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Of war stories and philosophies

February 26, 2018


Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Razia Iqbal and Sinan Antoon. — White Star
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Razia Iqbal and Sinan Antoon. — White Star

a packed hall welcomed Reza Aslan for one of the concluding sessions of the LLF, titled ‘Beyond Extremism’, moderated by Khaled Ahmed.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Aslan laid out his position in great detail about the way he sees the Muslim world and the role of Muslims in the 21st century. At the outset, he drew a hard line between conservative or even bigoted thoughts and what he called “extremism”, the desire to commit violent and coercive actions in the name of any ideology. He went on to diagnose the spectre of extremism as reactionary, induced by a sea of injustice and inequality that the Muslim world has had to face for much of the 20th century.

Delving into the present, Aslan addressed the state of the Muslim world as one beset by the fantasy of Islam as a monolithic religion, and called the existence of any one, true form of religion an impossible myth. He went out of character to, in his own words, “court trouble”, by denouncing Iran and Saudi Arabia for turning the Middle East into a battleground for power fought along sectarian lines. His view was that the simplistic identity of an “Ummah” allows Muslims to be used and exploited for political gain, and the key to move past this is to accept pluralism as the basis of democracy, not secularism. In the end, he said that the young generation doesn’t want to be told what to do and are hence coming up with their own interpretations of the holy Quran which is a positive sign. He said: “Stop finding ways to define yourself, put your values out into the world by living them.”

In the session ‘Baghdad Blues’ featuring journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and writer Sinan Antoon moderated by Razia Iqbal, both the panelists, belonging to Iraq, talked about how after experiencing war closely, they decided to write about it. However Abdul-Ahad took up the task as a journalist thus reporting stories on the ground, while Antoon wrote fiction novels. Either way, writing about death was quite a difficult task for both. For Antoon it was a matter of confronting war with art and literature and interpret, as Abdul-Ahad also pointed out, how the people really feel.

They spoke about several challenges Iraq has been facing during war among which are sanctions faced by the country and the effects of sectarianism that have widely affected the lives of the people. Antoon said the people have been scared to practice any religion freely although Islam has historically incorporated all religions.

Abdul-Ahad said there has to be a new “social contract” so that the country is not in a state of war for years to come like it has been experiencing previously. Antoon, however, pointed out that there is also a need to understand that Iraq has been used as a stage for many wars, particularly by the US, and this imperial recklessness cannot be ever forgotten or repeated.

Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2018