Archive for the ‘Dr. Ahmad’s blog’ Category

No State Institution (Including the Citadel) Has the Right to Deny the Religious Freedom of an American

Thursday, May 19th, 2016

The Citadel is The Military College of South Carolina, a state institution. The reaction to the school’s decision to refuse to allow a Muslim student to cover her hair with a headscarf has unveiled a woeful ignorance of the nature of America’s strong Constitutional commitment to freedom of religion. I was especially disturbed by Asra Nomani’s statement, quoted in the Washington Post, “Women and girls, of course, should have a right to wear — or not wear — the headscarf in society, if they wish, but it is truly an insult to the struggle for secularism and civil rights in this country to conflate the headscarf with the struggle for religious and civil liberties in the United States.” We fully support Asra Nomani’s right to dissent from the majority opinion on Islamic law, but her presumption that religious freedom in America applies only to religiously mandated rather than religiously motivated action is flat wrong.

The South Carolina Religious Freedom Act was designed to “restore the compelling interest test as set forth in Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972), and Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), and to guarantee that a test of compelling state interest will be imposed on all state and local laws and ordinances in all cases in which the free exercise of religion is substantially burdened.” Those who have argued that the hijab is not mandatory for Muslim women raise a point irrelevant to the question.  The Citadel is an institution of the state and as such must respect religiously motivated acts as well as religiously mandated acts. Beards are not mandatory for men in Islam, but those who wear beards because it is encouraged by the Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) have their rights respected under the standard that this law was intended to restore.  The woman who chooses to wear or not wear a headscarf, like the man who chooses to wear or not wear a beard, is alone responsible to God, the Exalted, for her actions, but no state institution (including the Citadel) has the right to deny the religious freedom of an American citizen without meeting that compelling state interest tests.

The purpose of the religious freedom act is to restore the constitutional standard of strict scrutiny, that the practice of religion may not be infringed unless the purpose of the law is shown to serve a compelling government interest and that it serves that interest in the least restrictive manner possible. Whether a religious act is religiously mandated (as, say, prayer) or religiously motivated (as, say, the skullcap for Jewish men) is irrelevant. The questions the Citadel must answer are: what is the compelling government interest here and is this the least restrictive means of meeting it. If the Citadel’s answer is that the compelling state interest is crushing any semblance of individuality, that “interest” strikes this writer as neither compelling nor desirable. Any truly compelling interest they may have would no doubt apply to the armed services themselves, and they have found less restrictive means of meeting them, with no need to force women to display their hair.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women That Are Transforming the Arab World

Monday, February 29th, 2016

[This is my perception of Katherine Zoepf’s presentation at the New America Foundation on January 21. 2016 regarding her examination of the complex lives of young women living in the Arab Muslim world. She is the author of Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women That Are Transforming the Arab World. This is not a verbatim transcript and any errors are mine alone.]

In the quest for the big event that aligns the region with American interests Katherine Zoepf felt many things were being missed. It’s difficult to get hard data in much of the Arab world. Talk about “the Arab street” is very problematic. When she asked in Lebanon whether there was any recent census data on the sizes of the different demographic groups she was “laughed out of the room” with the question “In whose interests would that be?”

In the absence of hard data we must make anecdote serve by asking many people as you can about their own opinions and those of their cousins. She asked Saudi friends about how accurate the film Wajda was about Saudi life. People would say it was not common for a ten year old to marry, yet most knew of at least one such case. Yet the Saudi National Dialog Center claimed it had virtually disappeared.

Lawyers who want to reform the system are satisfied to do so working within the system. Things that to an outsider seem explosive or transformative are barely noticed by people there. Consider Anthony Shadid’s reporting on the events in Egypt: there were people nearby who were barely aware of them. Resistance to the proposal that Saudi lingerie shops institute all female staffing of such shops was surprising as it was intended to get more women into the workplace not as a human  rights issue but as an upholding of Saudi values. The change of the laws to allow women to ride bicycles under limited conditions seems dramatic but she met no women who rode bicycles or would consider riding a bicycle.

There was outcry about a fire on which many girls died because security guards would not unlock the doors until they could be assured all the girls were properly covered that lead to a breaking of the power of the religious police. This was misread as King Abdullah at last listening to the demands of his oppressed people, but it was his desire for reform that made him unpopular and the reversal of policy is the source of his successors popularity.

Now there is a focus on entrepreneurship about which the activists are very skeptical, seeing it as a diversion of protest away from other issues. They would joke that as they were unable to get jobs, they now should start cupcake bakeries. The social media is deep yet Zoepf would not call it vibrant because the public debate that briefly flared during the Arab Spring is no longer there. It is used mainly to sell things. A shop may have website but somehow will sell things on Instagram. State Department personnel concede that technology and entrepreneurship ends the conversation over reform.

Islamic reformers recruit women who are wives of leaders or who were outstanding students in schools. Many women said that if you knew the Qur’an better than your husband or father you would never be bullied in the name of Islam. It was very important for women to know their rights in Islam and be able to defend them. The Qubaisi Sisterhood in Syria (Qubaisiat) are a development of which it is hard to get information. In 2011 Zoepf heard that they were in support of the early demonstrations by praying indoors for the revolution. They were not persecuted. The title came from the way girls would compete as to which better exemplified values prized by their families in a way you do not see in the West. They deserve attention but one must avoid thinking they are more representative than they are.

The tendency to write about women in the Arab world as if they are monolithically oppressed or not invested in their societies is also a mistake. In Saudi Arabia she found herself baffled by the prevalent notion that women were not bothered by the notion that a woman is one half of a man.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph. D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

State of Religious Freedom in the US and Europe

Sunday, December 6th, 2015

[On December 3, 2015, I  attended a KARAMAH-sponsored event focusing on the current state of international religious freedom in the United States and Europe The following summary is a report only of my subjective impressions of the panel and is not intended as an exact transcript. Any errors are mine alone.]

State of Religious Freedom in the US and Europe

Aisha Rahman, Esq. (KARAMAH). the US constitution guarantees free exercise of religion use and prohibits both religious establishment  by government and religious tests for public office, but outside the law Americans are subjecting Muslims to collective blame. Now many are calling for internment of Muslims like the internment of Japanese during WWII. In the most recent year the percentage of Religious Use and Incarcerated Persons Act actions regarding mosques has skyrocketed compared to the nine years previous. Most of the increase is due to hostility to Muslims. Objectors to most instances of religious land use back down once they understand the law. Only in cases of mosques must land use cases resort to lawsuits to make objectors back down.

Engy Abdelkader, Esq. To say that the violence and discrimination against Muslims is a consequence of backlash against Muslims is to excuse it as the consequence of aggression or discrimination by their coreligionists. But before the Paris attacks a study on hate crimes against Muslims in Britain focused especially on hate crimes against women and found a reluctance by the public to intervene or defend these Muslims. For example, a threatened woman appealed to a bus driver who said he could do nothing. This lead to a $10,000 lawsuit that has changed the behavior of bus drivers. Tell Momma (a British support group for Muslim victims of hate violence) says over 60% of attacks on Muslims whether online or physical are aimed at women. A pre-Charlie Hebdo study in France came to a similar conclusion. An online posting of a woman in a burka identified as a “slut” highlights the specifically gender-slanted nature of the attacks. A schoolteacher in France called for grilling all Muslims on hot coals to fight terrorism. Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West began “as a Facebook page managed by a chef and convicted cocaine dealer“. In France several mayors have ended the practice of substitute meals for pork in schools with large Muslim populations, schools on which packed lunches from home are prohibited. Muslims vary widely in their degree of religious observance, except on the issue of pork consumption. In one French town the mayor said he would prohibit the opening of any more kabob restaurants because they go against Judeo-Christian values. Over a hundred Muslim female students who had already been forced to remove their headscarves were now commanded to stop wearing long skirts, demonstrating that any limitations on religious garb is s slippery slope. This is effectively an attack on access to education. The discrimination is not limited to women, and in France Muslim men are four times less likely to receive a job offer than Catholic men.

David Saperstein (Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom). It is not enough for a country to say it defends religious freedom, more important is what happens to people in those countries. It is not only a question of freedom of worship but the entire gamut of religious practice. There are 2,000 religious denominations and faith groups in the US. The three elements of religious freedom identified before guarantee that your legal rights will never be tied to your religious beliefs practices or identity. In Tajikistan people under 18 may not participate in public religious ceremonies. In China beards and headscarves are banned and Ramadan fasting restricted. It is women and girls who are disproportionately affected. Jews as well as Muslims were affected by the French ban on head coverings. When such bigotry comes from political leaders it gives an aura of immunity to such discrimination and a green light to extralegal discrimination.

Aisha Rahman. The teaching of Islam needs to include the time of religious freedom in Islam.

Engy Abdelkader. I would not use “jihadi” to refer to people engaged in criminal activity. In the observant Muslim’s mindset Jihad has a positive connotation.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad (Minaret of Freedom Institute). The press has a double standard. Muslim terrorists call themselves  “Islamists” and “jihadis”  because they are trying to put a positive spin on their unIslamic actions in the same way that “Ku Klux Klan” members call themselves “Christians” and “patriots” to put a positive spin on their unChristian actions. It is important to note that studies show that backlash against violence committed by Muslims spikes when there is political demagoguery. When George W. Bush went to a mosque to declare that Islam was not responsible for the attacks of 9/11 the violent spike against Muslims in the wake of 9/11 was largely quashed. Political demagogues today are fanning the flames in way they do not do with the white terrorists like the Planned Parenthood shooter.

David Saperstein.  There must be pressure both inside and outside the system. There are good people within the system who can’t act until pressure outside makes them do it.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

MENA Capital Markets as a “Smart” Investment Opportunity

Friday, November 27th, 2015

[On October 19, 2015, I  attended the 2015 C3 US-Arab Business Summit in New York City. The following is summary of a panel on finance. The affiliations of the speakers are for identification only and they were not speaking on behalf of their respective institutions. In any case, this is a report only of my subjective impressions of the panel and is not intended as an exact transcript. Any errors are mine alone. ]

MENA Capital Markets as a “Smart” Investment Opportunity

Robert Michael (New York City Bar Association). I wrote the first Islamic loan notes by substituting the word “commission” for “interest.” Yusuf de Lorenzo calls me the godfather of Islamic finance. Three principles of Islamic investment are no interest, no unquantified risk, and no financing of prohibited activities. Seeking profit as long as it does not involve harming others (socially responsible investing) is permitted.  Sukūk are incorrectly called Islamic corporate bonds, but unlike corporate bonds they are secured.

Ken Dorph (Sag Harbor Consulting). What we think of as modern finance came from trade between Egypt and Venice. In the 1940s the Egyptian stock market was one of the largest in the world. The birth of modern Israel, the rise of socialism in the Arab world, and the US refusal to finance the Aswan dam led to the rise of nationalization of finance in the Arab world and one of the worst records of finance in the world. Islamic finance should lead to a move away from bad debt, but it hasn’t. There is reform, but it is slower than in Asia or Europe. The emergence of Islamic finance has complicated matters. Its frequency is badly underestimated. The Arab Spring has caused disasters as well as opportunities. Reform of state banks has gone nowhere. Iraq could be an opportunity especially if the IS were to be pushed back. Syrians are natural business people but now all we can do is pray for peace. Much of the business community is Palestinian. Palestine has a stock exchange but it is hard to have an independent financial sector without an independent country. The UAE has a dynamic financial sector. Things are down now because of oil prices, but I remain bullish long term. Saudi is the sector I know the best. In the 70s when the bans were nationalized in the Arab world the Saudis wisely allowed foreign banks to continue operations, and they have  benefited from it. Foreign indirect ownership is now allowed. With the emergence of ETFs etc there is hope that Saudi’s non-royal economy will continue to grow. Libya after the revolution is not as vicious as Iraq as the violence there is of the “Hatfield-McCoy” variety, but I will be optimistic once they put down their guns. In Tunisia they have mandated the state banks operate like private banks. Rather than privatize state banks we ought to commercialize them. I think Tunisia is undervalued.

Paul S. Homsy (Eaton & Van Winkle). Saudi Arabia has changed its investment rules allow direct foreign investment in their stock market which is the largest exchange in the Middle East. Most of the market is banks, construction companies, and insurance companies. They have been open to foreign investors in privately owned companies for fifteen years with only a few exceptions (mineral mining and insurance), They hope Saud Arabia will be part of the MSCI index. CMA is the Saudi’s SEC. A local Saudi company (AAP) licensed by the CMA must file the application of any foreign company which puts them on a fast track, and if you have not heard within thirty days you are approved. Foreigners can’t own more than 49% of a local company. Any single QFI (Qualified Foreign Investor) is limited to 20% ownership of a particular company or 10% of market value (this is ambiguous).

John P. Desrocher  (US Dept. of State). This administration developed a new model of bilateral investment treaties in 2012. Issues that obstruct investment include local content requirements, limits on taking funds out of country, etc.  Such treaties help to level the playing field. A positive list treaty applies only to specified sectors of the economy while a negative list applies to everything except a negative list (e.g., media).

Karim Babay (Intrinsic value Investment Partners). We were founded to invest primarily in North America but after the Arab Spring we are making significant investments in the MENA region.  It’s an economy comparable in size to Italy’s but while Italy’s is declining MENA is growing. The population is growing at 2.2%. The other factor is productivity, which is very low and we anticipate a growth rate of 5%. It is a (un?)leveraged market. Debt to GDO is less that 12%. Libya is at 4%. Tunisia at close to 50% is still better than the US or Japan.  The markets are illiquid, which is bad, but an opportunity. Hedging capacity is limited at present. We have generated a return above 12% since formation. Undervalued companies tend to remain undervalued because of investment barriers. We anticipate institutionalization of the markets in the future which will increase value. We anticipate positive structural changes. Oil prices are likely to rise. Governments are likely to withstand changes in dollar value. The region is systematically sound, notwithstanding the headlines.

Robert Michael. Outside the US it is very difficult to buy on consumer credit. To the extent that laws are reformed in this region that will change.

Paul Homsey. The Saudis know they have to get people out of the public sector and into the private sector and they know small business is the way to do that.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

Muslim Condemnations of Today’s Paris Attacks

Friday, November 13th, 2015

A Jewish college classmate of mine asked me if there are any Muslim voices willing to condemn today’s barbarous attacks in Paris. I told him that almost all Muslims condemn it. Here  are links to a couple of major Muslim organizations that have already published their condemnations:

Over the coming days virtually every Muslim organization will have condemned the attacks, but don’t expect to see that fact mentioned in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.

For the record, everyone here at the Minaret of Freedom Institute condemns these attacks regardless of what the religious or political affiliations of the perpetrators proves to be.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.

Minaret of Freedom Institute

El Mercurio Interview on the Russian Airliner Crash in the Sinai

Sunday, November 1st, 2015

[Here are our answers to questions by El Mercurio’s reporter Javier Méndez about the crash of a Russian civilian airliner in the Sinai]:

Q. It is possible that a Russian airplane passengers could be shot down by ISIS?

A. The plane could not have been shot down at that altitude. An on-board attack cannot be ruled out, but seems very unlikely in the light of the reports during ascent by the pilot of some sort of “technical problem” and his intention to land the plane as soon as possible. Further, reports that this particular plane had experienced problems with an engine days before the flight suggest a more likely explanation.

Q. What could be the political effects in the Middle East for this serious incident?

A. The fear expressed by a number of airlines to fly over Sinai in the wake of this tragedy puts pressure on Egypt, whose government has already lost legitimacy as demonstrated by the poor turnout in the recent elections. Alleged claims that ISIS is responsible, far-fetched as those claims may be, nonetheless portend more violence against the group in Syria and its affiliate in the Sinai.

Q. In your opinion, what will happen with the Islamic State the next year? Could ISIS be defeated by the international coalition?

A. I cannot predict what will happen to ISIS, but if it is defeated without popular support of the indigenous populations, it shall only be replaced by another undesirable, and perhaps even more vicious party.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

“The Concept of Ridâ (Approval) in the Qur’an and the Misunderstanding of Coexistence”

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

[This is the twelfth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Islamic Law and Ethics held in Herndon, VA in June  2014. These notes are NOT a transcript, but a lightly edited presentation of  my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the conference director.]

“The Concept of Ridâ (Approval) in the Qur’an and the Misunderstanding of Coexistence”

Asaad al-Saleh, University of Utah

The motivation of people to dismiss my experiences in the West is the identification of “The West” with “Jews and Christians” and to identify what is happening not by actualities but by the verse in the Qur’an “Neither Jews nor Christians will approve of you until you follow their religion.” Being in cultural studies I tried to related this to history and its historical context. One Facebook post said the crusades against Islam haven’t stopped at all and the US is responsible for Afghanistan, Palestine, Syria, Libya. Why did they give Iraq to the Shia? Why did they turn Sudan into two states? Another wrote, “We don’t see it as a crusade but they have explicit said it is so,” referring to Bush’s notorious speech. “They occupy the Muslim countries they no longer find obedient to them.” Finally, “the dirty face will remain dirty no matter how much you try to polish it. The US spilled the blood of Muslims and drank it to the full. The glaring example of Palestine can never be ignored.” I was aware of such attitudes but I never expected a casual positive comment about a positive experience in the West to trigger such a firestorm. Even educated Arabs think that a president who made a reckless remark was speaking for all the American people. Politics can explain but not justify such aggressive attitudes. My concern is with those who only referred to the verse as if the text is sufficient to prove the point. Growing up in the Middle East, I remember it being used a lot out of context as a timeless description of the eternal attitude of Jews and Christians. Since then I have found disturbingly numerous examples of the verse quoted in unsettling circumstances.

When soccer star Samir Nassri was left out of the French World Cup team for 2014, his girlfriend from England made news headlines by using Twitter to insult the French coach. One commentator in the popular Algerian newspaper, Echorouk, followed the Qur’anic verse about ridâ with a message directed to Nassri that that what happened to him is “the penalty for everyone who forgets his homeland.” Similarly, Hafiz Mirazi is a popular TV broadcaster at Arabiyya who quoted this verse to attribute his dismissal to the Jews and Christians. A newspaper in Turkey printed the headline, “Neither the Jews or the Christians will ever be satisfied with you Mr. Erdogan.” They believe that the US is either Jewish or Christian rather than a secular country. In Finland 70% and in Sweden 60% do not identify themselves with Christianity. Some recent scholars give the vision that by 2050 most Christians will be outside of the West.

We have no established meaning of this verse from the Prophet, the Companions, or the followers, only from later interpreters like Tabari, etc. Almost all of the classical exegetes took it to address the Prophet himself, not Muslims in general.  Jews and Christians are spoken of in various ways in the Qur’an many of which have general import, but not this verse, which advises the Prophet not to be distracted from making the call to the truth even if not everyone accepts it.

Why do the people in the Arab world have this attitude? Umar agreed with Christians from Syria to take precautions against future exigencies. The Crusades and colonialism played a role, as did he US invasion of Iraq and the history of Orientalism. You cannot try to deconstruct this interpretation without being accused of questioning the legitimacy of the Qur’an. Ridâ only means agreement. There is no connotation of war against Islam. The word appears in the hadith that a woman’s silence in response to a proposal of marriage constitutes consent. There is no charge of hatred in the absence of agreement or consent.


Shahirah Mahmood, University of Wisconsin – Madison. Asaad’s paper is based on social media (Facebook). I think what Asad is trying to show is that people are using the verse as a legitimizing force for their feeling of “otherness.” American military action is seen not as motivated by nation interest but by civilizational struggle. Are they angry about US involvement in the Middle East or at their own leaders?

Jacquelene Brinton, University of Kansas. Asaad’s paper focuses on the problems of application of ancient texts in the present. This paper could have been an opportunity to speak of the conflation of politics and religion. I would be careful about essentializing the Arab community based on anonymous Facebook posts. In dealing with media you must deal with the issue of what it is that is responding. There are resources out there. More nuance is needed when you give the example of the response regarding the footballer talking about all Christians and Jews or one specific country or team: There are lots of different opinions about America and the West in the Muslim world.

Asaad al-Saleh. The methodology of studying Facebook is kind of challenging. I don’t use the phrase Arab mind, I say Arab consciousness.

General Discussion.

[Name withheld]. The reference to Muslims and the Jews as one community apart from other people is a reference to their common monotheism. Even when they quarrel it is in the name of monotheism. Most often when the Quran says yahûd it means the Jews of Medina, and when it says Bani Isra’îl it usually means the historical Jews.

Al-Saleh. I am trying to see how the verse is being circulated without any context.

[Name withheld]. I think the methodology of analyzing Facebook is problematic.  Muslims make the same responses when a referee makes a decision they don’t like in soccer.

[Name withheld]. We also assume politics is part and parcel of Islam. Does Prophetic ministry require a political component?

Al-Saleh. It is not a metaphor, but it is taken out of context.

Brinton. People who argue religion should be part of civil society say it should be a voice not the voice.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad. How sophisticated do you expect a Facebook post to be? Shall we next agonize over the lack of depth and nuance in a Tweet?

Al-Saleh. I think we need to respond.

[Name withheld]. There is a long scholarly context of quoting verses out of context. This verse is a statement of historical fact being used as general statement.

[Name withheld]. Ridâ means more than agreement in Quran and Sufi literature. It can mean being content, pleased.

Asad al-Saleh. This is not the first time people have misused a text. I discuss the shades of meaning of rida. That’s what we need.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

After the Iran Deal: Regional Repercussions and Dynamics

Friday, August 28th, 2015
[These are my notes from a forum of the Middle East Institute held on August 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. It is not a transcript of the event and only represents my impressions of the contributions put forward there.]
After the Iran Deal: Regional Repercussions and Dynamics
Alex Vatanka (MEI). Moderates, intellectuals, and most of the Iranian media favor the deal. Before the deal was signed one could not even talk about the issue and now there is something that looks like a serious debate.  The position of Ayatollah Khamenei had been vague and Westerners have interpreted as tacit opposition, but Khamenei is always vague. His closest associates are defending the deal, in some cases vigorously. Calls for some strategic retreats should not be mistaken for opposition. There is a team in the Rouhani administration mainly trained in the West who have an economic master plan similar to China’s in opening to the West  as a step in becoming an economic power. The Iranian foreign minister was very open about bringing in investors from the West who would then return to Western capitals and speak well of Iran. Khamenei has not opposed any of these ideas so far. The key question is how to reconcile these plans with Rouhanis notion of a “resistance economy.” Rouhani, unlike Ahmadinejad, had been careful to make sure Khamenei remains, at least in his own mind, in the drivers seat.
The Iranians can have the Majlis approve the deal and then if congress rejects it they come off as the good guys, but the Majlis doesn’t really control things. They are a tool for the Supreme Leader to demonstrate popular support. The Supreme National Security Council is the real power and the majlis is just political theater.
Thomas W Lippman (MEI). Islamic law allows for a tax called jizyah [which non-Muslims pay in lieu of military service). One of Saud’s first acts was to level the jizyah on Shias. The U.S. had made clear its commitment to our allies in the Gulf using language that could make one think we are talking about Israel. The Arabs  have not believed it. Beginning with the camp David meeting in May, they have decided they have to believe it because of new realities in the oil markets. I think they have decided that the Iranian negotiation issue is behind them and they will work with us as best they can. I think they are feeling better about the situation in Yemen and there is a least a possibility of a return to the negotiating table. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the FM of Syria showed up in Oman. I don’t know if they can get their act together but I do think they will have the military equipment they need to get the job done. It’s true they have plans for nuclear power, and they need it for they are burning too much of their own oil. The Saudi state’s first priority is preservation of the Saudi state and full integration with the global economy is part of their strategy. They can’t afford to be, and don’t want to be, the North Korea of the gulf. They will not become nuclear outlaws.
Gonul Tol (Center for Turkish Studies). Turkey is happy about the deal for two reasons. Iran is a huge market for Turkey with close energy ties. Also Turkey has traditionally objected to a nuclear Iran as it would turn the balance of power. But turkey has three strategic concerns. First the rising influence of Iran in Syria and Iraq. Second, closer ties between Iran and Washington may come at the expense of Turkey’s Syria policy, especially as Washington sees the [so-called] Islamic State as a greater threat than the Assad regime. Third is Iran’s support for the PKK and the PKYD. Turkish media reported an Iranian offer of support to the Kurds in their fight against the IS. Turkey and Iran have had peaceful relations since 1639 and could have a working relationship. 
Robert S Ford (MEI). The pressures on the Iraqi state are growing exponentially. They cannot make payments due to the Kurds. The Iranians are close to potent militias, some of which are on the U.S. Terrorist list. Iranian backed Shia militia leaders are calling for people to join in political demonstrations. Iraq is caught between Shia militias in one side and the IS on the other because were the U.S. to get closer to Iranian backed militias it would only help IS recruitment. In Syria the war is no longer a stalemate, but the Assad regime is clearly losing, but there is no sign the Iranians are backing off of their support for Assad. There are reports the Iranians are about to put forward a peace proposal for Syria that would include a national unity government, protection for minorities, and eventual internationally supervised elections. I don’t think this will go far, primarily because of the Turkish veto, the rebel distrust of Iran, and the rebels red line against including Assad in any unity government. Last week there were anti-Assad demonstrations in his home province. Iranians would have to accept that Assad has to be transitioned out. 
Lippman. I see the GCC as cohesive in rhetoric but not on policy. The words “defense” and “military” do not occur in GCC charter. Only last year there was an announcement that they would form a unified military command, but I have seen no sign of it coming about. They are not united on Iran and were only barely united on the Muslim Brotherhood. They hold their noses to deal with one another, but that is not the same as being kindred spirits. 
Tol. Syria has a unique place in Turkish domestic policy because of the PKK. I think Erdogan is playing a risky game. He is finally on board with fighting the IS, but he still considers the PKK a greater threat. 
Ford. Geneva ended abruptly because the Syrians were not willing to make any concessions. Since then the Syrian opposition was unwilling to negotiate without a precondition of Assad stepping down. The only negotiations possible now are those that sidestep the political issues. There’s no harm in talking to the Russians, and they have now agreed to letting the U.N. investigate who has been using chemical weapons. 
Ford. It is difficult for me to imagine that the Iranians will not use some portion of he resources they shall get to supply Hezbollah and other Shia fighters they may recruit to fight in Syria. I think sanctions relief will likely increase the fighting in Syria. 
Tol. Bombing was a face-saving way to join the anti-IS fight. I think Turkey understands IS is a greater threat to them than to the U.S., yet they still fear the PKK more than the IS. They decided that if they could convince the Americans to establish a safe zone between two Kurdish enclaves they could prevent the linking of those enclaves.  This cat had a long tail. The Saudis supported Alawi against Maliki. The Saudis for the first time in years appointed an ambassador to Baghdad: a long-time intelligence officer. The Saudis had an ambassador in Tehran before they had one in Iraq. On the border with Iraq they are building a fence that Donald Trump would be proud of. 
Vatanka. If Congress defeats the lifting of American sanctions that not so bad for Khamenei as international sanctions will fall. It will be much harder on the Rouhani camp.
Lippman. The real question is what will Israel do.
Tol. I think the hand of the IS in Turkey is stronger. Last week they said they could easy destabilize turkey by one bomb in a Turkish resort.
Ford. I see no way to manage the ISIS challenge without unity governments in both Syria and Iraq.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

Religious Freedom: Rising Threats to a Fundamental Human Right

Monday, July 20th, 2015

“Religious Freedom: Rising Threats to a Fundamental Human Right”

At a conference held on July 16, 2015 at Georgetown University sponsored by the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Baylor University, and the American Bar Association Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities: Committee on Religious Freedom, the Keynote Conversation featured Rep. Keith Ellison and Dr. Katrina Lantos-Swett (Tufts Univ.) and was moderated by Judge Ken Starr.

Ellison went to an all boys Catholic High School, yet when he got to Wayne State College he was an open-minded person in a seeking mode ready to hear some new messages. He heard a compelling message and was member of the Muslim community by the age of nineteen. His household was both tolerant and religious, and his mother debated more with his Baptist minister brother than with him. When he agreed to be sworn in on the Qur’an it caused a controversy which ended when he was sworn in on Thomas Jefferson’s copy.

Ellison acknowledges that there were early religious fights in this country but believes that the attitude of the framers sent us on a trajectory hat has served us well over time. He noted that some European countries think freedom of religion means freedom from religion, but he argues that religious freedom does not mean the freedom to be the same, but the freedom to be different. The freedom to be unorthodox and the freedom of public expression, to wear symbols of one’s religion are essential. He thinks we Americans on this subject are onto something really good and shouldn’t be shy about standing up to say freedom of faith.

Starr added that freedom to express one’s faith in the public square is essential noting that Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1849 says, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

Ellisons said that religious freedom is good because freedom of conscience is good. Religion may not always be a good thing. Some devout people have done things of which we are not proud, but religion promotes many good things like honesty, charity, and a sense of public responsibility. It must be coupled with tolerance.

Starr asked what would Ellision tell visiting Chinese dignitaries on the importance of religious freedom? He replied that religion is a source of imagination and creativity. If you limit it you are limiting the thought process. The assumption that we need uniformity in order to have social cohesion is completely wrong. Consider Somalia which is thoroughly homogeneous and violently divided. Ellidion noted that in the U.S. we have mass killings over race or other things, but rarely over religion.

Responding to Starr’s observation that some research showed that in countries that allow Christian missionaries to operate with freedom, prosperity, health and education are positively affected, Ellison said that if you want a liberal arts education, it is the Christians who are offering it. Education in Muslim schools is memorization, not critical thought, which he does not consider to be education. He himself is the product of Catholic education, a Catholic in the Catholic school with Jewish and other non-Catholic classmates. He asserted that in the public schools they are not trying to educate but to indoctrinate with loyalty  to the leader.

Lantos-Swett said the core of religious freedom is the right of people to live in accordance with their conscience, according the full range of their beliefs. It goes to the essence of our dignity and identity as human beings, and out of it come our other rights like speech, association, the press, etc.

Starr asked what role should religious freedom issues playing the formulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policies. Ellison replied that while it may not satisfy the idealist, foreign policy will away have to balance our ideals against our security and economic interests. We should speak our values in the international forum and we should make it clear that if other countries go too far–whatever that is–it will affect our trade policies. The question is then how far do we push this before we annoy our allies? Because of his failure to act in the Gujurat riots, the current PM of India couldn’t get a visa to come to the U.S. until he became PM.

Lantos-Swett feels that it is in our pragmatic interest to put religious freedom higher up. We tend to put religious freedom in a box and bring it out when convenient. Societies that respect religious freedom tend to be stable with better status for women, etc., while those that do not tend to be breeding grounds for terrorism that does not stay within its borders. She noted that a huge percentage of our foreign service officers are such secular individuals that they are not prepared to interact constructively with those who feel that are being viewed as a specimen in a museum rather than as a worthy partner.

Ellison agreed, noting that during the negotiations with Iran, Kerry took breaks to Sunday services and Zarif took breaks to go to Friday prayers. He said he would like the U.S. to be more vocal against FGM.

Starr noted that the International Religious Freedom Act of 1988 anticipated the kinds of issues about which we should be thinking and said that HR1150 is now before Congress with a specific provision for training foreign service officers in the culture of the countries to which they are deployed, and religion is an important part of culture. Lantos-Swett said that Article 18 of the Universal Declaration has a capacious view of religious freedom, and Starr noted that it included the freedom to change one’s religion.

Starr asked how do we measure the limits of religious freedom and majoritarian practice? Ellison thought the individual right should be given some, but not absolute deference, noting that School children get winter break at Christmas time and spring break at Easter time, adding that there is a Christian majority is a fact of life and deserves respect. Lantos-Swett referred back to the individual right of freedom of conscience as the key to understanding these issues, saying that the American spirit of pragmatism and seeking a reasonable accommodation will continue to serve us better than absolutism or triumphalism. Government should not prohibit people from doing what their conscience demands nor prohibit them from doing that which their conscience prohibits.

In response to my questionb as to whether the Strict Scrutiny Test which has served so well to defend freedom of speech was not the solution to balancing religious freedom against majoritarian intrusion, Starr said that strict scrutiny was imported into religious freedom in the Sherbert case and came back 10 years later when SCOTUS essentially unanimously supported Yoder’s right to pull his children from school. In the Smith decision it was abandoned for a weaker standard of general applicability, but Congress reinstituted strict scrutiny with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which he thinks every American school child should read.

I reminded him that strict scrutiny requires more than just that the government demonstrate a compelling interest. They must also prove that they have met that interest by the least restrictive means possible. Starr agreed, noting that in the Hobby Lobby Case the government was deemed to have met the compelling government interest test but not the least restrictive means possible test. In The Little Sisters of the Poor Case he thinks it will come into play again, but only if the record is properly built. He quoted Brandeis: “Facts, facts, facts.”

A Hindu questioner asked how appropriate are apologies issued for crimes committed hundreds of years ago but that shaped the world today? Lantos-Swett thought that most people would welcome that acknowledgement of past wrongs, but I think it would be a mistake to call proselytizing an abusive practice but added that a distinction needs to be drawn between abusive practices and legitimate sharing.

Star added that proselytizing is a contentious term. The invitation should be a warm and cordial invitation.  SCOTUS defended the Cantwells’ right to use inflammatory language as they knocked on people’s doors in a Catholic neighborhood.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

Fiqh al-Zakah in India and the Emergence of New Applied Ethics of Socioeconomic Justice: Case Studies of Islamic Charities

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

[This is the tenth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Islamic Law and Ethics held in Herndon, VA in June  2014. These notes are NOT a transcript, but a lightly edited presentation of  my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the conference director.]

“Fiqh al-Zakah in India and the Emergence of New Applied Ethics of Socioeconomic Justice: Case Studies of Islamic Charities”

Christopher Taylor, Boston University.

I ask you to reconsider zakat as the purity ethic and the development ethic as a change in tradition. Imagine fiqh as variegated, which is different from how the masses in India view it. The donor is purified and the wealth is purified in the traditional view. In the developmental view, focus is on the development of the recipient. I think attention to zakat is increasing, and Pew reports more Muslims give zakat than engage in their prayers. I worked in Lucknow. Many people were familiar with the reformist discourses. The Society for Divine Welfare had a regular charity event. Contrary to the hadith to give with your right hand so the left does not know what you have done, the distributions were not so secret. They gave out sewing machines, rickshaws, and vegetable carts. In some cases the donors themselves distributed the goods. There was local news coverage, although names were not printed.

At first blush one thinks that the Indian charities are mimicking the charitable methods of the West, but I suggest the practices come out of indigenous tradition. The obligation itself is well established in scripture. Purification itself is clear in scripture. Shafi compared zakat to wudu. Even the verse for the Prophet to take charity (sadaqa, 9:103) refers to purification. Hallaq claims it is uniquely both ibâdat (ritual) and mu`amalât (action). Traditionally, it is the ibâdat that is the most important part.

In addition to the hadith quoted there are at least two verse in the Qur’an that reminders of charity or consequent injury invalidates the virtue. Also a verse says that while open charity is good, secret is better, and Ghazali writes on this at length, as do others. Obligation on the donor, purification of wealth, and the commendation of secrecy pull the spotlight away from the recipient onto the donor. [Warning against] pretending to be needy is the only example I could find of scripture addressed to recipients as opposed to donors.

Charity is being routinized into organizations. Questions about the worthiness of recipients and how they used the gifts demonstrate the change to a development paradigm. Charity can even be damaging to the recipient. Do application forms or accounting shame the recipients?  When I asked Maulana Jaanghir, a very influential preacher, why he did what he did, he said the first duty [of the believer] is to earn income in a halal way and the first duty [of the teacher] is to teach the poor how to stand on their own lest they go to Hell. He sees fiqh as silent as to how recipients should use zakat. He gave a sermon warning against selling the tools distributed for cash. He acknowledges that the zakat is the right of the recipient, but he used his moral authority to urge them to use it in the best way. He defended the public distribution because donors are concerned about corruption. There were many other donors who did not want to go to such events.

Practices and teachings on zakat are particularly good reminders of the diversity and flexibility of Shariah, even within the confines of fiqh as it has been traditionally imagined. The ulama and the students and teachers of fiqh are creative in balancing moral criteria within the traditions. They do not see it as Westoxification. Why do I say this is a change? Was zakat not always seen as social development by the Prophet? Yes, but Said Arjomand in Public Policy in Islam says it is surprising that waqf rather than zakat and sadaqah became the basis of development.


Samy Ayoub, University of Arizona. I like the distinction between purification and developmental ethics. Does moving charity to the public sphere give the ulama more power?

Taylor. I treat zakat as a metonym for charity in general, which isn’t the local usage, because the niyat is what distinguishes zakat from sadaqa. I prefer to look from the perspective of the ulama themselves. Zakat is the head of financial worship with sadaqa and nafli coming afterward. As to the shaming issue, the recipients recognize the need for working too.

General Discussion.

[Name withheld]. Zakat is a pillar of Islam, is fixed and specific with regard to the categories. Nation states can enforce it. It is useful to separate zakat from sadaqa.

[Name withheld]. Zakat and sadaqa are used interchangeably in the Qur’an. Not letting the left hand know what the right is doing goes back to the Christian gospels. The khums is besides zakat, and is really for the descendents of the Prophet, and has given the Shia religious establishment independence the Sunni establishment does not have.

[Name withheld]. What Muslims are doing with charity is what the Hindus are doing with their caste system. It is donated to their own community and will return to them. Zakat has an economic implication beyond purification. It is the only instrument to push people to invest rather than accumulate wealth at home since there is no riba.

[Name withheld]. The role of the ulama is important in India. 4% of the population is in madrassas, which is historically low, accompanied by a disdain for the ulama as scholars, so the purpose of my emphasis on an `alim (scholar) at the head of a zakat institution is to show it is reinvigorating the ulama’s role in the public sphere as compared to waqf. Waqf is primarily for the financial elites, whereas zakat is squarely in the realm of the ulama.  There are Ajlaf and Ashraf (lower and upper) castes. Being a sayyid is also very significant. They keep sadaqa and zakat accounts separate.

[Name withheld]. When business men said they were afraid of corruption; why don’t they give directly to the poor?

[Name withheld]. Umar ibn Khatab for three consecutive years sent the zakat back to the treasury, but in the fourth year spent it on roads, etc., as did Umar IV.

[Name withheld]. In Indonesia they took mandatory zakat from the salaries of employees. Did you encounter anything like this in India? Also address nikkah sirri (secret marriage).

[Name withheld]. These questions are great. Zakat has double meaning, to increase and to purify. The question of the use of zakat for public works is fantastic and Yusuf Qaradawi had a public teaching session in Lucknow and responded to a question about use of zakat for public works (he also supports building mosques in non-Muslim countries) as opposed to the Hanafi position. Their debate is written in a pamphlet. The Deobandi scholar Tanwi says if you gave zakat to a sayyid or a relative by mistake, it is still valid if your niyat  (intention) was right. Abu Yusuf has a different opinion.

[Name withheld]. I spent two months in Lucknow with a student kept saying he was an orphan.

[Name withheld]. He was trying to get sadaqa.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute