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


Thursday, March 25th, 2021


Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.

Minaret of Freedom Institute


I am a Palestinian-American Muslim. Although I was taken away from it while still in my mother’s womb, Palestine is my motherland in a multi-dimensional sense. My mother was not only born and raised in Jerusalem, but she was named for it. Her name was “Qudsia,” the feminine form of al-quds, “The Holy (one),” the Arabic name for Jerusalem. My father is from a small village just outside of Jerusalem, called Bir Nabala. The Israelis have expanded the boundary of the city to the point where it impinges now on my father’s village.

In 1947 my father returned to Palestine from America to find a wife. He had left Palestine while yet a twelve-year-old boy. His parents had both died and his eldest sister had to raise the family. He came to America to earn money to support the family. Now, he was back looking for a life-mate, and the college-educated city girl, school teacher, and radio pioneer (the first woman to read the news on Jerusalem radio) seemed the ideal wife to hold up under the cultural shock of a move to America.

My mother was pleased to marry this handsome and very intelligent, albeit uneducated, man, but she did not want to forsake her beloved homeland or the environs of the city for which she was named. If he wanted to marry her, he would have to stay in Palestine. He gladly agreed, and, in November of 1947, they wed. And I took up residence in her womb.

In May 1948, less than six months into her pregnancy, the massacre at Deir Yasin took place. My mother had a student from Dir Yasin, and the stories of how the terrorists had split open the bellies of pregnant women to rip out the fetuses and stamp on them had their intended effect.  She was terrorized, and she changed her mind. She would leave family and her ancestral homeland to come to a country she did not know to keep her baby safe from the terrorists.

By the time she got her visa, my mother was too close to term to be allowed to fly on an airplane. They booked passage on a ship (the Marine Carp) instead, and, ten days before the due date, I was born on board. I would not set foot on the land in which I was conceived until thirty-two years later. My knowledge of Jerusalem would come to me through my mother’s memories and the religion in which she raised me.

Jerusalem Through My Mother’s Memories

Raised in America, I envied my classmates who personally knew their grandparents. I knew mine only through my mother’s memories and a photograph of my grandfather in his fez and Ottoman mustache. He had been an assistant to the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem, and his marriage to an Arab woman of Jerusalem spared his life from the anger of the mob during the Arab uprising of 1916.

I had met only one of my maternal uncles, who had come to the United States to study. He passed on a flavor of my homeland through his playing of the lute, an instrument he left behind when his studies were done and he returned home. It hung on my mother’s wall until her passing when it was inherited by my niece, now a musician in New York City. Of my mother’s other brothers, known to me only through her reminiscences, Lutfi was a memorable rascal. One time he got into trouble by sneaking up on a Jewish neighbor and clipping off one of his sidelocks.

My uncle’s juvenile mischief notwithstanding, the image my mother painted of the relations with her non-Muslim neighbors (the “People of the Book” as the Qur’an calls them) was warm and convivial.  She would tell me how she would accompany her Christian neighbors as they walked the stations of the cross. Muslims do not believe that Jesus (peace be upon him) had been crucified (for the Qur’an says that was only what God had made appear to be the case), but that did not stop her from sharing in the spirit of their holidays, as they would share in the Muslim Eids (feast days), when Muslim tradition demands that the meals marking the end of the month of fasting be shared with all close enough to smell the food.

In some ways, life in Jerusalem was atypical for my mother. She was a graduate of the Jerusalem Women’s College. A picture of her graduating class now hangs in my living room.  There were only two dozen graduates that year, a testament to the rarity of higher education for women in Jerusalem in the first half of the twentieth century. Her family was too poor to send more than one child to college, and tradition would have demanded that it be Lutfi rather than Qudsia. But Lutfi was not the academic type and urged his father to let his studious sister go because she would appreciate it more, go. Fortunately, my grandfather’s good sense prevailed over tradition, and he conceded.

Once out of college my mother not only took up teaching, but also got a job with the Palestine Broadcasting System. There she produced award-winning programs on the history of Islam and of the region. She even got to read the news one time when the regular announcer failed to show up. She did not enjoy the experience, as by that time the conflicts between the newly arrived Zionists and the indigenous peoples had become so seriously violent that, she said, she wept as she read the reports.

Her tears are another memory of Jerusalem. I cannot forget the day I came home from school to hear her crying.  No child should have to hear his mother cry. It is for parents to dry the tears of their children. Young children do not know how to dry the tears of their parents.

“Why are you crying?’ I asked her.

“I am so homesick,” was her reply. She missed her family, her neighbors, the sights and the sounds of the holy city. I cannot remember if I was six or eight or ten when this happened. I only remember feeling helpless. It was something about which I could do nothing.

Jerusalem Through My Religion

When I was about to enter fourth grade, I began to ask my mother questions about religion. She gave me a copy of the Qur’an that included Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation into English. I began my serious study of Islam, which continues to this day. Within the narrative of Islam is a tale of three cities: Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. The significance of Jerusalem as the city of David, Solomon, Jesus, and Muhammad is the way it links three different religious communities into a single essential religious history. David, Solomon, and Jesus (peace be upon them all) who lived in Jerusalem are mentioned more often by name in the Qur’an (16, 25, 17 times, respectively) than Muhammad (four times, peace be upon him). And Moses (peace be upon him)—for whom the Holy Land was the object of his flight from Egypt, although he never made it to Jerusalem—is mentioned by name 135 times. Mary or Maryam, Mother of Isa or Jesus, is the only woman named in the Qur’an, with her name appearing seventy times. The 19th chapter or sȗrah of the Qur’an is named after her.

This significance is expanded upon by the Hadith (traditional reports about things the Prophet said and did) recounting his “Night Journey” to Jerusalem. The event is alluded to in the Qur’an in the passage (17:1): “Glory to (God) Who took His servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque [Masjid-al-Harâm, in Mecca] to the farthest Mosque [al-Aqsa, in Jerusalem], whose precincts We did bless, in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who hears and sees (all things).” The traditions state that the Prophet was transported to Jerusalem (whether materially or in a vision is irrelevant to the point) where, united with all the previous prophets, he prayed together with them to the One God.

This significance of Jerusalem is also attested to by the fact that it was the original qibla, or direction of prayer as well. When the qibla was changed to Mecca, the Qur’an explained (2:142) that “To God belong both East and West” and (2:177) that righteousness lies not in facing a particular physical direction, but in belief and good deeds.

This significance of Jerusalem can be seen not only in the religious texts, but in Muslim history. When Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab conquered Jerusalem in 637, he neither slaughtered the Christian inhabitants (as the Persians had done to the Christians when they conquered the city twenty-three years earlier and as the Crusaders did to the Muslims four centuries later) nor expelled them, but allowed them to remain. When the appreciative Patriarch Sophronius invited him to pray inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Umar declined explaining that, although it was not forbidden for him to do so, he feared some future Muslims more zealous about religious identity than observant of religious law might use his having prayed there as an excuse to convert the church into a mosque. In later generations some Christians accused Umar of betraying them by letting Jews into the city, but had he made any promise to keep them out it would not have been legal under Islamic law.

My Visit to Jerusalem

Not until I was in my thirties would I finally set foot on the ground of my mother’s native city. My father had become afflicted with cancer and sought to cross a major item off his bucket list by taking his children to visit Palestine. My brother Maher, my new bride Frances (for whom this would be our honeymoon), and I eagerly accepted. After spending a week with some cousins in Amman, we would spend a week in the home of my mother’s big sister in the Old City.

When I told my mentor, Harvard Professor Robert Nozick, about my forthcoming trip, he urged me not to take as discrimination the close search we would receive from the Israeli border guards, assuring me that everyone, even Jews like himself, received the same scrutiny. I think he failed to notice some subtle differences in treatment. On the day we crossed over the Allenby Bridge from Amman to Jerusalem, I, with an Arab name, but traveling on an American passport and with an American accent, got through customs in 25 minutes.  For my parents, with American passports but Palestinian accents, it took 50 minutes. For my cousin, a permanent resident of Jerusalem, it took the WHOLE DAY. Knowing that it would, she had left Amman after dawn prayers.  We waved to her as she cooled her heels in the waiting room in the late morning, and she joined us in my aunt’s house for supper late that afternoon.

As we approached the city, our car, identified by the license plate color as owned by a Palestinian, was stopped by the Israeli police. When the officer poked his head into the car he saw my very American-looking wife in the back seat next to me and hastily explained, “I’m just checking to make sure your seat belts are fastened.”  How thoughtful.

My aunt’s five-hundred-year-old house is ensconced within the walls of the Old City, near Herod’s Gate or Bab as-Zahra. Except for the master bedroom and the tabûn (a special kitchen for baking bread), every room is adjacent to the central courtyard, which itself is partly covered by a grape arbor. The grapes were not yet ripe, but had we come a month later, I think I could have just reached up and grabbed myself a fresh snack.

My aunt had always spoiled her little sister. Her hospitality as well as that of her husband and their daughters now was incredible. As Frances and I were newlyweds, they insisted we take the master bedroom, a lovely chamber with a cathedral ceiling. They did not want us to lack anything, which caused an awkward moment after our supper.

My aunt asked us what we wanted to do that evening, and Frances said she would like to go out for ice cream. A deathly silence fell upon the household.  My aunt spoke little English, so finally my cousin explained the cause of their embarrassment: The ice cream parlor was in a section of the city closed off to non-Jews at night.  “I don’t need ice cream,” Frances reassured our hosts.

The next day, we made our way past soldiers armed with rifles to a camp filled with “internally displaced” refugees. The day after that, Frances had traded in her touristy-looking straw hat for a Muslim style headscarf that provoked visible affection from the locals we met.

Then, we went to the market to engage in some old-fashioned haggling.  My cousin had tutored me on exactly the tone of voice to take in responding to a shop-keepers opening price with an incredulous “shooo?” (“Whaaaaat?”)  Frances admired an embroidered caftan. How much?  They gave a price.  “Shooo?” I said. I offered one fourth of what they asked.  Impossible. They offered half. We walked out.  They chased after us into the narrow old city street. OK. Deal.

One day we took a day trip to Ramallah, stopping at my father’s village of Bir Nabala. I finally was able to meet the aunt who had raised the family while her brothers went to America to support them. She had not seen her little brother in over thirty years. Every time my brother or I got near her, she would begin to whisper prayers over us.

Bir Nabala means “well of Nabala.” I asked if it were possible to drink of the water of the well. The locals seemed surprised that anyone would want to drink of the well water when piped water was available, but I insisted. The water was brackish, but to me the drink was a satisfying coming-home ritual. We then took a walk to the ruins of the house in which my father grew up, destroyed by an earthquake. Later I was shown the room in which I was conceived. Afterward I stood on the roof of that house and looked at the moon over the Jerusalem suburb and at a nearby hilltop where settlers were building their illegal homes.

My aunt’s neighbor was a professional tour guide, and we joined his tour starting at the Garden of Gethsemane. He said he always took his shoes off there because it is holy ground. We took in the panorama of the city below us, dominated by the golden Dome of the Rock. Beside it is the smaller silver dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Then, at prayer time on Friday we were there, less than a 10-minute walk from my aunt’s house.

As we entered the plaza a Muslim guard shouted at Frances, but backed off when my mother shouted back at him. The Al-Aqsa Mosque was full, so I had to pray on the plaza between the two mosques. The women got to pray in the more impressive Dome of the Rock. I got to pray there later after it had emptied out. On my way in I saw a hole in the wall made by Israeli fire during the June 1967 War. Mosque officials refused to repair it so that no one could ever forget.

Inside, I positioned myself so that I was facing both Mecca and the large rock where some believe that Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him, mentioned by name in the Qur’an 69 times) prepared for the sacrifice of his son. The Qur’an does not name the son in question but, like the Bible, says it was his only son at the time. There was a time when Ishmael (peace be upon him, mentioned by name 11 times in the Qur’an) was his only son and never a time when his second son Isaac (peace be upon him, mentioned by name 15 times) was the only son, so Muslims conclude the son in question was Ishmael. The fact that the Qur’an makes no mention of the name tells Muslims that the story of Abraham’s sacrifice is about the love of God, not about real estate.

I was removed from Jerusalem, but Jerusalem will never be removed from me.


Islam, Science Fiction, and Extraterrestrial Life

Friday, March 19th, 2021

Jörg Matthias Determann’s Islam, Science Fiction, and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2021). 270pp.

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

Anyone susceptible to believing stereotypes depicting the religious views of Muslims as violent variations of Christian fundamentalism would expect a book subtitled “The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World” to be a very short book indeed, featuring a fatwa against the notion of extraterrestrial life as blasphemy contrasted with a couple ex-Muslim writers of bad fan sci-fi fiction. Instead, Jörg Matthias Determann has produced a fascinating collection of numerous examples of a wide variety of men and women from Muslim majority countries or of Muslim persuasion engaged in an almost equally wide variety of activities ranging from serious science to flying saucer cults, along with a panoply of sometimes profound and sometimes silly, sometimes derivative (or outright plagiarized) and sometimes ingenious (even original) science fiction. Suitable for use in a university level course the book is downright pleasant read for anyone with any curiosity about Muslim interest in astrobiology and science fiction.

The opening chapter, “The Lord of the Worlds” is named after the opening verse of the Qur’an which praises God as the Lord of a multiplicity of universes. This places the notions of multiple planets or even the “multiverse” comfortably within the most sacred text of Islam. While early Muslim commentators understood this notion of multiple worlds to include the multiplicity of creations across a wide variety of dimensions (material, spiritual, intellectual, animal, vegetable, mineral, etc.) they would not have been inclined to exclude any conception of multiple worldliness as beyond the Divine dominion. Even the notion of space travel was not new to the Arabs as the second century Syrian writer Lucian of Samosata had written “A True Story about a trip to the Moon” (p. 4) fourteen hundred years before Cyrano de Bergerac’s fantasy on the same theme. The notion of extra-terrestrial life is not problematic for a religion in which God is Lord of all the worlds in the way it is for a religion that conditions salvation on the sacrifice of the Divinity’s “only begotten Son” for the redemption of the dominant species on a single world. Determann notes that “much science fiction from Egypt, Malaysia, Turkey and other countries reflected and promoted dreams of a united Islamic world.” It is no surprise then to learn that Muslim science fiction writers have imagined both believing and disbelieving aliens.

Chapter 2, entitled “Missions and Mars” looks at scientific journals and popular magazines. In the West, the notion of “panspermia” (that the seeds of life are spread throughout the cosmos) is associated with Enlightenment writers like Benoît de Maillet (pp. 39-40). Determann notes their debt to Muslim predecessors such as Zakariya al-Qazwini, the thirteenth century author of Marvels and Strange Creatures Existing (p. 40). Gustave Flaubert called de Maillet’s Telliamed an ‘Arabic book'” (p. 40). The reciprocal influence of such works on later Muslims took a while to emerge, but a couple of centuries later Christians and Muslims were seriously debating extraterrestrial life” (p. 41).

Rather than threaten Muslim religious sensibilities, the spread of the Copernican paradigm moved the Bengali physician and poet Mir Muhammad Husayn to argue, “each of the fixed stars along with its planets and satellites is a universe by itself” and that “the existence of an infinite number of worlds demonstrates God’s omnipotence” (pp. 43-44). The attempt of “colonial administrators and missionaries to equate European astronomy with Christianity largely failed” (p. 45). Reformers such as Obeidallah Ubedi and Syed Ahmad Khan strongly urged Muslims to embrace science, feeling it poses no threat to Islam (pp. 45-46). Khan said, “The Work of God and the Word of God can never be antagonistic to each other.” Court official Mohamad Abul Hasan Siddiqi boasted that although “[t]he first chapter of the Book of Genesis has always been a puzzle to the church commentators … the Last Book of God , the Quran, has saved its believers from such a labour-lost task” (p. 47). While some tried to argue for heliocentricity from the Qur’an, most felt it to be a matter religiously indifferent, although one Syrian translation of Jérôme de Lalande’s Treatise of Astronomy “transformed the text into a geocentric one” in which “Uranus and the asteroids … all rotate around the earth” (p. 49).

While Muslims, appalled by his hostility to the Prophet (pbuh), demonstrated against the historical work of H. G. Wells, they had no objections to his science fiction (p. 47). Yet, a perception that Christians and materialists were using Western science to challenge Islam provoked the Egyptian physician Muhammad Tawfiq Sidqi to publish articles in which he claimed the Qur’an contained allusions to scientific facts “unknown during the time of the prophet Muhammad” including terrestrial “rotation and the common origin of all planets in ‘smoke'” (i.e, gas and dust, p. 56) and that the stars move independently from one another rather than being embedded in a fixed sphere” (p. 57). He also claimed the Qur’an referred to the creation of animals in the heavens as well as on earth (p. 57). Allusions to extraterrestrial life in Arab periodicals was so frequent that the “scientific imagination then shaped important books on Qur’anic exegesis” (p. 62). The al-Azhar trained religious scholar Tantawi Jawhari incorporated some elements of modern cosmology both in his multi-volume exegesis The Jewels and into a work of utopian fiction published in 1935 (p. 62). Even professional astronomers got into the game. Helwan Observatory’s Abdel Hamid Samaha lectured “on cosmological ideas in the Qur’an at the Lund Observatory in Sweden,” informing his Western audience that his understanding that Qur’anic statements indicated “the existence of life either identical, similar or probably different from ours in the outer space” came both from his Muslim religious beliefs and that “also as a scientist I am inclined to believe that such is at least very probable” (p. 62).

Chapter 3, “Trips to the Moon,” focuses on science fiction films, from which we learn such interesting tidbits of jurisprudence as that a “Pakistani woman may marry an alien as long as he is a Muslim” (p. 71). Determann rejects attributing the rarity of Pakistani sci-fi films to Islamic cultural bias since there are plenty of Muslim contributors to sci-fi films coming out of India (p.74). The difference, he concludes, is that while Islam per se does not inhibit the creation of science fiction films, a secular political environment seems more conducive to their production (p. 75). He notes, for example, that although Saudi Arabia “is comparable in its authoritarianism to” its socialist neighbor states, it started banning cinemas in the 1950s (just as science fiction films were gaining popularity) on the grounds that public theatres brought “unrelated men and women together” (p. 75). This hostility is directed at the medium films rather than the genre of sci-fi. The Saudi grand mufti’s 2017 denunciation of cinema as venues for of depravity that “might show movies that are libertine, lewd, immoral and atheist, because they rely on films imported to change our culture” (p. 75) may reflect the cultural climate of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan as well (p. 77).

Determann finds, however, that “[i]nterest in space and its creatures only increased over the course of the 1950s” in the broader Muslim world (p. 84). Dystopian stories then appearing, like those of Egyptian Tawfiq al-Hakim “could be interpreted as critiques of the modernizing projects that governments like his own were engaged in” (p. 85). The growing number of literary and stage sci-fi pieces in Egypt spilled onto the silver screen in 1959 with the release of “Journey to the Moon,” but (p. 86) there was no sequel or imitation once Nasser’s socialist regime nationalized the major media companies including the entire film industry (p. 87). State repression quashed “scientific imagination” even as it inadvertently inspired it (p. 88). With the movie industry in state control, that inspiration erupted on the stage (pp. 88ff). One explicit example of Islamic science fiction was The Fifth Dimension, a story in which German physicist repentant of past work for the Nazis, his niece, and her journalist fiancé escape an earth fated for nuclear annihilation to discover a utopia on Mars. The author, Ahmed Raef, was a protégé of his fellow prisoner Muhammad Qutb (p. 89). Following the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideals, the freely elected ruler of the Martian utopia has sworn “to follow the laws of God, not to be unjust, and not to follow personal interests that may cause him to deviate from divine guidance.” Further he is subordinate to “a council of 100 wise people” and subject to a recall process that may be initiated by any citizen.

The influence of Western science fiction is pronounced, and the Turkish film “Tourist Omer in Star Trek” could easily be argued to be a violation of copyright (p. 96). Although Determann focuses on science fiction by Muslims he does not ignore the influence of Islamic culture, people, and landscapes on non-Muslim science fiction such as Frank Herbert’s Dune and George Lucas’s “Star Wars” (pp. 96ff). However, he does not mention Daniel Moffit’s Mechanical Sky trilogy.

I would have been more comfortable if Chapter 4 had it been called “Muslim UFO Cults” instead of “Islamic UFO Religions.”  The previous chapter ends with a segue asserting that in contrast to the “light entertainment” of Muslim sci-fi films, the publications of these cults often drew large audiences by “promoting dark and complex conspiracy theories” that sometimes “combined Middle East politics with Qur’anic exegesis and space research” (p. 104). A Kuwaiti UFO sighting in 1978 (p. 105) is the first of “a wave of sightings over the Gulf countries” around the time of the fall of the shah of Iran. Determann notes differences in the reports of sightings in different parts of the Muslim world. Malaysians reported space aliens as tiny humanoids, only “three to six inches” in size (p. 109). More broadly, Muslims were quick to identify aliens with the jinn mentioned in the Qur’an (p. 109), non-human entities made of smokeless fire but which Muslim traditions hold can assume other shapes.

In America, a mother ship played a significant role in the mythology of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. In their mythology the white race, itself the product of a eugenics program initiated by a mad scientist name “Yakub,” had enslaved the naturally black people of Earth. They would be rescued from their oppression by the Mother Plane, “a wheel-shaped wonder under the control of black Muslim scientists … able to defy Earth’s gravity, lift up mountains and generate its own oxygen and hydrogen.” (p. 112). With the rising popularity of flying saucer theories “some scientists and officials felt obliged to counter them with more cautionary accounts” (p. 119). Yet Determann suspects that one balanced account by a scholar trained in both religion and science may “have inadvertently lent legitimacy to the topic,” despite the author’s boldfaced declaration denying any “evidence for the existence of any life like on Earth” (pp. 119-20). A character in the Turkish Sci-fi film “Buddy” seems to suffer from UFO envy when he asks, “Why do they always come to the Americans? Let them come to us once” (p. 122).

Not all Muslims enamored of flying saucers see them as mechanical objects from outer space. The influential Jordanian professor of Islamic Law Umar al-Ashqar identified them as jinn who reside on Earth (p. 129). The Egyptian journalist `Isa Dawud also rejected an extra-terrestrial origin for UFOs, offering a conspiracy theory explaining “that their owners were humans with ‘dreams to rule the world'” (p. 130). Determann suggests that Virginia-based Voice of America journalist Abdul Aziz Khan drew so many parallels between 20th century UFO sightings and stories in the Qur’an and went so far as to imply “Muslims … must believe in UFOs” (p. 133). He even argues that the word for “covering up” truth, kufr, in the Qur’an refers is the conspiracy to cover up the truth about UFOs (p. 134). On the secular side, an extremist Kamalist who billed herself as “Turkey’s first female UFO researcher” (p. 134) hailed Ataturk as “the first world leader to see the extraterrestrial origin of his own people” (p. 135).

A reference to Begum Roqeya’s 1905 utopian story Sultana’s Dream, about a technologically advanced future society called Ladyland, where women dominate the public space and “men live in seclusion” (p. 139), paves the way for the examination of literary science fiction in Chapter 5, “Building Nations and Worlds.” A century after Roqeya’s groundbreaking work, Arab sci-fi was so underdeveloped that UAE sci-fi pioneer Noura al Noman “actually believed that there was none” (p. 141). She blamed the Arab educational system for ignoring the sciences, unaware that in Syria, where sciences were taught in the schools, magazines published hundreds of such stories (p. 141).

Dystopias are critically respectable given the prevalence of authoritarian governments in Arab world and were especially popular in the wake of the collapse of the Arab spring, though they were just a small part of the genre in the Muslim world (p.142). “Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt and Indonesia stood out through the sheer quantity of novels and short stories they churned out” (p. 142). Often the subject matter in sci-fi produced in the former colonies was as “concerned with nation-building as it was with world building” (p. 143). Pakistan’s writer Asrar Ahmad, writing under the name Ibne Safi (“Son of the Pure One”), combines a commitment to religious purity with an enthusiasm for religious pluralism and “an excitement about technological futures (pp. 1413-4). The work of Bengali author Zafar Iqbal shows his” hostility towards political Islam” yet “occasionally employs his religious imagination” (p. 147), and will even (albeit rarely) feature personal piety (p.148). His wife argued that his reputation as “anti-Islamic” was undeserved, insisting “that none of his books contained ‘anything that goes against Islamic sentiment'” (p. 148).

Influences on the Egyptian writer Nehad Sherif range from Egypt’s Kamel Keilany to “medieval authors al-Ma`arri and IbnTufayl as well as … Jules Verne and H. G. Wells” (p. 149). With a nod to the debates over religion and science “in the context of competition between Christian and Muslim missionaries,” one of his characters contrasts scientific discoveries that were once “denounced as ‘unbelief’, ‘atheism’ or ‘apostasy'” with his prediction that humankind would soon stand on the moon and on other planets, adding, “Trust that all of this will only happen by the command of God and his perfect will” (pp. 150-1). In his novel The Time Conqueror he defends the permissibility of cryogenics by reminding us that “God, ‘who created us’, gave us the ability to discover.” His works on alien encounters were “framed in religious terms” that were inclusive while at the same time privileging Islam (p. 156). He died in 2011 hailed as “the dean of Arabic science fiction,” a favorable comparison to America’s Robert Heinlein (p. 157).

Determann includes authors skeptical of Islam such as Eliza Vitri Handayani. who conceived of our universe as “a game in an alien kid’s computer” which would explain “[w]hy many of his rules seemed arbitrary or egocentric…. He is, after all, just a child” (pp 173-4).

The final chapter, “Muslim Futurisms” turns to the Muslim world’s engagement with new technology in both research and fiction. The UAE planned “to establish a city on Mars by 2117” (p. 177) The discoverers of organic material on one of Saturn’s moons included two founders of the Astrobiology Network of Pakistan (p. 180). Although the Iranian nuclear agreement failed to thaw U.S.-Iranian relations, “[m]ajor American presses had long … published articles by Iran-based authors, citing freedom of speech in their defense” (pp. 183-4). One of them “detected at least nine planets between 2010 and 2018 alone (p. 184). Another co-authored a poster session at the American Physical Society session in Denver on “use of microlensing for exoplanet detection” (p. 185). Determann doubts sanctions can “stifle Iranian creativity.” (p. 191).

Further, he thinks “war has been productive in the Middle East even in cases where it has been devastating” otherwise (p. 192). Iraq+100 transforms Americans into” violent and hedonistic aliens.” Yet, a young student among the aliens “has doubts,” fearing divine retribution from the “Setter of the Cosmological Constant” (p. 193). Palestine+100 “won a PEN Translates award and NPR selected the volume as one of its favorite books of 2019+ (p. 194). Determann wonders if some Muslims’ aversion to the theory of evolution might inhibit the scientific imagination in ways that war and sanctions have failed to do (pp 194ff.) “While evolutionists in Iran and Pakistan enjoyed considerable influence,” Turkey has been victimized by con artist Adnan Oktar (a/k/a “Harun Yahya”) who, notwithstanding convictions for fraud and sexual abuse, was part of the campaigns that removed evolution from Turkish textbooks (p. 195). Nonetheless, there was an increase in serious sci-fi films in Turkey in the 2010s. Among them, “the psychological drama Ivy, … less successful at the box office” than more comical sci-fi, was “well received by critics and festival judges” (p. 200). Politically astute viewers could see the Turkish government in “the captain whose ship is going nowhere, … while his five crewmembers stand for different parts of society: workers, pious Muslims, young people, leftists and Kurds” (p. 200).

In 2017, Saudi Arabia “surprised critics of its human and women’s rights records by granting citizenship to a robot named Sophia” (p. 204) while planning “a new solar-powered city that relies on robots and self-driving cars (p. 205). In 2018 the Pakistani-born artist Saka Afridi created the art-form of Sci-fi Sufism that mixes “mysticism with technology” and draws on the influence of Afrofuturism, IslamoFuturism, “Arthur C. Clark’s novel Childhood’s End and art by Hiroshi Sugimoto, as well as Muhammad’s ascension into heaven” (pp. 205-207). There is now an “Islam and Science Fiction website (p. 208).

Determann closes his book with an acknowledgement of the controversy posed by the intersection of Islam and Western science fiction. On one side we have a biologist at Duke University protesting that the hijab has no place “on the bridge of the starship Enterprise [for it] would imply that Islam had survived to the 23rd century, while we have no reason to believe that any other modern human religion can claim similar” (p. 209). On the other side we have the actor leVar Burton who praised African American activist Blair Imani’s cosplay appearance as his character Geordi La Forge in a hijab at the 2017 Comicon in San Diego as the “best cosplay of Geordi, EVER” (pp. 209-10).

Given the broad geographical scope of Determann’s subject of study and the wide variety of languages involved, this book is an astonishing achievement. Anyone seeking an introduction to the intersection of science fiction and/or extraterrestrial life with Islam needs this book.

Libya’s Transitional Government and the Lead-Up to December Elections

Thursday, February 25th, 2021

[These are my notes from the National Interest Foundation discussion on Libya’s transitional government and the prospects for December’s elections. These notes summarize my impression of selected highlights of the presentations and are not an attempted transcription. I have paraphrased in the first-person for convenience.]

Federica Saini Fasanotti, Brookings Institution.

We have good movement on the political level but big problems on the security and social level. Insurgency usually comes from a huge sense of injustice.  Four men (the members of the Presidency Counsel, Mohamed Younis Ahmed Al-Manfi, Abdullah al-Lafi and Musa Al-Koni, and the new Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dabaib) are tasked with finding the new government. It is too early to tell, but many signs are good.  Everyone congratulated the winning ticket, including Marshall Khalifa Haftar. Internationally, not only Tukey, but even Egypt has congratulated the winning ticket. After the names of the new government are announced the House of Representatives (HOR) will have the option to approve. The PM could in theory unilaterally approve the new government, but that could cause problems.

Dr. Esam Omeish, Libyan American Alliance.

Things are happening hour by hour in Libya. We have yet to reach a stable, let alone successful, state.  The General National Congress (GNC) did a pretty good job of initiating a hopeful process, but they were unable to finish the job and the parliamentary election was challenged in the Supreme Court as well as by poor turnout (less than 25%). In the midst of this mess a warlord arrived and militarized the conflict with his so-called “war on terror,” as did foreign intervention from Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE. Once again we are on the brink of a failed state.  The Presidential Council of nine people was given international recognition to resolve the matter. International envoy Salama managed to bring people together and then came Haftar’s attack, and the setback of casualties and human suffering. In January 2020 a number of international actors rallied to the national government. After a cease fire the political track was restarted and Stephanie Williams rose to the challenge leading to the Tunisian and Moroccan meeting and in turn to the 74 member meeting (a 75th died of Covid) that has successfully elected a Presidential Council of three people and a PM. After the rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt, the UAE remains as the most difficult proxy to deal with. Any failure of Libyans to deliver a legitimate government that speaks for all Libyans leaves an unstable situation with a threat of war.

Dr. William Lawrence, American University.

I completely agree with both Federica’s cautious optimism and Esam’s catalog of cautions. It is amazing that this process has remained on track. A lot of people thought Libya would change after the revolution, but the problems of 2011 have not bee solved at all. The fundamental possibilities and aspirations of Libya are the same as those in Tunisia and the rest of the region. Any Libyan under forty will offer the same set of values offered by American or European activists. Libya was derailed not by elections but by Haftar’s three-year effort to take Benghazi. Haftar was the opponent of democratization. Oil money is important.  There is a domestic spoils system and an international spoil system, and promises made behind the scenes about distributions of benefits and contracts to keep the political track moving forward.  If anyone who received promises by this system is cut out, the progress will unravel. The power brokers are the people behind these spoils. That doesn’t mean that we must resign ourselves to Libya being a corrupt system, but we need to put into place safeguards to reduce the corruption in the future. Even many of the soldiers who supported Haftar share the sentiment of throw the bums out. The U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative Stephanie Williams understands this and the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) that she launched is making important decisions about governance and about these financial commitments.  For 220 years the U.S. has either been fighting with Libya, saving Libya, or ignoring Libya.  The U.S. has been critical not only on the ground in Libya but at the U.N. which is why Libyans have a lot of confidence in the U.S. as deus ex machina. No one, even the Turks, has shown as much leadership.

Federica Saini Fasanotti. I certainly agree about the militarization of the problem by Haftar being a blow to the process. I would not be surprised if Haftar is awarded a ministry, such as defense, since if he is left on the sidelines he remains a danger, even though he does not want to be a politician and sees Libya as unready for democracy. I remain skeptical about the security issue: you have 20 million weapons and six million people and no private sector for the young people.

Doug Bandow. What are your thoughts on Saif al-Gadhafi?

Dr. Esam Omeish, Gadhafi’s people are still a force in Libya and they must be brought into the political process, although those who participated in atrocities must be excluded. They were allied with Haftar until recent developments split them.

Dr. William Lawrence. Libya is subject to an enormous amount of propaganda from Russia and others pushing for Saif, but Libyans are well aware of this. We know Haftar was promised the defense ministry. We don’t know if he was promised the Finance Ministry. There may be another delay in the election, but Libyans will not tolerate another five-year delay. All the Libyans who sold their weapons in 2014 in anticipation of peace had to buy them back at higher prices to fight against Haftar.  They will not make the same mistake again. That means we have to save an armed Libya. That will be tricky, but it is necessary. Since 2015 there have been sanctions against some persons but others equally deserving sanction have been spared because they were “needed” for the process. Sanctions are necessary but they are useless unless they are consistent.

Federica Saini Fasanott. In my opinion sanctions are the weapon of the weak. I don’t understand the strategy of the United States. The U.S. could have a wonderful role in dissuading foreign intervention into Libya.

Dr. Esam Omeish, When the administration was looking for things to do in March, they had meetings at Treasury that found that it would cost $37 billion just to deal with players they had already identified. Biden has automatically renewed a process that sadly has gotten nowhere over ten years.

Dr. William Lawrence. Most countries want access to oil and gas. The Russians also want a port or two and a military base in Libya. The first job of the new parliament will be to kick the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group out. The UAE is the most confusing.  It goes back to a geopolitical, geo-economic strategy of creating commercial opportunities and spaces throughout the region while also fighting the Muslim Brotherhood at all costs. I don’t think they know how to get what they want in Libya.

Dr. Esam Omeish. I think there are some positive interests in the cases of Italy and Egypt.  The French interests have always been one sided, but maybe they could learn. With Russia, it is important to refuse a base, but when it comes to contracts, the Libyans are willing to negotiate, even as regards unpaid debts. Tripoli is the next Dubai as a gateway to Africa.

Doug Bandow. Concluding remarks?

Dr. William Lawrence. The spoils system will either keep it on track or derail it.  I think it will probably stay on track, but the Turks and the Italians and others have to step up. I think Haftar will try to spoil it, although I don’t know when. Everyone has to be ready for that. In my opinion we need to look at Libya and Tunisia as a package. I know its hard to justify aiding a rich country, but there is too much at stake.

Dr. Esam Omeish.  I am not pessimistic. We have no option but to remain hopeful. There are too many ways to fail and too few to succeed. I agree that Haftar is the biggest threat. We need to find a way to remove him from the scene. I don’t think the international community can afford to leave a geographical area the size of Libya as unstable.

Federica Saini Fasanott. All the signs are good and Haftar is silent, but I see so many problems in front of this future government. In addition there is Covid.

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

2nd Conference on Cultural Rapprochement Between the United States and the Muslim World

Sunday, January 31st, 2021

[These are my notes from the Muslim World League’s 2nd conference on cultural rapprochement between the United States and the Muslim world held in New York City October 3-4, 2018. These notes summarize my impression of selected highlights of the presentations and are not an attempted transcription.]


Dr. Abdullah bin Mahfudh Ibn Bayyah. Chairman of emirates fatwa council and president of the forum for promoting peace in Muslim societies.

The holy Quran calls on those who differ to seek a starting point for agreement. Islam’s way of looking at things is to weigh benefits and harm. Any ruling that goes from benefit to harm from justice to injustice has nothing to do with religion whatsoever. We want for all religions and all their adherents to move from mere acknowledgement of the other to knowing the other. We have inaugurated the alliance of virtues or of shared values inspired by the alliance of ethical businessmen from the time of the prophet. Our message to humanity is love, peace, and friendship. We believe that this is possible as long as we do not despair of God’s grace or of one another. Since its founding the United States has promoted many values in community with Islam. Defining a concept such as freedom can lead to confusion. As Muslims we value freedom but not in a way that leads to chaos. With the approach of Columbus Day it is appropriate to note that the first member of Columbus’s crew to spot land on the voyage was a sailor who died as a Muslim in Morocco.

Dr. Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Alissa. Muslim World League (MWL) Secretary-General.

In this meeting we are free to discuss new issues. All religions are exposed to extremism because all have elements who think they have a monopoly on the religion and the have pretexts that change the holy scripture and attack the values of the religion. To confront Islamophobia it behooves us to make known the true Islam that promotes forgiveness and tolerance. The motives behind the distortion of religion is political ambition. Religion cannot be imposed, and true religiosity understands the wisdom of God is in all religions. The MWL has always understood the importance of not isolating children from the world. We must totally reject all forms of racism and bigotry. “They have what they have and you have what you have and don’t ask about what they are doing.” We want a peaceful and just solution for the Palestinian problem from the table of negotiation and nothing else.

Important Communication Issues Between the U.S. and the Muslim World (Immigration, Minorities, Religious Identity and Integration, as well as Islamophobia.)

Dr. Bawa Jain (Secretary General for the World Council of Religious Leaders)

There was a young Saudi in America who in either venue tells people what they want to hear.

Mr. Mohammad Al-Sammak (Secretariat General, The Islamic / Christian Spiritual Summit)

Freud has a theory of the narcissism of differences, that no matter how small they are, we make them a major matter if they are our differences. 11% of all Americans now believe all Muslims are anti-American.

Bridging the Religious and Cultural Gap

Dr. Bob Roberts (Founder The Israeli-Palestinian Peace:

Every religion is everywhere. How do we build bridges? I used to be afraid of Muslims. I overcame it by becoming friends with Muslims. I love Shaikh ibn Bayyah. He would make a great Baptist pastor. I built relationships with Muslims in my area. My tribe, the Baptists, are the strongest driving force behind Islamophobia. We are building Baptist Muslim retreats around the world. After retreats we must visit one another’s homes. We must switch from interfaith to multi-faith. You don’t have to compromise your belief; just be respectful. That we get along  because we agree on everything is baby faith. To respect the right to disagree must be the objective. Until I say the same thing in public that I say in private I am not transparent. As a child of God I should be just as concerned about Lebanon or Syria as I am about my own country. We deal with imams and pastors because we want to reach their congregations. Our primary concern as Christians is love and the primary concern of Islam is peace. Those concepts go together.

Mr. Marwan Faouri (Secretary-General of the Global Forum for Moderation) Cultural and Historical Polemics: “Understanding Diversity and Pluralism”

The Palestinian issue is the central issue and the test of rapprochement.

John Duke Anthony. President and CEO National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.

More than 70 times the U.S. has cast a veto in the UN. More than 40 times it has cast a veto in defense of Israel. If the terrorists have done more to harm the image of Islam than anything else, America’s support of Israel has done more to harm the image of America than anything else.

Historical Role Models of Cultural Exchange Between East and West

Dr. Uchenna Ekwo. Center for Media and Peace Initiatives.

In any newsroom there are people proud to be war journalists but there are no peace journalists.

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


Thursday, December 17th, 2020

[On December 16, 2020, Nonviolence International held a webinar on Jonathan Kuttab’s book Beyond the Two State Solution. The following highlights are lightly edited excerpts transcribed from the YouTube recording of the entire webinar, which readers are encouraged to access here:]

David Hart, Co-Director of Nonviolence International: I am Jewish and was raised being told of a land that was taken from us in a war when the whole world was against us. And still, somehow, we prevailed. International law made clear that no nation may keep land taken in war, but we were defending ourselves and we certainly would not hold the land long. When I learned something of the reality of everyday Palestinian life and came to see it as a deep affront to those basic values Jews are taught are at the heart of our faith, I was somehow more able to accept this contradiction because it came with the story that land would be traded for peace, and the occupation would end soon. That was decades ago. Sadly actions that have reshaped facts on the ground have made the call for a two-state solution more of a cover for oppressive policies than a realistic path towards peace with justice. Jonathan’s book attempts [to implement] a fundamental principle of creative conflict resolution.  He takes seriously the basic needs of both parties. What will it take for us to extend our compassion to the Palestinian people? Maybe we could start with the recognition that they are fully human, Radical, I know, but true nonetheless. My hope is that those willing to grapple with this complex and difficult issue will read Jonathan ‘s book and help us change the conversation.

Jonathan  Kuttab, Co-founder of Nonviolence International, practicing attorney in Israel Palestine, and the United States: I think this project started when Bob Herbst and I started thinking about: What does really take? What does each side really want? Can we create a new vision that makes sense for both people? It was a painful conversation, because I was one of those who believed in a two state solution before it was [widely advocated].  I thought it was a pragmatic way to deal with these two narratives, these two ideologies, that were mutually exclusive. “The more we get the less they get.” “The more they get, the less we get.” “One additional immigrant means one fewer person for us.” “One more Palestinian birth is a demographic threat to the other side.” After a while it became clear to me that the two-state solution not only doesn’t work, because it has been thoroughly and consistently undermined, but that it has become an alibi for the status quo, an alibi for refusing to address the injustices, an alibi for dealing with the discriminatory and sometimes very racist ideologies that totally negate and demonize [the “Other.”]

This book has three parts.  The first part explains how the two-state solution was created, and how it was undermined and collapsed and is no longer workable, because I think it is important to get rid of false hopes before we create new hopes. The second part, the most important part, is to set out a vision. People ask, “Is it even possible to think of a vision that satisfies the needs of both?” I think it is possible, but it is very painful. It requires that we give up the idea of exclusivity. Rather than argue if your narrative is correct or incorrect it requires asking what is it that your narrative provides for you? What is it that you want? Zionist Israelis tell me, “We want a Jewish state.” But what is a Jewish state? What does that mean?  You can’t circumcise a state! What is the irreducible minimum that you want out of this state. And, yes, the Palestinians also. “What is it that you want out of a Palestinian state?  For a long time we were told that the goal of Palestinian nationalism was statehood, but you can give me a state that means nothing. You give me a passport, but I can’t travel. You give me a Parliament but I can’t vote for it. You give me airport, but I can’t fly out of it. So, what is it I want out of statehood.  I want something very concrete. I want freedom; I want equality; I want freedom of movement; I want self-fulfillment; I want participation in my life; I want empowerment. A state is supposed to give me that; but if you give me state without any of those contents you give ne nothing.  I make no judgements; I claim no symmetry between the two parties. I simply ask can we come up with a vision that will accommodate the other rather than negate and demonize and criminalize and delegitimize the “Other.” The third part of the book, which I think is the weakest, is a chapter that I was almost forced to add at the end, which is “How do we get from here to there.” This book is not for anyone who insists on their maximalist ideology. If I say, “Filistiin Arabia, Palestine is Arab,” that all these Zionists from all over the world should go back to wherever they came from, then this book is not for me. Similarly if you think Israel should be as Jewish as France is French, if  you aren’t willing to accept Palestinians’ right here, then this book is not for you. This conversation is for those who say, “Despite what I believe, despite what I think, despite what I have grown up with, despite my  historic/religious/national/whatever rights, I recognize that there is this other group who are living in this land today and I can’t get rid of them, an dits not right to get rid of them. I need to find a way to accommodate them [and] t incorporate them into my visions.” I am totally open to those who disagree. I am totally open to this conversation.

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, faith-based activist, one of the first women to become a rabbi: I ant to begin by doing a land acknowledgement … to understand a root cause. When I am on Turtle Island I acknowledge that I am a guest on Ohlone land, and when I travel to Palestine I acknowledge that I am a guest on Palestinian lands. We can begin the healing with a vision of radical inclusion and equity.

Robert Herbst, Jewish Voice for Peace, human rights lawyer: I’m in my seventies and for decades I was uncomfortable about the oppression over there, [but] I only really expressed my concerns within the tribe until  when the Gaza operation “Protective Edge” became too much for me to bear. In 2016  I met Jonathan and we bonded very quickly over the one-state idea. A caste-based society in which Jews dominate over non-Jews is not kosher.

Azmerah Hammouri-Davis, Friends of Sabeel, Black-Palestinian poet: It was not until I was arrested an airport while leaving Israel that I realized how insensitive my teacher’s joke [about being a terrorist seven years earlier] really was. I was contained for an hour, strip searched, patted down [for the crime of having] a Palestinian grandfather whom I had never met. When I asked why I was arrested I was told, “This is Israel, what do you think?” How naïve of me. [Since then,] I have net so many Jewish colleagues who are committed to this work. There is a wave of people ready to dismantle old logic, to cultivate, to see the joy and humanity in each of us, and to say this can be different.

Rabbi Gerald Serotta: The brilliance of what Jonathan writes about is that it is not a solution but a vision. It is an attempt to bring justice and dignity [to the] forefront.

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

Geo-Political Dynamics of Arabia and the Gulf

Monday, November 30th, 2020

[This is a summary of a panel discussion chaired by Dr. Abdullah Baabood, Waseda University on the second day of the 29th National Council on US-Arab Relations Conference held on November 18, 2020. These notes summarize my impression of highlights of the presentation and are not an attempted transcription.]

H.E. Dr. Mohamed Al Hassan, Sultanate of Oman Ambassador to the United Nations; former Oman Ministry of Foreign Affairs Acting Undersecretary for Diplomatic Affairs; former Ambassador of Oman to Russia.

Recent normalization of relationships between certain Arab states and Israel is not a substitute for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. We in Oman believe in a two-state solution that takes into account the aspirations of both Palestinians and Israelis. How can we get out of the currently unpromising dilemma? It requires recognition of certain facts including the importance of acting within international law, the necessity of taking into account the rights of the other side, the recognition that we hold the future in our own hands and the avoidance of blaming others, to acknowledge the tools available to resolve differences, and most importantly to heed the voices of youth. It would be wrong to exclude Iran or Iraq or Yemen from any future security or economic arrangements. Isolating Iran is a doomed policy. Peace is sustained only by giving everyone a stake in it, and not by the sound of guns. What is important is to stop the war in Yemen immediately and to give the Palestinians some light at the end of the tunnel.

Mr. Timothy Lenderking, U.S. Department of State Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Gulf Affairs; former U.S. Department of State Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

If we are ever to diffuse the tensions with Iran, we must negotiate in a broader spectrum of issues than prisoner releases (as important as that is). We cannot stand by and watch the situation of the Yemeni people continue to deteriorate, but we need to see outside parties wind down their presence, including Iran. Americans must be sympathetic with the marginalization of the Houtis, but we cannot be sympathetic to the attacks on civilians nor on the burgeoning relationship with the IRGC. We are pleased at the normalization of Israel’s relationship with some Arab parties, but it cannot be on the back of the Palestinians. How is it that Arab states can more easily make peace with Israel than resolve their issues with Qatar? Gulf countries do not benefit in the long run from a rift among Arab countries, nor does the United States. Separate countries will of course have differences, but this kind of rift impedes progress on a variety of matters including Iran, COVID, and economic issues. Our advice is to maintain strong American engagement as partners. Our engagement with Saudi Arabia will have to remain strong and our relationships with other Gulf states can and should be strengthened.

Dr. John Duke Anthony, NCUSAR founding president and CEO.

Despite my focus on the region, I bring the perspective of an outsider. The region is preoccupied with two kinds of oil: turmoil and the other kind. Stability, security and peace are necessary objectives. It is noteworthy that the cease fire that ended the Iran-Iraq War, accepted immediately by Saddam Hussein, took 13 months to be approved by Iran. Oman chaired the UNSC during the time of that conflict. Omanis fought in Qatari uniforms in defense of Kuwait against Saddam’s invasion. To my knowledge, Iran is the only country in the world to have in its constitution the necessity of exporting its revolution. The US has free trade agreements with Oman and Bahrain. The dialog between the US and the GCC needs to peopled by the best diplomats on both sides. Look at what we have accomplished in the past. No one can say we cannot do it again.

Dr. Abdullah Al Shayji, Kuwait University Professor of International Relations and Post Graduate Political Science Program Director; Author, The GCC Crises: The Root Causes, The Mediation Efforts, and the Future of the GCC Alliance. 

After the collapse of the Arab Spring the GCCC was thought to be the de facto leader of the “Arab political system,” but it has been weak and ineffective. There is a “trust deficit” between the U.S. and its Arab allies at a critical time that has the Arab states wondering, “How much we can rely on the U.S. if push comes to shove?” Trump did nothing when the Iranians attacked the ARAAMCO installations. We have seen a lack of comprehensive policy. We need a functional GCCC and US leadership.

The day after Robert O’Brien called for a resolution of the Qatari issue, the UAE ambassador in Washington said this was not a priority. How can the incoming Biden administration reassure us on the engagement issue? In 2015 Obama started an annual US-GCCC summit, but this has not been held since Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017. If there is to be a JCPOA 2.0, there should be GCCC involvement.  Why has the US not classified the Houtis as a terrorist organization? The normalization of relations with Israel is splitting the GCCC. Normalization absent resolution of the Palestinian problem is capitulation to the Netanyahu. Biden will be too distracted with domestic issues (COVID, the economy, and the legitimacy of his own election) to be able to address this issue. 

Ambassador (Ret.) Susan L. Ziadeh, Georgetown University Adjunct Professor; former United States Department of State Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs; former United States Ambassador to Qatar.

We have 30-35,000 troops deployed in the region and that shall remain under the Biden administration. First and foremost there is the issue of Iran. We know that relationships with our allies have been shaken by the withdrawal from the JCPOA. We know the Iranian presidential elections are coming up.  Who will have charge of the JCPOA file? Will there be a unified view within the GCCC on a resurrected JCPOA? Will sunset clauses be on the table?  What WILL be on the table? Reuters has reported rumors of discussions between Saudi Arabia and the Houti movement that the Saudis would accept a cease fire if the Houtis agreed to a buffer zone along the border. Even if that came to pass, what would it mean for the situation within Yemen? Any drawdown or peace negotiation in Yemen would require a unified GCCC position. If the Houtis are designated as a Foreign Terorist Organization, nonprofits would be prevented from distributing humanitarian aid in Houti controlled areas, even when the locals are not supportive of the Houtis. The US relationship with Saudi Arabia will continue under a Biden administration, but the Saudis could be helpful if they would help cool tensions with Qatar. There will be concerns in Congress over UAE possession of F-35 technology and trade relations with certain countries.

Amb. Ziadeh. European alliances will be the first U.S. foreign policy priority.  Scrutiny of China (trade relations, etc.) and Russian expansion (including the ME, but also Europe). After those Yemen, Iran, and military involvement.  I do not think the Palestinian-Israeli issue will be high in the near term, but it will come up eventually.

Dr. Al Shayji. Russia, China, NATO, and when it comes to our region Iran will be at the top of the agenda, then GCCC. I think Trump is trying to box in Biden before he even comes into office, and designating Houtis as terrorists may be a tactic he uses to that end.

Dr. Anthony. Can we not move beyond this tactic of shunning people as if they possess some horrible contagious ideological disease?  You must have a communication line to the people who started or are sustaining the conflict.  The US pushed and pushed Hanoi and the Viet Cong to recognize the South Vietnamese government and they failed.  But once we began to speak with them in Paris, although it took a while, the killing came to an end. Same for the French in Algeria and the demands that the French be exempt from Algerian national government. It goes back to America’s emergence as a national entity. It was only when Britain accepted America’s national ambitions that the fighting stopped. Let us stop treating those whose ideological inclinations we find distasteful, or even dangerous, as lepers.

Dr. Mohamed Al Hassan. The U.S. and other countries including new partners like China and India have a role to play, but ultimately the future of the Gulf states lies in their own hands. Putting political groups on a terrorist list has catastrophic results.

Mr. Lenderking. The designation of the Houtis as terrorists is a raging debate.  If the Houtis would lessen ties with the Iranian regime it would be very helpful in demonstrating that they are a Yemini organization devoted to Yemenis.

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

Crony Capitalism in the Middle East

Saturday, October 24th, 2020

[On October 9, the Middle East Institute (MEI) hosted a panel of experts to launch the book Crony Capitalism in the Middle East: Business and Politics from Liberalization to the Arab Spring, eds. Ishac Diwan, Adeel Malik and Izak Atiyas. These notes summarize my impression of highlights of the presentation and are not an attempted transcription.]

Adeel Malik (Globe fellow, Economies of Muslim Societies, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies; associate professor, Department of International Development, University of Oxford).

Across the Middle East corruption in government and corruption in business is often seen as the same. An earlier book, Networks of Privilege in the Middle East concluded that the era of economic liberalization led to networks of monopolizing cronies connected to the state. We bring specificity and details to this debate. We focus on the post-liberalization era. We determine who are these politically connected firms (PCFs). Some chapters are descriptive and some analyze causality.

In Turkey the connections may not be directly to the government, but to institutions such as the AKP. In Morocco we looked at firms connected to the Royal Family. In Egypt we looked at linkages to MPs. There is a large and growing presence of cronies, but it varies across countries and sectors. Egypt probably has the highest exposure to cronyism affecting 80% of the subsectors and has more than doubled since the late 1990s. We offer a refined understanding of mechanisms including subsidies, finance, privatization, regulatory capture, trade barriers, and land allocation. PCFs are proportionately concentrated in energy sectors. In Morocco, finance is a lynchpin in the broader network of cronyism. In Lebanon, there is political ownership of the banking sector. Privatization contributes to cronyism when ownership goes into the hands of cronies. In Tunisia those firms that went to the Ben Ali family became the most profitable. In Iran nearly half of the 331 “privatized” companies in 1988-1994 went to semi-public organizations (such as the Martyr’s Foundation and the IRG). Trade reform has preferentially benefited connected sectors. In the case of Morocco, EU-induced tariff reductions compensated politically connected sectors most (especially those connected to parliament as the royal family is not heavily invested in manufacturing).  Technical Barriers to Trade are susceptible to political abuse. Contra Abdullah Al-Dardari’s 2012 prediction that World Trade Organization rules would impede the power of rent-seeking networks, we confirm Luigi Zingales’s 2017 observation that the increasing size and complexity of regulation has made “it easier for vested interests to tilt the playing field.” In Tunisia the regulated sectors are the most profitable because they are protected by regulation.

Ishac Diwan (Chairperson, Socio-économie du Monde Arabe, Paris Sciences et Lettres).

Crony capitalism repressed rather than opened markets and entrenched the autocracy. It is especially destructive in that it affects the growth sectors of the economy and divides the informal from the formal sectors of the economy. Crony capitalism provides a disincentive to property rights protection and a misallocation of resources. Competition is limited and lobbying effectively inhibits structural change. In extreme cases market forces are eliminated altogether. In Egypt PCFs took 85% of private sector credit, derived 60% of net profits, and created only 11% of employment, even as they depress employment by unconnected firms. PCFs in Lebanon over-hire, especially just before elections, and their invasions of the market end up with a net destruction of jobs. In Tunisia they lobby for protection and monopolize whole sectors. In GCC markets are restricted to the royal families and produce few jobs for youth. In Syria and Algeria the private sector is small, but what there is is dominated by cronies. In Iraq there is a kind of competitive cronyism centered on competition for government contracts. In Turkey the experience was initially consistent with growth, but, with the consolidation of AKP power, that growth has now collapsed.

Regime change destroys connections but poses a challenge to the protection of property rights. “Messy democracies” like Tunisia, Lebanon and Iraq could improve Rule of Law over time, but the Tunisian experience shows that political competition doesn’t instantly bring about the rule of law, but democratizes corruption. There is a mix of populism and state capitalism in KSA, Egypt, Algeria, and now in Turkey. In Jordan and Morocco there is a challenge to monarchical management, but there is a need for improved education and innovation.  It is an open question as to whether the AKP experience of “virtuous enterprises” can be reproduced elsewhere.

Karen Young (Resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute).

She prefers the phrase “a stalled statist project” to “crony capitalism.” All capitalisms depends on networks, which is actually a strength of the capitalist system. The degree of internationalization and focus on domestic non-tradables provides productive ground.  Exclusive vs. inclusive is an important issue. Who controls what resources is different in the Gulf than outside.  Has the success of economic human and social development indicators been preferential to certain groups reflective of class or tribe? There are lots of ways of exerting political influence that are not necessarily counter to markets or public good. I think the real issue is about governance and civil society. The ability to form interest groups is restricted or absent throughout the Middle East. Diamond trade is highly networked and poised to boom. Government-related entities are getting a vastly disproportionate share of credit. SMEs receive a tiny portion of bank lending. Governments actively intervene to shore up the prices of related firms. How do we explain the Gulf states allowing connected firms to fail?  Government connected firms are not good employers. I love the cross-regional comparisons. In Latin America race played a role in concentration of ownership.  How does that compare to the Middle East? Statist development continues to overpromise and overspend but fails to deliver growth or a new generation of human resources.

Jean-François Seznec, moderator (Non-resident scholar, MEI).

I notice you did not cover the causality of cronyism.  Is there anything specific to the Arab world? It is due to a strong state, but is it due to authoritarianism or monarchy, or something else? If you are going to focus on the Gulf you must address those firms unconnected with the royal family that are successful because they are not connected to the royal family.

Adeel Malik.  Many of these counties have family based networks. In many cases firms need protection from the state. The sheer scale of exclusion (high political barriers to entry, usually blunt instruments) allow firms to grow to a certain level beyond which they need to [connect to the political establishment]. In the very oil rich countries there is less need to generate additional sources of rent, since the oil provides sufficient rents.

Ishac Diwan. Forms are political entities themselves. The question is how politics and economics influence one another. How can Sisi provide jobs for the youth without letting go of the private sector?  He will try to let the army do the job while cultivating some small companies without political power. He will make space for SMEs to revitalize the market. It is only a fortunate conjunction of economics and political success that allows an AKP to arise to address challenges of the future.

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

Explaining the Paradox in the New Muslim Poll

Wednesday, September 30th, 2020

Dalia Mogahedand and Azka Mahmood have released ISPU’s new annual poll on national conversations with the voices of everyday Americans (“American Muslim Poll 2019: Predicting and Preventing Islamophobia“). Their poll of Muslim attitudes includes a remarkable paradox: of all religious groups surveyed Muslims were least likely to approve of President Trump’s governance and most likely to report religious, gender, and sectarian discrimination, and yet they were the most likely to express optimism with the direction of the country.

I believe this paradox can be explained by the increasing sentiment among non-Muslim groups that Muslims are unfairly affected by policies such as the “Muslim ban.” In other words, the mere fact that non-Muslim groups are troubled by the very trends about which Muslims are concerned is good news for Muslims as regards the “trajectory” of America’s future. That Muslims are less alone in their indignation is cause for hope.

The rise in positive sentiment is the first since the studies began in 2016, but is still below 2016-2017 levels. Also the “positive sentiment about the country’s direction within the Muslim community is not uniform. Muslims are twice as likely to be satisfied than Black Muslims (20%). However, Black Americans who are Muslim report satisfaction at much higher levels than their non-Muslim counterparts in our sample (3%), as do white Americans in the general public (43% vs. 20%).”

It is particularly interesting in that “roughly 10% of all faith groups say they personally know someone who experienced unwanted sexual advancement [sic] from a faith leader in their community” but Muslims were most like to report the transgression to law enforcement.  This flies in the face of the submissive Muslim woman stereotype (see below), but is consistent with an understanding that Islamic morals tolerate neither sexual impropriety nor physical aggression. Conservative and progressive Muslims may disagree about the roles of women in Muslim society, but neither has grounds to tolerate, let alone to defend, sexual aggression against women.

“The notion that Muslim women have been socialized into expecting and accepting ‘second-class status’ crumbles under the weight of evidence that shows that they decry gender discrimination inside and outside their community. Moreover, the data show that Muslim women are four times more likely to have favorable opinions as unfavorable opinions (47% vs. 11%) of those who work for women’s empowerment.”

One thing that has not changed in the recent survey is that those who know a Muslim are more likely to be favorably disposed toward Muslims than those who do not.  Jews are among the most likely to know and be favorably disposed towards Muslims and Evangelical Christians most likely to not know them and fear them.

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

Hagia Sophia, Just War, the Inviolability of Awqaf, and the Meaning of “Prayer”

Thursday, August 27th, 2020

I received many gratifying letters of appreciation for my blog “Sincere Advice for ErdoÄŸan on Hagia Sophia” published in July, in which I urged Mr. Erdogan to let Christians as well as Muslims pray in the Ayasofya now that it was to be reopened for prayer.  Only one person protested my suggestion. On the Sociology of Islam listserv, our dear brother Dr. Yusuf Ziya Kavakci (Emeritus Professor, Advocate, Ankara Bar Association), while expressing satisfaction with my summary of the controversy, expressed deep disappointment in my proposal, declaring it to be “unexpectedly  inconsistent” with my summary and “a reflection of a very non legal liberal way of thinking.”

To my attempt to explain why my policy proposal is not in conflict with Islamic law, Prof. Yusuf replied that the conquered church had become personal property of Fatih Sultan Mehmed who then established a waqf with specific conditions. He objected to the subjecting this analysis to any just war considerations “that that may bring us to discuss the legitimacy of whole past of the world today including USA, Canada, whole South America and Europe etc.” expressing his opinion that the Ottoman contribution to the structure “is over 70/80%” and “totally owes its existence to Ottomans care and very carefully observed maintenance, for which concerned Christians must be thankful to Ottomans.” Further, he argued that there is an ambiguity in the term “prayer,” and that while “Christians and any other faiths’ followers can pray in terms of duas [supplications] and zikr [remembrance of God]” that the only formal prayer permissible in a mosque is formal Muslim prayer [salah]. He also claimed that various Christian denominations will not allow other denominations to hold formal prayers in their “consecrated halls,” let alone allow Muslims to pray salah there.

Here is my response:

I most definitely do wish to incorporate just war theory into this discussion. Just war theory is integral to Islamic law and I shall not betray the law by ignoring it.  As to the practical consequences of just war theory, that it raises questions about the legitimacy of all kinds of things including the colonization of America, well, “Let the justice be done though the heavens fall.” Having said that, I do not expect the heavens to fall since the passage of generations since the time of the theft of property does indeed affect the degree of the injustice on living generations since the maintenance of property does affect its ownership.

But to your main point: That the charter of a waqf is inviolable. Whether the property donated to the waqf was the legitimate property of the donor is a fair question of justice and must not be ignored. If the donor did not have just title to the property, then the owner cannot donate it. However, let us set that aside for the moment and for the sake of argument stipulate that Hagia Sophia was fair booty of war after the Muslims successfully defended themselves from aggression by the Byzantines, forced to the use of arms because the Byzantines would not surrender or negotiate terms of a treaty.  Let us further stipulate that the church and state in Byzantium were so intertwined that there is no merit in distinguishing state property from church property and that therefore the building did indeed become state property administered by the Sultan on behalf of the ummah. Even so, as I and others have argued that does not mean that they building cannot be shared with Christians, as was done in Cordova, Damascus, and elsewhere.

Although it is not necessary for my argument above,  I do wish to challenge the premise that the charter of a waqf cannot be changed no matter what.  The jurists do admit of cases when the waqf charter may be terminated: such as when the goods of the waqf have been altered or destroyed, or if it is used to perform acts against Islamic law, or if it comes to violate the notion of waqf.  I would argue (against the prevailing thought) that, by the same token, when the charter of a waqf becomes counter-productive or harmful, then means for amendment of the charter must be allowed. It is important to understand that at the time that the colonial powers occupied the Muslim world, many of the awqaf had become obsolete and the fuquha’s insistence that amendment of their charters was haram gave the colonists the excuse to destroy the awqaf and in some cases to dismantle the waqf system itself. To claim that a waqf charter cannot be amended when its purpose is obsolete is a legal absurdity that leaves the ummah vulnerable. It is as absurd as a system that insists on the production of buggy whips long after automobiles have rendered them obsolete. Rather than double down on this claim, the fuquha should be divining Islamically permissible means for waqf charter amendment, and any new waqf should include procedures for amendment in the charter itself. (I have set up such a waqf that provides income for the Minaret of Freedom Institute and the Islamic-American Zakat Foundation.  The charter specifies what should happen in the event that either of these institutions should become extinct.)

Let me address your objection that the word “prayer” is ambiguous and that du`a must be distinguished from salat or mass which must be distinguished from one another. Mass is as essential to formal prayer for the Orthodox Catholics as salah is to Muslims, and I cannot conceive that the Christians of Damascus would consider that the space allocated to them in the Grand Mosque is being used for prayer were it confined to supplication and exclude the mass any more than the Muslims who pray jum`a at a synagogue in northern Virginia would consider themselves to have prayed jum`a if they were restricted to du`a.

That the Christian denominations dispute among themselves is irrelevant to the question. The Christians disputed among themselves over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to the point that some sought to lock others out.  They resolved the problem by entrusting the keys to a Muslim family that to this day opens and closes the church without discrimination among them. I again echo Omar Mukhtar: “They are not our teachers.”

May Allah guide us all closer to the truth,

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

Sincere Advice for ErdoÄŸan on Hagia Sophia

Monday, July 20th, 2020

The Vatican message marking the advent of Ramadan this year, addressing “Christians and Muslims: Protecting Together the Places of Worship,” says, “For both Christians and Muslims, churches and mosques are spaces reserved for prayer, personal and communitarian alike. They are constructed and furnished in a way that favors silence, reflection and meditation. They are spaces where one can go deep in himself/herself, so favoring for God-experience in silence. A place of worship of any religion therefore is ‘a house of prayer’.”

This is an important perspective to bear in mind as a controversy erupts over the declaration of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan that he intends to open the Hagia Sophia Museum to Muslim prayers in the wake of the Turkish high court decision that takes away its status as a museum, raising concerns over its status as a UNESCO world heritage site. Hagia Sophia was a Greek Orthodox Church that became a mosque after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople and then a museum under Kemal Ataturk. The fact that the Muslims had not destroyed the Christian murals allowed their restoration.

ErdoÄŸan’s decision has sparked a lively debate on the “Sociology of Islam” listserv. Some have defended this move on the grounds that Turkey is a sovereign state and as such has the right to do whatever it pleases with state property. Others, like Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America have objected that Islamic law itself requires respect for the places of worship of other religions, especially of the “People of the Book” citing Umar-al-Khattab’s scrupulous defense of the rights of Christians to the their churches in Jerusalem.

The mere fact that secular international law allows us to convert a museum into a mosque doesn’t mean we should do it. I am not the only one whom this controversy reminds of the incident in the Libyan teacher-turned freedom fighter Umar Mukhtar’s fight against the Italian fascists. When some of his troops wanted to kill the prisoners of war they had captured, Umar insisted there would be no killing of prisoners. When his men protested that Mussolini’s troops would surely have killed them had the battle gone the other way, Umar firmly responded, “They are not our teachers.” (And, no, I am not comparing exclusion of Christian worshipers from a mosque to murder of prisoners. I am saying that in freedom of religion no less than in the rules of war, the worshipers of the nation state are not our teachers.)

Hagia Sophia has been a church, a mosque, and a museum in its long history. We do not wish to see Turkey follow in the steps of Spain where at the Great Mosque at Cordoba, which has been originally been a church, one now sees a sign warning “Roman Catholic prayers only.” Rather than dwell on fine legal points (whether from secular law of the nation state or Muslim fiqh), let us seek a resolution facilitated by good will, magnanimity, and a common devotion to the Lord God Almighty.

Some have defended ErdoÄŸan’s actions on the grounds that Hagia Sophia was the subject of a waqf established by Muhammad Fatih Sultan and that therefore Ataturk’s conversion of the site into a museum is a violation of the terms of the religious endowment. That Ataturk violated the terms of the waqf is beyond doubt, but the implication that restoring the right of Muslims to pray in this mosque prevents respectful tourists from visiting or Christians from praying within is flatly wrong and misrepresents Islam to the world.

President ErdoÄŸan himself can turn this public relations disaster into a teaching moment about Islam. All he need do is unambiguously declare that his intention is to allow both Muslims and Christians to be allowed to pray in the museum (as both Muslims and Christians prayed in the Church of St. Vincent in Spain under Muslim rule and Muslims and Christians do to this day at the Great Mosque in Damascus). This would make it functionally both a church and a mosque even as it also remains a museum open to secular tourists that still want to admire a beautiful architectural achievement that is also a testimony to the faith of adherents of two great religions. It is surely a building such as those mentioned in the Qur’an of which Allah (swt) says, “Did not God check one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure.” Let His name be commemorated there in abundant measure once again.

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

N.B: While I have attempted to reflect some of the points raised in the discussion of this issue on the Sociology of Islam listserv, I speak only for myself and am responsible for any shortcomings herein.