February 2008


Detail of Carl von Steuben’s depiction of the Battle of Poitiers, fought in 732, the year Muslim armies crossed the Pyrenees.

A Better Place

What if the Muslim armies hadn’t been stopped at the French border?

by Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, February 4, 2008

In 610 A.D., Muhammad ibn Abdallah, a forty-year-old man from a prosperous merchant family in Mecca, repaired to a cave on nearby Mt. Hira to meditate—a retreat he had made many times. That year, though, his experience was different. An angel appeared and seized him, speaking to him the words of God. Muhammad fell to his knees and crawled home to his wife. “Wrap me up!” he cried. He feared for his sanity. But, as the voice revisited him, he came to believe that it truly issued from God. It called on him to reform his society. Poor people were to be given charity; slaves were to be treated justly; usury was to be outlawed. Muhammad’s tribesmen, the Quraysh, were polytheists, like most people in the Arabian Peninsula at that time, but this God, Allah, proclaimed that he was the only God. He was the same deity that the Jews and the Christians worshipped. Jesus Christ wasn’t his son, though. Christ was just a prophet, like the prophets of the Old Testament. Their word was now superseded by Muhammad’s, as their creeds were supplanted by this new one, Islam. (more…)

The conference entitled “The Draft of the New Turkish Constitution” will bring together academics and politicians who have drafted the new constitution with scholars of democratic theory and comparative constitutions in a way that both side exchange critical views and share them with the public audience. The declared aim of the new constitution project is to contribute to the process of liberalization of Turkey’s political and legal systems as part of its integration to the European Union.

Monday, March 3rd: 9:00-6:30
International Affairs Building, Room 1501

This conference is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration, and Religion (CDTR) and the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life (IRCPL) at Columbia University, and Turkish Cultural Center (TCC).

For more information, please contact Ahmet Kuru: ak2840@columbia.edu (more…)

For most, the idea of Muslims in Europe has suggested immigrants. This overlooks the fact that in the Balkans there are Muslims who are also historically Europeans. And this week, these ethnic Albanians have declared an independent state of Kosovo which recognizes 5 non-Albanian ethnic groups as equals. Kosovo did an end run around the UN and went straight to the US and the EU who were quick to recognize this new state. The Russians and Serbians have opposed this move. Russia argues that this move will set a dangerous precedent for separatist movements.

Beneath all of this is the fact that ethnic Albanians are Muslim. Of course, the news prefers to call them secular Muslims. Perhaps it softens the blow. It just may be that the idea of Muslim faithful who are historically and ethnically European is just too much. Certainly this is the central thesis of the works of Damir Niksic. His works are rich and full of biting critiques of the relationships between “Europe and Muslims.” I have posted before about his wonderful video “If I weren’t a Muslim” in which he states that if he weren’t a Muslim, “books wouldn’t teach you that I was an error in European history.”
(more…)


The Iraqi Poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

[Note: This is the 15th in a series of translations of selected letters of the noted Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. For more information on the poet, click here.]

Letter #15

Basra 3/16/1962

My Dear Brother Yusuf (al-Khal),

I miss you very much, but we will meet soon, God willing. I received a telegram from Simon Jarji in which he asks me if I can be in Beirut between the 10th and the 17th of April. He also says that the International Organization for the freedom of Culture will bear the expense of my travel and lodging. I will be in Beirut between these dates, with God’s help.

I now have “21” new poems, and I will strive to find a buyer for these poems in Beirut. I am in extreme poverty and will come to Beirut carrying only a few Dinars in my pocket. Perhaps you will be able to arrange something for me while I am in Beirut. As for waiting for a month, this is extremely difficult. I will write the “The Iraq Message” for you while I am in Beirut. All the literary news is in Baghdad…I will visit Baghdad on my way and will gather from there all the news that fits to be included in the “Message.” (more…)

After the high profile attacks in London and Madrid, it seems like European media, policy makers, and scholars alike have been very interested in the Muslims in their midst. The best book to deal with this topic is undoubtedly is Gabriele Marranci’s Jihad Beyond Islam (Berg). The title and the publisher’s blurb may lead one to assume that is a book primarily about Jihad. The publisher’s blurb states,

“Jihad” is a highly charged word. Often mistranslated as “Holy War,” it has become synonymous with terrorism. Current political events have entirely failed to take account of the subtlety and complexity of jihad. Like many concepts with a long history, different cultural ideas have influenced the religious aspects of jihad. As a result its original meaning has been adapted, modified and destabilized–never more than at the present time. How does jihad manifest itself in Muslims’ everyday lives? What impact has 9/11 and its backlash had on it? By observing the current crisis of identity among ordinary Muslims, this timely book explores why, and in what circumstances Muslims speak of jihad. Marranci offers us a nuanced and sophisticated anthropological understanding of Muslims’ lives beyond the predictable cliché”

But it is the “Beyond Islam” part of the title that really indicates the beauty of this book. At first glance, one might think the “Beyond” of the title will take the reader to non-Islamic forms of “Jihad” ala Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld. Fortunately, instead the book explores more interesting dimensions. Marranci looks at British Muslims from immigrant families who have favorable sentiments towards “jihadist” agendas. In his analysis, Marranci shows that his respondents’ religiosity does not go far to explain their jihadist sentiments. He adds to the equation their cultural backgrounds and their immigrant status. In this regard, Marranci takes on the standard problem of the anthropology of Islam, namely what is the relationship between “universal” Islam and local expressions of Islam.
(more…)

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
The New York Times, February 17, 2008

CAIRO — The concrete steps leading from Ahmed Muhammad Sayyid’s first-floor apartment sag in the middle, worn down over time, like Mr. Sayyid himself. Once, Mr. Sayyid had a decent job and a chance to marry. But his fiancée’s family canceled the engagement because after two years, he could not raise enough money to buy an apartment and furniture.

Mr. Sayyid spun into depression and lost nearly 40 pounds. For months, he sat at home and focused on one thing: reading the Koran. Now, at 28, with a diploma in tourism, he is living with his mother and working as a driver for less than $100 a month. With each of life’s disappointments and indignities, Mr. Sayyid has drawn religion closer.

Here in Egypt and across the Middle East, many young people are being forced to put off marriage, the gateway to independence, sexual activity and societal respect. Stymied by the government’s failure to provide adequate schooling and thwarted by an economy without jobs to match their abilities or aspirations, they are stuck in limbo between youth and adulthood. (more…)

Music is alive and well in Muslim societies; Arab, Persian, Indian and Indonesian pop stars abound on the satellite channels and perform at weddings and other celebrations. There are also famous music festivals, the Baalbek Music Festival being one of the most known venues. So it should not be a surprise that the Yemeni port of Aden, long a crossroads of Muslims traveling east and west, should be the home of an Arab music festival. The Aden Festival was booked for February 14 with the Syrian singer Asalah Nasri and Egyptian star Issam Karika. As noted in an article in the current Yemen Observer, the director of the Aden cultural office, Abdullah Kudadah, considers the festival as a primary step for creating a tourism culture that will contribute to the economic and cultural renaissance of Yemen.

He further mentioned that this coming concert was among several proposed festivals for singers from different Arab states, as well as the fact that Yemen is launching four new satellite channels.

“Music is an international language. We know how the ancient Arab tribes used to celebrate their poets because they used to believe that their poets would promote the tribe. The success of a poet is the success of the whole tribe,” said Kudada. He added that Ukadh used to be the forum for all Arab poets from different Arab regions.

The director of Aden festival, Marwan al-Khalid, said the festival is the first of its kind organized by the Aden governorate. He said the festival will be held in the 22 May stadium and that more than 400 prizes will be given to the audience. In addition to 400 cell phones and one million Yemeni riyals divided amongst twenty winners, the grand prize of a Hyundai automobile will also be given away. Al-Khalid added that there would be VIP tickets costing $100 each, which include dinner and beverages. Ordinary tickets will cost YR3000 each.

Organizers have also decided to donate 30 percent of the concert proceeds to the aid of the Palestinian people in Gaza and to cancer health care in Yemen.

Al-Khalid expected a great turnout for the festival due to the fame of the Syrian singer.

Cultural expression and tourism: what could be wrong with that? The Devil, quite literally it seems, is in the details, also noted in the Yemen Observer article: (more…)


Tarlabasi, 2004, by Gamze Olgun, Oil Painting.

by Jenny White
Kamil Pasha Blog
Posted on January 24th, 2008

Tarlabasi is a district on the backside of the Beyoglu hill falling from the crest at Pera – where all the foreign embassies were in Ottoman times, now demoted to consulates – down in the direction of the Golden Horn. In The Abyssinian Proof, Kamil chases a wily criminal to his lair in Tarlabasi. The district is picturesque in the way of crumbling majesty on its last legs (a large part of Tarlabasi will be razed in 6 months, probably replaced by hotels). The steep, narrow lanes are strung with laundry, bustling with locals shopping at an outdoor market crammed into one of the lower streets. At the top of the hill near Istiklal Bouelvard are some lovely stone houses, now ruined or so shabby as to be nearly uninhabitable. A large stone house cracked down the side like an egg is posted for sale. As you walk down the hill, the houses become smaller, shabbier, sometimes outright ruins, less stone and more wood. In Ottoman times, Catholics and Greek Christians (Rum) lived near the top — shop owners, employees of the embassies — and poorer families near the bottom. Taylor Pepo’s apprentice lived in Tarlabasi with his family (The Abyssinian Proof). Today Tarlabasi is inhabited by Roma (gypsy), Kurds, the very poor, and social outcasts of various kinds. (more…)

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