The Trouble With Muslim Pundits Today

Today was an odd turn of events that had the building which houses my office on UPenn’s campus, play host to a talk on Islam by one of today’s most darling Muslim pundits, Irshad Manji. A self-proclaimed Muslim reformist, activist, human rights lobbiest and lesbian, Irshad gave a talk to an attentive audience which was comprised of both Muslim and non-Muslim, old and young alike. Dr. Leonard Swidler, from Temple University, was also on hand to add to the discussion. But, unfortunately, like her book, The Trouble With Islam Today, the talk was filled with nothing more than drivel. And that’s just the good part.

So much of the dialog today regarding Islam is in how it can fit into the master narrative of Western discourse. This encompasses everything from morals, ethics, to aesthetics, such as standards and concepts of beauty. When Islam fails to authenticate a narrative that falls within the margins of the dominant culture, it and vis-a-vie, the Muslims, are condemned as being backwards, barbaric, and even morally, ethically, and intellectually bankrupt. And when a people are deemed barbaric or morally bankrupt, the slippery slope to subjugation, whether it be figuratively, psychologically or physically can never trail far behind. This process of brutalization bears striking resemblance to the types of psychological terror that have been visited upon various minority groups in the West, especially in America, when they failed to meet the criterion of a dominant force that often have a pattern of “moving the goal post” when it suited itself opportune.

A major portion of my critique on Manji’s arguments and positions as well as comments that Dr. Swidler gave, were that neither Manji nor Swidler are scholastically equipped to answer any such questions regarding the intellectual tradition of Islam. Manji is a journalist of questionable objectivity and Swidler’s expertise lies outside the fold of Islam. Manji often relies on crude reductionism coupled with a woefully absent basic familiarity with the Islamic Tradition. Buzz words like ijtihad, fatwah and of course, the crowd-pleaser, jihad, are tossed out to lend to her some Islamic academic credibility. In fact, Swidler’s presence is somewhat questionable as Temple University could have certainly offered up someone who would have been far better suited to the task at hand. In light of access to scholars like Khalid Blankinship, it remained a curiosity as to why Manji chose a non-Muslim religious professor to engage in talks about Muslim reform.

But to take things a step further, Manji’s book, The Trouble With Islam Today, is guilty of the same crime that many of its contemporaries are: making the personal experience an ontological narrative. To help further explain my point, let me offer this explanation: because of the trials and tribulations that Manji faced as a child, because of the personal experiences that Manji had and the choices she’s made, she has taken the sum of those experiences and built the foundation of her argument around them such that they take on a scope that is completely inappropriate. That because they were or are issues for Manji they must be equally important issues for all Muslims in all times and in all places. A great deal of Manji’s contemporaries, such as Ayan Hirsi Ali to name one, frame their arguments in the same manner. But to reiterate, these criticisms of Islam do not simply stop at personal narrative, they apex again at how Islam falls short on a laundry list of items such as equality, human rights, tolerance and progression. In where Islam fails to be equal, tolerant or progressive in the “Western” paradigm that Manji offers up, Islam is deemed to have a problem. So this left me asking some simple but pertinent questions: are any of these issues true? And if so, how, and in what way? And again, if so, what would be the best way of looking for resolutions.

Before tackling any of the issues that Manji tries to speak on the, I have a few questions of my own. Namely, is she, or Professor Swidler capable of addressing these issues from both within and without the Muslim intellectual tradition. What are Manji’s credentials that would allow her to speak authoritatively on issues that Muslims today are facing. Indeed, it seems to be Manji’s modus operandi to completely leap frog the whole of Muslim intellectual thought and just, as she put it to me, bypass dogma.

Much of the holes in Manji’s arguments, and for pundits like her, is that because they are not conversant with that tradition and thus the judgments and rulings that it produces, they marginalize it under the assumption that because it is from the Tradition it is old, outdated, antiquated and has nothing to offer to modern Muslims in modern times. This could not be further from the truth. And aside from this stiff arming they also neglect why it is important and still speaks to Muslims today. This inadequacy is more than simple ignorance of the intellectual tradition of Muslim thought but also woeful negligence in being versed in simple creedal formulations in Muslim theology such as the rightful place of God as an authority, the rightful place of authority of the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad and how these authorities are negotiated.

During the talk, Manji made several quips about God being a “he or she” – the idea that God is neither masculine nor feminine is one of the primary principles in fundamental Islamic creed, yet Manji insists on using a language that is far from the spirit of what Muslim theology is all about. A similar stance is taken towards the sunnah, in that it is something that should be questioned, not in its application (as is how the Tradition does) but yet to question its validity as a whole. The result of which the Sunnah is seen as also a derelict of a by-gone era and thus should be tossed aside in favor of pure, so-called rational thinking.

For many Muslim/anti-Muslim pundits today, authority lies at the crux of their objections. In their arguments, Islam has suffered from an authoritative crisis, namely that the ulama’ — or religious scholars — have put a choke hold on religious interpretation and expression and therefore to avoid the risk of any further entrapment of religious authority, the baby is tossed out with the bath water. But no body or organization can survive much less thrive without an authoritative voice. And the sham to this is that in fact, most of these pundits, and Manji in specific here, seek to simply usurp the currently perceived authority for their own hegemonic voice. It is through this tension that Manji, and pundits like her, have with authority that the agenda of such said pundits becomes clear.

During the talk, the example of the fatwah that was issued against Salman Rushdie was used as a means of demonstrating the backwards, barbaric and even violent tendencies that this authoritative voice could foster. And yet, not once, either of negligence, ignorance or purpose, the fatwah that was issued by the Mufti of Egypt from al-Azhar University denying the validity of any such fatwah was conveniently left out. In light of its absence it would indeed seem that the Muslim world is not only monolithic but monolithic in its barbarity, an image that is often offered up from the hands of Orientalist scholars of Islam. In fact, when Manji’s research is examined a bit more closely, it is laced with Orientalist tendencies of understanding Islam and Muslims. This is far from the “fair and balanced” reporting that Manji would leave us to believe.

Manji’s axe to grind with authority extends even to basic tenants of Islam such as prayer. When asked about prayer she responded that she does not need anyone to tell her how to pray – that she can devise such a way on her own. Such thinking could not be further from the pale of Islamic theology 101. But the main issue with this line of thought is not that Manji wants to “find her own way” but in that she wishes to seek accommodation in the orthodoxy of the religion. Wanting to be homosexual and pray in your own way is completely a matter of personal choice but there is simply no way to justify it with the texts, traditions and methodologies in Islam. Expecting to do so shows not only a lack of intelligence but also immaturity on Manji’s part. This only further demonstrates Manji’s desire to influence and assert her own authority for if her way was sufficient and as she put it to me, “between me and my God”, then gaining an ascendant voice would not be necessary. No, it is indeed this ambition to flip the current and Traditional modules of authority on their respective heads that lies at much of Manji’s argument.

To continue to examine Manji’s theological constructs, one comment she made struck me dead in my tracks. When she spoke to her mother about praying to God in her own way she made a rebuttal that she offered up sincere words of gratitude and that she offered them willingly to God. It is not my focus to deconstruct Manji’s arguments solely on dogmatic grounds but she has completely missed the forest ‘fore the trees. One of the basic underlying principles dictating the relationship between God and Man is that God needs nothing from us. And that anything we offer up in the way of worship, orthodox or heretical, adds nothing to the dominion of God. Manji’s argument is typical of persons who have bones to pick with religion (legitimate or otherwise) and assume a posture of arrogance that is not befitting them. Hence in Islam, only God has the right to Arrogance (al-Mutakabbir) as God needs nothing and only One free from want can be truly arrogant.

A favorite target of these hybrid-Orientalists, as I will call them, is the use of the Middle-East as a criterion for the very possibilities of what Islam can and cannot be and specifically, where it fails to achieve the hurdles set up by the very same judges who also craft the questions, Islam and by proxy, all Muslims, are deemed to be inferior. In her documentary, Manji does extensive filming in Yemen, a country in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, and as Manji put it, the birthplace of Islam (though I’d say her geography is off just a bit but who’s counting). As Manji takes in the sights of Yemen the camera displays for us the manifold women who walk the streets, head scarves covering their heads and veils on many of the faces. The critique is centered around the “sameness” of everything and that there is a stifled individuality. In its essence the whole film is a work of cinematic Orientalism. Two examples are offered to the viewer: an American woman who married a Yemeni man and now wears the hijab and veil and a Yemeni woman who has taken to adopting Western styles of dress. There was no interview done of Yemeni women who do wear hijab and veil and do so out of their own choice and not out of a 7th Century tribal (another argument of Manji’s that I will address in a moment) affiliation. Instead, we are encouraged to see how backwards the society is in how it hasn’t caught up with Modernity – Modernity in how the West has interpreted it. And it’s a steep and slippery slope from being backwards to being brutalized; both physically and psychologically.

Tribalism seems to be one of the central arguing points of Manji. That the entire Muslim world is in reality, a humongous body of worshipers who have been indoctrinated into a 7th Century modality of living. Anything that a Muslim does is not out of his or her understanding but rather in obedience to Arabian tribalism. This myopic vision is again, indicative of Orientalism, which willingly lacked the ability to look at Islam as an idiosyncrasy in the way in which white European Christians were an idiosyncrasy. Muslims were not a body of believers that had tremendous diversity in custom and in interpretation but a monolith – no variation. No individual thought. And more importantly, anything that any Muslim did or thought was inextricably linked and informed by their religion and was therefore part and parcel for Islam itself. This philosophy is still alive and well today and continues to inform a great deal of the scholarship on Islam in the West. Orientalism is not the only misgiving that Manji’s work is guilty of. Reductionist thinking is another characteristic that her work is ripe with. From the way in which she interviews small minorities of Muslims and yet offers what they have to say, think and feel, as capturing the majority spirit. Her critique that Muslim women who wear hijab are simply using fundamentalism as a moral compass is so woefully guilty of reductionist thinking that it is only because Manji offers an articulation of Islam that is appeasing to the dominant culture that it has not been cast out as completely devoid of any substance.

In the end, Manji’s work reveals bare, the bones she has to pick with authority within orthodox Islam. But instead of approaching Islam in a methodical way, she simply side steps the intellectual traditions, branding them as dogmatic, devoid of any life or creativity. And it is here that Manji’s assumptions are the same as the Orientalists: that the endeavor of Muslim history and its Tradition have nothing pertinent to say in the modern context. And it is through this adoption of Western normals and values, without a single shred of scrutiny, reveals Manji’s bias. Indeed, Manji’s critique of Islam is not in how it succeeds or impedes the pleasing of God and attaining a successful life in the Hereafter but in how it does not measure up to Westerness; a goal post that is wholly unachievable and nor should it be proffered as a desired achievement. The opinions and the histories that informed those Muslims and how they reached them are never acknowledged let alone tackled. Simply put, in each and every way that Islam and Muslims do not meet the articulation that Irshad Manji and pundits like her concoct then Islam and the Muslims are open game to be humiliated and brutalized, whether that be psychological or otherwise. And that’s not “tough journalism” – it’s sensationalism and deceit.

Perhaps in the future Manji might be willing to sit and discuss her work with a Muslim scholar or at the very least, a scholar of Islam. I found an intriguing curiosity that with a scholar like Dr. Khalid Blankinship at Temple University was passed over in favor of Dr. Swidler, who, while a professor of religion, is not a scholar of Islam. Until then I think that Manji will continue to loose face in the majority Muslim body, which is precisely where she wants to plant her flag. I for one am available for comment or discussion.

And God knows best.

The Sacred

Today’s world is a cynical world. How often do we see the deepest, the most egregious problems dealt with a cynical hand? I heard once from a modern scholar that the only people in today’s society that have the power to critique are the comedians. But they loose their impact because they trivialize the issue by making a jest of it (whether or not that make a jest of it).

I recently gave a talk at Rutgers University, to a group of students who were taking a class on spiritual autobiography. Like many people I’ve talked to this year in regards to Islam, “why did the Muslims react the way in which they did towards the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad” has been been one of the more popular questions. My answer has been long coming to me – but the answer I gave that day and the one I’ll give again today is because of The Sacred. I will outline what I mean by sacred so that one will not conflate my words to mean that I condone actions of violence. I most certainly do not. But in an effort to break away from the certain perspectives (Orientalist, Islamophobes…) that these violent reactions are a result of the Eastern Mind or something inherent in Islam and instead, people’s (misguided, and I’ll get to that as well) frustrations towards The Sacred being violated. For many people who had issue with the cartoons (myself included), we were told that Freedom of Speech trumped our concepts of The Sacred. Being able to say whatever comes to one’s mind supersedes that of moral, ethical and public judgment. With this reckless abandonment of wisdom as a system, then there will always be people who will lash out (hopefully in a proverbial way) against having that which they hold as Sacred, trampled underneath someone else’s belief system. The final part of this short essay is the re-examination of what is and isn’t Sacred for Muslims, or if I may be so bold, what aught to be Sacred and the re-prioritization of The Sacred for Muslims based on what the Prophet and his companions held as Sacred, as a guide for Muslims living in this “Western” part of the world.

Before we can clear the deck for me to leap into this topic I’d like to clarify a few short topics. In a recent interview I was quoted as being a “progressive Muslim”. In today’s world of headlines and sound-bites, one little word, one little phrase can pigeonhole a person. To state it for the record, I never used this word “progressive” to describe myself or any of my ideologies. Islam in the 20th century has a seen a vast array of movements: Reformists. Traditionalists. Jihadists. And yes, Progressives. While it is not the focus of this post to target any of those groups or to even say that they are not legitimate, I will say that I am not a reformist, a traditionalist, a jihadist or a progressive. Now that isn’t to say that I may not share specific sentiments with some of these groups but I do not want my labeling as a Progressive to be conflated as consensual.

The most sacred thing for Muslims is God. That is a simple fact. And it is not just simply that there is a god but that there is no god except God (La ilaha illallah). This simple phrase, known as the Testimony of Faith (al-Shahadah) is the foundation of Muslim theology and belief. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, one of the key aspects of his mission was to reintroduce Monotheism back to the world. The majority of the Arabs living in the Arabian peninsula during the time of the Prophet had slipped into idol worship, despite many of them being descendants of great prophets of God themselves (Abraham, Jonah, Shu’aib to name a few). The center of interest in Makkah was the Ka’bah, the house that Abraham built as a place of worship. And while the Qur’an was revealed throughout the 23 years of the Prophet’s stay in Arabia, it dealt theologically with Sacred Ideologies, chief amongst them was not ascribing partners or association with God. God admonishes those that say God is three or that Jesus the son of Mary, the Messiah, is God himself [Q 5: 72-75]. I state this here not polemically – that is not the point of my argument. But rather to reinforce what is sacred to Muslims. God is the most sacred – one of God’s names is al-Quddus, or The Holy or The Sacred. So with this understanding, why is it that Muslims aren’t jumping off at every Christian for wearing a cross on their necks or building churches that have Jesus on the cross, worshipped as God or the son of God? Because of another sacred source for Muslims – the Sunnah.

That the Prophet Muhammad is sacred for Muslims goes without saying. His life is a holy example for all Muslims in terms of morals, permissible actions and so forth. Many rulings for Shari’ah or Islamic Law, comes from his life. But if we were to examine the Prophet’s life and look at what he considered sacred, would it coincide with what Muslims hold as sacred?

To take the example from above, referring to Christians and their theological stance that they proclaim Jesus the son of Mary is the Son of God, this would contradict the teachings that the Prophet was preaching. And yet, while going against the grain of God’s theological bounds, the Prophet never proclaimed the life of the Christians forfeit. No churches were burned down on his order. No representatives of Christianity were assassinated. To take it a step further, the pagans were not indiscriminately slaughtered. Their idols were not even allowed to be desecrated. Why? Because the Prophet knew that Jesus was holy, sacred to the Christians even while he believed it wrong! The pagan Arabs (who, on a scale, ranked much lower than Jews or Christians because they were people who had received Divine Revelation) were still treated with respect and treaties were signed with them. If Muslims would but take the time to study their own “traditions”, we might see that that which we hold as sacred and that which the Prophet held as sacred are not one and the same. And further, even when something this is sacred to us is violated, are actions are woefully unacceptable.

Our modern age is one of false universals and failed utopian ideologies. And while the Muslims are not alone in perpetuating such rhetoric, ironically, they are just as guilty as their Western counterparts which they blame of the same crime. Often wrapped in the guise of “tradition”, this one-size fits all mentality has and is causing grave harm to Muslim communities across the globe and I have personally seen its insidious affects in my 14-year career as a Muslim. For those who call for an Islamic state to be raised in America I say that you would have to obtain the rights from Roberta Flack for its national anthem, for surely this is “killing us softly”.

So what are some other things that the Prophet held as sacred? Human life would most certainly rank high on his list. Caring for the poor. Visiting the sick and caring for the old. As Muslims, where do these categories rank on our lists? This is where Muslims fail in my opinion. As a group that believes it should uphold high moral standards, how are we caring for the poor? How many Muslim organizations have we developed that care for old and sick people in our neighborhoods, regardless of race, creed or religion? How many Muslim organizations have we built that care for the poor? Are we involved in urban development? Big brother, big sister organizations? I’m sure I will receive many emails confirming that we do partake in such actions. And while there may be a few why are they absent from the public spot light?

As it stands now, Muslims are not known as a group that participate in the greater society (and yet we want people to sympathize with us when we have problems). At a recent meeting between myself and other fellow bloggers, astonishment would be the word that would best describe the reactions of others when they found out that I was a Muslim and that I desired to participate in society. This is not a PR statement for myself but rather a reflection on the status of Muslims in society. If Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man today he’d have to re-title it Invisible People.

So in the end I believe we as Muslims are in need of a serious revamping of what is and isn’t Sacred to us. We need to seriously reevaluate what is important to us and what isn’t. The military developed a term called triage – we need to stop the bleeding and then reexamine what we’re about. I believe this reexamination starts with the basics – Qur’an and Sunnah. It may surprise you that I would choose such a sloganized answer but none the less, I do believe the answer lies there in. By Qur’an, I mean we should actually spend time reading it. Many of us do not. We rely on regurgitated quotes from people who have little formal training and short intellects. The Sunnah of the Prophet is also do for a serious reexamination. What did he say? What did he do? How was he both simultaneously stern and flexible? How could he proclaim no god but God and yet make concessions with idolators? Muhammad was a complex man – revisiting his life and his prophethood will no doubt turn up many unknown gems for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This is a topic which deserves deeper introspection – an introspection that cannot fully be dealt with in a small post as it is here. Rather, it is my hope that we may ponder this questions, these situations and feel moved to do something about it. And in the words of Umar Ibn al-Khattab, “Allah and His Messenger know best”.

The Seerah With Dr. Sherman Jackson – Seeing Love In Action

I am so tired right now but I had to put this down on pen and paper (or pixel and electrons if you will). I will comment at greater length as to the details of Dr. Jackson’s two-day session at NYU (especially as I’ve only seen one day so far) but I’d like to speak on Dr. Jackson as a whole and what he means to me.

I know I’ve written an awful lot about Dr. Jackson here and even he may think my words are misplaced but I will say that we, meaning American Muslims, are so blessed, so fortunate to have someone like him that I want to take a moment to personally thank him.

The session I spoke of is the two-day session on the Seerah of the Prophet: The Makkan Period. Never before have I had the biography of the Prophet laid out before me. One of several epiphanies that I had during this course is that there needs to be a serious, scholarly re-working of the Muslims understanding of the Prophet. By this I mean we need to have the language and the method in which the Prophet is presented to us re-tooled to fit the times in which we live. For many of us (and myself until recent) I believe/d the Prophet is/has been made into an unhuman figure. What do I mean by unhuman (not inhuman!)? I mean that we often hear ourselves quoting the fact that the Prophet never made a mistake even though we have Qur’anic proof that he did:

He frowned and turned his back when the blind man came towards him. How could you tell? He might have sought to purify himself. He might have been forewarned, and might have profited from Our warning. But to the wealthy man you were all attention: although the fault would not be yours (the Prophet) if he remained uncleansed.{Qur’an: 80 v.1-5}

This is not some play at words – the Prophet was a real person, a real human being. He did make a mistake. The difference is that God never allowed the Prophet to perpetuate a mistake or more clearly, what ever mistakes the Prophet may have committed would be/were corrected before his death. This, in my opinion, is a more correct way to look at the عصمة (‘ismah) or infallibility of the Prophet.

As Muslims, we need to ask ourselves, why do we have these perceptions? Should we have them? And how can we begin a process of (as Yoda put it so eloquently), “unlearning what we have learned.” For me, I see many Muslims are afraid to tackle these issues. Some thing by looking at the Prophet in this light, it opens the door of capitulating to the Orientalist or Islamaphobes perception of the Prophet. But, as per Dr. Jackson’s advice, instead of worrying how others outside of our religious fold define the Prophet, perhaps we should concentrate on how we define him. If we remove our desire for outside validation, then perhaps so many of our phobias will fall away.

It was this and more that Dr. Jackson brought to us. The Prophet came alive for us. Though we could never walk in his shoes, we certainly could empathize with him. The Prophet was a man who loved his people: idolators, Jews, Christians, Muslims, all of them. And he showed this love in how he carried out his prophethood.

The Prophet was also a man who also experienced deep sorrow. Never wanting the mantle of prophethood, Khadijah, his first wife and if I may be so bold, his big love of his life, was his rock and corner stone when his received Revelation. Khadijah was the first Muslim. And when she died, the sorrow that he must have felt was immense. I could only imagine what it must have been like. A message delivered to you in which no one else is aware of. And the only person who trusts and believes you, who bares your children and comforts you, is one day taken from you (all the while, hostility is growing towards you and your movement and there’s no backing out of it – how do you back out of delivering God’s message?). When Dr. Jackson said that the Prophet had to come home to a lonely home after 25 years of marriage, the deep sorrow the Prophet felt at Khadijah’s death, overwhelmed me. As I sat and pondered these thoughts on the bus back to Philadelphia that evening, I started to weep. I imagined being in love and having that great love taken from you. Coming home and not having that person be there. I thought of my father and what it would mean for him to come home and not have my mother there and I just kept crying.

I’ve often heard stories of Muslims weeping when they thought of the Prophet and until then, I could not conceptualize it (also, added to the fact that men do not cry comfortably about anything in our culture!). But that night, for the first time in the nearly 15 years I’ve been Muslim, I grasped the humanity of the Prophet, what his Message was, the sacrifices he gave and then could fully understand the meaning behind صلى الله عليه وسلم (May God send peace and blessings upon the Prophet). For this, I am eternally grateful to Dr. Jackson.

I will put up shortly some notes from Dr. Jackson’s lecture there. It’s still in a distillation process for me. So be patient and stay tuned.

Apology Theory – The Cycle of Inferiority

You know, it’s tempting to give in to the various conspiracy theories out there. I mean, when you look at events that are unfolding before us these days, it really seems as if this is so scripted, so purposeful, that it’s just gotta be a conspiracy.

I’m gonna warn you right now – this post may ramble a bit, but, like any chase worth the take, just try and stay with me.

I was leaving class yesterday evening when I picked up a copy of the Financial Times and on its cover was a picture of Iranian Muslims signing up to volunteer themselves as suicide bombers in the event of a U.S. or U.K. attack. My first reaction is, “God damn. Here we go.” Is this for real? It’s as if we’re caught in some really bad Apocalyptic, Orwellian B-movie countdown sequence. The U.S. continually threatens Iran; Iran makes these insane, chest thumping reactions which seamlessly seem to fit and play into the rhetoric of the Islamophobes here in the West. [Ding]. That’s where the light goes on that says, “Don’t let ’em fool you, brother, it’s a conspiracy.” Conspiracy? How, you may ask. Well, am I the only one that wonders how does some one like Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, come into power and precisely at the right moment? It’s as if someone in either the White House or some D.C. think tank said, “Enter stage left, Mr. Ahmadinejad.” I feel that if I look close enough, I can see the markers on the ground so he doesn’t step out of focus for the camera man. The Greeks couldn’t have written a better Comedy/Tragedy (well, yes, actually, they could have). But on a serious note, this is disturbing and I will try to illustrate why I think so.

Islam is on the defense. There can be no doubt about this. Muslim scholars and intellectuals have been in a virtual horse race since 9/11 to preach an almost Ghandi-like message to the world that Islam is “a religion of peace”. “Islam means peace”. “Muslims are peaceful people and the vast majority simply want to live out their lives in a peaceful coexistence with their neighbors, be the Christians, Jews, or other”. And while this may certainly be the case for large numbers of Muslims here in the West and across the world, there are consequences for this rhetoric. I will try to lay out a few in the following paragraphs.

To begin, I am not trying to ignite a debate on the “meaning of Islam”. To be reductionist if I may, Islam means many different things to many different people – and many of these people (present company included) may indeed be entitled to their interpretations. So for the sake of this post, I will accept a person’s definition that Islam is a religion of peace. What I’d like to do is examine the potential externalities of such an outlook. For more information on permissibility in Islam, I highly recommend Dr. Sherman Jackson’s article, From Prophetic Actions To Constitutional Theory.

If one says that Islam is a religion of peace, then this would, to many people, mean that the objective of the religion is to establish peace versus peace being a side effect of the practice of Islam. We must also look at when such slogans are used. While I do not proclaim to be a historical scholar in any fashion, when Islam did exist in a state of peace with its neighbors (say, Muslim Spain for example – I am simplifying for the sake of argument) there are not any identifiable records that Muslims went around to their Jewish and Christian neighbors and said, “Islam is a religion of peace”. The fact was that for the most part during that epoch of when Muslims ruled Spain, Muslim, Jew and Christian coexisted without significant strife until much later (the Inquisition and expulsion of Muslims). So my question and counter argument is that if Islam’s mission statement, as it were, was that of a religion of peace, why did we not see or hear it then?

Well, we are most certainly hearing it now. And I believe that it is out of a reaction to specific events in modernity and because of generalized events in history that Muslims feel that Islam is peaceful, that Muslims wish to live in peace and that the rug has been yanked out from many of us and all we wanna do is set the rug back in place. The only problem with trying to put the rug back in place is that the place in which it used to fit has changed in shape and dimension. Perhaps the rug no longer belongs there or we’re told that it no longer belongs there.

Like other peoples throughout history, Muslims now suffer at their (our/mine) own ignorance. Muslims have become emotionally reactionary and anti-intellectual despite long traditions that would counter the latter. So how do Muslims justify sloganizing Islam as a religion of peace and perhaps more importantly, what happens when one gets his foot caught in the bear trap of apology? The Muslims, like any good animal caught in such a trap, must do one of two things: moan horribly about one’s wound until infection and disease bring about a painful death. Or bite off the crippling limb to escape the confines and inevitable death of the trap (a potential third option is to wait for someone to come along and free you, indebting them to you; some would say this is the current situation – you decide). As it stands currently, gangrene is setting in. But while the disease threatens to lay the animal low, a small contingent seeks to triage the caught limb and apply a tourniquet in preparation for amputation.

Apology in the modern sense (not in the classic Greek sense) is a defensive position. And once one starts apologizing, it is hard to gain back ground – to regain respect, because one will inevitably be seen as inferior to the one whom you attempt to apologize. It also has the potential to be cyclical – once it starts it’s hard to stop. In my humble opinion, if Muslims are to regain footing in the public arena, they (we) must stop apologizing for the misgivings of small minorities that have been given undue authority to speak for the Muslims as a whole. And devil’s in the details. No other religious majority group in the West (i.e., Christians and Jews) are taken to task when extremist minority groups decide to act upon interpretations they come to (which their majority co-religionists do not share) and do something that is considered abominable (many groups come to mind here: the IRA, the Basque separatists, and Israeli settlers come to mind). Neither British Protestants, Irish Catholics, Spanish separatists or Israelis would call these other groups “extremists” because of the actions of a few Irish, British, Spanish or Israeli participants. And yet, when a group of Muslims acts on their own, all Muslims are communally held responsible for their actions and therefore can even be held legally responsible, vis-a-vie Guantanamo Bay. Muslims, regardless of their lack of affiliation with any known terror groups, are being held in detention, without rights or access to due legal process, simply because they’re Muslim (the travesty continues that many of the Muslims in Guantanamo have been proven innocent but have yet to be released as in the case of two Chinese Muslims that were acquitted of any involvement in terrorist activities and yet remain detained permanently).

I had mentioned that the practice of apology by the Muslims has engendered the perception of inferiority. This is especially true in our modern context. Recent polls have shown us that roughly 50% of Americans have a negative view of Islam, post 9/11. Talk radio and entertainment news shows (not by any means true or accurate) consistently mock Muslims and Islamic traditions. The satirical caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) could well be used as further proof that Islam suffers from an inferiority complex (as well as the reactions of Muslims to the cartoons) in the public arena.

The way that I see an apologetic stance driving an inferiority complex is simple (for the sake of this post): parties that are indentured or indebted to another are put in a stance of inferiority. This debt allows the superior party to not only subjugate the former but it leaves the potential for the latter to remake or re-determine the former’s worth and value. Such is the case with Islam in the West. By being put on the defense (I believe this is in effort to seek peer-level recognition from their Christian, Jewish or non-Muslim Western counterparts), Muslims are subjected to ridicule they would normally not have to accept. But precisely because they are open to apology, non-Muslim thought process is allowed to come in the fold and out of context, dissect, examine, ridicule or even condemn Muslims on theological, secular and humanitarian levels. Classic examples that come to mind of this is that “Islam is an evil religion”. “Islam seeks to dominate the entire world and subject all non-Muslims to horrific, blasphemous deaths”. “Islam is a system and modality of oppression, especially for women.” All of these should sound familiar. It is my belief that these criticisms come partly from the Muslims allowing themselves, in misguided or misplaced hope of gaining favor from their Western counterparts, to fall into a tar pit of apology.

A second consequence of the apologists is the enraging of the radicals and extremists. For those who are disenfranchised, in many ways, the Muslim who apologizes and explains away the ills of his or her religion ignites the ire in these groups almost to a further extent that does the West. The apologists are seen as both corroborators, conspirators and innovators (bid’ah/بدعة) of the religion. In a sort of Manichean way, any Muslim who seeks to “water down” the religion in trade for gaining forgiveness, respect or other from the infidel, is seen as someone who is corrupting the religion. This then gives rise to the call for the “true believers” to rise up and defend Islam from both without and within.

Not to toss the Salafis in to this conversation for no good reason, but they are an example of a group in which I have had first-hand experience listening to their rhetoric in which various groups of Muslims who have tried to at once condemn violence committed by Muslims or even just defend wearing of headscarves by women (hijab), and who through various means are seen as “selling out” (shaving of the beard, not adopting the Middle-Eastern style of dress code, etc.) are described as hypocrites, innovators and it is then incumbent upon the “real Muslims” to take up this charge to rite their wrongs. I am not saying that all or any Salafi groups here in the States have gone to the extremes that either the 9/11 hijackers did or what is happening in Iran with suicide bomber volunteers, but is does present the possibilities of a slippery slope.

So with the issue of apology tackled, I will now examine the other options I spoke of: triage, amputation and rehabilitation.

Using the word triage may seem a bit dramatic but in many ways the Muslim world, in its various locales and manifestations, is like a body that has suffered trauma. Some of that trauma is akin to the blunt trauma of colonialism. Other trauma can be more subtlety diagnosed as psychological. Either way, I find the medical analogy applicative so bear with me.

As with any medical condition, the symptoms must be analyzed so that they cannot just be treated but will hopefully lead to the cause of the problem so that the appropriate diagnosis and treatment can be made. In the case of the Muslims, this is as varied as disease is, depending on when and where the Muslims are. For this post, we will deal with Muslims in the States.

To make a concise summary for the sake of argument, Muslims here are caught between two competing histories. The history of the West (especially for indigenous converts) and the history of Islam in the East. For indigenous Western Muslims, we are often told that our innate Westerness is some how inferior and inherently unIslamic. Much of this opinion is informed by peoples who have generationally suffered at the hands of colonization and radical nationalist movements in their native countries. In a manner, this superior/inferior dialog between Muslims in America leads to its own form of apology on behalf of American Muslims (to their foreign Muslims coreligionists), but this is for another topic.

To say that the challenge facing Muslims here in the West is the reconciliation of these two histories is to make a grand understatement. Muslims in America must find a way of having that all-important conversation with the Sacred Tradition if they are to have a legitimate legacy here in the West (see Dr. Sherman Jackson’s speech at the Western Knight Center For Specialized Journalism – watch the video). Potentially, out of that conversation come a sense of self, so affirmed, that theoretically, never again would Western Muslims need find themselves delivering apologetic hand-outs (and simultaneously quelling the ire of the extremists).

This process of having a dialog with the Sacred History is what I would term the rehabilitation period. It is where the Muslims here in the West could heal and recoup from the effort that it will have taken them to reach this lofty, but not unobtainable, goal. This process will require both academic and intellectual endeavors as well as grass roots application of those endeavors. But above all, it will take honesty. Muslims in America will need to be honest with themselves in order to have and benefit from the dialog. And in addition, in order to have that dialog, Muslims will need to stop apologizing, so that they may hear what that Sacred History is saying. And like any other dialog, one cannot carry on two conversations at once.

Islamic Hysteria – Planet of the Arabs

This is really worth seeing. In many ways this sums up not only this administration’s viewpoint on Arabs and Islam (which are one and the same to them) but I think how Muslims are perceived in the American public psyche. If only Heston could be there saying, “Get your hands off of me, you damned dirty Arab!”