Muslims, America and the Greater Good

The Muslim community in America has been under fire since the tragic events of September 11th. And yet, most of the efforts of Muslims since then have seemed to focus more on how to get back to the foggy, lackadaisical lifestyle which allowed a great many Muslims to enjoy the comforts of American society without having to contribute very much. Sadly, I feel this still persists. And in the light of a society that is in desperate need of help (of whom the Muslims are also in desperate need!), how can we justify our self-indulgent attitude? I muse on this and a few other items in this podcast.

Further Readings

Dawabit al-Maslahah fi’l-Shar’iyyah al-Islamiyyah by Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti.

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.

Bricolage – Blackamerican Islam and Synthesizing the Future

There has been much air and debate tossed around about the future of Islam, especially in America. For me, the primary community of interest has and continues to be the Blackamerican community. For many reasons, one that I’ll give here, it remains a key ingredient in my book, regarding the success of Islam as a genuine entity in the American social space. One of the biggest reasons is that Blackamerican Muslims remain to this day, the only indigenous Western community/racial group that have experienced a large, mass conversion. I have read the numbers on conversion rates and populations. I am not here to debate or inflate the numbers but as the facts stand, Blackamericans are the only group that have had a significant number of their population embrace Islam. This cannot be said of Latinos or whites. And while the number of second and third generation Muslims continues to grow, they are still very much seen as a foreign enterprise. And for the growing number of whites who are choosing to embrace Islam, they still face a tough road of skepticism, cynicism and out right bewilderment from their fellow white Americans, who see their religious choice as some sort of racial apostasy or abandonment. Indeed, Blackamerican Muslim enjoy a special kind of insulation in that blacks can convert, change their names, even where foreign regalia and still be seen as authentically black. This should not be under appreciated or go with out significant notice.

So aside from acceptance, what else does this mean? What significance should this have for us as Blackamerican Muslims? Have we even acknowledged this fact and taken advantage of it. From my day to day run-ins with various Blackamerican Muslims around Philadelphia, I must give a cautious “no”. By no means do I think that some of the Muslims I’ve met in Philadelphia represent all Muslims elsewhere but I will nonetheless use them as a test case. For in my sixteen years of having embraced Islam, many of the sentiments I’ve heard echoed by some of Philadelphia’s Blackamerican Muslims have been echoed elsewhere. It is my hope that some of this short post will provide a bit of food for thought on the subject.

It may be a cliché that to want change one must recognize that one needs to change. Status quo can be a dangerous and comfortable set of chains. Bound by our thoughts, we have forgotten that we constrained and when time, circumstance or situation demands action, we just keep singin’ that same ol’ song. Much of the tension that I see between younger Blackamerican Muslims and the Old Guard is the lack of vision or clairvoyance to see that a change is needed. But change for the sake of change’s sake won’t cut the bill. Serious thought and soul searching must be engaged to see what it is that needs to be changed and in what manner. If there’s one community that has suffered so terribly from the baby-and-the-bath-water syndrome, it’s the Blackamerican Muslim community. So desperate were we to escape the confines of “black life” in America, many of us donned costume and script from some one else’s play and we played the part [at times better than they did themselves]. What I’m getting at is what I heard from a colleague lately, who criticized Black Muslims for out Arabing the Arabs. What many don’t realize, is that the hidden impetus behind this shift, this searching, had a great deal to do with the pain that many of us felt. Stifled by the glass veil of white values [not the KKK, per se], we were eager for an outlet. An outlet that would allow us not only to express out blackness in a valid way, but our very humanity. Our souls. And while I will fault no one for those feelings, it has not proven to be a successful operation. In my opinion, one of the stumbling blocks was due to what I’d call the eclecticism of Blackamerican Islam in the wake of the Nation of Islam. I shall try to elaborate.

It may seem short sighted or even harsh to label post-Nation Islam as an eclectic movement. It should be understood that this is not a value judgment on those persons who participated in the movement, but rather an observation. By eclectic, I mean in the dictionary sense of the word, but transplanted in a social context: selecting or choosing from various sources. Let me further ground my statement in what Ebrahim Moosa [see Ghazali & The Poetics of Imagination – Chapel Hill Press] describes as eclecticism:

“Lacking coherence, it [eclecticism] sits uncomfortably in its new habitat as if it had been mechanically inserted into the new setting.”

But exchanging eclecticism for Blackamerican Islam [post-Nation], one can see it has sat uncomfortably and even further, dysfunctionally, in its new habitat. What I see is a call for bricolage, a term coined by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who, in his definition as explained by Moosa, points out the difference between a bricoleur and an architect:

“An engineer always attempts to go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular moment in civilization. A bricoleur, on the other hand, is always inclined to remain within those limitations and constraints.”

Moosa further elaborates on Strauss’ term in two facets:

“…first, the appropriation of cultural elements from the dominant culture; and second the transformation of meanings through ironic juxtaposition and innovative use in order to challenge and subvert existing meanings.”

For me, Strauss’ bricolage elegantly describes much of the process of the Nation of Islam. That to a great degree, Elijah Muhammad appropriated certain elements of Islam from dominant Muslim theology and transformed them into new objects that were meaningful for to him/blacks in his time and place, and they very much did challenge and attempt to subvert existing meanings on what constituted blackness and the limits that white values had placed on black human beings at that time. So when we look at the religious doctrine of the Nation, it is very much out of touch with traditional/orthodox/main stream Islam. But it did breathe new life into the dignity of many black folks who wanted to shrug off the confines of the injustices they faced in their time. If not in practice, then in spirit, this is the very same need that I see Blackamerican Muslims in need to do. This bricolage, this struggle, will encompass a serious grappling with the past/Tradition of Islam without becoming slave to it. Self martyrdom [“…it’s a black thang…”] will simply not suffice.

So how does this bricolage take flight? In what manner is it carried out such that it will be seen as genuine and not another fish out of water enterprise. The answer laid in Moosa’s description as to the difference between eclecticism and bricolage:

“The crucial difference is [that] in order for any performance or idea to be deemed eclectic, the provenance of the borrowed artifact must still be very much visible to the observer in the composite product. In fact, the borrowed idea does not develop a life of its own within the new setting.”

“By contrast, a bricoleur relocates artifacts in such a way that they form an integral part of the new environment. A bricoleur demands originality in the process of refinement and adaptation, making the borrowed artifact synthetically fit in with the new surroundings as if it had been there all the time and belonged there in the first place.”

Moosa’s last statement, about belonging, again points to a critical difference between the indigenous Blackamerican population and other foreign or ethnic populations. They simply are not seen as belonging in America. That their very essence is anti-Western and can never fit or be accommodated. In contrast, Blackamericans can move from Christianity to Islam without shedding their sense of belonging [unless they choose to do so!]. One should not think that for a moment this position is without envy from the foreign/ethnic population.

As it stands, much of the Islam I have witnessed coming out of the Blackamerican population has been one of eclecticism. That the process to becoming Muslim required replicating a previous or “other” version of Islam such that when it was donned by Blackamericans it still resembled its old form or context. By this I mean things such as wardrobe, diet, and societal norms. Suits and pants became thobes and turbans. Falafel and hummus became more authentic than steak and fried chicken. And holding down a 9-5 and supporting one’s family was bucked in favor of checking out against the kafir-led regime that oppressed the Palestinians. But instead, if we were to fashion an Islam that spoke to our time, our condition and our history, this bricolage would speak far greater to us than any masquerading could.

Part of this process of bricolage will entail revisiting the past and the Tradition of Islam. The Tradition of Islam cannot simply be ignored, as is attempted by authors like Irshad Manji or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wish to jettison all of the past in favor of a new utopist, Western-values dictated Islam. This type of rhetoric is equally guilty of the hegemony that they claim the Traditionalists hold over them. A new, fresh and honest rereading of the past can allow for a blending of tradition with circumstance. As Michel de Certeau says,

“The same words and the same ideas are often reused but they no longer have the same meaning [and] they are no longer thought and organized in the same way. It is upon this “fact” that the project of an all-encompassing and unitary interpretation runs aground.”

So instead of tossing that same old baby out with the bathwater, perhaps we should learn from our past errors and sit, with humility and calmness, and readdress our past and take from it what will give us a sense of knowing, a sense of dignity and a sense of pride without being held hostage by it.

And God knows best.

Clash of Globalizations: Western and Islamic Utopianists

It seems that Islam and more specifically Muslims just can’t stay out of popular discourse these days. The so-called rise of Islam in our Modern Time has scribed such sloganistic terms as Clash of Civilizations. Additionally, Islam has fostered a entire profession of self-loathing, self-serving arm chair apostates, who, having left Islam, crown themselves as self-proclaimed ex-Muslims, make a living off of an odd mixture of bashing and faux-reformation, supposedly aimed at rectifying the masses of Muslims, who they have deemed as having succumbed to the innate barbarity that is at the very heart of Islam.

What is often left out of this elitist discourse is that many of these pundits are not part of any community of Muslims [how could they – they’ve left the religion]. Nor do they have any vested interest in these communities successes or failures. To the contrary, they have an interest in the “failures” of these Muslim communities, without which they would have to procure honest employment. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji are two such critics and reforms that come to mind. In a recent article in the Washington Post, Ali sited Manji as a, “genuine Muslim reformer”. I would have to ask Ms. Ali how she came to such a decision, being that in Manji’s book, The Trouble With Islam Today, is mainly a self-aggrandizing rant of one person’s experience growing up in an ethnic Muslim family. As woeful as Manji’s childhood tale may be, it is precisely just that. I am constantly awestruck by the arrogant and lapdog mentality of these “experts” in how they make their personal experiences an ontological criterion from which all Muslims and all of Islam, outside of time and space, can and will be judged. Manji’s book is as transparent as it is of value: she extols all that is white, Christian and Western [any such faults, as she fails to mention, would be presumably by accident] and defames all of Islam by the actions of her father or of her surroundings. In a sense, Islam is in need of reformation not because of any real issues, but because Manji was personally treated badly at the hands of some Muslims. A self-proclaimed homosexual, Manji objects to her exclusion from the Muslim community because of this stance. It is here that the arguments of these pundits fall apart. They will only see value in Islam as in how it fits neatly into a pre-packaged Western and yes, white ideal. Human rights, women’s rights, freedom of speech, are all sifted through the white, Christian sieve of upper middle-class white women. That which passes through is deemed admirable. That which does not – backwards and worthy of critique. In the following paragraphs I will share some sentiments on how the philosophy of globalization has infected the discourse on everything from economics to cultural dialog to how we go to war. But first, a few words about modern Muslim ideologies as well.

If Ali, Manji, and their contemporaries are guilty of what Dr. Sherman Jackson has dubbed, the “false universal” [or what I will refer to here in this post as globalization] then many modern Muslim ideologies also stand charged of the same crime. Much of the efforts of many modern Muslim religious thinkers has been to try and reduce, dilute or unify Islam into a single entity. That which does not fit this mold is tarnished as bid’ah [innovation] and is only a stone’s throw from being tossed in the refuse basked of kufr [disbelief]. Indeed, in my fifteen years years as a Muslim, I have often heard from various imams and preachers that Islam is a universal religion that neither sees nor quantifies race. And yet I can say with certainty that the common experience, especially on behalf of many indigenous American Muslims [convert or otherwise, who’s families do not hail from the “Muslim world”] would give stiff contradiction to the latter. In a recent post on the blog, Black American Muslim Political Scientists, Charles Catchings points out in this piece, I Am Not Alone:

“…the fundamentalist pretends that no issues of racial prejudice exist while advocating a very race and culture-based interpretation of Islam.”

Here, I would change fundamentalist part and parcel for the ethnic Muslim preachers [fundamentalist to me is a carpet bombing word that has no real meaning. It can be used to defame or slander anyone that at once practices the basic tenements of the religion that others may object to, assassinating his or her character simply because they disagree with them] I and many other fellow indigenous American Muslims have encountered. Here I wish to place special emphasis on the negation of the Blackamerican experience by ethnic Muslim preachers. Often it has been that myself or many other fellow Muslims have heard the kumbaya’ism, “there is no racism in Islam”, or that “Islam does not see race; it sees the individual”. Any yet, God speaks in the Qur’an often of variance and diversity that God has created, “in the Day and Night”. Indeed, as Dr. Khalid Blankenship pointed out in a lecture he gave last year here in Philadelphia, diversity is something that should not be removed but, in truth, celebrated. The irony to this is that many of these same preachers themselves use their own racial, ethnic or cultural backgrounds in interpreting Islam. This is not the issue, however. The issue is when one thinks one’s culture is Islam itself, and seeks to unify other histories [or in reality, obliterate them] under the unifying banner of “true Islam”.

Islam is not alone in that many of its teaching and concepts have the potential for universal appeal or interpretation. History has shown this to be the case as Islam can be found, in an indigenous state, on every continent and by almost all peoples. In Malaysia, Islam is a bone fide Malay religion. In Ghana, the same. It is a bona fide African religion. What works to make this process of assimilation by the indigenous peoples is their method of appropriating the religion, such that it speaks to them and to their history. This continues to be the primary limiting factor of Islam’s success in America, specifically amongst Blackamerican Muslims. Instead of appropriating Islam to address and speak to Blackamerican history, proclivities and social conditions, many Blackamericans have lost sight of the forest ‘fore the trees. In the words of one Blackamerican critic of Islam, other fellow Blackamerican Muslims are perceived as going from the back of the bus to the back of the camel. That blacks have, “out Arabed the Arabs”. Indeed, there is a certain amount of truth to this critique. The manner in which many Blackamericans encountered and entered Islam was through the prism of a foreign, ethnic understanding and agenda. Hence, to this day, large populations of Blackamerican Muslims are content to live in abject crime and poverty, even though, from a religious viewpoint, they have an obligation to fight it! While this subject is worthy of another post in itself, I will not go further into other than to illustrate how the version of Islam that is being practiced by Blackamerican Muslims is out of touch with their reality. A version that was propagated to them from universalist, Utopian Muslims.

With the tone set for both sides of the firing line, I will attempt to illustrate some points on the impact of globalization, or more specifically, the ideology of globalization on modern thought processes.

America and her culture make for a peculiar dance partner. If one were to simply step back, you might see someone’s shoes peeking out the bottom of the Wizard’s curtain. And yet, American culture proclaims mightily that it is indeed, the Great and Powerful Oz. For all of its rhetoric, America falls painfully short of any real manifestation of diversity. Instead, one particular group along with its history, values, proclivities and inclinations, is foisted upon a pedestal as an invisible criteria, circumscribing normalcy and proscribing that which does not fall within the its lines. As Roberto Bissio writes in Diversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature, “in all the corners of this diverse world is a systematic aggression against diversity, both natural and cultural – a destructive and impoverishing trend towards uniformity, which hides its threatening face behind the name “globalization.” [Anton, Danilo J. Diversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature. Ottawa, Ontario: International Development Research Centre, 1995. Pg ix.]. This act of circumscribing/proscribing is make even more potent by the increasing global influence of American culture. As the dominant economic and military power in the world, American sensibilities of right and wrong, just and fair, or even what constitutes beauty are carried far beyond its border with incredible efficacy. This allows America, and by American I mean white Americans, to wield tremendous power as both judge and executioner. The cultures that come in contact with this phenomenon are often “shocked and awed” into complacency, and in an attempt to save face and not be left a seat at the table of Modernity, they jettison their own historical proclivities for a chance to appease the master. This cycle of globalization in cross-cultural exchanges only [mistakenly] reinforces America’s belief that it is the pinnacle of social achievement. Dr. Jackson’s erudite assessment that the Twenty First Century is the century of the false universal, whereas its counterpart, the Twentieth Century, was the color line. Modern Muslims have taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker.

The great British historian, Arnold Toynbee, stated, “Civilizations in decline are consistently characterized by a tendency towards standardization and uniformity.” The state of Muslims in this time and age are most certainly in a state of decline. I do not wholly come to this conclusion because Muslims are not just like the West [because, well, in fact, this Muslim is just like the West in that this is where I’m born, raised, and live!]. Aside from the fact that many Muslims are 100% western [whether they choose to admit it or embrace it is another matter], I reject that in order to be morally upright, socially progressive and the like that is can only be done in accordance to white, Western values. This having been stated, Muslims around the world have fallen into the great pit trap of the Twenty First Century: the trap of globalized ideologies. As has been stated above, Islam has many universal ideals. I will not attempt to lay the blame for such ideologies solely at the feet of Western culture but the impact and influence of the West on Muslim thought cannot be discounted in its current manifestation. I will even go so far as to suggest that in many ways, the globalized vision of many Muslims would not be as vehement if there were not a counter ideology coming from the West. But to escape polemics, Muslims are going to have to look critically and intelligently at their respective situations and act accordingly to them. No longer can a cardboard, brand-X, our-size-fits-all mentality be acceptable. This endeavor calls for real soul searching.

History cannot be evaded. And only at one’s detriment can it be ignored. Aside from Native Americans, Blackamericans are suffering the ill effects of doing just that – ignoring the fact that they are black and live in America [I would add that perhaps Native Americans are not ignoring their past but America as a whole, having dealt them a killing blow, has forgotten all about them]. If Islam is to become something other than a foreign culture activity, something to give Blackamericans identity and [false] esteem, then Islam will have to be appropriated and steered both towards our history, addressing our present, so that a trajectory for the future may be charted. A triage will have to be performed on the body of Blackamerican Islam, assessing its health, wealth, and faculty for moving forward. What parts can be kept, what parts can be modified and what parts need be amputated, these are the questions for the surgeons of the future of Blackamerican Islam. And while I have chosen to emphasis Blackamerican Muslims for this example, I believe this is the process that needs to be done by any and all Muslims, both those abroad but most immediately those here in America [black, white or otherwise]. Community independence will need to be established, lead by an energetic youthfulness, tempered by the wisdom of its elders. A word of caution – there are those of the old guard, good intentions or otherwise, that will seek to retain authority and control of these communities. While the advice of the elders should always be sought and taken into consideration it is painfully apparent that current leadership in the American and yes, Blackamerican community, is far out of step with the realities of the times. Muslims are going to have to put aside differences and even learn to celebrate real differences as the strength of their communities and not the false diversity that is presented today [“…you can be whatever you want, as long as you’re just like us…”]. This was a process and a wisdom of the Classical Tradition, that agreed to disagree. If this concept can be grasped, Muslims may be able to carve themselves out a functional, harmonious, and dignified existence both in this part of the world and abroad as well.

And God knows best.