Calling For a Ban On Terrorists Is Just That: A Call

The Trump administration talks about “Make America Great Again” and keeping America safe. And while I’m all for the latter (the former1 is a more nuanced conversation), this sabre rattling may only serve to call the sharks to us. This is another reason Trump needs to transition from campaigning to strategizing. Or perhaps that is all he is capable of.

In response to this kind of bravado, however, ISIS and the like will undoubtedly take this as a challenge, doubtless redoubling their efforts to penetrate America (which at this point it seems a tragic likelihood, though May God forbid it!) and wreak havoc and carnage: When one throws down a gauntlet, one must expect it to be picked up. And tragically, if such an attack were to take place, American Muslims would most certainly be the scapegoats, though it is clear as day that (American) Muslims do not craft counter-terrorism policies let alone hold sway over international terrorist groups. These are dangerous times. May God protect us all and inspire the leaders of this country to act and behave in ways which secures our safety.

1. We must determine what the metric is for [A] being great (i.e., is it more than simply when whites held not only economic and political power, but also had control over the bodies, movements and freedom of non-whites?) and [B] why isn’t it pretty good now?

Interpretation In Free Fall

Muslims need to ask themselves: how are non-Muslims able to make their unsubstantiated claims about Islam? Many of us will point to ideologies such as white supremacy, nationalism, and other forms of bigotry in an attempt to explain this phenomenon. But in reality this is much more akin to the Sudanese proverb, as Dr. Sherman Jackson reminds us, while we curse the elephant we only gaze at his shadow.

All too often we look for explanations outside of Islam instead of within. By Islam I mean the Muslim community. We assume the cause of this effect can simply be reduced to others not liking us. And while it is undoubtedly true that anti-Muslim sentiment has much of its roots in white supremacy, its efficacy is mainly due to the swinging barn door of interpretation that lets in all manner of riffraff. A riffraff that is just as likely to be composed of unqualified Muslims as much as it is of unqualified non-Muslims.

In a more obvious display of what Dr. Sherman Jackson calls the credibility gap, Graeme Wood of The Atlantic speaks about ISIS in his article, What ISIS Really Wants,

“The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”

The first mistake Muslims most often do is attempt to discredit the validity of non-Muslim (in this case, Wood’s) claims; this is a severe mistake, because as in this case—as is the case in almost all claims made about Islam—Wood’s credentials and capabilities are never called into question. What gives Wood the qualifications and credentials to speak authoritatively on Islam? When I attempted to find any information on his background I saw that he graduated from Harvard; the extent of his academic credentials seem to only go so far as being a “lecturer in political science at Yale University”. In what field Wood took his degree is not clear. What is clear is that Wood, and many like him, have written extensively and authoritatively on Islam for some time. And we must move beyond just individuals like Wood, to the bigger implication: publications such as The Atlantic, and The New Republic also required no qualified background to write authoritatively on Islam. Before I address what I mean by proper qualifications and credentials, let me turn my gaze from the elephant’s shadow to the pachyderm himself.

One of the darlings of the media (particularly those of a more liberal bent) and of the Muslim community itself (excluding the majority of scholars and leaders) is Reza Aslan. Aslan’s notoriety stems from interviews where he is often seen as defending the faith from a rogue’s gallery of anti-Muslim haters such as Bill Maher and Sam Harris, to more recent conflicts with Donald Trump supporter and political commentator, Kayleigh McEnany, over what portion of the Qur’an is considered a legal document:

McEnany’s comments, stating that the Qur’an, according to Michael Flynn (a retired general from the United States military), who quotes Andy McCarthy (Andrew C. McCarthy III is a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York)—whom McEnany describes as “very respected” and who has written “extensively” on [the Qur’an]—as saying,

90 percent of the Qur’an is in fact a legal doctrine; it is Shari’ah. He’s not saying that as an insult to the religion but that it (the Qur’an) is in fact structured differently than a typical-type Christian religions or Jewish religions, the way those books are structured. So that is what he is meaning academically.”

There is much here to unpack. The claims about the percentage of the Qur’an which is considered to be “legal doctrine”, how Christianity’s or Judaism’s holy books, and the manner in which they are “structured”, are assumed to be normative (thereby Islam’s holy book, by being different than these two, is presumptively labeled as abnormal), and finally and perhaps most importantly, the claims to “academic” qualifications to make such proclamations, all beg to be scrutinized. And it is the last claim, the petition to reference academic credentials as a justification, that Reza Aslan calls out Kayleigh McEnany as well as Andrew McCarthy and Gen. Michael Flynn. But there’s an absurdity going on here right before our eyes. An absurdity ignored because it strokes the broken and shattered egos of so many Muslims today: Reza Aslan himself is unqualified to speak authoritatively on Islam. Aslan reveals his own lack of qualifications with the ridiculous statement concerning the number of verses in the Qur’an,

“I mean, no offense to Kayleigh, but you really don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to either the Qur’an or the Bible. About 120 verses of the Qur’an have to do with legal matters out of tens of thousands.”

According to the most common riwayah (narration) of the Qur’an by Hafs, the Qur’an contains 6236 verses. Aslan’s statements of “tens of thousands” is disturbing as well as inaccurate, and in Aslan’s case, is nothing new. He has repeatedly uttered factually incorrect or even heretical statements about the Qur’an and Islam in general. But the issue at stake here is not simply the mistakes of one unqualified pundit, but moreover, how did Reza Aslan (and others like Zuhdi Jasser) get to be placed in positions of authority and representation? The answer may be a difficult pill for our community to swallow.

If we return to our opening question, how are non-Muslims able to make their unsubstantiated claims about Islam, the answer is as simple as it is painful: we, as the Muslim community, enable it, because we do it as well! That we think there can be two separate standards for speaking authoritatively on Islam as well as representing the Muslims is a living definition of hypocrisy. In truth, this devolves down into little more than some form of cultural protectionism, stemming from a legacy of colonialism where Muslims were subjugated to non-Muslim rule. As a reaction, even Muslims who either by doctrine or practice (of which certainly Aslan would fall into) do not seem to have any serious commitment to Islam outside of a cultural relationship to it, fall victim and prey to this tendency. It is also, in my opinion, why so many Muslims of an immigrant background are guilty of facemasking non-immigrant Muslims from positions of prominence, both within the Muslim community and on the broader public stage in America. To continue with our sports analogy, the most common reason a player commits a facemask is because they are simultaneously trying to prevent an aggressor from tackling them or taking the ball away, all the while trying to gain yardage; the facemask penalty applies equally to the offense as well as the defense.

Just as the diagnosis for this issue may be difficult to swallow, so will the remedy. The issue of credentials and qualifications cannot be discussed without also asking what is the role of the (unqualified) individual in interpreting Islamic sources, and more importantly, what is their scope? I am not making a clarion call to say that individual Muslims cannot read the Qur’an—indeed even interpret some aspects of it on their own—but what has to change is the scope to which individual unqualified interpretations are made. The difficult truth is that there is no other way to combat anti-Muslim hatred, whose equally unqualified practitioners utilizes Islamic sources, other than demanding a standard across the board that will equally apply to Muslim and non-Muslim alike. This may sound grandiose and even unattainable but I provide at least one plausible tactic: unqualified Muslims (those who have not received adequate training and are also not recognized by the Muslim community to be legitimate representatives) refuse to engage the media. Those who infract this rule will face social stigma from the Muslim community. We can bring this to bear on a very uncomfortable truth: the very same methodology that Reza Aslan advocates (see above tweet) is precisely the same method that ISIS and other extremist groups use to concoct their own interpretations of Islam. While the results of ISIS may be different than those of Reza Aslan and his ilk, the tactics and methods are the same. When the question is asked, “who speaks for Islam?”, the answer should be, “someone qualified”.

Dangling Carrots

A brother asked me on Twitter,

My response was thus:

American Muslims: we are going to have to confront some unsavory truths many of us don’t want to face. Today’s attack at Ohio State University only highlight this issue. Many Muslims will not want to admit it but while there are many racists and anti-Muslims bigots who will piggyback on tragedy, many non-Muslim allies will find it difficult to support us when it’s not clear (A) what we stand for and (B) what’s a reasonable course of action to deal with this problem of violent behavior of people who are potentially are, or appear to be, compromised by ISIS rhetoric.

In earnest, we are caught unawares, but not for unexplainable reasons. By and large the American Muslim community has become a stage, a public performance of piety, when in reality we don’t know each other well. We have no idea what our respective hopes and fears are. And if we’re that out of touch with one another, imagine how out of touch we are with the rest of America (and how it’s out of touch with us)?

As for solutions, well, first, we must admit that it’s a complicated problem. For starters, Muslims need to reconsider their position on who’s coming from where, to the US, specifically as it relates to Muslims. This will undoubtedly make many Muslims uncomfortable, especially given how many of us take our marching orders and directions from so-called liberal allies. Many American Muslims fail to realize an important caveat in our relationship with liberal America: those same liberal allies who want total open immigration don’t have to deal with the fallout when it come crashing down on the American Muslim community. They will not have to face the social and political fallout of such policies. In addition, American Muslims need to work to hold their government more accountable. What do I mean? Well, how many times as a “bad actor” been reported by the culprit’s family (Boston, Orlando, just to name two incidents) only to have the government fail to capitalize on that intel (Mr. Trump – you see!, Muslims are spying, ahem, “reporting” when we see something “bad” but nothing comes of it!)? This is unacceptable. These failures also result in the continued scapegoating of the American Muslim community as all being suspicious and culpable to terrorism. Sound familiar? This very same process of criminalizing Muslims is the same apparatus that has been criminalizing Black folks since they were “set free” by Lincoln. This only furthers my point which states that part of the reason why many non-Muslim Americans believe you can be radicalized by going to the mosque is because we don’t own that narrative. We have turned that over to our well-intending (or perhaps, not) liberal allies.

Additionally, American Muslims must confront the reality that the Muslims who came to America in the 1960’s are not of the same stripe as some of those migrating here today. The world has changed and the Muslims have been immensely changed by those histories, and seldom for the good. Many of us, well intending, look upon the Muslim world as one Ummah, which incontrovertibly we are. But because we are one religious collective does not mean we are all the same. Can a young Muslim girl or boy raised in the suburbs of Chicago or Detroit be the same as a young Muslim reared amongst famine and doctrinal strife, to say nothing of the effects that colonialism has had upon their collective psyche? What effect would having one’s people drone striked into oblivion have on a young man from Mogadishu? I am not blaming the victim; indeed, we must strive for these factors to be taken into consideration—in the same way that when whites commit public acts of violence their past and family histories are considered—in understanding the whole. No, this must be acknowledged and dealt with.

So what is the root cause of our feckless response to continued targeting of our community? I believe its genealogy can be traced back (again) to certain aspects of our community believing that all whites, and especially the government, are benevolent and have out best interests at heart.

I believe the Muslim community must play a greater roll in helping to determine who is going to be a part of it (not CVE!). By and large we have not been consulted in this process. Instead, “experts”, whose credentials often read like a rap-sheet of anti-Muslim (and sometimes anti-Black) darlings. How can these folks possibly be left to make decisions on our behalf?

Lastly, we must resist the temptation to deliver a “loyal” American Muslim who, in exchange for promised securities and social acceptance, will only sing the praises of its owner. Is America truly the land of golden opportunity? Is the United States military truly a force for good in the world? The American public cries foul at public acts of violence when perpetrated by non-whites but feigns amnesia that it also dropped two!, not one, but two! atomic bombs on civilian populations in Japan. How did the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave justify sending black soldiers off to die in a war of which, upon their return, they would be subjugated to violence and tyranny by their own government? This is the kind of American Muslim I fear our government so dearly wants to co-opt. And sadly, I feel far too many of us are ready and willing to make that deal.

So yes, there is a way forward, but it will be neither easy nor convenient.

Bridging The Credibility Gap – A Message to Muslim-American Leadership

At the recent CAIR LA banquet, Dr. Sherman Jackson made a speech in which he really hit to heart of the matter so many of us Muslims in America, and other parts, are really struggling with: the credibility gap. This gap is what prohibits us to be able to distinguish ourselves from the likes of ISIS, al-Qaeda, or any other group or individuals who happen to act in the name of Islam with which we find disagreeable, reprehensible or even barbaric. It is this credibility gap which leaves us on the defensive like the man who is asked if he still beats his wife: if he says no, he admits that he did so in the past; if he says yes, he admits his guilt. Either way, he’s damned if he does or doesn’t.

Take a listen to the short audio clip in which Dr. Jackson summarizes this credibility gap:

“Some images that have been produced about me come between you and me … and so rather than your ability to hear, contemplate, internalize the words that I’m saying, those images come in between us, and they degrade your faculty of human encounter.” — Dr. Sherman Jackson


[Direct download]

Amongst many salient points that evening, Dr. Jackson has also highlighted the need for Muslim leadership, whatever form it may take, get out ahead of this crisis and become credible themselves. We denounce non-Muslims who write and or say whatever they wish about Islam, even going to “the sources themselves (Qur’an, fiqh, etc.)” to prove their points, yet many of us lack credentials and even work to subjugate the broad intellectual tradition of Islam under our own personal agendas. In the end, these leaves the Muslim community woefully uninformed and illiterate of their own religion and tradition. So how can we ask non-Muslims to separate the wheat from the chaff of what is and is not representative of normative Muslim thought, morals and ethics, if we ourselves are not committed to higher standards of integrity and scholarship. Until this issue is resolved no amount of distancing or apologizing will remove the collective guilt that all of us are laboring under. May God grant us guidance, mercy and unity.

وَاعتَصِموا بِحَبلِ اللَّهِ جَميعًا وَلا تَفَرَّقوا ۚ وَاذكُروا نِعمَتَ اللَّهِ عَلَيكُم إِذ كُنتُم أَعداءً فَأَلَّفَ بَينَ قُلوبِكُم فَأَصبَحتُم بِنِعمَتِهِ إِخوانًا وَكُنتُم عَلىٰ شَفا حُفرَةٍ مِنَ النّارِ فَأَنقَذَكُم مِنها ۗ كَذٰلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ اللَّهُ لَكُم آياتِهِ لَعَلَّكُم تَهتَدونَ

“Hold fast to the rope of Allah all together, and do not separate. Remember Allah’s blessing to you when you were enemies and He joined your hearts together so that you became brothers by His blessing. You were on the very brink of a pit of the Fire and He rescued you from it. In this way Allah makes His Signs clear to you, so that hopefully you will be guided.” — Qur’an, 3: 103