Such perceptions are often overlooked or ignored in favor of sensationalist ‘reports’ of how Shari’a is implemented in foreign countries and then qualifying how it is against American sensibilities. Upon investigation of how Shari’a is implemented in different regions or countries, it is also important to note specific cultural or social differences which can also play into the administration of Shari’a, the same way it does American law as illustrated by Sentencing Disparity and Discrimination in “How Do Judges Decide? The Search for Fairness and Justice in Punishment Second Edition”.

The implementation of Shari’a like any legal code has been left in the hands of the judges who issue their verdicts or opinions based on their understanding of Shari’a. This understanding is not given lightly, as they have been trained in Law, and acted as lawyers for years before becoming a judge. A judge is however still a person, one capable of mistakes or of being influenced by his or others social, religious, or other bias. When there is concern of how a system is implemented one should not immediately ban the system, rather they should try to understand the system and learn if it is the fault of the system of of its application by individuals.

There are several schools of thought on Islamic Jurisprudence called Madh’hab as well as what is called Ijtihad or understanding through personal effort independent of any singular Madh’hab. The importance of Islamic law lies in the fact that it has a depth in Islamic society far greater than simple litigation, as Frank Griffel, professor of Islamic studies at Yale, points out Sharia goes beyond what most Americans would consider “legal discourse, for it extends to matters concerning proprieties of clothing, conduct between spouses, filial piety, behavior at funerals, and other questions that Westerners would treat not as legal, but as moral issues or mere etiquette.”

Before trying to ban something out of fear and ignorance, perhaps there should be proper communication on the topic that would help each side understand the other. For those of us who believe in the application of Shari’a and for those who fear its implementation, there is alot of ground between us, and if we together could share that by establishing some common ground through thoughtful and insightful discourse which is not meant to alienate or offend, then perhaps we could move forward as a nation. Just as Jews and Christians have their own laws, we as Muslims have ours; it is a slippery slope when one begins to take away rights because of religious misunderstanding, and its potential impact is often ignored.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Stop Ignoring Muslims in Myanmar!

The recent outbreak of violence in Myanmar has finally shown a light on the dirty little secret of Myanmar, a secret the media seems blissfully ignorant of. There can be no justification for the actions which started this firestorm of violence, the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, nor can we justify the retaliatory lynching of ten Muslims dragged from a bus by an angry Buddhist mob; the retaliatory attacks have left scores dead and over 90,000 people displaced.

That being said, it sheds light on the alarming plight of the Rohingya people. The Rohingya are Muslim, according to the Myanmar government do not exist. The State Peace and Development Council stated “In actual fact, although there are (135) national races living in Myanmar today, the so called Rohingya people is not one of them. Historically, there has never been a ‘Rohingya’race in Myanmar. The very name Rohingya is a creation of a group of insurgents in the Rakhine State. Since the First Anglo-Myanmar War in 1824, people of Muslim Faith from the adjacent country illegally entered Myanmar Ngain-Ngan, particularly Rakhine State.” This quote is in reference to the Citizenship Act of 1982 adopted in order to disqualify the Rohingya from citizenship.

In reality, Muslims traders came to the Irrawaddy Delta (Ayeyarwady Delta), Tanintharyi and Arakan (Rakhine) coastal territories in the ninth century, as documented in contemporary books such as “The Muslims of Burma” A study of a minority Group, by Moshe Yegar and “Ancient Pyu” by Professor U Than Tun. Furthermore it has been argued that after Bengal became a Muslim country in 1203, Islamic influence grew in Arakan to the extent of establishing Muslim vassal state beginning in 1430 and lasting until it was invaded and occupied by the Burmese king Bodawpaya in 1784.

Continued denial of the Rohingya people as citizens of Myanmar has as much to do with ethnicity as it does with religion since there are Muslims in the Rakhine State who are not Rohingya and do not speak the Rohingya dialect. The Rohingya have distinct Bangladeshi characteristics and as such are seen as interlopers due to mass immigration from Bangladesh during the British colonial occupation of Burma from 1824-1948. This argument however ignores the fact that Muslims have been in the Rakhine (Arakan) region for hundreds of years, and that many of these recent immigrants would inter marry with more long standing people of the area. None of this matters as the Rohingya and most Muslims whose ancestors originate from India and Bangladesh were considered citizens of Burma under the 1948 Constitution and civilian administration until the military coup d'état of 1962. Their status was subsequently downgraded under the 1974 Constitution, which does not recognize them as indigenous, and the Citizenship Act of 1982, which states that citizens must belong to one of 135 'national races' as recognized under the constitution, or whose ancestors settled in the country before 1823. Given the lack of documentation to satisfy the latter requirement, the result has been a hugely discriminatory denial of citizenship for most Rohingya and many other Muslims, effectively rendering them stateless.

Aside from Anti-Indian and Anti-Islam clashes in the 1930’s, the ongoing cycle of violence, rebellion and crackdown by authorities as well as the particularly repressive and systematic measures taken against Muslims – and the Rohingya in particular – resulted in waves of hundreds of thousands, perhaps even over a million, fleeing to Bangladesh in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s. Rohingya have been systematically persecuted, oppressed and targeted by the Burmese army who committed such atrocities as torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment, extra-judicial killing and summary execution, arbitrary arrest and detention, rape, destruction of homes, forced labor, forced relocation and eviction, and confiscation of land or property. Discriminatory government policy and regulations based on the refusal to recognize them as citizens, means the Rohingya do not have an automatic right to education, work or necessary social services. Due to severe travel restrictions, unemployment (often due to citizenship), lack of education and an overall demeaning of the Rohingya existence the Rakhine has become the ghetto of southeast Asia and has led to the continued, ongoing, systematic abuse of these people with nothing being said.

When the Christian minority of East Timor claimed they were persecuted by the Muslims of Indonesia it made international headlines and resulted in the creation of an independent state. A Jewish minority in Palestine created massive immigration waves and promoted a national homeland for themselves because of the persecution of the Jewish people particularly during WWII – result, Israel. Coptic Christians in Egypt, who make up less than 10% of the population, have been in the news for weeks if not months, not because of any specific persecution, but because Egypt was electing a new president. Once it was announced a so called ‘Islamist’ had won the Egyptian presidency, there was another slew of articles questioning his stance on the Coptic Christians and how he would treat them. Not because of any particular instance but rather because the ‘Islamist’ might persecute them.

Time and time again we see a persecuted people or even a people who may be at risk of persecution and it grabs international headlines, causing an outpouring of emotion and sentiment (if not action) by government officials as well as its people. Yet it seems when the persecuted people are Muslim, it is perfectly alright for them to languish in obscurity without any public outcry for justice. This tragedy must be stopped, the Rohingya people must be allowed the rights of all other citizens of Myanmar, and the government must build up the Rakhine State through political, economic and social reform. If nothing is done, if the deteriorating conditions continue, if the human rights violations continue, we will see far more tragedy in this region; we will see civil war, genocide or some other great tragedy that could have been prevented.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Stop Calling Them Islamists!

Technically speaking, “-ist” is a suffix of nouns, that often corresponds to verbs that denote a person who practices or is concerned with something, or holds certain principals, doctrines, etc. Therefore the term “Islamist” should simply imply one who is holds to Islamic principles (i.e. a Muslim); this however is far from the commonly accepted nomenclature.

The Islamist is one who is supporting or advocating Islamic fundamentalism. Furthermore, fundamentalism is usually seen as ‘strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles’. That is the commonly accepted definition of Islamist.
The term Islamist holds a negative connotation, often used as an insult to degrade and debase Muslims. When one typically hears the term Islamist, they are instantly transported to imagery of wild eyed, long bearded Arab men espousing some medieval understanding of Sharia (Islamic Law). I get it; I understand that the media, in particular western media have to sell sensationalism, an inherent need to pander to the lowest common denominator. What I don’t get it, is the Arab, or more specifically the media in Muslims countries which choose to use this term. Every time I see Al Jazeera flippantly use the term Islamist, it sends me off into a nearly incompressible rant for the next several minutes.

Let’s put it in perspective shall we… Buddh “ist” – someone who follows the principles or doctrines of Buddhism. Buddhism is portrayed as the religion of peace, so obviously the simple addition of “ist” in and of itself cannot demonize the person who follows such beliefs. But what if… What if Buddhism was made up of real people, who had real emotions, who were capable of both good and bad? Well then that would mean a Buddhist, could be the same as an Islamist! I know, one has a hard time grasping the principle idea here, but really it is rather simple – Both the Islamist and the Buddhist hold to a strict adherence to their beliefs, this strict adherence can sometimes lead to conflict (see Buddhist Warfare, by Michael Jerryson), they may well lead people to govern by their guiding principle (for historical perspective see The Rise of Buddhism in Politics and War By Justin Rowan). This simply demonstrates that while two things can have similarities, it is the perception of the public, the inference that is placed upon it by the media that determines how it is commonly understood.

Irresponsible at best, is what our media has become when they use terms like Islamist. They are not only propagating the misperception and stereotype, they are indeed lending credence to the term and its degradation of the Muslim spirit. At worst, it our very own media who is actively undermining the position of Muslims by placing generalized, non specific labels upon them which actively seeks to dehumanize them. By turning the term Islamist into a negative, we have now begun to imply that somehow one who follows Islam is wrong, that Islam itself is faulty. This is unacceptable and anyone who does so walks the line between faith and unbelief, knowingly or not. STOP CALLING THEM ISLAMISTS! The media of the Muslim world must stop following others, and recognize the inherent danger in using such a term; they must stop pandering and address the specific issues, not generalities.

If following Islam, and believing that Islam should guide my spiritual life as well as my physical (‘earthly’) life makes me an Islamist then I proudly say I am Islamist.