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…

Bricolage – Blackamerican Islam and Synthesizing the Future

There has been much air and debate tossed around about the future of Islam, especially in America. For me, the primary community of interest has and continues to be the Blackamerican community. For many reasons, one that I’ll give here, it remains a key ingredient in my book, regarding the success of Islam as a genuine entity in the American social space. One of the biggest reasons is that Blackamerican Muslims remain to this day, the only indigenous Western community/racial group that have experienced a large, mass conversion. I have read the numbers on conversion rates and populations. I am not here to debate or inflate the numbers but as the facts stand, Blackamericans are the only group that have had a significant number of their population embrace Islam. This cannot be said of Latinos or whites. And while the number of second and third generation Muslims continues to grow, they are still very much seen as a foreign enterprise. And for the growing number of whites who are choosing to embrace Islam, they still face a tough road of skepticism, cynicism and out right bewilderment from their fellow white Americans, who see their religious choice as some sort of racial apostasy or abandonment. Indeed, Blackamerican Muslim enjoy a special kind of insulation in that blacks can convert, change their names, even where foreign regalia and still be seen as authentically black. This should not be under appreciated or go with out significant notice.

So aside from acceptance, what else does this mean? What significance should this have for us as Blackamerican Muslims? Have we even acknowledged this fact and taken advantage of it. From my day to day run-ins with various Blackamerican Muslims around Philadelphia, I must give a cautious “no”. By no means do I think that some of the Muslims I’ve met in Philadelphia represent all Muslims elsewhere but I will nonetheless use them as a test case. For in my sixteen years of having embraced Islam, many of the sentiments I’ve heard echoed by some of Philadelphia’s Blackamerican Muslims have been echoed elsewhere. It is my hope that some of this short post will provide a bit of food for thought on the subject.

It may be a cliché that to want change one must recognize that one needs to change. Status quo can be a dangerous and comfortable set of chains. Bound by our thoughts, we have forgotten that we constrained and when time, circumstance or situation demands action, we just keep singin’ that same ol’ song. Much of the tension that I see between younger Blackamerican Muslims and the Old Guard is the lack of vision or clairvoyance to see that a change is needed. But change for the sake of change’s sake won’t cut the bill. Serious thought and soul searching must be engaged to see what it is that needs to be changed and in what manner. If there’s one community that has suffered so terribly from the baby-and-the-bath-water syndrome, it’s the Blackamerican Muslim community. So desperate were we to escape the confines of “black life” in America, many of us donned costume and script from some one else’s play and we played the part [at times better than they did themselves]. What I’m getting at is what I heard from a colleague lately, who criticized Black Muslims for out Arabing the Arabs. What many don’t realize, is that the hidden impetus behind this shift, this searching, had a great deal to do with the pain that many of us felt. Stifled by the glass veil of white values [not the KKK, per se], we were eager for an outlet. An outlet that would allow us not only to express out blackness in a valid way, but our very humanity. Our souls. And while I will fault no one for those feelings, it has not proven to be a successful operation. In my opinion, one of the stumbling blocks was due to what I’d call the eclecticism of Blackamerican Islam in the wake of the Nation of Islam. I shall try to elaborate.

It may seem short sighted or even harsh to label post-Nation Islam as an eclectic movement. It should be understood that this is not a value judgment on those persons who participated in the movement, but rather an observation. By eclectic, I mean in the dictionary sense of the word, but transplanted in a social context: selecting or choosing from various sources. Let me further ground my statement in what Ebrahim Moosa [see Ghazali & The Poetics of Imagination – Chapel Hill Press] describes as eclecticism:

“Lacking coherence, it [eclecticism] sits uncomfortably in its new habitat as if it had been mechanically inserted into the new setting.”

But exchanging eclecticism for Blackamerican Islam [post-Nation], one can see it has sat uncomfortably and even further, dysfunctionally, in its new habitat. What I see is a call for bricolage, a term coined by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who, in his definition as explained by Moosa, points out the difference between a bricoleur and an architect:

“An engineer always attempts to go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular moment in civilization. A bricoleur, on the other hand, is always inclined to remain within those limitations and constraints.”

Moosa further elaborates on Strauss’ term in two facets:

“…first, the appropriation of cultural elements from the dominant culture; and second the transformation of meanings through ironic juxtaposition and innovative use in order to challenge and subvert existing meanings.”

For me, Strauss’ bricolage elegantly describes much of the process of the Nation of Islam. That to a great degree, Elijah Muhammad appropriated certain elements of Islam from dominant Muslim theology and transformed them into new objects that were meaningful for to him/blacks in his time and place, and they very much did challenge and attempt to subvert existing meanings on what constituted blackness and the limits that white values had placed on black human beings at that time. So when we look at the religious doctrine of the Nation, it is very much out of touch with traditional/orthodox/main stream Islam. But it did breathe new life into the dignity of many black folks who wanted to shrug off the confines of the injustices they faced in their time. If not in practice, then in spirit, this is the very same need that I see Blackamerican Muslims in need to do. This bricolage, this struggle, will encompass a serious grappling with the past/Tradition of Islam without becoming slave to it. Self martyrdom [“…it’s a black thang…”] will simply not suffice.

So how does this bricolage take flight? In what manner is it carried out such that it will be seen as genuine and not another fish out of water enterprise. The answer laid in Moosa’s description as to the difference between eclecticism and bricolage:

“The crucial difference is [that] in order for any performance or idea to be deemed eclectic, the provenance of the borrowed artifact must still be very much visible to the observer in the composite product. In fact, the borrowed idea does not develop a life of its own within the new setting.”

“By contrast, a bricoleur relocates artifacts in such a way that they form an integral part of the new environment. A bricoleur demands originality in the process of refinement and adaptation, making the borrowed artifact synthetically fit in with the new surroundings as if it had been there all the time and belonged there in the first place.”

Moosa’s last statement, about belonging, again points to a critical difference between the indigenous Blackamerican population and other foreign or ethnic populations. They simply are not seen as belonging in America. That their very essence is anti-Western and can never fit or be accommodated. In contrast, Blackamericans can move from Christianity to Islam without shedding their sense of belonging [unless they choose to do so!]. One should not think that for a moment this position is without envy from the foreign/ethnic population.

As it stands, much of the Islam I have witnessed coming out of the Blackamerican population has been one of eclecticism. That the process to becoming Muslim required replicating a previous or “other” version of Islam such that when it was donned by Blackamericans it still resembled its old form or context. By this I mean things such as wardrobe, diet, and societal norms. Suits and pants became thobes and turbans. Falafel and hummus became more authentic than steak and fried chicken. And holding down a 9-5 and supporting one’s family was bucked in favor of checking out against the kafir-led regime that oppressed the Palestinians. But instead, if we were to fashion an Islam that spoke to our time, our condition and our history, this bricolage would speak far greater to us than any masquerading could.

Part of this process of bricolage will entail revisiting the past and the Tradition of Islam. The Tradition of Islam cannot simply be ignored, as is attempted by authors like Irshad Manji or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wish to jettison all of the past in favor of a new utopist, Western-values dictated Islam. This type of rhetoric is equally guilty of the hegemony that they claim the Traditionalists hold over them. A new, fresh and honest rereading of the past can allow for a blending of tradition with circumstance. As Michel de Certeau says,

“The same words and the same ideas are often reused but they no longer have the same meaning [and] they are no longer thought and organized in the same way. It is upon this “fact” that the project of an all-encompassing and unitary interpretation runs aground.”

So instead of tossing that same old baby out with the bathwater, perhaps we should learn from our past errors and sit, with humility and calmness, and readdress our past and take from it what will give us a sense of knowing, a sense of dignity and a sense of pride without being held hostage by it.

And God knows best.