Help Us Secular Law, You’re Our Only Hope

The following article by Sarah Imhoff articulates a seldom-heard critique of secularism, namely that not all secular law is good and even further, it cannot ultimately deliver justice. Only relief.

“…in August 2018, one of the 301 priests named in the Pennsylvania grand jury report pleaded guilty, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said, “Two of Poulson’s victims received justice today, but because of outdated statute of limitations laws in Pennsylvania, other victims may never have their day in court.” But let us be clear: These victims did not “receive justice.” Perhaps they felt relief or solace that their abuser was convicted, but that is not justice. The courts cannot provide anything that would qualify as justice for an abuse victim. Only not suffering abuse in the first place would be just, and that is not something the courts can provide.”

Redefining “Ultimate Justice”

In reading through a bit of tafsir, I came across a statement from Hasan al-Basri in which he stated, in relation to this passage, some food for thought on justice:

وَكُلَّ إِنسانٍ أَلزَمناهُ طائِرَهُ في عُنُقِهِ ۖ وَنُخرِجُ لَهُ يَومَ القِيامَةِ كِتابًا يَلقاهُ مَنشورًا

“We’ve tied the bird man used for fortune telling around his neck and on the Day of Judgment We’re going to bring out a record that he’ll see laid out in the open!” — Qur’an 17: 13

عدل والله فيك من جعلك حسيب نفسك

“I swear by God He has done ultimate justice by making you give testimony of your own deeds.”Tafsir Ibn Kathir

An Open Letter to CAIR – A Critical Re-centering of ‘Race’ as the Premier Civil Rights Issue for American Muslims

In my last post, I wrote, among many things, the need for American Muslim leadership to reorient its focus on domestic issues:

“American foreign-policy cannot be the litmus test or yardstick by which American Muslim leadership is judged to be efficacious.”

Continuing in that vain, I want to share a letter by one of my dearest friends, Dr. Muhammad Khalifa. I have known Dr. Khalifa since I first became Muslim and his friendship and voice have remained bastion of sanity when the world around me seemed quite the opposite. As a disclaimer, I am posting this not to demonize CAIR in particular, or to, as I also said, “draw ideological lines in the sand”. Rather I say this to demonstrate the urgency for us to focus on oppression at home, especially when it is a form of oppression we can put our hands on. And to Allah belongs all the praise.

An Open Letter to CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations)

A Critical Re-centering of ‘Race’ as the Premier Civil Rights Issue for American Muslims

August 15, 2014

Dear fellow social justice activists,

Dr. Muhammad Khalifa I write this letter to reflect on CAIR’s response to the killing of Michael Brown. By several eyewitness accounts, Brown was an unarmed Black teen who, while waving his hands in the air yelling, “I don’t have a gun,” was shot and killed by a Ferguson, MO police officer. While I applaud CAIR’s willingness to support this issue, I write this letter because I carry a heavy heart and imbue deep disappointment with CAIR’s approach to issues of oppression, racism, and social justice in the U.S. Muslim community. The encouragement to give a Friday sermon to address this issue is far too little, and too late. In fact, without a more concretely sustained response to racial injustices in America—particularly those that impact Blacks, Latinos, and Indigenous Americans—CAIR’s response seems not only reactionary, surfaced and sensational, but even opportunistic; if the latter were true, what easier way to exude an image of standing for racial and social justice, than to encourage a khutbah on the heels of Michael Brown’s killing? It allows one to continue to focus on their own agenda, without appearing to hypocritically ignore even more palpable issues of oppression confronting other minoritized Muslim Americans. It is safe, easy, harmless, and doesn’t require the types commitments and sacrifices of, for example, those like Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Julius Rosenwald, and Louis Isaac Jaffe—other non-Blacks who fought and died because they saw this as apart of their own struggle toward social justice.

The broader context within which this shooting incident sits is far more worthy of attention, but has been noticeably ignored by CAIR. To show where I am going with this, I cite some of my earlier published works,

“Their (Black males) statistics of oppression foreshadow others’: the highest incarceration rate, the highest school failure rate, and the highest school suspension rate, the highest pushout/dropout rate, the highest arrest rate, the highest murder and homicide rate, the most negative image media, the highest drug use rate, the highest rate of new HIV infections, the most rapidly growing suicide rate, and the most likely to be recidivist. Yet, the president is a Black man.”

It is really quite irrefutable that Black men are of the most oppressed groups of men in the U.S. In my field of education, this oppression is perhaps most palpable: even after disciplinary offenses were equally discovered by educators, Black males nationwide were still four times (4x) more likely to be suspended than their White counterparts. This, of course, contributes to being pushed out of school (as opposed to being blamed for dropping out), and ultimately to what we researchers refer to as the school-to-prison pipeline. What emerges from this, and other research from scholars such as William Julius Wilson and Tyrone Howard, is an extensive regime of oppression toward Black men in America. Black male oppression, in all honesty, may very well be the single most virulent form of oppression in the U.S. today. Now, where is CAIR on issues like that? In consideration of these more intractable realities, in other words, it seems as though CAIR is missing from the front, and has preferred more media-frenzied and popularized responses to singular incidents. And if my perceptions are wrong and they are indeed fighting such battles, few of us have actually seen them in the racial battleground circles where they occur.

I understand the religion of Islam to be anti-oppressive. I also understand from my Islamic teachings that when being anti-oppressive—whether fighting illness, poverty, ignorance, or racial oppression—one must begin by acting local. I remind my brothers and sisters at CAIR that Black Muslims in the U.S. comprise over a third of U.S. Muslims. Yet, they have far fewer opportunities than their foreign-born and second-generation coreligionists. It is not the fault of these Muslims, but when will their (i.e. Black and Latino) issues be re-centered in national discourse around social justice? For, given the bleak statistics around Black males, they are far more likely to be oppressed because of their gendered race, than their religion.

Of course, I do not claim that CAIR supports racism or oppression of any type; nor do I lay this responsibility totally at the feet of CAIR or like organizations. Rather, probably because of their own histories and lack of awareness of how oppression operates, morphs, and is reproduced in this context, I claim that they are unfortunately slipping into a posture of what researchers refer to as post-racial—in this case, the use of discourse that is so broad and void of specific critiques of racism, that the critique itself serves no purpose and may even do more harm than good. Executive Director Awad’s statement, “Despite progress in race relations over the past decades, our nation still has a long way to go to live up to the true American values of equality and justice for all,” is a testament to this fact, and implicitly confirms the following sentiment: CAIR will mention it in the broadest, safest, most general and impotent way, and will make no mention of the specific abominations facing daily life for Black males; CAIR will not really take up this issue, but wants to appear to be taking up this issue. Will you not mention his name (Michael Brown), resist, agitate, or even center his story, except in ways that are palatable in the popular American discourse and imaginative? In ways that are comfortable to you?

I urge CAIR to confront microaggressive racism and institutional racism in the U.S. I urge CAIR to center the most salient local forms of oppression in their civil rights agenda, and these are tied to Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans. I urge CAIR to not seek highly visible incidents that will bring notoriety, but then lack a sustained agenda to confront the contexts that brought about the oppression. But also I urge CAIR to invest in the policy-level conversations that can impact policies that impact the daily lives and opportunities of Black males. And I finally urge CAIR not only to link with the NAACP, the ACLU, the NOI, and Urban League, but also with the grassroots, smaller, advocacy and community organizing agencies found throughout urban America. Without such emphases and alliances, you may loose the fight of credibility and relevance in this context. Many of us have travelled throughout the Middle East and South Asia, and we have seen firsthand the treatment of Blacks and other expatriates in these lands. When you come to the U.S., and then primarily focus on issues that confront Arab and Asian peoples, you really suffer a devastating blow to your own organizational credibility.

As I conclude this letter, I do so with deep conflict and consternation. I come from a family in which I am one of the only Black men who has not been jailed or imprisoned for a period of time. I sit today, in fact, as the only non-imprisoned male child from amongst 2 other brothers with whom I was raised. I am conflicted not because we need the help of CAIR, for this conversation is far broader than that. Afterall, we Black, Brown and Red, folk have been resisting for centuries, will do so for many more to come, and will do so in ways far more culturally responsive than what organizations like CAIR or MPAC might bring. But I am conflicted because letters like these have all too often fallen on deaf ears, and as they have, so too have the such Friday sermons fallen on my own deaf ears. I, and my people, need relevance and we detest hypocrisy. So too, is it, that the people who claim to represent my faith and civil rights, have an agenda that is not relevant for the civil rights in the daily lives of Black men. This conversation is broader because I see my fellow Muslim leaders becoming even more out of touch, and so too are the masses that follow. Finally, please do not seek prominence, moreso than you would even seek justice. Yet if you shall continue to do so, then please, leave the legacy of Michael Brown to the honor, dignity, and esteem that it deserves.

Muhammad Khalifa
Black male, Scholar-activist, Professor and Academic, Husband, and, Father of 3 Black sons,
East Lansing, Michigan.

All Is Not Fair In Love and War

All is fair, in love and war. At least until recently. I have reserved public commentary on the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict due to a number of reasons. For one, it is not a subject I am expert on. Secondly, it is a topic I feel requires a level of engagement beyond simple tropes and I have found that seldom is one allowed those opportunities from either side of the fray.  But I do feel compelled to respond to, in my opinion,  a new level of violence that has gone beyond the absurd into the realm of pure carnage.

As I wrote on social media, I am perplexed by the rhetoric that is being foisted up by the Israelis as well as those in support of the incursion. Namely it is the failed logic of knowingly butchering children. Apparently the logic is as follows: Hamas, the alleged and avowed enemy of Israel, has taken human shields, namely women and children, to stand behind, as they launch unjustified attacks on Israel.  The Israeli Defense Force, in response to these attacks, feels it is justified in retaliating despite full knowledge of these “human shields”. Much of the world may be inclined to follow this logic up until its end-line, but it is this very last idea that despite knowing that Hamas has such human shields, the IDF is fully justified in retaliating and lethal force, killing innocent children. I have likened this to:

“Imagine a criminal on the street, whether motivated by need or greed, takes an infant or child as a hostage. No police officer would, in the pursuit of “justice”, fire on such an assailant, for the price of such justice would simply be too high.”

As I said, this logic fails me and sadly, cannot end well for the Israelis. As one who grew up with Jewish kids, played with them at school, and to this day, has Jewish friends, I find this troubling, for a group of people, that despite our religious differences, is a moral one. This is not to say that the acts of the Israeli government necessarily reflect an inseparable characteristic of all Jews, I am deeply disappointed. The tragic irony has not fallen on deaf ears: for a group of people who once themselves were brutalized, how could this commit such wanton genocide?

My hope is that the Israelis will come to their senses. And for that, I am reminded by a passage from Don Quixote:

“ … it is the business and duty of historians to be exact, truthful, and wholly free from passion, and neither interest nor fear, hatred nor love, should make them swerve from the path of truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, storehouse of deeds, witness for the past, example and counsel for the present, and warning for the future. In this I know will be found all that can be desired in the pleasantest, and if it be wanting in any good quality, I maintain it is the fault of its hound of an author and not the fault of the subject.” Don Quixote, Chapter IX.

I am also concerned that both parties are being pushed beyond a point of civil return. Again, from Don Quixote:

“Thou art a bad Christian, Sancho,” said Don Quixote on hearing this, “for once an injury has been done thee thou never forgettest it“.

Realistically speaking, with their women and children being indiscriminately killed, how can Palestinians come to forget their injuries? I pray that both sides can someone be brought to reason and good thought. That being said, I was reminded of the following line about what is “allowable” in war, and by all metrics, the IDF has passed what is allowable:

“Hold, sirs, hold!” cried Don Quixote in a loud voice; “we have no right to take vengeance for wrongs that love may do to us: remember love and war are the same thing, and as in war it is allowable and common to make use of wiles and stratagems to overcome the enemy”.

May God provide peace and solace for those who’ve lost loved ones in this conflict. May no one else needlessly lose their life. May those at the helm of the IDF be brought to their senses. May God keep and protect us all.

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.