Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

If you want to get a feel for the warm, glowing power of the word “Sharia” for Muslims, simply go to Psalm 119, a 176-verse acrostic using the Hebrew alphabet to extol the beauty of God’s law. As King David pens it, the “law” revealed to Moses and the subsequent rules and regulations found in the five books of the Torah is synonymous with God’s “word,” his “statutes,” his “precepts,” and the like.

For Muslims, the Sharia as found in the Qur’an and the righteous model (Sunna) of the Prophet keeps believers on the straight path that leads to prosperity in this world and the next. For Jews, and especially in Rabbinic Judaism – which was already developing in Jesus’ day, God’s law alone could keep his people on the path of upright living and fill their hearts with joy:

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.

I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws.

I have suffered much; preserve my life, O Lord, according to your word.

Accept, O Lord, the willing praise of my mouth, and teach me your laws.

Though I constantly take my life in my hands, I will not forget your law.

The wicked have set a snare for me, but I have not strayed from your precepts.

Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.

My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end” (Psalm 119, “Nun” NIV).

This embrace of “God’s law” is quite similar to the Islamic psyche, with the main difference that for Muslims it is mediated through the prophetic ministry of Muhammad, the “seal of the prophets.” For a quick introduction see my previous blogs, “Shari’a Conspiracy Theories,” and “Shari’a: Can It Be Outlawed?”

Further, God’s law for Muslims is focused on two areas of human life: the rituals of worship, which keep a person in right relationship with God (al-‘ibadat); and the rules that govern human interactions (al-mu‘amalat). The Five Pillars come under the first category, though the five main schools of Islamic law often disagree about its finer points. Some of the rulings in the second category come from clear texts in both Qur’an and Sunna (like the rules of inheritance and the so-called “fixed penalties” like the cutting off of hands for thieves and the stoning of adulterers, or the ban on charging interest on loans).

That phrase “clear texts” is laden with meaning and centuries of consensus among Muslim scholars/jurists (the ulama, who wielded considerable power historically and often as a counterweight to the political rulers, the sultans). But the situation is starting to evolve, partly because of normal debating in the age of globalization and the Internet, and partly because of geopolitics in a post 9/11 world.


The October 2012 Conference “Emerging Voices in Islamic Jurisprudence”

I write this piece on the heels of a conference I attended last week in St. Paul, MN, sponsored by the Hamline University Law School and its Journal of Law and Religion (JLR). I was presenting a paper on the media-savvy and immensely popular 86-year-old jurist from Egypt and Qatar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi. You can read my 20-minute presentation in “Resources.”

The title of that paper ("Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi: Standard-Bearer of the 'New Purposive Fiqh'") points to an increasingly popular methodology in Islamic law called “The Objectives of Sharia” (Arabic: Maqasid al-Shari’a). As it turned out, at least four other papers in the two-day conference referenced this recent trend and it often came up too in the question-and-answer sessions. But first, a very brief overview of the conference.

It was a unique occasion, in that law professors made up a good third of the audience and law students, with some undergrads mixed in, composed another third. The others were either presenters or family and friends. In my experience this is unusual, because people specialized in other areas of law were coming for a short, intensive seminar on Islamic law. For this reason a glossary of Arabic technical terms was distributed and we presenters were told to adapt our papers to this kind of audience. Though we did not always succeed in doing this, the feedback was mostly positive.

In a sense, such a conference is a rite of passage for the discipline of Islamic law in the United States. A journal that for decades has specialized in law and religion was investing an impressive amount of time and money to bring together specialists with the purpose of devoting a couple of issues to these papers. Especially at a time when some presidential campaign rhetoric derides the Sharia as a plot for Muslims to take over the US, this effort stands out as a voice of sanity and a noble academic initiative to study what is so precious to one-fifth of humanity.

That said, some well-known scholars of Islamic law were present and, what is remarkable, many young scholars still working on their doctorates also contributed. Specialists were flown in from several countries, including Norway, Finland, the UK and Turkey. Additionally, several papers approached issues of religious law from other disciplinary angles, such as comparative law, history, religious studies, and anthropology.

One presentation that stood out for me was that by anthropologist John Bowen (St. Louis University), who after over three decades of writing about Indonesia and more recently France, England and North America, unpacked his recent fieldwork in a sharia court attached to a London mosque. These proceedings deal almost exclusively with divorce and, though they have no legal impact on British courts, they nevertheless play an important role in the life of mostly South Asian immigrants.

Another highlight for me was the banquet the Journal of Law and Religion put on for the participants honoring William Graham, an Islamicist and long time member of the JLR editorial staff, with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Graham joined the faculty of Harvard University in 1973 and has continued to lead and initiate several ventures. Since 2002 he has been Dean of the Harvard Divinity School. I was struck above all by the humility, kindness and wisdom this man exudes.

I leave you with two more short vignettes. The very first panel had two bright young Muslim scholars whose debate back and forth I found especially exciting. Rumee Ahmed is assistant professor at the University of British Columbia and author of Narratives of Islamic Legal Theory (Oxford U. Press, 2012). He offered a brilliant argument about the failure of Muslim jurists so far to integrate the best of classical Islamic legal theory with modern sensibilities. The implication was that a clean break with some of the tenets of classical jurisprudence had to made, and only then was progress in revitalizing Islamic law possible.

The other scholar was Anver Emon, founding editor of the journal Middle East Law and Governance and associate professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto. His latest book is Religious Pluralism and Islamic Law (Oxford U. Press, 2012). I remember listening to their conversation before about 200 people and thinking how fascinating it was to witness such creative minds.

Finally, Ahmed’s wife, Ayesha S. Chaudhry, also teaches at the University of British Columbia, but besides being trained in classical Islamic studies also teaches gender studies at UBC’s Institute for Race, Gender, Sexuality and Social Justice. Both she and the famous Muslim feminist from the UK, Ziba Mir Hosseini, participated in a couple of panels on Islamic feminism that left the audience gripped by the thought of such bold rethinking of the classical gender roles in Islamic societies. Have a look at Hosseini’s Musawah Global Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family.


Brief comments on “The Objectives of Sharia”

Some readers have already perused the “Resources” of this website know that I have available two previously published papers on this topic ("A Turn in 20th-Century Islamic Legal Theory," and "Objectives of Sharia and Human Rights"). Another one was a chapter in a book that gathered the papers of a conference in 2005 on Sharia at Yale University. I presented the thoughts on this topic of Morocco’s leading independence movement, Allal al-Fasi (“Allal al-Fasi: Shari’a as Blueprint for a Righteous Global Citizenship?” in Shari’a: Islamic Law in the Contemporary Context, eds. Abbas Madanat and Frank Griffel, Stanford U. Press, 2009). I have verbally promised to translate al-Fasi’s major work on the Sharia's objectives for a series at Yale University Press.

God willing, I'll write more on this topic, but suffice it to say here that when Sunnism as a religious movement began coalescing around the views of Abu-l Hasan al-Ash‘ari in the 10th century BCE (this consensus on law and theology, Ash’arism, is still official Sunni doctrine today), it was a middle position between the rationalism of the Mu‘tazilites and the conservativism and textualism of the Ahl al-Hadith ("People of the Hadith," i.e., those who follow the Prophet's words and deeds").

You can think of the latter as being best represented by Ibn Hanbal, who at great personal cost stood up to Caliph al-Ma’mun in the 830s and refused to teach that the Qur’an was created and that the anthropomorphisms in the Qur’an (verses referring to God’s hands, fingers; God sitting on a throne, etc.) were merely figures of speech. Whatever the sacred texts say – whether Qur’an or Sunna – they have to be taken literally, whether you can explain them rationally or not. Period.

As I mentioned above, the consensus among the four Sunni schools of law and the Shi’i Ja‘afari school is that any specific command in these texts is meant for all time and places – so it’s not amenable to ijtihad, the effort a top legal scholar invests in bringing all his knowledge to bear on finding a new ruling for a new situation.

This is still the official position of all the various associations of Islamic jurists today, including of course, the influential Egyptian-Qatari scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is president of both the International Association of Muslim Scholars and the European Council for Fatwa and Research.

You can read the details in my presentation. Here I just want to state what I think is a dilemma for him and the majority of other jurists: on the one hand they assert that humans can know many of the reasons behind the legal injunctions of the texts – some in the area of worship (‘ibadat), but most all of them in the area of human transactions (mu‘amalat). This is handy in the sociopolitical realm, for the texts say virtually noting about politics and constitutional law.

So Yusuf al-Qaradawi, frail as he is in his mid-eighties, flew from Qatar to Egypt days after the outbreak of the “25 January Revolution” to lead the Friday prayers in Tahrir Square on February 18, 2011, before a crowd some estimated at one million. All this he did in the name of the ethical values of freedom from oppression, the right of people to self-determination, and basically, democracy. He called for national unity, particularly between Christians and Muslims and made it clear from the beginning that the protesters were acting on their God-given rights to overthrow the yoke of dictatorship and seek freedom, justice, a fairly elected government, and equality of all before the law.

On the other hand, these objective values, common to all humanity and taught by all the world’s religions, can be seen by many to clash with the specific texts related to the penal code and family law, as I stated earlier. Some jurists and scholars have moved beyond and stated that those texts were revealed for a particular time and a particular place. In order to understand them today, we have to look at the ethical principles as taught more generally in the texts and apply those in today’s context, which has changed drastically since Late Antiquity.

Hence Qaradawi's dilemma: those values he trumpets so loudly in the sociopolitical sphere are trumped for him when it comes to gender issues and penal law. Since God is the author, he reasons, those texts apply to all times and climes.


Summing up

I started this blog by stating what a feeling of warmth and comfort the word “Sharia” brings to Muslims in general. For them it doesn’t conjure up in their minds what it tends to for many westerners: images of people’s arms cut off, others stoned to death, women virtually helpless to initiate a divorce, or inheriting only half of what their brothers inherit, or having their testimony in court worth only half that of a man.

No, your average Muslim (certainly in the west, but many other places as well) assumes this is something of the past and thinks only of prayer at home or in the mosque, family celebrations at Ramadan, charity given to the poor, the lifetime dream of a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, and a host of other very pleasant markers in their proud identity as Muslims.

In fact, the concept of “sharia” is a moving target, whether for Muslims or non-Muslims; and like Jews, Muslims take great pleasure in arguing about the finer points of religious law among themselves. More than anything, as I hope to show in future blogs, “the times they are a changin” – especially in the way Muslims see themselves following God’s will in a pluralistic global society. The Minnesota conference dramatically underlined that fact. But too, Muslims’ lively debates among themselves in the US and the post-revolutionary bantering about a new constitution in Egypt are just two examples of how these arguments are evolving in different contexts.

This is the paper I presented at the Journal of Law and Religion conference in September 2012 at the Hamline University Law School in St. Paul, Minnesota, "Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi: Standard Bearer of the 'New Purposive Fiqh.'"

See also the blog in Current Islam, "Emerging Voices in Islamic Jurisprudence."

Since about 2002, I have been fascinated with the space in which law and theology meet in Islamic thinking. My 2004 article in the Brill journal Islamic Law and Society ("A Turn in the Epistemology and Hermeneutics of Twentieth Century Usul al-Fiqh," ILS 11, 2, pp. 1-50) argues that in the many centuries of debates over the relative role of reason and revelation in discovering God's law for humankind, a trend can be seen in the last century. A hereunto rather marginal school of thought, which emphasized a methodology focused on the "Objectives of Shari'a" (Maqasid al-Shari'a) gradually became prominent. This trend continues in this century with scores of books written on this "Purposive Method" (al-manhaj al-maqasidi).

Other signs of this can be seen in the founding of the London-based Al-Maqasid Research Centre in the Philosophy of Islamic Law in 2005 and in the theme chosen by the last international conference in Cairo before the January 2011 Revolution. It was jointly sponsored by the Al-Azhar University and the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Affairs (lit. Awqaf, or "religious endowments") and its theme was "The Objectives of Shari'a and Contemporary Issues: Research and Realities."

Sadly, most people around the world who identify “evangelicals” with “conservative Protestants” would agree that they don’t stand for peace – they’re anti-abortion, anti-gays, yes; but not anti-war. Yet as someone who writes mostly about Islam, I would have to remind readers that the sociology of any broadly labeled group, and especially a religious one, is a lot more complex than that.

What makes this question so poignant as I write is that the scurrilous film insulting the Muslim prophet and whipping up so much anti-American venom these days was produced by three Egyptian-Americans and one American under the auspices of Media for Christ, registered in Duarte, CA (for more details, see Sheila Musaji’s blog).

Steve Klein, the one who first told the Associated Press that American Jews produced the film (and later changed his story), has a TV show at the same address called, “Wake Up America.” He regularly posts blogs on anti-Muslims outlets such as Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs and Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch. He has a history of anti-Islamic activism in Southern California.

Klein is also associated with the National American Coptic Assembly mostly composed of ex-Coptic Orthodox converts to a brand of conservative Protestantism. He claims to have given several individuals of this group the idea to produce this film, including its president, Morris Sadek, who posted the trailer on YouTube and promoted it both with the Arab media and his own website.

Apparently, the one person most commonly associated with the name “Sam Basile” (because their cell phone numbers and addresses coincide), Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, is an ex-prisoner on probation for drug offenses and may have been the film’s producer.

The most influential person in this quartet is the founder and president of Media for Christ, mwo4meph Nasralla Abdelmasih, who also has taken a very active role in Pamela Geller’s and Robert Spencer’s various anti-Islamic programs over the last two years. It was Media for Christ that obtained the permit to film “Innocence of Muslims,” besides sponsoring the English and Arabic satellite program “The Way” launched by Steve Klein in 2010.

The film, by the way, was strongly condemned by the Coptic Orthodox hierarchy in Egypt and southern California where the film was made. This is important back in Egypt especially, since the film bears the marks of specifically Coptic anti-Islamic rhetoric. This point is reinforced by anthropologist Anthony Shenoda, himself from a Coptic background. Yet at some point that evident hate and rancor flowed into a witch’s brew of Protestant fundamentalism, anti-Islamic activism, and some obvious anti-Semitism.

The evangelical connection isn’t surprising, you say. What about Pat Robertson’s or Franklin Graham’s oft-quoted Islamophobic rants? What about the Christian Right’s strong backing of conservative causes, like their hawkish stance on Iran, their active support for Israel’s most militant settlers, their calls for increased military spending and a more assertive American Empire? For many, I’ll admit, “evangelicals for peace” is a hard sell.

On a personal note, I write these lines with a heavy heart. As a follower of Jesus, I grieve for all these divisions among those who claim Jesus of Nazareth as the Lord and Redeemer of the world through his death and resurrection, whether we be Catholic, Orthodox in its many branches, or Protestant in its many denominations. Jesus taught, “Do not judge others … The standard you use in judging others will be the standard by which you will be judged” (Mat. 7:1-2). He also preached, “God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called children of God” (see my series on “Jesus: A Sunna of Peace”).

But I have some good news too. Some evangelical leaders have long been working for peace and their stories are starting to come out.


The Evangelicals for Peace Summit

I just spent last Friday (Sept. 14, 2012) at Georgetown University in Washington, DC for a conference by the name, “Evangelicals for Peace: A Summit on Christian Moral Responsibility in the 21st Century.” My friend Rick Love of Peace Catalyst International had taken the initiative and organized this event, and over a hundred people came. We all hope it sparks a new beginning, particularly among the youth, who more than others would have a stake in a world in which conflicts are reduced and reconciliation is prized at all levels.

Let me quickly profile five speakers out of seventeen and close with a couple remarks.


David Gushee, https://theology.mercer.edu/faculty-staff/gushee/ Mercer University, founder of Evangelicals for Human Rights

I have written a great deal about Professor Glen Stassen of Fuller Seminary, so I won’t comment on his intervention. But his former student David Gushee, who co-authored his book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, gave a rousing presentation on “The US Warfare State and Evangelical Peacemaking.”

Gushee quoted David Stockman, former Reagan budget director, who considers the current budget of $775 billion indefensible: “we have no advanced industrial state enemies” as we did during the Cold War and its only raison d’être is to bolster an ideology of “neoconservative imperialism” that puts the US in the role of an increasingly unpopular “global policeman.” In fact, in inflation-adjusted dollars it is nearly twice the size of Dwight Eisenhower’s Cold War defense budget in 1961. Remember that it was Eisenhower himself who first warned his fellow citizens about the dangers of a “military-industrial complex” careening out of control. No matter what the administration in power in recent decades, this weapons-multiplying and war-hungry machine is in the hands of a Washington elite bent on keeping the status quo.

Gushee then added this:


“Our FY 2011 defense budget was five times greater than that of China, our nearest competition for this dubious honor; constituted over 40% of the world’s entire military spending; and was larger than the cumulative budget of the next 14 nations in the top 15. All of this at a time when our infrastructure is crumbling, our schools are sliding, and 1/6 of our population cannot find or has stopped looking for a full-time work.”


Has the church weighed in on the matter? Apparently not: “The Christian, and not just evangelical, voice in US foreign policy debates seems entirely marginalized, more so than at any time I have lived through or studied. There is no contemporary Christian leader, scholar, denomination, or movement whose views on US foreign and military policies seems to matter to either party or its leaders.”

I am thrilled to write that the conference itself proved Gushee overly pessimistic. I don’t have the space to comment, for instance, on the interventions by Douglas Johnston’s, the President and Founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy whom some have called “The Father of Faith-based Diplomacy” and by veteran Mennonite peacemaker David Shenk. But let me go on.


Geoff Tunnicliffe, CEO of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA)

Dr. Tunnicliffe, a Canadian citizen, directs an umbrella organization representing 600 million evangelicals around the world. Based in New York, he spends most of his time traveling, speaking at conferences, mentoring Christian leaders and meeting with world leaders at the UN, the G-8 and the World Bank. He is also active in a variety of interfaith circles and is presently co-president of Religions for Peace. Two stories stood out for me.

The first was about his friendship with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, leaders of the famous mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan and long-time activists for interfaith dialog in the US (read about the Cordoba Initiative). In fact, Tunnicliffe was having dinner in their home when the sad news broke of Ambassador Chris Stevens’ death. He had also involved Imam Feisal in talking with Terry Jones in 2010 and getting him to desist from bruning the Qur’an outside his Florida church.

The second story had to do with the Pakistani Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, who had campaigned against the blasphemy laws and was assassinated a stone’s throw from his house in March 2011. Tunnicliffe knew him well and Bhatti had told him shortly before of his plan to start interfaith peace communities. When the church leader asked him why such a risky project, Bhatti had answered him, “Because this is what Jesus wants me to do.”


David Beasley, former Governor of South Carolina

Still a proud conservative Republican, Governor Beasley’s horizons have been stretched by a decade of peacemaking. He was granted the 2003 John F. Kennedy Profile of Courage Award, sits on the board of the Peace Research Endowment, “a non-profit organization that aims to affect research, policy, and create a less violent world.” His stories reflected how after 9/11 he met Muslims who helped change his previous paradigm of “clashing civilizations” and set him on a peacemaking path that would take him to meet with leaders in Eastern Europe, North Africa, Asia and the Mideast.

The governor recounted how Muslim leaders not known for their tolerant views sat with him for hours sometimes, agreeing on how Jesus and his teaching was a common force and inspiration for peacemaking. He also mentioned how on Capitol Hill lawmakers from opposite ends of the aisle were meeting for prayer and how over time true bonds of friendship and love were breaking down prejudice and bitterness between them. Add to that the scores of high-level officials from all over the world and all faiths who meet regularly in Washington around the person of Jesus. It’s not about people converting to any “religion”; rather it’s people discovering new depths of God’s love for all, regardless of labels or backgrounds.


Sami Awad, Executive Director of the Holy Land Trust (HLT)

Sami Awad was a Kansas college student who would come home from college to visit family when I was teaching at the Bethlehem Bible College, founded and directed by his father, Bishara Awad. Later, I wasn’t surprised to hear he had founded HLT in Bethlehem, no doubt building on his father’s example, but also on his uncle Mubarak Awad’s legacy. Mubarak through his early work on nonviolence had inspired many of the tactics of the first Palestinian uprising (or Intifada, literally, “shaking off the yoke”) and then, after being deported by the Israelis, founded a center for nonviolence in Washington.

What struck me listening to Sami this time was the evidence of his coming full circle. By this I mean that after taking the best of his uncle Mubarak’s practice, he was now incorporating more of his father’s spirituality. He began with the narrative that all Palestinians share: 45 years of Israeli occupation has crippled the Palestinian economy and continues to rob them of civil and political freedoms that could only come with the advent of a viable, independent state of their own.

That is still true. Yet it is only in the last two years, he confessed, that he realized what “Holy Land Trust” actually stands for:


- a land equally holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians …

- “trust” means that this land first belongs to God; who then has given it to the local inhabitants of all three faiths; with the proviso that they care for it in a just and peaceful manner …

- that they as an organization (that also includes Muslims), if they are ever to advance the cause of peace, are called to obey Jesus’ command to love their enemies.


In fact, 70% of Israelis and Palestinians want peace. What is needed is to move forward, he argued, is to overcome two obstacles, the Israeli occupation and the issue of identity – not allowing my identity as a Palestinian or an Israeli Jew get in the way of listening, so that both truth and love will build up the other. Then we must arm ourselves with two peaceable weapons, true activism, that is, from a heart of forgiveness, and love or enemies.

Perhaps this story best conveys what Sami is after. Earlier this year he went to the military governor’s office in Bethlehem attempting to obtain a permit to enter Jerusalem (only six miles away, but he had been consistently denied). He knew the officer very well, whom he no longer called “Captain Rami,” but simply “Rami.” It was not always this way. During the dozens of peaceful protests Sami had organized, he would always hear Captain Rami’s orders to his soldiers: “Go straight for Sami. He’s the organizer.” And time after time Sami was badly beaten up by the soldiers in the demonstration.

So this time, Captain Rami’s initial question was this: “I haven’t seen you in any demonstration for two years. Where have you been?” Sami answered that he had been rethinking his strategy, trying to be more consistent with this own faith. Jesus calls for love of enemies, and that was something he had to work on. As a result, he had visited the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau and truly felt that he was beginning to feel the pain of his Israeli friends. They went on talking for a while. This time Sami received his permit to leave Bethlehem. Apparently, as he put it, Rami liked his message and didn’t mind him spreading it in Israel.


Last words

There are still many facts behind the incendiary 14-minute YouTube clip that escape us. That said, there is plenty of hate to go around and some of those making a career out of it are Christians who associate in some way with the Christian Right. Thankfully, others within the wide spectrum of conservative Protestants are actively engaged with people of other faiths (and no faith) to bring about peace and reconciliation where it is most needed.

The common denominator among the women and men who intervened in this conference was their international activism. Geoff Tunnicliffe said it well, referring most obviously to Jim Wallis and Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners, but also to Ron Sider's Evangelicals for Social Action -- both organizations which go back to the early 1970s: “the evangelical left in America is the evangelical middle everywhere else.” The problem comes when people of faith blindly accept their own national narrative. For American evangelicals especially, taking “American exceptionalism” as gospel truth is pernicious. Learning from Sami Awad, we need to put our identity behind us and Jesus in front of us so we can follow him. This would be a useful first step in making “evangelicals for peace” a reality.

For the first time in its 84-year-old history, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has its man, Mohammed Mursi, running the state. And now, after many months of tense wrangling with Egypt’s military rulers – who, it should be said, expedited President Mubarak’s exit and made the people’s revolution a reality – Mursi astonished everyone by forcing the top officers to retire. The executive is now in charge and the commander-in-chief is a civilian.

In another bold move, Mursi went to Teheran – the first Egyptian leader to set foot in Iran since the 1979 Revolution – and to all of the delegates of the Non-Aligned Movement gathered there, he declared that the Syrian uprising was “a revolution against an oppressive regime.” The Egyptians got rid of their “Pharaoh” (the Qur’an’s biggest villain aside from Satan himself) – it’s now time for the Syrians to do likewise. His host, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, likely turned livid, and on cue, the Syrian delegation walked out.

Here I unpack Mursi’s foreign policy in light of his actions in Teheran, leading me to explain a bit more about the Non-Aligned (or Nonaligned) Movement and Iran. Then I come back to Egypt with some remarks about islamists, globalization and the economy (reminder: I write “islamists” with a lower case ‘i’ because it’s an ideological stance, not primarily religious). As you might guess, a country’s foreign policy and its economic philosophy are deeply interwoven. In the end, Mursi’s policies may not be as bold or new as they seem.


Who are the “Non-Aligned”?

Historically, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was birthed at the Bandung (Indonesia) Conference in 1955. Leaders of Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Burma and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) invited leaders from twenty-five other developing nations to discuss how they might band together to resist a world dominated by two superpowers. As it turns out, Egyptian president Gamel Abd Al-Nasser was a key player and his joint initiative with India’s Nehru led to the first Non-Aligned Nations conference in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1961.

The twenty-nine nations in Bandung officially supported the Algerian struggle to oust the French and called for a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian crisis according to existing UN resolutions. Though the movement quickly grew in importance (it has 120 members today) and its goals seemed clear enough, it remained stymied by internal divisions.

No doubt, the fall of the Soviet Union created even more inner turmoil. Some felt that the NAM had outlived its usefulness. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and especially India and Egypt (which still receives $2 billion annually in aid since the 1978 Camp David Accords) have close ties with the USA. Still, reason a majority of nations, the United States and its allies continue to dominate the world politically and economically. Also, the issues of globalization, debt, the destructive effects of neoliberal capitalism on developing nations and the rise of international crime – these issues continue to be discussed.

But, you say, isn’t it the role of the UN to address such problems? It is, of course, but a disproportionate amount of power is invested in the Security Council, which because of its five permanent members with veto power can easily be dominated by the western powers (the US, France and the UK), though China and Russia in the case of Syria oppose them. Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spoke for many others during this last NAM conference when he declared that the U.N. Security Council is “an illogical, unjust and defunct relic of the past used by the United States ‘to impose its bullying manner on the world.’”


Iran’s balance sheet at the NAM conference

The NAM has neither constitution nor permanent secretariat. Decisions can only be made at the Conference of Heads of States or Government, meeting once every three years. This Teheran conference marks the passing of leadership from the Egyptians to the Iranians. NAM chairs in this century have been Malaysia, South Africa, Cuba, before Egypt took over in 2009.

Iran stood to gain immensely from this transition. They were hosts in 2012 when four sets of UN sanctions have been passed against them and most nations, led by the US and Israel, have taken a firm stand against their nuclear program believing it is for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons – something still vociferously denied by Iran.

How did they make out in the end?

First, on the positive side for Iran, the New York Times had this to say:

“The 120-nation Nonaligned Movement handed its host Iran a diplomatic victory on Friday [Aug. 31, 2012], unanimously decreeing support for the disputed Iranian nuclear energy program and criticizing the American-led attempt to isolate and punish Iran with unilateral economic sanctions . . . The Tehran Declaration document not only emphasizes Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy but acknowledges the right to ownership of a full nuclear fuel cycle, which means uranium enrichment — a matter of deep dispute.”


Admittedly, this was a big victory, but not without paying a heavy price all the same. First, though initially pleased that Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, had accepted to attend, the Iranian leaders had to endure two sets of stern public reprimands by him. At the conference itself Mr. Ban urged Iran to prove their peaceful intentions by allowing the UN complete access to their nuclear facilities and full cooperation with all their demands. Then he castigated their attitude toward Israel in these words,


“I strongly reject threats by any member states to destroy another or outrageous attempt to deny historical facts such as the Holocaust, claiming that another state, Israel, does not have the right to exist or describing it in racist terms.”


Then the next day, while addressing Iran’s School of International Relations, Mr. Ban openly criticized Iran’s human rights record and told them he had privately urged Ayatollah Khamenei to release all political prisoners.

Yet the most painful rebuke to the Iranian leaders came from Egypt’s President Mursi (sometimes spelled "Morsi") who in his official speech transferring the chairmanship of the NAM to Teheran compared the Syrian people to the Palestinians who were both “actively seeking freedom, dignity and human justice.” Egypt, he continued, was “ready to work with all to stop the bloodshed.”

In essence, the islamist leader was framing the Arab Spring as a classic “third-worldist” resistance movement against colonialism and dictatorship:


“We all have to announce our full solidarity with the struggle of those seeking freedom and justice in Syria, and translate this sympathy into a clear political vision that supports a peaceful transition to a democratic system of rule that reflects the demands of the Syrian people for freedom.”


As a result, not a word was said about Syria in the final conference declaration. Persian and Shi’i Iran, which is rumored to have sent military advisors and weapons to help President Asad, turned out to be deeply out of step with its Arab brethren. So on two counts, the Iranian hosts received stinging censures.

But what do all these events say about Egypt’s President Mursi?


Egypt’s tightrope foreign policy act

Mursi’s visit to Teheran and rebuke to his Shia hosts drew praise from many Egyptians. In fact this may have been his primary motivation, besides the fact that he, as a Muslim Brother, genuinely hates President Bashar al-Asad, whose father in 1982 massacred over 12,000 mostly islamist opponents of his regime in Hama. Just like at home, those standing most to gain from regime change in Syria are from his own ranks. Still, Mursi has some formidable challenges at home and building political capital has to be top on his to-do list. As an Associated Press article put it,


“Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s international debut made its biggest splash at home. After he publicly denounced Syria’s regime while being hosted by Damascus’ top ally Iran, Egyptian supporters and even some critics are lauding him as a new Arab leader that speaks truth to power.”


He also scored points with the ultraconservative Salafis at home when he began his speech by praising Muhammad’s first two successors, Abu Bakr and Umar, who for the Shia were simply impostors since they stood in the way of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin, who they see as his only rightful heir.

Many other countries applauded his anti-Asad stance as well. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell spoke of Mursi’s word on Syria as “very clear and very strong,” particularly considering the speech was in Teheran. But that is the point. Apart from the fact that he was the first Egyptian president to go to Iran, his speech was not particularly bold. He was only saying what all other Arab leaders would have said in his place.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman interviewed Mursi and other islamist leaders some six months before the June 2012 presidential election (“Political Islam Without Oil”) and noted how cautious Mursi and his colleagues seemed to him. A Mursi administration would honor all passed treaties, including the Camp David Accords with Israel (in fact, in August 2012 it was vigorously fighting the radicals in the Sinai Peninsula who had attempted an attack on Israeli soil). Friedman was right: Egypt’s dire economic troubles mean that it cannot afford to jeopardize in any way the yearly inflow of $2 billion in US aid. The islamist party in power knows the handwriting on the wall:


“Egypt is a net importer of oil. It also imports 40 percent of its food. And tourism constitutes one-tenth of its gross domestic product. With unemployment rampant and the Egyptian pound eroding, Egypt will probably need assistance from the International Monetary Fund, a major injection of foreign investment and a big upgrade in modern education to provide jobs for all those youths who organized last year’s rebellion. Egypt needs to be integrated with the world.”


Indeed, Egypt has been in conversation with the IMF and World Bank, as Mursi knows only too well that his party’s political future hangs on his ability to deliver on the economic front.

But, you may be asking, don’t islamists talk about social justice in a way that undercuts capitalism? And what about Islamic banking, and the like?


The paradox of islamist economics

Egypt’s post-revolutionary foreign policy will not be very different from that of the Mubarak era. It literally cannot afford it. But here are three other reasons why I think the economy dictating an islamist state’s foreign policy is so paradoxical – and I will list these in bullet form with more information coming in a future blog:

Let’s start with Tom Friedman’s obvious point about globalization: no one state can survive long term independently from the world economy. That is the reasoning behind the sanction regime trying to pressure Iran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency. (Ironically, its chairmanship of the NAM is not likely to help). Mursi’s party was consulting with international agencies months before his election. This was the main point of my blog, “Is ‘Political Islam’ Over?”. President Mursi has to find a way to rebuild an economy in shambles and therefore attract foreign investment.

What is more, there is no such thing as “Islamist economics.” I can show you writings from the 1970s and 1980s (and even today) that call for “the middle path” between capitalism and socialism, and even Islamic socialist manifestos. But the fact is that there is no consensus on these issues. I will write more about “Islamic banking” at a later date. Suffice it to say that in practice it changes little from the capitalism you see applied elsewhere. For an idea about the gap between the slogans and the reality of poverty alleviation in the Islamic world, see my blog about zakat, one of Islam’s five pillars.

Finally, whereas the puritanical Salafis draw their support from the urban poor, the Muslim Brotherhood has always been an urban middle class phenomenon. True, their people have dominated many of the professions like the doctors’ and lawyers’ unions in Egypt. But their core constituents come from the small businesses. Sociologist Khalil al-Anani, a keen observer of Egypt’s recent developments, wrote an insightful article on this, "Islamists in Power Adopt Economics of the Old Regimes." For an even more critical commentary, consult noted Egyptian journalist Wael Gamal who argues that the Brotherhood is beholden to the richest industrialists (he uses the Occupy slogan, the “One Percenters”) who clearly favor the neoliberal strategy of “public-private partnerships” (PPP), which in the end, he believes, will only widen the gap between the rich and the poor.

So when all is said and done, Mursi’s speech in Teheran was not all that bold. His taming the military, I believe history will show, was indeed an act of courage and foresight. But we shouldn’t expect much independence or “nonalignment” in his foreign policy – or in his domestic policies. Perhaps Egypt will need another revolution for that.

Islam knows no clergy (excepting today’s Iran) and certainly no centralized authority that determines either orthodoxy (right doctrine) or orthopraxy (right conduct). Yet all Muslims agree on five pillars (“2 confessions” and 4 rituals) and on the centrality of law – how on the basis of the Qur’an and the Sunna Islamic jurisprudence in its various schools evolved over the centuries to guide Muslims along the path that leads to God’s blessing in this life and the next (the Shari’a).

That said, if you want to understand contemporary Islam, you must know something about the disproportionate influence the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has played in the Muslim world in the 2000s. No doubt King Abdullah II has continued the path of moderation and interfaith dialog chartered by his father King Hussein. Yet since his accession to the throne in 1999 he has gone far beyond the vision of his father, and this, I would argue, is in large part due to his cousin’s brilliance, spiritual endowment, leadership and networking skills – Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad.

Prince Ghazi graduated with highest honors from Princeton with a B.A. in Comparative Literature, then from Cambridge with a Ph.D. in Modern and Medieval Languages and Literatures, then from al-Azhar in Cairo with a Ph.D. in Islamic philosophy. The common thread in his writings is a quest to understand love, both divine and human (see his book, Love in the Holy Qur’an).

Officially Chief Advisor to the King on religious and cultural issues, the Prince chairs several pivotal boards of directors:



Much could be added to this list, but these are the instruments of power at his disposal to combat extremism, promote his conservative theological views, and spread his message of reconciliation, first between Muslims, and then between Muslims, Christians and people of other faiths.


Landmark achievements of the Hashemite Kingdom

Managing the endowments of the third holiest place in Islam is a task the Hashemites of Jordan have always undertaken with great pride. I remember living in East Jerusalem in the early 1990s when the golden “Dome” of the Rock was being replaced. No expense was spared and in less than two years it was finished, shinier than ever.

More significant historically was the Amman Message initiative. On the heels of the mayhem and havoc wreaked by the series of terrorist attacks in the early 2000s, King Abdullah II in 2004 wanted to issue a statement of what “true Islam” was and was not, backed by the most respected authorities of the Muslim world. The legitimacy of the declaration would be enhanced both by the number of top authorities involved and by their diversity, aiming to represent all the various Sunni and Shii currents of thought, prestigious institutions, legal schools and mystical orders.

According to the official website:


“In order to give this statement more religious authority, H.M. King Abdullah II then sent the following three questions to 24 of the most senior religious scholars from all around the world representing all the branches and schools of Islam: (1) Who is a Muslim? (2) Is it permissible to declare someone an apostate (takfir)? (3) Who has the right to undertake issuing fatwas (legal rulings)?”


A solid consensus was reached, which was then ratified by all of the various international bodies of the Muslim umma (community) over the next year or so, from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to International Islamic Fiqh Academy of Jeddah. Never before had such an official consensus been reached on that scale since the early days of the Muslim community (and if you know your history, you also know that the umma was torn by divisions right from the start – so this could actually be a first).

Even the word “consensus” (ijma‘ in Arabic) evokes pious, successful, even triumphant images and feelings among the faithful, since it is one of the four roots, or sources, of Islamic law. For Abdullah II to manage such a feat he needed more than just boldness and a keen sense of converging interests in the opening of an historic window. He wielded power – a mixture of political power with an even greater dose of diplomatic savoir-faire. None of the bigger, richer, more influential Muslims states could have pulled it off. The political dynamics of the Islamic world, as any attentive observer can see, are a minefield.

For me the evidence that the mind and heart behind all of this was Prince Ghazi comes in what followed in 2007. Responding to Pope Benedict XVI’s ill-fated Regensburg lecture in September 2006, 38 Muslim scholars from diverse backgrounds sent the Pope a letter to engage him in dialog. Exactly one year later (Oct. 13, 2007), a subcommittee of the Amman Message Initiative, now called the Common Word Initiative, sent an official letter to the Pope and “all Christian leaders” – a letter Prince Ghazi had written and which was now signed by 138 Muslim leaders from all over the world.

The title of the letter, “The Common Word,” is taken from Sura 3:64 of the Qur’an, which reads: “Say! O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you …” Yet the content of the letter is not centered on the next phrase of that verse (“… that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him”). Rather, the “common word” of this letter is simply and only “love of God and love of neighbor.” Noting that Muslims and Christians together make up more than half of the globe’s population, the letter asserts that world peace will never be achieved without reconciliation between Muslims and Christians in the first place. This is not as difficult as it sounds, the letter goes on, since what unites the two communities is at the core of their respective traditions: love of God and love of neighbor:


“These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.”


This letter produced a flurry of conferences since the fall of 2007, with the participation of mainline Protestants, Catholics and evangelicals – a fact clearly under-reported by the media. The book to read about the impact of this letter is co-edited by Prince Ghazi himself and Yale theologian Miroslav Volf (A Common Word).


The Muslim 500 Project

Another brainchild of Prince Ghazi’s is a yearly publication of “The 500 Most Influential Muslims.” Here is the third edition, the 2011 version, which came out in June 2012. Note as well that this venture’s website indicates a much more ambitious project than the yearly publication. It provides updates on the various figures on the 500 list, as well as current articles of interest to the wider Muslim community.

First, who are the people behind this project? The “chief editor” is Professor S. Abdallah Schleifer, a Jewish convert to Islam originally from Long Island, who worked as a journalist in the Middle East for over thirty years, with NBC and a string of other outlets at different times, both in print and in TV and radio production. He also taught journalism at the University of Cairo and more recently has been Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought (both in Amman, Jordan) – which explains his role in this production.

Yet there is no doubt that Prince Ghazi is the prime mover behind this idea. He is the author of the most important introductory article of the 184-page document – “The House of Islam,” a ten-page introduction to what “Islam” is from a self-declared “traditional Islamic” point of view. This distinguishes the authors between two other currents – and notice that each of the top 50 names are evaluated in terms of their reactions and interactions with the “Arab Spring”:


“Our listings do tend towards a more traditional understanding of Islam than either Islamists (politically engaged fundamentalists) or modernists would have it (see: The House of Islam for the editors’ understanding of Traditional Islam), which means that considerations of what constitutes legitimate political rule does, to a degree, impact our ordering of the most influential in the political and religious domains, but not exclusively so. And because of the importance of ‘The Arab Spring’ in all its convoluted manifestations, our introduction to this year’s listings is inescapably far more ‘political’ in concern than would ordinarily be the case.”


So the traditionalist position defines itself over against the Islamists (those wielding and adapting modern ideologies so as to make the nation-state more “Islamic”) and the modernists (who would rather do away altogether with traditional notions of Islamic law and theology). The introduction then proceeds to quote Prince Ghazi at great length on the political philosophy of the traditionalist position. In a nutshell, the Qur’an and Sunna teach us that monarchy is the best way to lead a people in the Islamic way of life.

Though the modernists are dismissed as being "scorned by the masses," the ranking puts Dr. Mohammed Badie, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the eighth position. Still, for traditionalists like Prince Ghazi, both kings of Morocco and Jordan get the highest marks for their handling of the Arab Spring -- enact some reforms but keep to the status quo.

In light of the above, it is no coincidence that the number one figure is the Saudi King Abdullah. King Mohammed VI of Morocco is second, King Abdullah II of Jordan is fourth, the emir of Qatar is sixth, the Sultan of Oman is ninth, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi is eighteenth, the Aga Khan VI is 22nd, and the Nigerian Sultan of Sokoto is 25th. The others in this space are all scholars, with Yusuf al-Qaradawi ranked 13th (on him, see previous blog).

One last thought on this: this "traditionalist" position is well named. It certainly reflects the reality of how power and authority were shared and contested in Islamdom over the centuries. Political authority was firmly in the hands of rulers (the generic word is "sultans," from the Arabic word for "authority"); but they had to continually negotiate with the Islamic scholars who were mostly jurists (generally known as ulama). For more details in this connection, see my blog in the Middle East Experience, "Of Ulama and Sultans."


Some thoughts about “power”

The website’s slogan is, “We ascertain the influence that individual Muslims have on the Muslim community.” So, besides political power, what are the criteria used for this ranking exercise? Here is a good starting point, taken from the Foreword:


“Influence is: any person who has the power (be it cultural, ideological, financial, political or otherwise) to make a change that will have a significant impact on the Muslim World. Note that the impact can be either positive or negative. The influence can be of a religious scholar directly addressing Muslims and influencing their beliefs, ideas and behaviour, or it can be of a ruler shaping the socio-economic factors within which people live their lives, or of artists forming popular culture. The first two examples also point to the fact that the lists, and especially the Top 50, are dominated by religious scholars and heads of state.”


So it’s clear for the editorial staff of the Muslim500 project that power – the ability to affect lasting change in Muslim society – is on many levels and the list seeks to reflect this reality. So when you visit the website you find a menu with twelve other categories besides political and scholarly influence: Administration of Religious Affairs, Preachers and Spiritual Teachers, Philanthropy/Charity and Development, Social Issues, Business, Science and Technology, Arts and Culture, Qur’an Recitors, Media, Celebrities and Sports Stars, Radicals, and Issues of the Day.

Another way of putting this is that there is both formal and informal power. The picture at the top of this blog reflects Prince Ghazi’s informal power. He not only wrote the Common Word document, but he used his influence to bring together a conference to discuss it, with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding, and with many patriarchs, church leaders and scholars participating.

In May of 2012 (the month before my own visit) Prince Ghazi led a joint Muslim-Christian delegation to Nigeria to seek ways to diffuse tensions between the two communities. The high-level delegation was sponsored by the Jordanian Aal al-Bayt Institute and the World Council of Churches. Not surprisingly perhaps, he has been nominated three times already for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I began this blog by saying that if you want to get a feel for contemporary Islam, don’t overlook the influence of Jordan’s royal family, the Hashemites (see also my blog on PCI, Little Kingdom, Big Impact on Peace). On the one hand, they can take credit for the 2005 Amman Message, which arguably could turn out to be a watershed document in modern Islamic history. The same could be said for the Common Word initiative, which is still ongoing. On the other hand, depending on how the Muslim500 project is perceived and followed in Muslim circles over the next few years, Prince Ghazi’s influence (scholarly, political, relational, diplomatic, spiritual) – shall we say “power”? – may grow even more significantly.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad is nowhere mentioned in the 500 plus names on this “who’s who” list?

Thanks to an email this morning from Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement, I read what he was calling a landmark speech on religious freedom by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (see video version). Her speech was marking the State Department’s release of the 2011 International Freedom of Religion Report, which opens with the words of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):


“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”


I will make some remarks based on Clinton’s speech, then I will share some thoughts from my ongoing research in Islamic law.


“All faiths everywhere have a stake in . . . religious freedom”

Hillary Clinton began with the crucial importance the free exercise of religion has had historically in the US: this freedom “is a cherished constitutional value, a strategic national interest and a foreign policy priority.” But she also offers a bleak assessment of this freedom’s status in today’s world:


“It's particularly urgent that we highlight religious freedom, because when we consider the global picture and ask whether religious freedom is expanding or shrinking, the answer is sobering. More than a billion people live under governments that systematically suppress religious freedom. New technologies have given repressive governments additional tools for cracking down on religious expression. Members of faith communities that have long been under pressure report that the pressure is rising. Even some countries that are making progress on expanding political freedom are frozen in place when it comes to religious freedom. So when it comes to this human right, this key feature of stable, secure, peaceful societies, the world is sliding backwards.”


A central theme of her speech is the intimate connection between democracy and freedom of religion. In a day when so many countries have embarked on a course toward greater democracy, “from Tunisia to Burma, and many places in between,” decisions about how to safeguard the rights of religious minorities loom large on the horizon and to a large extent will determine how successful their democratic project will be. She mentions a visit two weeks before to Egypt and some emotional conversations she had with Coptic Christians who shared with her their anxiety about the future.

Linking religious freedom with democracy is only the tip of the iceberg, however. Clinton rightly pointed out that a state that is able to impart a sense of dignity and security to all of its citizens is one that is also likely to produce a vibrant civil society, along with political vitality and economic development.

As I was writing in my series on the sociology of religion, our world has become much more “religious” in the last forty years or so. Policy makers are finally becoming aware of this. Barack Obama wisely began his presidency with a watershed speech addressed to a billion and a half Muslims a few hundred feet from the most prestigious center of Islamic learning, the al-Azhar University.

At the same time, “religion” is tough to nail down for social scientists, mainly because as a marker of identity it impacts all these other areas of human society. Where does my faith end and my political convictions begin? Or how do my struggles to put food on the table for my children and my vote for a Salafi candidate for parliament connect? Or how do Christians and Druze position themselves to even survive in the red-hot caldron of Syria’s civil war – mostly between Alawite loyalists to the Asad regime and Sunni opposition movements? Clinton puts it well:


“So this is an issue that transcends religious divides. All faiths everywhere have a stake in defending and expanding religious freedom. I personally feel very strongly about this, because I have seen firsthand how religious freedom is both an essential element of human dignity and of secure, thriving societies. It's been statistically linked with economic development and democratic stability. And it creates a climate in which people from different religions can move beyond distrust and work together to solve their shared problems.”


But the opposite is true too: “The absence of religious freedom can create a climate of fear and suspicion that weakens social cohesion and alienates citizens from their leaders. And that, of course, can make it more difficult to achieve national progress.”

Another important point Clinton makes is the connection between religious freedom and other human rights. “Every time people choose tolerance and respect over fear and animosity, they strengthen human rights for themselves as well as everyone else, because they affirm their shared humanity. . . . When people of all religions can practice freely, it creates an environment in which everyone’s freedom is more secure.” So religious leaders should take the lead in embracing “the principles of peace and respect.” They should both teach it and lead by example.

Governments, on the other hand, must have both legal and enforcement safeguards in place to make sure all citizens enjoy this freedom, no matter what the faith of the majority might be. Here, the role of constitutions is critical. By elevating universal rights, they “they provide guardrails against laws that deprive members of minority groups of their rights.”

This is the theory, of course – the ideals most states say they attempt to follow. The United States, for example, in its zeal to prosecute terrorists (the so-called “war on terror”), has and continues to act in ways that many see as violations of human rights. But what about freedom of religion? One question from the floor to Secretary Clinton was about islamophobia in the US and the firestorm about her own aide, Huma Abedin. "These are ongoing challenges" was the gist of her answer.

Though North Korea is undoubtedly the most egregious violator of religious freedom, and though several other countries like Burma, Russia, and China are singled out for acts of violence against religious minorities, the report worries about a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the Middle East, but also in Europe. France and Belgium have passed laws that are clearly discriminatory toward Muslims too.

That said, Clinton is right to point out that evidence shows “that conflict is more likely when states have official religions and persecute religious minorities.” This is the case in many Muslim-majority countries.


The ongoing debate among Muslims about Islamic law

I’ve written a good deal about this before (in a blog and a long journal article), so just a few thoughts here. This summer I am reading some of the recent books (only in Arabic) of the most popular Muslim jurist, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. A 2009 edited book about him was entitled “Global Mufti.” 

That is because he left his native Egypt in the 1960s to settle in Qatar, where his weekly program on Al-Jazeera TV, Sharia and Life, is watched by over 80 million people worldwide. Then in February 2011 more than half a million Muslims thronged Tahrir Square in Cairo to hear him lead Friday prayers and preach. Though not directly connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, his thinking is plainly in line with theirs.

I am studying Qaradawi as I have a paper to present on him at a conference on Islamic law in St Paul, Minnesota in September and a chapter to contribute to a forthcoming book on the “Objectives of Sharia” movement in that field. I mention this only to illustrate how crucial the issue of religious freedom is the Muslim world.

Qaradawi has consistently positioned himself as the leader of the “moderate” wing of the “Islamic awakening.” So on one side he castigates the Salafis (now very prominent in Egypt and elsewhere) for being so attached to the letter of the text of the Qur’an and Sunna (collections of reports on what the Prophet said and did) that they distort the spirit of Islam and drive away people that otherwise might be persuaded to convert. On the other side, he blasts the liberals who in the name of the Sharia’s objectives play fast and loose with the text and in the end cancel out anything they don’t agree with.

Qaradawi, as I read him, speaks from both sides of his mouth. The “moderate (or ‘middle way’) school” which he promotes, in his words, “believes in the unity of the human family; by virtue of creation all of it belongs to the One Lord, and by virtue of its blood line to one Father. It adopts tolerance between the religions and dialog between civilizations.”

Having said that, all the penalties that are clearly spelled out in the texts for specific crimes (the famous hudud, or “limits”) stand today and forever. One of those is the death penalty for apostasy (leaving the Islamic faith), not found in the Qur’an, but in the Sunna.

I’ve written elsewhere that the founder of the islamist party that now rules Tunisia, Rashid Ghannoushi, wrote a book when he was imprisoned by President Ben Ali (The General Freedoms of the Islamic State) in which he proclaimed democracy and human rights – including religious freedom – as at the heart of Islam. The law of apostasy, he wrote, is a misunderstanding of the early history of Islam. It was about a perilous time of war between a young and fragile Muslim community and its determined enemies. People who “left Islam” were in effect joining the enemy. That’s political treason, considered a capital offense by just about every nation. The Qur’an is plain: “There must be no compulsion in religion” (Q. 2:152).

I have no doubt that Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s president, also a card-carrying Muslim Brother, agrees with Ghannoushi and with, I would add, the majority of Muslim leaders in the world. Qaradawi is a reminder, however, that old ways die slowly.


Freedom to enter and exit

Secretary Clinton had good reason to refer to the 1948 document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Apart from the obvious (but often difficult in practice) importance of protecting all minorities, especially religious ones, there is also the need to spell out the right for people to change allegiances – to convert to other faiths. The UDHR affirms, “this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief.”

I’ll leave the reader with a blog written by Mustafa Akyol, the Turkish author of the book, Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. Here Akyol is incensed by the intention of the Iranian authorities to execute an Iranian pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani, because he grew up a Muslim. In his words,

“This verdict is not just shocking to modern ears, but also humiliating for all those Muslims who believe in human freedom. For how can a faith be noble if it dictates itself on people and kills those whose conscience dictates another faith? And how Muslims can be proud of their religion if is a community with a free entry but no free exit?”


This is a reminder to us all – whatever our own local challenges to a full implementation of religious freedom – that giving everyone the opportunity to freely believe and practice their faith (or not to!) is a “key feature of stable, secure, peaceful societies.” In light of Secretary Clinton’s dire assessment of the current state of affairs, we all have an urgent task before us.

Writing for a site “passionate about peace and human flourishing,” I want to celebrate the new president of the World Bank, Dr. Jim Yong Kim. In Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, I had decried some of the misdeeds of an overly ideological World Bank in the 1980s and 1990s, and how its neoliberal one-size-fits-all approach to fixing the struggling economies of the developing world only increased the numbers and plight of the “absolute poor,” while creating even more social unrest (for a summary of the issues see, “Was that ‘Free’ or ‘Fair’ Trade?”).

To be fair, some of these problems started to be tackled in the late 1990s, and the core mission of the World Bank, poverty alleviation (and not maximizing the profits of western banks and multinational corporations, by the way), has truly been its focus in the last few years.

That said, this is the first president who is not a banker or an economist, but a theoretician and practitioner of development. Kim has worked as a physician and international public health official (he’s a former director of the Department of HIV/AIDS at the World Health Organization), attempting to untangle the related problems that bedevil the poor around the world – disease, pollution, poor infrastructure, governance and economic growth.

Some criticized his nomination by President Obama on the grounds that he had co-authored a book in the 1990s, Dying for Growth, that in part criticized the World Bank’s approach to development. In an interview, he explained why:

“That book was written based on data from the early and mid-1990s. Our concern was that the vision was not inclusive enough, that it wasn’t, in the bank’s words, ‘pro-poor.’ The bank has shifted tremendously since that time, and now the notion of pro-poor development is at the core of the World Bank.”


What is needed, he continued, is to leave behind the obsession with economic growth while ignoring the actual needs of people in particular places. Too, we need to cast aside rigid ideologies – like thinking that all economic problems can be solved through market forces. Indeed, investment in the private sector is crucial, but only if it is balanced with the ability of the state sector to provide the kind of setting in which it can flourish. This means good health care, educational opportunities, and a solid infrastructure.

The British newspaper The Guardian has a useful blog called “Poverty Matters.” It recently interviewed the World Bank’s Director of External Affairs, Cyril Muller, right after Jim Yong Kim was appointed president. The author was impressed to learn “how keen the Bank seems to be to move on from its hubristic and ideological past.”

His main question to Muller touched on the issue of privatization versus nationalization. Muller answered that the Bank had no preference for either approach. In 2010 it has committed itself to reduce costs and increase effectiveness by aiming at three interconnected issues: results, openness and accountability. Whatever actually reduces poverty in a given location, that is what we will support, he said.

So for instance, the World Bank reprimanded Argentina for nationalizing the Spanish company Repsol, but only because the process had been less than transparent and fair. Yet in Bolivia, it supported the nationalizing of another Spanish company, Red Electra, because it carried out the project in a way that benefited the people more widely.

This is a big shift. One study in 2007 showed that 71% of loans and grants came with the condition that the recipients initiate reforms in the direction of privatization and liberalization. This may seem technical, but it does have concrete repercussions for the poor:


“In the past decade, to access World Bank finances, Burkina Faso was required to promote private-sector participation in the energy sector to secure money; Mozambique, Ghana and Tanzania were required to implement a strategy to privatise national banks; Benin had to show progress in the privatisation of its cotton ginneries, telecoms and energy sectors; Rwanda was required to negotiate privatisation of its telephone system and tea factories; Mali had to privatise its textile development company and national bank.”


The interviewer, however, pointed to changes taking place (note: British spelling):


“The privatisation of Zambia's copper mines was totemic of all that was wrong with aid conditionality, both in terms of process and content, leading to vast revenues being foregone as the copper price soared. The World Bank now appears to be saying nationalisation is a perfectly reasonable option for Zambia and other countries, as long as it is pursued fairly.”


Now, back to Jim Yong Kim and to what prepared him for this influential job. For one thing, he may be more sensitive and passionate about issues of poverty since he was born in 1959 in a Korea still suffering from dire shortages and poverty. Many Koreans were doing their utmost to emigrate.

Once in the US, this bright student certainly made the most of the opportunities before him. In 1991 he obtained his medical doctorate from the Harvard Medical School and two years later finished his PhD in Anthropology from Harvard University. In the 1980s he had co-founded Partners-In-Health (PIH), an acclaimed non-profit that runs community-based programs for the poor. Later, as a professor at the Harvard Medical School he helped launch and lead the Global Health Delivery Project, gaining him lots of attention -- which eventually led him to his job at the World Health Organization.

No doubt Dr. Kim is well suited for this high level post. He’s known as a consensus-builder, yet as someone who can make tough decisions too (he was President of Darmouth University until June 2012). But the World Bank was dealing with three candidates who were neck-in-neck until the end: the Columbian mwo4mé Antonio Ocampo with a long career at the UN and a Nigerian woman who has done wonders as the Minister of Finance of her nation, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The Economist published an editorial arguing that Ngozi was by far the best choice.

Now, you might be asking, what is this about the American president nominating someone to head a global institution? Did this have anything to do with the Bank’s choice? If it did, isn’t this a blatant show of colonialism?

The truth is, we don’t know the inside story. Traditionally, US nominees have always been chosen. It’s an unspoken rule, however, that was seriously questioned this time around. I’m guessing Kim might be the last US president of the Bank for a while. Still, if he succeeds in instilling this more pragmatic, technocratic, and even compassionate and culture-sensitive ethos throughout the institution, then we can rejoice.

The picture above this blog is that of Dr. Kim addressing the International Aids Conference in Washington at their opening session. That day he said in another interview:

“I want to eradicate poverty. I think that there's a tremendous passion for that inside the World Bank.” Then he explained some of the pieces of the puzzle that had to come together for that to happen:


“The evidence suggests that you've got to do a lot of good, good things in unison, to be able to make that happen. The private sector has to grow, you have to have social protection mechanisms, you have to have a functioning health and education system. The scientific evidence strongly suggests that it has to be green – you have to do it in a way that is sustainable both for the environment and financially. All the great themes that we've been dealing with here have to come together to eradicate poverty from the face of the Earth.”


If you’ve read my other blogs on poverty and ecology, you know that this holistic vision is music to my ears. I hope it inspires you too! Not just to cheer on the various actors who seek to lift a billion and a half people out of brutal poverty, whether states, global institutions like the World Bank, NGOs and so many community groups. But also to tap the energy and inspiration of your own religious faith so as to find concrete ways to make a mark in this vast effort underfoot. Indeed, we are trustees of God’s good creation, and He will hold us accountable for the way we’ve used our resources to serve “the least of these.”

We Americans invaded Iraq in 2003 and then spent much of the next nine years fighting “to win the hearts and minds” of the Iraqi population. Imagine the leader of that insurgency becoming so popular in the US that our president handed him the Medal of Honor, and a town, say, in the UK was named after him. That man would have been the Emir Abd el-Kader.

The French invaded Algeria in 1830, and despite some initial goodwill soon alienated the various constituencies. A Qadiri Sufi master in the west was elected by the local tribes to lead the fight against the French – a task he promptly delegated to his twenty-four year old son, Abd el-Kader. Years later in Damascus, the emir used his Algerian militia to save up to 10,000 Christians from the Druze bent on wiping them out. Oh yes, and thanks to his artful diplomacy, the French were able to build the Suez Canal with the blessings of the Arab leaders.

What is most amazing for us today is that this chivalrous foe of the French became in time a paragon of virtue and honor among European leaders and notables. The French gave him their highest mark of distinction and Abraham Lincoln sent him a gift with thanks for what he had done for the Christians of Syria. The leader of a new settlement in 1846, just north of Dubuque, Iowa, was so taken with the international news about this courageous Arab fighter, that he named their new town ElKader. The Elkader High School class of 1915 made a plaque with the following inscription:


“…Such is the history of the man for whom our town is named. A scholar, a philosopher, a lover of liberty; a champion of his religion, a born leader of men, a great soldier, a capable administrator, a persuasive orator, a chivalrous opponent; the selection was well made, and with those pioneers of seventy years ago, we do honor The Sheik.”


Before digging deeper into the emir’s life, let me reveal to you my two sources – and what triggered my interest in this man. First, I spent nine years in Algeria (1978-1987) and heard a good deal about this great national hero. But more recently I wrote a review of an excellent book for the journal Contemporary Islam (see my very condensed version on the MEE website), Algerians without Borders: The Making of a Global Frontier Society, by historian Allan Christelow. He also presented some intriguing material on the emir’s sons and grandsons – one of the later was very involved with T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame), the British and the French against the Ottomans, but fell out with him in the end. Yet at the same time, one of his cousins was fighting the French in Morocco. History is messy.

The second source I also highly recommend, is John Kiser’s Commander of the Faithful: A Story of True Jihad (2008). In 2002 Kiser had published Monks of Tibhirine: Faith Love and Terror in Algeria (winning the French Siloe Prize for that in 2006). The film Of Gods and Men (1st Prize at the 2010 Cannes Festival) was based on his book. While researching his topic, Kiser was told that a large cliff near the monastery was named after the Emir Abd el-Kader (French spelling – you will also find Abd al-Qadir), the famous nineteenth-century Algerian hero. Kiser then looked into his life, and was hooked.


A brief biography of the emir

The Emir Abd el-Kader (1808-1883) was born into a leading family of a Berber tribe in western Algeria. His father, Muhyi al-Din al-Hasani, was a Sufi Shaykh of the Qadiriya order (founded by Abd al-Qadir Jilani, buried in Baghdad in 1166). Clearly, the father was grooming his gifted son to take his place. Abd el-Kader received the best possible training in the Islamic sciences and philosophy, mathematics and rhetoric, as well as in horsemanship and combat. His father brought him along to make the pilgrimage (Hajj) in 1825; he then introduced him to friends in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, visiting the tombs of at least two famous Sufi saints, Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani and Ibn Arabi. This trip sparked both his religious fervor and his interest in the reforms that Muhammad Ali was instituting in Egypt.

As mentioned above, two years after the French invasion Abd el-Kader found himself leading a revolt against the French in western Algeria. During the first ten years he met with many victories, using guerilla tactics, his great skills as an orator, and his diplomatic gifts evident in rallying the various Berber and Arab tribes and the network of Jewish businessmen both in Europe and Algeria who fed him valuable information. Also from the start, he was famous for his chivalry. Though the French resorted to torture and the random killing of civilians, Abd el-Kader always treated his prisoners well and at least on one occasion released them, because he was running out of food to feed them.

Yet when the emir realized that the French would stop at nothing to “pacify” the territory and that protracted fighting would only prolong his people’s suffering, he surrendered to the French, with the promise that he would be allowed to go into exile in the east and never set foot in Algeria again. Unfortunately, Napoleon III’s government was overturned by the Second Republic two months later, which promptly walked away from the agreement. In the end, he and his family were detained in 1848 at the chateau d’Amboise in France. Until he was released four years later with a sizable state pension, Abd el-Kader regularly entertained a string of foreign dignitaries from all over Europe. Unsurprisingly, his release was the result of persistent lobbying on the part of French officers, ex-prisoners, intellectuals and Catholic clergy.

He then went to Bursa (today’s Turkey), then three years later to Damascus, which had an important Algerian population. It was there he spent the rest of his life, devoting himself to writing and spiritual direction, informal diplomacy on a variety of fronts and some travel. Yet he kept his word – he never went back to Algeria.

He was a great horseman too, and while in Damascus wrote a book on Arabian horses.

In another vein, the emir wrote a philosophical book in Arabic, which was translated in French with the title, Rappel à l’intelligent. Avis à l’indifferent (“Reminder to the Intelligent. Warning to the Indifferent”). Clearly, he was reaching out to a much wider audience than simply a Mideastern or a North African Muslim one. He seemed more interested in drawing out the implications of the various faiths’ theological convergences – maybe even their ritual similarities.

Perhaps this is why some claim the emir was inducted into the Masons while on a visit to Paris in 1865 (or the year before in Alexandria). Christelow, leaning on a French book on the issue written by a distinguished academic (see this review), cautiously supports this thesis. True, several names of Algerians can be found on the annals of nineteenth-century Freemasonry and four out of his seven sons were Masons. But if you scour the Internet in French, as I did, you will find that this has been fiercely debated over the last decade. More conservative Muslims, understandably, find it impossible to believe that such a great Muslim leader could have joined forces with a secretive sect known for its anti-religious stance (and they would add, “and pro-Zionist”).

What we do know with certainty is that a dispute between the Druze and the Maronite Christians of Lebanon spread to Damascus and that the Druze were intent on killing the Christians. Making use of his own militia he was able to rescue several thousand Maronites, as well as some European diplomats, by sheltering them in his compound and the citadel. This is the act that prompted the French government to decorate him with La Légion d’Honneur and to substantially increase his monthly pension. While visiting Rome, the Pope decorated him. It was on this occasion too that President Abraham Lincoln sent him the gift of two Colts, which are now on display in an Algiers museum.

Abd el-Kader died in 1883 and was buried in Damascus alongside his own spiritual father, the Sufi master and mystical writer Ibn Arabi (d. 1240).


What the emir can teach us

While doing his research on the emir, a Catholic nun in Algeria gave Kiser this quote from one of Abd el-Kader’s spiritual writings. It emphasizes his Sufi outlook, which, because it is so focused on the love of God, easily found affinities with other God seekers, and particularly among the other monotheistic faiths:


“… If you think God is what the different communities believe—the Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, polytheists and others—He is that, but also more. If you think and believe what the prophets, saints and angels profess—He is that, but he is still more. None of his creatures worships him in his entirety. No one is an infidel in all the ways relating to God. No one knows all God’s facets. Each of his creatures worships and knows him in a certain way and is ignorant of Him in others. Error does not exist in this world except in a relative manner.”


Perhaps we could all internalize some of this sense of mystery and awe in our worship of the Godhead – however we conceive of Him. Though I’m not one to believe all spiritual paths lead to the summit of the One Mountain, I also know from experience that I continue to learn important truth from other traditions. Then too, when it comes to final ends, I believe that some humility is in order. “God’s ways are above our ways,” as the prophet Isaiah declared.

So what else can we all learn from the emir? In a day when populations flow in many directions for economic or political reasons and when, more than anything, forces of globalization along with the Internet lead very different people into conversation, we can look back to figures like the Emir Abd el-Kader as pioneers of dialog and promoters of peace and understanding. Happily, there are many such role models for Muslims today. I received notice this morning of the new issue of Arches Quarterly, a publication of the UK-based Cordoba Foundation, which the emir would certainly have supported.

So my point is this: let’s join hands across our cultural, religious and national barriers, in order to meet the pressing challenges of our day. I believe we can do this, as people like Eboo Patel have demonstrated, as convinced Muslims, Jews, Buddhists or Christians. The emir is indeed a good role model for all of us. This Algerian exile crossed numerous borders both literally and metaphorically, pointing people to God, who alone has the power to teach us love and respect for our fellow creatures.

This exciting website just came online in June 2012 and it is already attracting lots of attention. A brain child of Carl Medearis, it is a great place for news on the Middle East from a variety of perspectives. The main items are Books Reviews (I have two already), Blogs (from a variety of religious and national perspectives), Israeli-Palestinian Issues, The Modern Middle East, and Video of the Day. It's very lively, interactive, diverse, thought-provoking, yet always seeking to facilitate conversation between parties not used to listening to each other.

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