Archive for the ‘Muslims’ Tag

Mecca to be remodeled

A pilgrim at the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.  The Kaaba is seen in the midground.

A pilgrim at the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. The Kaaba is seen in the midground.

The Economist has an interesting story about Saudi plans to remodel Mecca, the holiest city is Islam.  The city is the original hometown of Mohammed, the founder and chief figure in Islam, and was a key religious center even before that time.  Muslims are supposed to pray five times each day, at appointed times, all while facing in the direction of Mecca, and are urged to participate in the haj, a pilgrimage to the city during the holy month of Ramadan, at least once in their life if they are able.

As international travel has gotten easier, more Muslims have been able to visit Mecca, causing significant logistical problems (including people often being trampled to death).  A chief reason for remodeling parts of the city, including the most important mosque there, the Masjid al-Haram (“Sacred Mosque”) is to accommodate the 2.5 million pilgrims that come to Mecca during the haj each year.  At present, the mosque can hold up to 900,000 visitors; plans are to expand it to a capacity of 1.5 million.

Given the great importance of the mosque and Mecca to Muslims, it is not surprising that the Saudi plans are stirring up debate.  The fact that one of the architects chosen for the project, Briton Norman Foster, is a non-Muslim has added to the controversy.  Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter Mecca, so he’d have to supervise the project from a distance and couldn’t visit the site itself.

But the city has already undergone huge changes.  The Economist reports:

Even before the plans to give the Haram mosque a facelift emerged, many Muslims were uneasy about the renovations already underway in Mecca. The modern city bears little resemblance to the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. Visitors to Mecca can buy a latte from Starbucks and a snack from KFC or McDonald’s. Moreover, the first Islamic school where Muhammad is believed to have taught as well as the house of Khadija, his first wife, are believed to have been destroyed as construction in Mecca has boomed. Critics such as Mr Angawi fear that if these plans go ahead, more damage will be wrought upon Mecca’s historic buildings. Some suggest that Saudi Arabia’s rulers don’t concern themselves much about preserving these historic sites because their interpretation of Islam regards venerating holy places as akin to idol worship.

It will be interesting to see what sorts of decisions are made by Saudi leaders, including King Abdullah—who is the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (in Mecca and Medina)—in this matter.

This highway sign indicates that non-Muslims must take the bypass around Mecca, where only Muslims are permitted

This highway sign indicates that non-Muslims must take the bypass around Mecca, where only Muslims are permitted. (Click to enlarge)

Saudi Arabia tries to reform jihadists

The Saudi flag bears the shahada ("There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet"). Note that the hoist end is to the right.

The Saudi flag is green, a color associated with Muhammad, and bears the shahada ("There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet").

The New York Times Magazine has an interesting article on a several year old Saudi program to deprogram jihadists.  The issue of deconverting people from radical, violent Islam is an important one for the Kingdom, which has produced huge numbers of terrorists recently, including 15 of the 19 September 11th hijackers and bin Laden himself.  In may areas of the world, from Chechnya to the Philippines, the largest contingent of Islamic militants is comprised of Saudis; it’s a big problem.

Of course, to get someone to renounce terrorism it is important to understand why people join terrorist groups in the first place.

Though the exact nature of the role that religious belief plays in the recruitment of jihadists is the subject of much debate among scholars of terrorism, a growing number contend that ideology is far less important than family and group dynamics, psychological and emotional needs. “We’re finding that they don’t generally join for religious reasons,” John Horgan told me. A political psychologist who directs the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State, Horgan has interviewed dozens of former terrorists. “Terrorist movements seem to provide a sense of adventure, excitement, vision, purpose, camaraderie,” he went on, “and involvement with them has an allure that can be difficult to resist. But the ideology is usually something you acquire once you’re involved.”

The article points out that other scholars disagree with this assessment and do stress the significance of political belief and grievance.  “But if the Saudi program is succeeding, it may be because it treats jihadists not as religious fanatics or enemies of the state but as alienated young men in need of rehabilitation.” 

At the end of the two-month program, which includes instruction in the correct understanding of jihad as well as art therapy, many of the men are given a car and financial assistance to rent a home along with help getting additional education and employment.  They are also encouraged to get married since “getting married stabilizes a man’s personality … He thinks more about a long term future and less about himself and his anger.”

I found the description of what the rehabilitation centers are like to be interesting.

On arrival, each prisoner is given a suitcase filled with gifts: clothes, a digital watch, school supplies and toiletries. Inmates are encouraged to ask for their favorite foods (Twix and Snickers candy bars are frequent requests). Volleyball nets, PlayStation games and Ping-Pong and foosball tables are all provided. The atmosphere at the center — which I visited several times earlier this year — is almost eerily cozy and congenial, with mattresses and rugs spread on stubbly patches of lawn for inmates to lounge upon. With few exceptions, the men wear their beards untrimmed and their thobes, the long garments that most Saudi men wear, cut above their ankles in the style favored by those who wish to demonstrate strict devotion to Islam. The men are pleasant but many seem a bit puffy and lethargic; one 19-year-old inmate, Faisal al-Subaii, explained that they are encouraged to spend most of their daytime hours in either rest or prayer.

The article also describes one of the classroom sessions, a discussion of jihad, and some conversations that the men have with their instructors.  Their experience as people who went to Iraq to fight the infidels was very interesting for me to read about.  On man, Azzam, said that he “didn’t have the chance [to fight]. For months, we went from safe house to safe house. There wasn’t anything to do — no action, no training. Finally, they asked me to be a suicide bomber. But I know that suicide is forbidden in Islam, so I came back home.”  It sounds incredibly banal.

Riyadh, the Saudi capital, at night.  Your gas money at work.

Riyadh, the Saudi capital, at night.

Another former militant, Abu Sulayman, said that “most people just want to carry weapons,” and didn’t really have any well thought out religious reasons for joining the fight.  Many of the men were disappointed with the poor organization of the militants in Iraq and disapproved of the infighting between the various Muslim groups.  The rehab process encourages them to feel victimized by propaganda and a distorted form of Islam.

One topic they especially want the men there to correctly understand is takfir, a concept in Islamic jurisprudence referring to the declaration that a fellow Muslim is an apostate and, therefore, subject to attack.  Some extremists have been applying this to the Saudi regime, which ranks up there with American support for Israel on the list of Al Qaeda’s grievances.  The Saudi Royal Family is pretty corrupt, but they rather like being in power and would really rather not have to change too much.  But they need to, if they really want to eliminate terrorism, both against their country and exported from their country, they’ve got to stop using textbooks in their schools that portray the rest of the world as being against Islam and call for a literal application of Shariah.  They also need to create better opportunities for their people.  This rehab program seems to recognize that, as it tries to reintegrate the men back into society in a productive role.

Doing that will be a better long-term solution than simply trying to blow up as many of them as possible before they blow us up, without all the collateral damage and blowback.  The Times article also gives some indications that police action may be more effective in breaking up terror cells than military force. 

In any event, there’s a lot of work to do still.  Saudi officials claim that no graduate of the program described here has returned to violent jihad.  We’ll have to see if that holds true.

Afghan gets 20 years for discussing women’s rights

An appeals court in Afghanistan has sentenced 24-year old Parwez Kambakhsh to 20 years in jail for promoting women’s rights—and that’s actually an improvement in his condition; the trial court sentenced him to death. Kambakhsh, a journalism student at Balkh University in Mazar-e-Sharif, is accused of “insulting Islam and abusing the Holy Prophet Mohammad,” charges stemming from allegations that he asked questions in class that indicated a criticism of the way women are treated in his country and that he printed out and disseminated an essay that asked why Islam doesn’t modernize and recognize women’s rights. He denies downloading or handing out the article and says he didn’t write his own comments on it, as the prosecution alleges.

The Flag of Afghanistan, adopted in 2004.  Afghanistan has had 23 flags since the start of the 20th century---more than any other country--- including one that was all white and another that was all black.

The current Flag of Afghanistan, adopted 2004. Afghanistan has had 23 flags since the start of the 20th century--more than any other country--including one that was all white and another that was all black.

The presiding judge at his trial, Abdul Salam Qazizada, is a holdover from the Taliban days and was clearly hostile to Kambakhsh, who hasn’t received a fair trial according to international observers. He was detained far longer than he should have been and his lawyer didn’t get to speak with witnesses until the day before the trial. He also reports that he was abused and coerced into confessing by the police. At least one “witness” says he was threatened into testifying against Kambakhsh. And this procedural stuff is ignoring the fact that he’s on trial for talking about women’s rights in the first place.

While it is depressing that it is illegal to discuss women’s rights anywhere in the world in the 21st century, but if you read the accounts of his trial carefully there is reason to hope. The judge said that “Kambakhsh may have wanted to make himself popular by writing this text.” If his peers and fellow students were against women’s rights, challenging the status quo would hardly make Kambakhsh popular. Such an action would only make him popular if tapped into beliefs that were already there and growing amongst the young Afghani population. It’s too much to suggest that women’s lib will soon come to Afghanistan and that they’ll be burning their burqas, but progress is on the march there, as in Saudi Arabia, where women may soon be able to drive cars.

It is thought that Kambakhsh may have been targeted because his brother, Yaqub Ibrahimi, had written about human rights violations and criticized local warlords. Note that Yaqub is the Arabic form of the name Jacob. Kambakhsh may still appeal his sentencing to the Afghan Supreme Court. Note that I’m the one who started the Wikipedia article on the Afghan Supreme Court. Check it out for examples of some of it’s reactionary and backwards rulings, along with news that President Hamid Karzai has since appointed some more moderate jurists to that tribunal. Hopefully international attention and pressure will continue to be applied to Karzai and the Supreme Court will overturn this silly conviction.