Published on The Islamic Monthly on November 25th, 2014
Every problem that afflicts the Muslim world calls out desperately for enlightened Muslim activism. Yet it can be convincingly argued that Western Muslim communities have become politically castrated in the post-9/11 era. Organizations are afraid to lose their charitable status as governments implement rigorous auditing procedures, while those who want nothing more than normal, decent lives are afraid of ending up on some no-fly list, unable to land that big job at that big firm.
This self-perpetuating quiescence occurs at a time when places like Canada and other “5-Eyes”nations (the other four being the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK) are tabling ever more invasive security measures. Fear-mongering politicians use the “Islamic State” and “homegrown terrorism” to get what they want while civic pushback, though not insignificant, is still relatively outmatched.
But the question Muslims should be asking is, “What are all these security measures aiming at?”
Which communities are going to bear the brunt of such surveillance?
There are several candidates, but a blind person can tell that the easiest target these days are Muslims who have no interest in defending themselves politically. Obama may have rhetorically dropped the “War on Terror” title, but his administration has arguably been much more active in rolling back civil liberties than his GOP predecessor.
Canadian politics seem headed down that same road. Extra policing and surveillance will surely be applied to Muslim communities after the Harper administration gets its new anti-terror laws passed by a Tory parliamentary majority.
The problem is that there’s no real evidence to suggest that the Muslim response to these developments will be anything more than tepid.
To be sure, there are some groups who’re picking up the slack, but it’s hard to conclude that they have the material backing of larger community sectors. For all the talk about victimhood, Palestine, the War on Terror, etc., which have all become major themes of discussion in the Muslim world, people don’t want to put their money where their mouth is. The result is a set of deformed communal tendencies that often contradict each other.
Take this latest Tariq Ramadan beef with the Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) conference organizers. It’s created a schism in the Muslim community Canada (and beyond), especially for those who attend the convention regularly and admire Ramadan (who thinks RIS is politically inept for inviting scholars who apparently support the Sisi regime in Egypt). It’s a fair debate with real implications, but the scope of its effects is internal (much like insider-baseball). Internal is about the only kind of political controversy that the community wants to engage with. Anything that defends against real outside threats that affect everyone on a local level is not so exciting, it seems. Why act against Stephen Harper, surveillance, over-policing, and demonization when bickering about whether some conference should/shouldn’t invite some Swiss scholar is so much more fun (and so much easier)?
Therein lies the curious, oxymoronic (a)political behavior of Western Muslims (especially in Canada): gung-ho about its own internal beefs while refusing real engagement with actual political threats from those in power. The former, however substantive, is comfortable and familiar. The latter is hard work and puts people’s reputations on the line. That’s why when it came to the emblematic issue of Omar Khadr’s repatriation, the former child soldier’s Canadian lawyer, Dennis Edney, got on every podium he could to literally yell “Where are you?” to the Muslims. It turns out Khadr’s stronger allies were progressive atheists and Christians.
There’s a lot of talk about sticking together, communalism, and justice when it comes to Western Muslims (who, arguably, are most free to practice their religion). That’s not a bad thing. Frustration and anger should lead to action, but action is the operative term here. For all this talk about who is speaking for (thanks Shaykh bin Affleck!) or against (Bill Maher, etc.) Muslims, the only thing that ever really matters is whether or not Muslims speak out for each other. In which case the Muslims have failed substantially, leading any outside observer to conclude that Islam isn’t much glue when it comes to binding people together for justice. (Though it’d be inspiring to be proven wrong!)
Someone once told me that Islam is the greatest source of human connection God has ever given humanity. I believe him, but only in spite of all the evidence available to me. In other words, I believe him in theory. In practice, failure to consider the shortcomings of human nature results in a rejection of reality. If Western Muslims continue to reject the reality around them in favor of class privilege, we’ll be bringing the temple down on our own heads.
Photo Credit: Hector de Pereda