Monday, 4 January 2016

A Muslim's Top 10 Wishes for 2016

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post on January 3, 2015. You can find the original article by clicking here or on the title. 

Have you ever made a wish that's come true -- because you made the wish? Until now, making a wish, whether at the sight of a shooting star or when blowing out the candle(s) on your birthday cake or when breaking a wishbone, has not yet been scientifically proven to actually work, as far as I know. Yet, in the spirit of hope, I am making 10 wishes at the beginning of the New Year. And as is always the case, as a Muslim, I speak on behalf of 1.5 billion people. So here goes...
1. People no longer confuse me with ISIS.
My name isn't ISIS. It's not even Islamic State. In fact, the words Islamic or State are not actually in my extended name. Nevertheless, time and time again, I keep getting requests to respond to the group's actions. I swear, ISIS or ISIL or IS -- none of them are in my family tree; they're not some distant cousins of mine. In 2016, I just want people to stop confusing me with ISIS. I really don't know what ISIS is thinking and why they do what they do. It's not like the State Department is asked for comment because of the State-to-State connection. As a postscript, can ISIS stop using the word Islamic? 
2. Muslims stop killing Muslims for being Muslim.
Somewhere, along the way over the last couple of decades, Muslims started killing other Muslims for being Muslim in the wrong way, or at least took it to a whole new level. There's a whole ideology out there built around takfir or essentially "declaring Muslims as kufar or unbelievers" for failing an evermore peculiar litmus test. Imagine if death squads emerged killing Black people for not being Black enough. Originating in some of the philosophical exhortations by scholar Ibn Taymiyyah 700 years ago, the criteria by which you are deemed "takfir-ed" and permissible to be killed has reached insane if not idiosyncratic levels. It would be funny if the situation weren't so deadly. Even barbers were caught in the crosshairs and were being assassinated in Baghdad in the 2000s. 
3. Death and destruction in the Muslim world have a timeout. 
From Yemen to IraqLibya to Somalia, and from Afghanistan to far beyond, civil strife is rife in too many parts of what is defined as the Muslim world. Autocrats, militants, extremists and terrorists, don't care who they kill: men, women, children -- everyone is fair game. I wish this would stop. Into this toxic mix, the last thing needed is more killing coming into these countries from the outside; the 2003 invasion of Iraq proved that. I wonder if Russia will hear that message? 
4. We all get comfortable with the "other."
What a difference it was in 2015 between Trudeau and Trump in the North American political cycle. The world needs more Trudeaus and less Trumps (Donalds that is). The fear of the "other" is starting to define Western politics and it is not just about Trump. The rise of right-wing political parties in Europe from Hungary to Denmark is a poignant reminder of the breadth of this phenomenon. Yet, outside the West this fear of the other also permeates and often dominates. In Turkey, we are seeing a renewed vilification of the Kurdish population. Further afield in Burma, the Rohingyaare cast as outsiders. In Malaysia, Christians are prohibited from using the Arabic word for God. And, in nearby Brunei, Christmas was simply cancelled. In some of the war zones in the Middle East, Christians are on the verge of disappearing. The world would be a lot better off if we weren't so afraid of the bogeyman of the other.
5. The Muslim world deals with its taboos. 
Speaking of an aversion to the non-orthodox, there's a whole set of taboos that many Muslim countries and societies need to start dealing with. A lot of them relate to sex. Sometimes the Muslim world acts like it has one big case of the cooties. There have been attempts by some to break through these restrictions. Wedad Lootah in the UAE comes to mind. Shereen El Feki's Sex and the Citadel is another. This is not an issue to take lightly, especially in societies where 60-70 percent of youth are under the age of 30. Bombarded by sexualized imagery from modern and digital media, these youth then live, essentially, in an austere second world that is their reality. More importantly and tragically, rape and sexual assault are simply not talked about; child abuse is an even worse curse hidden under the rug. Finally, at some point Muslim countries - and the clerical establishment -- will need to come to terms with the fact that gay Muslims exist
6. Somewhere, over the rainbow, democracy and Islam go steady. 
Let's be honest, a lot of people have tried to set up democracy with Islam for a relationship. Sometimes it has been a surprise blind date (e.g. Iraq in 2003). Other times, it was a relationship that grew from blind passion (e.g. the Arab world in 2011). Often, the sparks of love eventually turn into animus and things quickly go south. In the Arab world, Tunisia is carrying - with some fragility -- the banner of democracy. Many Muslim-majority countries that used to be counted as democracies now suffer from authoritarian syndromes (e.g. TurkeyMalaysia, and Bangladesh). In other cases, democracy in its infancy quickly devolved into score settling or majoritarian mafias (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt). Perhaps Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country is our hope that can breathe life into this wish. 
7. Averroes comes back in style. 
Averroes -- or Ibn Rushd -- was a man's man. He schooled his way into Raphael's The School of Athens. The polymath kept alive ancient Greek philosophy, paving the way for much of Europe's modern intellectual movements. Back in the day, in Andalusia, he was a big deal (Biden-style). And, why not? He vociferously argued for the co-existence of secular and religious thought in a posthumous debate with the Abbasid scholar Al Ghazali. Ultimately, Ibn Rushd lost the debate to the detriment of the Muslim world, but his arguments culminated with the work, The Incoherence of Incoherence, which I think would be a great riposte to all ISIS ideologues and their friends. If Ibn Taymiyyah came back, then let's bring Averroes back too. 
8. Flying while Muslim is no longer a thing. 
They say that flying while Muslim is the new driving while Black. I guess if you're a Black Muslim, this really sucks, especially if you drive to the airport for your flight. So my wish maybe can be two-pronged: getting rid of both 'driving while Black' as well as 'flying while Muslim.' What is flying while Muslim? Well, it often starts with a casual stare or two from across the way. A timid approach then ensues: "Excuse me sir." This is normally followed by a more forceful: "Please follow me." It can then get quite aggressive, with clothes falling by the wayside. It normally ends with your belongings in disarray, your belt on backwards, and you fast-walking without turning back in the hope that no one thinks twice about you boarding your flight. Oh, and don't watch the news while on the plane. I hate flying while Muslim. 
9. Trump presides over a Muslim beauty contest. 
Was 2015 the year of Trump? You have to hand it to Trump; he sure knows how to grab the spotlight. Unfortunately, he's used that spotlight to spew increasingly populist venom targeted at Muslims (and others). Maybe, we need to better appeal to Trump's core interest: beauty pageants. There are a few lists circulating online for potential Muslim contestants (for Men: click here | for Women: click here). Yet, I think we should make this a mipsters pageant and turn this whole thing on its head. 
10. Peace comes to Syria. 
This Muslim (me) -- speaking on behalf of 1.5 billion people around the world -- has 10 wishes for 2016 but if only one of them came true it should be this one. No country has been more ravaged in recent memory than Syria. Hundreds of thousands have been killed as gangsters, terrorists, and dictators fight for supremacy. The surrounding region, instead of trying to promote a solution, has sent in weapons, fighters, and incitement. The world, instead of trying to mediate, has sought to settle old scores. All the while, the people in Syria live in lifeless limbo amidst daily death and destruction. If I had only one wish it would be that the violence in Syria would come to an end. 
This wish list is non-exhaustive. I think I may have missed a few...

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Application for Middle East Correspondent

On December 16, the Los Angeles Times posted an opening for a new Middle East Correspondent.
The Los Angeles Times is looking for a seasoned reporter to cover the Middle East.

This correspondent will anchor our coverage of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria, as well as monitoring the turbulent progress of “democracy” in Egypt, North Africa and the Gulf. But more than that, we are looking for an accomplished writer who is capable of plunging into these ancient and dazzling cultures, capturing their mesmerizing variety, deep intellectual history, turbulent social upheaval and — from ISIS insurgents to entrenched dictators — their capability for brutish violence.

The successful candidate will be the one who avoids the office and wanders the back roads; who will leave the others to tally the daily mayhem and bring us stories we will not have the power to forget.

Fluency in Arabic is strongly preferred. Home base is negotiable. Please apply to Kim Murphy, assistant managing editor for foreign and national news.
After a week of contemplation I finally decided to apply. Here's my Cover Letter. Please wish me luck!

Dear Kim,

I consider myself seasoned - well at least lightly seasoned- especially at the time of the holiday season, and so I thought why not: maybe I should apply to be the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. What can I tell you - I have always loved living in the Middle East ever since my first visit to Damascus in 2003. I have travelled from Baghdad to Agrabah and everywhere in between over the last decade or so. Along the way I too have learned to put things like "democracy" in quotes. Sometimes I put it in double quotation marks because "democracy" that is imported can become an even more interesting version of ""democracy."" But that is neither here nor there. I too agree with you that the only thing really worth covering in this region - besides the contested debate over Hommus in my humble opinion - are the "ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria" and the "turbulent progress of democracy in Egypt, North Africa, and the Gulf." What better way to ensure that the readers of the Los Angeles Times have an in-depth understanding of the region than to ensure they only hear about those specific issues? However, I know you are looking for "more than that" from the new correspondent. An accomplished writer? Sure let's check that box. Capable of plunging into ancient and dazzling cultures? I have been known to take the plunge but only rarely dazzle. By the way normally when someone refers to ancient and dazzling, I don't really think of the Middle East but maybe Jack Nicholson. Nevertheless I feel you about this place. I too love its "mesmerizing variety" and "deep intellectual history", topics that are almost superfluously covered in the pages of the LA Times.

Allow me at this point to pivot to what I think is my defining characteristic - and a key characteristic for anyone who writes about these Middle Eastern "dazzling cultures": my ability to understand "their capability for brutish violence." I know you are looking for a focus on ISIS insurgents and entrenched dictators but what about Jafar the sinister wicked Vizier? Or how about further afield, Scar and his brutish attack on Simba and Mufasa? Or Shere Khan - does anyone really understand why he went after Baloo? What caused him to choose violent extremism? I'm sorry, I digress. Getting back to the point: I am your man, your successful candidate. Just as the doctor ordered, I always avoid the office. I don't really wander the back roads - do you? What do you do there? Finally I wholeheartedly support your call: who needs to tally the mayhem when we can indulge on stories to give us the power to forget.

Should you find my candidacy deserving, please be in touch with me and I will fly my carpet right over for an interview.



Saturday, 11 October 2014

Muslim Liberals Caught in No Man's Land

Originally published in Huffington Post
Muslim Liberals Caught in No Man's Land
"Islam is the motherload of bad ideas." - Sam Harris
"That's just a fact." - Bill Maher
When the host of Real Time on HBO, Bill Maher, tag-teamed with 'new atheist' Sam Harris, to lead an assault on Islam last week, it was Batman-to-be Ben Affleck who stood up as the inexplicable first line of defense against the disjointed attack. Rounding out the panel of record, was New York Times activist Nicholas Kristof and Republican-lite Michael Steele. The debate - in which, of course no Muslims participated - quickly went viral. In the messy aftermath, Sam Harris even claimed that the media reaction vindicated him and proved his point. 
While Maher and his sidekick, Harris - and for that matter the entire Dawkinsian crew - may not be the bigots that Affleck accused them of being, they certainly should not feel any sense of self-absorbed vindication. They are not emissaries of the truth nor do they represent the vanguard of neo-enlightenment. Rather they come across as pseudo-intellectual bullies driven by a vain desire for celebrity, feigning any concern for the 'victims of Islam' they cite in remarks branching from their central diatribe against the religion. In effect, they silence the very Muslim liberals and champions who are leading the charge for a more just, equal, and tolerant (i.e. liberal, I guess) Muslim world, forcing on them a Faustian and false choice between identity and values. 
Just today, Malala Yousafzai, the ardent campaigner for girls' education from Pakistan and a proud Muslim, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In fact, five of the last twelve recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize have been Muslim. These five alongside millions of others seek to promote progressive and positive change in the Muslim world. They constitute everyday Muslims, not necessarily Islam incarnate. The reason this distinction is important is that treating as equal the Muslim world and the ideology of Islam is a misdirection that confuses an evolving 1,400-year philosophy with a disaggregated non-body politic of 1.5 billion people. As I wrote on these pagesseveral weeks ago, it does not mean ignoring a problem but diagnosing it accurately: 
"There is no crisis in Islam. But, there is, conversely and unmistakably, an existential crisis (or crises) in the Muslim world...The approach of religious discourse divorces us from what is the larger crisis facing the Muslim world, which is one of being mired in a political, social and economic malaise, characterized by hollow leadership and disintegrating states, an environment into which extremism seeps."
Malala and others are the vanguard in the fight being waged by Muslim liberals, one that is just unfolding, and which contests a broad range of injustices, inequalities, and intolerances in Muslim-majority countries. Yet, these individuals are also caught in a tripartite 'battle' that is ongoing: within the West, within the Muslim world and between the West and Muslim world. These battles are not clear-cut by any means, but each places the Muslim liberal effectively in no man's land. 
Within the West, we are witnessing the rise of xenophobic and anti-immigration sentiment broadly in the conservative movement, and in the United States, most acutely, on the fringes of the Republican Party. This has been exacerbated by the War on Terror, in which, domestically, the Muslim constitutes the ubiquitous bogeyman. So mainstream is this sentiment, that a series such as Homeland entertains many Muslim Americans, even though it not-so-subtly portends that every Muslim from a secular journalist to a CIA agent could be a threat, simply because he or she is Muslim. More tangibly, in terms of everyday consequences, each new mosque in the U.S. now faces anti-Sharia protestors, including from sitting politicians (who conveniently forget the meaning of the First Amendment). 
In Europe, however, while there has been similar sentiment from the conservative side of the spectrum, such as from political parties such as the UKIP or BNP in the United Kingdom, it has often dovetailed with a similarly xenophobic liberal view, such as that espoused by Sam Harris. Much akin to the convergence of the liberal humanitarian perspective with the neoconservative movement in recent years (e.g. prior to the Iraq War in 2003), this neo-liberalism is partly a revivalist movement of the White Man's Burden. Overall, within this battle, Islam is portrayed as a flawed essence, and there can be no equivocation. When an assured liberal such as Reza Aslan appears on CNN, he is forced to choose between Islam and liberalism, and asked to re-confirm that indeed Islam is the threat. Meanwhile, the anchors (on CNN) fail to realize that this would mean he would be asserting that he himself (and many members of his family) have an essentialized evilness about them. Whether or not a person like Reza Aslan is liberal is cast aside due to this inability to disavow Islam.
Yet, it is not just Muslims on the American side of the Atlantic who are caught up in this game. In the Muslim world's own multi-dimensional civil war, we see hyper-nationalists and Islamists battling it out, overlaid with a layer of sectarian strife. Muslim liberals - a term used loosely without weighing the religiosity of individuals - are often the last ones in the streets pushing for open societies. Take the example of the exemplary Alaa Abdel Fattah in Egypt, who, fresh off from being released from prison on bail after being charged for encouraging a demonstration, had his nomination for the prestigious Sakharov Prize revoked. He, like all Muslims, inevitably faced the pro-Israel test, and (two weeks ago) failed. Already under threat of condemnation from within their countries, Muslim liberals within Muslim countries are abandoned in their hour of need by the haughtier-than-though 'critics' in the West. Muslim liberals may be fighting for democracy, against gender discrimination, and for the rights of minorities, but they likely have not reconciled with Zionism. Ask Malala for her views on Israel: you may not like the answer
Finally, since 9/11 (and before as well), Western countries have increasingly been at war in the Middle East and within other majority-Muslim countries. The recent strikes against ISIS are just one recent example. In this battle, again the Muslim liberal is caught in no man's land. On one hand, he or she will surely be in favor of crushing the cancer that is ISIS but not by any means necessary nor will this mean broad support for the securitization of the interaction between the West and the Muslim world. When a recent video surfaced on Fox News from the Harvard campus, where many students alleged that the U.S. had a more detrimental footprint, overall, on the world stage than ISIS, the headline read, "Twisted Ivy: Harvard students say US bigger threat to world peace than ISIS." Imagine, a Muslim making the same statements as in the video. Game over. 
When Bill Maher and Sam Harris pontificate from their plush perches, criminalizing a faith, which has 1.5 billion adherents, they think they are doing the world a big service. Nothing could be further from the truth. It should be pointed that Muslim countries are not uniquely in crisis and that broadly there are many countries in crisis in the developing world. In addition, America's homophobia is only now beginning to subside for example, and in many ways is still real (so no real claim can be made of some type of civilizational superiority). And many of Burma's Buddhist monks would have something to say about religious militancy being the dominion of Islamists only. Nevertheless, there are indeed a myriad of unique problems within the Muslim world, which is in a deep crisis. Yet, there are also countless Muslim leaders, intellectuals, clerics, philanthropists, and others, facing these problems, and trying to stand-up to illiberal phenomena in their communities and societies. They already are well aware of the challenges in front of them and do not need lectures from people far-removed from the very violence they face. 
Maher's (and others) self-titillating orgies of intellectual masturbation demonstrate a total lack of awareness. Perhaps they'll be comforted by the controversy they spawn, indulging their egos as they eye retweets and dollar signs. As for the Muslim liberals on the frontlines? Once again they are caught in No Man's Land.
Original Link:

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Malala Yousafzai and the Missing Brown Savior Complex

On October 9, 2012, a Taliban gunman accosted a bus carrying 15 year-old Malala Yousafzai and her schoolmates, and coldly shot them at close range. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan not only claimed responsibility for the blatant assassination attempt of the teenage education activist, but as it emerged that Malala would survive the attack, the movement also reiterated its desire to kill her. Miraculously through the efforts of friends and family, the local community in Swat Valley where she is from and where she was shot, and the Pakistani army that airlifted her to Peshawar, Malala Yousafzai survived (as did the other victims). Given the seriousness of her condition, it was imperative she was treated by the best doctors, and a generous gesture by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi allowed her to be flown by air ambulance to England for major surgery. Fast forward just one year later, Malala has recovered and is even more emphatic in her message against the Taliban, promoting the empowerment of young women like her across Pakistan, and all around the world. And expectedly, the global media, including The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, have been celebrating her courage (perhaps caught in the moment of it all).

Great story, right? And what could be wrong about the alleged 'overexposure' of a young girl expressing words of peace and fighting for girls' education against a religious patriarchy? Apparently a lot. In fact, in Pakistan and in her hometown, her global coronation is treated with derision: "Malala is spoiling Pakistan's name around the world." Others have more sinister accusations of a CIA conspiracy involving both Malala and the gunman, claiming the entire affair is a Western plot. Yet, in recent days, an article written by a blogger in July on Huffington Post has been making the rounds on social media, entitled, "Malala Yousafzai and the White Saviour Complex." It argues, "Please, spare us the self-righteous and self-congratulatory message that is nothing more than propaganda that tells us that the West drops bombs to save girls like Malala."

The truth is there is no white savior coming for Pakistan or for any Muslim country, the vast majority of which are characterised by pernicious politics, inequitable economics, and irrational intolerance. Lecturing the chattering classes about geopolitical realties and distributing treatises on Western imperialism won't change anything. Fundamentally it will only be the indigenous leadership - helped or not helped by outsiders - that will drive change. Yet, when leaders do emerge, it seems that the local media (and now social media) are pre-occupied with tearing them down rather than building them up. People instead squander their energy on misguided diatribes, as the case of Malala has unfortunately shown. The real reason that the 'white savior complex' even is relevant is that we fail to champion the very 'brown saviors' in our midst.

Malala Yousafzai was thrust into the spotlight after her initial attack, which was so jarring that all Pakistani leaders came out in strong condemnation. Then Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari - himself a questionable character to say the least - labelling the attack as one against "all civilized people." Prior to the attack, Malala had rose to prominence as an activist, encouraged by her father, for girls education and against the policies and values of the Taliban, which was why she was targeted in the first place. Without picking up a gun, her message was considered a threat to their movement, which is amazing in it of itself. Yet, it was on July 12 earlier this year, speaking on her birthday to the United Nations that Malala brought tears to the eyes of millions of people around the world. Having remarkably recovered from her wounds (and having undergone partial facial reconstruction), and still facing death threats, Malala stood steadfast in front of a global audience, and spoke with fortitude and confidence: "The terrorists thought that they would change my aims and stop my ambitions but nothing changed in my life, except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born."

It was such a powerful moment, that almost every international news outlet carried the speech of this young woman live across the world. And for the first time in a long time, the Pakistani and Muslim in the spotlight was not an extremist but someone standing up to extremism. The plaudits continued to come, especially in the last few weeks, as Malala released a book about her experience and was awarded the prestigious Sakharov Prize from the European Union. In fact, she was the rumored favorite for the Nobel Peace Prize, which in the end was awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, in a surprise but perhaps deserving win. Of course, the Western media in particular have a penchant for over-hyping (if not over-milking) and over-sensationalizing such stories of heroism. And it will be very difficult for Malala to not only live up to such hype but also to prevent the perception that she is over-shadowing other deserving heroes. Yet, is that not the story of all figures of change who inspire us? Was Nelson Mandela really the only Black leader in South Africa's prisons? Was Martin Luther King Jr. the only individual marching in the South? Was Aung San Suu Kyi the only fighter for freedom in Burma?

It does seem increasingly, however, that Malala is a leader denied a strong constituency back home. It is easy to dismiss the allegations that she is a CIA agent - although the photo-op with the Obama's won't help - as well as the gloating of Taliban supporters after she was not awarded the Nobel Prize. Yet it is harder to dismiss the cacophony of criticism in Pakistan, in Swat Valley, and on the social media pages of Pakistanis, and for that matter, Muslims from around the world. As one government official said: "Everyone knows about Malala, but they do not want to affiliate with her." The primary complaints include the following:
  • This is another example of the West trying to portray themselves as a savior of the East. 
  • Malala is a secular heroine not a Muslim heroine. 
  • While her case is tragic there are other victims who deserve prominence. 
  • The crimes of the West through drones and in Iraq and Afghanistan, far outweigh the crimes of the Taliban. 
  • This is an effort of the West to try to avoid its own complicity in the situation in Pakistan that led to Malala's shooting. 
As with most disinformation campaigns, this one is based on kernels of truth. For starters, the world does neglect the stories of deserving others. One such example would be of the tour-de-force Pakistani social worker  Parveen Rehman who was shot dead in Karachi earlier this year. Additionally, it has been the Western media that has largely driven the popular support for Malala globally; that, however, has to be attributed to the dismal failure of the Pakistani media to not do so instead (in my humble opinion). Finally, and the most valid critique is that the story of Malala should not negate the very pivotal role the United States and the West has played and continues to play in creating the current perilous conditions in Pakistan and in contributing to the deaths of innocents there, and in other countries. 

Firstly, U.S. policy has been heavily involved in the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan, which it tacitly supported alongside Saudi Arabia and Pakistan's intelligence service in the mid-1990s. Moreover, the United States and Saudi Arabia (and some other Western and Muslim powers) cooperated to support radical jihadism (even printing textbooks to that effect for Afghanistan) and Islamism as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and communism. In fact, Israel also supported the radical group Hamas as a counterweight to the secular Fatah movement of then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Yes, the world was and is screwed up, and the powers of the world have much complicity in that. 

Secondly, and more importantly, the military operations carried out by the U.S. in particular in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq have led to thousands of deaths of innocent people in recent years. These actions have largely gone unpunished and the victims have been forgotten. Certainly it is not just the Taliban that are killing and the world cannot dispense justice selectively. 

Does saying all of that make Malala Yousafzai any less of a hero (or heroine)? Is her courage dimmed by the crimes of others? Is her movement for the empowerment of young girls in Pakistan any less important? Of course not. Criticisms of the West will bring no one closer to emancipation. And it cannot mask the very pure fact that today's purveyors of disaster and death in the world also include Muslims.

Who bombed the church in Peshawar slaughtering 85 worshippers? Who attacked Westgate Mall in Nairobi killing dozens of innocents? Who murders dozens of men, women and children in Iraq every week? When a Muslim rises up - a so-called brown savior - to fight such crimes and the movements behind them, we should put him or her on our shoulders and not try to chase that person into the darkness. There is no shame in admitting Brown and Muslim guilt in the world's crimes, and it does not negate the wider reality and context around the violence that does occur. In fact, our fear of partial guilt in particular should not misguidedly cause us to throw out the very sparse examples of (counter-) leadership in Muslim countries that emerge and strike fear in the heart of radical extremists. 

It has become far too easy on all sides to blame the other rather than introspect inward. Above all, instead of blaming the West for its 'white savior complex' maybe it's time to develop our own brown savior complex to save ourselves from ourselves. 

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Award Spurs Debate in 'Desert of Silence' in Muslim World

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post, where you can visit for the original piece by clicking here or on the title

Award Spurs Debate in 'Desert of Silence' in Muslim World

LISBON -- There was something truly captivating about sitting in the Castle of São Jorge in Lisbon, Portugal, waiting for the announcement of the 2013 winners of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Overlooking the cityscape, the citadel is home to both the Christian and Muslim history of the Iberian peninsula, a fitting setting for an event looking to promote common linkages across geographic divides. Held every three years, the Award looks to promote conversation around the themes of development and the built environment in the Muslim world and beyond. Once again, the gathering -- hosted by the President of Portugal and the Aga Khan -- brought together an eclectic array of participants from representatives from around the world, ranging from ministers and diplomats to religious figures (including from the Vatican), to architects and builders, to thinkers and writers.
The Award recipients were equally diverse, with five projects celebrated in this cycle (bringing the number of winners in the history of the Award to 110). They included: the Salam Center for Cardiac Surgery in Sudan; the revitalization of Birzeit in Palestine; the Rabat-Salé Bridge in Morocco; the rehabilitation of the Tabriz Bazaar in Iran; and an Islamic cemetery in Austria (the latter perhaps the most intriguing project). While the initiative represents the largest, in terms of monetary value, architecture award in the world, its objective goes beyond aesthetic design, seeking to identify projects that are on the frontier of sustainable development (in all senses of the term) and that are locally attuned. Yet what was clear this year was the juxtaposition of the contemplative conversation in Lisbon and the "desert of silence "that still characterizes much of the Muslim world, outside specialized or academic circles, on these very themes. And this is the challenge for the Award, and similar such platforms -- to not just hold the conversation but to widen the debate to engage with the multitude of forces shaping and influencing the broader Muslim world (and beyond).
Founded in 1977, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) is part of the wider set of initiatives of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which mobilizes annually over $600 million to support development activities throughout the 30 countries in which it works. The Award shares the holistic approach of the AKDN towards development, whereby local participation, alignment, and empowerment are critical to the viability and impact of any activity. Held every three years, 2013 represented the 13th cycle of the awards. Governed by a nine-person Steering Committee that includes some of the top minds in the field, such as Norman Foster and Glenn Lowry (from the Museum of Modern Art), the Award appoints a new Master Jury for each cycle; this year's Jury, for example, includedMahmoud Mamdani of Uganda and Wang Shu of China.
One of the central purposes of the Award, according to its founder, the Aga Khan, and voiced during this years ceremony was to replace the "vast desert [of] silence [that] had set in" in the Muslim world with lively debate, around the issues of development, architecture, and the built environment. Certainly, this would be no easy challenge. Over the last three decades, the Award has highlighted a number of worthy projects, recognized and encouraged leading architects and builders, and promoted education with the principles of the Award in mind. Yet, it has not been enough to fill the silence. Instead, at the frontier of the built environment in Muslim communities, and places like the Arab world, this silence has been filled by what appears too often like cacophonous chaos. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the holy city of Mecca, where a giant clock tower and monstrous skyscrapers not only cast a shadow over Islam's holiest mosque, the Kaaba, but are systematically destroying the city's historic heritage while contributing very little to community needs, besides increases in property values.
This is emblematic of the challenge of the Award, in particular, but also of other similar initiatives seeking to influence trends in the broader Muslim world, where it is not contemplative conversation that drives change but rather copious (often misallocated) capital that determines development patterns instead. How can you not just fill that vast desert of silence but also ensure that it is not the loudest voices that win the debate?
Given the ongoing shifts throughout the developing world, such as the move from rural to urban environments, political transition, and economic modernization, more engagement will be needed on a number of critical issues, especially the built environment and how it promotes sustainable development. Hopefully the conversations, such as those in Lisbon, begin to move beyond the classroom and into the mainstream.
Photo credit: AKDN