‘Why the Azaan Should Not be Broadcast over Loudspeakers’ by Omar Latif

: Jamia Masjid, Vancouver, the azaan was broadcast over loudspeakers for the first time in its 112-year history – photo from 30 Masjids dot ca

TO HELP PRESERVE SECULARISM
TO HELP PREVENT ISLAMOPHOBIA

It began with broadcasting one azaan call-for-prayer for one of the five daily prayers during the month of Ramzan at one mosque in Toronto. Within days, the practice spread to many cities – Mississauga, Brampton, Milton, London, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, and, Surrey – at the last count. One cleric has already said that he would like the azaan to be announced over loudspeakers for all five prayers, throughout the year!

If this was to remind Muslims about the time of prayer, it must be pointed out that Muslims and, for that matter, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, have all been saying their prayers at home or in their places of worship at prescribed times for hundreds of years without the call-to-prayer being announced from loudspeakers. And how, it was asked, would Muslims know the time of the other four daily prayers if the azaan was sent out over loudspeakers only once a day?

The rationale changed: Muslims couldn’t gather in mosques during their holy month of Ramzan due to Covid-19 and would find solace when they heard the azaan over loudspeakers. But, it was pointed out that the overwhelming majority of Muslims lived too far from any mosque to hear it! And what about believers of other religions who couldn’t congregate on their holy days either, for instance, Christians weren’t able to get together on Good Friday this April 8 or Jews during Passover from April 8-16? By that logic, shouldn’t religious invocations for all believers of all faiths be relayed over loudspeakers to provide them comfort during the lock-down? Would that cacophony calm jangled nerves and create harmony among people, or create greater stress and resentment against each other?

Is the push for the broadcasting of the azaan over loudspeakers coming from Muslims as a whole? According to Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey, there were a total of 1,053,945 Muslims in Canada – perhaps a total of 1,000,000 adult Muslims currently. Of these, only a small minority says any prayers, much less the daily five. Only a fraction of this small minority goes to mosques to say their prayers, and that too mainly for the Eid or for Friday noon prayers. Anybody can see for themselves how empty mosques are at other prayer times.

The push for the azaan over mosque loudspeakers is not coming from all Muslims but from a small number of Muslim clerics, mainly Sunni, mainly conservative. Some Muslims, thinking that the loud call to prayer demonstrates the power of Islam, or makes it more appealing, also support this idea. However, they are sadly mistaken.

Who has allowed these organizations to over-ride the local noise by-laws? Mainly mayors and municipal councillors from mainstream parties but, unfortunately some progressive ones too, who in return, want to use such organizations as sources for funds, volunteers and ‘vote banks’ at election time.

The broadcasting of the azaan over loudspeakers hardly serves the purpose of reminding Muslims of prayer times or for providing solace during the lockdown in Ramzan since reminders on watches, computers and cell phones would work better. In reality, it appears that this move is a flexing of muscle by conservative Muslim clerics and organizations who are on their way to play a larger political role in society; clerics and organizations who have us believe that they speak on behalf of one, monolithic, undifferentiated, Muslim ummah (nation).

What they are aiming for, a wish NOT shared by ALL Muslims, is to increase the influence of religion and religious values in public life; of views that do not support equality of women with men, views that are against secularism, choice, same-sex partnerships, evolution and other rational and scientific ideas such as, for example, the causes and cures of epidemics and other natural disasters like droughts, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes.

Public pressure has done away with Catholic School Boards in all provinces, and it demanded the same in Ontario in favour of one, secular, public education system for all. Contrary to the will of the people, these clerics push for publicly funded religious schools. It was only after a long struggle that the Lord’s Prayer and other overtly Christian teachings were ended in public schools. These clerics will push for more insertion of religious teachings in public schools. Far fetched? Can happen only in countries of the global south? Just look at what has happened in the US in a few decades!

Over the past four decades, the mainstream parties, at all levels, have enabled the de-regulation of big business, the lowering of taxes on large corporations, the whittling down of social programs, the weakening of labour laws, and the increase in the huge gap between the 1% and everyone else. They have supported militarism and wars, many are being fought against Muslim countries. They have backed Israel in its harsh and unjust treatment of the Palestinian people. None of this matters to these conservative Muslim clerics who are interested only in advancing their narrow, sectarian agenda.

The parties of big business will rely the more on conservative religious forces, of all religions – because they do not acknowledge the impact of privilege, disregard class analysis, the importance of trade unions, instead teaching submission and acceptance by the have-nots of the existing unjust economic structures since privilege and poverty are ordained by God, where justice and fairness is to be found not here but in the hereafter – the more the struggle for social justice grows.

Is the denial of the use of loudspeakers to broadcast the azaan a denial of the right of freedom of belief of Muslims? No it isn’t. First of all, a small minority wants this ‘right’ and only a fraction of this minority will actually hear the azaan. But the main point is that Muslims will still have the right to say the azaan so long as its sound remains within the confines of their prayer halls, and others outside, are not compelled to listen to it. Public complaints have put a stop to the pealing of church bells in many areas. It should be stopped everywhere.

The broadcasting of the azaan over mosque loudspeakers is another intrusion of religion into public space. If it takes hold, other religions inevitably will want to broadcast their chants, bells, hymns etc. over loudspeakers too. The right to religious freedom should be supported as long as it is not socially harmful or a bother to others. Prejudices like Islamophobia and anti-Semitism must be fought but religion whether Islam, or Christianity, or Hinduism or Judaism or Sikhism, should be a personal matter. The separation between state and religion should become more, not less, sharp. Canada should become more, not less, secular.
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Omar Latif is a Toronto activist who has been a long-time member of the Committee of Progressive Pakistani-Canadians and of the Communist Party of Canada. This article is based on his personal views, not on those of the CPPC or of the CPC.

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Uddari Weblog is published from
the unceded Coast Salish territories of
the Semiahmoo, Katzie, Kwikwetlem, Kwantlen,
Qayqayt, Tsawwassen, Musqueam,
Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

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China and the Uighurs

Chinese Uighur

The situation about the Uighur Muslims has attracted widespread media coverage in the past year.  In light of the West after 9-11 and India under Modi, it may be easy for observers to assume that this is a case of Islamophobia in China.

China’s human rights abuses, while they should be condemned unequivocally, do not constitute a case of Islamophobia as they do in the case of India and China.

First of all, Islam in China has a very different history compared to its history in the West and in India.

In China, Islam came through trade. During the cosmopolitan empire of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE). Arab and Central Asian merchants brought Islam to Turkestan (now north-western China) and to Chinese cities like Chang’an, Kaifeng and Luoyan.[1] Islam has long been associated with trade in China’s history and the most famous Muslim in China’s history, Zheng He (1371-1433), was a mariner and explorer.

Turkic migrations

China’s Han majority population also accepted Islam through conversion. Although a minority within the larger Han population, Han Chinese Muslims (known as the ‘Hui’) are virtually indistinguishable from their Han brethren except in their avoidance of pork.

Islam thus has a comparatively peaceful history in China. Compare this to the West where Islam was branded a Christian heresy from its inception and associated with the Crusades or in India where Islam has been associated (especially by Hindu Nationalists) with the looting of Hindu temples by Turkish mercenaries like Mahmud of Ghazni.

Secondly, the human rights abuses suffered by China’s Muslims have been confined to Xinjiang. They do not envelop the entire Chinese Muslim population the way they have Muslims in the West after 9-11 or in India under Modi.

China is home to over 20 million Muslims.[2] Of these, 41% are Uighur while 48% are Han Chinese (Hui) and the remaining 11% belonging to Kazakh, Uzbek, Tajik, Tatar and other ethnic groups.[3]

If Islamophobia were rampant in China, it would’ve been all over the Western media by now.  Instead, what has been making cover stories in the West (besides the Corona Virus scare and the crackdown on the Uighurs) is China’s ability to digitally monitor the activities of its citizens, Uighur, Han or otherwise.

Third, and most crucially, the crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang should be understood in light of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) obsession with maintaining state power and control. This obsession extends to suppressing any religious fervour which threatens or is suspected of threatening the CCP’s grip on power.[4]

The CCP has a long history of penetrating and monitoring religious establishments, ensuring they are subordinate to the party-state.[5]  This is due in part to the official atheism of the CCP, but it owes far more to a long history in China of regulating religion and suppressing religious fervour as a political threat.

There’s plenty of historical precedents to make the CCP nervous. A Daoist sect called the Yellow Turbans undermined the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD).[6] The Red Turbans, a Buddhist sect, led to the fall of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) had to contend with the White Lotus Rebellion (1794-1804), another Buddhist sect. The Taiping rebellion (1850-1864), a Christian millenarian movement, fatally wounded the Qing and killed upwards of twenty million people.[7]

The CCP most notoriously suppressed the Falun Gong sect in the late 1990s and into the new millennium. Besides branding it an “evil cult,” the National People’s Congress amended article 300 of the Criminal Code on October 30, 1999, enabling the CCP to suppress spiritual groups deemed “dangerous to the state” (the Falun Gong claimed millions of members across China).

The oppression of China’s Uighurs is about the Chinese state maintaining its state power and control over the country and its citizens. It should be understood in light of China’s long history of regulating and suppressing any religious fervour (real or imagined) and not as a projection of the West’s own Islamophobia on to other societies.

Sources:

Darren Byler, “China’s hi-tech war on its Muslim minority,” The Guardian, April 11, 2019 (online): https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/apr/11/china-hi-tech-war-on-muslim-minority-xinjiang-uighurs-surveillance-face-recognition.

André Laliberté, The Legal-Formal Status of Religions in China in In  Dirk Ehlers and Henning Glaser, ed.,  Political and Religious Communities: Partners, Competitors, or  Aliens? Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2019 (forthcoming).

Lipman, Jonathan Newman (1997), Familiar Strangers, a history of Muslims in Northwest China, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

 

NOTES

[1] Lipman, Jonathan Newman (1997), Familiar Strangers, a history of Muslims in Northwest China, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 25.

[2] https://www.pewforum.org/2009/10/07/mapping-the-global-muslim-population/

[3] Armijo, Jackie (2006), “Islamic Education in China”, Harvard Asia Quarterly, 10 (1), archived from the original on 2007-09-28

[4] Darren Byler, “China’s hi-tech war on its Muslim minority,” The Guardian, April 11, 2019 (online): https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/apr/11/china-hi-tech-war-on-muslim-minority-xinjiang-uighurs-surveillance-face-recognition. Byler reports how the Chinese state has grown anxious over the growing sense of Uighur religious and cultural identity (fostered and disseminated through social media including Uighur Muslims praying five times a day, Muslim women veiling themselves and the import of food, movies, music and clothing from Turkey and Dubai) and in growing Uighur social and political activism.

[5] André Laliberté, The Legal-Formal Status of Religions in China in In  Dirk Ehlers and Henning Glaser, ed.,  Political and Religious Communities: Partners, Competitors, or  Aliens? Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2019 (forthcoming).

[6] The following historical examples are cited by Laliberté in The Legal-Formal Status of Religions in China.

[7] The Qing Dynasty also suppressed Muslim rebellions in the north-west during its expansion into Turkestan in the 18th century.

 

 

Buddhist Political Philosophy

buddha and flower

I first began studying Buddhism in 1999 while living in Canada. Having lived and grown up in the West, I saw how Buddhism was adopted and adapted by the West in terms of science, psychology and the art of living.

I have always been interested, however, in Buddhism as a philosophy and, in particular, as a  political philosophy. For me, this involved thinking about the world and political phenomena from a Buddhist philosophical and ethical perspective.

I will be speaking more about Buddhist political philosophy here in Uddari. For me, it is something that means a lot to me as a South Asian living in the diaspora. Buddhism not only originated and developed in South Asia but it has also become an increasingly influential philosophy in the Western culture in which I have grown up.

India’s Moment of Reckoning

TOPSHOT-INDIA-POLITICS-RIGHTS-UNREST

In 1938, a Nazi law forced German Jews to register their property and assets with the government. In 2001, the Taliban forced all religious minorities in Afghanistan to wear distinctive marks on their clothing to distinguish them from the country’s Muslim majority.

Now, in 2019, the BJP government of India has passed a law which, in effect, will decide whether Indian Muslims are citizens or not on the basis of their religion.

On the face of it, the Citizenship Amendment Act (the “Act”), states that (non-Muslim) illegal migrants who have fled religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are eligible to apply for Indian citizenship.

When read in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens (the “NRC”), however, the Act threatens to render almost two million Muslims in India (who migrated to Assam from Bangladesh) stateless.

By making religion a condition of citizenship, the Act and the NRC throw the very idea of India as a secular state into question. Will the law apply only to Muslim migrants and their descendants (even if born in India)? Will it be used against those poorer Indian Muslims who have lived in the country since time immemorial but who have no documents to prove their citizenship?

In 2018, Republicans in Georgia threatened to blacklist African-Americans from voting because they could not prove their identity. Will disenfranchisement hang over the heads of Indian Muslims if they cannot show the right kind of documents if any at all?

Historically, citizenship in India (like elsewhere) was acquired by the citizenship belonging to one’s parents (the jus sanguinis or ‘right of blood’ principle) or by naturalization if the person has been resident in India for more twelve years. Descent and residence on Indian territory were sufficient for the sake of claiming Indian citizenship, not religion.

In protest of the law, India has witnessed some of its largest demonstrations in decades with public figures like Ramachandra Guha and Shabana Azmi expressing solidarity with the protestors. The Supreme Court of India has issued notices to the Government of India on petitions challenging the constitutionality of the law.

I hope that these protests are an illustration of the Daoist principle that when things reach one extreme, they revert and start moving back in the opposite direction. Just like we saw with the “wake” movement in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter, the demonstrations in India have the potential to crystallize into a mass-movement that challenges Hindu Nationalism if they are given the right direction and organization.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tomorrow in Surrey: Women Who Named the Unnamed: Pakistan’s & Local Women Heroes

pakistani women

What inspires me most about this program is the courage of the women it honours. Through their art, their activism, their poetry and their writing, they have dauntlessly challenged institutionalized systems of patriarchal, racial and religious authority, making the world a freer place for all of us regardless of who we are …

Tomorrow, Surrey Muse Arts Society (SMAS) presents “Women Who Named the Unnamed: Pakistan’s & Local Women Heroes” (Sept 28, 6 – 9 PM, Centre Stage, Surrey City Hall). It’s a groundbreaking three-hour stage show which recognizes, for the first time in Greater Vancouver, the contributions of 15 distinguished Pakistani, Punjabi, South Asian, Muslim and women of colour from Pakistan, Surrey and Vancouver to the development of our communities through literature, art, scholarship and activism.

Our distinguished guests for the evening are Sunera Thobani, Harsha Walia, Surjeet Kalsey, Darshan Maan, Indigenous scholar/historian Deanne Reder, and, Katheren Szabo. We will also recognize a Surrey Woman of Courage.

You can find out more about our program here:

https://pakistanswomenheroes.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/women-who-named-the-unnamed-pakistani-local-women-heroes-saturday-28-sept-2019-centre-stage-surrey-city-hall/

We look forward to seeing you tomorrow!

 

 

Indian Mythology

Kurukshetra

In a country like India, where every fact is infinitely malleable and where every interpretation is politicized, the need to distinguish between history and mythology is more important than ever.

Myths were created by human beings to explain previously inexplicable phenomena such as how the universe was created and where thunder and lightning came from. Unlike history, myths are not meant to be verified.

Myths are thus associated with the religious and cultural beliefs of a people. They do not inquire into the past the way history inquires.

They are valuable nonetheless for helping to create a sense of a common origin among people and in explaining the basis of their religious and cultural values and institutions.

Mythology is the means by which most Indians (Hindus) have sought to understand the past. The mythology of the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas, are thus as, if not more, important to the Indian than the legend of King Arthur is to the English or the Kojiki is to the Japanese.

Here are some key myths from Hindu mythology in context:

  • The origins of humanity: the first man is Manu from which the Sanskrit word for man (‘manava’) is derived. Manu saves the world’s animals from the Great Flood (Adam and Noah in one!) and is the father of the first kings and queens in Indian mythology.
  • Dynasties, Kings and Sages: ancient Indian dynasties typically claim descent through lines traced back to one of Manu’s two children (Ishvaku and Ila). The hero of the Ramayana, Rama, traces his ancestry to the line associated with Ishvaku, [1] while the Pandvas and the Kauravas of the Mahabharata trace their descent from the line associated with Ila.[2]

The Puranas contain genealogical lists of kings and sages (e.g. Kashyapa, Atri, Vishvamitra, et al) in a manner reminiscent of the list of patriarchs, prophets and progenitors in the Old Testament (e.g. from Abraham to Ham, Shem, Canaan and Rachab).

  • Bharata: The word for “India” in Sanskrit, “Bharata,” derives from the eponymous mythical emperor. Bharata is believed to have united much of what we now call India stretching from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin.

The “Bharata” were also an ancient clan mentioned in the Vedas which emerged victorious in battle over other Indo-Aryan tribes and clans.[3]

  • The Class (Caste) System: in the Vedas, the cosmic man (Puruṣa), is said to have been divided into four parts. From his head came the Brahmin class (priests and teachers), from his arms and torso came the Ksatriya (warrior), from his legs came the Vaisya (farmers and merchants) and from his feet came the Sudra (servants).

These are just some of the myths which Indians and Hindus look to in understanding themselves and the origins of India.

 

Notes

[1] The Sūryavaṁśa (solar dynasty).

[2] The Candravaṃśa (lunar dynasty).

[3] The Mahabharata also takes its title from this clan.

 

 

The Aryans of India

 

aryan migration

During my mid-twenties, one of my aunts told me that we (ethnic Punjabis) were descended from the Aryans of ancient India.

I first learned about these Aryans while studying Indian history during my undergraduate degree. I learned that that the Aryans had originally migrated into India from the north-west and that they first settled in the Punjab around 1500 BCE. I also learned that their religious beliefs and lifestyle were recorded around 1200 BCE in a literature known as the Vedas.

Like me, most peoples of the subcontinent (particularly northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) claim to be descended from the (Indo) Aryans. The term Indo-Aryan refers not only to an ethnic group (which is religiously, culturally and regionally diverse), but also to a family of languages spoken by this group, including Punjabi, Hindi/Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati.

Of course, not everyone believes that the Aryans migrated to the subcontinent from the outside. Few are more outspoken in their opposition than the Hindu Nationalist who believes that the Aryans were indigenous to India.

This is, of course, really just a political claim. To claim that the ancestral religion of Hinduism (in the Vedas) is native to India is to claim that it “belongs” to India in opposition to those Indians belonging to “foreign” religions (i.e. Muslims and Christians).

Fantasizing about purity of race and origin, however, turn deadly. We can think of Hitler’s ideas about the Aryan Race as German, the Ku Klux Klan theory of the Teutonic Race or the Japanese idea of the Yamato Race during World War II.

Over the past nearly thirty years, Hindu Nationalism has stirred up pogroms, vandalism and attacks on India’s minority groups (especially Muslims, Christians and Dalits or lower-castes). Its pogroms, including the Gujarat “riots” of 2002 against Muslims has left thousands dead and their homes and places of worship vandalized or destroyed.

Hindu Nationalism basically seeks to rationalize and politicize an emotional need: the need to belong and to know oneself. Mythology is a human institution that fulfils that need by giving us a sense of where we come from. Mythologies like those in the Vedas are Puranas, like those in the Bible or King Arthur are valuable in giving us a sense of who our ancestors might have been without needing to be factually verifiable.

To that extent, I have read the Puranas and the Mahabharata.  I am fascinated, as someone of Indian origin, about where I come from and how my ancestors thought of themselves as a people and about my origins. But my fascination is much the same as someone who reads old genealogies of the Bible or of a Han Chinese taking pride in his descent from the Yellow Emperor.

So, I will call myself Indo-Aryan, Punjabi, Sikh, British, Canadian and Buddhist. I can have a sense of where I come from in terms of mythology without proclaiming it as history for political purposes or otherwise. Living on the land of the Coast Salish People in British Columbia, I realize that they too were like the ancient Aryans in migrating across territories rather than being bound by them.