TIME Female Genital Mutilation

The Long Summer Holiday Can Mean the Threat of Genital Mutilation For Some Girls

The U.K. is under pressure to take action against families who take daughters to Africa and Asia for FGM

It was a summer vacation she’ll always remember. At the age of seven, Nimco Ali flew back from Manchester, England, to her parents’ home country of Djibouti. Once there, a woman she recalls as veiled in black — “looking like one of those Dementors in Harry Potter, who suck the souls out of people” — made a cut in her genitals, the practice known as Female Genital Mutilation. When Ali returned to school in Manchester in the autumn she told her teacher what had happened to her in Djibouti, and asked why she thought it had been done. “That’s what happens to girls like you,” she recalls the teacher saying, implying that Ali’s African heritage was explanation enough. “I didn’t feel listened to,” recalls Ali, now 34. “Today, I know that girls in the same situation wouldn’t be dismissed like I was.”

That’s in part because of tough new laws due to be enacted on July 17 in Britain, where an estimated 20,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of FGM every year. Earlier this month, British Prime Minister David Cameron, calling FGM a “cruel, barbaric” practice, told his ministers to accelerate enhanced protection orders before the school summer holidays begin in July. The dangers for the girls peak in summer, when long vacations give girls’ wounds time to heal; it is during the six-week break from school that families often return to their countries of origin in Africa or Asia to have the procedure done, either by family members, local elders, barbers, or — in a recent trend toward the “medicalization” of the practice — by doctors or nurses.

Britain’s new Serious Crime Bill, which passed in March, creates a new offense of failing to protect a girl against the practice, and extends FGM-related laws, making it illegal for a UK national or resident to have the procedure done outside the UK. The law allows professionals working with children — teachers, doctors, and social workers — to apply straight to courts if they suspect a girl is in danger. Over the last couple of years, police and teachers have been trained to spot warning signs. Last year, Project Azure, the London Metropolitan Police’s FGM unit, launched Operation Limelight at U.K. airports, training staff to be vigilant about passengers on flights to the 29 African and Middle Eastern countries where FGM is most common. After officers were trained to engage passengers and do targeted baggage searches, Operation Limelight resulted in two arrests — and two girls being taken into protective custody. Schools that suspect a girl has undergone FGM will now have to report it to police. “We’re alert to things like girls taking a long time in the toilet, painful periods, bloated stomach,” says Marios Charalambous, head of physical and social welfare at Brentford School for Girls, a west London school. A sudden long “vacation” overseas, or other signs that a girl might be in imminent danger of the procedure, are also reported to the school’s student welfare counsellor.

Brentford is one of a number of schools that allow students — in some schools, as young as ten — to take part in an FGM awareness session. This winter, when the woman running the workshop, a trainer from Forward, a FGM awareness non-governmental organization, took four plastic models of female genitalia out of her bag, there was the occasional giggle from the Brentford girls. But the class quieted when she handed the models round, inviting the children to examine the examples of what the various forms of FGM look like, from the least invasive — scar tissue where a clitoris should be — to the most — sewing up the vaginal opening. “I found it quite interesting,” said one 12- year-old. “But it was really upsetting, and really shocking.”

In many communities, it’s not shocking, but the norm. In Egypt, Djibouti, Guinea and Somalia, at least 90 % of girls and women have undergone FGM according to a 2013 UNICEF report. The report found the practice was declining in the 29 African and Middle Eastern countries where it’s traditionally most prevalent, but migration patterns from these countries mean there has been an increase in cases in the West. A report from the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington-based non-profit focused on health and the environment, earlier this year stated that 507, 000 women and girls in the U.S. have either had it done, or were in danger of it — roughly three times as many as when FGM was outlawed in the U.S. in 1996. In February, Representative Joe Crowley and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee introduced the Zero Tolerance for FGM Act, which would see Washington following Britain by crafting a national anti-FGM strategy.

But changing mindsets takes time. The pressure to “cut,” as it’s referred to, is “everywhere,” says Forward’s Vanessa Diakides. Myths abound: cutting is claimed to keep women from smelling, or straying from their husbands. Some communities believe it boosts fertility and ease of delivering babies. Some Muslims believe — misguidedly — that the Quran endorses the practice. It takes bravery to resist, since the stigma for leaving your daughter uncut can be severe. Girls can find they’re suddenly shunned by friends in the playground. Families with uncut girls recount being spat at, ostracized at community weddings, and denounced as unclean. In some communities, people fear that the decision not to cut might harm marriage prospects not just for girls, but for their brothers, too. “The media loves to portray girls as victims, and the practice as ‘barbaric,'” says Diakides, who cautions that it’s important that teachers don’t alienate girls by judging their parents or grandparents. “It’s not going to help to tell them that their [mothers and grandmothers’] genitals look disgusting,” she says. “Some of the girls don’t even feel like victims. Some are angry; some aren’t.”

Even for parents who don’t want to cut, the pressures during a summer back in one’s ancestral home can be overwhelming. Deborah Hodes, a pediatrician at a newly-opened FGM clinic at University College London Hospital, recalls one woman who was so scared she’d be pressured into having her daughter cut on returning home, “she asked police to take her passport away.”

For parents under pressure to cut, pointing to legal bans can help — but much more if there’s precedent for prosecution in court. While the French have prosecuted 100 FGM cases, the UK has yet to have a single prosecution for it. In February, a high-profile case testing the 2003 FGM Act collapsed, with a jury acquitting a North London doctor of illegally stitching up a woman after she’d given birth. Pointing out the huge “chasm” between known cases and prosecutions, a British government report in March observed that “someone, somewhere is not doing their job effectively.”

Scotland Yard, which declined to be interviewed for this piece, is under pressure to prosecute those responsible for FGM but they say it’s tough to get evidence, since cases often rely “on individuals giving evidence against loved ones,” according to the Metropolitan Police’s note on FGM.

TIME world affairs

Terrorists’ Most Powerful Recruiting Tool: Boredom

ISIS flag Raqqa
Reuters A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa on June 29, 2014.

Carla Power is the author of If The Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran.

Anxiety and boredom is a dangerous mix

The young man had wavy hair down to his shoulders, white teeth, and a charisma palpable even from across the street. My driver saw it, too: “al-Qaeda,” he said, fear and awe mingling in his voice. Whether or not the man was indeed al-Qaeda, he had a cosmopolitan air, making every man around him on the dusty street in downtown Sana, Yemen, seem small-town by comparison.

It was that day that I understood firsthand a key recruiting tool for violent jihadis: boredom. Nearly a decade later, it’s still one reason for youth radicalization. For young people in Yemen, where youth unemployment is about 50%, the possibilities of ordinary life must pale besides joining a transnational band to fight in a foreign land. How else to catch some of that reflected globalization they saw on communal televisions?

Modern terrorist organizations, such as ISIL, are creating more complex and nuanced propaganda to lure these disenchanted youth in the Middle East, and the West. ISIL’s English YouTube videos target Western kids weaned on Western pop culture. There are custom retools of Grand Theft Auto for wanna-be jihadis, and testimonials that look like snowboarding videos. Young women schooled on Disney princess DVDs join ISIL dreaming of, in the words of one recruit’s tweet, “doing a Mulan” and going out disguised as a man on the battlefield.

Recruiters promise community and “sisterhood.” “It’s cliquey,” says Erin Saltman, who heads up the Women and Extremism project at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue in London. “The people who aren’t in the clique haven’t made the journey out. Anyone can make the journey, they try to say, and if you don’t, it’s because you’re weak, or not a good Muslim.”

Once, terror experts saw Western jihadis as disenfranchised loners without prospects, or second-generation youth stranded between Old World mores and Western ones. Today, recent recruits are often well-educated and integrated, with close families and bright futures. Middle Eastern ISIL fighters often join after the political or literal annihilation of their countries; Western recruits are often searching for a purpose and for certainties they can’t find at home.

Like other youth who hit the job market in a post-economic-crash Europe, many of these radicalized youth are dissatisfied, tech savvy, and desperate to belong to something bigger than themselves. Unlike their immigrant parents or grandparents, those coming of age in the post-crash era don’t believe their economic futures are secure, or that working hard will guarantee success.

For youth facing an uncertain job market, an outfit like ISIL that says they’ll whisk you to the heartland of Islam to do good for a righteous cause, might prove appealing. In a murky world of zero-hour contracts and short-term rentals, the certainty of a group that says the’ll fix you up with a house, a spouse, and a career could seem pretty tantalizing.

Europe has seen the dangerous mix of anxiety and boredom before. In Defying Hitler, a memoir on growing up in Germany between the wars, Sebastian Haffner wrote of the “emptiness and boredom” hanging over swathes of interwar Germany, with “the yearning for ‘salvation'” through alcohol, through superstition, or best of all, through a vast, overpowering, cheap mass intoxication.”

For kids raised in the mall and online, reared to believe that “choice” is their birthright but who have watched their choices dwindle after the economic crash, ISIL might just be the cheap mass intoxication they’re looking for.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

What Ayaan Hirsi Ali Doesn’t Get About Islam

Man passing through arches of colonnade, Oman
Getty Images

Carla Power is the author of If The Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran.

Islamic law is more flexible than many think

The author Ayaan Hirsi Ali has called for an Islamic reformation. Her new best-seller Heretic proposes five ways that Muslims need to change their faith so that it sits neatly with her notion of modernity. In a book that reads like a home-made intellectual bomb – a cobbling together of the most vicious examples from Muslim societies – she argues, among other things, that Muslims should rethink the status of Muhammad as infallible and question whether the Quran is truly the word of God.

That’s not going to happen, not in a faith whose bedrock creed is that ‘There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger.” Muslims revere the Quran as the word of God, as revealed to their beloved Prophet Muhammed in 7th century Arabia. To demand that Muslims question the Quran as divine or the prophet as the perfect human is just unthinkable for the vast majority of believing Muslims. It’s also an evisceration of Islam’s fundamental principles, akin to taking a giant eraser to the bits about justice and liberty in the preamble to the American Constitution. As such, Hirsi’s proposal is not so much a proposal as an imperial decree, a tone-deaf declaration rather than an opening of a conversation.

Hirsi’s proposal for a reformation may be a non-starter, but that’s not to say that there’s no hope for a reformation – or rather, given mainstream majority Islam’s lack of a centralized structure – for reformations. Indeed, change is afoot, not just from radical outliers and dissidents, but from Muslims working inside the mainstream tradition. Across the world, Islamic scholars are going back to the texts, peeling off the medieval interpretations that have hardened into truths, and searching for their own answers in the Quran and the Hadith.

As every generation of Muslims has done since the 7th century, modern Muslims are seeking to interpret the spirit of the divine text in light of the mundane realities of its followers. The difference today are the effects of large-scale Muslim migration to the West and modern technology. Education, mobility, and access to information have lead to opportunities of new interpretive freedoms, sped up by the breakdown of the stature of the traditional Islamic authorities. This process cuts both ways: It has made it easy for the Kansan teenager wondering about whether Islam allows her to write her own marriage contract (it does), and it’s also made it easy for fundamentalists to spread a message of intolerance. The same historical disruptions that have produced the horrors of Al Qaeda and ISIL have also produced increasingly confident Muslim activists and scholars, who are working to square their understandings of the Quran’s divine message with universal human-rights norms.

Unlike bombs or beheadings, these gentle disruptions don’t make the news. Earlier this year, the conservative scholar Mohammad Akram Nadwi reversed his acceptance of child marriage – a practice generally allowed in medieval Islamic jurisprudence – after two of his female students told him of the ways they’d seen the practice ruin girls’ lives. He also found a fatwa from an 8th-century scholar denouncing the practice. In other words, he found ways to change his understanding of his faith from within.

Too often, non-Muslims and Muslims alike don’t know enough about Islam to see how flexible Islamic laws can be. Like the violent extremists she rightly opposes, Hirsi takes the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad’s example to be an unbending set of rules and Islam to be “the most rigid religion in the world.” However, its flexibility was one of the reasons it could spread so effectively from Arabia through Asia and Africa, allowing local practices to remain as long as they didn’t contravene its basic tenets.

How could Islam be a rigid set of one-size-fits-all edicts, as the zealots claim, when it’s a faith with followers who range from dreadlocked Oakland grandmas to Hyderabadi mystics to French businessmen? How could it be rigid when interpretations range so widely, running the gamut from bans on women driving (see Saudi Arabia) to giving women the right to lead countries (see Pakistan and Bangladesh)? Such is the decentralized nature of Islam’s majority Sunni sect, which lacks an organized clergy, that it allows followers to go from scholar to scholar until they find an opinion that matches their own.

To reform, Islamic societies needs more Islamic education, not less. The Prophet Muhammad warned his followers against blind faith. A famous anecdote tells of him coming across an Arab nomad walking away from his camel, having neglected to tie it up. When he asked the man why he didn’t secure the beast, the man said, “I put my trust in Allah.” Muhammad’s answer was pithy: “Tie your camel first – then put your trust in Allah.”

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME feminism

Muslim Women Are Fighting To Redefine Islam as a Religion of Equality

Woman reading the Koran.
Getty Images Woman reading the Koran.

Carla Power is the author of If The Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran.

Tired of being told their religion dictates subservience to men, Muslim women are reclaiming Islam for themselves

Anyone learning about Islam from the headlines alone might think it was a faith powered by violence, inflexible laws, and sexism. In Nigeria, the extremists of Boko Haram kidnap schoolgirls to use as sex slaves and suicide bombers. A manifesto distributed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) allows girls to marry at age nine and states that women should work outside the house only in “exceptional circumstances.” It’s not only extremist movements that treat women as second-class citizens, but also Western allies in the fight against them. Whether it’s Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from driving, or Egypt, where a husband can divorce his spouse without grounds or going to court, options denied to his wife, most Muslim countries run on the premise that men have a God-given authority over women.

But Muslim women are fighting back. While despotic governments and extremists battle for power, Islamic scholars, community activists, and ordinary Muslims are waging a peaceful jihad on male authority, demanding what they say are God- given rights to gender equality and justice.

From Cambridge to Cairo to Jakarta, women are going back to Islam’s classical texts and questioning the way men have read them for centuries. In the Middle East, activists are contesting outdated family laws based on Islamic jurisprudence, which give men the power in marriages, divorces, and custody issues. In Europe and the United States, women are chipping away at the customs that have had a chilling effect on women praying in mosques or holding leadership positions. This winter, the first women-only mosque opened in Los Angeles.

These efforts are localized and diverse. But all are part of the multi-faceted struggle in today’s Islamic world between fundamentalist rigidity and a pluralist, inclusive faith. “We represent hope, hope for the future, and for what it means to be Muslim today,” said Zainah Anwar, director of the global Muslim women’s organization Musawah—Arabic for ‘equality’—at a recent conference in London. “Do we want to choose ISIS? Or do we want to choose musawah?”

Anwar was addressing a packed auditorium at the University of London’s School of Oriental and Asiatic Studies for the release of a powerful new weapon for Islamic gender warriors: a book examining how a single verse in the Quran became the basis for laws across the Islamic world asserting Muslim men’s authority—and even superiority—over women. In Men in Charge?, scholars tackle what Musawah has dubbed “the DNA of patriarchy” in Islamic law and custom: the thirty-fourth verse in the fourth chapter of the Quran, among the most hotly debated in the Islamic scripture. The English translations of the verse vary, but one popular one conveys the mainstream takeaway: “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend their property [for the support of women.]”

For centuries, male jurists have cited 4:34 as the reason men have control over their wives and the female members of their family. When a wife doesn’t want to have sex, but feels she should submit to her husband, this sense of duty derives from the concept of qiwamah—male authority—derived from Verse 4:34. When a Nigerian wife reluctantly has to agree to her husband taking a second or third wife, this is qiwamah in action, notes the book. The concept of qiwamah “is one of the most flagrant misconceptions to have shaped the Muslim mind over the centuries,” Moroccan Islamic scholar Asma Lamrabet writes. “It assumes that the Quran has definitively decreed the absolute authority of the husband over his wife, and for some, the authority of men over all women.”

While the overall message of the Quran is unchanging, say Muslim reformers, new generations must find their own readings of the sacred texts. As it stands, Islamic fiqh, or jurisprudence, was largely forged during the medieval period, when women’s roles and the concept of marriage and male authority were very different. Why, they ask, should the way that 10th-century Baghdadi men read the Quran dictate the rights of a 21st-century woman? To the reactionaries who charge that these reformers are deviating from Islam, Islamic feminists point out that there is a difference between Islamic jurisprudence—a man-made legal scaffolding developed for the specific conditions of medieval Muslim life—and the divine law itself, which is eternal, unchanging and calls for justice. It’s not the Quran they question, but how particular interpretations of it have hardened into truth. “The problem has never been with the text, but with the context,” legal anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini told the Musawah seminar.

For activists battling for reform of discriminatory laws, there’s hope—at least on paper. In 2004, Morocco redrafted its family law code to state that husbands are no longer the heads of the household and marriage is a matter of “mutual consent” between husband and wife. But even ten years on, “the results are very weak, because of the mentality here,” Lamrabet conceeded. She once addressed a group of male religious scholars about equality in the Quran. “It was like an inquisition,” she recalled wryly. “Everybody was standing up, and saying, Qiwamah [male authority] is here to demonstrate that there is no musawah [equality] in our religion!”

Not as it’s practiced in most places now. But the mood at Musawah is optimistic. At the United Nations, Musawah’s Anwar reminded the Commission on the Status of Women that Muslim women don’t need to choose between Islam and equal rights; while 4:34 is invoked by sexists, there are many more passages calling for justice, and a sound Quranic tradition saying that all humans are equal as God’s creations. In London, Anwar asked the crowd of Muslim women a fundamental question: “If we are equal before the eyes of God, why not before the eyes of men?”

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Jordan

The King Who Had a Role in Star Trek is Now Going to War for Real

King Abdullah II of Jordan meets with members of the US Senate Appropriations Committee at the U.S. Captiol in Washington on Feb. 03, 2015.
Samuel Corum—Anadolu Agency King Abdullah II of Jordan meets with members of the US Senate Appropriations Committee at the U.S. Captiol in Washington on Feb. 03, 2015.

Jordan's King Abdullah has sworn vengeance on ISIS after they killed of one of his pilots

After the news broke that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had burned the captured Jordanian Moaz al-Kasasbeh alive, King Abdullah of Jordan promised a “relentless war” against ISIS in retaliation for the murder of the 27-year fighter pilot.

On Thursday it began. In a mission called “Moaz the Martyr,” Jordanian jets targeted ISIS training camps, arms and ammunition storage in ISIS-controlled areas in Syria. Returning from their sorties, the planes flew directly over the pilot’s village of Aye, where King Abdullah sat paying a condolence call to al-Kasasbeh’s father. Outside, a traditional Beduouin chant broke out: “Long Live His Majesty, Long Live the King.”

Abdullah got the news of the pilot’s immolation while in Washington, where he’d been seeking an aid package. He left with the promise of $1 billion annually over the next three years — a 35% increase on the current arrangement. Abdullah’s ease with Americans and their culture has served him well abroad, even as it’s raised eyebrows in some Jordanian circles. He’s made guest appearences on Star Trek and The Daily Show, and according to the New York Times, is so friendly with New Jersey governor Chris Christie that Abdullah paid the bill for Christie and his family to visit Jordan, complete with a champagne reception in the desert.

The Jordanian monarchy is one of the Middle East’s most enduring regimes. The 53-year-old Abdullah is the fourth of the Hashemite kings, who trace their ancestry back to the Prophet Muhammad, and their dynasty back to 1921. Abdullah’s own father, King Hussein, ruled for 47 years, before his death in 1999, when Abdullah assumed the throne.

Jordan has the reputation of being among the West’s strongest allies in the Arab World, and its king’s roots in the West are deep. His mother was British-born, and Abdullah was educated in the West, graduating from the Massachusetts prep school Deerfield Academy and Britain’s military academy, Sandhurst, with stints at Georgetown and Oxford universities.

He returned to Jordan for a military career, serving in the Royal Jordanian Air Force, and commanding the country’s special forces. But the foreign education has left its mark: he speaks Arabic with a slight accent, adding to his reputation among Jordanian tribes and the poor that he is out of touch with ordinary Jordanians. “When he came in, with his neoliberal plans for the economy, with more foreign trade and high rises, and his cosmopolitan wife, the traditional tribes who supported the king were sort of like, ‘who is this guy, and what is he doing?'” notes Jillian Schwedler, an expert in Jordanian politics at Hunter College in New York.

Throughout his reign, Abdullah has presented himself to the West as a reformer, hinting to the Atlantic in a 2013 profile that he’d like to see Jordan’s monarchy become a ceremonial one, like Britain’s. But Jordan’s frustrated reformers see the progress as stutter-stop. “As Jordan trumpets its reform initiatives, prosecutors are arresting activists and opposition figures for free speech-related offenses,” said Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch’s in a January 29 report on the slow pace of Jordanian reform. “Constitutional guarantees amount to no more than ink on paper if the authorities don’t get rid of penal code articles that are used to undermine them.”
To Abdullah’s critics, his Palestinian wife, Queen Rania, is yet another source of frustration. While Rania’s glamour and work for women and young people are lauded abroad, her out-spokenness and high profile have led to criticism from conservative Jordanians who would prefer their queen kept a much lower profile. In 2011, 36 tribal leaders wrote an open letter, denouncing her as a divisive, power-hungry, and “stealing from the country and the people.”

In a country where criticism of the king is punishable by law, the letter was unprecedented, not least because it was signed by tribal leaders who traditionally have been the monarchy’s staunchest supporters. It was written during the Arab Spring, when popular protests swept the region, as ordinary citizens called for greater representative democracy. Unlike the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, Abdullah kept his position. But during 2011 and 2012, he faced protests, not merely from his traditional opposition, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, but from tribes from the impoverished south of the country, who called themselves “The Movement.”

Elections in 2013, promised as “shining milestones” of reform, disappointed those hoping for real change for the monarchy. Islamist parties boycotted them, which is relatively routine, but leftist parties joined in, too. Many Jordanians burned their voter registration cards in protest at recent fuel hikes, noted a report from the Middle East Media Monitor.

The fight against ISIS will temporarily damp down domestic dissent. The young men in the south temporarily have a new, external target for their anger. “King Abdullah will pour as much as he can into the fight against ISIS,” predicts Sean T. Yom, a political scientist specializing in Jordan at Temple University, Philadelphia. “He needs a foreign distraction to further dilute tensions.” As Queen Rania, marching along with the crowds of thousands who gathered in Amman waving Jordanian flags told the BBC, the country is “united in our horror.”

Read next: Jordan Wages War With ISIS After Pilot Death

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TIME France

Why There’s Tension Between France and Its Muslim Population

A Niqab veiled woman poses in front of the French National Assembly to protest against France's ban on wearing full-face niqab veils in public, in Paris in 2011.
Mehdi Fedouach—AFP/Getty Images A woman poses in front of the French National Assembly to protest against ban on wearing full-face niqab veils in public, in Paris in 2011.

The country's radical secularism clashes with many Muslims' desire to publicly display their faith

With news that the chief suspects in the massacre on Wednesday at the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo are French citizens, a new mystery emerges: how could the land of liberty, equality and fraternity have produced men hell-bent on destroying all three? While the attack may evoke comparisons to earlier tragedies in New York, London, or Madrid, France’s relationship with its Muslim citizens is particular — and particularly fraught. What sets France on a particular collision course with Islamic practices is the country’s radical brand of secularism — and this ideology’s impact on French Muslim life.

With more than 5 million Muslims, France may have Western Europe’s largest Muslim community, but its relationship with Islam has been tenser than, say, Britain’s or Germany’s. An older generation of French Muslims has been alienated by memories of the Algerian War in the 1950s, when local groups battled for independence from more than a century of French rule, with its heavy-handed disdain for local customs. Their children and grandchildren frequently feel excluded from mainstream society because of their Arabic names or the color of their skin.

Such feelings may be shared by other European Muslims, but French Muslims face not just social hurdles, but an officially-enshrined hostility to public displays of faith. Having fought its revolution, in part, to keep priests from meddling in state affairs, France has a passion for keeping church and state separate. “Secularism,” states france.fr, France’s official information website, “is a French invention.” Where the French cherish the neutrality of the public realm, free from any religious symbolism, mainstream Muslim culture embraces public declarations of religiosity through the veil or the call to prayer. France’s cherished codes of secularism clash with the public nature of the practice of Islam, a faith that in Muslim-majority countries is stamped on public life, from politics to laws to the wearing of beards and veils, or breaking for prayers in the middle of the work-day.

France prefers its faiths kept private: its 1905 law on the separation of church and state was the legal basis for the much-contested 2004 ban on veils, crosses and yarmulkes in schools. The veil debate pitted Muslim women’s desire for self-expression against the core French values of equality and universalism, noted Princeton political scientist Joan Wallach Scott in her book The Politics of the Veil. Supporters of the ban, wrote Scott, believed veils chipped away at the French ideal of “the oneness, the sameness of all individuals,” under the Tricoleur.

For many Muslims, it’s the official insistence on oneness and sameness that rankles. In 2008, a French court denied a Moroccan woman French citizenship on the grounds that her veil and her submissiveness to her husband were “assimilation defects.” Though the New York Times reported “almost unequivocal support for the ruling across the political spectrum,” one Muslim leader told the paper he worried the decision set a precedent for arbitrary decisions of what constitues a radical Muslim lifestyle. In 2010, the French Senate banned public wearing of face-coverings, including the Muslim face-veil, the niqab. And in 2013, the government launched what it called a Charter for Secularity in School, a set of guidelines on 15 key points of secularism to be posted in classrooms as an attempt to keep religion out of school. The then-government education minister, Vincent Peillon, insisted it was an attempt “to get everyone together,” but it had the opposite effect, with Muslim leaders claiming it stigmatized their community.

The focus on the Charlie Hebdo murderers, and their spurious claims to be acting as pious Muslims, will obscure the fact that the vast majority of French Muslims embrace the Republic’s legal and cultural norms. As French scholar Olivier Roy has pointed out, France’s Muslim organizations are using legal proceedings, not violence, to challenge what they see as institutional discrimination.

But in fearful times, the loudest and shrillest voices tend to prevail. The massacre occurred on the publication day of a new novel by controversial writer Michel Houellebecq. In the novel, Submission, Houellebecq, who appeared in cartoon form on the cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo, imagines France in 2022 as a country with a Muslim president, legal polygamy and the Quran required on university syllabi. Houellebecq told interviewers that his vision of an Islamic France was potentially “realistic,” and Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Front agreed. As Le Pen hones her anti-migrant, anti-Islam platform for the 2017 elections, the Charlie Hebdo massacre will only serve to help her cause.

As for those French who are both law-abiding and Muslim, the challenge is two-fold: coping both with their own grief at the attack on their nation’s values–and with the specter of a rising tide of Islamophobia.

TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia Bulldozes Over Its Heritage

An aerial view shows the Clock Tower, the Grand Mosque, and surrounding constructions sites in the holy city of Mecca, in 2013.
Fayez Nureldine—AFP/Getty Images An aerial view shows the Clock Tower, the Grand Mosque, and surrounding constructions sites in the holy city of Mecca, in 2013.

Over 98% of the Kingdom's historical and religious sites have been destroyed since 1985, according to the U.K.-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation

For centuries the Kaaba, the black cube in the center of Mecca, Saudi Arabia that is Islam’s holiest point, has been encircled by arched porticos erected some three centuries ago by the Ottomans, above dozens of carved marble columns dating back to the 8th century. But earlier this month, any vestiges of the portico and columns were reduced to rubble, cleared to make way for the Saudi government’s expansion of Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

The $21 billion project, launched in 2011, is designed to meet the challenges of accommodating the millions of pilgrims who visit Mecca and Medina every year. Around 2 million currently visit during Hajj alone, the annual pilgrimage that happens during the last month of the Islamic calendar. But activists charge that the recent destructions are part of a much wider government campaign to rub out historical and religious sites across the Kingdom.

Over the last few years, mosques and key sites dating from the time of Muhammad have been knocked down or destroyed, as have Ottoman-era mansions, ancient wells and stone bridges. Over 98% of the Kingdom’s historical and religious sites have been destroyed since 1985, estimates the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation in London. “It’s as if they wanted to wipe out history,” says Ali Al-Ahmed, of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Though the Saudi rulers have a long history of destroying historical sites, activists say the pace and range of destruction has recently increased. A few months ago, the house of Hamza, the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, was flattened to make way for a Meccan hotel, according to Irfan Al Alawi, executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. There have even been rumored threats to Muhammad’s tomb in Medina and his birthplace in Mecca.

A 61-page report, published recently in Saudi Arabia’s Journal of the Royal Presidency, suggested separating the Prophet’s tomb from Medina’s mosque, a task “that would amount to its destruction,” Alawi says. “You can’t move it without destroying it.” Moreover, he alleges, plans for a new palace for King Abdullah threaten the library atop the site traditionally identified as the birthplace of Muhammad. Even now, signs in four languages warn visitors that there is no proof that the Prophet Muhammad was born there, “so it is forbidden to make this place specific for praying, supplicating or get [sic] blessing.”

Wahhabism, the prevailing Saudi strain of Islam, frowns on visits to shrines, tombs or religio-historical sites, on grounds that they might lead to Islam’s gravest sin: worshipping anyone other than God. In recent years, the twin forks of Wahhabi doctrine and urban development have speared most physical reminders of Islamic history in the heart of Mecca. The house of the Prophet’s first wife, Khadijah has made way for public toilets. A Hilton hotel stands on the site of the house of Islam’s first caliph, Abu Bakr. Famously, the Kaaba now stands in the shade of one of the world’s tallest buildings, the Mecca Royal Clock Tower, part of a complex built by the Bin Laden Group, boasting a 5-story shopping mall, luxury hotels and a parking garage.

Saudi officials did not respond to interview requests, but in the past, they have said that the expansion project is necessary to cater to the ever-growing number of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, a number forecast to reach 17 million by 2025. When it’s done, the expansion of the mataf, the area where the faithful circumambulate around the Kaaba, will treble its capacity, to 150,000 people; the Great Mosque will be able to hold 2.5 million.

Amir Pasic, of IRCICA, the culture organization of the 56-nation Organization of Islamic Conference, points out that the logistics for Hajj dwarf those required for a World Cup or Olympics. “Every time has the right to make changes on the existing urban set-up,” he said. “Every generation tries to develop something. The Kaaba is what’s important.”

If Mecca’s new skyline is impossible to ignore, what with 48 searchlights beaming from the top of the Clock Tower, other changes to the landscape are more insidious. “Everyone’s focused on [the two mosque expansion projects], but people are not focusing on what we’re losing in the meantime,” says Saudi activist, poet and photographer Nimah Ismail Nawwab. After blue markings appear on sites mentioned in Islamic histories, says Nawwab, then the bulldozers come–often in the dead of night. “Everything happens at night,” she told TIME by phone from Saudi Arabia. “By the next day in the morning, the monument is gone.”

It’s not just in Mecca, either. Over a year ago, the split in Mount Uhud, north of Medina, where Muhammad was said to have been carried after being wounded in the famous Battle of Uhud was filled with concrete. A fence went up at the base of the mountain, warning would-be visitors that it was just a mountain, like any other. Six small mosques in Medina where Muhammad is believed to have prayed have been locked. The seventh, belonging to Islam’s first caliph Abu Bakr, has been razed to make way for an ATM. Nawwab, along with a small group of historians and activists, has tried to raise awareness by photographing sites and starting a Twitter campaign, but says “it’s a losing battle, despite the fact that what’s being lost is not just Muslim history, but human history.”

When the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001, they were met with international condemnation. The response to the demolition activity in the Kingdom, by contrast, has been decidedly muted. “When it comes to Mecca, as far as we are concerned it’s a Saudi question,” says Roni Amelan, a spokesman for UNESCO, the United Nation’s cultural body. The Saudi government has never submitted Mecca for inclusion on the list of World Heritage Sites. As UNESCO’s mandate requires a respect for the sovereignty of individual countries, “we don’t have a legal basis to stake a position regarding it,” adds Amelan.

Muslim governments, perhaps mindful of the power of the Saudis to cut their quotas for how many pilgrims can attend Hajj, have been strikingly silent on the issue. The Organization of the Islamic Conference has also been noticeably quiet on the destruction of the Saudi campaign. One exception has been Turkey, whose Ottoman heritage has also long been under threat. In September, Mehmet Gormez, head of the Dinayet, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, told journalists that he told Saudi’s minister of Hajj that the skyscraper overshadowing the Kaaba “destroys history,” the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News reported. “History is being destroyed in the Holy Land each day,” he added.

For pilgrims old enough to remember the dangerous crush of crowds in the 1980s, the spate of new development may be welcome, offering a chance for comfort on their spiritual journey. For other Muslims, like Ziauddin Sardar, author of the recent Mecca: The Sacred City, the vigor of the Saudi campaign springs from financial jitters. “The Saudis know the oil is going to run out,” he said. “Hajj is already their second major source of income, after oil. They look at Dubai, and Qatar, and ask ‘what are we going to do?’ And they say, ‘We have Hajj, and we’re going to exploit it to the max.'”

Carla Power is the author of If the Oceans Were Ink: A Journey to the Heart of the Quran (Henry Holt: April, 2015)


Western Companies Hope For a Bonanza in Iran

An Iranian worker assembles a Peugeot 206 at the state-run Iran-Khodro automobile manufacturing plant near Tehran, Iran, Oct. 11, 2014.
Ebrahim Noroozi—AP An Iranian worker assembles a Peugeot 206 at the state-run Iran-Khodro automobile manufacturing plant near Tehran, Iran, Oct. 11, 2014.

With only weeks to go until a November 24 deadline for a deal between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear program, Iranian and Western investors have their fingers crossed

If you just looked at the numbers, the deal revealed last week by the aerospace and defense giant Boeing seemed insignificant: $120,000, for some data, aircraft manuals and navigation charts. But symbolically, the sale to Iran Air, revealed on Oct. 22 was a big deal—the first time that an American aerospace company had done business with Iran since the U.S. began its sanctions there in 1979.

The Boeing sale, which was sanctioned by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control under a temporary sanctions relief deal that began in January, is just one sign that Iran might soon be open for business with the West for the first time since the Islamic Revolution. As the clock ticks down towards November 24, the deadline for a deal between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear program, both Iranian and Western business communities are hoping for a gold rush. Tehran throngs with Europeans jockeying for business, such as this winter’s planned visit to Iran of a hundred French executives, or the Italians, Chinese and Germans browsing the Tehran construction and mining trade show in August. Many international companies, from Samsung to Renault are already in Iran, trading in sectors permitted under the sanctions, such as food, cars and pharmaceuticals. In 2013, E.U. countries made 5.4 billion Euros ($6.8 billion) worth of exports to Iran. Emerging market experts make breathless comparisons to Russia just after the Berlin Wall’s fall. “Iran,” said Charles Robertson, global chief economist at Renaissance Capital, “is the biggest opportunity of the next 10 years.”

It’s easy to see why it could be. New markets of nearly 80 million people are rare indeed. Rarer still are emerging markets with oil and gas, educated work-forces and lively stock-markets — all humming with pent-up potential from Iran’s thirty-five years as an economic pariah. Iranian boosters reject comparisons with Vietnam and Burma, other newly open economies.”We like to think of it as Turkey on steroids,” quipped an Iranian investor at the Europe-Iran Forum, a recent London conference that brought together European investors and Iranian businessmen.

But challenges remain. If the Forum was designed to showcase Iran’s possibilities, it also underscored the hurdles in tapping them. Few business conferences ban “negotiation, deal-making, or commercial transactions,” but this one did, mindful of the Obama’s promise to “come down like a ton of bricks” on anyone breaking sanctions. The former foreign ministers of Britain and France delivered speeches — even as the British Foreign Office reiterated to Reuters that its policy remained “not to encourage trade with Iran.” Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of the world’s largest marketing group, WPP, gave the keynote — though some pro-Israel groups had petitioned him not to, citing Iran’s human rights record, support for terrorism and anti-Semitism. On the first day of the Forum, there were protesters outside filming participants on their way into the venue.

Inside, European business people listened to presentations on sectors from oil to healthcare to consumer goods. But even the most bullish Iran-watchers admitted that a November 24th deal over the country’s nuclear program, should one be agreed, would just mark the first hurdle. One unintended effect of sanctions has been what’s amounted to a de facto boycott of Iran; companies are reluctant to do business with Iran even if it’s technically legal, in areas such as food or humanitarian aid. “The spirit of the law is even more burdensome than the letter of it,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, a founding partner of the Europe-Iran Forum. “The effect on banks has undermined the idea that sanctions aren’t meant to hurt the Iranian people.” This June’s record $8.9 billion fine on BNP Paribas for breaking U.S. sanctions on Iran and other countries spooked banks anew, and Iranian investors realize that even if sanctions are lifted, Iran needs to rebuild its relationships with the international banking community. “Any number of good political outcomes may occur by November 24,” said Amir Ali Amiri of investment company ACL, “but even then, in the parallel universe of business, if European banks continue to lack confidence in putting together a letter of credit for Iran, they’re not going to touch the opportunity.”

Both within Iran and outside of it, there are vested interests who stand to lose if sanctions lift. China has benefitted from Iran’s sanctions, which delivered “the Iranian market to the Chinese on a silver platter,” notes Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a political science fellow at the German Orient Institute. Iran could rival Russia as a major supplier of oil and gas if it is allowed to export freely. Then there are the Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s ideological protectors of the Islamic Revolution, who have emerged as pivotal economic players. An open Iran would challenge their position, notes Fathollah-Nejad, “But the Supreme Leader Khamenei’s decision to go for a deal with the West signals that he’s been able to keep those guys at bay.” Not all commentators agree that Khamenei is certain to support a deal.

With around three weeks till the deadline, it’s not just oil and gas executives and sanctions-weary Iranians hoping for a deal. In a speech last week, the U.S. chief negotiator Wendy Sherman urged Iran to “finish the job,” while U.S. officials say President Obama may try and bypass a vote on suspending sanctions in Congress, where support for Israel is strongest, the New York Times recently reported. Congress, however, may not allow the President to bypass it.

“It’s the last large untapped market in the world,” says Ramin Rabii, of Iranian investment firm Turquoise Partners. “The future is very exciting.” The only question that remains — at least until November 24th — is whether all the hurdles can be overcome.

TIME Nigeria

5 Reasons Boko Haram is Un-Islamic

A member of Boko Haram in a suburb of Kano, Nigeria, in 2012.
Samuel James—The New York Times/Redux A member of Boko Haram in a suburb of Kano, Nigeria, in 2012.

The militant Nigerian group's actions repeatedly go against the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad

The official name of Boko Haram, the Nigerian group apparently responsible for the kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls, is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad. That translates into English as “People Committed to the Propogation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” The name is wholly inappropriate. With their sustained campaign of murders and kidnappings, the members of Boko Haram conduct themselves in a manner that could barely be more alien to the Prophet Muhammad teachings. Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, declared Boko Haram was “set up to smear the image of Islam.” The secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the world’s largest bloc of Muslim countries, told the Associated Press that violent extremists like Boko Haram “not only disavow their Islam, but their humanity.”

It’s always dangerous to generalize about a faith observed by 1.6 billion people – there’s a lot of room for interpretation between that many people – but it’s clear that Boko Haram’s atrocities go against the mainstream teachings of Islam. Here are five reasons why Boko Haram’s actions are fundamentally un-Islamic:


1. Boko Haram targets educational establishments.

In the local Hausa language, “Boko Haram” translates roughly as “Western education is forbidden.” In 2012, the group began targeting government schools with home-made firebombs. Over the last two years, reports Amnesty International, attacks by armed groups have forced over 60 schools in northern Nigeria to close, with Boko Haram claiming responsibility for some of the attacks.

Boko Haram’s hostility to education stems from its suspicion of what it views as the government’s secular education system. But that hostility strongly contravenes the teachings of Islam, a faith whose first revelation to the Prophet Muhammad was the word “Read,” whose scripture repeatedly enjoins Muslims to reflect, and whose traditions enjoin all Muslims – regardless of gender – to pursue education.


2. It claims to be waging jihad.

Boko Haram’s formal name makes it clear that the group is pursuing jihad. There’s debate among Islamic scholars as to what constitutes a “just” jihad, but mainstream scholars agree that jihad can only be led by a legitimate leader of a Muslim community, not self-appointed leaders like Osama bin Laden or Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau, who has led the group since 2009. Even if the conditions for jihad are met, the Prophet Muhammad banned targeting non-combatants. Boko Haram has repeatedly flaunted that ban. In February, the group killed over 50 schoolboys, opening fire on a boarding school in northeastern Nigeria before burning it down. Last fall, Boko Haram gunmen shot 40 students at an agricultural training college as they lay asleep in their dorms. According to the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings, women and children, rabbis and priests and other noncombatants are to be spared. Warriors cannot burn down property, destroy trees or fields, or commit atrocities.


3. It has declared war against Christians.

In a rambling video released May 5, Shekau declared war “against Christians generally.” He included in that group President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “and any unbeliever.” But the Quran tells Muslims to respect their fellow monotheists, specifically the Christians and the Jews, who are “People of the Book.” The Quran says: “Those who believe [Muslims], the Jews, the Christians….whosoever believe in God and the Last day and do good deeds, they shall have their reward from their Lord, shall have nothing to fear, nor shall they come to grief.”


4. It forcibly converts people.

The May 12 video of the kidnapped schoolgirls purports to show some Christian girls speaking their new Muslim names. The girls had been “liberated,” claimed Shekau, by having converted from Christianity to Islam. But he’s flouting a key teaching of Islam. “Let there be no compulsion in religion,” states the Quran. The verse, notes Usama Hasan, senior researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, a U.K.-based counter-extremism think-tank, was revealed to Muhammad after some of the earliest Muslims’ children converted to Judaism and Christianity. Nobody can force anyone to convert to Islam, say scholars. Embracing the faith is a matter between individuals and their God.


5. It espouses forcing girls and women into marriage.

In the May 5 video, Shekau says the kidnapped schoolgirls should be married off. But Islam does not allow anyone – male or female – to be married without his or her own consent. According to one hadith – hadiths are the words or deeds of the Prophet Muhammad that, along with the Quran, constitute the basis of Islamic law – one day a girl married off against her will came crying to Muhammad, saying she hadn’t agreed to the marriage. Muhammad promptly declared the marriage invalid.


The members of Boko Haram certainly consider themselves Muslims but their actions make them traitors to their faith. We should start referring to them as a criminal group rather than an Islamist group. Their sickening deeds and rhetoric repeatedly demonstrate that not only do they lack kinship with the vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, but they lack respect for the religion they claim to fight for.

Power writes on Muslim social issues. If the Oceans Were Ink, her memoir of studying the Quran with a traditional Muslim scholar, will be published next year.


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