Muslim Elected Officials

The following is a short video expanding some thoughts on my Twitter post about Rashida Tlaib’s “impeach the MF”.

A Racism of Consequences

Racism, at least in the American context, is as old as the country itself. Its legacy enduring as much as it is penetrating, and its consequences real and tangible. It’s here that I think many immigrants, immigrant Muslims no less so, are woefully ignorant of the real consequences of racism in America, particularly anti-black racism. Former Senator Fred. R. Harris, of Oklahoma, wrote in the introduction to Black Rage,

“There are many evils which derive from racism that are more easily identified, including the existence of ghetto neighborhoods, joblessness, stultifying classrooms, and poor health.”1

What Harris points out is that racism is far greater, far more evil, and far more determining than simply “not being liked”, as racism is so commonly understood in its American vernacular. Where once upon a time in America, racism determined where you could live whereas now its more likely to determine where you can’t. This “can’t” being determined by the joblessness that Harris articulates. When one is relegated to the lowest economic rung of the social ladder, one is forced to live in “ghetto neighborhoods” that also happen to have the greatest percentage of failing schools. And “poor health” can also extend to the urban extreme of being dangerous to one’s life, with the ubiquitous presence of violent crime in these areas.

To return to the Muslim question, particularly those of an immigrant history or background, they too have falsely been misled and even perpetrate the misconception that racism is only “not being liked”—suggesting it has no tangible consequences—being that many of these Muslims are educated in the American public school system, it is no surprise. However, in light of the recent ascent of the Christian evangelical Right, these Muslims now have a glimpse at the very real consequences of racism in America. The social opposition Muslims are being challenged with show that racism is far more concerning than simply being “disliked”. In the hands of a majority who also possess political power, American racism threatens to bear down on Muslims in America in way that have the potential to create cultural ghettos, discriminate against Muslims who seek employment, bully their children at school, ultimately leading to a degradation in their mental and physical well-being.

So the question remains, will American Muslims come to see that one of the primary challenges facing America is her enduring legacy of racism, and that legacy affects the lives of people in visceral ways, and that now perhaps is the time to crawl out of our gated communities and shells and truly embrace America, which will require standing up to her and telling her some things she’d rather not hear, especially from those who’ve, until recently (?), peddled a model minority narrative. Will American Muslims come to identify with America’s poor, that group which God says in the Qur’an, He, “desire[s] to show kindness to those who [are] oppressed in the land”2, or will our community sell God’s Sign for “a paltry price”3. I can only hope we will do the right thing, though time will tell. May God grant us strength, conviction, and dignity in these difficult times.

1. Grier, William H. and Cobbs, Price M. Black Rage. New York: Basic Books Inc., 1968.

2. “We wanted to empower those who were being oppressed in the land, to make them leaders, to give them an inheritance in the earth.” Qur’an, 28: 5.

3. “Believe in what I’m revealing, which confirms the teachings with you now, and don’t be the first to reject it, nor sell My revealed verses for a petty gain. Be mindful of Me!” Qur’an, 2: 41.

Between Political Theories and Truth-Claims: American Muslims and Liberalism

On Saturday mornings at Middle Ground I teach a class entitled, The Dr. Sherman Jackson Reader, in which we explore his various articles, books, and essays. Currently we are reading his piece, The Impact of Liberalism, Secularism & Atheism On The American Mosque. In it, Dr. Jackson reminds us of a point that is not only worth considering but also provides some strategy in how Muslims might address the challenge of liberalism as well as to how we might address our own community members who have been enchanted with its claims.

Undoubtedly liberalism (in distinction to liberal thought) is one of the biggest challenges facing (American) Muslims today. Many Muslim leaders, thinkers, and intellectuals have taken to deconstructing its theories, some better than others. And while this is all fine to do I find one overarching aspect missing to these critiques, namely the setting up of liberalism and Islam as equals or peers. I do not mean equals or peers in a hierarchical sense: That Islam is better than liberalism or vice versa. No, what I mean here is the false-equating that essentially we’re talking about two things in a manner which implies they are of the same species. As Dr. Jackson points out, liberalism,

“…aspires to [be] a political theory, not an overall philosophy of life. In other words, its primary aim is to regulate relations between individuals and the state and between individuals and each other in the political sphere. In theory, therefore, liberal commitments need not govern life outside the political realm.”

This point is very important as we contrast it, liberalism, to Islam (and to any religious tradition for that matter) which, at its core, is a truth-claim. These two things are very different animals and their differences must be accentuated, not dulled, if there is to be not only any meaningful critique of liberalism by American Muslims, but also any reconciliation between Islam and liberal thought.

Liberalism, by process of dissemination, often takes on the psuedo-form of a truth-claim, undoubtedly the source of what mucks up the waters of our understanding. As Dr. Jackson says again,

“…even if political liberalism does not set out to be an overall philosophy of life, it turns out to be virtually indistinguishable from such in terms of its actual effect, not only in the political sphere but everywhere.”

It is this masquerading of political philosophy as a truth-claim that is one half of the issue. We receive notions of a “liberal life” through various American institutions such as schools, universities, and even government agencies, as well as popular culture. But if liberalism is guilty of masquerading as a truth-claim, many Muslims are equally guilty of masquerading Islam as only a political ideology, the other half of our issue. As we shall see, it’s not that Islam cannot have political assertions, as it were, but that any such assertions are secondary to its truth-claims. Simply put, Islam may have something to say about political/secular/mundane things, and it may not.  The result of this conflation leaves American Muslims, more often than not, talking past liberalism as much as they are attempting to speak to it. In doing so, American Muslims unwittingly give a misplaced credibility to the notion of liberalism as a truth-claim by treating it as such, versus addressing it for what it is: a means of negotiating the individual with either other individuals, or the State.

The reason for this conflation, in my opinion, is likely due to the fact that many American Muslims themselves (leaders included) have been coopted by, or, bought into, liberalism, as manifested by younger Muslims who “see little value in anything beyond the ability to pursue personal interest”, according to Dr. Jackson. In many ways this is a re-articulation of the “unmosqued” generation-X Muslims who often feel estranged in Muslim spaces that do not cater to their every whim.

What is muddling up the contention between these two (political philosophy versus truth-claim) is as much the fault of liberals as it is Muslims (these two camps are not mutually exclusive). To address the Muslim perspective, all too often modern Muslims, influenced by liberalism and secularism, attempt to take Islam into arenas it is not meant to go. For example, let us have liberalism ask the questions, “What is a good life?”, “Where do we come from?” as well as, “What’s for dinner?” As a political philosophy, whose main goal and objective is to negotiate the individual against other individuals/the State, liberalism would have nothing to say to any of these three questions in as much as it remains truthful to being a political philosophy.

Let us ply the same questions to Muslim scripture and tradition. If we ask, as Muslims, “What is a good life?”, or “Where do we come from”, there are numerous Qur’anic verses and Prophetic narrations (hadith) that can adequately address these inquiries, at least from a Muslim point of view. However, when it comes to “What’s for dinner?”, the same truthful commitment (liberalism above) has to be equally applied now to Islam, if Islam is to remain a truth-claim: Muslims must concede that neither the Qur’an nor the life of the Prophet can adequately tell us “What’s for dinner”.

The contrast here is important: liberalism, a philosophical commitment which privileges the self as the “ultimate decider” of authority, would be unable to render an answer as to what to put on your dinner plate. In essence, its response would simply be, “what ever you like”. Islam, as a truth-claim, while being able to tell us what we cannot eat, or what is impermissible to drink, is not the same as telling us to choose a Whooper over a Big Mac, let alone whether we ought to even eat a cheeseburger in the first place. My point being, all too often we drag things into areas that they have no means to speak authoritatively on. The result in this case is to reduce Islam to a secular or political ideology, incapable of speaking to the question at hand. In the case of liberalism, when we move it beyond the pale of negotiating our realities, we make it a false truth-claim. And as for Islam, we reduce it to a false secular/political ideology. The danger here with Islam (and religion in general), is that if I can coerce or force Islamic sources to articulate that a Whooper is “what’s for dinner”, then my eating a Big Mac is not simply me exercising my right to choose one over the other, but is in fact a move against the Will of God.

So where does this leave American Muslims in their stance towards liberalism? The first is to advocate that liberalism be treated as a thought process versus a truth-claim. In fact, many of liberalism’s claims (autonomy/self-law vs. heteronomy/external-law) can be demonstrated to not be truthful to itself! As a crude example, when one stops at an intersection, obeying tacit commands from a traffic signal displaying “red”, we stop. This is most certainly an external authority that inhibits our freedom (of movement), yet liberals express no qualm over stopping at a red light or decrying their individual rights of self-determination/movement have been infringed upon. While some liberals would claim this is nothing other than what John Rawls argued in what he called “public reason”, when it comes to something a bit more sophisticated than traffic rules, Rawlsian liberalism* often privileges the rich over the poor, the powerful over the powerless. What it does show is that (American) Muslims need not be entirely opposed to liberal thought: as yet to date I am unaware of any Muslims filing complaints about traffic lights impinging on their religious or secular freedoms. In fact, this turns on its head the common misnomer that “Muslims are not compatible with the West”, “democracy”, or other such nonsense. What American Muslims can do is demonstrate the fallacy of the ‘ism in liberalism: (American) Muslims can commit to the common good, as (truth-claiming) Muslims, while still calling into the question the scope to which liberal thought is applied, especially in instances when it does not render a common good.

In the end, this moves American Muslims to a much better social position by which they can engage their fellow Americans, even those who do not share their truth-claims to La ilaha ill’Allah, “There is no god except God”. It also preserves Islam (and religion in general in America) as a truth-claim, saving their religion from being misused, misapplied, and mishandled, and instead, used and applied towards answering the most enduring and meaningful questions.

* Rawls feared that people might not be able to find enough common ground to resolve their differences. If A is able to invoke his ideology against B, B will fear that he cannot get a fair hearing and walk away from negotiations, leaving the conflict outstanding, perhaps to the tune of violence. As a solution, Rawls proposed that all parties be made to argue their positions on the basis of what he called “public reason,” and that only arguments based on public reason be accepted. Public reason is not indebted to or based on any of the competing parties’ concrete ideological commitments; rather, it draws upon what they all share in common. For example, Muslims, Jews and atheists might disagree over the authority of the Qur’ān, but they can all agree to ban crack-cocaine, based on the mutually shared value of health-preservation. See the rest in Dr. Jackson’s article.

Extras

Religion As Part of a Good Life. A khutbah delivered on January 20th, 2017.

Generation X-Box. An episode from the Middle Ground Podcast.

9/11 2011 – Say Good-Bye to Diversity [?]

Here it is. My 9/11 post. I had been avoiding this issue, not because I haven’t had thoughts on it, but primarily because I haven’t really had the venue to speak my mind. But while laying on my couch, giving Pnin a cursory reading before my term begins, an e-mail flashed across my iPhone and a very long and complicated conversation jumped off inside my head. Here is the short form.

In truth, I had not wished to address 9/11 for a number of reasons. First, after having spoken with my father and agreeing with him, I feel the imagery surrounding 9/11 and its veneration is insensitive to those who did lose family and loved ones. Over and over, for a decade, these families have been forced to have their loved one’s final moments played out, over and over again, with little to no regard to the sanitizing and sterilizing effects it has on the masses [repeatedly witnessing the deaths of nearly 2,800 people] not to mention the agony of seeing your husband, your wife, your son, your daughter, your neighbor, mowed down and destroyed needlessly. We could do with a lot less instant replay and a lot more reflection. While this post is not the time nor place, I must repeat it again: Technology is not neutral.

Another reason, not wholly unrelated from the previous sentence’s final thought, is the lack of sound and critical dialog over the entire phenomenon of 9/11 and what spawned from it. No, this is not a clarion call for conspiracy theories: I admit, there are things about the “how” of 9/11, but if we’re honest [Muslims] we don’t have to strain ourselves to come up with the “why”. This is not an indictment of Islam: I am a “practicing”, 5-times-a-day-praying, Ramadan-fasting, zakat-paying, House-of-God-visiting Muslim. I do not subscribe to such popular buzzwords as “Islamic” terrorism [as there were no orders to terrorize in the final Revelation that was sent to the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him]. But, sadly, there are some Muslims who do seek to instill unjustified fear into the hearts of folks simply because they can’t reason their way out of a wet paper bag.

Happening now: Wolf Blitzer discusses how Sunchips bags are noisy while the news reads below: '14 people killed when vehicle plugs from cliff in Nepal'.

This lack of dialog however, should not be seen as something isolated to the tragic events of 9/11. In truth, America has abandoned intellectual discourse in the public sphere a long time ago. This is aided by technologies such as sound bites, 24/7 CNN-style “Situation Room” nonsense, where meaningful information is massacred into entertainment [another plug for technology is not neutral]. But to help put this philosophical and ethical crisis into the broader context, I will talk about 9/11 from the perspective of tolerance and belonging.

Tolerance: a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.

That is a dictionary definition of tolerance. But that is no longer what tolerance means in America. Instead, diversity has come to be seen as the antithesis of democracy, of tolerance, and thus, unity has devolved down into a make-shift uniformity. You can be diverse in America, so long as you’re just like me. Only problem is, who gets to define “me” [what ever happened to “we” by the way]? From what I can tell, it’s a particular strain of whiteness to be frank. A strain of whiteness that would like to harken back to the pre-Civil Rights days, when Whiteamericans didn’t have to live under the yoke of racial suspicion, but that’s another story for another day. So how do we maintain one of our civilizational core values of diversity when everything we do threatens its very existence?

One of the proofs that we are sadly rolling downhill to the formation of a monoculture is in the adoption of Islamophibic rhetoric by Blackamericans [and other “minorities as well]. Blackness has been on the ropes ever since 1964 and now it looks to be down on one knee; the ref’s count stopped at 6, but one more body blow like that and…

You see, it’s very difficult these days to adhere to Blackness [or any other category that defies the false universal of white values]. Even our President, who no doubt was partially elected by some of his constituents because he was black, dares not discuss race openly. He was seen as a chance to change what had seemed written in stone. And yet, as has been in the [sound bite] media lately, there has been a great deal of dissatisfaction on how this President speaks on race, let alone addresses anything near it with a ten-foot pole. Why am I talking race? Weren’t we just discussing 9/11? Yes, we were, and we still are. You see, 9/11 has put Muslims in a very nasty little corner [albeit, one they helped decorate, if not create]. One must pledge allegiance to the Flag, unwavering allegiance that cannot afford to include any criticism of the State Power: after all, we do not wish to bite the hand that’s feeding us [our own hand], right? Can we mourn all of those who died on 9/11? White? Black? Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, atheist? Can we also mourn those who died as a result of 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially the former, that was shown to have had no links to the 9/11 perpetrators? The simple answer is: No.

The greatest public tragedy of losing Martin Luther King Jr. was not his cowardly assassination, but was the assassination of everything he truly stood for. While he did call for and hope for the day when “little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls”, he was not calling for the abolishment or abandonment of blackness [race] nor the abolishment of diversity, in order to bring that dream to fruition. King was very much invested in black self-worth and dignity. Sadly, once his face was immortalized on that postage stamp and built a thoroughfare through every ghetto in America with his name on it, the nuances of his speech have long been lost. I say this because the same tragedy that had been enacted upon King is now being enacted upon Muslims and upon America as a whole: the insidious attack on diversity. Decriers of Muslims inability to assimilate to American society often evoke King’s words to demonstrate the “innate” goodness of America: See! Black folks and white folks can all get along [I’m thinking of a name here now, someone who lived in L.A.]. It’s these MOOZ-LUMS who hate democracy and hate our values. And yet we also find Muslims co-opting King’s language as a weak demonstration of our supposed support [I do believe we support it, it’s just I think the gesture is weak] of King’s/America’s values. But when diversity is re-defined as that which makes us incompatible, then how can truly function in a society where, all rhetoric aside, we are all quite different [ethnic/racial/religious groups]? This is why, as I try to tie up a loose end here, I see Blackamerican politicians rallying to the banner of anti-Muslim sentiment: If diversity is the problem, and I’m black, then where else do I have to go [thought Herman Cain]? A ha! If I abandon my Blackness [in the name of post-racial, multi-racial etc.] and flock to the banner of uniformity [a.k.a., the false universal], then I might just have a place in this new fantasy land [that is, again, until these white folks take a second look at me and realize I really am black – but there’s time to squabble of the spoils of victory later].

In end and in short, Muslims must return to the proper dialog of diversity and shout it loudly. The current dialog on religion in America wishes to root itself in our Abrahamic faiths and yet none of us [Christians, Jews, or Muslims] refers to ourselves as Abrahamites, or refers to our religion as Abrahamity. No, we are Christians [of one stripe of another], we are Jews or we are Muslims. We should feel comfortable, we three, to speak and articulate our distinctness without feeling we are abandoning our shared values [including Abraham being a central figure to our three faiths]. Perhaps then, when we respect [our own and each other’s] diversity and not see it in opposition or contradiction to unity [finding mutual values that we can raise above the fray], perhaps then, perhaps just then, we’ll all mourn as one, the dead of 9/11 and the death of bigotry.