Archive for the ‘World events’ Category

The Mercy of Prophet Muhammad

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Islam is again in the news associated with acts of violence and fanaticism. The death of Chris Stephens, American ambassador to Libya, as a result of an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi has shaken not only the United States, but also members of the Muslim community worldwide. My friend Abdallah Omeish, a filmmaker who is visiting Libya, posted on Facebook that the ambassador’s death has been met with shock and grief by everyone he knows in the North African country. As a Libyan American, Abdallah was outraged at how a handful of extremists killed a man that was widely respected by the people of Benghazi. And as a devout Muslim, he was sickened by how the murderers cloaked their vile deeds in the name of Islam.

As a fellow Muslim, I share Abdallah’s revulsion. It is regrettably a feeling that never quite goes away, like a wound that keeps being reopened so that it never properly heals. Ever since I was a child growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, the predominant image of Islam I have seen in the media has been that of a religion steeped in violence and misogyny. A religion of hate and self-destruction. It is an image that is utterly alien to the Islam of love and gentleness I have experienced and lived my whole life. Watching the news is like peering into a bizarro world, where another Islam exists that seems to be the polar opposite of the one that flows in my heart and blood.

The catalyst for the current wave of violence by a handful of extremists in Libya and Egypt has been the release of a small independent film entitled “Innocence of Muslims.” I am of the opinion that it is a film of questionable artistic merit, backed by a group of bitter bigots whose only agenda was to incite hatred and violence by smearing the character of Prophet Muhammad. And yet as an artist and filmmaker myself, I absolutely support the right of these people to say what they want to say. In fact, I encourage them to keep making more such works, as they will actually be doing Islam a great service. I say to those who hate my faith: Make as many films and write as many books as you want insulting Islam and Prophet Muhammad. You will only bring more attention to Islam and make it stronger.

Islam is a powerful religion with more than 1.5 billion followers, a faith that continues to grow despite the best efforts of its opponents to crush it (and despite the stupidity of Muslim extremists who dishonor Islam with their brutality). Islam will not be harmed by any film, book or work of art. Indeed, the foolishness of those who seek to denigrate Prophet Muhammad in this fashion is that their work simply inspires more people to learn about the man who founded humanity’s second largest religion. A man whose life was so remarkable that, 1,380 years after his death, it continues to attract enthusiastic converts to his teaching of the oneness of God and the oneness of mankind.

Attacks on the character of Prophet Muhammad are nothing new. The Prophet himself endured insults, persecution and assassination attempts during his lifetime by his opponents. And yet the Prophet showed remarkable restraint against his enemies. At the end of his life, when Islam had grown from a persecuted minority movement to the dominant social and political force in Arabia, the Prophet had the power to avenge himself a thousand times over. But he showed remarkable clemency to his enemies at exactly the moment it matters the most — when he was powerful enough to act with impunity against his opponents, yet offered them forgiveness.

As a Hollywood storyteller, I can say with confidence that the life of Prophet Muhammad is a remarkable tale, more gripping and filled with better surprise twists than “The Lord of the Rings.” I wrote my novel “Mother of the Believers” to tell his story for a new generation and I refer those interested in learning more details of his life to read my book, or biographies by respected authors such as Montgomery WattKaren Armstrong and Barnaby Rogers, among others. What I will share here are two stories that reflect how Muslims remember the Prophet, who is referred to in the Quran as “a Mercy to the Worlds.”

The first story is set in the immediate aftermath of the surrender of Mecca to Muslim forces in 630 C.E. The Prophet had been born in Mecca in 570 C.E. and had received his first revelations from the Angel Gabriel at the age of 40, calling the Arabs to reject polytheism and embrace the One God of Abraham. His critique of the profitable religious cult in Mecca won him many followers from the poor and oppressed classes, and especially among women, who saw him as a champion of their rights in a word where pre-Islamic Arabs often buried infant girls alive. But his teachings earned him the enmity of the ruling class of Mecca, who showered insults and abuse on his followers for over a decade. Finally, in 622 C.E., the Prophet escaped an assassination attempt and was forced to flee to the oasis of Medina, where his followers survived years of military attacks from Mecca meant to annihilate their community.

And yet Islam continued to grow and spread, as it offered a better, more egalitarian way of life than the Meccan cult that served only the wealthy. Eight years after the Prophet fled his home, the beleaguered Meccans surrendered the city to the Muslims who were now the most powerful group in Arabia. The Prophet returned home as absolute ruler, with no fear of reprisal from any of his enemies. The Meccans feared that he would take vengeance on them for 20 years of vicious attacks. The Prophet certainly could have taken revenge; in the cruel world of desert warfare recorded in the books of Old Testament, no one would have been surprised if he killed all of his opponents. And yet he did something that left his enemies flabbergasted.

He forgave them.

The Prophet declared a general amnesty and offered the leaders of Mecca who had fought him positions of honor in the new Muslim community. And most remarkable of all was how he treated Hind, the cruel queen of Mecca who had desecrated the corpse of the Prophet’s beloved uncle Hamza (she had cannibalized Hamza’s liver, an act considered barbaric even by her own people). The Prophet forgave Hind and let her go.

A second story takes place around the same time period, after the Prophet’s victorious unification of Arabia. The Prophet had complex relations with the Jewish tribes of Arabia. When he founded the Muslim community in Medina, he had drawn up a treaty with the Jews of the city, which guaranteed their freedom of religion and sought their alliance against the military attacks from Mecca. But as the Prophet’s power had risen in Arabia, some of the Jewish tribes switched allegiance to the Meccan attackers, leading to warfare between Muslims and Jews. But with the defeat of Mecca, the Prophet sought to repair the breach of trust between the two monotheistic religions and worked for reconciliation. The Jewish chieftain of Khaybar invited the Prophet to a feast to cement better ties moving forward. But not everyone was happy with hosting a banquet in the victorious Prophet’s honor, and one woman of Khaybar poisoned the meal. Several of the Prophet’s companions died, but the Prophet spit out the poisoned food before it could take effect. The assassin was captured and the Prophet asked the woman why she had done this deadly act. She shrugged and responded that Muhammad had defeated her tribe and she was simply avenging them.

The Prophet forgave her and let her go.

Modern critics have attacked Prophet Muhammad for many things. They have attacked the Prophet for having multiple wives, one of whom some have claimed was so young as to be a “child bride.” They have also attacked the Prophet for his military actions at the height of Mecca’s efforts to destroy his community. But as renowned Christian scholar Montgomery Watt has pointed out, the issues that modern opponents use to vilify Prophet Muhammad were never raised as moral problems by his enemies in his lifetime. For example, modern critics of Prophet Muhammad have questioned his sexual propriety in vile terms, calling him a pedophile for his marriage to Aisha, the subject of my novel “Mother of the Believers.” One account claimed that Aisha was only 9 years old at the time of her wedding, but other, more probable, accounts suggest she was between 14 and 19 years of age. Whatever Aisha’s age was, the Prophet’s contemporary enemies never once noted his marriage to her in their vitriolic attacks against him. Neither Arab nor Jewish opponents ever found anything improper about his marriage to a teenage girl who had begun her cycles and could bear children. Indeed such marriages were a matter of survival in a desert world with low life expectancy.

Nor did his enemies have issue with the fact that Prophet Muhammad was polygamous, as polygamy was the norm for that society and many others. Even the Prophet’s opponents understood that his marriages were primarily meant to secure tribal alliances and to take care of widows of his followers who had been slain in battle. The Prophet’s household consisted of about a dozen mostly older women and was embarrassingly modest compared to the harems maintained not only by powerful Arab men of the time, but also by biblical kings. David had at least eight wives and 10 concubines (and probably many more), and his son Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Under such conditions, even the Prophet’s enemies considered his sparse “harem” to be rather monkish and not the trappings of licentiousness.

The Prophet’s military activities have also been subjected to visceral critique in modern day — and yet again were not the basis of criticism in his lifetime. Being forced to fight for his community’s very survival in Medina, the Prophet did indeed engage in warfare, but he showed far more restraint toward his enemies than they showed him (as witnessed by Hind’s cannibalization episode). In one incident, used by bigots to prove the Prophet’s supposed barbarity, the Muslims defeated the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza, which had broken its alliance and offered support to their Meccan enemies during a deadly siege that threatened to destroy the entire Islamic community. When the Meccans were finally defeated, the Qurayza were punished for treason according to their own understanding of the Torah. Based on Deuteronomy 20:10-14, the warriors of the tribe were executed, but the women and children spared. While this punishment may seem harsh for some people today, by the moral standards not only of desert Arabia but also of the Bible, such actions were normal in the bitter struggle for survival in a hostile wilderness. Indeed, as Christian scholar Philip Jenkins has written in “Laying Down the Sword,” Prophet Muhammad’s military activities were remarkably restrained compared to the genocidal bloodbaths gleefully endorsed in the Bible, where God’s holy warriors did not spare even women, children or infants.

One can debate forever whether the desperate struggle for survival exonerates these events in the eyes of history. But what cannot be denied is that they happened in a state of extreme danger that the Muslim community was subjected to by its enemies. And the true proof of the moral essence of Islam can be found in this simple fact. When the danger was over, when Prophet Muhammad had won and had absolute power to do with his defeated opponents as he pleased, the Prophet did what no one expected him to do — he forgave his enemies and let them go. The true test of a man’s character is revealed when he has power, and the Prophet’s actions at the height of his power remain a shining example to Muslims and all human beings of taking the higher road when revenge would be easier and perhaps more satisfying.

Fourteen centuries have passed, and the Prophet’s victory continues. Islam has grown from a handful of refugees starving in the wilderness to a faith embraced by billions. The civilization that the Prophet established has transformed the planet and indeed saved it from the Dark Ages that engulfed Europe. Because of Prophet Muhammad’s call for Muslims to “seek knowledge even unto China,” Muslim scientists advanced knowledge of astronomy, medicine and many other fields while Europe was trapped in a culture of superstition and illiteracy. The works of Plato and Aristotle were preserved in Islamic Spain, even as the Church burned their books in Europe as heresy. Countless Jews survived and thrived in Muslim countries even as they were expelled and murdered by Christian pogroms over the centuries. Indeed, as Neil Asher Silberman recounts in his book “Heavenly Powers,” many Jews viewed the initial Muslim conquest of the Middle East as a blessing from God, who had used their Arab cousins to topple the fanatical Byzantine Christians that persecuted Jews and banned them from Jerusalem.

The world is a better place because Prophet Muhammad survived against his opponents and won. And even as the Prophet showed grace and clemency to his enemies, so must his heirs do so today. With the grace of God, Islam is an unstoppable force that will keep growing. That triumph is assured by history, demographics and its inherent attractiveness as a way of life for humanity. No filmmaker, artist, author, musician — or invading army — can destroy Islam. Secure in that knowledge, it is time for Muslims to relax and ignore the daily offenses and insults thrown at them by denizens of the cheap seats. It is time for Muslims to show the powerful confidence that Prophet Muhammad demonstrated when he had won and his enemies trembled at his feet. The power that comes from three simple words.

I forgive you.


Yale and the Danish Cartoons

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

It is the controversy that refuses to die – the now infamous Danish cartoons about Prophet Muhammad that caused much furor in the Muslim world a few years ago have appeared in the media spotlight again after Yale University Press decided not to print the caricatures in an upcoming book about the very same controversy.

Yale removed the images from The Cartoons that Shook the World by Brandeis University professor Jytte Klausen, scheduled to be released next week, after deciding that they could incite violence from Muslim extremists.

As a practicing Muslim and as an artist and author, let me state unequivocally that Yale is wrong to practice this kind of self-censorship. The cartoons should be available for readers to make their own judgment.

Now that I have said that, let me share with you my own judgment about what the Danish cartoon controversy is really about.

The caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, including one depicting Islam’s founder as wearing a bomb-shaped turban, first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. Over the next several months, Muslims throughout the world protested the cartoons as an insult to Islamic civilization. Islam traditionally prohibits any depiction of the Prophet (even favorable ones) to prevent idolatry. Images of the Prophet are nonetheless common in Islamic art, although he is nearly always shown as veiled.

Once Muslim protests began, other newspapers in the West reprinted the cartoons as an embrace of freedom of expression, which only exacerbated the controversy. Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran were attacked by extremists, and a boycott of Danish goods was put in effect in many Muslim countries. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen described the controversy as Denmark’s worst international crisis since World War II.

To many people in the West, Muslim reaction to the cartoons reflected a fundamental intolerance toward art and debate in the modern Islamic world. And to many Muslims, the West’s embrace of these caricatures of their most revered holy figure reflected bigotry and profound hatred for Islam as a religion and a civilization.

And to a very tragic degree, both groups are right about their perception of the other.

As a Muslim, I can admit (with deep regret) that freedom of speech is curtailed in most of the Islamic world. And art, once central to Muslim culture, has been neglected and disrespected in many Islamic societies today. Muslims were once the world’s most respected and creative artisans. From the Mughal architects of India who built the Taj Mahal, to Persian poets like Rumi and Hafez whose words brought wonder to the human heart, to the musicians of Moorish Spain who gave birth to the troubadours of Europe, Muslim art thrived for centuries. Art was embraced by the Muslim community as an act of spirituality, a way of honoring God through reverence for the beauty of His creation. As long as art played a central role in Islamic civilization, it thrived. And when fundamentalists began devaluing art, Muslim civilization began to decline.

So, yes, there is some truth in the Western critique that Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons reflects a cultural mindset against artistic expression, although I would suggest that this resistance is a modern development and not inherent to Islamic civilization or history.

And I have experienced that resistance personally. My novel, Mother of the Believers, has ruffled a great many feathers in the Muslim community. The book tells the story of Islam’s birth from the perspective of Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad. Some of my fellow Muslims have expressed outrage that I would tell the Prophet’s story through the lens of historical fiction.

And yet my response to them is that what I have done is nothing new. Muslims have always used art, including fiction, to spread the message of Islam. We have just forgotten our own heritage. The Modern Library recently published The Adventures of Amir Hamza, a wonderful collection of legends and stories from the Islamic world about the Prophet’s uncle Hamza. These were fictional tales used as wisdom stories throughout the Muslim world, more popular and influential in Islamic culture than The Arabian Nights – and yet they are largely forgotten by Muslims today.

In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, Islam was spread through Sufi mystics, merchants and artists, not by any invading army. Indeed, one of the most colorful means of Islamic proselytizing in these once predominantly Hindu islands was the use of puppet shows to depict the victory of Allah over the local gods. These forms of popular art were tailored to the indigenous culture by Muslim teachers and were phenomenally successful in spreading the message of the faith.

In modern times, cinema has begun to play a role in spreading the message of Islam, despite the resistance of fundamentalists to this artistic medium. Moustapha Akkad’s epic movie The Messageabout Prophet Muhammad caused riots in parts of the Islamic world when it was released in 1976 (similar to Muslim reactions to the Danish cartoons almost thirty years later).

And yet when Muslims actually saw Akkad’s film, they were deeply moved by its reverence for the Prophet, and it is now a staple DVD in Muslim homes throughout the world. In 2004, an animated movie called Muhammad: The Last Prophet was released and has become a beloved children’s film throughout the Islamic world.

My novel was written in the same vein as these cinematic works, and is frankly more honest and true to the historical sources, as these movies tend to present an idealized vision of Islamic history and shy away from issues of controversy today, such as polygamy in the Prophet’s household and the Muslim conflict with the Jewish tribes of Arabia. But I chose to explore these issues that other Muslim storytellers avoided because they are part of Islam’s history and heritage. Even if some Muslims wish to ignore things that appear troubling in the historical record, non-Muslim critics and Islamophobes raise these matters incessantly to attack Islam, and my novel presents a rebuttal to those critiques.

Mother of the Believers utilizes the artistic medium of fiction to strengthen and spread the message of my faith, which I love and take very seriously. And Muslims who have bothered to read the book have almost unanimously said that they found it deeply moving and that it strengthened their own faith. I have received emails from readers all over the world who said that my novel made them fall in love with Prophet Muhammad in a way that no dry history textbook has ever accomplished. And I have even been contacted by non-Muslims who are considering embracing Islam after reading my book and being inspired to learn more about the faith.

And yet despite all these positive reactions from the general community, there remains a vocal Muslim minority that has condemned my book as sinful, usually without having read it. This kind of anti-intellectualism is a real problem in the modern Muslim world, and reflects a deep insecurity and lack of faith among some people. Islam has survived countless attacks over the centuries, both by the sword and by the pen, and continues to grow and thrive. Neither my book nor the Danish cartoons will be able to injure the eternal message of Islam – that there is One God and life’s purpose is to surrender to Him.

Now, with all that said, let us take an honest look at what the Danish cartoons are really about in the West. The truth is that the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons, Jyllands-Posten, holds a right-wing agenda that is fundamentally inimical to Islam and Europe’s Muslim immigrants – and to the very values held by many who embraced the paper’s publication of the cartoons.

Let’s take a closer look at the newspaper that is being heralded as the champion of Western values. Jyllands-Posten endorsed Mussolini as ‘exactly what the misruled Italian people need.” It was sympathetic to Hitler’s suspension of democracy in Germany, saying in an editorial in 1933 that “…democratic rule by the people, as we know it, is a luxury which can be afforded in good times when the economy is favorable. But restoring the economy after many years of lavish spending requires a firm hand.

And on the Nazi anti-Semitic pogrom known as Kristallnacht, this is what the newspaper had to say: “When one has studied the Jewish question in Europe for decades, the animosity towards the Jews is to a certain extent understandable, even if we look past the racial theories, that mean so much in the national socialist world view […] We know, that tens of thousands of Jews condemn the Jewish business sharks, the Jewish pornography speculators and the Jewish terrorists. But still, it cannot be denied, that the experiences which the Germans – as many other continental peoples – have had with regards to the Jews, form a certain basis for their persecution. One must give Germany, that they have a right to dispose of their Jews.

Is this newspaper really the voice of Western values that people want to endorse?

And if we look at some of the loudest voices speaking out in favor of the publication of the Danish cartoons today, they are people with deeply troubling agendas. Most prominent among them in the United States is former United Nations ambassador – and raving neoconservative pit bull – John Bolton. An alumnus of Yale who has signed a letter to the university condemning its failure to publish the cartoons, Mr. Bolton has said that “the whole episode was an example of intellectual cowardice.

Coming from a man who supported the neoconservative cabal that lied us into war in Iraq, the statement “intellectual cowardice” carries a great deal of irony. Had he and his neoconservative comrades been more intellectually cowardly (rather than just cowardly in the draft-dodging sense), thousands of American soldiers and millions of Iraqis would still be alive today. (Mr. Bolton’s one moment of intellectual honesty perhaps came in his Yale 25th reunion book, where he remarks on why he chose to join the Maryland Army National Guard during the Vietnam War: “I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.“)

The fact that a cowardly warmonger like Mr. Bolton is one of the most prominent voices in support of the cartoons reveals a painful truth in the Muslim critique of the whole issue – that deep down, the cartoons are not about free speech and never have been. That those who embrace them really do so out of a general hatred for Islam and a desire to humiliate Muslims.

Indeed, a quick search of the blogosphere will find that the websites that are most loudly trumpeting the news of Yale’s decision are Islamophobic in nature. The anti-Muslim vitriol and racism on some of these sites is deeply sickening. Let there be no doubt — these are the champions of the cartoons and these are their loudest proponents.

So I ask the reader to consider – would you so fervently support cartoons mocking the lynching of African Americans published and championed by racists? I have no doubt that the American Civil Liberties union would support Ku Klux Klan members’ right of free speech. But would the general populace also rush to their defense, calling the KKK courageous and heroic for standing up to the blacks (and whites) who would voice outrage at such cartoons?

In Iran, the crass “International Holocaust Cartoon Competition” was enacted to show the double-standards of Westerners championing the Danish cartoons. Cartoons meant to question the historical scholarship on the Holocaust were published by the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri, which challenged Western newspapers to publish them with the same fervor as they did caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. Most media outlets refused to do so.

For the record, I reject this stupid and destructive effort to compete for the lowest common denominator. But ugly and offensive as many of the Iranian cartoons were, the refusal of most respectable Western news outlets to face the truth – that every culture has its sacred cows and emotional trigger points – is one that should force us all to reflect. It is easy to say that someone else has no right to be offended by free speech – until that free speech is directed at us and those issues that matter to us on a deep, foundational level.

Although this may be hard for non-believers to truly grasp, Prophet Muhammad is an archetypal figure that transcends any specific issue or controversy around Islam today. He represents the entirety of a civilization, of 1.5 billion people’s sense of their own personal ideal. He is the Prophet for both Muslim extremists we condemn, and the Prophet of Rumi, the Muslim poet beloved in the West. And Prophet Muhammad is the role-model for courageous Muslim reformers, including Muslim feminists, who are challenging the anti-intellectualism, misogyny and violence that is rampant in parts of the Islamic world today.

Prophet Muhammad is more than a historical figure – he is a symbol. And when we choose to mock a symbol, we must accept that we are mocking everything that symbol represents. And that we are hurting people we love and admire as well as those we hate. If we choose to do so, let us at least be honest about our motivations – which are to smear an entire civilization – and not gild them in the pretenses of nobility.

To conclude, I remind my fellow Muslims what the Holy Qur’an says: “Good and evil are not equal. So repel evil with what is better, and your enemy will become an intimate friend.” (41:34)

So let these cartoons be published by Yale and anyone else who wishes to do so. And let Muslims respond as God has commanded us, with acts of graciousness and dialogue. Let us use this incident to have a discussion about why Prophet Muhammad matters and why we love him so much. Perhaps that dialogue will change a few hearts along the way.

And I am not alone in this belief. One of the most beautiful moments in the storm of controversy around the cartoons came at the behest of a quadriplegic Muslim artist who chose to respond to the caricatures of the Prophet with good rather than evil.

Houssein Nouri, a man who had lost both arms and legs in the Iran-Iraq war, sat in his wheelchair outside the Danish Embassy in Tehran, using his mouth to paint a stunningly beautiful picture of the Virgin Mary, who is beloved in both Islam and Christianity as the mother of Jesus.

In that one moment, Mr. Nouri showed the true beauty – the art – of being a Muslim.

Why Obama’s Speech in Cairo Matters — And Why it Doesn’t

Monday, June 8th, 2009

President Barack Obama gave a highly anticipated speech to the Islamic world on June 4th in Cairo. There was a great deal of excitement in the Muslim community to hear what a President who shares a middle name with the grandson of Prophet Muhammad has to say. There are many reasons why Obama’s speech is important. But there are also many reasons why it really isn’t.

Let me explain. My friends at asked me to write a Muslim perspective on Obama’s speech, and I found myself surprisingly ambivalent about the whole affair. On a positive note, since his historic election, Obama has made substantial efforts to reach out to the Islamic community and rebuild bridges after the disastrous legacy of his predecessor George W. Bush. He has signaled a willingness to re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran, has made some comments in sympathy with the Palestinians, and has called for an end to Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

Most importantly, in a speech he gave to the Turkish Parliament in April, Obama repeatedly used a word that Muslims have craved to hear from American leaders: “respect.” After decades of open contempt for Islam in the corridors of Washington and the news media, the word signals an acceptance that mutual respect is the cornerstone of building a new relationship between the West and the Islamic world.

All of this is important and indicates a dramatic shift away from a foreign policy based on imperial hubris that has marked the past eight years. And it is not surprising that Obama, who has Muslim relatives and spent his youth among Muslims in Indonesia, has natural empathy for the Islamic world and knows how to communicate with its people.  His epic rhetorical skills were in evidence in Cairo, and his speech may very well be remembered as historic and have a profound impact on Muslim hearts and minds.

In his speech, Obama continued his current efforts to treat Muslims with respect and encourage real discourse between America and Islamic nations.  He quoted liberally from the Holy Qur’an, which was well received by Muslim audiences.  His support for an independent and prosperous Palestinian state living in peace with Israel was welcomed by most Muslims.  Obama also encouraged Muslim countries to move toward democracy, and did not shy from saying critical things about the current political and human rights equation in the Islamic world.  And he pledged America’s support for Muslims in helping their countries to improve and evolve into freer and more economically successful societies.

All of this is important and needed to be said. The fact that such words came from the mouth of America’s first black president, one who has Muslim relatives, gave them real weight for his Muslim audience. Obama’s natural talent is the ability to inspire and effect change with the power of words, an ability that Muslims greatly respect, as our first and greatest orator was Prophet Muhammad himself. As I detail in my novel, Mother of the Believers, the power of the spoken and written word in shaping a community’s destiny is central to Islam. The first commandment received by the Prophet from the angel Gabriel was simple and unequivocal: “Read!”

President Obama is perhaps the most well-read and eloquent American leader in quite some time. But even the power of his words is limited. After the applause dies down, after the giddy cheers dissipate and are replaced by only echoes that linger like dying embers in a hearth, the Muslim world will still face very stark realities and challenges. And ultimately Barack Obama will not be the solution to the problems facing Islam today. It will be the Muslims that will have to bear the burden of making the painful reforms to revitalize our civilization, which has reached a pivotal moment in history.

It has been several decades since the Muslim world emerged from the greatest shock in its history since the Mongol destruction of Baghdad – the legacy of European colonialism. Most of our nations are new, less than a century old, and were carved out of the ruins of dead Islamic empires – the Ottomans in Turkey and the Middle East, the Qajars of Iran, and the Mughals of the Indian subcontinent. I was born in Pakistan, a Muslim country that didn’t come into being until 1947, when my parents were toddlers. The extreme shock and humiliation of occupation by European powers has left the Islamic world in deep disarray and confusion.

Muslims have lost their sense of themselves as a confident, progressive community meant to serve as models and leaders for the world. In a wonderful new book Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, Tamim Ansary looks at how the recent experience of Western domination has shaken the sense of Islam’s “manifest destiny” among Muslims. Only a few hundred years ago, Muslim armies ruled Eastern Europe and stood poised to conquer Vienna. Prior to that we had created rich civilizations that were the envy of the world – the Abbasids of Baghdad and the Umayyads of Spain led humanity in art and science. Muslims had mastered the use of gunpowder in the 13th century, when Europeans were living in stone huts. And the idea that one day the primitive Europeans would not only dominate Muslims but quantum leap past us in science, art and technology was laughable.

But it happened. And now we are here. Unelected dictators, clinging to outdated political and economic philosophies, rule most of the Muslim world. Muslims who used to take pride in treating women better than Christians (Islam gave women property and inheritance rights 1,300 years before Europe and America followed suit) now find ourselves having to defend the honor of our faith against claims of misogyny. Our education systems are still catching up to the West, and our commitment to the arts is shaky. Freedom of speech is curtailed in much of the Muslim world, even though the right to speak out against the ruler has long been enshrined in Islamic law.

And our greatest sorrow, the suffering of our brothers in Palestine, remains something that Muslims feel they can do nothing to alleviate. With Israel’s nuclear weapons and economic and military support from the United States, Muslims feel powerless to help the Palestinians defend their lives, their homes, their human dignity. Seeing Israeli soldiers standing guard over the Al-Aqsa Mosque as Muslims pray is heart wrenching and shameful for a community that has considered Jerusalem its home since the days of Prophet Muhammad.

These are things that President Obama can do little to change. Indeed, when it comes to American foreign policy in the Middle East, Muslims are likely to be deeply disappointed in Obama. The reality is that unconditional support for Israel in general, and its right-wing politicians in particular, is deeply embedded into the Washington political culture. That bias will not change for decades, if ever. And despite his rhetoric in support of democracy in the Muslim world, Obama is unlikely to pressure our dictators to liberalize their societies. After the disaster of attempting to impose American power in Iraq, the United States has lost its taste for transforming other societies.

While the end of American imperial fantasies may be a good thing, it means that Muslims can no longer expect America to be on the forefront of their struggles for freedom and justice. America’s economy is, frankly, bankrupt and cannot afford an aggressive foreign policy of any kind. So Muslims must accept that Obama’s words will likely be just that – words. We must take up the responsibility for transforming our own societies ourselves. America will not solve the Palestine problem. America will not bring us democracy or human rights. America will not advance our economic, educational and political stature. That is something only Muslims can and must do.

The Holy Qur’an tells us that every human being is a “khalifa” – God’s viceroy on Earth. The responsibility is on our shoulders to struggle for change, which is the true meaning of the word “jihad.” No one else is going to carry our burdens. So we can take inspiration from President Barack Hussein Obama. We can take admonition from him. But ultimately Muslims must take responsibility for ourselves in bringing Islam back to its true destiny – to be a beacon of hope, progress and leadership for the world.

Europe and its Muslims: A Gap of Trust

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

Gallup recently published a remarkable report on the attitudes of Muslims and non-Muslims regarding Islam in Europe.  One of the most striking points in the report was that 80% of French Muslims believed that Muslims were loyal to France.  But only 44% of their non-Muslim countrymen believed Muslims were loyal. 


Wow.  What a disconnect.


The report, The Gallup Coexist Index 2009: A Global Study of Interfaith Relations, is the first annual report on the state of religious relations in nations around the world.  The report contained some remarkable findings that show a troubling gap between how European Muslims see themselves, and what others assume about them.



French Muslims, for example, identify with France as much as other French do (52%/55%), although they identify much more with their religion (58%) than the general French public (23%).  So for French Muslims, their religion and their national loyalty are complementary, not mutually exclusive.  But their religious identification makes their patriotism suspect to their neighbors.


Similar results were noted in Germany, where 71% of German Muslims said Muslims were loyal to Germany, while only 39% of their neighbors trusted Muslim loyalty to the state.  What makes this finding even more ironic is that 40% of German Muslims actively identify with Germany, while only 32% of the general German population did.  So Muslims in Germany not only see themselves as more patriotic than others credit them for, they are more loyal to Germany than other Germans!


In the United Kingdom, 82% of Muslims said British Muslims were loyal.  Only 36% of their neighbors shared that view.  But what is even more fascinating is that UK Muslims showed more faith in their country’s government than other Brits.  83% of British Muslims believed that their nation’s elections were fair, while only 57% of the general populace did.  76% of British Muslims believed in the integrity of the justice system, while only 55% of their neighbors trusted the courts.


The wide gap between how Muslims see themselves and their patriotism, and how their neighbors perceive them, is dangerous and must be addressed.  Unfortunately, the problem appears to lie less with the Muslim communities, who clearly love their countries, than with deep-rooted bigotry and social exclusion practiced by many of their neighbors.  Muslims in many of these countries complain, with justification, that they are locked out of jobs and denied opportunities available to the rest of their countrymen. 


And in Britain, the economic result of this discrimination is very real.  The poll showed that 62% of British respondents were employed, but only 38% of British Muslims held jobs.  The poll’s results also suggest that radicalization among European Muslims is most likely to occur in environments where they are economically deprived or discriminated against.  Not exactly a shocker.


As an American Muslim, one of the greatest  things I treasure about the United States is that economic opportunity is largely available to everyone, regardless of race or religion.  The kind of overt class system that appears to be still be very much in place in Britain is anathema to American notions of entrepreneurialism and social mobility. 


Most Muslims I know are quite well educated and prosperous, with the usual joke being that American Muslims won’t settle for anything less than high-paying jobs as doctors, engineers and lawyers.  I myself am a former attorney with three graduate degrees and have become a Hollywood screenwriter and producer for networks such as NBC and Showtime.  Being a Muslim does not automatically create a glass ceiling in this society, and it is for that reason that most American Muslims are much better integrated than their European counterparts.


Integration into foreign societies is actually a long-standing Muslim tradition that goes back to the birth of Islam itself.  In my novel Mother of the Believers, I relate how the early Muslim community, including Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Ruqayyah, had to immigrate to the Christian country of Abyssinia to escape persecution in Arabia.  Welcomed by the ruling Negus as fellow monotheists, the Muslims became an integral part of Abyssinian society, living in peace and trading with their Christian neighbors. 


When the pagan Arabs of Mecca sent envoys to the Negus demanding he deport the Muslim exiles, the king refused, citing Muslim love for Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.  Muslims and Christians were brothers in the eyes of the Negus.  This event is quite a remarkable moment in history, as one religion (Christianity) protected and defended another (Islam) from annihilation.  And Muslims to this day look back fondly on the years of Abyssinian sanctuary, and the Christian Negus is considered a great hero by Muslim historians.


In this ancient tale there is also a lesson for today.  Integration is a two-way street.  The Muslim immigrants became loyal and active participants in Abyssinian society because the Abyssinians were secure in their own identity and welcomed the newcomers.  And Ethiopia, the modern descendant of the old Abyssinian kingdom, remains today a majority Christian nation with a large and integrated Muslim minority.  Europeans must similarly change their attitudes toward their Muslim communities and welcome them as neighbors, not treat them as pariahs.  These countries must end discrimination and provide their Muslim populations with equal opportunities that will further solidify their demonstrated loyalty and patriotism.


There is much to learn from Gallup’s new report.  But I hope that Europeans will begin the process of soul searching as to whether their fears of their Muslims neighbors are based in their own prejudices rather than in fact.  European Muslims love their countries and want to integrate.  It is now up to their host countries to welcome them into a new partnership that will be critical to the future of Europe and the world.

Bibles and Guns: Why Soldiers who Proselytize Strengthen our Enemies

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

Many Americans have expressed shock at news that some U.S. soldiers have been seeking to use their positions of power in Iraq and Afghanistan to preach Christianity.  But this does not come as news to Muslims, who have been long aware of these proselytizing efforts at the end of a gun.


The Pentagon’s General Order 1 prohibits American troops from attempting to convert people in foreign countries.  Nonetheless, this activity has been rampant since the United States military first entered Afghanistan and Iraq.  In this month’s Harper’s Magazine, Jeff Sharlet’s article “Jesus killed Mohammed: The Crusade for a Christian Military” provides troubling insight into the efforts of fundamentalist Christian churches to turn our armed forces into a modern-day Knights Templar, fighting infidels on behalf of the Church.



As a person of faith myself, I understand the urge to share spiritual witness.  Both Christianity and Islam believe they have a message from God for all humanity, and as a result, believers in both traditions naturally seek to engage others and share their faith.  And I have no problem entering into discussions and debate with others on matters of religion.  Indeed, it is a healthy part of human discourse.  For only through openly examining ideas and beliefs can we as human beings discover what feels spiritually true to us.  And when our heart finds something it feels to be true, the urge to share that truth with others is natural and part of the human condition.


But faith proffered at the end of a gun is not the same as spirited discourse between equals.  American soldiers are in a position of power – lethal power – over the men, women and children in whose countries they are acting.  When an armed man seeks to share his beliefs with you, it is not about spreading enlightenment, but about domination and control.  To go into other countries with a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other, can only create fear, resentment and backlash.


Even worse, the image of the soldier-preacher fits directly into Al-Qaeda’s meme that Americans are engaged in a new Crusade to destroy Islam.  And to the extent that these fundamentalist churches are allowed to exert influence in our military, our enemies are proven right.  Both Muslim extremists and their Christian counterparts seek to ignite a war of civilizations, a zero-sum game in which their ideology will ultimately destroy their adversaries completely.


But I don’t believe most Americans share that vision of Christianity, just like most Muslims don’t seek to dominate and destroy other religions.  And it is now up to people of good will, whatever their beliefs, to work together to prevent this clash of civilizations that the militants among us desire.


The irony of these American churches’ efforts to spread Christianity in the Muslim world is that Christianity has been part of the fabric of these nations for centuries.  As I discuss in my novel, Mother of the Believers, the Muslim conquest of the Middle East was supported by Christian groups like the Egyptian Copts, who had been oppressed by the Byzantine Church for doctrinal differences.  The Muslim leaders guaranteed religious freedom for “the People of the Book,” and as a result they were able to attract the support of Middle Eastern Christians who were being terrorized by their fellow believers.  Indeed, when the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, they massacred its Christian population, who were seen as traitors for living in friendship with their Muslim neighbors.


In Iraq, an ancient Christian community has been in place for the past 2,000 years.  And Iraqi Christians like former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz rose to positions of power in Saddam’s secular regime.  With the destruction of Iraq’s secular dictatorship by American forces, Muslim extremists have filled the power vacuum, and now Iraq’s Christian community is undergoing terrible persecution.  About a third of Iraq’s 800,000 Christians are believed to have fled overseas since 2003.


That’s right – there were almost a million Christians already in Iraq under Saddam, part of a community that has lived in peace with its Muslim neighbors for over a thousand years.  American Christians who supported the Iraq war as an End-Times battle to spread Christianity have ironically created an environment where Christianity is now disappearing from Iraq. 


The lesson of these tragic events is that faith is best shared through dialogue built on respect for those who differ from us.  It can never be imposed through power, and if it is, it is not faith at all, but mind control.  And efforts to control the hearts and minds of others will always fail.


The Holy Qur’an says very clearly in Surah 2:256: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.  Truth stands out clear from error.”


If what you believe is true, you don’t need to use power or manipulation to convince others.  So let us lay down our guns and embrace each other as brothers and sisters.  The truth will win out in the end.  It always does.

Obama’s Handshake Diplomacy: What Would Prophet Muhammad Do?

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

There has been a great deal of outrage in right-wing circles over President Barack Obama’s very public handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and his efforts to thaw relations with Cuban President Raul Castro.  The hyper-nationalist crowd is predictably calling Obama a traitor who is sucking up to foreign dictators and endangering America’s interests.


Many people in the same chorus have also expressed suspicion about Obama’s Muslim ancestry, seeing him as some kind of Manchurian Candidate installed by the Great Islamic Conspiracy into the White House.  His efforts to reach out to world leaders like Chavez is seen as proof positive of Obama’s intent to undermine American power and move our capital from Washington D.C. to Mecca.


In the spirit of such interesting speculation, let me pose the question – what would Islam’s Prophet Muhammad do under the same circumstances?


The Prophet was not only a religious leader, but also a military general and statesman who transformed Arabia from a chaotic wasteland into a unified nation that, within a century of his death, had conquered half the known world.


Many people focus on Prophet Muhammad’s military activities as the primary basis for his success.  Indeed, his prowess on the battlefield is one of the most controversial aspects of the Prophet’s life.  Critics of Islam cite Muhammad’s role as a warrior to paint him, and the religion he founded, as inherently violent.  And it is sadly true that Muslim extremists look to the battles of the Prophet’s time as a justification for their own bloody activities today.


But neither the Muslim extremists nor their critics in the West truly understand the basis for Prophet Muhammad’s success.  While the Prophet did indeed engage in warfare against his opponents (as did Moses, Joshua and David in the Bible), he himself credited the final triumph of Islam to the single most unpopular act of his career – the peace treaty of Hudaybiya in 628 A.D. 


In my novel Mother of the Believers, I portray this remarkable moment in history.  Against the advice and sentiments of most of his followers, the Prophet made a surprise truce with his enemies in Mecca, ending the state of war that had been in effect since Muhammad had first challenged the oppressive pagan rulers of Arabia.  The truce was heavily one-sided in favor of the Prophet’s adversaries, requiring Muslims to return Meccan defectors, while exempting Mecca from a reciprocal obligation.


At the signing of the treaty, some of the most prominent Muslim leaders began to question the Prophet’s motivation, even his claim to divine inspiration.  Muhammad’s diplomacy was seen as selling out his followers, who had sacrificed everything in support of the Prophet’s vision.


But the Qur’an responded to Muhammad’s critics in Surah 48:1, saying: “Truly We have given you a great victory.”  The Prophet told his followers that history would show that the peace treaty was the moment that Islam won the decade-long conflict with the pagan Arab tribes who had sought to destroy the new religion.


And he was proven right.


Over the next two years, with the cessation of hostilities and the lifting of a trade boycott between the Muslims and their enemies, Islam spread rapidly among the Arab tribes.  Not through violence, but through dialogue and commerce.  Islamic scholars estimate that the amount of converts during that two-year period exceeded the entire size of the Muslim community in the two decades prior.


In the end, when the Meccans and their allies broke the treaty, the Prophet was able to raise an army of ten thousand in response, and a humbled Mecca surrendered peacefully.  By then, the Prophet had become the unquestioned leader of Arabia and he was free to exact revenge against his enemies without fear of consequences.  But he continued with his policy of diplomacy toward his adversaries and declared a general amnesty, pardoning even the Meccan queen Hind who had killed and cannibalized his beloved uncle Hamza.


And again, the Prophet’s foresight was rewarded.  The former opponents of Islam were now incorporated into the new order, and their energies were redirected to expanding the Islamic state they had once sought to destroy.  Within 30 years, the son of Muhammad’s greatest enemy in Mecca became the Caliph of Islam and ruled over an empire that stretched from North Africa to Central Asia.


Prophet Muhammad’s victory came from his preference for diplomacy over warfare, and it is a lesson that President Obama clearly understands as he navigates international waters that have been poisoned by the brutishness of his predecessor.  Obama’s willingness to take the high road with men like Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro does not show weakness, but strength. 


Like Prophet Muhammad, whose grandson Hussein inspired the President’s middle name, Obama has demonstrated that he is confident in his position and the values he represents.  President Obama understands that the best way to effect political change in other countries is through dialogue and trade.  And his willingness to show courtesy to his opponents gives him the moral high ground when dealing with them, as well as with his critics at home.


As Prophet Muhammad demonstrated, a handshake can shake up the world far more than a sword.

A martyr for Muslim women

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

The Taliban recently murdered Sitara Achakzai, Afghanistan’s leading activist for women’s rights.  She was gunned down in broad daylight by assassins in front of her house.  Ms. Achakzai was an instrumental figure in promoting women’s rights in the war torn country that has become the symbol of everything that is wrong with the Muslim world today.  Earlier this year, she led a nationwide sit-in of 11,000 Afghan women in seven provinces who gathered to pray for peace on International Women’s Day.


As a Muslim man, as a believer and as a voice in Hollywood and the media, I am here to say to her killers: you are evil, twisted men, and you will not escape the consequences of your crime against our Muslim sister, who stood for peace and justice.  Even if you flee into the protective arms of your Taliban sponsors, Allah is the Lord of justice, and you will never escape Him, in this world or the next.


And you will not succeed in destroying Ms. Achakzai’s legacy.  In fact, you have only given it greater power.  For you have made Sitara Achakzai a martyr.  She died for the same reason as the first martyr of Islam, a woman named Sumayya bint Khayyat, who was killed for speaking truth to power. 


In my novel, Mother of the Believers, I detail how Sumayya’s killer, the Meccan leader Abu Jahl, thought that the murder of an innocent woman would terrify the poor and weak followers of Prophet Muhammad into rejecting monotheism and returning to the idolatry of the Arabs.  Instead, Sumayya’s death ignited the fire of resistance that would one day topple the proud Meccan overlords who ruled Arabia with an iron fist.


Like Sumayya, Sitara’s death will only cause those of us who believe in an Islam of compassion, justice and human brotherhood to fight harder against those who would return us to the Days of Ignorance, as Arabia before Islam is called.  The tragedy we now face is that the enemies of Islam, those who wish to defame and destroy our great faith, no longer speak out against it.  Instead, they wrap themselves in its robes and proclaim themselves its leaders.  Somewhere in the depths of Hell I know that Abu Jahl is laughing.


In my novel, I show how Islam was born as a proto-feminist movement, with Prophet Muhammad championing the rights of women in a primitive and hostile world.  I portray incredible Muslim women, like the Prophet’s first wife Khadija, who was a wealthy businesswoman who hired young Muhammad and then proposed marriage to him.  I show Aisha, whom the Prophet married after Khadija died, and who went on to become a scholar, a statesman and a warrior who led armies.  I show Sumayya, who was killed in front of her son for refusing to worship idols.  I show Nusayba, the courageous housewife who defended the Prophet with a sword and a bow when he was nearly killed at the battle of Uhud.  I show Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, who would feed enemy prisoners of war with her own hands to make sure that they were treated with dignity. 


These are the true women of Islam, the women of courage and faith without whom our religion would have been stillborn in the desert wastes.  These are the women who inspired Sitara Achakzai and millions of other Muslim women to stand up against the forces of darkness and hold forth the torch of Islam.  Not Islam as the fundamentalists and the Islamophobes want it to be, a religion to oppress mankind, but as it truly is – a faith that lifts up the poor and the weak and brings human beings together in the bonds of love and justice.


The Taliban and those who share their twisted, primitive vision of Islam do not know the history of their own faith.  And as a result, they have become the very monsters that Islam was sent to destroy.  But as long as there are courageous Muslims like Sitara Achakzai who refuse to accept the false Islam that the extremists try to ram down our throats, the true message of Prophet Muhammad will never disappear from this earth.


The last thing the Prophet said in his famous final sermon before he died was that men and women have rights over each other, and that the Muslims would be judged by how well they treated women.   His words have come true, in a tragic way.  Islam, the religion that began as a women’s rights movement, is now seen by much of the world as a bastion of misogyny.  We have been judged, and we have been found wanting.


It will be up to Muslims like Sitara Achakzai, myself, and the millions of others like us who remember what Islam was meant to be, to put us back on track.