Clash of Globalizations: Western and Islamic Utopianists

It seems that Islam and more specifically Muslims just can’t stay out of popular discourse these days. The so-called rise of Islam in our Modern Time has scribed such sloganistic terms as Clash of Civilizations. Additionally, Islam has fostered a entire profession of self-loathing, self-serving arm chair apostates, who, having left Islam, crown themselves as self-proclaimed ex-Muslims, make a living off of an odd mixture of bashing and faux-reformation, supposedly aimed at rectifying the masses of Muslims, who they have deemed as having succumbed to the innate barbarity that is at the very heart of Islam.

What is often left out of this elitist discourse is that many of these pundits are not part of any community of Muslims [how could they – they’ve left the religion]. Nor do they have any vested interest in these communities successes or failures. To the contrary, they have an interest in the “failures” of these Muslim communities, without which they would have to procure honest employment. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji are two such critics and reforms that come to mind. In a recent article in the Washington Post, Ali sited Manji as a, “genuine Muslim reformer”. I would have to ask Ms. Ali how she came to such a decision, being that in Manji’s book, The Trouble With Islam Today, is mainly a self-aggrandizing rant of one person’s experience growing up in an ethnic Muslim family. As woeful as Manji’s childhood tale may be, it is precisely just that. I am constantly awestruck by the arrogant and lapdog mentality of these “experts” in how they make their personal experiences an ontological criterion from which all Muslims and all of Islam, outside of time and space, can and will be judged. Manji’s book is as transparent as it is of value: she extols all that is white, Christian and Western [any such faults, as she fails to mention, would be presumably by accident] and defames all of Islam by the actions of her father or of her surroundings. In a sense, Islam is in need of reformation not because of any real issues, but because Manji was personally treated badly at the hands of some Muslims. A self-proclaimed homosexual, Manji objects to her exclusion from the Muslim community because of this stance. It is here that the arguments of these pundits fall apart. They will only see value in Islam as in how it fits neatly into a pre-packaged Western and yes, white ideal. Human rights, women’s rights, freedom of speech, are all sifted through the white, Christian sieve of upper middle-class white women. That which passes through is deemed admirable. That which does not – backwards and worthy of critique. In the following paragraphs I will share some sentiments on how the philosophy of globalization has infected the discourse on everything from economics to cultural dialog to how we go to war. But first, a few words about modern Muslim ideologies as well.

If Ali, Manji, and their contemporaries are guilty of what Dr. Sherman Jackson has dubbed, the “false universal” [or what I will refer to here in this post as globalization] then many modern Muslim ideologies also stand charged of the same crime. Much of the efforts of many modern Muslim religious thinkers has been to try and reduce, dilute or unify Islam into a single entity. That which does not fit this mold is tarnished as bid’ah [innovation] and is only a stone’s throw from being tossed in the refuse basked of kufr [disbelief]. Indeed, in my fifteen years years as a Muslim, I have often heard from various imams and preachers that Islam is a universal religion that neither sees nor quantifies race. And yet I can say with certainty that the common experience, especially on behalf of many indigenous American Muslims [convert or otherwise, who’s families do not hail from the “Muslim world”] would give stiff contradiction to the latter. In a recent post on the blog, Black American Muslim Political Scientists, Charles Catchings points out in this piece, I Am Not Alone:

“…the fundamentalist pretends that no issues of racial prejudice exist while advocating a very race and culture-based interpretation of Islam.”

Here, I would change fundamentalist part and parcel for the ethnic Muslim preachers [fundamentalist to me is a carpet bombing word that has no real meaning. It can be used to defame or slander anyone that at once practices the basic tenements of the religion that others may object to, assassinating his or her character simply because they disagree with them] I and many other fellow indigenous American Muslims have encountered. Here I wish to place special emphasis on the negation of the Blackamerican experience by ethnic Muslim preachers. Often it has been that myself or many other fellow Muslims have heard the kumbaya’ism, “there is no racism in Islam”, or that “Islam does not see race; it sees the individual”. Any yet, God speaks in the Qur’an often of variance and diversity that God has created, “in the Day and Night”. Indeed, as Dr. Khalid Blankenship pointed out in a lecture he gave last year here in Philadelphia, diversity is something that should not be removed but, in truth, celebrated. The irony to this is that many of these same preachers themselves use their own racial, ethnic or cultural backgrounds in interpreting Islam. This is not the issue, however. The issue is when one thinks one’s culture is Islam itself, and seeks to unify other histories [or in reality, obliterate them] under the unifying banner of “true Islam”.

Islam is not alone in that many of its teaching and concepts have the potential for universal appeal or interpretation. History has shown this to be the case as Islam can be found, in an indigenous state, on every continent and by almost all peoples. In Malaysia, Islam is a bone fide Malay religion. In Ghana, the same. It is a bona fide African religion. What works to make this process of assimilation by the indigenous peoples is their method of appropriating the religion, such that it speaks to them and to their history. This continues to be the primary limiting factor of Islam’s success in America, specifically amongst Blackamerican Muslims. Instead of appropriating Islam to address and speak to Blackamerican history, proclivities and social conditions, many Blackamericans have lost sight of the forest ‘fore the trees. In the words of one Blackamerican critic of Islam, other fellow Blackamerican Muslims are perceived as going from the back of the bus to the back of the camel. That blacks have, “out Arabed the Arabs”. Indeed, there is a certain amount of truth to this critique. The manner in which many Blackamericans encountered and entered Islam was through the prism of a foreign, ethnic understanding and agenda. Hence, to this day, large populations of Blackamerican Muslims are content to live in abject crime and poverty, even though, from a religious viewpoint, they have an obligation to fight it! While this subject is worthy of another post in itself, I will not go further into other than to illustrate how the version of Islam that is being practiced by Blackamerican Muslims is out of touch with their reality. A version that was propagated to them from universalist, Utopian Muslims.

With the tone set for both sides of the firing line, I will attempt to illustrate some points on the impact of globalization, or more specifically, the ideology of globalization on modern thought processes.

America and her culture make for a peculiar dance partner. If one were to simply step back, you might see someone’s shoes peeking out the bottom of the Wizard’s curtain. And yet, American culture proclaims mightily that it is indeed, the Great and Powerful Oz. For all of its rhetoric, America falls painfully short of any real manifestation of diversity. Instead, one particular group along with its history, values, proclivities and inclinations, is foisted upon a pedestal as an invisible criteria, circumscribing normalcy and proscribing that which does not fall within the its lines. As Roberto Bissio writes in Diversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature, “in all the corners of this diverse world is a systematic aggression against diversity, both natural and cultural – a destructive and impoverishing trend towards uniformity, which hides its threatening face behind the name “globalization.” [Anton, Danilo J. Diversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature. Ottawa, Ontario: International Development Research Centre, 1995. Pg ix.]. This act of circumscribing/proscribing is make even more potent by the increasing global influence of American culture. As the dominant economic and military power in the world, American sensibilities of right and wrong, just and fair, or even what constitutes beauty are carried far beyond its border with incredible efficacy. This allows America, and by American I mean white Americans, to wield tremendous power as both judge and executioner. The cultures that come in contact with this phenomenon are often “shocked and awed” into complacency, and in an attempt to save face and not be left a seat at the table of Modernity, they jettison their own historical proclivities for a chance to appease the master. This cycle of globalization in cross-cultural exchanges only [mistakenly] reinforces America’s belief that it is the pinnacle of social achievement. Dr. Jackson’s erudite assessment that the Twenty First Century is the century of the false universal, whereas its counterpart, the Twentieth Century, was the color line. Modern Muslims have taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker.

The great British historian, Arnold Toynbee, stated, “Civilizations in decline are consistently characterized by a tendency towards standardization and uniformity.” The state of Muslims in this time and age are most certainly in a state of decline. I do not wholly come to this conclusion because Muslims are not just like the West [because, well, in fact, this Muslim is just like the West in that this is where I’m born, raised, and live!]. Aside from the fact that many Muslims are 100% western [whether they choose to admit it or embrace it is another matter], I reject that in order to be morally upright, socially progressive and the like that is can only be done in accordance to white, Western values. This having been stated, Muslims around the world have fallen into the great pit trap of the Twenty First Century: the trap of globalized ideologies. As has been stated above, Islam has many universal ideals. I will not attempt to lay the blame for such ideologies solely at the feet of Western culture but the impact and influence of the West on Muslim thought cannot be discounted in its current manifestation. I will even go so far as to suggest that in many ways, the globalized vision of many Muslims would not be as vehement if there were not a counter ideology coming from the West. But to escape polemics, Muslims are going to have to look critically and intelligently at their respective situations and act accordingly to them. No longer can a cardboard, brand-X, our-size-fits-all mentality be acceptable. This endeavor calls for real soul searching.

History cannot be evaded. And only at one’s detriment can it be ignored. Aside from Native Americans, Blackamericans are suffering the ill effects of doing just that – ignoring the fact that they are black and live in America [I would add that perhaps Native Americans are not ignoring their past but America as a whole, having dealt them a killing blow, has forgotten all about them]. If Islam is to become something other than a foreign culture activity, something to give Blackamericans identity and [false] esteem, then Islam will have to be appropriated and steered both towards our history, addressing our present, so that a trajectory for the future may be charted. A triage will have to be performed on the body of Blackamerican Islam, assessing its health, wealth, and faculty for moving forward. What parts can be kept, what parts can be modified and what parts need be amputated, these are the questions for the surgeons of the future of Blackamerican Islam. And while I have chosen to emphasis Blackamerican Muslims for this example, I believe this is the process that needs to be done by any and all Muslims, both those abroad but most immediately those here in America [black, white or otherwise]. Community independence will need to be established, lead by an energetic youthfulness, tempered by the wisdom of its elders. A word of caution – there are those of the old guard, good intentions or otherwise, that will seek to retain authority and control of these communities. While the advice of the elders should always be sought and taken into consideration it is painfully apparent that current leadership in the American and yes, Blackamerican community, is far out of step with the realities of the times. Muslims are going to have to put aside differences and even learn to celebrate real differences as the strength of their communities and not the false diversity that is presented today [“…you can be whatever you want, as long as you’re just like us…”]. This was a process and a wisdom of the Classical Tradition, that agreed to disagree. If this concept can be grasped, Muslims may be able to carve themselves out a functional, harmonious, and dignified existence both in this part of the world and abroad as well.

And God knows best.

Public Minimum, Private Maximum

There is much debate these days regarding Islam, the West, democracy, human rights, statism and a whole slew of other topics which all collide in a jumble of arm chair reactions and suppositions. Slogans are volleyed at slogans – a cycle of retaliation. As someone who is now more frequently called upon to talk about Islam [or more specifically, to “explain Islam”], this has become an increasingly difficult and sophisticated task. One of the most glaring difficulties is that the dialog is often between two comparatives – meaning that the position that many non-Muslim [and quite frankly, anti-Muslim] opponents is that the West is the criterion in which to judge the rest of the “free world” by. As Olivier Roy illustrates their case, “that there is no salvation (no modernity) outside of the Western political model.” [Roy, Olivier. The Political Failure of Islam. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994. Pg. 8.]. To be fair, there are many Muslims today who have an imagined concept of what the Muslim society or even ummah, should be: a societal body governed by shari’ah, where within both the sovereign and the people are subjects to shari’ah. That there is no law, secular or religious, that works either parallel or perpendicular to the shari’ah. To a great extent, this imagination is evoked from the first early communities of Muslim, the Pious Ancestors and the Rightly Guided Khalifas. To bring us back to our impasse, the Western critic sees Islam locked in an ahistorical, static mode, and mainly due to their [limited, in my opinion] understanding of shari’ah, Muslims can never break out of this mold and therefore Islam and Muslims are doomed to an at best social structure that something out of the Middle Ages. Ironically, many Muslims use the same said argument as their clarion call to both Islam and the establishment of the Islamic state – Islam is timeless, and due to its Divinely Inspired system of lifestyle, is beyond reproach.

In order to move beyond this seemingly immutable approach on both parties, comparativism will have to be dropped. Instead, both parties will have to accept a certain degree of innate legitimacy on the other, even if they will never adopt one another’s system. In the simplest terms, proponents of Islam and the West will have to agree to disagree. But this is only the beginnings of cross-societal understandings. In addition to such modern topics as statism, more enduring subjects such as freedom and justice will also have to be engaged. It is from here that I shall steer the direction of this post.

A short while back, I was asked to explain the stance of Islam on such topics as freedom and more specifically, freedom of speech. This was not too long after the Danish cartoons were released, much to the chagrin of many Muslims. The person inquiring, a white, upper-class woman, asked why Muslims do not support freedom of speech. I replied, that in order to answer her question, I would need further description on what she defined as “freedom of speech”. The look I received from the woman was one of disbelief. “Why”, she explained in a voice meant for a child, “it’s the right to say whatever you want”. While I do not believe that all people, or indeed, that all white, upper-class women hold to this belief, I will nonetheless use it as the platform to attempt to illustrate some points on how Islam might potentially view such things as rights, freedom, and justice in contrast to what is held as the “norm” here in America. The following is a more in-depth summary of what I explained to her.

To begin with, I shall layout my own personal interpretations of how freedom is understood in America, mostly from a pop culture point of view. Most Americans I have encountered view freedom as the ability to act, talk, walk, dress and simply, “be” as you please. The idea that there should be any censure on these items would be the infringement on private rights. In the recent Don Imus scandal, freedom of speech was invoked in support of Mr. Imus, in that it was his right as an American to speak his mind and to voice his opinion, however it may insult or even harm members of the general public. Similarly, a woman has the right to dress as she pleases. This can include everything from tight, revealing clothing to headscarf and veil [though, the same right that is extended to a woman in a bikini is often overturned towards Muslim woman who choose to cover – the implied meaning that they must be coerced, backwards, or insane]. The rights of the general populous or good are taken as a secondary consideration in the right to, “express freedom”.

It is here we see the engagement of disagreeing parties over Islam’s supposed lack of concern for freedom of speech. For non-Muslim/anti-Muslim critics, it is assumed that Islam as a value system is opposed to freedom of speech. In my opinion, these critics are wrong. My indictment of them is one of either ignorance of the subtle intricacy of Islam [and here I am referring to shari’ah or Islamic law] or ideological disagreement that carries with it an active disregard for the above. Instead, Islam has the potential for a different approach to the concept of freedom, which takes us back to the title of this post: public minimum, private maximum.

In Islam, freedom [hurriyah حرية, in Arabic] is primarily sought in the private sphere. One’s personal tastes and desires can be sought to their fullest extent in the private sector, be they to the personal empowerment or detriment, and regardless of their potential for being morally suspect. Let me explain this a bit further. Homosexuality is one of the hot button topics we hear today. Religious groups of all affiliations flock to support or to oppose such legislation. But under shari’ah, which has limits on its ability to extend to the private life, a ban on homosexual marriage for example, would be potentially inadmissible. Islam views marriage as a private social or religious contract, and given Islam’s stance on homosexuality [i.e., Islam does not condone homosexuality as a valid lifestyle] it would have no role in bringing any such unions to fruition. In other words, homosexuals would be free to conduct their own marriages because Islam, or more precisely, shari’ah, does not extend to this area. To be sure, there are many who will disagree with me on this, and it should not be mistook as an attempt to legitimize what God has made illegitimate, but instead, this is an example on how Islam/shari’ah have the ability to coexist and even support freedoms that it has serious moral misgivings with.

Another example would be adultery. Again, an immoral action that potentially is a punishable offense and yet, one of the binding stipulations in order to bring admissible evidence against any such culprits is the having of three witnesses. There is a wisdom here, in that while adultery is a terrible sin, it nonetheless happens. And as a measure to protect private interests, even where they be morally wrong, Islam institutes a system which insulates the privacy of the individual from outside forces. Unless one is traveling in roving packs of three’s, staring through someone’s window, the credibility of bringing an adultery case to trial is exceedingly difficult [no – it was never the intention of Islam/shari’ah to create an adultery police or even a moral police brigade]. Instead, personal piety and awe/fear of God and the Day of Reckoning are the tools that God and his Prophet sought to instill in the believer as the means of avoiding either of the above offenses. Nonetheless, the right to engage in either of the above activities would be a private maximum as well as the means of abstaining from them.

Instead, as I explained to the woman, Islam turns its focus more directly on Justice. Justice [‘adl عدل in Arabic] is one of the primary preoccupations of Islam, the shari’ah and the Muslims. The Qur’an speaks of justice and not freedom [again, the shari’ah provides an embedded, tacit modality for engaging in the freedom of private affairs], for justice is always sought in the public domain. Zulm [ظلم], brute aggression or oppression, for which there is no call or right, is the admonition that God speaks about in terms of rulers. In fact, zulm is such a dangerous entity, God warns the believers to fear the fitnah or domination, as in this Qur’anic passage:

وَٱتَّقُوا۟ فِتْنَةًۭ لَّا تُصِيبَنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا۟ مِنكُمْ خَآصَّةًۭ ۖ وَٱعْلَمُوٓا۟ أَنَّ ٱللَّهَ شَدِيدُ ٱلْعِقَابِ

“And fear the trial of systematic domination which targets not solely those among you who commit acts of grave injustice but rather indiscriminately. And know that God is severe in punishment.” Qur’an 8: 25.

God uses the verb, asaaba [أصاب iv], but in the negative [laa tusiybanna]. Asaaba means to strike directly, such as an arrow hitting its target. But when used in the negative, it implies a widespread, indiscriminate targeting, in which anyone or anything could be hit or affected, aside from any intended target. In this sense, the believer is admonished to be God-conscious of the “trial of systematic oppression [fitnah]” in that it does not restrict itself to simply affecting its intended target – it affects the whole population. Because of this, as a short example, justice plays a more paramount role because it ensures the public right to engage in private affairs by investigating the maslahah [مصلحة common good or welfare of the society in shari’ah terms]. This is why totalitarianism is intolerable under the Islamic/shari’ah schema. There is a “social contract”, to borrow from Locke, between the sovereign and the public. And when that sovereign transgresses the bounds, it is then permissible if not incumbent upon the public to throw off that yoke of tyranny.

To fully engage this subject more, it would require more time and would be beyond the scope or intention of this post to do so. More, instead, this is meant as a sort of primer for beginning to see how Islam might see freedom and justice in a different light than that of the West – and how it should not detract from its support for individual freedoms. Hat tip to Dr. Jackson.

And God knows best.