A Time for Renewal

As Americans try to make sense of their sudden and terrible encounter with the reality of global conflict, their response has spanned the spectrum from thoughtful understanding to reflex bigotry. Fortunately, the latter response has been limited to isolated cases, thanks primarily to the responsible approach taken by political leaders at all levels.

However, there have been enough incidents—- and enough talk on issues such as ethnic profiling—- to send a chill through the Muslim community in the US. Over the last few weeks, I have heard numerous dark predictions of the coming “hard times” from Muslim friends who have lived in the US for years and even decades. I cannot dismiss their fears as unreasonable, but I do think that they are premature, and give too little credit to the nature of the American ethos. Unlike Old World societies with centuries of cultural layering, American society is a dynamic—- and rather chaotic—- mixture of constantly changing attitudes. This dynamic aspect imbues it with a certain disorder, but also with the potential for rapid intellectual evolution, leading to almost total unpredictability. In the language of physics, one might say that the system operates in a state of perpetual “criticality”, where almost everything is always possible and the magnitude of consequences bears no necessary relation to the size of the cause. It is precisely this notion that is captured in such phrases as “only in America”, “the land of opportunity”, and “the American Dream”.

I do not think that American Muslims should give up so easily on the complexity of a society that produced Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King. It is a society manifestly open to fresh understanding and demonstrably fickle in its commitment to old dogma. The key point about the current crisis is not that “everything has changed”, but that “anything is possible”.

It is, therefore, with some optimism that I note the primary response of America to the “Islamic” aspect of the current crisis: A dramatic increase of interest in Islam. By all accounts, translations of the Qur’an and books on Islam are flying off the shelves at bookstores, and suburbanite baby boomers throughout the land are receiving their first impressions of a faith that moves a billion people on this Earth. The question is: What impression will they get?

In the days since September 11, it has become routine for politicians and pundits to proclaim that Islam is a “religion of peace”. This is a welcome development, and it should do American Muslims a lot of good to have the virtue of their religion proclaimed loudly by the opinion-makers of this country. However, it can also do a lot of harm if Islam’s newfound perominence in the American consciousness were to lead to ultimate disillusionment. And the potential for this disillusionment exists not only due to the work of authors unfriendly to Islam (e.g., Daniel Pipes), but also because of the words and deeds of Muslims themselves. In this time of danger and opportunity, it is imperative that the Muslims of America (and the West in general) not allow a superficial reading of their faith to become its default image. But before this can be done, Muslims need to take stock of their own attitudes.

Strictly speaking, it is no more correct to say that Islam is peaceful than to proclaim that it is violent. The texts and traditions on which any faith’s practice is based are open to multiple interpretations, and, as these interpretations pile up over the course of history, it becomes almost impossible to assert the existence a unique orthodoxy. A liberal humanist Muslim can find enough in the Islamic texts to justify a peaceful view of Islam—-and this is being done with great fervor these days. However, a militant Muslim seeking sanction for violence can also find plenty in the same sources to proclaim holy war on the world. Islam is no more inherently violent or peaceful than Catholicism which, at various times, has found justification for both Torquemada and Mother Teresa in the same tradition. This is the complexity that must not be obscured by simplistic attempts to understand Islam, and Muslims must play a crucial role in this matter. To put it bluntly: It is time for a vocal and successful reformist movement within Islam, and Muslims living in the West are in the best position to lead it.

While most Muslims believe in a benign—- even benevolent—- faith, it is an unfortunate historical fact that those charged with religious leadership among Muslims have often veered towards more exclusivist and austere interpretations.

This is a propensity long recognized within Muslim societies, and is notably evident in the classical literary traditions of Persian and Urdu. Far from being revered figures, the arbiters of official piety—- the cleric (shaykh), the jurist (faqiih), the preacher (naaseh), the paragon of piety (zaahid), and the enforcer of morality (muhtasib)—- have long been the subject of ridicule in the literatures of Iran and Muslim South Asia. That this attitude has persisted through centuries of changing social climate indicates that it is an essential part of the Muslim ethos in these regions—- driven, in part, by the competing gnostic (Sufi) tradition which tends to be more inclusive.

However, the current Islamic synthesis—- which emerged in the colonial and post-colonial period, but whose roots go back to medieval arguments between rationalists (mu’tazila) and traditionalists (asha’ira)—- has acquired a distinctly orthodox aspect, both in respone to and under the influence of Western modernity. This development has many historical antecedants—- the policies of India’s Mughal rulers, the encounter between Islam and colonists, the success of Zionism, and the emergence of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia among others—- but this is not the place to discuss them. The important point is that a rather regressive, static, and parochial version of Islam has become
prevalent among the intelligentsia of the Muslim world. While this does not, in itself, generate militancy, it does provide sanction to exclusivist—- and sometimes even bigoted—- attitudes adopted by a small militant minority.

In combination with the socioeconomic failure of almost all Muslim nations, this vision of Islam (which is partly responsible for the failure) has created a pervasive culture of grievance in the Muslim world. It is a culture that sees all problems afflicting Muslims as the result of a vast conspiracy—- variously orchestrated by the “usual suspects”: Jews, Christians, Hindus, ethnic Chinese, even Muslims of other sects. It takes real but mundane disputes over land, water, language, ethnicity and oil, and turns them into millennial confrontations. In this apocalyptic world-view, Osama bin Laden makes perfect sense. Without changing this mind-set, no amount of military action will rid the world of Islamic militants. The swamp that must be drained is not in the mountains of Afghanistan, but in the minds of hundreds of millions of Muslims. It is time for a new synthesis in Islam, and it can only be done from within by enlightened, informed, and faithful Muslims. The West, with all its cruise missiles and smart bombs, can only make things worse in the long run.

The crisis of September 11 has brought the Muslim world to a point of great opportunity. As the rest of the world discovers Islam, let it discover a progressive, enlightened, and dynamic faith suitable for the future, rather than an orthodoxy created by traditionalists still hankering for the past.

All Muslims believe that the words of the Qur’an are eternal, but that is no excuse to freeze the process of their interpretation. If the words are to provide guidance in an ever-changing world, they must speak in ever-changing ways. Once again, the sacred texts must be regarded as the source of principles rather than a prescription for piety. The famously closed door of interpretation (ijtihad) must be reopened. Unfortunately, it is difficult to do this in most Muslim societies with traditional strictures, and previous attempts to do so have met with limited success. A movement for true reform in Islamic thinking is more feasible in the West with its guaranteed freedoms and its provision of
space for new ideas. The process must be a careful one, so as not to injure the basic precepts of the faith. It must be thoughtful, so that it does not antagonize believing Muslims. It must be based on rigorous scholarship, so that it carries weight. And it must be daring, so that it can inspire. The interpretation of Islam can no longer be left to the most regressve segment of Muslim society. Muslims who believe that their faith is compatible with progressive humanist ideals must express themselves—- not as apologists of Islam to the West but as proponents of new possibilities for Muslims.

Those who lament the fact that Islam today wears the face of militancy in the eyes of the world should keep this in mind: When those who are moderate do not speak as loudly as the militants, the militants speak for them too. The only way to reclaim the enlightened aspect of Islam is to pursue it aggressively. Call it extremism in the pursuit of moderation. And that is no vice.

Reprinted with permission from Chowk.  Originally written for www.chowk.com  Chowk - where Ideas and Identities Intersect.  The American Muslim does not claim primary copyright on the source material.  If you wish to reprint the entire article, you must obtain permission of the copyright holder.