What Is Our Place in Society? – A Middle Ground Khutbah


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Who are the believers? I sometimes wonder if we know more about disbelief than we do belief.

We claim to know what’s wrong with society, but do we know what’s right with it? What does a good society look like? What part or role do we play in that?

If the society is to be good, if the world is to be made a better place, than what is our place in that society? In that world?

Read the rest of the notes here.

Is Trump’s Administration the New Neoliberalism?

With the Trump administration’s focus on surveillance (extreme vetting) and domestic oversight, especially in areas such as education, I’m inclined to see this as neoliberalism 2.0 vs. traditional American conservatism. The reason I feel his administration represents a kind of neoliberalism is because Trump’s voter base—a mostly white America—balked at the thought of non-whites receiving social benefits1. We’ve seen it in all major urban centers, my home town of Detroit no less: when racially identifiable populations (blacks, Hispanics, those from the Global South, etc.) became a bit too optimistic about their access to middle-class amenities, the white electorate intervened. Thomas Sugrue writes,

“whites, through the combined advantages of race and residence, were able to hoard political and economic resources—jobs, public services, education, and other goods—to their own advantage at the expense of the urban [predominantly black] poor ( brackets mine).”

Similarly, Sugrue says,

“cuts in municipal employment threatened Detroit’s precarious black middle class. While city jobs were seldom lucrative, they were stable, offering good health benefits and modest pensions and medical insurance for retirees.”2

This is very similar to the 1970’s and 1980’s when Ronald Reagan (with Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Koh in Europe) rose to power, fueled by white dissatisfaction in what they perceived to be a “caretaker state”, which had, in their eyes, become far too occupied with affairs of non-whites. Additionally, there are more similarities between Trump and his administration and the neoliberals before him. First is the relation between the state and capitalist enterprises. David Theo Goldberg relates in his article, Racisms without Racism,

“The neoliberal state accordingly has troubled itself with securing private interests from the projected contamination and threat of those deemed for various reasons not to belong, those considered to have little or no social standing, and those whose welfare is calculated to cost too much economically or politically. Call this, by contrast, the traffic-cop state.”3

Given that Trump’s presidency was mostly won on a disenfranchised white electorate, it stands clearer to me to view Trump’s administration as neoliberal. This fits quite well as neoliberal administrations (Reagan to name but one) also seek to establish themselves not only as the administrations of law and order domestically but also “to secure [themselves] from perceived threats from without, almost always racially shaped”4. In the case of the Trump administration, it makes ample use of Islamophobia to, if not racialize Muslims, resurrect Samuel Huntington’s “class of civilizations” political theory, so as to make an “Other” by which his administration can define itself against.

Sources

1. Goldberg, David Theo. “Racisms without Racism.” PMLA 123.5 (2008): 1712-716. JSTOR. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.

2. Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Press, 1996. Pg., xxxvii. Read the intro here.

3. Goldberg, “Racisms without Racism.”

4. Goldberg, “Racisms without Racism.”

Calling For a Ban On Terrorists Is Just That: A Call

The Trump administration talks about “Make America Great Again” and keeping America safe. And while I’m all for the latter (the former1 is a more nuanced conversation), this sabre rattling may only serve to call the sharks to us. This is another reason Trump needs to transition from campaigning to strategizing. Or perhaps that is all he is capable of.

In response to this kind of bravado, however, ISIS and the like will undoubtedly take this as a challenge, doubtless redoubling their efforts to penetrate America (which at this point it seems a tragic likelihood, though May God forbid it!) and wreak havoc and carnage: When one throws down a gauntlet, one must expect it to be picked up. And tragically, if such an attack were to take place, American Muslims would most certainly be the scapegoats, though it is clear as day that (American) Muslims do not craft counter-terrorism policies let alone hold sway over international terrorist groups. These are dangerous times. May God protect us all and inspire the leaders of this country to act and behave in ways which secures our safety.

1. We must determine what the metric is for [A] being great (i.e., is it more than simply when whites held not only economic and political power, but also had control over the bodies, movements and freedom of non-whites?) and [B] why isn’t it pretty good now?

Interpretation In Free Fall

Muslims need to ask themselves: how are non-Muslims able to make their unsubstantiated claims about Islam? Many of us will point to ideologies such as white supremacy, nationalism, and other forms of bigotry in an attempt to explain this phenomenon. But in reality this is much more akin to the Sudanese proverb, as Dr. Sherman Jackson reminds us, while we curse the elephant we only gaze at his shadow.

All too often we look for explanations outside of Islam instead of within. By Islam I mean the Muslim community. We assume the cause of this effect can simply be reduced to others not liking us. And while it is undoubtedly true that anti-Muslim sentiment has much of its roots in white supremacy, its efficacy is mainly due to the swinging barn door of interpretation that lets in all manner of riffraff. A riffraff that is just as likely to be composed of unqualified Muslims as much as it is of unqualified non-Muslims.

In a more obvious display of what Dr. Sherman Jackson calls the credibility gap, Graeme Wood of The Atlantic speaks about ISIS in his article, What ISIS Really Wants,

“The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”

The first mistake Muslims most often do is attempt to discredit the validity of non-Muslim (in this case, Wood’s) claims; this is a severe mistake, because as in this case—as is the case in almost all claims made about Islam—Wood’s credentials and capabilities are never called into question. What gives Wood the qualifications and credentials to speak authoritatively on Islam? When I attempted to find any information on his background I saw that he graduated from Harvard; the extent of his academic credentials seem to only go so far as being a “lecturer in political science at Yale University”. In what field Wood took his degree is not clear. What is clear is that Wood, and many like him, have written extensively and authoritatively on Islam for some time. And we must move beyond just individuals like Wood, to the bigger implication: publications such as The Atlantic, and The New Republic also required no qualified background to write authoritatively on Islam. Before I address what I mean by proper qualifications and credentials, let me turn my gaze from the elephant’s shadow to the pachyderm himself.

One of the darlings of the media (particularly those of a more liberal bent) and of the Muslim community itself (excluding the majority of scholars and leaders) is Reza Aslan. Aslan’s notoriety stems from interviews where he is often seen as defending the faith from a rogue’s gallery of anti-Muslim haters such as Bill Maher and Sam Harris, to more recent conflicts with Donald Trump supporter and political commentator, Kayleigh McEnany, over what portion of the Qur’an is considered a legal document:

McEnany’s comments, stating that the Qur’an, according to Michael Flynn (a retired general from the United States military), who quotes Andy McCarthy (Andrew C. McCarthy III is a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York)—whom McEnany describes as “very respected” and who has written “extensively” on [the Qur’an]—as saying,

90 percent of the Qur’an is in fact a legal doctrine; it is Shari’ah. He’s not saying that as an insult to the religion but that it (the Qur’an) is in fact structured differently than a typical-type Christian religions or Jewish religions, the way those books are structured. So that is what he is meaning academically.”

There is much here to unpack. The claims about the percentage of the Qur’an which is considered to be “legal doctrine”, how Christianity’s or Judaism’s holy books, and the manner in which they are “structured”, are assumed to be normative (thereby Islam’s holy book, by being different than these two, is presumptively labeled as abnormal), and finally and perhaps most importantly, the claims to “academic” qualifications to make such proclamations, all beg to be scrutinized. And it is the last claim, the petition to reference academic credentials as a justification, that Reza Aslan calls out Kayleigh McEnany as well as Andrew McCarthy and Gen. Michael Flynn. But there’s an absurdity going on here right before our eyes. An absurdity ignored because it strokes the broken and shattered egos of so many Muslims today: Reza Aslan himself is unqualified to speak authoritatively on Islam. Aslan reveals his own lack of qualifications with the ridiculous statement concerning the number of verses in the Qur’an,

“I mean, no offense to Kayleigh, but you really don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to either the Qur’an or the Bible. About 120 verses of the Qur’an have to do with legal matters out of tens of thousands.”

According to the most common riwayah (narration) of the Qur’an by Hafs, the Qur’an contains 6236 verses. Aslan’s statements of “tens of thousands” is disturbing as well as inaccurate, and in Aslan’s case, is nothing new. He has repeatedly uttered factually incorrect or even heretical statements about the Qur’an and Islam in general. But the issue at stake here is not simply the mistakes of one unqualified pundit, but moreover, how did Reza Aslan (and others like Zuhdi Jasser) get to be placed in positions of authority and representation? The answer may be a difficult pill for our community to swallow.

If we return to our opening question, how are non-Muslims able to make their unsubstantiated claims about Islam, the answer is as simple as it is painful: we, as the Muslim community, enable it, because we do it as well! That we think there can be two separate standards for speaking authoritatively on Islam as well as representing the Muslims is a living definition of hypocrisy. In truth, this devolves down into little more than some form of cultural protectionism, stemming from a legacy of colonialism where Muslims were subjugated to non-Muslim rule. As a reaction, even Muslims who either by doctrine or practice (of which certainly Aslan would fall into) do not seem to have any serious commitment to Islam outside of a cultural relationship to it, fall victim and prey to this tendency. It is also, in my opinion, why so many Muslims of an immigrant background are guilty of facemasking non-immigrant Muslims from positions of prominence, both within the Muslim community and on the broader public stage in America. To continue with our sports analogy, the most common reason a player commits a facemask is because they are simultaneously trying to prevent an aggressor from tackling them or taking the ball away, all the while trying to gain yardage; the facemask penalty applies equally to the offense as well as the defense.

Just as the diagnosis for this issue may be difficult to swallow, so will the remedy. The issue of credentials and qualifications cannot be discussed without also asking what is the role of the (unqualified) individual in interpreting Islamic sources, and more importantly, what is their scope? I am not making a clarion call to say that individual Muslims cannot read the Qur’an—indeed even interpret some aspects of it on their own—but what has to change is the scope to which individual unqualified interpretations are made. The difficult truth is that there is no other way to combat anti-Muslim hatred, whose equally unqualified practitioners utilizes Islamic sources, other than demanding a standard across the board that will equally apply to Muslim and non-Muslim alike. This may sound grandiose and even unattainable but I provide at least one plausible tactic: unqualified Muslims (those who have not received adequate training and are also not recognized by the Muslim community to be legitimate representatives) refuse to engage the media. Those who infract this rule will face social stigma from the Muslim community. We can bring this to bear on a very uncomfortable truth: the very same methodology that Reza Aslan advocates (see above tweet) is precisely the same method that ISIS and other extremist groups use to concoct their own interpretations of Islam. While the results of ISIS may be different than those of Reza Aslan and his ilk, the tactics and methods are the same. When the question is asked, “who speaks for Islam?”, the answer should be, “someone qualified”.