middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

Is Islamist violence any worse?

The full range of Muslim intellectuals in the modern age is a wide one. It inevitably includes Islamist thinkers who have embraced violence at some point in their lives. Today’s post-9/11 culture employ a security-centric framework that reduces them to hyperbolic caricatures of anti-Western fanaticism–to figures akin to Osama Bin laden, et al. I argue that their legacy deserves a much closer examination. 

Published by the Los Angeles Review of Books on August 4th, 2017

On the morning of September 16th, 1920, a horse-drawn carriage pulled up in front JP Morgan Bank on 23 Wall Street, right at the heart of Manhattan’s financial district. Inside the wagon sat about 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of cast-iron weights, all hitched to a timer-set detonator. By noon, a vicious blast ripped through the surrounding area resulting in the deaths of almost 40 people along with hundreds of injuries. It was, as author and historian Mike Davis observes, modern society’s first introduction to “the prototype car bomb.”

The infamous attack, dubbed the “Wall Street Bombing,” was by that point the worst episode of domestic terrorism in United States history. Though the actual perpetrators of the explosion were never apprehended, authorities strongly suspected that violent anarchist activists had carried it out. More specifically, they suspected the Galleanists, a strain of “propaganda of the deed” anarchists who followed the work of Luigi Galleani, a leading Italian-American anarchist thinker who preached the overthrow of capitalism and government by violent means. Moreover, it was also Galleanists and other anarchists who were responsible for a string of similar attacks across the US in 1919.

The phrase “propaganda of the deed” is now used to refer to a whole family of often-violent political actions that, by way of posing as examples to the rest of society, act as a catalyst for wider revolution (theoretically, anyway). Such demonstrations can, as Galleani notes in his 1925 book The End of Anarchism?, “kindle in the minds of the proletariat the flame of the idea” of a more egalitarian world and thus amount to “vigorous preparation for the armed insurrection.” The phrase itself originated in the 19thcentury from the works of Russian writer Mikhail Bakunin, perhaps the leading anarchist thinker of that time and a now mostly forgotten rival of Karl Marx.

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Mikhail Bakunin

In his 1870 “Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis,” Bakunin writes, “All of us must now embark on stormy revolutionary seas, and from this very moment we must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda.”

Of course, “propaganda of the deed” doesn’t necessarily have to involve dynamite, bloodshed, and death, but the anarchist movement of that era was characterized most famously by public demonstrations of violence like that of the 1919 Galleanist bombings or by political assassinations of high profile politicians like that of US President William McKinley in 1901. Such acts shocked the Western world at a time when millions of people were experiencing the effects of systemic social and economic transformation via the industrial revolution and the rise of modern global capitalism.

Thinkers like Bakunin, Marx and numerous others were responding in part to the way that society was being restructured, but it was Bakunin who never stopped preaching violent revolt as the primary agent of historical progress during this transformative era. He openly called for the violent overthrow of existing orders, such as the Hapsburg Empire, as a way to achieve true egalitarian progress.

Now fast forward 130+ years into today’s post-9/11 environment…

It’s a curious but useful exercise right now to look back and ponder figures like Bakunin, particularly as Western Europe reels from one terrorist attack after another and as the so called “Islamic State” (ISIS) remains in control of a sizeable piece of territory in Syria and Iraq. How would someone like Bakunin be received in the 21st century’s highly securitized sociopolitical atmosphere? The present era is one in which, according to the voluminous piles of post-9/11“anti-terror” legislation, even verbal or cyber expressions in favor of violence can potentially amount to “material support” for terrorism, a major crime.

Yet despite today’s era of paranoia, the world’s long and retrospective gaze at those of Bakunin’s stripe is usually capacious and patient enough to place and assess such problematic figures within the wider social and historical contexts of 19th century anarchism and political unrest. Bukanin, a consistent and fierce preacher of violent sociopolitical change, is still read and studied, though not so widely these days, in post-secondary seminars, along with other figures whose proposals throughout the centuries echo the violent extremism that has worked its way into much of the world today—sometimes with an Islamist colouring, sometimes not.

But unlike the violence of Bakunin’s time, today’s terrorism is subject to a whole new matrix of pseudo-empirical and quantitative analysis: from counter-terrorism studies to “ideological detox” to deradicalization clinics to the implementation of social engineering schemes like local CVE programs.

But unlike the violence of Bakunin’s time, today’s terrorism is subject to a whole new matrix of pseudo-empirical and quantitative analysis: from counter-terrorism studies to “ideological detox” to deradicalization clinics to the implementation of social engineering schemes like local CVE programs. The ideas and ideologies associated with “Islamic terrorism” and are used to justify such violence is thus fed through this apparatus and viewed with a present-day immediacy that favors the ill-defined parameters and mandate of “security studies.”

Each thinker or promoter of extremism (even those who died long before 9/11) is shrunk down and associated first-and-foremost with a recent act of post-9/11 violence. In other words, the first reaction to such historical individuals isn’t—as in the case of Bakunin and others—to view them as a lens into history, but rather to situate them within a present-day “security” context as a possible (even imminent) threat from the past. This is a direct reflection of today’s tendency to perceive and evaluate Muslims not as flesh-and-blood human beings, but as units of ideological action.

Sayyid Qutb and Islamism of the deed

To be sure, the range of Islamist thinkers who suggest violence as a way of bringing about their version of an Islamic utopia is very wide. They differ as much in ideological bent as they do in intellectual substance. But the one thinker whose profile has perhaps risen most infamously after the fall of the World Trade Center as the quintessential “philosopher of Islamic terror” is the late Egyptian author, theologian and eventual agitator Sayyid Qutb, who died almost four decades before 9/11.

Analysts and observers from Paul Berman to Lawrence Wright have referred to Qutb, whose writings and activism in Egypt during the 1960s eventually led to his execution by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in 1966, as the Godfather figure of Islamic terrorism. It should be noted that such terrorism varies widely in tactical form and strategic purpose, while spanning the gamut of many different groups and nationalities. Their overall modus operandi, though buttressed by a different set of ideas and used for a different set of goals, bear the same kind of “revolutionary” imprimatur of, say, the Galleanist bombings a hundred years ago. Generally speaking, these are actions perpetrated as a form of propaganda (of the deed).

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Sayyid Qutb in prison

Yet the way we understand and approach the intellectual figures behind today’s displays of Muslim political violence is much more contingent on the post-9/11 ideological and political climate than most would like to admit. Qutb, for instance, is today still associated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (though he eventually abandoned them for a more radical path), perhaps the most famous Islamist organization in the world, and one which won a popular mandate to govern in Egypt after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, before a military coup in 2013 forced them underground. Today, for a number of political reasons, the Trump administration is considering putting the Muslim Brotherhood on the US list of terrorist organizations, alongside groups like Al-Qaeda, which has been on the list since 1999.

Detractors of the Brotherhood point to its historical association with Qutb as Exhibit A of the organization’s hidden “radical Islamist” agenda and silent support for terrorism, even though the group publicly renounced violence in the 1970s. This treatment of Qutb is characteristic of the post-9/11 West’s tendency to eschew a more nuanced engagement with pro-violence Islamist thinkers in favor of a more security-centric approach.

Detractors of the Brotherhood point to its historical association with Qutb as Exhibit A of the organization’s hidden “radical Islamist” agenda and silent support for terrorism, even though the group publicly renounced violence in the 1970s.

This is as true of liberal observers and writers as it is of neo-conservative circles. Whereas hawkish voices on the American right such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies are happy to name Qutb as a “prominent MB ideologue” and a figure that Al Qaeda has cited from time to time, more liberal voices such as Paul Berman are equally happy to point Qutb out as the “intellectual hero” of all modern jihadists.

Both of these sweeping assertions lack specificity, accuracy and context, but the larger effect of their collective pronouncements is to reduce Qutb into what can bluntly be called a terrorist thinker. It is true that Qutb’s advocacy of violence had an effect on the likes of Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, but that’s not all he was. It is also true that Bakunin’s call for violent revolution influenced anarchist terrorists down the line, but that’s not all he preached or wrote about. Yet whereas current Western culture still has room in the classroom and elsewhere to consider and evaluate Bakunin in all his complexities (while, of course, recognizing the dangers that he represents), post-9/11 attitudes stand in the way of a similar understanding of Qutb and those like him. The demonization of the MB, an imperfect organization with deeply Islamist ideological roots, by some of its lazier critics in the West is a primary example of this intellectual double standard.

Though the MB haven’t renounced Qutb per se, it is a stretch to call him one of the animating forces behind the organization today, as the FDD does in their overview of the group–it’s thus okay to lump the MB together with Al Qaeda since both took influence from Qutb at one point or another. But Bakunin had a similar degree of impact on many contemporary organizations and movements, such as the anti-globalization movement or anarchist groups like the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies). No serious commentators or policy writers are calling for all self-professed anarchists and anti-globalization activists to be classified as terrorists, even if they share a handful of ideologues (including Bakunin) with their more violent cousins.

The dog we know vs. the revolutionary we don’t know

A distinction should also be made between figures like Qutb and other, even more relevant ideologues to today’s violence who’ve devoted their entire corpus to the ideologies and tactics of violent jihad. These include outright criminal figures like Abu Musab al-Suri, whose 1600-page work on The Global Islamic Resistance Call popularized the ideas of “leaderless jihad” as a terrorist tactic, along with Abu Bakr Naji, whose Management of Savagery was written as a guide for Al-Qaeda and other Muslim terrorist groups to work towards an “Islamic Caliphate.”

These so called intellectuals don’t work or write outside of the narrow and myopic realm of violent Islamist activism. Their works are devoted wholly to the perpetration of crimes and how to get away with it. Their Islamic knowledge is often cursory at best and bears no resemblance to any sort of traditional learning that has constituted the backbone of the normative Islamic tradition for over a thousand years. In other words, engaging with these “scholars” would be analogous to looking through something like The Anarchists’ Cookbook to gain any kind of understanding of Bakunin or Peter Kropotkin.

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Abu Musab al-Suri

Unlike al-Suri or Naji, Qutb is indeed more akin to Bakunin, who had a lot more to say about the world’s machinations than how to kill people for ideological or social reasons. Qutb and Bakunin’s arguments for the usage of violence is situated in a larger, often sophisticated scheme or vision of how society must be changed and dealt with in relation to justice and other ideals. Qutb’s major works, like his multi-volume In the Shade of the Quran, are often regarded as highly important accomplishment in Islamic exegesis. And if it weren’t for his self-important and, quite honestly, rather monotonous screeds on the “obligatory” duties of killing the infidels (his Milestones, written in and smuggled out of prison, is a kind of personal manifesto for Islamist-based violence), Qutb would’ve secured a place in the mainstream pantheon of modern Muslim thinkers.

Karl Marx is another, perhaps even more illuminating example for analogy. In an article for the November 6th edition of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in 1848, Marx famously concluded “that there is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror.”

Islamists come from a different world outside of “the West.” They represent “the dog we don’t know,” and are thus full of mysterious and opaque danger, as the catastrophic events of 9/11 apparently demonstrate. So they must endure a different sort of judgement.

Of course, Marx never wrote any practical manuals about the tactical aspects of this “revolutionary terror” ala al-Suri or Naji, but he was certainly referring to his own version of a wider “jihad” that would overtake society so as to catalyze revolutionary change in Europe and beyond. It fell on others down the line to interpret Marxist ideas into action by way of more violent tactics such as guerrilla warfare. Among such interpreters are Mao Zedong, whose On Guerrilla Warfare influenced a generation of strategists–including Che Guevara, who wrote his own book on the subject right after the Cuban Revolution. But even Mao and Che, two figures who had no problem with applying violence to realize certain political ends, enjoy a more nuanced reception today in contrast to Islamist figures who flirted with violent ideas. Che has been the subject of a two-part Hollywood biopic by Steven Soderbergh while Mao, though widely recognized today as a political monster, has been extensively studied in all his aspects.

This discrepancy exists because Marx, regardless of his rhetoric or ideas, is a known commodity of sorts, as is Bakunin (though less so). They are the known revolutionaries whose place in Western history has been studied and taken into account. Islamists come from a different world outside of “the West.” They represent “the dog we don’t know,” and are thus full of mysterious and opaque danger, as the catastrophic events of 9/11 apparently demonstrate. So they must endure a different sort of judgement.

Marx’s bloody rhetoric, along with Bakunin’s preaching of violent revolutionary necessities, is the kind of theorizing that can be found in some of Qutb’s work, albeit in light of a very different set of sociopolitical circumstances. But because of today’s post-9/11 hang-ups, it’s almost always the Islamist thinker who gets singled out as especially dangerous, a reputation that taints any person or group affiliated with him in any way.

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Karl Marx

In significant parts of Western culture today—particularly in Canada and Western Europe if not also the US—there are communist and Marxist societies/parties/groups lingering in almost every corner—from university campuses to actual electoral parties—that take the ideas of Marxist theory into the political and public sphere, all without much fear of being put on the US State Department’s list of banned terrorist entities. These groups often bear the very name of a man who, over a hundred years ago, advocated for violent means of revolutionary change.

To be sure, there are also Marxist or anarchist groups who’ve rightfully earned their spot on whatever list of banned entities long before the paranoia of the post-9/11 age, but they are in the minority and usually bear a long and prolific history of violent activities. The wider society know not to centre groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forced (FARC) of Colombia or the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) when engaging with the larger ideas of Marx, who deservedly remains one of the most influential and quoted figures in Western social sciences and humanities. Yet such conflations are made regularly today, as the reasons for 9/11 and the like are traced back to Qutb.

Those with a better understanding of Qutb, like Muqtader Khan of the University of Delaware, who’s taken the time to peruse through the thinker’s works, are largely confined to academia and thus overwhelmed by post-9/11 trends of reductive securitization.

Those with a better understanding of Qutb, like Muqtader Khan of the University of Delaware, who’s taken the time to peruse through the thinker’s works, are largely confined to academia and thus overwhelmed by post-9/11 trends of reductive securitization. Scholars like Khan have written about the wider range and implications of Qutb’s political and theological ideas, but the more nuanced picture they paint is often lost among the cacophony of post-9/11 chaos.

So for Qutb, along with other Islamist thinkers like Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 or his Pakistani counterpart Syed Abul A’la Maududi, there is a different set of rules at play. They are assessed first and foremost with respect to what they’ve said or done about violence. Their wider ideas are placed aside indefinitely if any of their history bears an association to Islamist bloodshed. And any organizations or groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood for example, that are associated with them, must then bear the same stain—public renouncement of violence be damned.

It goes without saying that concerns and questions pertaining to security and safety are important. But these are questions that bear an immediacy that’s better applied to living criminal masterminds like al-Suri, whose ideas centre particularly on the application of terrorism as a way to engender social change and who has been connected to post-9/11 acts of violence like the 2004 Madrid train bombing. Such figures deserve to be assessed that way because, unlike the long-dead Qutb, they are a living and breathing security threat, which is why authorities captured al-Suri via “extraordinary rendition” in Pakistan in 2005. He’s now languishing in a Syrian prison.

Where too much credit isn’t due

The first chapter of Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower contains an illuminating passage of how Ayman al-Zawahiri, then Al-Qaeda’s second in command after Bin Laden, mused about extending the ideas of Qutb’s call for jihad into violent practise. It is a pretty damning piece of evidence with regards to the implications of Qutb’s ideas and visions for jihadism. According to the same chapter in Wright’s book, Qutb was offered a way out of prison and execution in his last years by Nasser (who even offered Qutb a spot in his cabinet), but preferred “martyrdom” at the hands of a state he was trying to destabilize.

This ideological connection between al-Zawahiri and Qutb is supposed to illustrate the firm continuation of violent jihadism from thinker to doer, much like how Luigi Galleani’s ideas were carried out by whoever placed dynamite inside of that horse carriage on the morning of September 16th, 1920. And since al-Zawahiri is such an immediate living figure, the implication of such a connection seems to extend beyond al-Zawahiri himself. It portrays Qutb as the original inspiration of every other jihadist group, from ISIS to the Nusra Front to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and so on.

Such a one-dimensional depiction of Qutb has become commonplace in the post-9/11 age and helps to cement his reputation first and foremost as a violent Islamist.

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Fighters of the Islamic State (or ISIS) in Raqqa, Syria

Along with Wright’s book, filmmaker Adam Curtis’ noted three-part documentary series The Power of Nightmares (2004) also features a portrayal of Qutb’s radicalization that follows essentially the same rubric. Curtis juxtaposes Qutb with the neoconservative political theorist Leo Strauss while depicting the two figures as historical and political parallels—each eventually pointing to the other’s ideological legacy as a bogeyman, a dialectical process that, according to Curtis, forms the basis of today’s climate of paranoia and fear.

It must be pointed out that, again, it is precisely such portrayals of figures like Qutb as mindless fanatics that take one out of history’s complexities. Regardless of how right Curtis or Wright are in their diagnoses of Qutb’s pro-violence arguments, the bigger picture remains hidden. Qutb, like Bakunin and Marx, had much more to say. He was, for example, a celebrated literary critic who helped popularize the stories of Egypt’s eventual Nobel Prize Laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Qutb also wrote novels himself and was a noted poet. His more political and radical works followed life experiences that convinced him of modernity’s corrupting influences, thus necessitating in his mind the emergence of an Islamic vanguard to lead the world, through violence, to an all-encompassing embrace of Islamic principles.

This is a rather Leninist and obviously problematic vision that comes out of a post-colonial experience with modernity. It also facilitates the transformation of Islam, a complex and wide-ranging faith with a deep history, into a shopping list of political tasks. But it’s this dislocating ideological background within which Qutb’s call for violence is situated. The only way to truly understand present day extremism in light of this aspect of the past is to engage with Qutb in his entirety. That means moving away from reductive and inaccurate frameworks that depict him as the ideological source of today’s terrorism.

How radicalized groups come about are contingent only partially on ideas alone, and at least equally on other political factors that have to do with post-revolutionary vacuums (as in the case of the Arab Spring) or perceived grievances.

Terrorism is a tactic that’s been around since ancient times. How radicalized groups come about are contingent only partially on ideas alone, and at least equally on other political factors that have to do with post-revolutionary vacuums (as in the case of the Arab Spring) or perceived grievances. Ideas and ideologies are important, but they’re hardly the only drivers of someone’s path to violence.

Years of studies regarding radicalization haven’t pinned down ideas alone as always the most important or pervasive driver of violent behaviour for each extremist. For some, ideas matter the most, but not for others. Yet the present post-9/11 culture focuses on these ideologies as a function of religious belief, thus pushing a “securitizing” effect onto complicated figures like Qutb, a small portion of whose works can be dangerously influential, but whose hypothetical non-existence probably wouldn’t have stemmed the tide of violent Muslim extremism as a social and political phenomenon altogether. In other words, had Qutb never been born, catastrophic events like 9/11 or something else of such a magnitude would likely have still occurred.

Attributing the beginnings of all violent Muslim extremism to the pages of Qutb’s work is akin to attributing the actions and crimes of the Tamil Tigers to Marx’s 1848 article, or the Galleanist bombings to the pages of Bakunin. Such a reductive tendency with regards to violent Islamism is one area where today’s neoconservative right has converged with the more liberal center. Knowingly or not, more liberal writers like Wright and Berman often overlap with their more right-wing counterparts at neoconservative think tanks like the FDD when they present and depict Islamist theorists in such a one-dimensional way. Both camps refuse to take Muslim thinkers seriously as historical figures who’re substantially captive to their own times and emotions.

Moreover, their thinking extended far beyond violence itself and its application. A fair assessment of who they are and the work they did means taking into account the entire range of ideas for which they advocated.

It is today’s post-9/11, security-obsessed and racist climate that keeps the public from such an engagement with Muslim thinkers. The tendency is to always look for connections between these thinkers and terrorism, hoping that such exercises will contribute to more public safety. But violence is much more complicated. People’s interpretations of ideas and texts are a reflection of their own inner stories and realities, which are often subject to much more than just the ideas of some 19th or early 20th century writer.

Engagement over negligence

Contrary to present-day assumptions, a more open-minded and less ideological assessment of thinkers such as Qutb—rather like that offered to problematic Western thinkers—will actually yield insights that can potentially lead to the kind of understanding that engenders peace and safety. Qutb was certainly radicalized according to today’s standards. But his path to advocating violence occurred at a time in the Muslim world when many were trying with varying degrees of effectiveness to respond to what they saw as the decline of Muslim civilizations. The intellectuals among them (and not all of whom advocated violence!) have produced works and lived lives that offer up very useful windows into how different Muslim societies and countries function today in relation to the wider world.

Violent groups should indeed be banned and their members locked up, but those who promote ideas in a peaceful manner should be dealt with differently, regardless of their association with dead figures who once preached armed struggle against the state. This is why banning groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which hasn’t perpetrated an act of terrorism for decades and have given up revolutionary means to embrace political gradualism, would be so foolish.

Reading into the works of Bakunin offers an entry into understanding a different time. Engaging with a roughly parallel figure to Qutb makes clear the obvious absurdity of trying to ban every group, violent or otherwise, who take after a radical thinker’s ideas. Violent groups should indeed be banned and their members locked up, but those who promote ideas in a peaceful manner should be dealt with differently, regardless of their association with dead figures who once preached armed struggle against the state. This is why banning groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which hasn’t perpetrated an act of terrorism for decades and have given up revolutionary means to embrace political gradualism, would be so foolish. It would be like locking up the members of Greece’s Syriza party because it is a coalition that includes a contingent of Marxist-Leninists.

Of course, that would probably never happen, because people know better than to reflexively conflate Marxist politics or beliefs with illegal and criminal activities. But the tenor and pervasiveness of post-9/11 attitudes, rhetoric, and politics has impeded an equal approach to be extended to the crop of Muslim thinkers who condone violent change.

Marx and Bakunin were responding to a set of circumstances in which they believed only revolutionary violence could eliminate the prevailing cobweb of systemic societal problems. They were certainly wrong on many counts as far as the ethics of violent implementations are concerned. Qutb was no better, but he too was responding to the political circumstances around him, about which he felt deeply disturbed. Combined with the personal effects of how this outside world interacted with his mind, a set of dangerous ideas and prescriptions came into being. Tracing the genealogy of these ideas and placing them in their proper place means engagement. Not censorship or denial. They are ideas to be assessed and grappled with, regardless of whether they come from a violent and disturbed Muslim or not.

[http://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/islamist-violence-worse/]

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middle east, muslims, politics

The Meaning of “Mecca_live”

Published by The Islamic Monthly on August 6th, 2015

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia isn’t exactly known for its openness. The powerful Saudi monarchy, which exercise significant regional and global influence, are heads of a state that has yet to address a number of critical human rights problems afflicting its society, and thus drawing criticism the world over. Saudi Arabia has long been a natural point of reference for those concerned with the implementation unreasonably punitive practices in the modern world.

Yet, in an ironic twist, the kingdom was involved a rather unlikely event this July when Snapchat, the popular online video-sharing platform, decided to focus their popular “Live Story” feature on the city of Mecca, Islam’s most important and holiest geographical site. Since its introduction last year, the feature splices together users’ submitted videos of a particular place into a single video comprised of the best footage. The Mecca “Live Story” video showed Muslims of all backgrounds inside Mecca at various stages of their visit, providing a rare glimpse of what actually happens inside the city to non-Muslims, who cannot enter.

The subsequent online response to Snapchat’s decision was significant and overwhelmingly positive. For a brief while, Saudi Arabia’s reputation as a stagnant theocracy was eclipsed by the prevailing sensation that used video and social media to narrate lived Islam into many people’s consciousness. That this act of online openness occurred inside a monarchy known, among other things, for not allowing women to drive, illuminates the dislocations between Saudi Arabia’s image and its actual reality.

Things become a lot clearer when one sees that Snapchat’s decision to feature Mecca was prompted primarily by a huge online campaign that essentially lobbied the social media giant to feature Islam’s holiest city. The campaign took place during Ramadan, when millions of worshippers flock to Mecca to perform Umrah, which is similar to the Hajj pilgrimage, but can be made anytime of the year. 300,000 people tweeted Snapchat with the hashtag “Mecca_live” in an effort to have Mecca featured on “Live Story.” Millions of Muslims and non-Muslims then tweeted their appreciation to Snapchat afterwards, thanking the video platform for essentially live-streaming the joyous atmosphere inside the city.

Ahmed’s Attempt

Like most campaigns and initiatives, the idea to launch something special usually starts within the mind of an individual. This seems especially true for online campaigns involving social media, and the “Mecca_live” sensation is a good example. Enter Ahmed Aljbreen, a young Saudi digital entrepreneur and founder of Smaat Co., one of the country’s largest social media marketing companies. Days into Ramadan 2015, he had a wild thought that, as it turns out, wasn’t all that wild after all.

“The whole thing really began when I though that we need to convey that Islam is a peaceful religion to the younger generation,” Aljbreen says in an interview. “I think that Snapchat is the best medium to reach out to them anywhere in the world.” He says that the onus is now on Muslims, especially the youth who’re familiar with social media, to help reduce the world’s confusions and misconceptions of Islam.

Indeed, the day-to-day news cycle seems filled with reports of groups like ISIS, along with acts of political violence and turmoil involving Muslims—a mainstay of “national security reporting” in the post-9/11 era. Yet the advent of this kind of reporting hasn’t led to a better understanding of Muslims, and certainly not of Islam itself. If anything, many people have come to to link Islam with violence with limited critical inquiry, having been bombarded with reports that directly or indirectly feature Islam as a willing partner of ideological violence. This is despite the fact that Muslims account for only a fraction of terrorism across the world when it comes to the body count.

This gulf in perception is what Aljbreen, a businessman in the world of digital media, is so well placed to address.

After the initial thought, he decided to reach out to his contacts in the region’s social media scene, hoping to get them on board to convince Snapchat to feature Mecca on the 27th day of Ramadan (July 13th, 2015), which many believe to be Lailat al-Qadr, the day when the Prophet Muhammad received his first revelations from God. He expected to get a sizeable reaction, but not a full-blown global response, which was what ensued. Snapchat eventually responded by posting a 6-minute video of spliced videos on July 13th.

“I was surprised about how big the campaign ballooned,” Aljbreen says. “Muslims from Pakistan, Indonesia and everywhere ended up participating.”

Equally surprising to him has been the response by people around the world who saw the “Mecca_live” video. He says that before long, “Mecca_live” was trending at #1 on Twitter, and the total views of the clip have reached over 10 million, “by far.”

“The big lesson here is that we can do it again,” Aljbreen says, “and we are looking to repeat this duing hajj.” Whether he succeeds in creating another global social media phenomenon is debatable, but what Aljbreen helped pull off illuminates a broader picture of what’s happening across the region in terms of how media is being used. The Arab Spring unfolded for many through the lens of outlets like Twitter and Facebook, and a new generation of saavy individuals like Aljbreen is starting to use these tools to change the how their country, religion, and lives are being perceived on a global level.

Changing Imagery

Aljbreen’s parents wasn’t thrilled at all when he decided to leave his job as a communications engineer in order to start his own digital media company, Smaat around five years ago. Social media as a marketing tool was still a somewhat novel idea in Saudi Arabia at the time, and Aljbreen would become one of the first entrepreneurs to test the waters.

“They didn’t support my venture when I first started the business, especially since we were the first company in the regional market to focus on social media marketing campaigns,” he says. “But they changed their minds when they saw my success and at least they get to follow me on social media now to keep an eye on me.”

His company has since done digital marketing for some major regional companies, and the success of “Mecca_live” has significantly reinforced Aljbreen’s belief in social media’s power to change global perceptions. He says that videos like “Mecca_live” are “thousands of times” more powerful and influential in terms of the effect they have on viewers, and that videos produced by major corporate media outlets just don’t come off as persuasive and authentic.

He also notes that Snapchat is probably the best medium when it comes to reaching large numbers of people with a single message. The world has moved from being print-based to being image-based, and is now arguably much more video-based than anything else. The “Mecca_live” video showed Muslims of different backgrounds in ways that humanized them, which is the clip’s implicit purpose. It counters over a decade of imagery associating Muslims with violence and deviance. If fear is the underlying meta-narrative that underpins the post-9/11 era, then the “Mecca_live” video is certainly one of humanization.

One video is certainly not enough to change years entrenched perceptions, but it’s a start. In fact, Aljbreen claims that around 20,000 people have embraced Islam as their religion after seeing the video.

That Saudi Arabia played host in many ways to the “Mecca_live” phenomenon begs the question of whether the state had anything to do with the entire episode. When the question was put to Aljbreen, he replied simply by saying that “It [“Mecca_Live”] was a community-driven initiative.”

Regardless, the power of social media to effect social change in a way that alters global perceptions is certainly a potential that the Saudi Arabian government is aware of. Despite the great opening up that Aljbreen initiated, the irony is that the country within which he lives and where the holy city of Mecca is located in, has some of the more draconian media laws on earth.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Saudi Arabia at 164th out of 180 countries in their 2015 World Press Freedom Index. The country has virtually complete control over the press, though reported news and views can be found online. Still, Internet news-making it is closely monitored by the regime, and Reporters Without Borders lists the Saudi state as an “Enemy of the Internet.”

This is the political backdrop that Aljbreen’s generation is working with, and whether his optimism in terms of using social media to change international attitudes can carry over to effect his own country’s circumstances is at best debatable. Nonetheless, “Mecca_live” is further proof that a new generation of online-saavy Muslims, many who reside within societies with minimal personal freedoms, are beginning to effect global reality by changing global perceptions. In which direction this generational change will develop is really anyone’s guess.

Photo credit: Praying at Arafat by Omar Chatriwala/CC

[http://theislamicmonthly.com/the-meaning-of-mecca_live/]

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middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

Calls for Islamic reform are misguided

Published by Al Jazeera America on June 22nd, 2015

Few debates in the post-9/11 era enjoy as much longevity and controversy as those concerning the responsibility of the Islamic tradition to mend its ways. For example, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other writers have demanded Islamic reform as the most reliable solution to achieving harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims. Ali’s latest book, “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now” lays out an agenda for this cause. Her main arguments rest on dual assumptions about what Islam is and the actual meaning of reform in the Islamic context.

These calls for reform presuppose that Islam is fundamentally violent, sadistic and misogynistic. And it prescribes a global movement to overhaul and rid Islam of its dark foundations.

This is not an entirely new proposition. During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, German theologianMartin Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of a church castle in Wittenberg. The move was emblematic of a popular sentiment to denounce clerical abuses within the Catholic Church at the time. Luther’s actions have since become a symbol of how organized religion can be undermined in order to open up clerical structures to scrutiny. Luther advocated for a Christianity that moved away from the traditional Catholic clerical class that was charged with interpreting the scripture for the layman.

Ali and other critics the Muslim faith contend that the same process must be applied to Islam. Never mind that the dizzying array of Protestant sects (let alone the rest of the world’s religions) has hardly been free from clerical abuses, institutional corruption, violence and illiberal views. Reform proponents say that the Muslim layperson should be allowed to interpret the Quran in ways that circumvent Islamic clerics, who they see as the irrational, bearded men who uphold a medieval understanding of Islam that encourages the beating of women by their husbands and the killing of non-Muslims in religious wars.

This is of course far from an accurate interpretation of Islam, and critics such as Ali do not present an adequate understanding of Islamic jurisprudence (an area of study with more than 1000 years of written history) in any of their works. Over a millennium of debate, interpretation and re-interpretation has produced what scholars such as Hamza Yusuf call the “normative” Islamic tradition. Within the Sunni tradition, differences based on differing philosophical views surely exist, but more importantly, a cohesive picture of the religion has emerged. There are things that the vast majority of those who have spent their whole lives studying Islamic scripture agree on, regardless of their individual theological approach. For instance, a good number of these scholars got together last year to write an open letter to the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), condemning his actions. This is because they collectively agree that ISIL is in fact acting in a terribly un-Islamic fashion. Instead of trying to get to know what the normative Sunni positions look like on different issues, caricatures supported by decontextualized verses from the Quran, along with personal anecdotes of misconduct by Muslims, are put forth as evidence of Islam’s moral degeneracy by Ali and allied critics.

Such commentators try to get away with bashing what they don’t bother to understand. What’s more, “reform” advocates ignore an important part of Islamic history: Its own reformation took place in the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century. However, much like the protestant reformation, efforts to overhaul Islam did not produce a liberal utopia with democratic norms and behaviors — quite the contrary.

This particular reform movement bears striking similarities to its Protestant counterpart. For example, it looks to steer away from dominant orthodoxy, but in a way that “returns” the religion to its true roots, stripped of extraneous innovations that the movement’s vanguard thought were incompatible with the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad. As with the protestant reformation, however, Wahhabism, named after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, one of the key proponents of the Islamic reform, set the stage for a sectarian bloodletting in its geographical region, which later became Saudi Arabia.

Muslim scholars have long created systems of looking at scripture to prevent the kind of sectarian strife brought about by Wahhabism. As a result, Islamic orthodoxy, as represented by a normative system of jurisprudence and interpretation, is much more stable than willy-nilly calls for reformation. This orthodoxy is made up of four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, each with different approaches and conclusions, while also recognizing the others’ legitimacy.

Authors such as Ali ignore these nuances and checks and balances in favor of fear-mongering over practices such as sectarian violence and female genital mutilation (FGM) that orthodox Muslim scholars reject. Nevertheless, the lopsided criticism has given detractors a platform for bashing Islam and self-aggrandizement. For example, Ali’s foundation recently received a $100,000 pledge from Google’s boss Eric Schmidt to eradicate FGM.

Ali-style criticism of Islamic orthodoxy lacks a genuine understanding of how Muslim scholars have approached scriptural interpretation. It displays no interest in surveying the differences of opinion available on certain issues, or how different scholars come to such conclusions. Yet the reading of scripture isn’t the same as reading a newspaper, which is meant for everyone. Interpreting scripture requires a religious knowledge that is supposed to prevent destructive frameworks such as unnecessary literalism.

The post-9/11 public is in dire need of an informed debate about Islam and Islamic jurisprudence. Misinformed screeds such as Ali’s “Heretic” do nothing to propel such a debate.

Photo: Ayaan Hirsi Ali (right) on stage with Sam Harris (left), leading “New Atheist.”

[http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/6/calls-for-islamic-reformation-are-misguided.html]

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muslims, politics, war on terror

Death and Reporting for Chapel Hill

Published by The Islamic Monthly on February 11th, 2015

That The Independent of Britain had a long article on what happened last night in Chapel Hill, North Carolina before any major U.S. outlet made mention of the incident is a good reflection of how the “mainstream” media works these days. Their subsequent framing of what happened is perhaps more indicative of how prevailing assumptions and orthodoxies influence the way such events are talked about in the post-9/11 era.

The cold-blooded murder of 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, was announced by local police in a statement that revealed their names a few hours after the initial pronouncement. In that time, several local media outlets (WRAL, etc.) were already on the case, and the crux of what happened was relatively clear before the sun rose this morning.

A 46-year-old neighbor of the deceased by the name of Craig Stephen Hicks turned himself in last night to local authorities, confessing to shooting all three victims in the head. The dead were all university students at the University of North Carolina, and a Facebook page called “Our Three Winners” has since been made, presumably by family members, to honor their memory. The first post seems to have been made not so long after midnight last night. Thousands of people already “liked” the page (it now has over 53,000 “likes”) before “breaking news” outlets even tweeted about the murders this morning. For example, the Twitter account for CNN Breaking (@cnnbrk) tweeted about the incident at around 5:30am this morning. That hardly counts as “breaking.”

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Murders like this happen in the United States all the time, and I’ve had several discussions with reporters and observers alike on social media, who note that it takes time for local news like this to catch on, and for national media to decide on whether such an incident is worthy of coverage. There’s no doubt in my mind, having worked in the world mainstream news, that systemic constraints are present within major media outlets to filter out the newsworthy from the negligible. Nonetheless, that the #ChapelHillShooting was worthy of serious scrutiny by the media was made abundantly clear relatively early. The national media would have done well to pay attention to how the Western Muslim communities were reacting to what happened. Social media was abuzz with comments on the murders, while criticisms of mainstream neglect were expressed, among other ways, in cartoon form before the national media seemed to have caught on. In short, I think it’s fair to say that major broadcasters and papers could’ve been a bit faster on this one, and one wonders how their news-sense would’ve buzzed had the perpetrators been Muslims, and the victims been, say, a white family.

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Hicks is a self-identifying atheist, and is being held on three counts of first-degree murder without bond. Here’s one of his online posts, which has been shared widely on the Internet: “When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I.” That’s about as suspicious and ideologically-charged a statement I can think of (and it’s not the only one). I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone who wants to view the incident in light of such a comment. In fact, the police are doing the same thing as they consider the “possibility that this was hate-motivated.”

Still, notice the framing here. Consider the fact that the police and several major outlets have led with their description of the murders as having possibly been motivated by a “dispute over parking.” The police say that this is one of the possible factors influencing a crime that may also include a hate bias. Fair enough, but nowhere in the national, public sphere does one notice any inclination from agenda-setting outlets to report or portray Hicks’ alleged crime as motivated first-and-foremost by ideology or the extremist versions of atheism. No one’s reporting any protests being planned in front of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins’ homes. The public is much more cautious to mention the possibility of a parking dispute, or perhaps to note that we shouldn’t rule out factors like mental health, etc.

Now contrast this prevailing approach to the way much of the “mainstream” media reports on Muslim extremism in the post-9/11 era. There’s hardly any caution or nuance when it comes to contextualizing the perpetrators’ actions with anything more than oxymoronic labels like “Islamic terrorism.” The implicit (and sometime explicit, depending on who you read), assumption is that violence and Muslims go together like two peas in a pod, that the latter is a natural generator of the former since Islam is intrinsically violent. If a Muslim gunman broke into a white family’s home and shot three of them dead, I imagine no one would fixate much on the parking spat.

These are all signs of the times we live in. Here in Toronto, Canada, I flip through the photos uploaded online of the deceased, and find it hard not to see their faces among the Muslims I know. Their presence could’ve been lifted from any Muslim community in the West, trying to keep themselves cogent in a post-9/11 atmosphere of mistrust, misunderstanding, and misinformation. The way that their deaths have been discussed and portrayed should serve to remind us that Muslims today don’t live in neutral times. Perhaps we can take note of their tragedy, and remind ourselves to look out for one another in these dark hours.

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/death-and-reporting-for-chapel-hill/]

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international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

Charlie Hebdo and Kang Xi

Published by The Islamic Monthly on January 17th, 2015

What happened earlier this month at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo has been commented upon ad nauseam; some really good pieces have resulted alongside some terrible ones.  What needs to be said has probably been said already, and readers can look here and here if they are interested in what I have to say about the tragedy. The incident is being imprinted onto our collective psyches as an event with the clear-cut imprimatur of “Islamic terrorism.” Without going into the myriad stupidities and misunderstandings that mediate much of our popular interpretations of what happened, I dare say that the event is emblematic of much more than meets the eye.

The world is a transitory place, and the globalizing effects of commerce and travel have prompted many in the so-called “East” to migrate out of their geographical, social, political contexts, and into the Western world. This broad physical transition has resulted in the proliferating of communities in the West that represent ways of being that, at once modern in appearance, is the 21st century representation of pre-modern traditions that used to dominate mankind. The West’s primary alphabet of secular materialism is often unable to fully penetrate and comprehend the complete meanings of such modes of being, resulting in a kind of tension that makes it difficult for many to see the world through the migrants’ eyes. Islam, as is often the case in the modern era, finds itself caught in the middle of this interaction.

The miscomprehension of lived Islam in the Western world is directly related to the misinterpretations of the violent episodes of Muslim fundamentalism. It’s quite ironic that places like North America and Europe, where political repression of the dictatorial kind is supposed to be least pervasive, are often incubators for the least sophisticated sort of cross-cultural understanding. There are many barriers: institutional racism, historical baggage, personal prejudice, etc. But an opportunity does exist. Today, for example, it’s impossible to talk about the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in China. The Communist Party censors all searches of it on Google, and other search engines. It’s very difficult under such circumstances to form a comprehensive history of China without Big Brother looking over one’s shoulder. So, ironically (some would say, with sadness), much of the great works on Chinese history, philosophy, and literature have originated in institutions in the Western world. Jonathan Spence’s seminal 1990 masterpiece In Search of Modern China is a primary example.

So goes for pre-modern traditions like Islam, which, like many other traditions, is most misunderstood in lands that have the most potential of accentuating its public comprehension. The most overlooked tragedy to result from centuries of imperial/colonial activity and its subsequent post-colonial effects is the degradation of one’s heritage. It is, to take one example, why the masterful 20th century writer Lao She, who wrote Rickshaw Boy (Noam Chomsky’s favorite novel when he was a child, incidentally), and who once taught at SOAS, University of London, ended up committing suicide after being humiliated by the Red Guards during China’s tragic Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). A parallel can be made between this kind of tragedy and the bizarre post-colonial aftermath in the Muslim world, where, in certain countries, the Friday khutbah has to be of a certain flavor according to the state. Such strictures don’t necessarily exist in the so-called liberal, democratic West, which presents its own set of head-scratching oddities, tensions, and crudities.

Yet, within this cauldron of confusion lies an opportunity. As the post-9/11 West staggers onward in its own confused struggle to understand the “Other”  (a generalization, I know), banal crudities have received far more favor than nuanced understanding or deep empathy. Detailed explications of certain traditional or religious principles are often seen as a kind of “liberal” obfuscation conducted in the name of superstition, backwardness, or pure ignorance. The negation of this pattern toward a one-off glossing-over of complex systems is where the opportunity lies for young, non-Western (or, perhaps, partly-Western) intellectuals (Muslims or otherwise) to reclaim their own heritage. Here, in the West, is where the staging point can be for the recollection of memory and history. Not to do so would be, in fact, to surrender any opportunity of narrating one’s own existence.

The present state of affairs reminds me (as a matter of contrast) of how the first emperor of China’s last dynasty (the Qing, 清朝), Emperor Kang Xi (康熙), who came to power in 1661, spent a lot of money and time wooing the Han Chinese intelligentsia, most of whom were loyal to the Ming Dynasty (明朝) rulers that the Qing displaced. Kang Xi, the representative of the nomadic Manchu people of the North (hence, Manchuria), ruled China for an astonishing 61 years. His problem was that the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty were not established by those who held the same Confucian traditions that the Han Chinese (who continue to make up the vast majority of China’s population) did, and therefore didn’t have the loyalty of much of the empire’s most brilliant minds. The Han see themselves as a distinct ethnic group who are central to China’s over-all makeup, and regarded the Qing as outside invaders to their long-established homeland.

Faced with this administrative challenge, Kang Xi didn’t impose a monolithic set of Manchu dicta to marginalize the traditions that featured centrally in the lives of his Han subjects. Instead, he treated the Confucian legacy (which, by then, had many centuries to permeate China) with the kind of sensitivity that’s quite uncommon among most rulers. He assembled a team of tutors (comprised of both Han and Manchu intellectuals) to teach him all the Confucian classics, and, in 1670, issued the “Sacred Edict,” a list of 16 maxims that summarized what Kang Xi thought it meant to live the Confucian life. Whisperings of his scholastic efforts were “leaked,” and, soon enough, many were praising his majesty’s intellectual precociousness and cultural sensitivity. Combined with nation-wide strategies to incorporate more and more Han minds into his orbit of power, Kang Xi made it clear that he didn’t want to caste aside thousands of years of complex philosophical tradition.

Without romanticizing the Qing emperor’s reign (it was not, after all, sensible to dissent against him, for obvious reasons), I wonder how many rulers in the democratic West even have the time to learn just a little bit about the traditions of those they claim to represent? Probably not many. So the work is to be done, then, by civil society—by those who, with one eye on their own past/tradition, dare to peek over the fence to see what’s happened on the other side. This is a crucial intellectual pluralism from which Western Muslims can benefit (if adopted), as the task of explaining one’s own self is often coupled with that of being in someone else’s shoes for a bit. This is the essence of being an migrant, or exiled person, I think: one who discovers him or herself not through narrow provincialism or angry selfhood, but through the painstaking, though worthwhile, interpretation of others.

Photo: Inside the Palace of Preserving Peace (保和殿), one of the major halls within the Forbidden City (故宫), which was the imperial palace of China’s monarchs from the Ming to the Qing Dynasty/CC

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/charlie-hebdo-and-kang-xi/]
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international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

Khaled al-Qazzaz Released from Detention

Glad that my 100th post for this blog is about something uplifting–that is, genuinely good news. Khaled Al-Qazzaz, a permanent resident of Canada, former adviser for Muhammad Morsi in Egypt, and a long-time, active member of the Canadian Muslim community has finally been provided with an order for release by Egypt’s Sisi regime who detained him 558 days ago under very suspicious and unfair circumstances. 

It’s not over until he returns to Canada and meets his family, but this is a big step. Alhamdulillah

Here’s the press release from the Toronto-based campaign for his freedom:

_____

January 11, 2015
 
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
 
558 Days 
Khaled Al-Qazzaz Finally Released and Looking Forward to Being Reunited with Wife and Children
 
On Monday December 29, 2014 the Attorney General issued an order for Khaled Al-Qazzaz’s release.

Today, Khaled was released from his hospital room.
 
Today Khaled and his family are extremely elated and grateful for his release.
 
While we celebrate Khaled’s freedom, we remain very concerned about his health and reuniting him with his wife, Sarah Attia and their four children in Canada.
 
Khaled and Sarah [his wife] are praying for his speedy return to Canada. “We are all so happy, but it’s not over until he’s home with me and our children,” said Sarah. The family has already raised the funds and made the arrangements necessary for him to receive appropriate medical care.  We are hopeful that the Egyptian and Canadian governments will expedite the processing of this humanitarian case so that Khaled can finally come home.

Most importantly, on such a joyous day Khaled and Sarah are forever grateful to friends and supporters..

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international affairs, middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

The Left’s Ignorant Islam Critics

Published by The American Conservative on January 9th, 2015

Criticism of Islam has become a staple of contemporary politics as observers and practitioners alike wrestle with the myriad implications of Muslims living in the post-9/11 West. For the most part, one could argue with great force that the social panic generated by current fears have been “much ado about nothing,” as Muslims have not shown themselves to be an existential threat to their civilizational counterparts.

That’s not to say that no one can or should criticize Islam, as many have. The problem is whether or not such criticism stems from true understanding or total conjecture. Sadly, the latter has been much prevalent, and the culprits aren’t always raving Christian fundamentalists who, in depicting Islam as a “Satanic religion,” prefer an Armageddon-style showdown between faiths. Rather, it’s arguable that some of the most unfair and ignorant assessments of Islam and Muslims have come from those who label themselves as “progressive.”

The attack on France’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is a horrid and barbaric response to some of worst, most unfair “criticisms” of Islam. The cartoons that depict the Prophet Muhammad are meant as a provocation, as was the ensuing massacre which left a dozen people dead. The magazine is now being lionized as a platform that’s been at the forefront of free speech guardianship. A look through its so-called satirical treatment of Muslim figures and it’s quite obvious that the outlet’s top priority when it comes to Islam is to offend and provoke—none of which are crimes, let alone offenses punishable by death. There’s a difference between having one’s expression being protected by free speech principles and actually being a defender of such principles. All of Charlie Hebdo’s writings and cartoons deserve protection (even though their management has fired cartoonists before for anti-Semitism), the framework used for their (mis)interpretation of Islam is awfully similar to those used by the far right.

Fittingly, last year’s polls show Marine Le Pen of the Front National, France’s ultra-right party, as the leading presidential candidate. Le Pen has wasted no time in linking the Charlie Hebdo attack to immigration, something she’s vowing to crack down on, all the while emphasizing the “religious” dimension of the massacre, and even calling for a referendum on whether to bring back the death penalty. Given all their differences, it’s almost strange that part of the left finds itself aligned with ultra-rightists when it comes to assessing Muslims and their religion.

Take Michael Moore’s recent defense of the odious Bill Maher, host of “Real Time,” who, along with Sam Harris, faced off against actor Ben Affleck on Maher’s show, setting off a firestorm of Internet commentary. Moore, a prominent progressive, argues that Maher shouldn’t be vilified for his harsh criticisms of Islam, and portrays his friend’s insults as being limited to the bashing of “crazy people professing to be Muslim.” One need not look all that far to identify the misrepresentation here of Maher’s vitriol, which hardly ever bothers to distinguish between traditional Islamic beliefs and extremist misinterpretations of the faith. The truth is that those who perpetuate ISIS or al-Qaeda-like violence in the name of Islam are very small in number. The vast majority of orthodox Sunnis, who make up most of the world’s Muslim population, fall within the mainstream of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), which is divided up into four main schools of thought (among others), none of which permit the killing of innocent people.

Within this huge corpus of scriptural interpretation can be found laws that govern essentially every important aspect of life (marriage, commerce, jihad, etc.), and though there’s much overlap, the schools recognize each other’s positions and the reality that there’s much room for interpretation when it comes to God’s words, as well as the actions of His messenger (known as hadiths or “Prophetic traditions”). The most “liberal” interpretations of certain verses or hadiths can be found within the existing body of Sunni orthodoxy. Yet, progressives who see monotheistic religion as a relic of the medieval past essentialize Islam in a way that doesn’t recognize its internal diversity. Perceiving the Islamic tradition as one, big, monolith akin to a desktop computer from the 1980s, they call for a “reformation” within Islam so the religion can update its hardware, making it more palatable to the modern world.

The analogy here is obviously with the Christian Reformation associated with Martin Luther, who some progressives misinterpret as a solely democratizing figure, eliminating the middlemen priests so believers can interpret scripture for themselves. What they fail to note is that present-day manifestations of Christian fundamentalism derive their origins from the consequences of the Reformation (which also involved a good deal of bloodletting). Seeing this Protestant transformation as inherently “progressive” in its “democratizing” effects, the logic is now applied to Muslims and to Islam, religious content be damned.

Even a scholar like Cornel West, who has consistently argued against some of Maher’s caricatures of Islam, has often talked about Muslims having to develop what he calls “Prophetic Islam.” The term sounds pretty and comes from West’s desire to see an Islam that takes up causes of justice, but the underlying assumption is that the religion needs to wake up to some sort of modern condition that demands inherent change. It’s ultimately a proposition borne out of “progressive” ignorance, blindly assuming that Islam doesn’t have the tools to engage with the world that preserves both tradition and the rights of others. The truth is that Islam isn’t quite as amenable to reform as its monotheistic cousins. In a way, it sees itself as a religion that came to reform Judeo-Christian sectarianism.

In Western modernity’s virtual casting aside of faith, the necessity of having to understand religions prior to issuing criticism also seems to have gone out the window. This is exacerbated when it comes to the post-9/11 scramble to make sense of the Islamic tradition and how it ought to comport to modern sensibilities. Since secular modernity and/or liberalism are portrayed as the default settings of contemporary Western societies, then, the argument goes, it’s reasonable and logical to expect older religious traditions to conform to its demands. There’s no sense of mutual understanding or negotiation, and the relationship is inherently imbalanced.

The tendency of many progressives to internalize this deep assumption has caused much of their interpretation of Islam to square with that of the extreme right wing, whose criticisms stem from a much simpler kind of antagonism. Yet both groups’ misgivings and misunderstandings can be traced back to a basic ignorance that has plagued the West long before the tragedies of 9/11, and can only be mended if observers of all stripes are willing to assess Islam on its own terms.

Photo: Some volumes from the “News Atheism”/CC

[http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-lefts-ignorant-islam-critics/]

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