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

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

Published on:

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.