Monday, 20 June 2011

Tradition or Extradition?

or Extradition?

© Abdal-Hakim Murad, January 2003

Is Western Islam inevitable? Until recently we scarcely asked the
question. We assumed that the demography of the East, and the expanding
economies of the West, made nothing so certain as continued Muslim
immigration to Europe, Canada and the United States.

The rise of Al-Qa‘ida has now placed that assurance in doubt.
An increasing number of academics and politicians in the West are
voicing their doubts about the Muslim presence. Citing the Yale
academic Lamin Sanneh, the right-wing English journalist Melanie
Phillips suggests that the time has come to think again about Muslim
immigration to the West. Sanneh, whose views on Islam’s inherent
inability to adjust to the claims of citizenship in non-Muslim states
have attracted several right-wing theorists, is here being used
to justify the agenda that is increasingly recommended on the far
right across Europe, with electrifying effects on the polls.

Cooler heads, such as John Esposito, reject the alarmism of Sanneh
and Phillips. Contrary to stereotypes, they insist, Islam has usually
been good at accommodating itself to minority status. The story
of Islam in traditional China, where it served the emperors so faithfully
that it was recognised as one of the semi-official religions of
the Chinese state, was the norm rather than the exception. Minority
status is nothing new for Islam, and around the boundaries of the
Islamic world, Muslims have consistently shown themselves to be
good citizens in contexts a good deal less multiculturalist than
our own.

The anti-Dreyfusard charge against the Muslim presence, however,
goes further than this. It is not enough to behave; you must show
that your religion teaches you to behave. And where a hundred years
ago the cultivated Western public problematized Jews, it is now
Muslims who are feeling the pressure. Anti-semites once baited the
Jews as an alien, Oriental intrusion into white, Christian Europe,
a Semitic people whose loyalty to its own Law would always render
its loyalty to King and Country dubious. Christianity, on this Victorian
view, recognised a due division between religion and state; while
the Semitic Other could not. There was little wonder in this. The
Christian, as heir to the Hellenic vision of St Paul, was free in
the spirit. The Semitic Jew was bound to the Law. He could hence
never progress or become reconciled to the value of Gentile compatriots.
Ultimately, his aim was to subvert, dominate, and possess.

Few in the West seem to have spotted this similarity. One of the
great ironies of the present crisis is that many of the most outspoken
defenders of the State of Israel are implicitly affirming anti-Semitic
categories in the way they deny the value of Islam. In many cases,
the transformation has taken place over so few generations that
one wonders whether the old prejudice has been entirely supplanted.
Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch anti-immigration politician who wanted to
close all of Holland’s mosques, published his book, Against
the Islamisation of our Culture, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary
of the creation of Israel. Yet the book is filled with characterisations
of the new Muslim presence that fit perfectly the categories of
anti-Semitism. The Muslim Other is driven by the Law, not the Spirit.
He therefore is always the same, and cannot reform. His intentions
are not to enrich his country of adoption, but to overcome it for
the sake of a transnational religious enterprise of domination and

We are, in a sense, the New Jews. An odd transposition has taken
place, with one religious community ducking from beneath a Christian
yoke, which then found Muslim shoulders to rest on. We have little
time or inclination to contemplate the irony of this strange alteration,
however; since we cannot forget the fate of the prejudice’s
earlier victims, and its current prospects. The road from Auschwitz
to Srebrenica was not such a crooked one; and the new rightist politicians
in the West are surely positioned somewhere along that road.

Given that Al-Qa‘ida, or its surrogates, have massively reinforced
this new chauvinism, it is depressing that its roots and possible
entailments have yet to be assessed by most Muslim advocates in
the West. But we need to look it in the eyes. We are hated by very
many people; and cannot discount the possibility that this hatred
will spill over into immigration filters, mosque closures, the prohibition
of hijab in schools, and a generalised demonising of Muslims that
makes the risk of rioting, or individual violence against us, uncomfortably
great. Liberalism, as the Weimar Republic discovered, can be a fragile

The question that is increasingly being put to us is this. Was
our immigration purely economic? Or did we arrive to take tactical
advantage of liberal press laws in order to launch a subversive
internationalist agenda that will be profoundly damaging to our
hosts? Are we Americans, or Canadians, or Britons, simply by virtue
of holding a passport and finding employment? Or is this our home?

Traditional Islam has been expert in adoption and adaptation. The
new anti-Semitism makes not the slightest headway against it. Yet
many of our community leaders are sceptical of traditional Islam
and its historic flexibility. For them, we will always be a kind
of diaspora, with roots in an Arab elsewhere.

An inference needs to be squarely faced. If our belongingness to
our adopted countries is only about economics, then we cannot blame
the host societies for regarding us with dislike and suspicion.
For if we are suspicious of non-Muslims in Muslim majority countries
who fail to acclimatise themselves to the ambient values and sense
of collective purpose of their countries of citizenship, then why
should we demand that they behave differently when it is we who
are the minority? A country that accepts migrants, however conspicuously
economic their primary motives, has the right to expect that they
engage in some form of cultural migration as well. No Muslim would
deny that multiculturalism must always have some limits.

It is time to realise that if we are here purely to enhance our
earning power, then our sojourn may prove short-lived. It is annoying
that the new kind of sermonizers who are loudest in their demonising
of Western countries are often the slowest to accept that those
countries might turn out not to tolerate them after all. The greatest
irony of our situation might just be that our radicals end up on
the road to the airport, astonished at the discovery that their
low opinion of the West turned out to be correct.

So it is time to get moving. This will be hard for the older generation,
most of which is embedded either in regional folklorisms which have
no clear future here, or in a Movement Islam of various hues. But
we need some deep rethinking among the new generation, that minority
which has survived assimilation in the schools, and knows enough
of the virtues and vices of Western secular society to take stock
of where we stand, and decide on the best course of action for our
community. It is this new generation that is called upon to demonstrate
Islam’s ability to extend its traditional capacities for courteous
acculturation to the new context of the West, and to reject the
radical Manichean agenda, supported by the extremists on both sides,
which presents Muslim minorities as nothing more than resentful,
scheming archipelagos of Middle Eastern difference.

The first tough realisation that we face is that the future of
Islam in America will be an American future, if it is to happen
at all. As the ‘war against terrorism’, with all its
clumsy, pixellated violence, and cultural simplifications, gathers
momentum, it is likely that there will be further events and atrocities
which will render the current social and psychological marginality
of the community still more precarious. Unless American Muslims
can locate for themselves, and populate, a spiritual and cultural
space which can meaningfully be called American, we will be in the
firing line. Only a few of the ultras in the mosques would welcome
such a showdown; most of us would be appalled.

Regrettably - and this is one of its most telling failures - our
community leadership has invested much energy in Islamic education,
but has spent little time studying American culture to locate the
elements within it which are worthy of Muslim respect. Too many
of the activists dismiss their new compatriots as promiscuous drunkards,
or as fundamentalist fanatics. Movement Islam, with its vehement
dislike of the West on grounds that often in practice seem more
tribal than spiritual, and rooted in various utopian projects that
seldom seem to work even on their own terms, is, particularly in
its harder reaches, little better. Often it provides ammunition
to chauvinists allied to the stance of Daniel Pipes, for whom all
‘Islamists’ are a fifth column to be viewed with unblinking,
baleful suspicion.

What the new generation must do is therefore threefold. Firstly,
we need to acknowledge that confrontational readings of Islam, imported
by some leaders from countries where confrontation with local tyrannies
is often morally necessary, may not serve Muslims in the dangerous
context of the modern West. It is already clear to many that Mawdudi
and Qutb were not writing for 21st century Muslim minorities in
America, but for a mid-twentieth century struggle against secular
repression and corruption in majority Muslim lands. They themselves
would, quite possibly, be startled to learn that their books were
being pressed on utterly different communities, fifty years on.

Secondly, we need to turn again to the founding story of Islam
for guidance on the correct conduct of guests. An insulting guest
will not be tolerated indefinitely even by the most religious of
hosts; and our communal condemnations of Western culture have to
be seen as at best discourteous. A measured, concerned critique
of social dissolution, unacceptable beliefs, or destructive foreign
policies will always be a required component of Muslim discourse,
but wild denunciations of Great Satans or global Crusader Conspiracies
are, for Muslims here, not only dangerous, but are also discourteous
- scarcely a lesser sin.

Imam al-Ghazali provides us with some precious lessons on the conduct
of the courteous guest. He cites the saying that ‘part of
humility before God is to be satisfied with an inferior sitting-place.’
The guest should greet those he is sitting beside, even if he should
privately be uncomfortable with them. He should not dominate the
conversation, or loudly criticise others at the feast, or allow
himself to be untidy. Ghazali also tells us that he should not keep
looking at the kitchen door, which would imply that he is primarily
present for the food. It is hard to avoid thinking of this when
one contemplates the loud demands of many Muslims, particularly
in Europe, for financial payouts from the state. If we wish to be
tolerated and respected, one of our first responsibilities is surely
to seek employment, and avoid reliance on the charity of our hosts.

Some hardline scholars of the Hanbali persuasion took a narrow
view of the duty of guests. Imam Ahmad himself said that if a guest
sees a kohl-stick with a silver handle, he should leave the house
at once, on the grounds that it is a place of luxurious indulgence.
Yet for Imam al-Ghazali, and for the great majority of scholars,
one should always give one’s host the benefit of the doubt.
And in the West, our neighbours usually fall into the category of
ahl al-kitab, for whom certain things are permissible that we would
condemn among Muslims. Resentment, contempt, hypercriticism, all
these vices are discourteous and inappropriate, particularly when
used to disguise one’s dissatisfaction with oneself, or with
one’s own community’s position in the world.

The refugee, or migrant, is therefore subject to the high standards
that Islam, with its Arabian roots, demands of the guest. Discourtesy
is dishonour. And nowhere in the sira do we find this principle
more nobly expressed than in the episode of the First Hijra. Here,
the first Muslim asylum-seekers stand before the Emperor of Abyssinia
to explain why they should be allowed to stay. Among them were Uthman
and Ruqaiyya, and Ja‘far and Asma’, all young people
famous for their physical beauty. Umm Salama, another eyewitness,
narrates the respect with which the Muslims attended upon the Christian
king. They would not compromise their faith, but they were reverent
and respectful to the beliefs of an earlier dispensation. Their
choice of the annunciation story from the Qur’an was inspired,
showing the Christians present that the Muslim scripture itself
is not utterly alien, but is beautiful, dignified, and contains
much in common with Christian belief. Altogether, they made a hugely
favourable impression, and their security in the land was assured.

Today, of course, we do not usually use Surat Maryam as the basis
for our self-presentation to the host community. Instead, we create
lobby groups that adopt provocatively loud criticisms of American
policy, thereby closing the door to any possibility that they might
be heard. Our sermons pay little attention to the positive qualities
in our neighbours, but instead recite dire warnings of the consequences
to our souls of becoming ‘like Americans’. Again, the
danger is that the cumulative image given by many American Muslims
will result in our being treated as cuckoos in the nest, deprived
of rights, and even ejected altogether. In the long term, the choice
is between deportment, and deportation.

If we take this seriously, rather than trusting eternally to the
patience of our hosts, then we need a new agenda. And it is essential
that this not be defined as an Islamic liberalism. Liberalism in
religion has a habit of leading to the attenuation of faith. Instead,
we need to turn again to our tradition, and quarry it for resources
that will enable us to regain the Companions’ capacity for
courteous conviviality.

The first step has to be the realisation that Islamic civilisation
was a providential success story. Modern and modernist agendas which
present medieval Islam either as obscurantism or as deviation from
scripture will leave us orphaned from the continuing and magnificent
story of Muslim civilisation. If we accept that classical Islam
was a deviant reading of our scriptures, we surrender to the claims
of Christian evangelical Orientalism, which claims that the glories
of Muslim civilisation arose despite, not because of, the Qur’an.
We are called to be the continuation of a magnificent story, not
a footnote to its first chapter.

A recovery of our sense of pride in Islam’s cultural achievements
will allow us to reactivate a principle, the third in my list, that
has hardly been touched by most Muslim communities in the West,
namely the obligation of da‘wa. It is evident that da‘wa
is our primary duty as a Muslim minority; and it is no less evident
that da‘wa is impossible if we abandon tradition in order
to insist on rigorist and narrow readings of the Shari‘a.
Our neighbours will not heed our invitation unless we can show that
there is some common ground, that we have something worth having,
and, even more significantly, that we are worth joining. Radical
and literalist Islamic agendas frequently seem to be advocated by
unsmiling zealots, whose tension, arrogance and misery are all too
legible on their faces. Few reasonable people will consider the
religious claims made by individuals who seem to have been made
miserable and desperate by those claims. More usually, they will
be repelled, and retreat into negative chauvinism.

The believer’s greatest argument is his face. True religion
lights up the face; false religion fills it with insecurity, rage
and suspicion. This is perceptible not only to insiders, but to
anyone who maintains some connection with the fitra in his heart.
The early conversions to Islam often took place among populations
that had no access to the language of the Muslims who now lived
among them; but they were no less profound in consequence. Religion
is ultimately a matter of personal transformation, and no amount
of missionary work will persuade people - with the occasional exception
of the disturbed and the desperate - unless our own transformation
is complete enough to be able to transform others.

So rigorism and narrow-mindedness, the boring recourse of the culturally
outgunned, end up reinforcing the negative attitudes that they claim
to repudiate. Conversely, a reactivation of the Prophetic virtue
of rifq, of gentleness, which the hadith tells us ‘never enters
a thing without adorning it’, will make us welcome rather
than suspected, loved and admired rather than despised as a community
of resentful failures.

Virtues, therefore, need to be cultivated, to replace the self-indulgence
of hatred and self-exculpation. And these will not come easily until
we reconnect with the Umma’s history of spirituality. No other
religious community in history has produced the number and calibre
of saints generated by Islam. Jalal al-Din Rumi has now become America’s
best-selling poet, an extraordinary victory for Islamic civilisation
and the integrity of its spiritual life which our communities are
scarcely aware of. Our spirituality is the crowning glory of our
civilisation, and the guarantor of the transformative power of our
art, literature, and personal conduct. Once we have relearned the
traditional Islamic science of the spirit, we can hope to produce,
as great Muslim souls did in the past, enduring monuments of architecture
which will replace the sterile, ugly cement structures that we currently
commission as our places of worship. Beauty is the splendour of
the truth, and it is a measure of the decadence of our communities
that so few of our leaders seem capable of commissioning buildings
which uphold the glorious traditions of Islamic sacred design, traditions
which, it often seems, are better-known and more respected among
non-Muslims than among most Islamic activists and members of mosque

The task may seem daunting; but the new generation produces more
and more Muslims eager to reinvigorate Islam in a way that will
make it the great religious success story of modern America, rather
than the embarrassing sick man of the religious milieu that it currently
seems to be. Increasingly our young people want passionately to
be Muslims and to celebrate their uniquely rich heritage, but in
a way that does not link them to the desperate radical agendas now
being marketed in a minority of the mosques. As those young people
assume positions of leadership in their communities, and proclaim
a form of Islam that is culturally rich and full of confidence in
Allah’s providence, Islam will surely take its place as a
respected feature on America’s religious landscape, and begin
the process of integration here that it has so successfully accomplished
in countless other cultures throughout its history, and which is
a condition for its continuing existence in a potentially hostile

‘And if you turn aside, He will replace you with another
people, and they will not be like you.’ (47:38)


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