The following khutbah was delivered at Middle Ground Muslim Center on January 1st, 2016.
“The ‘aqidah (theology) of modernity has changed to make the ‘abd (the slave/worshipper) the Rabb (Lord) and the Rabb the ‘abd.”
The media is awash with Simple Simon explanations of the ongoing crisis with ISIS and its bewildering (or so it seems) recruitment strategy. In a nutshell, these pundits assert that Islam is violent and young Western Muslims are being radicalized, by which they ship themselves off to fight for the new Caliphate. It is, in essence, a re-hashing of the “they hate us for our freedoms” rhetoric we’ve heard at the inception of the War on Terror. But this is shortsighted and false. The primary recruiting tool for ISIS is not radicalized ideology but is in fact humiliated psychologies. The humiliated soul will crave violence and aggrandizement.
When we examine non-Muslim public acts of violence, from the Columbine massacre to the Isla Vista/Santa Barbara shootings, even white supremacist and right-wing murderer Anders Breivik, we can see patterns emerge of abused and humiliated psychologies. And in fact, what is interesting about all of these three cases, is that whether or not the slights were perceived (in the case of 22-year-old Elliot Rodger) or legitimate cases of bullying (as appears to be the case with 18-year-old Eric Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold) and low self-esteem (Breivik) run as a common thread between then. This premise has been supported in the writings of numerous psychiatrists (I recommend taking a look James Gilligan’s Violence as one example). All three cases here sought to commit tremendous acts of violence, with little to no regard to any form of life. In fact, they were indiscriminate in their killings, making no distinction between those who directly humiliated them and those who were innocent victims. We are in fact seeing the same psychology play itself out with young Western Muslims, particularly men (as we see in America, public acts of violence are overwhelmingly perpetrated by young males), who feel diminished, humiliated, targeted (perceived or otherwise) and emasculated (interestingly enough, there is some congruence with profiles of serial murderers who also felt slighted or abused). ISIS provides, like a shot of adrenaline to the arm, an instant boost to self-worth. Sadly, like their non-Muslims counterparts, they too kill, indiscriminately. Currently, Alan Henning, who is reported to have gone to Syria to “deliver food and water to people affected by the Middle Eastern country’s devastating civil war”, is slated to be next in line to be executed. That these young men would execute a person who has traveled to air their fellow Muslims only further illustrates for us the scope to which this humiliated psychology informs all of their actions: the whole world is to be punished for their slights. Like Rodger, Breivik, Harris and Klebold, no one is innocent.
To the extent that young men need to feel powerful is highly misunderstood in the West, if not completely ignored. The Muslim community in someways is doubly at risk. Men are often expected to be “the maintainers of women (Qur’an, 4: 34)”, and yet, there is a troubling trend of Muslims (particularly immigrant Muslims) to infantilize their children by forcing them to delay marriage until they have the house, car, executive job, etc. In my opinion, this has created a psychology of perpetual adolescence, by which young men and women (men the focus here) continue to live teen-age’esque lives, well into their late twenties, if not thirties. Many are still at home with their parents. These young men long for a sense of self, purpose and gravity in their lives. Add to this the alienation that many of them face due to the inability to one, assimilate into whiteness, and two, indigenize themselves to their new-found (or their parents’ new-found) home. Many of these young men I’ve spoken to have tales of loneliness, frustration, and depression brought upon by hostile racist environments. None of this is said to condone the brutal and heinous acts of ISIS, but it does allow us the ability to understand just why some young Muslim men might be attracted to violence in ways that are not so different from their western non-Muslim counterparts.
Ultimately, this lays bare the inadequacies of our community. We are in desperate need of a new model for manhood as well as an uplifting theology. A model that allows for men to be strong without feeling the only means of expressing that strength is through violence. As a believing and practicing Muslim, my first preference is to look to the life of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم and examine in which ways was he strong without needing to be violent. And for the Simple Simon journalists, pundits, and Muslim liberals, who wish to point the finger at Islam, at the Qur’an in particular, to show that it is the source of inspiration for all this violence, I say to them, conflict is not the same as violence. It is human nature to have conflict. Some of those conflicts will be physical, others rhetorical. For the Qur’an not only gave license to those believers, who were being persecuted, to defend themselves and take action, it equally gave license for non-violent conflict resolution, as in the verse: “Tell those who believe that they should forgive those who feel no fear about the Days of God [lit. ayyam Allah], when He will repay people according to what they earned” (Qur’an, 45: 14)”. The Qur’an was sent as guidance, to deal with every nuance of the human experience; the good and the bad. It is now only my supreme hope that we can have a better appreciation of the psychologies of our young men and women and work to build a better apparatus to deal with what troubles them so we can get down to the business of helping people heal, and not aiding them in harming themselves, or anyone else.
In his On the Bounds of Theological Tolerance in Islam, Dr. Sherman Jackson states:
Directly related to the relationship between theology and history is the relationship between what Islamicists have termed Traditionalism and Rationalism, the two main approaches to theology in Islam. To date, modern scholarship has been unanimous in its depiction of the basic distinction between these two approaches as residing in their differential relationship to reason. My contention, however, is that it is primarily history that divides these two approaches and that Traditionalism is no more devoid of the use of reason than Rationalism is of a reliance on tradition. As such, these two approaches are better understood as different traditions of reason.
If our community were able to digest and adopt such an (mutual) understanding, we just might be able to move beyond the man-made and self-imposed theological roadblocks impeding a healthy spiritual development so very needed by Muslims (and the world!) today.
We, the American Muslim community, have been playing a precarious game of defense. All manner of excuses can be fostered up to explain the “why’s” and the “how-to’s” but what we really need right now is a new playbook, one that puts us “out in front”.
The following is a segment from Dr. Sherman Jackson’s On the Bounds of Theological Tolerance in Islam. I find this passage to be worthy of required reading status.
“As Islam moved out of its isolation in Arabia to settle among the inhabitants if the world of Late Antiquity, where geography, history, and tradition had endowed different individuals and communities with more fundamentally different ways and approaches to thinking. These different endowments would lead in turn to different attitudes towards and approaches to theology. This was the beginning and most important source of theological discord in Islam, a full appreciation of which has only been obscured by the Muslim theologians’ rhetoric of transcendence.
Yet, the typical Western approach, which prides itself on its ability to see through the claims and attributions of the Muslim theologians, has not faired much better. Rather, it too has tended to impede rather than promote understanding of the impact of these differential historical endowments.
It is common knowledge that the influence of Christian theology, the Persian Zoroastrian and Manichaean traditions, and Indian and especially Greek philosophy on Muslim theological discourse was both fundamental and enduring1. Traditionally, however, Western scholars have portrayed this influence as an instance as an instance of cross-civilizational borrowing. At the same time, Muslims are said to have denied or played down this influence, based on their ideological commitment to the premise that ‘Islam is self-sufficient and that in Qur’an and Hadith it contains in essentials all the religious and moral truth required by all humanity to the end of time.’2 Under ordinary circumstances, fear of self-incrimination might pre-empt any reaction to such a view. But such depictions mask an important point that bears directly on our understanding of the nature and causes of theological discord—and thus the requirements and possibilities of theological tolerance—in Islam. Simply stated, the notion of Muslim ‘borrowing’ is based on an artificial bifurcation of the world of Late Antiquity and early Islam into Greek and Persian (alien), on the one hand, and Arab-Muslim (native), on the other, followed by the assumption that any elements of the former found among the latter must be the result of cross-civilizational borrowing. This picture becomes a bit more complicated, however, when we consider that the overwhelming majority of the early Muslims—as well as those who would become Arabs—had theretofore been ‘Greeks,’ Mazdakites, Manichaeans, Christians, and Zoroastrians. R. Bulliet goes a long way in confirming this in his book Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period, and it si being pointed out with increasing frequency and clarity by historians of Late Antiquity, e.g., P. Brown, G.W. Bowersock, and O. Grabar in their recent edited volume, Late Antiquity. In fact, in that same volume, the Islamic historian Hugh Kennedy writes:
Of all the dividing lines set up between academic disciplines in the western intellectual tradition, the frontier between classical and Islamic Studies has proved among the most durable and impenetrable…[W]hereas late antiquity can be seen as part of the broader history of western civilization, the history of the Islamic world cannot. Yet reflection will soon suggest that the changes cannot have been so sudden and dramatic, especially at the level of the structures of everyday life, and that the Islamic was as much, and as little, a continuation of late antiquity as was western Christendom.”
If American Muslims are to understand where they are headed, it is essential that our educational efforts work towards empowering, demystifying and in particular for those Muslims who’ve hailed from the historical Muslim world, heal the trauma of their post-colonial experiences, so that we may move beyond many of these blockades, externally and self-imposed.