Sajed Bhandari

America, Books, Cooking, Muslims and some other things

Book Review: The Rise of Islamic Capitalism

Book Review: The Rise of Islamic Capitalism by Vali Nasr

Sajed Bhandari

I had a chance to read this short book by Vali Nasr last week.  The original title was Forces of Fortune but the current title is The Rise of Islamic Capitalism.  As has been the case with the book reviews, I’m going to keep this entry short.

The book reads quickly, written for a general audience and is very well structured in theory and the case studies.  Nasr’s book identifies the strengths of sharia-compliant finance, its shortcomings and its limitations.  Nasr also addresses the emergence of a vibrant and liberal capitalism in the Muslim world that will address the shortcomings of sharia-compliant markets.  His thesis seems to be that the rise of the a pious and modern middle class will be a formidable market and businessmen and politicians alike should pay attention to this emerging market.  Nasr provides a critique of Khomeini’s Islamist revolution as well as its opposite force, Kemalist revolutions in Turkey and Pakistan.

Overall, very good book.  Definitely read it.


Written by sajedbhandari

October 28, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Book Review Kennedy

Book Review: Kennedy by Ted Sorensen

Sajed Bhandari

This entry is going to be short.

John F. Kennedy has been an obsession of mine for a long time.  I remember my parents speaking about him and my teachers teaching me about him.  The man faced so many obstacles in his path to the apex of American politics.  Opponents cited his youth as signs of ineptitude, his religion as a source of unknown loyalties.  Yet, John F. Kennedy broke through these obstacles, became the youngest and first (and only) Catholic President of the United States, pushed for historic civil rights legislation and was gunned down by an assassin’s bullet before completing his first term.  How can I not be obsessed with this man?  A few months ago I went to the bookstore in my old neighborhood to look for a biography on JFK.  I looked through the biography section and came across at least fifteen books.  The problem was that each of the books was about his death and the aftermath.  I asked the lady at the information booth if they had any books on his life (as I was sure he did more than get in the way of a bullet).  She looked around and could not find any.  Months later, I went to Minnesota and was brought to the Mall of America.  I walked around and found myself at the bookstore there. I looked around for nothing in particular and came across a book entitled, Kennedy.  That was it.  Just one word.  Nothing about his death, nothing about conspiracies or about his assassination.  Just the man’s last name.

I bought the book and read through it rather quickly.  Ted Sorensen was a close friend and counsel to President Kennedy throughout his life and administration.  Sorensen says more than once that this book was the memoir that President Kennedy was not able to write.  Of the seven hundred pages or so in the book, I took away two main aspects of President Kennedy’s life; his pursuit of excellence and his firm belief that politics should and can be the most honorable of professions.  These two themes, with the addition of “vigor” seemed to have motivated all of JFK’s public actions.

Read it.

Written by sajedbhandari

October 18, 2010 at 3:57 pm

On Democracy: Accountability and the Limits of Freedom in a Democratic State

On Democracy: Accountability and the Limits of Freedom in a Democratic State

Sajed Bhandari

I have always been interested in politics for as far as I can remember.  As a child, my mom and dad would often talk about politics (mother growing up in a left-leaning Awami household and father serving as a right-leaning, Independent MP in Bangladesh).  I guess neither my addiction to cable news nor my majoring in economics and politics were conscious decisions; they were both expressions of my interests growing up.  Reading about historical political figures, I was enamored with the power, the prestige, the legacy and ability to live beyond death that accompanied their positions in government.  But then in high school, I came across a saying of the Second Caliph, Umar, who said, “The leader of a people is the servant of that people”.  I assume he meant that the leader is bound to serve his people and not overpower them; that the trust given to him by God and by the people required of him to be enslaved by the limitations of public office and the needs of his constituents.

A year ago, I had a chance to work as a campaign assistant on a local campaign in NY.  I have also been working on a few Democratic campaigns (statewide this time) this election season, although I am not putting in nearly as many hours as I did last year because of graduate school and what not.  In any case, over the last year I have been re-thinking the nature of power that comes with holding public office.  Freedom as mentioned in the title and for the purposes of this entry is not the freedom allotted to the governed, rather, it is the individual freedom of the candidate and/or elected official in a democratic state.  Working on various campaigns since I have graduated from college, I came to see all the demands and limitations that are placed on those who run for office.  Running for office forces an individual to forfeit many of his freedoms in search of political power, this being the fundamental trade off and every person wishing to run for office needing to understand it.  Candidates cannot dress as they want to, speak as they want to or act as they want to.  Every public appearance is preceded by decisions of what color suit to wear, where to put the lapel pin, staying silent about issues that are controversial and often speaking about issues that the candidate may not particularly care about.  Many of the individual freedoms we hold as sacred are taken away from candidates in a democratic state; and that is the only way a democracy can function.

Limitations on individual freedoms of candidates exist and are essential because we hold those who seek power accountable.  We elect them, we pay them and because of this, they serve us.  They are our employees.   American politicians in general, and Democratic Party candidates in particular are under constant scrutiny for what they say in public.  Thanks to the media, we are able to hold them accountable for their statements.  This forces many of them to either sincerely change their views about certain groups within their constituency (best case scenario) or keep their views to themselves if they have any real hope of obtaining public office (worst case scenario).  Because of this culture of accountability, most politicians cannot openly denounce all Muslims as terrorists, homosexuals as undermining family values, and Jews as secretly running America and the world.  The far-right protesters and other extremists (Muslim and Evangelical included) can get away with holding signs and speaking openly about such ridiculous views because they are usually not the ones running for office.  Now, there is an assumption being made.  The assumption is that the vast majority of the people will not vote in extremists of any kind, thus preventing extremists from holding office.  This assumption seems to be undermined by certain Tea Party candidates, but overall, as the optimist that I am, I do think the vast majority of the educated electorate realizes extremism is not compatible with democratic governance.

In conclusion, I understand Umar’s statement in the following manner.  Political office is rife with limitations on individual freedoms.  These limitations on individual freedoms exist because there is social pressure to conform to the wishes of the electorate.  This social pressure is accountability in action, reminding the politicians that they are public servants, not masters of the public in a democratic state.  Politicians and leaders do have the power, prestige and legacy.  But forfeiting certain individual freedoms is the cost at which men can govern in a democratic state.

PS:  Make sure you guys go campaign.  November 2 is Election Day.  If you don’t campaign and/or vote then DO NOT complain if the fascists take over.  (For my Muslim friends:  When you guys go out to vote, keep in mind the party that defended the rights of Muslim-Americans on the principle of religious tolerance.  Also keep in mind, the party that used Muslim-Americans as the political bogeyman and that seeks to turn this republic into an autocracy along the lines of that eastern kingdom).

Written by sajedbhandari

October 17, 2010 at 11:34 am

“On Multiple Identities: Tariq Ramadan and my Bangladeshi Heritage”

“On Multiple Identities: Tariq Ramadan and my Bangladeshi Heritage”

Sajed Bhandari


I have read much of Professor Tariq Ramadan’s work and probably have not understood most of it.  The latter phrase of the initial sentence is not humility on my part; it is simply the truth.  Of all the words I have read and listened to by this man, one paragraph particularly resonates.  The professor says:


One must resist the temptation to reduce one’s identity to a single dimension that takes priority over every other… We should reach a broader view of ourselves and our fellow-citizens: each one of us has multiple identities that she/he must accept, nurture, and develop.  I have long been repeating to Muslims and to my fellow-citizens that I am Swiss by nationality, Egyptian by memory, Muslim by religion, European by culture, universalistic by principle, Moroccan and Mauritanian by adoption (italics added). This is no problem whatsoever: I live with those identities, and one or the other may take the lead depending on the context or occasion.

This particular quote is from What I Believe in the chapter, “Multiple Identities”.  This entry is not an explanation or commentary on the previous quote.  It is a reflection on the emotions that this quote brought forth with respect to my Bangladeshi heritage.  The reflection for the purposes of this entry consists mostly of my transition from contention with my heritage, to acceptance and finally, intimate curiosity.

I, like many other Muslim-Americans, became more conscious of Islam after the terrorist attacks of September 11th.  At the time, I was a fourteen-year-old freshman just beginning high school.  High school is normally a time when people begin to seek out their identity and in the process, often become content with a single dimension to that identity.  My initial experience with ultra-conservative and reactionary understandings of Islam caused me to become overly critical of many aspects of my Bangladeshi heritage.  This particular part of the paragraph should be read with the understanding that I was fifteen, an age when many adolescents seek to rebel against the desires and wishes of their parents.  I specify this because, now looking back, I think my views at that age had more to do with this phase of adolescence than with any sincere belief in reactionary ideologies.  However, coming back to the issue of my relationship with my ethnic heritage.   At that time I started to criticize my parents for certain customs in the culture, which I, in my ridiculous self-righteousness, considered innovations to, and deviations from a “pure” Islam (read Arabian Peninsula Islam).  I saw Bangladeshi practice of Islam as “folksy”, rife with innovations and generally a bad way to go about being Muslim.  This led to much animosity towards milads, certain Eid practices and an overall distrust of rituals taught to me by my parents.  More importantly, I saw all Muslims as the same, irrespective of their ethnicity.  Because of this, one particular thing I abhorred was my parents’ distrust of Pakistanis as an idea (not necessarily the Pakistani people we knew).  To me, it just seemed like your run of the mill, South Asian racism or assabiyah; never mind the fact that my parents were refugees during the Bangladeshi struggle for independence  (this is another article).

As I was finishing high school and entering college, I found myself getting closer to various groups within the South Asian community, particularly Pakistanis.  Most of my close friends were, and still are Pakistani.  Before I continue, I feel as though I need to put a disclaimer.  The great majority of the people who have been important to me in terms of friends and relationships have been Pakistani.  What I say subsequently should not be taken as anti-Pakistani or anything like that.  However, it was my interaction with Pakistanis, more than any ideological catalyst that led me to embrace my Bangladeshi heritage.  For the people who do not know, Pakistan was founded as a Muslim state consisting primarily of modern day Pakistan and Bangladesh (at that time known as East Pakistan).  But this is not an article about the civil war that accompanied the founding of Bangladesh (that too is another article).  My interaction with a lot of Pakistanis exposed me to racism for the first time in my life.  Considering I was a Muslim growing up in a primarily white and Jewish neighborhood in an upper-middle class Long Island town, the fact that my first encounters with racism came so late in life and from my fellow Muslims was somewhat disheartening.  Khair, this is not the point of the article either.  What is the point is that the racism, in jest most often, implicit frequently and explicit rarely turned me away from this idea of Muslim brotherhood.  For the right-wingers who will dig up this blog years from now, I said Muslim brotherhood, NOT Muslim Brotherhood.  There is a world of difference between a capital B and a lowercase b, a world of difference between the idea and the political party.  I would defend Pakistanis often in front of my parents and tried to explain to them that yes, they lived through a terrible war with them, but I grew up with them in the same neighborhoods, in the same political and social climate of Islamophobia and both groups spoke English better than they speak Bengali or Urdu.  More importantly, the Islamophobes did not discriminate between Bengali Muslims and Pakistani Muslims.  But as I grew older and my interactions increased, I noticed the incessant need for so many to see Bengalis as inferior to them (this is another article).  I began to see brotherhood as a two way street.  I had to ask myself, how could any two groups of people truly be brothers if one group consistently sees the other as inferior?  This, more than anything else, led me to accept my Bangladeshi heritage as integral to my identity.  Not because I needed to feel superior, but because I needed to find out why my parents were who they were and why they loved a country and a people so much that was so often denigrated by the people closest to me.

So where am I now with my heritage?  I started the article talking about multiple identities and the phrase “intimate curiosity”.  The Professor Ramadan quote brought into fruition this intimate curiosity.  It is almost poetic what he says, “Egyptian by memory”.  I am Bangladeshi by memory.  I have not been to Bangladesh since I was five years old.  I am twenty-three now, a few months from twenty-four and hope to finally go back one day inshAllah.  But I am Bangladeshi by memory because of the memories my parents passed on to me about their time during the civil war, their stories about the streets and buildings of Dhaka and the farms and ponds in Bogra.  I remember as a child my mother would sing songs in Bengali to herself as she cleaned the dishes, or sat in a chair or cooked, unconscious of what she was doing.  I used to hear the names of Tagore and Nazrul, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Zias and Sheikh Hasina.  My parents would argue about politics, about socialism and capitalism and Bangladesh’s experience with both.  These are all experiences my parents had, but what I realize now, that I did not then, is that what they were trying to pass on to me was not necessarily the stories of Bangladesh or Bengali-supremacy, but rather the emotions they felt as children, as youths and as adults in their previous homeland.  America is their homeland now.  I am trying to remember a quote that goes along the lines of, your homeland is not where your grandparents are buried; it is where your grandchildren will be buried.  I say my curiosity is intimate because it stems from trying to understand my parents and subsequently myself.  Who they were in and who they are now because of Bangladesh.  In the process I hope to “nurture and develop” this particular aspect of the multiple-identities that I have, as per the recommendations of that wise professor.

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October 9, 2010 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

“About Stony Brook”

“About Stony Brook”

Sajed Bhandari

What can I say about Stony Brook?  What can I Say about the Muslims there?  What can anyone say about what gave birth to who they are?  What can a person say about what created them?  Only God can speak of creation with the authority of its author.  Someone asked me what happened to those questions I asked at Stony Brook, those empty months after I had left its campus.  My years there, I never knew you really. I saw you walking about, I read the articles you wrote.  I never really knew you though.  Well I never really spoke to you until that day I questioned you.  You asked me why is it that I have not written that article.  I have written so much since that day, that day I visited my old campus.  I have written a book, shitty poems, articles and essays.  But not those words.  Not the answers to those questions I asked.  Yes I was busy with school, yes I was busy with my family in places so far away from where I would call my home.  Yes I was busy with all things that occupy the mind and time of any individual in this world.  I said to you through the most disconnected of means that I was busy with something else other than writing that article.  My answer, my friend, and I call you a friend because you know like any other and like myself, what this life is really about and what this struggle is about.  My answer then is that question I asked in the beginning.  How can anyone write about what gave them life?  Any effort to describe life, life really as what it is, is a futile task.  We write about things we can understand apart from ourselves.

I cannot understand my experience, my four years at that campus, in that town apart from myself.  The teachers I had met, the friends, the fans, the objects of beauty and of desire, I only really found at that small town, so east of anything.  I remember those moments in sujood, those doubt-filled prostrations to my God.  Those moments, my head on the ground towards a distant land, a land of my spiritual forefathers, those lands of an apostle I would never meet in this world.  Stony Brook, that room in that decrepit and aging building. That small, tiny room.  I spent so many moments with my head on the ground feeling so close to something other than myself, to my brothers I bowed with, to those sisters behind the barrier.  To God and to myself, yes to myself.  I felt so at home, so far away from those who gave birth to me, to those who lived in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and struggled with me side by side.  That small town, by the port, by the sound, by the bodies of water and by the suburbs that surrounded it.  You asked me why I did not write that article?  I did not write that article yet because I am not ready.  I am not ready to truly write down how I felt those years, those months, those autumns and those moments along the roads that furrowed through that campus.  This is not a poem to Stony Brook; I am not a poet and I am poor in my words.  This article, these words, they are my lament.  I wish to write about my time there, I wish to write about the questions I asked all of you.   I will one day.  I do not promise often and I do not promise much.  I do promise you all that I will write one day.

I questioned you all.  Those doctors, those lawyers, those accountants and those leaders of this world who will one day bring us to salvation.  Salvation, not in some distant world after death, but rather salvation, of comfort and of peace in this world, in this lifetime in this consciousness.  I will write to you all one day.  But, I am not ready yet to part with my life there.  I shudder at the idea of having to explain even one thought I had in those walls, those roads, and those windy moments of existence underneath a Stony Brook autumn.  I hesitate because how can an illiterate and utter hopeless fakir as myself even begin to write about my life there?  I took notes of what you all said, I listened carefully, and I lived the experience with you.  I attempted to write sentences and paragraphs about that night with you all.  I truly tried and I tried and for the first time in my short and long life, I failed at writing a thing.  I failed because, to you it was one night, a weekend night, empty and desolate as Stony Brook gets get during the weekends.  I failed because to you all it was one night an older, somewhat familiar face returned and distracted us for a few hours.  I failed because even though all I was, all I really was, was a distraction.  I failed because with all the good and the beautiful that I have experienced, my life there, my life in those academic and social walls, truly created me.

I say I will write one day about those questions I asked you all.  I never promise things.  But I do promise that I will write, about the questions I asked and about the answers you offered.

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September 16, 2010 at 11:26 am

Documentary Review: Poisoned by Polonium

Documentary Review: Poisoned by Polonium- The Litvinenko File
Sajed Bhandari

Walking into a pharmacy a few years ago, I came across the Daily News or the Times, which had a haunting image of a man dying on a hospital bed.  He stared hopefully into the camera; his eyes had set deeply into his face and the hair on his head and eyebrows had disappeared.  The picture was clearly of a man suffering from some sort of radiation exposure.  I do not remember the headlines at the moment, but the man in the picture turned out to be Alexander Litvinenko.  He left his former life as a KGB, and successor FSB, officer in order to become a whistleblower against the Russian secret service.  His rebellion against the FSB eventually cost him his life as he was poisoned with Polonium 210 in London in April of 2007.  Before his death, Alexander Litvinenko embraced Islam both as a symbol of his solidarity with the Chechen people as well as because of his personal convictions.  Throughout the following weeks and months I read about this man and his story, but soon forgot about him, as happens to consumers of modern media.  Every now and then however, I would come across that same picture, in a magazine, on television or on the Internet.
I went to my local library the other day to return a set of DVD’s and walked over to the documentary section.  I am currently reading a biography on President Kennedy and had hoped to find a supplement to the book.  However, as I searched through the shelves I came across this DVD.  The name of the documentary was Poisoned by Polonium- The Litvinenko File by Andrei Nekrasov.  What follows is a brief summary of the documentary, highlighted issues dealt with in the documentary and what impressions I took away.
The documentary begins with Litvinenko’s voice stating that the tape should be released in the event of his death.  It becomes immediately clear that the filmmaker, Nekrasov is a close friend of Litvinenko and that the documentary by no means is meant to be an objective study of an assassination.  Rather, the rest of the documentary is an intimate tribute to Litvinenko’s life, mission and death.  The film initially talks about the 1999 terrorist attacks on the Moscow apartment buildings.  The terrorist attack, as understood by Litvinenko and 60% of the Russian citizenry according to the documentary, was a false flag operation executed by the FSB, the Russian secret service.  It was Litvinenko’s assertion that this war allowed Russia’s FSB to seize control of power in post-Soviet Russia.  He argues that many in the KGB/FSB saw their actions (torture, imprisonment and etc.) as legitimate in an illegitimate state.  However, Russia’s transition into a democracy allowed it to become a legitimate state, therefore making the actions of the FSB illegitimate.  According to Litvinenko, in order for the FSB to continue on with its actions, it had to create a situation wherein the state would again become illegitimate—in this case via the political trap of war with Chechnya.
The documentary goes onto explain some of the evidences for the false flag operation, the relationship between Russians and Chechens and the nature of the FSB’s revenue streams.  Nekrasov does not dwell on the false flag operation; rather he spends much of the documentary building Litvinenko’s character through his bosses, associates and agents.  Litvinenko believes that the main reason why the FSB is targeting him is because he exposed their methods of making money.  Under threat against his life and the life of his family, Litvinenko escapes to England.  However, on April 2007, Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated.  The documentary ends with Litvinenko’s conversion to Islam.  I had heard about his conversion, however, thought it to be a rumor.  Nekrasov interviews Litvinenko’s wife and father about his conversion as well as filming a powerful funeral scene to be discussed later.
Andrei Nekrasov’s film addresses certain themes beyond an exposition of Litvinenko’s life and death.  One of the primary themes throughout the documentary is the struggle between justice and arbitrary power.  Nekrasov says that the failure of Litvinenko’s rebellion led him to question whether society is governed by justice or governed by arbitrary, brute power.  Much of the documentary showcases the corruption rampant through Russia’s supposedly democratic system and secret services.  Litvinenko became disillusioned with the secret service as he noticed the types of individuals who were promoted through the ranks.  Idealism and dedication had nothing to do with it, according to Litvinenko.  Rather, corruption and cronyism provided the means by which individuals advanced their careers.  A soldier who fought in the 1999 offensive against the Chechens offers one of the most striking aspects of arbitrary power triumphing justice in the documentary.  The soldier recounts the story of his commanding officers selling ammunition to the Chechens for vodka and drugs.  Along with selling ammunition to their enemy, the Russian Army and secret service sold units and individual Russian soldiers to the Chechens for cash, leading to their deaths.
Another theme addressed by Nekrasov is racism.  Nekrasov argues that it is Russian racism that prevents them from calling the 1999 war with the Chechens a civil war.  The leaders instead referred to the offensive as anti-terrorist operations and did not see the Chechens as fellow Russians, rather as outsiders.  This is juxtaposed with a speech of a Russian woman lamenting the once close ties between Russians and Chechens.  She says that they were brothers and not foes.  In another example, Nekrasov shows a previous documentary of his to a group of Russians.  The documentary showcased the plight of Chechens after the war.  Images of young children, some with their feet blown off, some with cuts across their torso were shown to a Russian audience.  The first audience member comments that the documentary is one-sided and that these children would grow up to be future terrorists.  Essentially, that killing them is not morally reprehensible.
The final theme that I found important was that of Liberalism.  The documentary deals with market reform in post-Soviet Russia as well as political liberalization of its legislative branch and media.  One of the oligarchs interviewed discusses the Russian political culture and its relation to liberalism.  He argues that Russian slave mentality led to the waves of totalitarian systems that governed its citizens for centuries.  Because Russian citizens lacked internal limitations on their freedoms, external limitations had to be imposed by whatever regime that was in power at the time.  This however, the oligarch argues, is inefficient.  He claims that eco-political liberalism can only exist in a society wherein most of the populace understands the inner limitations that must be imposed on their freedoms.  He asks then why is he advocating liberalism in Russia if its citizens have such a slave mentality?  The oligarch argues when the communist regime fell, droves of entrepreneurs, independent politicians and journalists rose up to create a proper civic society and republic.
The film left me with powerful impressions and a desire to learn more about Russia in general, and Alexander Litvinenko’s legacy in particular.  I am interested in learning more about Russia’s transition from communism to capitalism as well as its citizens’ attitudes towards individual rights and liberties.  One of the most powerful impressions however was the final section on Litvinenko’s conversion.  His father stated that along with exposing Putin and the FSB, Litvinenko’s mission on this earth was to reconcile Christians and Muslims.  He believed that his conversion and death would be a catalyst to such reconciliation.  I suppose it was best illustrated at Litvinenko’s funeral.  The scene begins with a group of his family members dressed in all black and wearing crosses walking (the traditional color of mourning amongst Muslims is white).  The Quran can then be heard being recited.  As the family gathers around the gravesite, an Imam in traditional South Asian garb continues to recite as Litvinenko’s Christian family members throw dirt into his resting place.  The Imam slightly bows in respect as a family member illustrates the sign of the trinity across her chest in mourning.  Beyond the conversion and the optimism with which Litvinenko’s family members seemed to have approached it, I took away a respect for both the desperation and courage that must have been required by Litvinenko and his comrades in his rebellion.
I have watched the documentary twice now and have been moved greatly by it.  The film itself is almost two hours and filled with historical, political and personal analyses of Litvinenko’s life, mission and death.  I had to severely truncate the summary as the review ended up being much longer than I expected.  I would recommend watching this documentary as it highlights the life of a hero and the plight of a people living underneath a façade of liberty.

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September 9, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Prominent Israeli Rabbi calls for Annihilation of Abbas and the Palestinians… Again

Written by sajedbhandari

August 29, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Posted in Engaging Extremism