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.

NBC Nightly News – Why Muslims Need A New Media Strategy

On Sunday, December 4th, I had the privilege of having 10 seconds of my interview with NBC aired before the nation. Yes, I am being sarcastic.

As I mentioned in this week’s The Middle Ground Podcast, I don’t believe in the conspiracy theory of the media to portray Muslims as victims, at least not entirely. Undoubtedly there may be a few journalists who do but I firmly believe that the vast majority in the media who portray Muslims as victims are doing so at the direction of a vocal group of Muslims themselves. It’s much easier for us to demonize the media and scapegoat them for all of our problems than to face an inconvenient truth: many of us love being victims because we believe we can use pity to coerce Chuck into getting what we want from him: our pre-9/11 lives back.

This startling truth was made even more clear when I was interview by Larry Mantel on his show, AirTalk, on KPCC radio.

One caller, Fawaz, further illustrates my point. He spoke on how he was supported by the community, as immigrants. Never did he speak on what they contribute back. He further said,

“I do take an issue with some of the other points. I am an American Muslim, I am an immigrant, but I am fully integrated with the local activities and am part of Arcadia dialog; interfaith group.”

My response to brother Fawaz was,

“the glaring point is I, and your guest, would not be on this show if this wasn’t an issue”.

Clearly the American/Muslim issue has not been put to rest, despite Fawaz’s claims, otherwise there would not be a continued national discussion regarding it. What is most misunderstood here is there’s a difference between being a citizen and being fully American; there’s a difference between how one thinks of one’s self and how one is perceived by others in that society; and the difference between the potential to be fully American and current realities.

Clearly we must take efforts to stop sabotaging ourselves through continued invocations of victimhood. Only through a strong, principled, and courageous voice can we make our narrative felt and understood.

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.

The Slippery Slope of Apologetics – Between Empathy and Suicide

It goes without saying that the events that took place on the morning of January 7th, 2015, as perpetrated by three gunmen in Paris, France, were heinous and unjustifiable. But equally unjustifiable is the call and charge, from amongst Muslims and against Muslims, to condemn violence “perpetrated in Islam’s name”. While both vocalizations may appear to have credence, I believe it is an insidious and slippery slope to communal suicide.

I have received several requests today from members of the Muslim community to address the tragedy involving the staff of Charlie Hebdo. While I understand the sentiment to hold community meetings and the like, I believe it would be an error to hold an event for something as particular as this. None of us, by and large in the Muslim community, are in disagreement as to the heinous nature of what was done but I do believe it a detrimental act of getting into the business of apologizing for acts which we did not commit or condone; no matter how you spin it, that is what we would be doing. In fact, and I am not alone in this assessment, it is precisely this kind of response from the Muslim  community that can further exacerbate those fringe elements within our community to seek extreme measures for perceived injustices.

To be frank, I am also concerned about allowing the dominant culture to dictate what is or what isn’t a “good Muslim”. Should our condemnation not meet their approval (and the goal post on this seems to be ever shifting) then can we  all not be criminally held as suspicious? It is akin to the structural racism that faces of us African-Americans, when white America says things like “you could get ahead or do better if only you tried harder or weren’t lazy”. This rhetoric encourages Blackamericans, to not strive for excellence, but to strive for dodging the ridicule of whites. This can be a pernicious and never ending maze which we run ourselves ragged through.

Our focus as Muslims, now more so than ever, must be vigilantly on being true to Allah and His Messenger, which has, does, and will always suffice any group, in anytime and in anyplace.