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Pop!Tech – Dialog with/in Islam

Dr. John Esposito leads a conversation titled “Dialog With/In Islam”. He points out that Islam is a powerful and visible force – the second or third largest religion, the majority religion in more than 50 nations. Esposito remembers that he was considered crazy by his Catholic colleagues when he decided to take on Islam as a field of study. That all changed during the Iranian revolution: “Khomeni, Iran – I owe them my career and my Lexus. Osama bin Laden, my Lexus coupe.”

In contrast to Judaism and Christianity, Islam was invisible to most of us as we grew up – we didn’t see mosques in our communities, or hindu temples. As a result, we have very little context for understanding struggles within Islam. “Imagine a bunch of Buddhists watching northern Ireland – what is it about those Catholics and Protestants and the way they go at it?”

Esposito has worked on a survey of American attitudes about Islam. The majority of Americans, when asked what they admire about Muslims, answered either “nothing or I don’t know.” Ask Muslims anywhere else in the world this question and less than 7% will say there’s nothing they admire – they admire our technology, our openness, many aspects of American society. But Americans seem determined not to understand Islam – right wing students are currently planning Islamofascism week.

Esposito invites three speakers from throughout the Arab world – two muslims, one Christian. The idea is to allow each speaker ten minutes, then bring people into dialog.

Leading off is my friend Daoud Kuttab, the founder of the Institute of Modern Media in Ramallah. He explains that “media in the Arab world is very free… except news about the country you’re actually in.” Qatar, for instance, has great news coverage of everywhere other than Qatar; Lebanon covers Syria well; you can learn a great deal about Saudi Arabia from Jordanian newspapers. But it’s hard to access this information – “The customs agents are the real censors.” They physically mangle newspapers brought across borders.

The internet has made another sort of communication possible – physical borders aren’t the only important ones anymore. Kuttab started AMIN – Arabic Media Internet Network – to take advantage of these capabilities. The word “amin” means truth in arabic, and the ability to read newspapers from other countries is a great way to seek truth from other nations. The network, founded in 1996, had a lot of problems with technology, since it was at that point very difficult to represent Arabic on the web – instead, they generally posted scans of pages and kept them up for a few days.

While AMIN was important for people in urban areas who were literate, the majority of people in the Arab world live outside the capitals, where radio and television is king. “We were cursed in the Arab countries – when radio was in its golden age, in the Arab world, the radio station is the first place the coup plotters go.” As a result, radio stations are considered very important military and political institutions, because you can overthrow a country by taking one over.

In 2000, Daoud wanted to do internet radio, in part to challenge a minister who had declared that “the Internet is free in Jordan.” (He mentions that there are “analog and digital ministers” in the Middle East, technocrats, and ministers who don’t understand technology. I think there’s a good chance that this was an analog minister.) He founded Ammannet.net, armed his reporters with minidisc recorders so they could get “actualities”, and started training journalists. The network had its big breakthrough during a protest at Jordan University. Camera crews from Al Jazeera and others were turned away, but the Ammannet reporter, armed only with a mobile phone and a minidisc recorder, was able to report from the scene. Daoud realized how important these reports were, and asked a friend in Jerusalem to rebroadcast the news over his FM station. Suddenly, Ammannet was available on the air in Amman. “It was something completely illegal done in a legal way.”

Much of Kuttab’s work is now about enabling journalists in the Muslim world. He’s developed a digital media curiculum that’s available at Khaleejnet.net that’s been used to teach in countries throughout the region. He tells us about a group in Yemen – Women Journalists Without Chains – which has been producing breaking news and delivering it over SMS. They simply formed a partnership with the local mobile phone company and shared revenue with them, avoiding all issues of journalistic licensing. They’re now under attack from the government, who’d like to outlaw them, and there are demonstrations in their support every week in front of the Prime Minister’s office.

He tells us about some stories I’ve reported in depth – Google Earth banned in Bahrain, Sami ben Gharbia’s map of Tunisian secret prisons, and about Wa’el Abbas’s films of government officials stuffing ballots boxes and beating people in Egypt. And he reminds us that the technology Arab nations are using to block websites are being produced in America, which is shameful.

Sarah Joseph is editor of Emel Magazine, an alternative British Muslim magazine. She’s a woman with a complicated life, half spent inside and half outside Islam, since she was raised Roman Catholic and converted in adulthood. She identifies herself as being in the “we camp”, seeing solidarity both with Muslims and with Europeans.

She shows us a campaign for washing powder that was hugely successful in the UK, but went over like a lead balloon with Muslims. It’s a series of three images – a green sock, a washing machine and a white sock. “It didn’t work well in the Arab world, because Arabs lead right to left!” she tells us.

Search google images for “muslim” – the images aren’t representative. You’ll get images of burqa-swimsuits, of veiled faces. “They give the impression that no dialog is possible.” She points out that images of UK perceptions of Muslims are quite ugly – she shows a piece of graffiti near her home that says “Avenge USA Killa Muslim Now.”

“Things are done in the name of Islam, yes, they’re done in the name of Christianity, done in the name of democracy.” She argues that you can’t define yourself in the negative – you must affirm what you’re for, what you’re about. Emel Magazine is her attempt to do this – a slick, colorful lifestyle magazine that portrays a much more complex image of what it means to be Muslim.

She ends with a discussion of the idea that Muslims are sometimes thought of as the 5th column, the enemy from within. She shows images of a 19th century cartoon of a bearded Turk destroying a Union Jack, and constrasts this to a contemporary image of female Muslim soccer supporters holding the St. George’s cross flag, the symbol used by English football fans. She points out a fact that few Muslims know – St. George was the half-Palestinian, half-Turkish patron saint of England. There are mosques throughout Turkey named for St. George. “These right wingers wrap themselves in this flag and ask for ‘England for the English’… but the English patron saint is Palestinian and Turkish!”

Dr. Mustafa Ceric – the Grand Mufti of Bosnia – is the last to take the stage. He tells the audience and fellow speakers, “You have a surplus in your technological products, and we have a surplus in our spiritual products. We should exchange, provided we should not become like us, and we should become like you.” He gets a good laugh with a story about a muslim youth wearing a t-shirt that reads, “Don’t panic, I am muslim.” He tells us, “Don’t panic, I am muslim. It’s worse – I am professionally muslim.”

But his next statement changes tone sharply. “I am survivor of genocide in Bosnia, 11 of July 1995. ‘Never again’ was broken, and I survived. 8,000 Muslims died in one day. We understand you, better than anyone in the world, what it means to be under attack from terrorists and genocidal people.” He thanks President Clinton for the intervention to prevent the massacre from spreading.

He shows three quotes from scripture, about the creation of the universe and about the Virgin Mary and quizzes the audience as to whether they came from the Old Testament, the New Testament or the Quaran – we all fail, as all three quotes are Quaranic.

He offers a rapid and confusing explication of Sharia, Islamic law, and Ijtihad, the legal intepretation of Quaranic texts. He suggests that the major problem with Islam is best explained by Max Weber’s theory of charisma. “When Muhammed was alive, everything was okay, but when he died, people went three ways.”

Sunnis, he tells us, want to find a way to routinize the charisma of the Prophet. The Shia believe in living charisma, charisma embodied in contemporary leaders. And the Kharijites believe in the dissemination of charisma, meaning that any pious and able individual could represent Islam – a path the Mufti sees leading to Bin Laden. (I think. He’s talking very quickly and it’s hard to follow this completely.) “We need to routinize our relationship with the west and with the rest of the world.”

He closes by telling us that he’s “proud to be an American-made Mufti”, a product of the University of Chicago. And he warns us, “You may win the war, you may not win the peace. You may be a hero of the war, you may not be the hero of the peace. Let’s fight for the holy peace, not for the holy war.”

The question and answer period isn’t really long enough to generate the sort of free-flowing dialog we might hope for. Jordan is asked what made her convert to Islam – she talks bout “the simplicity of the monotheism”, the fact that there are no arguments in Islam about what is and isn’t included in the Quaran.

Kuttab is asked his opinion of Al Jazeera – he offers a history of the network from its roots as a collaboration between Saudi funders and BBC’s Arabic service. He mentions that Al Jazeera did precisely what Arab media critics asked – it provided real, personal voices, not just the voices of authority, and points out that Al Hurra, by contrast, looks like old-school Arab media, broadcasting the image of President Bush the very first day. And he celebrates Al Jazeera English as the best news network on the air today.

In a later comment, Kuttab notes, “The majority of muslims are not being heard. A small minority of radicals are being heard. But they are touching on true injustices,” of the Arab world, which is precisely what makes them so dangerous.

Esposito closes by telling us that people ask him, “Where are the moderate Muslims and why aren’t they denouncing terror? Well, they are. If you aren’t hearing them, the problem is the media,” which isn’t amplifying those voices and letting them be heard.

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