Reactionary Historiography: Post 9/11 Muslim Communities and Immigrants

العربية: الجمعية الاسلامية الامريكية - مسجد ديربورن, 9945 West Vernor Highway, Dearborn, Michigan English: American Moslem Society Dearborn Mosque, 9945 West Vernor Highway, Dearborn, Michigan

(Featured image of American Moslem Society Dearborn Mosque by Dwight Burdette)

The following is a historiography that reviews literature covering Muslim immigration and communities in the United States after the events of September 11th, 2001 in New York City, NY, USA. Because of how cut & paste into WordPress from a Word file works, you’ll find all the footnotes at the end of the page.


Books Reviewed

Abdo, Geneive Abdo. 2006. Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bilici, Mucahit. 2012. How Islam Is Becoming an American Religion: Finding Mecca in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Curtis IV, Edward E. 2009. Muslims in America: A Short History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck. 2011. Becoming American? The Forging of Arab and Muslim Identity in Pluralist America. Waco: Baylor University Press.

Hussain, Amir. 2016. Muslims and the Making of America. Waco: Baylor University Press.

McCloud, Aminah Beverly. 2006. Transnational Muslims in American Society. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.


When the World Trade Center (the “Twin Towers”) in New York City was attacked on September 11th, 2001, many Americans were understandably shocked and angry, but they also found themselves asking, what is a Muslim? Why would they want to attack us?[1] Setting aside the problem of conflating all Muslims with terrorists, these questions revealed a vacuum of knowledge about Muslims and Islam in the United States. Further, there was a lack of understanding that Muslims were and had been a part of American society since before the United States was founded. The rhetoric that flooded popular media painted a picture of Islam vs the West[2] and reinforced the idea that there was a hard dichotomy between the two.[3] One could not be American and be Muslim, one could only be Muslim in America. Scholars from multiple disciplines saw this as an opportunity to produce literature on Muslim immigration and Muslim communities living within the United States to correct the narrative being constructed around Muslims and Islam. Because of this, much of the recent scholarship on Islam has been defensive and apologetic in nature, presenting Muslims in a way that normalizes them and introduces them as typical Americans to the rest of society. Recent scholarship has focused primarily on establishing a Muslim American identity, rather than on placing Muslim immigrants and immigration in a historical context.

According to Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, a scholar on the history of Islam in America, this type of scholarship is not new. Writing in 2010, he indicates that both before and after September 11th, 2001, scholarship on Muslims in the United States has been primarily anthropological and sociological, dealing with questions of assimilation and identity formation.[4] He goes on to say that the historical studies that do exist focus primarily on African American Muslims and on how non-Muslim Americans perceive Islam.[5] Further, because of the positioning of Islam as being opposed to the West, most scholarship on Muslims in the United States has focused on how they are faring in a “foreign” society rather than on how they are actively participating in American history.[6] Much scholarship on Muslims in the US also aims to teach non-Muslim Americans about Islam to counter xenophobia and to reposition Muslims as being a part of “us”.[7] However, this focus on Muslim voices excludes the voices of other groups that have interacted with them. What I mean by this is that ethnic identity formation is both an external and internal process.[8] Muslim American identity formation occurred and continues to occur within a wider American social context. Without adding the voices of non-Muslims to the narrative, as GhaneaBassiri writes, scholars “[dim] the signifiance of the larger American Islamic socio-historical context [in] which American Muslims have [acted] for nearly four centuries.”[9] Many of the books reviewed in this paper, including Hussain’s Muslims and the Making of America, which was published in 2016, fit GhaneaBassiri’s analysis of recent scholarship as being primarily focused on identity formation and assimilation. The two exceptions are McCloud and Curtis’s books.

Continue reading “Reactionary Historiography: Post 9/11 Muslim Communities and Immigrants”

The Other Within: Can Muslims Be French?

Is the Hijab French?

Whether or not Muslims can be accepted into European countries as more than just itinerant travelers, whether that is possible or even desirable, is a question that has been addressed by scholars, “talking heads,” politicians, and average citizens the world over. The situation of Muslims in European countries is difficult to generalize, because each country has its own specific set of circumstances that led to the addition of immigrant populations. However, this paper will analyze how Muslims have been presented in Europe generally and then focus more narrowly on the specific context of France, which has Europe’s largest Muslim population. This paper will cover Europeans’ conception of what Europe is, what an authentic European is, and the role that Islam plays in creating that image.

Additionally, I will argue that Muslims in Europe, and specifically in France, have been subjected to a type of criticism that implies that Muslims are a homogenous and mutually responsible group that is inherently violent, with Muslims in France being held to a standard that is unachievable in terms of becoming truly French. I will argue that Muslims in France are already French, addressing their issues from a position of wanting their rights to be observed, rather than requesting rights in the sense of the American Civil Rights movement. Additionally, I will argue that France’s particular system of government and conception of laïcité (a type of secularism) precludes the successful integration of minorities.

In a book section titled “Muslims and European Identity: Can Europe Represent Islam?” written in 2002, Talal Asad analyzes the way that Europeans have traditionally understood Europe and what it means to be European in order to understand whether or not minorities can be successfully integrated. Asad belives that the modern discourse on European identity is concerned with exclusions and anxieties about non-Europeans and contains an implicit demand that the rest of the world recognize Europe based on its self-proclaimed identity.[1] In a sense, Europe is creating propaganda in order to shape world opinion about Europe’s role in world society. Asad begins his analysis by tracing the historical development of the concept of Europe to the Middle Ages, where Europe and Christendom were synonymous terms, often used in contradistinction to the Ottoman Empire, which was Islamic.

The idea of what Europe was, and is, inherently tied to religion and remains that way today, regardless of the new ascribed secular nature of states.[2] Asad develops this idea by noting that Balkan states who have populations that are indistinguishable from other white Europeans, that have secular political institutions and are geographically within Europe are still somehow not European. They can be in Europe, but not of Europe.[3]

Asad also introduces the idea of European civilization, which is based on the idea of a shared history that includes the Roman Empire, Christianity (as noted above), the Enlightenment, and industrialization.[4] The fact that Muslim immigrants have not shared in these experiences are what Asad believes creates a sense of Muslims not belonging in European society. This also disconnects the idea of Europe from a geographic space, explaining how it is possible to be in Europe but not to be of Europe. In other words, there is something essential to being European, but becoming fully European would require one to shed his or her own essential identity and replace it with a European one. If something is essential to one’s self, it is a defining factor in one’s identity. Can it be removed?

Asad builds on this understanding of essential qualities to argue that because assimilation requires the forfeiture of one’s self and the assumption of European identity, there is no place for minorities in Europe. An interesting quote found in Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship greatly illuminates this problem of secularism and personal identity. In her discussion on Muslim identity in France, the author, Jennifer Fredette, argues that “Karl Marx would tell us that pretending it is possible to separate the public from the private so neatly is secularism’s greatest conceit.”[5] Fredette is placing Muslim identity in Europe in perspective by first exploring the underpinnings of the modern conception of citizenship. She argues that it is impossible to separate the personal from the public, which agrees with Asad’s assessment of essential characteristics of people.[6]

What we are meant to understand from this is that one’s private beliefs and private nature influence our public behavior and the way we are perceived by others. In a secular state, there will still be some influence from privately held beliefs. This becomes important when one tries to understand why Muslims are considered unassimilable into European, and specifically French, societies. Secular, modern conceptions of citizenship in France are predicated on possessing a French passport and having some cultural attachment to the country, such as speaking French. The majority of Muslims in France, at this point, have never lived in another country. They were born in France, speak French as a first or only language, and have to search generations back into their ancestry to find a connection to immigration.[7] Some Muslims are converts and have no link to immigration, yet there is something about them nonetheless that causes them to be outside of the scope of French society. The qualifier has shifted from secular understandings of citizenship to personal beliefs, creating the idea of deserving and undeserving citizens.

Fredette situates her argument not in terms of whether Muslims can become French, but instead looks at why this question is being asked, how it affects Muslims in France and how they respond.[8] Fredette finds that most Muslims in France are, in their own understanding of themselves, integrated into French society. They identify as French and are capable of using the French political system, speaking French, and navigating French society. French Muslims’ complaints are not about receiving rights, in the sense of African Americans during the Civil Rights campaign, but rather are about having their rights respected. This is a nuanced but important difference. Muslims are demanding neutrality in law, in the sense of not having Islam be the focusing issue of political debates involving immigrants and descendants of immigrants. Muslims also demand recognition of the social abuses they suffer.[9]

Social abuses can elevate to an accepted discourse that becomes prevalent in society and creates a feeling of second-class citizenship. For example, a Muslim woman’s employer refers to all Muslim women as Fatima. Or, a Muslim woman helps an ethnically French woman lift her pram onto a bus and the bus driver closes the door on her, almost crushing the baby in the process, in order to slight her.[10] Fredette is drawing a distinction between integration and assimilation, as well as between political and social integration. She argues that it is possible to be integrated into a country politically and theoretically have equal protection under the law, but to be socially excluded based on personal beliefs in such a way that it undermines the conception of citizenship, leading to the previously mentioned discourse on deserving and undeserving citizens.[11] Fredette’s understanding of assimilation without integration builds on that presented by Sharif Gemie in French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France, where she defines integration as comprehending the manner in which society works, or the acquisition of that competence. She argues that this understanding avoids the ideological fog of ambiguous ideas revolving around values like “fair play,” “toleration,” “motherhood,” and “apple pie.”[12]

Understanding the way that discourse is produced and shaped in France is essential to understanding why Muslims feel socially marginalized. Fredette identifies three major groups as being responsible for producing and maintaining popular discourse in France: politicians, the media, and intellectuals, which she collectively refers to as the French elite. She argues that discourse production in France is unusually unified in that these groups of people are all from the same social strata, attend the same schools and share ideas with one another, creating a unified bloc of information producers.[13] The media are arguably the most important of these discourse producers, given their role in shaping and transmitting the messages of the other two groups to the public.

According to Fredette, today’s modern, elite conception of what it means to be a deserving French citizen involves the possession of five unique traits: complete liberality in sexual relations, refraining from references to religion in public and social affairs, an aversion to cultural pluralism (implying being strictly French in the full sense with no hyphenated identity), adhering to a theory of abstract individualism, and having an ancestral origin that is within the accepted boundaries of Europe.[14] This understanding of Frenchness is antithetical to minorities in general and Muslims in particular. There is no room for difference in this definition of being French. Because Catholicism is so ingrained in French culture, adherence to Islam in any shape or form is seen as cultural pluralism. Religiosity usually involves sexual restraint, which also infringes on the popular elite perception of fraternity, which has become inseparable from a notion of mixing of the sexes.[15]

Understanding the elite discourse on Muslims is important in understanding why they are thought to be unassimilable. In line with Talal Asad’s presentation of Muslims as existing outside of European civilization, the media has traditionally depicted Muslims as others, following a general pattern over time that shifted from a sensual, sexualized depiction of Muslims to one of Muslim fanaticism. In an article titled, “Comparative Analysis of Mainstream Discourses, Media Narratives and Representations of Islam in Britain and France Prior to 9/11,” Malcom Brown shows that while there was an academically accepted paradigm shift centered on the events of September 11, 2001, there has always been a wide variety of media presentations of Muslims.[16] Tellingly, however, these media presentations have always shown Muslims as “others”, outside of French society.

Brown notes that despite France’s close proximity to Muslim societies, which would lead one to expect a degree of familiarity that would prevent Muslims from being portrayed as exotic, media representations tended to follow this stereotype well into the 1970s. This was presented in two ways: a portrayed exoticism of the senses and a need to explain the “strangeness” of Muslim culture.[17] During the 1970s and into the 1980s, the common discourse on Muslims in French media highlighted ethnicity and nationality, rather than religion, though Brown notes that a shift towards depictions of fanaticism was underway as a result of the 1973 Oil Crisis.[18]

Brown notes that there is a tendency towards reactionary reporting in the French media. When crimes occur that involve Muslims (and presumably other minorities), the articles produced by the media not only report the event, but take on airs of superiority that place these minorities on a lower run of the civilizational order, or in other words, outside of French society. An example is when a girl was made to swallow several litres of salt water as a supposed Islamic home remedy for epilepsy, causing her death. The event was reported as “causing death by torture and barbaric acts.”[19] The event might have been interpreted and reported very differently if it had been a death caused by a French home remedy. The perpetrators were also accused of multiculturalism, calling into question their Frenchness.

By 1989, media depictions of Muslims in France had shifted and began to associate Muslims with fanaticism. An example is a Le Nouvel Observateur article that juxtaposed an image of Khomeini’s funeral in Iran with the establishment of “Islamist” groups in France.[20] The formation of Islamic groups in France was questioned because they received support from foreign countries, again calling into question the national loyalties and Frenchness of the Muslims who benefited from these institutions. By the early 1990s, French media was emphasizing problems of “integration” of Muslims, linking these problems with “fanaticism” and “fundamentalism.” Muslims began to complain that they were represented in French media by an “Islamalgame” of “terrorist, Islamist, Muslim, North African, Arab and immigrant.”[21] Brown does not fully explain the reasoning behind why this shift occurred, but according to John Bowen, there was a spillover of violence from the civil war in Algeria during this time period.[22] As a result, Muslims’ Frenchness was again called into question.

Another issue that Muslims had to deal with was their status as residents of the banlieues, neighborhoods constructed in isolation by the French government. These neighborhoods were filled with immigrant, mostly Muslim and Arab residents, who had poor employment opportunities because of unequal access to education. Combined with a universal slump in the French economy after the boom years following World War II, they became centers of poverty, drugs, crime and violence. This situation was used to attribute blanket accusations that associated all Muslims with violence, drug dealing, racism, gender violence, and delinquency (unemployment), despite the fact that similar situations, especially of gender violence, were prevalent in other parts of France.[23] It is interesting to note that these accusations are extremely similar to current media debates about the status of African American neighborhoods in the United States, meaning that the problems presented by these neighborhoods are not inherent qualities of the residents. However, French media began to present these problems as universal. Journalists were sent out to gather sensationalist stories that exacerbated the negative image of Muslims in the media.[24]

The exceptional poverty that exists in these neighborhoods, combined with the social exclusion of Muslims mentioned by Fredette, created barriers to successful integration in French society. Moreover, the situation intensified feelings of isolation and oppression that led to riots in October and November of 2005. Rather than the media and, by extension, the rest of the French insular elite recognizing and acknowledging the real problems faced by Muslims in these neighborhoods, references were made to Muslims’ failure to integrate into society, as if the socioeconomic positions they were born into was wholly their fault. Instead, Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior and later president, commented that he would wipe use a high-pressure hose to wipe the scum off the streets, causing even greater rioting and violence.[25]

Another significant way that Muslims have been depicted in the media which is related to the violence in the banlieues is as a security threat. One example of this viewpoint is that of Robert S. Leiken, which he presents in his article, “Europe’s Angry Muslims.” Using a wider interpretive lens like Talal Asad, Leiken analyzes the presence of Muslims in all European countries from the perspective of international security. Specifically, he is thinking of the border security of the United States and how allowing Muslims to live in Europe creates security risks because of the laxity of travel restrictions both within the European Union and between the European Union and the United States.

A look at Leiken’s analysis in detail is useful, in terms of helping one to understand the way that Muslims are thought of in relation to their status as residents of Europe. Additionally, this places the prevailing French media narrative in a larger context. According to Leiken, the laxity of some member states’ asylum laws allow Islamic radicals to enter the European Union, providing the catalyst for radicalization. Leiken’s argument portrays Muslims in a specific way, as a security threat that must be contained. His writing contains distortions and stretches meant to make the threat seem more plausible and imminent, playing to a discourse on Muslims that has become mainstream and widely accepted. His writing portrays Muslims as an intrinsic security threat who by their very nature cannot be part of the European community or Western “civilization.”

Another problem with Leiken’s analysis is his use of a Mecca vs. Medina analogy which, while illustrative, is historically incorrect and misrepresents the foundational period of Islamic history, which is significant in terms of his topic. In his analogy, he states that Mohammed “pronounced an anathema on [Mecca’s] leaders and took his followers to Medina … [where] he built an army that conquered Mecca in AD 630…”[26] Mohammed fled Mecca in the face of persecution and by all accounts was among the last to leave, having first sent a group of followers to Ethiopia and then having sent the remainder to Medina ahead of himself. In Medina, he did not “[build] and army”, he built a community and engaged in the common raiding practices of the Arabian Peninsula.[27] He also built political alliances which were useful when hostilities did break out.

Leiken’s misrepresentation of the situation and glossing over of the long hostilities, political treaties and eventual surrender of Mecca to Mohammed’s men oversimplifies a complicated process in a way that depicts Muslims as naturally violent from the beginning of their history, leading to the teleological conclusion that they must be dealt with in some way to make Europe and the United States safe from their supposed barbarism. This supposed innate violence is evident in the willingness of media to use blanket accusations against Muslims, as evidenced by the earlier complaint of being represented in the French media by an “Islamalgame”, and by the way that social issues in the banleiues are addressed. Leiken’s inability or unwillingness to approach the situation of Muslim minorities in Europe from a realistic position that sees Muslims as people, rather than as potential threats, is not unusual. It fits into a larger trend of using rhetoric rather complicated narratives to explain the situation of Muslims in France.

This trend is oddly not restricted to ethnic French people. There are cases where Muslims have built their careers around rejecting and denouncing Islam in the French media. One example is that of Chahdortt Djavann, a naturalized French citizen from Iran. She is very vocal about her hatred of Islam and writes extensively on her feelings of alienation, betrayal, and feelings of sexual repression based on veiling. For Djavann, there is no possibility of multiculturalism; one must either be French or Muslim.[28] Sharif Gemie refers to her polemics as simplistic, especially in comparison to the French literary giants that Djavann idolizes, and essentially accuses her of selling out to live the life she dreamed of: one of freedom and wealth. Gemie says that Djavann plays her part well, telling “nationalist-minded neo-republicans exactly what they want to hear. She tells them that France is right, and that it is morally and politically better than other countries.”[29]

One thing that Djavann’s choice should make clear, however, is that acceptance into French society as being truly French is absolutely predicated on a complete rejection of Islam, being Muslim, and being culturally and sexually different from the mainstream. French secularism is not about freedom of choice, at least not for Muslims. It is instead about conformity. Talal Asad, though addressing Europe as a whole in terms of democracies and Muslim minorities, would likely agree, because it fits the same model. Where Asad observed that there is no place for a minority voice in a democracy, there is no place for a minority group to find a voice within French society. To be French one must become an abstract part of the whole, subsuming oneself into another identity. Personally, this emphasis on creating a society full of identical abstract people comes across as incredibly dangerous to the mental health of a population. It subsumes individuality into a collective whole, and attempts to render the “self” meaningless.

The issue of Muslims in France and whether or not they can integrate is, like Fredette stated, the wrong way to approach the situation. Muslims in France are French Muslims. Their situations are not uniquely religious or unique to their social groups. They are issues that affect all Muslims in France, but because of their status as immigrants, they are seen as unique in all things. They are uniquely different, uniquely other, uniquely in need of being “civilized” and assimilated. The issues that are inherent to the Muslim condition in France are exacerbated by the media’s portrayal of them as being inherently violent and foreign. Their assessment as a security threat only serves to further isolate them. The elite discourse that demands that all French people be exactly the same is unproductive and unrealistic, and creates unachievable expectations for Muslims in French society, especially considering that there are many accepted French people who do not meet the five signifiers of being French. As the French republic currently exists, as the current definition of laïcité stands, it is not possible for Muslims to become part of France because there would be no such thing as a French Muslim. One would have to stop being Muslim to be French.

 


Footnotes

[1] Talal Asad, “”Muslims and European Identity: Can Europe Represent Islam?” in Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union, edited by Anthony Pagden (West Nyack: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 211.

[2] Ibid., 212-213.

[3] Ibid., 213.

[4] Ibid., 214.

[5] Jennifer Fredette, Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014), 53.

[6] Ibid., 52-53.

[7] Ibid., 39-40.

[8] Ibid., 21.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 21, 23 & Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), 73.

[11] Jennifer Fredette, Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014), 21.

[12] Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), 44.

[13] Ibid., 32-33.

[14] Ibid., 54.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Malcolm D. Brown, “Comparative Analysis of Mainstream Discourses, Media Narratives and Representations of Islam in Britain and France Prior to 9/11,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 26.3 (December, 2006): 297-298.

[17] Ibid., 299.

[18] Ibid., 300.

[19] Ibid., 301.

[20] Ibid., 303.

[21] Ibid., 304.

[22] John R. Bowen, “Recognizing Islam in France after 9/11,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 35.3 (March, 2009): 439.

[23] Ibid., & Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010),78-79.

[24] Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), 70.

[25] Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), 74.

[26] Robert S. Leiken, “Europe’s Angry Muslims,” Foreign Affairs 84.4 (July-August, 2005): 127.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), 49.

[29] Ibid., 62.


 

References

 

Asad, Talal. 2002. “Muslims and European Identity: Can Europe Reprsent Islam?” Chap. 10 in Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union, edited by Anthony Pagden, 209-227. West Nyack, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Bowen, John R. 2009. “Recognising Islam in France after 9/11.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, March: 439-452.

Brown, Malcolm D. 2006. “Comparative Analysis of Mainstream Discourses, Media Narratives and Representations of Islam in Britain and France Prior to 9/11.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, December: 297-312.

Fredette, Jennifer. 2014. Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship. Philadelphia: Temple University.

Gemie, Sharif. 2010. French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Leiken, Robert S. 2005. “Europe’s Angry Muslims.” Foreign Affairs, Jul-Aug: 120-135.

 

 

“Europe’s Angry Muslims” (2005), by Robert S. Leiken – Response Essay

Europe's Angry Muslims Book Cover

In “Europe’s Angry Muslims” (2005), Robert S. Leiken analyzes the presence of Muslims in European countries from the perspective of international security, or specifically the security of the United States, which has visa-waiver agreements with the European Union. According to his article, Muslims are able to easily enter the European Union due to lax rules regarding who is allowed in. Islamic radicals are allowed to enter one European country and, because of the lack of border controls between European Union members, they are then able to travel to all European countries in the EU. Besides the risk to the European Union member states, Leiken sees this as a problem because these radicals are recruiting jihadis who are second generation immigrants and have European citizenship, allowing them to freely travel to the United States.

Leiken’s article emphasizes the role that being a minority in Europe plays in enabling the radicalization of Muslims. Across different contexts, Leiken finds a common thread of estrangement from the dominant culture that turns into disillusionment and anger in Muslims who are born in Europe and have European citizenship, but are socially excluded based on their ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Leiken’s use of statistics to demonstrate the threat of Europe-born Muslim jihadis is flawed. He states that the number of mujahideen who identified as European nationals in North America and Europe in a 1993-2004 survey was roughly 25% of the total, representing the largest demographic within the group. What does that prove, really? It would stand to reason that there would be more local-born Muslims than immigrants in a given time period. This does not, however, call into question the seriousness of the problem of radicalization of domestic Muslims.

Another problem with Leiken’s analysis is his Mecca vs. Medina analogy which, while illustrative, is historically incorrect and misrepresents the foundational period of Islamic history which is significant in terms of his topic: conflict between Muslims and Westerners. In his analogy, he states that Mohammed “pronounced an anathema on [Mecca’s] leaders and took his followers to Medina … [where] he built an army that conquered Mecca in AD 630…” (127). Mohammed fled Mecca in the face of persecution, and by all accounts was among the last to leave, having first sent a group of followers to Ethiopia and then having sent the remainder to Medina ahead of himself. In Medina, he did not “[build] and army” (127), he built a community and engaged in the common raiding practices of the Arabian Peninsula. He also built political alliances which were useful when hostilities did break out. Leiken’s misrepresentation of the situation and glossing over of the long hostilities, political treaties and eventual surrender of Mecca to Mohammed’s men paints Muslims as naturally violent from the beginning of their history, leading to the teleological conclusion that they must be dealt with in some way to make Europe and the United States safe from their barbarism.

Leiken discusses the ways that European countries have engaged with their Muslim populations, noting that all attempts to integrate them have failed, from Belgium’s active attempts to socially support and integrate all comers to Germany’s separation to Britain’s multiculturalism. He then herald’s the United States’ as being the most successful with a policy of toleration while allowing the maintenance of social distinctions. He does not describe how the policy in the US is really that different from the policies of Britain. What Leiken does do, however, is discuss boundaries created by geography that prevent the type of radicalism spreading throughout Europe from reaching the United States. He notes that Muslims in Europe can see radical speeches on satellite and the Internet, but fails to note that those same mediums are available in the United States. By claiming logistical difficulties, Leiken gives too little credit to terrorist organizations and too much credit to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in preventing terrorism.

The conflict between Muslims and Westerners is sometimes framed as a battle of civilizations, with the implication being that one must wipe out the other to survive. Leiken’s analysis posits Muslim minorities as unassimilable, even in the best case scenario of the United States, where they are “tolerated” but socially distinct (133). This, combined with Leiken’s presentation of Muslims as historically and uniquely violent through a distorted retelling of the religion’s foundational history perpetuates the notion that they are outside of Europe and cannot be brought inside; they must be contained because they cannot be European.

Allegiance, with George Takei & Lea Salonga

In November, I told my wife that we would go see Allegiance for her birthday. She wasn’t so much interested in the show for the sake of the story, but because she’s a big fan of Lea Salonga and Miss Saigon. Miss Saigon hasn’t played in New York City since we’ve been here, but Lea has a starring role in Allegiance. As a bonus, George Takei stars in the play as well and I’ve really enjoyed him as an actor and as a person since I first saw him in Star Trek as a kid. His Facebook account is hilarious.

I was told later that Allegiance was based on Takei’s childhood. He actually went through a Japanese internment camp during World War II. We really did go into the show blind, but it didn’t stop us from enjoying the story or the actors’ performances. The parts were well played. Everyone knew their lines. There was no stuttering. The dancing scenes were a lot of fun. The music was good.

I think what I enjoyed most about the show was the way it attempted to address complex ideas of identity, belonging and citizenship. Questions 27 and 28 of a loyalty questionnaire given to Japanese internees played a prominent role in the play. The audience is told what those questions are, but I felt like there should have been more explanation about why answering “yes” to those two questions was such a huge moral dilemma for many Japanese-Americans. Having the main character’s father say it impinges Japanese “honor” did not really convey the complexity of being singled out as a group and being made to affirm loyalty to the United States when one was already an American by birth and upbringing. You kind of pick up on it throughout the play, but only if you’re really paying attention. I suppose one doesn’t go to a play to be mindlessly entertained, though. It’s supposed to be thought provoking.

Not to take away from the suffering of Japanese-Americans during World War II, but I was reminded of the problems that many Muslim-Americans are facing today. They are being singled out as a group and subjected to additional scrutiny. Their loyalty, or allegiance to the United States, is questioned in the same way that Japanese-Americans’ allegiance to the United States was questioned.

The fact that Muslim Americans weren’t rounded up and placed in internment camps shows that most of us learned something from our previous mistakes, or at least the people who can make those sorts of decisions learned something. But, we’re walking on a thin line. It wouldn’t be hard for the balance to shift and to wake up one day and find people being deported to concentration/internment camps again. I mean, look at how popular Trump is with Republican voters. Sometimes the guy says something that makes sense, but even a monkey could type a coherent sentence if he sits in front of a keyboard long enough. Trump represents the worst of our past and the desire of some to return to a period of selective privilege that leaves everyone who isn’t a white male in second place at best.

Anyhow, coming back to the topic of this post, the play was excellent, thought provoking, a critical look at our past and relevant to contemporary affairs. I would recommend it to anyone interested in human drama, history, US politics, race relations, or just a good story.

The Longacre theater, where the play is shown, is a little cold. The seats are a little close together and they didn’t open the doors until 6:30 PM, meaning the line was still out the door at 7:00 PM when the curtain was supposed to go up. If you’re planning on going, show up around 6:15 PM to be at the front of the line.

Also, the concessions stand wasn’t impressive, but I haven’t been to a lot of plays so I don’t have a frame of reference and I imagine the audience is expected to be different from the one you find packed into a typical movie theater.

 

NYU Spiritual Life Center Ramadan Workshop Update

Last Wednesday night I went back to the Spiritual Life Center at NYU.  My class at City College was given the choice to vote between whether they’d rather have class at CCNY or go back to the Ramadan Workshop and they chose the workshop.  That was good, because even if they hadn’t, I’d have skipped class to go back.  It’s one thing to read about Islam and Muslims in a book or see it in a documentary; it’s quite another to get that first-hand experience in actual religious workshops that discuss the details of the faith and how people are actually practicing it.  It’s also nice to socialize with and meet people who practice Islam.  It really helps to put things in perspective, in the sense that Islam is not a monolithic evil.

While I was there I was pleasantly surprised to see a former classmate from an English class I took last Fall semester.  She was sitting on the other side of the room (the room basically stays divided by gender in Islam, forcing people to focus on the material and God rather than each other), so we chatted by Facebook messenger for a few moments before paying attention to the lecture.  She told me that the speaker’s name from the previous week is Khalid, so I went back and edited that post.  I’m pretty bad with names.

She also told me the guy has videos up on YouTube so I did a search and found out the NYU Islamic Center has its own YouTube channel.  There are two videos from the workshop up already: the first and second.  The one from this week hasn’t been uploaded yet.  I’m not sure if it will, since it wasn’t Khalid giving the lecture.  If you were curious, you can watch the video below to see some of what I sat through during the first week.  The video could be a bit better.  The information borders cover too much of the viewing area and never fade away, but the important part is what Khalid is saying.

This last week’s lecture was by a guest speaker.  Again, I don’t remember his name.  He studied Islamic disciplines in South Africa, if I remember right.  He spent six years being educated in Islamic schools and he’s now here in New York to begin his undergraduate education in a Western traditional college.  His lecture focused on the legal aspects of fasting during Ramadan.  The guy has a bit of a sense of humor and I was surprised and happy to see that he was very candid with the topic in the interests of clarity of information.

Issues like menstruation and avoiding any activity that might “get the juices flowing” were addressed.  It wasn’t something I expected to hear discussed, but then again, what was I expecting?  I suppose topics like that probably wouldn’t come up during a conservative Christian sermon.  I wonder if that means Islam has a healthier conception of sex and the body?  I’ll have to think about that more.  The topics weren’t all racy.  Things like medication and health issues were also covered, including when fasting begins and ends and when you’re allowed to eat.

Islam is more of a rule-oriented religion, where you have to follow strict and clear guidelines if you want your act of worship to be valid and effective.  On first inspection it seems overly complicated, but in a way, it seems very clear and the complications are only there to prevent people who are trying to find loopholes from cheating.  One example of that is having to be told that chewing gum invalidates fasting, since you swallow the flavor of the gum, even involuntarily.

So, essentially what it boils down to is this:  When it’s Ramadan, you eat when the sun is down.  When it’s fajr (first prayer of the day at dawn) it’s too late to eat.  It’s too late to drink.  You also don’t smoke, have sexual relations, masturbate, put anything into your mouth or another orifice that would cause your body to receive nourishment for the duration of the day.  You attempt to avoid doing anything that would cause sexual arousal and stay away from immoral things.  You try to clean up your act and don’t intentionally use foul language or do foul things.  When night time comes and you do the sunset prayer, maghrib, you can eat, drink, smoke (if that’s your thing) and engage in sexual relations again.  There are exceptions, but I won’t go into all of the details here.

The point of Ramadan is to remind you to be humble by creating empathy with those who do without because they have nothing, rather than voluntarily, people who fast all the time because they’re too poor to eat.  It’s a time to refocus your mind on God, drop bad habits, create new, good ones, by studying scriptures and praying more.  Ramadan is like a once-a-year opportunity to try to reinvent yourself into what you should be (to be a good Muslim) and to move further away from where you were before you began your fast.  As Khalid put it the previous week, you should never meet two Ramadans with the same perspective.  You should always grow.  Not that I imagine he would say personal growth is restricted to Ramadan.

Here’s a real short video that gives a real good overview of Ramadan from a Turkish family’s perspective:

I’m looking forward to attending the workshop again this coming week.  It’s really great, and if you didn’t know, open to anyone with a picture ID.  You don’t have to be an NYU student.

The Islamic Cultural Center of New York

Islamic Cultural Center of New York
Islamic Cultural Center of New York

Last Tuesday I had the opportunity to go to the Islamic Cultural Center of New York on a field trip for my summer anthropology course: “Islam in the West”.  If you don’t count my visit to the Islamic Center at NYU’s Spiritual Life Center, this was my first visit to a mosque.  I don’t suppose you can count that, though.  NYU’s Islamic Center had a prayer room, but this is the first full-on mosque I’ve visited.  Because of how much I’ve read about mosques and how often I’ve seen them in videos, and perhaps because of my trip to NYU’s Islamic Center, the setting felt familiar to me.  I didn’t see anything that I didn’t expect.  That’s not to say I wasn’t impressed.  I just wasn’t surprised.

Welcome Sign of the Islamic Cultural Center

The one thing that I did find a little unusual was the apparent lack of care for the exterior of the building.  The colors seemed a little drab, the doors were slightly rusted and the sign was (obviously) in need of a little help.  I also noticed that the trees have been allowed to grow on the front side of the building, obscuring the view from the street.  I can’t help but wonder if it was done intentionally to make the building appear non-threatening to the non-Muslim majority, especially in the wake of 9/11.

Back entrance to Islamic Cultural Center of New York
Back entrance to Islamic Cultural Center of New York (From ICC Website)

The main entrance (in the picture above) isn’t used often.  It’s only opened for Jumah, the Friday prayer that comes with a sermon, like Jewish and Christian Sabbath services.  The ‘daily entrance’ is around the corner on 97th Street.  It’s actually really nice, with wooden terracing for plants, but I didn’t get a photo of it (photo above is borrowed from their site).  I was running late because I was waiting at the main entrance for quite a while.  I forgot about having to use the other entrance.

When you enter the building through the daily entrance, you wind up on the bottom floor, which is below ground level.  There’s a shop that sells Islamic books, Qurans, dates (the fruit) and other related items.  I didn’t get to spend a lot of time browsing the store.  I’d like to go back and look around.  I have a feeling there’s stuff there that isn’t widely available in commercial bookstores.

Just past the gift shop on the right is a daily prayer room.  The daily prayer room was lit with soft light and was quiet.  A few people were praying.  I saw a man sleeping along the wall.  The carpet was very comfortable and the atmosphere was reverent.  I suppose the people in there at that time of day are the ones that are really looking for answers, since it wasn’t close to a normal prayer time yet.

A curtain divided the female prayer area from the male prayer area.  I found out that the reason for the division of genders is that when you’re in the mosque it’s to worship, not to be distracted by women’s back ends being up in the air around or in front of you.  The explanation is much more common-sense than what I’d assumed.

When I went in and sat down with a few guys from my class, we started talking about the use of misbaha/tasbih, which are prayer beads.  It’s sort of like a Catholic rosary, meant to help you keep track of prayers.  The guy I was talking to told me that after the salaat prayer (one of the five daily ritual prayers), some people use prayer beads to continue praying a while longer.  He said it’s strongly recommended, but not required.

Then my phone rang. Embarrassing.

Interior of the Dome at ICC New York
Interior of the Dome at ICC New York

About the time I came back, our tour of the building started, though it wasn’t so much a tour as an information and Q&A session with one of the assistant imams.  He took us up to the main prayer room, which is under the dome that can be seen from outside.  He told us about the basic tenets of Islam and then started answering questions from the class about women’s roles in Islam, how the authenticity of hadith are verified, polygamy, and other similar topics.

Interior of New York's Islamic Cultural Center
99 lights hang from the ceiling under the round dome, some say to symbolize the 99 names of God that are known. According to Islamic theology, God has an infinite number of names.
Prayer lines on the carpet of the mosque
Prayer lines on the carpet of the mosque.

He briefly mentioned the architectural design of the room we were in, the main prayer area.  He said the room was stripped of everything except the essentials and that the decoration was kept to a minimum, to prevent distracting people from the worship of God. He explained the use of the lines on the floor and how Muslims line up foot to foot and shoulder to shoulder to pray, which is done because of the story about how Muhammad, the Prophet, told people to stand close and not leave any room for Shaitan (Satan) to get between them and disturb their prayers.  Islam as a belief system places heavy emphasis on community, unity, and group actions that maintain proper behavior.  It’s harder to do something bad when you’re constantly engaging with your community.

Tapestry of the Kaaba in Mecca, donated by Iran
Tapestry of the Kaaba in Mecca, donated by Iran.

He also told us that this tapestry of the Kaaba, which is located in Mecca and the site of pilgrimage of millions of Muslims every year, was donated to the center by Iran.  The ICC is primarily maintained by monetary contributions from foreign governments, most notably Kuwait.  Not that that should be alarming to anyone.  There are lots of establishments in the US that receive funding from overseas.  Also, we have a pretty solid political relationship with Kuwait.  We have quite a few military bases there.  I spent a year living on one.

The Mihrab at the New York ICC
The mihrab, which indicates the direction of prayer. Muslims always pray facing Mecca.
Qu'rans on shelves in the main prayer area
Qu’rans on shelves in the main prayer area.
Donation boxes for zakat, sadaqat, mosque maintenance
Donation boxes for zakat, sadaqat, and mosque maintenance.

The Q&A session lasted up until it was time for the fourth prayer of the day, maghrib, the prayer that happens just after sunset.  This time of year, that’s at 8:30 PM.  I didn’t have to hang around for that, so I visited the restroom and then left.

Area for wudu in the male restroom at the New York ICC
Area for wudu in the male restroom at the New York ICC.

The restroom was the last place I expected to find something unusual, but I was surprised to notice that there were no urinals, just stalls.  I double checked to make sure I was in the correct restroom.  The other one had a picture of a woman in a hijab on the door and women were going into it, so I hadn’t accidentally gone into the women’s room.  Also, there was a bench set up inside where people could comfortably perform the ritual cleansing before prayer: wudu.

I don’t really know what sort of crowd visits this mosque on a Friday, but during the week we were told that it’s primarily cab drivers who stop to pray and then go back to work.  Either way, it seems to be a very nice, well maintained building and a great resource for people in Manhattan who need to pray, or for non-Muslims to stop in and ask a few questions.

Al-Andalus: From Convivencia to Limpieza de Sangre

The Rock of Gibraltar, the name of which is derived from
the Arabic Jabal Tariq, “Mount of Tariq,” in honor of
Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Berber Muslim conqueror
of ancient Iberia, and essentially the founder of al-Andalus.

In 711 CE, a force of Berber Muslims under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad landed on the southern shores of the Iberian Peninsula and engaged in a campaign of rapid conquest that culminated in the displacement of Visigoth rule in all but the northernmost parts of Iberia.  The Visigoth controlled areas in the north later served as the launching point for the Reconquista, the ‘taking back’ of the Iberian peninsula from the Muslim invaders.  Muslim rule in Iberia officially ended with the surrender of the Emirate of Granada to King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile in 1492, but for nearly eight-hundred years Muslims retained governance over at least a portion of the peninsula and created a glowing civilization that set an example that unfortunately would not be followed.

Ferdinand and Isabella; Image from:
Convent of the Augustinian Nuns, Avila

Under Islamic rule, the Iberian Peninsula was marked by a level of religious toleration that was unheard of at the time and Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in relative peace.  There were tensions between the groups, and instances where violence seemed unavoidable, but by and large, the people of al-Andalus not only held their diverse nation together, they caused it to blossom into a society that still draws admiration today for its level of comparative advancement and toleration.  Toleration for ethnic diversity and religious differences were the keys to success for al-Andalus, but after Granada fell in 1492 and the Reconquista was complete, one of the first actions taken by the Christian monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, was to decree the expulsion of the Jews.  That was the same year the monarchs decided to fund Christopher Columbus’ voyage to what he hoped would be Asia.  Ferdinand and Isabella wasted no time in establishing themselves as a powerful monarchy, but the example of intolerance they set was in direct contradiction to the legacy that had been left to them by Islamic Spain.


The Muslim’s initial conquest of the peninsula met with little resistance, largely due to the fact that the Visigoth rulers had managed to alienate their supporters (Lowney 31 – 32).  The Iberians willingly submitted to the Muslims, since they were no harsher than the Visigoths had been.  In the case of the Jews, Muslim rule was a vast improvement (Lea 1).  The Jews were highly oppressed under the Visigoth rulers, who “forbade Jews from marrying Christians or owning Christian slaves, proscribed circumcision, outlawed observance of Jewish holy days, and ultimately offered Jews the stark choice of conversion, exile, or slavery” (Lowney 29).  It also helped that the Muslims offered their newly conquered subjects favorable surrender treaties, such as the treaty offered to the Christian Prince Theodomir of Murcia, which says:

The latter [Theodomir] receives peace and the promise, under the guarantee of Allah and of his Prophet, that there will not be any change in his situation nor in that of his people; that his right of sovereignty will not be contested; that his subjects will not be injured nor reduced to captivity; nor separated from their children nor their wives; that they will not be disturbed in the practice of their religion; that their churches will not be burned, nor despoiled of the objects of the cult found in them… (Lowney 38)

The tolerant treaties the Muslims offered their defeated opponents was in keeping with the traditions of the Qur’an and helped set the stage for later peaceful relations between the three faiths in Islamic Spain.


In Islam, Jews and Christians are known as ′Ahl al-Kitāb, People of the Book who are protected, albeit with a second-class status.  This protection, known as dhimmitude, is based on surah 29, aya 46 of the Qur’an, which says, “And dispute ye not with the People of the Book… but say, ‘We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; our God and your God is One’” (Lowney 38).  Non-Muslim subjects of Muslim regimes were considered to be autonomous but dependent groups who were responsible for organizing their own internal affairs, including social, religious and communal matters.  These minorities had leaders, appointed by the Muslim rulers, who were responsible for their group’s “ecclesiastical matters, internal disputes, and fines and taxes” (Lapidus 265).  The leaders of these minority groups had such a level of independence that in legal cases involving two members of the same faith, their judges could inflict the death penalty without consulting the Muslim rulers (Khadduri, Liebesny and Jackson 340).  So, Jews and Christians under Muslim rule had the ability to continue to practice and develop their faith, as well as practice their own legal system, within some limits.


The ability of subject faiths to practice their legal system had some restrictions.  When cases involved serious crimes that constituted a threat to public order, Islamic law always took precedence.  These included crimes such as murder, theft, or highway robbery (Khadduri et al., 340).  There were also problems with how non-Muslims and Muslims related to each other legally.  In legal cases that involved Muslims or a member of another subject faith, dhimmis were required to appear in Shari’ah courts, which took precedence over Christian or Jewish law.  Appearing in Muslim courts was likely problematic for dhimmis, since their testimony was considered invalid under Shari’ah law, though exceptions were probably made in cases involving two members of subject religions, as qadis(Islamic judges) would need some form of information to settle a lawsuit or legal case.  Another issue faced by dhimmis was that there were lesser penalties involved for a Muslim guilty of committing a crime against a dhimmi (Khadduri et al., 337).  Dhimmis also could not inherit from a Muslim, based on the Qur’anic rule which says, “God will by no means make a way for the unbelievers over the believers” and a hadith which says, “The Muslim will not inherit from the unbeliever nor the unbeliever from the Muslim” (Khadduri et al., 343).  So, a dhimmi was fully protected as a subject of the Muslim state, but suffered from certain drawbacks that relegated him to the status of a second-class citizen (Bennett 163).  However unbalanced, dhimmitude offered the Jews and Christians of al-Andalus legal recourse and protection under the law.  It gave them a legal place in the society, creating a state of convivencia, a coexistence where Muslims, Jews and Christians worked and lived together, if not as equals then at least as fellow citizens of the same nation (Rosser-Owen 77).


The status of dhimmis as being legal members of the state is part of Islamic religious law, but “there was no Scriptural basis for the legal status of Jews and Muslims under Christian rule; they were subject to the whims of rulers, the prejudices of the populace and the objections of the clergy” (Boase 22).  It stands to reason that there were Muslims among the early invaders who would have preferred cultural and religious homogeneity, as the later Reconquista Christian Spaniards would, but in the case of the Muslims, religious law dictated that they must respect dhimmis, at least insofar as the law dictated.  This religious legal requirement that offered Jews and Christians a place in Islamic society, which didn’t have a counterpart in their own societies, must have created a feeling of stability, safety and most importantly, belonging.


A sense of nationhood, of common standing with their fellow countrymen, could have inspired them to excel, and al-Andalus certainly excelled in many areas.  The mix of cultures stimulated the intellectual pursuits of academics that produced advanced knowledge of mathematics, medicine, spirituality, astronomy, philosophy, and theology, and gave birth to some of the greatest thinkers of the age, such as the Jewish kabbalist Moses de Leon, the Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, the Jewish Moses Maimonides and the Muslim Averroes (Lowney 8 – 9).  The common thread that held the people of al-Andalus together and produced such remarkable figures as those mentioned above wasn’t ethnicity or religion; it was toleration for the beliefs of others and a commitment to Andalusian society as a whole, based on a sense of belonging and nationhood.


There were people who rejected the idea of Islamic rule or any form of nationhood under the power of another religion.  A good example is that of Eulogius, a traveling cleric from Córdoba.  In approximately 850 CE, Eulogius discovered one of the earliest Latin copies of a version of the biography of the prophet Muhammad in the monastery of Leyre near Pamplona in northern Spain.  The biography is titled simply, Istoria de Mahomet and, unfortunately, is an example of “the repositories of misconceptions about Islam that would be drawn upon over and over again by Christians trying to explain, or more appropriately, explain away the success of Islam” (Wolf 89).  Eulogius didn’t use it just to explain away the success of Islam.  He used the text to create a political movement, an early form of peaceful disobedience, to challenge established Muslim rule through a series of martyrdoms in the hopes of inciting a popular Christian revolt.


Shortly after Eulogius returned to Córdoba, a steady procession of Christians approached Muslim qadis and denounced the prophet Muhammad, eager to become martyrs:  “Now hand down the sentence, multiply your cruelty, be kindled with complete fury in vengeance for your prophet.  We profess Christ to be truly God and your prophet to be a precursor of antichrist” (Lowney 58).  These denunciations resulted in the execution of the offenders.  Over the course of a decade, approximately fifty Christians were killed executed.  Shortly after Eulogius’ death, the number of offenses and executions petered out, which paints him as the likely ringleader (Lowney 59).

Eulogius, later canonized by the Catholic church, suffering execution for following in the footsteps of
the other Cordoban martyrs and being executed for intentionally blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad.



A notable point in the incidents of deliberate martyrdom was the lack of reaction from the public.  The executions failed to have the effect that Eulogius had hoped for.  The martyrs enjoyed support from distant monastic communities, where most of the martyrs were from, but in Córdoba itself, the opinion was little better than mixed.  According to Kenneth Wolf, the Christians who rejected the martyrs’ actions had assumed a new perspective of Islam as a different, but valid version of their own faith.  Wolf says that Christians adopted this idea from the Muslims, who in turn accepted the Christians as “monotheists and recipients of a revealed law” (Wolf 93).  In other words, they had assimilated the idea implied by dhimmitude, that all three religions worship the same God, with some differences.


Just 150 years into Islamic rule in Iberia, the people had come to accept and respect one another.  That may sound odd, considering the fact that Christians were being executed for blaspheming a religious figure, but consider the words of a Muslim court official who tried to persuade Eulogius into recanting his defamation of the prophet Muhammad:

If stupid and idiotic individuals have been carried away to such lamentable ruin, what is it that compels you…to commit yourself to this deadly ruin, suppressing the natural love of life?  Hear me, I beseech you, I beg you, lest you fall headlong to destruction.  Say something in this the hour of your need, so that afterward you may be able to practice your faith.” (Lowney 59)

The implication in this statement is that the court officials were following the letter of the law for the sake of maintaining the legal system, as well as for the sake of preserving the respectability of Islam, but even by the year 859, when Eulogius was executed, Andalusian Muslims in general had probably developed a strong sense of tolerance for the Christians and the Jews who worshipped the same God as them.  This sense of community may have been based on physical proximity and a sense of belonging to a certain physical location, rather than being drawn purely along theological lines.  The reality of people struggling to survive and coming to rely on the people around them sometimes gets lost in religious debate.


The medieval history of Spain shows little evidence of any conflicts being based solely on either race or religion (Lea 1).  Four-hundred and fifty years after Eulogius, as territory changed hands during the Reconquista, the people continued to coexist peacefully with their neighbors.  Rather than a stark black and white, the reality of conflict on the Iberian Peninsula was far more complex.  Alliances were often made between Christians and Muslims for the sake of pursuing similar goals, or for some gain.  For example, the thirteenth-century Christian king Alfonso X used religious rhetoric when it suited his self-interests and ignored it for the same reasons.  He was an avid supporter of Jewish translators in his court because of the wisdom they could make available to his subjects, but at the same time he mandated a death sentence for any Christian who was “so unfortunate as” to convert to Judaism (Lowney 10).  Additionally, he waged war against a Muslim kingdom only to later create an alliance with them for the purpose of waging war against a rebellious son.  His actions weren’t indicative of a monolithic Christianity versus a monolithic Islam; these were the actions of a man engaged in maintaining and building the prosperity of his own kingdom using whatever means he had available to him.  Race and religion were not factors in his decisions, which is a testament to the integration of Jews, Christians and Muslims into one cohesive Andalusian society.


As Muslim control in al-Andalus came to its conclusion in 1492, they left behind a society of three fully integrated faiths that had developed a unique character unlike any other place in the world.  Tolerance for religious diversity in al-Andalus did not, of course, meet modern standards, but it was a major advancement for its day that would lead a Christian nun from Europe named Hroswitha of Gandersheim to call Córdoba, the capital of the Ummayad Islamic Caliphate of al-Andalus, the “Ornament of the World” (Shedinger 81).  From the initial conquest in 711 to the surrender of Granada, relations between the three monotheistic faiths continually developed until al-Andalus was transformed into an integrated society where religion stopped playing a major part in the average affairs of rulers, except as a political tool.

The Alhambra palace at Granada.

Despite the success of convivencia, a multicultural and integrated al-Andalus, the Catholic Monarchs King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I took a radically different approach to religion and society: limieza de sangre, purity of blood.  After they completed their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, they undertook a program that would ensure the eventual religious homogeneity of the Iberian Peninsula.  In 1492, immediately after the fall of Granada, they decreed the conversion, expulsion or execution of the Jews.  In 1502, a similar proclamation was made regarding Muslims.  Out of necessity, many chose to be baptized.  These two groups, known respectively as conversosand moriscos, continued to secretly practice the rituals of their own faiths while maintaining the outward appearance of Catholic Christianity until they were eventually weeded out through the institution of the Inquisition and a final expulsion in 1609 by decree of King Philip III.

The Court of Lions at Alhambra palace.

In the face of a long history of a successful and integrated culture, what was the purpose of Ferdinand and Isabella’s deviation from a model that had proven to be successful?  It is possible that Ferdinand and Isabella’s decision to expel the Jews and Muslims was merely a continuation of the evolution of religion in the peninsula: they were using it as a political tool.  Ferdinand and Isabella may have felt that, as Christians, their loyalties lay firmly with Europe and the rest of Christendom.  As rulers of a territory that had been part of the Islamic world for centuries, they may have felt that drastic measures were necessary to change public opinion of Spain.  Even today, 500 years after the expulsion of the Muslims and Jews, Spain is an off-color patch in the greater European fabric, with obvious reminders of its Islamic past buried in the architecture, art, and even the language.  Given how firmly Islamic culture was entrenched in Iberia, Ferdinand and Isabella may have felt that it would take drastic actions to change public perception of Spain in Europe, hence the expulsions or forced conversions of the Jews and Muslims.  It would also explain their petition to the Pope for the title “Catholic Monarchs.”  The total effect of expulsions and the gaining of a title affirming the Catholicism of the monarchy would have firmly put Spain in the European camp.  The definite causes of Ferdinand and Isabella’s change in policy would be an interesting topic for further research, but the level of tolerance and cooperation between religious groups in al-Andalus is a lesson that many parts of the world could still learn from today.

Works Cited

<!–[if supportFields]> BIBLIOGRAPHY <![endif]–>Bennett, Clinton. Muslims and modernity: an introduction to the issues and debates. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005.
Boase, Roger. “The Muslim Expulsion From Spain.” History Today 52.4 (2002): 21-28.
Khadduri, Majid, Herbert J. Liebesny and Robert H. Jackson. Origin and Development of Islamic Law. Clark: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2010.
Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. 2nd. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Lea, Henry Charles. The Moriscos of Spain: Their Conversion and Expulsion. Philadelphia: Lea Brothers & Co., 1901.
Lowney, Chris. A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Medieval Spain. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2006.
Rosser-Owen, Mariam. Islamic Arts From Spain. London: V & A Publishing, 2010.
Shedinger, Robert F. Was Jesus a Muslim?: questioning categories in the study of religion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.
Wolf, Kenneth B. “The Earliest Latin Lives of Muhammad.” Gervers, Michael, Ramzi Jibran Bikhazi and Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. Conversion and continuity: indigenous Christian communities in Islamic lands eighth to eighteenth centuries. Vol. 9. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1990. 89 – 102.



Note: This was a research paper turned in for a 100-level college course.  It received an A+, and the note: “A lively and interesting paper.”  I imagine it was checked more for consistency, style and obvious errors rather than having any deep fact checking done.  I would have liked a few more weeks to research and fine tune it, but I think it turned out well enough for the time I put into it, considering it’s a paper for an entry level course.

Faith and Unity: The ‘Ummah’ as the New Kinship Group

The Quran and prayer beads.

In approximately 610 CE, a man named Muhammad ibn Abdallah went to a cave in the hills above Mecca to meditate, as he was accustomed to do. There, he had a powerful religious experience and began reciting verses of what would become known as the Quran, the holy book of Islam. While reciting the surahs of the Quran in Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad would find both converts and enemies. His message would inspire both devotion and enmity. The Quran appealed to people for its beauty and its insistence on returning to principles of equity, but this would place the Prophet in confrontation with his tribe and create tension between converts and their families. The conflict between the new Muslims and the Meccan community escalated to a point that it caused the Prophet to commit the Muslim community to something unthinkable by contemporary standards: an emigration based not on blood ties, but on communal faith and unity. This event was so significant that it would become known as the Hijra and set the date for the first year of the Islamic calendar in 622 CE.

In pre-Islamic Arabian society, status, position and even personal well-being were all based on membership in kinship groups. Society was divided into a series of (usually[1]) blood-related groups organized in a hierarchical structure. The family group was the smallest organizational unit and was subordinate to a clan, which in turn was subordinate to a tribe. In these kinship groups, there was essentially no individual identity.[2] A man was a member of his family, clan and tribe. All acts between individual members of tribes assumed collective responsibility, sometimes leading to vendettas where the victim’s tribe would seek redress against any member of the offending party’s tribe.[3] This created situations in which a person was victimized based on the actions of another member of the tribe, though it wasn’t seen as wrong, because honor and responsibility were attributed to the group, rather than the individual. The more powerful the tribe one belonged to, the surer one could be that their family would be safe and prosperous.

In Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time, Karen Armstrong details the loyalty of a man to his tribe using a quote from a Ghazziyya poet: “I am of Ghazziyya. If she be in error, I will be in error; and if Ghazziya be guided right, I will go with her.”[4] Tribal loyalties were so important that even if a man’s tribesman was in the wrong, he was obliged to help him for the sake of tribal solidarity. The concept of tribal solidarity would be both a boon and a problem for the Prophet Muhammad. Religion was not unknown to pre-Islamic Arab society, but it was tied to individual kinship groups. Each tribe had a deity, represented by an idol in the Ka’aba at Mecca, which was already an established pilgrimage site. Loyalty to the tribe also included loyalty to the tribal deity. This presented two problems to the success of the Prophet’s message. Converting to Islam meant forsaking the tribal deity and betraying the tribe, a violation of the tribal solidarity that is evidenced by the quote from the Ghazziya poet. More practically, the Prophet Muhammad’s message was an attack on the economic structure of Mecca, which relied on annual pilgrimages to the Ka’aba to remain viable. If people stopped worshipping the idols then they would no longer have a reason to visit Mecca. The Quraysh, the Prophet’s own tribe, would lose their source of income. In one stroke, the Prophet was insulting the tribe’s sense of community and attacking the economic foundation its prosperity depended on. The Quraysh were obligated to persecute the fledgling Muslim community.

The Prophet Muhammad’s attack on Meccan social norms was met first with resistance and then with violence, including a narrowly avoided assassination attempt. The Muslims initially benefited from the protection of the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Abu Talib, who was the head of the Banu Hashim, a respected clan in the Quraysh tribe. However, after his uncle died, the Prophet and his followers were left to fend for themselves, leaving them in a difficult position where they were open to violent retaliation from the Qurayshi families who felt both threatened and insulted by a perceived theft of family member loyalties.

This dilemma was resolved by a revolutionary idea, built on the foundation of the message that the Prophet preached in Mecca. The Muslims abandoned the idea of kinship groups based on blood and instead formed a new ‘tribe’ based on faith, known as the ummah. Membership in the ummah (as well as being a Muslim) required no family relation, no social status, and no prerequisite level of income; it only required acceptance of Allah as the one true God and of Muhammad as his Messenger. The ummah was a new community that offered the Muslims the protection and security they had previously received from their kinship groups.[5] The moment that defined the creation of this community is the Hijra, the emigration of Muslims to Yathrib. Prior to this, the Muslims had still considered themselves to be members of their own families, just with a different set of beliefs. Breaking away from their families and creating a new community based on faith rather than blood was an incredible social innovation, and clearly marks the birth of the Muslim community as an independent and functional social system, as well as a system of belief.

Eventually, the ummah would encompass all of Arabia, creating a new problem that challenged the traditional means of supplementing tribal income: raiding, which was known as ghazu. In times of scarcity, tribes would launch raids against each other to capture camels, cattle or slaves. Raids were carried out with precision and care, to prevent injuries or deaths that might result in blood fueds. These raids were an accepted fact of life and were not in any way morally reprehensible. They were instead a necessary means of redistributing wealth in an area of the world where there was often not enough to go around.[6] Unfortunately, this tradition conflicted with the new Muslim morality as defined by the Quran and the Prophet. Surah 3, ayah 103 of the Quran says, “Hold fast to God’s rope all together; do not split into factions. Remember God’s favour to you: you were enemies and then He brought your hearts together and you became brothers by His grace: you were about to fall into a pit of Fire and He saved you from it…”[7] Also, in his book, A History of the Arab Peoples, Hourani says that when the Prophet Muhammad made his last visit to Mecca in 632, he gave a speech and said, “…know that every Muslim is a Muslim’s brother, and that the Muslims are brethren.” He said that violence between Muslims should be avoided and old blood debts should be forgotten.[8]

As essentially members of one tribe, the ummah would have to reassess their society and find a new means of supporting themselves. Internal conflicts were no longer permitted under Islam, so the Arabs instead spread outward, taking their culture and religion with them. The outward spread of Arabs into the Middle East began as raiding parties in Syria and Palestine in the 630s,[9] but soon developed into full scale battle with the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires. The conquering Arabs would be victorious, creating a vast Islamic empire. The leap from pre-Islamic Bedouin society to Islamic Imperialism would again fundamentally alter Arab society.

Because of the principles of unity found in the Quran, the nomadic peoples of Arabia created a new social identity that revolved around faith. This was a clear break from the past and returned a sense of equity to the Muslim community. However, this new unity came with new problems. The Arabs had to find a new economic model to sustain their society. The Arabs solved this problem using traditional tactics. Since the tribe was replaced by the ummah, the push outward into the Middle East was a continuation of the tradition of ghazu, simply on a larger scale. Intentionally or not, a relatively simple people from the Arabian Peninsula quickly became a world power that would greatly influence world history, and continues to influence world history.


[1] On page 38 of The Great Arab Conquests, Kennedy states that membership in a tribe might increase or decrease based on the tribe’s level of success. New arrivals would claim that they “must have been in some way part of that kin all along,” maintaining the façade of biological kinship groups.
[2] Lapidus, page 13.
[3] Lapidus, pages 12.
[4] Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time, pages 12 – 14.
[5] Kennedy, page 38.
[6] Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time, page 11.
[7] The Qur’an; M.A.S. Abdel Haleem translation; Oxford World’s Classics version.
[8] Hourani, page 19.
[9] Kennedy, page 70.

Bibliography:

Armstrong, K. (2007). Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time. New York: HarperCollins.
Armstrong, K. (2009). Islam: A Short History. London: Phoenix Press.
The Qur’an. (2010). (M. A. Haleem, Trans.) New York: Oxford University Press.
Hourani, A. (1991). A History Of The Arab Peoples. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Kennedy, H. (2008). The Great Arab Conquests: How The Spread of Islam Changed The World We Live In. Philadelphia: Ca Capo Press.
Lapidus, I. M. (2002). A History of Islamic Societies (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Note:
 
This was a paper written for a college course titled “Middle East Under Islam.”  The final grade was 15/15, 100%.

Egyptian-American Muslim Girl Gets Grilled on Polygamy By Hispanic Woman

“Hey, are you Egyptian?”  I was standing at a table on the side of the post office, filling out a shipping label, when a Hispanic woman walked up and asked the girl next to me that question.  I glanced over at the girl and saw she had Middle Eastern features and she was wearing a hijab (the head scarf, if you’re not familiar with the word).  Oddly enough, the woman had guessed right.  The girl replied that she was half Egyptian and was born in the US.

“You’re a Muslim right?”  At this point, I was considering moving to another part of the post office, because I was expecting this Hispanic woman to go nuts and start haranguing this girl for being a Muslim, which she obviously was, since she was wearing a hijab.  New York City has a reputation for being filled with lunatics and you really never know if you’re talking to one until it’s too late.  The girl looked a little hesitant, but again she answered yes.

‘Here it comes,’ I thought.  But, instead of what I was expecting, the Hispanic woman asked, “What do you think about marrying more than one woman?  If you were married to a man, would you be ok with him marrying a woman in another country?”

“No, I wouldn’t be ok with that.”

“Ok, because I know Muslims believe in marrying more than one wife.”

“Well, not all Muslims do that,” the girl replied.  “That’s mostly something that happened a long time ago, because it’s too hard to handle more than one wife, since the guy has to take care of them equally.  It’s a lot of trouble, but I wouldn’t do it myself.”

“Oh, well you’re mostly American since you were born here, but do you know if Egyptians do that?”  I imagine she was trying to fish for another answer, perhaps to justify the problem she was about to lay out to this girl.

“Well, yes, but I just don’t think it’s ok and I don’t think many people would do that.”

“My husband was here, and he married me, but then he went back to Egypt and he married another woman.  If you were the other woman and you knew the man was married, would you do that?  Would you marry a man that was already married?  What kind of woman does such a thing?”

The above conversation is paraphrased, of course.  I don’t remember exactly what they said to each other, but it went along those lines.  At that point, I stopped following the conversation completely because I was just about done with filling out my shipping label and sealing the envelope, but the Hispanic woman kept pressing this girl about why her husband, who had been deported, would find a new wife in Egypt instead of being faithful to her.  The girl told her it sounds like a personal problem.  She was probably trying to separate the issue from religion, before it devolved into something ugly.  She told the woman that if she wasn’t satisfied with the situation she should divorce her husband, but the Hispanic woman told her something about losing benefits.

Then I walked away to get my postage for my envelope.

I wonder if that happens often?  I doubt that girl expected to have a conversation quite as bizarre as that when she put on her hijab that morning and left her house.

Broadway Street Fair, 14th Street to 8th Street

A street fair on Broadway near Union Square Park.

Today, Broadway was closed down from 14th Street, where Union Square is, down to 8th Street for a street fair.  The road was lined on both sides with stalls selling everything from costume jewelry to barbecue pulled pork.  There were even stalls set up by The New York Times, trying to get people to buy subscriptions, and a booth promoting Islam.  This is a story best told with pictures:

Costume jewelry for sale at a street fair in New York City.

This costume jewelry was laid out in a huge pile across a few tables.  It was on sale.  A closeout sale in fact.  Only $3.00 apiece.  Doesn’t seem like much of a sale to me.  I’m sure if you looked hard enough you could find this stuff for a dollar apiece.  It’s pretty to look at though, especially when it’s laid out together like it was.

Kettle Corn NYC.

Some $9.00 bags of kettle corn.  If you’ve never had kettle corn, it’s sweet.  It tastes awesome and smells great.

Shirts for sale at a street fair on Broadway in New York City.

Japanese balls.  Yum!

I stopped by this booth to look at what they had to offer.  The sign on the front of the table says that everything on the table is free.  The guy in the blue jacket on the right spoke fluent English and Spanish, and the Korans he’s putting down are translated into Spanish.  The Lower East Side has a lot of Hispanic families, so maybe that’s the demographic they were mostly prepared for.  I took a few of the flyers.  I’m sure they’ll make great reading material for the train.  The guy in the blue jacket seemed encouraged by my interest in the flyers and asked me what I know about Islam, so I started talking about dates, like Mohammad’s birth, death, the first revelation, etc.  I know these things, since I just learned about it in an Art History course and I’m taking a test over it tomorrow.  He asked me if I wanted to spend a few minutes learning about the basics of the Islamic faith.  I thanked him, but said no.  It’s not that it wouldn’t be interesting, but given recent events, I don’t want to hang around anything promoting Islam.  Some nutball might show up and do something violent.  Besides, I have a feeling he was going to tell me about the 5 pillars of the Islamic faith: Attestation (“There is no god but God, and Mohammad is his prophet.”), Alms, Prayer (5 times a day), the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), and fasting during Ramadan.

Marrakesh: Moroccan Bazaar and Decor booth at a street fair on Broadway.

There were even Moroccan rugs!

Funnel cake stand.

And funnel cakes!  I love funnel cakes.  I didn’t get one though, because I was on my way to meet my mom for lunch.  It was Mother’s Day, and I didn’t want to spoil my appetite.

I saw a LOT more than just this street fair today, including some Asian cultural festivities, but I’ll save that for a post tomorrow, or the day after.  I hope you enjoyed the photos!