The Trouble With Muslim Pundits Part Two

Back in May of 2008, I wrote a post for this blog entitled, The TroubleWith Muslim Pundits Today, in which I, using Irshad Manji as an example, attacked and exposed the self-serving and selfish tendencies of many a Muslim pundit who would seek to “reform” Islam without actually contributing anything to it, let alone actually understanding Islam. Since then, the trend has not lessened and Muslims (so-called) of varied stripes continue to find employment as moles and trojan horses. It appears to be one of the few sectors of the economy that is still growing.

The reason for this short quip is a note that came across my GMail screen from writer and author, Ali Eteraz, in which his status update stated: “I feel bad for the Muslim scholars against Valentine’s Day. One is afraid of the reaction against him, the other one (last line), is just plain lonely”. He then proceeded to link to the following link which gives the standard display of a Muslim country and its army of clerics who seek to subjugate and psychologically terrorize its citizens into some imagined expression of Islamism: http://www.gulf-daily-news.com/NewsDetails.aspx?storyid=270724. As with Manji, my biggest objection is that these attacks and critiques come from a specific mindset that is set on maintaining its own form of hegemony, not to mention its overall mean-spiritedness. Never is there any attempt to understand how and why these scholars come to their conclusions. Nor is there any admittance that the goals of these scholars have very different goals than those of the pundits, if indeed they have any goals at all aside from furthering their careers as “reformers” who pass off their own personal experiences as ontological truths.

The latter part is what I would like to bring to the table here, both for Mr. Eteraz, as well as others like him. Is it not conceivable or permissible that a scholar of Islam might stand against certain practices that s/he may deem unhealthy for Muslims? Can any one of these pundits answer with 100% assurance that the changes and reforms they call for are truly looking out for Muslims? Or are they simply ways to either mock or berate? I am increasingly revolted at this small but vocal constituency within our ranks. Not for their dissenting opinions, but the spirit in which they dissent. I have yet to see from a single so-called pundit a viable alternative or solution to the rulings scholars deliver. For one who has spent 17 years studying Islam in a thorough and systematic way, who is seeking the scholar’s path as a career, I am offended by such cynical treatments of heavy and important matters. For me, it is the lack of respect for, not the domination of, scholars and religious authority that plagues Muslims today. And comments like these only add a bit more gasoline to the fire.

I remember having a conversation this past year with a young Muslim who was quite upset about Halloween. I told him that there have been differing opinions on the permissibility of Halloween from the scholars point of view. I said myself, that I could not see a 100% irrefutable proof that it was not permissible to dress up in a costume, so long as the strictures for dress code were obeyed, and go door-to-door collecting candy. And before he could wag his tongue, I said that while I can’t find a Prophetic reason against it, it still doesn’t mean that I would recommend for Muslims to do so, especially Muslim children. The young man paused with a confused look on his face as asked how I could object to it if I didn’t think it was haram. I explained to him that even though it may not be haram (i.e., irrefutable evidence or unanimous consensus on the subject) still did not mean that I might not consider it detrimental to the health and development of Muslim youth. That I would argue against Halloween, not based on a sound hadith, for example, but because of its context and it being culturally detrimental to young Muslims. The point of this example is that a scholar of Islam has a moral obligation to protect and guide the community. S/he should and must struggle to find ways for Muslims to participate in society. I, though not quite a scholar myself yet, have comfortably signed off on the permissibility of Thanksgiving precisely because it is good for Muslims to spend time with their families.

I do not fear for that scholar or group of scholars who made a decision to protect the dignity and continuity of Muslims within their ranks. Nor do I think they will be lonely. The scholars are the inheritors of the Prophet, may God grant him peace, and will never be lonesome. My challenge to Mr. Eteraz and to other pundits would be this: if you wish for Muslims to participate in St. Valentine’s Day, what will you give them in return? What obligations do you have? And to those scholars who would say no to St. Valentine’s Day, what would will you give the Muslims in return? Ali – I know you will feel this is a personal attack on you but I feel to sit back and watch this mean-spiritedness brew is unacceptable.

The conversation is much deeper than cheap cynicism.

Ali Eteraz can be reached at eteraz@gmail.com.

American Muslims and American Civic Religion

Civil Religion as defined by Robert Bellah: a set of rituals, symbols and beliefs which were institutionally separate, but partly derived, nevertheless, from organized religion. According to Bellah, American civil religion had two main origins: one religious in nature, the other secular. To be more precise, Bellah based his understanding on the theological leanings of the Puritans as well as the republicanism of America’s Founding Founders. Bellah’s assumption, as late as the 1970’s, was that American civil religion was defunct and run aground.

There are a number of scholars and thinkers who think that civil religion has not gone the way of the Dodo but has in fact, remained alive, if however sickly it may be. For me, the argument of what state it is in is less pertinent to the issue of American Muslims than the fact that it is still there. So what can this mean for American Muslims? If we can take Bellah’s clause of “institutionally separate” in tandem with “from organized religion”, we can see an opportunity or indeed, an opening for American Muslims to participate in civil society. Many of the objections I have heard over the years from my fellow Muslims is that this is a “Christian nation”; I hear their objections but I cannot accept their validity. To get straight to the point, if American civil religion is indeed institutionally separate, then there is no reason why creative and talented Muslims cannot find a way to also lend their voice to the hyphenated-American experience. In other words, if “Judeo-Christian nation” can apply, why not “Judeo-Christian-Muslim nation”?

Continuing in this manner, as Philip Gorski writes, “religious and political communities should be coterminous”. American Muslims should be thinking of ways in which they can share those borders of the religio-public and political spheres of their fellow Americans. Gorksi adds that, “For the civil religionist, finally, America is a moral community that seeks to balance solidarity and pluralism”. The last two items echo harmoniously with much of the quasi-liberal American Muslim community, a rumination that has gained ground even amongst some neo-conservative/neo-traditionalist voices [this author being mildly included amongst them], to see that civic engagement is one of the main life lines through which American Muslims can move from the margins into the mainstream of American cultural thought and life. In fact, I would argue that using the conduit of civic religion to participate in American civic life is akin to how Blackamericans used the Constitution itself as a means of overturning state-legitimized terror, forcing America to allow Blackamericans to be full participants in society. The time for Puritanical disengagement of society has long passed, and now it only remains to be seen if American Muslims will rise to meet this challenge; a challenge that, while fraught with the danger of losing their religion, can no longer be ignored or indeed, tolerated.

Taking Our Rightful Place of Leadership In the Muslim World

In the last several years, I have had conversations with a number of leading Muslim scholars—American and foreign—who recognize and advocate the ascension of American Muslims to the role of leadership in the Muslim world. I concur with this observation, not out of heedless pride or nationalism, but because I believe American Muslims are in a unique place to affect real change in the Muslim world; a world that now includes the United States. I will list a few reasons why I agree with their opinions: American foreign policy and how it impacts Muslims around the world; American domestic policy and how it impacts the lives of Americans at home; educating and interacting with the broader American public to not simply state but demonstrate the willingness on the part of Muslims in American to engage the society and invest their human, intellectual and creative capital in the society. These are but a few reasons I believe that American Muslims have the greatest chance of affecting American geopolitical strategies which have the potential to impact the lives of Muslims abroad and at home. What I have written here is more than a laundry list: it is a clarion call to American Muslims to take up the role of leadership that has been foisted upon us and make the most of this boon. In fact, it can be argued that if we do not take up this baton, that it will not only be our children here in America who will suffer, but the Ummah as a whole. I leave this small bread crumb trail with some thoughts of Ebrahim Moosa of Duke University, in a 2006 review of Vartan Gregorian’s book, Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith:

“Today, America is undoubtedly equipped with the best resources in the West to study Islam in terms of the range of scholarship, universities, and research cohorts it can boast, even though more is always welcome. And yet ironically, its public discourses and public policy communities—let alone government—display the most anemic symptoms when it comes to knowledge about Islam and Muslim societies.”

Does America Have A Muslim Problem?

In a recent article featured in The New York Review of Books, Malise Ruthven postulates on the phenomenon of Islam in Europe.  He interrogates the question by examining Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, in tandem with Tariq Ramadan’s What I Believe.  Essentially, Ruthven sees both authors, while articulate, essentially digging the respective posts of their respective fences further into the ground.  Caldwell, in Ruthven’s opinion, does not provide substantiated evidence to support the claims of his argument which endeavors to pit a large “believing” population of Muslims against a skeptical, atheistic Europe.  Caldwell’s evidence looks impressive as he calls upon a number of wide ranging sources such as government statistical reports and social/census data.  Ruthven questions the validity of these findings by presenting some facts of his own, namely that in 2001, a French survey found that approximately 60% of French Muslim men did not practice, while French Muslim women came in at around 70%.  Though non-practicing, according to the findings, these Muslims still observed what they felt were “cultural attachments” such as avoiding pork or alcohol, or fasting during the month of Ramadan.

When turning her attention to Ramadan, Ruthven’s findings were no less scathing.  She accuses Ramadan of being a moral elitist, whose academic work is more like a Friday sermon in sheep’s clothing.  He also finds that Ramadan’s willingness to engage in difficult debate, where he might have to face some heavy-handed criticism coming from Europe’s intelligencia, too shallow for his taste.  In the introduction to What I Believe, Ramadan writes, “I will not waste my time here trying to defend myself.” For Ruthven, this is self-indictment on Ramadan’s part, a form of “doublespeak”, as he puts it, which only provides more ammunition to some of Ramadan’s staunchest critics, not the least of them is Caroline Fourest.  Fourest, whose dealings with Ramadan can seem to almost border on the obsessive, continues to find plenty of fodder to infer  a type of “double-talk”.  Fourest examines the tone and topic of Ramadan’s public works and those that speak to a young Muslim audience.  The topics range from his familial ties and history [his grandfather, Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood] to his academic work, which at times seems conflicted between accepting or rejecting Darwinism as well as the philosophies of the likes of Kant and Pascal.

I bring these issues to light, not because I concur with Ruthven’s or Fourest’s viewpoints, but rather because they do highlight a key issue: ethics.  There is a need for greater adherence to ethics and integrity on the part of Muslim leaders and intellectuals; an ethics that avoids the “doublespeak” and disparate opinions that morphs from arena to arena, depending on who is being “served”.  There are plenty of examples of political doublespeak on the part of prominent Muslim leaders, whose condemnations, before 9/11, included claims like, “the US being the Dajjal”, just to name one.  There is also the moral doublespeak on the part of Muslims in America, where the fiasco of MANA releasing a letter in condemning domestic violence, only to have the author of the letter, guilty of the same charge.

This is not a clarion call to not speak out to injustices when we see them. Like Moses [peace be upon him], we are commanded to speak that World of Truth to tyranny.  And in reference to Tariq Ramadan, my advice would be: Stick to your guns.  If you reject Darwinism [as this writer does], then state that plainly.  And while I would not suggest bogging oneself down in trivial debates, there are times when one must engage critical thought, even if much what is being said has little to no validation.  I am becoming more keenly aware of how hard and how difficult a challenge it is to be a Muslim who is on the minbar, in the classroom, or in the public eye, and maintain that level of ethical and moral fortitude.  There are times, quite frankly, when the weight of being a public spokesperson or leader is daunting.  Even the Prophet [s] faced this enormous task of delivering this message.  God articulates this dilemma the Revelation itself: “Had We not made you firm, you would have inclined towards them a little” [Q: 17: 74].  This verse is not so much about Muslim/non-Muslim relations as it is about the weighty task of the Prophet had in delivering the Message and his [s] desire to succeed in that task.  Likewise, we must be cognizant of audience bias and know that there are “Noble Guardians, recording, who know what we do” [Q: 82: 10-12].  With this approach in mind, we can hope to be better for Muslims in the short- [Dunya] and long-term [Akhirah], God willing.

Read in contrast of the article, Does Europe Have A Muslim Probelm, at the Immanent Frame.

Islamic Education – Not Just For Muslims Anymore [?]

I greatly enjoyed Dr. Sherman Jackson’s keynote address at the 2009 fundraiser for the Quba Institute. In it, he touched on some key, if not entirely new, points about the nature of education as it relates to Muslims. To a greater extent, his talk was focused at Blakcamerican Muslims and specifically the need for us to address the detriment or dystrophy of education in our ranks and religious proclivities. I have a number of thoughts regarding it as well as expounding on them, but that will have to wait for a few moments as I am in the thick of finals. In the meantime, a short article by Stephen Schwartz entitled, “What Johnny Needs to Learn about Islam”. It was published in the Weekly Standard [Volume 015, Issue 12]. The excerpt below followed by a link to the full article. Something to chew on.

“In the past, American textbooks were prone to two great pitfalls: Either they dealt with Islam superficially or they presented it in the manner preferred and promoted by well-funded defenders of Islamic extremism. A hallmark of that latter view is an emphasis on the unity of Islam, which is portrayed as simple, monolithic, and benign. The wide range of belief and practice between Sunni, Shia, and Sufi Islam, to name only the best-known variations, is downplayed, and the problems of Islam, especially violent jihad, are simply left out. Some of the current efforts at revising textbooks successfully avoid these mistakes.” Read the full article here.