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A manifesto of dissent

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By Shiv Viswanathan

Dissent today is one of the most critical acts of democracy. There is an element of critical risk, and yet it is presented like a slice of drawing room behaviour. One almost senses that the next coffee table book shall be on dissent and its sheer affability. There is something textbookish about dissent, as if it comes from a handbook or a collection of recipes. Dissent is often thought to be divisive when, in fact, it is a search to return a whole, a desperate battle to keep the parts together. Dissent as a concept and an activity has to be differentiated from radicalism and from the inflated idea of the public intellectual. Radicalism is totalitarian while dissent is pluralistic. It acknowledges epistemically that it is one way among many ways of stating the truth.
Marxism was a form of radicalism. It created dualism and binaries but what redeemed Marxism from being a mechanical party ideology was the variety of dissenting imaginations that surrounded it. Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, Marxist revolutionaries, add not just to the romance of Marxism, but redeem it from the monolithic ideology of Stalinism. The danger of Stalinism lay in the fact that it ate up the future of these dissenting imaginations. Dissenting Marxism has been life-giving and creative especially for the margins. Liberation theology during the fishing struggle in Kerala gave the battle for equality a new dimension when political parties and churches found it difficult to transcend hierarchy or abandon power. A party or cadre-style Marxism had no place for the dissenting imaginations.
The idea of the public intellectual often degenerates to a drawing room concept of a creature we watch on TV. He is the successor to the salon intellectual who presents himself more as a performative rather than a substantive mind. One expects the public intellectual to get his hands dirty, ensure that while he is a media creation, he does not become a creature of the media. One senses all too often that his critique is cosmetic and rhetorical. There are exceptions. Kannada writer U.R. Ananthamurthy was a brilliant example of an intellectual who loved the café, the vibrancy of storytelling, and meditated on the fate and ironies of socialism. His last book, Hindutva or Hind Swaraj, is a good example of the creativity of dissent. Ananthamurthy would talk to the right and the left, engage with any group and yet create a separate presence. His critique of Narendra Modi as Gujarat Chief Minister and Prime Ministerial candidate in 2014 was about his suppression of storytelling, the State government’s distortion of dissent, its labelling of environmentalists as anti-national. Ananthamurthy’s bilingualism allowed him a greater diversity of thinking. It expanded the poetics of differences and made democracy a panchayat of ideas. The government gave him his finest accolade when it decreed through BJP leader Giriraj Kishore that he should be put on the train to Pakistan.
The very confused state of dissent and dissenting imaginations today demands that we re-conceptualise dissent into a tentative manifesto. I remember what the scientist C.V. Seshadri once told me. Radicalism lives in the world of hyperboles but dissent unravels itself through ordinary language. Yet it is out of this everydayness of language that it invents the dreams of alternatives. Dissent seeks to articulate difference, celebrate plurality and attain a sense of diversity. The dissenter, unlike the ideologist or the radical, claims the whole truth. He is a custodian, a trustee of truths which are being lost in mainstream or majority debates. A dissenter is thus a representative of differences of marginal truths and in articulating this role becomes a custodian for the imagination of democracies. A dissenter thus protects or argues for ideas which belong to the margins, the minority, to what might be condemned as heretic or merely eccentric. He is a custodian of abandoned memories and an advocate of defeated ideas which are still life-giving.
A dissenter has to survive not just the ideologist but the very definition of expertise. Expertise is today virtually defined as a monopoly or an oligopoly of knowledge which assumes it knows a domain best. An expert always operates within enclosures but is rarely exclusive within it. In expert controversies, the dissenter is regarded as noise in a system. A dissenter sounds discordant because the music of his ideas is not appreciated. When a lay person challenges expertise using ordinary language, his becomes a lesser order of knowledge. A dissenter has to challenge the ontology of both statuses — an invidious notion of citizenship and a non-inclusive notion of knowledge. One sees this during debates on nuclear energy where expert language seems measured and certain while dissent sounds almost irrational and subjective. Here dissent not only has to broker between expertise and what is dubbed as ignorance, it has to challenge the very epistemology of knowledge which defines a layperson’s knowledge as a lesser form of existence. Dissent in this instance challenges not just the dominance of expertise but the dominant constructions of knowledge itself. Dissent within a plural frame has to renew the very definitions of mainstream knowledge.
A dissenter in that sense is a custodian of difference, of defeated and dominated ideas. He has to challenge hegemonic ideas without demanding such exclusivity for his own ideas or knowledge system. He operates on the cusp of the republic of tentativeness as a trickster, a shaman, bringing a different life force to ideas. A satyagrahi in that sense epitomises dissent and the life of dissent. He lives out an idea and his protest is always dialogic, non-violent. His lifestyle embodies his idea such that his autobiography becomes a life world for the idea. Gandhi’s “experiments with truth” represented a dissenting idea, where the dissenter also empathised with the hegemon and sought to rescue him. The Indian national movement was an attempt to rescue the British from their modernity. The dissenter rather than being factional or divisive was concerned with the health of the whole. He sought to be an exemplar of his own idea by living it. The satyagrahi in that sense embodied his idea linking life, lifeworld, livelihood, life style and life cycle. He experimented on himself and the body became a test tube for his experiments with self and truth, whether non-violence, diet, self-control. In that sense, satyagraha was a way of thought as a way of living and ashrams became experiments in thought, attempts to create an alternative world view. Gandhi added to an usually political and intellectualist idea of dissent, an experimental and ethical mentality. But in a truly satyagraha style, the experiment rather than being inspectional began on oneself — creating a connectivity with the world which was both ethical and political.
Dissent as an idea and an activity has to be placed within both a theory of democracy and a theory of knowledge. One begins with the critical role of diversity and a critique of hegemonic knowledge. One of the great exponents of such an idea was Alfred Wallace, co-discoverer of evolution with Charles Darwin. In The Wonderful Century, Wallace argued that a science at its moment of dominance becomes a threat to itself, to the creative dream of alternatives. He argued that science must invent alternative imaginations to sustain its dynamisms. His book was an exploration of such alternative ideas from spiritualism to critiques of vaccination to argue for the availability of both eccentricity and creativity.
Finally, a dissenter’s relation to power is liminal. I remember the political scientist, Rajni Kothari, once discussing a change in regimes. He smiled and said wryly, “Regardless of who comes to power, our place seems to be in the opposition.” At the level of power, we remain outsiders and outliers to the hegemony of any idea. Dissent in that sense is critical at at time when one’s citizenship in a world of knowledge is always in question. It becomes a ritual of trusteeship for the world of minorities, marginals, eccentrics, those dreaming of alternative ideas to sustain a vibrant democracy.
(The Hindu)

 

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Opinion

The Mosque of the Two Qiblahs

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By Spahic Omer

This is an important historical mosque. It is one of the earliest mosques in Islam. It was established during the Prophet’s time for an outlying neighbourhood of Madinah. Its significance lies in the fact that after the Prophet (pbuh) received a commandment to change the qiblah or prayer direction from al-Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem to al-Masjid al-Haram (Ka’bah) in Makkah, the entire congregation led by a companion in this mosque changed direction in prayer. Henceforth the mosque was known as masjid al-qiblatayn (the mosque of the two qiblahs) as both qiblahs were faced in a single prayer.

Al-Bukhari in his Sahih reports the incident as follows: “When the Prophet (pbuh) came to Madinah, he stayed first with his grandfathers or maternal uncles from Ansar. He offered his prayers facing Baitul-Maqdis (Jerusalem and its al-Masjid al-Aqsa) for sixteen or seventeen months, but he wished that he could pray facing the Ka’bah (in Makkah). The first prayer which he offered facing the Ka’bah was the ‘Asr prayer in the company of some people. Then one of those who had offered that prayer with him came out and passed by some people in a mosque who were bowing during their prayers (facing Jerusalem). He said addressing them: ‘By Allah, I testify that I have prayed with Allah’s Apostle facing Makkah (Ka’bah).’ Hearing that, those people changed their direction towards the Ka’bah immediately. Jews and the people of the scriptures used to be pleased to see the Prophet (pbuh) facing Jerusalem in prayers but when he changed his direction towards the Ka’bah, during the prayers, they disapproved of it” (Sahih al-Bukhari).

 

Architecturally, the mosque was meticulously attended to by many personalities throughout Muslim history. Many expansion, rebuilding and renovation programs took place. Among the first ones to do so was ‘Umar II. The Ottomans excelled in the same regard too. The present form of the mosque dates back to 1987. It was constructed as part of various development initiatives in Madinah by King Fahd. The plan and design of the mosque referred to the Islamic traditional architectural language and vocabulary as a source of inspiration. “Externally, the architectural vocabulary is inspired by traditional elements and motifs in a deliberate effort to offer an authentic image for an historic site” (archnet.org). The architect was Abdul-Wahid al-Wakil from Egypt.

The mosque is much smaller than the Quba’ mosque. That is perhaps the case because it is not on the list of the places which the Prophet (pbuh) recommended to be visited in Madinah. The comparatively small size is an indirect invitation to people not to regard it as important for visiting as the explicitly specified places, and so, not to throng to it needlessly. The interior of the mosque is much similar to those of the mosque of Ahmad b. Tulun and some Fatimid mosques in Cairo.

There are two minarets on the right and left sides of the main entrance. Though somewhat shorter, they resemble the four minarets of the Quba’ mosque. The bases of the minarets are square and the shafts octagonal. There are three balconies on each minaret, the second and third being supported by muqarnas. The first balcony marks the transition from the square base to the octagonal shaft. It itself is square, while the other two balconies are octagonal.

“The mosque can accommodate up to 2,000 worshipers. The main prayer hall adopts rigid orthogonal geometry and symmetry which is accentuated by the use of twin minarets and twin domes. Living accommodations for the imam, the muezzin and the caretaker are discreetly grouped in one block to the west of the main structure. The difference in level at the southeast corner of the site has been exploited to incorporate a sub-basement level which serves as the ablutions area for worshipers. To the north, where the ground level is lower, the prayer hall is raised one-story above ground level. Entry to the prayer hall is from the raised courtyard, also to the north, which can be reached by stairs and ramps from the main directions of approach” (archnet.org).

The prayer hall consists of a series of arches which support barrel-vaults running parallel to the qiblah wall. These vaults are interrupted in the middle by two domes which establish an axis in the direction of Makkah and its al-Masjid al-Haram. The main dome to the south is raised on a circular drum with clerestory windows which allow light to filter into the interior directly above the mihrab. There are 22 such windows filled with jaalis and colored glass. The second, false dome stands above the entrance. It is linked to the first dome by a small cross-vault to symbolize the transition from one qiblah to another. This slightly smaller dome does not have clerestory windows perforated in its drum. Both domes are supported by a combination of pendentives and simple forms of muqarnas, featuring only a few niches or alveoles. Domed are also some adjacent spaces of the mosque that provide extra facilities and services.

Before entering the mosque, one firstly steps inside a virtually enclosed arcade, whence he enters the mosque proper. This transitional arcade is covered by a series of miniature domes. The arcade reminds of entry sides in most Ottoman mosques, which are marked with porticos resting on wide columns and covered with small domes.

There are four rows of piers with which the arches are supported, each row having eight piers. In total, there are 32 piers, which is excessive for the size of the mosque. Moreover, the piers are huge, consuming much space inside the prayer area. They also accentuate the heavy mass of the building and its bulkiness.

The four corners of each pier have engaged columns, four columns for every pier. The columns are embedded in the piers’ mass and only partly project from their corner surfaces. They are cylindrical and plain, having no distinctive bases. Their capitals are decorated identically with stucco-work. They look like simple forms of the Byzantine capital. The same structural and decorative manoeuvre is found on the piers of the mosque of Ahmad b. Tulun.

There are five arcades parallel to the qiblah, corresponding to the number of barrel-vaults. In each arcade there could be three lines (sufuf) of worshipers, which means fifteen lines in total. Each line can accommodate about 120-130 worshipers. The women’s prayer section is on the second floor and occupies two arcades. The area is divided into two parts by the second or false dome. The area is protected by a wooden screen featuring latticework and ensuring peace and privacy.

The mihrab is rather deep and is gradually recessed. It has two depth levels, each level bordered by two columns that support the arched hood. Almost the entire mihrab frame, including the columns and the hood, are luxuriantly adorned with stucco-work featuring calligraphy, complex geometry and floral patterns. Of the two Qur’anic verses used as calligraphic embellishment, one is on the subject of qiblah (direction of prayer). The verse is partially used and its usage divided into two fragments, running across the extradoses of the two levels of the mihrab’s arched hood.

That the mihrab niche has two recessed levels could be symbolically interpreted as the two stages of establishing the qiblah: firstly towards Jerusalem and secondly towards Makkah. Thus, on the extrados of the outer mihrab’s level, the following Qur’anic words as the first part of the verse in question are inscribed, representing the first and preliminary stage of establishing the qiblah: “We have certainly seen the turning of your face, (O Muhammad), toward the heaven, and We will surely turn you to a qiblah with which you will be pleased” (al-Baqarah, 144). And on the extrados of the inner mihrab’s level, the following Qur’anic words as the second part of the verse are inscribed, representing the second and final stage of the qiblah establishment: “So turn your face toward al-Masjid al-Haram. And wherever you (believers) are, turn your faces toward it (in prayer)” (al-Baqarah, 144).

Next to the mihrab stands a minbar or pulpit. It is made of wood and exhibits excellent workmanship. In terms of size and overall appearance, though, it bears a resemblance to the marble minbar in the Quba’ mosque.

Extending through the entire southern qiblah and left eastern sides of the mosque are two rows of small niches, one above the other, containing copies of the Holy Qur’an. Their openings are in the shape of pointed multi foil arches. On the qiblah side, there are 128 such niches, and on the left eastern side, 80. Each niche contains 14 copies of the Qur’an. Furthermore, all 32 piers on their right and left sides contain two more similar niches. The exception are eight piers that border the mosque’s axis towards Makkah under the two domes. Those piers have only one niche each, on the sides that do not face the axis.

Finally, on the opposite side of the qiblah, right above the entrance, there is in stucco-work a medium-size image of a mihrab niche. The image is two-dimensional and symbolizes the first qiblah towards Jerusalem. It is deliberately made fairly modest and raised high above the ground, so as not to draw much attention to itself and thus, perhaps, incite excessive symbolism and some untoward behavior. Across the image runs the axiom that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.

The axiom intimates that the change of the qiblah was solely about affirming the Oneness of Allah and the prophet-hood of Muhammad (pbuh), and that the truth of Islam is universal, absolute, timeless and all-encompassing, including the earlier prophets, their own prophet-hood missions and their own peoples and legacies. The change of the qiblah must not be viewed through the prism of prejudice, narrow-mindedness and self-interests.

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Opinion

Never Belittle Your Firm Belief in Allah

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By Shaimaa Elhomossany

One of the most shared human experiences is emotional suffering. Whether it comes from rejection, criticism, failure, disappointment, illness or loss, emotional suffering is always a heavy burden, commonly experienced, yet carried individually. Regardless of how much effort we put to neutralize or change our perception of it, we remain vulnerable to its consequences. Surprisingly though, emotional suffering is necessary for our journey in life. Allah designed this world, enclosed with suffering and pain, not only as a test but also as a means to get to know Him and draw closer to Him. This is why the Messengers and Prophets – peace be upon them all – may have had the greatest share of suffering, yet had the closest relationship with Allah.

Understanding the following will help us better approach, deal with and ultimately benefit from emotional suffering:

 

1) Suffering is an opportunity to advance in our spiritual relationship with Allah

It’s important to understand that the utmost goal of our lives is to worship Allah, as He says:

“And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.”

(Quran – 51:56)

This helps us realise that the most important work of our lives is to become the best servants of Allah that we can be. This servitude, however, entails acknowledging our vulnerability, helplessness, and dependability, because otherwise, we would be self-sufficient, omnipotent and unapproachable; we would be divine!

The truth is, we humans are created helpless, weak, exposed and constantly in need, so that we may seek refuge from Allah’s power. He can compensate for our weakness with His might, and from His sustenance, He provides for us. Only when in our utter helplessness we seek refuge, can we taste a level of closeness to Allah that doesn’t come from anywhere else.

We need to foster a new level of trust in His abilities, firm belief in Him and His watchfulness over us, so that we may be empowered to go through any hardship in life with Him and by Him, instead of weak and alone. Only through this opportunity can we establish a genuine servant-master relationship based on a true understanding and experience of Allah’s divinity and Lordship. Only when we understand where we stand in that relationship can we perfect the mission of our existence.

2) Feeling Sad Doesn’t Contradict Being A Good Believer

When we hear stories of Prophets, it is obvious that sadness is an integral part of these stories. Often, we can relate to their suffering. Take Prophet Yaqub, for example, whose story is anchored with sadness and struggle, and who acknowledged his emotional pain and opened up to it, but never allowed it to belittle his firm belief in Allah.

Or Lady Mariam, when the pain of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree, and in her intense emotional and physical suffering she said,

“Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.”

(Quran- 19:23)

Despite that, she still occupies the status as one of the best women in Islam.

The best among all, Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, when burying his child Ibrahim said,

“The eyes are shedding tears and the heart is grieved, and we will not say except what pleases our Lord, O Ibrahim! Indeed, we are grieved by your separation.”
So, whatever ordeal you are dealing with in your life, don’t feel guilty about being open to it and interacting with it. The most important thing is not to go so far into sadness that you cross the line with Allah while grieving, by displeasing Him or turning away from Him in despair.

3) Don’t Reject It, Accept It

Knowing that this suffering chose you specifically over many others requires some contemplation. It was meant to be, and nothing that is meant to be is haphazard, on the contrary, there is always a good reason for it.

As we learn from the story of Prophet Musa’s encounter with Khidr in the Quran, nothing happens without a divine reason behind it. However, sometimes we, like Prophet Musa, are unable to truly understand what this reason is. This is especially true when things happen that seem bad or unjust. All we can do is learn to accept that there is a reason for it and have complete faith in Allah’s plan.

There is nothing we can do to stop the storm, until we realise that it’s not the storm that hurts, it’s resisting it that does. Learn to flow with your suffering and let it carry you to the other end, and trust me, there, you will meet a very different version of yourself. Just realise that the only way out is through.

4) Don’t Look At How It Is Affecting You, Rather Look At Who Brought It upon You

If we look at emotional suffering in and of itself, it will be very hard to deal with. However, if we look at it as something coming from the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate, the Source of Peace, the Reliever, the All Aware, the Watchful, the Responder to Prayers, the Wise, the Doer of Good, the Guide, and the All Comprehending, you will find there is no need to worry and you will be confident that no matter how difficult it may seem, Allah will send down His subtle kindness and gentleness along with it, making it easy for you. So, fix your heart towards the sender, not the consequences.

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Opinion

China’s brutal crackdown on the Uighur Muslims

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By Jen Kirbyjen

China was sharply criticized for its mass detention of members of the Muslim Uighur community at a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting on Tuesday — but the country pushed back, saying that the condemnation was politically motivated.

Western governments, including those in Europe, the United States, and Canada, had the harshest words for China. The United States chargé d’affaires Mark Cassayre demanded that China “abolish all forms of arbitrary detention” for Uighurs and other Muslims minorities, and that China release the “possibly millions” of individuals detained there.

 

China’s Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng dismissed these and other comments as “politically driven accusations from a few countries that are fraught with biases.”
China has detained as many as 1 million Uighurs in so-called “re-educationcenters” and forced them to undergo psychological indoctrination programs — like studying communist propaganda and giving thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chinese authorities have also reportedly used waterboarding and other forms of torture on the ethnic minority.

Xinjiang, where about 10 million Uighurs and a few other Muslim minorities live, is an autonomous region in China’s northwest that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. It has been under Chinese control since 1949, when the communist People’s Republic of China was established.

Uighurs speak their own language — an Asian Turkic language similar to Uzbek — and most practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam. Some activists, including those who seek independence from China, refer to the region as East Turkestan.

Once situated along the ancient Silk Road trading route, Xinjiang is oil- and resource-rich. As it developed along with the rest of China, the region attracted more Han Chinese, a migration encouraged by the Chinese government.

But that demographic shift inflamed ethnic tensions, especially within some of the larger cities. In 2009, for example, riots broke out in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, after Uighurs protested their treatment by the government and the Han majority. About 200 people were killed and hundreds injured during the unrest.

The Chinese government, however, blamed the protests on violent separatist groups — a tactic it would continue to use against the Uighurs and other religious and ethnic minorities across China.

Xinjiang is also a major logistics hub of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar infrastructure project along the old Silk Road meant to boost China’s economic and political influence around the world. Xinjiang’s increasing importance to China’s global aspirations is likely a major reason Beijing is tightening its grip.

All of which means China has increasingly tried to draw Xinjiang into its orbit, starting with a crackdown in 2009 following riots in the region and leading up to the implementation of repressive policies in 2016 and 2017 that have curbed religious freedom and increased surveillance of the minority population, often under the guise of combating terrorism and extremism.

The Chinese government justifies its clampdown on the Uighurs and Muslim minorities by saying it’s trying to eradicate extremism and separatist groups. But while attacks, some violent, by Uighur separatists have occurred in recent years, there’s little evidence of any cohesive separatist movement — with jihadist roots or otherwise — that could challenge the Chinese government, experts tell me.

China’s crackdown on the Uighurs is part of a policy of “de-extremification.” It’s generated repressive policies, from the banning of certain Muslim names for babies to chilling reports of torture and political indoctrination in so-called “reeducation” camps where hundreds of thousands have been detained.

Communist China has a dark history with reeducation camps, combining hard labor with indoctrination to the party line. According to research by Adrian Zenz, a leading scholar on China’s policies toward the Uighurs, Chinese officials began using dedicated camps in Xinjiang around 2014 — around the same time that China blamed a series of terrorist attacks on radical Uighur separatists.

China escalated pressure on Muslim minorities through 2017, slowly chipping away at their rights with the passage of religious regulations and a counterterrorism law, according to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a pro-Uighur group based in Washington, DC.

In 2016, Xinjiang also got a new leader: a powerful Communist Party boss named Chen Quanguo, whose previous job was restoring order and control to the restive region of Tibet. Chen has a reputation as a strongman and is something of a specialist in ethnic crackdowns.

Increased surveillance and police presence accompanied his move to Xinjiang, including his “grid management” policing system. As the Economist reported, “authorities divide each city into squares, with about 500 people. Every square has a police station that keeps tabs on the inhabitants. So, in rural areas, does every village.”

Security checkpoints where residents must scan identification cards were set up at train stations and on roads into and out of towns. Authorities have reportedly used facial recognition technology to track residents’ movements. Police confiscate phones to download the information contained on them to scan through later. Police have also confiscated passports to prevent Uighurs from traveling abroad.

Some of the targeted “de-extremification” restrictions gained coverage in the West, including a ban on certain Muslim names for babies and another on long beards and veils. The government also made it illegal to not watch state television and to not send children to government schools. The government reportedly tried to promote drinking and smoking, because people who didn’t drink or smoke — like devout Muslims — were deemed suspicious.

Chinese officials have justified these policies as necessary to counter religious radicalization and extremism, but critics say they are meant to curtail Islamic traditions and practices.

The Chinese government is “trying to expunge ethnonational characteristics from the people,” James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University, told me. “They’re not trying to drive them out of the country; they’re trying to hold them in.”

“The ultimate goal, the ultimate issue that the Chinese state is targeting [is] the cultural practices and beliefs of Muslim groups,” he added.

“Re-education camps” — or training camps, as the Chinese have called them — are perhaps the most sinister pillar of this de-extremification policy. Experts estimate as many as 2 million people have disappeared into these camps at some point, with about 1 million currently being held.

The Chinese government first denied these camps even existed. When confronted about them at the United Nations in August, officials claimed they were for the “assistance and education” of minor criminals. China’s state-run media has dismissed the reports of detention camps as Western media “baselessly criticizing China’s human rights.”

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