Opinion | Tue, 30 Apr 2013
By Rumy Hasan
Samuel Huntington's book The Clash of Civilizations aroused a storm of interest when it was published in 1996. Its basic thesis was that in the aftermath of the Cold War, the fundamental antagonism among nations would be on the basis of 'civilisation' – taken to mean culture that encompasses language, history and religion – rather than ideology or economics. He posited eight major contemporary civilisations and suggested that conflict would most likely arise at the intersection of these: Sinic [Chinese], Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, Western, Latin American, and African. The thesis was heavily criticised on the grounds that it was much too generalised and simplistic and so limited in its relevance and applicability.
Despite its grave limitations, the notion of 'clash' was, nonetheless, appealing, including to those who vehemently disagreed with the thrust of Huntington's argument. For example, Tariq Ali's The Clash of Fundamentalisms and Gilbert Achcar's The Clash of Barbarisms were clearly inspired by and, to some extent, responses to Huntington's work.
Since September 11 2001 however and the 'war on terror', the notion of the existence of a clash between two of Huntington's civilisations – the Western and the Islamic worlds – has gained traction. A common refrain was that the war on terror was really a war on Islam waged by the US/West; but this was an assertion without any basis in reality. Nevertheless, a clash arose between certain ideological forces within each geopolitical tectonic plate, specifically, between Islamism and Zionism (including Christian Zionism). That these two ideologies are in firm opposition is not in doubt; in that Zionism is a European/western ideology and the country whose constitution is based on it, Israel, is located in a Muslim-majority region, their clash manifests itself naturally in the Islamic world and has done so acutely since 1948. However, given that millions of Muslims have settled in western countries, increasing numbers of whom have espoused Islamism, this clash has, in recent years, also arisen with some intensity in the western world.
The root cause of this particular clash is a tract of land – Palestine – and its colonisation by Zionist settlers from the late nineteenth century, which ultimately led to the creation of the Jewish state and expulsion from it of the majority of the indigenous, mainly Muslim, population. This conflict is a running sore that has shown no signs of resolution and has naturally received much attention. But, in the modern era, particularly in the twenty-first century, this clash is also about identities and, more specifically, dual identities. Millions of Jews not living in Israel strongly identify with the Jewish state – indeed, for many, being Jewish is tantamount to being Zionist, that is, they show their allegiance to the state of Israel. This is not necessarily related to the fact that all Jews have an automatic right to Israeli citizenship. Hence, an American Jew, British Jew, or French Jew has loyalty to his/her country of residence and citizenship but also to Israel – so that there is a dual identity. Given their close alliance, conflicts between these three countries and Israel are largely non-existent; hence conflicts between the national identities are also immaterial, that is to say, the dual identity retains its cohesiveness.
The situation of Muslims in the west is analogous but also significantly different. Millions have settled and taken up citizenship in their adopted countries. Unlike Jews, however, they are not indigenous but migrants or (more recently) asylum seekers. As is the norm for migrants, the first generation retains strong links and affinity with its origins in terms of country, region, ethnicity, language, religion, and culture. Interestingly – and counter-intuitively – such strong links and affinities have been passed on to a significant extent to subsequent generations by some (though not all) groups. In Britain, for example, second and even third generation Asians have shown this trait. By so doing, they espouse strong dual identities to the extent that, for some, the identity attached to the 'motherland' takes precedence over that of the country and society of residence and citizenship.
My contention is that this has become a prevalent phenomenon among large numbers of Muslims in the west, that is to say, their most important indicator of identity is to their religion – and by extension – to Muslim countries and lands; in sum, to the global umma. It follows that any actual or perceived harm done to the faith and to Muslim lands is felt with great intensity and, as a natural corollary, equally great animosity is shown towards the perpetrators of such harm. At its most extreme, such animosity translates into Islamism and a profound Islamic identity. As we have witnessed since September 11, this can, in extremis, engender violent opposition, that is, jihadist behaviour.
My further contention is that dual identities engendered in Islamism and Zionism are of a deeper magnitude than the widespread phenomenon of the 'hyphenated identity' that has long been present as a marker of ethnic, racial, or geographical origins. Thus, in theUS, there is the well-established phenomenon of the 'hyphenated American' (such as African-American, Asian-American, Irish-American, Italian-American etc). There is likely to be some affinity to the country or continent in the first part of the hyphenation but – admittedly in the absence of robust empirical evidence – the presumption is that this is not likely to be as intense as that residing in Islamism or Zionism and so not give rise to anything like the same level of political campaigning and support. An exception can, however, be made with regard to Cuban-Americans, large numbers of whom do appear to be characterised by a strong campaigning zeal relating to the Cuban (and anti-Castro) part of their identity. The obverse is likely to be the case for African-Americans, perhaps the overwhelming majority of whom – we can hypothesise – have little or no emotional or physical affinity to the African continent or to any African country; as such, this is predominantly an ethnic marker, interchangeable with 'black-American'.
There are, of course, substantive reasons as to why certain identities are stronger than others. At its core, in the case of Zionism, this emanates from the aftermath of the Nazi holocaust so thatIsraelis thought of as a safe haven for world Jewry. In the case of Islamism, part of its appeal emanates from solidarity with fellow Muslims – the Palestinians (leaving aside that some are Christians) – who were expelled from their homeland. This is compounded by the perception that western powers were ultimately responsible for the creation of the Jewish state that led to this nakba and have, moreover, provided unstinting support toIsraeldespite this historic and continuing injustice. A further contributing determinant of a strong Islamist identity is the belief, noted above, that there is a war on Islam – the apotheosis of which is the US-led 'war on terror'.
So there has arisen a clash between these two ideologies and political movements: most acutely so in the Middle East but increasingly so in many western countries. In the former, the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 can be thought of as the first war between Zionism (Israel) and an avowedly Islamist movement (the Hezbollah). There have also been severe tensions between Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran. A war has not (yet) broken out between these two countries but, given Iran's strong support for Hezbollah, the 2006 war in Lebanon can be viewed as a proxy. The sheer antipathy between these ideologies suggests that another conflagration cannot be ruled out which, next time, would also in all likelihood involve Iran in direct military action.
Less explored and more recent is the 'softer' clash between Islamism and Zionism in many western countries. Though nowhere near as serious as that obtaining in the Middle East it is, nonetheless, of importance and ought not to be proverbially brushed under the carpet: if the clash in the Middle East has often taken the form of wars, the clash in the west is akin to Orwell's 'war minus the shooting'.
Throughout Western Europe in particular and to a lesser extent also in North America, there has, in the post 9/11 era, arisen the desire on the parts of many of the governments of these countries to increase the integration of Muslims into mainstream society and to improve social cohesion. These laudable objectives and policy aims have gained focus because of widespread concerns regarding the situation of Muslim migrants, notwithstanding the fact that a key motivating factor has been to wean young Muslim males away from jihadi-inspired acts of terrorism. I wish to argue that the antagonism between Islamism and Zionism in the west is a significant threat to such integration and social cohesion; my aim is to draw attention to this explicitly in terms of a clash. This has been an important lacuna that needs to be highlighted, one which has rarely been acknowledged as such.
Some might argue that examining these societal issues through the prism of an ethno-religious political clash is much too pessimistic an approach: rather, what is being played out in western countries is nothing more than a typical rivalry in democratic, pluralistic, societies where passionate support and campaigning zeal for causes, with attendant argument and debate, is a healthy sign.
My response to such a criticism is that it is, of course, true that millions of people are extremely emotionally involved with myriad of causes and activities – perhaps none more so than support for sports teams. But the kind of chasm that is evident between Islamists and Zionists is, I would argue, of a different order. It means that members of the two groups tend to view each other through the mono-dimensional prism of identity on which a very fixed judgement has already been made. The consequence is necessarily an acute prejudice whereby suspicion abounds to the extent that normal human interaction is severely curtailed. This is certainly an issue deserving of in-depth research and substantive policy proposals.
Dangerous Liaisons: the clash between Islamism and Zionism by Rumy Hasan, was published by New Generation Publishing in February, 2013
Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at Sussex University. This article was originally published by Open Democracy and is reproduced with the author's permission
Opinion | Mon, 29 Apr 2013
By Terry Sanderson
It seems The Big Society is back – if only for the last nail to be driven into its coffin.
First we have a right-wing Catholic think tank, the Von Hügel Institute, publishing a report describing what was once Mr Cameron's flagship idea as a "genuine and interesting attempt" to tackle Britain's major social problems. The report looks at how the Big Society could be organised along the lines of Catholic social teaching. It says that the Government has already made many legislative changes on these lines and therefore it isn't "just rhetoric".
But the report seems to have arrived a little late at the party and to have missed the boat – which is just as well because the good ship Big Society seems to have sailed into the Bermuda triangle and, as the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu put it last week has "vanished without trace".
At the annual civic dinner of Sunderland Council at Washington Old Hall, Tyne and Wear, Sentamu said: "No politician refers to it any more. Was it simply a sound-bite, a ruse that played well with focus groups, but that was easily pushed aside when put under greater scrutiny? The cynic might suggest that it wasn't so much a celebration of a thriving society where everyone looks out for their neighbour, but rather a ploy to get community groups to pick up the cost of local government cuts."
Also dissenting from the Von Hügel view is Helen O'Brien, chief executive of the Catholic Social Action Network. She said the phrase "Big Society" had become discredited. "Should we call what we're doing the Big Society?" she asked at the launch. "That phrase hasn't done anything."
The Catholic weekly magazine, The Tablet, also thinks the Von Hügel Institute has got it wrong. In an editorial it wrote:
Devotees of Catholic Social Teaching, by no means all of whom are Catholics, hailed David Cameron's Big Society with some enthusiasm. They already knew that Catholic ideas about how to organise a good society were being excavated by his party for useful guidance, not least the key principle of subsidiarity. And the former Tory leader and founder of the Centre for Social Justice, Iain Duncan Smith, who is himself a Catholic, made no secret of where he was drawing his ideas from for the future of the welfare state. Yet the Big Society project has turned out to be a big disappointment. Even the Coalition Government itself seems to have gone cool on it.
The editorial says that the Von Hügel Institute report suffered from bad timing. It was commissioned at a moment when there were big hopes that religion would be stepping in to help the Government run the country's welfare provisions – along similar lines to the German model.
But in Germany the Church receives vast amounts of taxpayers' cash to do the job (and does it with discrimination and often spiteful retribution on those employees who aren't toeing the Catholic line).
In Britain, the Government hoped that charities and churches would be able to somehow conjure up the money to replace that which was being cut from welfare budgets.
The Tablet, though, recognises that the "voluntary sector" has become almost entirely dependent on local authority grants. Now that such funding has been "scythed" by Government cuts, the voluntary groups simply can't operate on any significant scale any more. And because living standards are falling, donations to charities have also fallen — by something like 20% — which means they're finding it more and more difficult to draw on their own resources to fill the welfare gap.
Many Christian charities had already worked out that the Government was cynically using them to try to cover the severity of the cuts they were making. They also recognised that when the money ran out and the services collapsed, they would be the ones who would take the blame. Many had already made clear that they weren't prepared to be the fall guys.
The Government should be made to take responsibility for the cuts that are having such a cruel impact on the most vulnerable in our society. Churches should not attempt to rescue them (which they don't have the resources to do, anyway) and instead hold them to account for the misery they are causing.
Opinion | Wed, 01 May 2013
By Nahla Mahmoud
Personally, I wasn't surprised watching the Panorama on 'Secrets of Sharia Councils in the UK' broadcast on the BBC last week. I am aware of these dangerous practices by similar courts adopting the same Islamic constitution elsewhere outside the UK.
However, the main issues to be addressed here aren't only the discriminatory nature and inequality of these councils, but also the broader context of the failed integration polices of the current government. The failure to integrate migrants and refugees and the government's pro-faith agenda has resulted in the demand and justification for such parallel systems to fulfil the needs of those who feel they are 'different'.
There is a common argument that a right to Sharia councils are part of an individual's rights to their own religion and beliefs. It is important here to link the establishment of Sharia councils in the UK with the rise of Islamism internationally. Muslims have lived in the UK and Europe for centuries and didn't need an Islamic court to provide them permission to adopt, worship or practice their religion.
The rise of political Islam
However since the early eighties, political Islam rose following the Iranian Revolution and the spread of Wahhabism sponsored by millions of dollars of Saudi oil money. Political Islam then spread to take on state power in a number of east Asian, Middle-Eastern and some African countries.
As a result, a demand for Islam in power has grown in the UK and Sharia tribunals have been established. Sharia courts, which are wrongly perceived to be part of a Muslim's 'right to religion', are in actual fact part of the political battle and fight for power by Islamists.
A major concern here is the government's role in ensuring accessibility of public service to everyone. It is highly questionable that these bodies should be responsible for providing mediation services while the legislation they rely on (Sharia law), is fundamentally gender biased.
In the Panorama programme, Nazir Afzal, the chief crown prosecutor for the Northwest, emphasised that "most of the [courts] are absolutely fine but there are some clearly, like this one, who are putting women at risk".
This, however, is a simplification, as the main Islamic constitutional principles are irredeemably biased against women. They place greater weight on men's evidence than that of women. Under Sharia law a woman's testimony is worthy half a man's, she gets half the inheritance of her male siblings, and an Islamic marriage contract is between a women's male guardian and her husband.
It is even worse in divorce cases, as a man can divorce his wife by simple repudiation using the word "Talig", often without stating a reason and will then easily obtain a certificate from a Sharia court.
By contrast, women are blamed for the breakdown of the family and for not properly obeying their husband's needs. Women pay higher fees and must give specific reasons to be permitted a divorce. Some of which are extremely difficult to prove.
Another privilege automatically conferred on the father is that of child custody which reverts to him at a pre-set age regardless of the circumstances, even if the father was abusive as seen in the case of Sonia in the BBC programme.
One law for all
All this clearly violates the equality laws which the arbitration service providers should strictly consider. The government should clarify why such a code is allowed to act as a reference of legislation and not only question the practices of the operating bodies implementing it.
I believe this goes along with the government's integration policy published last year. The government is pushing a pro-faith agenda to promote integration between 'different' communities. Its emphasis on "the valuable role of religion in public life" serves to privilege religious bodies over others.
This approach discriminates against immigrants and minorities from different backgrounds by subjecting them to different treatment through separate divisive systems, such as Sharia courts and other religious tribunals. Muslim women and children of Muslim parents are especially likely to suffer the most from this approach.
The question which should be asked here isn't whether these councils discriminate against minorities and citizens from 'different' backgrounds or not, because they clearly do. The actual question is whether the government actually cares about what is happening.
It is high time that the government asserted one law for all.
Nahla Mahmoud is an environmentalist and human rights activist. This article was originally posted in Left Foot Forward and is reproduced with the author's permission.