Projecting a Common Vision for America:
The Need for Ideological Leadership
I. The Challenge
It has become a truism that the terrorists of 9/11 put Islam as a religion under the gun. The charge is that Islam is a source of conflict, extremism, and violence. The entire world is said to be engaged in a clash of civilizations with no possible outcome but the victory of one over the other.
The gravest threat to Muslims in America is the charge that they are collectively guilty and therefore are alien and un-American.
Muslims are unsure how to respond other than simply to deny the charges. This defensive and reactive strategy does not halt the assault against them. In fact, it may even incite the attackers, the way a rabbit running away triggers the adrenaline of a wolf pack.
The Muslim response must be to take the initiative by developing a proactive strategy. The most basic principle for successful strategy is to develop an environment most favorable to oneself. The opposite, namely the key to failure, is to let the opponent determine the outcome in advance by ceding to him the right to set the framework for interaction, shape the agenda for debate, and determine the criteria for success.
The most critical element for victory in the current confrontation is for Muslims to recognize that they are involved in an ideological competition that far transcends 9/11 and traces its origins back three centuries and more. Furthermore, this competition is not between or among civilizations, but is a global war being waged within every one of them. This recognition of time and space must provide the context for Muslim efforts to develop the necessary framework, agenda, and governing criteria.
The initial challenge is posed by the fact that forces hostile to religion in general, not merely to Islam, have monopolized all three of these critical elements of strategy:
The Framework. During the past century, militant secular humanists have set the framework for global ideological competition as a battle between secularism and transcendence, between the militant assertion of human power as the ultimate criterion for right and wrong and what we might call the traditionalist reverence for guidance from the transcendent nature of reality in divine revelation and natural law.
The Agenda. The agenda or arena for ideological combat in this global ideological competition has been human rights. The secularists claim that the elimination of religion from public life is the these rights’ only guarantee, because religion allegedly is inherently oppressive and hostile to human freedom as the most basic of human rights. Traditionalists of all faiths insist that human rights derive from a transcendent source, and not exclusively from human decision-making. The traditionalists, and here we must mean those in all religions who are spiritually aware of a higher or transcendent power, believe that separating human rights from the spiritual essence of human nature deprives human rights of any objectivity and opens the way to totalitarian perversions of false utopias.
The Criterion. The secularists insist on judging the competing worldviews and their expressions in corresponding legal systems by the criterion of historical practice. The issue becomes whether America or the Muslim world in both domestic and foreign policies best promotes human rights. Accordingly, the criterion for judging or comparing legal systems is positivist rather than normative. The function of law in secular or positivist jurisprudence is merely to enforce the human command, rather than primarily to educate about virtue in order to guide human behavior. Since the secularists have taken the initiative in setting the terms of both debate and judgement, the criterion imposed on Muslims is not their best teachings or their highest vision, but their worst practice.
The secularists have used the above framework, the above agenda of human rights, and the above criterion for comparing legal systems to stack the deck in their favor. Since Muslims usually do not recognize this fact, they and, in fact, traditionalists in all religions often come out the losers.
Unfortunately, many Muslims, with their paranoid mentality of victimization, like to deny that this is their own fault. Even if they recognize that they are at least partially at fault, they have no idea what to do about it, except perhaps to retreat into worship of the past or to fly airplanes into tall buildings.
II. The Response
Any successful response to this ideological challenge must be undertaken jointly by the spiritually aware of all faiths, those who share a common awareness of ultimate reality, a common appreciation of the wisdom from the past, and a common vision of the future.
Especially important for Muslims in America is the recognition that success can come only from reviving the best from both classical America and classical Islam. Although the worst of each is common knowledge and is exploited by their enemies in an ideological war, the best of each is generally unknown even by those who need this knowledge in order to take the initiative in setting a new framework for discussion, a new agenda for debate, and new criteria for comparison.
The most important need for everyone in America is to recognize that the so-called clash of civilizations is not between civilizations, and certainly not between religions. Instead the real worldwide clash, especially now in the twenty-first century, is within each civilization between the secularists and those with a higher vision.
Every civilization is rooted in aspirations to transcend mundane self-interest toward a higher purpose in both individual and community life. Accordingly, those who consider America to be a secularist civilization will be locked in mortal combat not only with their own civilization, but with every other civilization until the end of time.
The principal founders of the Great American Experiment were deeply spiritual, and all perceived a sense of divine mission to build a society of justice based on both divine revelation and natural law. The modern secularist movement has been trying to control the future by revising the history of the past in order to eliminate religion not only from current political life but from America’s origins.
For example, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, was attacked by his contemporaries as an atheist because he did not accept the Christian doctrine of the trinity, whereas, in fact, he was a deeply spiritual person. The modern secularists are trying to co-opt him as an alleged deist who thought that God created the universe but then immediately retired from the scene.
In fact, he was a theist, who believed that God created the world and constantly sustains it out of love for every human person. His thousands of letters are now scheduled to be published, one volume every year for twenty years, as a result of a recent court order invalidating Jefferson’s last will and testament, which provided that his private correspondence never be made public. This gold mine of early American history is confirming him as one of the truest representatives of traditionalist peoples of all faiths, whom he identified as those who are “enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.”
George Washington is similar. How many children in the public schools know that he read the Bible religiously every day, and that he arose every morning almost all his life for an hour of meditation, and that he set aside half an hour every afternoon to open his heart and mind to God, even if this required him to interrupt a cabinet meeting. He was profoundly convinced that his life and the life of the American republic had only one meaning, which is to fulfill its divinely determined destiny. Nowadays, the secular humanists would brand him as a fanatic or as mentally disturbed.
During the first century of the American republic the idea of a human society prospering or even existing without the guidance of God was inconceivable. Jefferson taught that the balance among order, justice, and freedom, which is the core of traditionalist political and social thought in every major religion, could be maintained only if the people are educated, that the core purpose of all education is awareness of virtue, and that commitment of an entire people to virtue is possible only within the framework of enlightened religion.
Although Jefferson coined the term “separation of Church and State,” he was opposing thereby only the exclusivist and even despotic claim of any organized religion to political sovereignty. He taught that a consensus on basic values, which is essential to political unity and to any civilization, is possible only when the wisdom of religiously committed people pervades all public life, so that the human polity at whatever level from the nuclear family to the community and nation is governed by people who are governed by God.
The founders of America represented the best of both Christianity and Islam. This is why the ecumenical mission of Muslims in America must be to cooperate with like-minded Christians and Jews and followers of all the world religions to revive the best of their common heritage.
III. The Islamic Code of Human Rights
A major mission of Muslims in America and worldwide should be to build on the centuries of the most brilliant and inspired Islamic scholars to provide a framework for human rights based not on the shifting sands of secular opinion but on the vision and principles common to the best in both America and Islam.
Both the founders of America and the great scholars of the shari’ah constantly referred to justice as their aim. Nowadays the word justice has gone out of style, because without a transcendent basis any concept of justice is necessarily subjective and vulnerable to political manipulation. Modern efforts in the United Nations and international conferences to reach agreement on human rights fail because the dominant political powers insist on excluding economic justice as incompatible with their freedom. The dependent political powers, including almost all of the Muslim governments, in turn oppose political rights or accept them only as window-dressing for their oppressive tyrannies.
Many centuries before secularists in the United Nations and elsewhere proposed the concept of human rights as a triumph and monopoly of Western culture, the great Islamic scholars worked out a sophisticated analytical system of human responsibilities and rights far superior to anything ever attempted before or since. This system is known as the maqasid al shari’ah, the universal purposes or essentials of Islamic thought.
All the great Islamic scholars were imprisoned, some for decades, for teaching this basic set of human rights in one form or another. This conflict between theory and praxis may be why the Islamic framework and content of human rights embodied in the maqasid have been dead for six hundred years. One may debate whether the great Islamic civilization died because the maqasid were forbidden, or whether the maqasid were forbidden because the Islamic civilization was already dead.
Very briefly, these maqasid consist first of a single, over-arching responsibility, known as haqq al din, to respect divine revelation. Then, in some formulations of these universal principles, based on the architectonics of the greatest scholar of the maqasid, al Shatibi, come three principles necessary for survival. These are 1) haqq al haya, the duty to respect human life, as well as all life in the universe; 2) haqq al nasl, which is the duty to respect one’s own progeny, but by derivation the existential rights of human community, including the nation and even of all humankind; and 3) haqq al mal, which is the duty to respect the universal human right to privately held ownership of the means used to produce economic wealth.
The last three universals of Islamic juristic thought may be considered to be essentials for quality of life. These are: 1) haqq al hurriya, which is the duty to respect the right of self-determination, known as political freedom, with all of the supporting objectives or hajjiyat known as khilafa, shura, ijma, and an independent judiciary; 2) haqq al karama, which is the duty to respect human dignity, including, especially, religious freedom and gender equity; and, finally, 3) haqq al ‘ilm, which is the duty to respect knowledge, with its attendant hajjiyat, including freedom of thought, expression, and assembly.
Enlightened people of all faiths can advance their common cause by recognizing what they have in common. This consists basically of two elements. First, is shared acknowledgement of their personal relationship with the ultimate, based either on the teachings of their faith or on personal experience, which gives the teachings real meaning. Second, is the recognition that the more aware one is of truth, the greater is the responsibility to translate it in one’s own private and public life into justice, which is another word for human responsibilities and rights. In the Qur’an, Allah has revealed that, “The Word of your Lord is fulfilled in truth and in justice.”
This common cause and commitment must be advanced proactively in all available forums to shape the thinking of opinion makers at all levels of society and government. Rather than merely react to invitations by non-Muslims to participate in meetings of their design, Muslims should form their own networks to initiate public forums where Islam can provide a base case for discussion. This means that Muslims must present their own framework, agenda, and criteria for discussion, and build cooperative relationships proceeding from this base case of Islam as understood by enlightened Muslim scholars and community leaders.
This proactive approach is based on the wisdom that evil in the sense of deliberate hostility to Islam as such, and not merely to evil Muslim persons, cannot be defeated by reactive self-defense, even though this is necessary as part of a general strategy. The only strategy successfully to counter evil is to overcome it with good. And this can be done best by explaining positively what Islam is, not negatively what it is not.
This proactive strategy must be pursued in all venues and at all levels from the academy, which develops and refines premises of thought, to think-tanks, which shape agendas, to political lobbying, which determines the final shape of legislation and policy. But the base of all such efforts must come from the level of local communities in their reliance on the power of Allah, because Allah works primarily through the baraka given to individual persons, not through institutions.
In the Qur’an we read:
Allah creates what He wills. When He has decrees a plan, He but says, “be,”
and it is (Surah Ali ‘Imran, 3:47). Also Surah al Nahl, 16:40, and Miryam,
19:35, “Kun fa yakun.”
And the [the unbelievers] plotted and planned, and Allah too planned, and
the best of planners is Allah (Surah Ali ‘Imran, 3:54). Also Surah al Anfal
8:30, and Al Rad, 13:42.
Say: “Oh Allah! Lord of Power, You give power to whom You please,
and You strip off power from whom You please. You endow with
honor whom You please, and You bring low whom You please. In
Your Hand is all good. Verily, over all things You have power”
(Surah Ali’Imran, 3:26).