middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

Is Islamist violence any worse?

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. 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, can (theoretically, anyway) act as a catalyst for wider revolution. 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 originated in the 19thcentury via the works of, among others, Russian writer Mikhail Bakunin, perhaps the leading anarchist thinker of that century and a now mostly forgotten rival of Karl Marx.


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.

It is a curious but useful exercise to ponder figures like Bakunin today, 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 figures like Bakunin be received in the 21st century’s highly securitized 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, which is a major crime.

Still, even in such a paranoid era, 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. into much of the world today—sometimes with an Islamist coloring, sometimes not.

Unlike the violence of early 20th century unrest, today’s terrorism is subject to a whole new matrix of pseudo-empirical and quantitative analysis, from counter-terrorism studies to “ideological detox” and deradicalization clinics to the implementation of social engineering schemes like local CVE programs. The ideas and ideologies that they are associated with, and used to justify today’s Muslim terrorism, is fed through this apparatus and viewed with a present-day immediacy that favors the ill-defined parameters of “security studies.”

Each thinker or promoter of such 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. The immediate reaction to these 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. As it turns out, Muslims are subject to the same pressures of ideology, civilizational or political decline, and personal chaos as all other people.

Sayyid Qutb and Islamism of the deed

To be sure, the range of Islamist thinkers who propose 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. Such terrorism varies widely in tactical form and often even in purpose, while spanning the gamut of many different groups and nationalities. Their overall strategic 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).


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. Now, 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 who have 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 Islamist thinkers who advocate violence for a more security-centric approach.

This is as true of more 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 and accuracy, 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 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. But 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. And thus it is okay to lump the MB together with Al Qaeda since both took influence from Qutb at one point or another. But Bakunin also 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 (like Bakunin) with their more violent cousins.

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

A distinction should first be made between figures like Qutb and other, perhaps even more relevant “intellectuals” 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. Engaging with these “scholars” would be analogous to looking through something like The Anarchists’ Cookbook to gain any kind of understanding of Bakunin or Kropotkin.

al suri

Abu Musab al-Suri

By contrast, a figure like Qutb is 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. For them, violence is situated in a larger, often sophisticated (as least in the case of Bakunin) scheme or vision of how society must be changed and dealt with. 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.”

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 guerrilla warfare. Among such interpreters are Mao Zedong, whose On Guerrilla Warfare influenced a generation of strategists, including Che Guevara, whose 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 when compared 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 are “the dog we don’t know,” and thus full of mysterious and opaque danger, as the catastrophic events of 9/11 apparently demonstrate. And 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 within a very different set of sociopolitical circumstances. But because of today’s post-9/11 hang-ups, it is the Islamist thinker who gets singled out as especially dangerous, a reputation that taints any person or group affiliated with him in any way.


Karl Marx

Yet 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 of Colombia or the Tamil Tigers when engaging with the larger ideas of Marx, who deservedly remains one of the most influential and quoted figures in the Western social sciences and humanities.

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.

To be sure, 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 (next to Osama bin Laden himself) 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 figure and is still alive, 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.


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 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 violent streak, 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, through violence, the world 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. It is this dislocating ideological background within which Qutb’s call for violence is situated and 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.

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 Islamist violence.

Years of studies regarding radicalization haven’t pinned down ideas alone as 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. Yet such a reductive tendency with regards to violent Islamism is 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 levels 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 have lived lives that offer up very useful windows into how different Muslim societies and countries function today in relation to the wider world.

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 way 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.


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.”


muslims, politics, war on terror

Definitions of Threat

The law students society at York University’s Osgoode Hall organized a panel discussion on the politics of “deradicalization” this Thursday and brought together some well-informed Muslim voices: Faisal Kutty (scholar, law), Kathy Bullock (scholar, politics and Islam), and Yasin Dwyer (chaplain).

Several important points were raised, but all were relatively critical of how the issue of radicalization is perceived and talked about these days (especially after the October shooting).

The “culturalist” tendency to fixate solely on the religion of radicalized individuals was critiqued thoroughly, as it doesn’t address the well-established fact that almost all those who engage in terrorism is motivated first-and-foremost by a political cause. Issues like poverty, mental illness, and social alienation also seem to play a role at some point, depending on the individuals’ circumstances. Having imams talking to troubled individuals simply about religion isn’t going to do the job in most of these cases. The culturalist approach suggests that the Islamic religion is intrinsically “designed” to lead its readers to violence. This is false. Yet, when it comes to recommendations of how “radical narratives” can be countered, the political nature of individual motivations are never fully addressed.

The more interesting and complicated point raised by the speakers had primarily to do with language and definitions. “Radicalization” has been defined by some law enforcement groups by “tell-tale” signs that look like nothing more than the behaviours exhibited by peaceful Muslims. For instance, if a person believes that a caliphate should be established, it doesn’t mean that s/he is “radicalizing” to the point of committing a crime. Believing in a caliphate, a very anachronistic/idealistic view (not common), sounds scary and dark, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate that the believer endorses terrorism or violence. The Ottoman empire was referred to as a caliphate by many Muslims until the end of WWI. Some believe that a similar entity should exist today to anchor the Muslim world (good luck with that one), but it doesn’t mean they support the utterly depraved ways of, say, ISIS, which also foolishly calls itself a caliphate. (Suffice it to say that they don’t really qualify.)

Other “tell-tale” signs may seem more sinister. A Muslim person may be expressing some very exclusivist views of Islam in a way that prompts many to label him/her as a “salafi/wahhabi.” This is like the kiss of death because, in common post-9/11 parlance, nothing good can possibly come from these religious/ideological orientations. They are, in our contemporary discourse, intrinsic vehicles for ignorance and violence. But ignorant as some of its adherents are, not all salafis or wahhabis take after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Not all are violent or advocate terrorism. For instance, the Saudi wahhabi state scholars were giving fatwa against suicide bombing long before 9/11. One may vehemently disagree with many of their literalist and exclusivist interpretations of Islamic scripture, but we have to be fair here.

Yes, the vast majority of those who join Al-Qaeda or ISIS self-identify as salafis, etc, but it’s important to note here that these people are a very tiny fraction of salafis–most of whom are much more obsessed with ritual and are politically disengaged/quiescent. The real problem is that since these ideological sects within Islam can very easily be used to judge/exclude Muslims who don’t conform to certain ritualistic strictures, it’s very easy for these sects to be enjoined with violent political ideologies/acts. Returning Western state terrorism with Muslim terrorism is a lot easier to justify if one can misappropriate salafism or wahhabism in a way that okays the killing of those who don’t conform to a specific type of “Muslim.” But it does not then follow that those who espouse such exclusivist “salafist” views automatically take up arms and want to exterminate people. Studies show that they need a political grievance (or more personal factors, like mental illness) to even be open to committing those kinds of violent crimes. Religious belief alone is not enough.

One can think “radical” thoughts and still be peaceful. Today, opposing Western occupation and encroachment alone can qualify a person as a “radical.” Since Western countries take freedom of speech and thought very seriously, then Muslims who think or say outrageously exclusivist things should also be protected under the speech laws. Unless they’re actively or specifically inciting violence (very rare), then their speech should be protected. There have been times in the US and Canada when white supremacists and (alleged, given the link used here) anti-Semites have been protected under free speech legislation. The few “salafis/wahhabis” who hold similar/equivalent view should be treated in the same vein.

Photo (from left): Kathy Bullock, Yasin Dwyer, Faisal Bahbha (moderator), Faisal Kutty
Photo Credit: Steven Zhou

muslims, politics

Building Self-Sufficient Mosques

Here’s a cross-post by a friend of mine who just graduated from McGill University with a Masters in Neuroscience. How can Canadian mosques sustain themselves idependently? How can our mosques facilitate Muslim participation in social and  cultural areas of our scoiety? How can mosques provide necessary services for those in their communities, both Muslim and non-Muslim, according to their mandates, while still balancing their books? Muhammad Ashour explores these topics.
Year after year, the overwhelming majority of our mosques dedicate a full hour during this busiest night of Ramadan in order to collect donations from congregants. Oftentimes, it is the same Imam making the same plea to the same people, and surprisingly enough, for the same amount of money that was requested the previous year. What’s more, the Imam recycles the same emotional appeals – primarily intended to soften hearts, but often triggering intense feelings of guilt – that were made the previous year, and the year before that**. The result? The same amount of money is raised as the previous year.

Since that amount was clearly not enough last year – otherwise, why did we have another fundraiser this year? – it is only logical to assume that it will not be enough this year, and we may as well mark our calendars and be sure that the same fundraiser will be scheduled next Ramadan. This is the inevitable outcome of repetition. Which is why I am always surprised to see so many people express bewilderment when they come back the next year and see that the status quo has not budged. What did they expect?

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. In principle, that is exactly what we are doing. We are changing no variables, and yet, we expect that these problems will somehow disappear on their own, or better yet, solve themselves over time. They never do.

Take the self-sufficiency of our mosques (or lack thereof) as a case in point.

** (To be fair, the appeals made by our mosques are (usually) neither exaggerated nor hyperbolic. It is true: our mosques will not be able to continue their programs, and their very existence may even be threatened unless we collectively raise a large six-figure sum or more. So although I hate stating the obvious, allow me to issue an unequivocal disclaimer lest any reader misunderstands me:

There is more evidence from the book of Allah and the sunnah of His Messenger extolling the virtues of donating generously, whether publicly or privately, through hardship or ease, than there are words in this article. Needless to say, my objective is not to undermine the need of our mosques, or to suggest that we should stop donating to them. I am simply arguing that donations are not the only means by which our mosques could be financially supported, and certainly not the most creative one.)

Relying Exclusively on Donations: A Failing Strategy

Just like virtually all places of worship in Canada, our mosques are not publicly funded. So in order to pay their hydro bills, expand their parking lots, increase their prayer spaces, host soup kitchens, and engage in public relations, our mosques have no choice but to rely on private sources of revenue. Which is not really all that bad. Except, for some reason, our mosques have interpreted “rely on private sources of revenue” to mean “rely exclusively on the generosity of donors.” This is not only an exercise in poor reading comprehension, it is also a chilling demonstration of our collective lack of creativity.

Let us begin with the obvious problem that relying exclusively on donations not only stunts the growth potential of our mosques, but it also severely restricts the circulation of funds to various activities and community initiatives. And instead of finding novel (halal) ways to expand their financial resources so that they can accommodate this vast array of noble projects, our mosques opt for the easier option. They dump these wonderful opportunities into the trash – we are terrible at recycling, aren’t’ we? – and resign to the glass ceiling of donations.

Sadly, this has been the modus operandi of most of our mosques for time immemorial. They limit their activities not according to their creative capacity, but rather, according to how much money they are given. Over time, this leads to the atrophying of imaginations and results in money no longer being a means to an end, but rather, becoming an end in and of itself.

In the past, our mosques used to practice a needs-based approach to asking for money (“we have calculated our expenses for the upcoming year to equal ‘$$$’, and therefore, ask that you help us raise ‘$$$’”). Today, most of our mosques do not have a dollar amount in mind when they carry out fundraisers, precisely because they are not really sure how much money they need, and for what. They just ask for money first, and then find ways to spend it later. This kind of thinking is not only circular, but it almost guarantees that that things will spiral out of control very, very rapidly.

Indeed, this kind of disoriented financial entropy is already starting to taint the (once unshakeable) credibility of our mosques. Specifically, our community is growing more and more skeptical about donating to mosques that are becoming less and less transparent about what exactly they are doing with that money. Sure, we see large donation thermometers plastered inside many of our mosques, metaphorically revealing how unhealthy our financial situation is. But this is not transparent accountability; it is simply a progress report.

Accountability means lucid, detailed and straight-forward answers to some basic questions like:

What exactly are the expenses incurred by the mosque, and how much money is required to cover these expenses? How did the mosque administration use the donations that were collected last year?  Did the administration meet the goals they set, or did they fall short?

These questions are as simple as they are necessary. Yet, most of us do not bother asking them either because we do not want to offend the administration, or because the administration has a terrible history of providing meandering, unsatisfactory answers. The truth is, both of these concerns are entirely unwarranted in our faith. The biographies of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the Righteous Caliphs who succeeded him are studded with examples of brute honesty and healthy confrontations for the sake of maintaining accountability, ultimately for the sake of Allah.

In fact, by not confronting these issues with clemency sooner, we make hostile confrontations inevitable later on. Last year, I was praying taraweeh at a mosque in Montreal, Quebec.  After the first four units of prayer ended, the Imam quickly rushed to the minbar (podium) and grabbed the microphone before anyone had a chance to furtively escape. He then proceeded to request – actually, demand – that the congregation help raise money for ongoing projects in the mosque. Out of no where, a brother sitting a few feet away from me shot up and shouted something at the Imam and then turned around and stormed out of the prayer hall. I gasped. So did everyone around me. I couldn’t believe that this almost sacrilegious act took place in front of me, and I felt compelled to give this brother a piece of my mind. So I followed him.

After listening to his fiery monologue – which lasted a full half hour – I realized that although unjustified, his rage was certainly understandable. “I donated ten-thousand dollars last year to this mosque brother, ten thousand!” he snapped, yelling in a deep voice that was punctuated with a dilute Middle-Eastern accent, drawing more and more people around us. “Last year, the mosque also asked for the same [amount of] money because of construction. I come back this year, and the mosque looks the same, the parking lot looks the same, the programs look the same, everything is the same! Where is our money going? Where are these projects? Where is the construction?”

I was speechless. All I could do was what I set out to do, which was to remind him that we were in a place of worship and that he ought to have exercised more restraint and greater wisdom. I also gave him a rather sheepish, disingenuous reassurance that ‘there is probably a very good explanation with someone somewhere’.

The truth is, we all shared his frustration deep inside. We all had the same questions burning within. And because our shyness prevented us from raising these concerns sooner, we created a void that this brother ended up filling in the manner he knew best.

Incidents like these are neither rare nor isolated, and unfortunately, mishaps like the one that occurred at the Islamic Society of North America earlier this year do not exactly help the situation. Although it was an extreme example of accountability-gone-wrong, the ISNA episode served as an eye-opening revelation to a simple fact we have all been ignoring all along: our mosque administration is made up of brothers and sisters like you and I, and we all make mistakes. That is what checks-and-balances are there for. They make those mistakes transparent enough for everyone to see, increasing the likelihood that they will be corrected promptly. 

Simply put, it is no longer good enough for our local mosque to tell us that we need $200,000 in order to expand the parking lot. We need to know how many more parking spaces that money is going to buy, and if the trade-off is ultimately worth it. We need to know who the contractor is, whether they offered the best deal, and what the expected date of completion is.  Above all, we want to know if this project is the most salient and productive use of our money, or if there are priorities whose need is of a far more pressing nature.

Implementing this level of transparency will make our mosques infinitely more efficient and effective. It will bolster our trust in our respective administrations, it will give us greater confidence in the agency of our mosques, and it will provide us feedback on the usefulness of our contributions. It may even inspire us to donate more. However, this still does not solve our fundamental problem. After all, we want our mosques to rely on donations less, not more.

So how can our mosques become financially self-sustaining? 

Towards Self-Sufficiency

To start with, none of the ideas I am about to share are either novel or unprecedented. In fact, several mosques have already tried to implement certain measures in order to generate their own revenue, and a few have even met this with some degree of success. However, these efforts are often isolated and there is very little incentive for them to be taken very seriously. (After all, why on earth should our mosques trouble themselves to make money if the money they need is given to them on a golden plate every year?)

Our Islamic Centers and mosques need to create consistent streams of revenue that can be channeled back into the mosque for the sake of funding its panoply of activities. Plainly speaking, our mosques need to make money, and then use that money to pay its own bills and possibly more. How can this happen? Well, that very question is the playground on which our creativity ought to run wild. Consider the following thought experiment.

Arbitrarily, I have selected the Halton Mosque in Burlington, Ontario as the subject on whom we shall conduct our experiment. Since you may not be familiar with this mosque and its specifications, here they are briefly:

The Halton Mosque is arguably the only mosque that serves the entire community of Burlington and its surrounding region, a significant 10 km radius. The mosque can accommodate approximately 600 worshippers at full capacity, give or take. The congregation is composed of virtually every background and ethnicity, but the overwhelming majority of worshippers are of Middle-Eastern descent, followed by those of South-Asian origins.  Finally, the property is divided approximately as follows: the mosque takes up 30% of the property, the parking lot takes up 60%, and the remaining 10% is essentially grass/unused space.

The question then becomes: What is a viable business venture that the mosque could embark on, which is likely to generate enough revenue to cover the expenses incurred by the Mosque? To answer this question, it is important to study the specific needs of the community in order to supply a demanded service.

Incidentally, there is only one ethnic food store in Burlington, and its inventory is extremely limited. As a result, the majority of Burlingtonians of South Asian and Arab descent (whom, as we’ve already established, make up the bulk of the Mosque’s congregation) end up driving anywhere between 15 km west or 20 km east in order to get their imported ethnic goods from stores that offer better varieties at more competitive prices. So here’s an idea: Why doesn’t the Halton Mosque add a few more walls to its east side and open an ethnic food store?

This idea is worthy of consideration for several important reasons. First, the store will have a guarantee of customer loyalty ab initio not only because of its convenient location, but also because the majority of congregants will be happy to know that their purchases are directly supporting their local Mosque. Second, the store will be frequented by non-Muslim residents surrounding the neighborhood, serving the wider community and possibly opening the door of da’wah. Third, since the store is owned by the Mosque, it can be used to distribute zakat to families with needs, as well as to subsidize grocery costs for the poor and even supply food drives. Fourth, it will provide employment opportunities for members of the community. Fifth…well, the list goes on.

Of course, an endeavor such as this will not be without obstacles. To start with, implementing such a project will not happen overnight, and will not be without red-tape. Certain complexities, including the legal hurdles of ownership, as well as the ramifications of owning a business (property and sales taxes, etc.) will have to be accounted for. In addition, staffing and supervising the store will require a separate administrative team of its own, equipped with competent managers and professional accountants. Finally, once established, the store will have to perform exceptionally well in order to cover its own costs, which can not be guaranteed.

Nevertheless, the merits of establishing self-sustainable Mosques are numerous, and in my opinion, completely outweigh the potential drawbacks and risks. You may disagree of course, and I would hope to hear your reasons. The point is, we seriously need to have this conversation.

Every community has different needs dictated by its own demographic and cultural make-up, as well as its geographic location. An ethnic food store may be the best idea for the Halton Mosque, but it could be a disastrous investment for an Islamic Center in Vermont. Maybe the need is greater for a women’s-only gym, or even a strip plaza. Maybe purchasing a piece of land and renting it out as public parking will do the trick. Or maybe not. I do not pretend to have all the solutions, and to be honest, I do not need to. Alhamdu li Allah, our community is replete with talented management consultants, urban planners, engineers of all varieties, and professionals with rich backgrounds in finance and accounting who have a collective ingenuity of an extremely high order.

Why don’t we bring these brilliant minds together and see what they can come up with?

muslims, politics, war on terror

Canada’s Disturbing “Solution” to Alleged Islamic Extremism

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Not a terrible lot has been written about the global consequences of 9/11 on Western Muslim communities. For example, almost immediately after the deadly events of September 11th 2001, Canada adopted its own version of the Patriot Act: Bill C-36, the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act. This piece of anti-terror legislation is so broad in its scope and language that legal experts had difficulty picturing exactly how such legislation can and will be applied.

That all changed after 2006, when several suspects in a high-profile case dubbed the “Toronto-18 Case” were convicted under the act. Of the eighteen men and youth arrested, several had their charges dropped/stayed while other pled guilty and are awaiting sentence. Of those convicted, one has been sentenced to life in prison. Indeed, there was a bomb plot planned, but the more sensationalist slogans like “beheading the Prime Minister”, so often proliferated by Canada’s corporate media, were nothing more than “big talk”. These events made Muslim communities in Canada doubly paranoid. On the one hand, they feared the dangerous stereotyping of their religious identity and practices by the “outsiders” that were sure to be a result of this case. On the other hand, they have been “forced” to keep an eye out for the “extremists” in there midst, as if scouting out lepers.

In an effort to tend to the latter (and overrated) paranoia, numerous community leaders and security agencies in Canada have come up with a solution to “de-radicalize” young “Muslim extremists”. The idea has now come into fruition thanks to the work of Sheikh Ahmed Amiruddin of the Al-Sunnah Institute in Toronto, Canada (his mosque is the Masjid El-Noor). Commonly known as the “Islamic Ideological Detox” program, Amiruddin has supposedly devised an effective twelve- step “de-radicalization” program aimed at turning angry Muslim youth away from the path of “extremism”. The initiative much resembles a kind of self-help guide for alcoholics in its structural make-up. By now, the Canadian intelligence agency, or CSIS (Canadian Security and Intelligence Services), has shown interest, as well as another Sheikh Robert Heft of “Paradise4Ever”, a Muslim organization that helps Muslim converts settle into their new faith-based lives.

As rosy and good-hearted as this all sounds, the very idea of a theology-based “de-radicalization” program is problematic. The worldview that underscored this “ideological detox” program is congruent with the tiresome post-9/11 tendency to put extremism at the centre of any potentially substantial discussion. The alleged and much touted subject of “Islamic extremism” becomes de-contextualized politically, and all suggested solutions point to the perceived problem as being completely borne out of religion. In fact, there is nothing “Islamic” about them at all. As stated by numerous studies around the world, the phenomenon of committing violence in the name of religion is usually borne out of political indignation. Robert Pape of The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism has done more work than most on the subject of suicide bombing, and has concluded that imperial ambitions by world powers precipitate backlash, some of which take the form of terror in the name of religion.[see his new book here] Despite much (undeserved) publicity, Canada has exhibited only one case that remotely exemplifies such a case: members of the “18” were outraged by Canada’s participation in the Afghanistan war, among other things. The root of their anger was deeply political, and pertained specifically to policies carried out by their government. This is true for all NATO allies, especially the United States.

As individuals who were unfamiliar with the avenues of political activism (something their mosques and role models should have provided for and invested in), the “18” took matter into their own hands, and began to search for interpretations of the Quran and Sunnah (way of the Prophet Muhammad) which were akin to Osama bin Laden’s worldview. In other words, the political woes and the “jihadi rhetoric” that dually inspired the “18” should not be viewed as detached influences. The former reinforces and lends false credibility to the latter. The post-9/11 “West” is so obsessed with the apparently Islamic iconography used by “extremists” that they often forget to look at the bigger picture. Any solution that seeks to invest in so-called “terror-prevention” must realize this vital point. Unfortunately, Sheikh Amiruddin’s twelve-step “ideological detox” program falls terribly short of such a realization.

Another sinister characteristic of the “de-radicalization” program pertains to how exactly such a program would play out on the ground. The details have yet to be hashed out, but the way in which a program like this functions as a pre-emption to terror is worth discussing. Let’s pretend for the moment that so-called “Islamic extremism” is actually a problem in Canada. Presumably, members of a certain community will be asked to be “vigilant” about their fellow community members. If they notice any suspicious activity or behaviour by an individual/group, they will be asked to report, or “red-flag” the person(s) involved. Those reported will then be recognized and marked off by CSIS for later “treatment”. This logic in itself is questionable, with the obvious question being exactly what “behaviour” constitutes a need for suspicion. Moreover, how would such a program deal with dishonesty? If a person is reported by another individual simply out of spite and not for any substantial reason(s), what would the safeguard be? These unaddressed queries constitute concerns regarding civil liberties that will inevitably arise.

By now, the alleged problem of “Islamic extremism” has been positioned as a central concern in the 21st century. Of course, prevention of violence in the name of Islam is in everyone’s interest. However, Western democracies must realize that these problems will not be solved through Guantanamo-styled strong-arming, or through the on-going stereotyping of Muslims in society. It will be vital in the future to realize that if “extremism” is to be avoided, one must first de-fang those involved by giving them nonviolent and activist avenues to vent their anger. If such a program can be devised with the help of security agencies, participating governments must guarantee the rights and liberties of all those who are involved.

While the Anti-terror legislation came into being under the previous Liberal government, the civil liberties-bashing Conservative Harper regime has continued to hunt for “terrorists,” such as the Toronto-18 case. The regime, like much of Canada’s media, has tried very hard to inculcate a climate of fear. The government-media nexus has engaged in a campaign of demonization aiming to insert into the Canadian psyche that “deradicalization” is needed, and that an “Islamic Detox Program” will solve the problem. This ill-informed and racist position will produced unworkable and problematic policies. “Islamic extremism” is not the problem, despite what the current discourse suggests. Insofar as society wants to prevent “Islamic extremism”, the root of the problem must be hacked at: foreign and imperial ventures undertaken by Western regimes must stop at once.