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Public debates on matters of importance can be noisy and disorganized. From Ad Hominem to Appeal to Extremes, argumentative fallacies fly through cyberspace like so many ethereal cream pies. I offer this short essay as what I hope is a productive contribution to the current debate over the ‘UAE summit,’ in particular the question of participating in it and how that relates to dangerous aspects of UAE foreign policy. Because this is only one aspect of a knot of interrelated issues that must be understood as a whole, this essay covers a good deal of ground. First, I address the immediate question of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (henceforth the Forum), held annually in Abu Dhabi since 2014. Second, I lay out the three main problems with what I term Agenda MBZ, or the political and social vision shared by the current governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia but shaped by Muhammad Bin Zayed (MBZ), the crown prince and de facto ruler of the UAE. Finally, I discuss the issue of ulama and Muslim leaders cooperating with these governments or this agenda.
I. ‘Moi ou le chaos’: Placing a Ceiling on Muslims’ Political Expectations
During the winter of 2012 and the spring of 2013, Egypt was rocked by progressively worse protests against the government of the elected president Mohamed Morsi, including anarchic attacks by a shadowy mob of hoodlums known as ‘Black Block.’ In May and June of 2013 the Egyptian army made it clear that it would only intervene if protests against President Morsi descended into chaos. What could (wrongly) be read as a mild affirmation of civilian rule was, in fact, a subtle hint at what lay ahead: if anyone could plunge the country in chaos, then they’d get the army takeover they wanted. Sure enough, the country descended further into chaos, protests grew, and the army deposed the president. The message was clear from Sisi as it was from Bashar al-Asad: it’s me or chaos, even if I have to make the chaos myself. Black Block has not been heard from since.
One of the most prominent themes in Sunni political thought is what we might call the No Rebellion Principle: that, as the Prophet (s) commanded, Muslims should not take up arms in rebellion against their ruler unless he displayed ‘egregious kufr (kufr bawāḥ).’ Why? Because as al-Ghazali (d. 1111) reports, ‘A tyrannical ruler is better than endless strife (imām ghashūm khayr min fitna tadūm).’ There is certainly much wisdom in this line of thinking, as the conditions in Iraq after 2003 and Syria today suggest. But it does not come close to addressing all the concerns around governance today. In the pre-modern period, the No Rebellion Principle morphed into a rule of total quietism – that there should be no opposition to or pushback against the ruler (this transformation seems to have solidified in the Mamluk period). This conflation was relatively unremarkable in the context of pre-modern states; governance was small-scale and states were thin on the ground even at the best of times. Subjects and citizens did not ask much from their governments because the state did little more than provide basic law and order in return for the collection of taxes. Civil society, charity, and social networks provided key social services and even mundane legal infrastructure.
In modern times, however, the conflation of the No Rebellion Principle with total quietism, combined with the immense and pervasive role of the modern state, has proven disastrous. The state no longer simply provides law and order. It often provides whole areas of crucial welfare and services, controls everything from education to how we raise our children, and it surveils, in some cases or on some subjects, even what we say to each other in private.
As a result, in recent decades the claim that the Sunna ordered total quietism has been used to prevent any efforts to hold kleptocratic and/or autocratic governments accountable or to demand better or more transparent governance. The Egyptians who gathered to protest peacefully in Tahrir Square in January 2011 were told by pro-government ulama that God would curse those who fomented civil strife; those who gathered in Rab’a square in 2013 for a peaceful sit-in protesting the military coup were called Kharijites whose blood was licit. Some extreme quietist Sunni scholars today have even prohibited any public display of discontent with the ruler, calling it ‘rebellion with the tongue (al-khurūj bi’l-lisān)’ (as opposed to the normal phrase ‘rebellion with the sword’). According to this school of thought, the only acceptable opposition to the policies of the ruler is to offer advice in private.
Of course, not only is it totally fallacious to conflate a duty not to take up arms against the state with a prohibition on any public display of discontent, this was not the only school of political thought in Sunni Islam. Indeed, there remains a minority strand of Sunni political thought that allows deposing an unjust ruler if the decision-making elite (ahl al-ḥall wa’l-ʿaqd) of the society supports this, a strand that stretches back to Imam Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 767).
Ultimately, what parroting the misreading of No Rebellion as quietism leaves Muslims with today is the idea that we have no right to make public demands for better government. Every other country, nation or religious community can demand that their governments do a better job using the only means that ever convince the powerful to change, namely some public display of displeasure by sufficiently large numbers or sufficiently influential individuals. But not for Muslims. For us, there can be no calls for accountability, transparency, less corruption, better provision of services, etc. because any display of discontent is allegedly a slippery slope to chaos. Whether the activities of opposition parties, civil society, the press or peaceful public protests, any expression that could actually put pressure on a government to change is by definition a threat to the precious and allegedly so very fragile order that government allegedly provides.
In March 2014 I attended the first Forum in Abu Dhabi as an observer, not a speaker. The speeches I saw (and I saw most) ranged from the lunatic conspiratorial (the UN was behind all the current conflict in the Middle East) to the erudite and specific. But by far the most consistent and dominant theme was the absolute duty of all Muslims to bend to the will of the state. By ‘the state’ no one meant some idealized caliphate or benevolent government. They meant the status quo holders of power, in particular, the governments of the Muslim world that shared a common anxiety over ‘extremism.’ And here we must refresh our understanding of when this conference occurred. It was organized not in the wake of ISIS’s massive conquest of territory, its declaration of a caliphate and its ultra-violence, all of which took place only months later in the summer of 2014. This conference was convened to address what had happened in Egypt and Libya in 2013-14. So by ‘extremism’ the participants in the conference did not mean just groups who called to or employed violence against civilian or even military targets. They meant Muslim organizations or movements that did not see the status quo holders of power and the systems by which they ruled as the end-all and be-all of legitimate government.
If all this was not totally clear in listening to the speakers over two days, it was crystal in the draft declaration that I (and I’m sure many others) was sent days later to review. In what struck me as the only non-anodyne language of the declaration and the only section to address current political events, the draft asserted that democracy is a not an end in and of itself, and that people should not sacralize it and make it into a cause for civil war. Responding to the draft, I wrote the following comments to the organizers:
This is clearly a reference to Egypt and the coup against Morsi. I do not think it’s appropriate to suggest very strongly that the conflict in Egypt has been protracted by people who are obsessed with democracy and are thus causing a civil war without mentioning 1) the injustice and harms of a corrupt and kleptocratic regime that tortured and killed people while failing in its basic duties to its people; 2) that the current regime in Egypt has killed innocent men, women, and children (many, many more than those killed by those who are insisting on ‘democracy’), and imprisoned and tortured thousands more, in the name of fighting “terrorism” or “khawarij.” These two [threats] are used to excuse violence and civil war much more than democracy is. The presence of that clause (#5) would be enough for me, at least, not to sign the document.
In light of the current debate among Western Muslims, it’s ironic that, among the presentations I saw, by far the most conscientious were those by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Mufti Taqi Usmani and the host, Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah. Shaykh Hamza urged that injustice (ẓulm) to be called out wherever it is found. Mufti Usmani reminded the audience that many of the youth who turn to violence do so because they are sincerely pious Muslims who find no possibility to improve their societies among the ranks of crony and cowardly Muslim leadership, ulema included. And Shaykh Bin Bayyah included the subtle but – to my mind even at the time –extremely important reminder that for reconciliation (ṣulḥ) to be achieved – as it must be – compromise must be made on both sides. (I was not able to attend Dr. Sherman Jackson’s speech, so I cannot comment on its content).
I note the above exceptions not to detract from the heavy criticism that the Forum is due but only to be fair to the occasional notes of divergence from what was a clear message: that contesting governance – even peacefully – was to contest the notion of law and order itself and to invite chaos.
Beyond what I consider to be this insidious ideological message, the Forum has also clearly been a tool of the narrow and extremist UAE political agenda. Within 48 hours of the announcement of the Saudi-UAE led boycott of Qatar in June 2017, the Forum issued a statement condemning Qatar’s alleged role in supporting terrorism, stoking the fires of sectarianism and undermining stability I the region (see for a full translation). As Usaama Al-Azaami notes in his article on this, however, the announcement did not appear on the personal social media accounts of Shaykh Bin Bayyah (more on this below).
II. A Trail of Bloodshed and Famine: The Agenda MBZ Abroad
Since 2013, the features of Agenda MBZ have been clear. All the calls of the Arab Spring must be silenced categorically and with unprecedented ruthlessness. There can be no acceptable challenge or even public corrective to the status quo of authoritarian government by established elites (the military in Egypt, the Alawi-industrial alliance in Syria, the royal families in the Gulf). For the Gulf monarchs, gone are the days of ruling by balancing interests, forging consensus amongst stakeholders and avoiding rifts that risk upsetting the whole system. Confident in their capacities of suppression and social control, made possible by new surveillance technology and monopolies on the media, governments need no longer tolerate dissident voices. Now they can be silenced for good.
A major feature of Agenda MBZ has been its ambitiousness. By financial support or lobbying, it is promoted wherever and whenever possible. A second major feature is a total disregard for the Agenda’s human cost. A few points make this clear:
- The UAE government was responsible for partial funding of the 2013 coup in Egypt that unseated a democratically elected president, and the UAE paid millions of dollars to cover DC lobbying efforts on behalf of the Sisi government to make itself more palatable to the American government. The Sisi regime not only engaged in the shocking massacre of civilians at the Rab’a square, but since 2013 well over 60,000 Egyptians have been arrested, with the systematic torture and rape of prisoners and hundreds of death sentences handed down after absurd show-trials.
- The UAE and Egypt have been intimately involved in continuing the civil war in Libya, in particular supporting the warlord Khalifa Haftar against the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tripoli.
- The Saudi and UAE governments launched and have led a bloody military intervention in Yemen that has plunged the country into humanitarian disaster. This trauma has been so severe that even the US Senate has come around to condemning it and it has passed a bill to end US military support for the Saudi-led coalition.
- In 2013, the previous king of Saudi Arabia (whose chief adviser, Khaled al-Tuwaijri, had a vision similar to Agenda MBZ) authorized the transfer of $681 million the bank account of the now disgraced but then Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak to help him win the general election that year, as the Saudi government was worried about the potential victory of the reformist Pakatan Rakyat party, which it saw as an expression of political Islam.
III. Agenda MBZ Hits Home: The Islamophobic Attempt to Criminalize Muslim Life in the West
In 2014, the UAE issued a list of organizations it designated as terrorist organizations. It included major US and European Muslim organizations, such as CAIR, Islamic Relief, Muslim American Society (MAS) and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). Its efforts to push this list have continued since then. Even as recently as this summer (2018), the UAE state publication The National ran an article trying to drum up global support to condemn Islamic Relief as “a cog” in a dangerous terrorism machine.
The significance of all this cannot be over-emphasized: The government of the UAE has been trying —and is continuing to try— to convince the US and other Western governments to declare Muslim organizations – organizations that Muslims in the West engage with often on a daily basis – terrorist organizations.
This is not because the governments of the UAE or Egypt or Saudi Arabia harbor some hatred for Muslims in the West. Rather, it is a direct and inevitable result of the disastrous mixture of clumsiness and extremism that characterizes Agenda MBZ. That Islamophobes like Frank Gaffney and Andrew McCarthy have long dreamt of the US government designating ‘The Muslim Brotherhood’ (whatever that means) as a terrorist organization is no secret. This would be the key to holding the threat of criminal prosecution over any Muslim who manifested even a shed of activist energy: ‘The Muslim Brotherhood’ and ‘Islamism’ more broadly are terms so amorphous and contested that they could be applied one way or another to almost every Muslim leader or organization in the world. Fortunately for Muslims in the US and for the semantic integrity of the English language itself, these Islamophobe efforts have so far failed. As Ben Wittes, no dove or serial defender of political Islam by any means wrote, to designate ‘The Muslim Brotherhood’ as a terrorist group would be to stretch the language of US law and conceptions of what the Brotherhood is beyond the breaking point:
… the Brotherhood is not in a meaningful sense a single organization at all; elements of it can be designated [as terrorist organizations] and have been designated, and other elements certainly cannot be. As a whole, it is simply too diffuse and diverse to characterize. And it certainly cannot be said as a whole to engage in terrorism that threatens the United States.
What is simply stunning is that, while even US foreign policy hawks acknowledge the absurdity of the Agenda MBZ demands on criminalizing Muslim organizations, American Muslim acolytes of that agenda have worked alongside Islamophobes to advance it. In testimony given before Congress in 2016, a well-known young American Muslim scholar affirmed Republican Congressmen’s worst fears that the Muslim Brotherhood is “on the spectrum” with ISIS (see 1:44 on the C-SPAN video).
The overlap of Agenda MBZ and the Islamophobia industry has been demonstrated again and again in increasingly shocking ways. In the immediate wake of the 2017 decision by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to boycott Qatar, the head of the US branch of the CVE-dollar-suckling Quilliam Foundation penned a Newsweek article calling Qatar a “pariah” and a “destabilizing force” in the Muslim world and urging President Trump to designate the country as a sponsor of terrorism. Just recently, the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news outlet featured an unconscionable and generally absurd attack on newly elected US congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib as well as the well-known Muslim social justice activist Linda Sarsour. All are, according to the article, part of a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to hobble President Trump’s noble policy agenda in the Middle East. Again, we need to restate this with emphasis:
1) the head of an allegedly Muslim organization (one that has worked with numerous people who promote anti-Muslim views) is writing in support of the Qatar boycott, an Agenda MBZ item that even adults in the Trump administration saw as pointlessly destructive.
2) The type of Islamophobic talking points that the likes of Pamela Geller employ to prevent American Muslims from participating in public life are now propagated in exaggerated form in a Saudi media source.
In summary, Agenda MBZ is an unequivocal and devoted ally of extreme Islamophobes in the US and other Western countries. And Agenda MBZ is not just vilifying Muslims. It is advocating for the criminalization of their organizations and the destruction of many innocent lives. This cannot be ignored by Muslims in the West. Any Muslim who works to advance this agenda in the West should be privately alerted to what they are doing, and if they continue to do so they should be publicly called out.
Muslim Scholars and Agenda MBZ
And this brings us to our last question: How should we react to Western Muslim scholars who participated in the Forum? Debates over this have lapsed into hyperbole on both sides. Extreme critics lambaste these scholars as unsalvageable stooges of oppression who must be uniformly condemned. Staunch defenders accuse critics of ‘making war on the awliya’ of God’ and trying to tear down scholars who have done so much to build up Islam in America.
Neither of these extreme claims is valid and both distract us. This debate is not about denying people’s value or contributions or consigning them the dustbin of the damned. But it is about accountability and calling for better consideration of how Muslim leaders undertake engagement. I offer what advice I can here:
- Be Cautious and Accept Responsibility: As I wrote two years ago on this site, Muslims need to agree on and adhere to certain guidelines on engagement with government. One that I proposed was: ‘There is nothing wrong with proximity to power (sultan) if it is presented with the truth and if the general good expected outweighs any expected harm.’ In the recent debate around the Forum, many have cited the strong tradition of Muslim scholars avoiding any entanglement and even contact with government. This is certainly true, but as great scholars like al-Shawkānī (d. 1834) noted, since the time of the Companions, scholars have also served as judges and even as viziers. “It is not possible,” he wrote, “to fix the number of scholars who had dealings with the rulers of just one century, let alone in several centuries across the world.”
But there is one clear rule. As an earlier giant of scholarship in Yemen, Ibn al-Amīr al-Ṣanʿānī (d. 1768), concluded, “The only thing prohibited by agreement and consensus is mixing with oppressors in order to assist them in their oppression,” whether this is done by the tongue, the pen or merely by the scholar’s silent affirmation of the ruler’s misdeeds. Whatever we disagree on, Muslim leaders and scholars should not facilitate oppression or become its tools. That Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah is one of the most learned and insightful scholars of Islamic law today is beyond doubt to me. But he has allowed himself to be used as a legitimizing symbol to bolster Agenda MBZ’s Islamic credentials and has publicly endorsed the ‘anti-extremist’ policies of Saudi Arabia. He may or may not agree with some, all or none of the actions carried out by these states, but he has not made this clear and his public positions can be publicly criticized.
- So Make Your Involvement and Position Clear: Some defenders of the ulama who participated in the Forum have argued that the UAE’s policies would be even worse if those scholars hadn’t been there to ameliorate them. I have talked to almost all the American scholars who have spoken at the Forum, and I have no doubt that they condemn unjust policies like the war in Yemen and recognize the immense danger of Agenda MBZ for Muslims in the West. I have no doubt that they have done their best to advise decisions makers in the UAE to alter their course.
But absent any public statements by these scholars about how they view different aspects of Agenda MBZ, an agenda that directly touches on Muslims in the West, it is not surprising that their involvement in the Forum will be seen as an endorsement. The Forum is not a workshop on interpretive dance being organized by Dubai’s ministry of culture. Someone who attended that event could be excused from questions about their views on UAE foreign policy. But the Forum is devoted to a core element of Agenda MBZ (the problem of ‘extremism’ and political Islam vs. the role of state authority) and to shoring it up. And the Forum has already been instrumentalized to support feeble planks of its policy (the Qatar boycott). Scholars are certainly free to attend the Forum, but they should not allow themselves to be pictured or quoted in support of a political agenda they do not support. Instead, they should make clear their positions for all to know. Earlier I proposed a guideline that ‘The presumption is that mere attendance does not entail approval unless it is preceded by a specific claim or announcement.’ I would add that, in the case of an event like the Forum, which so clearly serves a political agenda, participation entails approval unless the participant makes it clear otherwise.
- We Need to Keep Perspective… as Hard as that Is: This is one of the hardest things for me to write because it runs so much against my own sensibilities. As deep and all-consuming as they are, even the fiercest of political or cultural conflicts do not transcend a common belonging to the umma of Muhammad (s). I wrote what follows in the preface for my book Hadith (2017) in an attempt to make sense of what often seemed to me beyond all sensibility. It is the best thing I can offer on a painful topic:
It has been almost ten years since I wrote the preface to the first edition of this book, sitting in an upper-floor room in a house in Sana, the red and orange light bathing the battered furniture through colored glass. How much the world has changed, how much people have suffered, and how many of the pillars of my own world have fallen. Sana is bombed and besieged. Its already impoverished people starve. Syria lies in ruins beyond tragedy. Egypt, the place I felt most at home, has mutated from the warm and open world of deep knowledge that drew me in, to a kitschy-dark caricature of mid-twentieth-century fascism. Those Egyptian scholars from whom I had benefited and learned so much have either died or become loyal servants of a dictatorship that only fools and the myopically vicious could embrace.
So then either my teachers were fools, in which case, does the knowledge they imparted to so many have any value? Or they were vicious, in which case, can such a vessel truly carry ‘this knowledge, which is religion,’ without sullying it? How does one make sense of things when one’s exemplars make choices that seem so profoundly wrong? I’ve long pondered this, and the answer I’m led to again and again is both comforting and supremely disturbing.
The political sphere appears of supreme import. Men triumph or are humiliated or killed; innocent women and children suffer unspeakable abuse; war is fought, peace is made, prosperity nurtured or squandered. But in the vaulted chamber of ideas, of knowledge, this sphere occupies just a portion of one of many shelves. Some who have brought great misery in human history have aimed only at satisfying themselves, but far more have been pursuing the same abstract goods as their righteous, often martyred, opponents. Bond villains are often very well intentioned. Political trauma, as total as it is, is created less by ideas than by their interpretation and implementation. Like all those who have reflected on human polity, my teachers valued both justice and order. But order had priority for them. Others would put justice first. This is a question of priority, and it has consequences. But, phrased like this in the abstract, reasonable people can disagree. And in that small space of disagreement the dimensions of our world are warped in inversion, and endless wrongs and suffering are inflicted. All on part of one shelf in the great library of our human heritage and its divine inspiration.
As impossible as it seems, as impossible as it is for me, we must keep our political disagreements in perspective. A report in Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī describes how, as Islam’s first, bloody civil war erupted, there was a diplomatic meeting. On one side was ʿAmmār bin Yāsir, who would soon die in the war, and on the other Abū Mūsā and Abū Masʿūd. The two men said to ʿAmmār, ‘In all the time since you’ve been Muslim, we haven’t seen you undertake anything more distasteful to us than your haste in this matter.’ ʿAmmār replied, ‘And I haven’t seen from you two, since the time you became Muslims, anything more distasteful to me than your hesitation on this matter.’ Then Abū Masʿūd dressed each of the other two in robes, and they all headed off to the mosque for prayer.
God knows best.
 Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: kitāb al-fitan, bāb qawl al-nabī ṣ sa-tarawn baʿdī umūran tunkirūnahā.
 Ayman Diyāb al-ʿĀbidīnī, Manhaj al-salaf al-qawīm fī al-ʿalāqa bayn al-ḥukkām wa al-maḥkūmīn, 3rd ed. (Cairo: Mu’assasat Sabīl al-Mu’minīn, 2009, first edition 2008), 38-45.
 Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Qurtubī, al-Jāmiʿ li-aḥkām al-Qur’ān, ed. Muḥammad Ibrāhīm al-Ḥifnāwī and Maḥmūd Ḥamīd ʿUthmān, 20 vols. (Cairo: Dār al-Ḥadīth, 1994), 1:520; Abū Bakr al-Jassās, Aḥkām al-Qur’ān, 3 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-ʿArabī, n.d., reprint of Istanbul: Maṭbaʿat al-Awqāf al-Islāmiyya, 1917), 1:85-87.
 Muḥammad b. ʿAlī al-Shawkānī, “Rafʿ al-asāṭīn fī ḥukm al-ittiṣāl bi’l-salāṭīn,” in Majmūʿ fīhi sabaʿ rasā’il li’l-imām al-muḥaqqiq Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Amīr al-Ṣanʿānī, ed. Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr Muqaṭṭirī (Beirut: Dār Ibn Ḥazm, 2004), 451.
 Muḥammad b. al-Amīr al-Ṣanʿānī, “Izālat al-tuhama mā yajūzu wa yaḥrumu min mukhālaṭat al-ẓalama,” in Majmūʿ fīhi sabaʿ rasā’il, 201-203; al-Shawkānī, 439-40.
 Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: kitāb al-fitan, bāb 19.
Zahra Billoo Responds To The Women’s March Inc. Voting Her Off The New Board
Earlier tonight, I was voted off the Women’s March, Inc. national board. This followed an Islamophobic smear campaign led by the usual antagonists, who have long targeted me, my colleagues, and anyone else who dares speak out in support of Palestinian human rights and the right to self-determination.
The past 48 hours have been a spiral of bad news and smear efforts. Part of the smear campaign is motivated by opponents of the Women’s March, because the organization has traditionally challenged the status quo of power and white supremacy in our country. However, much of the campaign is driven by people who oppose me and my work challenging the occupation of Palestine, our country’s perpetuation of unjust and endless wars, and law enforcement operations targeting the American Muslim community.
The Women’s March, Inc. is an organization I once held dear. I spoke at the first march, spoke at regional marches every year after, spoke at the convention, participated in national actions including the original Kavanaugh protests, and worked to mobilize Muslim women for their efforts.
During the past few years right-wingers, from the President’s son to the Anti-Defamation League and troll armies, have targeted the Women’s March, Inc. For so long, I’ve admired their resilience in speaking truth to power, in working together, and in never cowering. Over and over again, the co-founders of Women’s March, Inc. put their lives on the line, winning power for all women in all of our diversity. The Women’s March, Inc. that voted me off its board tonight is one that no longer demonstrates the strength that inspired millions of women across the country.
To see and experience its new leaders caving to right-wing pressure, and casting aside a woman of color, a Muslim woman, a long-time advocate within the organization, without the willingness to make any efforts to learn and grow, breaks my heart. This isn’t about a lost seat, there will be many seats. The Women’s March, Inc. has drawn a line in the sand, one that will exclude many with my lived experiences and critiques. It has effectively said, we will work on some women’s rights at the expense of others.
To be clear, anti-semitism is indeed a growing and dangerous problem in our country, as is anti-Blackness, anti-immigrant sentiment, Islamophobia, ableism, sexism, and so much more. I condemn any form of bigotry unequivocally, but I also refuse to be silent as allegations of bigotry are weaponized against the most marginalized people, those who find sanctuary and hope in the articulation of truth.
In looking at the tweets in question, I acknowledge that I wrote passionately. While I may have phrased some of my content differently today, I stand by my words. I told the truth as my community and I have lived it, through the FBI’s targeting of my community, as I supported families who have lost loved ones because of US military actions, and as I learned from the horrific experiences of Palestinian life.
In attempting to heal and build in an expedited manner within Women’s March, Inc., I offered to meet with stakeholders to address their concerns and to work with my sisters on the new board to learn, heal, and build together. These efforts were rejected. And in rejecting these efforts, the new Women’s March, Inc. demonstrated that they lack the courage to exhibit allyship in the face of fire.
I came to Women’s March, Inc. to work. My body of work has included leading a chapter of the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights organization for over a decade, growing it now more than six-fold. In my tenure, I have led the team that forced Abercrombie to change its discriminatory employment policies, have been arrested advocating for DACA, partnered with Jewish organizations including Bend the Arc and Jewish Voice for Peace to fight to protect our communities, and was one of the first lawyers to sue the President.
It is not my first time being the target of a smear campaign. The Women’s March, Inc., more than any place, is where I would have expected us to be able to have courageous conversations and dive deep into relationship-building work.
I am happy to have as many conversations as it takes to listen and learn and heal, but I will no longer be able to do that through Women’s March, Inc. This action today demonstrates that this organization’s new leadership is unable to be an ally during challenging times.
My beliefs drive my work, and I am not seeking accolades or positions of power. These past few days have been the greatest test of that. My integrity, my truth, and my strength comes from God and a place of deep conviction. I will continue my work as a civil rights lawyer and a faith-based activist, speaking out against the occupation of Palestine and settler-colonialism everywhere, challenging Islamophobia and all forms of racism and bigotry in the United States, and building with my community and our allies in our quest to be our most authentic and liberated selves.
Onward, God willing.
The Duplicity of American Muslim Influencers And The ‘So-called Muslim Ban’
As we approach the beginning of another painful year of the full enforcement of Presidential Proclamation 9645 (a.k.a. ‘the Muslim ban’) that effectively bars citizens of several Muslim majority countries from entering into the United States, the silence remains deafening. As I expected, most of the world has conveniently forgotten about this policy, which thus far has separated over 3,000 American families from their spouses and other immediate relatives. In June 2019, the Brennan Center of Justice notes that: The ban has also kept at least 1,545 children from their American parents and 3,460 parents from their American sons and daughters. While silence and apathy from the general public on this matter is to be expected— after all, it is not their families who are impacted— what is particularly troubling is the response that is beginning to emerge from some corners of the American Muslim social landscape.
While most Muslims and Muslim groups have been vocal in their condemnation of Presidential Proclamation 9645, other prominent voices have not. Shadi Hamid sought to rationalize the executive order on technical grounds arguing that it was a legally plausible interpretation. Perhaps this is true, but some of the other points made by Hamid are quite questionable. For example, he curiously contends that:
The decision does not turn American Muslims like myself into “second-class citizens,” and to insist that it does will make it impossible for us to claim that we have actually become second-class citizens, if such a thing ever happens.
I don’t know— being forced to choose exile in order to remain with one’s family certainly does sound like being turned into a ‘second-class citizen’ to me. Perhaps the executive order does not turn Muslims like himself, as he notes, into second-class citizens, but it definitely does others, unless it is possible in Hamid’s mind to remain a first-class citizen barred from living with his own spouse and children for completely arbitrary reasons, like me. To be fair to Hamid, in the same article he does comment that the executive order is a morally questionable decision, noting that he is “still deeply uncomfortable with the Supreme Court’s ruling” and that “It contributes to the legitimization and mainstreaming of anti-Muslim bigotry.”
On the other hand, more recently others have shown open disdain for those who are angered about the ‘so-called Muslim ban.’ On June 6th, 2019, Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, a Senior Faculty Member at Zaytuna College, Islamic scholar and the founder of the Lamppost Education Initiative, rationalized the ban on spurious security grounds. He commented that,
The so-called Muslim ban, of course, has us on edge about his potential. But, to be fair, a real Muslim ban would mean that no Muslim from any country should be allowed in the US. There are about 50 Muslim majority countries. Trump singled out only 7 of them, most of which are war torn and problem countries. So, it is unfair to claim that he was only motivated by a hatred for Islam and Muslims.
First, despite how redundant and unnecessary this point is to make again, one ought to be reminded that between 1975 and 2015, zero foreigners from the seven nations initially placed on the banned list (Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) killed any Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and zero Libyans or Syrians have ever even been convicted of planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil during that same time period. I do not think these numbers have changed over the last 4 years either. If policy decisions are supposed to be made on sound empirical evidence and data, then there is even less justification for the ban.
Second, Bin Hamid Ali comments that ‘the so-called Muslim ban, of course, has us on edge about his [Trump’s] potential.’ Whoa… hold on; on edge about his potential? For the millions of people banned from entering the United States and the thousands of Muslim families connected to these millions of people, this ‘potential’ has been more than realized. To reduce the ‘so-called Muslim ban’ to just targeting ‘war torn and problem countries’ is to reduce our family members—our husbands, wives, and children—to (inaccurate) statistics and gross stereotypes. Are spouses from Syria or Yemen seeking to reunite with their legally recognized spouses or children any less deserving to be with their immediate family members because they hail from ‘problem countries’? How can one be concerned with stereotypes while saying something like this? Is this not the exact thing that Abdullah bin Hamid Ali seeks to avoid? Surely the Professor would not invoke such stereotypes to justify the racial profiling of black American citizens. What makes black non-Americans, Arabs, and Iranians any different when it comes to draconian immigration profiling? From a purely Islamic perspective, the answer is absolutely nothing.
More recently, Sherman Jackson, a leading Islamic intellectual figure at the University of Southern California, King Faisal Chair in Islamic Thought and Culture and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity, also waded into this discussion. In his essay, he reframed the Muslim ban as a question of identity politics rather than basic human right, pitting Muslim immigrants against what he calls ‘blackamericans’ drawing some incredibly questionable, nativist, and bigoted conclusions. Jackson in a recent blog responding to critiques by Ali al-Arian about his own questionable affiliations with authoritarian Arab regimes comments:
Al-Arian mentions that,
“the Muslim American community seemed united at least in its opposition to the Trump administration.” He and those who make up this alleged consensus are apparently offended by Trump’s so-called Muslim ban. But a Blackamerican sister in Chicago once asked me rhetorically why she should support having Muslims come to this country who are only going to treat her like crap.
These are baffling comments to make about ‘Trump’s so-called Muslim ban.’ Jackson creates a strawman by bringing up an anecdotal story that offers a gross generalization that clearly has prejudiced undertones of certain Muslim immigrants. Most interesting, however is how self-defeating Jackson’s invocation of identity politics is considering the fact that a large number of the ‘blackamerican’ Muslims that he is concerned about themselves have relatives from Somalia and other countries impacted by the travel ban. As of 2017, there were just over 52,000 Americans with Somali ancestry in the state of Minnesota alone. Are Somali-Americans only worth our sympathy so long as they do not have Somali spouses? What Jackson and Bin Hamid Ali do not seem to understand is that these Muslim immigrants they speak disparagingly of, by in large, are coming on family unification related visas.
Other people with large online followings have praised the comments offered by Abdullah bin Hamid Ali and Sherman Jackson. The controversial administrator of the popular The Muslim Skeptic website, Daniel Haqiqatjou, in defense of Jackson’s comments, stated:
This is the first time I have seen a prominent figure downplay the issue. And I think Jackson’s assessment is exactly right: The average American Muslim doesn’t really care about this. There is no evidence to indicate that this policy has had a significant impact on the community as a whole. Travel to the US from those four countries affected by the ban was already extremely difficult in the Obama era.
What Haqiqatjou seems to not realize is that while travel from these countries was difficult, it was not as ‘extremely difficult’ as he erroneously claims it was. The US issued 7,727 visas to Iranian passport holders in 2016 prior to the ban. After the ban in 2018, that number dropped to 1,449. My own wife was issued a B1/B2 Tourist visa to meet my family in 2016 after approximately 40 days of administrative processing which is standard for US visa seekers who hold Iranian passports. On the other hand, she was rejected for the same B1/B2 Tourist visa in 2018 after a grueling 60+ day wait due to Presidential Proclamation 9645. At the behest of the Counselor Officer where we currently live, she was told to just finish the immigration process since this would put her in a better position to receive one of these nearly impossible to get waivers. She had her interview on November 19, 2018, and we are still awaiting the results of whatever these epic, non-transparent ‘extreme vetting’ procedures yield. Somehow despite my wife being perfectly fine to enter in 2016, three years later, we are entering the 10th month of waiting for one of these elusive waivers with no end time in sight, nor any guarantee that things will work out. Tell me how this is pretty much the same as things have always been?
What these commentators seem to not realize is that the United States immigration system is incredibly rigid. One cannot hop on a plane and say they want to immigrate with an empty wallet to start of Kebab shop in Queens. It seems as if many of these people that take umbrage at the prospects of legal immigration believe that the immigration rules of 2019 are the same as they were in 1819. In the end, it is important to once again reiterate that the Muslim immigrants Jackson, Bin Hamid Ali and others are disparaging are those who most likely are the family members of American Muslim citizens; by belittling the spouses and children of American Muslims, these people are belittling American Muslims themselves.
Neo-nationalism, tribalism, and identity politics of this sort are wholly antithetical to the Islamic enterprise. We have now reached the point where people who are considered authority figures within the American Islamic community are promoting nativism and identity politics at the expense of American Muslim families. Instead of trying to rationalize the ‘so-called Muslim Ban’ via appeals to nativist and nationalist rhetoric, influential Muslim leaders and internet influencers need to demonstrate empathy and compassion for the thousands of US Muslim families being torn apart by this indefinite Muslim ban that we all know will never end so long as Donald Trump remains president. In reality, they should be willing to fight tooth-and-nail for American Muslim families. These are the same people who regularly critique the decline of the family unit and the rise of single-parent households. Do they not see the hypocrisy in their positions of not defending those Muslim families that seek to stay together?
If these people are not willing to advocate on behalf of those of us suffering— some of us living in self-imposed exile in third party countries to remain with our spouses and children— the least they can do is to not downplay our suffering or even worse, turn it into a political football (Social Justice Warrior politics vs. traditional ‘real’ Islam). It seems clear that if liberal Muslim activists were not as outspoken on this matter, these more conservative voices would take a different perspective. With the exception of Shadi Hamid, the other aforementioned names have made efforts to constrain themselves firmly to the ‘traditional’ Muslim camp. There is no reason that this issue, which obviously transcends petty partisan Muslim politics, ought to symbolize one’s allegiance to any particular social movement or camp within contemporary Islamic civil society.
If these people want a ‘traditional’ justification for why Muslim families should not be separated, they ought to be reminded that one of al-Ghazali’s 5 essential principles of the Shari’a was related to the protection of lineage/family and honor (ḥifẓ al-nasl). Our spouses are not cannon fodder for such childish partisan politics. We will continue to protect our families and their honor regardless of how hostile the environment may become for us and regardless of who we have to name and shame in the process.
When I got married over a year prior to Donald Trump being elected President, I vowed that only Allah would separate me from my spouse. I intend on keeping that vow regardless of what consequences that decision may have.
Photo courtesy: Adam Cairns / The Columbus Dispatch
Obituary of (Mawlana) Yusuf Sulayman Motala (1366/1946 – 1441/2019)
Monday, September 9, turned out to be a day of profound anguish and sorrow for many around the world. In the early morning hours, news of the death of Mawlana* Yusuf Sulayman Motala, fondly known as “Hazrat” (his eminence) to those who were acquainted with him, spread. He had passed away on Sunday at 8:20 pm EST in Toronto, after suffering a heart attack two weeks earlier.
A master of hadith and Qur’an. A sufi, spiritual guide and teacher to thousands. A pioneer in the establishment of a religious education system. His death reverberated through hearts and across oceans. We are all mourning the loss of a luminary who guided us through increasingly difficult times.
Monday, September 9, turned out to be a day of profound anguish and sorrow for many around the world. In the early morning hours, news of the death of Mawlana* Yusuf Sulayman Motala, fondly known as “Hazrat” (his eminence) to those who were acquainted with him, spread. He had passed away on Sunday at 8:20 pm EST in Toronto, after suffering a heart attack two weeks earlier. (May the Almighty envelope him in His mercy)
His journey in this world had begun more than 70 years ago in the small village of Nani Naroli in Gujarat, India, where he was born on November 25, 1946 (1 Muharram 1366) into a family known for their piety.
His early studies were largely completed at Jami’a Husayniyya, one of the early seminaries of Gujarat, after which he travelled to Mazahir Ulum, the second oldest seminary of the Indian Sub-Continent, in Saharanpur, India, to complete his ‘alimiyya studies. What drew him to this seminary was the presence of one of the most influential and well-known contemporary spiritual guides, Mawlana Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhlawi (d. 1402/1982), better known as “Hazrat Shaykh.” He had seen Mawlana Zakariyya only briefly at a train stop, but it was enough for him to understand the magnitude of his presence.
Mawlana Yusuf remained in Saharanpur for two years. Despite being younger than many of the other students of Shaykh Zakariya, the shaykh took a great liking to him. Shaykh Zakariya showered him with great attention and even deferred his retirement from teaching Sahih al-Bukhari so that Mawlana Yusuf could study it under his instruction. While in Saharanpur, Mawlana Yusuf also studied under a number of other great scholars, such as Mawlana Muhammad ‘Aqil (author of Al-Durr al-Mandud, an Urdu commentary of Sunan Abi Dawud and current head lecturer of Hadith at the same seminary), Shaykh Yunus Jownpuri (d. 1438/2017) the previous head lecturer of Hadith there), Mawlana As‘adullah Rampuri (d. 1399/1979) and Mufti Muzaffar Husayn (d. 1424/2003).
Upon completion of his studies, Mawlana Yusuf’s marriage was arranged to marry a young woman from the Limbada family that had migrated to the United Kingdom from Gujarat. In 1968, he relocated to the UK and accepted the position of imam at Masjid Zakariya, in Bolton. Although he longed to be in the company of his shaykh, he had explicit instructions to remain in the UK and focus his efforts on establishing a seminary for memorization of Qur’an and teaching of the ‘alimiyya program. The vision being set in motion was to train a generation of Muslims scholars that would educate and guide the growing Muslim community.
Establishing the first Muslim seminary, in the absence of any precedent, was a daunting task. The lack of support from the Muslim community, the lack of integration into the wider British community, and the lack of funds made it seem an impossible endeavour. And yet, Mawlana Yusuf never wavered in his commitment and diligently worked to make the dream of his teacher a reality. In 1973 he purchased the derelict Aitken Sanatorium in the village of Holcombe, near Bury, Lancashire. What had once been a hospice for people suffering from tuberculosis, would become one of the first fully-fledged higher-education Islamic institutes outside of the Indian-Subcontinent teaching the adapted-Nizami syllabus.
The years of struggle by Maulana Yusuf to fulfil this vision paid off handsomely. Today, after four decades, Darul Uloom Al Arabiyya Al Islamiyya, along with its several sister institutes, also founded by Mawlana Yusuf, such as the Jamiatul Imam Muhammad Zakariya seminary in Bradford for girls, have produced well over 2,000 British born (and other international students) male and female ‘alimiyya graduates – many of whom are working as scholars and serving communities across the UK, France, Belgium, Holland, Portugal, the US, Canada, Barbados, Trinidad, Panama, Saudi Arabia, India and New Zealand. Besides these graduates, a countless number of individuals have memorized the Qur’an at these institutes. Moreover, many of the graduates of the Darul Uloom and its sister institutes have set up their own institutes, such as Jamiatul Ilm Wal Huda in Blackburn, Islamic Dawah Academy in Leicester, Jami’ah al-Kawthar in Lancaster, UK, and Darul Uloom Palmela in Portugal, to just mention a few of the larger ones. Within his lifetime, Mawlana Yusuf saw first-hand the fruit of his labours – witnessing his grand students (graduates from his students’ institutes) providing religious instruction and services to communities around the world in their local languages. What started as a relationship of love between a student and teacher, manifested into the transmission of knowledge across continents. In some countries, such as the UK and Portugal, one would be hard-pressed to find a Muslim who had not directly or indirectly benefited from him.
Mawlana Yusuf was a man with deep insights into the needs of Western contemporary society, one that was very different from the one he had grown up and trained in. With a view to contributing to mainstream society, Mawlana Yusuf encouraged his graduates to enter into further education both in post-graduate Islamic courses and western academia, and to diversify their fields of learning through courses at mainstream UK universities. As a result, many ‘alimiyya graduates of his institutes are trained in law, mainstream medicine, natural medicine and homeopathy, mental health, child protection, finance, IT, education, chaplaincy, psychology, philosophy, pharmacy, physics, journalism, engineering, architecture, calligraphy, typography, graphic design, optometry, social services, public health, even British Sign Language. His students also include several who have completed PhDs and lecture at universities. His vision was to train British-born (or other) Muslim scholars who would be well versed in contemporary thought and discipline along with their advanced Islamic learning, equipping them to better contribute to society.
Despite his commitment to the establishment of a public good, the shaykh was an immensely private person and avoided seeking accolade or attention. For many decades he refused invitations to attend conferences or talks around the country, choosing to focus on his students and his family, teaching the academic syllabus and infusing the hearts of many aspirants with the love of Allah through regular gatherings of remembrance (dhikr) and spiritual retreats (i’tikaf) in the way of his shaykh’s Chishti Sufi order.
During my entire stay with him at Darul Uloom (1985–1997), I can say with honesty that I did not come across a single student who spoke ill of him. He commanded such awe and respect that people would find it difficult to speak with him casually. And yet, for those who had the opportunity to converse with him, knew that he was the most compassionate, humble, and loving individual.
He was full of affection for his students and colleagues and had immense concern for the Muslim Ummah, especially in the West. He possessed unparalleled forbearance and self-composure. When he taught or gave a talk, he spoke in a subdued and measured tone, as though he was weighing every word, knowing the import it carried. He would sit, barely moving and without shifting his posture. Even after a surgical procedure for piles, he sat gracefully teaching us Sahih al-Bukhari. Despite the obvious pain, he never made an unpleasant expression or winced from the pain.
Anyone who has listened to his talks or read his books can bear testimony to two things: his immense love for the Messenger of Allah and his love for Shaykh Mawlana Muhammad Zakariya Kandhlawi (may Allah have mercy on him). It is probably hard to find a talk in which he did not speak of the two. His shaykh was no doubt his link to the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) in both his hadith and spiritual transmissions.
Over the last decade, he had retired from most of his teaching commitments (except Sahih al-Bukhari) and had reduced meeting with people other than his weekly dhikr gatherings. His time was spent with his family and young children and writing books. His written legacy comprises over 20 titles, mostly in Urdu but also a partial tafsir of the Qur’an in classical Arabic.
After the news of his heart attack on Sunday, August 25, and the subsequent effects to his brain, his well-wishers around the world completed hundreds of recitals of the Qur’an, several readings of the entire Sahih al-Bukhari, thousands of litanies and wirds of the formula of faith (kalima tayyiba), and gave charity in his name. However, Allah Most High willed otherwise and intended for him to depart this lowly abode to begin his journey to the next. He passed away two weeks later and reports state that approximately 4,000 people attended his funeral. Had his funeral been in the UK, the number of attendees would have multiplied several folds. But he had always shied away from large crowds and gatherings and maybe this was Allah Most High’s gift to him after his death. He was 75 (in Hijra years, and 72 in Gregorian) at the time of his death and leaves behind eight children and several grandchildren.
Mawlana Yusuf educated, inspired and nourished the minds and hearts of countless across the UK and beyond. May Allah Almighty bless him with the loftiest of abodes in the Gardens of Firdaws in the company of Allah’s beloved Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) and grant all his family, students, and cherishers around the world beautiful patience.
Dr Mufti Abdur-Rahman Mangera
Whitethread Institute, London
(A fortunate graduate of Darul Uloom Bury, 1996–97)
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