The Bizarro Umma
By Omar Gatto
Welcome to the Bizarro Umma, where down is up, forward is backward, and wrong becomes right.
The Bizarro Umma believes in the three bizarre illusions. The first illusion is that going down is actually going up. The second is that the way forward is actually backward. And the third exchanges right for wrong. They are such a negative part of our daily thinking that they have deprived the Umma of a livable Islamic culture. These illusions are breaking down among Muslims in the West, to be sure, but they are strong among a majority in our Umma. Make no mistake about it: young and old, smart and stupid, rich and poor, male and female all inhabit the Bizarro Umma. Islamic culture in the Bizarro Umma is unlivable, as is any way of life based on illusions. Our responsibility is to define and build a livable Islamic culture free of the three destructive illusions. Let’s get to know these illusions, so we can recognize and avoid their intellectual and spiritual dangers.
The Bizarro Umma, Where Down Is Up
The Bizarro Umma thinks it is moving up in the world, when in fact it is sliding down the slippery path of tyranny by disinformation and oppression by Mulla. This supposed revival is propelling the Umma into a position of worldly glory, so the illusion promises. The Umma can win its rightfully superior position in the world only if it more strictly observes a literalist Sharia (Islamic Law) in its entirety. The Bizarro Umma takes comfort in the increase of women wearing hijab, the head covering, shouts slogans such as “Islam is the Solution,” and celebrates those who wage Jihad against modernity, whether by intellectual dishonesty or by terror.
The Bizarro Umma deceives itself by insisting that things are going great, when in fact little is going great. Lovers of this illusion use folk wisdom to convince the Umma that going down is not really going down. Where the Bizarro Umma sees “protected pearls,” the world sees the patronized Muslim woman whose oppression can only drag the Umma downwards. She is treated as an object whose sexuality must be controlled under the guise of protection. She is assigned the burden of distinguishing the Bizarro Umma from the West. The Bizarro Umma says men must be in charge because “a ship can only have one captain” as they are fond of saying.
A sure way to move headfirst on the down slope is to declare that “Islamic knowledge” is the only knowledge that the Umma will ever need to move up in this world and the next. You see, the Bizarro Umma picks and chooses whichever scientific knowledge fits within its preconceived world view and believes the rest can be suppressed. Whatever does not conform to its self-deception is eliminated by fatwa (religious decree) although reality’s ghost still drags the Bizarro Umma down into a poverty of ignorance.
The Bizarro Umma, Where Forward is Backward
The fact that the Bizarro Umma believes it is experiencing a religious revival highlights its illusion of returning to the past, which implies that progress depends on going backward to an idealized past. This illusion can only cause the Bizarro Umma to fear modern life and condemn the changes in society, politics, culture, and economics that come with modernity. This illusion idealizes the early culture of Islam that the Bizarro Umma thinks was purely Islamic and therefore mandated by Allah and his Messenger. “Islamic” culture did not spring from nothing: the Jahiliyyah cultures in the Middle East never came close to dying out and profoundly influencing the origins of “Islamic” culture at all periods and places in the Umma’s history. This is not wrong in itself, because Islam is meant to be a corrective set of principles for people who accept it. Islam did not radically alter Arab society: of course, they destroyed their idols and were forbidden from burying their female children, but when we examine how they built their houses, cooked their food, dressed themselves and how they spoke, most of it remained as it had before Islam. Early Islamic culture borrowed very heavily from non-Muslim Byzantine and Persian cultures to build the civilization we know today as Classical Islam. So then, as just another human culture, there is no religious merit in adopting 7th century Arab culture today.
It is a folly to try to engineer an Islamization of modern cultures to resemble an ancient model which is wrongly claimed as divinely sanctioned. This kind of Islamization typically demands collective unity in behavior, appearance, and thought which overrides the needs and wants of the individual. But culture is a human way of adapting thoughts, practices, and appearances to the environment. Physical, political, social, and economic environments vary widely for people, from desert nomads adapted to scarcity to capitalistic cities adapted to plenty. These cultures did not form as a result of a decaying Islamic monolith, but rather are a natural part of living. No single cultural formula can be forced on people with the expectation that they will survive, let alone prosper. Although Islam has often served as an essential layer in many cultures, it is not a ready made culture-in-a-box. The astonishing variety of past and present Muslim cultures shows that above many systems, Islam has always been very adaptable to a people’s circumstances. To rigidify Islam into a uniform monolith is to break it. It is not necessary for Muslims to look towards the past and to certain countries, when the future of our modern Western-Islamic cultures has the potential of being just as bright if not brighter.
The Bizarro Umma, Where Wrong Becomes Right
In the Bizarro Umma, right and wrong have exchanged places. Distorted senses of morality have blurred the criterion between right and wrong to the extent that political concerns outweigh the sanctity of humanitarian concerns outlined in the ultimate criterion, the Qur’an. Nationalistic and communal disputes over pride, land, and power have edged out resistance to the truly reprehensible.
In China and India, female infanticide has reached epidemic proportions, causing a noticeable imbalance in the ratio of men to women. Does not the Qur’an say: “And when the female infant asks, for what crime she was killed?” Instead of berating women for not covering their bodies sufficiently, why not channel the same ferocity into rescuing the tens of thousands of women forced into sexual slavery each year? Does not the Qur’an say, “Do not force the female worshippers of God into prostitution”? Instead of rioting against the West, why not demonstrate against regimes where slavery is still legal? Remember the Qur’an: “And the freeing of slaves.” What about regimes which sanction genocide even against other Muslims, like Sudan or the Taliban? The Bizarro Umma stays quiet when its members do wrong to others, but rants loudly when outsiders do the same to them. Spirituality was a casualty in the struggle to employ Islam in the service of materialist struggles for land, power, and wealth. The list of casualties only grows longer: truth drowned some centuries ago in Sharia hairsplitting, and tolerance was murdered shortly threafter.
How to Take the Bizarro out of Umma
The Bizarro Umma must right itself so that up is truly up, forward is truly forward and right and wrong are clear. The Bizarro Umma must admit that pursuing the illusions of the Islamic state and of Islamic social purity can only lead to a distinctly unlivable Islamic life. We must never believe the deception that absolutist interpretations devoid of humanity are simple cures to complex human problems.
History shows that the Umma was least bizarre when intellectual freedom was at its highest. Muslim intellectual freedom can reign again through education and the free exchange of information. Information technology is essential to both, with the potential to exchange ideas and learn new perspectives never greater. We cannot rely on Father Government to do it for us, we cannot reassure ourselves that our imams will actually do the right thing, and we cannot import solutions from overseas; we have to do the right thing ourselves starting here in the West. Although those who teach the Umma to live by these illusions may be lost to us, we can and must reach out to the majority of the Bizarro Umma who are members by default. It starts with us—with our minds, our mouths, our hands.
We must envision a livable Islamic culture, articulate it simply, and live it. The Umma is a reflection of our innermost selves. Only when we discard the three illusions will the Bizarro Umma reflect our essentially good selves as a true Umma, a light for mankind.
Omar Gatto is a Sergeant in the Marines serving abroad and resides with his wife and baby son in Hawaii. A student of Islamic languages and cultures, Omar will begin his doctorate next year.
Copyright © 2003-2004 Muslim WakeUp! Inc.
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update: see also Bizarro Umma Revisited http://www.muslimwakeup.com/blog/archives/2005/01/bizarro_umma_re.php