Islam and/or Democracy

Noah Feldman is young, a mere 32 years of age, calm, small in stature, sharp and brisk. Not the person you would expect to be at the center of what appears to be a boisterous fracas between the regimes of the West led by Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush and the Muslim-Arab world. Although the showdown is centered in Iraq and Afghanistan it has implications as well for Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the Palestinian Authority and by extension, the entire Middle East.

Noah Feldman

Feldman was recently in Toronto for speaking engagements and because I had a request in to interview him for “Dispatches,” a weekly CBC radio program I produce, his assistant told me if I waited I could do the interview in person rather than stick him in a cold studio in New York or Washington. In the interview he expressed the same idealism and vision contained in “After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy.” (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2003).

It is not totally clear how and why Feldman decided to write ‘After Jihad,’ but Richard Primus, a college friend and a law professor at University of Michigan, recalls that Feldman’s interest in the Islamic legal tradition predates his interest in modern American law.

He grew up in Boston an Orthodox Jew and learned Hebrew and Aramaic at the Maimonides School, a private school in Brookline, Mass. At 15, he started to learn Arabic and now speaks it fluently.

He graduated top of his class at Harvard where he earned a degree in Near Eastern Studies before moving on to Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar earning his doctorate in Islamic thought. He did his law degree at Yale before taking his first teaching position at NYU on Aug. 29, 2001. Assistant
Dean at NYU law school described Feldman’s PhD as equipping him with the ability to offer a “boutique Islamic law course for the 10 students who would have been interested in doing it.” Two weeks later Kramer said “this useless PhD became incredibly valuable.”

So valuable that hiding out in the world of academia was not to be Feldman’s calling. The first offer came earlier this year from the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq when he was asked to be its senior adviser for constitutional law and with that position assist in the writing of Iraq’s new constitution. He spent two months on the ground in Iraq and if anyone thought it would dampen his idealism, they were in for a surprise. He described his role as constitutional adviser as providing examples of what other governments have done and explaining what has or has not worked. “You’re an option provider, the critical decisions are made by the people,” he said.

Today he is in constant demand with calls from countries in the Middle East. He describes Islam and Democracy as powerful “mobile ideas” perhaps the only two that exists today. “Mobile ideas claim to work always and everywhere,” and because of that “they can clash.” “But mobile ideas also tend to be very flexible, and therefore capable of coming together in intriguing ways to produce unanticipated, new configurations.”

And this is what he is hoping for, a new configuration between civil society, the populace, and the rulers or the state apparatus. “Islamic democracy is not a contradiction,” he argues, “nor is it a paradox but an increasing number of Muslims have come to believe a synthesis is desirable because they understand that “secularism of the Western variety is not a necessary condition of democracy.”

Feldman is convinced that Muslims desire a new political reality and one that cherishes their participation in the affairs of the state while enshrining their basic freedoms and rights, not least of which is their allegiance to Islam as faith and upright moral conduct. Feldman is not saying that they desire western style democracy and certainly not Bush and Blair style democracy. He is aware that they’ve seen the ugly face of Islamic extremism and they don’t wish for that either.

Feldman is neither calling for a wholesale reshaping of the political reality in the Muslim world by the dominant Western powers nor is he advocating that the Muslim world should be left to its own devise. He comes down somewhere in between the two extremes but that should not be misconstrued as fence-sitting nor dodgy.

Feldman’s balanced idealism runs into trouble when it bounces against the pillar of trust that has all but disappeared from Muslim-Western relationship. The Islamists doubt whether the corrupt leaders in their countries who are funded and armed by France, the United Kingdom and the United States, will ever allow them to participate in free and fair elections. The existing regimes in the Muslim world, and the powers in Washington and London, on the other hand, doubt whether the Islamists, if they do come to power, will genuinely uphold pluralism and not turn the state into an absolutist theocratic entity.

Feldman’s image of a Muslim Democrat is a person who identifies with Islam as a religion but is not threatened by those who don’t share the same beliefs. It is a person who is willing to uphold the liberty and equality of all human beings before God regardless of gender or ethnicity.

Feldman is deeply conscious that this is possible because he knows from years of study that the Quran and the Prophetic tradition upholds the freedoms and essential liberties that enable democracy to function: free speech, free thought, free association and something that many Muslims today tend to forget in their blind support for the acts of vigilante ‘Mujahids’ who take the law into their hands, and that is an unbinding allegiance to due process of law.

‘After Jihad’ then is a cogent argument for a fusion between Islam Democracy. The alternatives will be an inevitable clash between the two because one professes it has God on its side and Western Democracy professes it has military might on its side and is willing to use it with reckless abandon to protect what it deems is in its own interest.

The Toronto 19

The arrest and detention of 21 Pakistani men in Toronto by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) is perhaps the most outrageous case of racial profiling in this country thus far and it causing mixed reactions. Some Pakistanis, mostly students, have ducked out of sight and gone into hiding, even changing their names. Some are sad but many are laughing at the outrageous number of accusations leveled against these men.

The arrests came well after midnight on August 14, (2003) a day now etched in historical memory because of the massive power outage that left people in Ontario and most of the eastern United States in darkness.

An elite anti-terrorism unit consisting of officers from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in an operation known as “Project Thread” kicked down doors, woke up sleeping men with guns to their heads, hauled them out of their beds, cuffed their arms, shackled their feet, and deposited them into prison cells.

Prison officials had a convenient name for these accented foreigners: “Al-Qaedas.” Inmates welcomed them with physical abuse and incessant taunting. The men were soon moved to solitary confinement `for their own protection.’ And when family, friends, the media, and community leaders received official confirmation from CIC of the arrests, an entire week had passed. They came to be known as ‘The Toronto 19.’

In the days that followed though two more were added to the count. And as they came up for detention review before an Immigration adjudicator, two were ordered deported to Pakistan and three were released on bail which was set at $10,000. “a ridiculously exorbitant amount for people who have not been charged with anything,” says lawyer Amina Sharazee.

The men have not been charged because there is nothing to charge them with. According to sections of Canada’s Immigration law the department is merely required to have “reasonable suspicion” that the men pose a threat to Canada’s security and with that they can be deemed inadmissible, detained and deported. CIC is not required to prove anything.

CIC arrested the men, all students or refugee claimants, because they had allegedly violated Canada’s immigration policy by registering in a bogus college “in order to enter and/or remain in Canada.” “Of the 400 odd people registered in this bogus business college which is not owned or operated by neither Muslims nor Pakistanis, only the Pakistanis and Muslims were targeted,” says Tarek Fatah, spokesperson for the Muslim Canadian Council. “What happened to the 379 others associated with this college?”

CIC made a grand leap from registration in a defunct college to the men’s “strange” behavior and from that deemed they had “reasonable grounds to suspect” the men were a threat to Canada’s national security. “If that’s not racial profiling, nothing is,” says Fatah.

At one of the many detention hearings the Commissioner of the RCMP, Giuliano Zacccardelli, was quoted as saying: “There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that there’s any terrorist threat anywhere in the country related to this investigation.” The Minister’s counsel’s response to his statement was, “of course, there isn’t, “it is an ongoing investigation.” This quote appeared in every major newspaper, radio and television news report dealing with the men’s arrest.

According to Tarek Shah, a lawyer who now represents nine of the detained men, the stigma of a security threat will have a damning impact on their lives if and when they are returned to Pakistan. Showing evident frustration, Shah complained that the department will not let him address the allegations of security threat at their detention reviews. “Where did the three van loads of seized evidence vanish to? They should have been brought in court. But now they are not even discussing that issue. They just want that issue to be closed,” he says.

In a four page backgrounder on Project Thread, the Immigration Department outlined its grounds for “reasonable suspicion” and thus its reasons for continued detention.

The men are between the ages of 18-33. They [all but one] “are from, or have connections to, the Punjab province in Pakistan that is noted for Sunni extremism.

Tarek Shah, the lawyer, finds this preposterous. The men never hid their ages from anyone least of all immigration officials. Most of the men are from Faisalabad. Faisal Zafar, a friend of several of the men, described Faisalabad as a moderate city in the Punjab and a whole lot different from Karachi where sectarian violence plagues its streets night and day. The Minister’s counsel argues that these points are not meant to be taken in isolation.

The men entered Canada as students but didn’t do much studying. They had the ability to support themselves but had no clear source of income. They had contact with each other and resided in clusters of 4 or 5 while maintaining a minimal standard of living.

How much studying can a person do when learning to read and write English? Some of the men got jobs delivering pizza, some worked at convenience stores and others received funds from their relatives in Pakistan. One of them used two addresses but only registered one with the immigration department. His lawyer explained that he did that to get cheaper insurance for his car. Given the extremely high rates of car insurance who can blame the man?

Two brothers among the 21 belonged to a family with a very lucrative business in Pakistan. In other words, papa has a lot of money and he ensured his boys were comfortable. When you are an immigrant you do nothing but maintain a minimal standard of living and you live with others who are in a like position.

Ø The RCMP received complaints that the men engaged in “strange behavior.” Unexplained fires occurred in their apartment. A shotgun was fired into the air. Aeroplane schematics were posted on a wall as well as pictures of guns.

The Minister has not been able to explain just what is so strange about the men’s behavior. As for the fires, no fire marshal reports were presented. In fact, the landlord said that on one occasion the alleged fire was a lot of smoke that was created when one of the men ‘tried’ to make soup. The implication though was that the men were cooking up bomb-making chemicals.

Ø One of the men (the one Indian) was enrolled in flight school to qualify as a multi-engine commercial pilot. His flight path for training flies over the Pickering Nuclear Power Plant. He often brings with him an unknown male as a passenger. His instructors have described him as an unmotivated student.

It would have been nice to point out to the reading public that the normal route for all students registered in the flight school’s program goes by the power plant. Immigration officials nor the administrators at the flight school seem to know who or when the said student brought with him “unknown male as a passenger.”

Ø Two associates of the group were found by Durham Regional Police outside the gates of Pickering Nuclear Power station on a cool, damp morning in April 2002. They requested that they be allowed to enter the perimeter in order to go for a walk on the beech.

This accusation is fairly damning by itself given the way it is presented. In the detention review hearing D. Ormon, lawyer representing Anwar Mohammad: “My client knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who was walking around the power plant. Now, it’s not alleged that my client knew this person who was walking around the power plant, so essentially, I could potentially pose a security threat if I knew the Minister’s Counsel, the Minister’s Counsel knew someone, that someone knew someone else, they knew someone else. I don’t’ think that’s a reasonable suspicion.”

Ø “RCMP Emergency Response Team Members, who are trained in psychological assessment, expressed concern over the calm demeanor of subjects at addresses where ‘dynamic enter’ was used. (Meaning shock and awe). The same calm demeanor was found by CIC officers interviewing subjects after their arrest.

What this all amounts to, says members of Project Threadbare, a city-wide coalition of civil rights activists who are demanding the release of the men, is that if you are a refugee or a foreign student from Pakistan, no, the Punjab province, between the ages of 18 and 33, living in clusters with very little to clutter your apartment, you can’t cook, you speak bad English, or your friend’s friend to the third degree did something strange, you take flying lessons or go near a flight school, watch out, you too may be a security threat.

In a very short period of time Project Threadbare has launched a very aggressive campaign aimed at bringing awareness to the men’s detention. The overwhelming show of support has come from non-Muslims. The campaign is aptly called: “Being Pakistani is NOT a crime!”

Ormon summarizes the Minister of Immigration’s position best when he said: “We don’t have anything right now and possibly we may uncover something, but in the meantime, detain the 19.” What the Minister is saying is that while there is no evidence to suggest that there’s a terrorist threat, there is evidence to have “reasonable suspicion” that there is a terrorists threat. In other words, what Project Thread calls “reasonable suspicion” Project Threadbare calls “racial profiling.”

What, under normal circumstances, should have been the case of a bunch of ordinary chaps from an impoverished and corrupt third world country trying to worm their way into Canada, has been turned into a circus aimed at protecting Canadians from a bunch of so-called ‘terrorists.’

And with that CIC has played into the hands of those who are convinced that Canada’s generous immigration and refugee policy is to be blamed for crime, unemployment, and now add to the list, terror. They would rather have Canada slam shut its doors to the world’s poor and dispossessed, the very people who built this country from bottom up.

The Goal of Civil Society

The early scholars of the Islamic tradition were well aware of the balanced relationship between the human soul and the body in which it is lodged. The inhabitants of our cities have apparently lost this balance and the consequence has manifested itself in all sorts of absurdities both at the individual level as well as that of the cityscape. Unlike human beings cities cannot lie.

For Muslims Ramadan is an occasion to rectify the imbalance, to bring the soul and the body back into a state of harmony. Taqwa, awe of God Almighty, the objective of siyam, is, in its classical definition, obeying the commands and avoiding the prohibitions of Allah both outwardly and inwardly. At an immediate level this is an individual struggle and when in full swing it is an awesome thing to behold, but when absent, the outcome is often deeply troubling.

When taqwa becomes a collective aspiration however, it has the ability to turn the tarnished image of our sordid cities into something of beauty, calm and tranquility. In other words, taqwa can give civil society the moral high ground by which it can resist the combined forces of global corporatism in cahoots with the State that has shackled the inhabitants of our cities to a life of misery, greed, crime, and social injustice.

Civil society will not regain the ground it has lost, is losing and will continue to lose, unless it aspires to a higher ideal. Engaging in a series of noisy demonstrations, boycotts, strikes and protests, is useful, perhaps even worthwhile, but imagine how much more effective they can be if combined with a vision that is grounded in truths to which we must all conform.

Taqwa is that razor sharp sword that slices through the narrative of consumerism which holds us hostages to meaningless objects and mirages. The splendor of the glorious month of Ramadan is a gift given to the believers but it is also an opportunity to open the doors of its beauty to our fellow citizens.

What we are witnessing today is an unprecedented use of state power to suppress civil society. The state has made it clear, whether in Canada, the United States or the UK, that it joined with the forces of global corporatism which produces what Shaykh Hamza Yusuf notes as the twin industries of ‘distraction’ and that of ‘destruction.’ In other words, industries that offers you entertainment as seduction which is your distraction, and weapons of death and misery which is our destruction.

And so as we lock arms with fellow citizens and march against these ‘Masters of War’ in the month of Ramadan let us remember what Ibn Mas’ud, the great companion of Our Noble Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, said concerning the verse of God Almighty in the Quran “Have awe of God as is deserving of Him Alone” (Ale-Imran: 102). He said it means to obey the Creator, not disobey Him, and not to be ungrateful.

The companion Abu Huraira narrated that this world is like a thorn-ridden path and that taqwa is that which causes us to take evasive action to avoid getting pricked by the thorns.

In the Quran God says “O You who believe, have awe of Allah and let every soul see what it is acquiring for tomorrow. Have awe of Allah. Surely , Allah is aware of what you do.” (Hashr: 18). Not only is taqwa mentioned twice in one verses but “Ghadan” here means tomorrow or sometime in the future and most of the Quranic commentators say it means the Day of Judgment. Both meanings are correct in that the Day of Judgment could be anytime, the time is not known to man.

Whatever meaning you take from this verse there is no doubt that awe of the Creator is intricately connected to a believer’s assessment of the future impact of his actions. The hesitation among many in our community is whether a person’s actions in this regard are limited to the prayers, fast, charity, and pilgrimage, or whether it extends to include our efforts to stem the tide of human suffering and injustice; to make the world a better place, a more comfortable place, for the citizens of this world? The difference between the two is the difference between taqwa as a personal priority and taqwa as a collective commitment.

In first verse of Sura Hajj, God Almighty commands all of humanity: “O Mankind have awe of your Lord, verily the coming to past of the Last Hour will be a serious affair.” Imam As-Sabuni says that this verse means that Your Lord should not find you in a place where He has prohibited you from being nor should He find you absent from a place He has ordered you to be.

In a sound narration the blessed Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, said, “taqwa is here” and he pointed to his chest three times. The heart is located in the chest and the spiritual heart is located in the physical heart. So taqwa is located in the spiritual heart of the human being. When we fast in the month of Ramadan we subdue the lowest of the soul’s inclinations, nafs al-ammaratu-bi-su so that the highest and noblest of its aspirations might be accentuated. And that causes an increase of one’s awe of God Almighty.

When this state is achieved it will hold there for as long as the individual has the capacity to stand against the forces that will most certainly challenge it. But it could hold for much longer if those who aspire to it band together. “Certainly Allah loves those with taqwa.” And his Mercy encompasses everything and He shall allocate His Mercy to those with awe of Him. Their wrong actions will be erased, their affairs in this world will be facilitated and their sustenance increased, and God shall help them against their enemies

These are the ones of karam or of nobility. If we are going to be victorious against the harmful forces that seek to rule our lives we have to arm ourselves with more than just cool slogans, loud placards, by aspiring to a higher goal. Ramadan is the month to polish the shield of taqwa. As the late Khurum Murad said: “As flowers blossom in spring, so does taqwa in Ramadan.” Let it blossom to such an extent that those who wish to put order, beauty, love, tolerance, into our cities and our lives will come to see that these things are not possible without a ‘state’ that is pleasing to God.