Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Echoes of change in the Arab world . . .

Father Zakaria
(Image from Zakaria's Site)

Since I don't know Arabic, my information about the Arab world comes to me already filtered, which is a reason for concern, of course -- am I being misled, misinformed, misdirected, mystificated? -- but we all depend upon filters for most of what we know, so we have to learn to deal with that by finding more than one filter.

I therefore rely not only upon MEMRI but upon a diversity of sources, even the mainstream media. Some time ago, I learned -- through the mainstream media -- of the Copt Raymond Ibrahim, who is fluent in both Arabic and English and has edited The Al Qaeda Reader (August 2007), a book that I really ought to read since it "gathers together the essential texts and documents that trace the origin, history, and evolution of the ideas of al-Qaeda founders Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden," or so the product description at Amazon states, and I suppose that it does attempt to do this since it is a "collection of the key texts of the al-Qaeda movement."

Mr. Ibrahim also writes for the National Review Online, which may be the mainstream source where I first read of him, and offers yet another window into the Arab world through his expertise in Arabic. In March of this year, he offered on NRO a view of "Islam's 'Public Enemy #1' Coptic priest Zakaria Botros fights fire with fire." I read it at the time and forgot about it, but it has recently again come to my attention. The "public enemy" stuff might sound over the top, but that's simply a designation being reported by Ibrahim:
Though he is little known in the West, Coptic priest Zakaria Botros -- named Islam's "Public Enemy #1" by the Arabic newspaper, al-Insan al-Jadid -- has been making waves in the Islamic world. Along with fellow missionaries -- mostly Muslim converts -- he appears frequently on the Arabic channel al-Hayat (i.e., "Life TV"). There, he addresses controversial topics of theological significance -- free from the censorship imposed by Islamic authorities or self-imposed through fear of the zealous mobs who fulminated against the infamous cartoons of Mohammed. Botros's excurses on little-known but embarrassing aspects of Islamic law and tradition have become a thorn in the side of Islamic leaders throughout the Middle East.
This is the sort of fascinating development in the Muslim Arab world that those of us ignorant of Arabic miss out on. Outside our ken lies an entire world where people debate issues that most of us know little to nothing about. For instance:
The most dramatic example of [Muslims debating issues raised by Botros] . . . occurred on another famous show on the international station, Iqra. The host, Basma -- a conservative Muslim woman in full hijab -- asked two prominent ulema, including Sheikh Gamal Qutb, one-time grand mufti of al-Azhar University, to explain the legality of the Koranic verse (4:24) that permits men to freely copulate with captive women. She repeatedly asked: "According to sharia, is slave-sex still applicable?" The two ulema would give no clear answer -- dissembling here, going off on tangents there. Basma remained adamant: Muslim youth were confused, and needed a response, since "there is a certain channel and a certain man who has discussed this issue over twenty times and has received no response from you."

The flustered Sheikh Qutb roared, "low-life people like that must be totally ignored!" and stormed off the set. He later returned, but refused to admit that Islam indeed permits sex-slaves, spending his time attacking Botros instead. When Basma said "Ninety percent of Muslims, including myself, do not understand the issue of concubinage in Islam and are having a hard time swallowing it," the sheikh responded, "You don’t need to understand." As for Muslims who watch and are influenced by Botros, he barked, "Too bad for them! If my son is sick and chooses to visit a mechanic, not a doctor -- that's his problem!"
That sort of debate must be fascinating in the Middle East, where speech is not quite so free as we're used to hearing in the West. What are the results of such free speech? Ibrahim 'reports' that many Muslims are abandoning Islam for Christianity:
The result? Mass conversions to Christianity -- if clandestine ones. The very public conversion of high-profile Italian journalist Magdi Allam -- who was baptized by Pope Benedict in Rome on Saturday -- is only the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, Islamic cleric Ahmad al-Qatani stated on al-Jazeera TV a while back that some six million Muslims convert to Christianity annually, many of them persuaded by Botros's public ministry. More recently, al-Jazeera noted Life TV's "unprecedented evangelical raid" on the Muslim world.
The Islamic cleric's warning about "six million Muslims" converting annually to Christianity sounds to me like a figure plucked from the air. If the conversions are "clandestine," how would we know that there are "mass conversions"? How would we know that Magdi Allam's conversion is "only the tip of the iceberg"? This is a point where I grow skeptical about some of the information that I'm receiving through my filter.

Whatever the truth on that matter, we at least hear an echo of things that the Muslim Arab world is talking about, and we see that debate is going on there in a world that is rapidly changing -- and changing in unexpected ways different even than those articulated in the debates over the Coptic priest Zakaria Botros. For a fascinating look at some of these other changes, read Robert Slackman's recent article for the International Herald Tribune, "Young and Arab in land of mosques and bars" (September 22, 2008).

Young Arabs at Exclusive Bar in Dubai
(Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times)

Islamism ain't the only game in town.

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At 5:09 AM, Blogger Al-Ozarka said...

Interesting indeed!

At 6:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, let's keep our ear to the ground.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Magdi Allam is a very special case. His mother, a maidservant with an Italian colonial family in Egypt, dropped him off with some Italian nuns when he was a child; he grew up with Italian as his virtual mother tongue, and went to Italy as soon as he was able to get a visa.

He only became (critically) interested in Islam and the Muslim communities in Italy after many years working as an Italian journalist, and only because of his Arab name.

A natural-born conspiracy thinker, he has been deeply involved in right-wing xenophobic circles, which demand the expulsion of Rom ("Gipsies"), Muslims, Romanians, etc., and his conversion is a rather natural consequence of all this.

Some Muslims I know in Italy sent their condolences to their Catholic friends, saying "now he's your problem!"


Good luck

Miguel Martinez
Florence Italy

At 9:41 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for comment, Mr. Martinez. I knew of Magdi Allam's high-profile conversion, of course, but otherwise nothing about him.

I rather doubted that he was listening to Father Zakaria, by the way, for he didn't seem like the type . . . but what do I know?

Jeffery Hodges

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