If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem

There has been, in my mind, a growing trend in Black America for the last 40-odd years: the rise in secularism amongst Blackamericans. By this I refer to the increasing tendency for Blackamericans to make religion, be it Islam or Christianity, irrelevant to their daily lives, public or private (I say private as well because of the private malfeasance that Blackamericans commit have public ramifications). In times past, traditional religious institutions in Black America provided the moral framework which would govern the moral and ethical codes of Blackamericans. One recent study showed that in the mid-Sixties, roughly 84% of black families were two-parent households. That number has dwindled to the mid- to low-thirties. To say that these figures are alarming would be a gross understatement. What is worthy of consideration here is not simply the numbers, but the story behind the numbers.

I say that the trend of secularism in Black America cannot, and should not be treated as coincidence, in coming in at the end of the Civil Rights victories of the 1960’s. In its inception, the Civil Rights Movement began, as University of Michigan professor Sherman Jackson dubbed it, a “holy protest against white supremacy”. Yet, it would seem that after the supposed defeat of white-authored violence and discrimination against blacks, the “holy” was taken out of the protest, and all that was left was and has been, hot wind. In my opinion, there have been real social, economic, and developmental consequences to removing God from the daily and public lives of Blackamericans (indeed, for all Americans but for the purposes of this article, I am addressing Black America). The resulting consequences have ranged from lack of direction, an increasing lapse in morals, and an overall heedlessness. Further, these consequences have produced the single-mothers and fatherless children, the broken homes and families, and the general breakdown and dereliction of black culture. The broader American (and dare I say, white) cultural engine has proffered up to blacks the hope of a free civil society in which God no longer needs to play any role, let alone a central one. From what looks to have been a successful campaign, many Blackamericans have taken the bait: black families are plagued with divorce, incarceration rates are at astronomical numbers, economic and educational disparities go unchecked, and public as well as private morality is at an all-time low. I write this both as a concerned Blackamerican, but even more specifically as a concerned Blackamerican Muslim. The practice of thinking themselves immune to the broader ills of Black America, or even America as a whole, has been a strain of thought that still finds a welcome home amongst Blackamerican Muslims. It is my concern that if these tendencies are not addressed and countered, Blackamerican Muslims will find that their Islam is indeed no inoculation against the tide of secularism that is plaguing their non-Muslim counterparts. In fact, the early warning signs are already here.

My wife wrote an article recently where she spoke of the many troubling observations she has witnessed in her one year in Philadelphia. I have been here for five years, and can safely estimate that my observations are five-times as troubling. I have been privy to teen pregnancy amongst Muslims, and more specifically, amongst Blackamerican Muslim teens. Mothers having ‘aqiqahs for fatherless children. The engaging in illicit sexual activities amongst these teens has been on a quiet rise, with little to no dialog or action from the community. This, coupled with an ever-increasing recalcitrance amongst Muslim youth, are just two of a number of growing social issues facing Blackamerican Muslims. The biggest problem for me is not communities having issues; I do not know a community that is free of them. Rather, it is that Blackamerican Muslims make little to no use of their Islam in recognizing, battling, and countering these maladies. Indeed, it seems at times that there are hardly any distinguishing characteristics between Blackamerican Muslims and their black, non-Muslim counterparts, save dress code and dietary restrictions. I must admit, as one who stands on the minbar on a weekly basis, I find myself both deeply troubled as well as disheartened. I have spoken with a number of imams, scholars, and concerned congregationalists, about this very same topic only to be met with heavy sighs, concerned stares, and stalwart encouragement to “keep fighting the good fight”. And while I have been appreciative all of those (especially the latter), I continue to brood over how Muslim leadership can re-connect (for I do believe the connection has been severed) with Muslim men, women, mothers, father,s and especially, Muslim youth. What steps can be taken to show and demonstrate that no only is there a place for God and Prophetic morality in the daily lives of Muslims, public and private, but that we must return to these principles if we have any hope of not annihilating ourselves.

It is to the above I would like to comment a bit further: returning to the Qur’an and Sunnah. In this case, I am referring to morals and conduct. Yet, for many of our youth (though not exclusively) this is not so much of a return as it is embarking on a new journey, for one cannot return to what one has never been at in the first place. To be more specific, the moral languish we see in Black America is a generational issue. For many Blackamericans, they never knew a strong moral foundation. And if the principle holds true that one cannot return to where one has never been, it must also hold true that the approach to re-moralizing Blackamerican Muslims, especially the youth, will need to take a different approach. We cannot simply backtrack our steps. We have to walk this sojourn from the beginning of the path.

Another aspect of secularism that requires examination is its liberal tendency and history. Many of those who call for toeing a secular line do not come from backgrounds that are suffering the most from its degenerative effects. Many liberals are also unaware of the ways in which they are able to cope with its effects to a much greater efficacy than Blackamericans can. To be more specific, I will name a few examples: economics, education, and lack of social stigma. I refer to these defensive mechanisms as the social insulation that many liberals possess. Many liberals may possess the financial means to absorb a fatherless child, whereas the burden placed on a black single-mother may prove debilitating to any socio-economic mobility. Access to education, which ties into economic self-sufficiency, is another tool at the disposal of liberals. And finally, many liberals, and here I am talking Whiteamericans, lack the social stigma in the broader American context when it comes to marital infidelity and any love children produced from it. Sarah Palin’s daughter comes to mind as an excellent example. For the latter, I find it ironic that a social stigma should be created for blacks outside of Black America, but not inside it. In other words, Black America has lost its own social stigma for illicit sexual activities, where this might have served a useful purpose, and instead has served to only resurrect or re-animate the specter of pre-Civil Rights racist attitudes towards blacks in the public sphere.

It is my hope that we, as a community, can come together and embark on this journey towards public and private morality, towards embracing and embodying the Prophetic actions, characteristics, and wont of God’s Messenger, such that we can please both God as well as offer solutions to a world that is in deep moral and spiritual trouble.

Joe Henderson’s If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem, with George Cables, Lenny White, Woody Shaw, Tony Waters. Recorded live at the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, California, 1970.

Religion and Secularism: A Conversation with Robert Bellah

The following are a series of Youtube videos which feature famed sociologist Robert Bellah in conversation with Mark Juergensmeyer, professor of global and international studies as well as sociology and religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In it, professor Bellah provides an number of worthwhile insights on the topics of secularism, religion, public space and more.

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The Sinister Secret of Secularism

One of the most bemusing, humoring, and concerning tendencies amongst many Muslims, especially in the West, is the tendency towards a form of secret secularism.  To proceed, I will need to define what I mean by “secret” and “secular”.  For the former, I am referring to the biggest secrets we all harbor – those that are even kept from ourselves, due to either pride or ignorance [something the author is not wholly pure of by any means!].  And by secular, I am alluding to those dreamy, Utopian constructs that many Muslims speak in today.  On initial glance, the latter may not seem like either secular or even an issue, but I will attempt to make my point clear here: I am referring to iambic narratives where Muslims attempt to relieve themselves [and us along with them] of any need or obligation for God [in a sense, this is at the heart of all secular attempts]. How so?  In the very fact that they think that any system that they could install would require no upkeep or management.  This is a quandary for a group of people who are religious to be sure, but we must never kid ourselves that whatever system we try to put in place [I’m not saying we shouldn’t be putting systems in place], they will most certainly require updates, upkeep and maintenance as well as management.  The nature of Islam in its early days, during the life of the Prophet [s] proves this to be true.  So while we aim high, let us not think that we are working towards the [and read here, final] expression of Islam, that will be perfect in all times and all places without having to shape and mold it ourselves.

Before delving too much further into how we arrived at such a practice, we should first reexamine the very idea of secularism and what it means for Muslims, with our ability to embrace it or lack thereof.  Let me first state that this is not an attack on secularism per se, but rather to draw attention to the secular methodologies and philosophies and how they have effected modern Muslims, in an attempt to shed light on how some of those practices may be damaging at the heart of their arguments and articulations.

To dive right in, the biggest issue that the Muslim intellectual tradition will have with secularism is its desire to supplant and or replace religion and its role in either private, and most certainly, public life.  Muslims, under pressure to articulate an expression of Islam that they feel the dominant culture may approve of, have not even examined whether or not secularism as it is defined by the dominant culture, is even something Muslims should commit themselves to.  There are certainly aspects of Muslims life, that, if we were to allow non-Muslims to define our stance on secular commitments, would render things such as wearing hijab [headscarf], the objection to selling of alcohol, growing of the beard, and so forth, moot, or at worst, impermissible.   But it is precisely through the pressure to commit to an expression of secularism [that Muslims don’t own], that Muslims commit acts of “secret” secularism.  Its vernacular is often replete with words such as “pure” and “true”, or worse yet, “I pray in my own way”.  Apologetics and Puritans alike harbor many of the same notions of creating a pure “Islamic” expression or culture, either free of history or free of obligation.  And neither one needs any tending to.

The issue here is not simply that there are a few aristocratic, elite Muslims with too much education in their back pockets for their own good, but that these philosophies undermine stability in the community as well as robbing Muslims of the more intricate and subtle natures of their own intellectual heritage [not to mention, turning a blind eye to history, the biography of the Prophet [s], etc.].  Muslims will turn on each other because they perceive others as not holding to their juvenile and shortsighted hypotheses.  I would spend the rest of my thirties recounting the number of conversations I’ve either been privy to or directly accosted of, regarding the need to establish shari’ah [Islamic law, but what is really being called for here is to erect a state-model based on the nation-state model in modernity so we can “keep up with the Joneses”], because their perception is that Muslims are lacking in their Islam.  And while Muslims may indeed be lacking in their Islam, there could not be a more secular response to this issue then trying to erect an idol [for the nation-state in modern times as come very close to looking like an idol] for Muslims to center their religious identity and life around.  At first glance, this seems very close to becoming a bid’ah [see definition], and at second glance – we already have one of those, namely the Ka’abah.  But the fancy is not lost on me that so many Muslims seem to think that once shari’ah is established, Islam will be “ok”, and Muslims will be “ok” until Prophet ‘Issa comes back [as], and then things just wrap up nice and tidy from there.  As usual, things could not be further from the truth or implementation.

Part of the reason for this is that, one, many Muslims are just simply ignorant by circumstance of their own religious history.  They are also unfamiliar with the intricacies of shari’ah, and that a huge component of that is what we can dub “family law” in modern times.  I am not saying that state building and state playing are not involved, but so much more of it is law that rules or governs family life [incidentally, this is that is being called for in the UK and other parts of the world where Muslims live as a minority – this call for shari’ah is a call for family law adjudication – not state law].  While many masajid and Muslims institutions focus on teaching people Qur’anic recitation, basic fiqh [b-a-s-i-c…], and maybe a dash of siyrah [biography of the Prophet Muhammad], there is almost no mention of history.  This has produced two problems for the Muslim community:

One: we don’t know our history, collectively.

Two: this has led non-Muslims, because of our ignorance, to deem themselves our historians, and thus, their revisionist historical accounts wreak havoc on the psyche of many unprepared Muslims, who in return become utopist/myopic or apologetic.

In short and in closing, we must endeavor to recover our intellectual heritage, learn our history, and become masters of our own destinies. And in that mastery, we must be cognizant that the helm can never be unmanned – it always requires human input.  No ship steers itself. We must come to own our Islam, on its own terms, and not solely on the terms of outside forces, that even if benevolent, cannot have our best interests at heart. This does not mean that we do not have joint, cooperative activities with non-Muslims. But it does mean we have to get serious about ourselves and get down to brass tax.

In 1981, TSR Hobbies published a module adventure for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons gaming system titled, “The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh” by Dave J. Browne with Don Turnbull.  Its descriptive line read: “Desolate and abandoned, the evil alchemist’s mansion stands alone on the cliff, looking out towards the sea. Mysterious lights and ghostly hauntings have kept away the people of Saltmarsh, despite rumours of a fabulous forgotten treasure. What is its sinister secret?”.  Simply put, I was inspired by memory of playing this game as a kid, and reflected on that very same tag line and came up with my own answer: Our treasure is our intellectual heritage and history.  Modernity abounds with all sorts of rumors as to what is and isn’t Islam [both from the mouths of Muslims and non-Muslims].  And the mysterious lights and mansion on the cliff? Well, I think you can figure that one out on your own…

John Locke and the Root of the American Experience

No culture or civilization in the history of mankind has ever arisen from a vacuum. All histories are informed by that which came before them.  Even if that history (and perhaps even especially) happens to be the ascending culture in its time and space.  This cannot be said to more true than in the case of the United States of America, a country which prides itself on its freedoms and the right of one to dispose of one’s affairs as one sees fit.  The cultural philosophies  we hold today as normal were first sketched out and further laid in stone by the likes of great thinkers such as John Locke.  His influence over our cultural philosophies in regards to the right to life, property ownership, and even penal codes is greatly underappreciated. America owes a debt of gratitude towards Locke. Without Locke, many of the cultural norms we assume to be our birthright might have been lost in the mists of history.

Modern day America sees itself caught in between upholding the principles  John Locke laid down for us and the need to protect and maintain the national security.  This compromise is not a bit different from the concessions the Colonists had to make when faced with British domination. Therefore in today’s  reality, whether it be an attack from outside forces such as al-Qaedah or the influx of immigrants across the Rio Grande, Americans are still having to address the balance between “freedoms” and “security”.

One does not have to look too deeply at the American democratic process to see and feel the influence of Locke. Many of the democratic concepts we believe constitute a free society, the very need to form a civil society, itself can be traced back to Locke.  His clout can be also be perceived in the immediacy of his own time, counseling the pens of Jefferson, Madison and many others who came shortly after him.

Locke’s viewpoint from his time is one that straddles both modem and pre-modem sensibilities.  By this I mean that Locke perceives his world as one that is in constant turmoil; a chaos that constantly threatens the natural Free State in which man is born into.  Locke’s world demanded a philosophical outlook that would guarantee safety as a primary objective.  The Colonists shared no love for one another but the looming threat of the Royal Crown forced them to rally around a common cause: security and self-determination.

Like all of Locke’s points in Second Treatise, they are interwoven and complement one another, from self-determination to property ownership.  These two points in fact have had long lasting effects on how Americans look at the environment and the manner and extent to which they extract resources from it.  From legislation to the drafting of penal codes, Locke’s arguments accompany each other.  It is precisely this formation of government (or legislative commonwealth as Locke terms it) that seeks to preserve the right to property.  For Locke dictates that property extends beyond mere land ownership.  It encompasses one’s personal self, one’s liberties and the self-entitlement to dispose of them as one sees fit.

One of the most important liberties or freedoms that Locke informs us on is the right for men to own and appropriate property. Through one’s property one is able to extract sustenance from nature.  This process of extraction through one’s property is what Locke says entitles man to what product he extracts from it.  It is also here that Locke illustrates for us the role of the legislature in preserving individual rights to property ownership and the results of labors produced by them or on them.

Locke did not delegate the role of the legislature for simply scripting laws that govern the appropriation of land. They also functioned as the guardians against tyranny and transgression.  In Locke’s argument, man has the right to dispose of his property unmolested by extraneous powers.  This opinion is informed by both Locke’s past and present.  For centuries, Europe lay in the grip of powers that used religion as a tool to not just sway the masses but as a writing instrument to dictate the laws of the land.  And a powerful tool it proved to be.  After all, who could counter the authority of God, even if He chooses to remain “absent”?   Instead, Locke transformed this absentee lordship into a theological interpretation, giving leave to Locke and those who followed his line of thinking to authoring themselves a genuine philosophy for autonomy.

The environment that Locke was to live in would bear a great number of resemblances to that in which the Enlightenment philosophers were living in, namely the dominance of religiously mandated monarchies.  In Locke’s quest to give decree for the Colonists to lead a separate, dignified existence, he borrowed heavily in the form of Enlightenment language (which trumpeted the use of reason for determining destiny), subverting the Crown’s authority over their right to manage their own destinies.  Instead of a theocratic tyranny, Locke delivered a solution for man to simultaneously choose his own destiny and yet still recognize his Creator and God.  Locke himself relates to us that all mankind is the handiwork of one omnipotent Maker.

Any student of American democratic or governmental processes can inform one that the separation of Church and State are two essential components of democracy (as for democracy being essential to “good ruling,” that is up for debate).  Locke as well as many of the Colonists sought to escape religious tyranny in England and other parts of Europe.  Locke’s ideas on the role of religion in society would ultimately come to greatly influence how America legislature would remove the ability or authority of any one religious body from imposing its rule in American society.  Ironically, the fight for separation of Church and State, which Locke so adamantly stood for, is seen to be in jeopardy by many today.

Locke framed his argument against religiously mandated governments in language that was very similar to that of his antagonists.  By reinterpreting Christian theology, Locke presents the Christian god as a passive god; a god who established the Laws of Nature and set them upon a course, wherein man can forge his own destinies.  In modem day America, many feel this separation has been eroded and that despite calls for America to return to its “Christian heritage”, America should remain an inactive part of Revelation.

It is indeed a curiosity that many of the modem day politicians who seek to reintroduce religion back into the public space use many of the founding forefathers as evidence for the original Christian roots of America.  While there is no doubt that Locke is a man who’s  conscious does not stray far from thoughts on God, he clearly in no way sought to implement a theocracy nor lay the foundation for one to be built.  Indeed, it is hard to extract such ideologies from Locke’s Treatise as his disdain for European religious domination took on an almost preventative rhetoric.

The legacy of Locke’s philosophies can be clearly seen in the value that property ownership had maintains in American society. Locke himself was a landowner who made a great deal of wealth of his land ownership.   Even in today’s modem society, property ownership is something that is striven for in American society. It is one of the primary vehicles through which we express our freedom.  In contrast to European society at the time of Locke, where it was exceedingly difficult for one to own land, the Colonies were touted as a place where one could come and own land easily. For many Europeans, land or property ownership was the exclusive domain of the aristocracy or the very wealthy of society.  But Locke saw land should not just be owned but used and used to its full potential.  It is this concept, the idea of land cultivation, which Locke held as a necessary component that went hand in hand with one’s right to own property.

History has acted as a pasteurizing force; internalizing our cultural norms to such an extent that we could never image that there was never a time when they didn ‘t exist. We talk about the Laws of Nature today, as if they are policed by an unseen force.  But it was precisely this concept of Nature and man’s natural state that Locke used to lay the foundation for autonomy from Britain.  And while in the modern context no one thinks of his self as free from British dominance in America, we do believe that we are all born free, in a natural state to dispose as we see fit.  A classic American quote is, “it’s a free country.  You can do what you want.”

While Locke spends a great deal of time expounding on the virtues of absolute freedom, it is not possible to have these absolute freedoms in the context of a greater society.  According to Locke, man’s state of absolute freedom also runs side by side with vulnerability.  In exchange for some of man’s freedoms, he gains increased security in his surroundings.  The Colonists lived in tumultuous times.  Under constant threat of attack from the indigenous Native American tribes, naval threats from the British and even slave rebellions in their own midst, gave plenty of reason for Locke to give pause and provide compromise.   In contrast, our own era, dominated by a post 9/11 milieu, it is not hard to see the traces of what Locke spoke of between absolute freedom and the need for security.  Locke’s definition of government dictates that one of the primary goals of such a government is the safety and protection of the public.

John Locke introduced more than just concepts of property ownership.   Many of America’s modem sensibilities regarding its penal system can trace its genealogy back to Locke.  For Locke, freedom is the right and duty of all those who partake in civil society and uphold and the enforcement of the law.  This is one of the primary functions of Locke’s civil society: To protect the health, property and possessions of others from being accosted by another.  The American democratic system itself grew into an order where losing was an integral part of how the system functioned.  Representatives would be elected by the people and the public would need submit to the authority of the majority.  While minority opinions could still exist they could not oust the duly appointed government unless it took on unjust qualities (and even then it would have to prove those injustices over an extended period).

In all, John Locke gave America a tremendous endowment; a tradition of legislative philosophies and social moralities, thought not without its consequences. Despite being a man of deep thoughts, much of the havoc that has been wrecked upon the environment can be traced back to Locke as well. His attitudes towards nature had a tremendous impact on corporations and their philosophies regarding production, efficiency and progress.  Indeed, many point the finger now at Locke, his contemporaries as well as to Enlightenment philosophy as the smoking gun on why the planet seems to being killed off at an alarming rate. In addition, Locke has been criticized by some as a hypocrite, in terms of human rights, for his own ownership of slaves. He was, nonetheless, a man who gave inspiration to countless Americans to seek their own free destinies.  If not a debt of gratitude, America certainly owes him the responsibility of never forgetting his contribution to the formation of its society.