Monday, July 12, 2004

When we were young

When I heard that a certain brother had written an article critical of the Guyana Islamic Trust I was somewhat amused, but not surprised.

I had read some of the unpublished writings of the author in the early 1990’s and was quite respectful of his critical attitude, his obsession with everything intellectual (remember epistemology?) and his rebel spirit.

He was, in my mind, someone constantly searching for new ideas, new frontiers and sometimes new adversaries, but deep down he was honest and frank (blunt would be more appropriate; I remember once he made married men stand up on chairs as punishment for not reading his assignment; at other times he would be indignant with brothers who could not understand the philosophical musings of Syed Naqeeb al-Attas).

So when I finally got the chance to read his article, published in the Spring of 2003 in Q-News Magazine, I was in for a shock. I had made the mistake of putting off my reading until just before I retired for bed; needless to say, bed was no comfort that night.

“When we were young” reads like an amazing fiction – a tale of young men (and women), indoctrinated into the puritanical sect of wahabbism, denouncing everyone but themselves and creating an atmosphere of fear and hatred in beautiful Guyana and abroad. It offers a stinging rebuke to the methodology of the GIT, accuses its teachers of being taught at the infamous madrassas in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and alleges that its members shout slogans to kill Jews and Hindus.

On a more serious and damaging note, it alleges that the fundraising done in the US and Canada on yearly basis for the GIT actually aids in the support of extremism, and particularly the kind of extremism that molded Abdullah el-Faisal.

This work is indeed fiction - a tale so crudely weaved by half truths, outright lies and deception that one is immediately able to see the disconnect between the author’s version and the experiential reality of the Islamic Work in Guyana, of which he was an integral part, not an unwitting participant as he would have us believe.

The fiction begins with reference to Abdullah el-Faisal, who was a student at the GIT’s one year course a quarter of a century ago and now incarcerated in a British prison, and ends with a remarkable leap of faith to connect his extremist vision of Islam with the GIT’s movement to bring Islam to the grassroots people of Guyana.

The author has unfortunately inflicted violence on an entire group of people whose sincerity, moral uprightness and striving to preach and live Islam are exemplary. The GIT and its members, like any other group are not angels. But to accuse them of extremism, hate and funding of extremism, is a travesty and an act of pure vengeance.

The GIT was established in the late 1970’s after the arrival of Ahmad Ehwass as the Charge d’affaires of the Libyan Embassy. Ahmad, as he was affectionately called, quickly sparked the imagination of Muslim youth in Guyana who were hitherto exposed to the Islam of their parents – a mix of Hanafi, Braelvi and cultural practices which had crept into their faith.

The Hijab was literally unknown to Muslim women; the closest they came to it was the “uhurni”, a transparent, lace-like material draped over their heads at religious gatherings and funerals. Our parents (may Allah bless them) recited the Qur’an in whatever way they knew, individually and collectively at gatherings, most often confusing the Arabic with Urdu; and melaad functions were the dominant feature at masaajids to the extent that many gatherings went well past the prayer times without taking a breather even for prayer.

I grew up in this culture, going with my father every day to the mosque. I had memorized the Qaseeda book, full of beautiful (and sometimes questionable) songs in Urdu. I was very familiar with the Urdu books of Taish and Akbar, as well as the many songs my father composed in Urdu. Even to this day, and in spite of what the author has written, I still enjoy the Qaseedas and they bring a sentimental feeling to my heart.

It was in this culture that Ahmad came, and presented a more dynamic Islam, an Islam where knowledge, self-expression and youthful energies were well directed. Instead of hanging out at the cinemas and rum shops, Muslim youth all over Guyana were drawn to the activities of the GIT, which included camps, monthly weekend programs (Liqa’at), sports activities and picnics. It was as if a new life was breathed into the Muslim youth and they embraced it with energy typical of youth anywhere.

I was introduced to the GIT in the summer holidays of 1978, the same year that Jim Jones made Guyana famous around the world. Since that time, I have embraced the vision that Ahmad left with us – an Islam that actively expresses itself in our mosques and in our families; an Islam that is not static but dynamic, in every respect a living faith that seeks to mould the personality of the believer, as well as shape the future of the community that it comes into contact with.

There were of course difficulties. Overzealous youth who had just learnt the correct way of reciting Qur’an came back to the masaajid and brought the “new way” with them. There were arguments, as the Imams felt threatened by the bold youths who had just scratched the surface of their faith. In a few cases some youths were physically thrown out of the mosques – but these were few and far between. At every opportunity, Ahmad and senior brothers within the ranks of the GIT would advise us that we should use wisdom in dealing with our older folks.

Muslim women were not only introduced to the Hijaab; they found themselves at the forefront of organizing and executing educational and social programs for the Muslim Community.

It was perhaps our dear sisters who bore the brunt of carrying the Hijaab as a symbol of pride under the sweltering Guyana sun. They were called everything from Ninja to towel-head, but they persevered. Today, thanks to their faith the Hijab is now a dominant feature in Muslim communities in Guyana.

In the GIT the model of male-female interaction was exemplary, and it is perhaps here that the author’s allegation of extremism will falter the most. Extremist groups are characterized by their rigid perceptions of women.

In the GIT, brothers and sisters sat on the same committees, planned curriculum together and always sat in the same halls at public functions without physical barriers. In fact, this very exemplary model of equality and respect led to marriages between the youth that would go on to form strong and lasting families in Guyana and abroad.

The charge of extremism leveled at the GIT is at best ludicrous; at worst an act of vengeance directed by the author at brothers who once shared his embrace, hosted him, played cricket and volleyball with him and gave him the salaam with all sincerity. More importantly, it is an act of betrayal – not of the GIT, but of the fundamental trust of a Muslim as directed by the beloved Messenger of Allah:

“ A Muslim is one from whose hands and tongue other Muslims are safe” (al-Muslim man salimal muslimon in lisaanihi wa yadihi).

In the months after I read the article, I spoke with a number of brothers on their personal views of the allegations. There was a common thread running through their responses – fear. They were afraid that the allegations contained in the document, especially the allegation of extremism and funding of extremism will fall into the wrong hands and they will be subject to interrogation and in some cases even deportation. In one case, a family is still seeking resident status in North America and the allegations, although unfounded, can complicate matters for them.*

Jews are non-existent in Guyana, and the century-old tradition of peaceful co-existence between Muslim, Hindus and Christians continues to this day. I have never heard of GIT members shouting slogans to kill Hindus and Jews. Rather, I am aware, being in the upper levels of leadership of the GIT that we have often played volleyball and cricket with Hindus whose mandir was close to the mosque. It was a common trend that neighbours (both Hindus and Christians) would line up after Salaatul Maghrib at the mosque with infant in one hand and feeding bottle in the other for us to “Jaaray” (recite Qur’an and blow on them) to take away whatever evil had befallen them.

The GIT continues its work today with passion and exemplary dedication. Despite the migration of many brothers and sisters in the upper leadership, the GIT is a positive force in Guyana, opening schools, educating the masses and bringing social relief to the poorest neighbourhoods in Guyana. The GIT also interacts in a positive way with the Guyana Government, proposing changes to the education curriculum and submitting papers for better governance in Guyana. In addition, the GIT has established excellent relations with most Masaajid and communities in Guyana, and continues to urge national unity among the various Islamic organizations in Guyana.

The positive work of the GIT was highlighted recently at the Islam Awareness Week, an annual event of the GIT. Reaching out to the most remote communities in Guyana, the GIT distributed much needed food and medical services to both Muslims and non-Muslims. During the IAW, more than 150 people of different races and religions accepted Islam.

The GIT has always worked with the guidance of the Qur’anic verse: “Work, and soon shall Allah, His Messenger and the Believers witness your work.”

Perhaps York University has taught the author the importance of critical thinking. But he has surely not yet learnt some of the basic adab in Islam.

“Our Lord, forgive us and our brethren who preceded us in faith. And place not in our hearts rancour for the Believers. Our Lord, you are indeed Clement, Merciful.”

On Thursday April 8, 2004 a number of leading brothers and sisters of the GIT were interrogated by police in relation to the kidnapping of an Iranian in Guyana. The Ibn Sina Academy, a school owned and operated by the GIT (and mentioned in the article) was also searched, and its vice principal, a sister, was treated in a most humiliating way by one of the officers.

Thanks, brother; you’ve successfully placed us in crosshairs.


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