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How To Neutralize the Violent Jihadist Pull

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By: Yaya J. Fanusie. Yaya is a former CIA counterterrorism analyst. He is the director of analysis at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance. He tweets at @signcurve and produces a personal storytelling podcast about his journey to Islam and working in national security called Rhythm of Wisdom.

The recent terrorist attacks in London show that jihadist conflicts around the globe are likely to continue ricocheting in the West. To keep up with this threat, the U.S. is leveraging all elements of its power. In the past few months, the U.S. Treasury Department has designated more than a dozen people for their involvement with al-Qa’ida (AQ) or the Islamic State (IS). They’re a diverse bunch. Two of the individuals are from the UK. Another pair are Canadian. The list also includes a Trinidadian, Malaysian, Indonesian, a Swede, and a guy from New Zealand. Clearly, the world’s most deadliest terrorist groups are equal opportunity recruiters. And these designations belie the idea that the U.S. can counter jihadist terrorism through a national security policy focus on the Middle East.

Obviously, these individuals do not represent the dominant attitudes of Muslims in these countries. But as a convert to Islam who spent several years working as a counterterrorism analyst for the CIA, I am particularly concerned about extremist narratives calling on Muslims in the West to support terrorist groups. The phenomenon of Muslims leaving places where Islam exists in relatively pluralistic environments to join al-Qa’ida and IS offers insights into the paths of jihadist radicalization and, hopefully, some ways to undercut it.

While many may posit that what is needed is a shift in the Islamic theology that terrorists embrace, both my observations as an analyst and my personal experience within Islam point me to a more targeted conclusion. Countering extremists requires shifting how they think more than what they believe. And while religion is central to jihadist narratives, culture is a way more malleable variable that determines how one approaches religion.

It’s not about the organization, but the cause. One of the recent Treasury designees, British citizen El Shafee Elsheikh, left the UK in 2012 to join al-Qa’ida’s branch in Syria. But he later left that group to join IS where he became part of a quartet of Brits known for torturing and beheading hostages. Trinidadian IS sniper Shawn Dominic Crawford said in an interview with the group’s English-language magazine that before moving to Syria, he was part of a vigilante group in Trinidad that took revenge on non-Muslims accused of harming local Muslims. For 20 years, UK extremist Anjem Choudary encouraged followers to support jihadist movements. When IS took over territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, he quickly pledged allegiance to the group from London.

While violent radicalization is a complicated process, the ideological attraction at play here is relatively simple. These folks desire to establish an Old World caliphate and are galvanized by the allure of fighting against forces they perceive as antagonists of Islam. If the operational structures of IS and al-Qa’ida were to disappear overnight, it would make little difference. As long as the jihadist mindset persists, new organizations would likely arise and draw new adherents.

Countering the extremist narrative requires proving that the jihadist struggle is not analogous to Prophet Muhammad’s mission. The jihadist narrative can’t be neutralized without attacking its base assumptions head-on. The argument that Muslims should leave their lands to join IS or AQ is enabled only by an incorrect reasoning that the historical occasions of Muhammad emigrating Mecca and fighting his pagan persecutors are precedents with a literal modern analog.

There are lots of scholarly arguments to counter this thinking, but the best approach is to invoke simple concepts that can resonate broadly amongst Muslims. One is that the Prophet’s mission was a universal and dynamic one that provides a mode to follow, but not necessarily a script. In the 21st chapter of the Qur’an (called The Prophets), Muhammad is described as someone who was sent as a mercy to all the worlds. The Arabic term for “all the worlds” (alameen) more appropriately should be understood as all the systems of knowledge. Its root meaning denotes knowledge and science, as one prominent American Muslim commentator pointed out decades ago.

This description from the Qur’an itself indicates that Muslims should approach Muhammad as a model to derive inspiration for bringing benefit to any setting. And the benefit should connect with the nature of that environment. The implication: Establishing Islamic life is not about implementing a carbon copy of life in 7th century Medina.

At the same time, this critical period in Islamic history is not to be discarded from Muslim identity consciousness. Rather, Muslims should study all of it, even elements which may not jibe with our 21st century environment, to derive spiritual principles to benefit the moral, material, and psychological well-being of contemporary human society.

Jihadist Salafis miss this mode because they approach Muhammad and his early followers like characters in an ancient play. And when the contemporary world is vastly different from that play’s script, they believe they must destroy the environment just so they can create a replica theater, complete with stage, costumes, and props to fit the play’s period. Proof of this is in their approach to antiquities.

The Taliban’s demolition of giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan in early 2001 and Islamic State’s destruction of countless ancient artifacts in Iraq and Syria since 2014 is the unfortunate logical conclusion of a kindergarten-level understanding of Islam. The Qur’an does recount the story of another prophet, Abraham, smashing idol statues. And Muhammad reportedly destroyed idols that had been placed around the Kabba. But by interpreting these accounts as precise acts to imitate, their spiritual significance evades literalist thinkers.

However, when one views these acts as a mode instead of script, idols can represent concepts, habits, traditions, or possessions that people cling to that hinder the soul and constrain the intellect. They also can point to the barriers people imagine between themselves and God. This interpretation allows for personal analogy, where anyone can reflect on what may be the “idols” in their life that they need to remove for the progression of their soul.

In this light, Prophet Muhammad’s mission provides a pattern for finding ways to bring mercy to all of the conflicts and disharmony we face, in all of our personal or social “worlds.”

A similar distinction should be made about Prophet Muhammad’s involvement in war, which jihadists claim as a precedent for their own insurgencies. The Qur’an does speak unequivocally about war as part of the early experience of the Muslim ummah, although verses about death or destruction appear only in about two percent of the entire text.

Again, plenty of scholarly arguments exist to rebuke the narrative calling for violence in jihadist conflicts around the world. But the best counter-narrative is a simple one. Most Muslims are familiar with the context surrounding Muhammad’s fight in the later half of his mission. The Qur’an granted permission to fight because Muslims were receiving unabated, violent religious persecution for more than a decade. Muhammad’s mode was to preach a simple, monotheistic message which had been forwarded by earlier prophets. It was met by the leaders of the Quraysh with what would today be called massive violations of human rights.

People were discriminated against, dispossessed, and killed because they would not abandon their worship. The first impulse of Muhammad was peaceful patience and perseverance for more than a decade. And the verse which eventually allowed fighting contextualized such self-defense as necessary for also protecting the freedom of worship of Jews and Christians.

This provides a Qur’anic litmus test to anyone evaluating the credibility of the jihadist cause. One should ask, “Is their fight responding to a real threat against religious freedom?”

Some jihadist sympathizers may point to events soon after the early Muslim community eventually gained victory over Mecca, where the Prophet sent out military expeditions to consolidate the strength of the newly empowered, yet fragile ummah. Arab tribes that submitted to new Muslim rule and agreed to embrace the Muslim identity were forced to destroy their idols and fall under the Prophet’s leadership.

However, history also shows that this period was one of negotiation and alliance-making, not political Islam absolutism. According to various biographers of Muhammad writing about this time, in many cases Arab tribes were allowed to keep their religious traditions in exchange for entering into agreements of cooperation, keeping their own distinct identity, Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, or pagan. Any hostility was based on whether the tribe would be a threat or ally to the nascent Muslim community, not whether it followed Islam’s beliefs and practices. The notion that non-Muslims, minding their own business, should be warred upon as a matter of course to convert them to Islam, was not part of the Prophet’s methodology or motivation in warfare.

But even with this context, Muslims in the 21st century must understand that the references to fighting and war in the Qur’an and in Muhammad’s biography have more apt implications for spirituality and mindset than any physical battle.

For example, the Qur’anic term often translated as martyr is shaheed, but it literally means “a witness.” Muslims use a derivative of this word toward the end of every ritual prayer when reciting the declaration of faith, bearing witness to God’s oneness and Muhammad’s messengership.

So, the word’s full Arabic meaning points to the concept of verifiable proof. And it implies giving one’s whole self for God. In Muhammad’s time, individuals certainly gave their lives on the battlefield. But this idea of selflessness and sacrifice can inspire the believer to strive in all types of endeavors. And the historical fighting against the Kafiroon, usually translated as “disbelievers” can be analogous to the struggle between faith and altruism on one hand and evil and selfishness on the other – even within one’s soul. In fact, the Qur’an corrects those who use the term “believer” loosely. The Book describes a believer as a lofty, internal condition and not just an external label one can profess.

Muslims must access the deeper insights of this scripture, otherwise shallow interpretations will continue to allow Islam to be hijacked by armed groups participating in terrorism, often under the facade of freedom-fighting or liberation movements.

Renewing Muslim culture is more appropriate than reforming Islam. The notion that Islam needs to be reformed as a religion is incorrectly presumptuous and even if it weren’t, it would be an elusive goal. This contention, widely promoted in some intellectual circles might just be inappropriate mirror imaging of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation came at a time when the Church controlled the Christian layman’s access to scripture, its interpretation, and in principle, the salvation of its followers. In many cases, the Church forbade translating the Bible into local languages from Latin in order to stop the influence of reformers it considered heretics.

Martin Luther’s reformation aimed to disrupt the authority that Church hierarchy held over religious teachings and emphasize the Bible alone as the source for all affairs of the faith. Luther also sought to make the Bible readable by the laity, and thus translated into local languages. This brought scriptural interpretation within the reach of the Christian masses.

This reformation’s end-state is already present in Islam, where it is widely accepted that the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad are the chief sources of the religion and that clerics, while important, are not the arbiters of individual salvation. The current problem of violence by Muslims in the name of religion is not the result of a centralized religious authority. In fact, some could argue that it is exacerbated by its lacking. Jihadist movements often prop up their own clerics who may have little credibility within mainstream Islamic scholarship.

So, Islam already is constituted in a way which allows for varied and competing expressions of the faith. So, why has not a more enlightened interpretation of Islam won over those who are attracted to jihadism? Culture. There is a culture of uncritical thinking which determines the way many Muslims engage Islam.

An overly-literalistic and shallow reading of scripture is not intrinsically part of Islam. I converted while in college in the late 1990s largely through self-study, reading an English translation of the Qur’an, and without much engagement with the Muslim community initially. Born and raised in California, having already strong spiritual leanings in my young adulthood and an appreciation for critical thinking, it never dawned on me to interpret verses about fighting in the Qur’an as a prescription to wage war against non-Muslims. And as I learned about Muhammad’s life, I found no directive for me to join some sort of caliphate political structure.

What I did discover as I eventually interacted more with Muslim communities was that many others approached Islam with narrow-mindedness. I sensed this in proselytizing literature and Friday sermons which differed from the universality which drew me to the religion. Before I had ever heard the term Islamist, I remember thinking to myself as a recent convert that many were practicing some sort of “Islam-ism,” presenting the faith as a self-absorbed, particularistic sect.

For example, in college I started reading a popular English translation of the Qur’an given to me by a relative when I was in high school. From the translation, I got the sense that the Islamic identity as one in unison with the religion of the prophets preceding Muhammad. And I remember reading verses arguing that earlier religious peoples erred by becoming more attached to the particulars of their faith, drifting from universalism to sectarianism.
. It appeared to me that Islam instead provided a unifying, not divisive religious identity. But I soon began to notice many Muslims doing just what the Qur’an criticized – expressing themselves as a party simply “rejoicing in that which is with itself.”

In my early Qur’anic reading, I also found a constant call for the reader to use his or her intellect. To reflect. Throughout the Book I noticed passages of rhetorical questioning, a style that seemed to encourage the believer to come to faith through reasoning, not blind acceptance. This to me, showed an appreciation for critical thinking.

There was even a story about Abraham asking God to explain to him more clearly how the dead could be raised back to life. When, in response, God questioned Abraham as to whether he did not believe, Abraham responded that he did, but he just wanted to put his heart at ease; a clear example that it is ok to bring intellectual curiosity to God’s mysteries.

This all was intellectually stimulating. But though I gained these insights as a new explorer of Islam’s sacred text, it was apparent that this way of thinking about the faith was not predominant as I began to move more in Muslim circles. It seemed that many Muslims were not encouraged to approach scripture intellectually or seek the meaning behind religious rituals.

One time after I had converted, I happened to be at a mosque open house where non-Muslims were invited to visit. I overheard one of the visitors ask the imam if there was any spiritual significance to the various postures in the Muslim prayer ritual. The imam responded curtly, saying that Muslims did not worry about the meaning behind the ritual, but do it because God commands it. I could only think that such a response would be quite the turnoff to a spiritual seeker.

The difference between Islam as I initially discovered it and the religion I saw many Muslims propagate was not scripture by itself, but the cultural lens through which I engaged it; a lens valuing intellectual freedom and spiritual depth.

Culture influences how Muslims engage and think about religion. It impacts how they extrapolate from Muhammad’s life history.
The collective Muslim culture must be refined because its static and particularistic approach to scripture cultivates religious antagonism to a world which is increasingly dynamic and pluralistic. And in this pluralistic environment, when conflicts over political power and social grievances arise, this culture engenders religiously-framed violence as a logical conclusion. To push back this phenomenon, Muslim communities must approach religious texts with a cultural lens that respects the human intellect as a companion of faith, not its adversary.

However, cultural change is not brought about by policy speeches or (dare I say it) Op-eds. Culture comes from the attitudes and habits that parents pass on to children, ideas that teenagers circulate on social media, books that stimulate popular discussion, and of course, all types of entertainment and artistic expression. These things determine how people think and what they deem acceptable or unacceptable behavior.

In Muslim communities around the world today, Islamic scholars and imams probably are less influential on young people than art, entertainment, and social media. So, the question is not how to reform the Islamic religion, but how to cultivate a culture where Muslims derive enlightenment from religion and where shallow interpretations are unappealing; how to influence thinking and thus, behavior.

Some may think that this may be more possible in the West where religious tradition is less fixed than in Muslim-majority countries. That probably is true. But the broader culture of the U.S. and Europe has long influenced cultural attitudes in the rest of the world. It follows that Western Muslims who have reconciled their faith with pluralism should be well-positioned to engage the Muslim-majority cultures of Asia and Africa. Islam’s global demography today means that Muslims in the West might be the overlooked catalyst for cultural renewal for the Muslim ummah.

Muslim thought leaders in the West can take on this role by creating films, television programs, music, and other expressions that speak to this generation’s cultural appetites while drawing on central ideas of the Qur’an: the nobility of human nature, the importance of thinking and self-reflection, the long-term rewards of doing good in the world, and the hazards arising from abusing one’s human talents and mistreating others. God is key to all of these, but art done well need not overemphasize the obvious. Perhaps Islam’s great benefit to society today might be in offering audiences the option for good entertainment without disregarding universal moral principles.

Jihadists assume they have a monopoly on the idea of a grand and noble Islamic mission. But undoing the warped thinking about Islam that they have reinforced in the minds of many Muslims and non-Muslims alike may be the biggest Islamic cause of our age. If Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad’s mission was to be a benefactor for all aspects of human endeavor, informed by the light of revelation, we must assess how well we benefit the world; not in Friday sermons and dawa literature, but in advancing humanity through education, business, politics, and culture.

To give Islam the respect it deserves in the eyes of the world, the real global jihad has nothing to do with fighting the West, but everything to do with raising up the spiritual, mental, and material condition of people. This was Prophet Muhammad’s methodology. And it thusly propelled Muslims in the generations soon after him to advance in knowledge, science, and culture.

The true Islamic battlefield of the 21st century is in overcoming the influence of those who are blocking this potential mercy. Ironically, the people obstructing the beauty of Islam are not non-Muslims, secularists, or atheists, but rather those who cloak themselves in Islamic identity while trying to impose a most hollow understanding of our faith onto the world.

As Muslims concerned about our religion, we must be clear about the real threats facing our communities. And if we reflect on how the Qur’an speaks to the soul, it should be clear that the biggest challenge to our faith is not the enemy outside of us, but the enemy within.

Extremist narratives gain traction and go viral because they inspire. A new Muslim class of creatives should arise, learn from this, and produce art that connects to the hearts and minds which many mainstream religious leaders and scholars aren’t reaching. This cultural renewal, rooted in an enlightened understanding of scripture and Islamic history could inspire human excellence. And it may be the best way to wrestle control of religious interpretation from the hijackers.

 

2 Comments

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  1. Avatar

    PB

    July 12, 2017 at 5:35 AM

    Aqeedah and Seerah lessons from an ex-CIA counter terrorism analyst??? Who will you be publishing next – ex-Blackwater contractors discussing where the ummah went wrong in the last 100 years??

    This guy is a director at a horrible, horrible think-tank which is/has been funded by Haim Saban, Edgar Bronfman – an ex-President of the World Jewish Congress, and a huge array of Israel-First types.

    “FDD’s positions are generally considered to fall in line with the Bush Administration’s War on Terror and policies espoused by the Israeli Likud party.”

    MM – where was the due diligence before deciding to publish this article??

    • Avatar

      Mohamed Elibiary

      July 12, 2017 at 7:43 AM

      People should debate the merits of the article’s ideas, not play the game of associations. It’s not morally righteous to complain when that game is used upon other American Muslims, such as CAIR/ISNA/Etc, then turn around and do it to others. The article puts forward a theory, its constructive to debate its merits not smear the author. Suggest folks listen to the author’s podcasts too to learn about his personal life before assuming he’s responsible for policies he’s not. The Ummah doesn’t need anymore circular firing squads. ~ Walahu Alim

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#Society

Eid Lameness Syndrome: Diagnosis, Treatment, Cure

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How many of you have gone to work on Eid because you felt there was no point in taking off? No Eid fun. Have you ever found Eid boring, no different from any other day?

If so, you may suffer from ELS (Eid Lameness Syndrome). Growing up, I did too.

My family would wake up, go to salah, go out to breakfast, come home, take a 4+ hour nap and then go out to dinner. I didn’t have friends to celebrate with and even if I did, I wouldn’t see them because we stuck to our own immediate family just as they did.

On the occasion that we went to a park or convention center, we would sort of have fun. Being with other people was certainly better than breakfast-nap-dinner in isolation, but calling that a memorable, satisfying, or genuinely fun Eid would be a stretch.

I don’t blame my parents for the ELS though. They came from a country where Eid celebration was the norm; everyone was celebrating with everyone and you didn’t have to exert any effort. When they moved to the US, where Muslims were a minority, it was uncharted territory. They did the best they could with the limited resources they had.

When I grew up, I did about the same too. When I hear friends or acquaintances tell me that they’re working, doing laundry or whatever other mundane things on Eid, I understand.  Eid has been lame for so long that some people have given up trying to see it any other way. Why take personal time off to sit at home and do nothing?

I stuck to whatever my parents did for Eid because “Eid was a time for family.” In doing so, I was honoring their cultural ideas of honoring family, but not Eid. It wasn’t until I moved away that I decided to rebel and spend Eid with convert friends (versus family) who didn’t have Muslim families to celebrate with on Eid, rather than drive for hours to get home for another lame salah-breakfast-nap-dinner.

That was a game-changing Eid for me. It was the first non-lame Eid I ever had, not because we did anything extraordinary or amazing, but because we made the day special by doing things that we wouldn’t normally do on a weekday together. It was then that I made a determination to never have a lame Eid ever again InshaAllah.

I’m not the only one fighting ELS. Mosques and organizations are creating events for people to attend and enjoy together, and families are opting to spend Eid with other families. There is still much more than can be done, as converts, students, single people, couples without children and couples with very small children, are hard-hit by the isolation and sadness that ELS brings. Here are a few suggestions for helping treat ELS in your community:

Host an open house

Opening up your home to a large group of people is a monumental task that takes a lot of planning and strength. But it comes with a lot of baraka and reward. Imagine the smiling faces of people who would have had nowhere to go on Eid, but suddenly find themselves in your home being hosted. If you have a big home, hosting an open house is an opportunity to express your gratitude to Allah for blessing you with it.

Expand your circle

Eid is about commUNITY. Many people spend Eid alone when potential hosts stick to their own race/class/social status. Invite and welcome others to spend Eid with you in whatever capacity you can.

Delegate

You can enlist the help of close friends and family to help so it’s not all on you. Delegate food, setup, and clean-up across your family and social network so that no one person will be burdened by the effort InshaAllah.

Squeeze in

Don’t worry if you don’t have a big house, you’ll find out how much barakah your home has by how many people are able to fit in it. I’ve been to iftars in teeny tiny apartments where there’s little space but lots of love. If you manage to squeeze in even two or three extra guests, you’ve saved two or three people from ELS for that year.

Outsource Eid Fun

If you have the financial means or know enough friends who can pool together, rent a house. Some housing share sites have homes that can be rented specifically for events, giving you the space to consolidate many, smaller efforts into one larger, more streamlined party.

Flock together

It can be a challenge to find Eid buddies to spend the day with. Try looking for people in similar circumstances as you. I’m a single woman and have hosted a ladies game night for the last few Eids where both married and single women attend.  If you are a couple with young kids, find a few families with children of similar age groups. If you’re a student, start collecting classmates. Don’t wait for other people to invite you, make a list in advance and get working to fend off ELS together.

Give gifts

The Prophet ﷺ said: تَهَادُوا تَحَابُّوا‏ “Give gifts to increase love for each other”. One of my siblings started a tradition of getting a gift for each person in the family. If that’s too much, pick one friend or family member and give them a gift. If you can’t afford gifts, give something that doesn’t require much money like a card or just your time. You never know how much a card with kind, caring words can brighten a person’s Eid.

Get out of your comfort zone

If you have ELS, chances are there is someone else out there who has it too. The only way to find out if someone is sad and alone on Eid is by admitting that we are first, and asking if they are too.

Try, try, try again…

Maybe you’ve taken off work only to find that going would have been less of a waste of time. Maybe you tried giving gifts and it didn’t go well. Maybe you threw an open house and are still cleaning up/dealing with the aftermath until now. It’s understandable to want to quit and say never again, to relent and accept that you have ELS and always will but please, keep trying. The Ummah needs to believe that Eid can and should be fun and special for everyone.

While it is hard to be vulnerable and we may be afraid of rejection or judgment, the risk is worth it. As a survivor and recoverer of ELS, I know how hard it can be and also how rewarding it is to be free of it. May Allah bless us all with the best Eids and to make the most of the blessed days before and after, Ameen.

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#Current Affairs

Were Muslim Groups Duped Into Supporting an LGBTQ Rights Petition at the US Supreme Court?

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Muslim organizations, Muslim groups

Recently several Muslim groups sent an amicus brief to the US Supreme Court to support LGBTQ rights in employment.  These groups argued“sex” as used in the Civil Rights Act should be defined broadly to include more types of discrimination than Congress wrote into the statue.

A little background. Clayton County, Georgia fired Gerald Lynn Bostock. The County alleged Bostock embezzled money, so he was fired. Bostock argues the real reason is that he is gay. Clayton County denied they would fire someone for that reason. Clayton County successfully had the case dismissed saying that even if Bostock is right about everything, the law Bostock filed the lawsuit under does not vindicate his claim. The case is now at the Supreme Court with other similar cases.

The “Muslim” brief argued the word “sex” should mean lots of things, and under the law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act), LGBTQ discrimination is already illegal.  American law has developed to provide some support for this argument, but there have been divisions in the appellate courts. So this is the exact sort of thing the US Supreme Court exists to decide.

The Involvement Of Muslim Groups

In Supreme Court litigation, parties on both sides marshal amicus briefs (written arguments) and coordinate their efforts to improve the effectiveness of their advocacy, there are over 40 such briefs in the Bostock case. Groups represent constituencies with no direct stake in the immediate dispute but care about the precedent the case would set.

The Muslim groups came in purportedly because they know what it’s like to be victims of discrimination (more on that below). The brief answered an objection to the consequences that could come with an expansive definition of the term “sex” to include gay, lesbian, and transgender persons (in lieu of its conventional use as synonymous with gender, i.e., male/female). In particular, the brief responded to the concern that “sex” being defined as any subjective experience may open up more litigation than was intended by making the argument that religion is a personal experience that courts have no trouble sorting out and that, like faith, courts can define “sex” the same way.

While this may be interesting to some, boring to others, it begs the question:  why are Muslim groups involved with this stuff? Muslims are a faith community. If we speak *as Muslims* is it not pertinent to consult with the traditions of the faith tradition known as Islam, like Quran, Hadith and the deep well of scholarly tradition?  Is our mere presence in a pluralistic society enough reason to ignore all this and focus on building allies in our mutual desire to create a world free of discrimination?

Spreading Ignorance

In July of 2017, the main party to the “Muslim” brief, Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), was expelled from the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) Convention bazaar.  I was on the Executive Council of the organization at the time but had no role in the decision. The reason: MPV was dedicated to promoting ignorance of Islam among Muslims at the event. The booth had literature claiming haram was good and virtuous. Propaganda distributed at the table either implied haram was not haram or alternately celebrated haram.

For any Muslim organization dedicated to Islam, it is not a difficult decision to expel an organization explicitly dedicated to spreading haram. No Muslim organization, composed of Muslims who fear Allah and dedicate their time to Islam can give space to organizations opposed the faith community’s values and advocates against them in their conferences and events.  Allah, in the Quran, tells us:

immorality

Indeed, those who like that immorality should be spread [or publicized] among those who have believed will have a painful punishment in this world and the Hereafter. And Allah knows, and you do not know.

It would be charitable to the point of fraud to characterize MPV as a Muslim organization. That MPV has dedicated itself to promoting ignorance of the religion within the Muslim community is not in serious dispute.  The organization’s leader has been all over the anti-Sharia movement.

Discrimination against Muslims is bad, except when it’s good 

The brief framed the various organizations’ participation by claiming as Muslims, we know what it is like to be on the receiving end of discrimination. This implies the parties that signed on to the Amicus petition believe discrimination against Muslims is a bad thing. For at least two of the organizations, this is not entirely true.

MPV is an ally of another co-signer of the Amicus petition, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).  Both have records that show an eagerness to discriminate against Muslims in the national security space. They both applied for CVE grants. Both have supported the claim that Muslims are a national security threat they are somehow equipped to deal with. I have written more extensively about MPAC in the past; mainly, it’s work in Countering Violent Extremism and questionable Zakat practices.

MPAC’s CVE  program, called “Safe Spaces,” singled out Muslims as terrorist threats. It purported to address this Muslim threat. In June of 2019, MPAC’s academic partner released an evaluation Safe Spaces and judged it as “not successful” citing the singling out of Muslims, as well as a lack of trust within the Muslim community because of a lack of transparency as reasons why the program was a failure. Despite its legacy of embarrassment and failure, MPAC continues to promote Safe Spaces on its website.

MPV was a vigorous defender of MPAC’s CVE program, Safe Spaces.  MPV’s leader has claimed the problem of “radicalism” is because of CAIR, ISNA, and ICNA’s “brand of Islam.”

Law Enforcement Approved Islam

In 2011, former LAPD head of Counter-Terrorism, Michael P. Downing testified during a congressional hearing on “Islamist Radicalization” Downing testified in favor of MPV, stating:

I would just offer that, on the other side of the coin, we should create opportunities for the pure, good part of this, to be in the religion, such as the NGOs. There is an NGO by the name of Ani Zonneveld who does the Muslims for Progressive Values. This is what they say, “Values are guided by 10 principles of Islam, rooted in Islam, including social equality, separation of religion and state, freedom of speech, women’s rights, gay rights, and critical analysis and interpretation.” She and her organization have been trying to get into the prison system to give this literature as written by Islamic academic scholars. So I think there can be more efforts on this front as well.

Downing was central to the LAPD’s “Muslim Mapping” program, defending the “undertaking as a way to help Muslim communities avoid the influence of those who would radicalize Islamic residents and advocate ‘violent, ideologically-based extremism.” MPAC was a supporter of the mapping program, which was later rejected by the city because it was an explicit ethnic profiling program mainstream Muslim and secular civil rights groups opposed.  MPAC later claimed it did not support the program, though somehow saw fit to give Downing an award. Downing, since retired, currently serves on MPAC’s Advisory Council.

Ani Zonnevold, the President and Founder of MPV, currently sits on the International Board of Directors for the Raif Badawi Foundation alongside Maajid Nawaz and Zuhdi Jasser.

MPV has also been open about both working for CVE and funding from a non-Muslim source, the Human Rights Campaign, and other groups with agendas to reform the religion of Islam. It’s hard not to see it as an astroturf organization.

Muslim Groups Were Taken for a Ride

Unfortunately, Muslim nonprofit organizations are often unsophisticated when it comes to signing documents other groups write. Some are not even capable of piecing together the fact that an astroturf organization opposed to Islam, the religious tradition, was recruiting them to sign something.

There are many Muslims sympathetic to the LGBTQ community while understanding the limits of halal and haram. Not everyone who signed the brief came to this with the same bad faith as an MPV, which is hostile to the religion of Islam itself. Muslims generally don’t organize out of hostility to Islam. This only appears to be happening because of astroturfing in the Muslim community. Unfortunately, it was way too easy to bamboozle well-meaning Muslim groups.

Muslims are a faith community. MPV told the groups Islam did not matter in their argument when the precise reason they were recruited to weigh in on the case was that they are Muslim. Sadly, it was a successful con. Issues like the definition of sex are not divorced from Islamic concerns. We have Islamic inheritance and rules for family relations where definitions of words are relevant. Indeed, our religious freedoms in ample part rest on our ability to define the meaning of words, like Muslim, fahisha, zakat, daughter, and Sharia. Separate, open-ended definitions with the force of law may have implications for religious freedom for Muslims and others because it goes to defining a word across different statutes, bey0nd the civil rights act. There would be fewer concerns if LGBT rights were simply added as a distinct category under the Civil Rights Act while respecting religious freedom under the constitution.

Do Your Homework

Muslim organizations should do an analysis of religious freedom implications for Muslims and people of other faiths before signing on to statements and briefs. A board member of MPV drafted the “Muslim” Brief, and his law firm recruited Muslim nonprofit organizations to sign on. CAIR Oklahoma, which signed up for this brief, made a mistake (hey, it happens). CAIR Oklahoma’s inclusion is notable. This chapter successfully challenged the anti-Sharia “Save our State” law that would have banned Muslims from drafting Islamic Wills. Ironically, CAIR Oklahoma’s unwitting advocacy at the Supreme Court could work against that critical result. For an anti-Sharia group like MPV, this is fine. It is not fine for a group like CAIR.

CAIR Oklahoma is beefing up their process for signing on to Amicus Briefs in the future. No other CAIR chapter signed on to the brief, which was prudent. CAIR chapters are mostly independent organizations seemingly free to do whatever they want. CAIR, as a national organization needs to make sure all its affiliates are sailing in the same direction. They have been unsuccessful with this in the past several years. CAIR should make sure their local chapters know about astroturf outfits and charlatans trying to get them to sign things. They should protect their “America’s largest Islamic Civil Liberties Group” brand.

Muslim Leaders Should Stand Strong 

American Muslims all have friends, business associates and coworkers, and family members who do things that violate Islamic norms all the time. We live in an inclusive society where we respect each other’s differences. Everyone is entitled to dignity and fair treatment. No national Muslim groups are calling for employment discrimination against anyone, nor should they.

However, part of being Muslim is understanding limits that Allah placed on us. That means we cannot promote haram or help anyone do something haram. Muslim groups do not need to support causes that may be detrimental to our interests.  Our spaces do not need to be areas where we have our religion mocked and derided. Other people have the freedom to do this in their own spaces in their own time.

Some Muslim leaders are afraid of being called names unless they recite certain words or invite particular speakers.  You will never please people who hate Islam unless you believe as they do.  Muslims only matter if Islam matters.

If you are a leader of Muslims, you must know the limits Allah has placed on you. Understand the trust people have placed in you. Don’t allow anyone to bully or con you into violating those limits.

Note: Special thanks to Mobeen Vaid.

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A New Eid Tradition: Secret Gift Exchange

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Eid Al Adha, Eid Gift Exchange

Gift exchanges–they’re common traditions for many gift-giving holidays in America. I’ve participated in gift exchanges in religious and secular contexts and I’ve loved being a member and even a host of them in the past! This past Eid al Adha and Eid al Fitr, I organized a secret gift exchange (we called it “Secret Bakra” from the Urdu “bakra” which means goat) with my siblings, cousins, and their respective spouses who live all over the US and it was one of the most memorable and fun things I have ever done for Eid in my life! The best part of a gift exchange like this is that I don’t have to feel the pressure of gifting 13 people gifts every Eid, but I feel as if I have!

Here’s a quick guide and some tips to help you and your family or friends organize an Eid gift exchange!

Gift Exchange Basics

A gift exchange requires: 

  • a group of 3 to 40 people
  • a budget range for the gift
  • deadlines for sending/receiving gifts
  • an organizational system to assign members who they will be giving gifts to

Optional parts of a gift exchange can be:

  •  some sort of exchange party (in-person or virtual)
  • gift recommendations/interests for each person to help nudge the gift-giver in the right direction)
  • an anonymous/secret exchange system with a reveal during the party/after everyone has gotten their gifts

Why a (Secret) Eid Gift Exchange? 

Following the Sunnah and Bringing People Together

The most important motivation anyone can have to organize or participate in a gift exchange is taken from a hadith of the Prophet (S) in which he says, “Mutual gift-giving increases the love between people.” This hadith can be taken as advice for a way to bring people closer together and with the intention of following the teachings of the Prophet (S). 

Celebrating Eid and Creating Meaningful Traditions

Another important motivation is to celebrate Eid, as the Prophet (S) has mentioned is a main annual holiday for Muslims, and to also make Eid special for you, your family, a group of friends coworkers, masjid volunteers, etc. Not only is it important for individuals and families to establish Eid traditions that everyone can look forward to (Eid shouldn’t just be fun for kids!), but it is particularly important in communities in which Muslims are a minority. I’ve always been a firm advocate for making fun, memorable Eids with exciting, wholesome Eid traditions and festivities. 

Manageable Way to Give Gifts within a Large Group of People

A gift exchange is a great way to give gifts in a large group of people without breaking the bank and without exhausting yourself trying to think of gifts for a bunch of people and then buying or making them. My cousins and I have gotten closer more recently due to an upswing in family weddings, and I really felt like giving all of them gifts last Eid.  But realistically, I didn’t have $200 to get all 9 people in this group a decent gift, or the time to make 9 gifts that were meaningful and special for each person, or the energy to come up with different gifts for all 9 individuals. A couple of years ago, my husband and I sent ice cream gift cards and personalized Eid cards to each one of our cousins (allocating $5 per cousin per family). It felt great to extend an “Eid ice cream on us” gesture, but for $45, it didn’t seem like we really got much of a bang for our buck. By doing a Secret Bakra Gift Exchange, we both spent under $30 total for our gifts, but it felt like more of a meaningful gift.  It also felt like each one of my siblings/cousins gave a gift to everyone in the group–and that’s the magic of gift exchanges! Although we didn’t give and receive 9 gifts on Eid, we all came together to celebrate our family ties and Eid in a special way and everyone felt like they scored on Eid. Lastly, if there’s a dedicated group of people that you always do a gift exchange with, such as extended family in my case, theoretically everyone will end up giving everyone else a gift when you consider probabilities if you do a gift exchange every Eid for enough years, right?  

Bridging the Gap: Togetherness Despite Age, Distance, Financial Means, etc.

One thing that was super magical for my cousins and I this past Eid was having the feeling that we celebrated Eid together. We’re always lamenting the fact that we seldom get together and rarely with all of us or talking about how if we were closer to each other then we’d do xyz awesome, fun things together all the time. This gift exchange wasn’t just about giving each other gifts–it was also about making time for a video call in which we all made it despite being strung across three different time zones and having work/school the next day to unwrap our gifts and wish each other a blessed and joyous Eid. It was also about creating a more tight-knit group and welcoming the newcomers to our extended family (we’ve had two weddings in one year and we’re all still getting to know the new spouses and vice versa). We’re all different in many ways–age, gender, religiosity, personality, etc.–and we may interact with each other (and even be fond of each other) at varying levels. Doing an anonymous gift exchange is a great way to force a person’s hand into making a greater effort to connect with another person in a wholesome, beautiful manner. Lastly, we considered our budget range to accommodate our financially-dependent younger cousins in high school, our unemployed bunch, our students, etc. No one felt burdened by the price tag for the gifts and everyone felt like they made a meaningful contribution no matter what their lifestyle or financial means allow. 

eid gift exchange

Tips on Making Your Secret Gift Exchange Easy, Fun, and…Did I Mention Easy?

With the business of worshipping in Ramadan and Dhul Hijjah on top of daily life struggles, who has the time to monkey around with extra nonsense like a gift exchange for Eid? Following these tips will help YOU pull off a great gift exchange with minimal time, effort, stress, and hiccups! (These tips will be particularly useful for people conducting a long-distance gift exchange.) 

  • Use a self-generating exchange system like “Elfster.” Have one person do it (it only takes 5 minutes to set it up) and send out the sign up link. You can even take turns every time you do a gift exchange. This way, nobody has to sit out the game because the website takes care of matching people in the group and can also let an administrator get in behind the scenes in case a problem arises (like someone doesn’t send their match a gift.) For the rest of the participants, signing up takes less than 5 minutes if you’re a first-time user and less than 2 minutes if you already have an account. The site draws names, notifies everyone of who they received, provides your match’s address, etc. It basically takes out all of the headache stuff that would discourage someone from wanting to organize one of these exchanges.  It can also allow for anonymous messaging, which can be handy for contacting your match to inquire about clothing sizes, color preferences, delivery options/issues, etc.
  • Set a budget range that’s friendly for the people of less financial means in mind. Think of the spread of your participating group members and make the exchange accessible to those who have the least means. Gifts don’t have to be expensive to be meaningful and you don’t want to set a $80 budget if someone in the group is struggling to make ends meet every month. My recommendation is to choose a budget range so that each person isn’t busting their brains to try to get a gift as close to $15.00 as possible, for example. Determine whether or not you’d like to include shipping costs inside this budget. If someone is making a gift, then estimate how much you’d buy whatever is made if you got it from the store (this is probably a bit harder than just buying something that has a price tag associated with it.) Give a $3-7 range around a price point everyone seems comfortable with. Our budget for the last exchange we did was $12-17. Most participants bought gifts at the $14-17 range (which I think is better.) Some good budget range recommendations I have are the following: $14-17, $15-18, $18-22, $20-24, $25-29. For a higher budget: $28-33, $38-42, $48-53. 
  • Set a strict deadline for receiving the gifts before Eid and keep in mind your gift exchange party date/time. Make sure everyone knows that they need to have the gift delivered on or by a certain a date. Don’t have a “send by” date, that doesn’t really make any sense, and don’t have a deadline that spreads across a couple of days because it’s too confusing. My personal recommendation for the deadline is to have the deadline at least one or two days before the earliest day anyone in your group might be celebrating Eid (#MoonWars). This way, everyone can take care of their gift before the Eid madness sets in which can make Eid more enjoyable because no one is stressed out about their gift being delivered on time, and it gives a little bit of a buffer if there are any complications with delivery or fulfilling an order/shipment. 
  • Virtual exchange party: set it before Eid prayer. Eid day is just too crazy because people have a lot of things going on. Now take into consideration the fact that people celebrate Eid on different days…exactly. If you set your virtual exchange party for the night before the earliest Eid’s prayer, you’re nearly guaranteed to be able to catch everyone because no one will have an Eid dinner invitation for that night. Additionally, it will feed into the excitement for Eid which will be on the next day or two. 
  • Alternative virtual exchange party. You can have everyone send a video recording of themselves opening their gift on whatever day the gift deadline is or whatever day you want to have your “party.” This way, everyone can participate despite schedule conflicts. If there are a handful of individuals who can’t make the actual party, you can also have them send videos beforehand instead of joining into the party on the video call. This might also be helpful if you’re doing an exchange party in-person if you can have the one or two people who can’t make it video-call in or send video recordings beforehand (if it’s before, then that person would need their gift before the party.)
  • Anonymous gift-sending and guessing who the gift-giver is. Make sure that the person giving the gift does not reveal their identity in any way, whether that’s putting gifts in a dark room before the party starts or making sure that their name is not on the package being sent at all. What we like to do is to have the person guess who they think gave them the gift after they’ve opened it. Our rule is that if the person guessed correctly, then the gift-giver should confirm it was indeed them that gave the gift. This is one of the most fun parts of the exchange party in my opinion.
  • Have a code word in your package to signify that it’s a gift from the Eid exchange.  Let’s face it–online shopping is convenient and becoming increasingly so. It’s more likely than not that you will order something from online during the gift exchange, so in order to prevent confusion, include a code word in the name of the person you’re sending the Eid gift to. We chose to write “Bakra” as the middle name, so it’d look like “Muhammad Bakra Ahmad” on whatever package was intended to be their gift for the Eid gift exchange.

I hope all of these tips were useful! If you end up doing this Eid gift exchange in your family, let us know what the best gifts were this time around! 

Here are the gifts that we had in our Eid al Fitr gift exchange this past June!

  • Juvia’s Masquerade Eyeshadow Palette
  • NASA Worm Logo Shirt + The Great Wave off Kanagawa Tapestry
  • Jade Roller for Face
  • Music Record
  • Nose Frida
  • Campfire Mug
  • DSLR Camera Remote
  • Llama String Art Kit
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** + Knife Sharpening Stone
  • Philadelphia Eagles Sun Hat
  • Golden State Warriors Mug

May Your Eid Be Blessed!

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