An Interfaith Encounter with America (Part 1)

“If Islam is so great and things are so wonderful back home, why did you come here?” As an international student from Pakistan who had grown up in a relatively privileged household, my transition to college life in America had promised to be seamless. And in many ways it was, at least outwardly. So my culture shock was extraordinarily abrupt. In the course of a midnight conversation on religion and politics, a fellow student had jolted me out of my comfort zone with his jarring question.

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Cooperating Modernities in Tunisia?

In April, Columbia political scientist Alfred Stepan came out with an article in the Journal of Democracy on “Tunisia’s Transition and the Twin Tolerations.” If the article is right, Tunisia’s secularists and Islamists are participating in an encouraging pattern of political cooperation that bodes well for the country’s democratic development. There is good reason to be hopeful about the relevance of an emerging “Tunisian model” of secular-Islamist negotiation, not only for Tunisia’s future but for all those countries affected by the Arab Spring. Yet there is also reason for caution.

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Beneath the Healthcare Wars: Difficult Questions about Living and Dying

Although the ongoing healthcare wars between Democrats and Republicans have been raging for some time now, the recent HHS mandate has ignited a more direct and particular conflict. Whereas the former was and is primarily political, the latter seems to be cultural. Regardless of what we call it, this recent battle in the healthcare wars amplifies a longstanding tension between secular/American and religious/Catholic cultures and worldviews.

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Contending Modernities in East London

In its religious intensity and diversity, east London is an exciting testing-ground for “Contending Modernities.” It is an area with a long history of migration, and the religious and cultural diversity it brings, raising the question: How do migrant communities with diverse religious and cultural identities shape a common life? Catholic and Muslim migrants in particular have historically both been treated with some suspicion in the UK. The experience of Catholic and Muslim engagement in broad-based community organizing runs counter to such suspicions. Community organizing harnesses precisely the “problematic” quality of these faiths — above all their loyalty to a truth that transcends the nation-state, and a “critical distance” from the status quo — as a means of working for justice.

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The Islamic Call for a Free Egypt

When the Arab Spring began earlier this year, first in Tunis and then in Egypt, many in the West felt sympathetic. But other people saw a risk: What if the Arab Spring midwifed a series of Islamist dictatorships? The deposed dictators of Tunis and Egypt were unmistakably authoritarian, but they were also secular. What if Islamists took advantage of democracy to establish their own dictatorships? What if these “bad guys,” as Donald Rumsfeld reportedly put it in a recent meeting in Washington, emerged triumphant?

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Pakistan: Between Betrayed Dream and Desire to Rebuild

Pakistan’s polity today does not reflect the ideals set by her founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, outlining a pluralistic democracy and religious freedom. But the undying spirit of the Pakistani people and their enduring commitment to true democracy—which braved executions, imprisonments, flogging and torture to oppose and defeat four despotic military regimes in 60 years—demonstrate that a new Pakistan can be built.

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Contending Modernities in France: Muslim Expression vs. Secular Integrity

Last month, on April 11, 2011, France became the second country in Europe, following Belgium, to ban the wearing of the full Islamic veil or burqa. Under the new law, women who wear face-covering Muslim veils in “public places” in France face a fine of about $200, compulsory “special classes” on citizenship, or both. This direct clash between the religious practice of some Muslims and a law that many French leaders and citizens believe is a logical extension of France’s secularism could not be of more direct interest to Contending Modernities. We therefore asked two of our regular commentators—M. Christian Green and Mahan Mirza—to offer their reflections on France’s burqa ban.

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Burqas, Blobs, and Bans in “La Belle France”

A recent search of the term “burqa” on CartoonStock.com turned up a plethora of images of women in black and blue veils. In one image a black-clad woman in a delivery room gives birth to a tiny, similarly garbed miniature, as a nurse proclaims, “It’s a girl!” In another, a woman in a black niqab, with only her eyes exposed, sits in front of a computer featuring the webpage “Hidden Facebook.” Read the full article »

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Religious Expression or Female Oppression?

In the wake of France’s total ban on the burqa or full-length veil, which took effect last month, on April 11th, it is an appropriate time to address the Islamic interpretation of the headscarf and its significance for Muslims. Scholars of religion inevitably get nervous when they are asked to speak about “the” interpretation of anything. So I propose to draw on my personal experience as a Muslim and as an observer of Western politics and society to establish some context that may lead us to be more aware of certain uncritical areas in our framing of the question at hand.

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Human Dignity: the Foundation of Human Rights

March 21st is annually commemorated as Human Rights Day in post-Apartheid South Africa, in remembrance of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in which the apartheid police force opened fire on a crowd of anti-pass law protesters, killing 69 and maiming 189. On Human Rights Day, we pay tribute to the Sharpeville martyrs. But Human Rights Day is also a useful time to become familiar with the latest thinking on the longstanding and robust debate about the compatibility between “Islam and Human Rights.”

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