Saturday, December 27, 2008

Interview with Sherry Jones on Her Novel “The Jewel of Medina”, Islam and Free Speech

Interview with Sherry Jones on Her Novel “The Jewel of Medina”, Islam and Free Speech

By Tugrul Keskin

Sociology of Islam and Muslims Societies Newsletter
Fall 2008, No: 3 ISSN 1942-7948

It was a couple of weeks ago that I received an email from a colleague of mine who was telling me about a controversial novel written by Sherry Jones on the Prophet Muhammed’s (SAV) wife, Aisha. First, I thought that this was just another Islamophobic provocation. However, after conducting some more extensive research on the topic; I decided to interview Sherry Jones in order to understand what she really thinks and believes about Islam. Is she really Islamophobic? Or is she a naïve Westerner who is trying to promote herself by using the private life of the most sacred person in Islam? Or are there any political motivations behind this novel? I believe that we as Muslims – either by culture or religion - should understand and differentiate between the Orientalist framework which is based on the imperialistic/racist approach similar to what happened in the Danish cartoon crisis in the name of free speech; with people who may have good intentions but really do not understand cultural differences and sensitivities. I did not read her novel, I haven’t read any of her novels; however, personally I would like find out who she really is. Random House cancelled the publication of her novel, The Jewel of Medina, as a result of a possible “terrorist” reprisal attack. On the other hand, Pakistani-born Kamran Pasha’s new novel, Mother of the Believers will be released in April of 2009. As far as I know Pasha’s new novel is not different than Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina. I wonder why some people are suddenly interested in studying and writing about Prophet Muhammed’s personal life, instead of writing in the constructive framework. My intention is to understand the motives behind these writings. I have only questions, no answers, but answers will be provided by the author herself, and you, the readers will decide whether she is genuine or not.

Tugrul Keskin
August 10, 2008

Sherry Jones Bio:
A journalist for 28 years, Sherry Jones has worked as a staff reporter for newspapers in suburban Philadelphia, North Carolina, and Montana, and has published in numerous magazines including Newsweek, Southwest Art, CMJ, American Cowboy, and Rider. She is a freelance correspondent for BNA Inc., an international news agency in the Washington, D.C. area and Platt's Metals Week and Women's eNews in
New York. "The Jewel of Medina" is her debut novel.

About the Novel:
"The Jewel of Medina" by Sherry Jones is a historical novel about the life of A'isha bint Abi Bakr, the youngest, and favorite, wife of the Prophet Muhammad. Set in 7th-century Saudi Arabia, it details the founding of Islam, complete with battles and political intrigue, and examines the role of women in the early Islamic community.

Tugrul Keskin: Thank you for accepting this interview. I will be very honest and straightforward with you in this interview. This is a very sensitive issue for Muslims that you have broached, in trying to dig up and question the Prophet Muhammed's (SAV) private life; and I believe that as a Muslim, you have a right to criticize Islam and Muslims, however, there is thin line between criticism and insult/racism, like in the case of the Danish cartoon crisis. Would you please tell us about yourself and your recent novel, The Jewel of Medina?

Sherry Jones: I came across the story of A’isha for the first time shortly after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. As a woman and a feminist, I was captivated by her wit, intelligence, and strength. I began to read more about A’isha and her sister-wives, and about Muhammad and the revealing of Islam, and I was hooked. My goal was to bring these tales, already familiar to Muslims in the rest of the world, to Western audiences. I wanted to honor A’isha and the other wives by bringing them to life on the page and allowing their voices to be heard in a historical tradition that largely focuses on the men.

Tugrul Keskin: I don't think that many Westerners understand the level or context of certain sensitivities in other cultures. From my perspective, many Westerners not only criticize, but also look down on Muslims and demonize Islam in the name of free speech. This is not the way to build bridges; it is the way to destroy bridges. Are you one of these people? Basically, why did you write the novel about the private life of the most sacred person in Islam? What was or is your aim?

Sherry Jones: As I said, my aim was simply to tell A’isha’s story. I felt called to her, a spiritual calling. She embodies the woman that I would like to be: smart, strong, witty, spiritual, loving, giving, and honest with herself about her flaws. As I wrote and researched, I developed a respect and regard for the Prophet and for Islam. At the same time, I regard him as a human being, a “mortal man,” as he called himself. He must have experienced the desires, hungers, fears, and failings that we all struggle with. I believe that, by bringing those qualities to light, we honor Muhammad as a being who transcended his flawed humanity by the grace of God and so served as an example of what is possible for us all, if we seek and strive as he did.

Tugrul Keskin: Today, especially after 9/11, many people call themselves an expert on Islam and Muslim societies. We can find these people in Washington DC or universities, or at think tanks in Washington DC as just a few examples. Even in my university, people who have never been in any Muslim populated countries and don't speak any languages are called ‘Middle East experts’ or ‘experts on Muslim societies and Islam.’ Of course, many of these experts use books on Islam from a negative viewpoint to "educate" students. How much do you know about Islam and the Prophet's Muhammed's (SAV) life? Where did you learn this? What sources did you use for your book?

Sherry Jones: I am certainly no expert, only an interested Westerner who is always learning. I have not been able to afford to travel to Saudi Arabia, where “The Jewel of Medina” takes place, and where travel has been so restricted. At any rate, 14 centuries have certainly altered the culture and the landscape a great deal. I did study two years of Arabic -- all that was offered at the time -- at the University of Montana, and I took an Islamic history course taught by Mehrdad Kia from Iran.
As for my sources, I have read everything written in English that I could find. My bibliography comprises some 30 books, including a four-volume biography of the Prophet by Ibn Kathir, written in the 14th century; various collections of Hadith; “Women in Islam” by the Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi; and “Muhammad: A Biography” by the noted Western religious historian Karen Armstrong. My complete bibliography is available on my weblog,

Tugrul Keskin: How do you define free speech according to your book? Do you have the right to talk about my private life, do you think this is free speech?

Sherry Jones: My right to free speech encompasses my right to artistic expression. In the United States, we grow up learning that the right to freedom of speech, thought, and expression are as fundamental as the right to breathe and live.

Tugrul Keskin: If this is a free speech issue, then why did the West not pay attention to Norman Finkelstein when he could not get tenure at DePauw University, or Ward Churchill who was fired from the University of Colorado as a result of the free speech argument? Do you think that free speech is used as an excuse to insult and discriminate against people and cultures who are not White/Christian/Western?

Sherry Jones: I can’t speak to these cases, because I’m not familiar with them. However, I can tell you that our First Amendment rights are always being debated and discussed in this country. Schools and libraries, publicly funded, ban books because they are deemed offensive, and people protest. Racists make statements that offend certain groups; people write books that offend others. But we tolerate these hateful forms of expression because, if we start banning one form, then where does it stop? No one wants to live in a totalitarian regime, where every word is monitored.
Exceptions would be forms of speech that endanger others, such as death threats, and forms of expression that cause actual harm to others, such as child pornography. These are considered prosecutable offenses under the law.

Tugrul Keskin: Do you think Muslims need another Rudyard Kipling's the White Man's Burden in order to reform Islam?

Sherry Jones: “Need” is not the issue here. I didn’t write my book because I thought anyone “needed” it. I wrote it because I was excited about the remarkable A’isha bint Abi Bakr and I thought others would like to read about her, too. However, I do think the world will benefit from learning about the egalitarian underpinnings of Islam and the crucial role of women in forming the Umma.

Tugrul Keskin: Today, there are three types of people who study Islam in the Western Universities and Societies. First, Orientalists who are not genuine and are the politically motivated crusaders; second, Populists who study Islam because Islam is an important subject to specialize in, in order to find a job and niche for their careers; third, people who study Islam, who genuinely want to learn about Islam and Muslim Societies; I believe this third category of people are more objective than the rest. Where do you place yourself?

Sherry Jones: I’ll bet there are more than three kinds! But I approached my research with a genuine interest in learning more. What I learned, I wanted to share with others. Of course, what I’ve written is just MY interpretation of what I’ve read. It’s not the definitive version of A’isha’s life, only my vision of what her life could have been like.

Tugrul Keskin: On September 30, 2005, Jyllands-Posten Newspaper from Denmark, published cartons of the Prophet Muhammed (SAV) and this fueled tensions between Muslims and West/Europe/US. Do you think that this was an honest mistake? Or was the publishing of these cartoons intentional with political motivations behind it? Most importantly, how do you compare your book with this incident?

Sherry Jones: The publishing of the Danish cartoons was another exercise of freedom of expression. The message was clear: Islam has become perceived, in the Western world, as a religion of violence and destruction. Those who protested with violence did nothing to change that perception.
My book is a book of women’s empowerment that also attempts to promote Western understanding of a religion that is filled with misperceptions in the States. I feel uniquely situated to write this book, and its sequel, because I held those same erroneous notions of Islam before I began my research.

Tugrul Keskin: Do you believe Islam is a peaceful religion or a religion of war as some Western conservative “crusaders” claim?

Sherry Jones: Islam in its pure form is a religion of peace, in my opinion. Muhammad admonished Believers to fight in self-defense only, and he practiced that. He forgave his enemies -- even those, such as Abu Sufyan’s wife, Hind, who didn’t ask for it. He said, “We are all created from the same soul.” You can’t get much more peaceful, and egalitarian, than that.
Unfortunately for moderate Muslims, violent extremists within the faith have created a negative portrait of Islam in the Western world. Some believe that Muslims want to conquer and rule the world under Sharia law. I hope my book will help those who read it to understand the true Islam, as Muhammad intended it.

Tugrul Keskin: Do you think that the current US foreign policy toward Islam and Muslim Societies are based on a crusader mentality similar to that of some Muslims on the other side of the spectrum?

Sherry Jones: Yes, I do. And it is a real tragedy. The United States is now perceived -- a misperception based on the actions of our government -- as a bully. Most people I know don’t agree with our foreign policy concerning the Middle East. I’ve participated in several protests and vigils for peace, and I hold great hope that a new president will bring change.
Killing only begets killing, and produces nothing but hatred and fear. I want the U.S. out of Afghanistan and Iraq. I want us to reject this culture of fear imposed upon us both by violent religious fanatics and our own government. I wish for us all courageous lives.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mumbai Under Siege Yoginder Sikand

Mumbai Under Siege

Yoginder Sikand

From Sociology of Islam Listserv
November 29, 2008

“O ye who believe! stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear God. For God is well-acquainted with all that ye do.”

(The Quran, Surah Al-Maida: 8)

Numerous theories are doing the rounds about the dastardly terrorist assault on Mumbai. The dominant view, based on what is being suggested by the media, is that this is the handiwork of the dreaded Pakistan-based self-styled Islamist and terrorist outfit Lashkar-e Tayyeba, which, ever since it was ostensibly proscribed by the Government of Pakistan some years ago, has adopted the name of Jamaat ud-Dawah. This might well be the case, for the Lashkar has been responsible for numerous such terrorist attacks in recent years, particularly in Kashmir.

The Lashkar is the military wing of the Markaz Dawat wal Irshad, an outfit floated by a section of the Pakistani Ahl-e Hadith, a group with close affiliations to the Saudi Wahhabis. It has its headquarters at the town of Muridke in the Gujranwala district in Pakistani Punjab. The Markaz was established in 1986 by two Pakistani university professors, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed and Zafar Iqbal. They were assisted by Abdullah Azam, a close aide of Osama bin Laden, who was then associated with the International Islamic University in Islamabad. Funds for setting up the organization are said to have come from Pakistan’s dreaded official secret services agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). From its inception, it is thus clear, the Lashkar had the support of the Pakistani establishment.

The Lashkar started out as a paramilitary organisation to train warriors to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Soon it spawned dozens of camps across Pakistan and Afghanistan for this purpose. Militants produced at these centres have played a major role in armed struggles, first in Afghanistan, and then in Bosnia, Chechenya, Kosovo, the southern Philippines and Kashmir.

Like other radical Islamist groups, the Lashkar sees Islam as an all-embracing system. It regards Islam as governing all aspects of personal as well as collective life, in the form of the shariah. For the establishing of an Islamic system, it insists, an ‘Islamic state’ is necessary, which will impose the shariah as the law of the land. If, the official website of the Lashkar announces, such a state were to be set up and all Muslims were to live strictly according to 'the laws that Allah has laid down', then, it is believed, ‘they would be able to control the whole world and exercise their supremacy’. And for this, as well as to respond to the oppression that it claims that Muslims in large parts of the world are suffering, it insists that all Muslims must take to armed jihad. Armed jihad must continue, its website announces, ‘until Islam, as a way of life, dominates the whole world and until Allah's law is enforced everywhere in the world’.

The subject of armed jihad runs right through the writings and pronouncements of the Lashkar and is, in fact, the most prominent theme in its discourse. Indeed, its understanding of Islam may be seen as determined almost wholly by this preoccupation, so much so that its reading of Islam seems to be a product of its own political project, thus effectively ending up equating Islam with terror. Being born as a result of war in Afghanistan, war has become the very raison d'être of the Lashkar, and its subsequent development has been almost entirely determined by this concern. The contours of its ideological framework are constructed in such a way that the theme of armed jihad appears as the central element of its project. In the writings and speeches of Lashkar spokesmen jihad appears as violent conflict (qital) waged against 'unbelievers' who are said to be responsible for the oppression of the Muslims. Indeed, the Lashkar projects it as the one of the most central tenets of Islam, although it has traditionally not been included as one of the 'five pillars’ of the faith. Thus, its website claims that ‘There is so much emphasis on this subject that some commentators and scholars of the Quran have remarked that the topic of the Quran is jihad’. Further, a Lashkar statement declares, ‘There is consensus of opinion among researchers of the Qur'an that no other action has been explained in such great detail as jihad’.

In Lashkar discourse, jihad against non-Muslims is projected as a religious duty binding on all Muslims today. Thus the Lashkar’s website claims that a Muslim who has ‘never intended to fight against the disbelievers […] is not without traces of hypocrisy’. Muslims who have the capacity to participate or assist in the jihad but do not do so are said to ‘be living a sinful life’. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Lashkar denounces all Muslims who do not agree with its pernicious and grossly distorted version of Islam and its hideous misinterpretation of jihad—Sufis, Shias, Barelvis and so on—as being ‘deviants’ or outside the pale of Islam or even in league with ‘anti-Islamic forces’. The Lashkar promises its activists that they would receive great rewards, both in this world and in the Hereafter, if they were to actively struggle in the path of jihad. Not only would they be guaranteed a place in Heaven, but they would also 'be honoured in this world', for jihad, it claims, is also ‘the way that solves financial and political problems’.

Astoundingly bizarre though it is, the Markaz sees itself as engaged in a global jihad against the forces of ‘disbelief’, stopping at nothing short of aiming at the conquest of the entire world. As Nazir Ahmed, in-charge of the public relations department of the Lashkar, once declared, through the so-called jihad that the Lashkar has launched, ‘Islam will be dominant all over the world’. This global war is seen as a solution to all the ills and oppression afflicting all Muslims, and it is claimed that 'if we want to live with honour and dignity, then we have to return back to jihad’. Through jihad, the Lashkar website says, ‘Islam will be supreme throughout the world’.

In Lashkar discourse, its self-styled jihad against India is regarded as nothing less than a war between two different and mutually opposed ideologies: Islam, on the one hand, and Hinduism, on the other. It tars all Hindus with the same brush, as supposed ‘enemies of Islam’. Thus, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, Lashkar chief, declares: ‘In fact, the Hindu is a mean enemy and the proper way to deal with him is the one adopted by our forefathers, who crushed them by force. We need to do the same’.

India is a major target for the Lashkar's terrorists. According to Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, ‘The jihad is not about Kashmir only. It encompasses all of India'. Thus, the Lashkar sees its self-styled jihad as going far beyond the borders of Kashmir and spreading through all of India. Its final goal, it says, is to extend Muslim control over what is seen as having once been Muslim land, and, hence, to be brought back under Muslim domination, creating what the Lashkar terms as 'the Greater Pakistan by dint of jihad’. Thus, at a mammoth congregation of Lashkar supporters in November 1999, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed thundered, ‘Today I announce the break-up of India, Inshallah. We will not rest until the whole of India is dissolved into Pakistan’.

The Lashkar, so say media reports, has been trying to drum up support among India’s Muslims, and it may well be that it has managed to find a few recruits to its cause among them. If this is the case, it has probably been prompted by the fact of mounting murderous Hindutva-inspired anti-Muslim pogroms across the country, often abetted by agencies of the state, which has taken a toll of several thousand innocent lives. The fact that no semblance of justice has been delivered in these cases and that the state has not taken any measure to reign in Hindutva terrorism adds further to the deep-seated despondency and despair among many Indian Muslims. This might well be used by self-styled Islamist terror groups, such as the Lashkar, to promote their own agenda. Obviously, therefore, in order to counter the grave threat posed by terror groups such as the Lashkar, the Indian state needs to tackle the menace of Hindutva terror as well, which has now assumed the form of full-blown fascism. Both forms of terrorism feed on each other, and one cannot be tackled without taking on the other as well.

Mercifully, and despite the denial of justice to them, the vast majority of the Indian Muslims have refused to fall into the Lashkar’s trap. The flurry of anti-terrorism conferences that have recently been organised by important Indian Islamic groups is evidence of the fact that they regard the Lashkar’s perverse understanding of Islam as being wholly anti-Islamic and as a perversion of their faith. These voices urgently need to be promoted, for they might well be the most effective antidote to Lashkar propaganda. Numerous Indian Islamic scholars I know and have spoken to insist that the Lashkar’s denunciation of all non-Muslims as ‘enemies of Islam’, its fomenting of hatred towards Hindus and India and its understanding of jihad are a complete misrepresentation of Islamic teachings. They bitterly critique its call for a universal Caliphate as foolish wishful thinking. And they are unanimous that, far from serving the cause of the faith they claim to espouse, groups like the Lashkar have done the most heinous damage to the name of Islam, and are to blame, to a very large extent, for mounting Islamophobia globally.

At the same time as fingers of suspicion are being pointed at the Lashkar for being behind the recent Mumbai blasts, other questions are being raised in some circles. The significant fact that Hemant Karkare, the brave ATS chief who was killed in the terrorist assault, had been investigating the role of Hindutva terrorist groups in blasts in Malegoan and elsewhere and had received threats for this has not gone un-noticed. Nor has the related fact that the assault on Mumbai happened soon after disturbing revelations began pouring in of the role of Hindutva activists in terror attacks in different parts of India. That the attack on Mumbai has led to the issue of Hindutva-inspired terrorism now being totally sidelined is also significant.

And then there is a possible Israeli angle that some are raising. Thus, the widely-read Mumbai-based tabloid Mid-Day, in an article about a building where numerous militants were holed up titled ‘Mumbai Attack: Was Nariman House the Terror Hub?’, states:

“The role that Nariman House is coming to play in this entire attack drama is puzzling. Last night, residents ordered close to 100 kilograms of meat and other food, enough to feed an army or a bunch of people for twenty days. Shortly thereafter, the ten odd militants moved in, obviously, indicating that the food and meat was ordered, keeping their visit in mind, another cop added.

“One of the militants called up a television news channel and voiced his demands today, but, interestingly, when he was asked where are they all holed him, he said at the Israeli owned Nariman House and they are six of them here", one of the investigating cops said. Since morning, there has been exchange of gun fire has been going on and the militants seem well equipped to counter the cops fire. To top it, they have food and shelter. One wonders [if] they have the support of the residents, a local Ramrao Shanker said.”

A Mossad/Israeli hand in the affair might seem far-fetched to some, but not so to others, who point to the role of Israeli agents in destabilizing a large number of countries as well as possibly operating within some radical Islamist movements, such as a group in Yemen styling itself ‘Islamic Jihad’, said to be responsible for the bombing of the American Embassy in Sanaa, and which is said to have close links with the Israeli intelligence. Some have raised the question if the Mossad or even the CIA might not be directly or otherwise instigating some disillusioned Muslim youth in India, Pakistan or elsewhere to take to terror by playing on Muslim grievances, operating through existing Islamist groups or spawning new ones for this purpose.

If this charge is true—although this remains to be conclusively established—the aim might be to further radicalize Muslims so as to provide further pretext for American and Israeli assaults on Islam and Muslim countries. The fact that the CIA had for years been in very close contact with the Pakistani ISI and radical Islamist groups in Pakistan is also being raised in this connection. The possible role of such foreign agencies of being behind some terror attacks that India has witnessed in recent years to further fan anti-Muslim hatred and also to weaken India is also being speculated on in some circles.

Whether all this is indeed true needs to be properly investigated. But the fact remains that it appears to be entirely in the interest of the Israeli establishment and powerful forces in America to create instability in India, fan Hindu-Muslim strife, even to the point of driving India and Pakistan to war with each other, and thereby drag India further into the deadly embrace of Zionists and American imperialists.

In other words, irrespective of who is behind the deadly attacks on Mumbai, it appears to suit the political interests and agendas of multiple and equally pernicious political forces—Islamist and Hindu radicals, fired by a hate-driven Manichaean vision of the world, but also global imperialist powers that seem to be using the attacks as a means to push India even deeper into their suicidal axis.

Sukhia Sab Sansar Khaye Aur Soye
Dukhia Das Kabir Jagey Aur Roye

The world is 'happy', eating and sleeping
The forlorn Kabir Das is awake and weeping

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sociology of Islam

we will be back soon.