May 28, 2007

Secularism and Islam: the thoughts of Soheib Bencheikh

The increasing influence of fundamentalism in the world's major religions seems almost a sign of the times. Islam with its doctrinaire Wahhabist schools and Christianity with its evangelical revivalism aren't the only faiths in which large numbers of believers are turning to faith based literalism. It is happening also in Hinduism with the increasing influence of Shaivite and Vaishnava fundamentalism. It can even be found in branches of Buddhism, such as the Japanese Nichiren sect. The Tibetan New Kadampa Tradition, also arguably exhibits the control and identity compulsions associated with fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism is separatist and oppositional in nature. In the case of Islam there are voices that propose a less radical interpretation of their religion. Some of these thinkers embrace secularism and see it not as the enemy of their religion, but as an equalizer guaranteeing the rights of all.

One such is Soheib Bencheikh, the former Grand Mufti of Marseilles.

Bencheikh was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1961. He graduated in Islamic theology at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. He holds a Doctorate in Religious Sciences from the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, and in 1995 was nominated Grand Mufti of Marseilles. He is also a member of Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman (Council of French Muslims).

I came across an interview with Bencheikh on the Liberal Islam Network. The interview took place while he was on a trip to Indonesia. I have decided to include excerpts from the interview in this post. Some passages have been edited lightly to improve comprehension since the online English translation is at times is a little challenging.

What is your personal view with regard to secularism?

To me, secularism is not a complicated philosophy. In France, laicite is neither religion nor ideology. It is a simple idea concerning administrative neutrality in managing relations between the state and religion. Once a state declares itself a secular state, it must give every citizen freedom to accept religion or not. In a more concrete sense, secularism is the separation between state and religion. It benefits both religion and the state.

What about theocratic or semi-secular countries?

In countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and other Arab countries there is no hope for an overhaul. The task of these states seems bent on one thing, and that is safeguarding the sacredness of religion and the power of authority. They only want to preserve conservative and backward religiosity and utilize it to maintain their power.

Why do you advocate secularism?

As a Muslim, I can practice Islam proudly in France under the authority of the secular state.

The French constitution guarantees the sustainability of secularism, including protection of the rights of individuals and minorities. Therefore, I suggest that anyone who mocks secularism should live in France and America for about five years. I believe they will prove that secularism protects them from shallow religious sentiments.

The opponents of secularism perceive it as something more than administrative neutrality. They see secularism as an ideology that marginalizes and eliminates religion. What do you think?

It’s a big lie to say that secularism will marginalize religion. Secularism is simply about the administration of the state, therefore it will not be easily influenced by religious sentiments. In the west, it is up to you to embrace a religion or not. One’s obedience or disobedience is a private matter between the believer and god. This is different from what happens in the Arab countries, the secular as well as the theocratic ones.

In Saudi Arabia or Algeria, I feel that the inquisitorial institutional ethos surrounds me. Hence, my prayer, my worship, my life and death isn't for God. Everything I do, is done for the institution that spies upon my every movement and observance. Everything we do is not for God, but for maintaining the authoritarian control and its positive image before the public.

Advocates of the Islamic state claim that the establishment of the Islamic state will guarantee minority rights far better than the secular state does. What do you think?

How can we eliminate the concept of ahlu dzimmah (the protection of non-Muslims in Muslim countries with certain concessions, ed)? Frankly speaking, I and most of the Muslims in France have never wanted to be ahlu dzimmah in relation to the French Catholic majority. We always want to be French citizens whose rights are equal with any other legal citizens. The advocates of the religious state forget that religious barriers have melted in many ways. You can find a Christian Indonesian and a Muslim Swede who live in the same modern secular state. If this positive achievement develops, we will find a state where the majority does not claim special powers just because it is a majority.

You seem to dream about the assimilation of cultures rather than a clash between civilizations. Is this a realistic idea?

Actually, a clash of civilizations does not exist in reality. What happens everywhere is a clash between open groups (munfatihin) and closed ones (munghaliq). There is no clash between West and East. We must remember that the first voice that condemned the American invasion of Iraq was the late Pope John II, while the first who closed his eyes about this tragedy was Sheikh al-Azhar.

Some Muslims think that the ban on wearing veils - niqab (face veil in which woman’s eyes are visible) or burqa (veil covering the whole face) in several Western countries, is an example of the Western secular state’s confrontation with Islam. Is there a clash of values between Muslims in the west and Western culture in general?

My view of civilization as an Arab-Muslim isn't based on the obligation to wear a headscarf, or the niqab and burqa. I have abandoned shallow ideas about standards of civilization based on such artificial matters. I dream about civilization that preserves morality.

The Qu'ranic prescription to "draw their veils over their bosoms" was meant for Arab rural and nomadic women who were already veiled in early Islam but left their bosoms exposed. Hence, we must understand that the verse requires Muslims to dress in a modest fashion.

So, you do not regard this as primary Islamic teaching?

Everyone knows that this matter is not a primary Islamic teaching because it is not one of the five pillars of Islam nor one of the six pillars of Iman. It is a branch of Islamic injunctions, namely to behave decently. Furthermore, there are many ways to behave decently in the modern era. For the nomadic Arab women, the way of obtaining respect and honor was based on the physical aspect. But most Muslim women in France and England today place the emphasis on attaining as much knowledge and expertise as possible.

Do you think that supporters of wearing the niqab and burqa in Western countries have failed to adjust to Western Islamic culture?

In general, they have difficulty interacting positively with contemporary civilization. A French intellectual who wrote a lot about Islam, Roger Garaudy, reminded Muslims about the necessity to free themselves from Islamic Saudinization (masyru`us sa’wadatil Islam). He observed that this tendency arises among many Muslims. To my way of thinking, it would be very miserable if the clash with the West came down to issues of the headscarf and niqab, rather than substantial issues.

Are you frustrated with Muslims’ failure to adapt Islam to local traditions?

Adjustment is our right. What's the point in coercing French Muslims to apply a particular prototype of Islam, which will keep them alienated from the French cultural milieu? They have the right to determine their own Islam ala French, with certain minimum requirements such as belief in God and the prophecy of Muhammad. Why should they change their names to Arabic ones or change their dress? Abu Bakr, Omar, Khadija and Ayesha did not change their names when they embraced Islam.

It is not necessary to create a separation between Eastern and Western civilization. These boundaries were determined by European countries in the colonial era - which Edward Said referred to as imaginary geographic boundaries. Talking about the roots of Islamic classical thought, we find philosophy that originated from Greek, state administration from Persian tradition, the adoption of ‘urf principle (adat/tradition) from the Roman law. That is civilization, which we share in common.

Are you concerned on the rise of ideological Islam in France?

I am worried about the prototype of Islam which most young French Muslims adhere to nowadays. They waste their time by adhering to an understanding of Islam, which impedes them from building better social relationships with their neighbors. They waste their time by discussing the length of beards, the size of trousers etc.

They forget that the prophet Muhammad utilized the best things in his period just as we should in the modern era. In order to honor the Prophetic tradition, we must not act discordantly in the present day, particularly in pointless matters. Muslims must not deviate from the existing social order.

In my dealings with young extremist Muslims, some dialogues ended in a deadlock, some had more positive outcomes. I advised French decision makers to be wise when dealing with these young people. I explained that their attitude didn't derive from their deep understanding of Islam, but from their shallow understanding. They weren't immune to the virus of fanaticism. They invited fundamentalist Muslims to teach them about Islam and that is why they failed to build positive social relationships with French society and became marginalized.

May 27, 2007

Chemical snacks and health hazards

Chemicals in commercially produced food

Periodically researchers raise concerns about the health impact of chemicals in commercially produced food and drink. While some scientists play down the risk factor, others warn of the cumulative effect when certain products are consumed in excess, or regularly over a protracted time period. However it's not always easy for the average consumer to get accurate information about potential dangers because industries have their own testing procedures and spin doctors in some cases, ready and willing to challenge negative findings.

Unlike microbiological agents, chemical contaminants in commercial food and drink are unaffected by thermal processing. Aside from known contaminants, researchers also include so-called "emerging food contaminants" such as benzene, perchrorate, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) furan and others.

There is good reason to look more carefully at what we eat and drink these days. While there may be debate about the health hazards of additives, there is no debating the fact that we are absorbing more chemicals in combination. A chemical ingested alone in minute quantities isn't as much of a hazard as the combined effect, even when the amounts ingested are very low. The London School of Pharmacy did some research on this and it found that low doses of different chemicals work together to create a 'significant combination'.

Not all of the chemicals found in food products are added during the preparation process. Dutch researchers found that chemicals get into our food from both packaging sources and the environment. Their research uncovered an odd pot pourri of unintentional additives such as pesticides, flame retardants and phthalate chemical compounds present in plastics.

More alarming is the recent claim by a researcher in the UK that preservatives found in fizzy drinks of the pop variety, have the ability to interfere with DNA functioning. The main concern is focused on E211, or sodium benzoate, generally used as a preservative.

Professor Peter Piper, a professor of molecular biology and biotechnology at Sheffield University, tested sodium benzoate on living yeast cells in the lab. He discovered that the benzoate damaged DNA in the cells known as mitochondria. He described the damage as "severe" to the point where the DNA is inactivated - completely shuts down.

An additional concern, is evidence of benzene contamination in soft drinks. A test conducted by Beverage Daily revealed that in some drinks benzene levels were as much as five times over the limit set by the World Health Organization for drinking water. The Times of London reported in 2006 that only 100 of 230 soft drinks tested for benzene met the standard for UK water. Some of the drinks high in benzene were as much as eight times over the limit. Even bottles of reputedly pristine Perrier water were discovered not so long ago with unacceptably high levels of benzene, something the company put down to a production glitch.

How you might ask does benzene end up in commercial drinks? Well it doesn't. The sodium or potassium benzoate, used as a preservative in drinks, forms benzene when it interacts with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) . This chemical reaction is accelerated when the drink is exposed to light or heat.

Part of the problem is the wide range of results recorded in the various tests. This introduces an elevated risk factor which is disguised since consumers have no way of knowing if the drink they purchase contains unacceptably high benzene levels. FDA testing confirms this wide range in results. In tests conducted on 100 beverages in 2006, the FDA reported low levels in most drinks but with two showing levels as much as 15-18 times above the drinking water standard.

Although benzene is a known cancer causing carcinogen, these findings should kept in context. We breathe in benzene during a stroll down a city street and while filling up at a gas station. It is present in cigarette smoke - also in food and water in tiny amounts. The risk factor though is particularly tricky to assess with soft drinks as witnessed by the variability of the test results and the difficulty of establishing a standard across the board. The risk also fairly obviously relates to the type of drink preferred and the quantity consumed. If a young person has developed the habit of drinking copious amounts of pop, this presents a higher risk than the occasional drink. In one study a boy who had experienced excessive weight gain admitted to drinking as many as seven to ten cans of pop a day.

Aside from hazards associated with preservatives, there are other health risks linked to soft drink consumption. A Yale study determined that consumption of soft drinks is associated with increased caloric intake, elevated body weight, decrease in calcium and other nutrients, and increased risk of Type 2 diabetes.

The Yale report also points out that studies funded by the food industry were less likely to show detrimental effects from the consumption of soft drinks than studies that receive no industry funding - no surprise there.

May 21, 2007

Ed Husain's new book: 'The Islamist'

Ed Husain's new book

Ed Husain's new book The Islamist is well worth a read.

Husain grew up in the UK in a family of devout Sufi Muslims. He got involved with a variety of Muslim youth organizations, and eventually ended up a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) - a Sunni pan-Islamist party with the stated aim of creating a caliphate uniting the disparate elements of the Muslim world. He was a recruiter for a period and describes the work of the organization as attempting to "mobilize the Muslim masses" in the UK.

In addition to being an author, Husain is also a PhD student at the School of Oriental and African Studies. A change of path that isn't as unusual as you may think. Quite a few young activists make the transition to a life less defined by radicalism. It's just that unlike Ed, they haven't had the opportunity to share their story with the public.

While acknowledging a hardline Muslim culture exists in many communities in the UK, Husain also points out that significant changes have occurred since the 90's. He refers to a new form of Islam, that is more spiritual and less political. There is a small, but developing trend in Islam to move toward a more private and spiritual expression of the religion.

Husain's book has irked a few on the left who don't like the nod given to Tony Blair's policies. Nor do they go along with Husain's tendency to dismiss cries of Islamophobia as a ploy on the part of the Islamic leadership to obtain special concessions.

May 2, 2007

Gereing down for a kiss


Richard Gere is a great actor and has done some excellent work to raise awareness about the situation facing the Tibetan Dharamsala-based government and the plight of Tibetan exiles. But what was he thinking when he bent Bollywood star, Shilpa Shetty, over backwards at an AIDS awareness event in New Delhi and proceeded to kiss ... nuzzle ... what appears to be her cheek and carotid artery?

Gere claims the maneuver was a parody of a scene in his movie "Shall We Dance." A parody some 4,000 Indian truckers present in the audience would be sure to get right away of course.

Indian sensibilities are all over the map when it comes to displays of this sort. On the one hand you have a progressive urban class who are unlikely to care one way or the other. But the country is also home to religious extremists who burn things and even kill people when something sets them off.

The incident was greeted with loud complaints from Hindu hardliners. A judge in Jaipur went so far as to issue an arrest warrant for Gere and Shetty for violating obscenity laws. What Gere should have been thinking before he took his puckered-up lunge is that being a local girl, Shetty will have to deal with any fall-out long after his return to the US.

These seemingly minor events can assume a symbolic importance that far exceeds their actual significance. Considering how far it has gone already, it's reasonable to assume that it will be a while before Shetty is out of the shadow of the controversy.

Gere's next mistake was apologizing a lot, and explaining himself a lot. Once the deed is done, no amount of apologizing alters underlying perceptions and certainly not ingrained prejudices. Apologies may in fact lend unwarranted moral justification to the cranks behind the complaints, who are probably very gratified to know that the big American star began apologizing after they resorted to rioting and effigy burning.

Mainstream media in India didn't give any appearance of going off the deep end on the issue. The Times of India described the judicial warrant issued by the Jaipur judge as an attempt to create "cheap publicity" and a former attorney general, Soli Sorabjee, claimed it was far fetched to try and characterize the kiss as "obscene."