Muslim Activism in the US: Showing Signs of Maturity
by Javeed Akhter
Activism is defined as a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action. There should be little doubt in any one’s mind that has studied the Quran or the biography (Seera) of the Prophet Muhammad that Islam is a religion that requires activism from its followers. The Quran repeatedly exhorts its readers to be proactive in establishing good and preventing evil (Amr bil maruf wa nahi anal munkar) The well-known saying (Hadith) where Prophet Muhammad exhorts all Muslims, indeed all humans to physically stop injustice if they can or speak out against it or at the least not rationalize best encapsulates the Islamic attitude toward activism.
Activism is sometimes fueled by anger at seeing an injustice being done. Although anger may naturally fuel activism staying angry is frequently imprudent and counter productive to the cause. Activism demands from the activist discretion, balance and patience.
Forcing others to comply with one’s own understanding of an issue is an incorrect understanding of what activism should be. An egregious example of this is the morality police (Mutawwas) of Saudi Arabia enforcing their understanding of religious edicts on citizens. The French and the Turkish laws that ban religious attire, in particular the wearing of Hijab, in public schools and government institutions are no different in spirit than the Saudi and the former Taliban regime laws. Compelling people to follow religious edict using the ‘establish good and avoid evil’ injunction as a rationale or to prohibit them from following one in the name of preserving the separation between church and state or the secular nature of society are equally coercive. They violate fundamental Islamic and universal principles that there should be ‘no compulsion in faith’ (La ikraha fid din). Besides any student of human nature will tell us that coercion is counterproductive and only leads to increasing resistance.
Activism that was always essential for the survival and growth of Muslim communities in the US has become vital since 9/11. The way the community has responded to the current crisis has been predictably varied. Many who were activists before 9/11 have become super activists. They have done this at the expense of their time and money and at a certain risk to their civil rights. Others have had the opposite reaction and withdrawn themselves from the public square and tried to disappear in the background. This is a natural reaction motivated by self-preservation. However, in the long run, this will only make them and their community more vulnerable. In the times we live in there is no other choice than to be an activist.
Activism may take many forms that include religious, social, political and intellectual. As with any act (amal) in Islam the intention (niya) must be good and it should be done with a sense of God (Allah) - consciousness. Activism should also be done in a manner that is effective.
Muslim communities in the US have been vigorous in religious activism. Building Mosques (Masaajids), religious schools, proselytizing (Dawa), organizing rituals and events around the two major festivals are some examples. There has been a fair amount of inter-faith activity as well. However Muslim religious leaders have failed to appreciate and counter the deleterious effect the theological interpretations by some scholars that appear to justify suicide bombings and the killing of innocent civilians. Although the Tamil Tigers, a Hindu resistance movement from Sri Lanka has used extensively the suicide bombing as a tactic there are regular reports of Muslim fighters from Palestine to Iraq and Afghanistan to Kashmir using it as an increasingly routine technique. The suicide bombing is most identified with Muslim resistance. The corrosive effect the use of suicide bombing is having on Islam as a religion of rationality and peace as well as its impact on turning many Muslim youth away from Islam in this country is massive. No degree of injustice and no amount of rationalization can justify the taking of one’s own life and the killing of civilians as the act of suicide bombing does.
Social activism is seen in the Muslim community but to lesser extent than religious activism. Muslim community’s social activism is concentrated on helping its own with only rare examples of efforts that are designed to help the marginalized non-Muslim in the society. There are two recent efforts of starting food pantries to help the poor. ISNA is teaming up with the temperance society to tackle the issue of alcohol abuse.
When compared to religious activism there is a deficit of social activism. There should be no dichotomy between non-religious and religious activism, between standing at a soup kitchen counter feeding the hungry and standing every night for Taraweeh prayers. The latter should reinforce the desire for the former. The Quran uses the phrase believe and work righteously (Aaminu wa Amalus Salihat) to make this very point. In Islam all action is Ibada if it is done with God (Allah)-consciousness and is within the rules and limits (Hudud) set by God (AllahI). Building a shelter for the homeless might be more righteous in the eyes of AllahI than building another mosque (Masjid) in a rich suburb of Chicago.
Political activism has also been attempted three different areas.
Muslims have stood for election as candidates. With rare exception these have been failures. For most part the Muslim candidates appear to have been driven by personal ego and the established political parties have given them seats where no one else is interested to run.
The other strategy used is to support a candidate who may have made an overture to the Muslim community by mouthing a Muslim phrase like insha-Allah or making a vague promise on an issue of particular interest to the Muslim community. This strategy hasn’t been very successful because politicians calculate a disadvantage to them in identifying with Muslims. Politicians act out of self interest and unless they feel they have a strong constituency to as in the Ann Arbor district of Michigan, the promises do not necessarily translate into action. Muslim communities support to candidates has to be more realistic and selective and should come from the strength of an organized voter base.
This makes grass root movements for voter registration and voting en bloc the most important strategy for Muslim-Americans. It is heartening to see a massive effort has been launched in this area by many Muslim organizations. This grass root effort needs to continue vigorously. There is a concomitant need to publicize the numbers of registered Muslim voters by commissioning head counts and have independent an independent group like the Zogby International assess the impact of Muslim votes on crucial races in important polling districts.
Muslims can also influence candidates by joining forces with NGOs on issues of common interest like supporting ACLU in their fight to preserve civil rights. This alternative approach would be the natural corollary of intellectual activism.
What is most lacking in the Muslim community is intellectual activism. A thoughtful Friday sermon is as common as a ‘neo-con’ critical of the Patriot act. Thoughtful news and views journals in print or on the web struggle to survive. Sales of books other than religious texts like the Quran, Hadith and Fiqh are abysmally low.
Intellectual activism under girds all other types of activism. It is not the top of the pyramid that some compare it to but the base on which the pyramid of all activism should be built. How to be most effective in the political arena may depend on paradoxically on working outside the political system with NGOs that specialize on issues that are important to the Muslim-American community. Even the best way to do Da’wa in the US would depend on studying what attracts those who have accepted Islam. Think tank like entities would assess the Muslim viewpoint on immigrant practices, health policy, pluralism, race relations, full time Islamic schools, part time supplemental Islamic education, the practice of jury nullification, civil and human rights to name a few. The Muslim-American stand on these issues would direct there religious efforts, influence their support of candidates and parties and prioritize the areas where social activists would spend their energy and resources.
Intellectual activism through the vehicle of a think tank is a widely used strategy in the US. The book “Idea Brokers” discusses the influence of think tanks in this country. A think tank would produce white papers, issue briefs and occasional books on various subjects. When it gains enough recognition and notoriety its scholars would be invited to write op-ed pieces in newspapers and the legislative and executive branches would consult it. A large Muslim think tank with chapters in major metropolitan areas, somewhat analogous to the Hispanic think tank La Raza, would be the ideal to aspire for.
The burden and rewards of being an activist.
An inevitable price of being an activist is frustration and disappointment. Activists should remember this saying (Hadith) of the Prophet r where he advised: “If the end of the world approaches and one of you has a seedling (or plant) in his hand and if he can plant it before the end comes, let him do it.” (Musnad Ahmad, Hadith no. 12512)
This Hadith encourages us not stop a positive act for any thing including the impending end of the world. Go ahead plant the seedling, says the Prophet r, even though you may think there is no realistic chance for it to grow into a full tree. Only firm faith in the idea that is being promoted may sustain the activist through difficult times. The early years of Prophet’s r mission exemplified this attitude. The Prophet r continued to struggle and went through periods of considerable despair in the first 13 years of his mission with only modest success. The seedling of Islam did not appear to be growing into tree. We know now how quickly that changed and how the seedling grew into a forest. The lesson for the activist seems to be not to despair or become pessimistic for a righteous act is a reward in itself and may succeed in ways that are unpredictable. Regardless of their success or failure practicing Muslims have little choice than to be pro-active for to be a Muslim is to be an activist.
The author is the executive director of a Muslim think tank the International Strategy and Policy Institute (ISPI) based in Oak Brook, IL. (Web page: http://www.ispi-usa.org/.) He is the author of several articles published previously in TAM as well as the well-regarded book on the Seera of the Prophet e “The Seven Phases of Prophet Muhammad’s Life”. His article debunking the myth that the Quran promotes violence is published in high school reference books both in the US and UK.
Originally published on the ISPI website at http://www.ispi-usa.org/currentarticles/muslimactivism.html and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.