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.

It Wasn’t Meant To Go This Way

The above seven words say so much about the state of Islam in the world today. More immediately, they describe a despondent viewpoint of Muslims in Switzerland, who, after having high hopes that the Swiss would embrace them as one of their own, had that hope dashed on the rocks in a vote of 57% majority against the construction of minarets in their country. As many have felt, this vote had more to do with the rejection of Islam as a valid religious expression in Switzerland than anything to do with architecture. And while I empathize with the Muslims in Switzerland, I also find this moment highly prophetic. In many ways, I see the issues that European Muslims face a presage to the reality that Muslims in America will face if we do not act while we still have agency to do so. I do not want our children to utter those same seven words.

In order to take stock and lesson from this major roadblock for Muslims in Europe [the ramifications stretch far beyond the borders of Switzerland – just ask any of the Muslims in France as to how they’re reacting to it] the first step will be to analyze what the hardships were/are [and thus, what they may be/are for American Muslims] for Swiss Muslims and what they might have done differently [what might we do/not do]. Some of my first thoughts drift towards what inroads did Swiss Muslims make, in their efforts to navigate Islam in the Swiss cultural and social landscape. Did they attempt to broker an accord that would have allowed them to see themselves as validly Muslim [as well as the Swiss seeing them as validly Swiss] and Swiss? Pre-9/11, did this discourse did not seem to occupy European or American Muslim imaginations to any great extent. To be fair, this process is not wholly in the hands of Swiss Muslims. The Swiss themselves play a key part in for who they open their cultural doors to or not. And yet, I feel there is a self-applied stigma amongst the Muslims that being Swiss or European is somehow innately un-Islamic. This mentality relegates Swiss Muslims to the fringe – often to live a xenophobic experience – where they are incapable of playing any important role in society. The specificities of this argument at too numerous to delve into here but the proofs are readily accessible for anyone wishes to read deeper.

In this inquiry on inroads, we have to ask how are such inroads made and who paves them. Who is best skilled for such a job? In a conversation I had with a brother the other day, he lamented that as a father, he failed to inculcate his children with the tools, agency, and autonomy to navigate their lives as second generation Muslims in America. As a result, his children have grown up not only not practicing Islam, but having an aversion to it. They perceive it as a foreign enterprise or country club, where their membership was either denied or not offered in the first place. Similarly, many young Muslims in Europe have bemoaned that they do not feel a close kinship with their religion because the method in which it is preached and propagated leaves them feeling like second-class citizens. The old guard speaks Arabic or Turkish or Urdu while the new generation speaks French or German, or English. A classic generational divide that has real consequences for the survival of Muslims in Europe.

I believe there is a tremendous lesson to take from this; a lesson not simply to catalog and file away, but to use a call to action for Muslims in America. In a private conversation, one of the top Muslims scholars in America estimated that Islam in America has at most, fifty years, perhaps less, to indigenize and find its footing before it is washed away by the tide of the demands of the dominant culture. Looking towards the European model, those words certainly seem to ring true.  Islam in Europe is a a teetering point – will it stay or go? We can see that if the very difficult challenge of making Islam valid and relevant in its environment – be it America, Europe, or anywhere else, is not met, European Muslims cannot hope for any longevity in their predicament.

The title of this post is a quote from a recent article by Tariq Ramadan, one of Europe’s most popular scholars on Islam. In his article, he continues the conversation and states that Switzerland is, “the land of my birth”. And while Ramadan may identify as Swiss, how many of his other co-religionists in Switzerland identify in the same manner? For that matter, in Europe as a whole? This crux of identification is one of the most important dilemmas that Muslims the world over have to contend with in modernity. This is something that both American and European Muslims are having tremendous difficulty articulating. I see this as especially pertinent to American Muslims, where indigenous Muslims struggle to see themselves as legitimately Muslim in the face of foreign-born expressions of Islam, and immigrant Muslims scramble to appease the dominant culture without loosing their religion. Will American Muslims cooperate to find a middle ground or will they continue to play high-stakes winner-take-all chances?

Going back to Ramadan’s article, he sites some of the issues being related to the invisibility of Muslims in Swiss society [read Europe for the purposes of this article]. I would challenge this observation in that it is not simply the invisibility of Swiss Muslims but rather the Swiss may not like what they see. Again, I acknowledge that this decision is not wholly in the hands of Swiss Muslims but it does beg the question of how non-Muslim Swiss see Swiss Muslims and how that can be analyzed for the betterment of Muslims in Switzerland. It would be grievous, not to mention complete dereliction of duty, to conclude that what the dominant culture thinks of Muslims is frivolous or inconsequential. The challenge is to meet this test with a creativity and intelligence that has the dignity and longevity of Muslims as its chief and primary concern, not simply blaming the European [read American as well] populists as failing to, “assert that Islam is by now a Swiss and a European religion and that Muslim citizens are largely ‘integrated’.

I pray we can learn from this, that we can take the opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing and how good we have it. And believe me, we have it good compared to our European cousins. May God make it easy for all of us. Amin.

An American Muslim In Post-Christendom

As of late I have been given over to thoughts pertaining to Christianity and Christendom [definitions forthcoming] and how it has affected myself as well as society, in my opinion, on such topics as cosmology, God-concept and how we think about religion as a whole. These thoughts come from my thirty four years, sans three of four years of early childhood, in observance of how I have come to think of God as well as the many interactions and reactions that I have witnessed people have when conversing about God and religion.

First, I should introduce the notion of Christianity and Christendom as two very separate and distinct entities. One does not equate the other. In fact, I hope to point out some similarities between the evolution of Christendom out of Christianity and such neologisms as Islamic this or Islamic that [especially things like “Islamic society”, etc]. Recent research into early Christian Gnostic literature has shed an amazing amount of light on early notions of what constituted Christian belief, both in terms of exegesis and practice. This bears a striking resemblance to early Muslim thought regarding creed and practice as well. They both share a commonality that can best be summed up as “agree to disagree”. In other words, there was no single, overriding authority that could claim a hegemonic orthodoxy and excommunicate others as heretical. How funny it is that we should be living at a time when such early questions should come around again – what remains is how will we answer them. Shall we answer them as the Early Communities did, fostering a real sense of diversity or inclusion, or give way to narrow-minded viewpoints [yes, I am avoiding fundamentalist here as I believe this word has been striped of any linguistic meaning given the media’s indulgent misuse of it]. Time will tell.

Like it or not, many of us here in America, and certainly in Europe, have gown up in the shadow of Christendom. Much of our understanding of God and religion has come from what we have absorbed passively from this environment. Like a sponge, we soaked up what lay around us, not giving too much thought as to whether it was worth digesting or not. This should not be thought of as something base or vile but rather the function of culture. One of the primary functions of culture is that we don’t have to think, process, and answer every minute detail of our lives. It is always on auto pilot, filtering and processing all that we come into contact with, especially in our formative years. This cultural process is conceptual as well as highly iconic and visual. For example, whether many people believe it or not, the classic Italian paintings that depict God as an old white man in the clouds reaching down to Adam has been exceeding potent in informing many of us on our visualization of God. In fact, through many conversations with people who are atheists or non-religious, many of their verbal objections have included rejection of such “ridiculous notions”. But we should be careful to not cloud our judgment that what we see now in a sort post-Christendom should not be taken part and parcel for Christianity as a whole. This same cautioning should be applied to so-called Islamic or my preference, Muslim societies. History has proven to be a powerful matchmaker for politics and religion. Constantin’s embracing of Christianity as the imperial religion of the Roman empire was done so at the exclusion of many other teachings and interpretation’s Christianity. This process has been repeated time and again across the globe and throughout time and including almost all religious traditions.

It is certain, that in Europe, Christianity developed in a vary iconic manner; meaning that the visualization of God and the Bible affected religious thought – an affect that we have inherited right down to today. It has shaped and defined the conversation of God/religion in our socio-cultural context to an extent far greater than we are aware of. As church historian Hugh McLeod puts it, “most Christians learnt and practiced their faith in the context of ‘Christendom’”. McLeod continues, “That is, they lived in a society where there were close ties between the leaders of the church and those in positions of secular power, where the laws purported to be based on Christian principles, and where, apart from certain clearly defined outsider communities, every member of society was assumed to be a Christian.” [Caputo, John D. and Vattimo, Gianni. After the Death of God. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Pg. 4.].

So why all this talk on Christianity from an American Muslim convert? Well, to be sure, these very same perceptions played a part in my own conversion to Islam, even if it were more passive than vehemently active. To be certain, I was not thinking about the Sistine Chapel when I wandered into the mosque one fateful day but nonetheless, such iconic renderings by Michelangelo impacted my choice to refute such concepts of an “old white man in the clouds”. And if I had these experiences I am bound to think others may have had them as well. Indeed, such “rejections” are not the domain of Muslim converts alone. I have had several conversations with other Christians who have sought out earlier renditions of Christ’s teachings that predate all of the great Italian painters. I have found their journey akin to many American Muslim converts who, usually attracted more to Sufi-style teachings, have looked to return to an early understanding of Islam, one that is uncluttered by the intervention of institutional authority, be it state sponsored or a school of thought that has wedded itself with a state supporter, much akin to the Constantinian edict which set up a particular interpretation of Christianity as the orthodoxy whilst banning others as heretical [it should be confused that I am against a school of thought in any way as I adhere to the Maliki school of Muslim thought]. In many ways, this process of establishing orthodoxy can be said to be the nemesis of modern day diversity. For in the face of orthodoxy, how can there be room for multiple, valid interpretations?

There is much talk these days about an Islamic reformation. That the Islamic world is in an upheaval and much like its Christian counterpart, all of this blood and conflict can be attributed to this transformation. While I do not find this opinion to be completely baseless I am critical of the thought of simply seeing the historical struggle of Muslim thought, growth, and development through the lens of Christianity. Indeed, I think much of the problem of misunderstanding Islam on the part of non-Muslims is this tendency to see Islam not for what it is but for how it is or isn’t Christianity. This misunderstanding can certainly be linked to the above mentioned issues such as iconic visualization and residual understanding of living in a post-Christendom society. I do believe that Muslims are in a state of flux and change. What seems to make this seem so dramatic is that Islam and Muslims have been thrust on to the world stage by process of media attention. The idea that Islam as a religion and Muslims as various people have been some sort of sleeping giant that has suddenly chosen to cease its slumber is as clumsy as it is unobservant. Modernity is a talented trickster and can often seem to pull rabbits out of our hats. To the contrary, Islam and Muslim thought have been in a constant historical flux since the death of the Prophet. This reformation is nothing new under the sun. Indeed, from Malaysia to Yemen. From the Xinjian province in China to Detroit Michigan, Muslims have not simply been victims of history but have been drivers of this vehicle as well. In this case, the tree does make a sound in the forest. The question is not where there is some one to see it fall but rather who do we give importance to as the observer. Spock’s comment to the marine biologist in Star Trek IV sums of the falling of the tree: when she asks how he knows if Gracie (the humpback whale) is pregnant. She insists, “Nobody knows that.” Spock’s reply was, “Gracie knows”.

Modern interfaith dialogs seem to be stagnated at a simple, “can’t we all just get along”. What seems sad to me is the great wealth of experience that other religious traditions have to offer. Much of the early Gnostic approaches bear a clear resemblance to much of what Dr. Sherman Jackson has oft-repeated in his many publications and speeches. That true diversity isn’t a clumsy redefining of diversity as uniformity but rather the real possibility of coexisting and even socially supporting theories that may seriously contradict one’s own core beliefs. It is my sincere hope that more American Muslims will turn their thoughts inward and reflect on our very unique and rich experiences growing up in a post-Christendom society. And that even though we’ve chosen another path to pleasing God, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. That there are still viable opportunities to engage other communities and to really add something meaningful to the social discussion on religion.

And God knows best.