Saturday, January 31, 2009

Israel's Gone Insane

I cannot resist making a prediction: It's only a matter of time before Israel is going to fall into a spiral from which it will not be able to recover. Due to prevalence of recording devices and telecommunication, it has become harder to lie and hide crimes. And as a result of this, Israel has started to appear un-cool, it is losing its ability to project its moral high-ground. Any nation that starts to act as desperately as it has been acting of late cannot sustain itself. Watch this CBS 60 Minutes report and see for yourself (many thanks to my friend who brought this to my attention).

To be clear, I am not calling for its imminent demise, rather a fundamental change in its core values as a nation. No nation can live by the power of muscle alone, even if that muscle is powered by atomic bombs. Israel's founders got it wrong in their strategy with their neighbors. And Palestinians need to be more charitable and strategic in their thinking than their ancestors were - despite the fact that they have been egrigiously wronged. That is the tradition of our Prophet (pbuh). Let us compete in our abilities to be good, not evil.

I am told CBS is under tremendous pressure from very powerful folks and organizations for airing this and I am hardly surprised. I want to congratulate CBS' leadership for their bold stand. I have a feeling there were some gut-wrenching sessions before the decision was made to air this piece.

This shouldn't be about Muslim or Jewish, and for me it isn't. It should be about fairness and justice and I hope my Jewish friends will stand on the side of justice and fairness on this one. I hope Muslims will urge each other to avoid committing any excess, for our Lord is watching and He doesn't like those who commit excess.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Real Reason Why America is in Trouble

Everywhere you see, the headlines are the same. People in leadership have become corrupt. The common man? I don't think so...the average person still appears to be more ethical than our leaders. But these are the headlines from just the past few days:

Mississippi mayor, wife arrested on Katrina fraud charges
Ex-NY Senate leader Bruno indicted
New York Says Health Chief Abused Power

Now the ones above are mere petty thieves. Blago of Illinois is his own league. And the real Big Leaguers just left Washington, DC and are probably starting to enjoy some of their ill-gotten gains. Some really LARGE ill-gotten gains.

Rush Limbaugh is a shameless, fast-talking entertainer who cares only for Rush Limbaugh and no one and nothing else, yet, a man so many Americans regard as their ideological leader. Religious leaders are either spreading hate or getting caught in scandals. Muslim leaders are busy entertaining.

I am reminded of a cartoon where this guy says "You know, used to be 'In God We Trust' it's 'I Got Mine'." It appears this was never more true of those in power in America as now...Obama's election being an exception and a ray of hope.

Using that ray of hope, I am hoping that American parents will raise a generation of leaders that is wired to not be greedy. There is no dignity in cheating to make money, there is no honor in being a thief. And in this task, American Muslims have a huge role to play. Are we ready for our prime-time role? We've benefited economically from will we give back?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

You Don't Need "Virgins in Paradise" to Lose Your Mind

Dear Muslim World and Western World: Ignore the premise of this posting to both your peril. You are warned.

There are mischief-makers in both your communities. You should neutralize them else you will both suffer and bleed for a long time.

In the Muslim World, preying on the despair of the people, these monsters have mobilized religious zealotry to terrorism. Their message: the Western civilization is a blood-thirsty civilization. Events like the Iraq war serve as "proof."

In the West, a sophisticated and well-financed propaganda machine is at work in full force to demonize everything about Islam and Muslims. And there seems to be no shortage of fools among Muslims whose actions serve as proof for the propaganda against Islam.

Any thinking person will see the fallacy in their arguments, sadly most don't think. If Muslims were killing themselves to go to paradise and be in the company of 71 virgins, what is the motivation behind not-so infrequent news items of this nature.

If despair of losing job can drive a man this far, what could digging your child's body out of rubble do? Why doesn't Israel get this basic fact?

Let it be a thing of the past when civilizations fought because of misinformation sown by mischief-makers. Neither the West nor the Muslim World is all perfrect, or all evil. And both have some evil: Muslims have Taliban and Mullah Omar...the West has their equivalents dressed in suits and ties. They may not be physically bearing arms in the West but their agenda is every bit as sinister.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Scholar As Mere Entertainer

I attended talks by some prominent Muslim scholars recently. Hamza Yusuf is blessed with intelligence, eloquence and a memory unlike anyone I have seen among Muslims. Boy, can this brother connect the dots! Yet, I feel he has chosen a very unambitious roles for himself over the incredible possibilities that exist. Either that or nobody is perfect.

When history looks back at Hamza, will he go as anything more than one who entertained weary Muslims? Knowing fully well that my personal shortcomings far exceed that of any of the people I criticize, I still think it is necessary to take a few steps down this dangerous path. Aoodhu billah min ash shaitan ar rajeem.

Let me explain this with an analogy: There are two professionals who make the rounds at pediatric cancer facilities. The obvious one is the pediatric oncologist. These are learned physicians who use combinations of toxic chemicals and dangerous radiations in judicious quantities to kill cancerous cells while leaving good cells intact. Obviously, this requires skill and discipline that comes from years of rigorous training of a gifted and talented human being.

There is one more person you see make rounds at these facilities - very conspicuous by the way they dress. You guessed it, the clown! When children are dealing with such painful therapies, you need someone to come and cheer them up, to put smiles back on their faces.

As I left his talk, I couldn't help but wonder why Hamza, who has the talent and training to be a pediatric oncologist, ends up playing the clown in many of his speeches. O yes the ummah is hurting and we need someone to cheer the masses, but we have many clowns and far too few oncologists. I have watched him for nearly 16 years now: he chooses to be 10% oncologist, 50% clown and the other 40% of the times he's off on a stupid tangent which he later seems to regret.

Hamza brings to Muslims in America what Bollywood has brought to millions of slum-dwellers in India...a fleeting escape from the harsh realities of life. Sadly, when the movie ends, slums is all they got. In some ways, their escapism gets in the way of their doing something about their sad lots.

Islam Distorted: Distortion #6

Half-baked ideas based on slogans such as "we need to bring back the khalifa" built perverse movements such as Hizb At Tahrir which attracted, wasted and left disillusioned so many bright young Muslims. Without a substantial intellectual rebuttal, they gave birth to more radical groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

As I said at the start of this series, it's not just others' demonization of us that has us looking bad. Quite a bit at our core is rotten and that's where this stench is coming from. Don't spray perfume to mask it. We need a Hundred Year Strategy to clean up the mess based on a deep intellectual foundation, sound scholarship and education of the masses. A good PR campaign would make us look good but do we need some silly ephemeral fix?

For reform of this sort to occur, history shows us that several generations have to long for and pray for God's help before that help arrives. I wonder where we are on that timeline and with tears in my eyes, I seek our Lord's help, for He is most kind and merciful.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Islam Distorted: Distortion #5

Tribalism that never went away: Much of Arabia has remained tribal despite Islam. Tribalism teaches "My brother, right or wrong" whereas Islam teaches "truth and falsehood are not equal." As is evident, Islam is the very anti-thesis of Tribalism. Why, despite centuries of Islam, do tribal warlords and landlords loom large in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Why did Islam's adoption in these lands remain limited to its men growing ugly large beards?

Islam Distorted: Distortion #4

Instead of recognizing people's intellectual contributions through Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize and Fields Medal, we have been handing out Takfir Medal (broadly speaking Takfir = heresy) for nearly 150 years. Our greatest minds are all distinguished by having received this: Muhammed Abduh, Rashid Rida, Syed Ahmed Khan, Muhammed Iqbal. First, very few among us are literate, and among those who can read, the culture of reading books and reflecting simply doesn't exist. Yet, we label as heretic anyone who comes up with an idea that doesn't fit our old, narrow, rigid mold.

Is that the reason contemporary Muslim scholars tend to restrict their sermons to entertaining Muslim masses instead of urging this intellectually ravaged nation to wake up and smell the coffee? Our culture does become the filter through which our future is shaped. We need someone who will give us the bitter pills that will heal us, but we threaten anyone who'd dare do that!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Islam Distorted: Distortion #3

The adoption of Terrorism in general and Suicide Bombing in particular, as modes of fighting. One of Islam's greatest contributions to humanity was the way it civilized the world with respect to rules of engagement and the battlefield. All that lies in a huge trash can of history.

Now Muslims didn't just go start blowing up other people. In most of these places they have been oppressed. A sinister result of that is, while most Muslims denounce terrorism, many sort of empathize with the extreme reaction because they may have witnessed the oppression. The Prophet (pbuh) was oppressed more than any prophet that preceded him. He is our role-model. Terrorism is fitnah and fitnah has been condemned as an extreme evil in Islam. This sickness will not go till every Muslim starts to hate it with every fiber of his being!

Islam Distorted: Distortion #2

Somewhat related to #1 is the Danish cartoon debacle. The kuffar of Makkah heaped greater insults on the prophet (pbuh) but no one was asked to murder anyone to defend the honor of the prophet. On the contrary, by brushing aside such insults, even continuing his acts of charity towards the offending people, the Prophet (pbuh) won many such haters to Islam.

Sincere as it may be, our service to the noble tradition and beautiful akhlaq of the Prophet (pbuh) has been no better than that of the monkey to his master in the following story:

A certain king had trained a monkey to guard him. One day, the king was sleeping and the monkey stood guard with a naked sword. A fly sat on the neck of the king. The monkey tried to scare the fly away but to no avail. So the monkey struck the fly with the sword and hurt the king in the process. (Taken verbatim from, original source unknown.)

The Prophet has been ill-served by his so-called followers whose collective IQ is no more than that of the monkey's in the story above.

The "Islam Distorted" Series: Intro and Distortion #1

Educated Muslims often think our only problem is Public Relations. And that the rest of our house is in order. I disagree. We must not forget that we declined as a nation and civilization, from one that was world-leading to one that couldn't even keep up with the world. Just that fact is enough to require some serious thinking as to what might have gone wrong.

The fixing of our house will need more than the world press becoming more fair and America's foreign policy becoming more just and balanced. We have a lot of work to do on the inside.

We need to find out the underlying philosophical and religious distortions that have led to the following events in the past 50 years. In my opinion, NOTHING in Islam allows it, and there is much in Islam that condemns it. The list is made in no particular order.

Distortion #1: Imam Khomeini's call for Rushdie's head. The whole murtad fatwa is nonsense. It's a shame very few Muslims, even among the educated elite, stood up to the massive besmirching of the name of their faith. (Same genre includes Taslima Nasrin and possibly others).

The list will grow. But remember to get more than just a good PR person.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Only the most cynical are left uncharmed. That's right, this includes The Wall Street Journal editorial team. Wait, Cheney and Bush charmed they're not cynical technically, they are in the Very Tribal category.

In physics there is this trick question about what might happen when an irresistible force were to hit an immovable body. For at least a generation, possibly much longer, America's federal government bureaucracy and related lobby groups have represented an immovable body. Barack Obama is the nearest I have seen to an irresistible force. The match has begun. We turn to God in thanks and in prayer...end the reign of those that cheat, usher in a period of honest public service and America and other lands of the world.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Culture Matters

If you got intimidated by the length of my previous post, here's a CliffsNotes version:

  1. Things that we do with regularity (even little things) become our culture.

  2. Cultural traits act like enzymes. Tiny little things eventually determine whether or not big things are possible.

  3. Al Ghazali, a genius and a rare scholar, deeply renowned in his own life time for his scholarship who adopted a highly spiritual path in the later stages of his life (lived in the 12th century CE), successfully (albeit erroneously, possibly unintentionally) pleaded a case to the Islamic civilization that things of this world were meaningless and matters of spirit and the business of there Hereafter, were more worthy pursuit.

  4. Al Ghazali was so renowned that his thesis slowly but surely started to deter Muslims away from the pursuit of scientific research, scientific knowledge, possibly even commerce, exploration, and innovation. Think about it, over several hundred years, young men and women made career decisions ever so slightly influenced by what a giant of a scholar and pious man had written, choosing a path closer to "piety" than "worldliness." Over time, this became our culture. New enzyme was no longer being produced, we survived a few hundred years off the "savings" from prior centuries. But we were running out of the good stuff. Many scholars tried, albeit in vain, to point out the critical error.

  5. The engine of innovation, discovery and scientific pursuit that Islam had unleashed continued to fire for a few hundred more years because of the sheer momentum (just like fast-moving car keeps moving even after you apply brakes...the brake in this case was gentle, but definitively there). Over time, though, it lost its vitality and intensity, sputtered, then gasped, and finally fell into a smoulder of its great history. The enzyme that made good reactions happen had been depleted below the critical threshold and so good things had ceased to happen beyond the required level to be a vital and thriving civilization. Essentially, our culture killed us.

  6. Ironically, just as our culture faltered, other societies which had been drowning in bad culture, selectively started to drain out the bad elements in their culture. They adopted innovation (often inspired by us), exploration and scientific methodology. Very soon, they were knocking on our doors, arriving on faster boats, armed with better weapons, with ability to predict the behaviour of elements of nature. They had mastered better organizational skills, replaced tribalism with meritocracy, embraced a culture of taking risks and ascribed heroism to trying new ventures even if it led to failure. In our culture, heroism was ascribed to only attaining greater spiritual levels.

  7. We were colonized as nations and dehumanized for over 200 years. In the great centers of learning in Baghdad, Bukhara, Samarqand and Al Azhar the structures remained, the drill was enacted, but the spirit had died. It remains largely dead till this day. The contemporary Muslim civilization despite numerous things worthy of celebration, (in general) lacks clarity on seeing its history in its proper context. (As a nation) we are slow to read the rules of engagement with our neighbors, react emotionally. Like a sharp chess player, we fail to anticipate the consequences of our actions. Our lot has been rather miserable.
  8. (All this is said as a generalization. It is only an approximate truth from my perspective, and applies to our state as a nation. There are sub-groups and individuals among Muslims to whom this clearly doesn't apply. So if you know a certain Muslim who is all together, that does NOT constitute proof that my thesis here is wrong.)
  9. Diagnosis: Cultural Tilt that Favors The Spirit Over Matter
    Rx: Cultural Adjustment to reset this tilt (1-1-1) (i.e. over three generations) and restores the balance.
  10. Practical Change: The next time you see something about dunya that looks bad, don't shrug your shoulder and laugh at it as if it's an alien entity. It's our dunya. Pause, reflect on it and ask yourself if there might have been anything POSITIVE in what you're witnessing. Then, also reflect on what was deficient in it that led to the problem.
  11. Another Practical Change: If advising someone to be mindful of the pitfalls of this dunya, please remember to add "there may be pitfalls, but as God's khalifas in this world, we are also required to exert ourselves on matters of this world, so go forth, don't be too scared, work hard and pray may find odds but over time you will prevail, Insha'Allah."
  12. One More Practical Change: If you are a young Muslim, ask yourself, am I taking the easy path or am I exerting myself? Don't take the easy path. Exert, strive and struggle. Don't worry about setbacks, failures, names you get hard. Do things that benefit humanity as a whole. Live your life outside the comfort zone. Insha'Allah, there will be plenty time to rest in our graves!

OK, some CliffsNotes are longer than the original. What're you going to do!

(Credit: I borrowed the title of this post from a book by Harrison and Huntington.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Anti-Dunya Vigilantism

There's been some debate related to a past posting on the need to be really careful about becoming too if there is no need to be really careful about becoming too un-worldly. You see, in Islam, both (too much worldliness and too much un-worldliness) can and do lead to problems. Islam teaches us to excel in matters of both the body and the soul. But some among us have large "Welcome" signs on the booth that invites people to matters of the spirit, but install hazard signs, ring loud alarm bells and run hell-fire slide show around the table that deals with matters of this world.

I find this virtue ascribed to "avoiding worldliness" among Muslims troubling for several reasons. First, I think it is asymmetrically applied. Meaning, it has an elevated level of emphasis on one matter relative to other issues of equal, sometimes greater, priority. Secondly, this has UNINSPIRED (if there is such a thing) generations of Muslims into sitting back, even kicking back, instead of engaging with the world. So troubled was Muhammed Iqbal by this attitude that he wrote more than a poem urging Muslim youth to get off their lazy behind, recall their ancestors who embraced the world, who crossed oceans, who hungered for knowledge, who were curious and eager, who took risks and who considered the whole world and all its affairs their own. You can almost feel the pain, the agony in his words, you can sense a soul was on fire. He realized all too well that unless this ummah could shake off that "I choose that world instead of this world" mumbo-jumbo, we'd continue to be fringe players on the world scene.

The way to the next world for a Muslim is 100% through this world. It's not either-or for us, we are citizens of both the worlds and our Lord commands us to engage with this world in a manner that is just so we can inherit the next. Avoiding this world is not an option.

Shortly after 9/11, Carly Fiorina, then-CEO of Hewlett-Packard, spoke of this in a speech (scroll to the bottom where she says "I'll end by telling a story. There was once a civilization that was the greatest in the world.") that has received much attention among Muslims (a fellow Muslim said he wept for hours after reading that speech). She would know, she majored in medieval history and philosophy from Stanford. And the Madieval Age (ending in 16th century CE) is when the Islamic civilization was taking its last gasps of vitality in its losing battle against a defeatist, over-spiritual worldview.

Now, one could argue that just reminding people to avoid the pitfalls of the world doesn't necessarily invite doom & gloom. I disagree. I think the disproportionate emphasis tilts the focus even so slightly but definitively and sets the course of a nation in a certain direction - towards what eventually becomes doom & gloom. This disproportionate emphasis has been applied for more than a few centuries, and as a result, hardly anyone should be surprised, doom and gloom have arrived. They have been parked here for a long time. Just read the headlines. Just read your history books. Muslims, who once set the course of the world, were colonized, humiliated and often dehumanized. To call our present state doom & gloom sounds dramatic, but a civilization has run aground, people! And it crashed centuries back and it is still struggling to lift itself out of its rubble. How's that for dramatic?

Progress has been made and a lot of good work is and has been under way. But most of it is DESPITE the efforts of our "got to avoid the pitfalls of this world" vigilantes. This progress has been made at the risk of seeking the ire of this well-meaning section of our ummah that is, in my view, greatly responsible for the decline, destruction and confused state of this civilization. (I know, strong charges, but I don't use these words lightly, nor is this issue a light issue). If you made a list of the names of those thinkers/leaders and philosophers in the Muslim world who have been called heretic, "socialist" "progressive" (euphemism for "he's headed towards hell") in the last few centuries, you will have listed some of the brightest and best minds God has blessed this ummah. You can go back almost a millennium and you will see this trend.

Someone (you know who you are, I am not naming names :) ) quoted Imam Al-Ghazali corroborating the vigilante position. That's like quoting Paul (Paul as seen through Muslim eyes) as evidence for the doctrine of Trinity. Ghazali, as towering a scholar as he was, as elevated as he may have been in the eyes of His Lord, his piety having few parallels, was still human. Who am I to criticize this great scholar? I am not worth the dust on his feet. But it's not my opinion, it's historic evidence that judges Ghazali. He is the fountainhead of "this world's so dangerous and useless" school of thought. So dominant was his status that the shaikh single-handedly arrested the powerful engine of scientific inquiry, exploration, discovery (all things worldly) in this ummah. Other thinkers and scholars of his time and the generation that came after him saw the errors in Ghazali's thinking, foresaw its dire consequences, many sounded the alarm bells, all in vain. Ghazali's lofty status, his renowned piety, became the basis for the ummah to reject every other viewpoint. The brakes had been applied by that slight asymmetry in emphasis. Over time the great engine ran out of steam, and innovation came to a halt. Muslims were sitting ducks when the colonizers arrived. The rest, quite literally, is history. Many a great civilization has been gutted by strategic mistakes, and sometimes strategy amounts to a slight asymmetry on a seemingly harmless principle or a fine point. We are the inheritors of one such.

So stop with this "got to be careful with dunya" bit already. If someone were to say "we have to be careful with everything" I shall gladly cede that. The struggle today is to shake that mantle off where one who excels in matters of this world is seen is somehow being corrupt or at any greater risk for hell fire than the one who locks himself in the comfort zone of the so-called matters of spirit.

The irony is, books of hadith are filled with sayings of the Prophet (pbuh) telling us about the great scholar (or the great martyr or the great worshipper) who will will be dragged to hell fire...somehow, it's only that "worldly guy" everyone sees being hellward bound. Meanwhile, generations of youth whom God has blessed with energy and abilities, use the crutch of "avoiding dunya" as justification for their laziness, lack of ambition, avoiding even modest measure of risks and choosing the easier path while a nation rots. They choose a lower level of engagement with this world while their older parents struggle to make ends meet, their neighbors go hungry, their community has trash at street corners that is not cleared, their masajid are flooded with miskeen, young women are begging in their masajid (and in some cases old corrupt men want to marry pre-pubescent girls - well not any more than any other society, but at least in other societies it is ILLEGAL), polio and malaria still ravage our populations, streets are not paved, highways non-existent, public officials are corrupt, our societies are primarily based on tribal affiliations, we have become a nation that settles differences of opinion by murdering our adversaries, fatwas have been issued permitting smiuggling of drugs and suicide bombing.

For the Muslim, fortunately or unfortunately, there is no shortcut or easy path to paradise. I have witnessed the escapist Muslim desire expressed as "let me go on jihad (while my family that needs me here is abandoned)" all too many times. Others retreat into "Islamic work" which barely challenges them but keeps them well within comfort zone. Yet others take pride in being "content with the little God gave us." I want to grab young Muslim men by the collar and push them out into where the heat is so they sweat every day and feel challenged. Why are they so content earning just enough for their own few? Why isn't their soul agitated in this world where there is so much suffering, poverty, diseases, hunger and injustice? Why are they not less sure about whether or not their Lord is pleased with them? Why has the Lord so disfavored them that He has robbed them of ambition?

Thus the idea that "we're not people of this dunya" is one I consider possibly the most dangerous idea of the last thousand idea that has done more than its share of damage already. I don't think it was done with malice, but some of the greatest calamities have been brought about by by folks who had nothing more than good intentions.

As I reflect on colonialism, racism, the Ozone Hole, the World Wars, Consumerism, I wonder what the world would have been like if Muslims had not abandoned their engagement with the world. Detractors will say that the problems of the world are brought about by "worldism" - the very idea I am promoting. Not true, I am asking for BALANCE and MODERATION - perhaps the most critical concept in Islam. Not worldism, but not unworldism either. Not Dunya, but not Anti-Dunya either.

Now you know why I find this "anti-dunya"ism so dangerous. As I contemplate what the world would have been had Muslims continued down the bold path of embracing wordliness and touching and shaping it with the message of mercy that our Prophet (pbuh) was sent with, I get goosebumps and I too curl up and weep for hours. I suspect I am not the only one.

[If you are now wondering what this emotion is all about, I suspect it's because you didn't read Fiorina's speech, so I am copy-pasting the relevant portions here:

"I’ll end by telling a story.

There was once a civilization that was the greatest in the world.

It was able to create a continental super-state that stretched from ocean to ocean, and from northern climes to tropics and deserts. Within its dominion lived hundreds of millions of people, of different creeds and ethnic origins.

One of its languages became the universal language of much of the world, the bridge between the peoples of a hundred lands. Its armies were made up of people of many nationalities, and its military protection allowed a degree of peace and prosperity that had never been known. The reach of this civilization’s commerce extended from Latin America to China, and everywhere in between.

And this civilization was driven more than anything, by invention. Its architects designed buildings that defied gravity. Its mathematicians created the algebra and algorithms that would enable the building of computers, and the creation of encryption. Its doctors examined the human body, and found new cures for disease. Its astronomers looked into the heavens, named the stars, and paved the way for space travel and exploration.

Its writers created thousands of stories. Stories of courage, romance and magic. Its poets wrote of love, when others before them were too steeped in fear to think of such things.

When other nations were afraid of ideas, this civilization thrived on them, and kept them alive. When censors threatened to wipe out knowledge from past civilizations, this civilization kept the knowledge alive, and passed it on to others.

While modern Western civilization shares many of these traits, the civilization I’m talking about was the Islamic world from the year 800 to 1600, which included the Ottoman Empire and the courts of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, and enlightened rulers like Suleiman the Magnificent.

Although we are often unaware of our indebtedness to this other civilization, its gifts are very much a part of our heritage. The technology industry would not exist without the contributions of Arab mathematicians. Sufi poet-philosophers like Rumi challenged our notions of self and truth. Leaders like Suleiman contributed to our notions of tolerance and civic leadership.

And perhaps we can learn a lesson from his example: It was leadership based on meritocracy, not inheritance. It was leadership that harnessed the full capabilities of a very diverse population–that included Christianity, Islamic, and Jewish traditions.

This kind of enlightened leadership — leadership that nurtured culture, sustainability, diversity and courage — led to 800 years of invention and prosperity.

In dark and serious times like this, we must affirm our commitment to building societies and institutions that aspire to this kind of greatness. More than ever, we must focus on the importance of leadership– bold acts of leadership and decidedly personal acts of leadership..."]

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Auschwitz and Gaza

Palestinians searched for bodies in the rubble of a building after Israeli forces withdrew from the area east of Gaza City on Sunday. Source: New York Times
Above: Picture of Corpses in Block 11 of Auschwitz. Source:
Added later: Thanks, Anonymous. I am posting the URL you left as a comment here to make it easy for folks to access it. It's a must read.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Rape of Zimbabwe

You've probably seen the bizarre and sad headlines. In fact, I believe news from Zimbabwe has gotten so bizarre, it hardly even makes headlines. A nation is being deconstructed in ways that shocks the soul.

Here's a brief history of the country:
Inflation got so bad, they are printing 10 Trillion Dollar bills.

The key players are: Mugabe, The Opposition headed by Tsvangirai, other senior political leaders in and around Zimbabwe and the people of Zimbabwe. The rest of the world watches helplessly and hopelessly as a nation is coming apart.

How does a nation allow itself to be so raped? The fact that this can happen in the world in 2009, what does that say about the human race?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Two Faces of "Dunya"

A very dear friend, a young man I proudly consider a younger brother, sent me a news article today about the rather superficial and fleeting aspect of this life (aka dunya, lit. dunya means "world"): it's an article about the stupid Forbes 400 list, specifically about the wavering fortunes of Sheldon Adelson. His email was entitled "dunya" and I think he makes a solid point. Everything here is fleeting, we need to anchor ourselves in more than our net worth. I understand the higher the net worth, the harder it becomes to stay anchored.

That having said, I think it is vital to remind ourselves that while it may be difficult, it is not impossible. And there is that distinctly different side to dunya. The works of Bill Gates and thousands of people who have acquired financial freedom (and engaged heavily with dunya) are worth mentioning and reminding so they inspire us for they are truly inspirational. A random search on google found a lot of articles, just one of which I thought I would share to make sure we don't lose our perspective on this matter.

In Islam, envy (not jealousy) is permitted in case you notice a person whom God has blessed with means and this person spends for good causes (because by becoming one who gives, this person is truly blessed!). In Islam, the hand that gives is better than the hand that receives. With so many hands in need right now, we need more hands that can give. Go and seek riches, my friends, grow the stuff of dunya, and then, do the ultimate...give it away to help others!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Immunizing Against Bigotry

The Islamic Society of North America and the American Baptist Church (USA) got together over the weekend to organize a Baptist-Muslim conference in the lovely Chapel building of the Andover Newtown Theological School in Needham, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. More than any presentation by any scholar, what struck me was the gradual ice-breaking that occurred in successive sessions as the attendees got to know each other. I can't think of a more effective way to defeat bigotry in this world than to build deep and meaningful relationships and friendships with the good people of other faiths. The Qur'an assures us that in the face of the truth, falsehood eventually must retreat.

One way to get even greater mileage out of these meetings is to bring our respective youth to them. The older generation certainly benefits from it, but younger people would walk away immunized from bigory for life.
Update: Detailed articles on this event:

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Spin Makes the World Go Round

These past few months I have been quietly mulling over a question that might seem strange to you: What'd John Galt make of recent economic events? Of course you may not know Galt, but he is the hero in Ayn Rand's famous novel Atlast Shrugged. Rand proposes a radical theory of human nature with a lengthy treatment of what motivates us, even inspires us and, in the end makes a most passionate case for the fact that some systems of governance bring out the best in us and others the worst.

It makes for compelling reading even at its nearly thousand pages. I read it in my college days and drooled over the words. The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said there is magic (sihr) in speech/words(kalam).

The reason I remembered John Galt is because it seems that everything that unbridled Capitalism stood for seems to have evaporated before our eyes in 2008. In my simple-minded understanding of the ideas in the novel, Rand suggests that government regulation is a great crime and if only we were left to our own instruments we would create the best world possible. Beginning in the 1980's American banking system has gone through waves of "banking reform," euphemism for deregulation. If 2008 was any indicator, it appears that some measure of regulation is good, even necessary. The heroes of Atlast Shrugged can also act like the looters in her novel - call it the Bernie Madoff Transformation. (Madoff was once the chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange).

While I still remain curious about what Galt would really think, I read a sort-of response to it in today's WSJ which proves how, with good spin, you can twist any story to make it sound favorable to your agenda. My thesis is that Rand's "absolute" supporters should be in retreat right now given what has transpired. To me, recent events prove that she was dead wrong in her extreme view on regulation. Yes, you can over-regulate and that is an extreme, but, you can also fall off the extreme end over on the other side through under-regulation. However, an oped in today's WSJ cites recent events and loftily proclaims: "see, Rand told us so!" Told us what?

We live in an era which could be described as: never mind the truth and details, if you say it loud enough and often enough, people will believe it. Cynics might argue we have always lived by this rule.

Israel bombs Gaza away for days on, emaciated children, too worn out to be able to stand, are found guarding bodies of their dead parents in homes where they hid to seek shelter from the bombing and the headlines proclaim "FIGHTING in Gaza continues" - Fighting? I believe the word for what's been going on there has yet to be invented.

People were dying in the shelters in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina hit and for days America's famed FEMA was nowhere to be found, and our president proclaimed: "Good job, Brownie." Dick Cheney wants us to believe he has been nothing more than a traditional vice president for the last eight years. And of course, Don Rumsfeld had nothing to do with the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. I read all this and I have three words for you: Who's John Galt?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Who REALLY Broke the Truce?

I am indebted to an anonymous commentator who responded to my question on who broke the truce between Israelis and Palestinians. View it yourself. I asked it almost rhetorically believing the overwhelming assertion by political and media leaders that it was Hamas' misadventurous rocket launches.

Those of us who do not normally subscribe to conspiracy theories and like to trust the institutions of governments and the free press wonder why when things are this black and white, the issue is still left obfuscated:

Israel has sunk to new lows and that's a shame. America's political machinery and powerful spinmeisters continue to throw their full weight and power of their spin behind Israel's misdeeds. As a religious/spiritual man, I worry for any nation that commits crimes of such proportion...not for what a generation of suicide bombers would do to it, but what God's judgment could do to it.

I hope Israeli moderate will rise in outrage and take their nation back from the terrorists who are committing these egregious crimes.

Remembering Life (in our Khutbahs)?

Last Jumu'ah, the khutbah (sermon at the congregational Friday prayer) was exceptionally good. After a long time I was sitting through one without feeling guilty for feeling disinterested in what was being said. A young man was talking about death and about remembering death. Everything we see is passing. Avoid greed and being over-consumed with this life. And for over 25 mins he kept me engaged, listening intently.

But a young family member who attended the same khutbah reminded me that in the past two years we have sat through at least a dozen khutbahs on the need to remember death but not one on the value of life and how this is the moment to be seized.

I know, I know, some of you will quote me ahadeeth about remembering death. But everything around us, everything for which God sent prophets, created heavens and the earth, all this is about life. Through such singular focus on death, we have a distinctly slanted association with the mosque. I am asking for balance. I want to hear a Khutbah on the magic of life, on the beauty of life, on the joys of life, of the joy in our pains, on JOY and LIFE. I want to hear a khutbah about FORGIVENESS (not sin), on the power of FORGIVENESS, on how Allah (SWT) LOVES forgiveness.

There, did I commit some sin already?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Why Do They Hate Us?

Gaza is about 2x the size of Washington, DC (and DC's area is about 60 sq miles). How many sorties flew over it dropping bombs in the last ten days?

Do children who have been exposed to such experiences need a perverse religion to make them extremists?

The top pic is today's NY Times Pic of the Day where the caption read: A Palestinian boy ran for cover during an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, in southern Gaza....

If you grow up using your coat for cover against bombs, you don't grow up normal. American and Israeli governments refuse to see this fundamental fact and we are all paying a heavy price for it...but none as heavy as those upon whom those bombs are raining.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Got Fear?

Many of us know someone who was at or around Ground Zero on 9/11/2001. We all remember the shock of the planes hitting the Twin Towers. Fear, anger, anguish. All this from hundreds and thousands of miles away while watching images on TV.

We will never know what it feels like to be a target of bombings and I hope none of us ever has to. We who get tensed watching scary movies, sweat when we're stopped for speeding on the highway, how can we EVER know what it is like as hundreds of sorties over us are dropping "smart-bombs" and we are sitting targets? Imagine being a child whose nation's "soldiers" have embedded themselves among civilans. Imagine being a housewife who is trying to get by as buildings shake, roofs cave in, shells explode and you have to dig out your children from underneath the rubble.

Ehud Barak recently justified Israel's actions: "Obama said that if rockets were being fired at his home while his two daughters were sleeping, he would do everything he could to prevent it." Right, and I wonder what Obama would do if his daughters were in the house while his tiny neighborhood was being bombed for days on and a bomb could fall on his house any minute? Obama the Israeli would fight. I suspect, so would Obama the Palestinian.

I believe it was Gandhi who said "an eye for an eye will make the whole world go blind."

As I said, if the purpose is to make the other slide bleed and live in terror they are both succeeding. If their goal was to live in peace and to prosper, I think it's a mixed bag.

This evening, I pause for the innocent children of Palestine who have very little to comfort them. They are like the children of Israel in many respect and like children anywhere else in the world, except, as I said, they have far too little to comfort them through all this insanity. They don't have shelters they can hide in. They are not counseled by child specialists in coping with loss and traumatic experiences. They are left to the varied elements of their misfortune and random events. They are every bit like all our children except their future is dim because they were born in the wrong geography.

I suspect Ehud Barak doesn't lose sleep worrying about their lives even though their destinies are intertwined with that of the children of Israel. Hamas is far too intoxicated in humiliation to think clearly about them except as possible tools in its arsenel through miseducation and brain-washing. May the Lord comfort these children and keep them safe now and in the future.

Strange Evenhandedness

Six pics from NY Times slide show today. Notice the selection of the images: If you didn't know the background and read only mainstream American press, you might think Palestinians were butchering and murdering Israeli civilians in large numbers.

Washington Post had two op-eds last Sunday, both advanced the Israeli viewpoint.

The headline of the article covering this issue in the Washington Post yesterday stated how there might be "opportunities" for Palestinians in this massacre at the hands of Israel. Really now, people, this bombing is good for the Palestinian people.

This sort of news reporting fools no one. It is part of the continued strangulation of the truth that disempowers all moderates in the region. It fools no one except those bent upon distorting the truth. It's part of the lies we tell ourselves.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Who Broke The Truce?

A critical chapter in the early history of Islam is the Treaty of Hudaibiyah between the young Muslim community in Madinah and the idolaters of Makkah. The two sides agreed that for ten years they would maintain peace and not attack/harm/slay members of each other's communities. The treaty was a huge compromise for the Prophet (pbuh), yet he saw peace even on less-than-ideal terms preferable to continued threat of violence. And having once signed, he insisted on keeping his word. This had been a core teaching of Islam (au fu bil uqood - honor your commitments).

Because of the treaty an open exchange of people and ideas became possible. Islam's simplicity and beauty impressed many of the idolaters who prior to this had only heard the negative campaigns against the Prophet (pbuh) from the power elite of Makkah. They started to abandon their unprincipled lives for the monotheistic faith in large numbers and the ranks of Muslims grew rapidly. As you can imagine, the leadership of idolaters in Makkah and the neighboring tribes was horrified. Their horror gave way to hopelessness. Hopeless people did hopeless things back even then and so they decided to launch a campaign of terror against Muslims. And boy did they cause terror! They would attack Muslims in stealth in the dark of the night in guerrilla attacks. Their strategy was to never leave any witnesses or take hostages.

There is no such thing as a perfect criminal campaign - given enough time, you will reveal yourself. And fairly quickly the source of these attacks was identified. The idolaters had broken the truce they had signed with the Prophet (pbuh). If they had broken it knowingly and deliberately, why was the prophet (pbuh) bound by it? So, the Prophet decided, it was time to take Makkah. And he did that by marching an army of ten thousand believers into the city that had tried to literally murder him many times.

Makkah was taken peacefully. There was no chest-thumping, no victory parades or insulting the vanquished. Their property, their honor was guaranteed. With their heads bowed in humility, tears running from their eyes out of gratitude to their Lord, Muslims returned to Makkah and taught us a new way to engage in conflicts, win wars and establish peace. They showed how, if you keep doing the right thing, no matter how crazy and powerful your adversary, you will prevail. Sabr, the unique Islamic teaching of persevering in the face of hopeless adversity, because you never lose hope in God, became the basis of resisting all forms of despotism without falling victim to the hopelessness that is at its roots.

Forgiving the people of Makkah was not easy. There were murderers among them, people who had mutilated bodies of dead Muslims. But it was a chapter that needed to be put behind. No retribution was extracted, none was allowed. This was the biggest revolution of Muhammad (pbuh). As someone said, Muhammad invaded hearts of men. And once your heart falls in love with something, it doesn't cede an inch.

Fast forward 1400 some years and we have a situation with some parallels and several strange twists and turns (of course, all analogies and parallels have limitations). Israel and Palestinians had a truce signed six months back. Israel alleges Palestinians have been constantly in violation of the truce. International news media reports that Palestinians have been attacking by launching their crude rockets into Israeli territories. The fact that these rockets have been nothing more than a nuisance is not material, I think. Fact is, it is a violation of a truce.

And announcing this as the basis of its actions, Israel is launching an offensive to "change the situation on the ground." Oh yes, the realpolitik of this may be the upcoming Israeli elections. But while that may be true, it is also true someone broke the treaty. I want to know if Palestinians broke the treat or not. And I don't hear enough Muslims who are protesting Israel's "disproportionate" response addressing this important issue.

Irrespective of the size of your standing army, number of tanks and power of your bombs, if you invade lands and territories, your victories are going to be short-term. Sooner than later someone will outsmart you and throw you out. Israel just hasn't gotten this simple fact in its sixty years of existence. In fact, it's been playing the EXACTLY OPPOSITE strategy. (As an American, I will add that America's role, despite stated inentions, hasn't been very helpful either). If Israel has had a miserable 60 years of existence, this simple fact explains it. Win some hearts, folks...and I don't mean by bribing some to spy or infiltrating organizations and planting Mossad agents - genuinely undertake a policy that wins hearts. You're dealing with humans across the fence.

Now, if Israel in its might and power, is not as gracious as the Prophet (pbuh) was when he returned to Makkah, I don't think Palestinians have been as REALISTIC about the uneven distribution of firepower either. The people of Makkah did not resist because they knew they were outpowered. They didn't want to adopt a suicide strategy and cause the death of their loved ones. Palestinians have chosen to subject their children and women to the horror of Israels bombs and tanks. They know their adversary, by now they know the dishonor, the shame and bloodshed their actions will invite. They continue to subject their loved ones to it.

They have been outpowered, but they continue rocket launches and suicide bombings which are more than an annoyance. Oh yes they are hurting, their situation is bad and keeps getting worse, they have been forced into hopelessness, and hopeless humans still do hopeless things...I get all that. But their strategy is still bad and I don't hear enough Muslims criticize that in an unequivocal way.

You have to keep doing the right thing, and often that means resisting the urge to strike or succumbing to hopelessness and blowing oneself up.

Above those clouds and inside our secret Strategy Rooms and whisper meetings, there is one more entity present who we don't see. It's God. Allah. Elohim. Our Lord. And He watches all that we plan and do. We can cheat against His principles to win short-term victories or fleeting blasts that cause some damage to the enemy. But in the end His principles are the only standard by which we will be judged and our long-term future determine. It is not too late to repent and turn back to Him.

This is not to be the sermon of a pacifist. I say fight. But fight to win, not to continue to bleed. Neither side is winning and both are bleeding. Some more than others, but it's evident neither has peace. And if you don't have peace, what's all that other stuff you got worth?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Stupid Meets Stupid

The new year is barely 2 days old I am already indulging in name-calling. Sadly, I don't think I can do justice to my thoughts without stooping low, so please be advised: the word s-t-u-p-i-d features frequently in this post so it's not for the faint-hearted and reader discretion is advised.

On no less than the MAIN page of this morning, its top news reports that a family of 9 Muslims was not allowed to fly because some passengers grew concerned over the subject of their conversation as they boarded the flight. There are a lot of little details to the story and you can read it on your favorite news site but I can't help but wonder: you are a muslim, (here I am assuming) an outwardly visible muslim, and in a post-911 America you have just boarded a plane and you are talking so loud that other passengers can hear you (mommy never taught you to keep it down?), and your conversation is about which seat on the plane ("whether the one near the wing") is the safest? Is there a word other than STUPID to describe you?

People around the world joke that the American public is stupid. Well, I don't know that the average American is any more stupid than the average human anywhere else in the world. So when Americans are alarmed by such conversations and report it to flight attendants who call the FBI, it sounds like a case of definitely-stupid meets possibly-stupid? Better stupid calling authorities than sorry - we've been burned before!

I was once traveling in a Muslim country where an official asked me for a petty bribe. When I (in my young, naive and idealistic phase) protested stating he should be ashamed for asking me for a bribe, he smiled and whispered "you self-righteous ba*****, I will lock you up in a jail somewhere and no one will ever know where you are."

In the case of our Muslim family, they had a cordial interview with the FBI which quickly determined that this was all a misunderstanding, and the airline issued full refunds and asked them to go home or take another flight. Will you please show appreciation for a civilized society and tip your kufi/hat/scarf to the US of A? This family is still upset that the airline declined to let them fly on that very flight. Can you be stupid twice in the same week? And then draw attention to your stupidity by going to the national media? And can you be thankless and stupid both at once? You can tell I am annoyed!

Earlier this week I was at Gravely Point, a park north of Washington DC's Reagan National airport from where you can witness breathtaking airplane landings from an amazingly close proximity to the runway. I was alarmed when I saw a Muslim family - hijab, arabic conversations - whose three children were playing with plastic toy guns. I have been there a dozen times, people bring their children to play there...I had never before seen kids playing with toy guns. Let me repeat a line from this blog: you are a muslim, an outwardly visible muslim at that, in a post-911 America near an airport viewing plane landings, and your children are running around pointing toy guns at those planes? Is there a word other than STUPID to describe you? One may ask what is wrong with children playing with toy guns, it's our right...true, but do we have to be so obtuse in the way we seek our rights ignoring the context of the world we live in? If someone gave me a dollar for every time I saw outwardly visible Muslims whose children-in-tow were playing with guns, I would be rich.

Do we have to so overwhelmingly embrace our right in America to be stupid?

I am afraid CAIR and other muslim civil rights organizations might take this case and demand "justice." I urge them not to do so. If we cry wolf at the world's reaction to every stupidity by a Muslim, I am afraid the effectiveness and reputations of our civil rights organizations will be compromised and the numerous cases involving genuine civil rights concerns and abuses will suffer.

As part of "tawasau bil haqq wa tawasau bissabr"(Qur'anic injunction to advise each other to do the right thing and persevere against adversity), and shedding my deplorable sarcastic tone, I wish to say this: We have all done stupid things, we all have bad days. Yours truly is seriously and frequently guilty of it too. But no need to get mad at others when we make a mistake. Our Muslim family from DC area should just move on - it wasn't their shiniest moment but I don't think anyone else has any blame in any of this. And thank God that the FBI and the airline were cordial and respectful to them. To my non-Muslim American/world family-at-large, let's keep those ears and eyes open and err on side of caution when we see someone who could be a terrorist. However, nothing wrong with using a little bit of judgement instead of being, err, obtuse about the way we report these things!