Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Moderate Wahhabist Imam in Madrid ?

The imam of the Centro Cultural Islámico de Madrid, widely known as the M30 Mosque in Madrid (after the Madrid beltway it's located at, it's Europe's biggest mosque and wholly funded by, you guessed it, Saudi Arabia, and run by the Muslim World League, the exporters of Wahhabism worldwide), Moneir Mahmoud, is an interesting fellow. Sunni, Egyptian, 44 years old, he is Islam's 'respectable' face in much of the Spanish press. Spain has approximately 500 thousand practicing muslims legally living within its borders, and the relationship with Islam has always been different from other countries. Once muslim Al-Andalus, Spain reclaimed the south during the 800 year 'Reconquista', which finished in 1492 with the throwing out of all Muslims (and Jews, by the way) out of the country. I guess Columbus got all the press that year -my favorite joke when it comes to this early example of ethnic cleansing.

But back to Mahmoud. I've come across an online interview in Spanish, which I translated to the best of my abilities (with links to the original page where found), which make for interesting reading. After the March 11 attacks, much like happened in the US, people started to wonder about Islam, and about any perceived relations with Islamist terrorism. May 4, the new Socialist interior minister, José Antonio Alonso launched a proposal to a new law which would put all religious institutions under government scrutiny, allowing for scrutiny before sermons would take place, in effect re-introducing censorship. Obviously, the public storm this has caused (99% of the country is Roman Catholic which saw its sermons censored under the Franco dictatorship) probably makes this idea dead in the water. But interestingly, Mahmoud wholehartedly supports the idea, saying that some three years ago he already asked the then PP government to start 'regulating' mosques specifically. The interview is more of an online Q&A session, sponsored by the El Mundo newspaper, held May 19, 2004. Try and see for yourself if this sounds like Wahhabi islam to you:

1. Q. I have a profound respect for Islam and it seems ignominious to me that they would take advantage of a religion so tolerant, for terrorist acts so in contrary with its spirit. However, according to what has been said after March 11, the terrorists recruted followers in the mosques. What feeling does this give you? Is there nothing you can do? Isn't there a way to know, to recognize them? Like with all things, education is the most important tool...
A. Wherever you go, you can find some terrorists, in any place, within any religion. We need to understand the causes of terrorism and also each person's position. You can't call all muslims terrorists, you can't throw them all on the same heap.

2. Q. The responsable religious leaders of the Albaicín mosque chose not to sign a petition condemning the March 11 attacks, because in their opinion the attacks were political and not religious. What do you think? Thank you.
A. I don't accept that opinion because the savage massacre of March 11 was not a political crime, it was carried out in the name of religion and a lot of people use religion as a bridge to reach their objectives.

3. Q. Looking at the political situation in Islamic countries, it would seem that Islam is incompatible with democracy. Is this true?
A. Never ever. We need to go back to Islam's history. Al Andalus was a great example of tolerance and democracy between the three monotheist religions. You need to distinguish between Islam as a religion and muslim countries. Those countries, without a doubt, need more democracy and more freedom. Returning to the prime source, the Coran, and the second, the sayings of the profet, we will find a lot of verses which speak of freedom and respect of humanity.

4. Q. What signs could you look at to find any possible terrorists in your Centre?
A. Never ever will a terrorist set foot in the Centro Cultural Islámico M30. If I'm around, he will find a very tough rival. Never ever. In the Centro Cultural I know of not one extremist, I don't feel there ever was, and if I know one I would need to correct him to bring him to moderation.

5. Q. How can Islam be reconciled with a modern state based on rights, when Islam discriminates against women, puts additional taxation on those who are not muslim, preaches persecution of unbelievers, institutes 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth' as the rule of law, and finally is an ideology, backward, xenofobic, racist, discriminating and against everything that has been established by advanced ethics?
A. Islam is valid in any place and time. When muslims were in Spain, there was a sort of parliament, the kings of Germany, Holland and England would send their sons to study the sciences with the muslims. Islam is not against modern civilization. The woman, specifically, enjoys a very high standing in Islam. It is true that it has a bad reputation, because people mix the customs of some muslims with the Islamic belief. It's true, there are bad customs with some men in Islamic countries, but it is not Islam's fault. They have the same rights, study, work, there is no difference between them in Islam.

6. Q. They say that the M30 mosque is under the influence of wahhabism, something supposedly because of the Saudi financing. Is this true?
A. Before judging, we must understand, learn, and afterwards any person may judge. Most people don't know what is Wahhabi. It is a movement to correct some bad ideas from Islam of threehundred years old and from a distinct location. In that time, most people idolated statues, amazed at them, and they were very ignorant. This branch sprung to correct their beliefs, outside of politics. I'm not Saudi, I'm Egyptian. What's more, I have studied in Egypt (Cairo) and Spain (Universidad Autónoma), and lastly, I would never accept that anyone would manipulate me to say what they would want. I say what I think.

7. Q. Do you know or have you known any friend of the March 11 terrorists? Did you know any?
A. No friend, no. But the M30 mosque is the biggest of Spain, and more than two thousand people come every Friday. To my conferences, chats, come a lot of people. I'm very well-known, but I cannot know everybody. Some have come, yes, like the others. And when I learn of any strange thoughts, I have to give my counsel. But the mosque is like a government building, it's open to everyone. I'm not a policeman.

8. Q. Good day. What do you think of the expulsion orders lately given out to fundamentalist imams in France? Do you think they need to do the same thing in Spain?
A. About three years ago I have asked for the formation of a Supreme Council of muslim wise men, ulemas, to stop any imam that isn't qualified, as a security valve. The minister of justice disapproved of it. It's hard to find [an imam -V-man] who is extremist.

9. Q. Recently, we saw a video in which Sarhane, the Tunisian, translates for you during a wedding you held in the mosque. Did you also not know who was Sarhane or of his radical tendencies before giving him work?
A. Sarhane was a very friendly young man five or six years ago, he didn't have any extremist thought, he was normal, studied, talked with everyone. In the end he changed, but in the beginning he was normal. To me it was a surprise, I cost me to believe what he did. At that wedding a Spanish woman got married, he was invited, translated a few lines about marriage in Islam, nothing more.

10. Q. What is in your opinion the cause of the upsurge of so many streams of fundamentalism within Islam?
A. The causes of terrorism are many. Firstly, the injustice in this world, which pushes some youngsters to combat it with other injustices. Also there is the state terrorism, the economic inequalities between societies and ignorance. A lot of people talk in name of religion, but they are not qualified. There is no dialogue.

11. Q. I would like to know how someone from Spain could get started with Islam. Not as religion, but as a theological study.
A. In the Centro Cultural I have a lot of activities, the Friday sermon at 12.30pm, a meeting for Spaniards, from 1pm to 2pm, and also, on universities there are Arab studies departments, on the Autónoma and the Complutense universities. In the Centro we have a lot of books about Islam. And I personally am available to receive any person to answer his questions.

12. Q. What do you think of Moqtada Sadr?
A. I'm not Iraqi, I don't know him, I can't judge him without knowing him. I don't really know what he believes. I only know he's a Shiite militia leader in Iraq, there are a lot of people with him, but there are some wise men who don't accept him.

13. Q. I've read parts of the Coran and feel indignified, as a woman, about the conditions and rules of conduct which are described in the Book about their rights and the way men are supposed to behave around them. What of this is really applied and what do they teach Islam's believers with respect to this chapter?
A. I don't really understand what you refer to exactly. In the second sura of the Coran it says that women have the same rights and the same obligations as men. You have to treat them well, this is the end of that Chapter. the Profet never ever in his life beat a woman.

14. Q. What is the standing of Bin Laden in the Islamic world?
A. To muslim wise men, Bin Laden is no wise man [as in Ulema -V-man]

15. Q. Does the Islamic world hold any kind of conference or council, much like the Catholic church does, to unify criteria about interpretations of the Coran's contents? More than anything to avoid, amongst others, the wrong interpretations of holy war for example.
A. There does not exist in Islam a anything which is called holy war. I dare the whole world to bring me a verse which says so. War in Islam never is Holy. Basically, man is peaceful. The Coran says you may not attack. God says that He does not love agressors. War in Islam is for defense only, not for attack. The phrase Holy War came from the time of the crusades in the Middle East. In Islam it's called Al Yihad. Reading the Arabic dictionary you'll find the meaning of the word: any effort to do good. This is Jihad in Islam. There are two types of Jihad. The greater, which deals with the soul, and the other, for defense.

16. Q. Bearing in mind that Islam in theory is a respectful religion, practically in no country its believers respect other ideologies. How do you intent to solve this matter? Is there any initiative put in place?
A. Never. I'm Egyptian and in our country live approximately 10 million Christians, and I've never felt that there's any difference between muslims and orthodox Christians. The Christians in Egypt enjoy democracy and truth more than muslims who live in the western world. For instance, a Christian who lives there can listen to the church bells toll before the call from the mosques. I don't know other countries well enough. In Morocco, the Jews live without problems, in Lebanon, Syria.

17. Q. To which current in Islam do you belong? If you don't belong to any, which do you feel closest to?
A. I'm Sunni, which is the biggest branch in Islam. According to the Coran, I believe that Islam is good for any place, the problem is not the texts, but their interpretation.

18. Q. In some magazine we saw photos of types like Yusuf Galán or Osama Darra --arrested in 2001 for their belonging to Al Qaeda-- handing out extremist propaganda at the doors of your mosque. Perhaps you did not know what they were doing?
A. Like I said before, the mosque is like a city hall, it's open, I can't control everything. They had their documentation in order, they were legally in Spain, does that mean that Spain allows terrorists on its soil? You can't judge like that. The Tunisian had a scholarship at the university. Do universities protect terrorists?

19. Q. I'm not familiar with Islam, that's why I'd like to ask you, what is your role in the mosque?
A. We have a a lot. There is an interior role and an exterior. The Centro forms a brigde between cultures and thoughts, a bridge of peace, cohabitation and tolerance. Also, we need to help a lot of muslims in not straying from the path, to give a good image of them to the Spanish. I alqays tell them they are ambassadors of their country and a standard bearer for their religion. We also have a social role, we help poor families, they come to collect food. I lead the prayers, specifically on Fridays. From dawn till night I answer questions of muslims. I perform wedding services, divorces, I give advice whenever there are family or social problems.

20. Q. Do you call the police if you notice that any of the persons attending 'your mosque' have extremist ideas? Thank you.
A. Absolutely. If I know of anyone that wants to do harm against the innocents who are anywhere, especially in this country which we share, I have as a religious obligation and ethic to defend it. That is a religious answer, you have to be clear.

21. Q. Is Islam fundamentally compatible with modernity?
A. They're not opposed. Islam has lived for 1,400 years in a lot of countries around the world without any problem. We live normal, like anybody. There are no good civilizations or bad ones, we have to share.

I'll try and limit my comments, because I have lots. To start of the Q&A, Mahmoud professes the typical apologetism for terror. There are no root causes for terrorism, nothing can soften the verdict on a terrorist that kills and maims.

As a reminder, the Muslim World League which employs Mahmoud, stated as its objectives for its 4th Islamic General Conference, titled Islamic Ummah & Globalization:

To show the role of governments and Islamic organizations in serving the Muslims worldwide and to strengthen the relation between them

To assure that The Islamic Shareah is suitable for all times and everywhere and to work in implementing it

The first point is an interesting one, since Mahmoud was about the only one in Spain which applauded interior minister José Antonio Alonso's plan to control Spain's mosques, a plan which was met with large opposition from churches and opposition parties, left and right, referring to a step back to Franco's censorship on sermons held in Catholic churches during his life.

What interests me most about this sought after 'linkeage' between Islam and government control, is that in effect it would put a foot in the door of establishing a ministry of Religious Affairs. Maybe it will start like in France with a Muslim Council, but think about who would sit on such a council? Government appointees or elected officials? Elected by all Spaniards, or just muslims? And if such a body establishes rules of what is acceptable Islam within Spain, does this not in effect imitate all the Middle East's Ministries of Religious Affairs? And by doing so, is Spain not becoming a 'muslim' country? What if the government or council says one thing about a fatwa or whatever? There's no Pope or central authority within Islam, so who's to say that the opinion won't be disputed by some imam or ulema?

My worry about instituting councils or taking it even further (though politically unthinkable -at least for now) by appointing a minister for religious affairs, is that it is one major step ahead in Wahhabism's quest for intimate linkage between governments and Islam. It is a perspective that I haven't seen investigated before. Moneir Mahmoud in my opinion is 'posing' as the soft voice of moderate islam, but his ties to Wahhabism just don't click to me. His references to his Egyptian background somehow inoculating him from Wahhabism are to laugh at, if it weren't so sad. Muslim Brotherhood ring a bell to anyone?

Maybe if asking Mr. Mahmoud about his opinions of Anwar Sadat is too confronting, perhaps they can ask him why Islam can't regulate itself but needs this government control so bad?

hat tip to Dr. Dré!