Remember last month’s exchange on Islamophobia and challenges facing the American Muslim community internally? Our writers are back to build on that conversation and break new ground. Dr. Nazir Khaja of the Islamic Information Service and FPL board member and blogger Islamoyankee of Islamicate will take on this subject and more throughout this week!
Part 6: Islamoyankee on the Reformation vs. Renaissance
I think I would easily fall into the category of someone who is offended by the notion of an Islamic Reformation. The Reformation in Europe, broadly speaking, allowed immediate unfettered access to scripture. In and of itself this notion is problematic. However, the dominant narrative is that this access was a moderating influence on religion, effectively allowing for a more rationalistic approach to faith that succeeded in relegating it to the private sphere. Such a narrative ignores the rise of charismatic figures such as David Koresh (see also Jim Jones, Jung Myung Seok, Sun Myung Moon (2)), who took the scripture and created a violent and damaging reading of the text. Having said that, the use of the dominant narrative also ignores the realities of the Muslim world. In Sunni Islam, and in a different way in Ithna’ashari Islam, a strong, vibrant, legal (here I use the term to refer to all religious sciences) tradition existed. This tradition gave a framework for understanding religious enquiry that acknowledged diversities of interpretation. Since the Qur’an is proscriptive in only 6-7% of its pronouncements, any methodology must recognize the differences that come out of struggling with God’s word. In fact, one of the earliest concessions made by all communities of interpretation was that God’s Word was perfect, and as such humanity could not understand the true meaning of those words. This philosophy was practiced with various degrees of success throughout Muslim history. The methodology of approaching the text limited readings that would give rise to interpretations that would be on the excessive side of faith, either in making everything allegorical or literal. The collapse of the legal tradition in the colonial period gave us our reformation, and the result is the rise of characters such as Bin Laden and Muhammad Omar who see themselves as being the guarantors of faith, even though most students would laugh at the rigor of their arguments. In other words, the system we as Muslims had was to a certain extent what the Reformation brought to Europe, and the reformation that was thrust upon us brought us to where Europe was before the Reformation. It ignorance of both our history and European history that gives rise to this constant call for a reformation.
Despite that criticism of terminology, I do agree with the thrust of your argument, that the Muslim community needs a Renaissance, a rebirth, of the message of Islam. From my perspective, such a Renaissance would actually entail a return to a structured, systematic, and methodological approach to faith. Such an approach would hopefully limit the rise of charismatic figures who read their ideology into the text rather than having world-views emerging from the sources of the faith. I do believe that the US is in a unique position in being able to spread its ideas throughout the world, and as such American Muslims have a unique responsibility, but I also think that it is problematic for us to see ourselves as the only, or even the primary, beacon of thought in the Muslim world. Iranian intellectuals, as well as Indonesian and Malaysian thinkers, are engaged in some fascinating debates as to work with tradition and modernity. The reality is, most Americans, including American Muslims, are unaware of the real debates happening in the Muslim majority world. At some level we still privilege Arab as Islam, and don’t recognize the pluralistic traditions of Muslims in Indonesia and India, or in various African nations.
As American Muslims, we do have a challenge and responsibility, and we have a great opportunity to help revive our traditions and make them respectable again. Aside from the work we do in our own country, I think we need to emphasize the idea of the ummah, the universal Muslim community, and reach out to like-minded Muslims across the world, particularly where these debates are already happening at a highly sophisticated level.
Part 5: Dr. Khaja on Reform and the American Muslim Community
To summarize it seems that we both feel that Islam currently is in a volatile state, engaged in internal and external struggles. islamophobia in both of its dimensions, the internal, and the external is a real entity. Obviously it is a complex subject and the analysis of each of these dimensions will keep us engaged in this forum for a long time.
To start with however as concerned Muslims we must look at the issue of reform within Islam. This is necessary. Otherwise to place the fear, bias and animosity of others towards Islam ahead of reform would be like placing the cart before the horse.
You and I both know however that even the mention of the word reform to Muslims evokes an angry rejection. I do not hold any hopes for this process going forward in the so-called Muslim countries for obvious reasons. We American Muslims clearly must step up to the plate. We abide in freedom and interact with others in pluralistic framework. The majorities of Muslims elsewhere are lacking in this experience and are controlled coerced and manipulated not just by their secular leaders but also by most of their religious leaders also. The concern regarding Islam’s threat to others is necessitating not only political realignments and restructuring but more importantly ideological retooling Despite the adverse impact of 9/11on Muslims here and Islam and also recognizing that there is indeed distrust presently in America about us. The concern regarding Islam’s threat to others is necessitating not only political realignments and restructuring but more importantly ideological retooling.
We can yet play a critical role in lessening the tensions on both sides. The long over-due liberal reform is likeliest and possible here. And I choose the term liberal deliberately to mean all the processes of inclusion through which Islam gained acceptance and spread in different parts of the world without armed conflict or coercion However as we discussed before, unfortunately this community here has not yet evolved in their experience and approach to measure up to the task. Most here realize that a change or “ideological retooling” is necessary as a need of their own to make Islam more meaningful to themselves. Yet as you have rightly pointed out the majority of the Muslim community which is still the immigrants with their cultural baggage, is not yet ready. Their affiliations to diverse and contending views of Islam and also their unfamiliarity with working in a democratic pluralistic framework are still a problem. Leadership continues to be in the hands of this group which is lacking in confidence —confidence to see Islam outside the frame of “literalism”. This itself is a major obstacle to reform within Islam. The most important feature of all religious text is not what they actually say but how their followers understand and say about it.
From the unchanging past charting a course into an uncertain future is not proving easy for us. With “hot rhetoric” alluding to utopian plans and historical nostalgia, and with no intermediary steps of analysis or practical program of implementation, the confusion remains unabated.
We have already talked about our unfamiliarity with the processes that are fundamental in effectively engaging democracy. A major source of confusion and also a major source of tension and disunity within our ranks is the idea that politics and religion are the same. While this has been the dominant belief among Muslims historically and is still the hallmark of Muslim societies it has been long discarded here and elsewhere in the west. The sooner we Muslims start to deal with these core issues the more effective overall we will be not just in stemming this tide of Islamophobia but also pushing the envelope of reform within Islam…..
Part 4: Islamoyankee on Institutional Challenges
I think if we are to focus on institutions of the Muslim American community and how have failed us, I would focus on two parts. The first part is the failure for us to build institutions. As I mentioned previously, I believe many of “ourâ€ national institutions have, at the least, invested their mission with normatizing a particular understanding of Islam. By this, I mean that by representing “Islam,â€ they are have to define what “Islamâ€ is; for most Muslims, Islam is not 1400 years of history, it is not the interaction with faith and dozens of cultures, it is not about understanding how we got to the nuances and contradictions we live with day-in and day-out, it is not about the disputative tradition that makes the Muslim intellectual tradition so vibrant. The “Islamâ€ that these institutions present is the “Islamâ€ the founders of these institutions know, which is not terribly rich. Their ignorance of Islam plays well to a certain constituency that finds surety and comfort in a national voice representing their “Islam.â€ Unfortunately, that ignorance keeps non-Muslims ignorant, and it keeps Muslims looking to understand their faith better ignorant. When I spoke of Muslims being a ghetto before, this is part of what I was alluding to; “ourâ€ current institutions came out of a ghetto mentality, and they are structured to maintain that ghetto. They were necessary when they were founded, and they serve a purpose now, but they no longer represent the reality of American Muslims, and they never represented “Islam.â€ While it may seem like a semantic issue, if a group seeks to represent Islam, they will fail, as Islam is not a monolith, even if Muslims wishes it were. A group that claims to represent Muslims has a much better chance of success, in my opinion, and will have the ability to evolve as Muslim understandings of the Divine Message evolve. The institutional failure to address Islamophobia exists because these groups present ignorance as the basis of our faith, if not in word, in deed. It is easy for others to dismiss and demonize Muslims, when their “leadersâ€ dismiss understanding Islam.
The second issue is the ease in which we are dismissed from the mainstream. As an example, let me refer you to recent smear campaign instituted against Sen. Barack Obama. Fox News recently claimed that he trained at a radical Wahhabi terrorist school in Indonesia, and that he was raised as a Muslim. These accusations were quickly dismissed, and Sen. Obama’s office issued a letter addressing the issue. In his letter, intentionally or not, he sounds as though being called a Muslim is a smear (see here for a good breakdown the relevant part of the letter). Sen. Obama may be light on foreign policy credentials, but his personal history makes him aware of the diversity of the world in which we live. How could he have written such a letter? Are there really no Muslim Americans in Chicago people on his staff could interact with? Are there no Muslims on his staff? Could not anyone involved in writing this letter have thought, I know a Muslim, and I don’t want to denigrate them like this? So the key issue is where are the Muslims? As you’ve said, we are an extremely well-educated community, and we work in medicine, law, finance, and as entrepreneurs. When we wear the doctor’s coat, do we stop being Muslim? At an individual level, why is it so difficult for non-Muslims to think of Muslims as people? I would suggest that we have failed to either present ourselves as Muslim, or to present ourselves as people. The other sub-text is that Muslims are not necessarily going into fields other than law, medicine, and finance, so campaign staffs don’t have Muslims who are comfortable claiming to be Muslim. That is a cultural failure on our part.
Not all is lost. We need new institutions that represent Muslims who know no other homeland than America, regardless of where their parents were from. These institutions need to represent Muslims, not Islam. We need to make the diversity of Islam normative, so that all Muslims feel comfortable talking about being Muslim, and the questions we get asked as individuals are about what it means to us as people to be Muslim, not for all of us to be able explain “Islam.â€ We have to have pride in our Muslim identity, but we don’t have to be militant or strident about it. Once we have reached comfort in ourselves, I believe our representation will reflect that comfort, and non-Muslims will be comfortable with us.
Part 3: Dr. Khaja on Looking Inward
Thank you for responding to my piece on Islamophobia. As we look at the issue in terms of Civil Rights and questions of authority, how American Muslims’ loyalty to their adopted homeland is being called into question is everyday news. At the official level it is under the blanket of “Security”; in the public arena it is the result mainly of ignorance compounded by the post 9/11 fear.
A major contributing factor is the failure of the American Muslim Community to effectively engage with the experience of participating in a democratic framework. The requirement for this is “instititutionalisation” and as you have pointed out there are hardly any Muslim institutions here which have the strategic depth and resources to face the burgeoning challenges. This is ironic because the American Muslim community is the most educated of Muslim communities and individually Muslims have attained high level of success and prosperity in this country.
This then brings us back to the issue of “Civil Rights”. The message that we as Muslims must understand is that there really can not be any rights without responsibility attached to it. This dovetails into the discussion of Leadership and Organization.
It is therefore useful to have an inward look at our failures as we examine the attitude of others towards Islam, that of fear, phobia and prejudice. Where do we start?
Part 2: Islamoyankee on Learning to Speak American
I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I agree with
you concerning the issues facing the Muslim community in the US
regarding Islamophobia. However, my approach is slightly different
than yours. Following the outline of your post, there are two broad
areas you identify: Civil Rights and questions of authority. The
first, while not unique to Muslims in the US, has a particular
American flavor that makes sense to deal with at a national level.
The second point is a more universal concern in the Ummah, and one
that I would like to address more broadly.
Muslims in America, whether we like it or not, are basically divided
into two camps: immigrants and non-immigrants. Immigrant Muslims are
generally those who are 1st and 2nd generation immigrants, while non-
immigrant Muslims are those who came to Islam, or whose family came
to Islam, in the United States. More colloquially, immigrants are non-
Latino brown and immigrants are black (and nobody has thought which
is more denigrating to Latinos yet, so they are unclassified). This
point is a generalization that holds true throughout popular
discourse, irrespective of a persons actual point of origin. Hakeem
Olajuwon is not seen as Muslim in the same way I as being of South
Asian descent am, even though he immigrated from a Muslim majority
community and I was born and bred in New York. As a result, immigrant
Muslims are seen as more authentic, and more radical. The term
Muslim, when used to describe an undesirable element, is the polite
way of saying “sand nigger,â€ or “towel-head;â€ it has become a racial
category as much as a religious one. I raise this point for two
reasons. The first, is when we are talking about Muslims in America,
the dominant discourse almost always dictates that we are talking
about immigrant Muslims, or brown Muslims. This is a convention that
I will follow in my postings this week. The second point, is that we
need to recognize how insular the immigrant Muslim community is in
terms of its activism, and sometimes that can only happen by
recognizing the bifurcation in the Muslim American community.
As American Muslims we constantly reference 9/11 as a moment when
everything changed. Things may have changed in terms of scale, but
not in terms of content. The US has a long and varied history with
Islamdom (reading list at the end of the piece). However, as recently
as 1991 and the First Gulf War, Islamophobia has been part of the
national discourse, un-named, and more virulent than after the 1979
Iranian Revolution (see “Covering Islam: How the
Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the
Worldâ€ (Edward W. Said)). To hate Arabs, at the time a synonym
for Muslims, was condoned. Popular media reveled in the idea that the
get a sense of how prevalent that image was (see “Reel Bad Arabs: How
Hollywood Vilifies a Peopleâ€ (Jack G. Shaheen)). Aside from a
brief period in the late 1960s (The Hate that Hate Produced), black Muslims have not
been persecuted for their faith as much as they have been for their
race. In my eyes 9/11 was a catalytic event, speeding up a process
already taking place; it did not begin a new reaction.
While the rhetoric of Islamophobia has become more formal and
institutionalized since 9/11, the process began much sooner, and to
me, the key question is where has the immigrant Muslim come since
1991. Were we ready? If not, why not? If so, why? Are we becoming
part of the American public sphere, or are we continuing a drive
towards insularity that will relegate our existence in American
politics to irrelevance? Regarding Civil Rights, you mention the case
of Rep. Keith Ellison. To me, this is a perfect case of some of the
problems facing the Muslim American community, specifically,
coalition building. I saw some responses from Muslim American groups
like CAIR; I saw some responses from Jewish and Christian groups (see
but I don’t recall seeing a joint statement from Muslims and Jews and
Christians (I’m not Googling this, because I want to make a point
from the perspective of someone who follows the news more closely
than most that appearance is as important as fact). Much like a
situation with Fleet Bank (now Bank of America) several years ago
(see here), we are missing the opportunity to
create coalitions and make ourselves part of the discourse on what it
means to be American.
What we have done at this point is scream that we are victims and we
are being victimized. Yes. True. However, by claiming this is a
Muslim problem, we are addressing nothing. One component of identity
is identification against an “other.â€ During the Cold War, the
American “otherâ€ were the Soviets. Such an “otherâ€ is rarely
considered an equal, but an inferior, or made to seem inferior
through the process of “othering.â€ Now, Muslims are the “other,â€
because we are perceived of as weak. We can claim we are victims, but
we are victimized because we are weak, and as long we play the role
of weak victims, we will continue to be victimized. We need to decry
Islamophobia as being un-American; we need to build coalitions with
those who are interested in keeping American society open and
welcoming. So far, most of what I have seen has been people living in
ghettos, building institutions that are ghetto-minded, and
maintaining the ghetto at all costs. We have not yet learned to speak
American. I’ve often heard of politicians referred to as whores,
who’ll do anything for the highest bidder, so at Muslim outreach
efforts I hear boards talking about gaining political influence by
essentially being “Johns,â€ hiring the cheapest politician we can to
satisfy our needs. Such an effort proves we don’t understand the
American system, and offers us no long-term solutions. American
politicians also gave us the Declaration of Independence, the
Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Gettysburg Address, the
“Kitchen Cabinet,â€ the warning against the Military-Industrial
Complex, and a certain speech at the 2004 DNC against discrimination.
I’ve only read one Muslim who has attempted to speak both “Americanâ€
and “Muslimâ€ (“What’s Right with Islam: is
What’s Right With Americaâ€ (Feisal Abdul Rauf)). In my mind, the
best way for us to battle Islamophobia in America is start learning
to speak “American,â€ with a Muslim accent of course, instead speaking
Muslim, and hoping someone will listen.
This is a long-winded response to the first part of your post. I hope
during week we’ll be able to tease out some more ideas, and hopefully
return to the issue of authority.
islamoyankee (aka Hussein)
Reading List on Islamdom and America:
Americaâ€ (Jane I. Smith)
Muslims Enslaved in the Americasâ€ (Sylviane A. Diouf)
United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815â€ (Robert Allison) a>
United States and the Middle East since 1945â€ (Douglas Little) a>
America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Presentâ€ (Michael B. Oren) a>
American Thought: Roots of Orientalism in Americaâ€ (Fuad Shaban) a>
America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terrorâ€ (Mahmood Mamdani) a>
United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (American Empire
Project)â€ (Robert Dreyfuss)
Part 1: Dr. Khaja on Islamophobia Rising
I’m happy to join in this exchange with you, and thank Faith in Public Life for arranging it. There are a number of crucial challenges facing the Muslim community today, so I hope this forum will allow us a public space to discuss a number of them.
Since 9/11 questions abut Islam, its nature, its distinctive identity, its potential threat to the West have seized center stage in intellectual and political debates and discussions. Worldwide fears and misconceptions, combined with lack of credible information, continue to foster a climate of fear and hostility. This is partly the fault of the media and partly the inability of the Muslims to effectively engage with the process of correcting the misconceptions on both sides.
It is no surprise therefore that “Islamophobia” is a very real entity. What is becoming increasingly disturbing is how pervasive it has become. Existing at all levels of society it is now a part of the discourse in framing governmental policies here and abroad. Many complain that “political correctness” inhibits them from questioning or discussing Islam and its practices, yet the Pope, preachers, politicians and pundits all seem now to express their fears quite openly.
In the U.S and Europe, new laws are being enacted under the umbrella of security concerns. The Patriot Act and other surveillance programs impact the civil liberties of all Americans, but bring particular intrusions in to the lives of American Muslims and others who look different or have different sounding names.
The recent uproar over the oath of office for newly elected first American Muslim to the Congress Keith Ellison further highlights this growing Islamophobia. Rep. Ellison wanted to take his oath of office on the Quran, much to the loud objections of radio talk show hosts like Dennis Pranger. Even more disturbing than the talk show hosts was Virginia Congressman Virgil Goode’s fear mongering. Goode wrote to his constituents, “I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt strict immigration policies.â€ The Constitutional protection of all religions from discrimination disappears in the face of this fear of Islam.
All of the above is to highlight how real the problem is. As you no doubt know, numerous other examples of discrimination and hostility have arisen in the past few months. And with the continuation of wars, occupation and unresolved conflicts in Muslim lands, one can predict that the fear of Islam and Muslims will only increase. In a world of anger and violence as it seems now there has to be a break from the traditional “us versus them” approach .The recycling of historical animosity from the Crusades to the post-Cold War demonization of Islam must end.
This is not going to be easy. The frame of conflict between Islam and the West has become a dominant media theme on issues both political and social. Media, politicians, faith leaders and average citizens share a responsibility to challenge this twisted pattern of discourse.
Muslims have their work cutout, especially those who live in freedom and are educated. It is their responsibility to reject the message of the extremists whose worldview and actions are not only a serious affront to Islam but also to the peace and stability of this world.
It seems to me that the key question that they must tackle is one of control–control of interpretation of the Quran and the authentic teachings of Islam. In other words: who decides, by what process and in what context, which reading or text to promote? Presently the control is with those who lack any experience in pluralism and see the world in Manichean paradigm. In this struggle within Islam, which is mainly about power rather than faith, lies one of the root causes of the violence sectarian and otherwise. By engaging with these important questions the Muslims here can lead the way in stemming the rising tide of Islamophobia.
I look forward to your thoughts.