A Wakeup Call – This Time For Maureen Dowd

Maureen Dowd – White Person Extraordinaire

I have written two articles (1 and 2) on the phenomenon of Muslim pundits. To be more precise, the articles were about Muslim Muslim pundits, those few self-elected personalities that have made careers out of irresponsible critiques against Muslims and Islam, especially when Muslim do not meet their expectations. And it is the latest article from Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, Maureen Dowd, that provides an example of a non-Muslim Muslim pundit. In her New York Times article, Ms. Dowd uses 911 words (coincidence? You decide…) to inform us just how short her recent trip to Saudi Arabia, the “cradle of Islam”, fell in how it failed to educate her about the religion that, “smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11”. Dowd’s article, despite its obvious lack of respect for the subject, does manage to bring to light a glaring tendency in popular discourse, namely the general acceptance of attacking Muslims and by proxy of them, Islam, through one, convenient scapegoat: Saudi Arabia. According to Dowd and those who follow this mode of logic, to reproach Saudi Arabia is to reproach Islam in its entirety.

In one of my recent articles, I talked about the phenomenon of American Muslims and their need to travel abroad to the Muslim world in order to feel validated. Dowd has in many ways followed the exact same line, albeit for a different end goal: to denounce Islam. However, the two parties both have a misguided perception that Arab world, and Saudi Arabia in particular, are symbiotes of the same host: the religion of Islam. As we have seen in recent events, this could not be father from the case. Saudi Arabia is a country, a Muslim country no doubt, but hardly representative of Islam itself in such a way that all other expressions of Islam outside of the Arab Kingdom are merely simulacrums of Islam.

Dowd’s article, Pilgrim Non Grata In Mecca, is problematic even in its titling. From the very get go, Dowd ascribes to herself a status she does not possess: that of a (Muslim) pilgrim. A play on the Latin persona non grata, a close translation being “unwelcome person”, Dowd assumes that she is indeed on a pilgrimage (perhaps she was making ‘Umrah?), Dowd places herself within her own narrative in a role she never possessed from the start. Dowd repeatedly misses the very Muslimness of Mecca and Madīnah, especially as it relates to the necessity of those would visit the Ka’abah. Dowd fails to realize or recognize the need to be a Muslim to not only visit these places, but to perform the ritual acts for which they solely exist for. This deliberate intention, on the part of Dowd, to ignore such an overarching fact concerning the Two Holy Mosques only further demonstrates the utter lack of respect that Dowd had for her subject matter from the beginning. It is not that Dowd is an unwelcome pilgrim but that she is not a pilgrim at all.

Pilgrim Non Grata continues its bull-in-a-china-shop critique of Islam by attacking not how Islam views sacredness, but in how Islam is not Christianity, Judaism, or Buddhism. Dowd’s smug rant about how Mecca is not as open as the Vatican or how one can have their picture taken with the Dalai Lama only further illustrates how absolutely biased and ignorant Dowd is on the subject of Islam. By holding up Islam to a fit it was never meant to wear, Islam can only but fall short of appearing to be “civilized”. In essence, Dowd’s main axe to grind with Islam (which during the course of Dowd’s article is difficult to discern where she’s more concerned with getting access to the country of Saudi Arabia or learning anything in particular about Islam the religion) is how it’s not Christian, or Buddhist, than it is about understanding how Islam views the sacred. Here, Dowd reveals her true colors (literally) as a white, western woman, whose only particular historicized notions of freedom, access, equality, etc., are theorized into ontological truths that can be used to demonize Muslims (by proxy of Saudi Arabians) and Islam as a religion as a whole. I must admit I am sorely disappointed that a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist could either be so woefully ignorant or so unabashedly crude. Perhaps that prize, along with western white privilege, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

It would seem that much of Dowd’s ignorance stems from a complete lack of understanding of Islam on its own terms as well as the few, highly questionable sources she draws upon. Aside from her own trumped up cosmology, Dowd refers to Sir Richard Burton, the British “adventurer”, who translated “The Arabian Nights”, referring to himself as a “amateur barbarian”. Perhaps if Dowd had done some research she may have found that the Arabian Nights in no way shape or form has any relation to the religion of Islam. No all things Arab constitute a running commentary on Islam. Perhaps if Dowd had simply talked to a few recognized, educated and reputable Muslim figures on the religion, she may have accomplished her goal of trying to “learn about the religion that smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11”.

Part of understanding Islam on its own terms would entail learning how Islam views the sacred. In fact, it is perhaps in Islam’s view of the sacred that continues to distinguish itself from other religious expressions in modernity as the quintessential pre-modern religion. In other words, the sacred, for the main body of Muslims, was never rendered into the profane; the secular. Aside from the anomaly of modern thought as expressed by a few pro-modernity Muslim thinkers, there has never existed the concept of Les Belles Lettres. Beauty, in the body of Muslim thought, has always been connected to the Divine. It is even one of the Attributes of God in Islam, where all other emanations of beauty only point back to the source of Ultimate Beauty. This notion of sacredness extends to the mosque – any mosque, not solely the Two Holy Mosques of Mecca and Madīnah – as well to the Qur’ān. Art in the Muslim world (and in pre-modern Europe as well) was viewed as religious: the decorating of mosques, the illumination of the Qur’ān and other classical texts and so forth. These artistic endeavors were done not out of a desacralized sense of beauty, but rather as a mode of religious devotion. In fact, if Dowd had spoken with a body of Muslims before hand, she may have heard voices from the Muslims who dismay over the very secularness of the Blue Mosque, in that what once used to be a place of worship has now been reduced to a museum of historic architecture; the belle lettre of buildings. So when Muslims wish to keep and preserve the sacredness of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Madīnah, perhaps Dowd could see that this decision is informed by a very specific thought process that has very specific goals, namely the preservation of the sacred for all Muslims.

As for the three faith traditions that Dowd lists, she misses a key point: you may not have to be Catholic to go to the Vatican, but you may have to be Catholic to really understand what it means to be Catholic. You may be able to learn some very interesting facts about Catholicism as a non-Catholic, but without having the experience of being a Catholic, especially in a modern mindset, you will only have accumulated a collection of details that may or may not have the same meaning for the viewer as it does the object of their viewing. Similarly, as above, simply because Catholics have chosen to open up the Vatican does not mean that Muslims should open up Mecca. The Vatican is not Mecca, nor vise versa. Perhaps Dowd should consider doing some research on her topic before flailing about wildly with her pen.

Finally, I will depart with commenting on the methodology of Dowd’s inquiry. In her own words, Dowd stated that, “It was nearly impossible for me to experience Islam in the cradle of Islam”. Another in a long line of presumptions, I would challenge Ms. Dowd on just how she arrived at this observation. Much akin to Africa being the cradle of civilization, going back to Kenya and walking around the dusty streets of Nairobi will not, cēterīs paribus, give me any epiphanic understanding of what life is like in New York City. Further, the analogy of a “cradle” is also not without critique, as a cradle, according to the dictionary, is a small bed, often for infants, during which they are nurtured in their early existence. Islam was born in Mecca, but it grew up and moved out the house, expanded in Madīnah and eventually flew well beyond its borders. While learning about Mecca will indeed teach one about certain aspects of Islam, but it cannot give the whole picture. In the end, my advice to Maureen Dowd would be: if you want to learn about Islam, become a Muslim. If you wish to know some “facts” about Islam, well, you could visit Wikipedia. Or for that matter, continue reading this blog.

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.

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.

African American Muslims and Their Social Purgatory

Hat tip to Khalifa for passing this on. And while we may be occupied with more-than-earthly matters today, perhaps we can take a look at this over the next couple of days and reflect upon it. I have a few thoughts of my own I will share on it shortly.

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary. ….History shows that it does not matter who is in power…those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they did in the beginning.” – Dr. Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro.

Let me say from the outset that if you’re faint of heart or easily ruffled, pardon my having included you on this note. One would think that in quoting a social commentary from 1933 that its ideas would be anachronistic or at least irrelevant by 2010, but I find that as an African American Muslim its words ring disturbingly poignant and applicable. Between the Muslim world and America, and between history and orthodoxy, African American Muslims are in a social purgatory of agenda and mission…of identity and relevancy..and between citizenship and complacency.

Let me clarify my use of the term purgatory. Social Purgatory: Living effectively in no sphere of mainstream society whether religious/spiritual, professional, economic, or cultural. .. And belonging neither comfortably or whole-heartedly to the African American community or the broader Muslim community. We stand on the fence at a time of key transition. Imam W.D. Mohammed (rahmah of Allah be upon him) has passed away. Imam Jamil is likely to die in prison, we had to scrape to raise funds for Imam Siraj’s health care, and many of us are an arm-span from FBI watch-lists or already on it. Every time a domestic attack occurs we pray that it isn’t a Muslim. Then we pray that it isn’t an African American Muslim. And then we deliver our “that has nothing to do with Islam” speech on cue. That, my brothers and sisters, is something of a purgatory in itself.

We cannot afford to turn a blind eye or merely a snide comment to the pathologies that exist among us. The dogmas and isms that we tolerate… No, this is the chasm through which opponents readily attack and before that, these are the anchors that narrow our Islam. These pathologies are too many and complex to elucidate here, but suffice it to say they range from misapplication of polygamy to dysfunctional views of our very American-ness and citizenship. We constantly frame our troubles as being from without. Well my motivation in writing this is that I believe quite the opposite. They are from within. Continue reading “African American Muslims and Their Social Purgatory”

Thanksgiving Survival Manual

Being Muslim in a non-Muslim environment can present a number of challenges. From time to time, we are called upon to negotiate a space in which we are not the defining power. This happens with great frequency here in America, a non-Muslim majority environment. So when it comes to the holidays, many Muslims feel torn between upholding immutable values of their religion and not breaking the ties of kin [interestingly enough, another immutable value in Islam]. For those who already believe Thanksgiving to be haram, this discussion is not for you. I’m sure my blood is already halal to you. But for those who are of a mind that is trying to negotiate this space, I give you a little something to take with you to your families. Whether you’re a convert whose spending the evening with family or one who was born Muslim, but because of family ties, one may be staring down a turkey, this small supplication is for you. Share it with your families and let them know that Muslims also have a narrative, an opinion, a take on the duality of food and thanks.

الحمد لله الذي أطعمنا وسقانا وكفانا وآوانا سيدنا ومولانا يا كافي من كل شيء ولا يكفي منه شيء أطعمت من جوع وآمنت من خوف فلك الحمد. آويت من يتم وهديت من ضلالة وأغنيت من عيلة فلك الحمد حمدا كثيرا دائما طيبا نافعا مباركا فيه كما أنت أهله ومستحقه. اللهم أطعمتنا طيبا فاستعملنا صالحا واجعله عونا لنا على طاعتك ونعوذ بك أن نستعين به على معصيتك

“All praise belongs to God who has provided food, drink, and sustenance, as well as sheltered us. O’ our Lord and Master!, You who defend us from everything, none can change Your decree. You kept us from hunger, secured us from fear, therefore to You belongs the praise. It is You who has sheltered the orphan and provided guidance from error and it is You who has enriched from poverty, therefore to You belongs the praise, a praise that is plentiful, everlasting, good, beneficial and blessed. You are undoubtedly worthy and deserving of it. O’ God! You have fed us well so make us conduct ourselves well by it and through this, make us act obediently to You. We seek refuge in You should we use this blessing in disobedience to You.”

The above is from Hāmid Abu Muhammad al-Ghazālī, one of the great thinkers of Islam, who earned the title of hujjatul Islam – the Proof of Islam. May God have mercy on him.

Enjoy.