Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Civilizations And The Challenge For Peace

Another scholar in town whom I had the privilege of hearing her delivered a passionate lecture on "Being Human" yesterday was Professor Mona Siddiqui.

Professor Mona Siddiqui is a British Muslim academic. She is currently the University of Glasgow's Professor of Islamic Studies and Public Understanding, as well as the Director of its Centre for the Study of Islam. She is also a regular contributor to Thought for the Day and Sunday on BBC Radio 4, and to The Times, Scotsman, The Guardian, The Herald and (since February 2007, as its first regular Muslim columnist) The Tablet.

Born in Pakistan, she took her BA in Arabic and French at the University of Leeds (graduating in 1984), and her MA in Middle-Eastern Studies and PhD in Classical Islamic Law at the University of Manchester (graduating in 1986 and 1992 respectively). She is or has been a member of the Advisory Boards for Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art, Scottish Asian Arts, IB Tauris Religious Studies project, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in March 2005 and of the Royal Society of Arts in October 2005.

She cites her areas of specialism as classical Islamic law, Law and gender, Early Islamic Theology and Thought, Contemporary legal and ethical issues in Islam, and modern Arabic literature. Professor Siddiqui's only published book is a hundred page general publication on 'Reading the Qur'an', published by Granta Books. She is fluent in French and Urdu and married with three children.

The following is an extract of her speech at the 61st Session of the United Nations General Assembly:

'Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, It’s a huge honour to be invited to speak here and my sincere thanks to … I hope that as someone who enjoys both an academic and a public profile, I may be able to make a useful contribution to the second day of this gathering. I speak as a Muslim who has grown up in the UK, a western academic of Islam and one who works regularly with various UK media. I also feel strongly that there is a responsibility on all in civil society to stay engaged with contemporary religious and political challenges.

Most current debates on religion, intercultural and intercivilisational dialogue have a backdrop - 9/11. Since 9/11, it has become a common assumption amongst many scholars, public bodies and the media that religion has resurfaced in public life as a force to be reckoned with. It is as if religion has only recently pushed its way forward form the private realm to be part of the public psyche against all odds, demanding social recognition and political acknowledgment. But religion or religious faith broadly understood in the world’s major traditions never was simply a private issue. It is simply that in the west, over the last 30 years or so, we had become accustomed to measuring religious belief by certain visible criteria such as attendance at churches, number of church weddings etc and as this attendance declined, it was equated with increasing secularisation in society - a rapid fall in observation of formal religion. In this assessment, the impact of religions other than Christianity were not quite as relevant in our social structures for they belonged to the culture and ideologue of the other, the other whose religious allegiance, however different was largely within private space and thus not so visible. This trend was unproblematic for it seemed to fit the liberal democracies of Western Europe, still officially Christian and with a fairly loose notion of Christianity as the main backdrop. Yet, as many observers have noted, different religions were and have been on the rise over the past few decades in almost every part of the world except in Western Europe - in south America, north America, Hindu India, Pakistan and other Muslim countries and of course, Buddhist Asia – religion didn’t re-appear suddenly after 9/11, it had been on a gradual rise for many years.

Despite this observation, the major shift has been that 9/11 has pushed religious discourse to the level of political and public discourse in the western world. Religion is being seen as either the biggest obstacle or the biggest solution in the pursuit of global peace. For many religious expression is the same as religious fanaticism. In the case of Islam, Muslim fanaticism was an anti western expression, more precisely an anti-American force, which even if practiced by a few, would win the day if American military might did not take steps to curb what they perceived as a real and global threat. The October 15th edition of Newsweek, captured this concern vividly in its cover: `Why they hate us – the roots of Islamic rage and what we can do about it.’ The `they’ implied the whole Muslim world and the Muslim faith as a monolith and the `us’ was the other monolith, the West, with America lying at the heart of this cultural entity. Though I would strongly contest the usefulness and relevance of such phrases such as the clash of civilisations or Islam and the West all of which express a false bipolarity between the so called Muslim world and the Western world, these concepts have again been revived and continue to lie at the basis of so much discussion on faith, politics and society.

Such language and such images have shaped the way we talk about religion and particularly Islam. In todays context, we have to be very careful with theological language. The exploration of theological language can not be seen as an ivory tower exercise which breathes and dies in textbooks. No, it is a living and passionate reality, it travels thousands of miles and echoes within peoples hearts and minds and in so doing affects peoples social, political and political realities at all levels, local, national and international. Global communication is now faster than ever, the audience is bigger, the language is instant that is the colossal reality of globalisation but it is also sweeping and dramatic, words lose depth of meaning for the same words are used to describe so many different phenomena

The media in all its forms can pitch this kind of discourse to its own preferences. Let us not forget that for many people all over the world, the media is their biggest source of knowledge. The responsibility on the media can therefore not be over emphasised. The media carries the onus of furthering real debate, not skimming the surface and certainly not sensationalising. This is difficult for it is in the nature of media to be brief and to be of the moment. Bu the media leads debate and journalists are increasingly assuming celebrity like status – their voices carry weight, their words carry meaning. Over the last couple of years there have been various instances:

The cartoon crisis in which the whole Muslim world became equated with effigies being burnt left many with that uncomfortable feeling that nothing had changed since the Rushdie affair. The publication of the cartoons were not about the defence of freedom of speech that red herring brought out always as the ultimate achievement of western civilisation; these images and their aftermath sparked off the deeper debate - can Islam and the Muslim world really understand, accept and respect the notion of civil, diverse societies where there are competing moralities and divergent discourses, where nothing is sacred and everything is up for critique? Perhaps this is the price for freedom of expression but the violence within certain Muslim communities confirmed the suspicion many have that Islam is a complete idiosyncrasy in the west. In my opinion, this is not media hype but a issue which many Muslims are reluctant to address.

Jack Straw, the former British foreign minister’s request to a veiled woman in his constituency in Blackburn, to take of her veil, sparked off more than just the debate about clothing. Whatever his motives the fact remained that the whole issue has become less about clothing and more about the relentless debate about Muslims in Britain. I must admit that I received more calls about veiling by the print and radio media in one morning than I did about the London bombings in a whole week. As women are so often used to reflect liberal or conservative societies, these images defining and potent. Dress has been subsumed under our current rhetoric about terror and multiculturalism and in an odd sort of way, epitomises a very different kind of fear. The veil has changed as an iconic image. It no longer conjures up images of the mystery and lure of the East, rather it has come to represent everything the West has struggled against. The face veil (niqab) symbolises a barrier to open communication, efforts to attain some semblance of gender equality, and comfortable and open relations between men and women.

Journalists have a responsibilty to reflect what they see and hear and there should be no political correctness for fear of upsetting communities and faiths. I don’t want the media, polite society to resent Islam and religion as a whole. If religious voices must accept that they are only one voice within multiple voices, the media must also recognise that the world contains more believers than non-believes – freedom of expression must therefore be accompanied by sensitivities around beliefs which many hold central to their being.

But journalist can also reach into peoples lives and move the reader into self-reflection and soul-searching. I think that there is a real hunger in society for religious and ethical debate and whilst many academics shy from public debate, the media can fill this vacuum by being trusted partners at a time when people feel victimised and when talking about God and religion is seen as talking down liberty, choice and democracy.'

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