Tuesday, October 09, 2007

to and fro, forward and back

Thy gentleness says, "Come forward!" Thy
severity says, "Go back!" Let me know at once, which of them
speaks the truth?

from Rumi: Ghazal (Ode) 1310
trans William C. Chittick via Sunlight

The Canadian province of Ontario is due (tomorrow) for a general election in which an aspiring Premier is John Tory of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. As part of his campaign:

[Tory] has promised if elected to spend $400 million on funding for Jewish, Muslim and other religious schools provided they follow the Ontario curriculum, submit to provincial standardized testing and use certified teachers.

The commitment was hailed by religious groups, but has also proved controversial, with even some Tory candidates admitting it will be a tough sell on the hustings.

James Cowan: John Tory grilled on faith-based schools proposal

In his latest Toronto Sun article, Salim Mansur has spoken out very stongly against this idea:

Unintentionally fragmenting the existing school system, as Mr. Tory's proposal would do, weakens the one institution that pulls the divergent communities of Ontario together, and strengthens those elements in our society that pull us apart on ethno-religious grounds.

Salim Mansur: How stupid is this idea?

In a somewhat inchoate response on the CCD forum, Edmund James begs to disagree with Mansur's negativity. He defends John Tory as "the type of executive and leader who excels because he listens to the people and can be persuaded" and insists that his "faith-based idea wasn't stupid" partly on severe (security) grounds, because it is "better we know what the Muslim world funded by Saudi Wahhabists and/or other fundamentalists are teaching and doing"; and partly on gentle (community cohesion) grounds:

The point being we go in stages rather than forcing immigrants to become full Canadian immediately though many try. And one of the the attractions to this grand country, and the USA , is because we are open to reasonable religions, private schools, hopefully funded. The Catholics had a good thing going; they have excellent teachers and higher marks, in general, than the public schools; but why exclude the others?

Edmund James on CCD forum

This prompted Mansur to reply at length, explaining his writing priorities as follows [my emphasis]:

The matter of opposing in print publicly Mr Tory's policy, as I have done, was far more important than wasting my ink on the "reform" proposal that others were weighing from varying perspectives. Moreover, I was in a position to state publicly what others were not going to touch upon for fear of being labeled bigots, i.e. write without any equivocation about the perils of Muslim faith-based schools receiving public funding and getting entrenched in our society to the detriment of everyone. This was not fear-mongering on my part as you suggest; instead it was placing the interests of my country in the broadest terms ahead of any partisan or sectarian loyalties in assessing factually and objectively what Mr Tory's policy amounts to for Ontario and Canada.

He also restates his position with greater clarity and emphasis:

A proliferation of faith-based schools (once public funding is available such proliferation would be the expected result as given by the laws of economics where demand for them would grow since supply would be made available at public expense) will invariably affect our social environment that is largely secular, and affect it for the worse. But most importantly, my concern of what follows arises from the reality of the post-9/11 world.

You should know better, and surprisingly your partisanship has blinded you on this matter of what Islamism (radical Islamist ideology on a rampage worldwide) in our province would do as Islamists receive public legitimacy by receiving public money to spread their toxin. The fact that Wahhabi funds are readily available from Saudi sources to Islamists in our midst does not warrant providing the same people with our tax money. The two matters cannot be conflated except by partisans like yourself who have lost their perspectives and their logic. The external funds available to Islamists in Ontario needs to be closed, and this is much more of a federal (Ottawa) responsibility than it is provincial in jurisdictional terms, and we should all be putting pressures on Ottawa to take this matter seriously and find the means to stop Wahhabi funds sowing discord and peril in our society.

Salim Mansur: CCD forum

Since I have been banned from the CCD forum (I was never given a reason for this but I suspect that I'm seen as a Karen Armstrong look-alike with leftist sympathies for all things Islamic) I cannot enter the fray with a comment and, in a way, the affair seems far too local - too literally "provincial" - to justify my own involvement. However, I detect deeper or more subtle layers of meaning in this conflict that resonate with the wider conversations on Islam.

In particular, a major division among progressive Muslims has been witnessed recently by Melanie Phillips at a discussion which began with Ibn Warraq reminding us of the immutability of the Koran and its central place in Islam as the word of God, thus leaving little or no room for reform. He was then opposed by more optimistic reformers:

They argued that the concept of the absolute authority of the Koran itself was a profound misapprehension, because every statement of what it meant was merely a matter of interpretation. It was therefore a question of whose interpretation should be regarded as authoritative; and since there were reformist traditions in Islam, it followed that it was possible for there to be an Islamic ‘renaissance’ of Islamic values which renounced the jihad and the cult of death. In other words, while the words of the holy text are regarded as divinely inspired, the religion itself is simply contestable commentary. And so, theologically speaking, there is everything to play for.

Melanie Phillips at her diary

As I read this, however, I couldn't help but notice that Ibn Warraq is named and is a clearly visible, present, identifiable, and articulate proponent of his own position (along with equally visible colleagues such as Ali Sina, Wafa Sultan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali) while his opponents are simply referred to as "they". Nothing clear and convincing is coming from the side of the Muslim world that holds out hope of reform or renaissance.

Whatever "new" interpretation this side comes up with, it will have to be convincing to "the West" as well as to fellow Muslims. Initial efforts by the likes of Tariq Ramadan have failed miserably, sounding to our ears as so much taqiyya or Islamic dissimulation. More sincere but ineffectual efforts by the likes of Zuhdi Jasser must also be dismissed (see the Koran according to Jasser).

So, what is left then? It seems to me that Salim Mansur now remains as a kind of "last man standing" and perhaps Edmund James is expressing a frustration that Mansur is holding back too much. Perhaps part of the heat of this debate comes from these deeper roots. It may be time for Mansur to emulate John Tory by listening more carefully to people and allowing himself to be persuaded.

I watch with a mix of patience and frustration as God calls him - and us - both forwards and backwards.

Janus, illustration from Dr Smith's Classic Dictionary, 1895
with thanks to Timeless Myths

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