Empowering Islam in America: Political Guidelines
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
Religion is much in vogue nowadays. Most of the presidential candidates in the 2008 election cycle rely on niche politics, and most of them have been forced to pursue the niche of religiosity, because people seek religion in times of instability, doubt, and fear. None of the candidates, however, have done well in spelling out specifically what this means for issues of conscience in American domestic and foreign policy. Neither have Muslims. They follow specific niches that address their own narrow, special interests. Many have bumper stickers that read, “Islam is the answer,” but they need to spell it out both in theory and practice.
What is the theory? The theory is simple. All the revealed religions contain a universal paradigm of thought. Muslims call this Islam. It is based on an affirmation that there is an ultimate reality of which man and the entire universe are merely an expression, that therefore every person is created with an innate awareness of absolute truth and love, and that persons in community can and should develop from the various sources of divine revelation, including natural law, a framework of moral law to secure peace and prosperity.
But, what is the practice? How do Muslims become Islamic? Islam is a way of life. Muslims are merely whoever claims to live it, whether or not they do. Islam is also a path, one of many, to the presence of God, which means that Islam is a religion. But every religion teaches a coherent system of universal values and principles, which must be followed by its adherents.
What is this system. Using current phraseology, the answer is simple: “It’s justice, stupid!” This is the core message that Muslim activists should put front and center in the current election cycle.
In 2008, for the first time in decades of fruitless political activism in America, Muslims finally have the necessary guidance, and from probably America’s most influential Muslim. He is, Parvez Ahmed, National Board Chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). In the OpEd section of CAIR’s website in January, 2008. Dr. Ahmed offers justice as the essence of Islam in the world and as the only winning paradigm for America and for Muslims in America or anywhere else in the world. The Great American Experiment was founded on it, because only through leadership in its pursuit can America become what its Founders envisioned, which is to be a moral model for all of humankind.
In his thoroughly Islamic perspective on justice, Parvez Ahmed, writes: “The principles of justice and morality are not the exclusive domain of any one group or ideology. Islam is not a new message but a confirmation of universal values. ... The Prophet strove to develop the believer’s conscience through adherence to principles and values. The values and the principles were more important than the source of those values. He showed a way to transcend group allegiance in favor of primary loyalty to universal principles themselves.”
These universal principles were known in classical Islam as the maqasid al shari’ah, which was developed over a period of centuries into what is still the world’s most sophisticated code of human responsibilities and rights, even though for several centuries they have been practiced mainly in the breech. These are spelled out in my article, “Human Rights in Traditionalist Islam: Legal, Political, Economic, and Spiritual Perspectives,” in the Winter 2008 issue of The American Journal of Social Sciences (AJISS), which, in turn, is a condensation of my book, The Natural Law of Compassionate Justice, published in 2008 by the International Institute of Islamic Thought.
The first universal principle or maqsud is known as haqq al din. This requires respect for freedom of religion, which means that religion should be neither prescribed nor proscribed in public life, that is, neither institutionalized nor forbidden. The next two universal principles require respect for individual human life and for human community. These are followed by a second set of maqasid that require freedom. The first one, haqq al mal, requires respect for the decentralization of power through institutional reform designed to promote the universal right of access to individual ownership of wealth producing assets. The second, haqq al hurriya, requires governmental institutions adequate to promote the self-determination of persons, communities, and nations. The final set of two requires respect for human dignity (haqq al karama), especially through gender equity, and respect for knowledge (haqq al ‘ilm) through freedom of thought, speech, and assembly.
These universal principles are the key to the rise and fall of civilizations. Civilizations fall either when pessimists see growing inequities and fail to respond as agents of change or when they seek change through blind destruction. Civilizations rise when optimists follow a higher vision and challenge the status quo by perfecting what is good but can be better. Arnold Toynbee devoted his seven-volume history of civilizations to prove this thesis of challenge and response. The higher vision is always theological in the sense of seeking transcendent truth and it is always axiological in the commitment to translate ultimate truth into immanent justice. Justice has always been considered to be another word for ultimate truth proceeding from the Being of God.
America has become a bi-polar society, whereby it alternates between seeking justice and seeking power as ultimate ends, without adequate appreciation for the fact that the pursuit of justice is the most reliable road to stability and security. The goal should not be to empower only oneself in the world, but to empower others. Any perspective that raises an ideology of power to the political level of an ultimate end and rejects justice as a concept in foreign policy inevitably will lead from cosmos to chaos.
The key to justice is education. In the political process, education should be designed to shape the paradigms of thought that govern public life. The paradigm shapers control the agendas as developed by think tanks. And, it is a truism that whoever controls the policy agenda controls policy.
Thomas Jefferson taught that people can remain free only if they are properly educated, that education consists primarily of learning virtue, and that no people can be virtuous unless both their private and public lives are infused with awareness and love of God. In his day, the virtues were other words for what today are known as human responsibilities and rights, and these were considered together as the very definition of justice.
The core message of justice has an important corollary for Muslims. This is the need for infaq, which is the classical Arabic term for one’s instinctive inclination to give rather than take in life. Following this drive in human nature produces happiness. What does this mean for Muslims today? It means that they must pursue what is good for America, not merely what promotes their own interests. In enlightened American policy, both domestic and foreign, they are the same.