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My Mercy overcomes My Anger
Mon 26 May 2008
Source:  Usama Hasan / The Times Online (Credo)
 
"With the Name of God, All-Merciful, Most Merciful" - all but one of the 114 chapters of the Koran begin with this phrase. Millions of people around the world begin their daily activities - prayers, meals, journeys and meetings - with this statement. All divine revelation to humanity throughout history is summarised in this formula. Mercy is the essential divine quality, superior even to love. We are not only made in God's image, but in the image of the All-Merciful.

Both these names of God denoting mercy, al-Rahman and al-Rahim, are derived from the Arabic root rahm, which means "the womb". The Divine Mercy is thus feminine, all-encompassing, nurturing and nourishing. The world is a place where the names of God, numbering 99 in the Koran and infinity in reality, are manifested or reflected in created forms. Rain, bringing life, crops and food, is an obvious manifestation of mercy: "It is He who sends the winds, spreading the good news, heralding His Mercy," as is repeatedly said in the Koran. Or, as Portia expressed it in The Merchant of Venice: "The quality of mercy is not strain'd; / It droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven / Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless'd; / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."

But anger and wrath are also divine qualities: "for I am an angry God," we are told in the Old Testament, and "truly, your Lord is swift in reckoning . . . severe in punishment," in the Koran. Anger is related to justice, and this is manifested at the human level in the natural anger that we all feel at injustice and oppression, at news stories about war, terrorism, murder, rape and incest. Yet, there is a golden principle relating anger and mercy, woven into the very fabric of creation, as taught by the Prophet, peace be upon him: When God created the creation, He wrote beneath His throne: "My mercy overcomes my anger."

Natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, despite being mediated via physical, scientifically measurable processes, are unmistakably manifestations of God's anger in the violence of nature. Yet there is always the hidden mercy behind human suffering, the silver lining to every cloud. I visited the earthquake-hit regions of Pakistan two years ago and saw the immense outpouring of human compassion from around the world in the shape of relief supplies and workers, and the limitless supply of human courage in the survivors. This effect had been even grander, of course, with the Indian Ocean tsunami a year earlier. More recently, I met a young lady in London who was once brutally assaulted, raped and left to die, and three young men who were imprisoned abroad for years and tortured, in three different countries. The mercy of God gave them the strength and endurance to recover fully from their ordeals.

"Angry young men" - how often do we hear that phrase! (Of course, women and old men get angry, too.) If they're angry about injustice, it's justified. But wouldn't the world be a much better place if, inspired by God, our mercy overcame our anger and we had more "merciful young men"? Or, to quote Portia again: "And earthly power doth then show likest God's / When mercy seasons justice."

The Prophet taught: "Show mercy to others: God will show mercy to you." He also once pointed to a loving mother who was hugging her child upon finding him again after having lost him for a while, and asked his companions, "Do you think that this mother would ever throw her child into fire?" They replied: "Of course not." He remarked: "God is even more merciful to humanity than this mother is to her child." He also taught that God divided His mercy into a hundred portions, and sent one portion down to Earth. This portion is divided among every loving family and tender relationship, every couple and every mother and child, throughout the animal and human kingdoms. The remaining 99 portions are reserved for God to shower upon humanity in the hereafter.

Thus, if all the tenderness and compassion in the world is but 1 per cent, so to speak, of the limitless mercy beyond, we can indeed face life and death with plenty of hope.


Dr Usama Hasan is an imam at Tawhid Mosque, Leyton, East London, and a senior lecturer at Middlesex University. He is also director of the City Circle

How not to deal with al-Muhajiroun

Thu 18 Jun 2009

 

Yahya Birt argues that we need smarter ways to deal with al-Muhajiroun rather than promoting their provocations or banning them.

Muslim communities around the country have shunned al-Muhajiroun and its various entities for years and refused to give them a platform. Instead, they have to work through front organisations, hire private halls, set up high-street stalls or leaflet people with their poisonous little tracts. They are utterly marginal but are still able to generate huge coverage through provocation. Their recent barracking of British troops returning from Iraq and a counter mini-riot in Luton has poisoned relations in the town. The Muslim community of Luton, which had already chased them out of the mosques, has taken to chasing them off the streets too in a desperate bid to signal their utter disgust and consternation.

Anjem Choudary's latest wheeze to incite the ire of the national press and to irritate the hell out of Britain's Muslims as well as everyone else is to use a legal loophole to relaunch al-Muhajiroun this week, which had been disbanded in 2004. Only its successor groups, al-Ghurabaa and the Saviour Sect, were banned in 2006 under terrorism legislation. It seems fairly clear that Choudary expects, and indeed makes the calculation, that the reformed al-Muhajiroun will be banned pretty quickly to generate the notoriety and street-cred that he wants to sustain. As they play a propagandistic role, they will continue to find ways to dodge past legal restrictions by using coded language or forming new entities. The law is obviously a blunt and ineffectual tool.

Well Choudary got his headlines yet again last night when a debate with Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC) on sharia law verses UK law never got started, ending in acrimony and thuggish behaviour after about half-an-hour. Al-Muhajiroun used their own goons to enforce strict gender segregation at the event, and roughed up at least one person who objected, and so the event was abandoned and the police were called in.

I called the CSC earlier this week as I had concerns that they were just being used to promote Choudary's latest wheeze and that I had my suspicions that the so-called neutral event organiser, the mysterious Global Issues Society (GIS), was just another al-Muhajiroun front organisation, a suspicion that was proved spectacularly correct last night. The Centre had its concerns too but wanted definitive proof that GIS was a front if it was to pull out at such a late stage.

Prior to last night's debate it was clear that GIS had:

1. Booked Conway Hall as a student society at Queen Mary's under false pretences. No-one from the local student Islamic society had heard of them and the college authorities had no record of any student group registered under that name.

2. Had only organised a handful of "debates", all of them involving al-Muhajiroun representatives.

3. The event was heavily promoted by al-Muhajiroun itself through its own website, and they provided a lurid poster and their own contact number for the event.

4. No-one knowledgeable about the Muslim activist scene in London had heard of them.

At the event itself:

5. The security "hired" by GIS turned out to be just more associates of al-Muhajiroun who enforced their gender segregation code.

6. The so-called neutral chair appeared to be associated with al-Muhajiroun.

Now the CSC says it acted in "good faith" in accepting this invitation, an assertion that can't be left unchallenged. At the very least, CSC showed questionable judgement in giving the GIS the benefit of the doubt when there were so many legitimate suspicions about them. It seems probable that the CSC was more focused on highlighting their own campaign for a quick ban and burnishing their reputation as a scourge of radical Islam by playing up to al-Muhajiroun's all-too-familiar tactics.

If instead we want to use debate to expose and de-legitimize al-Muhajiroun further, the only way to do it would be to organise a neutral platform with a proper invite list. Most importantly, a debating opponent is needed who could take on Choudary and win among the disaffected and radicalised segment of young Muslims that al-Muhajiroun hopes to recruit from. Douglas Murray better fits the role of an anti-Islam bogeyman, who memorably described Islam as "an opportunistic infection" at a memorial conference for Pim Fortuyn in February 2006, a statement he is yet to resile from. Murray's mere presence was no doubt designed by Choudary to buttress further the siege mentality of anti-West radicalism and self-righteous victimhood that al-Muhajiroun promotes.

The lesson of this little fiasco is that the stoking of an Islam-West controversy has become predictable, exploitable and even somewhat of an industry. The question is: how to break the cycle and construct better alternatives? Frustration, despair and even ennui at the current standoff is just a cop-out and we need to do better: so, over to you, any suggestions?

Yahya Birt is a Trustee of the City Circle and writes in a personal capacity.

One rarely imagines the quintessential image of an American hero having a Muslim, Arabic name. The Syrian American protagonist of Dave Eggers' elegant and powerful new book entitled Zeitoun bravely endures the harrowing tragedy of an apocalyptic, post Katrina New Orleans while honorably exhibiting the best of America's virtues and ideals. In this inspiring true story, Abdulrahman Zeitoun emerges a Good Samaritan who voluntarily stays behind in the wake of America?s largest natural disaster to selflessly help his neighbors. 
 
Resembling a modern day Noah, Zeitoun, fueled by an unshakable faith in destiny and purpose, paddles the flooded waters in his simple canoe giving refuge to abandoned neighbors and animals. Like the Biblical prophets, however, Zeitoun's reward for such bravery is senseless persecution. Despite his heroic efforts, his own government falsely suspects Zeitoun and his friends as thieves after witnessing them on one of Zeitoun's rental properties. FEMA subsequently arrests the men with force, accuses them of being "Taliban" and "Al Qaeda," and brutally detains them for weeks in a hellish, makeshift prison resembling Guantanamo Bay. 
 
In this exclusive, unabridged interview, Pulitzer nominated author Dave Eggers discusses the Zeitoun family?s amazing journey as their faith in the American dream and each other sustains them with hope and strength an era of paranoia, fear and madness representing the nadir of Bush?s America. 
 
Here you are, Dave Eggers, a respected author and publisher who is not Muslim, Syrian or Arab American, but all of a sudden you spend three years of your life tackling the story of the Zeitoun family. How and why did you become involved in this fantastic story about a Muslim American family that endures tragedy and discrimination with hope and resilience? 
 
Dave Eggers: It started back in 2005, when we put a book together called Voices From The Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath. We have a series called Voice of Witness, where we use oral history to explore human rights crises. The second book in the series was about Katrina and the people neglected before and after the storm. 
 
One of the stories in the book was about the Zeitoun family. I immediately took an interest because of my interest in wrongful incarceration, because I had edited a book called Surviving Justice: America?s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated - the first book in the Voice of Witness series. Also, the fact Mr. Zeitoun was called "Taliban" and "Al Qaeda" and put in an outdoor prison; it seemed so extreme, surreal, and improbable but it was also so emblematic of that time ? the darkest years of the Bush administration. The most absurd violations of human rights and dignity and due process were all possible. 
 
I got infuriated hearing about this and what had happened to him. I was in New Orleans later in 2005 and met with the Zeitoun family and we sat down, had lunch and almost immediately we went into his life growing up in Syria. 
 
He told me about his [deceased] brother Muhammad, who was a very famous Syrian swimmer. There were so many aspects of his history that were fascinating right away that it sort of piqued the interest of the journalist and novelist in me. 
 
Slowly, we approached the idea of making his story, and the story of the Zeitoun family as a whole, into a book. In late 2006, we decided to undertake it. 
 
First, how did you gain their trust considering what the family has endured? Secondly, as an author, what was your role as the storyteller? Was it to simply step back and be a vessel for them, or was it to also add some stylistic flair? 
 
One of my favorite books is The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer. Mailer was known for a very overpowering style; he was a brilliant writer. You could always tell what Mailer had written. 
 
He was also a very good journalist. In the middle of his career he wrote a book about Gary Gilmore: a man who had murdered innocent people and was executed for it. Mailer went deep into this guy?s story; he covered Gilmore's family, his relatives, the victim's families, and he did it without any stylistic flair. Sentence by sentence it wasn't evident that it was Mailer. And yet the book was so powerful, because the facts of the story were so incredible and you knew they were true; Mailer didn't have to add anything to it. He didn't have to gild the lily, if you will. And I took a lesson from that. 
 
I've been to journalism school and I?ve worked in newspapers and magazines for a long time. I sometimes look back at my earlier work as a journalist and feel I was just too present and trying too hard to insert myself into what would have been a more powerful story without so much style. In the case of Zeitoun, I thought this story was so important and powerful that I wanted as little as me as possible. I wanted to use whatever skills I had as a writer to facilitate their story, not comment on it. 
 
You try to structure the family?s story in a way that is approachable and understandable for a reader. I told the family from the beginning this was about them, and not about me, and they would have approval over the final text before published. I did the same with Valentino Deng in What Is The What. 
 
I interviewed the Zeitouns and did outside research, and then I would write a passage and show them the results. They made corrections, factual corrections, and if there were certain things they didn't want to reveal, I would take them out. But of course I would verify everything I could independently. If they weren't sure about the date a certain thing happened, given the wealth of information about the aftermath of Katrina, I was able to verify everything I needed to. 
 
So, I think knowing they had a certain control over their story, it gives them the comfort level that they can sort of start talk freely. Kathy [Abdulrahman's wife] especially talks very freely. She?s a very good storyteller. She's very open. Knowing you would have approval over things and see it before it goes to press gives people a sort of trust. 
 
I was more careful than they were because I know how long a book can last. I have my own book about my family (A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius) and people still approach it every day anew, and I realize these things don?t go away. So I was exceedingly careful for them. I'm kind of insanely careful. 
 
We read about Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a U.S. Citizen, paddling in a canoe, trying to help an essentially abandoned and dying population barely surviving in a flooded American city. And despite this, his own United States government falsely accuses him, labels him a terrorist, and incarcerates him. The story seems to reveal the joys, hopes and dreams of a multicultural America but also shows the fault lines and fissures. What does this say about modern day America? Or was this Bush's America and not a reflection of current times? 
 
I think it was both. A lot of what you saw after Katrina, the media coverage, shows a lot about deep-seated prejudices. It was tragic in a way that so much of the misinformation about what was happening in Katrina came from the [then] elected leaders of the city: Eddie Compass [Former Chief of Police, New Orleans Police Department], Eddie Jordan, the DA, Mayor Nagin, they all were putting out this misinformation and talking about the rape of babies and very little was borne out by any truth. 
 
And the media and the American public as a whole was all too ready to accept that the largely black population of the city had devolved to what Eddie Compass said was an "almost animalistic state." And now we?re in the middle of this controversy with the arrest of Henry Louis Gates in Boston. You need these lessons and you need these stories actually to tell you what maybe the statistics don?t tell you, which is that we have quite a way to go. 
 
But in addition to the prejudices against the African American population of New Orleans and the neglect by the Republican administration of those folks who don?t vote for them, at the same time, there was this other unlikely intersection with the "War on Terror." 
 
In 2003, FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] was folded into The Department of Homeland Security, which made the goals and focus of that agency skewed. It took on too much of an anti-terrorism focus and it crippled the agency to a large extent. It was hard to get their attention to anything that wasn't terror-related. You add in all these factors: the misinformation, the paranoia, media misrepresentation, and the overall political climate fostered by the Bush Administration and you put all that information in the minds of the soldiers and cops who are trying to do their jobs in the city. And you end up with some unfortunate results. 
 
Soldiers and cops were OK with arresting people even though there was no due process, no Miranda rights, no judges working or anything like that. And at the same time, the National Guard, with some soldiers who just came back from Iraq and Afghanistan, were all too willing to believe that there were terrorists operating in New Orleans in a flooded city a few days after a hurricane. 
 
Again, I thought this could have only happened in 2005. Although I think a lot of these prejudices are far from being done with. I think a unique intersection of all these different forces was a perfect storm to allow something like this to happen to the Zeitouns. 
 
Abdulrahman and the Zeitoun family seem like very devout, practicing Muslims, whose faith inspires them to do much good. Yet, it is also their Muslim last name and features that cause the father, Abdulrahman, to be called "Taliban" and "Al Qaeda," and then later falsely incarcerated. Do you believe stories like this lay a bridge of understanding so people like Abdulrahman?s arresting officers slowly but surely realize that even the Zeitouns are citizens of America ? despite being brown, Muslim or having Arabic last names? Do you think storytelling is the powerful medium to convey this message? 
 
I think stories are the way we do it. I don't think these things usually come out as well in reading a short story in a newspaper, or seeing a mug shot, or reading a statistic. In the first 70 or so pages of the book ? before the storm, before we the first feel the winds of Katrina ? I was seeking to just tell a story about an all-American family that happens to be a Muslim. I wanted to sort of "de-exoticize" the idea of the Muslim-American family ? to allow readers to learn about Kathy?s conversion [to Islam] and see the functioning of a family that is exactly like their own. So, a Christian reader can say, "Pretty much everything about that family is exactly like mine except I go to church and they go to a mosque." 
 
This was a secondary goal. To show the reader that they were going to read a harrowing story, but also show [a Muslim family] for those who don't know Muslims or have Muslim neighbors or do feel there?s something very different about a Muslim family from their own ? or those who do have some very big misconceptions. 
 
For example, Kathy's friends ? [after her conversion to Islam] ? initially thought, "Oh, you?re Muslim? You must worship Muhammad!" You know, these are the weird misperceptions about the religion itself. 
 
I think storytelling has the power to sort of walk you through it, and put yourself in the shoes of another person. If it takes ten to twelve hours to read a book, then you have a depth of experience and understanding that you wouldn?t get from short bits on TV or sound bites and such. I think it's kind of startling that even though after 9-11 there has been this constant examination of Islam in the American media ? "Who are Muslims? What do they want?" ? and yet I think there is still an incredible amount of ignorance and misunderstanding. 
 
Reading the Qur'an itself was so illuminating. I was able to find a wonderful translation by Laleh Bakhtiar, and it opened me up to the beauty of the faith in a way that no interpretation of the text had before. And of course in the book you find, very clearly, Islam?s dedication to social justice, to peace, and to the commitment to the less fortunate. 
 
Abdulrahman seems so motivated by his faith to "help" and do the "right thing" by sticking around and paddling on his canoe. Other times, he says it was his duty as a neighbor and an American to help. And yet at other times, he saw his selflessness as a way to honor the memory and glory of his dearly departed brother Mohammed, the shining light of the family. When he's unjustly incarcerated, he questions himself and wonders if it was his hubris and ego that forced him to stay behind. Why do you think he ultimately did it? 
 
First of all, you can?t shake this guy or scare him. He?s what his friends call "old school." He has a little bit of a Clint Eastwood in him ? indestructible. He's not going to leave a storm, whether it's a hurricane or not. He?s seen a lot, he?s traveled the world on merchant ships, and he comes from a coast in Syria where his father and grandfather have all these stories. He's seen many storms and he remembers being on the island where his grandmother lived, Arwad Island, on the Syrian coast, where much of the island was flooded. 
 
So he starts off thinking, Well, I've stayed before during other storms here, and I know other people who have stayed ? a lot of his neighbors did not leave even though they could have. So he stays, and of course the winds themselves did minimal damage to many parts of the city, including his own neighborhood. But then the levees break and the city floods. So he sets out in his canoe. I think that first day when he and his neighbor find a woman floating near her ceiling and they save her life, I think from then something sort of clicked. I think that's when Zeitoun sensed some destiny. 
 
He is a guy who does believe in destiny and that there is a master plan. At that point he thought, This is God?s will and I've been put here for a reason. I've had that sensation myself. You know, much of my fist book was about that, too. You know ? this sense that what you're going through is all too strange to be pure chance; it?s such a peculiar set of circumstances that it can only be God's will. 
 
A lot of people have had that moment when they feel God's presence. For him, it was very easy to stay and make himself as useful as possible and put himself in a position where he could help by paddling in his canoe. These are actions of a guy whose purpose was very clear and his destiny was laid out for him. 
 
When it gets into his hubris part, well, once you're locked up, you have a lot of time to contemplate. That?s when Zeitoun thought back, "Did I misunderstand my place? Did I overshoot my responsibilities? Did I think of myself as too important? Did I ignore other responsibilities I have left?" All this occurs to someone when you have 3 weeks alone in a cell. 
 
That's where the story of his brother Mohammad intersects. Abdulrahman grew up in a family with one of the most celebrated, famous Syrians in history. So Abdulrahman has a lot to live up to, and a lot of his siblings felt that, too. That's in part why they're all so high achieving. I think when you have one of your siblings walking the earth as a living legend, there?s a lot of weight put upon you. I think that was in his mind when he was paddling around, you know, "This is my chance to live up to the Zeitoun name." 
 
Despite the tragedy and the injustice of it all, which leaves the reader infuriated and flabbergasted that such behavior can occur in America, the family ultimately emerges very hopeful. The book ends on a very optimistic note. You and the Zeitoun family have started the Zeitoun Foundation, a non-profit group created to help the victims of Katrina and citizens of Louisiana. Take me through it ? if I contribute money how will it directly help Louisiana? 
 
From the beginning, I told them I wouldn't be paid and I would not benefit from their story in any material way. I just felt that the money should go directly to non-profits and families that need it. Some of it will go to Todd Gambino [unlawfully incarcerated in New Orleans along with Abdulrahman Zeitoun] who was in prison for months and months, and Nasser Dayoob, the other Syrian-American locked up. I believe people should be compensated for their time when they are wrongfully compensated. Louisiana has some very draconian laws when it comes to compensating exonerees. 
 
Over the years, I was always talking to the Zeitouns about making a list of non-profits that they like and that I like. They chose Islamic Relief for example and also have a strong desire in helping children made orphans by war, and the Muslim-American Society, which promotes understanding between faiths. 
 
At the same time, we felt most of the money should stay in New Orleans, where there is so much more work to be done. We found some great charities like Rebuilding Together, which is trying to put people back in their homes in New Orleans, especially the elderly. This is close to the Zeitouns' heart because this is about building and construction, which is what they?ve been doing as a business for years. 
 
The Zeitoun Foundation will be a very lean organization with one part time person who?s just basically counting the proceeds as they come in and distributing them to the non-profits chosen. For any hardcover book, about 4 dollars go to the Zeitoun Foundation and we?ll be able write checks from that fund, directly to these non-profits. 
 
Ideally it'll come to a fair amount. From the proceeds of What is the What, we were able to build what's so far a 14-buildings educational facility in Southern Sudan. In this case, in New Orleans, there are so many non-profits already doing great work that the goals can be simpler, such as granting funds to those groups already at work in the area. 
 
I know this is something the family is very excited about. Something tangible and materially beneficial can come out of this. A lot of times when someone tells you a story and it comes out in the paper, that can definitely be very positive and raise awareness. But, if you can have something tangible come from it, actual three-dimensional benefit, that goes a long way to allowing the Zeitouns to feel that something good came from their suffering. 
 
The really good news is we just got word we will be able to ship the first 7 checks next week. So, I love the immediacy of it, too. 
 
 
Associate editor Wajahat Ali is a Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, "The Domestic Crusaders" is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America and is now showing in New York City through October 11, 2009. He writes and edits the Goatmilk blog. 
 
This article first appeared on 14th September 2009 on Alt.Muslim. 

The long-awaited opening of Oxford's Islamic centre is still years away, with 25 million pounds needed to complete the scheme, it emerged last night.

The Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies was originally scheduled to open in 2004 on a 325-acre site off Marston Road.

More than 50 milion pounds has been spent on the building so far, with contributions coming from a wide range of Governments including Kuwait, Turkey, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

But although much of the exterior, with its 75ft dome and 108ft minaret, looks all but complete, there is a vast amount of expensive work still to be done.

The centre says it is hoping the UK, Spain and Russia can be persuaded to chip in.

Centre registrar David Browning said there would be no attempt to cut costs or scale down the scheme.

He said: "It still requires a lot of money and costs are going up all the time.

"But there will be no short cuts. This is something worth doing and worth doing properly.

"Our hope is that it may be ready in a couple of years. If you go for the best quality there are implications for costs."

Work on the building started in 2002.

The centre for Islamic Studies is an associated institution of Oxford University which aims to encourage study of Islam and the Islamic world.

This article first appeared in the Oxford Mail on 1st October 2009.