Powerlessness – It’s What Turns Good Men Cruel

“The fever. The rage. The feeling of powerlessness that turns good men cruel.”Alfred Pennyworth

Pennworth, known more famously as Batman’s butler, may have unintentionally uttered a valuable insight into why some Muslims in certain parts of the world feel vindicated to mete out their own flavor of justice; a group of misguided Batmen, proverbially speaking. But what causes this rage, this fever? I do not wish to exonerate the perpetrators of these heinous acts, nor do I want to suggest they should not be — or are — accountable for their actions — but if we are to get at the root of the problem as well as harboring any hopes of stopping it, we must examine why such (predominantly) young men feel entitled to inflict such harm on the world. Part of that process will be acknowledging that some of their grievances are legitimate. The other half will be demonstrating to them that (a) some are not legitimate and (b) even those that can be substantiated, vengence, at the cost to public safety, is neither permissible nor practical.

Recent airstrikes by the U.S. government in Syria, for example, continue to show a level of indifference to human life that should outrage anyone. What enrages many of the youth (Muslim or otherwise) is the indifference they feel their respective societies have towards them.  These perceived slights may be economic or perhaps cultural. Others feel they simply have no arena or audience in which they can air their grievances to an attentive ear (which for good, or mostly bad, is precisely what ISIS offers, for example). One thing that any gang or cult gives their members is (a) a sense of belonging and (b) an attentive audience or attentive ear which is sympathetic to their griefs, anxieties, or concerns. Many of these Muslim perpetrators of public violence often feel rejected by society. What is needed in addressing this brand of terrorism is to help them see that (a) not all grievances are legitimate and most importantly, even those that are legitimate, is that personal vendettas, at the expense of the public’s right to safety — Muslim as well as non-Muslim — is non-negotiable as a Muslim. Given that the common profile for many of these perpetrators is one of criminality, clearly the onus that’s on Muslim religious leadership is to articulate this as part of the core of Islamic devotional studies. This is why I feel that so long as Muslim religious leadership is domesticated, neutralized, or passed over, the problem will never be addressed. And in light of this, American foreign and domestic policy will continue to retreat from any plausible strategy to mere tactics: attempting, in vain, to bomb an idea — a grievance — out of existence.

Islam’s Capacity to Empower

Given the recent attack in London — along with others, many would be highly suspicious of, if not downright hostile towards, any claims of Islam’s ability to empower those who have been downtrodden themselves. Quite the contrary, many view Islam as a corrupting force which prays on the poor and disenfranchised, of which then they all too often employ Islam as an irrational justification to mete our violence in response to perceived injustices. But it may surprise some, particularly American whites and Europeans, that Islam has a very different assessment in the black community. For many of us, even non-Muslim black folks, Islam is seen as redemptive, a system that has the solutions to our social, existential, and even civilizational conundrums. This was beautifully demonstrated by brother Ibn Ali Miller when he broke up two young men attempting to solve their disagreements through violence. He also gave a valuable critique against the voyeuristic technology culture that allows others to sit on the sidelines and gloat at the suffering of others. May Allah reward brother Ali and make him of the inheritors of Islam. An inspiration to us all.

وَنُريدُ أَن نَمُنَّ عَلَى الَّذينَ استُضعِفوا فِي الأَرضِ وَنَجعَلَهُم أَئِمَّةً وَنَجعَلَهُمُ الوارِثينَ

“And We want to empower those who were being oppressed in the land, to make them leaders, and to give them an inheritance in the earth.” Qur’an, 28: 5

The Violent Scourge of Modernity

Seldom do I reply to such tragedies as we saw today in London. Not because I am not bothered by them but mostly because I do not wish to politicize loss of life. But I do become weary of the world and its non-stop dirge of violence, as was also seen in NYC with James Jackson, white supremacist and vet, who traveled all the way from Baltimore to New York City in hopes of creating a publicity storm when he murdered Timothy Caughman. I can only offer these words in hope of giving hope to those who feel all hope is lost:

مَنْ قَتَلَ مُعَاهَدًا لَمْ يَرَحْ رَائِحَةَ الْجَنَّةِ، وَإِنَّ رِيحَهَا تُوجَدُ مِنْ مَسِيرَةِ أَرْبَعِينَ عَامًا

“Whoever kills the one with whom there is a social contract will not smell the scent of Paradise though its fragrance is perceived from a distance of forty years.”Prophet Muhammad

I chose to translate the Arabic word “mu’ahad” as “social contract” because in essence, any Muslim who comes to live in a non-Muslim country has entered into a social contract of mutual cooperation and benefit. Such actions are an abomination and violation of that.

Of course the case will have to be investigated, but if it does not prove to be a cause of mental health (something rarely afforded to Muslim perpetrators of violence), then it points to what I feel  the problem: a lack(ing) of Islam, not a problem because of it. Many Muslim youth have been misled as to how they ought to process their grievances with the world (perhaps equally import is for to know that some of their grievances are legitimate, others not). I feel that if there was an actual encouragement for them to (a) read the Qur’an and (b) embody it1, a message coming from religious leadership, we might actually begin to tackle this issue.

الَّذينَ إِذا أَصابَتهُم مُصيبَةٌ قالوا إِنّا لِلَّهِ وَإِنّا إِلَيهِ راجِعونَ

“Those who, when disaster strikes them, say, ‘We belong to Allah and to Him we will return’.” Qur’an, 2: 156

Part of what makes this difficult is the point from which western secular democracies depart when they view what is perceived to be religiously motivated violence. William Cavanaugh echoes this in his book, The Myth of Religious Violence,

“The idea that religion has a tendency to promote violence is part of the conventional wisdom of Western societies, and it underlies many of our institutions and policies, from limits on the public role of churches to efforts to promote liberal democracy in the Middle East.”2

Particularly grabbing is Cavanaugh’s insights in the root or essence of violence in the modern world, including acts of violence committed by religious groups or individuals. Immediately after the tragic attack in England, Londoners took to the streets, rightfully angry, and began drawing swift conclusions from the event stating that such violence has been ongoing for 1,400 years, unarrested.

What Cavanaugh brings to our attention is that this violence is not “transhistorical and transcultural”3 but is in fact locally situated to its environs. A cursory study of Muslims living in various non-Muslim countries will show the vast majority amply assimilated; clearly the problem is more complicated than simply “they hate us for our freedoms”.

My feelings that the heart of the issue will never be solved by sidelining and excluding meaningful religious leadership. This is all too often the case as secular societies seek to “tame” religion and “restrict its access to public power”4, even if that power is to simply communicate effectively to disenfranchised individuals who, because of modern technology, can greatly amplify their capacity to inflict harm on the world.


1. Cavanaugh , William T. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

2. Ware III , Rudolph T. The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa (Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks). Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

3. Cavanaugh. The Myth of Religious Violence.

4. Cavanaugh. The Myth of Religious Violence.

American Muslims – Between the Pragmatic and the Progressive

The following quote from Amos Wilson, scholar of black studies, has made me ponder the current outlook on life many American Muslims hold: is it unquestionably our destiny to “progress” forward to a better and brighter future? Like any parent, I most certainly hope so but history, especially if this election cycle is any indication, shows us that life is anything but a sure, steady, and guaranteed progression to a brighter and more prosperous future. One quote of Wilson’s caught my eye:

“The idea that we must necessarily arrive at a point greater than that reached by our ancestors could possibly be an illusion. The idea that somehow according to some great universal principle we are going to be in a better condition than our ancestors is an illusion which often results from not studying history and recognizing that progressions and regressions occur; that integrations and disintegrations occur in history.”1

While generally not regarded as a scholar of education, I do think Wilson’s remarks are worth considering for American Muslims. Specifically, the need for us to consider what are our particular educational needs. This may (and ought to) subdivide again, in that the educations needs of particular aspects of the American Muslim community (suburban Desi vs. urban Blackamerican, for example) will have needs that will vary from segment to segment. My point being, that if we are to have a brighter future, then the American Muslim community will need to produce not only leaders but educators, ones who are adept, cognizant and articulate with American history and how that history will challenge American Muslim hopes and aspirations for a brighter tomorrow.


1. Wilson , Amos N. The Falsification Of Afrikan Consciousness. Brooklyn: Afrikan World Infosystems, 1993.