In the words of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth in 1992, 2010 could be viewed as an annus horribilus for Muslims worldwide. Devastating floods in Pakistan caused unheard of devastation and left up to a third of the country underwater. In Iraq, surging sectarian violence and a stagnant government failed to make up for the withdrawal of American combat troops. And then there was the corruption and deception practiced by rulers of Muslim countries that became public in the Wikileaks scandal. American Muslims in particular saw a dramatic rise in the number of young Muslims arrested for suspected or planned terrorist plots, some with undercover FBI agents as accomplices providing fake bombs, but nearly all inspired by American-born and Yemen-based Anwar al Awlaki. It was also the summer of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” which soon affected mosques across the United States. An attempted burning of the Qur’an by an obscure Florida pastor shortly followed and caused an international uproar. Outright bigotry against Muslims could be seen in America’s midterm election campaigns and in violent street protests by the English Defence League in Britain. What good news stories could be seen amidst all of this? In this ninth edition of our annual top ten list, we find a few examples that lead us to believe that this annus may not have been so horribilus after all. (See altmuslim’s “Top Ten” lists for 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002.)
1. Park51 survives threats against the civil rights of American Muslims
Say what you will about Park51, the long-planned Muslim community center in New York City’s lower Manhattan that dominated the news in mid-2010… after all, everyone else did! Dubbed the “Ground Zero mosque” by the anti-Islamic bloggers who fueled the fire in May, Park51 (along with much of its public relations strategy) was simultaneously bold, insensitive, visionary, and utterly shambolic. The legal victories that ensured the right to build included approval by the local community board and refusal of landmark status to the former Burlington Coat Factory building that would have made construction financially impractical. But there were also setbacks both internally (the disappearance of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf overseas during the peak of the controversy and leaving PR to a quirky Twitter feed that was reckless and unprofessional at times) and externally (exploitation of the issue by 2010 midterm election candidates). Rauf, known for decades as a moderate and thoughtful New York-based leader of a Sufi congregation, his wife Daisy Khan, and Sharif El-Gamal, a brash real estate developer who purchased the property in 2009 for $4.8 million, all spoke of the project from such different vantage points that it was, at times, almost impossible to figure out – for Muslims and non-Muslims alike – what was going on. It soon became clear that the story of Park51 was much more than about the building itself and, as uninvolved American Muslims nationwide were taking the flak, many wondered how much grief the promoters would bear.
Building on the suspicion and hostility that had accumulated over the past 9 years, protests sprang up across the US against mosques that had nothing to do with Ground Zero – from Murfreesboro, Tennessee to Temecula, California and even against dead Muslims in a tiny upstate New York town. Even for American Muslims who privately felt that the planned expenditure for Park51 was an unwise one, many of them could see what was coming: allowing this project to be stopped would set a precedent that vetoed the civil liberties of American Muslims through the sensitivities of their neighbours. It was this pivotal sense of history that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tapped into when he dramatically declared his support for Park51 amidst interfaith leaders. With nowhere legal to go, opponents resorted to enough bigotry towards Muslims to begin to shock America’s conscience (see related story below). In the meantime, the project evolved to reflect the needs and concerns of local residents, developed stunning new renderings of the project, consolidated their PR strategy with American Muslim leaders, and established a non-profit organization to begin accepting donations. Given the recognition that the “world’s most famous community center” (El-Gamal’s description) has, that shouldn’t be too difficult.
2. Between civil disobedience and building civic institutions, Palestine is on the way to statehood
For years, we have been told that they key to resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestine was to combat terror. But we always knew that was only part of the story. During the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict (in which 1,400 Palestinians were killed to Israel’s 13), the futility of using Qassam rockets and the like to liberate territory became all too apparent. Using non-violent resistance instead was not a new concept to Palestinians (remember the first Intifada), but perhaps a misunderstood one in which non-violent responses were expected (they never were). The beauty of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience is not in the immediacy of its results, but in the long-lasting impact on international communities. Though led by Palestine’s international supporters, the Gaza flotilla was a shining example of this. Efforts to paint those who resisted the boarding of six ships in international waters off Gaza’s coast as terrorists largely failed in world opinion and the killing of nine activists aboard the flagship Mavi Marmara was deemed excessive and illegal by the UN Human Rights Commission. Israel’s absurdly selective list of blockaded items for import and export (such as toilet paper, pasta, and potato chips) was highlighted to the world and helped result in a partial relaxation of the blockade and, more importantly, a strategy for future action.
Domestically, the government of Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas and, particularly, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have been building civic institutions at a remarkable rate, ushering a new sense of self-reliance, pragmatism, and transparency. 2010 marked a year of over 11% growth in Palestine and, though mostly donor-driven, the investment in civic and commercial infrastructure promises to pay dividends to private investors. Already, Palestinian technology firms are benefiting from the type of outsourcing that helped build the technology sectors of developing countries such as India. Though efforts by US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to pressure Israel to halt the construction of settlements (even with the offer of 20 F-35 fighters for a 90 day freeze) ultimately failed, the PA’s new strategy of institution building looks beyond the US to convince others. By the end of 2010, Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador had all extended diplomatic recognition to Palestine, extending the number of countries that could support a decision by the UN to ultimately admit Palestine as a full member state. Fayyad and the 13th PA government declared a one-year countdown to independence in September of 2010. With or without help from the US, there is a good chance he will achieve it.
3. As they adopt their host cultures, Western Muslims seize control of their own narrative
There are two aspects to the image that Muslims in the West have – that of how they participate in society and of how they portray themselves. Gradual changes in both have been a byproduct of September 11th, but have been more dramatic in 2010. Some of this has been incidental, the long-anticipated fruits of a younger American Muslim generation. Rima Fakih’s surprise win as Miss USA may not have been viewed positively by more conservative Muslims (for obvious reasons) or Islam-sceptics (who alleged a Hezbollah connection), though Fakih defended her identity and fasted during Ramadan and a beauty pageant for good measure. In politics, Britain’s Muslim members of Parliament doubled and America’s two Muslim congressmen were re-elected with increased majorities. Muslims were elected mayors in small towns (San Carlos, CA; Teaneck, NJ; Granite Falls, WA) and large cities (Calgary, Canada and the London borough of Tower Hamlets in England). Creative output surged in theater (“Domestic Crusaders” at the Kennedy Center), film (“Mooz-lum” and the upcoming “Fordham”) and literature (G. Willow Wilson’s “Butterfly Mosque”). And the increasingly high profile of American Muslim women continued.
More? In the heat of the Park51 controversy, the “Ramadan road trip” 30 Mosques in 30 States found an audience on CNN and humanized America’s diverse Muslim populations. Philanthropically, Muslims gave in record numbers for victims of the Haiti earthquake. A fund set up by American Muslims for the families of victims of Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood distributed over $130,000 in 2010. And local Muslim communities increased their unique charitable services for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the latter an effort that aims to spread across America as Muslims offer to fill charitable roles left vacant by Christians during the holiday season. And if you still struggle with all the stereotypes of who Muslims are and what they look like, you could do worse than visit the blog Muslims Wearing Things, which took the “Muslim garb” comments of former NPR analyst Juan Williams and turned it on its head.
4. A failed Qur’an burning demonstrates America’s red line against intolerance
Given the heat in America over Park51, it seemed likely that anti-Muslim sentiment would manifest itself in other, perhaps unpredicable ways. Enter Pastor Terry Jones, an obscure preacher from Gainesville, Florida who decided he would burn a copy of the Qur’an on September 11, 2010 – the nine year anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington – and replicate the Muslim furor that took place over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2006. Jones had previously attracted attention in 2009 for posting a sign stating “Islam is of the Devil” in front of his church and on the shirts of his congregation’s children (who were prevented from wearing them at their schools). Given the fury of the Ground Zero mosque controversy at the time and the imagery of the World Trade Center attacks, Jones probably felt he was going to ride a wave of popular support. Instead, all he saw was opposition. Not one Christian denomination (outside that of the anti-homosexual Westboro Baptist Church of Fred Phelps) stepped up to support him. Even high profile mosque opponents such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin denounced Jones, as did President Obama and other world leaders. After a bizarre statement dropping his threat in exchange for a non-existent pledge to stop Park51, Jones abandoned the idea altogether, stating on September 11th that “we will definitely not burn the Quran… Not today, not ever.”
But beyond the statements of political leaders, popular disgust with Jones’ idea amongst American society manifested itself in fascinating ways. A 23 year-old skateboarder in Amarillo, Texas named Jacob Isom captured this new zeitgeist when he snatched a copy from a local preacher as he prepared to fulfill Jones’ threat in a public park, uttering “Dude, you have no Quran!” before delivering it undamaged to a local imam. His phrase soon became a YouTube hit and demonstrated that an otherwise apolitical sector of American society had had enough. Brad Benson, a New Jersey car dealer who promised Jones a new car if he’d drop the stunt, kept his word and delivered a new Hyundai. Sporadic attempts at Qur’an burning occurred in other parts of the US, but the exhaustion of the public and the media over the issue meant that the power of Jones’ threat had long dissipated. America soon began to examine the hostility against Muslims that made it once possible. By the time Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar stormed off “The View,” NPR fired analyst Juan Williams, and Jon Stewart spent much of his Rally for Sanity arguing for the decency of American Muslims, it seemed that we had all finally looked into the abyss – and backed away.
5. With the 2022 World Cup, Qatar finds an opportunity to make development responsible and sustainable
The surprise selection of tiny Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, beating the United States, Australia, Japan, and South Korea, was received with scepticism from the world’s soccer fans – and pretty much everyone else. President Obama called it “the wrong decision.” One of the world’s most popular sporting events, the World Cup has been on a mission of influence recently with 2010’s games (a first for Africa), 2014’s games (a first for South America), and 2018’s games (a first for Russia) meshing nicely with the first such games in the Middle East. Yes, there is plenty to say about corruption within FIFA, the World Cup’s governing body, along with the tendency of oil-rich emirates to buy their way into high profile gatherings (citizenship for poor African Olympic athletes, for example). Then there’s the potential clash of values between the country’s more conservative Muslims and the legions of beer-drinking fans that are drawn to the sport. But Qatar’s win is symbolic for the Arab and Muslim world which, despite their billion-plus adherents and millions of football fans, have never had the opportunity to host the prestigious event.
Such a huge risk, both to FIFA and Qatar, is not without reason. Tiny Qatar, a nation of barely 1.7 million (200,000 of them natives), is the most compact host for the games, with only three stadiums currently built. Accommodating the lifestyles of guests will be a true test of tolerance, but a needed one if the region will continue to host international events and businesses. Over $65 billion will be spent in preparation for the event, including new metros, high-speed railways and other improvements. The money will be used to develop technology that can benefit other countries with similar climate and resources (or lack of them, rather). For Qatar, that means the carbon neutral cooling of stadia and other areas through the use of solar energy and wind power. Finally, Qatar’s plan to have their infrastructure partially dismantled and distributed to build 22 stadiums in the developing world was possibly a tipping point for FIFA’s decision. In a sense, it could be the beginning of a reversal of the Dubai-ification of the region, built on a promise of sustainability that must be delivered and can serve as a model for the kind of development a post-oil Middle East must adapt to in years to come. It’s a big promise, but the kind of promise we’ll need to see from the Muslim and Arab worlds in greater numbers.
6. Thanks to Muslim-led vigilance, domestic terror attempts fail in America
Although related to two of the above stories, this one deserves a special mention. Before 2010, American Muslims were long considered exemplary in terms of citizenship and integration into Western societies… and they still are. However, the long string of terror arrests involving individual American citizens – nearly all inspired by an American hiding in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki – has shaken this perception to the core. But the great unemphasized story here is that nearly all of the tipoffs to authorities have come from Muslims themselves who saw it as their civic (and, no doubt, religious) duty. From the father of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the Christmas Day bomber) whose father warned US authorities to Farooque Ahmed (the DC Metro plot) to Mohamed Osman Mohamud (of Portland’s car bomb plot) to Mohamed Mahmood Alessa (turned in by his family), Muslims displayed no reluctance in contacting authorities when there was a risk of terror. Even in the recent Stockholm bombings, the perpetrator was confronted and shunned from a British mosque for his extreme views (though well before his plot was hatched). All in all, one third of US domestic terror plots since 9/11 have been foiled with the assistance of American Muslims.
Granted, there is much to be critical of when looking at the way the FBI goes about its business, with informants spelling out what to do to lone individuals. The case of Yaser Afifi, a student in Santa Clara, California, finding a GPS tracking device and outing the FBI by posting images of it online stands out as one egregiously absurd example (agents told Afifi not to worry because he was “boring). Still, Muslim organizations insisted that they wouldn’t neglect their civic duty even as they expressed concerns about the FBI’s methods. And these duties go far beyond that of dealing with the authorities.Consider Molly Norris, the Seattle-based cartoonist who found her mildly satirical (rather cute, actually) cartoon touting a “Draw Muhammad Day” inadvertently used as the focal point for the real thing in May. Aghast at what had been created, she disassociated herself from the movement (which grew large enough to prompt a Facebook ban in Pakistan). When the FBI put her into hiding (the only known threat to Norris coming from al-Awlaki), Seattle-area Muslims befriended her and Muslim leaders across North America made an impassioned defense of free speech, mentioning Norris by name (as well as Matt Stone and Trey Parker, whose South Park episode featuring Muhammad was pulled in April, also amidst non-existent threats). Sure, not many people listened, but that didn’t stop Muslims from standing up and doing the right thing.
7. The Khan Academy demonstrates a selfless desire to change the world
From Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus’ pioneering experiments with micro-finance at the Grameen Bank, to the Ansari X Prize, a competition to promote privately-launched low cost spacecraft funded by technology entrepreneurs Amir and Anousheh Ansari, many Muslims have demonstrated a desire to promote not only charitable giving, but initiatives that empower people from all walks of life and expand access to technology, finance, or knowledge. When Californian technology and finance professional Salman Khan began a humble project tutoring relatives through an online whiteboard, he probably never would have considered himself among the world’s great philanthropists. With his project, eventually titled the Khan Academy, Salman produced hundreds of 10-minute tutorials on YouTube on everything from algebra and history, to finance and advanced mathematics. By 2010, as fans and supporters from around the world began to overwhelm him, Khan probably realized that he had begun to make an enormous impact on the world.
The genius of the Khan Academy has not necessarily been the content of Salman’s over 2,000 videos, but the accessible and digestible way they were delivered, and the breaking down of commercial barriers to knowledge in the developing world. In 2010, Khan Academy was praised by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who teaches his kids with it. But having quit his day job in September 2009, Khan still struggled to make a living with his new found passion. That soon changed when over $150,000 in donations poured in ($100,000 alone from venture capitalist John Doerr), followed by a $2 million donation from Google that promises to sustain Khan’s vision and export it further beyond linguistic, economic, cultural, and technological barriers to anyone with the desire to learn. Although Muslim, when asked of his religion, Khan replies that “If you believe in trying to make the best of the finite number of years we have on this planet (while not making it any worse for anyone else), think that pride and self-righteousness are the cause of most conflict and negativity, and are humbled by the vastness and mystery of the Universe, then I’m the same religion as you.” It’s yet another lesson worth learning from.
8. Dr. Hawa Abdi stands up to extremists in Somalia and prevails
While Yemen and Afghanistan got plenty of attention in 2010, Somalia has been the place to watch when it comes to extremists. Given the ongoing conflict between Islamic militants al-Shabaab and a fledgling transitional government, it is a place charities and even armies (remember Black Hawk Down?) fear to tread. When the government of Siad Barre collapsed in 1991, taking a functioning government with it, Dr. Hawa Abdi, a gynocologist who ran a one room clinic, found herself running a 400-bed hospital whose ground later teemed with 90,000 refugees from war. Along with her daughters, Dr. Abdi managed to provide food, water, and educational resources to mostly women and children whose fathers, brothers, and sons had either been killed or fled the country to find work. When Islamist militants captured her last May (after they deemed it inappropriate for a woman to run the hospital), she asked them “What have you done for society?” and refused to budge. As the world’s Somalis reacted with outrage, the militia allowed her to run the hospital, but under their command. She still refused and insisted that the militia leave and apologize. When her daughter in Atlanta, GA pleaded with her to give in, Hawa told her “No! I will die with dignity.”
Eventually the militia, weary of the public outrage, relented and apologized. Abdi was able to return to her work, having faced the militias as an unarmed Muslim woman and survived. As a result, this year she was named (along with her daughters) as some of the women of the year by Glamour magazine. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times rightly called her “Heroic, Female, and Muslim.” Because the militants had wrecked the hospital, Abdi is visiting expat Somali communities in the US and elsewhere to raise money for her charitable foundation in order to rebuild operating theaters. She was given a day in her honor by the city of Irving, Texas, an accolade that is sure to be repeated once her story becomes more well known. Dr. Abdi demonstrates through her intelligence, bravery, and fortitude that the Muslim world is often neglecting half its potential. “Women can build stability,” she says. “We can make peace.”
9. As media literacy grows, Muslims fight back against censorship
As most Muslims worldwide come from countries that are characterized by their governments’ control of information, it was inevitable that advances in information technology would empower individuals to challenge the status quo. In 2010, two bloggers in the Muslim world had their cases publicized through a blogging and social media campaign that helped break the information stranglehold. Though Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer served a four-year sentence (for insulting the President, among other things), the publicity surrounding his case may make harassment and imprisonment of bloggers more difficult in the future (and Kareem says it won’t stop future activism). Similarly in Iran, blogger Hossein Derakhshan was released temporarily in December before being returned to prison to serve a 20-year sentence. Though these cases are discouraging, they have motivated scores of netizens, whose numbers and influence are increasing rapidly, to campaign on their behalf. Bloggers in Azerbaijan and Kuwait were released due to such pressure.
Similarly, consider the ebb and flow in banning popular sites by Muslim governments in 2010. The aforementioned “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” prompted a ban on Facebook in Pakistan (and briefly in Bangladesh) that was widely (if quietly) resented. Once the scale of its use in those countries became clearer, the ban was relaxed to include only the offending pages. A similar 2 year ban on YouTube in Turkey, arguably the most liberal of Muslim countries, was lifted in October, only to be reinstated a week later – despite protests from Turkish President Abdullah Gul (via Twitter, of all things). The ban was for hosting videos deemed insulting to the country’s image. As citizens become more dependent on information resources, the ability to make bans and censorship stick will be more difficult. When the management of IslamOnline, a popular website based in Qatar and Egypt, steered their journalists toward a more restrictive and hardline agenda, compromising their editorial independence, the staff promptly went on strike. Though their struggle was not covered in mainstream media, it was publicized enough through social and independent media to bolster support for an independently-run spinoff, OnIslam.net, dedicated to the pluralistic vision of Islam the staff felt was abandoned at their former home. The ability to use technology not just as a means to hold governments and authorities accountable, but to empower individuals to bypass them altogether has huge implications for religious practice in the future. Increasingly, Muslims are demanding to be treated like grownups when it comes to their access to media and are acting like them when it comes to producing it.
10. Organic food and a burgeoning green movement change the way Muslims think of their bodies and environment
As much of the Muslim world shifts from poverty to wealth, the effects of overconsumption and waste on their communities becomes much more visible. Muslim immigrants to Britain, for example, have significantly higher incidences of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes based largely on their diets of meat and sugar. While many of the attitudes towards food and the environment can be linked to poverty or culture, some are looking to religion for answers. 2010 was the year in which Ibrahim Abdul-Matin’s book, Green Deen, spelled out a vision of sustainability rooted in Islamic principles. Matin found that his ecology-related professions had a natural ally in his faith and applied it to concepts of waste, water, energy, and food. Matin’s book is just one of a number of environmentally-related books, blogs, and organizations that have popped up from an Islamic viewpoint. There is even a growing debate on vegetarianism and Islam (with the consensus being that it’s neither prohibited nor a bad idea), something our ancestors in the old countries would scratch their heads over.
The trend has has had commercial impacts as well. In Britain, the Serious Sausage Company took a cue from organic halal pioneers Abraham Natural Produce to develop a line of ethically produced sausages. In America, Green Zabiha and Lambco followed a similar line and found demand increasing month by month. And then there’s Saffron Road, a new line of halal ready meals that are all natural, sustainably and humanely farmed, and free of antibiotics and hormones. Its producer, American Halal of Stamford, CT, made such a convincing pitch to high-end retailer Whole Foods Market, that the 300-store chain picked up the brand as its first halal offering and the first by a pre-production startup in its 30 year history. Sales to both Muslims and non-Muslims have been brisk. The possibility of expanding the definition of halal to include eco-friendly concepts is not just a matter of helping Muslims better understand their faith and their environment, but also of changing the way non-Muslims view a faith that, especially in 2010, they have come to view as destructive. After all, our environment includes our neighbours who live in it as well.
(Zahed will be speaking about some of these stories and a look towards the 10-year anniversary of September 11th on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme on January 2nd at 7am GMT, available via podcast shortly afterwards)
Zahed Amanullah is Executive Editor of altmuslim.com