By now, most of our readers have already read and dissected the New York Times Magazine cover story about myself. I’ve been deluged with emails and questions regarding it – here are my thoughts.
Firstly, the story of how this happened. Around a year and a half ago, someone referred my name to Andrea Elliot as a source on conservative movements and Islamic issues in America. She called me up wanting some background information on another story she was doing. Over the course of the next few months, she became more and more intrigued with my own work and with AlMaghrib Institute, and felt that there was a need to write a story on this aspect of American Islam as well. After thinking things through, asking those whom I trust, and praying istikhara, I agreed. My primary motivation was to show the real and human side of our dawah, to emphasize the maturation and acclimatization of Orthodox Muslims into America over the last decade, and to break common stereotypes that existed of conservative Muslims. It was never my intent that I be portrayed as any type of leader (and I truly seek Allah’s refuge from arrogance and conceit).
As Andrea continued to interview me, and attended several AlMaghrib classes (and even IlmSummit), the story continued to grow in size, and her editors decided to make it a cover story for the NYT magazine. Over the course of a year, I believe that she must have interviewed over a hundred hours with me, over the phone and in person. Additionally, she interviewed dozens of our students and many other people in miscellaneous fields. Essentially, the way journalism works is that the reporter then writes a story based on all of those interviews and research. The basic ‘plot’, the set-up, the words and the chronology all come from the reporter – the interviewee has no say or input in any of that. As a side point, this is why every time someone is interviewed, he or she is taking a calculated risk because they must trust the journalist to convey their intent, while realizing that no journalist is obligated to do as the person requests.
By describing this process, I do not mean to imply that the reporter misrepresented me – every single quote was indeed mine. My point is that had I written the story, I would have emphasized other aspects, taken a different angle, and brought in a lot of nuances and disclaimers that are absent from the story. She was writing for her audience and with her perspective; had I written such a story, I would have written it for my audience and from my perspective.
Overall, I feel that she tried to portray me in a sympathetic light (and from the hundreds of comments and emails that I’ve been getting, I would say that she has successfully done that). Many of you have said that she succeeded in humanizing her subject, and managed to convey many issues and nuances that others would not have been able to. Personally I have to commend Andrea for her extensive research, her grasp of so many different concepts in such a short time-frame, and her trying to make the readers sympathize with the difficulties of being a scholar in America. Another positive point was that she illustrated that conservative Islam is not one monolithic movement, but rather a spectrum of movements.
Yet another positive aspect of the story was that she clearly demonstrated that the root cause of militancy is not theological in nature, but rather political. In other words, the militants are not militants because Islam is an evil religion, but rather because they have strong political grievances with America, and are then using their (mis)understanding of Islam to justify their violence. I believe that this point is immensely important for us to appreciate – we as Muslims overlook the fact that the average American does not understand why militants resort to terrorism, and blames our religion rather than socio-political factors.
And lastly, the story succeeded in showing a very down-to-earth side of me (the ice cream, the Popeye’s, and yes, even my romantic side – but then again, all of you should have known that by now!)
From these angles, I feel the article in the New York Times magazine was a positive one, alhamdulillah.
Of course, any such story will also have its negatives, and there were some serious concerns raised.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment for me was the over-usage of the term ‘Salafi’, which, as everyone around us knows, is a term that I personally, and AlMaghrib Institute officially, does not use. And this is not because we are somehow ‘closet Salafis’ and wish to hide this, but because of the way that the Salafi movement around the world manifests itself. While I might agree with the Salafis on most theological points, the fact of the matter (as the article mentions) is that I have departed from that movement in many issues, most importantly in how it has traditionally viewed and dealt with opposing groups. I do not view myself as being a part of that movement as it exists in the Eastern world, even if I view many of its senior scholars in a positive and respectful light and continue to benefit from them in specific areas. I believe that we in America need to acclimatize the religious aspects of Ahl al-Sunnah within the cultural climate that we find ourselves in, and I go so far as to say that this is what Islam itself intended. All of my classes that I teach reflect this basic sentiment, and I hope that my students can attest to this.
My comment to the Homeland Security representative (viz., ‘I’m a pacifist Salafist’) was intended as a ‘shock-and-awe’ factor to get his attention (and it succeeded in that). I needed to speak with him at his level, and hence employed terminology that he would understand. I would never (and do not) use such terminology otherwise.
Frankly, I don’t like labels – they tend to cause more harm than good. Labels tend to be ‘groupish’ and create monoliths out of vast spectrums. Yet, labels do have some usage, and one does have to explain one’s beliefs and theologies to others, hence the term ‘Orthodox’. The whole point of labeling ourselves ‘Orthodox’ is to show that we maintain the views of the first three generations of Islam on theological issues of tawhid, iman, qadr, and so forth, but are not necessarily affiliated with the methodology and attitudes (and some fiqh) of any other modern groups who share that theology as well. I have argued, and continue to argue, that much of those attitudes are shaped by culture and social context rather than Islam, and that we here in America need to take that orthodox ‘theory’ from the Sacred Texts and apply it to the American reality. I understand that this raises a lot of questions – what to take and what not to take from those whom we call ‘Senior Scholars’. I have written about this subject and continue to do so (expect another article in a few months insha Allah about this topic). My official stance on this remains the same: I do not use this label and disagree with many of its implications. Unfortunately, the article relied too heavily on this label and sometimes used ‘AlMaghrib’ and ‘Salafis’ and ‘ultra-conservatives’ as if they were all the same thing, which is not the case.
Another issue that I felt uncomfortable with was the underlying tone of portraying me as the flip-opposite of (or the antidote to) Anwar al-Awlaki. I don’t view myself as being his polar opposite. I have my message, he has his. I also don’t view myself as being the best solution to militancy – I view that all scholars and du`aat have a major role to play, and I am one amongst all of them. Had I written the story, I can assure you that this angle would not have been present at all.
Of course, I would much rather that such an article concentrate on topics other than jihad. Most of my own work does not deal with jihad, as my online articles and YouTube speeches demonstrate. Nonetheless, this topic is what is of interest to the readers of the NYT and hence became the primary focus. There are more pressing issues facing the Muslims of America as a whole than jihad, and these need greater discussion in the public and private spheres.
One of the major concerns of some readers has been a perception that conservative Muslims are all somehow flirting with terrorism. Islamophobes and some pundits and commentators on the NYT website have pounced on this perception. This perception is simply not true – as conservative Muslims, we are primarily concerned about the same issues that everyone else of faith is concerned about: how to best juggle between our jobs, family, and religious obligations. Terrorism and militancy are definitely important issues, but it is not those issues that cause us to stay awake at night (in my case, its usually being late on an academic assignment that does that!) Yet, the take-away that many pundits and Islamophobes extracted from this article is that ultra-conservative Muslims are all rushing towards the doors of jihad unless someone stops them from getting there. This, despite the fact that Andrea herself mentions that the dozens of AlMaghrib students that she interviewed all condemned the tactics of the militants. There is no doubt that this is a very wrong perception, and I wish that the article did more to combat it. As it stands, many readers unfortunately perceive the article in this manner. (As a side, studies have in fact showed that religiosity is the best antidote to extremism).
It is true that a few of those who have interacted with me have been imprisoned and/or indicted for terrorist-related activities (AbdulMuttalib being the most infamous case). I have taught close to sixteen thousand students over the last six years (and AlMaghrib Institute has taught over twice that number) – if four of them (none of whom was ever close to me) have been imprisoned for illegal activities, that is around 0.02 %. I am sure that all universities around the world have higher percentages of students who have run-ins with the law; we would not hold those universities or its professors responsible for the illegal activities of its students, so how can anyone make such a connection with myself or AlMaghrib?
There are, of course, many other points that can be mentioned (some of which I will continue to write about in the future). Overall, I believe that the article did a good job of showing some of the concerns and tensions that we face as American Muslims. There are some concerns that we will have to deal with, and, as always, we ask Allah to forgive us for any mistakes, to make our affairs easy for us, and to protect us wherever we are. Ameen!
P.S. After I finished writing this article, I got this email from Andrea:
Please let the students know that I would be more than happy to answer questions and hear their commentary, as I do with all readers. They can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org