During his 2015 State of the Union address to Congress, President Obama called for respecting human dignity. This call was met with applause. Obama then called for a rejection of anti-Semitism. Again, uproarious applause ensued. In the very next sentence, Obama called for a rejection of offensive Muslim stereotypes. Suddenly, dead silence. Apparently every politician and government official in the room, whether Democrat or Republican, was on board with stereotyping and profiling Muslims.
Fast forward to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. A father and mother of a slain American Muslim soldier spoke about their sacrifices for the country. And everyone there cheered and has been cheering ever since. Besides them, the convention included five other Muslim speakers including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Sherman Jackson, who both referenced hate and prejudice against Muslims in their addresses while Democratic Party members cheered.
So why the difference? What changed between Obama’s 2015 State of the Union and the 2016 DNC? Why did Obama’s call for tolerance get the silent treatment but the same call is cheered and championed a year later?
As American Muslims, should we attribute this shift in attitudes to Hillary Clinton and the DNC organizers? Should we thank them for bringing about a new commitment from Democrats for diversity and tolerance of different faiths?
In reality, our actual benefactor — the one who is really responsible for putting Khizr and Ghazala Khan on stage that night — is someone much more orange in hue.
Here is a question: Would the Clinton campaign and the DNC have showcased seven different Muslims in the course of the convention if Donald Trump hadn’t made bigotry against Muslims so central to his campaign? There is no way to tell for sure, but if we understand the nature of oppositional politics in this country, there is much to suggest that American Muslims should be thanking Trump.
The “Islam Means Peace” Rule
As in the world of physics, in the world of presidential politics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Trump’s action is that he broke a long-standing rule about how to talk about Muslims in political discourse. I call it the “Islam Means Peace” Rule (or IMP Rule for short): You can denounce “radical Muslims.” You can imply that there are “extremist” interpretations of Islam and “violent Islamists” who adopt those interpretations. But you must never, ever imply that Islam itself is the problem. You must never, ever suggest that Muslims in general are terrorists or are sympathetic to terrorism. You must insist that “Islam means peace.”
In one of the first speeches that Bush made after the 9/11 attacks, he laid out the IMP Rule and thereby set the tone for respectable political dialogue about Islam and Muslims for the next 15 years. Throughout this time, there were always the Pamela Gellers on the right and the Bill Mahers on the left who shrilly warned that the problem was not “radical Islam” but Islam itself. But these voices were roundly ignored by a mainstream media committed to the Rule. Previous Republican presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney also stuck closely to the Rule, but Trump became the first mainstream politician on the national stage to flout IMP in his clumsy crusade against “political correctness.” Instead of limiting his remarks to the “radicals,” his pronouncements are directed to Muslims more broadly. This is why the Muslim community around the world sees Trump as an apocalyptic harbinger of doom and destruction. The good news is, as a violator of the IMP Rule, Trump is seen by other politicians, both Democrat and Republican, as well as the mainstream media in the same light that most Muslims see him: As an uncouth bigot who must be opposed at every turn.
The Power of IMP
Understanding the IMP Rule and its power is the key to seeing how beneficial Trump really is to American Muslims. The most powerful moral narrative in the American conscience is the fight against racism. Racism is seen as the ultimate evil, universally regarding as a threat to civilization. The two greatest historical manifestations of evil in the collective American understanding is slavery and Nazism, and both manifestations were animated by racial discrimination. As Muslims, we recognize this as a part of our moral compass as well, as the Prophet specifically called out the damaging ignorance and backwardness of mistreating others on the basis of skin color.
In the context of skin color, the odiousness of racism is clear, but outside that context, things become more murky. The racism narrative is so powerful that all varieties of interest groups and political parties attempt to tap into that narrative in order to mobilize people for their particular cause. The LGBT activist movement, for example, has been very explicit about this. Frank Bruni, the NYT’s first openly gay op-ed columnist, has argued that discrimination against people on the basis of sexual tendencies is tantamount to discrimination on the basis of skin color and that LGBT activists must use the language of the civil rights movement in order to advance their cause.
Muslims too have taken advantage of the racism narrative, arguing that discrimination on the basis of religious belief is tantamount to discrimination on the basis of skin color. But simply making the argument is not enough for society at large to believe that these are instances of racism and vile prejudice. The public has to be convinced that the group in question is the subject of systematic abuse, subjugation, violence, and unjust treatment in general.
The purpose of the IMP Rule then is to prevent the public from seeing Muslims in this light. The Rule is meant to project an image of Muslim tolerance, even celebration. This is important because, without this rosy image, many of the policies and regulations that were implemented against the American Muslim community and Muslim societies abroad in the aftermath of 9/11 would be seen for what they are: unjust targeting and systematic violence against one particular group of people.
For the public to see this treatment for what it is would make the idea of “Islamophobia” as a subgenre of racism that much more compelling to the average American, who is, due to the racism narrative, highly sensitive to anything with the slightest semblance of racial prejudice. And once the average American gets even a whiff of that and starts to see Muslims as victims, that would create a chain reaction of support and political mobilization for wider Muslim acceptance. This is why Trump has been and will continue to be a boon for American Muslims so long as he keeps up his heavy-handed, off-the-wall demonizing of Islam and Muslims.
Obama, Master of IMP
For President Obama, the IMP Rule has been monumentally important. Well-off and politically connected American Muslims are reluctant to believe this, but Obama has been a disaster for American Muslim rights. There has not been a single substantive anti-Muslim policy created under the Bush administration that has not been continued, expanded, or accelerated by the Obama administration.
In terms of foreign policy, Iraq and Afghanistan continue to suffer from the presence of a US military force. Obama’s infamous drone program has extended this death and destruction to Northwest Pakistan as well as Yemen, Somalia, and other Muslim regions. Libya, of course, was invaded under Obama’s directive and has been smoldering ever since. Under Obama, Israel felt at ease brutally pummeling a besieged Gaza in three separate operations, genocidal aggression that Obama awarded with record amounts of military aid stuffed into the pockets of the Israeli murder machine. And the failings of the Obama administration to broker peace in Syria while also tacitly supporting the bloody military coup in Egypt and the Sisi regime has been nothing but an unmitigated disaster.
Hand in hand with the terror Obama has unleashed against Muslims abroad are his domestic “anti-terror” policies, policies which for all intents and purposes target Muslims and attack their civil rights. Obama’s Orwellian CVE program, which essentially saddles the entire Muslim community with assumed guilt for terrorism, is only the tip of the iceberg. His FBI has perfected and regularized an aggressive Muslim entrapment program which was used only sparingly in the Bush years. His NSA datamines Muslim online activity and communication and feeds that information to other agencies which disproportionately and unfairly target Muslims. Local police departments have, through generous grants and guidance from Obama’s DHS, spied on Muslims and created databases cataloging Muslims and their day-to-day activities. The secret No-Fly list, which lists predominantly Muslims, none of whom have any proven ties to terrorism, has ballooned to at least ten times its size under Obama.
By any objective standard, Obama has been a much worse president for Muslims than Bush Jr. But the American Muslim community itself seems to be completely unaware of this and will bitterly deny it. This is because they have fallen into the seductive web of the IMP Rule. Obama perfected the Rule. He made the Rule into a fine art. His paeans to the American Muslim community and even Islam as a religion are unmatched. That’s why Muslims love him — no politician has spoken more glowingly and more eloquently in praise of Muslims. No president has appointed more Muslims into his administration or invited more Muslims to have iftar or Eid dinner at the White House. Clearly a president who goes out of his way to recognize and celebrate Muslims is not actively curtailing their rights and sabotaging their interests!
Alas, the truth is not as picturesque as those lavish White House iftars would lead us to believe. What Obama has proven is the efficacy of the iron fist when it is wearing a velvet glove. The IMP Rule is precisely that velvet glove, and Obama has worn it masterfully. As a result, the “anti-terror” programs — which have stripped American Muslims of so many of their civil rights and which the Bush-era Democrats denounced as the “Shredding of the Constitution” — overnight transformed into bipartisan consensus once Obama endorsed them. And it is that bipartisan consensus that has increasingly shifted public sentiment against Muslims over the past eight years, up until last year’s State of the Union, where even calls for basic civility towards Muslims were met with cold, indifferent silence from the nation’s lawmakers.
But Trump has changed all that. Trump has no patience for the niceties of velvet. His talk of monitoring Muslims and controlling their movement in and out of the country have plenty of precedent in Obama’s policies. Ironically, in fact, Obama’s policies are sometimes even worse than what Trump claims to want to do as president. The only thing that is novel about Trump is the way he talks about Muslims. And as Muslims, we should welcome this frankness. Strategically speaking, we should prefer a president who will wear his hatred of us on his sleeve as opposed to one who smiles in our face while implementing all manner of policy against us under the table. Better the devil you know.
What If Trump Wins?
If Trump wins the presidency, the Democrats will likely latch on to the Muslim cause like never before. We saw shades of this during the Bush terms. Glenn Greenwald said it best:
“The Democrats have been opposed to so many things when Bush was President that they, since 2009, stand up and cheer when President Obama does them. I know that because I was working on civil liberties during the Bush Administration. Things like droning people to death, even Americans, on the grounds that they’re terrorists without having to go to court and present evidence. Obviously, not just keeping Guantanamo open, but continuing to imprison people without charges. These are all things, certainly spying on people without warrants, that Democrats pretended to oppose when George Bush was in the Oval Office that they now either quietly acquiesce to or vocally support now that there is a Democrat in power.”
As journalists like Greenwald have noted time and again, in the Bush days, the Democratic establishment actually took on pro-Muslim causes like closing Guantanamo Bay and opposing Muslim profiling and detention programs. But as soon as Obama became president, all that righteous concern went out the window. The Democrats no longer had any reason to oppose anti-Muslim policies once they were in power. And the GOP saw an opportunity to portray any last vestige of pro-Muslim sentiment on the parts of Obama and the Dems as being “soft on terror,” which had the expected outcome of making Obama even more reluctant to do anything substantial to roll back, much less overturn, the bevy of programs infringing on Muslim rights.
A Trump president, however, will bring that righteous pro-Muslim fervor back with a vengeance. The initiative to feature the Khan family at the DNC and the media success that followed proved to the Dems that they can once again use American Muslims as a stick to beat their GOP counterparts. The fact that Trump is so overtly bigoted, the fact that he shuns the IMP Rule so shamelessly, will only make Democrats respond with that much more sanctimonious intensity.
If Trump is president, expect a significant uptick in mosque visits from the Dems. Expect a lot more Congressional pushback on anti-Muslim policies that have hitherto enjoyed bipartisan support. Expect a lot more positive media coverage on the Muslim community in general.
Muslims are also worried that a President Trump means he will implement the ludicrous anti-Muslim policies he has proposed on the campaign trail, e.g., implementing special Muslim ID badges and banning Muslims from entering the country. This rhetoric should be taken for what it is: grandstanding bluster with no real chance of materialization. As I have argued elsewhere, the Obama administration has already facilitated far-reaching measures to catalogue and track religiously observant Muslims in this country, which is functionally equivalent to the issuing of ID badges, so Trump wouldn’t be adding much to what his predecessor has done already. Besides this, even if Trump wanted to force Muslims to get ID badges, he would face a firestorm of political opposition. Similarly with banning Muslims from the country, a proposal that even GOP leaders have denounced.
Only God knows, but to the contrary, four years of Trump could mean American Muslims as an identity group finally attain that elusive mainstream status, where it becomes politically incorrect to even imply that Muslims are inherently inclined to terrorism and therefore must be profiled, monitored, detained without charges, and controlled.
What About Hate Crimes?
Some have argued that if Trump were to win, that would vindicate his anti-Muslim rhetoric and bring out the worst in violent racists. Certainly, there has been an increase in violence directed at Muslims since Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015. But, there has also been a marked increase in terror attacks on Western soil in this same time period. The national debate on Syrian refugees has also played a significant part in stoking nativist anti-Muslim bias. Outside of Trump’s rhetoric, both of these factors could independently account for at least some, if not most, of the increase in anti-Muslim violence.
But if, God forbid, the rate of such terror attacks remains consistent over the next four years, wouldn’t it be far better to have someone in the Oval Office who is less vitriolic to Muslims than Trump?
This is debatable. In actuality, there is not a clear correlation between presidential rhetoric and tenor, on the one hand, and hate crimes and bias, on the other. Obama’s presidency provides the perfect example of this. People expected that race relations would significantly improve upon the election of the first black president, when, as it turns out, the exact opposite occurred. Anti-black racism has significantly increased during Obama’s two terms than in prior years. There has been a surge in the number of white supremacist chapters and “patriot” groups around the country, which also correlates with an increase in bias attacks against different minority groups, including Muslims.
How do we explain this seemingly paradoxical increase in racism and violence under Obama? Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center suggests that much of the increase is tied to the anxieties of beleaguered working-class and middle-class white people who have suffered due to increasing income inequality and other economic factors. As these groups perceive society to become more diverse and less white, they react with anger and violence directed at those minorities imagined to be most threatening. In this way, paradoxically, a black president in power can increase anti-black racism while a white conservative, even bigoted president in power can actually decrease it.
A Trump presidency could have the same effect on anti-Muslim bias. Having him in office would do much to appease these racist white factions, which would lower anxieties and ease tensions, potentially resulting in less negativity towards Muslims and mosques.
Hate Crime Under Obama: The Case of Park51
As further insight into this dynamic, consider the year 2010, which saw 53 mosque attacks that year, whereas 2015, the year of the rise of Trump, saw 78 (data and bar chart below can be found here). Back in 2010, ISIS had not yet emerged and there had not been a single major Muslim-related terror incident in the US or Europe that year. 2015, in contrast, saw ten of them with death tolls in the hundreds and nearly around-the-clock media coverage throughout the year, not to mention the Syrian refugee crisis to boot. Why, then, was 2010 a horrendous year for American mosques with such a seemingly Muslim-friendly president in the White House?
Well, this was also the year of the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, where a Muslim community center and mosque, Park51, was planned to be built two blocks away from the World Trade Center site. There was an uproar from both Democratic and Republican national leaders arguing that building a mosque in that place was a “violation of sacred ground.” At first President Obama seemed to support the building of the mosque, but after getting blasted by Republicans, he later backtracked and clarified that he would not comment on “the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.”
This incident perfectly encapsulates the dynamics of American political discourse surrounding Muslims. When Republicans are not in power, they have great incentive to portray Dems as soft on terror and, like trained puppies, the Dems respond with cold indifference, if not outright callousness, to Muslims and their interests. This creates an antagonistic bipartisan consensus on Muslim issues which further feeds public paranoia and an atmosphere of anti-Muslim hate, which inevitably leads to mosque attacks and other acts of bias.
What If Clinton Wins?
A Clinton presidency would further anger white supremacists and other bias groups, making them feel like the walls are quickly closing in on them. This could have devastating results, as the GOP would, in the interests of oppositionalism and reactionary politics, shift further in the direction of nativism and racially-charged rhetoric in order to capitalize on the raw emotions of their disaffected base. They would also continue to paint Democrats as soft on terror, as the anti-Muslim elements across the country would be incensed, not quieted, that their beloved crusader failed in his White House bid.
In reaction to this, Clinton would shift right as well, which would all but ensure the continuation and likely expansion of Obama’s anti-Muslim policies. Of course, this would all be done with smiles and White House iftars galore, i.e., the IMP Rule in all its slimy glory.
Even without this shift, Clinton has more than proven herself to be hostile to Muslim interests, both abroad and at home, even more so than Obama, which is saying something in itself. Like Trump, she has embraced the term “radical Islam” and believes that a muscular surveillance state is key to national security and fighting “homegrown terror.” She has proven herself to be an arch-Zionist, even more antagonistic to Palestinian life than Bush, Obama, or Trump. Her hawkish stance toward the Middle East should be enough by itself to give any conscionable Muslim pause for concern. She has demonstrated support for the US-funded dictators across the Arab world, and has even befriended them.
Does all this mean that Muslims should vote for the odious Donald Trump? Muslims should definitely consider voting third party in at least the non-swing states. But if one is planning to vote for either Clinton or Trump in a swing state, then hopefully I have presented good reasons to consider voting for Trump over Clinton in particular. In strategic terms, sometimes going against the most outwardly obvious path is what will yield the most fruit at the end.
And, of course, there may be other reasons unrelated to Muslim interests to support Clinton over Trump, though as commentators like Mobeen Vaid have argued, American Muslims need to reconsider their reflexive alignment with liberals, while developing a political culture which is based on or at least informed by their religious values, instead of simply parroting “Red vs. Blue” political bickering.
Putting these concerns aside and focusing on the issue of which candidate, Trump or Clinton, is relatively better for Muslims in the short and long term, there is no question.
Why Israel Should Be ‘Singled Out’ For Its Human Rights Record
Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians.
Why is everyone so obsessed with Israel’s human rights abuses? From Saudi Arabia, to Syria, to North Korea to Iran. All these nations are involved in flagrant violations of human right, so why all the focus on Israel – ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’? Clearly, if you ignore these other violations and only focus on Israel, you must be anti-Semitic. What else could be your motivations for this double standard?
This is one of the most common contentions raised when Israel is criticized for its human rights record. I personally don’t believe in entertaining this question – it shouldn’t matter why an activist is choosing to focus on one conflict and not others. What matters are the facts being raised; putting into question the motives behind criticizing Israel is a common tactic to detract from the topic at hand. The conversation soon turns into some circular argument about anti-Semitism and the plight of the Palestinian people is lost. More importantly, this charge of having double standards is often disingenuous. For example, Representative Ihan Omar has been repeatedly accused of this recently and her motives have been called ‘suspicious’ – despite her vocal criticism of other countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
However, this point is so frequently brought up, I think that perhaps its time activists and critics simply own up to it. Yes – Israel should be singled out, for some very good reasons. These reasons relate to there being a number of unique privileges that the country enjoys; these allow it to get away with much of the abuses it commits. Human right activists thus must be extra vocal when comes to Israel as they have to overcome the unparalleled level of support for the country, particularly in the US and Canada. The following points summarize why Israel should in fact be singled out:
1) Ideological support from ordinary citizens
When Iran and North Korea commit human right abuses, we don’t have to worry about everyone from journalists to clerics to average students on campuses coming out and defending those countries. When most nations commit atrocities, our journalists and politicians call them out, sanctions are imposed, they are taking them to the International Court of Justice, etc. There are instruments in place to take care of other ‘rogue’ nations – without the need for intervention from the common man.
Israel, however, is unique in that it has traditionally enjoyed widespread ideological support, primarily from the Jewish community and Evangelical Christians, in the West. This support is a result of the historical circumstances and pseudo-religious ideology that drove the creation of the state in 1948. The successful spread of this nationalistic dogma for the last century means Israel can count on ordinary citizens from Western countries to comes to its defense. This support can come in the form of foreign enlistment to its military, students conducting campus activism, politicians shielding it from criticisms and journalists voluntarily writing in its support and spreading state propaganda.
This ideological and nationalistic attachment to the country is the prime reason why it is so incredibly difficult to have any kind of sane conversation about Israel in the public sphere – criticism is quickly seen as an attack on Jewish identity and interpreted as an ‘existential threat’ to the nation by its supporters. Any attempts to take Israel to account through standard means are thwarted because of the political backlash feared from the country’s supporters in the West.
2) Unconditional political support of a world superpower
The US is Israel’s most important and closest ally in the Middle-East. No matter what war crimes Israel commits, it can count on America to have its back. This support means the US will use its veto power to support Israel against actions of the UN Security Council, it will use its diplomatic influence to shield any punitive actions from other nations and it will use its military might to intervene if need be. The backing of the US is one of the main reasons why the Israeli occupation and expansion of the colonial settlement enterprise continues to this day without any repercussions.
While US support might be especially staunch for Israel, this factor is certainly not unique to the country. Any country which has this privilege, e.g. Saudi Arabia, should be under far great scrutiny for its human rights violations than others.
3) Military aid and complicity of tax-payers
US tax-payers are directly paying for Israel to carry out its occupation of the Palestinian people.
Israel is the largest recipient of US-military aid – it receives an astonishing $3 billion dollars every year. This aid, according to a US congressional report, “has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.”
Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians. Activists and citizens thus have a greater responsibility to speak out against Israel as their government is paying the country to carry out its atrocities. Not only is this aid morally reprehensible, but it is also illegal under United States Leahy Laws.
4) The Israeli lobby
The Israeli lobby is one of the most powerful groups in Washington and is the primary force for ensuring continued US political support for the nation. It consists of an assortment of formal lobby groups (AIPAC, Christians United for Israel), think-thanks (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), political action committee or PACs, not-for-profit organizations (B’nai B’irth, American Jewish Congress, Stand for Israel) and media watchdogs (CAMERA, Honest Reporting). These organizations together exercise an incredible amount of political influence. They ensure that any criticism of Israel is either stifled or there are serious consequences for those who speak up. In 2018 alone, pro-Israel donors spent $22 million on lobbying for the country – far greater than any other nation. Pro-Israel lobbies similarly influence politics in other places such as the UK, Canada, and Europe.
5) One of the longest-running occupation in human history
This point really should be the first one on this list – and it is the only one that should matter. However, because of the unique privileges that Israel enjoys, it is hard to get to the crux of what it is actually doing. Israel, with U.S. support, has militarily occupied the Palestinian territories (West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) since 1967. The belligerent occupation, over 50 years old, is one of the longest, bloodiest and brutal in human history.
Israel continues to steal land and build settler colonies the West Bank – in flagrant violation of international law. It has implemented a system of apartheid in these territories which is reminiscent of the racist regime of South Africa. The Gaza strip has been under an insufferable siege which has made the living conditions deplorable; it has been referred to the world’s largest ‘open-air prison’. In addition to this institutional oppression, crimes committed against Palestinians include: routinely killing civilian protesters, including teenagers and medics, torture of Palestinians and severe restrictions on the everyday movement of Palestinians.
The brutality, consistency and the duration for which Israel has oppressed Palestinians is alone enough reason for it being ‘singled out’. No other nation comes close to its record. However, for the reasons mentioned above, Israel’s propaganda machine has effectively painted itself as just another ‘liberal democracy’ in the eyes of the general public. Any attempt to bring to light these atrocities are met with ‘suspicion’ about the ‘real’ motives of the critics. Given the points mentioned here, it should be evident that the level of support for Israeli aggression is uniquely disproportionate – it is thus fitting that criticism of the country is equally vocal and unparalleled as well.
Ya Qawmi: Strengthen Civic Roots In Society To Be A Force For Good
For believers the traditions and teachings of the Prophets (blessings on them), particularly Muhammad , are paramount. Each Prophet of God belonged to a community which is termed as their Qawm in the Qur’an. Prophet Lut (Lot) was born in Iraq, but settled in Trans-Jordan and then became part of the people, Qawm of Lut, in his new-found home. All the Prophets addressed those around them as ‘Ya Qawmi’ (O, my people) while inviting them to the religion of submission, Islam. Those who accepted the Prophets’ message became part of their Ummah. So, individuals from any ethnicity or community could become part of the Ummah – such as the Ummah of Prophet Muhammad.
Believers thus have dual obligations: a) towards their own Qawm (country), and b) towards their Ummah (religious companions). As God’s grateful servants, Muslims should strive to give their best to both their Qawm and Ummah with their ability, time and skillset. It is imperative for practising and active Muslims to carry out Islah (improvement of character, etc) of people in their Ummah and be a witness of Islam to non-Muslims in their Qawm and beyond. This in effect is their service to humanity and to please their Creator. With this basic understanding of the concept, every Muslim should prioritise his or her activities and try their utmost to serve human beings with honesty, integrity and competence. Finding excuses or adopting escapism can bring harm in this world and a penalty in the Hereafter.
Like many other parts of the world, Britain is going through a phase lacking in ethical and competent leadership. People are confused, frustrated and worried; some are angry. Nativist (White) nationalism in many western countries, with a dislike or even hatred of minority immigrant people (particularly Muslims and Jews), is on the rise. This is exacerbated through lowering religious literacy, widespread mistrust and an increase in hateful rhetoric being spread on social media. As people’s patience and tolerance levels continue to erode, this can bring unknown adverse consequences.
The positive side is that civil society groups with a sense of justice are still robust in most developed countries. While there seem to be many Muslims who love to remain in the comfort zone of their bubbles, a growing number of Muslims, particularly the youth, are also effectively contributing towards the common good of all.
As social divisions are widening, a battle for common sense and sanity continues. The choice of Muslims (particularly those that are socially active), as to whether they would proactively engage in grass-roots civic works or social justice issues along with others, has never been more acute. Genuine steps should be taken to understand the dynamics of mainstream society and improve their social engagement skills.
From history, we learn that during better times, Muslims proactively endeavoured to be a force for good wherever they went. Their urge for interaction with their neighbours and exemplary personal characters sowed the seeds of bridge building between people of all backgrounds. No material barrier could divert their urge for service to their Qawm and their Ummah. This must be replicated and amplified.
Although Muslims are some way away from these ideals, focusing on two key areas can and should strengthen their activities in the towns and cities they have chosen as their home. This is vital to promote a tolerant society and establish civic roots. Indifference and frustration are not a solution.
Muslim individuals and families
- Muslims must develop a reading and thinking habit in order to prioritise their tasks in life, including the focus of their activism. They should, according to their ability and available opportunities, endeavour to contribute to the Qawm and Ummah. This should start in their neighbourhoods and workplaces. There are many sayings of the Prophet Muhammad on one’s obligations to their neighbour; one that stands out – Gabriel kept advising me to be good to my neighbour so much that I thought he would ask that he (neighbour) should inherit me) – Sahih Al-Bukhari.
- They must invest in their new generation and build a future leadership based on ethics and professionalism to confidently interact and engage with the mainstream society, whilst holding firm to Islamic roots and core practices.
- Their Islah and dawah should be professionalised, effective and amplified; their outreach should be beyond their tribal/ethnic/sectarian boundaries.
- They should jettison any doubts, avoid escapism and focus where and how they can contribute. If they think they can best serve the Ummah’s cause abroad, they should do this by all means. But if they focus on contributing to Britain:
- They must develop their mindset and learn how to work with the mainstream society to normalise the Muslim presence in an often hostile environment.
- They should work with indigenous/European Muslims or those who have already gained valuable experience here.
- They should be better equipped with knowledge and skills, especially in political and media literacy, to address the mainstream media where needed.
Muslim bodies and institutions
- Muslim bodies and institutions such as mosques have unique responsibilities to bring communities together, provide a positive environment for young Muslims to flourish and help the community to link, liaise and interact with the wider society.
- By trying to replicate the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah, they should try to make mosques real hubs of social and spiritual life and not just beautiful buildings. They should invest more in young people, particularly those with professional backgrounds. They should not forget what happened to many places where the Muslim presence was thought to be deep-rooted such as Spain.
- It is appreciated that the first generation Muslims had to establish organisations with people of their own ethnic/geographical backgrounds. While there may still be a need for this for some sections of the community, in a post-7/7 Britain Muslim institutions must open up for others qualitatively and their workers should be able to work with all. History tells that living in your own comfort zone will lead to isolation.
- Muslim bodies, in their current situation, must have a practical 5-10 year plan, This will bring new blood and change organisational dynamics. Younger, talented, dedicated and confident leadership with deep-rooted Islamic ideals is now desperately needed.
- Muslim bodies must also have a 5-10 year plan to encourage young Muslims within their spheres to choose careers that can take the community to the next level. Our community needs nationally recognised leaders from practising Muslims in areas such as university academia, policy making, politics, print and electronic journalism, etc.
Seyran Ates, A Sixty-Eighter In Islamic Camouflage
By Dr Mohammad Usman Rana
In their orientalist enthusiasm to reform Islam, in the sense of reconciling Islam with the always changing ideas and goals of liberal values, Western European liberals and neo-atheists are searching high and low for persons who may serve as Muslim alibies for their project. For many years Ayaan Hirsi Ali was given this role but now the relay baton has been handed over to the German-Turkish activist Seyran Ates.
Does not believe in religion
Ates is of current interest in Norway because her book by the Norwegian title Islam trenger en seksuell revolusjon (Islam needs a sexual revolution, originally published in German in 2011)* was just released in Norwegian translation. Ates is well-known primarily because Western media have hailed her as a freedom fighter among Muslims since she opened a so-called liberal mosque in Berlin in 2017 and titled herself a female imam.
Obviously, Ates is part and parcel of an essential debate about the future of Muslims in Europe as it is a fact that a lot of traditional mosques in Western Europe have a big job to do in order to become more relevant to young Muslims, that is, more inclusive and adapted to a European context. Not least the issue of women’s rights is rightfully important to many people in the Muslim world, whether they are liberals or conservatives. In the midst of all the praise, Ates receives in Western media one essential question is however forgotten: What Islamic credibility does Ates have? In line with postmodern nihilism where concepts, ideas, and identities are emptied of meaning and content, the fact is ignored that Ates in her book points out that she believes in God but not in religions. She has no Islamic theological education and explains that she has recently started taking courses in Islamic studies and Arabic in order to be more credible among Muslims.
This is not only the case with Ates. It is a general weakness of so-called progressive and liberal Islam (reformers) that the movement lacks a foundation of religious and theological structure; it is rather founded on personalities with a political mission.
More journalists than worshippers
In her book about Islam needing a sexual revolution, Ates applauds European Christians’ dissociation from the church after 1968. Paradoxically, she later opened a mosque for Muslims. Further, she praises secularly thinking individuals as the most honourable people.
This is why the question should be raised whether the mosque, the imam title, and other religious references are just an Islamic camouflage for what can be understood as a political secularisation, assimilation and liberalisation project by Ates and her supporters. Due to the missing religious credibility and seriousness of this commitment, it should come as no surprise that it has little appeal to European and German Muslims.
When the New York Times visited the mosque, its journalists reported that there were more journalists than worshippers present. She has, on the other hand, a strong appeal among extreme right-wing anti-Muslim thinkers and movements in Europe. It is noteworthy that Ates received a solidarity claim from the extreme anti-Islam German AfD party, and has been praised by the infamous anti-Muslim blog of “Human Rights Service” in Norway.
The positive development aspect is missing
Why should German and European Muslims listen to an activist who attacks the fundamental principles of Islam and in her book paints a stereotypical image of the world’s Muslims?
There is no denying that Ates addresses a number of important challenges for Muslim women. Still, her arguments become oversimplified when she confuses female-hostile habits in the East with Islam and completely forgets the positive development today’s Muslim women in Europe experience where they, as opposed to their mothers’ generation, receive a university education, have a career, and choose whom they want to marry.
Seyran Ates’ project is not about a necessary contextualisation of Islam’s holy texts in a European reality, maintaining the characterisations of the region. The project is rather about a total change of Islam. In her book, Ates justifies such a change by creating strawmen with sweeping generalisations about Muslims. She, for instance, writes that ‘it is a fact that Muslim men have a considerable problem with our free world’, and that ‘Islamic politicians do not distinguish between religion and politics’ – without mentioning the widespread authoritarian secular tradition in Muslim countries in modern times such as in Turkey and Baathism in Syria and Iraq.
Less sexual restraint
Ates’ main argument in Islam needs a sexual revolution is that Muslim men and women are sexually oppressed because sexuality is defined as a blessing and source of love only within – and not outside of – the frames of marriage. The rule of intimate relationships being reserved for marriage meets with unison agreement from Muslims from different schools of thought; Ates, however, absurdly calls it an expression of “fundamentalist” Islam. In this view, Seyran Ates disagrees with the well-known American feminist Naomi Wolf who, after having travelled in Muslim countries, believes that this marital channelling of intimacy, in fact, strengthens sexuality and family ties at the same time.
The German-Turkish author wants less sexual restraint, more promiscuity and a liberal attitude to nakedness, in line with the ideals of the sixty-eighters. Seyran Ates praises the sixty-eighters’ revolution as an ideal for Muslims. Although the #metoo campaign, which can be said to have brought to light the negative consequences of the sexual revolution, was released after Ates’ book was published, it makes her attitudes to this revolution seem somewhat doubtful. The heritage of the sixty-eighters is not only freedom and equality but also the breaking up of the family as well as selfishness and decadence. It is also ironical that someone like Ates, who claims religious credibility, calls attention to Alfred Kinsey, the atheist sexologist who believed in open relationships, as a model for Muslims.
Ates’ book is mainly about freedom, a personal freedom in the name of value liberalism and sixtyeighters. A well-known American intellectual, Patrick Deenen from the University of Notre Dame, however, criticises such a perception of the concept of freedom believing we should ask ourselves if freedom can really be defined as human beings pursuing their instincts more or less uncritically. Deenen maintains that human beings are then in effect unfree and slaves of their instincts, while real freedom is achieved if we manage to free ourselves from being governed by human appetites.
Seyran Ates and her non-Muslim supporters seem to have no understanding at all of such a definition of the concept of freedom. Even more problematic is that they want to make their sixty-eighters’ liberal values absolute, believing Muslims must adhere to them if they wish to belong to modern society. Harvard professor Adrian Vermeule calls this form of liberalism aggressive because it only tolerates itself and no differences of opinion. It maintains its rituals in the form of checkpoints of ‘correct’ opinions in particular about sexuality, gender, and identity. Disagreeing with this can result in reprisals in the form of public pillory or even legal steps.
Obsessed with removing the hijab
When Muslims are met with such absolute-making of liberal values it is like an extension of colonial cultural imperialism when French and British colonial masters wanted to westernise Muslim populations, believing it was the only way of making them civilised. Some of them were obsessed with removing Muslim women’s hijabs, just as Seyran Ates is. The British consul general in Egypt, Lord Cromer, was a representative of this view. He wanted to free Muslim women from the hijab while at home in the UK he was ardently against feminism and women’s suffrage (source: Ahmed, Leila (1992). Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press).
Worth noting is also that extensive surveys by Gallup Coexist Index among West-European Muslims show that they are far more religious than the majority population. Similar findings in relation to Norwegian Muslims were made by Bushra Ishaq in her book Hvem snakker for oss? (Who speaks for us?) from 2017. Considering these figures, it would be utopian as well as illiberal to expect Muslims to opt for a liberal values morality. On the contrary, it should be expected that religious European Muslims understand their religious practice as belonging to a Western context, that they value equality and that they support the liberal state governed by rule of law that actually allows people to live according to liberal as well as conservative norms of value.
*The original German-language version of the book, Der Islam braucht eine sexuelle Revolution: Eine Streitschrift, was published in 2011
Dr Mohammad Usman Rana is a Norwegian columnist, author and a commentator on Islam
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