Tag Archives: Islam

Can Heavy Metal Save the World?

My latest on the way in which Orphaned Land, Israel’s biggest heavy metal band, is transforming relations between Muslims and Jews in the MENA.

Sometimes change happens in the most unlikely ways, fostered by the most unlikely of people. In the last few years, while Israel’s relationship with the Arab and Muslim world has drastically deteriorated, an Israeli heavy metal band has been uniting thousands of Jews and Muslims across the Middle East.

Originally published in Common Ground News, a longer version of this piece also appears in The Jerusalem Post.


Was Michael Jackson A Muslim?

Did Michael Jackson convert to Islam? Doubtful, says writer Ali Eteraz.

One of the surprising traffic trends that I have noticed are the amount of Muslims from all over the world storming Muslim web-sites in the West hoping to a) find out whether all the rumors about Jackson being a Muslim were true and therefore whether he would receive a Muslim janaza or funeral prayer and b) wishing him well in loquacious ways. The question of Jackson’s relation to Islam is on the mind of many Muslims and a considerable number of them are either hopeful or convinced that he did convert. Therefore, I figured I would look into the matter a little bit. Most of my investigation has revealed that Jackson was not a Muslim and in fact most of the Muslim personalities who were allegedly responsible for his conversion all deny the possibility as well.

To read more, click here.

Better not break the news to these guys:

Ok, Ok, don’t get too (soft power) happy, here is the original.

I believe the traditional dance is called Ardha.

Creator of Muslim-Friendly TV Channel Decapitates Wife.

Muzzammil Hassan, the businessman who founded Bridges TV – a Muslim-friendly channel created to combat the negative stereotypes of Muslims in the US – has been charged with murdering his wife. His reason: divorce. His method: decapitation.

This is a horrible story. One that will surely counteract any positive work that Bridges TV has done.

As we do not have all the facts, we cannot begin to fully understand what happen. However, in thinking about this man, I am reminded of how Tony Soprano used to decry the way in which Italian-Americans are portrayed in the media. His was a ridicules psychological disconnect between what he did and how he saw/projected himself/Italians.

Is this tragic occurrence symptomatic of how moderate Islam today suffers from a Soprano-like disconnect between perception, projection, and reality?

The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) has issued a statement, authored by Imam Mohamed Hagmagid Ali, calling on Muslim communities to wake up to the plight of domestic violence.

This is a wake up call to all of us, that violence against women is real and can not be ignored. It must be addressed collectively by every member of our community. Several times each day in America, a woman is abused or assaulted. Domestic violence is a behavior that knows no boundaries of religion, race, ethnicity, or social status. Domestic violence occurs in every community. The Muslim community is not exempt from this issue. We, the Muslim community, need to take a strong stand against domestic violence. Unfortunately, some of us ignore such problems in our community, wanting to think that it does not occur among Muslims or we downgrade its seriousness.

The letter is a good start, but does not go far enough. Its explicit and implicit criticism of the community is healthy and refreshing, but it does not provide room for the idea that while domestic violence is a universal problem, Islam is part of the problem. Nor does it provide the opportunity for a creative Islamic response to the plight of domestic violence.

The letter uses the the Quran to support its positions,

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) never hit a women or child in his life. The purpose of marriage is to bring peace and tranquility between two people, not fear, intimidation, belittling, controlling, or demonizing. Allah the All-Mighty says in the Qur’an: “Among His signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquility with them and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts): verily in that are signs for those who reflect” (30:21),

However, by using the Quran in such as fashion, the letter opens itself to legitimate criticism based on the Quran. The 800-pound guerilla is of course Sura 4:34.

Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely God is high, supreme. (Translation by Dawood)

For me the question/challenge has always been: How a religion that conditionally sanctions male-on-female domestic violence can ever be properly squared with modern values of gender/sexual equality? Not to tackle this question square-on is to disrespect the memory of Aasiya Zubair (and many like her).

Malcolm X and the Power of the Hajj.

For millions of Muslims around the world, this weekend is the opportunity to fulfill one of Islam’s most sacred duties: The Hajj. The pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of Islam – the other four being the proclamation of the oneness of Allah, fasting during Ramadan, giving money to the poor and prayer five times a day.

Now to many outsiders the sight of thousands of Muslims circumambulating in a counter-clockwise direction around the Kabba (the huge black stone) is a scary sight. We clearly project our fears onto such a grand and alien procession. Yet for Muslims, the hajj is an opportunity for social cohesion, spiritual rejuvenation and an anchoring of values. It is a journey, inward as outward, into the essence of Muslim existence.

I recently re-read Malcolm X’s autobiography. In it, he provides an account of hajj and the power it had on him. He writes:

Carrying my sandals, I follwed the Mutawad. Then I saw The Ka’ba, a huge black stone house in the middle of the Great Mosque.. It was being circumambulated by thousands upon thousands of praying pilgrims, both sexes, and every size, shape, color, and race in the world. I knew the prayer to be uttered when the pilgrim’s eyes first perceive the Ka’ba. Translated, it is “O God, You are peace, and peacedervies from You. So greet us, O Lord, with peace.” Upon entering the Mosque, the pilgrim should try to kiss the Ka’ba is possible, but if the crowds prevent him getting that close, he touches it, and if the crowds prevent that, he raises his hands and cries out “Takbir!” (“God is Great”) I could not get within yards. “Takbir!”.

My feelings there in the house of God was numbness. My Mutawaf led me in the crowd of praying, chanting pilgrims, moving seven times around the Ka’ba. Some were bent and wizened with age; it was a sight that stamped itself on the brain. I saw incapacitated pilgrims being carried bby others. Faces were enraptured in their faith. The seventh time around, I prayed two Rak’a, prostrating myself, my headon the floor. The frist prostration, I prayed the Quran verse” Say He is God, the one and only”; the second prostration: “Say O you who are unbelievers, I worship not that which you worship….”

In Campbellesque like manner, Malcolm is transformed by the physical and spiritual journey he takes. Reflecting on his experience, Malcolm continues:

Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and the overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by the people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad, and all the other prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by the people of all colors.”

In a letter to an American friend, Malcolm writes:

That morning [in Jedda] was when I first began to reappraise the ‘white man’. It as when I first began to perceive that ‘white man’ as commonly used, means complexion only secondary; primarily it describes attitudes and actions … In the Muslim world, I had seen that men with white complexions were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been. That morning was the start of a radical alteration in my whole outlook about ‘white’ men.

America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white’–but the ‘white’ attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.”

Anyone who is aware of Malcolm’s exclusionary and racist views prior to his experience in Mecca can appreciate the tremendous impact that the hajj had on him (see clip below). He was a leader with real moral courage, an authentic seeker of truth, who was not afraid to follow the sign-posts of reality wherever they led him. Sadly, at the age of 39, his inclusive outlook and rejection of the Nation of Islam cost him his life. One can only imagine how far Malcolm could have gone had he continued to live.

A Proud Nation: Gay Pride Parade In Jerusalem

In honor of the Gay Pride Parade that recently took place in Jerusalem, I am reposting one of my first published articles. The article, entitled A Proud Nation, appeared in Tikkun on November 9th, 2006. I actually really like this article, it is still one of my favorite pieces. Enjoy.

A Proud Nation
By Roi Ben-Yehuda

Make no mistake about it, the Gay Pride parade that is scheduled to take place this Friday in Jerusalem is nothing short of a litmus test for Israel as a democracy. Can you imagine a gay pride parade taking place in Mecca, Tehran, Kabul, or Baghdad? You can’t. And the reason you can’t is because these places lack basic freedoms. But Israel is different. Israel takes pride in being the only democracy in the Middle East, a title that will ring hollow lest the government protects the right of its minority citizens to free speech and public demonstration.

The arguments against the parade have ranged from the sophisticated, to the absurd, to the immoral. Some have argued that since the parade will undoudbtly incite violence, the right to life should take precedent over the right to free speech. Others have said that in the name of tolerance and respect, that the parade should be cancelled or rerouted to Tel-Aviv. Still others have called out that Jerusalem is a sacred city, and the presence of gays will desecrate its holy grounds.

Fortunately, all these arguments, in one guise or another, have been rebutted. The potential of danger, cannot eliminate people’s right to free speech and demonstration. If that would be the case, then every group that would feel offended would resort to the threat of violence or violent behavior to get rid of the source of their indignation.

Likewise, the idea that in the name of tolerance and respect the parade should be rerouted is equally unacceptable. The French-Arab intellectual Amin Maalouf responded to this type of reasoning best when he wrote that, “Traditions deserve to be respected only insofar as they are respectable – that is, exactly insofar as they themselves respect the fundamental rights of men and women.”

Finally, the notion that the mere presence of gays and those who support them will foul the hallowed grounds of Jerusalem, rest on accepting a particular religious moral construct as normative. Jerusalem, the city, as sacred space is not a legal concept, and the idea that gays are an abomination has no place in the moral discourse of those who have respect for human dignity. In short, none of these arguments are sufficient for putting a halt to the demonstration.

Lost in these debates is an unquestioned assumption that needs to be addressed: namely, that homosexuality is an affront to Judaism. Many orthodox Jews do indeed consider homosexuality to be an abomination. In the Torah, it states that “if a man copulates with another male as one copulates with a woman, both of them have acted abominably; they shall be put to death… [Leviticus 20:13]

Yet in the heat of the moment, what people often overlook is that the word abomination appears all over the Bible (122 times in all). It is used for eating non-Kosher animals [Deus 14:3], to describe the act of man who remarries his wife after she married another [24:4], to describe bringing improper sacrifice to God [Deut 17:1], to describe acting with envy, and to describe shedding innocent blood [Proverbs 3:32, 16:22]. Given that all these are considered abominations, why are the religiously orthodox able to live with some and not with others? Are not all abomination created equal?

Whats more, is homosexuality really prohibited by the Torah? As mentioned above, the prohibition against homosexuality comes from an interpretation of two Leviticus passages which state that males should not lie with other males as if they were females. But the text itself is not so clear cut, and is subject to multiple interpretations. First off, we should note that the prohibition is directed at males only. The Torah says nothing about female to female relations. Next, we need to ask what does it mean to for a man to lie with another man “as one lies with a woman”? [Leviticus 18:22]

Rabbi Simcha Roth, an authority on Jewish law, has written that the major prohibition intimated by Leviticus is that of anal sex and not homosexuality. In other words, what the Torah disallows is for a man to treat another man as he would a woman – i.e. penetrate him. In his essay “Dear David: Homosexual relationships – A Halachic Investigation”, Roth writes that, “If the Torah is prohibiting the specific act of anal penetration of one male by another; it follows that the two verses of the Torah are not a blanket prohibition of homosexuality.”

Going beyond this less-exclusive interpretation, the American Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach summed up the matter beautifully when he wrote that , “Religious people should finally get over their all-too-apparent homophobia and reverse the discriminatory policy which says that homosexuality is an aberration marked by God for special censure. Like heterosexual men and women, gays are God’s children, capable of bringing light and love to a planet whose darkness is caused not only by sin but also misguided judgmentalism.” Amen to that.

It must be remembered that as much as Judaism is the religion that gave us Leviticus 18:22, it is also the relgion that gave us the divine commandment “You should love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypts.” [Deut 10:19] And who is today’s strangers, if not our gay, lesbian, and transsexual brothers and sisters.

Religion should unite us, engendering a spirit of compassion and loving-kindness in all. If it fails to do so, its usefulness will become obsolete. The great irony of the gay pride parade in Jerusalem is that it manages, in the name of bigotry, to unite orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Israelis and Jews across the world would be wise to ask themselves if these are the type of bed fellows that they really want.

I began this article by stating that if Israel wants to march in the Democracy Pride Parade, then it must act in congruence with its democratic principles. Likewise, if the Jewish people want to live up to the biblical injunction to be a “light unto the nations”, they must reject the hatred and bigotry espoused in their name and take pride in their mighty spiritual and universal heritage.

Diversity for the sake of unity – Islam As It Ought To Be.

Moez Masoud delivers an inspiring speech on my favorite suras in the Quran.

Sura 49:13:

“O people, we created you from the same male and female, and rendered you distinct peoples and tribes, that you may know one another. The best among you in the sight of GOD is the most righteous.”

The music at the end is cheesy, but the speech is sincere and spot on.

Irshad Manji Features Me As An Agent of Moral Courage

Every few weeks, the public intellectual Irshad Manji features people who she calls agents of moral courage: “Those who brave the disapproval of their own communities for the sake of a greater good.” Today, much to my surprise, Irshad included me among those selected. The occasion – My “tough-love letter” to Israel. I am touched and inspired by this honor.

Have a read:

Agent of moral courage: Roi Ben-Yehuda

It’s Israel’s 60th birthday, and not every Jew is celebrating unconditionally.

Witness Roi Ben-Yehuda. He’s no party pooper. The boy knows how to have a good time. (Last year, he introduced me to the obnoxious Sacha Baron Cohen character known as Borat, and still imitates this clown at the most absurd moments in an otherwise serious conversation…)

Instead, Roi is an agent of moral courage, speaking truth to power not only when necessary, but also when inconvenient — on a landmark anniversary. A rising journalist and public thinker, he’s just published a “tough love letter” to his country of Israel. Here’s a passage:

“At sixty years young, you are an amazing success story and we are your grateful children. But grateful does not mean blind. When you shine a light on an object, you are also bound to get its shadow. And there is no escaping the fact that your shadow is Palestine.”

He goes on to write words that some will consider harsh. I consider them humane in that Roi sees the shared humanity of Palestinians and Israelis. So he also sees their destiny as shared. That’s why, elsewhere in his extraordinary letter to Israel, Roi writes that “the greatest gift you can give for your birthday is to lend a hand in creating a birthday for the Palestinian state. Don’t settle for just removing yourself; help construct a positive future for your sister nation.”

Imagine: a patriot who believes in giving rather than receiving on his country’s birthday, not as an act of charity but as a statement of national renewal. It’s what I’ve come to expect from these odd individuals whom I call agents of moral courage.

From the rest of the world, I’ve come to expect allegations of racism. Recently, I received several emails accusing me of anti-Semitism when I pointed out that secular Jewish women in Israel must still go to rabbinical courts for divorces. Even then, they often wind up with the shaft. Israel, in short, isn’t a perfect democracy for Israeli Jews, let alone for Israeli Arabs.

Finding this “shadow,” I suppose, makes me an anti-Semite. What a shame not just for Israel, but for democracy itself.

Democracy demands dissent — not to undermine its ideals but precisely to help realize them.

Roi Ben-Yehuda is one who gets it. He embodies a sentiment prominently showcased at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC: “Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”