Category: Interfaith

‘Religion — phase two’


The relation between religion and the media, in light of the problematic concept of freedom, was examined in Beit Mery, Lebanon, this week.

An exciting conference, in which I participated, addressed this complex triangle in a context of post-Arab Spring tensions.

Participants of various backgrounds and cultural references from many Arab countries presented their opinion on the subject. I represented the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies.

As I am always interested in the theme of religious references and their role in the structures of different identity components, I was thrilled to see such diverse and complex identities gathered at the conference.

The hall in which it was held embraced Muslims and Christians, secular and spiritual people, conservatives and liberals, people from religious institutions and from civil society, in addition to all sorts of media representatives. Bloggers and social media activists were also present.

This varied mosaic added to the richness of the subjects discussed.

Points of views coming from hundreds of angles helped create a very active atmosphere of intellectual exchange. Elevated religious ideas, philosophical themes and humanistic trends were expounded at the same table, often with humour, fun and creativity.

The intelligent design of the sessions and their management met the expectations.

Indeed, tackling such an important subject as “freedom, journalism and religion” always requires a smart formula.

I was relieved to find out that it was not “just another conference”. The seriousness of the subject and the design produced a great environment, conducive to such intellectual exercise.

I always differentiate between religion as identity, and religion as representation. When religion is lived as an identity by its adherents, we need to look deep into emotions, mentalities and hidden forms of expression if we are addressing a serious issue. Yet, if a problem is related to a representation of religious affiliation, then a different approach is needed. In this case, it depends on the context it lives in.

This is often the situation of political parties that base their ideological discourse in religious conception and language. The conference in Beit Mery based its work on the latter embodiment of religious experience. Maybe it is a good idea for the organisers to think of another conference that tries examining the above-mentioned triangle with identity as its main flavour.

Though the conference discussed issues related to religious identities, its structure inclined to the representative mode of religions. It enriched the participants’ storage of religious-based images and shadows of images.

It was a great opportunity to map some of the crisis stimulating issues that reside deep in the conjunctions the freedom, journalism and religion combination.

I hope that the outcome, whether in publication shape or electronic format, will be an excellent foundation for what we might call “Religion — phase two”. Identity as concept and as a lived reality helps much in resolving many puzzles in the Middle East.

The writer is a media strategist, and an interfaith and intercultural specialist. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

Geography of Religious Borders



by Marwan Al Husayni


When writing about social issues in the Arab world, special focus needs to be placed on religion.

Religion has the strongest and most effective impact on the social fabric throughout the region. Many people identify themselves in a religious way, on the basis of their stand on certain religious beliefs.

One of the most apparent social trends nowadays in many Arab societies is the absence of what is perceived as “personal expressions of privacy”. This is due to the strong sense of collectivity, which religions and religious rituals maintain in the individual psyche and social life.

Though the global aim of religions is to spread human values among people at individual level, religious rituals are powerful factors for strengthening the sense of collective identities or illusions of identities.

The pressing collective identities force individuals to sacrifice their personal expressions of privacy, especially in times of high tensions and wars. One of the ways to address this problem is to question the relationship between religion and identity.

The questions that come to mind in this context have to do with what I call the social geography of religious borders: Is religion an identity? Is religion a component of identity? Is religion a source of identity?

One can understand the reasons behind the lack of privacy in the Arab social sphere if the differences among these three questions are looked at carefully.

It is more important to examine how various communities in the region locate themselves within the socio-geographic map of religions, their rituals and manifestations.

From experience in interfaith studies, I can say that a big majority of Arab groups believes that religion equals identity. In this case, religious borders match the borders of society itself.

Members of these groups live their lives and express their being in line with what they think is religion. For them, there is no such thing as “personal”. One is asked to live his or her daily life in accordance with a certain interpretation of religion and religious rituals and practices.

A good number, but not a majority, of social groups departs from this stand. Religion, for them, is only one component of identity. Still, it is a powerful component in their relations with others and to life in general.

Identity in this context is controlled by religion, which colours the other components. Personal manifestations have some space among this category, though it is restricted. In this case, religion occupies a big chunk of the map.

The third category perceives religion as a source of, among others, identity. It is a reference, a guidance tool.

In this case, religion does not control the personal. It becomes personal among other expressions of privacy. In other words, religion is a separate territory that has its special paths towards to the other territory called “individual”. Few in the Arab world belong to this category.

Another way to examine the place of religion in the Arab social life is to look at the illusions of personal fear and security among the different communities.

Some religious leaders instill fear in their followers in order to keep them inside their circle, i.e., collective identity. Such leaders embody religion itself for those followers, and thus they are the source of security.

This is a huge illusion that covers all the map of Arab social life.

Perhaps this gives a hint to why religious fatwas are famous in the region. People need to have a secure opinion from a representative of God regarding their lives. They do not want to decide by themselves. They sacrifice the personal for the sake of feeling secure. But at the same time, most people are sacrificing the meaning of their intelligent existence for illusions.

Religion and illusions of religion have a great control over social trends, problems, issues and dynamics in our part of the world. When religion is everything, then everything else is ignored. A very negative outcome of this reality is that we do not move forward but keep moving around the same old circles.

Such circular movement does not lead anywhere. It only keeps thickening the borders of religion to match the borders of fear itself.

It is when we give religion its normal size and photo by lace in our lives that we can move forward and live our personal intelligent existence.

This is not a call for abandoning religion or religious rituals. It is a mere reminder that life is very diverse and religion is one of its colours.

What happens if you always perceive everything as red or white only?

The writer is media strategist, and interfaith and intercultural specialist. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

Rethinking, rejection or reform?


by Marwan Al Husayni | May 14,2012 | 22:28

I had the privilege to be in contact with two of the world’s revolutionary professors and thinkers. Both are deceased now. Mohammed Arkoun died in September 2010, Kamal Salibi died in September 2011. Both were 82 when they left our world.

I knew more about Islam from Salibi, who was Christian, and more about Christianity from Arkoun, who was Muslim. I learned more about the mechanisms of critical thinking and objective writing from both.

While working closely with Salibi in Amman on many interfaith and intercultural projects, I read most of Arkoun’s books. I was taken by his lifetime intellectual project “Rethinking Islam”. I was introduced to almost all aspects of his intellectual pulse before I met him in 2007.

I assisted Salibi in writing his diaries, “A Bird on an Oak Tree”, and officially was the editor of the book. I also used to translate between Arabic and English for him in daily academic works. He left Amman at the end of December 2003. The connection between us resumed through e-mail and Facebook.

I am not writing this article to just say that I knew the two professors. They both were great teachers for me and I benefited much from them intellectually. But they belonged to what I call “isolated identity”.

They were intellectuals whose works were rejected by wider Arab and Muslim circles, and were politically attacked for their archaeological efforts in history, knowledge and thought. They excavated and uncovered new epistemological layers for better understanding the history of early Christianity and Islam. Still, they were condemned for ideological reasons.

“Isolated identities” in the Arab world means that scientific thinking leads to rejection, discrimination then isolation. Neither of these two men took the mainstream conceptions for granted. They scientifically defied deeply rooted realities and revolutionised the way of looking at histories of Christianity and Islam. Their works faced a long process of isolation and distortion.

The mindset of “rethinking” always faces the mechanisms of rejection in the Arab region. This is how I feel and live it.

Arkoun and Salibi are remembered on some occasions and in limited circles, although they invested their lives in huge intellectual projects that are of great importance to humanity. For both of them ideology and private agendas are killers of scientific and critical thinking.

Sometimes, Salibi and I would spend a whole day editing one paragraph of few lines. The next day he would cancel the whole paragraph because “someone might hear an echo of distant ideology in it”, he used to tell me.

“I do not want to enrage anyone because scientific and objective writing must be as pure as light.”

He believed a scientific idea should introduce itself.

Arkoun talked about “the strategy of rejection”, which is a result of “imprisoning mind by ideology”. For him, ideology is ignorance; when mind is imprisoned by ignorance, it uses rejection to extinguish enlightened thinking.

Sadness was the end result for the minds of both Salibi and Arkoun.

When I last saw him, Salibi was leaving for Beirut with sadness in his eyes. I saw the same in Arkoun’s eyes while he was talking about “those who insist not to listen”.

When ignorance becomes a mainstream manifestation, what is the best identity marker that intellectuals should magnify: rethinking, rejection or reform?

The writer is media strategist, interfaith and intercultural specialist. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

إسلاموفوبيا جديدة بنكهة عربية

إسلاموفوبيا جديدة بنكهة عربية

مروان الحسيني *

الإسلاموفوبيا مصطلح شاع استخدامه بعد هجمات الحادي عشر من أيلول عام 2001 في الولايات المتحدة. ويشير هذا المصطلح إلى كراهية الإسلام والخوف منه ومن المسلمين في سياقات غربية معينة. وهذا أمر لا يعتبر جديداً هذه الأيام.

غير أن الأحداث الجارية في الشرق الأوسط والمنطقة العربية اليوم تقود إلى مظهر جديد من مظاهر الخوف من الإسلام. فالمسلمون أنفسهم، أو غالبية منهم، أصبحوا مصابين بالإسلاموفوبيا. وأحد الأسباب وراء هذه الحالة هي الطبيعة الفوضوية والمعقّدة لعمليات التغيير التي جاء بها ما يُسمى “الربيع العربي”. أما الأسباب الأخرى التي أدّت إلى هذا الوضع فيدخل ضمنها التسييس المفرط للحراكات الشعبية وكذلك التكلفة العالية والدموية للنزاعات البشرية.

إن نُسخاً معدّلة من الإسلام السياسي ذات مسحة من الديمقراطية والنكهات الدستورية ليست بديلاً مؤهلاً للأنظمة الشمولية في المنطقة. غير أنه من الواضح أن صعود أحزاب إسلامية (مقموعة) إلى السلطة في بلدان عربية هو أمر تدعمه الولايات المتحدة الأمريكية. وهذا التحالف المتجدد، بشروط أمريكية معدّلة، بين أمريكا والإسلاميين العرب لا يُتوقّع منه أن يخاطب القضايا الحقيقية التي تشغل فكر المواطنين في المنطقة بأسلوب صحّي ومثمر يصبّ في صالح الإنسان العادي.

والموضوع الأساسي الذي يندرج تحت هذا التصنيف هو موضوع الحريات. فالتغييرات الجذرية التي تحدث هذه الأيام في الشرق الأوسط تُضخّم آمال ومخاوف شعوب المنطقة. فهل يُتوقّع من الأنظمة أو الحكومات الإسلامية الجديدة أن تحقق الآمال أم أن تجدد المخاوف وتُضيف إليها مخاوف أخرى؟ وهل الإسلاميون، أنفسهم، جاهزون لتغيير أثوابهم التي تحمل شعارات “الترهيب المقدّس” بأثواب جديدة والسير في طرق المواطنة والحريات المدنية وحقوق المرأة واحترام التنوع السياسي والاجتماعي والديني؟

بينما ينظر العديد من المحللين إلى العالم العربي بوصفه محافظاً من الناحية الدينية وشعوبه تأمل بشكل عام في رؤية دور مهم للإسلام، كدين، في الحياة العامة، إلا أن شعوراً آخر أصبح ينتشر في الأجواء.

لقد جلبت رياح “الربيع العربي” معها المزيد من بذور الكراهية إلى المنطقة. في الماضي، سيطرات الصراعات الخفيّة على الأوضاع السياسية القائمة، وخصوصاً عندما كان الأمر يتعلق بعلاقات جدلية تربط بين العديد من الأطراف المتصارعة مع الأنظمة السياسية. أما الآن فأصبح الكثير من الصراعات والاختلافات والخلافات مُعلناً وصريحاً بعد أن كسرت حراكات المواطنين العديد من حواجز الخوف.

ومع ذلك، لا يزال هنالك خوف آخر لا بدّ من التعامل معه من قبل الأفراد. في الفضاء الاجتماعي، لا يفرّق العديد من المسلمين العرب بين الإسلام والإسلاميين، حيث يتداخل الديني والسياسي في منظورهم. “هؤلاء الذين يصلّون ويرتادون المساجد أفضل منّا”. هذا واحد من الشعارات التي شاعت وروّجت اجتماعياً كتبرير لتفسير وعقلنة دعم وتأييد الإسلاميين من قبل الأفراد العاديين. كما أن آية قرآنية كريمة أو حديثاً نبوياً شريفاً أو حتى فتوى يطلقها شيخ ما كانت تبدو إجابة مقبولة لأي مشكلة أو أزمة كبيرة. لكنّ هذا لا يستقيم عندما يتعلّق الأمر بإدارة بلد بأكمله.

لم يكن الإسلاميون قادة “الربيع العربي”، ومع ذلك فإنهم يصعدون إلى السلطة بقوة. وقد يُحيل العديد من المحللين والمعلّقين إلى “طبيعة الأنسجة الاجتماعية” و”الأسباب التاريخية” عندما يحاولون تفسير هذه النتيجة غير المنطقية ولكن المفهومة.

لكنّ العيش في الماضي وتولّي مسؤولية بناء المستقبل في الوقت نفسه هو لعبة جميع أطرافها خاسرون، قبل أن يبدأوا اللعب. فأدوات التغيير والسلطة السياسية هي أدوات مختلفة تماماً عن أدوات الفضاء الاجتماعي والفضاء التاريخي. وقضايا مثل الإصلاح الاقتصادي والتنمية والفقر والبطالة والعدالة الاجتماعية وحرية التعبير والتنوع الديني تحتاج إلى بُنى تفكير مختلفة ومغايرة لتلك الراسخة في فضاء “الترهيب والترغيب” العام.

إن أسئلة كانت ذات يوم شائعة في دوائر غربية مُصابة بالإسلاموفوبيا من المرجّح أن يصبح لها حضور قوي في الشرق الأوسط والعالم العربي: هل يتوافق الإسلام مع الديمقراطية؟ هل يتوافق الإسلام مع الحريات؟ هل يتوافق الإسلام مع حقوق المرأة؟ هل يتوافق الإسلام مع الحداثة؟ والقائمة طويلة جداً.

الإسلاميون يصعدون إلى السلطة السياسية في تونس ومصر وليبيا، وأصبح صوتهم السياسي مرتفعاً في الأردن والمغرب وسوريا وغيرها. غير أن الكثير من الأفراد المسلمين بدأوا يتساءلون: هل يتوافق الإسلاميون والسلطة السياسية؟ هذا سؤال مفتوح على مصراعيه لعديدٍ من الأيام المقبلة.

 * إعلامي وباحث في شؤون الأديان والثقافات

Islamophobic questions raised by Muslims

by Marwan Al Husayni | Apr 10,2012 | 22:42

“Islamophobia” is a term that came into common use after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. It refers to the hatred and fear of Islam and Muslims in certain Western contexts.

This is history now. Current affairs in the Middle East and the Arab region are leading to a new aspect of the fear of Islam. Muslims themselves are becoming Islamophobic.

The chaotic and complex nature of change is one reason. Other reasons are the over-politicising of the peoples’ movements and the high cost of human conflicts.

Modified versions of political Islam with a touch of democracy and constitutional flavours are not accepted by everybody as eligible substitutes for totalitarian regimes. But the rise of oppressed Islamic parties to the power in Arab countries is apparently supported by the United States.

This new US coalition with Arab Islamists is not expected to address the real issues concerning the citizens of the region in a healthy way.

One such issue is freedoms. The drastic changes that are taking place in the Middle East are magnifying the hopes and fears of the peoples.

Are the new Islamist regimes or governments expected to meet the hopes or add to the fears? Are the Islamists ready to change and walk down the paths of citizenship, civil liberties, women’s rights and respect for political, social and religious diversity?

While many analysts perceive the Arab world as a religiously conservative place and its people generally want to see an important role for Islam in public life, new feelings are making themselves felt.

The winds of the Arab Spring are bringing seeds of more hatred to the region. In the past, hidden conflicts dominated the political status quo, especially when it had to do with a dialectical relation with the regimes. Now it is all public, after mobilised citizens broke down many barriers of fear.

Still, there is one fear to deal with by the individuals. In the social sphere, most Arab Muslims do not differentiate between Islam and Islamists.

“Those who pray and go to the mosques are better than me” was an often-heard justification for rationalising the support for Islamists by many individuals. A Koranic verse, a hadith or a fatwa by a certain sheikh would be an accepted answer to any big problem or crisis. This is not applicable when managing a country.

The Islamists are not the leaders of the “Arab Spring”, yet they are rising to the power. Many analysts and commentators refer to the “social fabric” and “historical reasons” when explaining this illogical, but understandable, outcome.

But living in the past while building future is a losing game. The tools for change and power are totally different. Issues like economic reform, development, poverty, unemployment, social justice, freedom of speech and religious diversity need a new set of thinking.

Questions which were once popular in Islamophobic Western circles are likely to have a strong presence in the Middle East: Is Islam compatible with democracy? Is Islam compatible with freedoms? Is Islam compatible with women’s issues? Is Islam compatible with modernity?

The list is too long.

Islamists are rising to power in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. They have louder voices in other countries, like Jordan, Morocco and Syria. Many Muslims are already asking: Are Islamists compatible with power?

The writer is media strategist, and interfaith and intercultural specialist. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

Churches are Islamic heritage

Marwan al-Husayni *

Churches in the Arab region are oriental spiritual heritage and no one has the right to tamper with it, whether in the name of religion, politics or ideology. Christianity in the East is a basic component of a human civilization in the region, which cannot be abandoned or damaged. As is the case with Islam, mosques and the call to prayer five times a day, Christianity is a fundamental part of the psychological, social and historical collective fabric of Arab individual, whether Muslim or Christian.

The call for the demolition of churches in the region or in the Arabian Peninsula, on the lips of the Mufti of Saudi Arabia, is a call for the destruction of Arab individuals. It is worse than killing them, and not less dangerous than the call for the demolition of mosques, schools, hospitals or kindergartens. It is no different from calling for the destruction of the Kaaba itself, Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock.

I am not concerned here with the reactions which depicted such call as part of a global scheme to create chaos in the Middle East. What concerns me more is the psychological reaction. Passing such call without highlighting its danger, or without expressing discontent with what it invokes, is a terrifying sign of new sadism. Allowing the demolition of churches is no different from sadistic behavior towards brothers, sisters, sons or daughters.

I do not want to say that such call is in full contradiction with the principles and teachings of Islam. This fact must be taken for granted, especially that we are still living the results of the policies and ideologies of intolerance, narrow-mindedness, hatred, denial of the other and commercialization of religions and humans.

I’ve read the recent news about the exhibition “Hajj… journey to the heart of Islam” at the British Museum in London. The exhibition witnessed a huge number of visitors. I hope there would be serious calls and efforts in our region to activate common spiritual exhibitions that highlight the compound and deep spiritual heritage of Islam and Christianity in Arab and Eastern countries. This part of the world is the historical incubator of interactivity between heaven and earth since the beginning of creation.

Such suggested exhibitions would activate and create an advanced status of respecting and understanding diversity and plurality in the region. They would also protect our peoples from closed ideologies, dogmatic fanaticism and narrow identities, offering them the openness of the divine concept of creation and human life. No one can predict that the absolute truth is his or her own property; no one speaks on behalf of the Creator.

Oriental Churches and Christian existence in the Middle East are Islamic spiritual heritage. They survived through centuries by true Islam. They are the witnesses of a human civilization which early Muslims knew and maintained its value.

I am afraid the call for the demolition of churches might evolve to a more comprehensive destruction of what remained of the Arab mind and dignity.

* Media Strategist, Interfaith and Intercultural specialist