A Nietzschean Cry That Still Rings in the Western World?

Zuhdi Jasser, President and Founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD)

Amidst the din of the post-Osama assassinations it is easy to lose sight of what is still transforming before our eyes in America. At first blush, there appears to be a resurgence of the religious Right [I prefer racial Right], who have presented themselves as the last best hope of stemming the brown/Islamic tide that threatens to overrun America. But much of this I feel is window dressing in comparison to the deep crisis that is unfolding when the cameras aren’t rolling. Namely, that is the crisis of secularization in the American/European world. This crisis, unlike the so-called Islamization of America, is far more real, as it uses such culturally sensitive nomenclature as democracy, Constitutional, and the like. The insidious part of this is that in the face of growing pressure from White America, many immigrant Muslims, in an attempt to appease the dominant culture, have co-opted this argument and are now wielding it against their fellow Muslims.

To fully grasp this slippery slope and the effects it has had on assimilation-focused Muslims, it will be necessary to recognize the pressures that are being exerted on the Muslim-American psyche and the reaction that stem from these pressures. For the rank and file practicing Muslim, the comments of Zuhdi Jasser, chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, without a doubt resonate as nails on a chalk board. But if one wishes to critique Jasser’s commentary [as this writer certainly does], then we must look at the broader assault on belongingness in post-Osama America.

In a previous article, Required Reading: Muslims, the Constitution and Negotiating Political Reality, I showed how Muslims are under attack and under assault from a variety of vantage points including the media and academia. In the article, Dr. Sherman Jackson wrote a response and rebuttal to Dr. Vincent Cornell’s, Reasons Public and Divine: Liberal Democracy, Shari‘a Fundamentalism and the Epistemological Crisis of Islam, in which Cornell accused Jackson of being a “soft Sharî’a fundamentalist” for no other reason than Dr. Jackson’s refusal to see the United States Constitution as a document of inherent transcendent truth. In essence, Cornell’s argument reinforces the myopic dogma of “either you’re with us, or you’re against us”, providing little to no agency for Muslim-Americans on just how they will decide and negotiate this tentative pact. Without repeating the article in its entirety, it is fair to say that much of vernacular of Cornell’s argument can be found in the manifesto and outlook from individuals and groups such as Zuhdi Jasser and the AIFD respectively. Instead of a principled engagement of the United States, culturally, legally and socially, I believe Jasser’s [and Cornell’s] approach leaves Muslim-Americans exposed and vulnerable, where the only actions capable of being carried out are solely to express gratitude to the dominant [read “white”] culture for allowing them to exist within their borders.

Whether the intentions of people like Jasser or Cornell are well intended are none of my concern. The results of their conclusions are alarming. They represent two prongs of a very dangerous thrust that if fulfilled, will bring about the almost complete opposite of their intentions, at least as far as Jasser is concerned. So long as Muslim-Americans remain in a state of deference to the establishment for allowing them to exist in America—conditions of that existence aside—they will remain hapless victims of bigotry, prejudice and will have no power over whether or not they are used as political hockey pucks to further the agendas of America political interests. This stance has yet to [and I believe, will not] bring about sweeping changes for Muslim-Americans as it relates to harassment.

The language of these arguments [especially Jasser’s] are ripe with hyper-secularization. Both parties go to great extents to prove the dignity of Islam and Muslims, not on the grounds that Islam and Muslims might present from their own sources, but by couching Islam’s most sacred sources within the framework of modernity, such as the United States Constitution in Cornell’s case, and western liberal democracy in Jasser’s. The Qur’anic injunctions, in this light, is incapable of being seen or felt as a sacred document unless they can be proven to coincide with secular values. There has even been an attempt to say that, to paraphrase Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Islam has a long-standing secular tradition that can be tied all the way back to the Qur’an and the original sources1. In light of the pressures mentioned above, Muslim-Americans are coerced from both sides to accept these ideals as “congenial to [Islam’s] true nature and purpose—as the only tenable ideals to embrace or risk being cast as violent, barbaric, and seditious.

Ironically, by abandoning their U.S.-granted, God-given rights via the Constitution in favor of assimilation, Muslims will be doubly vulnerable, as they will have no means of defending themselves against such assaults. This is one aspect that Dr. Vincent Cornell did not understand about Dr. Jackson’s argument: Simply because a Muslim does not hold the Constitution to be a Divinely Inspired Document, does not mean that Muslims cannot uphold such legal principles, so long as they do not directly contract core tenets of Islam. Let me quote Dr. Jackson again here to make the point clearer:

To my mind, a more profitable approach would be not only to accept the provisions of the Constitution but to commit to preserving these by supporting and defending the Constitution itself. According to the Constitution, the U.S. government cannot force a Muslim to renounce his or her faith… The U.S. government cannot even force a Muslim (qua) Muslim to pledge allegiance to the United States! Surely it must be worth asking if Muslims in America should conduct themselves as “nouveau free” who squander these and countless other rights and freedoms in the name of dogmatic minutiae, activist rhetoric, and uncritical readings of Islamic law and history, rather than turning these to the practical benefit of Islam and Muslim-Americans. (Islam and the Blackamerica, 148)

Essentially, by embracing the Constitution as a document of legal fact, and not legal truth, Muslims can fully participate in that “negotiated, political arrangement” that Jackson quotes from Robert Dahl; a negotiation that ensure both parties get something out of the contract instead of one living for the appeasement of the other. This is an important nuance that neither Jasser, Cornell nor their constituents seem to understand.

Links

References

  1. Islam, Secularism and the Philosophy of the Future, 3.

If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem

There has been, in my mind, a growing trend in Black America for the last 40-odd years: the rise in secularism amongst Blackamericans. By this I refer to the increasing tendency for Blackamericans to make religion, be it Islam or Christianity, irrelevant to their daily lives, public or private (I say private as well because of the private malfeasance that Blackamericans commit have public ramifications). In times past, traditional religious institutions in Black America provided the moral framework which would govern the moral and ethical codes of Blackamericans. One recent study showed that in the mid-Sixties, roughly 84% of black families were two-parent households. That number has dwindled to the mid- to low-thirties. To say that these figures are alarming would be a gross understatement. What is worthy of consideration here is not simply the numbers, but the story behind the numbers.

I say that the trend of secularism in Black America cannot, and should not be treated as coincidence, in coming in at the end of the Civil Rights victories of the 1960’s. In its inception, the Civil Rights Movement began, as University of Michigan professor Sherman Jackson dubbed it, a “holy protest against white supremacy”. Yet, it would seem that after the supposed defeat of white-authored violence and discrimination against blacks, the “holy” was taken out of the protest, and all that was left was and has been, hot wind. In my opinion, there have been real social, economic, and developmental consequences to removing God from the daily and public lives of Blackamericans (indeed, for all Americans but for the purposes of this article, I am addressing Black America). The resulting consequences have ranged from lack of direction, an increasing lapse in morals, and an overall heedlessness. Further, these consequences have produced the single-mothers and fatherless children, the broken homes and families, and the general breakdown and dereliction of black culture. The broader American (and dare I say, white) cultural engine has proffered up to blacks the hope of a free civil society in which God no longer needs to play any role, let alone a central one. From what looks to have been a successful campaign, many Blackamericans have taken the bait: black families are plagued with divorce, incarceration rates are at astronomical numbers, economic and educational disparities go unchecked, and public as well as private morality is at an all-time low. I write this both as a concerned Blackamerican, but even more specifically as a concerned Blackamerican Muslim. The practice of thinking themselves immune to the broader ills of Black America, or even America as a whole, has been a strain of thought that still finds a welcome home amongst Blackamerican Muslims. It is my concern that if these tendencies are not addressed and countered, Blackamerican Muslims will find that their Islam is indeed no inoculation against the tide of secularism that is plaguing their non-Muslim counterparts. In fact, the early warning signs are already here.

My wife wrote an article recently where she spoke of the many troubling observations she has witnessed in her one year in Philadelphia. I have been here for five years, and can safely estimate that my observations are five-times as troubling. I have been privy to teen pregnancy amongst Muslims, and more specifically, amongst Blackamerican Muslim teens. Mothers having ‘aqiqahs for fatherless children. The engaging in illicit sexual activities amongst these teens has been on a quiet rise, with little to no dialog or action from the community. This, coupled with an ever-increasing recalcitrance amongst Muslim youth, are just two of a number of growing social issues facing Blackamerican Muslims. The biggest problem for me is not communities having issues; I do not know a community that is free of them. Rather, it is that Blackamerican Muslims make little to no use of their Islam in recognizing, battling, and countering these maladies. Indeed, it seems at times that there are hardly any distinguishing characteristics between Blackamerican Muslims and their black, non-Muslim counterparts, save dress code and dietary restrictions. I must admit, as one who stands on the minbar on a weekly basis, I find myself both deeply troubled as well as disheartened. I have spoken with a number of imams, scholars, and concerned congregationalists, about this very same topic only to be met with heavy sighs, concerned stares, and stalwart encouragement to “keep fighting the good fight”. And while I have been appreciative all of those (especially the latter), I continue to brood over how Muslim leadership can re-connect (for I do believe the connection has been severed) with Muslim men, women, mothers, father,s and especially, Muslim youth. What steps can be taken to show and demonstrate that no only is there a place for God and Prophetic morality in the daily lives of Muslims, public and private, but that we must return to these principles if we have any hope of not annihilating ourselves.

It is to the above I would like to comment a bit further: returning to the Qur’an and Sunnah. In this case, I am referring to morals and conduct. Yet, for many of our youth (though not exclusively) this is not so much of a return as it is embarking on a new journey, for one cannot return to what one has never been at in the first place. To be more specific, the moral languish we see in Black America is a generational issue. For many Blackamericans, they never knew a strong moral foundation. And if the principle holds true that one cannot return to where one has never been, it must also hold true that the approach to re-moralizing Blackamerican Muslims, especially the youth, will need to take a different approach. We cannot simply backtrack our steps. We have to walk this sojourn from the beginning of the path.

Another aspect of secularism that requires examination is its liberal tendency and history. Many of those who call for toeing a secular line do not come from backgrounds that are suffering the most from its degenerative effects. Many liberals are also unaware of the ways in which they are able to cope with its effects to a much greater efficacy than Blackamericans can. To be more specific, I will name a few examples: economics, education, and lack of social stigma. I refer to these defensive mechanisms as the social insulation that many liberals possess. Many liberals may possess the financial means to absorb a fatherless child, whereas the burden placed on a black single-mother may prove debilitating to any socio-economic mobility. Access to education, which ties into economic self-sufficiency, is another tool at the disposal of liberals. And finally, many liberals, and here I am talking Whiteamericans, lack the social stigma in the broader American context when it comes to marital infidelity and any love children produced from it. Sarah Palin’s daughter comes to mind as an excellent example. For the latter, I find it ironic that a social stigma should be created for blacks outside of Black America, but not inside it. In other words, Black America has lost its own social stigma for illicit sexual activities, where this might have served a useful purpose, and instead has served to only resurrect or re-animate the specter of pre-Civil Rights racist attitudes towards blacks in the public sphere.

It is my hope that we, as a community, can come together and embark on this journey towards public and private morality, towards embracing and embodying the Prophetic actions, characteristics, and wont of God’s Messenger, such that we can please both God as well as offer solutions to a world that is in deep moral and spiritual trouble.

Joe Henderson’s If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem, with George Cables, Lenny White, Woody Shaw, Tony Waters. Recorded live at the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, California, 1970.